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

Southern Fire

Juliet Mckenna

Their coming had not been written in the stars, and no augury had foretold the terror they would bring. The first sign was the golden lights of the beacons, a clear message from every southern isle that a calamity had befallen them. Daish Kheda, warlord, reader of portents, giver of laws, healer and protector of all his many-islanded realm encompasses, must act quickly and decisively to avert disaster. But the people of the Aldabreshin Archipelago not only fear magic, they've abjured it. So what defense can Kheda offer against the threat of a dark magic that threatens to overrun every island of his domain? A new tale from the writer who has already gathered many fans with the five volumes of her Tales of Einarinn, Southern Fire is an engrossing epic of magic, intrigue, culture, and politics, in a fantasy setting as colorful as the south seas, as bracing as the ocean wind, and as alluring as the hint of spices in the air of an exotic port.

The Southern Fire

(The first book in the Aldabreshin Compass series)

Juliet E McKenna

For my parents, without whom etc…

Chapter One

No omens of earth or sky, just tranquillity. I couldn't ask for a better welcome home.

The sun was all but set among serene bands of golden cloud untroubled above an unruffled sea. Down in the lagoon far below, Kheda could see the little boats of his fishermen heading out for their night's work, the weather set fair. The great galley that had brought him back to this island at the heart of his domain rode calmly at anchor. Closer to shore, the first lamps were being lit above the floating frames hung with nets that gathered fingerfish for smoking above fragrant herbs. Standing high above, on the roofless platform at the top of the circular stone tower, Kheda was too far away to hear the banter of his people idling about their work on the shore.

It'll be the usual jokes and debates about whether to settle to mending nets or making gourds into new buoys. Chances are they'll opt to spend the evening with their families and friends instead. We're not so different, highest to lowest, Daish Reik always told me that.

At that recollection of his father's wisdom, Kheda yielded to the desire to greet his wives and children. He'd turned first to his duty as augur; now he was entitled to claim some time for himself. Smiling, he was about to go down the narrow winding steps of the observatory when a new thought struck him.

Those little lights to tempt curious fish look like early stars on the dusky water. What of the heaven's compass? I wouldn't be doing my duty if I didn't look for any new portents, even if all the constellations are settled at their midpoints.

Kheda turned to look inland at the sky darkening to blue just deep enough to show the first true stars. Long practice found the Winged Snake, rising above the dark bulk of the island's hilly interior. The sky around the constellation was clear of cloud, nothing else intruding that might warn or advise. Kheda had no need to glance down at the arcs of the compass of the earth that were carved on the balustrade of the observatory. The Winged Snake was in the arc where omens for marriage and all such intense relationships would be found.

Symbol of male and female intertwined, of courage and the rewards of toil, of new things being revealed. Of course. And unseen, below the horizon, the Net will underlay the arc of the compass for birth, token of support and help, cooperation and unity. Though the Canthira Tree, symbol of the cycle of life and death, is in the arc of fear and retreat. Of course, Sam will be fretting, what with it being her first baby. She'll have all the support she needs from Janne and Rekha, that much is quite clear, with the Vizail Blossom, symbol of womanhood, so firmly planted in the arc of sisterhood.

Kheda's eyes scanned the sky. What of the heavenly jewels that drew their own courses among the stars? No, none of them were approaching the invisible lines that divided one arc of the heavens from the next. However he read the compass of the skies, in triune, sextile or quartile, the distant lights drew no pattern. Only the moons were moving between the heavenly regions in their rapid dance around the world. The Lesser Moon, heavenly counterpart to the pearls that were the wealth of the Daish domain, was the merest paring of nacre, sharing the sky with the Winged Snake. The Greater Moon by contrast was at its full, disc patterned like the Opal that was its earthly talisman for faithfulness and self-knowledge. It shone, rising slowly in the sky where omens for life and self should show themselves. Kheda could see nothing beyond the pattern of stars that made up the Mirror Bird, a sign for protection and a link between past and future. The Amethyst, for calm and inspiration, was happily centered in the arc of hearth and home, and the Diamond, talisman for clarity of purpose and most particularly of warlords, was set squarely in the arc of wealth. Beyond, the Ruby, talisman of strength and longevity, rode in the arc of friendship and community.

His spirits rising, Kheda turned to quit the lofty observatory. 'Remind me to tell Sain Daish that the heavens look entirely propitious for all coming births.'

'She can only be scant days from childbed.' His sole companion sitting on the top of the stair sounded pleased. Then his stomach gurgled loudly in the evening hush.

'Well, Telouet, that's a sign that takes no skill to read,' Kheda laughed. 'It's been a long day, I know. But I had to be sure there were no portents.'

'My lady Janne has to be happy that you've discharged all your responsibilities, if we're all to sleep content on our first night back home.' Telouet grinned as he rose to his feet, adjusting the twin swords held in his wide sash as he made way for his master.

Kheda walked rapidly down the dim, familiar stairs, winding down around the tower's central core of successive rooms packed with records and interpretations and all the materials necessary to work the different divinations that he used to serve his people. Lamplight showed beneath the closed door of the lowest chamber.

'Sirket?' Kheda entered and smiled affectionate reproof at his elder son. 'Telouet's gut's growling louder than a jungle cat, so it must be time for us to eat. Join us.'

Seated at a reading slope, the youth looked up from the weighty book he'd been studying, eyes still distant in thought. There was no doubting he was the warlord's son; both had eyes as green as the newest leaves of the rainy season, unusual in these southernmost isles of the sprawling Aldabreshin Archipelago. They had other features in common: high foreheads, faces more oval than round with more sharply defined cheekbones and noses than Telouet. Telouet's nose would have been broad and flat even before the fight that had left it squashed crooked on his cheerful face. But Sirket's mother had brought him fuller lips and darker skin than his father, as well as tightly curled black hair that he kept cropped short. Kheda's hair and beard were a coarse and wiry brown, tamed only by close clipping.

'My mother Janne said we might be visiting the Ulla domain before the rains arrive.' Sirket scratched at whiskers shadowing his jaw. Not yet full grown, he was already easily the height of his father. 'I don't want to be shown up like Ritsem Zorat was last time.'

'That won't happen. I won't permit it.' Kheda crossed the room and closed the heavy tome. 'Now, go and tell your mother I will dine with the two of you, once I've seen Sain and Rekha.'

'As you command, my father.' Sirket ducked an obedient head but his smile was relieved and his step light as he ran off ahead, bare feet noiseless on the well-trodden earth. He had some years to grow before he carried his father's muscle.

'What does Ulla Safar think he will achieve by humiliating the sons of his closest neighbours?' Locking the tower door, Kheda followed more slowly. 'Ritsem Caid will surely turn down any suggestion that his son take the auguries next time they meet. Then all Ulla Safar will have is a pointless quarrel on his hands.'

'When did he ever shrink from a quarrel, however trivial?' One pace behind and to Kheda's side Telouet brushed at an intrusive frond. Night was falling with its customary rapidity and the green leathery leaves were barely distinguishable from their shadows. The bushes were musical with the songs of lyre crickets and something rustled in the darkness, a foraging animal or a startled night bird. 'Besides, Ulla Safar always wants someone to read the omens for him. He rarely bothers himself with such things and Ulla Orhan shows little aptitude for divination.'

Kheda snorted. 'That's Ulla Safar's problem and one of his own making. It's his responsibility to teach the boy. He's not doing his duty by his son or his domain.' He took a deep breath and the familiar scents of home soothed his irritation. The air was moist and heavy now they were down among close-planted plots of shrubs set in their lattice of little paths.

'Do you think we will be travelling to the Ulla domain before the rains?' Telouet asked as they walked through the scatter of houses below the fertile forested slopes, built from a miscellany of mud brick, clay-covered woven branches and close-fitted wooden planks. Thatched with palm fronds and with wide overhanging eaves to give shelter from the sun or to carry away rain depending on the season, the one-roomed dwellings thronged with activity.

'Only if Janne has some really pressing reason,' said Kheda frankly. 'We'd almost certainly get caught in the rains on the voyage back and I'd really rather not risk that. Besides, I should be here when Sain is brought to childbed.' Slatted shutters of oiled wood were not yet closed and Kheda found himself smiling at the scenes within the comfortable homes. Children were being coaxed or ordered towards their beds, or more rarely, were settling obediently among their quilts.

Will Rekha have sent the little ones to their beds or given them permission to stay up to see me tonight?

Outside, on the broad steps beneath the eaves of the houses, men relaxed after a hard day's labour, sharing news and observations with their neighbours. All wore loose cotton trousers; some dyed bright colours, and others left unbleached white. Some men wore tunics, some relaxed bare-chested. A few wore simple bracelets of plaited palm fronds with carved wooden beads or necklaces of leather thong carrying some natural talisman such as a seedpod, shell or sea-shaped stone.

Kheda and Telouet walked through their midst, their appearance a dramatic contrast. The warlord wore trousers and tunic of indigo blue, the fine silk gathered at wrist and ankle with golden clasps. As well as chased gold chains close around his neck, Kheda wore a longer necklace of carnelian and diamonds interspersed with carved golden beads and a central trio of uncut, highly polished stones heavy on his breast, the massive diamond framed by carnelians. Bracelets of twisted gold jingled softly on his wrists and an arm ring inlaid with mother of pearl and turquoise rested just above the elbow of his sword arm. Plaques of gold filigree decorated his blue leather belt and more gold wire coiled around the dark sheath of the dagger that was his only weapon. It had the same smoothly curved blade and twisted grip as the daggers all the men of the village wore at their hip but Kheda's had a golden hilt and a single flawless pearl at the pommel. Telouet was the only man wearing swords as well as his dagger, twin blades in dark leather sheaths, their hilts plain and unadorned. He wore clothes of more sober cut in soft grey silk as befitted a faithful slave but the cloth was of as fine a quality as his master's. Like Kheda, his hair and beard were tamed with close cutting and scented oils.

The islanders taking their ease smiled warm greetings to Kheda, bowing low. Wives, deftly cooking fish or meat on cook fires placed a prudent distance from vulnerable thatch, paused to add their own heartfelt welcome. A substantial pot of pale yellow grain steamed in the embers of each hearth and greens from the burgeoning gardens behind each house seethed with fragrant spices. Kheda was pleased to see that even this late in the dry season none of his people were going hungry.

'The word is there are islands in the Ulla domain where the people are eating dry stalks and old husks, their granaries are so empty,' Telouet remarked.

'So I hear,' Kheda nodded.

A bright-eyed maiden with an inviting smile was shoved into their path by her doting mother. She held out a wooden platter lined with broad leaves each carrying a morsel of meat glistening with rich sauce. 'My lord,' she managed to say before giggles got the better of her.

Kheda nodded with approval as he ate a piece. 'Excellent. Telouet, try some.' He winked suddenly at the maiden before turning to smile at the mother. 'You must share that blend of spices with Janne Daish's cook.'

'Indeed.' Telouet's agreement was muffled by his mouthful of succulent meat.

Waving a farewell that encompassed all the islanders, Kheda walked on. Telouet was still chewing as the two of them approached the mighty walls of the compound beyond the little houses.

'Do you want to share something with the daughter? She was all but throwing herself at you.' Swallowing, he adopted a tone of spurious innocence. 'It's an even-numbered year and the wrong season besides, so my lady Rekha won't be inviting you to her bed tonight.'

'I find three wives quite sufficient without adding concubines.' Kheda laughed. 'How often do you need telling? Still, I don't want Sirket going to his wedding night all theory and no practice and the lass is certainly a fragrant blossom. You could ask her parents if she's promised herself anywhere yet. If not, she might like to join Janne's household for a season or so.'

'My lady Janne is keen to see Sirket married.' Telouet scratched his beard. 'Birut was telling me she let the wives of every domain know she was casting her net, on their way back from the Redigal islands.'

Kheda nodded. 'Which will doubtless be the topic of conversation over dinner.' He looked sideways at Telouet, the light from the lamps above the gate catching his smile. 'I still think it's rather more important to find him the right body slave just at present.'

'I've been keeping my eyes and ears open but I've yet to come across a likely prospect.' Telouet looked serious. 'Boys of that age are difficult to read and if you can't find out exactly who's owned them, that makes it harder to judge their character.' He paused to hammer on the solid black wood of the compound's doors. 'Open to your lord Daish Kheda! A slightly older slave might be a safer choice,' he continued.

'No.' Kheda shook his head firmly as the wide gates swung open. Four guards armoured in finely wrought hauberks stood on either side of the path, naked blades gleaming in the lamplight, faces hidden by the nasal bars and chainmail veils of their ornamented helms. All bowed low to their lord. Kheda inclined his head in passing and the guards fell back to bar the gate securely once more.

'He need not be too much older,' Telouet began.

'No.' Kheda's rebuke was firm though not harsh. He turned his head to look at Telouet. 'We must find him a slave whom he can trust as I have trusted you, who hears his unspoken thoughts as you hear mine, but that slave cannot be older. If Sirket defers to him once, he'll do it again and that becomes a dangerous habit. Look at Redigal Coron.' Kheda laughed mirthlessly. 'Sirket must be the master.'

'My lord.' Telouet bent his head in apparent acquiescence.

'After all, we know it's possible.' Kheda studied the thinning hair on the crown of his faithful slave's head. 'My father found you for me.'

Telouet grinned at him. 'Daish Reik's wisdom in so many things still blesses the domain.'

I wouldn't mind hearing it from his own mouth again, just occasionally.

Kheda paused to look around the compound - checking that all was well was second nature to him. Quarters for all lesser members of the vast household clung to the inside of the massive stone wall, the broad parapet above their roofs patrolled by watchful sentries. Within this protective embrace, separate pavilions stood, marble steps pale as they were brushed by the light of the Greater Moon, solid walls of grey stone dark beneath the shadows of the wide eaves. Shutters and doors of black hardwood were fitted with bronze, the roofs above of gleaming tile, patterns dazzling by day muted just at present by the half-light. Fountains playing in broad pools set in the extensive gardens around each pavilion pattered softly in the dusk.

'Shed your swords and go share a drink with Rembit.' Kheda clapped Telouet on the shoulder. 'Wait for me at Rekha's door. No, go on,' he insisted when the slave would have protested. 'You only make Sain nervous. She can do without that.'

Besides, my faithful steward will doubtless tell you a few things that he left out of his report to me on the beach.

Kheda turned his back and headed for his youngest wife's residence without waiting to see that Telouet obeyed. He soon reached the assiduously tended garden around her pavilion, the carefully selected pebbles of the path smooth and cool beneath his unshod feet, the scent of night-blooming vizail intoxicating.

Not that there is any reason for Sain to be wary of Telouet. Not that there's any reason for her to act like a nervous kitten around everyone in the compound. She's almost more at ease out among the islanders, collecting her stones and seedlings. We must make sure she gets leisure to make such trips and tend her garden after the baby is born. Perhaps she'll be less timorous after the child is born. She's very young, after all. Barely older than Sirket. Younger than you were when you found yourself ruler of the Daish islands. You found that prospect daunting enough and you had been raised to the expectation. Remember, Sam never expected to be anything more than a minor prize in marriage until her brother's ambition secured the Toe domain by right of conquest.

'My lord Daish Kheda.' A massive man rose from his seat on the broad steps in front of the door and house lizards skittered away into the darkness.

'Hanyad.' Kheda acknowledged the man with a smile, careful to hide his private amusement.

Whoever chose you as slave for timid little Sam knew what they were about, finding such a mountain of a man to stand between her and danger, real or imagined.

'How is she?'

'Weary, my lord.' Hanyad's dour warning was still coloured with whatever northern tongue he had learned at his mother's knee. As he opened the door, yellow lamplight shone on his grizzled hair and once-pale skin turned leathery from endless seasons' sun. 'My lady, your husband seeks admittance.'

Kheda waited patiently for Sain's reply. Every wife was within her rights to refuse her husband entry and one of a body slave's multifarious duties was enforcing such decisions.

'He is most welcome.' Unseen within, Sain certainly sounded tired. The big man hesitated but stepped aside to yield the threshold to Kheda.

'I shan't stay long.'

I was right to shake off Telouet. That wouldn't have gone down well, not this late in the day and with Telouet hungry, and the last thing I need is my body slave falling out with Sain's.

Kheda entered and Hanyad closed the door behind him and sat cross-legged to bar it. 'Sain, my dear, how are you?'

'Well enough.' Wearing a loose unbelted tunic of plain golden silk, his youngest wife reclined on a bank of russet silk cushions embroidered with a riot of colourful birds. She wore no jewellery; her long straight hair was simply pulled back into a thick black plait. Slightly built and no taller than Kheda's shoulder, these last days of her pregnancy plainly weighed heavy upon her. A small girl was rubbing scented lotion into her feet and Kheda noted Sain's visibly swollen ankles.

'You look exhausted,' Kheda said frankly. Even in the muted light of the single lamp, the darkness around Sain's eyes was more than just shadow. He heard a grunt of agreement from Hanyad.

'It's just the heat.' Sain fanned herself with a delicate, copper-skinned hand.

'Which won't abate until the end of the season.' Kheda noted the increase in her gravid belly while he'd been away in contrast to face and wrists grown thinner than ever. He strove for a balance between authority and affection in his words. 'You must do nothing but take your ease until the rains or the baby, whichever comes first.' He smiled, partly at Hanyad's rumble of approval and partly to reassure Sain whose big brown eyes were wide with concern.

'My duties—'

'Tembit has already made his report on the state of the compound and the island. He tells me the fields are tilled and ready for the rains, sailer grain seedlings flourish in the nurseries.' Kheda spoke with warm congratulation.

'Even all the house fowl and goats are healthy, which is rare enough this late in the dry season.'

'Naturally I strive to serve the domain.' Sain's evident pleasure brought a little animation to her face. She tried to push herself more upright but her pillows slipped beneath her, vivid colours catching the lamplight. The little slave girl barely managed to save her bowl of lotion, greasy hands fluttering in indecision.

'You've discharged your every duty to the domain. Now all we ask is you cherish yourself and this baby until you are both safely through childbed.' Kheda waved the child away.

Perhaps Sain would show a bit more spirit if her attendants weren't all such dolts.

He considered putting an arm around her shoulders once she was settled comfortably again but decided against it. Neither Rekha nor Janne had particularly welcomed close embraces so near to giving birth. He held his hand above the swell of her stomach instead. 'May I?'

'She's kicking.' Sain laid her hand on his so he could feel the baby move within her.

'Girl or boy, we'll know soon enough.' At his words, Sain tensed beneath his touch and the spark in her eyes faded.

Kheda leant over to plant an emphatic kiss on her forehead. 'Girl or boy, this child is yours to keep. And here's a gift for the babe, to prove my words.' He fished in a pocket for a small silken packet, tied securely with braided cotton.

Sain took it, long varnished nails picking apart the knot, child-like excitement brightening her tired face. 'Oh, Kheda, husband, it's beautiful.' She held up a shimmering bird made of silver chains linking opal feathers.

'Hang it for a talisman over the baby's crib,' Kheda smiled. 'For the virtue in the stones to protect our firstborn.'

'I was thinking—' Sain set the shimmering bird in her lap, her voice tremulous. 'About the baby's future. Perhaps I should visit a tower of silence. I haven't done so since I came here and the rains won't arrive for some days yet. I might dream something important there, something about the child, it is my duty as your wife—'

'You are in no condition to spend a night outside sleeping on bare earth, whatever the weather.' Kheda heard Hanyad grunt his emphatic agreement. 'Once the baby is born, once you're recovered, when we've moved north to the rainy season residence, you can think about undertaking such a ritual, with Rekha and Janne to help you with all due preparations. That will be quite soon enough to learn whatever threads from past or future this baby might hold in its hand.'

'As you command, my lord.' Sain managed a wan smile but Kheda could tell she was upset.

The last thing I want to do is play the heavy-handed warlord with you, when that's all you've ever known, but you do make it so cursed difficult.

'Go to bed, dear heart. Stay there as long as you want tomorrow morning and every day after.' Kheda rose from the floor. Hanyad was already on his feet, opening the double doors to Sain's bedchamber beyond. The little slave girl scurried past him, scrubbing oil from her hands with a scrap of cotton cloth.

Kheda helped Sain stand. She was too grateful for his support to tense as he slipped an arm around her waist. He gave her a gentle hug. 'Sleep well, my flower. Attend your mistress, Hanyad, I'll see myself out.'

Releasing her into the slave's watchful care, he went out into the humid, heady night, stifling a sigh of exasperation. Outside, in the compound, those servants and slaves whose duties were done rested and ate beside braziers set outside their quarters, faces bright in the pools of orange light.

The air was fragrant with herbs burning to deter the insidious whine of the night's biting insects and laughter rippled through the low murmur of conversation.

Telouet was waiting at the bottom of the steps. 'How is she?'

'Much as always.' Kheda shrugged.

'Not long now till the baby's here,' Telouet offered.

'And do you think it's my babe or Hanyad's?' Kheda led the way towards a much larger pavilion with a second storey in the centre and many windowed wings to either side.

'She came to your bed a virgin, my lord,' said Telouet thoughtfully. 'And I don't think she had time enough to get used to you bedding her to get curious about any alternatives.'

'True enough.'

And that had been yet another new experience for a nervous girl arriving in an unknown domain. Then you'd barely coaxed her out of her tenseness when she fell pregnant and her nausea put an end to any embraces. I really don't imagine Sain thinks she's getting anywhere near a fair share of the benefits of this marriage.

Then Kheda's mood lifted at the sound of lively voices suddenly hushed behind the pillars of his wife Rekha's pavilion. Little shadows scampered along the outer steps and Kheda ducked down, waving Telouet to do the same. They moved closer at a crouch. Kheda sprang and caught his second daughter by the waist, swinging her off her feet, growling in her ear. 'Efi Daish, what are you doing outside past dusk? Hunting house lizards again?'

'My father!' She squealed with delight, twisting in his embrace to fling her arms around his neck.

'Vida?' Kheda raised his eyebrows at his next youngest child who had managed to leap on to Telouet's back, thanks to the slave's carefully mistimed lunge for her.

'We haven't heard anyone call for us,' she asserted with spurious innocence.

'How could that be?' Kheda swept aside a lock of En's lustrous black hair and felt inside her ear. The child squirmed and giggled, her cotton nightshift slippery, but he held her securely, her bare feet brushing his thigh. 'No, no beeswax. Telouet, check that one for something stopping her ears. Otherwise I must mix a dose of aiho root to cure them of deafness.'

Telouet shuddered with exaggerated horror. 'But that tastes dreadful!'

Vida dropped to the floor and ran to haul open the main door just enough to slip through. 'Mother Rekha, my father is here!'

Efi was content to wait in her father's arms as Telouet knocked perfunctorily and opened the door to spill light on to the marble steps. Within, the room was bright with lamps hanging on chains reaching down from the lofty ceiling, their light striking back from walls panelled in pale wood and set with mirrors. White curtains of fine mesh covered the long windows, the cloth redolent with the sharp scent that the slaves applied to deter heat by day and biting insects by night.

'Enter and be welcome.' Andit's formal greeting sounded a little abstracted. Kheda entered and saw his second wife's burly body slave was absorbed in a game of stones with the warlord's younger son.

'Beating him again, Mesil?' Kheda enquired genially.

'Not yet.' The boy looked up and grinned broadly. 'Shall we have a wager on it, my father?'

'I've been away, what, ten days? Is that time enough for Andit to get smarter?' Kheda pretended to consider this. 'No, I don't think so.'

Mesil swiftly moved several coloured-glass roundels, his beringed fingers deft on the circular game board.

Entirely his mother's son in build and feature, his wiry brown hair nevertheless convinced Kheda he had certainly fathered this child.

'I give up.' Andit sighed. 'Third defeat this evening.'

'I believe it is the fourth.' There was amusement in Rekha's voice. Long-limbed and elegant in a many-layered dress of rainbow silk, she lay on a low couch, eyes closed. A cushion supported her neck as a kneeling slave ran a gold comb inlaid with lapis through her mistress's long black hair. 'Are you sure you're not letting Mesil win?' Rekha queried with faint reproof, her silver bracelets chinking as she settled her hands.

'Hardly. Even I can beat Andit.' Graceful in a close-fitting tunic and trews, Kheda's eldest daughter sat beside her second mother, cross-legged on a thick-piled carpet with an intricate design of canthira leaves interlaced with the flames that were both death to the tree and life to its seeds. She was holding out her hands to a young man who sat patiently applying golden varnish to her immaculately shaped fingernails. She watched him with a smugly proprietorial air.

'Then don't play him, Dau, play Mesil,' Kheda said with a smile to soften his words. 'How else will you improve?'

'I do play Mesil.' In contrast to Rekha whose aquiline face now bore only a faint sheen of cleansing oil, cosmetics still made a bright mask of Dau's eyelids and lips. The dusting of silver on her cheekbones caught the light as she smiled at her father. Her black-rimmed eyes were the same warm brown as her mother's but other than that, she bore a striking resemblance to her full brother Sirket. 'I nearly beat him yesterday.'

'You did not!' Mesil protested, his voice cracking between its boyish tone and manhood.

'I'll bet you a day of Lemir's attendance on you that I can beat you,' challenged Dau.

'Children.' Rekha did not raise her voice but she did open her eyes and wave away her attendant slave. 'Firstly, Dau, you do not make a wager unless you are hazarding something of real value to yourself. If you wish to test your fortune against Mesil's, wager your own attendance on him or one of your talismans. Then the outcome will have some meaning.

'Secondly, I have had a long and tiring day, as has your father. Behave, and you will be treated as adults. Bicker and you'll be sent to bed along with the little ones.' She raised herself on one elbow and narrowed her eyes at Vida. 'Who are to be sent to bed a second time, I see.'

At her mistress's nod, the slave woman laid down her comb and clapped her hands at the little girls. 'Quietly now. If you wake the babies, it'll be cold sailer porridge and no fruit for you at breakfast.'

Kheda set Efi down to the floor and she followed her sister obediently through an inner door opening on to a hall with a stairway beyond.

'You can play one more game, Mesil and then you go to bed.' Rekha stood up and fixed Andit with a stern eye. 'You're to tell me if he deliberately spins it out. Dau, if your hands are done, Lemir should clean your face. There's no one to see us now and your skin needs to breathe a little before bed.' She smiled gracefully at Kheda. 'Shall we take some refreshment more privately, my lord?'

'As you wish, my wife.' Kheda bowed to her.

Dress whispering on the cool marble floor, Rekha led him down a corridor to a wide empty room. The ruddy wooden wall panels were inlaid with exquisite mother of pearl and soapstone flowers and fronds. A low table of the same wood and patterning was set to one side on a luxuriant carpet bright with blood-red swirls of fern fronds.

'When did you get back?' Rekha asked as they entered.

'Just before sunset,' Kheda replied. 'So I went up to the tower to read the sky by the last of the light.'

Telouet slid past him to light the room's lamps unobtrusively and then discreetly withdrew.

'I take it you saw all is well?' Rekha looked at him, dark eyes alert.

'The heavens are settled in auspicious aspects and there were no other portents to say different. I have a sheaf of recommendations from village spokesmen for likely swordsmen and lads with an ambition to go to sea, as well as a boatload of prentice pieces that various craftsmen have sent for your assessment.' Kheda gestured back towards the other room. 'I see your trip was successful.'

'Moni Redigal has always had a good eye for a slave,' nodded Rekha with undisguised satisfaction. 'His name is Lemir.'

'I heard. He's a little young,' Kheda said thoughtfully. 'Decorative too.'

Rekha raised one perfectly shaped eyebrow. 'You think I should have found some much-handled goods like Hanyad for our daughter?'

'Telouet tells me Hanyad was traded from one end of the Archipelago to the other before Toe Faile secured him for Sain.' Kheda shrugged. 'He can tell her a great many things that she'll find useful.'

'For a woman so inadequately raised, he's a good choice.' Rekha's voice held just the faintest hint of acid. 'Janne and I have made sure Dau does not need any such tutor. She can look for wisdom or cunning in a slave when she's of an age to decide for herself that she needs it. For now I want her adored and indulged by a lad handsome enough to be the envy of all her equals among the other domains through these last seasons of her girlhood.'

Telouet's arrival saved Kheda from having to find a reply to that. He and Rekha stood silently as the slave set a tray on the low table and poured pale fruit juice from a long-necked, fat-bellied ewer of beaten bronze into gleaming goblets.

'We'll serve ourselves.' Kheda took a long drink as Telouet served Rekha and retreated towards the door. It was lilla juice, inevitably at this season. 'Adored and indulged is all very well but does this Lemir know how to fight, and when to fight, come to that?' He turned to refill his goblet and caught Telouet's eye as the slave closed the door. Telouet nodded infinitesimally.

'He comes well recommended by Moni Redigal and her body slave both,' Rekha replied confidently.

'Very well.' Besides, Telouet will put the lad through his paces as soon as he joins the household's other body slaves on their private practice ground. 'So, now she has a slave of her own, will you be taking Dau to the pearl harvest after the rains?' Kheda sat, cross-legged and straight-backed, on the carpet softening the marble floor, entirely comfortable.

'I think so.' Rekha chuckled as she sank elegantly on the other side of the low table, folding her feet beneath her. She held out her goblet for more juice and wrinkled her fine nose comically. 'If nothing else, learning to keep a straight face through all that stink will be good training. If she behaves herself, I'll take her with me on my next journey north and maybe even let her do a little bargaining with some seed pearls, just for everyday wares.'

'She'll like that.' Kheda smiled. 'And what other successes did you win for the domain in your recent voyage?'

Rekha smiled with satisfaction. 'Moni Redigal will supply a shipload of brassware between now and the end of the rains in return for a full eighth share in the pearl harvest as it leaves the sea.'

'She's always a woman for a gamble.' Kheda shook his head. 'What if half her oysters come up empty?'

'That's the risk she chooses,' said Rekha without concern. 'Though I don't see her losing by it, even if she doesn't see quite the gains she dreams of. My divers speak well of the condition of the reefs. Taisia Ritsem prefers to wait, hardly a surprise. She'll see what the oysters yield and then trade finished silks for graded pearls and cleaned nacre.'

'Excellent,' Kheda approved. 'How did you fare with getting Mirrel Ulla to settle her accounts with you?'

'She claims a dearth of sandalwood makes it unexpectedly impossible for her to meet her obligations.' Rekha's disbelief was patent. 'I said I hoped she would soon regain the necessary authority over her loggers. No matter. Mirrel needs tin for her tile makers' glazes and the nearest domain that can supply that is Redigal. I can make life very difficult for Mirrel, if I call in a few debts from Taisia Redigal.'

Kheda recalled Sirket's apprehension. 'Are you or Janne thinking of making a trip to the Ulla domain before the rains?'

'We considered it.' Rekha drank before shaking her head. 'Then we decided we should both be here for Sain's first baby. Anyway, it'll be a quicker trip from the rainy-season residence, once we've moved north. It'll do no harm to let Mirrel Ulla fret over just what I might be doing in the meantime.'

'I have every confidence in your abilities to serve our domain,' chuckled Kheda.

I certainly did well by my children in finding such an intelligent wife to secure their future through her impressive aptitude for trade. And the lack of passion between us means I always know what to expect from Rekha.

'How was your trip?' Rekha observed her husband over the rim of her goblet. 'How fares our own domain as the seasons turn?'

'Satisfactory.' Kheda pursed his lips. 'Every isle had the usual pointless disputes and endless debates—'

'Inevitable just before the rains,' Rekha interjected. 'Were there any killings for you to sit in judgement over?'

'No.' Kheda didn't hide his relief. 'And it's a rare year when the heat doesn't tip someone into lethal folly, so I think we can take that as a favourable omen. Other than that, the beacons are well maintained and fuelled. Every watch post has its message birds preening happily. No village had any disease to report and the omens were set fair wherever I read them.'

'There'll be an outbreak of some pestilence or other come the rains,' Rekha commented a trifle dourly. 'It's hardly the best time for Sain to be bringing a child into the domain.'

'I've seen no evil portents,' said Kheda mildly.

It's your privilege to arrange our children's births as you see fit but I've no quarrel with Sain showing a little less rigorous design than your scheme of births in alternate years, falling in the fruitful, cooler days when the rains have just ceased.

'The children all look well,' he observed with a fond smile.

'They are thriving.' Rekha's face softened. 'Mie will be walking any day now. I'm glad you're home to see it. Noi has been running us all off our feet as usual; she lost that wooden goat Birut made for her yesterday and I swear we must have searched the whole compound three times over.'

Kheda laughed. 'Did you find it?'

'In Mie's quilts but Noi finally forgave her.' Rekha shook her head with fond exasperation.

'I'll see them first thing in the morning,' Kheda promised.

I can take half a day to relax with my little girls before addressing whatever's cropped up here in my absence. I am the warlord after all.

'Make sure you bring something with you,' warned Rekha with tart amusement. 'Efi's been telling them how any of us returning from a voyage always means presents.'

'They're both old enough to understand that?' Kheda groaned in mock distress. 'I'll be beggared by this time next year.'

'Not with me trading the fruits of the pearl harvest, you won't.' Rekha plainly relished that prospect. She rose in one fluid movement, shaking out the folds of her gown over her slim feet. 'If there's nothing else you want to discuss, my husband, I'll bid you goodnight. I'll be drawing up my ledgers tomorrow if you want to look over them.'

Which will show a handsome balance in Daish favour, I have no doubt.

'Good night.' Kheda didn't get up, pouring himself the last of the fruit juice instead. He drank it slowly, listening to the protests from the far room. Neither Dau nor Mesil were sufficiently grown not to try pleading and wheedling for some extra leisure before bed.

Telouet entered on silent feet, visibly amused. 'You'd think they'd have learned by now that Rekha never changes her mind, no matter what fuss they make.'

'Youth is all about hope.' Kheda grinned and emptied his goblet.

'You sound like a sage in his seventieth summer,' Telouet mocked.

'After sailing the length and breadth of the domain, I feel it.' Kheda groaned and held out a hand.

'A good night's sleep will put you to rights.' The slave hauled him to his feet. 'Where are you sleeping?'

'Let's go and see how Janne feels about that.' Kheda nodded to the far door of the reception hall and Telouet opened it. 'What do you make of Dau's new plaything?'

'He made a good job of her nails.' Telouet pursed his lips. 'I'll want to see him tested on the practice ground. Still, Andit will have put him through his paces as soon as he saw my lady Rekha was considering a trade for him.'

'Let me know how he fares.' Kheda knew Telouet had a high regard for Andit's swordsmanship; the stocky warrior had been traded down through several domains from the central islands where recurrent battles always honed such skills to a fine edge.

Outside, the compound was appreciably quieter now as the warlord's household had largely retired to bed, well aware that their duties would return with the dawn and sleep would be hard to come by now the oppressive heat was building to the ceaseless trial that only the rains would relieve. Sentries patrolled the parapet on silent feet and one aged slave was slowly treading the white paths that wove through the pavilions' gardens, alert for snakes or scorpions that had no business there.

Janne Daish's pavilion didn't have an upper storey but wings had been added on either side. Kheda headed for one side door where lamplight showed and Telouet hastened to knock for him.

'Enter and be welcome.' Janne's words overrode Telouet's formal request so he simply pushed open the door. A trio of musicians rose smoothly to their feet and bowed, taking themselves and their lyres and flutes away.

Janne's personal retreat was furnished with plenty of cushions, myriad side tables laden with curios and ornaments, the walls covered with intricately woven hangings bright with patterns of frolicking animals that framed silver lamps set in crystal-lined niches to scatter a soothing light. Kheda felt the tensions of the day leave him as he relaxed in the comfortable familiarity of the room. Then his own stomach rumbled with appreciation at the spread of dishes on the low table. Mingled spicy scents rose from silver platters of vegetables sliced and sauced and carefully blended for an aesthetically pleasing mix of green leaves, blanched stems and fine sliced orange roots. Morsels of dark bird meat rested on a bed of yellow shoots dotted with shreds of brilliant red seedpods.

'Is that a chequered fowl?' Kheda took a seat on a firm cushion across from his most senior wife. Telouet went to help Birut, Janne's personal slave, who was entering with a tray laden with still more dishes.

'One of the hill men brought a brace down this morning.' Janne was already scooping finely spiced sailer out of a substantial brass pot and into a gold-rimmed white ceramic bowl. She handed it to Kheda. 'Pour your father some wine, my dear, and some for yourself.'

Sirket halted as he fetched a fluted silver ewer from a side table. 'For me?' He looked at Kheda for permission.

So, Janne, your thoughts and mine chime in harmony, as so often.

'You're of an age of discretion,' Kheda said casually. 'It's time you widened your experience.'

'Better you learn the pleasures and pitfalls of liquor within our own walls than by disgracing yourself like Ulla Orhan.' Janne smiled to soften her words.

Inadequately hiding his pleased smile, Sirket poured three goblets of clear golden wine before sitting and accepting his own bowl of steamed grain.

'A little light wine, when you have met all your responsibilities, when there will be no call on your judgement, that's entirely acceptable. Distilled liquors—' Kheda pointed an emphatic finger at his son. 'Potent spirits are a whole different nest of snakes.'

'No warlord with a taste for those holds power very long,' agreed Janne. 'Or one who tolerates any drunkenness among his swordsmen.'

'There will always be eyes on you watching for weakness.' Picking up his goblet, Kheda drank. 'Learn your own limitations and you'll notice anyone trying to exploit them.'

The slaves set the last dishes down and removed themselves to sit silently in the corners of the room.

'I take it all is well around the domain?' Even for this informal meal, Janne was still dressed with all the elegance expected of a first wife. Gold and red paints on her eyes were bright against her dark skin, matching the ruby-studded chains of precious metal around her wrists and neck. Her mature figure was flattered by an inviting dress of gold-brocaded crimson silk.

'Well enough.' Kheda settled himself comfortably on a cushion and reached for the dish of fowl meat. 'I'm still not sure about that new spokesman on Shiel though. He hasn't got the village men together to clear the river margins of dry season growth.' Though it was hard to be concerned with such things in this room's welcome embrace. Kheda took a moment to smile at Janne. She smiled back, her full lips luscious with a scarlet gloss of paint.

'If the rains don't find a clear channel, they'll all be up to their knees in floodwater, won't they?' Sirket looked from one parent to the other.

'Which will give those who wouldn't respect their spokeman's authority pause for thought,' Janne said unperturbed. 'We'll see how he handles himself through the wet season.'

'Perhaps.' Kheda shrugged, non-committal, as he savoured a faint citrus tartness offsetting the sweetness of spiced honey soaked into the fowl meat. 'So, Sirket, have there been any portents around the compound while I was away?'

Chewing, the boy considered his reply. 'Two black-banded snakes were caught the night before last. They're not unusual at this season and they weren't a pair. I mean, one was by the gate and the other was in Sain's garden. They were both caught just before dawn, so that's a favourable omen, if it's anything at all. Neither had eaten anything and there were no marks or deformities in their entrails.'

Kheda leaned over the table, reversing his silver spoon and using the twin tines on its end to spear a smoked fingerfish dusted with finely ground spice. 'So their presence means what?'

'To be vigilant in our care of the domain,' said Sirket confidently.

'As always.' Kheda smiled. 'A reminder never comes amiss.'

I wouldn't wager a broken potsherd on Ulla Safar's chances of humiliating you, my son.

All three turned their attention to making a hearty meal in companionable silence.

'How is Sain this evening?' Janne asked as they paused to allow the slaves to clear away the meats and bring the fruit course to the table.

'She looks exhausted.' Kheda didn't hide his displeasure, crunching creamy nuts from a dish of poached purple berries. 'And still too thin.'

'She always ate like a bird and with the heat and the baby so heavy on her stomach, Hanyad can barely get her to take more than a mouthful.' Janne shook her head, hair braided close and dressed with heady scented dye to redden the grey among the black.

'She's what, ten days from childbed, maybe fifteen?' Kheda took a handful of crisp slivers of fried red fruit. 'That's going by the moons though. It's a big babe and she's none too sturdy to carry such a weight so it could arrive any time.'

'First babies are often late,' Janne countered.

'I shan't let it linger too long. I made fresh pella vine salve before I went away.' Kheda spoke indistinctly through another mouthful of nuts. 'And I gathered plenty of bluecasque on the trip.' He glanced at Sirket. 'Have you been busy about your grinding and decocting?'

The boy grinned. 'We're well supplied against every wet-season disease I've found listed in the pharmacopoeias.'

'And what of cleansing and healing salves?' Kheda nodded at a graze on Sirket's knuckles. 'Miss a sword pass on the practice ground, did you?'

'Birut caught me by surprise.' Sirket looked a little shamefaced.

Kheda grinned back at the boy. 'Better a slave doing that in practice than some assassin in the night.'

'Sain seems to have her heart set on visiting a tower of silence.' Janne sighed. 'Has she spoken to you about that?'

'Yes and I've told her it's entirely unnecessary until the child is safely born,' said Kheda decisively.

Janne's face softened. 'It's just that she's so fearful she'll bear a son and that will be the last she'll see of him.'

'I wish I knew why' Kheda shook his head in frank exasperation. 'I've told her time and again that we will raise the baby, boy or girl, to serve the good of the domain and all our alliances.'

'She came from a domain still running with the blood of its children,' Janne pointed out. 'Old Toc Vais may have raised all his sons and grandsons in his own compound but they still had to fight for power among themselves when he died.'

'Which was a bloody enough affair,' allowed Kheda. 'And I don't suppose we heard the half of it outside the domain's borders.'

'I hope she does bear a boy' Janne tilted her head on one side. 'Then she'll learn once and for all that you're a man of your word. Otherwise she'll go through all these same agonies with her next pregnancy'

'If she decides to risk another child.' Kheda allowed himself a sour expression.

'I'm confident you'll have convinced her to invite you back into her bed,' Janne chuckled.

Sirket coughed and spoke rather louder than was necessary. 'Is it true that Ulla Safar has any sons born to his wives killed?'

'And even to his concubines.' Kheda answered with a briskness that didn't quite disguise his distaste. 'Doses them himself with frog venom, according to what he tells me.'

'Why?' Sirket frowned. 'If Orhan dies—'

'He's none so hale after that attack of breakbone fever last year,' commented Janne.

'And there's always accident or malice to fear.' Kheda's look challenged Sirket. 'What happens then?'

'Tewi Ulla inherits as next eldest child.' Sirket shook his head. 'She's afraid of her own shadow. She won't find a husband willing to stand as consort and let her rule in her own right.'

'Without younger brothers to command the domain's swordsmen, she'll be lucky to escape marriage by abduction,' commented Janne.

'So why does Ulla Safar want a quiver with only one shot?' Kheda leaned back from the table and studied his son.

What do you think, now you're discovering things that your parents know yet never discuss openly? How far are you going to take this?

Sirket hesitated. 'Because he fears younger brothers would be a threat to Orhan's hold on the Ulla domain.'

'Tule Nar was overthrown by his brothers,' Janne agreed in apparent support.

'Do you think it was as simple as that?' Kheda raised his brows at Sirket.

'Tule Nar had lost both the love and respect of his entire domain,' Sirket said slowly. 'There were endless hostile portents before his brothers took up arms against him.'

'Do you think Tule Reth holds the domain securely now?' Kheda prompted.

'Tule Dom and Tule Lek would both die for him,' Sirket nodded. 'And both have their own compound as well as permission to own slaves in their own right.'

'Duar Tule grants all their wives shares in the domain's trading rights as well,' added Janne.

'A loyal brother can be worth his weight in pearls.' For all Kheda was smiling, he pointed his spoon sharply at Sirket. 'Never give Mesil or any son that Sain may bear us any reason to think you don't value them.'

'You don't fear two might conspire against me when they're grown?' asked Sirket, emboldened.

'With you the eldest and them so widely spaced in age? Your mothers and I made sure of that much.' Kheda held his son's gaze. 'It's for you to make sure your rule is wise enough for them not to feel a need to remove you.'

'We'd be remiss in our duty if we left the domain with no alternative to a tyrant.' Janne smiled too but there was a steely glint in her dark eyes.

Sirket chewed his lower lip. 'Rekha bore a second son between Vida and Mie. What happened to him?'

If this question has finally come, perhaps it is time to think of marrying you, my son.

'I have no idea,' replied Kheda honestly. 'Rekha took him north and made her own arrangements for his care. He's now of some other domain.'

'The child will never know different to what he's raised with,' Janne commented.

Sirket's expression turned both determined and fearful. 'Am I your only son?'

'Yes. I bore another the year after Dau but he didn't live beyond the rains.' Janne smiled wistfully. 'I would have sent him to one of my sisters to raise in her own household.'

'Daughters are a boon to every domain. Sons can be blessing or curse. Every warlord has to make his own decision about how many to raise and what to do with those who cannot inherit his power.' Kheda looked at his son with open challenge. 'Why do you think Ulla Safar kills babies still wet with their birth blood?'

Sirket couldn't hide his revulsion but did his best to consider the question with detachment. 'A life cut so short has little chance to become embedded in the affairs of the domain, so I suppose the death cannot harm the domain too much. But does he look for portents? There's always the chance the child's life would benefit the domain far more than its death, isn't there?' He looked from father to mother and back again.

'Of course,' Kheda agreed.

And while every warlord must makes such decisions alone and none may gainsay him, I'm so very glad to see your disgust at the notion of murdering infants, my son.

'Ulla Safar considers removing any rival to Ulla Orhan sufficient,' shrugged Janne. 'And no, from what I've heard, he never bothers with any augury beforehand.'

'Then the sire's as much a fool as the son,' Sirket muttered unguardedly. He reached for a lilla fruit and began stripping the outer husk from the pod with angry fingers.

Is this the time for the next question? 'Did you have any brothers, my father?' What will you make of Daish Reik's solution to the eternal problem of his sons?

Kheda took a drink of the light, fragrant wine. Sirket stayed silent, intent on scooping the creamy seeds from the dark green flesh of the lilla fruit.

Kheda glanced over at Janne. 'Where do you think Sirket might look for his first wife?'

Sirket looked up, startled. 'You think it's time?'

'You're much the age your father was when I married him,' Janne smiled.

'Newly widowed of Endit Cai and divorced of Rine Itan before that.' Unexpected recollection startled Kheda into a chuckle. 'I can recommend a much-married girl as your first wife.'

Janne quelled her husband with a stern look. 'So she can share her experience of the wider Archipelago.'

Kheda was tempted to a ribald reply but forbore for Sirket's sake.

'How are you faring in your hunt for a suitable body slave?' Janne looked at Kheda. 'You wanted that arranged first, so you were saying.'

'I've still to find the right man.' Kheda grimaced at Sirket. 'Sorry.'

'Perhaps you should be looking for an adequate slave rather than the ideal.' Janne drained her goblet. 'He needs to travel and he can't do that without an attendant. Find one who will do and once Sirket's out and about, he can look for a better prospect himself She stroked her son's hand affectionately.

'That's something to consider, certainly.' Kheda twirled his own goblet by its faceted stem and studied the cloud-like patterns that the craftsman's skilful hammer had left on the metal.

A notion to consider and reject; my son isn't facing the manifold dangers threatening any warlord's heir without the best swords I can find protecting him, not as long as I have the final word in the matter.

'We're finished here, aren't we?' As Sirket and Kheda nodded, Janne waved a hand at Birut and Telouet. 'You may eat. Good night, Sirket.'

'Good night.' After a fond embrace for each parent, Sirket took himself off. The two slaves hungrily applied themselves to the remnants of the meal as Kheda followed Janne into her boudoir.

Rather than light the lamps, she crossed to a far window, throwing open the shutters to gaze upon the moonlit garden beyond. A pool edged with white stones shone among the dark bushes. Kheda came to stand behind her, folding his arms around her and resting his chin on her shoulder. He wasn't holding the firm slimness of the girl who'd both intoxicated him and intimidated him, nine years and more his senior but no matter. The feel of her still made his heart race, however the passage of years and the trials of childbirth had changed her body. He closed his eyes and breathed in her familiar, beloved perfume.

'It's hard to think of Sirket marrying,' Janne murmured softly. 'It's easier with Dau, I don't know why.'

'As it happens, I feel quite the opposite.' Kheda kissed Janne's ear. 'About her and all the girls.'

She smiled. 'I thought you'd be tired after such a long trip.'

'Not too tired.' Kheda kissed her again. The wide neck of Janne's dress was held together at the shoulder by filigree brooches. He undid one and kissed the smooth skin beneath.

Janne untied the jewel-encrusted sash that wrapped the dress around her soft midriff and let it fall to the floor. 'You haven't bathed, my lord.'

'Am I very ripe?' Kheda wrinkled his nose as he undid another brooch, letting the silk fall away to reveal the enticing swell of her bosom.

'Yes, but we can easily remedy that.' Janne turned in his embrace and kissed him long and deep as she began stripping away his jewellery. Kheda spared just enough concentration to undo the remaining brooches and ease the dress down over Janne's accommodating arms, letting it fall to the polished wooden floor.

Janne stepped out of the puddle of whispering silk and held out her hand to lead Kheda to the bathing room beyond the broad bed waiting for them with its pile of soft quilts.

Chapter Two

Telouet's urgent hand shook Kheda out of a dreamless sleep. Fists clenched, he was ready to fight until the warm quilts reminded him he was safe in Janne's bed, his startled wife rousing beside him.

'Is it Sain?' He brushed Telouet's hand away, sitting up and reaching for his trousers. 'The baby?'

Janne yawned. 'What is it?'

'Beacons, my lord.' Telouet stood tense, half crouched in the shadow, one hand on a sword hilt.

'Where from?' Kheda scrubbed a hand over his beard as a surge of concern brought him fully awake. 'How many?'

'From the south. All of them.' Telouet's dark eyes were rimmed with white as he handed Kheda his tunic.

Janne threw aside the quilts, catching up a robe to cover her nakedness. 'Birut!' Her slave was already opening the far door with his shoulder, buckling a silver-studded belt around his mail hauberk. 'Wake Hanyad. He's to take Sain to Rekha's pavilion. I'll go straight to the children.' She turned to look at Kheda. 'Be careful.'

'Where's Rembit?' Kheda pulled his crumpled tunic over his head.

'With Serno.' Telouet followed Kheda out of the pavilion and down the steps to the compound. 'Wait here while I get your armour.'

Every light and brazier had been doused. The warm night was scented with smoke. Kheda saw his smoothfaced steward talking intently with Serno, commander of the compound's guards. Above their heads, armoured men lined the parapet with steel, naked swords gleaming in the moonlight. Archers held bows, black curves in the moonlight, peering out for any target careless enough to betray itself. The boy each archer had in training scurried behind his mentor, loaded with sheaves of arrows with various heads for piercing armour or ripping flesh. Serno nodded, slid the pierced faceplate of his helm down and secured it with a twist of the fastening before turning to climb a ladder to the upper walkway. Rembit went to direct slaves and servants ferrying water casks and chests, some up on to the parapet, others over to Rekha's pavilion.

All's as it should be. You saw every medicine casket had its salves and bandages before you set sail. There'll be water and food to sustain the men if this turns out to be a lengthy vigil. But what are we watching for?

'Father!' Armoured in bronze-studded, purple-dyed leather, Sirket arrived at Kheda's side, eyes uneasy beneath a brow beaded with perspiration.

Kheda glanced at his son and apprehension twisted his stomach.

You could have settled on an adequate body slave for the boy. Then he'd be raised to full manhood, armoured in chain-mail rather than the coat of a thousand nails. Mesil could have that honour now.

As he thought this, Telouet reappeared, dumping his burden on the ground with a wordless exclamation. 'Let's get you armoured, my lord.' He took Kheda's hand and thrust it into the sleeve of a padded jacket.

Kheda shrugged the garment on and reached for his chainmail. Bronze links worked a lattice pattern through mail wrought of links barely bigger than baby Mie's thumbnail. Solid metal plates inset front and back to protect Kheda's vitals were chased with gold that gleamed in the moonlight. Kheda thrust his hands inside and took the weight on his arms before ducking his head to shrug the mail on. The hauberk jingled softly as it slid down his body and Kheda cursed silently as the shifting links plucked hairs from his head.

'Do we have any word from the south? Any messenger birds?' He took the broad belt that Telouet held out, buckling it tight to his hips to relieve the weight of the armour on his shoulders.

'Not yet.' Telouet knelt to secure Kheda's sword belt around his waist.

Sirket bent to pick up Kheda's helm, making sure the cotton lining was smooth before handing it over.

'Go to the bird tower,' Kheda told his son. 'Bring me any word as soon as it arrives.'

Sirket nodded mute obedience and took to his heels. Kheda thrust his gold-ornamented helmet firmly on his head and pulled the dagged chainmail veil forward around his shoulders to secure its front clasp. The pierced faceplate was still locked on its sliding bar above his forehead but, other than that, he was now armoured in steel from head to knee. In the humid heat of the night, sweat immediately started prickling between his shoulder blades.

'My lord?' Telouet proffered leather leggings with their own intricately decorated metal plates to foil blade or arrowhead.

Kheda shook his head. 'I don't need those on the battlements.'

Telouet scowled but didn't press the point, following Kheda up on to the parapet where one of Serno's men steadied the ladder.

'First things first.' That's what Daish Reik always taught you. That's the wisdom that brought him safely through two invasions of the rainy-season residence. But what peril could be coming from the south?

Kheda looked out to sea. The moons made shimmering damask of the lagoon where the island's fishermen were taking to their boats, cutting tethers in their haste to lose themselves in the night before any disaster fell upon them. Beyond, the great galley was slowly turning along its length, oars cutting luminous trails in the water. As the broad vessel with its single row of oars hurried to abandon the sheltering reef in favour of flight to the north and safety, the longer, leaner shape of a trireme appeared, questing prow and bronze-sheathed ram turned to the south. More would soon be following, that was certain.

Beacons blazed on the closest islet, barely more than a reef itself but ideally placed to see in all directions. Kheda counted the lights. Telouet was right. Every island to the south was reporting some calamity.

What can be happening? All the flames are burning natural gold. So it's calamity but not some identifiable evil to prompt signal fires coloured to an agreed hue. That means it's not invasion, fire or flood, not sudden sickness or some infestation with vermin.

Kheda glanced up at the sky. There was no hint anywhere in the heavens, no shooting stars to scar the night, no unexpected blemish disfiguring either moon.

'Father!' Sirket scrambled awkwardly up the ladder, clutching a handful of little silver cylinders. Telouet grabbed the lad's hand and hauled him bodily up on to the parapet.

Kheda snatched one of the metal tubes and began unscrewing the end caps. 'Telouet, get some light.'

'Not up here, you don't,' the slave rebuked him robustly.

Kheda stared at him for a moment before realising what he had said. 'A dark lantern then. Hurry.' He dropped to his knees, unfurling the fine roll of paper below the shelter of the battlements, squinting to make out the crabbed writing in the moonlight.

Sirket hissed in exasperation as he studied a curling slip. 'This one's from Gelim but it's in cipher.' He reached for another.

Kheda could just make out the words on the paper he held. 'Chazen boats arrive. Men, women, children. They flee unknown disaster.' He looked for the identifier at the end of the perplexing message. It had come from the central message-bird tower on Dekul.

Whatever this cataclysm may be, its ripples are lapping at the southern and westernmost of my domain's islands.

'Father.' Sirket was peering at another message in the grudging light of the dark lantern Telouet had procured from somewhere. 'Chazen Saril has seized the Hyd Rock with five triremes.'

'Why would they do that?' Kheda frowned.

'Chazen Shas made a bid for the pearl reefs east of the Andemid shoals in Daish Reik's day,' Sirket said dubiously.

'Pearl reefs have some value. The Hyd Rock is a barren lump but for a brackish pool fringed with stunted palms. That's why Daish Reik designated it a neutral anchorage for galleys travelling between our two domains,' Kheda reminded him.

'Is it an invasion?' wondered Sirket.

'Not if the whole population is fleeing.' Kheda handed his son the message he had just read. 'There was no word from Chazen while I was away, was there? No hint of a quarrel?'

'No!' Sirket insisted. 'I'd have told you.'

'And they know we could drive their warriors back into the sea without breaking a sweat,' said Telouet robustly.

'Bring that lamp closer.' The next message was unhelpfully smudged and Kheda reached out to raise the dark lantern's smoked glass slide a little.

'Chazen is invaded from the south. They bring wounded and beg sanctuary.' That was from one of the message towers on Nagel, the largest isle in the southern reach of the Daish domain. 'What's south of Chazen?' Kheda wondered aloud, slowly lowering the fragile paper weighted with such ominous words.

'South of Chazen?' Telouet looked at him with surprise.

Sirket shook his head, mystified. 'Nothing but ocean.'

Kheda handed him the message. 'Then what do you make of this?'

'Invaded?' Telouet was peering over the lad's shoulder. 'Then they'd be holding the Hyd Rock to stop whoever it is coming any further north.'

Kheda sorted through the rest of the messages. 'These all tell much the same tale: Chazen domain is beset from the south. We'd better break the coded one, even if all it says is the same. Sirket, get a bucket of embers from the kitchen cook fire. Bring it to the observatory tower.'

'Yes, Father.' Visibly confused, the youth nevertheless hurried off without question. Kheda followed him down the ladder.

'If we're going outside the gates, you wear your leggings.' Telouet thrust the heavy leather at him as soon as they set foot on the ground.

'Yes, master.' Kheda pulled the hateful things on with a grimace. The weight of the metal plates dragged at his feet as he followed Telouet towards the small postern gate on the landward side of the compound, his toes uncomfortably confined by the hard leather.

Look on the bright side. You don't have to worry about snakes if you're clumping along like some booted barbarian.

Unhampered by his own leggings, Telouet drew his swords and ran ahead to the knot of swordsmen poised by the postern.

'We're going to the augury tower,' Kheda said tersely. The chief of the guards drew the bolts on the gate and threw it open. His men rushed through, spreading out, ready to meet any threat. Telouet waited, standing between his lord and any unseen danger.

A noise behind turned Kheda's head and he saw Sirket running beside a kitchen servant who was carrying an iron bowl of live coals held tight between two lengths of firewood.

'Stay behind me.' Kheda drew his own sword.

Could this just be some ploy, to throw us all into confusion, to let some killer slip ashore unnoticed? I doubt it, but regardless, no assassin reaches Sirket while I am lord of this domain.

They ran past silent houses, shutters closed, doors swinging, a few fallen garments here and there, a scattering of broken crockery crunching under the guards' heavy-soled sandals. Relief tempered Kheda's apprehension.

Your people are safe, fled to the secret forest gullies and hidden mountain caves where everything they might need waits in sealed pots and metal chests proof against rot and insect.

The night beneath the trees was a lattice of black shadow and white moonlight. The swordsmen fanned out to either side, but met no hidden foe. Telouet scanned the path ahead, armour chinking softly as they ran. Nothing moved in the darkness beyond a few startled night birds, fluttering from swaying bushes. The solid blackness of the observatory soon loomed above them.

'Who goes there?' the tower guard challenged.

'Daish Kheda!' Several swordsmen echoed Telouet's bold declaration.

'Stand forth and be recognised.' The guard lifted a cautious half-shuttered lantern before bowing low.

Kheda sheathed his sword to unlock the door of the tower. 'Telouet, keep watch up above. Sirket, take the fire into the lower room. We are not to be disturbed.' Kheda took the guard's lantern and went in, leaving the doorway to the assembled swordsmen.

A vast circular table dominated the round room at the bottom of the tower. Sirket looked across it to his father, the glow from the embers he was holding casting mysterious shadows up on to his face. 'What do we do now?' His voice was tense, his hands steady.

Kheda smiled encouragement. 'Light the brazier.' He touched a spill to the glowing coals and went to light the lamps set in sconces around the wall. Then he took off his helm and rubbed a grateful hand through his sweaty hair.

As Sirket busied himself with a small iron fire-basket set on a slate plinth below the window, Kheda took a fine gold chain from around his neck and found the key to unlock a tall cupboard recessed into the wall. Inside, narrow boxes of iron wood with looped brass handles were packed tight. Kheda removed one and set it on the table.

Sirket looked up from tipping the live coals on to a bed of charcoal. 'Mesil was saying we should keep the keys to the ciphers inside the compound. An invader could take this tower before attacking us.'

'If invaders ever set foot on one of our residence islands, we abandon every cipher we've ever used and start with a clean sheet of paper.' Kheda unlocked the box. 'I worry about spies more than invaders in the ordinary course of things. Too many people come and go through the compound, even if they have to pass Serno and his men to do it. Up here, it's easier to see someone skulking where he's no business and only you and I hold keys to this place.'

Leafing through papers in the box, he pulled out the single sheet that hid the particular variant of the cipher agreed with the Gelim bird master woven in a cryptic riddle of its own. Kheda quickly translated the simple message. Then he did it again. He took a deep breath and studied every encoded character and its counterpart in turn. The message remained the same.

'Those of Chazen flee magic. They beg for sanctuary or a clean death as you may decree.'

'What does the Gelim message say?'

Kheda looked up from a fruitless attempt to wring a different meaning from the words to see Sirket using a small bellows at the base of the fire-basket. The lad's face was running with sweat.

What can you read in my face?

'I'm not sure.' Kheda walked round the table to throw the screw of paper on to the charcoal where it flared into ash.

Such a suspicion cannot be left for another to read, not even my son. Not till it's proved beyond doubt. That Gelim's spokesman ever wrote such a thing, even in cipher, is bad-enough.

Kheda took another deep breath but could still feel the blood pulsing in his throat. 'Let's see what fire and jewels can tell us.' He returned to the cabinet and removed a small box from a top shelf.

'Father?' Faint alarm coloured Sirket's curiosity as he took a highly polished sheet of brass from a hook on the wall and laid it on top of the coals.

'Pay close attention.' Kheda smiled reassurance as he opened the little box to reveal gemstones shining softly in the lamplight. 'This is a divination only to be used on the most serious occasions.' He threw a scatter of uncut jewels on to the warming metal. They rolled and slid, irregular shapes polished to reveal their natural beauty.

'Take heed where they move in relation to the earthly compass and the arcs of the heavens,' Kheda said softly. 'Watch for any change in colour.' He pulled a sheet of paper towards him and took up a reed pen; ink ready to hand on the table.

Sirket glanced involuntarily at the window to check the stars. Kheda didn't look away from the stones. He closed his ears to the low voices outside the door, to the sounds of the night beyond, ignoring the stifling heat of the room.

As the metal grew hotter, the gems began to move. An emerald shifted furtively, edging towards the north. A yellow spinel startled them both by suddenly rolling on to its side where it knocked into an amethyst.

'What does it mean?' Sirket asked breathlessly.

Kheda kept his eyes on the stones, not looking at the notes he was making. A few blots wouldn't alter their meaning. A sapphire was sitting motionless to one side. Was it his imagination or was that blue darkening? A small topaz danced over towards the east. Kheda studied a ruby as it rocked slowly to and fro.

'Go up above and read the sky for me,' he said slowly. 'Read the cardinal square and then draw a triangle from the south.'

That's where the trouble's coming from. Let's see what you make of it.

'As you wish, my father.' Sirket set his jaw and left the room.

Kheda was still watching the gemstones.

Yes, that sapphire is definitely getting darker. That's an ill omen; some powerful man threatens them. The ruby and the emerald together like that speak plainly of evil to the south. It's an evil that spinel, gem of innocence, fears so much it seeks the shelter of the amethyst. So the Daish domain will need trusted allies. But that topaz warns of treachery. Treachery coming from Chazen or betrayal by some carrion lizard like Ulla Safar'i Diamond, carnelian and moonstone are all unhelpfully still and mute.

Kheda scooped the gems back into their box with a fold of reed paper. Finding a square of soft leather in a drawer in the table, he used it to lift the brass plate from the coals and hang it back on its hook.

What now? The sky gave no hint earlier so, realistically, it's unlikely Sirket will see anything new. Reading the flight of Janne's birds is the obvious next step but that will have to wait for dawn. Almost every divination needs daylight, doesn't it? Moonlight's too chancy to use for reading omens when such a potent danger as magic is suspected. Is that significant in itself, that all other means of enquiry are barred to you? Of course it is. You must go and see what's happening for yourself.

Kheda rapidly returned everything to the cabinet and locked it securely. Catching up his helm and crossing to the door, he hailed one of the swordsmen who'd escorted him. 'Tell Serno to signal the Scorpion in to shore.' That was the only ship he would want carrying him south if there was even the possibility this rumour of magic was true. 'Signal them to pick up Atoun.'

As the man ran off, Kheda shouted up the stairwell. 'Telouet! Sirket!'

'My lord?' The slave's voice echoed down from the top of the tower.

'Come down here.' Kheda turned to the remaining guards. 'You three, we need a deer calf. Find a game trail and don't come back till you've got one.'

One of the men he'd designated glanced up to the dark bulk of the mountains, the chainmail fringing his helm jingling. 'The deer won't stir till first light. Will that be soon enough?'

'Bring it to the compound.' Kheda nodded as Telouet appeared on the stairs, Sirket behind him. 'My son will read the entrails.' He glanced up at Sirket and smiled at the youth's startled face. 'You've stood beside me often enough. You can do it. Was there anything new in the sky?'

'The triune reading showed nothing at all.' Sirket all but spat his frustration. 'The Canthira Tree's in the arc of fear and foe but there's nothing else there to hint at what we might be wise to fear. The Spear rides in the arc of death and passion but there's no heavenly jewel anywhere close, nothing to give any hints as to where to concentrate our own strength or what violence our enemies might be threatening us with.'

Is that absence significant in itself? All our divinations tie us to the threads of past and future, as we discern patterns in the events that have brought us to this present and chart their unseen unfolding for our better guidance. There's no force disturbs the natural order of such things so completely as the foulness of magic.

Aware that everyone was watching him closely, Kheda smiled, unhurried. 'We're done here. Get rid of the fire and lock up, Sirket. You three, escort my son to the compound when he's ready' He turned and began walking down the path to the compound, Telouet at his side.

'Why does Sirket have to read the deer calf's entrails?' demanded Telouet.

'Because we're taking a ship to the south.' Kheda walked rapidly on feet unpleasantly moist in the muffling leather of his leggings. He could feel the clothes beneath his armour soaked in sweat.

'Is that what that message asked you to do?' Telouet asked warily.

'I read some complex omens in this.' Kheda's tone dared the slave to challenge his evasion. He halted at a fork in the path. 'I'm going straight down to the beach to wait for the Scorpion. Fetch me a few clothes, nothing too elaborate. Tell Janne and Rekha I'll send a message bird as soon as I have news.'

Telouet stood stubbornly still. 'My lady Janne won't like the idea of you heading south without a clearer idea of the perils there.'

'Then you can be grateful that she's not a woman like Chay Ulla who takes a lash to any passing slave if something displeases her.' Kheda grinned at Telouet.

The slave didn't smile back. 'She'll slap your face for you when we get back, if she thinks you deserve it.'

'Not for the first time,' agreed Kheda wryly. 'Which is why I'm going to be waiting on the beach while she's securely locked in the compound.'

Telouet shut his mouth on further protest and turned on his heel. Kheda took the other path and soon reached the beach. The hurrying feet of fishermen racing for their boats had churned the fine white sand. There was no one to be seen now; even the little lamps above the hanging nets had been doused. Kheda walked slowly along the strand, looking for anything unusual cast up on the shore, any sign of unseasonal activity by the crabs or the other denizens of the lagoon.

All that was, all that is and all that shall be are indivisible. We dwell in the present but everything we see, we see in the invisible light of what has gone before. The future can be illuminated by that radiance if we see how it is struck from the facets of nature. We must learn to see every separate sign and interpret its meaning for the whole.'

They had been standing on this very beach when his father had spoken those words. Daish Reik had heaved a large stone high above his head before hurling it into the air. All the children had cheered as it crashed into the water.

'You think that stone is gone? Not at all; you just cannot see it sunk in the sand. But you can see the sand clouding the water. You can see the ripples running across the lagoon. Look at those ripples. Those tell you that net frame over there will soon be shaken. If it's not anchored safely, it might even drift loose. If you realise that in time, you might be able to pull in the nets, strengthen the knots, shelter it with a skiff in the water.'

'But how would we know what to do for the best?' Kheda remembered asking.

His father had tousled his hair. 'That's a lesson for another day.'

Have you learned your lessons well, now that everyone's fate depends on how you judge these ripples spreading up from the Chazen domain? Is your father trying to tell you something through that memory? What would Daish Reik have done? That's no puzzle. He'd have gathered all the information he could and then acted more quickly than anyone was expecting.

Khedq looked0out over the lagoon to see the ¼em>ScorôionIs there an omen there? The scorpion foretells chastisement, bitter retribution for arrogance. It's certainly my duty to punish anyone who'd bring the foulness of magic into my domain.

He watched a small boat emerge from the trireme's shadow and row for the shore.

'My lord.' Telouet came running on to the beach just as the little boat grounded in the shallows. 'My lady Janne is most unhappy about this.' He let a securely tied pack slide to the ground.

'My lady Janne does not make such decisions for the domain,' said Kheda tersely.

Telouet didn't relent. 'Why can't we wait for couriers to bring clear news? Chazen Saril will surely be sending an emissary. He cannot want war with us.' He thrust a water skin at Kheda. 'Drink, my lord.'

Kheda considered his reply as he gratefully quenched his thirst. 'The Gelim headman says they're fleeing magic,' he told Telouet simply. 'I have to see for myself and quickly'

Telouet stood silent, mouth half open, then abruptly snatched up the pack and strode to the water's edge. 'Right, you sluggards, put your backs into it! Let's get aboard.'

It won't do to vent your feelings on hapless oarsmen, however much you envy Telouet that release. Daish Reik taught you better than that.

Kheda climbed into the little rowing boat. Besides, his slave's disrespect was enough to spur the rowers to carry them to the waiting trireme with impressive speed. Once aboard, he hurried to the stern platform.

'My lord.' The shipmaster was waiting in front of the twin tillers that governed the pair of great stern oars guiding the lean ship's course.

'Jatta, set a course for Nagel,' Kheda ordered tersely.

'Nagel?' The commander of the domain's swordsmen stood beside the shipmaster, newly arrived himself from one of the heavy triremes now visible just beyond the surf-crested reef that guarded the island's anchorage.

'Later, Atoun.' Kheda interrupted the heavyset warrior with an apologetic wave. Atoun fell silent, dark eyes alert beneath thick brows still black as jet for all his wiry hair and beard were greying. His muscles were still as hard as any man's twenty years his junior. Of an age with Janne, his experience had proved invaluable to the domain time and again. His presence reassured Kheda until he wondered how the warrior would react to an assault by magic.

'Let's be about it!' The tall shipmaster in his long robe snapped his fingers at the helmsman waiting in his seat set just forward of the upswept curve of the sternposts.

He waved to the rowing master waiting down in the gangway running the length of the ship, a black gash separating the two halves of the upper deck that hid the three ranks of rowers below. At the rowing master's command, the piper sitting amidships sounded the warning note that brought every oar up and ready. At the cane flute's next sound, every blade crashed into the water and Kheda felt the vessel surge beneath him.

'My lord.' Telouet appeared at Kheda's side with a small wicker cage.

'Thank you.' Kheda took it and descended the steep stair down to the gangway, walking rapidly forward to the steps leading up to the bow platform. As he skirted the piper sitting on the wooden block where the mast could be stepped, toiling oarsmen glanced sideways as their lord passed, their eyes a curious gleam beneath the shadow of the deck.

Kheda paused to smile at the rowing master who was as always roving up and down the gangway. 'I want to reach Nagel by dawn.'

'We'll do it in one pull, won't we, boys?' The rowing master smiled encouragement at the oarsmen as the piper signalled a slightly faster rate with his flute.

The ten men of the sail crew waited calmly beneath the shelter of the bow platform, ready to rig the mast or take a turn at an oar. The bow master bowed a dutiful head to Kheda as he took the steps up to the platform narrowing to the vessel's sharp beak. Up above, the vessel's guard of ten swordsmen sat patiently on the unrailed side decks, scanning the sea in all directions. The four archers were gathered on the bow platform for a brief discussion before separating to keep watch on either side at prow and stern. Each carried a full quiver of arrows for all potential enemies and signalling besides.

Opening the little wicker cage, Kheda caught the augury dove within with a careful hand. The little white bird blinked with confusion but rested calmly enough as he drew it out and threw it high into the air.

Where will it fly? Will it condemn this voyage before it's even started?

The dove wheeled above his head, fluttering awkwardly, bemused by the darkness. Then it dipped abruptly down and headed straight back to the cages stowed in the carpenter's domain beneath the stern platform. Kheda heard the rearmost rowers chuckling.

The rowing master came forward, looking up from the lower gangway with a broad grin. 'It wants to be let back into the cage with the rest of them.'

'No help there then,' muttered Telouet.

'A sign that we should reserve judgement,' Kheda said firmly, descending the steps and striding back down the length of the trireme.

Atoun was waiting impatiently on the stern platform. 'What's happening in Nagel that we need to make a night voyage?' He glanced out to sea where the heavy triremes with the best of the domain's warriors were waiting. The Scorpion was both narrower and shorter, a fast trireme designed for ramming, not for carrying or landing a fighting force.

'Chazen boats are coming ashore in some number,' Kheda explained. 'Bringing men, women and children. I want to know why.'

'It's no invasion, not at this season,' said Atoun with a decisive shake of his square-jawed head. 'Chazen Saril might be a fool but his warriors wouldn't follow him into a campaign that would bog down in the rains before it was halfway done.'

'It seems the Chazen people are fleeing some calamity,' Kheda said carefully. 'It seems to be coming from the south.'

'There must be some confusion. There's nothing to the south of Chazen.' The shipmaster Jatta moved to join them, a head taller than all three other men. 'I've heard Moni Redigal would dearly love some turtle shell trade of her own,' he added. Atoun wore his hair and beard cropped close as befitted a fighting man but Jatta favoured narrow braids for both in the manner of elder islanders and village spokesmen.

'She can go on wanting,' Telouet said robustly. 'Redigal Coron would never launch an invasion just to please her.'

'Chazen Saril doesn't have an heir of age of discretion,' Kheda remarked thoughtfully.

'Which always makes a domain vulnerable,' nodded Atoun.

'A domain that's worth having.' Jatta pursed sceptical lips. 'What's Chazen got that anyone would want so badly?'

'Turtle shell and a few paltry pearl reefs?' Telouet wondered derisively. 'Shark skins and whatever whalebone they find washed up on their beaches?'

Kheda was considering a different aspect of the puzzle. 'Even if Redigal Coron, or should I say his faithful advisers—' The other men laughed. 'If Redigal ships were attacking Chazen, they've got a straight course down from their own waters. They hold sizeable islands due north. Why would they be sailing all the way round the domain and attacking from the south?'

'They'd have to swing out so wide into the open ocean. That's insane.' Jatta shook his head decisively. 'With the rains due any time after the dark of the Greater Moon.'

'You find this as much of a puzzle as I do.' Kheda nodded briskly to Atoun and Jatta. 'Let's hope we find some answers on Nagel. Signal the heavy triremes to follow at their best speed.'

As Jatta relayed the message down to the rowing master who passed it forward to the bow master, Atoun yawned.

'I'll get some rest, with your permission, my lord.'

'Of course.'

As Atoun lumbered heavily down the steps to settle himself in the cramped stern stowage with the messenger birds and the ship's carpenter, the penetrating note of the signal horn sounded out from the prow. Kheda turned to look past the upswept stern timbers that carried the runs of close-fitted planking up into a curved wall. The heavy triremes were forming up to follow the Scorpion.

'Let's see if they can keep up,' grinned Jatta as he settled himself into his own chair, raised just behind the helmsman's seat. The helmsman leaned forward, gripping the twin steering oars in capable hands.

Kheda slipped past Jatta to the small area of stern deck behind the shipmaster's chair, pretty much the only place to sit on the Scorpion's upper level where a man could risk sleep without the immediate danger of rolling off the side of the vessel. No fast trireme tolerated the extra weight of rails.

'You're not warning them of what you suspect?' Telouet asked quietly. Unbuckling the leather strap of his bundle, he unrolled the outermost layer. It was a blanket. 'Here, it'll get colder than you expect.'

'There's been no word that the evil Chazen's people are fleeing has arrived on our shores.' Kheda glanced at Jatta's back as the shipmaster settled himself in his seat but the man's whole attention was on the vista beyond the narrow prow of his ship. 'I don't want to raise unnecessary fears.' He set his jaw. 'This could just be hysteria fired by rumour, maybe even a deliberate falsehood spread by whoever's attacking Chazen.'

'In their determination to claim a slew of sandy rocks that only a turtle could love,' muttered Telouet sarcastically. He took a second blanket for himself and hunched, glowering, beside Kheda.

And if it's not falsehood, if there's some appalling truth in this, then we do all we can to stop whoever might be wielding magic in these reaches, in spite of every warlord's laws and judgements. If it takes every man's life to stop it spreading into the Daish domain, that's a worthwhile trade of our blood.

Kheda shivered involuntarily in the cooling breeze garnered by the speeding ship. The dark isles of his domain slid past in the silver sea. No lights showed. Every village would be as empty as the one outside his own compound. His people would be cowering in their hidden refuges, the old, the young and the women, at least. The spokesmen that every village chose would be gathering the farmers, the fishermen, the hunters from the hills, readying themselves to repel any invader, determined to hold until some detachment of the warlord's swordsmen could come to their relief. The swordsmen would be as resolute, intent on defending the islands they had been plucked from, whose labours supplied their needs.

Ahead, he saw a single fishing boat slide behind a black zigzag of rocks, laggard behind its fellows. Where the channel opened out into a wider sea, another trireme kept watch. At Jatta's command, the great horn announced the Scorpion's passage south. The ship creaked and vibrated beneath Kheda, the piper's measure regulating the steady oar strokes, the splash and rush of the water a ragged counterpoint to the flute. The piper began a tune now that the rowers had their rhythm, though one with the constant beat that the oarsmen demanded. Voices floated up from below; the ceaseless murmur of encouragement and guidance from the rowing master and the regular banter of the sail crew bringing water to the thirsty rowers. An abrupt hammering told everyone that the carpenter was making some running repairs, nothing unusual in that. The rowers pulled ceaselessly on their oars. Soon the swift trireme had left the heavier vessels far behind. Lulled by the motion of the ship and the hypnotic gliding waters, Kheda dozed fitfully. Every time he jerked awake in a muffled rattle of chainmail, the moons were a little further in their course.

The next time he opened his eyes, the sky was paling and all at once it was dawn. The sun rose brighter than any beacon, throwing new light on the scatter of islands ahead. Beyond, Kheda could see the sprawling bulk of Nagel, its heights marching away into the distance. This was an island of fire mountains but the boiling craters of the live peaks were far inland. Here the tree-clad slopes ran down to pale beaches of coral sand.

Kheda threw off his blanket, scouring the drowsiness from his eyes with the back of one hand. As he stood, he saw a dolphin leap from the foam arrowing out from the trireme's bow, sparkling drops flying from its fin. It plunged back into the sea but another cut across the vessel's spreading wake, then another.

'There's an omen for us, and one of the best!' He pointed and Jatta relayed the news to the lower deck. As the rowing master and bow master spread the word, Kheda heard a muted cheer from the weary rowers. The piper moved seamlessly from the gentle tune he had been playing to a spirited dance measure and the humming of the rowers rose up from below.

They passed the outlying islets and Kheda scanned the Nagel shore. The first sign of life was a collection of huts built on low stilts along the high-water mark.

'Only to be expected, that they'd be deserted this late in the dry season,' observed Telouet bracingly. He swung his arms to ease stiff shoulders. 'I really do hate sleeping in armour,' he said with feeling.

'Everyone but the hardiest fishermen will have moved to the cool of their heights a full cycle of the Lesser Moon since,' Kheda agreed.

This really is a senseless time of year for anyone to launch an attack. But there is no sense in magic, is there? That's its wickedness, its wanton chaos, throwing all the unity of nature into disarray.

One of the archers keeping watch on the landward side of the trireme's split deck gave a sudden shout. 'Wreckage!'

At Jatta's word, the rowing master gave the order to slow and the rowers counted down their strokes in unison. Kheda moved for a clearer view. The hull of a fishing skiff lay upturned on the beach. The mast sprawled broken beside it, spars and sail tangled. Movement was just discernible on the sands; crabs were busy around bedraggled tangles of cloth. There was no one to be seen but the archers knelt braced and ready, arrows nocked. The Scorpion's swordsmen rose to their feet.

Telouet looked at the upturned hull. 'What do you suppose happened there?'

'It's not breached anywhere that I can see.' Kheda shrugged. 'Anything from a freak wave to a sea serpent could have rolled it over.'

'It's the season for them,' Telouet acknowledged.

'Let's make for that,' Kheda ordered, pointing at a column of smoke rising in the distance.

Jatta's curt commands were relayed and the ship moved along the shore.

'My lord.' One of the sail crew stood on the gangway below them. He offered up wooden cups of water and a bowl of cold sticky sailer grain.

'Thank you.' Kheda drank deeply, the cool water refreshing him. He scooped cold grain, nuts and shreds of cooked meat from the bowl with his fingers. The edge of his hunger blunted, he passed the bowl to Telouet still half full. 'Have you any besa?'

The slave knelt to rummage in the bundle and handed up a small silver pot. Kheda unscrewed the top as Telouet rapidly ate his share of the breakfast. As he scrubbed his teeth with a finger dipped in the tiny black grains, the pungent seeds cut through the sourness of sleep in his mouth. He handed the pot back to Telouet as the trireme passed a narrow promontory, which hid a marsh-fringed river mouth. A drift of small boats clustered on the mudflats below a tall tower whose beacon was throwing thick black smoke into the air. Figures huddled around the boats, their hanging heads and hunched shoulders wretched and defeated. A line of men with fishing spears, hoes and sailer scythes stood ready to stop anyone making a break for the shelter of the broad-leaved lilla trees fringing the beach. As some watchman on the tower saw the trireme, a harsh horn sounded frantically.

'Call a boat out to us.' Kheda waited as Jatta ordered a signal from the trireme then drew a deep breath. 'Let's see what's washed up here. Get your men fed and watered as quickly as you can.'

He watched, outwardly calm, as a fishing skiff rowed out towards them. Apprehension crawled down his spine like some insidious insect. One of the sail crew came up to sling a ladder over the trireme's stern, and as Kheda turned to climb down, he caught Telouet's eye.

You're as grim-faced as I've ever seen you, my faithful slave.

Pausing on the ladder, Kheda recognised the spokesman of one of Nagel's larger villages waiting in the boat below. 'You're Gauhar, aren't you?'

'There's a woman ashore claims to be Itrac Chazen, my lord.' Stocky, with the more tightly curled hair of a hill dweller, the man looked up, consternation plain on his brown face.

Kheda smiled reassurance at the man. 'Who does she have with her?'

'Ordinary folk, a lot of them hurt.' The man shook his head dubiously. 'They have Olkai Chazen with them but she looks close to death.'

Kheda turned back to the trireme. 'Telouet, bring the ship's remedy chest.'

Telouet passed the ebony casket down. Kheda sat as Gauhar leant into his oars and pulled for the shore. As they drew closer, Kheda could see a patterned cloth had been stretched to make a shelter between the boats lying all askew on the mud. An ominous number of figures lay prostrate beneath it. 'What manner of injuries do these people have?'

'Broken arms and ankles.' Oar strokes punctuated Gauhar's words. 'Burns.'

'Some fool could have let a fire spread, people getting trampled in the panic running riot after it?' hazarded Telouet.

'It wouldn't be the first time.' But Kheda heard the doubt in his agreement so turned to studying the hastily beached boats on the shore instead. The largest was no more than a despatch galley, rowed by a mere ten men to a side, each with a single oar.

Hardly a vessel a Chazen wife would ordinarily travel in. Doubtless prestige is a secondary consideration when fleeing for one's life.

Kheda bent to unlace his leggings as Gauhar drove the bucking boat through the turbulent water where the river fought the sea.

'My lord.' Telouet frowned with disapproval.

'We don't want them getting wet, do we?' Kheda stripped off the detested encumbrances. Gauhar pulled beyond the reach of the river and turned for shore. Mud hissing beneath the hull, the boat grounded close to those so unexpectedly cast ashore. Shallow ruffs of surf rippled around them and swept up the beach.

'I don't suppose they'll want to make a fight of it but I'm going first.' Telouet jumped over the skiff's prow into the knee-deep waters. Kheda followed, relishing the soothing coolness of the sea on his sweaty feet. Muddy sand, gritty with fragments of shell, oozed beneath his toes.

Kheda made a rapid survey of these unknown unfortunates. Most were humble islanders, in plain cotton clothes, with hands and faces hardened with toil, wind and sun. They stood, eyes dutifully downcast, salt-stained and soot-smudged. A few wore dishevelled remnants of slaves' and servants' clothes; finer cloth, silk-embroidered, less serviceable for the hardships of flight over the seas. He could see sprawling bruises on just about every exposed limb, some plainly footprints. Several islanders had torn their sleeves away to spare their touch on raw and angry burns while most of the servants held up painfully blistered hands. Two children, faces grey with pain, clutched obviously broken arms.

'We beg for sanctuary' A woman in a torn tunic of sea-green silk embroidered with azure waves scrambled out from beneath the makeshift awning. 'I am Itrac Chazen.' Her voice was high and strained and she snapped her mouth shut with an audible click of teeth. She was tall and sparely built, much-mingled blood favouring her with a honey-coloured skin and long black hair. Kheda remembered that flowing sensuous to her waist with barely a curl in it. Now it was tangled and sandy, twisted up into a fraying knot bound with a scrap of cloth. She wore one long earring of turquoise beads but its pair had been torn from her other ear, leaving a dark stain of dried blood on her neck. The silver chains around her neck were tangled and broken and the heavily carved rings on all her fingers were black with filth.

'I recognise you,' Kheda replied with smooth courtesy. 'What brings you to my shores?'

What was it Janne told me about you? Barely older than Sain for one thing, third wife and married less than a year. Not yet a mother. Rekha said something about you managing some promising trades, even with your paltry share of Chazeris limited wealth.

The woman hesitated, then spoke hurriedly. 'I beg your care for our wounded. Olkai Chazen is near death.'

'I'll do all I can. Telouet, bring the remedy chest.' Kheda walked forward to meet Itrac.

If you've got a weapon concealed beneath those sodden, ragged clothes, I'll eat those cursed leggings. Besides, even if you have got a knife, it can't be large enough to threaten chainmail.

'There.' Itrac pointed beneath the fluttering shade of the awning.

Several women sat huddled together on the ground, heads bandaged, faces grazed. One lay on her side, arms folded tight across her belly, eyes screwed tight on fear and pain. An older man lay motionless on his back; blood crusted around his mouth and nose, a blank-faced child helplessly fanning inquisitive flies away with a dirty hand. Two bruised and salt-stained slave girls knelt either side of a woman who murmured with pain as she tried to roll from side to side. The girls restrained her with gentle hands, faces taut with concentration. A single length of the finest cotton covered their mistress so that all Kheda could see was the callused soles of her brown feet.

'Let me see.'

At Itrac's nod, the girls lifted the cloth aside and Kheda knelt on the muddy sand.

'Send Gauhar for honey, as much as he can find,' he said to Telouet. 'Have you made her drink?'

'We have been trying,' Itrac quavered. One of the slave girls nodded wordlessly towards a brass water jug with a long curved spout.

'Well done.'

For all the good it might do.

Kheda forced his face into immobility as he studied Olkai Chazen's injuries. If he hadn't known her nigh on all his life, born Olkai Ritsem less than a year after himself, he'd have struggled to recognise her. She lay naked, thanks to whoever had had the sense to strip her burning clothes from her. Her right side was largely uninjured, her right hand loosely curled, fingernails painted, garnet-studded rings gleaming silver. Her left hand was burnt to the bone, fingers clawed and blackened. Deep burns covered the left side of her body from shoulder to knee, splashed across her stomach and thighs, raw flesh weeping, framed by charred and blistered skin.

You raised that hand to fend off the fire.

Then the flames had flared upwards, to sear away her hair, leaving that side of her skull burnt to black stubble, face swollen and cracked, crusted oozing eye surely blind. Kheda winced as she moaned softly, lost in a delirium of pain.

'How did this happen?'

'We do not know' Itrac's brittle defiance bordered on hysteria. 'It was dark. We were attacked. Everything was set alight.'

'Sticky fire?' Telouet looked down at Olkai's injuries with undisguised horror.

'Perhaps.' Kheda bent to sniff. There was no hint of sulphur or resin hanging around the wounds. He sat back on his heels.

Perhaps, if someone threw a pot of sticky fire right at her, catching her full in her belly. Who would do such a thing? You don't use sticky fire against people. You throw pots of it to set light to thatch or to scatter flames across the ground to ward people off.

'Gauhar, let these people gather firewood in the forest and leatherspear for their burns.' Kheda turned to open the remedy chest. 'Telouet, set me some water to boil.' He found the small glass bottle he sought and turned to Itrac. 'You let the water cool and then mix this into it. One measure like this to that ewer full of water.' He unstoppered the bottle and shook fine crystals out on to his palm. 'Wash the wounds with it, as gently as you can.'

Itrac stared at him, hugging herself, shaking. 'But the pain—' She couldn't force the words out.

'I'll ease that.' Kheda opened a compartment at one end of the chest and took out a crystal vial. Finding a silver spoon, he carefully measured out drops of viscous golden fluid. 'Lift her head, carefully.'

One of the slaves, tears trickling down her face, cradled the unburned side of Olkai's head in her hands with infinite care. Kheda eased the spoon between her slack lips, pushing at the gummy spittle clogging her mouth. Bending close, he heard an ominous hoarseness in Olkai's breathing.

A strong enough dose of the dappled poppy and I could ease all your pains. Is that what I should do? Your life is surely done, for the good or ill of your domain. How can I hope to bring you through such injuries? Would you want me to, when you'll be scarred and crippled, even if you should live? A living omen of ill luck? Forgive me, Olkai, I have to try, if only to bring you to your senses long enough to tell me what you know. I have to think of my own people first.

'When you've bathed her wounds, cover them with honey, as thick as you can.' Kheda replaced the vial of golden poppy syrup and closed the chest. 'Wash it off and renew it at dawn and dusk.'

'Will she live?' Itrac asked hoarsely.

'We can but hope.' Kheda took a breath before continuing. 'Keep some honey aside. Mix a spoonful in a cup of boiled water as well as three spoonfuls of lilla juice and a pinch of salt. Tell Gauhar I said to give you everything you need. Clean out her mouth and then spoon it in. Don't stop. As soon as she's drunk one, make another cupful.' He stood and looked at Itrac. 'You've people here with broken bones. I'll set them as best I can and then do what I'm able for those who were trampled. You must tend everyone else's burns. Split the fleshiest part of the leather-spear leaves and lay the pulpy sides on to the wounds.'

'My lady Itrac.' Telouet was looking around the beach, frowning. 'Where are your body slaves?'

'I think they died to win us time to flee.' Itrac burst into sudden tears. 'It was horrible. We were attacked. Savages came out of the night to slaughter us all—'

'Walk with me. Telouet, see my orders are obeyed.' Kheda's stern command at least did something to quell the stir of consternation among his own islanders now gathered round. The Chazen islanders were raising fresh laments prompted by Itrac's words.

Telouet raised his voice to purposely drown them out. 'My lord grants them fire. We need kindling. Gauhar, fetch an ember from the tower's signal fire.'

Kheda caught Itrac by the elbow and led her some way along the beach. Too distraught to stand on her dignity, she didn't resist. When he was satisfied they wouldn't be overheard, Kheda turned, his face hard. 'Do not make your people's plight worse than it has to be, with pointless reminders of what they have suffered. Nor do I want you spreading useless alarm among my people.'

Itrac stared at him, shocked.

'I must do my duty by my domain,' Kheda warned her. 'As must you. You're the only one here to look after these people with Olkai so gravely injured. Now, before I can grant you sanctuary, I must know exactly what you flee. Tell me everything you saw, everything you heard, everything you suspect. For my ears only, mind you. Otherwise I'll have my men drive you all back into the water.'

As he'd hoped, his harsh words turned Itrac's thoughts from her distress to her responsibilities.

'We were visiting Boal,' she began slowly. 'Me, Olkai and Chazen Saril. We wanted to talk to the islanders about the turtles. They'll be coming soon, with the rains. We wanted to decide which beaches would be left and where they could gather eggs. Saril wanted to see for himself.'

Kheda suppressed the desire to hurry her through such irrelevancies. He could see the same desire on Telouet's face as the slave came up to stand unobtrusively behind Itrac.

Is there any significance to an attack on Boal? It might be one of the largest of the Chazen islands but it has little to recommend it beyond some and farmland on its northern face and the turtle beaches facing the southern ocean. It's no great prize.

'There's a nice residence we keep on Boal.' Itrac reached unconsciously for a bracelet she no longer wore. 'All the village spokesmen brought us gifts. There was to be a feast.' Her distant eyes suddenly fixed on Kheda. 'They came at sunset.

'Out of the setting sun, so we couldn't see them for what they were until it was too late. Besides, why should we expect any attack? Their boats were strange, so slight, so crude, just hollowed from a single log with the men standing and paddling. How did they do that? How did they not overturn out on the open water?'

She didn't wait for Kheda to answer. 'They were all but naked, leather loincloths, painted in wild colours, feathers and horns in their hair and around their necks. They didn't even have metal heads to their spears, just fire-hardened wood sharpened to a point. Their weapons killed all the same; men, women, children, they all died. They used clubs of studded stone as well, smashing skulls, breaking bone.' She was shaking without ceasing, hands knotted together, not feeling the rings digging painfully into her flesh.

'There were hundreds of them, howling and killing. There was so much blood. Saril called for the horns to be sounded, the beacons lit to summon all the island's men but no one could hear him and the wild men were still coming ashore, They hit out at everyone. All they wanted to do was kill. Everyone was screaming. There was so much blood.' Itrac's eyes were still fixed on Kheda but saw only her horrifying memories.

'Ket, my body slave, and Stiwa, that was Olkai's, you remember? They found bows from somewhere. The hunters of the village, some of them found theirs. The arrows, they burst into flames. The arrows just burned as they flew through the air.' Her voice trailed off in disbelief.

'And then,' Kheda prompted gently.

'We ran—' Itrac stumbled over her words. 'We ran for the residence. The swordsmen barred the path as long as they could but the wild men kept on coming. They didn't care how many of their own died. There were always more of them. Then the ships started burning. Fire was falling out of the sky, out of nothing. How could that be? Everyone was screaming and the wild men were cheering. Then the fires started falling on the residence. That's when Olkai was burned.' Tears poured down Itrac's face.

'All right, that's enough, calm yourself Kheda reached out and gripped Itrac's hands until the tremors racking her slowed. 'Did you understand their tongue?'

The unexpected question stirred Itrac from her waking nightmare. 'No. I never heard the like. I never saw the like of such people either, nor heard tell of any, not in any domain.'

Nor had Kheda. 'What did Saril do?'

'He told Ket and Stiwa to get us to a boat.' Itrac swallowed a sob at the thought of her lost body slave. 'We had to leave. I had to look after Olkai. He said he had to get back to Sekni and the children. They were all at the dry-season residence. Oh, Daish Kheda, what will have happened to them?' Itrac stared at him, appalled.

'There's no way of knowing.' Kheda resolutely turned his mind from all he could imagine. 'Did Chazen Saril get to a trireme?'

'He got to a fishing boat, I think,' Itrac said dully. 'But there was so much fire and smoke, I can't be sure. Then Ket and Stiwa got us to the despatch galley but the wild men attacked as we were pushing off. When we got clear, we found we'd lost them both. I don't know if they're alive or dead, any of them.'

'It's possible we may yet have news of them.' Kheda released her hands. 'I've had word that Chazen triremes are holding the Hyd Rock.'

Itrac stared, mouth open. 'Chazen Saril lives?'

'It's possible, but no more than that, I cannot lie to you. As soon as I know anything for certain, I'll send you word.' Kheda looked back towards the boats. 'We had better get back to Olkai.'

Itrac hesitated, uncertain. 'What happens now?'

'You may have sanctuary here, on this shore and beneath the trees, within reason. Gauhar's people will feed you and help tend your wounded,' Kheda said firmly. 'I will sail for the Hyd Rock and find out what I can. Whatever happens, I will summon all my warriors to fight these invaders.' He smiled at Itrac. 'Go on. Tell your people they are safe.'

'I will. Thank you, Daish Kheda. We of Chazen are in your debt.' Itrac moved slowly at first, then began walking with more purpose, her back straightening, her head lifting.

'She didn't say anything about magic,' commented Telouet quietly.

'Would you?' Kheda asked sardonically. 'If you were seeking sanctuary from people who can cross an ocean balancing on hollowed-out logs and call a rain of fire down from an empty sky. What else could it be?'

'Then why do you risk giving these people sanctuary?' Telouet grimaced. 'Attacked by magic is touched by magic and magic corrupts everything it touches.'

'Wise men have written that an innocent victim of magic should not be condemned,' Kheda said slowly. 'They'll be tainted by its touch, true enough, but it's suborning magic, deliberately calling it forth, that's the true abomination, according to many sages. Besides, we have to fight it. We cannot just run before it like storm-tossed birds. There are talismans to turn its malice aside, aren't there?'

Telouet looked unconvinced. 'What do we do now, my lord?

'I'm not going anywhere till the heavy triremes catch up with us. Then all the crews will need to be fed, watered and rested. While they're doing that, we can send a message bird to Janne and Sirket. Who knows, they might have news for us as well.' Kheda shrugged. 'I want every fisherman Gauhar can spare sent out to scout for other Chazen survivors. They can spread the word that they're to be sheltered for the present. Then we make for the Hyd Rock and see what those Chazen triremes can tell us. Hopefully we'll find out just what disaster has come up from the south and if it's likely to come any further north.'

Chapter Three

'What if Chazen Saril is indeed dead?' Telouet handed Kheda a cup of water.

The warlord drank it down gratefully. Even with the breeze of their passage over the water, the sun was still punishingly hot. He was still in his armour but he'd discarded his helm before it could broil his brains. 'Then we offer however many of his ships have fetched up at the Hyd Rock the choice of flight, death at our hands or swearing allegiance to the Daish domain.'

'Offering fealty's their only sensible course,' declared Atoun.

'If Sekni Chazen is still alive, and with some of the children, they might think different.' Seated in his shipmaster's chair, Jatta was leafing through a small book bound in battered scarlet leather, locks on its three clasps.

Kheda could never see Jatta consulting his book without recalling Daish Reik's pointed advice.

'Leave the business of sailing to your shipmasters and see to your own responsibilities. Do not get too curious either; a true seamaster will give up his first-born child before he'll share the secrets of his routes.'

Every shipmaster made a record of the seaways he travelled, both those open to any ship wishing to traverse a given domain and those supposedly permitted to local vessels only. Allegedly unbreakable ciphers hid notes of landmarks, warnings of every lurking reef and sandbar and peculiarities of tide and current to help or hinder. 'I hate to say it but I think it's highly unlikely Sekni Chazen still lives.' Kheda handed the cup back to Telouet. 'Even if she does, I cannot see her trying to establish a regency when there's no child anywhere near an age of discretion.'

'No ship will hold out for Sekni or Itrac, come to that, not now they're in our waters,' opined Atoun robustly.

'Not and commit themselves to returning to a domain overrun by mysterious invaders who burn everything in their path.' Telouet looked meaningfully at Kheda.

The warlord shrugged, face non-committal. 'Let's hope Chazen Saril is still alive.'

The other men looked at him in some surprise. Kheda met their stares, composed.

'If he's alive, we round up every last one of his ships and men and send them back to join him in driving off these invaders, whoever they may be. If he's dead, we either wait for these wild men to come north and attack us or we take on the burden of claiming the domain and dealing with its difficulties ourselves.'

'Neither being an inviting prospect,' Atoun acknowledged.

'And Ulla Safar, Ritsem Caid and Redigal Coron might well object if we seized Chazen lands,' Jatta observed as he returned his attention to the seas ahead of the trireme.

'Ulla Safar would flog his oarsmen to bare bones, if he thought he could claim some Chazen island,' growled Atoun. 'He'd love to see us with his forces on either hand.'

'Ritsem Caid wouldn't stand idly by while Safar did that.' Telouet shook his head.

'No, he wouldn't.' Kheda got to his feet. 'So we could find the Caid domain attacking Ulla troops to the north while we were embroiled with Safar's men down here, with the ships fleeing Chazen getting in everyone's way. That would leave these invaders digging in, quite undisturbed and doubtless making ready for their next step north to our lands.'

The silence between the four of them was surrounded by the rush of water, the piping flute and the creak and splash of the oars.

'So we're all going to be pleased to see Chazen Saril's fat face safe and sound,' Atoun grunted.

'And we'll show him appropriate respect,' said Kheda mildly. 'How soon will we be there, Jatta?'

'We're slowing a little in the currents hereabouts.' The shipmaster gestured to a line of shoals and reefs off towards the south. The dark scar stretched across the azure sea fore and aft of the Scorpion, foam boiling up where the furious waves forced themselves through the scant fissures between the rocks.

'The Serpents' Teeth should give these invaders pause for thought.' Atoun looked with some satisfaction at the natural ramparts. 'They've always broken Chazen ambitions.'

'Chazen Saril has always been content with his lot.' Kheda found himself hoping Saril was still alive and not just for reasons of governance. The southernmost warlord of the entire Archipelago might be inclined to indolence but there was no malice in him. Kheda let slip a wry smile.

Remember when you told your father how you envied Sard's lesser burden, with his circumscribed domain and its scant resources, goaded beyond endurance by Daish Retk's expectations? You expected a tongue lashing, if not a beating, not his booming laughter.

'You'd better be the best foreteller between the southern ocean and the unbroken northlands before you wish for another man's life. Who knows what lies beyond the next rains for any of us?'

Neither of us realised those words had the ring of portent, did we, my father? Neither of us foresaw your death before those next rains had ended, leaving me ruling the domain, barely married to Janne, not even as old as Sirket.

'They're putting up sails back there.' Telouet was looking past the sternposts to the heavier triremes following the Scorpion.

'They'll be pulling their canvas down soon enough.' Jatta clapped the helmsman on the shoulder. 'Cai was born and bred in these waters. He knows how contrary the winds are.'

Cai grinned as he concentrating on feeling the ship's course through the twin stern oars. Kheda noted the helmsman's own book of sailing notes tucked securely by one thigh.

I wonder how soon Jatta will be telling me he's willing to see Cat raised to command of his own ship, a despatch galley or such? Well, he'll have the pick of the domain's best mariners to replace him, for the warlord's personal trireme.

Kheda glanced back at the heavy triremes surging in their wake. Unlike the Scorpion, such ships drew their whole crew from the particular island whose produce supplied them, spare sons opting to serve the domain by taking up an oar instead of a plough or a hunting spear.

Jatta's head snapped round as they all heard a flurry of horns passed from one ship to another.

'They're changing course.' Telouet squinted across the brilliant sea.

'The signal is to summon help for one of our own, under attack.' Jatta's angular brows met in a scowl above his beak of a nose.

'Then we join them.' Kheda's voice was untroubled; his face a bland mask but apprehension twisted around his gut like one of Sain's flowering vines strangling a sapling.

Is it come to this already? Have these invaders come north in the night? Are we going to be sunk with fire and magic before we even reach the boundary of our own waters?

Jatta whirled round to shout orders down to the rowing master. The sweating oarsmen strove to turn the narrow ship in an impossibly tight circle. Jatta joined Cai in hauling on the twin tillers as the seas seethed around the biting blades.

With the Scorpion rocking, struggling back through the waters the rowers had just stirred up, Kheda saw the heavy triremes surging behind a narrow islet of white sand topped with a sprawl of dusty green brush and the darker tufts of nut palms.

'We can cut round up there.' Jatta was standing at Cai's shoulder, pointing, and his route book open in one hand. Absently, he fingered his braided beard. The scars and calluses he'd earned as a rower in his youth were vivid on honey-coloured skin bequeathed by some distant ancestor from the north where Aldabreshin territories touched the unbroken barbarian lands.

Atoun tapped an impatient foot on the close-fitted planks of the deck, oblivious to Telouet's exasperated glare. The toiling oarsmen hauled the trireme past the little island; the rowing master and bow master both pacing up and down the lower gangway, shouting exhortations.

The channel opened out ahead of them. Thanks to Jatta's short cut, the Scorpion's course now lay alongside the heavy galleys as they ploughed through the strait.

'It's a Chazen merchant galley.' Jatta's contempt rose above the noises of sea and ship. 'Chasing down a low galley of ours.'

Reefs forced the Scorpion away to the side. As the trireme hastened towards clear water Kheda got a good view of the chase underway ahead.

The low galley was one of many such vessels linking the myriad islands within every domain. Men sat three to a bench and sweated over their oars on a single open deck.

Shipmaster and helmsman shared a meagre stern platform canopied against the sun. A square-rigged mast stood always raised behind the first six banks of oars, twice that number behind. At the moment, the Daish men were dropping their sail in a confusion of cloth. The great galley had three masts to their one, so no wind would help them outrun this pursuit. Their only hope of escape was their smaller ship's shallower draught as they sought to skip across the reefs cutting through the strait, heading straight for the Scorpion.

'I hope that helmsman knows his shoals,' murmured Jatta fervently.

The low galley darted between two spiky reefs; the roaring sea splashed right up over the Daish ship's shallow sides, soaking her unprotected oarsmen. The great galley couldn't follow and seeing the heavy triremes bearing down on it, wallowed in the deeper waters in an attempt to turn its course to the channel where the Scorpion waited.

'Do they think they can pass us?' scowled Atoun derisively.

'They're not slowing,' Telouet observed.

'They're heavily laden,' said Jatta thoughtfully.

'And heavily manned.' Kheda could see archers lining the side rails of the upper deck and the glint of sun on chainmail armouring the men behind them. Rowers would be sweating on the middle of the three levels below, thirty banks of three oars to each side. Great galleys were happy to take the weight of so many men in trade for the muscle needed to propel their vast cargoes between domains. Kheda took a moment to judge the Chazen ship's speed between two usefully prominent clumps of wind-tossed palms. Yes, the great galley was certainly heavily laden; that was probably all that had saved the lesser galley thus far.

What's in your capacious holds? Trade goods, or Chazen troops to attack helpless Daish vessels, to seize Daish land now you've been driven out of your own?

'I don't think they fancy their chances just now,' said Atoun with grim satisfaction.

Belatedly, the shipmaster of the Chazen great galley had ordered a sudden stop. The sails on the three tall masts were being struck. The oars on one side began backing while the others dug deep with new urgency.

'He's going to try and make a run for it.' Jatta glanced at Kheda.

'Ram him before he can make the turn,' Kheda ordered.

The shipmaster barked the order to the rowing master and the piper's note sounded shrill and rapid. The Scorpion's swordsmen and archers ran for the prow, to find a safe handhold for the collision and to be ready for the fight that would follow.

'Signal to the heavy galleys to make ready to board.' Kheda moved to call down to the bow master, who hurried to the prow. As the signal horn drowned out the flute's voice, the rowers marked their own time with a low rhythmic growl, an ominous sound as the trireme bore down on the enemy.

'They're a good crew,' said Jatta dispassionately. The great galley had all but made the whole turn as the Scorpion drew near.

'Aim for the stern,' Kheda told Jatta. 'Cripple their steering.'

The shipmaster moved to take one of the Scorpion's two tillers from Cai.

Kheda recalled the conversation he'd had with Daish Reik, the first time he'd been in a battle at sea, just a little older than Mesil.

'I've heard tell hitting a ship at the wrong angle can rip the ram clean off a trireme. And very silly we'd look without it. Which is why you'll see the helmsman match their course as soon as we hit.' Daish Reik had been smiling with vicious anticipation, teeth white in his black beard. 'Besides, the ram's built separate from the hull just in case he gets it wrong. We won't sink. Now hold on to something.'

Kheda took a firm grip on the shipmaster's chair. The Scorpion surged through the sea, the white beaches and the myriad greens of the shore flashing past.

'They're yielding!' came a shout from somewhere.

Kheda shook his head at the hoarse cries of the Chazen galley's frantic signal horns. 'Too late.' The Scorpion was already within a ship's length of the great galley.

The trireme's brass-sheathed ram ripped into the planks right on the waterline. A shudder ran the length of the Scorpion. With a grunt forced out of every man aboard by the impact, it was as if the ship herself groaned. Cai and Jatta threw all their weight against the twin tillers. The crossbeams at the Scorpion's bow, reinforced where they projected on either side of the ram, crashed into the galley's side, springing the weakened seams of her planking still further. The jutting timbers smashed the great galley's rearmost oars. Screams came from the galley's middle deck as rowers were clubbed by their own splintered oars sent in all directions.

'Back!' yelled Jatta.

The rowing master had already set the oarsmen to dragging the Scorpion back from the great galley. Water poured in through the gash in the wounded ship's side and she began listing almost immediately. The sea was suddenly full of men desperately trying to swim clear of the foundering vessel amid a confusion of broken and flailing oars.

There was a second crash and then a third as two Daish heavy triremes drove their prows into the great galley. Their rams rode higher than the Scorpion's, designed more to bite and hold fast to make a bridge for swordsmen intent on boarding. The stricken vessel shuddered, already sunk to her oar ports. The warriors on the great galley threw their swords into the sea in open surrender as the deck filled with all those who'd been below decks fleeing the encroaching waters.

Kheda saw women and children struggling in the confusion of noise and panic.

They're not raiders. They've fled whatever disaster it is that's ravaging Chazen. I need to know where they've come from, what they've seen.

He took a step forward. Telouet stretched out an arm to bar his way. 'You'll go no closer to their archers than this, my lord.'

Kheda turned to Atoun who was watching the Daish swordsmen taking possession of the galley with visible frustration. He pointed to a man feverishly ripping pages from a book to let the heedless wind blow them away to oblivion. 'Bring me that shipmaster!'

Rope ladders were already slung over the Scorpion's stern and Atoun disappeared at once, soon reappearing in a small boat rowing for the ruined galley.

Kheda sat in the shipmaster's chair watching the great ship sink to rest on a hidden reef, uppermost deck knee deep in water, only prow and sternposts rising clear of the sea. Every time a wave lapped at the wreck, the sound of breaking wood rippled through the air.

Close at hand, the sounds of hammering and urgent repairs reverberated through the Scorpion. Kheda leaned forward to call to Jatta.

'What's the damage? Are we still fit to sail for the Hyd Rock?'

Jatta came halfway up the stairs from the lower gangway. 'There're a few seams need caulking and there's the usual damage to oar loops and such. Nothing we can't bear.' He disappeared again.

'My lord.'

Kheda turned to see what Telouet was looking at.

'I don't think he was going to wait to pay his duty to you,' said the slave thoughtfully.

One of the Daish heavy triremes was escorting the lesser galley whose aid they had come to. The smaller ship was limping along with several broken oars and Kheda could see his own swordsmen on the deck. One was on the stern platform and the sun glinted on his naked blade.

'Let's see what he has to say for himself.' He looked to see if Atoun was on his way back.

The two mariners arrived at much the same time. Unhampered by the naked blade in one hand, Atoun drove a battered and hangdog man up the ladder before him, Telouet standing over him with a ready sword as soon as he set foot on the deck. The master of the lesser galley stood proud on his own stern platform as his vessel drew up smartly beside the Scorpion. Gaudy pennants flapped from the poles supporting the canopy fluttering just below the deck level of the Scorpion. The Daish mariner judged the distance to a nicety, jumping to catch hold of the rope ladder and climb lithely aboard.

'My lord.' He knelt on the deck and bowed his head to the planking.

'Your name?' Kheda stayed in the shipmaster's chair, face impassive.

'Maluk, great lord.' He looked up, eyes bright.

Kheda considered the equally bright gleam of gold in his ears and around the man's neck. He did not smile. 'And you, of Chazen?'

'Kneel before Daish Kheda!' Telouet threw the man down on to his knees. He slumped, chin sunk on his chest, hair matted and cotton tunic stained with blood from a split in his scalp that Kheda judged to be a day or so old.

'Chazen man,' Kheda said sharply. 'What is your name?'

Telouet would have reminded the man of his manners with a smack round the head but stilled at Kheda's look.

'Rawi, great lord,' he mumbled.

The warlord noted a hint of uncertainty cross Maluk's face. 'What brings you uninvited and flying no flag of mine to grant you passage through my waters?' he asked mildly.

Now Rawi looked confused. 'We were told to flee, to take all we could carry and flee.' He shivered despite the baking heat of the sun. 'My lord's soldiers came. They drove us all from our homes, threatening to club us if we tarried. They said we would die if we stayed. They said an enemy had come—' He broke off, swallowing hard, and raised horror-struck eyes.

Kheda could see the man's quandary reflected in his eyes.

If you warn me of magic, will I be grateful or just put you to death where you kneel?

With hopeless resignation, Rawi opened his mouth.

Steel in his voice, Kheda interrupted. 'Why were you pursuing my ship?'

'We were not alone. There were skiffs with us, fishing boats, anything that would float.' Rawi shot Maluk a look of pure hatred. 'He has followed us for a night and a day, picking them off. We took as many aboard as we could—'

'We sought only to protect the Daish domain,' Maluk declared robustly.

'From what, exactly?' Kheda queried sternly.

'We feared invasion, great lord,' Maluk insisted with a little too much wide-eyed innocence. 'We thought men of Chazen were come to steal our islands. The beacons were burning!'

'Men of Chazen? Come to raise battle with their Southern Firl families in tow?' Kheda stood to look at the two heavy triremes where the tally of bound and kneeling swordsmen was at least equalled by women and children, the decks now cluttered with hastily filled sacks and roughly tied bundles, all sodden and wretched. 'Didn't you look for help to tackle a ship so much stronger than your own?'

Maluk spread uncertain hands. 'We signalled to other ships and to villages that we passed with our lanterns. I don't know if they saw us. No one came to our aid. But we dared not lose sight of the enemy,' he continued, a little bolder now. 'We had to know where they might land, my lord. Then we would have carried word to the nearest beacon towers, to summon your warriors.'

A claim impossible to prove or disprove. And there are sufficient fighting men aboard Rawi's galley to justify Maluk's assertion that he'd feared invasion. All the women and children would have been below decks, and every man driven from his home by threats of unspecified foes would have carried a weapon if he could. So, hoping to get away with it unseen but confident in his excuses if not, Maluk's been raiding this Rawi's haphazard flotilla, claiming whatever loot he could for himself. And then, well aware his life was all but forfeit for sailing in my waters without a pennant to authorise his passage, the Chazen shipmaster finally turned his great galley on his tormentor. Proving this Maluk's ill faith could doubtless be done, if I had half a season to spare. I don't have half a day. I have to get clear of this tangle and make best speed to the Hyd Rock.

The Scorpion's stern platform was an island of silence in the uproar of wood and water all around, every eye on Kheda as he considered the choices before him.

Don't think you can hurry me. I am the warlord; my word is law. Mine is the right of life and death over all of you.

'Every life is woven into a myriad others throughout the course of each passing day. Every child is born of a web of ancestors and grows to be half of a union giving rise to unforeseen lives. Never take a life without considering all the possible consequences. Breaking a single thread can be all but invisible or utterly catastrophic.'

We had been walking in my mother's garden just after dawn. Daish Reik stopped by a dew-jewelled spider's web, suiting his actions to his words. His first touch had left the shimmering pattern unaltered. The second had destroyed it.

How many are already dead, thanks to Maluk and Rawi both? The pattern of life and death, past, present and future, must already be pulled this way and that. How can I cut through this tangle they have made between them? How can I make it plain beyond doubt that I will not permit Chazen ships to wander at will through my domain, any more than I'll tolerate Daish hunters preying on the helpless? I cannot sail south and leave undeclared warfare to strangle my domain.

Kheda looked at the expectant Maluk, plainly all too ready to spring up from his knees and return to share his loot with his crew. Beside him, Rawi hunched, staring hopelessly at the deck planks.

Kheda looked beyond the pair of them to Atoun and to Telouet, giving both warriors an infinitesimal nod. Atoun stepped forward and jabbed the tip of his long curved sword into Rawi's side, just below his ribs. Rawi stiffened involuntarily, his back arching away from the pain.

Telouet's similar thrust startled Maluk who had turned to gape at Rawi's whimper. Instinct brought his head up and back as Telouet's sword was already sweeping around and down to behead him in one clean stroke.

Atoun's blade flashed in the sun. Rawi's body fell forward, blood gushing from the stump of his neck in a sprawling arc that spattered the toes of Kheda's booted leggings. His head, sightless eyes still startled, rolled towards Maluk's headless torso. Telouet stopped it with one foot, looking a question at Kheda.

'Throw then both into the water.' The warlord kept his face impassive. 'If all that Rawi had become in life cannot be returned to his birthplace in death, then his body can feed the fish hereabouts and share whatever goodness lay within him with the Daish domain. I do not see that he deserves burning to ash like some unregenerate evildoer. I don't feel inclined to delay to see Maluk restored to his people though. I'm not convinced they would benefit by his influence on their future. Let the sea wash away his transgressions.'

Telouet sent both heads overboard with rapid kicks and moved to catch Rawi's corpse by one flaccid hand. Atoun grabbed at Maluk and threw the dead man overboard without ceremony. The abrupt splashes brought faces round on all sides, the shock of realisation plunging everyone into a spreading circle of silence broken only by the incautious cries of a child and the murmur of sea against sand and wood against rock.

Jatta startled Kheda by throwing a bucket of seawater over his feet and the deck of his beloved ship.

Might that blood have shown some pattern of omen? You didn't think to look in time, did you?

Kheda bit back a rebuke for the shipmaster and looked out over the water, noting a plethora of little vessels as the local islanders had come to see what this commotion might portend for them.

'Jatta, tell the helmsman of Maluk's ship that he is raised to the mastery and if he wants to keep that rank, never mind his own head, he had better return whatever loot was stolen from the Chazen fleet.' Kheda's face was hard. 'Atoun, summon some of those skiffs and send word to all the local villages that they are to shelter these unfortunates until I send word that the people of Chazen are to sail once more for their homes. We of Daish will do our best to defeat whatever vileness has attacked them, not least because it's in our own interests to secure our southern borders. Telouet, tell the men and women of Chazen that my mercy will last only as long as they cause no trouble. If they cannot accept our kindness with due humility, they will be driven out to meet whatever doom awaits them. Village spokesmen are to send word to Janne Daish of any such trouble. Jatta, I want to be ready to sail for the Hyd Rock as soon as may be. The heavy triremes are to follow as soon as they can set these Chazen people ashore.'

Kheda folded his arms slowly. Everyone else sprang into action.

This news will doubtless spread faster than the light of a burning beacon. Good. Everyone will benefit from learning that Daish's warlord has absolutely no intention of letting this unforeseen catastrophe undermine his authority.

Jatta returned to stand before Kheda. 'I would like to take on some more water, while we have the chance.'

'As you see fit,' Kheda nodded. 'Then we must make best speed.'

Once Jatta was satisfied the helpful locals had supplied sufficient fresh water to replenish the Scorpion's casks Kheda rose to yield the shipmaster's chair. A rapid flurry of orders set the trireme on her way. Kheda walked the length of the ship along the side deck, Telouet striding along between him and the drop to the water.

Finding some release for the tension knotting his back and neck, Kheda returned to the stern platform. 'This crew have done far more than we should usually ask of them,' he remarked to Jatta. 'We must make sure they are suitably rewarded.'

Atoun stood beside the shipmaster's chair. 'We must assess the situation at the Hyd Rock and once we know Chazen Saril's fate, we must decide where to send our triremes.'

'I'd advise blocking the seaways to these invaders and all those fleeing before them,' said Jatta grimly. 'This haphazard fighting will spread quicker than contagion if we don't pen the Chazen boats in.'

Telouet grunted his agreement.

Kheda shrugged. 'The first thing we need to see is what is at the Hyd Rock.'

The men all fell silent, looking ahead past the narrow upcurve of the prow as the doughty rowers, still unflagging, drove the trireme westwards through the turbid, raucous waters bounded to the south by the Serpents' Teeth. The sun beat down, striking blinding light from the shimmering surface of the sea. Finally, after what seemed like half a lifetime, the rocks and reefs petered out to leave the irregular broken hulk of the Hyd Rock standing alone among the waves.

'Ships!' The cry from the watchful archers in the prow was immediately drowned out by Jatta's shout. 'Chazen vessels!'

Atoun immediately looked aft to check the position of the domain's heavy triremes. 'We don't land without a full complement of swordsmen, my lord,' he said bluntly.

'How many ships?' Kheda moved to get a clearer view of the triremes anchored in the shallow curve of the little island's northern face.

'Four,' murmured Jatta. 'Two heavy, two light.'

Kheda grimaced. 'That's no great strength.'

'They've brought more than their usual crews with them,' said Telouet dourly. 'You can barely see the sand for people.'

Not that there was much sand, just a narrow strip of storm-soiled beach with a few clusters of stunted palms sheltered by the brutal black outcrop that made the whole southern side of the islet a wall of rock.

'Let's hope there are plenty of fighting men, to carry the battle back to their enemy before we have to risk any Daish blood,' Kheda remarked.

'I wonder how many wounded they have.' Telouet scanned the shoreline cluttered with awnings and fire pits.

'Chazen Saril's pennant!' Jatta stood to point at an azure finger of silk waving on the sternpole of one of the fast triremes.

'Then he's alive!' exclaimed Telouet.

'If he isn't, I'll use it to hang whoever thinks he's some right to fly it,' Kheda promised. 'Raise my own standard.'

Atoun was already hauling up the scarlet silk scored with the sweeping black curves that proclaimed Daish authority.

'I want our heavy triremes anchored so that none of them can break out without my permission,' Kheda said abruptly.

'I'll give the signal.' Jatta pointed at a battered skiff bobbing beside one of the Chazen heavy triremes casting loose to make its way across the water towards the Scorpion. 'There's a boat.'

'Telouet and Atoun, I'll want your counsel.' Kheda put his helmet back on and wordlessly accepted the detested leggings from Telouet. The blunt toes made his feet cursed clumsy as he climbed carefully down the ladder slung over the Scorpion's stern. Mindful of his sword, he settled himself as his slave and his commander joined him.

'Where is Chazen Saril?' Atoun demanded with a scowl.

'Ashore, honoured master, great lord,' replied the man at the oars, shrinking in an attempt at a bow, encumbered as he was.

Kheda sat upright in the stern of the boat, face calm. He didn't move when the man at the oars drove them aground, waiting for Telouet and Atoun to jump over the side. Both scowling ferociously, they splashed through the waves to scatter those waiting open-mouthed and apprehensive on the sand with the threat of their drawn swords.

'Remember you are always on show, my son. Someone is always watching you, be it in awe of your power or because they're wondering if they might find a way to fill you full of arrows'

'My lord,' Telouet turned and bowed, 'you may come ashore.'

And it won't do to trip and fall flat on my face in the surf. Kheda stepped carefully over the side of the boat. At least the sea water seeping into his leggings cured the sweaty itch plaguing his feet.

Chazen Saril came hurrying through the crowd, hands outstretched. 'Daish Kheda, I am relieved beyond measure to see you here.'

'And I you.' Kheda clasped the southernmost warlord's hands as custom dictated. He felt an entirely unceremonial tremor in Saril's fervent grip.

A drowning man couldn't hold on tighter. All of you look worse than people who've suffered a whirlwind breaking their huts into kindling and bringing the seas to surge over their crops and pens.

Chazen Saril's plump face was drawn with weariness, dark shadows smudging the coppery skin below eyes so dark brown as to look black. Blood and char stained his once elegant white silk tunic, the gossamer fabric of a sleeveless overmantle rich with golden embroidery torn and snagged in numerous places. The diamond rings on his fingers and the braided chains of pearls and gold around his neck only served to emphasise his dishevelment.

Mighty warlord of the Chazen domain, you look as shaken and confused as little Efi woken from a nightmare and not yet realising a father's arms are around her.

'You bring a great many men to this resting place for rowers.' Kheda smiled to soften his rebuke. Reminding Saril of established agreements might be necessary but this was no time to start a fight over something so trivial.

Saril had no time for any such niceties. 'This is the only place for us to make a stand. We are invaded—'

'I know.' Kheda cut him short. 'I have spoken with Itrac'

'She lives?' Saril gaped at him. 'And Olkai?'

'Itrac does well enough. I have granted her and her people sanctuary for the present.' Kheda held Saril's gaze and allowed his pity to show in his eyes. 'Olkai is burned, very badly, very deeply, over much of her body.'

Daish Reik had never thought much of Saril's skills as a healer but Kheda saw the man knew what he was being told. His mouth quivered and a tear he could not restrain spilled from one eye. 'Have you news of Sekni?'

'No, I'm sorry,' Kheda said with genuine regret. 'We've heard nothing.'

Saril turned his head aside, grimacing as he struggled not to weep openly.

So much for envying Saril the freedom to marry as his fancy prompted, himself a sufficiently meagre catch to be allowed romantic liaisons with lesser daughters.

'You're weary and overburdened, that's only to be expected.' Kheda looked at Telouet. 'Where can we sit at our ease, while we discuss what must be done now, for the sake of both our peoples?'

Saril looked at him with desperate belligerence. 'You must give me and mine sanctuary.'

The man's mood is veering as wildly as a pennant in a rainy squall.

Kheda hardened his heart. 'You must drive these invaders from your domain. I will give you and yours what shelter and food we can spare in the meantime, for suitable recompense in due course.'

A sigh of disappointment swirled through the crowd like the rustle of the wind-tossed palms at the edge of the beach.

Saril's expression settled in a guarded neutrality. 'Naturally.'

'And we of Daish will back your fight, on account of the long friendship between us,' Kheda continued. 'Once I know just what it is I am committing my people to.'

Saril raised his head, squaring his shoulders. 'Shall we sit?' He gestured towards a stand of three unimpressive palms where cushions had been piled. The sparse growth of the current season was dull and dry, more brown than green, older fronds from earlier years hanging down around the gnarled and swollen trunks in tattered curtains.

'Thank you.' Kheda followed Saril with slow deliberation, flanked by Telouet and Atoun.

The Chazen warlord stumbled in the soft sand, heedless of the anxious eyes fixed on him.

'Barle must be dead,' Telouet whispered to Kheda. 'He'd never let him wander about without so much as a thickness of leather between him and a blade.' If Telouet had never had much time for Saril, he'd at least approved of the warlord's personal attendant.

Kheda silenced his slave with a curt gesture as Saril turned by the scatter of cushions. 'I can offer you no refreshment beyond water.' His wave was no more than a sad shadow of his former exuberant hospitality.

'That suffices with your domain at war.' Kheda settled himself, legs crossed. The leggings dug into the backs of his knees and his shoulders protested at the unceasing burden of his mail coat. He resolutely ignored the discomfort as Telouet and Atoun stood on either side, between the two warlords, faces to the crowd, drawn swords levelled.

'There'll be more than my domain at war with these wild invaders,' Saril retorted with some spirit. 'If we do not deny them Daish waters, they'll sweep up to Ritsem, Ulla, Endit and beyond. They may even now be burning Redigal lands.'

'I don't believe so, not yet,' Kheda countered. 'And if we fight together to deny them now, you can rally your people and strike back before they take a firm grip of your lands.'

An imperceptible hope crept into the closest faces on the edge of Kheda's vision.

On the other hand, Saril's expression hovered on the brink of outright despair. 'Perhaps we might claw back something, after the rains.'

'No.' Kheda shook his head emphatically. 'We strike now'

Saril looked at him, uncertain. 'If we can rally my people, gather them on some lesser island.'

'Daish does not cede lands to Chazen.' Telouet glowered at the harassed warlord.

'Chazen slaves with such impertinent tongues can expect to be flogged,' Saril shot back in reply.

'I beg forgiveness, great lord,' said Telouet, his expression far from contrite.

'We will shelter your people but only until they can return to their own.' Kheda smiled to sweeten his unpalatable words. 'Better those of Chazen return home to plant their crops than labour in my domain without reaping any reward. You won't still be here at harvest, come what may.'

That much I must make sure of or we'll never be rid of you.

'We always carry the fight to an enemy. It is for us to act and our foes to react. Daish Reik taught me that and I doubt Chazen Shas ever said different,' he said with a hint of challenge.

'That's all very well when your foes are familiar, their strengths apparent and weaknesses known. Neither my father nor yours ever had to face—' Stubborn, Saril shook his head. 'We cannot hope to carry the battle back south during the rains. I must find my people a home until then. I could look to Ulla Safar or Redigal Coron.' His hoarse voice betrayed his desperation. 'They will not spurn alliance with my domain. I have daughters nigh of an age to marry. Are you willing to see me make such an alliance? Sirket must be seeking a wife by now?'

And the honoured Janne Daish will threaten her esteemed husband with castration, never mind a slap in the face, if he agreed to such a paltry bride for their son. As for Ulla Safar or Redigal Coron, they'd not only spurn your daughters, they'd laugh in your face for suggesting such a notion.

Kheda swallowed the impulse to tell the man so. 'I have already said we will shelter you for the present. Rekha Daish will negotiate suitable recompense with Itrac Chazen once we see you safely restored to your own. As for Ulla Safar and Redigal Coron, I believe they would balk at helping you, if magic has assaulted your domain.'

Saril hung his head, fragile defiance collapsing. 'You've heard about that.'

'Is all that Itrac tells me fact?' The miserable acquiescence on the faces Kheda could see at the corner of his eye left Saril with no room to lie. 'I charge you on the honour of your domain to tell me the truth.' Kheda spared a glance for Atoun and Telouet and saw both men frozen, appalled at what they were hearing.

The time for secrecy is past. Daish crews and warriors coming ashore to eat and drink, to make good the ravages of such a forced voyage on the ships, they'll be hearing what transpired in Chazen. I need to meet that news with a plan ready for us all to implement, to give everyone something to think about besides the abhorrence of magic.

Kheda set his jaw. 'Did you see magic used in plain sight? What did you see?'

Saril hesitated before finally answering. 'They had no ships, yet they came out of empty ocean, riding in no more than hollowed logs. They had no swords, no knives, just wooden spears and stone clubs, yet they had no fear of our blades. Why should they fear us?' He laughed mirthlessly. 'They could call fire out of the empty air, fire and lightning. They could call up waves to drown our people. And there were more of them than a swarm of bloodflies. Our arrows could not harm them. They bounced off their naked skins like sticks tossed at boiled leather.'

'My lord, if these people truly bring magic—' Already swarthy, even before a lifetime weathered by the unforgiving sun, Atoun still visibly paled behind his beard. 'What shall we do against them?'

'We kill them all.' Kheda hid his own misgivings. 'As fast and as completely as we may. If we cannot fight them in open battle, we'll burn them wherever they may be hiding, burn this foulness from any land it touches. Fire cleanses all.'

'All the more reason to attack before the rains come,' said Telouet stoutly.

'But of course, it was night and we were in no sense prepared for attack.' Saril's voice rose in sudden challenge. 'How do we know it was truly magic? Who among us has ever even seen the fakery of some barbarian wizard of the north? Perhaps it is all some cunning counterfeit to play on our fears.'

From the dubious murmurs all around, it was clear the other men and women of Chazen were convinced of what they had seen.

Kheda took a moment to be sure his voice was calm and level. 'We cannot decide how best to fight until we know just where these wild men are gathered in strength. Atoun, ask all of Chazen's shipmasters exactly where they have seen these invaders. Find out just where anyone put to flight has come from. I want to know where the closest nest of these savages may be. We can take three ships at first light tomorrow and launch a quick raid to take their measure.'

'You think we broke and fled?' Bitterness twisted Saril's face. 'That all this talk of magic is just some excuse for our cowardice?'

Well, if they were facing magic, I'd certainly back the quality of Daish warriors over Chazen's.

'I don't know what to think. Up, Chazen Saril,' Kheda commanded briskly, getting to his feet. 'It's time we looked to our own responsibilities.'

There was little change in Saril's dispondent expression. 'All my responsibilities lie ravaged or scattered to the far horizon.'

Kheda kicked his knee, just hard enough to startle a look of outrage from the plump man. 'We must read the auguries, Chazen Saril, the two of us together and the sooner the better.'

Saril caught his breath. 'I had not thought to even look where the birds flew at dawn.'

'Stars above, man, that's hardly surprising.' Kheda allowed himself to show a little compassion. He held out a hand. 'You're attacked with fire above all else, so we should read ashes, agreed?'

Saril scrambled gracelessly up before looking around the meagre island, new purpose in his face. 'We need as many different woods as possible. The more widely the fuel for the fire is rooted in past and present, the clearer the guidance the ashes will offer.'

A shiver of anticipation ran through the crowd.

'Let's see what the sea has brought us,' Kheda suggested.

'Cut some palm fronds as well,' Saril ordered a hovering skein of Chazen mariners as he brushed sand from his stained orange trousers.

'These fires will have stripped all the driftwood from the beach,' said Telouet, looking at the huddled masses with disfavour.

'Then let's see what's caught around the rocks.' Kheda restrained an impulse to strip off his damp leggings and feel the sand beneath his feet. At least he could climb over the razor-edged rocks in safety if he wore them.

The great black outcrop broke into ridges and rubble at the far end of the beach. Kheda moved cautiously over the slanting slippery facets, Telouet hovering at his side. The currents that wrecked the incautious on the ominous rock had carried plenty of debris up with the tides. Bleached drifts of shells and broken crab claws were piled in the hollows and crannies.

Will those invaders come to grief here? Do they have magic to carry them over the sea's capriciousness? No, you have to turn your mind from such distractions, from the unhappy people on the beach, from the insidious doubts that you did right by Olkai, from the fear that this disaster overtaking Chazen lurks just below the horizon to come sweeping up to crash down on the Daish domain. Remember Daish Reik's words.

'You must not merely see or hear the omens; you must feel every thread that ties you to every other living being. You must breathe the air that all passed from sight have shared, that all to come will taste in turn. You must know your place in the great scheme of things and see everything from that vantage point.'

Kheda stood still to draw the salt-scented air deep into his lungs. The noises around him faded as he closed his eyes and concentrated a steady exhalation to the exclusion of all else. Opening his eyes, a sea-stained tree root immediately caught his eye. Stooping, he picked it up and as he did so, he saw a worm-eaten fragment of a nut palm's trunk cast up beneath an overhang.

'My lord.' Telouet offered him a length of rope, snapped and frayed.

'Good enough,' Kheda nodded. 'It'll all burn.'

'Daish Kheda!'

Surprised by Saril's vigorous hail, Kheda nearly lost his footing on the hostile stone. 'What do you have there?'

The Chazen warlord was hurrying up the beach weighed down with an armful of splintered spars and shattered oar blades, even a few lengths of broken planking, one tarred length blistered and burnt. 'All this should carry some memory of whatever malice propels these invaders,' he said grimly, throwing his burden to the ground with a resounding clatter.

'Telouet, pass me those palm fronds.' Most definitely not wanting to complicate matters by spilling his own blood into the fuel for this fire, Kheda carefully used his dagger to strip back the tough brown stem and tease apart the clustered fibres of the yellow core.

Chazen Saril knelt over a scrap of wood where he'd gouged a shallow hole, a notch cut in one side. He carefully placed a sharpened stick in it, the looped string of a fire bow drawn tight around it. Drawing his hand back and forth slowly at first, he rapidly increased the pace and black dust gathered around the spinning point.

'Now.' Saril kept the stick whirling ceaselessly.

Kheda piled his tinder by the notch in the scrap of wood; it showed the faintest breath of white. As Saril pulled the fire bow away, brushing sweat from his forehead with a shaking hand, Kheda gathered up the scrap of wood, blowing gently into the frayed palm fibres, just enough to coax the nascent flame, not so much as to damp it with the moisture of his breath. A gleam of gold blinked among the pale smoke. Kheda cupped his hands to shelter the tiny fire from inquisitive breezes that could stifle it at birth.

No one needs that kind of omen.

'Here.'

Saril had built a nest of sticks and Kheda tucked the little flame safely inside it. Chazen Saril fed it with powdery scraps crumbled from a rotting branch and then sat back, watching greedy golden tongues licking at the sturdier wood he had brought from the wreckage of his ships.

Kheda saw the Chazen warlord's eyes grow distant, the energy born of having a task to accomplish deserting him.

'We're not here to read the flames,' Kheda told him sharply as he stacked the rest of the fuel around the burning heart of the fire. 'It's the ashes we need.'

Saril looked up with a sudden grin that caught Kheda by surprise. 'Did you ever make the mistake of suggesting dousing an augury fire with water, just to hurry things up?'

'I did,' Kheda laughed. 'But only the once.'

'My father slapped me so hard he knocked me clean off my feet.' Saril sounded perversely amused at the recollection.

Daish Reik wasn't given to beating any of his children, always more inclined to teach through laughter, even when there was only me left to learn such vital lessons for the good governance of the domain.

'This should burn down quickly enough.' Kheda stood and looked back down the shore, pleased to see the Daish ships had organised regular ranks of cook fires, rowers taking a well-earned rest as swordsmen shared the tasks of preparing a meal and ensuring armour and weapons were ready for any battle that might offer itself. Others were spread around the island, silhouetted vigilant against the sky as they perched on the heights of the rock, eyes turned to the south.

There's no real purpose among the Chazen men, even those that aren't injured. Is that just the shock consuming them or some insidious taint from magic?

Kheda looked at Telouet and saw his own thoughts reflected in the slave's dark eyes.

Unharmed and walking wounded, they will be going ahead of Daish men, to face whatever peril lies to the south.

He glanced at the fire but it was still blazing merrily, oblivious of his burning desire to read what counsel might emerge from its ashes.

Atoun's burly figure caught Kheda's eye. The warrior was standing with Jatta and a Chazen shipmaster from one of the heavy triremes, scratching something in the sand with a stick.

Telouet came to stand beside him. 'There's a man with the sense to see this danger weighs heavier in the scales than any concerns about keeping the secrets of his domain's seaways.'

'As soon as we're done here, we need to meet with Jatta and Atoun, and whoever Chazen Saril deems worthy among his shipmasters. We'll take four ships south. We need to decide where best to set the rest, to be sure of the earliest possible warning of any move north by these foes.'

'And to discourage any fleeing Chazen who think they might escape notice long enough to dig themselves into a new home,' scowled Telouet.

'We dare not spread our resources too thinly,' Kheda reminded his faithful slave. 'If we're to drive these people out, we'll need to take a substantial force when we make our main attack.'

So as to have enough men to finish the task, if magic rips the rest to rags of sodden flesh or burns them to charred bones.

'It'll be no easy task feediîg a domain's full force gathered so late in the dry season,' Telouet muttered. 'Where will you muster them? The rains ave due any time after the Greater Moon shows itself; we can't risk losinç half our ships if a squall hits them on a bad shore.'

Will allying myself with Chazen be the right course to protecting my people or am I letting myself be carried off by a current I should have steered well clear of, to be wrecked on an unseen reef? Was Chazen attacked merely on account of lying southernmost in the Archipelago or is there some darker reason for this disaster befalling Saril?

'That's burned enough, isn't it?' The other warlord's voice startled Kheda from his thoughts.

He was surprised to see how quickly the fire had died.

'If we use gloves,' he said cautiously.

Telouet handed him a pair pulled from his belt, heavy leather reinforced with metal plates to foil a slashing sword.

'I don't have any.' Saril looked down at his hands before gazing around as if expecting his lost slave to appear with such things.

'I'll go first.' Kheda wasn't sorry to seize that opportunity. 'You can borrow these.'

Drawing on the thick gloves, he scooped a double handful of charred wood and feathery ash from the edge of the still-smouldering fire, taking a moment to judge the wind before flinging the ashes in a wide arc. In the corner of his eye, he saw all activity down the beach had stopped.

Chazen Saril backed away. Kheda stripped off the gloves and thrust them at him. 'You must throw before we look for signs.'

The Chazen warlord drew them on reluctantly. 'We're both in this together, I suppose.'

Kheda fixed him with a hard look. 'That remains to be seen, as much as anything else, don't you think?'

Saril gathered dying embers between his hands. Heaving a sigh, he tossed the blackened fragments out across the white sand, face tense with apprehension. 'Well? What do you see?'

Kheda walked slowly round the scatter of ash and cinder, searching for some familiar outline, some shape or shadow. 'Is that a sword?'

'More like wishful thinking,' Saril replied dubiously. 'Could that be the arc of a bow?'

'No, not with so many breaks in the line,' Kheda said with regret.

Saril began a slow circuit of the soiled sand, bending to peer more closely from time to time. Coming back to Kheda, he shook his head, bemused and defensive at one and the same time. 'I cannot read anything clearly. I must be too tired, too dazed by all that's happened to be properly attuned to the portents.'

Kheda was still intent on studying the ashes. 'Can that be a snake or a sea serpent?' He squatted down to draw a finger around the shape he was seeing.

Saril gave it a perfunctory glance. 'Not crooked at that angle.'

'There must be something to see.' Kheda looked up at him exasperated. 'Some representations of the heavenly bodies, the symbols of season and reason, the arcane forms of the various domains. Tell me what you see,' he demanded.

'Confusion,' Saril answered slowly.

'Where?' Kheda looked down at the scatter of ash and sand. 'For all of us? Or just for Chazen?'

'I don't mean a portent of confusion.' Saril stared down at the sand, face slack with fear. 'All I see is confusion. I can't trace any patterns, read any guidance. This is just,' he struggled for words, 'meaningless.'

'No.' Kheda set his jaw. 'There will be a meaning in this, if only we can read it.'

'What is a portent?' Saril asked suddenly.

'A sign arising from all that is and has been, that may guide us for the future.' Kheda couldn't keep a weary sarcasm out of his voice.

'Chazen Shas taught me to think of a forest tree, that can be fallen, the whole decaying yet the broken branches taking root, nourishing new shoots. He said all portents are rooted in the past, coming to bloom in our hands, that we may see the seeds of the future.' Saril looked at Kheda, face haunted. 'But there has never been magic used here, not within the whole memory of my domain. The records of our observatory towers reach back past a hundred cycles of the most distant jewels through the heavens, those that take years to pass between one arc of the heavens and the next. How can the past show us the future when we're faced with something that has never been part of our past, left no trace?' Just as Kheda thought hysteria was going to overwhelm the southern warlord, Saril broke off and stared at him, aghast. 'I believe there's something else working its ill influence here. Didn't your father warn you how thoroughly magic corrupts the natural order? I am very much afraid that the miasma already clouds our auguries. That's why there's nothing to see here!'

'Then how are we to know what to do for the best?' cried Kheda before he could stop himself. He took a long slow breath. 'No matter. We'll just have to go south, as I said before. We'll have to see what we're facing with our own eyes.'

Chapter Four

The colour of this water's more like a river than the sea. It doesn't even have waves, it's so confined in this maze of mud and rock and oh, what I wouldn't give for some clean salt air, instead of this stifling stink.

Kheda hastily suppressed that thought before he inadvertently made any kind of wager with the future. 'Is this a course Cai's ever sailed before?'

'We've neither of us been in these waters.' Jatta shook his head, keeping his eyes fixed on the gap between two dusty islands lying half south ahead. 'We're well off the usual trade channels.' The shipmaster had his red route book absently clutched in one hand.

Kheda looked past the Scorpion's prow to the stern of Saril's fast trireme, the Horned Fish, a precise two ship's lengths ahead, thanks to Jatta's expert guidance. 'Is it evidence of his good faith, to show us these byways?'

'He has little enough to lose.' Jatta sounded noncommittal. 'I'll warrant heavy triremes will be ready to stare us down, if we try coming this way once he's back in his compound again.'

'You'll be making your notes on these seaways though?' enquired Kheda innocently.

'I'd be remiss in my duty to the Daish domain if I didn't.' Jatta's wicked smile belied his lofty tone. 'And a little skiff on a moonlit night can generally find a quiet channel to slip past a heavy trireme.'

'Which might be useful under some different turn of the heavens,' allowed Kheda.

If not for us, maybe for Sirket in some unforeseen future. Remember what Daish Reik told you at much the same age as he is now. 'Never assume that any situation mill remain as it is, no matter how long it has resisted the twists of fate.' Are we truly going to find ourselves facing magic here, in the face of all expectation?

Jatta turned a serious face to Kheda. 'Have we left our own ships ready to chase off any Chazen ships using this panic as excuse to spy out our seaways?'

'I had the signals sent before we left the Hyd Rock, and explicit orders to Janne Daish.' Kheda glanced back past the Scorpion's sternpost to Atoun's heavy triremes, Saril's two vessels leading them on. 'Besides, if we can win Chazen at least a foothold back in his own domain with a rapid strike, his people will have no choice but to retreat to their own waters.'

'Do we know how many of these invaders hold this place?' Jatta was studying an island just coming into view. It was no great size but boasted the conical peak of a fire mountain rising stark and grey above thickly forested slopes. Knot trees reached down to the water and beyond, the solid ground fringed by swamps of tangled grey roots lapped by sluggish seas.

'According to everything Atoun can determine, only a small force came this far east. Chazen Saril says they will surely be keeping to this one island. It's the only land in this reach with year-round springs of water.'

I sincerely hope the assurances of the Chazen men are trustworthy. Most particularly in reporting no suspicion of magic hereabouts.

'Chazen Saril's helmsman had better know where he's taking us.' Jatta looked at a confused cluster of little islets with disfavour. 'Some of these channels are so narrow and shallow a shoal of real horned fishes would be swimming in single file.'

'There'll be scant landing, from what I hear.' Cai adjusted the Scorpion's course as signal flags fluttered from the Horned Fish's stern platform.

'So once we've killed these invaders, we have only the one beach to guard against any more of them,' Kheda said bracingly.

'That's Atoun's task, killing and guarding.' Seeing the Horned Fish slow, Jatta looked down the gangway and waved to the rowing master. The piper drew out his note and the Scorpion obediently loitered in the strait. Baffled by the tree-smothered islands in all directions, the currents made little headway against the rowers' determination.

Kheda raised a hand in salute as the first of the heavy triremes passed the Scorpion. Atoun, unmistakable on the stern platform, raised his naked sword in salute. One of the Chazen ships passed on their other flank, the shipmaster rising from his seat to sweep a low bow to Kheda. As Kheda inclined his head in recognition, he saw Saril at the stern of the Horned Fish, naked blade in his hand, directing the heavy triremes with urgent gestures as they surged past.

'He's going ashore?' Jatta was astonished.

'It's his domain that's been invaded,' shrugged Kheda, impassive.

'It's not the place of warlords to get themselves killed in skirmishes like common swordsmen,' Telouet growled. 'Hasn't he heard enough poets' laments to know that?'

'I don't suppose many decent poets bother coming this far south,' commented Jatta with faint derision.

'I doubt he'll go ashore. He's got no armour for one thing.' Kheda saluted Chazen Saril who was still wearing the remnants of his bedraggled finery.

The heavy triremes laden with swordsmen passed both the Horned Fish and the Scorpion, leaving the two fast ships blocking the seaway, ready to foil any escape by the unknown invaders.

'You'd have had the sense to find yourself a hauberk, even if I wasn't there to lead you by the hand,' Telouet snorted.

'Keep such thoughts to yourself when Chazen Saril's within earshot,' Kheda remarked mildly. 'Or he really will demand I have you flogged.'

'And refusal would cause such unwelcome offence.' Jatta spared Telouet an irreverent grin.

'There's the landing.' Cai pointed to a stretch of dank grey sand barely visible between the bigger ships.

The Scorpion's archers and swordsmen stood on the bow platform and side decks, alert to any danger from the lesser islets that all but enclosed this anchorage. Here and there a sheer cliff of black rock rose from the shadowed seas but, for the most part, dark green knot trees with their stubby, fleshy leaves came right to the water's edge. There was no sign of movement among the twistud grey branches, and scant breeze cooled the sweat on Kheda's forehead. A scent of decay hung heavy in the air, which hummed with the chirrups of countless, nameless insects.

With rapid strokes, the heavy triremes were turning stern on to the beach, steering oars raised out of harm's way.

'Invaders,' hissed Jatta as they all saw some movement on the sand.

With a rush that drowned out his words, the heavy triremes drove for the shore. They grounded hard, barely still before armoured men poured down the stern ladders, plunging through the waist-deep water, swords drawn. Dark-skinned men erupted from the tree line, howling wordless, meaningless cries.

The hair on Kheda's neck rose. 'They sound like beasts.'

'Let them die like beasts,' said Telouet fervently.

'Indeed.' Kheda heard the savage howling broken by screeches of pain with vengeful satisfaction.

'Are they breaking?' Jatta was watching the greater contingent of archers that had been gathered on the Horned Fish. They were sending a storm of arrows across the beach, heavier than a rainy-season squall.

'I can't see.' Kheda ran lightly along the Scorpion's landward-side deck to the bow platform, Telouet at his heels. Kheda's spirits rose at the better view of the carnage ashore. 'It's true,' he marvelled. 'They're only using wooden clubs and spears.'

He pointed as Chazen and Daish blades flashed in the sunlight, cutting down the shrieking savages.

'Which can still crack a skull or skewer a man like a roasting fowl.' Telouet scanned the shore, keeping himself between Kheda and any unseen, unanticipated threat. 'And we don't know they've no slings or arrows of their own. Get behind the bowpost, my lord.'

'They're the ones being skewered.' Doing as Telouet bade him, Kheda nevertheless saw invader after invader fall to ruthless sword blows. The Daish warriors weren't even having to call on the skills honed by years of training, with no armour to foil, no razor-edged blades opposing them, ready to punish any errors of timing. A second wave of yelling men came charging out of the trees but arrows felled half before they joined battle with the steel-clad line of swordsmen now advancing up the beach.

'Let's hope we take back every island as easily as this one,' said Telouet with satisfaction.

'It's not won yet.' Apprehension kept a tight grip on Kheda's guts. 'Let's hope we don't suddenly find ourselves facing magic'

'What's that?' Telouet started at some commotion on the Horned Fish's stern platform, everyone pointing to the shore and shouting.

Kheda's heart missed a beat when he saw what was happening. 'It's Chazen's own islanders!'

'Come out from their sanctuaries,' approved Telouet with a spreading grin. 'They'll want to play their part in taking back their homes from these despoilers.'

'They've got them caught between a storm and a windward shore now.' Kheda shook his head slowly. 'This is a slaughter.'

'Good,' said Telouet robustly.

Fisherman slashed at the savages with boathooks and fishing poles. Those used to tilling the soil swung hoes and rakes. Hunters carried the broad curved blades that they used for hacking through underbrush and tore into the naked backs and legs of these unforeseen foemen. Chazen islanders who'd arrived empty-handed picked up wooden spears fallen from nerveless fingers and thrust them to deadly effect. The clamour on the beach rose to a new pitch of ferocity until Atoun blew a throbbing blast on his horn. A tense hush fell pierced only by groans of agony.

Kheda saw Chazen Saril already beckoning to a row-boat creeping cautiously out from beneath a fringe of swamp trees. 'Telouet, we're going ashore.'

'My lord.' The slave didn't bother trying to argue the point, following his master back to the stern platform.

Chazen Saril waved up at Kheda from the little boat. 'My lord Daish! Let us visit our victory together!'

'Nice of him to share the credit,' muttered Telouet. 'When we brought five times his warriors to the party.'

'Rekha Daish will make him pay what he owes us.' Kheda followed Telouet deftly down the Scorpion's stern ladder to join Chazen Saril in the rowboat.

As they approached the shore, the little vessel nudged aside bodies bobbing in the sluggish wavelets, blood vanishing in the silty water. They looked as if they'd been savaged by wild dogs; arms and bellies ripped open, gashes gaping in ruined faces.

Train your men as the most ferocious swordsmen and your domain will be protected. It will also be more at risk, because all such men want to do is fight, while you doing your duty as their warlord means they seldom get the chance. A ruler's life is full of paradoxes.

Telouet was marvelling at the corpses' scant loincloths and few paltry ornaments of feathers and paint. 'What kind of fool goes into battle naked as a newborn pup?'

Kheda shot him a hard look. 'A man who believes he has something more powerful to rely on than leather and steel.'

'But there was no fire.' Chazen Saril was looking confused. 'There was so much fire, before.'

Eager hands reached out to draw the rowboat high on to the shore so that both warlords could step out on to dry land. Chazen and Daish warriors pressed close, swords still drawn.

'Go, speak to your people.' Kheda caught Saril by the elbow and turned him towards a slightly built man who stood wringing his hands anxiously. 'Find out just what else we might be facing. Telouet, let's see what the wounded have to tell us.'

With his slave close by, Kheda hurried along the shore where the Chazen islanders and those who'd come to rescue them were dispatching fallen wild men with ruthless efficiency.

'Wait,' Kheda commanded curtly as he saw a Daish sword raised above an invader felled by a blow that had left his knees a ruin of white bone in a mess of torn flesh now blackened with flies, his lifeblood soaking into the dry ground.

'It's all very well remembering your training,' Telouet commented to the Daish swordsman. 'But when a man's not wearing a hauberk, why not just run him through?'

'True enough.' The Daish warrior smiled ruefully.

The dying savage thrashed from side to side, scrabbling for some weapon. He tried to throw sand into the Daish men's faces but his strength failed him and his arm fell back. Telouet scowled and planted a heavy foot on the savage's wrist, nodding to the swordsman to do the same.

'Who are you? Do you understand me? Do you know who I am?' Kheda crouched down beside the invader.

'He doesn't look barbarian,' said Telouet, puzzled.

'Not like any northerner, certainly,' agreed Kheda. Though, similar as his features might be to any Chazen or Daish man on the shore, this wild man was taller than most Aldabreshi by half a head, even the coastal people of the largest islands who tended to top hill dwellers by much the same measure. On the other hand, he was darker-skinned than even the people of the remotest heights.

'What's that in his hair?' Telouet prodded cautiously at the man's head with the tip of his sword. Even with his strength visibly failing the man tried to twist away, spitting at the blade.

'Paint of some kind?' Kheda couldn't tell if the savage's hair was inclined to curl like a hill dweller's or fall straighter, more like those with coastal blood, since it was caked solid with some thick red substance. 'Or just mud?'

The man writhed weakly, muttering something with harsh defiance.

'Does that sound like any tongue you've ever heard, any dialect from some distant reach of the Archipelago?' Kheda looked up at Telouet and the Daish swordsman.

'No, my lord.' Both men shook baffled heads.

'I've never heard the like,' Kheda admitted. 'Nor seen the like.' He stood and looked down at the dying man struggling for breath. His ribs rose and fell beneath a crudely daubed pattern of red and white discoloured with stains and sprays of drying blood. 'All right. Put him out of his misery.'

As Telouet's sword thrust ended the wild man's torment, Kheda looked around the beach. Beneath their raucous paints, the next corpse and a wounded man just beyond looked remarkably similar to the body at his feet. 'Wherever these people come from, they don't get much new blood, do they? They look close as brothers.' Kheda turned from the sight of a ruthless islander smashing the wounded man's skull with an oar shaft. 'What exactly were they using for weapons?'

Telouet bent to strip the body between them. 'That spear's no more than a fire-hardened spike of wood. This took a bit more making though.' He picked up a heavy club of coarse-grained hardwood with sharpened flakes of black stone embedded in it, blood and hair caught among them.

'Do you recognise the wood?' Kheda took the club and turned it this way and that, mystified.

'I can't tell lilla wood from nut palm, my lord. And this must have been what he called a knife.' Telouet pulled a blade of sharpened black stone from a crudely stitched leather scabbard tied to the dead man's brief leather loincloth.

'So how have these people put nigh on an entire domain to flight?' Kheda gave the black stone knife a cursory glance and tossed it down on the sand. 'Atoun!'

'My lord.' The heavyset warrior came running at the summons. Sweat ran in fat drops down his face to disappear into his grizzled beard. There was gore on his leggings and splashed across his sword arm and flies hovered greedily around his bloodied sword.

'What injuries have we suffered?' demanded Kheda.

'Our men took no worse than a few cuts and bruises. A few of Chazen's were caught by surprise, but they're weary and nervous besides,' Atoun allowed grudgingly. 'A couple of the islanders had their skulls split, a few won broken arms for their pains.'

'How did these wild men fight?' Kheda moved to allow two grim-faced islanders to drag the corpse from between them, the body thrown on to an untidy pile of slack limbs and lolling heads.

'Like madmen.' Atoun's grimace mixed bemusement with a degree of unease. 'No armour, weapons no better than a child's plaything and they came at us howling like heat-crazed hounds. Couldn't they see we'd cut them down like sailer stalks?'

'Naked or not, they could still overwhelm us, if they have as many men as stalks in a sailer field.' Kheda walked over to the heap of hated dead and frowned at a corpse with bloody froth gathered around his mouth. 'Gloves please, Telouet.' Pulling them on, he drew his dagger and used it to prise open the dead man's mouth, hooking out a chewed wad of fibrous pulp.

'What's that?' wondered Telouet.

Kheda raised the tip of his knife and sniffed cautiously. 'I don't recognise it but it smells pretty potent. Something to enrage, to dull pain? To drive men to a madness that carries them beyond fear of death?'

'Northern barbarians use drink and intoxicants to raise themselves to bloodlust,' commented Telouet.

'Then perhaps there is no magic, my lord,' said Atoun slowly. 'These apparitions come shrieking out of the night to attack the Chazen islanders, breaking heads and clubbing down anything in their path, throwing firebrands and maybe something like dreamsmokes to muddle their victims. Couldn't this talk of magic just be fear and fancy?'

Kheda shot him a stern glance. 'It wasn't some over-active imagination burned Olkai Chazen nigh to death.'

'But that could have been sticky fire,' said Telouet with cautious hope.

'Find me any scorched potsherd or scrap of naphtha cloth,' Kheda challenged. 'Find me anything needful for making such a weapon. In the meantime, let's see what tale Chazen Saril's people have to tell.'

He crossed the shore in rapid strides to join the other warlord, who was still talking to the village spokesman. 'Chazen Saril, what happened to your people here?'

'Much as befell the rest of us,' replied Saril grimly. 'These wild men came in the middle of the night, with fire bursting out of the empty air to burn the huts and storehouses while dust storms smothered any man of the village who tried to fight back. My people feared magic and fled.'

'We've seen no magic today.' Kheda said carefully. 'How is that?'

'The leader of the savages sailed west the day after their attack here.' Saril gestured vaguely towards the heart of his domain. 'He took most of his forces with him as well. He must have been the wizard.'

Perhaps, but what is it that you are not telling me? What is the secret hiding behind your eyes, Chazen Saril?

Kheda nodded slowly. 'Then we may hope, even if they have magic, there are none too many wizards to spread it around.'

Chazen Saril seized eagerly at this notion. 'Even the northern barbarians of the unbroken lands aren't overrun by their spell casters.'

'So we've taken the first step in reclaiming your domain, honoured lord,' Kheda congratulated Saril with a wide smile. 'You had better see if this island can offer any kind of accommodation appropriate to your dignity.'

'You think I'm staying?' Startled, Saril gaped. 'I didn't intend—'

'You there!' Telouet snapped his ringers at the wide-eyed village spokesman. 'Your lord requires a bath and a change of clothes. See to it!'

'It's time to take some care for appearances,' Kheda said in a low voice as the man scuttled away. 'You want to instil as much confidence in your people as possible when they start gathering here.'

'We will send signals north as soon as possible,' Atoun broke in. 'Make sure all your people know where to come.'

'You need armour,' Telouet added. 'And a personal attendant, my lord.'

'Indeed,' Kheda agreed. 'There must be someone among your swordsmen who can serve for the moment. As and when they arrive, you can choose a new body slave from those of your household who survived.'

'You are abandoning me and mine, Daish Kheda?' Chazen Saril stared belligerently at him. 'After this one paltry fight?'

'Not at all.' Kheda folded his arms and faced the plump man down. 'I am seeing you consolidate this first step to restoring you to your own.'

Saril's expression turned petulant. 'These mud islands scarcely sustain the people who live here. How are they to support the whole population of the domain?'

'I suggest, my lord, that we look to reclaim some more of your territory, to give everyone room to breathe,' Kheda retorted.

'How far is the next sizeable island? Might that make a more defensible position, offer a more fitting residence?' Even with Atoun's tone entirely respectful, there was no getting away from the impoliteness of that question.

So why aren't you indignant and demanding I chastise my impertinent underling? Why are you just chewing your lip and looking shifty, my lord of Chazen?

'Leave us.' Kheda waved Atoun and Telouet away with a curt hand and both men reluctantly retreated a short distance. 'Whatever you tell us of your domain's resources, whatever we learn of your seaways, Chazen Saril, I swear to you that I will not look to take undue advantage in our future dealings. Take whatever augury you like, to see my good faith on this.'

'With the miasma of magic all around us? What divination do you imagine will hold true? Oh I trust you; that's not my concern. The thing is, the next island we'd need to take, to be sure of holding this one—' Saril tugged at his tangled beard, not meeting Kheda's eyes.

'It holds some secret?' Kheda tried to be patient with the man.

'It holds my brothers,' snapped Saril abruptly.

'Oh.' Kheda kept his voice carefully neutral. 'And it's vital that we hold it? If we're to keep the invaders at bay in this reach of the domain?'

'Yes.' With another of his quicksilver changes of mood, Saril heaved a defeated sigh and caught up a broken spear shaft. He sketched a rough map in the sand. 'See how the currents run? If we hold that island, we can deny these invaders the rest of this reach.'

As long as they don't have magic to carry them over the waters heedless of such things.

Kheda nodded slowly. 'Do you know if the invaders have taken it?'

Saril flung the broken spear shaft away into the trees. 'It's all but certain.'

'Perhaps these invaders merely see the island's strategic value.' Kheda hesitated before continuing. 'Or is it possible that they have some deeper purpose in taking it? Could they know what they would find there?'

'Much good it will do them, even if this is all some insane pretence to cover up an attempt to cast me from my domain.' Chazen Saril's voice was hard and bitter. 'My father may have held back from killing my brothers outright but he decreed they should be gelded and blinded, their tongues slit. There were four. One killed himself soon after. Another died when an attack of break-bone fever turned to bleeding sickness in the rains three years since. Two remain.' Saril's eyes bored into Kheda's, searching for any reaction. 'Nameless.'

'Are these nameless housed separately or together?' Kheda asked dispassionately.

'They're held together, in a compound in the centre of the island.' Saril knelt to find a seashell. His hand hovered over the map scrawled in the sand before stabbing it with the white spiral. 'I believe you owe me a secret in turn. What does the Daish domain do with its surplus sons?'

'I will only speak for my father.' Kheda wasn't about to give away anything more than he had learned. 'Daish Reik's final decree offered my younger brothers the choice of death, or of castration and passing into my hands as zamorin slaves.'

'What did they choose?' demanded Saril.

'That is none of your concern.' It might be an open secret among Kheda's household that Rembit had been born of Daish Reik and his second wife Inril but everyone knew to keep their mouths shut. 'Your concern is retaking your domain from whoever these people are, spell casters from some unknown land or mere counterfeits, intent on setting up one of your crippled brothers as figurehead in your place.'

'I must consider what to do for the best before we make any more voyages.' Saril shook his head stubbornly. 'We must see to the dead here first. Their crimes warrant burning but that would make this beach a place of ill omen and this island has no other landing.'

And you could spin out such debates with yourself and your people to lose us any benefit accrued from the battle we've just won.

'Atoun!' Kheda snapped impatient fingers to summon his commander. Telouet came too. 'This is the next island we must take.' Kheda pointed at the map drawn in the sand. 'Ask the Chazen shipmasters for only such waymarks and warnings of currents as we will need to reach it safely'

'Do we know what forces to expect?' Atoun studied the map and pointed at the bleached white shell. 'Is that some stronghold?'

'A retreat for some afflicted unfortunates of the warlord's family,' Kheda said blandly. 'They do not suffer from anything contagious.'

Just the hereditary affliction of being born a son to a ruling lord.

'My lord Chazen Saril—'

Kheda turned ready to quell any ill-timed curiosity from Telouet but the slave was thinking about something else. 'We should be on our way to this next island before any burning of the dead. We don't want to raise an alarm for whoever awaits us with a column of smoke.'

'I don't know where we can burn them,' said Chazen Saril obstinately. 'Not so late in the dry season. We could set the whole island alight. I shall have to take time to consider this carefully.'

Kheda looked at the bodies piled up in ungainly heaps 'Have them taken to the mountaintop and thrown into the crater. They burn and your island is purified at one and the same time.'

Chazen Saril opened his mouth to protest but Telouet forestalled him.

'As you command, my lord.' The slave bowed low and turned to shout orders at the village spokesman.

'I'll be sure the ships are ready to depart.' Atoun's bow was more perfunctory, his mind already on the next assault.

'You lay a heavy burden on my people, Daish Kheda,' cried Saril angrily, jowls quivering. 'Hauling this many dead all the way up to the peak. You don't think this risks binding these invaders to this island? You don't fear the malice that brought these people here will now pour molten rock down on these defenceless forests? But now you've given your orders,' he concluded with grim satisfaction, 'I will not humiliate you by countermanding them. We will just have to wait, and for my own requirements to be met. I was about to set these people to setting up watch posts and fuelling beacons, so we might at least know if our retreat is cut off, when we set about this next conquest of yours.'

'I must consult with Jatta.' Kheda bit his tongue and walked away without ceremony.

Actually, Chazen Saril has a point there. It wasn't the most sensible thing to suggest, that the dead be thrown into the fire crater. 'Never make decisions in the heat of anger or the chill of shock.' Daish Reik is proved wiser than you yet again. Are you wise enough to meet this challenge? You may be wiser than Chazen Saril but that's not saying a great deal. Do you remember him being so prone to switching between fear and folly? What are you risking, for the Daish domain, fighting alongside a man ill prepared to meet the demands upon him?

As he crossed the beach, Telouet caught up with him. 'What now?

Kheda's pace didn't slacken. 'We drive these savages from this next island. The sooner we hand Chazen Saril a territory he has some chance of holding, the sooner we return home and ensure all his people go back to demand his protection. Summon a boat.'

Kheda stood aloof as Telouet hailed a skiff. Once aboard the Scorpion, Kheda claimed the shipmaster's seat to take the weight of the armour off his weary feet. Closing his eyes, he strove to calm himself, recalling the subtle exercises to relax his shoulders and back, arms and legs that Daish Reik's ever-faithful body slave Gaffin had taught him.

What was it he told you? 'Not as good as sleep, but good enough when there's no chance of sleep.' What else would he be telling you, him or Daish Reik? That you being irritated with Saril will only benefit your foes? Let the Chazen warlord see to his domains concerns. You address your own.

Some indeterminate time later, Kheda heard the shipmaster's step on the deck. He spoke without opening his eyes. 'Jatta, have we been given all the water we need? Are the men fed? We don't want to go into a fight and find half of them disabled by cramps.'

'It's all in hand, my lord,' Jatta assured him. 'And something's put a goad into Chazen Saril,' he added with some surprise.

Kheda opened his eyes at that.

'He's probably afraid we'll leave without him,' Telouet mocked. He handed Kheda a cup of water, sweet with a hint of purple berries. 'At least someone's found him some armour.'

Kheda saw Saril now wore a chainmail shirt and helm. The silver-chased helm didn't match the copper-ornamented plates of the hauberk but at least he looked a little more like a warlord. 'Where's Atoun? How soon will we be ready to sail?'

'The more delay, the more we lose any element of surprise,' agreed Telouet.

'We shouldn't be too much longer,' Jatta said comfortably.

The shipmaster's confidence was justified. The sun hadn't traversed much more of the heavenly compass by the time the modest fleet set their oars in the water with a determined crash. Kheda was still pacing the Scorpion's side decks through sheer impatience though.

'Come back to the stern, my lord.' Telouet spoke over the urgent note of the piper. 'We won't get there any faster if we have to stop and fish you out of the sea.'

The Scorpion's swordsmen and archers keeping watch on the trireme's upper level studiously avoided Kheda's eye.

'True enough.' Kheda walked carefully back down the length of the speeding ship, curbing a desire to signal the rowing master to order an ever-faster stroke.

If they spend the last of their strength now, they'll have nothing left to get you back to Daish waters, when the time comes to leave Chazen Saril to face whatever it is that's plaguing his domain. When the time comes to make sure the Daish islands are prepared to fight any such assault, be it magic or just drug-addled wild men.

The waters opened out into a major channel and the close-gathered fleet broke free of the islands tangled in their matted swamps and knot trees. The next islands were little more than scrub-covered hummocks in the distance, fringed with white sand behind crooked walls of coral. A fresh breeze blew away the last of the muddy smell that hung around the Scorpion.

Kheda and Telouet sat in the shelter of the sternposts, silent as the shipmaster and helmsman guided the long, lithe ship away from the vicious teeth of the reefs, the Horned Fish barely staying ahead of them. They soon passed the chain of barren islets and a larger stretch of land appeared ahead of them.

'That's it.' Kheda rose to his feet.

Telouet raised a signal flag on the sternpost and the heavy triremes fanned out either side of the lighter vessels carrying the two warlords. The rowing master walked the length of the gangway, lavish with his praise for the rowers. The bow master and the sail crew waited in the prow, ready to back the Scorpion's swordsmen and archers, alert for any enemy that might appear.

The Scorpion rounded a blunt-nosed headland to find a shallow cove protected by a sizeable reef breaking the sea into white foam. Pale sand gave way to short dusty grass dotted with tall nut palms. Their grey trunks rose in graceful sweeps, fringed fronds bleached yellow by the season waving in the breeze, their rustling echoing the susurration of the sea. Well spaced and with no brush to speak of beneath them, the trees offered nothing by way of cover to any lurking enemy.

'This is the landing the Horned Fish's shipmaster told me to make for,' Jatta told Kheda.

'Let's hope this is as easy a fight as the last one,' Telouet murmured fervently, one hand on a sword hilt.

'Can you see any movement?' Kheda took an unconscious pace forward.

'Nothing.' Telouet shook his head as he reached out to restrain his master with an arm across his chest.

'Perhaps the invaders never came here?' said Jatta dubiously.

Kheda shot him a sceptical glance. 'You'd pass up a clean, open island like this in favour of those stinking mires?'

'All depends what you're used to.' Jatta shrugged.

'What are these wild men used to?' Kheda wondered aloud. 'How will we ever know, if we cannot question any captives?

'Who needs to know?' Telouet was still watching the shore, trying to see beyond the palm trees into the darker green forest behind. 'All they need to know is they're not welcome here and we can tell them that plain enough without words.'

Cai and the heavy trireme helmsmen were making a cautious approach to avoid the merciless reef. Atoun and all the warriors waited impatiently, sliding down the stern ladders as soon as the ships reached the sheltered shallows, splashing through crystal-clear waters on to the brilliant sand, staying close together, swords at the ready. Archers on the side decks of the triremes stood alert to return a killing storm of barbed arrows for so much as a thrown stone.

No missiles appeared. No enemy appeared. The only sounds to rise above the crashing of the surf were the cheerful squawks of crookbeaks foraging among the palms. Atoun signalled this way and that. The warriors broke from their defensive knots and spread out. As they approached the gently curving trees, Kheda was irresistibly reminded of beaters on the hunt, flushing out forest deer and ground fowl that he and Sirket might down with swift arrows, while Rekha and Janne flew their proud hawks at lesser birds fleeing on the wing.

'Doesn't look as if there'll be much sport today,' he remarked to Telouet as Atoun raised a sheathed sword to indicate there was no more foe to be fought.

'Chazen Saril's keen to go ashore again.' Telouet pointed to the Horned Fish, which was approaching the shallows, Saril standing in the prow.

Keen to learn the fate of those who'd once been his brothers? Or looking to remove them once and for all from the domain's accounts?

Kheda considered his options. 'Let's join him. This domain has no great tradition of warfare so I'm not confident he's capable of meeting an unexpected enemy.'

Jatta had already given the rowing master the word and the rowers began turning the Scorpion stern on to the shore.

'My lord.' Telouet went down the ladder first to hold it firm for his master. Kheda hurried down the rope rungs and they waded ashore. Kheda saw his own well-hidden curiosity openly reflected in Telouet's expression.

'You are welcome to my shores.' Saril greeted him on the beach with an incredulous grin at odds with his formal words.

'I thank you for that grace.' Kheda was looking around as he gave the customary reply 'Atoun, is there no sign of these savages?'

'None.' The warrior shook his head.

'Perhaps they never came here after all,' suggested Saril with sudden hope.

'Perhaps they've come, got what they wanted and left.' Kheda fixed Saril with a meaningful look. 'We should visit this residence you keep here.'

'Very well.' Saril chewed his lower lip reluctantly. 'With just a small escort though.'

'Atoun, pick me a few good men to go looking inland,' Kheda ordered his commander. 'In the meantime, leave a solid guard for the ships and have the rest search the shoreline in both directions. Anyone who finds so much as a wild man's footprint is to raise a horn call.'

'If we're going inland, I'll scout out the path myself,' Atoun told him robustly. 'You wait here with Telouet and follow on when I tell you, my lord.'

'As you wish,' said Kheda mildly.

'You allow your people a great deal of latitude,' observed Chazen Saril, looking with disfavour at Atoun's back.

'As long as they earn it by doing their duty in exemplary fashion.' Kheda waited patiently as Atoun allotted tasks to his warriors to his satisfaction and then gathered a small detachment around himself, running along a path no more than a dry score in the turf beneath the nut palms, disappearing over a rise some little way inland.

Handpicked swordsmen came to ring Kheda and Saril, looking to Telouet for their orders.

'When we get the signal, lads,' he told them easily.

As he spoke, Atoun's familiar whistle floated up on the breeze and Kheda looked at Telouet. 'Well?'

'Everyone keep your eyes skinned or I'll peel your eyelids back with my belt knife.' With the other swordsmen on all sides, Telouet walked a few paces ahead of the two warlords, swords drawn, his face hard and dangerous.

'I haven't seen my brothers, not since—' Saril broke off, drawing the sword he'd got from somewhere. Sunlight wavered on the blade.

'You cannot blame yourself for being eldest born.' Kheda hefted his own weapon, settling it in his hand. 'And if your brothers suspected what Chazen Shas had planned, they could have fled when he lay on his deathbed.'

'They all suspected the old snake had other plans for me.' Saril surprised him with a sour bark of laughter. 'Oldest living child of the name inherits but my grandfather made sure Chazen Shas took up his sword with a deathbed decree that his body slave execute the old snake's elder brother and sisters.'

'You thought your father might do the same?' Kheda asked with a qualm.

So much for envying Saril his undemanding life.

'I've no idea,' said Saril grimly. 'As soon as I knew for certain that the old snake was truly dying, I poisoned his slave's next meal and forbade anyone else to attend him.'

And then did you hasten the end of a man whose stars were already marked for death?

Kheda couldn't ask that so concentrated on the path ahead. Beyond the rise, the brush began to thicken, palms left behind on the shore, the path curling between stands of tandra trees. The litter of last season's seedpods lay undisturbed in silky drifts of white fibres, the only footprints those of the hook-toothed hogs who had torn the pods apart in search of the dark oily seeds. Away from the shore's breezes, the air was hot and stifling with the scent of the forest. Kheda wiped sweat from his face. 'It doesn't look as if anyone's been through here recently.'

'Unless they were careful not to leave a trace, looking to surprise us.' At Telouet's nod, the warriors on either side began cutting down the undergrowth, startling beetles and crickets into whirring flight from the berry bushes. Birds overhead shrieked their indignation and bounced from fig trees and ironwood saplings whose buttress roots already promised the might of their full growth. A few broken stumps showed where such giants had fallen, letting bright sunlight into the dappled shadows to the delight of dancing sapphire butterflies.

No one comes here, not even to harvest such valuable timber? Surely someone would be making sure these despoiled and discarded men were still secure, or better yet, safely dead of natural causes that would not threaten the peace of the domain.

'Whip lizard!' A startled shout came from one of Atoun's men up ahead and everyone stopped. The swordsmen who'd been cutting down the undergrowth on either side quickly drew back to surround Kheda and Chazen Saril.

'Remember,' warned Telouet, dropping the point of his blade to foil anything rushing in at knee level. 'Even a half-grown whip lizard can knock your clean off your feet.

'And their bite festers worse than any other.' Kheda looked from side to side as they advanced, more slowly this time.

'There!' Saril's sword shot out to point at a grey scaly back brushing feathery leaves aside, stirring the heady scent of perfume bark. 'But there were no whip lizards here,' he said, puzzled.

'They can swim, you know.' Kheda took a firm grip on his own weapon. 'There, by that red cane!'

This time the lizard was plain for all to see, standing arrogantly on the path. Body as long as a man's, it squatted low on four stumpy legs, loose belly skin rumpled like a dirty sack. Plate-like scales on its back met in ridges that ran from the blunt snout over its head and all the way to the end of a heavy tail almost as long again as its body. It hissed at them, forked tongue flickering over teeth like stained knives, yellow and pink skin inside its mouth startling against the mottled brown of its leathery hide.

'Ware behind!' Telouet shouted.

Kheda turned to see another scaly beast scurry across the path. When he looked back to the front, the one by the red cane had disappeared. 'We go on,' he nodded to Telouet. 'All of you, be ready to get out of the way if one of them tries rushing us.'

'They're wary of swords for the most part but they'll mob a downed man,' Telouet confirmed grimly.

'We could just go back to the beach.' Saril was trying to see where the one to their rear had gone.

Kheda turned him with a rough hand. 'Don't you want to know if you're going to be facing some rival for your sword this time next year?'

It wouldn't be the first time conspirators within a warlord's own compound encompassed his death and then handily produced a child allegedly born to some hapless brother who'd been literally cut out of the succession by being made zamonn.

'Lizard!' Telouet hacked at a massive beast charging across in front of him. Honed sharp enough to slice through falling silk, his sword bit deep into the lizard's back.

Ahead, a frantic horn call sounded from Atoun's scouts. Brassy blasts from the troops who'd gone to search the shore answered but to his horror Kheda realised these weren't promises of hurrying aid but new alarms being raised. Atoun's men came running back down the path, crashing through the undergrowth. They had nearly joined Kheda's men when whip lizards appeared on all sides, blocking the path, hissing and rearing up on their short rear legs.

'I didn't know they could do that,' gaped Saril.

'They can't,' protested Kheda.

Then he realised the animal's legs were lengthening, straightening, the tail behind narrowing. The beast was now standing like a man. The lizard's forelegs grew and twisted, thick black claws curved like a hawk's beak spread out into a lethal fan. Its head rolled on its shoulders as some convulsion racked the beast.

When it straightened up, Kheda saw a deadly intelligence in the inky eyes. 'Atoun!'

Too late. As the astounded warrior stared at the apparition before him, the lizard slashed at his face, claws ripping away half his cheek. Atoun screamed and Kheda ran forward, sword raised. The lizard seized Atoun by the shoulders, savaging him, foul maw closed on his face, muffling his agonised cries, growling deep in its bestial throat. Sword forgotten, Atoun's gloved hands raked ineffectually at its harsh hide.

More of the hideously changed lizards erupted from the undergrowth, knocking down Chazen and Daish swordsmen alike, brutally savaging the fallen. Kheda hacked at the one crushing Atoun's skull; the warrior's struggles in the monster's repugnant embrace growing feeble. His sword glanced off the animal. Cursing, he swung again but though his eyes told him the blow was true, the blade hit nothing but empty air. Both hands on his sword hilt, Kheda put all his strength into a stroke that should have sliced the monster in half. The weapon skidded away from the beast's shoulder like a blunted blade glancing off armour. Then Kheda saw a shimmer around the animal, like heat haze rising from sun-scorched sand.

'My lord!' Telouet sprang forward to intercept a lesser lizard intent on seizing Kheda from the side. The beast backed away from Telouet's twin blades, hissing all the while, circling for any chance to attack.

The lizard that had killed Atoun whirled around, tossing back its head and gulping down the ragged mouthful it had torn from his face.

'Back to the beach, my lord!' As the monstrous beast threw Atoun's limp body full at Kheda in a spray of blood and grey matter, Telouet stepped forward to sweep the corpse aside with his swords. The lizard came on, clawed feet digging into the blood-soaked leaves, vicious talons questing forward.

'Quick as we can.' Kheda retreated. 'Stay together, back to back.'

A scream behind him scored his nerves like the scrape of metal on marble.

'They're between us and the shore!' Saril's voice cracked with consternation and Kheda smelt the acrid heat of piss as fear got the better of someone's bladder.

'Telouet?' He was still watching the lizard smeared with Atoun's lifeblood, slowly advancing towards him, blunt head swinging this way and that. 'Has anyone drawn blood from these nightmares?'

'Before they changed. Not now they're walking,' Telouet snarled with frustration.

Kheda threatened the lizard stalking him with his sword. It recoiled a little, swaying head wary. 'They don't seem to have realised that and they look none too keen to have their precious hides sliced up. I think, if we all keep our heads, we'll get to the beach.' Behind him someone was weeping ragged tears of sheer terror. 'We don't turn our backs, we don't run or they'll be on us in a heartbeat. Shoulder to shoulder, keep your swords ready. If they get in among us we're all dead.'

Everyone began moving, huddling close.

'That's right,' Kheda approved. 'A steady pace will get us there soon enough.'

'No!' One of the Chazen men suddenly broke; shoving those either side of him away, stride lengthening as he ran for the shore.

Two lizards sprang on him, then a third, crushing him beneath their weight with an audible crack of ribs. One monster bent over the struggling swordsman, forefeet planted on his chest, snarling defiance at the other lizards. One retreated but only far enough to seize a booted foot in its vicious jaws, teeth slicing through the leather, blood oozing through the holes. The other used clumsy claws to lift the screaming man's hand to its gaping mouth, fastening on his forearm, heedless of his armoured vambraces. The first lizard hissed its outrage but both ignored it, biting down and backing away, heads twisting and pulling until the swordsman's shoulder and hip joints gave way with a crack even louder than his unbearable, inhuman shrieking. Kheda's stomach heaved.

'Faster. Let's get past them while they're distracted.'

The three lizards pulled the Chazen man out of his armour in broken bits, tearing him into gobbets of flesh and bone, feasting with repellent crunching noises.

Kheda glanced back to see the lizard that had killed Atoun still following them, eyes flickering from the men to the bright swords that the animal it had once been had feared.

How long before you decide you're not that animal any more?

'We're nearly at the shore.'

As Telouet spoke, Kheda realised the dense canopy of the forest was giving way to the lighter airiness of the palm groves. He didn't dare look away from the predatory lizard relentlessly pursuing him. 'Saril! What's happening on the beach? Have the boats been attacked here? Is there any sign of the other scouting parties?'

'There's a lot of wounded,' yelled Saril. 'But I don't think the boats have taken any damage. I can't see any fighting.'

'Mind your step,' Telouet warned.

Kheda glanced down to see white sands encroaching on the turf. He looked up again instantly to see where the horrible lizard might be. To his astonished relief, he saw the monster halt, the other hideous lizards spreading out along the fringes of the underbrush. 'Telouet,' he said warily. 'I don't think they're going to leave the trees.'

'Let's not die on account of a wrong guess, my lord.' Telouet and the Daish swordsmen stayed close around him.

Saril couldn't resist the lure of the Horned Fish't promise of sanctuary. 'Chazen, with me!' He ran towards the trireme, loose chainmail jingling, and ill-fitting helm tumbling to the sand.

'Scum-sucking fool!' spat Telouet.

'Let's look to our own skins.' Kheda tensed but the lizards did not pursue the fleeing men, melting away into the shadowy depths of the forest instead.

'My lord Daish!' Confused cries of welcome and appeal broke out behind Kheda.

'Telouet, keep an eye out for those creatures.' He turned to see the other swordsmen who'd been sent to reconnoitre the shore gathered around the beached triremes. Many were wounded, some were almost certainly dead, lying still where their frantic comrades had laid them down only to find their efforts had gone for naught.

Chazen men clustered around their warlord. Saril slowed to a reluctant halt.

'What happened?' Kheda demanded of one of Atoun's trusted seconds.

Breathless, the man was standing half bent, hands on his thighs. 'It was birds, only not birds,' he gasped, muddy grey with shock. 'Birds as big as men, walking like men—'

'Yora hawks?' Kheda shook his head in disbelief.

The only place any man living sees a Yora hawk is in the constellation that bears its name! But why not? If magic has come to these islands, why not massive birds not seen for countless generations? Can wizards piece them back together from their scattered bones, put meat back into the great broken eggs that children amuse themselves finding?

'No, my lord.' The swordsman got a grip on himself. 'Cinnamon cranes but grown huge, big enough to kick a man down and then rip out his eyes with their beaks.'

'It was raider crabs down there.' Another warrior pointed down the beach with a shaking, bloodied hand. His voice rose perilously close to panic. 'Big as hounds, breaking swords in their claws, cutting off feet clean through leather.'

'It's magic, plain enough.' Telouet looked shaken.

'Well, we all know what to do about that, don't we?' Kheda's pronouncement won him a moment of stunned silence. He continued before anyone else could speak. 'We burn this island. We set fires all along the shore and ring this foulness in flames. Back to the boats!'

As the grateful men splashed their way to safety, Saril blocked Kheda's path. 'What do you think you are doing, giving such an order!'

'Chazen Saril, your domain is afflicted with sorcery!' Kheda stared at him. 'We will burn this place together or I will leave you to your fate!'

'You have to give me sanctuary, me and mine.' Saril was wringing his hands helplessly. 'My domain is lost!'

Kheda barely restrained himself from slapping the man's fat face. 'It is not lost till you give in and I will not let you do that, you spineless worm, not for Olkai's sake, not for the sake of all who look to you, and all who look to me to keep some bulwark between Daish and this evil. I will see you safely back to those swamp islands and you can hold them or die at the hands of my swordsmen if you flee north.'

'We cannot fight these sorceries,' wailed Saril.

'Don't fight, just endure.' Kheda seized his shoulders in merciless hands and shook him bodily. 'Dig yourself a hole in the hills and hide in it if you must. I will rally the domains of the whole southern Archipelago; we are all threatened by this evil. We will bring you aid and see these invaders driven out, whatever their magics. You must do your part. Rally your people; find out exactly where these invaders have landed, where they are gathered in strength, most of all where their wizards may be. Send word as soon and as often as you have it!' Shoving the other warlord aside, he splashed through the shallows to the Scorpion's ladders.

Jatta peered down from the stern platform, face twisted with bemused concern. 'Where's Atoun?'

Kheda hauled himself aboard. 'Dead. Get us a little way off shore and then signal our ships to break out their sticky fire. This place is rotten with magic and I want it well alight before Chazen Saril can argue the point. We circle this island and set fires wherever we can—'

He broke off as a blazing sphere arced through the air, bright even in the full light of day. Someone aboard one of the heavy triremes hadn't waited for orders. The urn of burning, clinging paste shattered against the base of a palm tree, flames spattering in all directions, setting the dry and dusty fronds of neighbouring trees alight in an instant. Cheers rose from all the ships, even the Horned Fish where Saril was gesturing at Kheda in fruitless objection. As the Scorpion's sail crew and her contingent of swordsmen worked to rig their own catapult on the bow platform, a second blistering missile went hurtling ashore from the heavy trireme, followed by another and another.

Jatta studied the incipient inferno. 'The winds should work in our favour.'

'Let's call that a good omen, then,' said Kheda grimly.

'Let's just hope the rains hold off.' Telouet looked to the south and east. The strain in his face lessened a little as he saw the blue horizon was still clear of the dark lines of rainy-season clouds.

Kheda watched the fire spreading deeper into the island and consuming the brush and trees parched to tinder by the long dry season with startling alacrity.

Let those unnatural monsters choke on the smoke. Let them burn alive and suffer ten times the agonies they inflicted on Atoun and the others.

Despite the intense heat, shivers racked him, sweat chill on his body, taking him quite by surprise.

'My lord.' Telouet was at his side, a bottle in one hand. 'Drink something.'

Kheda gulped the sweet juice gratefully and the moment passed.

'Was that magic, my lord?' asked Jatta warily. 'What the men were saying?'

'What else could it be?' Kheda shook his head.

'What do we do now?' Jatta's voice was tight with urgent apprehension.

'We see Chazen Saril back safe to that island with the fire mountain where we proved these invaders can die like every other man,' Kheda replied firmly. He managed a curt laugh. 'Or die more easily than most, certainly quicker than anyone with the wit to put a mail shirt over his guts. It is for Chazen Saril to hold that and we'll send every Chazen man back to join their lord or they'll die at Daish hands. I mean it. That should slow the advance of these invaders.' He hesitated for a moment before continuing. 'We'll offer their women and children some limited sanctuary though; we can't send them to face such abominations. Then we send out messenger birds.' He lifted his voice, so that everyone close by could hear him, rowing master, ship's swordsmen and archers. 'We send courier ships, beacons, curse it, signal arrows if we have to. We raise the alarm right across the Archipelago. Once Ritsem, Ulla and Redigal know what's happening down here, they will fight with us. No matter how many men these savages can summon, no matter what their wizards' magics, they cannot withstand such might brought to bear against them.'

'As you command, my lord!' Telouet's roar prompted a muted cheer of agreement.

Kheda smiled confidently to hide his own reservations.

And just how are you going to get the domains to fight side by side, when such an alliance has never so much been mooted, never mind sealed? Even if you can do such a thing, just what are you going to do against magic that can make monsters out of the very birds and beasts around you?

Chapter Five

'So what are you going to do? I haven't got all day.' The speaker was a short man, clean-chinned and bald as an egg. His skin was tanned like fine leather and years of sun had carved deep creases around his dark and calculating eyes. He fixed the young man studying the metal wares he had on offer with a gimlet stare.

The youth picked up a small ewer and ran a curious finger over flowers and leaves bright silver against a black ground. 'What metal is this, the body of it, I mean?'

The trader paused in his open assessment of the youth's neat blue tunic, new cotton trousers and the modest silver chains around his neck and wrists. 'No one knows.' He shrugged, tunic of faded russet riding up on his muscular shoulders, black trousers dusty beneath. The belt that circled his firm waist was none so poor, a fine strap of scarlet leather set with gold Yora hawks' heads, rubies for their eyes. 'That's Jahal ware, traded up from the southeast. They keep their craft secrets closer than a clam's lips in that domain and few enough pieces float along to the likes of us.' He cracked a smile more predatory than friendly. 'Give me something worth my while and you can impress all your friends with it.'

Plainly tempted, the youth nevertheless set the little ewer down. 'I have nothing to offer that would be worth such a piece.'

The short man's face turned ugly. 'Then don't waste my time with your crab shit.'

The youth backed away, affronted, striding straight past the next trader who sat chuckling, shaded from the sun by the nut palms fringing the golden sand of the beach.

'Dev, it never ceases to amaze me how you make a living when you're so appallingly rude to everyone.'

'It keeps them keen.' The short man grinned, unrepentant, bending over the neatly trimmed square of hide that displayed his wares. He moved the ewer to a more prominent place among some small copper boxes beaten to a mottled shine. 'See anything you fancy, Bidric?' He paused to rub a finger mark from a silver incense burner shaped like a jungle fowl with the hem of his shabby tunic.

The other trader shrugged with elaborate unconcern. He was dressed with far more care than Dev, prosperous in green trews and tunic and, despite the heat, wearing a fine sleeveless overmantle of cream cotton decorated with silken vines 'Maybe later. I want to see what I can do with these first.' He spread a plump hand over his neatly folded shawls. Some were little more than gossamer, a whisper of silk painted with sprays of delicate flowers in subtle colours; vizail blossoms, jessamine, fiola. Others offered more practical protection against a chilly night, thicker cotton cheerful with bright patterns drawn in bold needle strokes; logen vines, climbing roses, iris spears.

'It's a surprise to find you sharing the beach with we lesser traders. A pleasure, of course, but unexpected all the same,' Dev remarked with studied casualness. 'I'd have thought you'd be making your bows to Rivlin Mahaf, drinking chilled lilla juice in the shade of her audience chamber.' He gestured towards a vivid ochre wrap brilliant with little pieces of coloured glass worked into the bold design of a soaring bird. 'That Mirror Bird's just the kind of thing she likes, isn't it? Aren't the ladies of the domain here? Everyone else in these reaches has come for the last trading before the rains.'

Dev's expansive gesture took in the sizeable numbers walking up and down the beach. The men showed a wide variety of fealty in the differing styles of their daggers just as the women boasted dazzling variations in dressing their hair and tying their wraps.

'They're here, and we had every expectation of trading with them, same as always.' Bidric smiled invitingly at a woman in a plain white shawl who paused to look at his wares. She waved an apologetic hand before moving on to a herbalist loudly proclaiming the efficacy of his nostrums as he sat on the twisted root of a spinefruit tree, a substantial casket resting on his knees.

'Is one of the ladies of the domain unwell?' Dev persisted. 'Or the children?'

'There's no hint of what's going on.' Once the woman's back was to him, Bidric scowled. 'We arrive and find Mahaf Coru's gates shut tighter than a swimming rat's arsehole. I went all the way west to the Galcan domain for that Mirror Bird shawl and better pieces besides, his wives were so keen on the ones I brought them last time. But all the guard captain will say is no traders are welcome at present.'

'Did you see anyone else getting a welcome while you were kept waiting?' Dev wondered. He looked out to the anchorage thronged with galleys and sailing ships of all sizes. 'I might find someone who'd value that kind of information.'

'That's for me and mine to know.' Bidric grinned despite himself, his eyes sliding to a middling-sized ship with a striped blue sail. 'And my boys know to keep their mouths shut.'

'Children are indeed a blessing.' Momentary seriousness flickered over Dev's beardless face.

'Indeed.' Bidric looked a trifle discomforted, unconsciously running a hand over a black beard smoothed to a dapper point with scented oil. 'Well, Dev, messengers from several of those visiting triremes went straight to Mahaf Coru, going by what the guard captain was shouting. Whatever the news was, it set a good few slaves running in and out like quail caught in a dust storm.'

'Do you happen to know which triremes warranted a welcome, when others didn't?' Dev grinned broadly. 'That would be worth a choice piece of this Jahal ware.'

'The gate opened to messengers from Nor, Yava and Kithir and no one else. Then a whole flock of message birds took flight, heading in all directions. I'll take one of those scent burners in exchange for that bit of news.' Bidric narrowed his eyes at Dev. 'There's something else you should know. I heard last night that Yava Aud is as nervy as a hawk on hot sand about something. He hanged three of his warriors for being caught part-drunk at the last full of the Lesser Moon.'

'A wise warlord keeps his swordsmen alert,' Dev nodded, non-committal.

Bidric snorted. 'Stick to trading your metal wares, Dev, if you're sitting anywhere near me. I don't want to be swept up along with you if Mahaf Coru decides to clear his anchorage of vice peddlers. You'll—'

The sudden arrival of shallow boats poled ashore from one of the bigger galleys interrupted him.

'Looks like you're not the only merchant Rivlin Mahaf's too busy to see,' said Dev with malicious amusement. 'When do you suppose the Cinnamon Crane's boys last had to set up their stalls on the beach?'

Gangs of youths jumped out of the flat ferryboats, pulling them high on to the dry sand. Some lads jammed poles deep into the beach before stringing gaily coloured awnings between them. Others busied themselves opening caskets packed with small bottles of glass bright in nests of tandra pod fibres. The rest were setting out sets of copper and silver bowls, unwrapping bolts of cloth, plain and patterned, mostly cotton but a few of shimmering silk. The boys soon turned their boats into enticing stalls laden with luxuries that made Dev and Bidric's offerings look very paltry. The crowds who'd been sauntering idly along the beach began heading for this new attraction, faces eager.

'Time to pack up,' said Bidric philosophically.

'I don't see why.' Dev's jaw jutted belligerently.

'Because they'll have ten times the goods to offer.' Bidric began carefully piling up his shawls and wraps. 'And will accept trades that you and I can't afford to consider.'

The youths were spreading out now, welcoming all comers with open arms. A stately rowing boat drew up at the water's edge and three burly men in fine silks, gold rings on every finger, stepped into the dutifully retreating wavelets. The boys ushered them respectfully to well-cushioned stools beneath shady awnings.

'I trade on quality, not quantity' Dev cracked his knuckles, defiant.

'You certainly have plenty of fire, for a man—' Bidric coughed apologetically. 'You stay if you want to. I'm going to sleep through the worst of the heat.' He glanced up at the sun now at the top of its arc. 'I'll come back when that lot have offloaded their dross on the fools who don't know better. I'll wager they'll be keeping back the better stuff in hopes of an audience with the warlord's ladies.' Bidric stood and waved a signal to the stripy-sailed ship, which dipped a pennant in prompt answer.

Dev sat cross-legged for a moment and then began stacking his wares carefully together in the middle of the hide sheet. 'I'm hungry. Those fools can boil their brains in the midday sun while I find something to eat.' He folded the hide deftly, producing a leather thong from a pocket to secure it.

'I could take that back with me, if you want.' A little self-conscious, Bidric paused in his own packing. 'Firan can bring it back to your boat once the heat's off the day.'

'Firan?' Dev raised a quizzical eyebrow.

'I'm thinking he'd be wanting to stay awhile.' Bidric ran a hand over his beard. 'And one of your girls will be wanting a nice shawl?'

'Ready to try a dip in the secret sea, is he?' Dev smiled that predatory smile. 'Send him over at dusk. I'll be back to the Amigal by then.'

'I don't want him tasting any other of your wares, mind,' warned Bidric in a low tone. 'If I smell cane liquor on him, I'll take a whip to his arse and then to yours.'

'Not even a little sweetsap to stiffen his resolve?' Dev shook his head, mock chiding. 'Many a lad needs a dose of white brandy before he can put the first notch on his tally stick.'

'Those barbarian tastes will be the death of you.' Bidric wasn't amused. 'One way or the other. I'm telling you, Dev, I don't want my sons picking up your bad habits.'

'Blame the father who bequeathed me the northern blood,' said Dev perfunctorily. 'All right, I'll send your lad back sated and sober, never fear.' He tied the thong tight and stood brushing sand from the bagged knees of his loose trousers.

Strolling down to cast an eye over the big galley's array of trade goods he curled his lip in a sneer. One of the burly men from the galley watched him with undisguised disdain. 'We've no use for anything you're trading, Dev. Move aside for those with clean hands.'

Dev didn't so much as glance at the man as he took a small leather pouch from inside the breast of his tunic. Untying its neck, he shook out a few small but flawless sapphires into one leathery palm. The Cinnamon Crane's man stiffened. Dev studied the gems before pouring them back into the pouch with sudden decision. As he strode away, several of the people examining the galley's offerings watched him with uncertain expressions.

'Good lady, I see you're interested in this wall hanging,' invited the galley merchant hastily. 'What have you got to offer me in return? We're most interested in this domain's coral beads.'

Dev allowed himself a discreet smile. Even such trivial amusements made the game worth playing. As he moved away from the beach, broad-leaved spinefruit trees clustered in shady groves and the pale sand gave way to darker earth littered with dusty scraps of bark and leaves discarded as the trees suffered beneath the merciless sun at the end of the dry season. Even the incessant insects seemed to have fled. Visitors were shunning the baking heat in the expanses between the trees, gathering instead beneath the welcoming branches where the men and women of the island were offering meat and fruit, and cloud bread baked from ground sailer grain. Islanders and traders alike paused to witness promised goods bartered against full bellies and quenched thirsts.

So Mahaf Coru was getting news from the south that had him shutting up his gates. What news might that be? Perhaps a likely rumour would be drifting around some resident's cook fire. Dev headed for an old woman tending a battered cauldron resting on a bed of charcoal prudently ringed with stones in a clean-swept stretch of earth. 'What's that, mother?'

'Reed squabs cooked in pepper juice.' She squinted up, her face a web of wrinkles. 'Took them from their nests myself, still with the dew on the leaves.'

Dev looked disappointed. 'Not had time to hang them then.'

The old woman laughed as she drew a faded pink shawl back from her grizzled hair. 'You'll have to do better than that, youngster.'

'I'm surprised your eyes are sharp enough to tell squabs from reed heads, if you think I'm a youth.' Dev sat down on a convenient tree root.

'My eyes are sharp enough, though not so sharp as your tongue.' The old woman dipped her ladle into the cauldron and stirred. 'What have you to offer in exchange for the tenderest meat you'll find on this side of the island?' She picked up a battered wooden bowl but made no move to fill it.

Dev bent forward to sniff the savoury steam appreciatively. 'I trade all sorts of things, mother.'

'I doubt your mother even knows where you are.' She narrowed watery eyes at him, not displeased. 'I've seen you on the shore. You're a metal trader, aren't you? Bracelets, necklaces, earrings, that's what I'm wanting,' she continued briskly. 'My granddaughter looks to wed as soon as Mahaf Coru gives his nod.'

Dev pretended to think for a moment and then reached inside his tunic. He took out a different leather bag to the one he'd taunted the galley merchants with and drew out a delicately wrought silver wrist chain. 'I'll be here a few days, mother. Feed me till I leave and I'll make your granddaughter the envy of her friends.'

The old woman filled the bowl and, handing it over, accepted the chain. 'Soft metal,' she sniffed.

'But pure,' countered Dev, his mouth already full. 'Not smelted from half a crucible of northern barbarian scrap.'

The old woman gave a contemptuous snort. 'I wouldn't put their trash on a body for burying.'

'Didn't I hear word of some of them in these waters?' Dev wolfed down sweet shreds of pale meat and red slivers of pepper fruits. 'Seeing what they can buy or steal before some warlord burns their boats to the waterline?'

'Barbarians? No, someone's steering you astray.' The old woman stowed the chain securely deep within the breast of her many-layered dusty grey dress. 'They never come this late in the dry season. They burn redder than boiled crabs in the sun, die of it even.'

So whatever was stirring up the local domains, it wasn't opportunists from the north. Dev tried again. 'I heard Mahaf Coru's keeping a weather eye out for some kind of trouble.' He nodded in the general direction of the warlord's compound.

'He always does that.' The old woman busied herself peeling fleshy white roots to add to her cauldron.

Dev handed back the bowl and stood up. 'I'll see you again, mother.' The old woman cooked a savoury stew, even if she had precious little information to season it.

The next clump of trees sheltered a poet resolutely declaiming a florid description of setting out to sea. Dev recognised an epic he'd heard many times before.

'Perhaps I will float on the sea of love. The surging wave will lift me up, as the sinking waters will pull me down. Now rising, now falling, the deep will take me to that ocean without a shore.'

Unimpressed, the audience was struggling not to sink into sleep beneath the combined weights of food and the oppressive, humid heat. A hook-nosed man snored abruptly, interrupting the poet's speculations as to where the currents might take him and his travelling companions.

Dev shook his head. The entire audience would be asleep before this inept bard with his monotonous mumble told how a failed romance had driven him to voyaging, lamenting his beloved's loss along with the fatigue of travel. And the poet would be going hungry. No one would offer him a noon meal in return for such a lacklustre performance.

Amused, Dev savoured the lingering taste of pepper in his own mouth and moved on. The better poets would appear with the dusk, courted with the finest food the locals could offer. True artists would work new variations on the time-honoured themes of the travel epic, favourite metaphor for life's journey. Some would have musicians and dancers to accompany them. Others would have apprentices displaying scrolls of exquisite illustrations to the awestruck crowds.

They were welcome to such turgid entertainments. Dev preferred those performed away from the main throng, in the shadows of a small fire coloured with handfuls of dramatic powders, their verses enhanced by one or two scantily clad dancers, a well-muscled assistant ready to slap down anyone getting too close. Dev looked around. There'd been a one-handed poet, last time he'd visited this trading beach, a remarkably inventive lad for lascivious stanzas detailing the consolations a traveller might find to replace the woman he'd left behind.

Dev nodded slowly to himself. The one-handed poet had been summoned to entertain Mahaf Coru's guards every night, him and his accommodating dancing girls. Mahaf Coru and his wives might not be admitting any traders but a poet entertaining their guards might pick up some useful gossip.

Who might know if the boy was still hereabouts? Ifal, that's who. Come to that, Ifal always had the latest news. Dev paused and looked towards the sea shimmering in the sun. He shaded his eyes with a leathery hand and tried to distinguish between the distant pennants hanging limply at the mastheads of the lazily bobbing boats.

A lively bustle at his back startled him and he whirled around. One hand went to the Yava-styled dagger at his belt but no one was coming for him. The commotion was some way inland, where the spinefruit trees gave way to a grassy bowl ringed with the sprawling, flat-roofed houses that the Mahaf islanders favoured. The domain's elders, village spokesmen and the like would be waiting beneath the shade of their wide eaves, welcoming those traders who solicited their interest with cool fruit juices and hard bargaining. Curious, Dev hurried forward, easing past people obsequiously bowing and retreating; islanders and visitors here to trade mingling with travelling entertainers clutching their scrolls or juggling balls.

The crowd was melting away in front of a tall, armoured man. The sun shone so brightly on his chainmail, Dev winced to look at him. Rock crystal glittered on the brow band of his helm and the gold mounts on the scabbards of his twin swords flashed diamond fire. An arresting woman strode along the path her body slave was clearing. Lean and as tall as her attendant, she wore a brocaded white tunic over gauzy trousers. Her tightly plaited hair was covered with an iridescent scarf worked in silver and gold thread, gleaming like a butterfly's wing. She swept the trailing end back over her shoulder with one hand laden with silver rings, bracelets studded with chrysolite sliding down her smoothly oiled forearm. A rope of crystal drops was wound in tight coils around the base of her slender throat.

'Tarita Mahaf.' Some woman identified the noble lady to an ignorant visitor. 'Mahaf Coru's third and most recent wife.'

'Born sister to Yava Dirha,' added another of the gaggle of women, eyes wide. 'She was wife to Kithir Arcis before divorcing him.'

'Why did she do that?' wondered a fresh-faced girl.

'That's no one's business but her own,' a woman who could only be her mother said repressively.

Dev stood behind the women so he looked as if he belonged with them, and stared at Tarita Mahaf with the same eagerness as the rest. She had a wide reputation as a woman not to cross as well as an enviable network of alliances in her own right. At the moment, she had the air of a woman with a purpose. That had to have some bearing on Mahaf Coru's concerns. This day just got more and more interesting.

The noble woman's slave called out to a pale-skinned, clean-shaven man who bowed low with an engaging smile. A darker, heavyset man behind him set an iron-bound chest of black wood down on the bare earth. The smaller man promptly unrolled the gaily patterned rug he'd been carrying and laid it over the chest, sitting comfortably down. His companion took a step backwards, a club of dark wood with more iron studding than the chest sloped casually over one shoulder. Tarita's Mahaf's swordsman walked around the seated trader in a slow circle, his forbidding scowl deterring anyone from coming closer. The dutiful crowd retreated a few more paces.

Ignoring them all, Tarita Mahaf spoke briefly to the man sitting on the chest. The smaller man's smile widened. He stood up, snapping his fingers to his club-wielding companion as he did so. The big man caught up the chest once again and the pair of them followed as the warlord's lady turned to stride back towards the unseen compound and its closely guarded secrets.

'What does Tarita Mahaf want with him?' wondered the pretty girl.

'That's Ifal, the gem trader,' said her mother thoughtfully. 'There's been talk of marriage negotiations with Nor Zauri. Perhaps one of the girls needs bridal jewels.'

Dev doubted it. That wasn't the kind of thing Ifal traded in. He allowed the speculating throng to carry him along to the shade of some spinefruit trees. Casually disengaging himself from the chattering women, he yawned ostentatiously and lay down in a dry hollow between two gnarled roots. The bustle of excitement was dying back all around as people returned to their previous indolence beneath the burden of the day's heat.

Noting a spot of grease from the old woman's stew on his tunic, Dev rubbed his thumbnail across it. Lying back, he draped his arm over his face, for all the world like a weary traveller shading his eyes from the sun. Unseen, he focused all his attention on the oily smear gleaming on his thumbnail.

These Aldabreshi, with their hysterical hatred of magic. Dev smiled discreetly as an enchanted emerald sheen brightened on his nail. He worked wizardry all around them, day after day, and they never so much as noticed. All those who said the Archipelago was a death trap for mages were just cowards and fools. He suppressed the not-infrequent urge to show these people just what magic could do. He could summon illusions to accompany a poet's verses, living, vibrant echoes of the musical words. The women of the domain could take their ease as he coaxed fire from the bare earth to heat their pots and then washed them clean afterwards with water wrung from the very air. He could wrap the island in a storm that would drive the waters clean out of the harbour to leave every ship beached high and dry.

But for now, his life depended on his magic's discretion. The brilliant green on his thumbnail faded away to leave a tiny, perfect image reflected in the shining grease. That must be somewhere in the residence the Mahaf wives used when visiting this isle, unseen beyond the first rise of the rolling island. Ifal was offering plaited strands of turquoise beads to a pleasantly plump, grey-haired woman whose peacock-patterned shawl was as fine as anything Bidric had to offer. Dev recognised her at once. Vidail Mahaf, senior wife, with Tarita stood at her shoulder.

Vidail waved away the turquoise, saying something that left Ifal frozen with surprise, strings of lapis hanging limp from his fingers.

Dev moistened dry lips with his tongue and glanced up at a fitful breeze toying with the spinefruit tree's broad leaves. With infinite care, he teased a breath of air away from the tree and began guiding it gently towards the distant residence. Tension pressed down on him as he looked back to the miniature scrying on his thumbnail but the women were still deep in discussion with Ifal. Satisfaction warmed Dev in a way the sun never could. Those fools who said these spells couldn't be worked together, they should try working enchantments with the finesse he needed to keep his skin whole sailing these perilous waters. He had learned more in his first season than he had in five wearisome years in Hadrumal's dusty libraries.

Then he stiffened, seeing the gem trader digging deep in his coffer, unwrapping soft leather bundles to reveal inky blackness within.

Dev turned all his attention to threading the enchanted breeze swiftly through the air, sorting hastily through the whispers it was bringing to him. There, that was Ifal's voice, distinctive with the rasp of the eastern reaches.

'Of course, efficacy all depends on the history of the talisman.'

Dev stiffened.

'I might be better able to help if I knew just what magical malice you seek to protect your children from.'

'It's sufficient to ward them with jet, for the present.' Vidail reached for the beads, tightness in her voice. 'We will take all you have. Are there any other pieces, bracelets, rings?'

Dev swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.

'I have a butterfly comb inlaid with satinstone.' Ifal rummaged in his coffer. 'Both stone and symbol powerful talismans against wizardry, regardless of the piece's history,' he remarked casually.

'It is indeed,' said Vidail slowly. 'You are astute, as always.'

'Astute enough,' there was a menacing edge to Tarita's voice, 'to let it be known we were interested in your sunstones and tourmalines and nothing else besides.'

'Sunstone to warm the heart and lift the spirits.' Ifal smiled peaceably. 'I'll be the model of discretion, but perhaps I'll let slip my guess that you may seek some clarity in your dreaming, my ladies? Sunstone so often conveys that virtue. It would hardly be a surprise, if one of you were planning on a night at some tower of silence, with your daughters of an age to be married.' He ran a hand over dark brown wiry hair. 'Which naturally explains your interest in my finest tourmalines. I believe I will be replenishing my stocks of pink and white cabochons, such useful stones for balancing passion and compassion in the young.'

'You have a glib tongue, trader. Be sure you know when to hold it, or someone will cut it out.' Vidail took the butterfly hair ornament and exchanged a wary nod with Tarita. 'Present yourself at our gates again, when you have replenished your stocks of jet.'

Tarita clapped her hands sharply together and her body slave opened a door. 'Our wife Rivlin has some of her craftspeople's ash-glazed pottery in payment for your jet, and for your discretion.'

'Discretion comes as part of every trade I make, great lady,' Ifal promised before following the slave out of the room with a distinct spring in his step.

As well there might be, thought Dev. The ash-glazed pottery of the Mahaf domain was highly prized. The random dribbles that the secret firing process produced in the greenish glaze were closely scrutinised for prog-nostic significance by the gullible fools hereabouts.

Dev let his stealthy spell-casting dissolve into the untrammelled air and sat up. There was no point in trying to get anything out of Ifal now. He'd be intent on planning how profitably to trade those valuable pots and whatever other gems he could offer the local rulers to guard them against wizardry. There was no temptation of the flesh Dev could offer to cozen a man so notoriously faithful to his partner, bodyguard and lover, and neither of them drank anything stronger than the piss-poor officially sanctioned wine of these islands.

Ifal would doubtless be trying to read some answers to this puzzle in those pots, superstitious as every Aldabreshi. Dev rose to his feet and headed back towards the beach. Time to pay a visit to those charlatans who leeched a living telling fortunes for the credulous Archipelagans. He walked along the water's edge, relishing the cool flurries around his feet, not even sparing a glance for the awnings. Blood pounded beneath his breastbone.

Beyond the traders, a blunt ridge of rock ran out of the trees, only halting at the water's edge where the seas lapped at it with lazy waves. It was a reddish stone, veined with white and broken into a series of ledges like haphazard i steps. Higher up, opportune grasses and flowers clung to nooks of wind-blown soil. Down by the water's edge, a filthy old man dressed in rags crouched at the base of the rock, eyes bright with madness as he hunted in the sand for shells, which he dropped in a gourd. Close by, cross-legged on the very lowest ledge and composed in clean white cotton, a youth sat with a bundle of many-coloured reeds resting across his lap.

Dev wasn't interested in lunatics and shirkers out to avoid an honest day's work. He looked at the men who had claimed various vantage points on the rock. Head prudently shaded with a fold of cloth, a grizzled man sat chatting with another of a similar age. Both boasted a small brass urn close at hand as well as a miscellany of wooden boxes, some dull, some brightly coloured. The man lower down also had a couple of small wicker cages, augury doves cooing contentedly inside. On the flat top of the ridge sat an old man, white hair and beard reaching to his waist. Beneath his little awning, brass and copper urns ringed him and an attentive youth offered him refreshment from a silver cup. People eager to seek his guidance perched on the steps and ledges below. Some clutched offerings of fish or meat wrapped in fresh leaves, others carried easily traded trinkets. The old man beckoned to the first one, bending forward to answer the suppliant's question with a query of his own. There were always the questions, seeming so innocent yet betraying the very answers these credulous fools sought, hints garnered by the soothsayer's skilful reading of a suppliant's stance, the angle of their head, the anxiety in their face.

Dev looked instead at the soothsayer with the doves. He'd seen that man being escorted to and fro by Rivlin Mahaf's body slave on several previous visits to this island. Every sage had a network of contacts and informants feeding him information, otherwise they'd never maintain their deceits, but a soothsayer that the warlord's wives favoured would surely have inside knowledge to weight his predictions towards the success that would enhance his reputation.

The madman sidled across the sands towards Dev, rattling his split and battered gourd and bringing a rank stench that a full season's rains wouldn't diminish.

'Get lost, lizard eater,' Dev growled. The madman had enough sense to scurry away. Then Dev's expression turned to an eager hopefulness that would have astounded Bidric. The youth with the reeds raised them in a ceremonious gesture and rustled the dried seed heads, smiling with contented anticipation. Dev ignored him, scrambling up a steep face of the ridge to outstrip a couple of girls picking a more cautious route upwards.

'You show initiative,' remarked the soothsayer peaceably as Dev appeared before him. 'Always a good thing in a seeker after truth.' He was well into his middle years, grey touching his temples and the black beard that flowed uncut down his broad chest. Other than that, he could have passed for any merchant on the beach below, in his sleeveless mantle of striped cotton over sandy trews and tunic. He rested a hand with a single heavy gold ring on a little cage where two doves cooed and preened. 'But a bold man may fall, if he makes a false step on a rock face.'

'What omens might you see for a bold man voyaging to the south?' challenged Dev.

'What would you offer in return for such guidance, my intrepid friend?' the soothsayer asked silkily.

Dev reached for one of the soft leather pouches hidden inside his tunic and handed it over. 'If your word proves true, I'll bring you twice that the next time we meet. If not, I'll find you and let everyone know why I'm claiming my jewels back.

The soothsayer looked inside and his head snapped up. 'You certainly value guidance.' He stared at Dev.

'My father may have been a mere barbarian from the unbroken lands, but my mother taught me the value of those currents that run from past to present,' Dev said calmly.

'All the more valuable, for those without firm ties to any domain.' The soothsayer twisted the heavy gold ring around his finger as his eyes flickered to Dev's dagger, narrowing slightly as he identified the style of the Yava islands. 'I've seen you before, haven't I? You sail beneath a fine array of passage pennants.'

'I have that good fortune,' said Dev smoothly. 'I trade through here as far south as the Kithir isles and north to the domain of Sazac Joa, by the grace of all those lords who grant me leave to sail their seaways. I can spread your reputation along all those routes, if I find it well deserved.'

The soothsayer's dark eyes were shrewd as he secured Dev's pouch in a leather purse tied to his belt. 'What would you have me read for you?'

Dev gestured at the doves. 'Let them fly.'

The birds waited patiently as the soothsayer lifted them out of the little cage with careful hands. He flung the white doves upwards. They fluttered uncertainly at first, wheeling around each other, wings twisting and backing in the air. Then one made a sudden decision and swooped low, heading straight for the trees at the heart of the island. The second followed almost instantly, both disappearing into the dense green.

'Well?' Dev had barely bothered watching the birds' flight, intent instead on the soothsayer's face.

The man took a moment before replying. 'You can claim friends in the north, so make that your course. Misfortune stirs to the south. Your only defence is to fly before it and seek shelter.' He halted as one of the doves returned in a flash of white and shepherded it gently back into its cage.

'You mean the rains?' Dev asked with deliberate stupidity. 'There are going to be whirlwinds?'

'I speak of adversity that moves unseen, to corrupt and destroy.' The soothsayer raised a hand for the second dove to perch upon.

'You mean a pestilence?' Dev was wide-eyed with feigned incomprehension. 'Breakbone fever returning with the rains?'

'Just take heed of my advice.' The soothsayer shot Dev a warning look, unsmiling as he put the second dove safely back in the cage. 'That's all I have to say to you. You'll find my word more than earns your payment. Now go. Others are waiting for my counsel.' He looked past Dev to smile a welcome at the two girls waiting impatiently to approach him.

'Thank you.' Jumping lithely down to the sand, Dev brushed dust from his clothes. The line of people still waited patiently for the chance to consult the topmost soothsayer. The youth was doing his best to attract them with flourishing casts of his coloured reeds, studying the patterns with a brow wrinkled in ostentatious concentration. He was getting no takers.

Dev smiled with malicious speculation. Should he seek a reading from the self-obsessed youth? It would be easy enough to decry that lad's doubtless vague foretellings as nonsense, especially if something prompted comparison with the cannier soothsayers' more ominous warnings. It was always amusing to see a would-be oracle denounced as a fraud by some irate islanders, stripped of his mystical trappings, often his clothing as well, left with only bruises to cover his nakedness.

'Let me guide your path. I am master of the seen and unseen.' It was the madman, talking to no one in particular but prancing round and round in an ever-decreasing circle, rattling his gourd. Overcome with dizziness, he fell, motionless for a moment before springing up and peering at the marks he'd made in the sand. 'There, the Yora Hawk! The Winged Serpent consumes the Vizail that blooms in the night. Strange days are coming, my friend, strange and fearful days!'

Even the insane were sensing this undercurrent of unease lapping at the islands. No, Dev decided, cracking his knuckles absently. The fool of a boy could rest easy. He had no time to spare on entertainments. There was something going on to the south and he wanted to find out exactly what.

What news from the south had Mahaf Coru slamming the gates of his compound and sending his own messages to all and sundry? News so significant that it took precedence over the last major trading opportunity before the rains arrived. News that prompted the Mahaf wives to buy jet talismans and Ifal's silence besides with their finest wares. It wasn't some fear over the forthcoming rains. However severe the storms might be, they were all part of the natural cycle and endured as such. Nor was it some outbreak of one of the Archipelago's virulent diseases. If that was in the wind, the Mahaf wives and Coru himself would be busy securing medicinal herbs and astringent plant extracts, not messing about with shiny baubles.

The Mahaf wives wanted talismans against magic. For a few unfeasibly pale emeralds and the promise of Dev spreading his reputation, the soothsayer had warned him off sailing south, where some danger threatened a man of visibly barbarian blood and no family to vouch for him nor ties to a domain to protect him. The one thing that came from the barbarian north that the Aldabreshi feared was wizardry. The soothsayer had gone as close as he dared to mentioning magic without actually putting it into words.

So there were reports of magic stirring to the south? Probably a long way south, if the word was only being shared among the warlords with their swift message birds and rapid chains of signal beacons and couriers. It would be a while before word would trickle down to the lesser folk. Perhaps he should lay in a stock of jet before the rumour became common knowledge.

Dev shook his head with a contemptuous smile. What convinced these people that a string of polished black beads or a shiny jet brooch could turn aside magic? And what was so special about butterflies? Dev racked his brains for the scraps of lore he'd picked up on his travels up and down the Archipelago. Weren't butterflies a symbol of the Aldabreshi conviction that past, present and future were all interlinked, as the creature changed from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly yet remained the same individual?

Discarding that irrelevance, Dev considered the next crucial question. Could there be something in this beyond dry-season hysteria? If there was, who could be so idiotic as to flaunt their magebirth before such a hostile audience? Was it some mainland wizard with a death wish? If it was, Dev decided, let the fool learn his lesson the hard and painful way. Anyone that stupid wasn't worth risking his own exposure for.

But that was unlikely. Could it be some untutored affinity for an element, air, earth, fire or water, erupting in some hapless Aldabreshin family? The wizards of Hadrumal refused to believe the Aldabreshi, alone of all the peoples of the world, had no wizards born among them. Not that he'd managed to find a single one thus far, Dev scowled. Not in time anyway, not before their untamed abilities led them to disaster, either consumed by their own feral magic, ripped limb from limb by a terrified mob or skinned alive by some warlord's executioner. And these people called the races of the northern lands barbarians. At least the humble villages of Lescar just threw their mageborn out on to the road to Hadrumal, rather than ritually slaughtering them, even the misbegotten offspring of the local whore.

Better find out one way or the other before sending any message to Planir, Dev decided. The Archmage of Hadrumal wasn't going to appreciate unsubstantiated guesses. Nor would magic show him the truth of whatever was prompting these suspicions. He could only scry for a limited distance without being able to focus on a place or a person well known to him. So he had better sail south and find out what was going on. If the fearful Aldabreshi turned on him, he would be gone before they laid hands on him, magic carrying him back to the safety of Hadrumal, the hidden isle where the northern wizards had their city of lore and learning. Hadrumal, hard-won sanctuary for mageborn gathered from all across the mainland, where they could learn to control their inborn affinity with the elements that suffused the world, where generations of study had filled libraries with wisdom that every master mage strove to add to. Hadrumal; quite the most boring place Dev had ever lived, its only recommendation the lack of the kicks and bruises that had been his lot before he arrived there.

Dev shuddered. Sailing south into the teeth of the oncoming rainy season would be no pleasure jaunt. Still, at least he could work a few enchanted winds to help with that. Halting on the beach opposite his own safely anchored ship, he looked around the busy harbour and raised fingers to his mouth for a piercing whistle. 'Ferry!'

A man poling a shallow-sided, flat-bottomed boat through the shallows hailed him. 'Back to the Amigal, is it?'

Dev splashed through the wavelets to step aboard. 'I want to call on the Silken Vine first.'

'Bit early in the day, isn't it?' chuckled the ferryman with a hint of envy.

Dev grinned. 'I thought I'd get in before the rush starts.'

The ferryman glanced at Dev's beardless chin and drew an obvious conclusion. 'You won't get much competition round here, not for the lads' favours. It's the girls will be rushed off their feet, if you get my meaning. Well, when the sun's off the zenith. There's more than flowers wilt in this kind of heat.'

Dev shrugged. 'I don't like to follow in another man's wake.'

The ferryman leaned on his pole and drove them deftly through a cluster of fishing boats. He let the pole drift up and pushed on it to turn their course towards a wide-bellied galley resting in a prime anchorage. Her oars were shipped inboard and only a few of her crew were idling about their last tasks. A rope running from the main mast to the ornate prow was crowded with white-bordered tongues of silk proclaiming right of passage through a myriad domains.

Dev stood, balancing easily in the shallow ferryboat. 'You there! Tell Tabraze that Dev's here to see her.'

The ferryman watched the lad scurry off. 'You're known here?'

'Very much so.' Dev grinned. 'I'll trade you an introduction for the ride.'

The ferryman laughed but shook his head. 'My wife would read me my future in my own entrails.'

'I'll give you something to put a smile on her face.' Dev reached for the rope ladder uncoiling from the Silken Vine'?, stern rail. 'If you keep an eye out this way and fetch me back to the Amigal when I'm done.'

'Gladly' The ferryman pushed off from the galley's side as Dev climbed up.

'Over here.' An elegant woman with a placid smile beckoned from beneath a tasselled canopy rigged just before the ship's little aft mast. The three shallow steps of the stern platform made a natural dais where she reclined on a heap of satin cushions. She was sipping from a golden cup, her gauzy white gown all but transparent, wrists and ankles laden with chains of silver moonstones. Her oiled skin shone glossy as ebony.

'Tabraze.' Dev sauntered over, grinning with broad appreciation. 'You look well.'

She narrowed silver-painted eyes at him. 'Then come here and give me more than flattery. Isn't it time I found out just what secrets you're hiding?' Her speculative gaze lingered on Dev's trousers.

'Not today.' He took a cushion under the shade of the silken awning and helped himself to a golden goblet from the tray at Tabraze's elbow. 'Can you take two girls off my hands?'

'I'm not sure, Dev.' Tabraze brushed a hand over the arc of silver combs that held her waist-length black hair back from her face. The artless gesture made it plain there was nothing beneath her gown but her generous breasts. 'If they're anything like the last one you tried to foist on me.' Distaste twisted her tempting mouth into a stern pout.

'Repi was a mess before I picked her up.' Dev waved a perfunctory hand. 'Anyway, she's dead. These two—'

'But you didn't keep Repi out of your little jars and boxes, did you?' Tabraze interrupted him with uncompromising reproof. 'I'll keep no girls who have to be witless on dreamsmoke before they'll lie down for a man. This ship's never getting that reputation.'

'These two both enjoy trading favours for fancies,' Dev assured her. 'And neither takes so much as chewing leaf.'

'So why are you looking to be rid of them?' Tabraze still looked suspicious. 'Or are they looking to leave you? Are you looking to touch me for a price I needn't actually pay?'

Dev leant forward to run a hand down Tabraze's gossamer-draped thigh. 'I'll pay the proper price to touch you, one of these days.'

A crewman coiling a rope down on deck paused, surprised to see the gesture.

'What do you want?' Dev challenged and the galley man moved away hastily.

'Tease.' Tabraze dismissed his words with a wave of her cup. 'So what's the deal?'

'They only sought passage to somewhere with more opportunities than the rock they were born on. I've got wind of something I want to pursue without encumbrances.' Dev shrugged. 'I thought coming to terms with you would do everyone some good. Of course, I could just slip them some thassin and get their bodyweight in liquor from the first meat trader I run into.'

'I never know what to make of you, Dev.' Tabraze gazed at him levelly. 'I don't even know if you're woman's man, man's man or zamorin.'

The crewman looked up again, startled at his mistress's frank admission of such uncouth curiosity.

Dev was unperturbed. 'You keep your secrets and I'll keep mine.'

Tabraze waved her cup again, diaphanous silk tightening across her bosom. 'I have nothing to hide.'

'Not in that dress,' agreed Dev appreciatively.

'It's too hot to play games.' Tabraze sat up. 'All right. What are you looking for from me? As long as they're healthy and willing, mark you.'

'Mahaf Coru's household warriors brought a goodly weight of supplies to pay for their pleasures last night.' Dev gestured down the broad deck of the galley to the cookhouse standing on the starboard side. 'I'll settle for a sack of sailer grain and as much dried fruit as you can spare.'

'You really are in a hurry to get rid of them.' Tabraze tilted her head on one side, pink tongue delicately licking her painted lips. 'If it's not because they're too fuddled to stand upright, you must be on the scent of something good.'

'As you say, it's too hot to play games.' Dev drained his goblet and set it back on the tray with a sharp clink. 'Do I send these girls to you or just dump them on the beach and let them take their chances?'

'I'll take them.' Irritation carved a momentary crease between Tabraze's immaculately plucked brows. 'But next time I see you, Dev, I want a sniff of whatever you're chasing.' She smiled winsomely at him. 'Just a rose will suffice. I'm not asking for the whole flower garden.'

'You're the one who'll be owing me. They're good girls, you'll see. You can send that deckhand with the flapping ears over with my supplies as soon as may be. I want to catch the next tide.' Dev left Tabraze both curious and frustrated as he moved to the rail of the great galley and waved to the ferryman who'd brought him to the Silken Vine.

Poling back with alacrity, he grinned up at Dev. 'That was quick.'

'I've never been one to waste time.' Dev paused to make an ostentatious adjustment to his groin before swinging his leg over the stern rail.

'Back to the Amiga.' The ferryman pushed off.

Dev nodded. As they approached his ship, small enough to sail single-handed, large enough to carry a cargo to justify his travels, he shouted up to the deck. 'Ekkai! Taryu!' Two girls appeared over the rail, each in a simple dress of silk draped over one shoulder, one scarlet, and one blue. 'Throw me a line, you silly poults.'

One of the girls hastily flung a rope and Dev caught it deftly. 'Wait here,' he told the ferryman. 'These two are taking passage with the Silken Vine.'

'We are?' The elder girl's surprise reflected that on the ferryman's face.

'You are.' Dev hauled himself aboard and the two girls quickly retreated. Neither wore much by way of gold or jewels but fresh logen vine flowers in their tight-curled hair decorated an undemanding prettiness. They stood close together, round faces wary.

'Well?' challenged Dev. 'You've made it plain you're not interested in my kind of business.'

'It's—' began the younger girl hotly.

'Hush, Ekkai.' The elder gripped her sister's arm tightly enough to drive the blood from her fingernails. 'Get your things. It has to be better than sailing with him.'

'The Silken Vine has an honest reputation,' the ferryman called up. 'It sails under Mahaf Coru's protection.'

'That's something, I suppose.' Taryu looked at Dev with undisguised dislike. 'We'll get our things.'

Dev raised a warning hand. 'You can gather your rags and tatters, Ekkai. Taryu, you stay with me.' He stepped forward and caught her by the wrist, forcing her to the far side of the deck and out of the ferryman's earshot. 'You do right by Tabraze or when I catch up with you, I'll take the price of her disappointment out of your hide. I want her so grateful for such wonderful girls, she'll open her private jewel case and let me take my pick. Don't forget you still owe me, come to that. Keep your ears open as well as your thighs and make sure you've got solid information to balance our ledgers. Don't think this is the last you'll see of me, girl.' Satisfied to feel Taryu shaking, he let go of her hand.

'Don't think we won't find someone to protect us from your kind.' She rubbed at her wrist, defiance imperfectly masking her fear.

Dev smiled. 'I love you too, sweetness. When you get to the Silken Vine, tell Tabraze you owe Bidric the shawl merchant a good time for his youngest son. The lad's called Firan and it'll be his first time. You treat him gently.'

Ekkai scrambled up out of the stern hatch, clutching an armful of flimsy scarves, a few choice dresses in painted and embroidered silks and some workaday tunics in much-washed cotton. Taryu wriggled past Dev and hurried to help her roll them into a haphazard bundle.

'Not taking anything that you're not owed?' Dev turned suddenly just as Taryu and Ekkai thought they had made their way to the ship's rail unchallenged. He grinned. 'No, you wouldn't dare, would you?'

Not troubling himself to help the girls climb down, Dev addressed the ferryman. 'When you've offloaded this pair, take a message to Bidric the shawl merchant for me. Tell him I had to catch the tide, unexpected news. He can hang on to my metal wares or trade them if he gets a good enough offer. I'll catch up with him soon enough and we can settle up then. Take a piece out of what he's holding for me for yourself, or you can take what you're owed from one of those two.' Dev nodded at the girls with a sly wink. 'Tell him they're holding what I owe him for Firan.'

The ferryman cleared his throat. 'I'll settle for a present for my wife, thanks all the same.'

Dev turned to check the Amigal's rigging as the ferryman poled away. That was one less complication, or rather two. It never hurt to have some willing warmth to offer a man who couldn't be bribed with liquor or leaf but Ekkai and Taryu were far too quick-witted to take south on this particular quest. Repi had had her advantages even if she'd preferred to live in her smoke-filled dreams. It never mattered what she saw or heard; no one took her word for the phase of the moons without looking up to check.

Was there anything else he needed to dispose of before he quit this anchorage? Not that he could think of. Bidric would doubtless get the better end of the deal whenever they came to settle up over Dev's metal goods but the shawl trader was honest enough to feel himself under no slight obligation as a consequence. That was no bad thing. Dev looked up to check the sun's progress across the sky, calculating how soon he could sail.

'Amigal, ho!' Tabraze's crewman shouted up from a dumpy rowing boat.

'Ho yourself.' Dev threw a rope down. 'Tie the goods on to that.' Testing the weight, he began hauling the heavy sack of sailer grain upwards. He grinned as he grunted with the effort, spirits rising at the thought of the chal-lenge ahead. Trading had been getting boring. Besides, where was the profit for a mage in knowing more than anyone else about the quarrels and rivalries of the various domains? Planir never appreciated what cunning it took to learn such things. Tracing these rumours of magic to their source, that was a fitting undertaking for a mage of his talents. He was more than ready for something new. If it proved to be dangerous, that was no more than a spice to be savoured, like the pepper pods in the old woman's squab stew.

Chapter Six

'Watch your every word, your every step.' Janne waved gaily to the curious crowd thronging the river bank but her voice was deathly serious as she spoke to Itrac. Standing together at the great galley's rail, both women were swathed in light wraps of nubby silk that covered them from head to toe.

'Never let Ulla Safar get you on your own.' Kheda's stern warning was just as much at odds with his beaming face. 'He's far too fond of offering junior wives some virile Ulla seed to quicken their next child.'

'If they demur, he's happy to outline the appalling consequences for their domain and its trade, if he sets his face and his wives against them.' Janne clapped her hands with delight as flowers rained down on the galley's deck and pattered on to the many-coloured silken canopy erected to shade the warlord and the women from the punishing sun. Her full lips pouted enticingly beneath immaculately applied colour but there was no hint of softness in her eyes outlined in black and red and dusted with a sweep of gold that glistened on her cheekbones before disappearing into her hairline.

Moving cautiously against the sluggish flow of the twisting, muddy river, the galley was passing between two immense watchtowers. The sprawling battlements were crowded with people welcoming such noble guests to the heart of the Ulla domain in time-honoured tradition. The scarves and banners they brandished echoed the brightly patterned sails now furled up above on the great galley's masts.

I don't know what possessed Rekha to call this ship the Rainbow Moth. Colourful sails are all very well but nothing's going to make this massive hull remind anyone of a dainty insect.

Kheda shifted his shoulders within his own enveloping cloak of undyed silk. 'Telouet, when you get a moment, ask around the servants. Find out if these locals came out of their own accord or were driven down to the river by the spears of Ulla Safar's warriors.'

Once we have that answer, we can discuss what it might mean with Janne.

Helms swathed in cotton to mitigate the intense heat, Telouet and Birut stood fully armoured on either side of the canopy's poles, which looked incongruously sturdy for such a frivolous burden. Both slaves were watching the rain of flowers intently for any sign of more hostile missiles.

Does anyone ashore realise this awning is lined with a sheet of fine chainmail? Does knowing, or not knowing, make any difference to what the Ulla people throw?

The notion might have been amusing, if Kheda didn't feel the chances of some kind of assault were all too high.

With the rains due any day, the heat's appalling, no relief day or night. If anyone attacks us, Ulla Safar will just claim ignorance and accept a plea of seasonal madness in mitigation.

Now the Rainbow Moth was passing the inner faces of the watchtowers. Itrac Chazen struggled to maintain her carefree expression as she gazed over the turbid water to the end of a massive chain, links as long as a man's leg, secured to the mighty fortification. 'That runs all the way across the river bed?'

'Right to the other watchtower.' Kheda gave Janne a significant look as the great galley passed over the invisible boundary. 'There are huge windlasses each with a gang of slaves just waiting for Ulla Safar's order to haul it up and block any ship's passage upstream or down.

Now we are within Ulla Safar's grasp. What choice did we have, with Safar refusing any of the more neutral meeting places Redigal Coron or Ritsem Caid suggested and offering his dubious hospitality instead? Well, we've taken all reasonable precautions.

Kheda felt a little better as Janne smiled reassurance at him.

'How far away are the triremes?' The concern in Itrac's dark eyes belied her apparently light-hearted smiles. She scanned the river banks where scores of little boats were drawn up on the mud, flat-roofed houses close packed above the high-water line, a patchwork of sailer fields, berry bushes and vegetable plots sprawling beyond them. The many-layered greens of untouched forest couldn't be seen till the first hills began to rise in the far distance. The wide river valley was home to a multitude of Ulla Safar's people.

'They're close enough,' Kheda assured her.

Close enough to come and rescue us, if we have to take the little skiff concealed in this great galley's holds, handpicked crew hidden among the unassuming oarsmen. You may think you have the Daish rulers held close, Ulla Safar, but did your father never teach you how a palm finch can slip through the bars of a cage built to hold a mountain hawk?

Telouet was watching Itrac thoughtfully. 'Until you have a body slave of your own again, you don't go anywhere without me or Birut, my lady of Chazen.' He added the courtesy of her title a little belatedly.

Birut grunted his agreement. 'Ulla Safar's concubines say he won't take no for an answer with them. With you on your own and Chazen Saril so far away, he might just think he could get away with rape and his word that you yielded against yours that you didn't.'

'I wish Saril was here.' Itrac's wretchedness showed through the mask of pleasure Birut had painted on her face.

Kheda was hard put not to let his exasperation with the two faithful body slaves show. 'One of our first concerns will be to make it clear beyond possibility of confusion that you are travelling under Daish protection.'

Use your brain, Telouet, and keep your mouth shut as well as your eyes open. I know it's your duty to worry over everyone's safety but Itrac fretting herself into a decline is just what we don't need. This visit is going to be difficult and dangerous enough as it is.

'Daish Kheda's word will curb Safar's enthusiasms,' Janne assured Itrac. 'I also intend making sure you're suited with a new body slave as soon as possible.'

Still waving and smiling all the while, Kheda looked at her. 'I wouldn't take anyone Mirrel Ulla offers you.'

'Naturally not.' Janne's smile took on a secretive, self-satisfied quality. 'Trust me, my husband. It's all in hand.'

Itrac opened her mouth to ask something more but forgot her question as the great galley rounded a bend in the river. Her jaw dropped in amazement.

'I take it you've never visited Derasulla before,' Janne remarked, amused.

All Itrac could do was shake her head, dumbfounded.

Daish Reik had told Kheda there had once been an island in the river's embrace but nothing of it remained visible now. A mighty wall of close-fitted red stone rose straight from the water, rising sheer to battlements and watchtowers jutting out over the void to give an unimpeded view in every direction. Behind this first defence, a second wall was visible, belligerent turrets marking its length as it marched away to the rear. A third wall rose beyond it and varied roofs and towers could be made out behind that, all tall enough to give vantage over the outer defences, not so much as a paving slab left where an invading enemy could stand without a rain of arrows puncturing his pretensions. Arrogance was plainly Ulla Safar's prerogative hereabouts, proclaimed by the yellow pennants flying from every coign and turret top. Any invasion would have to come in staggering strength if they were to try assault or siege; the fort was broad enough to hold an army within its innermost ring and its cellars deep enough to supply them for years.

The wind shifted and Itrac coughed, her expression turning to one of distaste. 'What is that stink?'

'Ulla Safar wallowing in his own filth like some swamp hog.' Contempt curled Janne's unceasing smile. 'His pride won't let him ever abandon his wonderful fort.'

'He keeps his household here year round,' Birut amplified. 'Though he must be scouring every dawn for some sign that the rains are coming by now.'

'I'll join him in that and gladly.' Even with the benefit of the scented oil Telouet had insisted on using on his hair and beard, Kheda did his best to take shallow breaths as the galley manoeuvred carefully between the sandbanks plainly visible in the shallow river. At this season, even the mighty flow from the folded hills and distant snow-capped mountains of this enormous island grew more meagre every day. There was nothing to wash away the ordure oozing from drains plainly visible well above the water level.

It sums up Safar and his notions of power quite neatly, this fortress of his. All magnificence on the surface but foulness beneath.

'There's the Ritsem ship.' There was relief in Telouet's voice and Kheda permitted himself a glance at Janne, to see the agreement in her eyes.

'Will Ritsem Caid want to talk to me about Olkai?'

Beneath her bright cosmetics, Itrac's face creased with misery.

'Only when you feel able. Now smile and wave,' Janne chided gently. 'We're delighted to be here, remember.'

'The Ritsem ship's moving off.' Birut nodded to Telouet. 'Let's show these mud skippers what we're made of.'

'This way.' Janne ushered Itrac back towards the steep stair leading down to the broad and luxuriously appointed cabins on the uppermost of the Rainbow Moth's three levels.

'We'll stay on deck.' Kheda's glance halted Telouet and the slave returned to his master's side. Kheda grimaced. 'It may stink up here but it's stifling below.'

Telouet didn't demur. 'Let's hope the rains come soon.' He spared an involuntary glance back down river. 'Do you think the dry season's broken back home?'

'Rekha will let us know when it does.' Kheda directed the slave's attention to the landing stage that was the single breach in the Derasulla fort's outermost defences. 'Now let's see exactly what Safar's thinking of us just at present.'

'Doesn't look as if Ritsem Caid thinks too much of him.' Telouet nodded at the Ritsem domain's ship. It was a heavy trireme, fitted out with frilled canopies and silken tassels decorating sails and ropes but still unmistakably a fighting vessel and manned with experienced rowers, judging by the speed and neatness of its turn as it pulled away from the dock.

'Not quite an insult but not exactly courtesy either.' Kheda knitted thoughtful brows.

'I don't think Safar's taking offence. That's a sizeable honour guard.' Telouet nodded to the array of armoured warriors lining the landing stage. Their armour shone brilliant in the unforgiving sun, various men carrying yet more pennants proclaiming the Ulla domain's magnifi-cence. 'Let's hope none of them faint and fall in the water.' His tone belied his words.

'So Caid's got the upper hand on something. Now what is Safar trying to tell us with this little display?' Kheda wondered aloud. As the Ritsem trireme quit the dock for a secure anchorage midstream, a significant proportion of the swordsmen were disappearing back into the labyrinth of the fort.

'That he's a discourteous boor,' growled Telouet.

Do I let them see me scowling? Will that give Ulla Safar pause for thought or just amuse him?

Kheda kept his expression tranquil. 'Let him play his games. The business bringing us here is far too serious to waste time on such stupidity.'

'Of course, my lord.' Telouet visibly set his anger aside at Kheda's sober reminder.

'Make ready!' The Rainbow Moth's shipmaster shouted his warning from the stern platform. Crewmen stood alert with boathooks and fenders newly stuffed with the fibres from tandra seedpods. Kheda unobtrusively spread his feet a little.

Let's not gift Safar with any appearance of lack of confidence in my mariners by holding on to something. Besides, Telouet's always within arm's reach. He won't let me or the Daish domain suffer the embarrassment of a fall.

Two decks below, the oarsmen deftly wielded their blades to bring the massive ship edging slowly up to the landing with its stone stages like the wide-set teeth of a comb jutting forward. The high stern platform of the galley eased into a gap. Daish sailors flung ropes down with the sharp whistles common to all mariners no matter what their domain. Ulla men secured the heavy lengths of hemp to sturdy bollards, pulling the galley ever closer until the wooden stair fixed in the angle between stern platform and steering oars hung over the dock rather than the water.

Kheda turned to Telouet with a dangerous smile as he unclasped his light cloak and let it fall to the planking. 'Let's step ashore.'

As he spoke, Birut emerged from the accommodation deck, a sword on each hip, helm covering gone, and bronze adornments brilliant against the silver steel of his armour. He did not have the nasal of his helm lowered but his unsmiling face below the ruby-studded brow band was warning enough that he was ready to fight.

Janne followed him, one hand carefully lifting the flowing skirts of a scarlet gown. She paused for a moment to smooth the silk and to allow Birut to adjust the gold-embroidered gossamer draped from the points of a pearl-encrusted coronet resting among the haze of soft smoky curls that framed her face. More ropes of pearls were woven into the single thick braid that hung down her back. A triple belt of golden chains girdled her waist, the strands joined by ornate canthira leaves bright with crimson enamel. More chains were cross-tied over the gown's gold-embroidered bodice to accentuate the charms of Janne's full bosom. Gem-studded rings flashed in the sun and countless bracelets of braided and twisted gold wire jingled softly as she adjusted the splendid filigree work dotted with rubies that nestled in her cleavage. The bright varnish on her perfectly manicured nails was an exact match.

'I've seen less determination on men about to go into battle for the domain,' observed Telouet discreetly, discarding his own helm covering.

'We all fight, just on different fields.' Kheda smiled with patent admiration as Itrac emerged, pausing to settle her own skirts. He was heartened to see a new courage rise in the Chazen lady's copper-painted eyes. 'Is that your work or Birut's?'

Itrac set her jaw, lips rimmed in that same lustrous copper. Raising beringed hands, she pushed back the gold circlet set with brindled turtle shell that held her unbound, unadorned hair off her face. Reaching almost to her waist, her glossy black locks were stunning. White embroidery on a white gown with a decorous neckline did its best to flatter her modest charms while setting off the ropes of amber beads she wore around her neck. A wide belt of pale turtle shell and gold clasped her slim waist and hip-high slits at either side of the close-cut skirt revealed her slim and elegant legs with every step. Kheda caught a gleam of gold dust in the oil that protected her honey-coloured skin from the sun. Darker turtle shell ringed her wrists and ankles, gold-mounted and brilliantly polished.

'Her hair looks good. I knew that sardberry wash would bring up the shine.' Telouet studied Itrac critically. 'I wonder if we shouldn't have sewn up the sides of that gown though. Does Safar's taste run to leggy sprigs or just full-blown blooms?'

'The man has no taste, just unbridled appetites.' Kheda shifted his feet and the silver ornaments on his anklets jingled slightly. He looked down at his loose blue trousers and indigo overtunic, every seam decorated with sapphires set in silver. Silver thread coiled all around his shoulders and chest, the embroidery just hinting at the pattern of mail and plates that made up a hauberk. 'You don't think the white would have been better? That wouldn't show the sweat so much.'

Telouet reached up to untangle the chains on the earrings that were already making Kheda's ears itch. 'That indigo's dark enough to hide the marks and, anyway, everyone will be sweating like pigs in this pestilential hole. The white would show every smudge and I'd bet my sword that Safar would find a chance to spill something on you.'

'True enough.' Kheda resisted the temptation to run his fingers through his hair.

The last thing I need is canthira oil all over my hands.

He raised his voice loud enough to be heard on the dockside. 'Shall we go, my wife? Will you join us, honoured wife to my ally?'

He watched the men on the landing stage from the corner of his eye for any obvious response to his words.

No reaction? No matter. Once we're safely inside the fort, one of you blank-faced lackeys can carry my words to some underling retained to inform Safar of every whisper uttered within Derasulla's walls. The sooner the better. Let Safar chew on the fact that Daish Kheda has openly acknowledged Chazen Saril as an ally.

He offered his arm to Janne, who laid her own hand lightly upon it. Smiling as if neither had a care in the world, they walked easily down the galley's steep gangway on to the dock. Telouet followed, with an emphatic jingle of armour as he alighted heavily on the massive stones of Derasulla. Itrac came next, Birut half a pace behind her.

'This way, my lord.' An Ulla servant bowed low before them, indicating a canopied rowing boat waiting on the water-filled channel that ran all the way round between the first and second walls of the fort, yet another obstacle to any would-be invader. The only other way off the landing stage was through narrow doors set into the inner wall, leading to a room designed for the efficient killing of uninvited arrivals.

Not that there will be any bloodshed today. Not unless someone drops one of Janne's innumerable chests on his foot. Mirrel Ulla won't find my wife lacking in choice of elegance.

The sizeable Daish retinue was already disembarking from the gangway on the other side of the galley's stern. The Rainbow Moth's crew were unloading the multitude of chests and coffers that a visit such as this demanded. Janne's personal musicians moved to stand aside, carrying no more than their instruments and small bags of personal belongings. Maidservants fluttered around, anxiously instructing the four blank-faced porters chosen for their broad shoulders and safe hands.

And for those far more useful attributes, names and faces unknown to the Ulla troops as practised swordsmen.

Confident all his people were about their allotted tasks, Kheda followed the fawning servant, Telouet stalking grim-faced behind him. Janne swept along serene and beautiful, Itrac doing her best to do the same beside her. Birut brought up the rear a pace behind, the challenge in his stare making it plain to anyone curious that both women were under his protection. The lackey handed them into the rowing boat and they left the landing stage. The rowers bent over their oars and pulled.

'Ulla Safar will receive you in the rose garden,' the lackey announced with the air of a man conveying wonderful news.

Kheda merely inclined his head by way of reply. He was managing to keep his face impassive but the stench of the stagnant water all around was making his stomach roil. Clouds of black flies rose and fell in the still air between the walls.

'How delightful.' Janne was made of sterner stuff.

Kheda turned to look at her and saw she'd prudently provided herself with a small pomander that had been hidden among the folds of her skirts. Itrac produced a fan of white feathers from somewhere and, as she plied it, Kheda detected it had been doused in perfume. He turned back to the front, hiding a smile.

Ulla Safar's women are no match for my Janne and it looks like Itrac Chazen is a willing pupil.

Kheda glanced apparently idly from side to side, noting the numbers of men walking the high ramparts on either side.

Will the swordsmen waiting on Daish triremes keeping station just far enough away not to provoke Safar be a match for Ulla men? There are more warriors on this one watch than the Daish domain could summon with a full muster. Is this just some show by Safar, designed to intimidate me? It would be nice to think so. Unfortunately, this strength in arms is probably the only thing about this fort that's all it seems.

That unpalatable fact was enough to make his stomach churn even without the foulness they were travelling through.

'Derasulla is quite the largest island in the whole southern compass of the Archipelago,' Janne was telling Itrac with apparent admiration. 'With iron ore of his own to mine, every Ulla warlord can pluck as many men as he likes from their villages and arm them all, and of course, with so much land, there are plentiful resources to feed them.'

Surely we can overwhelm these savages and even their wild magic with greater numbers? Surely Ulla Safar will see it's vital for his own domain's security that he join us infighting them?

The rowing boat passed beneath a narrow bridge giving the guards passage between the inner wall and the outer. A drain was built into the brick span, to carry the fortress's slops out to the river. Several bricks had fallen away where the curve met the outer wall and a dark stain marred the sun-baked red surface. Fortunately the rowing boat soon stopped at a water gate in the inner wall. Kheda took the steps two at a time, eager to get away from the stinking water and out of the searing sun. The cool inside the thick stone walls was almost as welcome as a draught of ice water.

'This way.' Bowing low with fluttering hands, the smooth-faced lackey led them through a maze of passages and stairways. Kheda blinked as his eyes took a moment to adjust to the dim light filtering through small windows high in the lofty walls. Whoever had built the fort had opted to trade light for shade. After climbing through the outer, humbler circles of the fortress, they found themselves walking through marble halls with floors of painted tiles. Gullies were built into the angle of wall and floor, intended to flow with cooling water. Basins for fountains sat beneath skylights where corridors met in vivid circles of interlacing patterns. For the present, all the gullies and fountains were dry, doing nothing to mitigate the heat within the fortress. The cisterns waiting for the rain's bounty had been dry and dusty refuges for house lizards hunting spiders long since. Finally, they reached an archway opening on to the merciless brilliance of the sunlight. The lackey halted and bowed low once again, a sweep of his arm inviting the warlord to proceed.

Kheda strode through the arch without pausing, narrowing his eyes against the glare as discreetly as he could. They were high in the citadel at the heart of the fort where a courtyard had been turned into a sumptuous physic garden.

And the rare and exotic plants brought to the Ulla warlords by hopeful suppliants and grateful subjects are uniformly drab and dusty, I see. The most valuable medicinal herbs all but dead for lack of water. Well, they'd be wasted on Safar. The man can barely dress a cut finger.

At the moment, Kheda saw, the Ulla warlord was taking his ease in a sumptuous summerhouse in the middle of the courtyard. Anyone wanting to speak to him would have to cross the garden, sun beating down on their unshaded heads. Ulla Safar didn't seem to have noticed their arrival. He was cleaning his nails with the tip of a broad dagger, one of those that characterised this domain, with the curious handle designed for a punching blow, twin bars to frame the forearm and a crosspiece for the palm.

'I imagine you have covered walkways in this kind of heat, don't you? We always do,' Janne remarked artlessly to Itrac as they strolled behind him. 'I shall have to suggest it to Mirrel. I'm surprised she hasn't thought of it, but then, she's in such a muddle over her sandalwood at the moment. I don't suppose she's had time to pay attention to much else.'

Kheda kept his face impassive.

'Women's discussions are no business of a warlord's! Daish Reik told you that often enough. In any case, no one plays these silken games better than Janne and Rekha. If Itrac gets nothing else out of this trip, she'll get an education to leave Chazen Saril deep in Daish's debt.

He greeted Ulla Safar with every appearance of contentment. 'My lord, it is always a pleasure to visit your home.'

'You are welcome at any and every season, Daish Kheda.' The warlord was reclining on a daybed claiming most of the shade within the octagonal summerhouse. It was built of the sandalwood that was one of the Ulla domain's valued trade commodities, with walls of fretwork panels that could be drawn back to accommodate a breeze from any direction. At the moment there was no wind at all, even at this highest point in the citadel, but at least the scent from the overblown rose bushes on all sides mitigated the stink from the river far below.

'Janne Daish, a delight to see you once again. Do introduce me to your charming companion.' Ulla Safar raised himself on one elbow with a jingle of agate necklaces and smiled something perilously close to a leer at Itrac. A grossly fat man, nevertheless his bracelet-laden forearms still snowed the muscle that had maintained his position as eldest son before self-indulgence had let him run to seed as warlord. His huge belly strained the seams of his saffron-yellow tunic and his gold rings bit deep into puffy fingers. A full black beard disguised his jowls somewhat, laced through with golden chains that were looped back around his long hair to pull it off his face. His eyes were unusually pale for a man of such dark complexion.

Eyes like a jungle cat, Safar, you and your son Orhan both.

Kheda was about to introduce Itrac when Janne forestalled him.

'You know Itrac Chazen,' she chided Safar playfully. 'Chazen Saril introduced her to us all at Redigal Coron's New Year celebrations.'

'Of course,' Safar replied, his frank gaze examining Itrac with a lasciviousness that prompted identical scowls from Telouet and Birut. 'Forgive me,' he purred.

'We all forget the most obvious things,' Janne went on soothingly. 'With the heat so late in the dry season such a sore trial.'

Even with that none so subtle hint, no invitation to sit was forthcoming. Kheda turned to an arbour of climbing roses falling in a shower of blood-red blooms. 'Janne, do smell these. They are wonderful.'

Janne joined him and sniffed, her expression delighted. 'Indeed. Their attar must be something quite special.' She lifted a velvety bloom with a careful hand and as it hid her mouth, spoke for Kheda's ears alone. 'Surely Safar won't be so discourteous as to keep us standing much longer?'

'He does seem keen to show us our place from the outset.'

Just what is that place, I wonder and do we need to work out an early escape route?

As Kheda wondered, he heard voices echoing in the passage leading to this scented sanctuary. This time the lackey escorted the guests into the garden. 'Rits—'

'I see we're not standing on ceremony, good.' Ritsem Caid spoke over the servant with broad good humour but Kheda saw the calculation in his eyes.

What makes you so bold, that you re not about to let Safar make such distinctions between his guests?

'Great lord.' Kheda held out both hands and Caid grasped them firmly. The two men were much of a height and similarly built, years of swordplay building adequate muscle over long bones. Caid wore his curly hair long and braided close to his scalp, his exuberant beard tamed in a single plait. His hazel eyes met Kheda's green ones for a moment and the silent pledge of alliance there warmed Kheda's heart.

Dropping Kheda's hands, the Ritsem warlord turned to Janne and bowed low. 'My lady of Daish, beautiful as always.'

Janne smiled sunnily at him and stretched a hand out to Itrac.

'We need no introduction, do we, my lady of Chazen.' Ritsem Caid bowed almost as low as he had to Janne. 'I only wish we were meeting again under better stars. I offer my condolences and those of all of my wives.'

Belatedly, Kheda realised that Caid had only his personal slave and a few servants in attendance. 'Are we not to have the pleasure of their company?'

'Taisia is with me,' Caid answered easily, 'but the others felt it their duty to stay close to home in such uncertain times.' He smiled at Itrac before snapping his fingers to summon an armoured man from the knot of Ritsem retainers. 'Trya and Ri have sent you a gift though, in remembrance of Olkai who was their sister before she became yours. This is Jevin. Ganil speaks well of him.'

The Ritsem warlord's personal slave smiled broadly. 'I'd let him serve any lady of our domain.'

Itrac was struggling to find a suitable response so Janne spoke up brightly. 'How kind. Ulla Safar, since we're not standing on ceremony, I'll beg your indulgence and we'll go and thank Taisia.' She snapped her fingers at one of the sweating Ulla servants hovering by the summerhouse.

'Tell your mistress Mirrel that we'll attend her just as soon as she sends word she's ready to receive us.' Skirts fluttering about her gold-ringed ankles, Janne swept Itrac out of the garden, Birut and the newcomer Jevin following shoulder to shoulder and in emphatic step.

Janne, my love, you had a hand in that or I am a roof lizard.

Kheda watched them go with a neutral expression to balance Caid's wide grin and Safar's unconcealed glower.

'I do hope the rains come soon. This heat's getting unbearable.' Caid moved into the shade of the summer-house and unbidden sat on a cushion. 'I'm not surprised your guard couldn't tolerate it long enough to do full honour to the Daish domain. You'll forgive them, won't you, Kheda?'

'I assumed they were being ordered to their barracks once their commanders realised just how hot the day was.'

Do I wait for an invitation to sit? No, that's just playing into your fat hands.

Kheda sat opposite Caid; the two of them now flanking Safar on his ochre-brocaded daybed. 'We need every fighting man we can muster, so we don't want half of Ulla's forces prostrate with sunstroke.'

'We have a serious matter before us,' Caid began. He was wearing a blue tunic patterned with hummingbirds, the green of their wings mimicking the emeralds set in his profusion of gold rings and bracelets.

A good omen, that we're both wearing blue.

Kheda took a breath, about to speak, but Safar forestalled him.

'Serious or not, it will have to wait. Redigal Coron has yet to join us.' He didn't sound concerned.

'That surprises me. When he has the least journey of any of us?' Kheda queried mildly.

The mud worm's delaying at Safar's orders of course.

'When is he expected?' Caid didn't hide his displeasure.

'This evening, tomorrow morning perhaps.' Safar waved a casual hand.

'What shall we do in the meantime?' Kheda enquired with studied calm.

Besides finding a quiet moment to hint that you baiting Safar is exactly what I don't need, Caid.

'Improve our acquaintance with each other,' replied Safar with a jovial laugh.

'As you wish.' Caid sounded sceptical. He looked around the summerhouse and the garden. 'Will Orhan be joining us?'

'Orhan?' Safar was surprised. 'Why should he?'

'The education of your heir is your concern, my lord of Ulla.' Caid looked over at Kheda. 'I take it Sirket commands in your absence?'

'With Rekha Daish to guide him,' Kheda confirmed. 'They will relay any word from Chazen Saril. The sooner we know where our enemies lie, the sooner we can plan their destruction.'

'It's a blessing to have a son one can rely on.' The Ritsem warlord seemed intent on other concerns. 'Zorat will be receiving guests from the Endit domain in my stead. Your summons was so urgent I didn't have time to rearrange their visit.'

'It's too hot out here.' Safar snapped his fingers at his body slave, who stepped up to haul the warlord grace-lessly to his feet. 'We'll discuss this uneasiness of yours when Redigal Coron arrives.' He lumbered away and out of the garden, sparing a casual blow for a slave who was a little too slow getting out of his path.

Kheda looked at Caid. 'Don't twist his ears too much. We need him and his men if we're to meet this menace from the south.'

'Maybe, maybe not.' Caid grinned, unrepentant. 'The Ritsem domain can summon doughty warriors.'

'That I don't doubt, but not in the numbers we need, not when all your islands could fit inside this one. Besides, swordsmen need swords, so we need Ulla steel. You've no ironstone.' Then Kheda caught the glint in Caid's eye.

'But we have, my friend.' Caid's grin grew still broader, his even teeth white in the shade.

'Since when?' gaped Kheda.

'Since an enterprising lad went exploring caves in an otherwise useless lump of an island.' Caid turned his head to stare at a humble gardener tending a pink-kissed spray of yellow roses. 'Shall we go and look for some refreshment, given our host is being so unusually remiss in his attentions to us?'

And that spying servant will dutifully carry back that insult. So what else would we like Ulla Safar to chew over?

'Come and take your ease with me and Janne,' Kheda suggested. 'She'll be delighted to see you.'

'Gladly.' Caid sprang to his feet. 'I'd like to talk to her about Endit Fel.'

'I don't know that she'll tell you much you don't already know.' Kheda rose and smoothed his tunic. 'She'd only been wed half a year when Endit Cai died and she was his fifth wife at that.'

'I'll still be interested in anything she recalls about Fel's likes or dislikes,' Caid assured him.

'You've got Ulla islands all too close to the sea-lane between you and the Endit domain,' Kheda reminded Caid discreetly once they were out of earshot of the gardener. 'Provoke our fat friend too much and he might just decide to squat in your path.'

'And offend Endit Fel like that, now he'll have a choice of where to trade for iron?' countered Caid gleefully. 'Oh, I am looking forward to sticking a few pins in Safar's fat arse.'

And obviously to a new accommodation between the Ritsem domain and Endit Fel. What are you hoping to get out of that? When am I going to find a chance to ask? Not walking Derasulla's corridors, not when any number of listening ears could be hiding in these honeycombed walls.

As Kheda thought this, the ingratiating servant appeared from nowhere, bowing and dry-washing his hands. 'My lords, may I escort you to your quarters.'

'Take us to my lady Janne.'

The two warlords walked in silence as the beardless servant bobbed and bowed before them, his meaningless compliments for themselves as ceaseless as his praise for his master. Kheda heard Caid's man Ganil matching Telouet step for step, chainmail jingling softly.

'How much lower in the citadel are we going?' Ritsem Caid asked sharply as their walk continued.

'Here we are.' The slave led them around a corner and gestured at a door. 'My lady Janne Daish's apartments. Your accommodations are just along the corridor, great lord.' The slave struggled to bow and point at the same time.

'I will see that everything is as we require.' Telouet headed for the door, face promising comprehensive retaliation if everything was not exactly to the standard befitting his master.

'You may go.' Kheda dismissed the fawning slave and knocked on Janne's door.

Birut opened it a hand's width with a forbidding scowl. 'My lord.' Face clearing, he flung the door open. 'And my lord Ritsem Caid, my ladies.'

Janne was seated with Itrac on a midnight-blue carpet patterned with stars and ringed with a bank of luxuriantly stuffed cushions. Intricately carved sandalwood side tables bore silver incense burners in the form of questing hounds and shallow bowls of cobalt ceramic were piled high with yellow rose petals. Half sunk into the earth of the original river island, the room was broad with an airy feel thanks to the white marble lining its walls where tall vases of alabaster stood full of fresh vizail sprays filling the room with their heady scent. By contrast, the floor was brilliant with tiles making an intricate interlace of green and blue. The windows high in the north-facing wall were shaded with awnings as was the flight of steps leading up and out into a private garden where Kheda could hear the soothing plash of a fountain and smell the shady promise of perfume trees.

'Do these rooms suffice, my wife?' Kheda asked with a faint note of displeasure. 'They are rather small.'

'They are adequate, my husband, and cooler than any suite on the heights. Doubtless Mirrel Ulla had the sense to realise we'd be more concerned with our comfort than our consequence at such a time of trial. Birut, drinks for our lord and our honoured guest.' Janne nodded to the slave, who picked up a splendid set of ewer and goblets in gleaming Jahal ware from a side table.

Kheda took the cup Birut offered and sniffed it cautiously.

'Lilla juice and spring water.' Janne nodded to the Daish musician sat in one corner of the room with more modest rug and cushions. He had been plucking a soothing lilt from his circular lyre. Picking up his bow, he started a livelier tune with a loud flourish.

'At least he's not trying to poison us with river water.' Kheda shrugged and drank.

'It will be nice to have a change from lilla fruit, when the rains come,' Itrac ventured unexpectedly.

Ritsem Caid had emptied his goblet and was holding it out for a refill. 'Where are you housed, Itrac Chazen?'

'She's sharing these apartments with me,' Janne answered for her, a glint in her eye.

'Mirrel Ulla offered me a room among her own household,' said Itrac uncertainly. 'Since I am here with no retinue of my own.'

Caid snorted. 'You're here with Janne Daish, celebrated first wife and her husband an honoured guest. She just wanted you locked up with the rest of Safar's women, so we could all get used to the notion.'

'That's what I suspected,' agreed Janne.

'I take it you're ready to marry without delay?' Caid looked sharply at Kheda and then to Itrac. 'If you hear the worst from Chazen.'

So you spared some thought for the complications of the Chazen situation, in between gloating over your new opportunities and making plans to ally with Endit Fel. That's a relief.

'I was thinking it might be less of a slap in the face for Safar if she married Sirket.' Kheda smiled reassuringly at Itrac. 'But let's hope it doesn't come to that.'

'What do you mean?' Itrac stared at the two warlords, plainly confused.

'I hadn't thought it appropriate to discuss the delicate issue of her status with Itrac' Janne rebuked both men with a minatory look. 'Not while she still mourns Olkai Chazen's death.'

'If Saril is killed,' Itrac said, eyes dark with pain, 'I'll just go to the Thelus domain. My father would welcome me back.'

'Your father is far from here.' Janne forbore to rebuke such naivety with some effort. 'With Olkai dead and Sekni's fate unknown, you are senior wife to the Chazen domain and as such, you would hold considerable power, should we hear that Chazen Saril is dead.'

Itrac hid her face in shaking hands, the jaunty music of the lyre at cruel odds with her distress. A piper joined the tune, in an attempt to cover the rising voices in the room.

Janne gathered her close in comforting arms but her voice was gently implacable. 'There is no Chazen child yet of an age of reason. Even if there were, the domain would still be vulnerable without a strong regent. That would be Olkai's duty but with her dead, you must take up the challenge.'

'It's your duty to the domain to wed a man strong enough to rule as warlord until one of Saril's children is of the age of discretion,' Caid agreed soberly.

'Which is why I thought of Sirket,' explained Kheda. 'With his own inheritance waiting, he wouldn't disinherit Saril's children in favour of his own.'

Not while I'm alive to tan his hide for trying, anyway.

'Safar won't back down for anyone less than another warlord.' Caid shook his head emphatically. 'Anyway, Sirket's not here. You must be wed inside the day some message bird brings word of Saril's death, Itrac, if you're to safeguard your domain. You should have brought Sirket with you if that was your plan, Kheda.'

'I wasn't prepared to bring him into this kind of danger, any more than you were about to risk Zorat,' Kheda retorted.

'Zorat is needed in the Ritsem isles,' declared Caid.

'If either of them was here, Safar would just be taunting them to provoke some rudeness or argument to give him an excuse to ignore the real concerns before us,' Janne said curtly. 'We cannot afford to indulge his nonsense when all our safety is at stake. If we do not stand together against magic, we'll all be lost!'

The mention of magic silenced everyone, even the sweeping lyre and piping flutes of the musicians. Janne snapped furious fingers at them and they hastily resumed their tune.

The music barely covered Itrac's sudden sobs. 'Why are we talking like this? You're talking as if Saril's already dead. Maybe he is. How will we ever know? Who's ever going to hold the Chazen islands anyway, plagued with magic and monsters, and anyway, everyone's going to be dead, Saril and Sekni and all the children, just like poor Olkai, burning in agonies and—'

'Birut, the door,' Janne snapped, gesturing at the entrance to the sleeping quarters. 'Get her up.' Finding the hysterical girl unable to stand, Jevin deftly swung her up into his arms. 'Kheda, get something to soothe these vapours or she'll be in no fit state to deal with Mirrel whenever that bitch deigns to receive us.'

'Of course.' Kheda turned and hurried to his own apartments, Caid at his elbow. 'Telouet, my small physic chest.' He reached beneath his tunic for the key chain around his waist as Telouet held out a small coffer of silver-bound satinwood.

'I'm sorry, I assumed you'd all discussed her future.' Caid fell silent.

'No,' Kheda said shortly. He sorted through tightly sealed glass jars until he found the one he wanted. 'She's barely over the shock of everything that's happened. Telouet, get a mouthful of water, no juice.'

'Silvernet?' Caid watched Kheda shake a greyish-white pulp into the cup the slave handed him. 'You don't think she'll need something stronger?'

'It'll calm her without dulling her wits.' Kheda swirled the water around, watching it grow cloudy. 'We all need our wits about us here.'

'I was sure you'd have talked the options through with her,' Caid apologised again.

'Give this to Janne.' Kheda handed Telouet the cup and waved him away. For the first time he noticed the room. As plushly appointed as the apartments Janne had been given, it had the same white marble walls and a cream- and red-tiled floor.

'Did you let Olkai die in agony?' Caid asked abruptly.

'What?' Kheda looked at the Ritsem warlord, appalled. 'How can you ask such a thing?'

'Your messages weren't exactly clear.' Caid shrugged awkwardly. 'Had Saril tended her, before you found her?'

You want someone to blame, don't you?

'I nursed her myself until she died.' Kheda closed the physic chest with slow deliberation. 'Her women had done all they could; I can't fault their care of her. Then I used every skill my father taught me for her burns but it was plain from the outset she was doomed. I'm sorry. All I could do was ease her pain and believe me I did so. Not that it makes her death any easier to bear, I know.'

'She was the best of all of us, everyone's favourite. That's why my father let her marry for love of that feckless beachcomber Saril.' Grief twisted Caid's face. 'He said the omens were good. The old fool must have missed something. Saril must have missed every portent this past year, not to have foreseen this disaster.'

'Magic makes a mockery of every omen,' Kheda reminded him gently. 'You cannot blame Saril for that. I couldn't read any clear portents south of the Serpents' Teeth. At least the miasma doesn't seem to have reached north of there, though. I could read the portents plainly enough once I was back in my own waters.'

And you cannot imagine what a relief that was, my friend.

Caid pressed the back of one hand to his closed eyes before speaking with low contempt. 'What is our esteemed ally Chazen Saril doing now?'

'Fighting to maintain a presence in his domain, so his people may rally to him.' Kheda chose his words carefully for the benefit of any curious ears. 'Sending out scouts and searching out news so that we might have some idea of just what islands these invaders hold and where their magicians might be lurking. We will need to know all we can when we go to drive them back into the southern ocean.'

Caid's thoughts were still with Olkai and her future. 'She's been taken to a Daish tower of silence? I know I have no rights in the matter but I'd rather see her virtues adorn your domain than go back to Chazen.'

'It seemed the best thing to do,' Kheda said a little awkwardly. 'With magic rampant in the south, I didn't want all that she was corrupted by it.'

Caid would have said something but for a rap on the door. Ganil, waiting in silent attendance, opened it to reveal the beardless slave.

'My lords,' he simpered ingratiatingly. 'Redigal Coron has arrived unexpectedly early. Since you feel your business is so urgent, Ulla Safar invites you to join them both in his audience chamber.'

'All in good time.' Kheda gestured and Ganil slammed the door in the servant's face.

'He's playing games with us,' growled Caid.

'Of course.' Kheda smiled without humour. 'Off balance and hungry, that's how he wants us.'

As he spoke the door opened again. Ganil's scowl cleared when he saw Telouet carrying a broad platter of freshly prepared fruits and roughly torn bread piled in a basket.

'We'll keep Safar waiting just long enough to make the point that we're not at his beck and call.' Kheda helped himself. 'And make sure it's not our bellies rumbling that give him an excuse to cut the discussions short.'

'You talk about me twisting Safar's ears.' Caid chewed the speckled bread with a frown. 'How many insults are you going to swallow from him? This is far too coarse to give to guests.'

'It wasn't given, it was taken.' Kheda grinned.

Telouet spoke up at his master's nod. 'The bread's from baskets in the northern servants' kitchen. The fruit's from the anteroom serving the audience chambers of Mirrel Ulla and Shay Ulla. I peeled and chopped it myself.

'There's no way you had time to go all that way.' Curiosity lit Caid's eyes as he took a slice of melon, careful not to let the juice stain his sumptuous tunic. 'Who—?'

'Let's go and see if the ladies are ready, shall we?' Kheda took a damp cloth that Telouet was offering and wiped starfruit juice from his fingers.

'Do we want them in the audience chamber?' Caid stood patiently as Ganil brushed crumbs, real and imagined, from his chest. 'The more people there are, the more confusion Safar will try to sow.'

'Quite,' Kheda agreed. 'Which is why Janne will be keeping Mirrel and Shay both well away from the four of us. Shall we go?'

'As you wish, Daish Kheda. Let's show Ulla Safar that it's time to take our business here seriously,' said Caid pugnaciously.

'Do you remember the way?' Kheda asked out of the side of his mouth.

'I think so.' But Caid didn't sound entirely sure as they went out into the corridor, slaves dutifully at their heels. At the end of the passage, they climbed the first set of stairs leading to the upper levels of the citadel.

'East here,' prompted Ganil under his breath when Caid slowed at a junction of identical corridors on the next floor.

'And north at the next stair after this,' murmured Telouet.

Kheda and Caid shared a grin but by the time they had negotiated the maze of the citadel and turned into a short passage ending in heavy wooden doors of bluntly carved black wood, both their faces were deadly serious.

Chapter Seven

'Announce us, Telouet.' Kheda halted and gave the armoured guards flanking the entrance his most intimidating stare.

We'll come before Ulla Safar and Redigal Coron with full ceremony or not at all.

Telouet slid past the warlords to stand menacingly before the door wards. Ganil moved slightly to guard them both from the rear.

'Open to Daish Kheda, son of Daish Reik, reader of portents, giver of laws, healer and protector of all his domain encompasses,' Telouet challenged, hands on both swords. 'Open to Ritsem Caid, son of Ritsem Serno, ruler, scholar, augur and defender that all his domain may call on.'

The guards bowed acceptably low and pushed the heavy doors open. Ulla Safar's personal slave was waiting just inside, a naked sword in either hand.

'Enter and be welcome to bring tidings, share counsel and accept the wisdom of Ulla Safar who is guardian of our health, wealth and justice.' He thrust his swords back into their scabbards with a rushing rattle and stepped back. Telouet held his hands away from his own weapons and moved the two warlords into the room.

So Safar has a new secretary writing his boasts and one with a taste for the ostentatiously poetic rather than the accurate. Our wives protect the domain's wealth. Let's see if Safar's man has concocted some similar new flourish for Redigal Coron's body slave to declaim.

The fourth warlord was already seated close by Safar with his back to the long windows shedding the bright sunlight into the wide and lofty room. If need be, it would doubtless accommodate every spokesman from every village even of this vast island. The roof reaching up through two storeys of the citadel above them was held up by pillars of iron wood covered with vines of burnished gold leaf, the hammer beams high above carved into fanciful beasts brilliantly painted: jungle cats, hook-toothed hogs, water oxen and the chattering loals that fanciful children called guardians of the forest.

One of the gaggle of old attendants that trailed everywhere after Coron had usurped the bodyguard's place just behind the warlord, a white-haired, clean-shaven slave who knelt there submissively. The swordsman was sitting some way further back, a heavily built youth with a bull neck and a hint of arrogance in his boredom. Kheda didn't recognise him but then he rarely saw Coron with the same body slave twice. Redigal Coron looked apprehensive.

As if we needed to see your expression, Coron, to know you'll be trying to balance toadying to Safar with whatever advice your so faithful adviser whispers in your ear.

The Redigal warlord was sturdily built with long legs, a good head taller than all the other warlords. Eldest of the four, touches of grey were beginning to show in his hair and beard but he was in no sense past his prime. Well muscled, his dark skin gleamed with health beneath a profusion of topaz and silver jewellery that proclaimed the prosperity of his fertile and peaceful domain. A lively pattern of prancing golden deer decorated his purple satin tunic, the archers pursuing them embroidered on his sleeveless overmantle.

What a mystery it is, that such a well-favoured man should be so spineless. Would I have some answers, if I'd known Redigal Adun? You never told me, Daish Reik, why you disliked him so much. Is he the key to the puzzle of his son's failings? Or is it your faithful companions, Coron, these white-haired zamorin, always at your elbow since before your accession to your father's dignities? Those of us who thought this a passing irritation have certainly been proved wrong; as adopted sons and nephews join the coterie when older retainers withdraw to their extremely comfortable retirement.

'Are we expecting anyone else?' Caid stood, arms folded, looking down at Safar who reclined among a profusion of cushions at the northern end of the luxurious carpet that filled the enormous room.

Kheda noted everyone else got a single cushion with a gaudy pattern of pomegranates. 'Shall we sit?'

'Of course,' Safar said easily. 'Now, let's see if we can't make sense of this panic. You were wise to look for my counsel before letting rumour spread unnecessary alarm throughout the entire southern Archipelago.'

Kheda took his time settling himself facing their host. Caid completed the compass square and subjected Coron to a searching stare. Coron's slave frowned and leaned forward to whisper into his master's ear. Kheda heard a clink as Telouet knelt behind him in the formal pose of a slave ready to draw his sword and die for his master.

Let's be sure nothing like that becomes necessary.

'We didn't expect you until tonight at the earliest.' Caid addressed Coron with a hint of sarcasm. 'I'm pleased to see you chose to make haste, when we must decide how to deal with such obnoxious dangers.'

'You are the one being too hasty,' interrupted Safar with an unpleasant smile. 'We should read the portents for this council.'

'I have read the skies every night as we travelled here,' Caid said with barely concealed contempt.

'As have I.' Kheda spoke loudly to forestall Safar's retort. 'The Horned Fish rises, clear sign that we should not ignore the stars' guidance. The heavenly Ruby counsels courage and unity as it moves from the arc of friendship into the realm of our foes.'

'It lies in a clear line with the Topaz that marks the year,' added Caid. 'It is plain that these events are truly momentous.'

'Both those jewels are set in the compass directly opposite the Amethyst, talisman against anger and gem to stimulate new ideas,' Kheda continued, hiding his irritation at Caid's interruption. 'The Amethyst rides with the Pearl of the Lesser Moon, in the sky where we look for signs to our children's fates. The need for our cooperation to safeguard their futures could not be plainer.'

'Amethyst and Pearl both ride among the stars of the Sea Serpent,' said Coron unexpectedly. 'That is a complex sign where portents can hint at hidden foes and unexpected dangers, for children most of all. We must be careful in our deliberations, you in particular, Daish Kheda, with the Pearl such a potent symbol for your domain.'

'The Diamond for leadership lies in the arc of brotherhood, cradled within the stars of the Bowl that counsels sharing between friends and allies.' Kheda kept his eyes on Ulla Safar.

'But the Greater Moon, the Opal, it sits in the arc of self, so we must look to our own instincts to guide us above all else. It shines through the branches of the Canthira Tree that reminds us of the whole cycle of life, death and renewal.' Ulla Safar's pale, animal eyes were all but hidden in folds of fat. 'How else can canthira seeds sprout, if they have not first been scorched by fire? It is my duty to make sure we seek every guidance, as lord of this domain.' Safar half clapped his hands briskly with a rattle of his agate bracelets.

This is a first, my lord Safar. Your attitude to your divina-tory duties is haphazard at best, unless there's a chance you can humiliate my son or Caid's on the pretext of granting them an honour and then querying every interpretation they make of the plainest portents.

A dutiful servant scurried into the room carrying a shallow brass-bound cage of white wood. He knelt before Safar, placing the cage on the ground and shuffling backwards, bowing so low he banged his forehead on the ground with an audible thud. Scrambling to his feet, he fled for the doorway.

Safar leant forward with a grunt, his gargantuan belly impeding his efforts to reach the cage. Opening it, he thrust a fat hand inside and drew out a small green lizard, a fan of black scales crowning its pointed head and a black line running the length of its back down to the tip of its bony tail. 'Are we ready?'

Without waiting for any reply, the Ulla warlord half dropped, half threw the squirming reptile on to the carpet between them. It landed with a soft thud and crouched down, long toes splayed on the unfamiliar surface, head weaving and cautious tongue tasting the air. It took a few wary steps in Coron's direction before freezing, the scales on its head rising to a startled crest. Wheeling round, it scurried noiselessly towards Safar and disappeared in the cushions plumped at the fat man's back.

'It would seem the responsibility for guiding our counsels rests with me,' remarked Safar with bland complacency as his body slave began a furtive search among the cushions for the lizard.

'Though, when dealing with such grave concerns, we should read every augury,' Caid countered with commendable restraint.

'Let's study the skies at sunset, the clouds and the flight of the river birds,' Kheda suggested.

You can't have trained those to follow whatever secret scent duped that lizard.

'Very well.' Safar pretended surprise and made as if to stand up. 'We can gather again in the morning.'

'You misunderstand me,' said Kheda sharply.

'We will discuss these threats now,' Caid insisted at the same time.

'We can consult all available portents to divine our best course before we act,' agreed Redigal Coron cautiously. Behind his shoulder, the white-haired slave was watchful.

'As you wish.' Safar shrugged his massive shoulders and settled himself once more on his cushions. 'Now, Daish Kheda, just what do you think you saw on some scrubby Chazen beach?'

Safar's slave had caught the lizard and was making a clumsy attempt to return it to its cage. Kheda looked down and counted four white trumpet flowers and five blue logen blooms woven into the carpet before the creature was caged and removed. He looked up.

'I don't think I saw anything. I know I saw monsters wrought of foul enchantment leaving my people and Chazen Saril's dead and injured. But that was not the start of it, nor the worst.'

It seems almost unreal, like some poet's recital of imagined horrors, yet it is so very real, so brutally true. You have to believe me.

He took a breath and detailed the first alarms rousing the Daish compound before continuing through every aspect of the punishing voyage south and the grief of discovering Olkai Chazen's suffering. Seeing Safar about to interrupt, Kheda gave him no chance, pressing on to explain their unexpected initial successes in the south so rapidly followed by the horrifying setback of the monstrous whip lizards' attack. Telling of Atoun's death prompted a grating shift from Telouet behind him and Kheda saw the Redigal zamorin watching the slave thoughtfully. Clearing his throat, he concluded his stark recital of the events that had sent terror rippling through the southern reaches.

'For now, Chazen Saril holds a small group of swampy islands on the easternmost fringe of his domain. He is seeking to learn exactly where these invaders are gathered and in what strengths, as well as how many wizards they have to call on. I am keeping him supplied with message birds so he can send word of every new discovery to Rekha Daish. Sirket will alert us to any significant developments while we are here.'

'You trust the boy to judge what's significant?' Safar's amusement was just short of disbelief.

'I do, and he has Rekha Daish to advise him.' Kheda replied with determined calm.

Try casting aspersions on my second wife's wisdom, Safar, when everyone here knows how emphatically your own women always find themselves on the wrong side of the balance in their dealings with her.

'Now you've heard with your own ears what Kheda sent us in sealed and ciphered messages days ago,' said Caid tersely, 'let's not waste any more time going over old ground. We must act!'

'I see no need for me to act.' Safar smiled with genial unconcern. 'This is no concern of mine. The Chazen domain is many days' passage away even by the fastest trireme.'

'It'll be your concern all too soon if these magicians come north,' retorted Caid.

'Unless I mistake Daish Kheda, they show no signs of coming north?' Safar looked at him with polite query. 'They don't even seem to have attacked Chazen Saril again?'

'Not as yet,' said Kheda tersely. 'I imagine they realise that the imminent storms will make any voyaging too hazardous. I have every expectation that they will come north in strength as soon as the rains have passed, maybe even as soon as the first break in the squalls.'

Unless they can master water as well as fire and simply ignore the weather. In which case we're all in more trouble than we can imagine. But you can't imagine, can you, any of you? You haven't seen what I have seen.

Redigal Coron's slave whispered something to him. Coron cleared his throat. 'It would be as well to decide what we might do, should they come north once the rains have passed.'

'Since your domain and mine will be the first to be invaded,' Kheda agreed with uncompromising harshness.

'That would certainly give me cause for concern,' Safar assured Coron. The Redigal warlord didn't look convinced.

More importantly neither does that slave of his.

'It'll be a little late to be concerned when they're landing on our beaches,' said Caid with biting precision. 'Let's stop them now, before they even think of attacking the Daish or Redigal domains.'

'But who are they?' pleaded Coron. 'What do they want?'

'They must want something, whoever they are.' Safar looked more alert. 'What are they seeking from Chazen?'

'I have no idea.' Kheda didn't mind letting the others see his frustration.

'I don't see we need to know that, not to fight them,' said Caid robustly.

'While they fight us with magic,' retorted Safar. 'How do we fight that?'

Anxious, Coron nodded. 'We don't have enough talismans to turn magic aside from one in ten of our warriors. If we look to other domains to trade for the relevant gems, they'll simply strip us of everything we could offer.'

Those are Ulla Safar's words in your mouth, aren't they?

'I doubt it.' Kheda set his jaw. 'Not when we're stopping this flood of malice before it reaches their shores.'

'You think they'll credit our claims of magic blowing up from the southern ocean like some whirlwind out of season?' Safar shook his head. 'Do you want to try convincing Tule Nar, Viselis Us, even Endit Fels? There's no record of magic in any of our islands within time of memory.'

'It's the northernmost domains are plagued by wizards, not us.' Coron glanced back over his shoulder to seek his slave's confirmation.

'I still find it hard to believe myself.' Safar's tone turned sceptical. 'Are you sure this wasn't some delusion, some drug in your drinking water, some dreamsmoke blown across your sleeping ships?'

'Believe it,' Kheda said coldly. 'Before the roofs of your own fortress run with sorcerous fire.'

'Are you sure this isn't all some deception, some trickery?' Coron pleaded.

Kheda looked straight at him, unblinking. 'No delusion ripped Atoun's face off and showered me in his life's blood. No smoke burned Olkai's hand to a charred claw and left her dying through days of unconscionable suffering. We can summon Chazen Itrac to tell us of her experiences if you choose not to believe me, though I should warn you, Janne Daish will not be pleased to see her put through such an ordeal.'

He turned his gaze on Safar. 'Who would make such a pretence, that his domain was being invaded and polluted by magic? Chazen Saril? What could he possibly hope to gain?'

'Who knows, indeed?' Safar stared back at him with level indifference. 'I suggest you go back to your islands and prepare to meet this threat. I shall make ready to deal with it as and when it touches my domain. It may be that they find whatever they seek among the people of Chazen and don't even bother us.'

'But how do we deal with magic if they do come north?' Coron was definitely agitated on that score, even ignoring his attendant slave, who plainly wanted to whisper something.

'I don't imagine a magician is any more proof against an arrow through the eye or a sword in the throat than any other man.' Safar shrugged. 'How many could he kill before one of ours got through and ended his evil? I have plenty of men to throw at him.'

'I'm glad to hear it,' said Kheda. 'They will all be needed in the south.'

'How do you know these magic wielders are not proof against swords and arrows?' Redigal Coron looked nauseated. 'Ancient lore tells of magic making men impervious to iron and slingshot, fire and drowning.'

'Then let us search that same lore for any clue as to how such magic was defeated,' Caid suggested forcefully.

'It is the question of magic's taint that worries me,' said Safar silkily. 'I owe my people a duty of care to keep them safe from any such contamination.'

'I have always believed in the innocence of those unwillingly touched by magic,' Kheda said firmly.

'As have I,' nodded Caid.

'Whereas so many of my books argue otherwise.' Safar shook his head with a fine show of regret. 'Purification is a chancy business at best. Those who go to fight may well find themselves exiled from their own islands.'

'It's a debate with cogent argument on either side.' As Redigal Coron spoke, his slave leant forward with some whispered contribution.

'All the more reason not to run the risk, until my own waters are threatened,' sighed Safar.

'You think your people will thank you for dallying with philosophical questions until they wake up with magic besieging them?' retorted Caid.

You think I'll believe you'll be studying your annals and all those fine tomes of argument and observation, when you're all but illiterate and, worse yet, you see no shame in it, you greasy, sweating hog, no disgrace in substituting brutality for wisdom in order to rule this vast domain?

Kheda studied Safar's cunning face. Beneath the bearded jowls, he saw the other man's jaw was resolute, dislike of Kheda shining in his pale eyes.

I could sit here and talk until the sun has set and both moons come and gone and you will never agree to fight these unknown invaders. I could bring Itrac here and make her relive every terrified breath of her ordeal and all that would do would titillate your taste for women in distress. Telouet's told me how you like bruises on your concubines. You'll lurk here in this great fortress like some toad beneath a rock and watch every domain to your south fall to these foul magicians; happy to see your rivals fall even to such a foe. You'll only fight when magic threatens the Ulla domain, you fool.

Then a horrible suspicion chilled Kheda's spine.

Or will you fight? Or if you find out whatever it is these evil invaders seek, will you look to trade it for peace across your domain? You won't care if every other island in the southern seas is corrupted with magic, as long as your own fiefdom stays untouched to pander to your repellent whims.

Kheda studied the myriad sprawling tendrils of green vines and darker leaves that coiled across the ruddy silk nap of the carpet, blue logen blooms dotted seemingly haphazardly with white trumpet flowers and tangles of yellow firecreeper.

'A carpet can look like nothing more than a muddle of motifs that caught the weaver's fancy as he worked his way up the loom. You never see a weaver copying a pattern, after all, and you can't see any decoration used the same way twice within arm's reach of where you're sitting, can you? Stand back, my son, and separate the essentials, follow each different element. Then you'll see the patterns hidden from the untutored eye by those that overlay them.'

Kheda looked away down the fine lattice of dark vines worked aslant over the whole carpet, trumpet flowers and firecreeper weaving their own design through empty spaces.

He looked at Safar and then Redigal Coron. 'There is another course of action we could consider.'

'Let's hear it!' Ritsem Caid's desperation betrayed his own realisation that Ulla Safar wasn't going to shift his ground.

'Even after seeing these monsters, we know nothing of magic beyond the evil it brings in its train.' Kheda swallowed on a dry mouth. 'As you say, we have seen no wizards in these reaches for time out of mind. There are domains in the northern islands that have not been so fortunate. We've all heard of barbarian raids to steal spice bushes and slaves, to plunder merchant galleys plying between domains.'

'That's nothing to us.' Safar made to rise but his own gross weight and the treacherous silk of the cushions betrayed him. Unwilling to lose his dignity in further struggle, he subsided, cruel eyes all but disappearing in a scowl.

'My father told me that, in days gone by, the wizard-plagued domains closest to the unbroken lands would pander to barbarian lusts for gem stones, paying for peace instead of shedding Archipelagan blood, until they could drive off those invaders made bold by magic' Kheda was heartened to see Caid caught by this unexpected notion. The slave behind Coron was watching him intently too. 'Could we not ask those northern warlords to share what they learned of driving off wizardry, of forestalling the stain of magic on their lands?'

'That would truly be a desperate step,' said Caid with distaste.

'Aren't these desperate times?' countered Kheda.

Redigal Coron nodded slowly, face sombre, as the white-haired slave knelt forward with some whispered comment. 'Might we not find ourselves caught between fire and flood, though, if these northern warlords thought lending such aid gave them a claim on our lands?'

'I would never consider such a course. Their spies would search out every seaway, every island's wealth and resources. You might as well cut your son's throat and offer up your daughter, her ankles tied wide to her bedposts!' Safar's outrage echoed loud in the great hall but none of the other warlords were looking at him.

'How would any lord from the furthest north launch an attack, with the whole Archipelago between us?' Kheda looked at Coron. 'Besides, I believe they would settle for us halting this tide of evil. Under constant threat of wizards from the unbroken lands, I doubt they'd relish some magical assault from the south.'

'My father told me that the northern lords drove out the barbarian wizards by hiring sorcerers of their own,' hissed Safar venomously.

'I have read that they managed to set the wizards fighting among themselves,' Coron said unexpectedly.

'Fighting fire with fire?' Kheda mused. 'We've all done that.'

'Which would make the Chazen domain our firebreak,' said Caid grimly.

'The land is already tainted with magic,' Coron acknowledged.

'Then go and raise a real fire,' snapped Safar. 'Burn every island and reef to bare earth and blackened stumps and leave the invaders' bones lying splintered among them.'

'You don't suppose these wild men and their wizards might oppose such an attack?' Caid's sarcasm was withering.

'What do you suppose the northern lords would ask from us in return for their lore?' Coron looked uncertainly from Kheda to Caid.

'Steel, most certainly' Safar shot a pointed look at Ritsem Caid. 'All that we could spare and more besides, I don't doubt.'

'Let us—' A resounding knock interrupted Kheda.

He narrowed his eyes at Safar, who didn't bother to hide his smugness. 'Enter.'

It was the fawning, smooth-faced lackey. 'My lady Mirrel sends her compliments and asks that you grace her reception with your presence.'

What signal summoned you, seen through some hidden spy hole, as soon as Safar saw control of this debate slipping out of his grasp?

Kheda risked a knowing glance at Caid but the Ritsem warlord didn't notice, face stony, eyes inward-looking. Redigal Coron was seizing the opportunity to confer hurriedly with his attendant slave. Ulla Safar's body slave had the unenviable task of hauling his master to his feet.

'We will not disappoint my lady Mirrel.' The fat man heaved a sigh and wiped sweat from his forehead. 'We would all do better to think on these matters before we talk again.' He strode from the room, scowling ferociously.

'My lord.' On his feet the instant etiquette allowed, Telouet stood before Kheda and offered a hand.

Kheda waved his help away, raising an enquiring eyebrow. With the minimum of expression, Telouet managed to convey the equivalent of a shrug.

So you have no more idea than me how much progress we may have made.

Ritsem Caid's expression gave nothing away and his slave Ganil's face might have been carved out of the same ironwood as the pillars as the two of them stalked out. Redigal Coron was still talking to his softly spoken zamorin, bodyguard hovering uncertainly. Kheda saw the door wards listening with blatant curiosity.

Telouet followed his gaze. 'It seems liberal use of the lash is no guarantee of a well-mannered household, my lord.' His comment was just loud enough to reach the door wards.

'It is not your place to comment on another domain's practices.' Kheda's rebuke was perfunctory at best. 'Let's pay our respects to Mirrel Ulla and see if she at least will show us proper courtesy.'

'Do you want to change your clothes?' Telouet asked as they passed the door wards.

'It's not as if I've worked up much of a sweat.' Kheda shook his head. 'If we delay, we'll be hearing barbed comments about tardiness from Mirrel until we leave for home.'

Let one of the spies infesting this ant heap carry that kernel of gossip to her.

Telouet nodded discreetly to indicate the stairway they should take. 'Ritsem Caid and Redigal Coron show every sign of seeking help from the north.' He spoke just low enough to suggest a confidence but loud enough for listening ears.

'Not that they would want to, any more than we of Daish,' Kheda sighed. 'Let's hope we find some better alternatives tomorrow.'

Surely Safar will back down and form an alliance so we can drive out these invaders ourselves? He cannot risk losing his influence to unknown warlords who might well covet the riches of his domain, once they're invited into these reaches.

'East here, my lord.'

As Telouet muttered directions through the maze of corridors, Kheda found himself speculating what might happen if Ulla Safar did remain obdurate.

Janne warned you the fat toad would call your bluff, so she's won that wager. But what if it wasn't a bluff? Could there possibly be some honourable northern warlord who could tell us how to drive out this threat of magic. Could we find an ally strong enough to overthrow Ulla Safar when this is all over? Maybe you and Caid should investigate the possibility. You could trust each other in such an alliance, limited to a single objective, division of the spoils agreed in advance? But who would get this island and the massive strength of Derasulla? Do you hate Safar enough to see the Ritsem domain add such power to its own? A difficult question. Caid would certainly never let it pass to Daish, that's easy enough to see.

Such musings carried Kheda through the long corridors and up several flights of stairs. The Ulla wives all had apartments facing up river and, as first wife, Mirrel Ulla commanded an imposing suite on the very highest level where the air was freshened with the scents of the distant hills. Women slaves in lewdly diaphanous gowns and gaudy enamels simpered a welcome at the door.

'I see Safar has a new set of concubines to flaunt,' Kheda remarked to Telouet as they approached.

'I wonder where the old ones washed up downstream,' the slave murmured grimly.

They entered the room and Mirrel Ulla turned from windows that reached from floor to ceiling, opening on to a broad terrace shaded by diligently tended nut palms and perfume trees in ornate pots. Kheda stood where he might catch a breeze but the air was hotter than ever.

'My lord Daish, you grace our humble home with your presence.' A woman of moderate height and slender build, Mirrel advanced, arms outstretched, wrists laden with golden bracelets.

'No room could be called humble with you to adorn it.' Kheda took her hands and bent to brush them with his lips, careful not to catch any of her ornate rings in his beard.

Mirrel laughed prettily, laying an ebony hand across the breast of a black silk gown covered with tiny glass beads sewn into the patterns of feathers, as if some fabulous bird, every silver feather edged with gold, had been trapped and plucked. The bodice slid from silver to gilt with every breath she took, low-cut and close-fitted to display arms and bosom with calculated seduction, though the swell of her breasts was all but invisible beneath a convoluted necklace studded with sizeable diamonds. The skirt shimmered, made from separate lengths of cloth worked into individual gleaming plumes, all the better to display her elegant legs.

Your spies obviously told you Janne arrived displaying all the wealth and power of the Daish domain.

Mirrel's eyes looked beyond him, their hardness making a nonsense of the soft appeal of her artfully painted lips. 'Ritsem Caid! You are welcome, so very welcome, and Taisia!'

Kheda bowed and stepped away, releasing Mirrel to advance on Caid. Redigal Coron and his senior wife followed soon after and she quickly gathered him into their circle. Moni Redigal with her sizeable retinue headed for the junior Ulla wives who were gathered in a watchful knot, their own gowns similar in cut to Mirrel's but bare of beads, merely brocaded in feather patterns. The noise in the room rose as attendant body slaves allowed their masters and mistresses a little leeway, drawing aside to share their own news with each other, tolerating the intrusion of Derasulla's senior slaves as necessary.

Kheda glanced appreciatively around in order not to catch anyone's gaze and oblige himself to conversation before Janne arrived. The audience room was certainly worth admiring. Sandalwood shutters on the windows were the finest the island's carvers could supply and the cinnamon-coloured floorboards were waxed to glossy perfection underfoot. The walls were tiled; all the better to display the domain's other highly prized craft to visitors.

Mirrel's rooms boasted the lustre tiles that were so sought after in trade. Guests entered through a wall where golden tiles shaded imperceptibly to a sunset hue on one side and a fertile green on the other. As Kheda turned slowly towards the windows, he saw green sliding towards an airy blue on the one hand, orange blushing to soft red on the other. In the spaces between the tall windows, the advancing colours blurred into a dusky violet. With the delicacy of the pigments used, the effect was both subtle and eye-catching.

It's like being wrapped in a rainbow, a fine symbol for Mirrel, with its contradictions between blessing and caprice.

'My lord.' Telouet appeared with a crystal goblet.

'I notice neither our rooms nor Janne's have any of these lustre tiles,' Kheda remarked in an undertone. 'Do you suppose that's some insult? Should we seem oblivious or devise some retaliation?'

'Ask my lady Janne,' Telouet suggested.

'Kheda.' Moni Redigal appeared at his elbow, smiling cheerfully. 'How does that slave suit Dau? I do hope Rekha is pleased with him. How is she? How are the little ones?' Moni Redigal's appearance was nicely calculated not to outstrip her hostess but at the same time to make the room's decoration a backdrop to her own. She made a fine display of a warlord's wife, in gold silk shot with silver and wearing a rainbow array of gem-studded necklaces and bracelets.

Do I thank you for supplying a pair of competent hands to raise swords between my family and any invaders while I play Ulla Safar's pointless games?

'He seems entirely suitable, thank you. Rekha is well and all the children.' Kheda smiled back.

'I must write to Rekha.' Moni sipped before looking a little puzzled at her goblet. 'One of my sisters has married into the Kithir domain. I am to visit her soon and she may well be interested in trading Kithir carpets for pearls.' Born quite some distance to the north where crossing trade routes mingled many bloodlines, Moni was paler-skinned than all but the barbarian slaves in the room, her tight curled hair a distinctive russet.

'How far north do your trading contacts reach nowadays?' Kheda asked idly.

'Well into the islands of the central compass.' Moni laughed with high good humour.

Coron's ever-present guardians chose well, when looking for a woman with the talents to be senior wife of a complex domain as well as possessing a keen understanding that the warlord's duties were absolutely none of her concern and her opinion would never be sought or appreciated.

Kheda sipped at his own wine and the cold bite of alcohol surprised him into an unguarded comment. 'I'm surprised to find Mirrel serving us something this intoxicating at such a tense time.'

As he spoke, Mirrel appeared but it wasn't his words agitating the headdress of trembling gold and silver bird wings that all but obscured her dense midnight curls. 'Moni, my dearest, come and talk to Chay. She wants to discuss sending some of her tinsmiths to your domain for a season or so, for a trade of skills.'

Clumsy, Mirrel, clumsy. That arrival's rather too precipitate and your voice is certainly too urgent for such a trivial request. Who ordered you to make sure I didn't get a chance to count the links in Moni Redigal's chain of connections to the wizard-plagued north? As if I needed to ask.

'Don't let me stand in the way of your duties, my ladies.' Kheda smiled and bowed to relinquish his claim on Moni before handing his crystal goblet back to Telouet. 'Find me some fruit juice.'

Kheda watched several of the Ulla slaves sliding speculative glances at Telouet as his body slave crossed the room to the broad array of gold and silver ewers standing in trays of crushed ice melting so fast the harried servants were constantly replenishing it.

'Lilla juice, I'm afraid.' On his return, Telouet handed Kheda a goblet with a rueful grin. 'That's all there is apart from wines.'

'What's Safar thinking of?' Kheda shook his head as he took it. 'Ah well, maybe he'll miscalculate his own drinking and drop dead in tomorrow's heat. Do you want to circulate a little, Telouet? See what you can learn for us? Some of those girls look as if they might trade some useful information for the pleasure of your presence in their bed.'

And they'll certainly learn nothing from Telouet, who assuredly knows idle chatter isn't among the proper uses for his tongue in the throes of passion.

'I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you, my lord,' Telouet said, though not without regret. 'I was talking to Ganil and he says the women slaves are desperate to get with child by some outsider, to get some claim on another domain and the chance of escape from this pesthole.'

'That's a new development.' Kheda frowned as he drank. 'Have their lives really become so insupportable here? Or is Safar prompting them? I wouldn't put it past him to come up with some spurious objection if one of his slaves insisted on her rights to demand support from the father of her child. He could easily finesse an argument over that into a wider conflict.'

'Or look to plant a spy on us.' Telouet's gaze slid to a pretty slave girl demure in a gown of silk gauze that left little to the imagination. 'Do you want me to try and find out?'

'Only if you find the ground bitterspine leaves in honey paste in the bottom of my physic chest first,' Kheda advised. 'Tip your sword with that before you sheathe it.'

'Dear me, you look very serious.' Kheda turned to find Taisia Ritsem at his elbow. 'But then this is rather a dull gathering. Isn't Janne with you?'

Kheda smiled with genuine pleasure. 'My lady Taisia, a delight to see you, as always.'

'Save your flattery for Mirrel,' she recommended with a fond twinkle as her body slave retreated to a discreet distance along with Telouet. No great beauty, Taisia wore a solitary comb to tame her dark, wiry hair, an elegant piece of silver filigree. The vivid blue of her draperies flattered her warm brown skin, a plain dress caught at each shoulder with a brooch of knotted silver strands worn beneath a wrap painted with a brilliant shoal of coral fishes. She wore a single necklace, a heavy chain with an uncut sapphire pendant nestling at the base of her throat.

'Then I'll say you're looking tired and apprehensive, shall I?' Kheda could well see what her body slave had sought to conceal beneath her cosmetics. 'And mourning Olkai.'

The barest suggestion of tears came and went in Taisia's dark eyes. 'Much to Mirrel's surprise, with her so long departed from our domain.' Her tone was acid.

'Rekha always says Mirrel's worst flaw is assuming everyone else thinks as she does. Janne should be here soon. Perhaps she's having trouble convincing Itrac to face everyone.' Kheda looked towards a stir by the door but it was only Safar arriving, all expansive gestures and jovial smiles.

Where did you go, when you left our council, rather than coming straight here as you implied? You haven't changed that yellow tunic, and is it just the heat prompting all that sweat darkening the armpits or have you been about something more exerting?

An instant later Janne's appearance drove any such considerations out of Kheda's head. Within a couple of breaths, all heads were turned to the door, captivated by the sight.

Janne wore a simple dress of dove-grey silk, two lengths of cloth sewn at shoulder and sides, shaped only with a sash of the same material. Her hair was drawn back in a single plait, oiled to sleekness with no jewel to relieve the smoky darkness, and the merest hint of silver highlighted her eyes and lips. Janne's sole adornment was a single string of pearls that reached to her waist. A single string, but pearls that would take a lifetime to match, even with access to every harvest that reefs could offer the length and breadth of the Archipelago. The black pearls at the centre must have been years in the making at the bottom of the ocean, layer upon layer of radiance building a handful of perfect spheres broader than Kheda's thumbnail. Lesser in size but no less flawless, the pearls on either side faded through charcoal darkness to a grey of vanishing smoke then brightened to the clear pallor of a dawn cloud. Then the colour of each successive bead grew richer, more noticeable until the pearls that disappeared beneath Janne's hair were a sunrise gold.

'Janne, my dear.' Mirrel's brittle cry broke through the silence that had fallen.

She moved to embrace Janne who smiled warmly and hugged her close. 'Mirrel, so good to see you.'

Birut was standing at Janne's shoulder. The slave's burnished mail was patterned with brass rings polished to a golden shine. He wore a heavy collar of gold set with crystals and the gilded brow band of his helm bore more of the same. Kheda hid his smile in his glass.

Dear me, Mirrel, with Janne stood between you, your fabulous dress looks no better than this mere swordsman's cheap simulacrum of wealth.

Just as everyone in the room was coming to that conclusion, Janne beckon to Itrac, who had been waiting on the threshold. 'Mirrel, you remember Itrac Chazen? Of course you do. She's staying with us until she can return to her own domain under favourable portents.'

'Indeed.' There was just a hint of disbelief in Mirrel's smile.

'You don't think Chazen Saril will object, when he hears she's being dressed like one of your junior wives?' Taisia murmured to Kheda, raising an eyebrow.

'I'm sure Janne knows what she's doing.' Though Kheda was as nonplussed as everyone else to see Itrac wearing a triple-stranded collar of the pink pearls that were one of Daish's most coveted treasures. Her white silk tunic was belted with another three rows, her wrists bore identical bracelets, and anklets in the same style gathered the fullness of her loose white trousers. Her long plait was all but identical to Janne's.

'Those look fine enough to be talisman pearls,' speculated Taisia. 'Itrac's, I mean, as well as Janne's.'

'You don't think she looks more like a daughter than a wife?' Kheda cocked his head at Taisia as Safar advanced on Itrac with expansive gestures and a smile that didn't entirely disguise the cunning in his eyes touched with more than a hint of lust. The contrast between his predatory bulk and her vulnerable slenderness was striking.

'She does rather, doesn't she?' Taisia allowed. 'And one barely of an age to be wed.'

Janne said something to Safar before bowing prettily away and gliding across the room to join the two of them. 'Taisia, my dear.'

'Janne Daish.' Taisia's greeting was formal but her embrace was fond.

'You're leaving Itrac to their tender mercies?' Kheda watched Mirrel and Safar flank the girl, Mirrel laying a proprietorial hand on her arm.

'Just long enough for them to look like insensitive pigs harrying her in her time of grief.' Janne did not need to turn round to see this happening. 'Taisia will rescue her in good time.'

'I do have much to discuss with her.' Taisia nodded.

'I wouldn't leave it too long, if you don't want outright tears,' Kheda advised. 'Or a fight. That new body slave of hers is giving Mirrel's man and Safar's a very hard look.' He shifted his head to catch Telouet's eye and his slave idly separated himself from a fawning gaggle of slave women to drift into Safar's slave's line of sight.

Let's just make it plain Itrac's new body slave won't be without allies if some Ulla men feel inclined to hunt him through this warren of a fortress should they get the chance.

'I'll speak with you later, Janne.' Taisia left them to deftly sweep Itrac away from Safar with a plea for news of Olkai's last days that could not be denied.

Kheda kissed Janne's satin cheek. 'You look exquisite tonight, my wife.'

She smiled confidently. 'I'm glad you approve, my husband.'

Kheda glanced at Itrac, now safely in conversation with Taisia and Ritsem Caid. 'You've dressed her like one of our own, I see.'

'Just to keep the Ulla and Redigal women guessing.' Janne fixed Kheda with a steely look. 'She will not be marrying into the Daish domain. You had better tell Ritsem Caid you're having second thoughts on that score.'

'Why?' Kheda felt unexpectedly wrong-footed.

'I will not countenance anyone so grievously afflicted by magic coming within our family circle.' Janne's smile was serene but her words were bitingly precise. 'Marry her and I will divorce you as will Rekha and we'll take little Sain with us. Then we'd seek aid from all our brothers to help us set you aside in favour of the children.'

Kheda was stunned into silence by the effort not to let his shock show in his face.

'As for Sirket, I'll make him zamorin with my own hands before I let him make such an accursed marjjage.' Janne stood on tiptoe to brush a kiss on Kheda's cheek.

He found his voice from somewhere. 'You don't think we should discuss this further? If she ends up the key to securing the Chazen domain, will you see her married to Ulla Safar?'

'There are ways of ensuring the question of Itrac's future won't arise for a while yet.' Janne shrugged, adjusting her fabulous pearls. 'I must go and discuss a few things with Moni Redigal.'

She kissed Kheda again and walked gracefully away. As she did so, Chay Ulla stepped up with a smile that was more of a smirk. 'Daish Kheda, I've been waiting an age to speak to you.'

'And now you have my whole attention.' Kheda inclined his head first to Chay and then to the pretty girl with her.

Chay was a tall woman with skin a shade lighter than her dark brown eyes, handsome rather than beautiful though her strong bones were unexpectedly flattered by the style of dress Mirrel had dictated for the Ulla wives.

She seemed an unlikely choice for Ulla Safar, who demanded beauty as a prerequisite in his wives, even more so given Chay had brought no particularly valuable alliances to their marriage bed.

She whirled round to draw the girl closer with an impulsive hand. 'Daish Kheda, this is Laisa Viselis, well, for the moment,' Chay simpered.

'I am honoured to meet you.' Kheda bowed.

And why would Viselis Us be trusting one of his younger daughters to this bitch? You can smile all you want, Chay; I've seen the cruelty in your eyes is a perfect match for your lord and husband's malice.

'My lord of Daish.' The girl, demure in tunic and trews not unlike Itrac's, bobbed an answering courtesy.

Chay favoured him with an insincere smile. 'Laisa has heard some most peculiar rumours about your father's death.' Her words were just loud enough to be sure everyone at hand could hear.

The girl's hazel eyes widened, startled. 'I didn't—'

Chay's hand tightened mercilessly on Laisa's. 'I thought it best she heard the truth from your own lips.'

Do you know that one of your maidservants told Telouet how you send your body slave to catch mice for your house cat to torment while you watch?

Kheda smiled reassurance at the girl. 'It's a simple enough story.'

Never fear, Chay, I've had more than enough practice making the telling of it entirely unremarkable.

'Daish Reik, my father, had climbed to the top of his observatory tower, where he kept certain birds he favoured for augury. It was his custom to let them fly at dawn, so he might read their movements in conjunction with the early skies.'

And now I understand why he valued such moments of solitude and reflection and guarded them so jealously.

'That morning,' Kheda shrugged, 'the parapet gave way and he fell to his death.'

'Entirely unforeseen.' Chay shook her head in false wonderment.

'How shocking for you,' Laisa stammered. 'To suffer such a bereavement.'

'It was a long time ago.' Kheda nodded with calm resignation. 'One learns to live with such things.'

'If only there had been someone to read the omens as the birds flew.' Chay pretended concern. 'Daish Reik had just released them,' she explained to Laisa before turning to Kheda with a glint in her eye. 'Do you suppose he saw something in their flight as he fell? That he died without being able to share?'

Are you just looking for your usual amusement in someone else's pain, Chay, or does Ulla Safar want to stir up all that old speculation, that Daish Retk had seen some appalling catastrophe predicted for the domain, so unspeakable that he had thrown himself to his death? Does he think that will distract us all from this invasion of Chazen?

'The rains had been unusually heavy that season, the stonework was old, the mortar crumbling.' Kheda addressed himself to Laisa, voice untroubled. 'My father's death taught me that no one, no matter how potent, how exalted, is proof against a sudden fall.'

Chew on that, Chay, and may it choke you.

'How he could have let his own observatory fall into such disrepair.' Chay shook her head again. 'You had to demolish the whole of the tower, didn't you?'

'It was sound enough but I chose to rebuild, out of respect for Daish Reik's memory.' Kheda continued to look steadily at Laisa.

After taking the tower apart, stone by stone, down to its very foundations in a search for some answer.

'My father had been busy seeing to the needs of our people after some devastating storms. Perhaps he waited too long before seeing what damage had been done to his own compound,' Kheda continued evenly. 'I read in his death the ultimate confirmation of his words to me in life, that a warlord should pay attention to every detail, see that every thing, every person, no matter how humble, plays its part in supporting the power of a domain and its lord.'

And I considered every other possible interpretation, as well as searching the crumbled parapet for any sign of evil intent behind the calamity, Janne and I scoured every book of lore for some hint as to how to read such a startling portent.

'My father has always told me it is for my brother to speculate on such matters,' the girl said uncertainly.

'Your father is a wise man,' Kheda assured her. 'It is a warlord's highest duty to read and interpret the auguries and omens that guide his domain and its people, just as it is a wife's highest duty to ensure their continued prosperity.' He didn't need to look to see Chay scowling at the implied rebuke.

'Of course Daish Reik's death deprived you of his wives as well,' she said nastily. 'And all the guidance they might have given you.'

'I was newly married to Janne Daish.' Kheda paused to smile affectionately at his wife. 'My mother and her sister wives had every confidence in her as new first wife of the domain and certainly no wish to challenge her by staying.'

So they were scattered, each to take their grief to the domain they had been born to and leaving me to my own sorrow. And you'll never know what heartache that cost me, Chay.

'If you'll excuse me, I must speak with Redigal Coron.' Smiling at Laisa who was looking sorely uncomfortable, Kheda bowed and moved away.

Let's see if Coron can let slip why our domain's rawest sore is being prodded again. I'd better warn Janne as well and I think Telouet had better resign himself to a night of raising some slave girl's hopes, for the sake of whatever we might learn that way.

Anyway, Daish Reik's death cannot have been a long-distant omen of this calamity. We'd have seen something else, some recent portent to turn our thoughts to that death as precursor. If I'd missed it, Sirket would have caught it. I've shared all my speculations on Daish Reik's fate with him. He watches as anxiously as me for any sign that might confirm or deny a particular theory.

'My lord.' Telouet approached with a pitcher of that same cursed lilla juice.

Kheda held out his goblet and the lip of the jug trembled on the rim. 'Are you all right?' He looked more closely at his faithful slave.

'I'm not sure.' Telouet's mouth was pinched, his skin greying.

'What's wrong?' Kheda noted more beads of sweat on the other man's forehead than the heat could account for.

'Stomach cramps,' the slave replied tersely.

'When did that start?' Kheda frowned.

'Forgive me, my lord, I'm going to be sick,' Telouet said through clenched teeth, a muscle pulsing in his jaw.

'Outside.' Kheda handed the jug and goblet to the nearest maidservant, driving Telouet towards the door. In the corridor, Telouet barely reached the stairwell before he doubled up, falling to his knees retching. Kheda took off the slave's helmet and held his shoulders as spasms racked him. Telouet groaned and tried to stand up, wiping cold sweat from his face with a trembling arm, but another paroxysm seized him. Kheda took a shallow breath, swallowing his own nausea at the sickening smell.

'My lord?' It was Birut, face anxious. - 'Find some servant to clear this up,' Kheda ordered. 'I'm taking him back to our quarters.'

'My lord—-' Birut sounded uncertain.

Kheda looked at him with some exasperation. 'I can hardly go back in there.' He gestured to his vomit-spattered clothes. 'Tell Janne I'll dose Telouet and rejoin her when I'm satisfied he's settled.'

Birut nodded, no choice but to obey. He turned to go.

'Wait.' Kheda managed to get Telouet upright, one shoulder underneath his arm. 'Which way to the main corridors from here?'

Birut grimaced, seeing Kheda so burdened. 'I'd better come with you.'

'I can guide us back,' Telouet said hoarsely.

'You can't leave that new lad responsible for Itrac and Janne both, Birut, not here,' Kheda said bluntly. 'We'll collar a servant if needs be.'

Where's that oily zamorin lackey, when he might be useful?

'Take the far stair.' Birut pointed. 'Go down two floors then bear east along the passage. That'll bring you to the central traverse.'

Telouet tried to bear the weight of his armour but nausea racked him again and again. He was leaning heavily on Kheda before they had reached the main arcade that ran the length of the fort's inner citadel.

'Come on; let's get you to a bed. Some river clay and poppy juice and you'll be fresh as the rains come the morning.' Sweat trickled down Kheda's back as he helped Telouet negotiate a crowded corridor, every Ulla face curious.

What are you wondering at? That we've brought some rainy-season contagion with us? More likely some foulness from your filthy river has worked its way into the fort.

Kheda waved away a hovering maid, plainly anxious to help as Telouet emptied his stomach again, this time of no more than bile and slime.

No blood, that's some relief No scent of any poison that I know either. Anyway, what would poisoning Telouet achieve? Janne will be there to see any discussions between Safar, Caid and Coron happening without me.

'I'm sorry, my lord,' Telouet whispered as they paused on a landing halfway down an awkward flight of stairs to the citadel's lower levels.

'For what? For getting me out of one of Safar's tedious banquets? I don't think I'll be punishing you for that.' Despite his light words, Kheda scowled as the swordsman stumbled on numb feet.

'You should go back.' Telouet tried and failed to disengage himself from Kheda's arm. 'I can get to the apartments from here.'

'If I go back now, I'll have Mirrel pretending surprise that I feel it necessary to see personally to the ailments of my slaves while Safar congratulates me for my detachment in leaving you to your own devices. I don't particularly feel inclined to let them set everyone a choice between condemning me as overindulgent or heartless.'

Telouet didn't hear him, his knees finally giving way. Kheda couldn't hold him any longer. At least they were at the turn to the corridor where they were lodged.

Kheda propped Telouet against the wall and shouted. 'Daish! You are wanted!'

'My lord?' One of Janne's women opened the door to the women's apartments, startled.

'Get him into my rooms.' As more servants appeared, Kheda let the four porters take Telouet between them. 'On the bed.'

'I'll get some clean quilts.' As the woman hurried away, one of the porters produced a knife to cut the leather thongs that secured Telouet's chainmail. 'We'd better get him out of this.'

'You can curse us for wrecking the fit of it later,' Kheda told the slave. Telouet barely groaned as they slid the armour off him with no little difficulty. Kheda tore off the padded arming jacket and found it sodden with rank sweat.

The woman returned with an armful of clean cottons and a maid following her with a bundle of quilts. 'Get me water and my physic chest, the silver-bound, satinwood one. Come on, Telouet, I need you awake.' Kheda slapped his slave's face with calculated severity. 'Open your eyes.'

No need to give an emetic, even if this is poisoning. There's nothing left in him to bring up. Should I dose him with charcoal all the same? At very least we must get some water into him but how can we be sure the water's clean in this cesspit of a fortress?

He turned to the porter who was standing, grim-faced, at the foot of the bed. 'Get a charcoal brazier brought in here, at once. From now on, we boil every drop of water any of us drink and Ulla Safar can chase his own tail, if he thinks we're insulting him.'

Chapter Eight

Kheda heard a patter on the fringed leaves of the perfume trees in the garden beyond the window, briefly drowning out the grating crickets and other insects. The rain was just enough to stir the heady fragrance before the false promise of the shower passed away, leaving the humidity even more oppressive than it had been before. The pale light of the Lesser Moon shone through the slats of the shutters and Kheda looked at it, riding unchallenged in the night sky now the Greater Moon had retired to days of seclusion.

The Pearl, whole and brilliant, clouds passing swiftly without obscuring it, that has to be a good omen for Daish. Heavens send the true rains soon though. Even the night gives no relief from this heat now.

Kheda wiped Telouet's forehead with a damp cloth, the insensible slave now stripped naked beneath a light coverlet on the bed, his breathing harsh and slow. Hearing soft footfalls in the corridor, Kheda straightened up, putting the cloth in a bowl of besa-scented water, the astringent oil counterfeiting coolness on his hands. A brisk double rap on the door sounded loud in the silence and startled a tiny green house lizard across the ceiling. Outside, whoever had knocked was rebuked with a vicious hiss.

Kheda smiled a little. 'Enter.'

'Ulla Orhan, beloved son—'

'Shut up, Vaino.' The heir to the Ulla domain pushed past his body slave and bowed deep to Kheda.

'You are welcome.' Kheda stood in the pool of light cast by the single oil lamp he had lit against the deepening shadows outside. Arms folded, head tilted, he looked at the boy.

I haven't heard that note of authority in your voice before, my lad. Do you know how much it makes you sound like your father?

'How's your slave faring?' Orhan looked down at the oblivious Telouet. Ulla Safar's only living son bore a disconcerting resemblance to his sire, although, as yet, he was nowhere near as fat. Only his jaw and mouth differed, sole inheritance from his long-dead mother.

'Well enough,' Kheda said calmly.

'It seems we have something of an outbreak of this contagion.' Orhan's open sarcasm startled the Daish warlord. His sharp eyes took in the cup that had held the charcoal draught. 'I am on my way to see what can be done. Do you need any herbs or tinctures that you do not carry with you? Do you have tasselberry root? Sawheart? Enough for any of your other people who might be struck down?'

Both sensible choices for someone suffering a waterborne vomiting illness though, of course, also the two herbs most specifically recommended when poisoning is suspected.

'Yes, thank you, I have all I need.' Kheda saw Orhan's body slave was looking apprehensively at his master. Kheda didn't recognise the man.

Not that there's any point remembering your face, when Orhan's seldom permitted to keep the same slave for more than a season or so.

'No, there's something you can send me, some ice, if there's any left in your cellars.'

Orhan nodded as if some unspoken question had been answered. 'At once, Daish Kheda. I'll bid you good night then, but don't hesitate to send word if you need anything, to my own quarters.' He paused on the threshold. 'I was sorry not to see Daish Sirket with you. Do give him my regards on your return to your own domain.'

'Of course.' Kheda bowed briefly as the slave shut the door and hurried after his master as Orhan's determined stride faded into the distance.

If you show no aptitude for divination, my lad, you've certainly been paying attention to your herbal studies. I wonder if you are so very inept at divination? Are you playing some deeper game? Maybe you suspect the water sickness that carried off your mother was no such thing. You wouldn't be the only one to wonder. If you are trying to deceive Ulla Safar as to your true nature, I wonder how long you'll manage without losing your life for it, sole son or not?

Kheda sat in the silent gloom and considered his recent dealings with Orhan in the light of this new notion. Some while later, more footsteps in the corridor diverted him from such speculations. This time, it was an anxious trio of servants led by an old man carrying a bowl of ice chipped from the blocks carried down from the freezing mountain heights and packed beneath straw in the citadel's deepest cellars. Behind him, two girls struggled with a tray laden with covered dishes.

'My lord, my lady Mirrel bids you eat, even if you cannot join the company in the dining hall,' one said with an anxious smile. 'She hopes your slave is recovering.'

'Set that down there.' Kheda nodded at a sandalwood side table and the girls hurried to obey.

The male servant smiled ingratiatingly as he put the bowl of ice on the floor. 'Let me serve you, great lord.' He lifted a cover from a bowl of steamed sailer grain dotted with dried sardberries and dusted with shredded pepper pods. Appetite twisted Kheda's stomach.

'I'll serve myself. Leave before you wake my slave.' The edge in his command sent all three scurrying away.

Kheda sighed as he stifled the tempting scent rising from the yellow and white dish with the lid and scooped up some ice, dropping it into the water he had been using to bathe Telouet's forehead.

I beg your pardon, Mirrel Ulla, but there's no chance I'll be eating any of this. How to get rid of it, though, so untouched food won't be an insult? Nosy Ulla servants will doubtless report anything unexpected in the chamber pots. What would Safar make of word that I've been seen burying cane shoots and spiced duck in the garden?

Kheda grinned at the absurdity of that notion and reassuring himself that Telouet was still sleeping peacefully, he picked a book out of the open physic chest and sat down on a cushion, leaning his back against the bed.

He had read through all Daish Reik's specifics for treating sicknesses of the gut, and just for good measure, those against poisons, when he heard the others returning from the banquet; Janne and Itrac's voices bright with inconsequential chatter until they might reach the dubious sanctuary of their apartments. Kheda paused, laying the book down on his lap as the door along the corridor opened and closed. With all the shutters open in a vain attempt to find some cool in the night, the conversation on the other side of the wall floated out to the garden and back in through his own windows. He heard the brisk notes of orders given and obeyed punctuated by the sharp sounds of coffers and chests opened and shut and the muffled flop of quilts and cushions fashioning beds for the servants and musicians to soften the hard tiles of the floor. Gradually the bustle slowed and finally stilled. Soon after, a soft single knock came at his door.

'Enter.' Kheda got to his feet and stretched stiff shoulders.

Birut opened the door to admit Janne, the slave's face showing open concern.

'A shame you did not join us, you missed a splendid banquet.' Janne's voice was sweet with sarcasm. 'An entire table of river-fish dishes and a separate one for coral crabs and sea fish. Every platter of duck and jungle fowl was decorated with their tail feathers and the sweetmeats were garnished with gold leaf.'

'I saw no point in leaving Telouet just to have Safar and the Ulla women draw me into endless speculation about his illness.' Kheda placed a strip of tooled leather in his book and closed it carefully. 'They'd doubtless have tried to make out I was accusing them of poisoning him.'

'As if you would suspect such a thing.' Janne sounded shocked for the benefit of any hidden ears but raised her eyebrows at Kheda in silent question.

He shrugged to convey his inability to answer that. 'Besides, I thought Ritsem Caid might prefer to discuss our current predicament with Coron without such distractions.' Now he was the one looking at Janne for an answer.

'Redigal Coron seemed more concerned to discuss Chay's news of a spate of vomiting servants in the lower levels,' Janne told him sourly.

'Charming conversation for dining over,' grimaced Kheda.

'As Moni told Coron in no uncertain terms.' Amused recollection momentarily brightened Janne's weary face.

'Do you think she was telling the truth? Chay, I mean,' Kheda wondered incautiously.

Oh, surely Safar's spies have finally gone to bed along with everyone else.

Janne nodded reluctantly. 'Some of Moni Redigal's maids have fallen victim and one of Taisia's musicians. I believe Ulla Orhan has been sent to tend them, though much good it will do Safar if his only son drops with the same sickness.'

'Orhan stopped by to see if I needed anything for Telouet.' Kheda gave Janne a significant look. 'I believe he has grown commendably mindful of his duties this past season.'

Janne froze for a moment before she raised an eyebrow at Kheda. 'It is a shame he had to leave the banquet. He might have learned a great deal from observing his father's conversations with Redigal Coron and Ritsem Caid.'

Would Safar poison a whole slew of people, just to get his son out of that banquet? Is he starting to fear Orhan might challenge his supremacy, even after so many years of belittling the boy and undermining his confidence at every turn? Is poisoning his every other son Safar's way not so much to deprive Orhan of competitors as to deprive him of potential allies? Or are hunger and tiredness running away with your imagination, Daish Kheda?

'What did Orhan miss?' he asked bluntly.

Janne yawned inelegantly. 'Not a great deal, even when we managed to stop talking about vomit. Ulla Safar maintains this threat of magic isn't sufficiently proved to require his intervention. Redigal Coron is inclined to follow his lead, though I suspect he's less convinced by Safar's arguments than those pestilential zamorin of his. Ritsem Caid disagrees but—' Janne yawned again. 'He's hardly in a position to act, if Safar and Coron won't.'

Kheda wasn't convinced about that. 'What did you and the other wives discuss?'

'The usual dealings in materials, finished goods and our artisans' skills. Taisia Ritsem is at least as concerned with establishing her domain's new trade in iron and steel as she is with wizards to the south,' Janne replied waspishly. 'Chay and Mirrel were happy to advise her. Neither see any reason why life shouldn't go on as normal.'

'Did Itrac agree?' asked Kheda curtly.

'No, she became increasingly distressed at such heartlessness.' Janne glanced involuntarily over her shoulder.

'I'd better not leave her long. We're all too weary to be dealing with hysterics half the night.'

'There's silvernet by your bed.' Kheda took a step towards her then thought better of it. 'I don't suppose this is a contagion but better not risk it.'

Janne looked around the room. 'You're not having anyone else sleep in here tonight?'

'There's no point in anyone risking sickness who doesn't have to.'

'At least let Birut help you settle for the night.' Janne shot Kheda a meaningful look, then, without waiting for a response, walked noiselessly back down the dark corridor to her own quarters.

Kheda scrubbed a hand over his beard. 'You can take those for the midden.' He pointed at the heap of stained clothing he and Telouet had been wearing earlier.

'Let me pour you some water to refresh yourself.' Birut beckoned Kheda to the washstand and moved to whisper in the warlord's ear as he lifted the ewer high to make as much noise as he could. 'We should watch the Redigal retainers,' he hissed urgently. 'Telouet said he'd heard rumour that one of those zamorin is no such thing, that he has his stones and a son besides, and the gang of them are planning to set up their own dynasty.' Birut set the brass ewer down with a clang and looked at Telouet. 'He is going to be all right, isn't he?'

'All the omens are favourable,' nodded Kheda. 'Now, go tend to your mistress.'

Birut caught up the soiled clothing and departed. Kheda dumped a handful of already slushy ice in the bowl and shivered as he rubbed cold water around the back of his neck and his face. As he stood, cool trickles soaked the clean buff silk tunic and trousers he'd pulled haphazard from one of the many clothes chests. It didn't do much to clear his mind.

There's another puzzle and one we've no hope of resolving as long as Telouet's insensible. It'll just have to wait for the morning. If we're to get the better of Safar, to rouse the allies we need against this accursed magic, I'll need all my wits about me, not be half dead with tiredness in the morning.

Kheda looked at the ostentatious bed where the slave lay.

Big enough for Safar and however many women it takes to slake his lusts but better not share it with Telouet, just in case this sickness is catching. Better be ready to help Telouet, in case some crisis comes on him in the night.

Pulling the tunic off over his head, he dropped it on the end of the bed before drawing the oil lamp's wick down to a dim glow. Laying one of the smothering silken quilts down on the floor, he pulled up a cushion to pillow his head and tried to compose himself for sleep, despite the questions that plagued him and the relentless, stifling heat.

Might there be a coup in the Redigal domain? Is that possible? How would Ulla Safar and Ritsem Caid react? What of the domains to the north?

Then he realised he was wide awake. Close on the heels of that insight came the bemused understanding that he had indeed drifted off to sleep. Kheda sat bolt upright.

What's that smell? Burning? The brazier? Surely not; I let it die back once I'd boiled enough water for Telouet's immediate needs and put it in the corridor. What's happened to the lamp?

The room was in absolute darkness but for splinters of moonlight cast through the slatted shutters. Kheda coughed and tasted a rank sweetness at the back of his throat. He coughed again and a lurking headache tightened a vicelike grip around his temples. Cursing under his breath, he felt his way through the room to the side table with the lamp, cursing again when he touched the hot glass that had sheltered the flame.

Someone's turned this out and none too long ago. Birut being overcautious again? But there's nothing here for it to burn. Where is that smell coming from? Has some fool dumped something on that brazier outside?

He took a moment to check on Telouet. The slave was still sleeping but his forehead was cooler to the touch. Kheda allowed himself an instant of relief before realising the scent of sullen smouldering was growing increasingly strong. Feeling his way to the door Kheda pulled it open, drawing breath to summon some attendant. Instead, rank smoke filling the corridor caught in his throat and provoked a fit of coughing to whip his headache into a raging fury. Kheda shut the door, leaning against it until the paroxysm passed, leaving him shaking and breathless.

A fire and no alarm raised? How could that be in a residence this size? We have to get out of here before we're all smothered in our sleep!

Kheda took as deep a breath as he could without coughing again and opened the door a crack to slip into the corridor. He walked slowly towards Janne's room, one hand tracing the cool marble wall, the nagging impulse to cough almost choking him, eyes stinging as the smoke swirled around him like tangible malice. He found the door to Janne's apartment ajar.

When did Birut last go to sleep without securing his mistress's safety?

Kheda opened his mouth to call for the slave but the acrid smoke tore into his throat again and he coughed convulsively, chest heaving. No one inside so much as stirred, not the musicians, the maidservants nor the porters. This room was darker than his own; someone had let down the awnings outside and tied them tight across the shutters to block out both light and air. Kheda stumbled across sleeping bodies heedless on feather-filled pallets as he struggled to find the door to Janne's sleeping chamber in the cloying darkness. Flinging it open, he fumbled his way to the bed, barking his shins painfully on some dress chest. Thrown off balance, his next step found Birut, asleep on his pallet at the foot of the bed.

'Wake up!' Kheda seized the man's naked shoulder, shaking him roughly.

The man rolled unresisting beneath the assault with a faintly resentful murmur. Kheda dropped to his knees, bending close to feel Birut's laboured breath slow against his cheek. Moving with new urgency, Kheda reached for Janne, finding her curled up beside Itrac in the wide bed, both women lost in sleep too deep to be natural.

'Janne, dear heart.' Feeling for the beat of her blood, Kheda found it suspiciously sluggish. He stroked the hair from her forehead before slapping her cheek, lightly at first then with more force. 'Janne! You have to wake up!' Dread as well as the heat of the night sent cold sweat trickling down Kheda's spine.

So how do I wake everyone before this smoke stifles them in their sleep? Well, let's see if we can't get rid of some of this smoke first. In fact, let's see what's going on, rather than flailing around in the dark.

Dropping to one knee, he found Birut's tunic and rummaged in the slave's pockets for a spark maker. Finding an oil lamp on the table beside Janne, he lit it with careful hands. The women and the slave slept on, undisturbed by the light. Kheda was not sanguine, seeing thick coils of smoke drifting through the shadows of the room. Taking the lamp out into the corridor he saw the double doors dividing these apartments off from stairs at either end of the corridor were closed. Dark smoke was sliding through the cracks around the set to the north. Kheda hurried to the southern doors and shoved them hard. They wouldn't shift. He set down the lamp and put his shoulder to them. Nothing gave. They were locked.

'Lizard eaters,' Kheda muttered furiously before picking up the lamp again and cautiously approaching the doors at the other end of the corridor. He didn't have to touch the polished wood to feel the heat coming off them. He could hear the hungry crackle of fire digging into the wood on the other side, getting a firm grip. That same strange taint he'd tasted on waking caught at the back of his throat.

These corridors are lined with marble, floor to ceiling. What is any fire going to burn, to get from room to room, from door to door? This fire's been set deliberately and as soon as those doors burn through, we'll be blinded by smoke and burnt like Olkai in the flames.

Something's riding on this smoke, an intoxicant of some kind. We always suspected Ulla Safar knows his poisons, even if he pays scant attention to curative lore. Is this his final touch on some murderous plot, a smoke to send us into a stupor we'll never wake from? Was there something in the food at the banquet as well? Something to keep the Ritsem and Redigal contingents sleeping through any uproar while we of Daish get a second dose in the smoke, just to be sure we sleep while the fire does its work?

Though fires are always a peril at this season, with everything so dry and everyone on edge and distracted because of the heat. You'll be so distraught, won't you, Safar, that such a thing should happen in your very residence. You may even be burning a few of your own slaves, to quell Ritsem Caid's suspicions. Well, forgive me, Safar, if I make sure all your efforts are wasted.

Kheda left the doors well alone and returned to Janne. He caught up a water flagon from the washstand, kicking Birut and Itrac's new slave Jevin mercilessly, both men still sound asleep by the bed. Exasperation rising to rival his anxiety, Kheda dashed the water he'd so painstakingly boiled earlier all over Janne and Itrac. Banging the metal vessel on the marble wall, he raised a deafening clangour.

'What—' Birut looked up in blurred confusion.

'There's a fire!' yelled Kheda.

Fierce, instinctive loyalty drove Birut to his knees. He grabbed at the carved foot of the wide bed. 'What?'

'Fire!' Kheda was shaking Janne with ungentle hands. 'Get everyone moving!'

Janne stirred but only to push Kheda away with a murmured apology. Biting down on another cough, he rolled her over to administer a stinging smack to her silken buttock. The unexpected shock finally penetrated Janne's stupor. She reared up, one arm flailing to fend off her attacker.

Kheda grabbed her hand and held it painfully tight. 'Janne, wake up. There's a fire.'

'What?' Janne looked at him, uncomprehending.

Birut was stumbling towards the door to the audience room. 'Everyone's asleep.' He looked foggily surprised as a coughing fit seized him.

'We have to get out of here.' Kheda reached across Janne to drag Itrac over and slap her rump as well. 'Birut, we have to get out into the garden.'

'Itrac!' Janne seized the girl and began shaking her. When he was satisfied both slaves and women were sufficiently awake to realise their predicament, Kheda hurried back into the audience room, banging on walls and tables with the dented brass ewer as he went. At his shouts and kicks, servants and musicians began to stir, looking grog-gily to Kheda for instruction.

'The fire's that way' Kheda pointed and everyone heard the menacing susurration of the growing blaze. 'The other doors are blocked. We have to get out into the garden.'

Partly stupefied or not, those closest to the outer doors immediately began pushing, heedless of the sharp carvings digging into their hands and shoulders.

'It won't open!' Kheda heard panic in the flute player's words. 'It's jammed on the other side.'

'Someone get out through the windows.' Kheda looked up at the dark shutters too high for a solitary man or woman to reach.

'Where are the poles for the shutters?' wondered one bemused maid.

'Someone help me get up there.' Jevin, Itrac's new slave, appeared, a scrap of torn silk masking his face.

'Here, on my back.' One of the supposed porters turned to face the wall, arms outstretched, legs bent to brace himself. Jevin clambered up on to his shoulders, flattening himself against the smooth marble as he reached up with one desperate hand. He just managed to catch hold of the lower sill, swinging his other hand up to heave the shutter.

'Up you go, lad.' Another of the porters was ready. He seized Jevin's foot, propelling him upwards.

The slave hauled himself up, teetering on his stomach before he managed to swing a foot round to pull himself astride the opening. 'What do I do now?'

Kheda took a pace forward. 'Open the garden door!'

Jevin swung himself over the sill, lowering to the full extent of his arms for the drop to the garden. As he disappeared, Birut emerged from the sleeping chamber supporting Janne and Itrac on each arm.

'Forget everything but the jewels,' Janne snapped, her brow creased in a scowl of pain. 'You, and you, fetch your lord's personal coffers and his physic chest.' She stabbed a finger at two whimpering maidservants. At the sound of her voice, other girls began frantically cramming silken draperies into chests.

Banging came from the other side of the door. Jevin was shouting, and at some command from the unseen slave, all four porters shoved on the door. With a vicious splintering, the doors yielded.

'Wedged, my lord.' Jevin held up a split and dented block of wood.

Night air flowed in, almost cool after the fug in the apartment. Everyone in the room stopped still for a moment, in the relief of a clean breath and of seeing their way out. That solace was short-lived. The crackle of the fire beyond the doors in the corridor audibly quickened, deepening to a hungry snarl. With the door to the garden open, the room and the corridor drew air through the fire like a chimney.

'I'll fetch Telouet,' Kheda shouted to Birut. 'Get everyone outside.'

Birut didn't need telling twice and half carried Itrac and Janne to the door, the women and musicians pressing behind them, Jevin and the porters dragging those worst affected by the smoke.

Kheda grabbed the lamp, unable to stop himself coughing as he went out into the corridor. Smoke swirled thicker than ever in the darkness, motes dancing in the halo of light. In his own sleeping chamber, Kheda hurried to lift Telouet from the bed, slinging one of the slave's brawny arms over his shoulder and seizing him around the chest.

'Come on, it seems we must decline Ulla Safar's hospitality.' Telouet was still too deeply asleep to be more than a dead weight in Kheda's arms. Catching up his lamp and dragging the slave out into the corridor, Kheda saw flames. The far doors had yielded to the fire and were now burning fiercely.

As that realisation struck Kheda, so did a solid blow. If Telouet's arm hadn't broken the force of it, Kheda would have been knocked senseless. As it was, he staggered forward, letting Telouet fall heavily. He whirled round, trying to dodge any second blow and to see who could be attacking him.

A burly figure masked against the thickening smoke loomed out of the darkness. He swung a studded club in a two-handed grip, aiming for Kheda's knees. The warlord sprang aside, his agility surprising the would-be assassin. Realising his victim was neither stunned nor doped for an easy kill, the man's next blow connected with Kheda's thigh, knocking him sideways. He fell to his knees. The assassin raised his club to smash the side of Kheda's head. The warlord threw the lamp full in the man's chest, glass shattering and burning oil splashing him. The man reared backwards then froze, mouth open on a cry of angry pain, before collapsing forwards.

The fawning zamorin servant pulled a broad-bladed dagger out of the assassin's throat and held out a hand to help Kheda to his feet.

'If he'd had a sword, he'd have had me,' Kheda gasped, shaken.

The zamorin shook his head as he replaced the dagger in the would-be killer's own sheath. 'Too hard to explain how you came by stab wounds, when your body's found beneath some beam or fallen door jamb.'

Between them, the two men got Telouet up from the floor. Kheda reached out to grasp the lackey's shoulder. 'Thank you.'

The lackey nodded to Janne's room and the garden beyond. 'Raise as much noise as you can. He can't pretend ignorance if you rouse the whole fortress.'

Kheda halted. 'You won't be suspected, will you?'

'No.' He stopped by the doors, now unlocked. 'This was my task, opening these, so we could all lament how you failed to find such an easy way out, disoriented in the smoke. I'll just say I found him dead.'

Resting Telouet's weight against the wall, Kheda smiled. 'I was always proud to call you my brother, you know that.'

'And I you.' Kheda heard rather than saw the zamorin's grin before the man fled on noiseless feet.

As he hauled Telouet bodily into Janne's apartments, two of the so-called porters rushed to Kheda's aid. 'My lord!'

'Are you hurt?' asked one, alarmed at the blood on Kheda's bare chest and shoulder.

'What?' Kheda looked and realised it was the assassin's blood. 'No, I'm fine.' Though as he spoke, he realised Telouet's arm was deeply scored where the assassin's club had struck him.

They fled for the garden together. The first breath of cool night air made Kheda's head throb unbearably. A shudder ran though him and he coughed convulsively. When he finally managed to stop, his head was swimming as if he'd been guzzling some distilled barbarian liquor.

'What do we do now?' Janne clutched at his arm, her legs bare beneath a tunic not her own, hair half pulled from its night plait, naked face showing every year of her age. Beyond her, Itrac sat huddled on a chest, face hidden in her hands, shoulders heaving. Jevin knelt before her, his gestures eloquent of uncertain attempts at reassurance.

'Raise an alarm,' rasped Kheda. He looked up with abrupt fury at the blind shutters of the inner citadel's higher levels. 'Find something to throw at those. Shout as loud as you can.'

The maidservants needed little encouragement to lift their voices in frantic cries for assistance. After a moment's thought, one of the porters gleefully shoved a substantial glazed urn from its plinth, the others catching up the bigger shards of rim and base to hurl at the upper windows. Lights soon began showing up above, to Kheda's grim satisfaction.

Let Ulla Safar's people try to ignore this commotion.

He took a careful breath of clean air so he could speak without coughing. 'Listen to me, everyone. We're going back to the galley. If Ulla Safar's servants can't show a modicum of care with night-time candles, we will be safer there.'

'We certainly can't use these rooms until they're restored to some order.' Janne rallied her wits. 'If we return to the Rainbow Moth, we won't discommode Mirrel Ulla by requiring alternative accommodations.'

Shouts were coming from inside the fortress now, genuine consternation beyond the smoke-filled rooms that the Daish contingent had fled. Some of the instructions were clearly audible, calling for buckets of earth and palm flails to beat down the flames. Musicians, maidservants and porters alike looked at their master and mistress, alert for unspoken instructions as to the attitude they should adopt.

'Let's get to our ship as soon as possible. Itrac is plainly most distressed. This unfortunate accident has doubtless redoubled her memories of those fires that have ravaged the Chazen domain.' Kheda caught Janne's eye and she nodded her understanding.

Let Mirrel open up the most lavish suites this fortress has to offer. Once we're back aboard, Janne won't shift from polite refusal to subject Itrac to any more upheaval. So that'll be them safe at least.

Kheda sat on a convenient bench of pierced wood. 'Birut, did you get Telouet's swords?'

'Of course, my lord.' Birut came over. 'And my own.'

Kheda realised with weary amusement that was the only reason the slave had bothered with a breechclout, to give himself something to thrust his scabbarded swords through in lieu of his proper belt.

'Bring them to me.' Kheda took the weapons and weighed them in his hands before handing one to the porter who'd been watching anxiously over Telouet. He jerked his head towards the other burly men. 'Birut, give one of them your second sword and get Jevin's off him. Draw lots for whoever has to end up with a stick.'

As the man departed, Kheda knelt to look at Telouet's new injuries. Lifting the slave's bloodied forearm, he carefully tested the bone and cursed under his breath as he felt the distinctive grate of a break. Worse, a foetid smell wrinkled his nostrils. Their murderous attacker had smeared excrement on the studs of his club.

'Janne!' Kheda looked over to see her making a sharp-eyed inventory of everything the maids had managed to salvage, despite their orders to leave with nothing but the essentials. 'Do you have my physic chest? You, Jevin, get me some bits of wood.'

One of the girls brought it clutched in white-knuckled hands. Kheda rummaged inside for the salve to curb the foulness that could leave Telouet's arm festering. Smearing pungent yellow on a length of cotton, he bound it tightly over the deep scores before carefully splinting the broken bone. New purpose burned through Kheda's weariness, even mitigating his headache a little.

My most faithful slave isn't going to lose a limb to Ulla filth, not if I can help it.

'My lord, are we waiting to send word to the ship by one of Ulla Safar's servants?' The porter was back, Jevin's second sword held purposefully in one meaty fist. One of his companions stood at his shoulder, holding Birut's other blade. Both looked incongruously happy to have weapons in their hands. 'Or shall we take a message to the landing stage, make sure they summon the galley at once?'

'It's Gal, isn't it? And Durai?' Both were faces from the rearmost ranks of the Daish swordsmen and Kheda had barely looked at either of them on this trip, not wishing to draw any attention to them.

'Dyal, my lord,' said the second.

Kheda looked around the garden. There were windows to rooms on three sides but all those corridors would lead back towards the fire, which was still blazing unrestrained. There would no getting back inside the fortress until that was under control. He turned to look at the tall wall behind them that reached up to a parapet with low towers watchful on either side, though, curiously, no sentry had appeared to see what all the commotion was about.

'I don't feel inclined to wait for Ulla Safar's minions to sort out their mess before coming to our assistance. We'll get up to the walkway.' He pointed. 'Then we can follow the rampart round to the other side of the fortress and signal the Rainbow Moth ourselves.'

I should have suspected a scorpion under the bed, shouldn't I, when Ulla Safar put us so far away, quite out of sight of our galley. How could I have missed some hint of this in all the auguries I took before we sailed?

As Kheda thought this, a streak of light high above caught his eye. A shooting star or firedrake seared its brief path across the night sky. He stared, open-mouthed.

That's out of season, or at least early, with the rains not yet come.

'What have we got for a rope?' Dyal was already catching up lengths of discarded cloth trailing from the I garden's battered perfume trees.

Gal darted back down the steps and vanished into the smoke-filled audience room, appearing moments later with arms full of silken coverlets, face congested with the effort of not breathing. 'Who's got a knife?' he gasped.

It turned out some instinct had prompted every man to catch up his dagger. Kheda drew his own and sliced the fine weave with as much relish as if it had been Ulla Safar's throat 'How do you suggest we get the first man up to the parapet?'

Dyal was already plaiting strips into a sturdy cable. 'Leave that to us, my lord.'

When the silken rope looked barely long enough to Kheda, three of the erstwhile porters formed a practised ladder against the battlement wall and Dyal climbed deftly up their backs and shoulders. Once aloft, he threw a loop around a sturdy merlon and dropped the rope to Gal waiting eagerly below.

'You two stay here, back up Birut and Jevin,' Kheda said to the other porters. He climbed up after Gal, Telouet's sword awkwardly thrust through his belt. As he reached the parapet, the first concerned shouts from Ulla servants sounded in the garden below. 'Daish Kheda! Great lord!'

'Ignore them.' As he ran along the wall walk, Dyal ahead and Gal bringing up the rear, he heard Janne's furious censure intercepting whoever had so conveniently managed to make a way through to the garden as soon as it seemed Daish Kheda was escaping the trap.

The watchtower barred their way, the only route to the parapet beyond, the inward-looking window unaccountably shuttered. Dyal hammered wrathfully on the door. 'Open to Daish Kheda! Are you deaf as well as blind?'

Kheda heard muffled movement inside hastily stilled. He stepped forward and bent close to the crack of the door, speaking with cold precision. 'I am Daish Kheda. Open to me now or I'll demand your heads for your insolence.'

The bolts were immediately withdrawn and the door opened to reveal two youths barely old enough to shave, never mind serve in a warlord's personal guard. Neither spoke, terror plain in their white-rimmed eyes.

'Treacherous scum.' Dyal stepped forward, sword half unsheathed.

The doorway beyond stood open and Kheda saw a figure running along the wall walk. 'They're not worth the waste of our time.' He shoved Dyal towards the far door. They ran on, all three with swords now drawn, bare blades shining like parings from the Lesser Moon bright above. Lights began showing all along the citadel's upper levels. Kheda ignored them.

Young lads on watch and barely trained. Ulla Safar would be distraught as he excused himself to Ritsem Caid and Redigal Conn, bemoaning his guard captains folly in trusting to youths who had concentrated all their energies on looking outwards, rather than into the fortress. Of course, with the tales of magical foes coming up from the south, that was to be expected, if not excused. The boys would naturally be sentenced to impaling, the captain to a flogging to leave him scarred for life. But I would still be dead, along with my most influential wife, the inconvenient Itrac Chazen and as many as possible of our retinue who might be able to shed some light on these dark dealings.

The next watchtower was empty, doors wide open. The one beyond was barred. Dyal raised his sword hilt to hammer on the stubborn wood. Before his blow landed, the door opened and an armoured Ulla warrior rushed out. He charged into Dyal, knocking him off balance, the Daish man's blade scraping ineffectually over his mailed shoulder. Falling, Dyal grabbed at his assailant, wrapping his arms around his neck, tangling his legs with his own. The pair fell from the parapet, landing with a sickening crunch of bone and an agonised scream in the stone-paved courtyard below.

Kheda's sword met the shining blade thrust forward by the next man out of the watchtower, anonymous as the first behind face guard and the fine chain veil of his helmet. The warlord backed away, parrying a second stroke sweeping in at waist height. There was no way he could attack, not bare-chested against an armoured man.

'Let me past, my lord!' Gal pressed close behind him.

'There's no room.' Kheda twisted his wrist to foil another lethal thrust at his belly.

'My lord!' Alarm sharpening Gal's voice alerted Kheda to running feet at their rear.

'Sheathe your swords!'

When he heard Ulla Orhan's voice behind him, Kheda's surprise nearly gave his opponent an easy kill.

'Put up your blades.' The youth's furious words rang with an ominous echo of his father's ruthlessness.

The man facing Kheda took a step back, sword lowered warily. 'We were told of invaders on the walls.'

'In the inner citadel?' Orhan's voice was cold with disbelief. 'With no breach of the outer defences?'

'There's word of magic attacking in the south.' The warrior still didn't sheathe his blade. 'Who knows where wizards might appear?'

You're very bold in defying the domain's heir apparent. You've had your orders from someone close enough to Safar to be the warlord's mouthpiece.

All the same, Kheda risked a glance backwards and saw Orhan was in armour of his own, a troop of mailed men at his back. The boy had come prepared to fight.

'Ulla Orhan, I am going to the landing stage, to signal to my galley to take us back on board,' Kheda told him forcefully. 'I am not risking my people's safety any further in a night of such confusion.'

'I will not gainsay you,' said Orhan tightly. 'Much as it grieves me to see my father's fortress embarrassed by such inadequacy.'

'Back off,' Gal snarled at the swordsmen blocking their path.

The warrior took a pace backwards. Kheda took one forwards, Gal at his shoulder, his breathing harsh in the tense silence. Behind, he heard Orhan giving some low-voiced order and the rattle of mail as one of his men ran off, doubtless to carry a message to some ally. To their fore, the armoured man gestured to those behind him and they melted away, leaving the parapet clear.

'I shall not forget this.' Kheda's tone was neutral as he wiped sweat from his forehead. 'Any of this.'

'Nor shall I.' Orhan blinked slowly. Then noises below prompted a new concern into his eyes. 'Did someone fall?'

'Dyal, one of my men. Tend him well because I'll be holding you to account for him.' Kheda turned to continue his race along the parapet.

Let Orhan prove his good faith with decent care for Dyal, if he's not already dead.

Whatever word had gone out, it saved Kheda and Gal from further challenge, each watchtower opening almost before they reached it, sentries standing aside with their faces an eloquent mix of shame and apprehension. Kheda counted off the turrets as he and Gal passed through them, chest heaving when he finally reached one that would give him a suitable vantage point over the river, the toothed expanse of the landing stage far below. 'Signal lantern,' he snapped at the cowering guard.

Snatching it from the man, Gal climbed the ladder to the trap door opening on to the roof of the tower. Kheda hurried after him, three steps to one stride. Gal set the heavy lantern in its high seat, the brilliance painful to their eyes. Kheda pulled the lever that closed the shutters set into the lantern's sides. Counting the beats of his heart, he snapped the light open again, closed and then open, in the sequence that the Rainbow Moth's captain should recognise. He peered through treacherous darkness, a few scant lights marking out the profusion of huts and shelters on the bank beyond the anchorages. His own vision was a confusion of false glimmers prompted by the lantern's dazzle. 'Gal, can you see anything?'

'Not yet, my lord.'

They waited.

'Yes, there!'

Kheda found the answering gleam where Gal was pointing. Breath caught in his throat, he counted off the pattern of light and dark.

And that's the true signal, not some random pretence, nor yet covert warning that the ship's been seized, shipmaster under duress, crew quaking for fear of their lives.

'We go down to the dock,' he told Gal decisively. 'As soon as the galley's here, you go and fetch my lady Janne and the others. If Ulla Safar's going to make another attempt on my life, he can make it in full view of too many witnesses even for him to kill. I'm not risking myself in any dark corridors, so Safar can wring his hands over some panicked underling's tragic mistake, and I'm certainly not having Janne caught up in some skirmish.'

'This way, my lord.' Gal led Kheda unerringly down the stair curling below the watchtower in the thickness of the wall and then through corridors busy with startled underlings. Lamps were being lit, doors opening and closing, servants and slaves alike shying away from the two men's drawn swords and dangerous expressions.

A final turn and a flight of steps brought them to the door leading to the room behind the dock in the fortress's outer wall. Gal hammered on it.

'Open to Daish Kheda!'

The heavy iron-bound wood swung open so fast, someone had to have been waiting behind it. Kheda followed Gal through it to find they were in a lofty hall with torches burning in brackets high on the walls and another door opposite. Arrow slits piercing the walls all around and holes in the ceiling for the better delivery of boiling oil, scalding water or just skull-crushing rocks would make sure no one uninvited would get a chance to use either entrance to the fortress. A sizeable contingent of Ulla swordsmen stood in the centre of the floor, between Kheda and departure.

'Open the outer doors, if you please.' Kheda addressed himself to the captain whose brass-decorated helm denoted his rank. 'My galley will be arriving in a moment.' He kept his voice mild.

Gal's scowl and the menace in every line of his body should make it plain we're not to be trifled with. That and our naked swords. Do you have the stones to ask us to put them up, I wonder?

'As you command, great lord.' The sentry captain bowed low and jerked his head to send a couple of his men unbarring the heavy double doors. Kheda walked forward, not looking at any of the Ulla guards. As he walked out on to the landing stage, he saw the Daish galley looming out of the night, moonlight catching the white foam stirred up from the river as the oarsmen turned the mighty ship around. The Ulla men followed him out, drawing up in solid rank along the edge of the dock.

'Get those chains clear!' Kheda looked up to see an armoured man shouting from the stern platform, the ship's contingent led by one of Serno's most trusted subordinates. More men crowded the deck, looking every measure warriors even in the cotton trews and open-necked sleeveless tunics of a galley crew. The captain of the dock sentries jerked his head to send his men to unhook the heavy chains rigged across to prevent any unbidden ship sliding into the welcoming embrace of the landing stage.

'Go and tell Janne Daish we are returning to the shelter of our own galley.' Kheda nodded to Gal who immediately disappeared back into the labyrinth of the fortress. Kheda stood, arms folded, forbidding arrogance challenging the sentries to notice his bare chest, torn and dirty trousers, the absence of everything that should have proclaimed his status as warlord.

The galley docked behind him in a flurry of rushing water. Rapid feet on the stern ladder announced the swordsmen jumping ashore, drawing up around their lord to join in staring down the Ulla sentries. Kheda looked discreetly from side to side, caught Serno's man's attention and narrowed his eyes in mute warning.

The last thing we want is belligerence and mistrust on both sides turning this confrontation into a dockside battle. How to put a stop to that?

Kheda lifted his eyes casually to the sky, studying the heavens. No swordsman would make a move while a warlord was looking for portents. More than one battle had never been joined because an omen had decided the outcome in advance.

As he looked up, more than half his attention on the tense situation all around him, Kheda saw two more white streaks of light in the night sky. More shooting stars, crossing the north of the compass, to vanish in the arc of travel and learning.

It seemed as though half the night had passed before Kheda heard Birut's familiar bellow clearing the way for Janne Daish, first wife and beloved mother, cherished by all her domain. The porters threw open the double doors to the entrance hall and the entire Daish retinue poured out on to the landing stage, maids and musicians alike burdened with an amount of salvaged property that astonished Kheda. His wife's appearance came as less of a surprise.

'My husband.' Janne strode forward, Birut glowering at her shoulder. Somehow, she had managed to find time to dress in a simple yet brightly embroidered gown of blue logen vines on white silk and even had sapphires gleaming around her throat and in her tightly rebraided hair. Jevin hadn't managed to find jewellery for Itrac but she too was at least dressed in something approaching respectable ostentation, in a flowing dress of silk brindled like turtle shell and enough bangles of the real thing to remind everyone whose wife she still was.

'My lady wife.' Kheda waved away Birut who was advancing with a suitably lordly tunic over one arm, intent on improving his master's appearance. 'I suggest we depart and allow Ulla Safar to restore some order to his residence after all these most unfortunate accidents.'

'Indeed.' Janne looked around the Ulla sentries with searing contempt. 'I will not lie to you though, my husband. This has been a most disagreeable visit thus far.'

Kheda nodded to the attendant maids clutching jewel coffers tight with frightened hands. 'Get aboard.' He drew Janne aside, with a sharp gesture to dissuade Birut from approaching.

'Ulla Safar has made every attempt to kill me tonight, short of stabbing me in the back himself. If he doesn't know where I am, he can't try again.' He spoke low and urgently. 'I'm not going to play these games on his terms any longer. We cannot afford to and I need time to think. Tomorrow morning, you will be wanting to make your meditations at the tower of silence by the waterfall upstream, where the brook from the black rock joins the river. Do you hear me?'

Janne nodded, eyes wide with a myriad questions. 'But Kheda—'

He silenced her with a kiss, catching her around the waist and pulling her close. Breaking free of her lips was one of the hardest things he had ever done. 'We're going. Get Itrac below and stay there.' Abandoning Janne he ran lightly up the Rainbow Moth's stern ladder, making his way through the crowded deck to the high stern platform, to stand behind the helmsman watchful by the long tiller that governed the mighty rudder below.

Apprehension twisted Kheda's innards as he waited for everyone to get aboard, the galley's crew shoving off as none of the Ulla men moved to lend a hand. The rowers bent to the oars and the galley soon hauled itself out into the broad main channel. Inadequate as the earlier showers had been, they had still brought a little more water to speed the river's flow. Kheda waited, judging their progress till they were beyond the light shed by the fortress's lanterns, not yet winning close to the random glimmers from the shore.

'What's that?' Kheda pointed into the darkness of the waters, voice sharp with alarm. 'There, did you see it?'

'My lord?' Startled, the helmsman and shipmaster both followed his gesture.

'What is it?' Kheda stared into the night, astonishment in his voice.

After the chaos of the night, that was all it took to set a ripple of panic running through the vessel. The shipmaster hurried to the forward rail of the stern platform, helmsman half standing, face questing. Stealthily, Kheda began taking deeper and deeper breaths.

'Bow watch, what can you see?'

As confused shouts echoed along the deck, Kheda moved backwards, unseen, to the very edge of the stern platform where it hung out over the water, nothing but empty air beneath. He toppled backwards, hitting the water with an inelegant splash. Shouts of alarm just reached his ears before the heavy, turbid water wrapped him in silence.

Keep your mouth shut. Let's not swallow any more of Ulla Safar's shit tonight, and let's get as far away as possible before broaching the surface. This isn't going to work if they drag you out of the river like a half drowned pup.

He struck out strongly beneath the concealing water, driving his arms and legs on until his chest burned and his limbs trembled. Finally forced to the surface, he rolled on to his back, barely letting his face rise clear of the pungent water. He floated for a few agonising, stealthy breaths, alert for lights that might betray him, just lifting his head enough to hear the shouts and commotion downstream, the galley wallowing in dismay as everyone searched the black water around the vessel for any sign of him.

And when they can't find me, they'll look downstream, hopefully. That can stand for a test of all this. If I'm following the right course, they will take the wrong one.

Rolling around, Kheda began to swim upstream, sliding his overarm stroke smoothly into the water to avoid any sound of splashing. Leaving the few lights of the bank behind, he risked a little more speed.

Get clear of these houses and out of the river before dawn brings fishermen and bird hunters out on to the water. Then move fast through the forest; Ulla Safar will be sending out search parties at the first hint of light. More than that, Janne will be wanting to know what under all the stars I'm thinking of, so I'd better be at the tower of silence by the waterfall before she is. I'd better have worked out just why it is those shooting stars are turning me to the north.

Chapter Nine

'If you're going to take your omens at dawn, you have to decide when that is. Some say it's when you can first tell a black thread from a white laid across your palm. Others say it's not till the sun is fully clear of the horizon. That's a goodly difference in time, when it comes to reading portents, my lad. I take it as the moment when the light of the coming day turns from grey to yellow.'

I never shared your confidence in judging such a subtle shift, my father, so decided to making sure I always have a view of the sea when taking such omens and watching for the first brilliant edge of the rising sun. Which does me little good, when all I can see is trees and bushes. Still, unless someone turns up with a handful of black and white threads to say otherwise, it must surely still be before dawn.

Kheda paused to catch his breath in the dim half-light that was just beginning to outline the crudely plundered scrub that bordered the Ulla islanders' vegetable plots and stands of carefully tended fruit trees. He looked up but there were no more shooting stars to be seen. Rubbing a hand over eyes sore with weariness and whatever filth had been in the river, he pushed on through the brittle vegetation. Everything was parched and desperate for the rains, even in this well-watered island of mountains and rivers. Moving off once more, his feet found a bare line of earth marked with the dainty slots that betokened forest deer, overlaid at one point by the thicker, deeper prints of a foraging hog. A game trail.

Follow it for a little while, for the sake of moving fast and quiet, just as long as you're off it before any trappers come up from the farmland looking for forest meat. Remember to look for their snares while you're at it. You still can't risk discovery.

As he ran, he kept a wary eye on the strengthening light above the treetops as well as staying alert for any sound of voices or dogs. He had come far enough to be confident no search sent out from the fortress would find him, but encountering some hunting party returning from a night expedition would be just as bad. Apprehension lent new vigour to limbs aching from ceaseless effort. When the light brought a measure of true colour back to the scrub around him, Kheda reluctantly abandoned the track, climbing a little higher up the side of the broad valley for the thicker cover offered by the margins of the true forest. The denser growth forced him to slow but walking rather than running didn't come as much of a relief. The temptation to stop altogether grew stronger and more insidious.

Just a few moments wouldn't make any difference, not just a little rest to rub your exhausted muscles. Shouldn't you be stopping to look for a stream? You're so very thirsty. No? No. Don't be such a fool. Keep going and think about something else.

The smell of smoke distracted him from the wearisome repetition of such thoughts. After the first rush of alarm froze him among the dusty saplings like a startled deer, Kheda realised the pungent scent was no more than a taste on the breeze, carried up from the distant huts among the sailer plots that lay beyond the scrubby brush and the haphazard band of cultivation. Pounding heart slowing, Kheda moved on, smoke-prompted memory uncoiling before him.

'Of course this is a hunting trip. We'll be calling for men from the villages to carry the meat down for smoking on the shore every second day.' Daish Reik had smiled down, green eyes bright, black beard curling exuberantly now it was freed from the dictates of oil and comb. 'We'll eat well right through the dry season, us and all the islanders who lend a hand.'

'But that's not all this trip is.' Kheda could see several of his brothers had been thinking the same.

'Isn't it?' Daish Reik had cocked his head to one side, face alight with challenge. What is it then?'

All his brothers had been watching him, silently urging him on, encouragement in their half smiles, relief in their eyes that he was the one taking the risk.

'You're looking to—' Kheda had searched for the right words. 'You're looking to be sure of the well-being of the domain,' he declared abruptly.

'This is no progress with wives and servants, slaves to do my bidding.' Daish Reik had shaken his head, his gaze intent. 'I make those visits to each island at the start of the dry season, to hear pleas, give judgement and read the omens for each village. You know that.'

'When they know you're coming.' Kheda had stood straighter, head on a level with Daish Reik's shoulder. 'When any misfortune can be tidied away and everything set fair for the most propitious omens.'

'We're not staying in any of the villages.' Daish Reik had spread his broad, thick-fingered hands tn apparent puzzlement. 'We're scarcely visiting them'

'You're talking to everyone we meet on the tracks between them,' Kheda had countered, folding his slender arms across his slightly muscled chest. 'When they're not all tense and anxious that their village shows itself to best advantage, when all the women aren't fussing that the food they have to offer is as good as the next village's, better if possible, and the men are worrying if such generosity is going to leave them hungry by the end of the dry season.' He had looked around the half circle of his brothers, reassured by their nods of agreement. 'This way you're not talking to people shoved forward by the spokesman, to tell you how wonderfully he's leading the village, how the young men organise the work between them with never a cross word.'

Then he had stopped, unsure, seeing amusement twisting Daish Reik's full mouth.

'Very astute, my son,' Daish Reik had said cordially. 'I don't imagine these tracks see half this quantity of feet when we're not in the area with a hunting party.' Then he had dropped into a crouch, holding Kheda's eyes with his own. 'But you are failing to see I have one more essential objective in these trips.'

Kheda had managed not to flinch, aware that all his brothers were watching, cudgelling his brains for something else. 'We share our meat with the villages, rather than eating up their stores. I imagine that leaves them better disposed to our presence.'

'Very true' Daish Reik had agreed: 'But there's more besides that.'

Kheda hadn't been able to see it so he'd squared his shoulders, lifting his chin. 'What might that be, my father?'

In one swift movement, Daish Reik had scooped up a handful of leaf litter and thrown it at Kheda. 'Having some fun and getting filthy without your mothers scolding us all into baths and clean clothes!' Springing up, he'd flung more handfuls at the other boys. 'The first one of you to get leaves down my tunic can help me make the fires tonight.'

It had been Ajil, brother now lost, zamonn and assiduous in his duties as one of the lowest ranked of Redigal Coron's retinue, who had won that much prized duty.

Kheda paused as he found himself beside a little spring carving a runnel through the clutter of the forest floor. Kneeling, he cupped water from the leaf-stained trickle in his hand and drank, throat aching as he swallowed.

Running a dripping hand over his beard, he forced himself to his feet once again. He ached, all over, from head still suffering from the lingering remnants of Ulla Safar's smothering smoke to feet scored and bruised by missteps in the darkness.

Redigal Coron. What about this plot that Telouet has got wind of? Could you have used that knowledge to bring Coron into an alliance with the Daish and Ritsem domains, instead of opting for this insane course? But would Coron have believed you? How long would it take to unravel the threads of such a conspiracy? No, it would all take too long and you cannot afford to take your eyes off the Chazen threat.

With a groan, he pushed himself on, tendrils from untamed berry bushes catching at his ragged trousers now dried to stiff creases with the silt of the river chafing at his skin. Away from the thinner brush where the Ulla islanders gathered their firewood, the forest closed around him, hostile, unyielding. Kheda drew Telouet's sword and began reluctantly cutting himself a path, doing his best to leave as little of a trail as he could.

Forgive me, Telouet, I know full well this is a task beneath your blade's dignity but it's all I have to hand.

Not that this is the first time I've been out in forest like this with a blade in my hand. That was another of Daish Reik's purposes, on those hunting trips. Was that something else that counted in my favour, that I realised it?

'Why do we have to learn all this?' His brother Kadi hadn't been complaining, just curious, as he had paused in the pattern of sword strokes Daish Reik's slave Agas had been drilling them all in.

'Since we've left everyone but Agas and a few guards behind to look after your mothers, it's as well you learn to defend yourselves.' Daish Reik had been shaving a length of hard, aromatic lilla wood into a feathery tmderstick with rapid strokes of his dagger.

'With these?'

The boys hadn't been given swords, just the long blunt-ended blades that hill men and hunters carried for carving a path through the undergrowth.

'Learn the moves with something as clumsy as that and they'll come all the easier when you deserve a real sword.' Daish Reik's knife had resumed its regular rasp.

Kheda had done his sword practice earlier. He had been sitting nearby, checking his bow and his arrows. Archery was another skill that those hunting trips had taught him. 'What must we do to deserve that?'

'Earn the respect of those swordsmen you expect to go before you into battle, by showing them you can do yourself everything with sword or arrow that you are asking of them.' Daish Reik had pointed the curved blade of his dagger straight at him, emerald eyes hard. 'Deserve their loyalty by showing you value the work that goes into supplying all your wants and more, that you value those who provide for you, whether it be the essentials of fire, water and food, or the luxuries of soft clothes, pretty trinkets and comfortable living.'

'Is that why you said we'd go hungry, if we couldn't catch our own meat on this trip?' Kheda had ventured, mindful of the chequered fowl he'd failed to bring down earlier.

'If you do not know what it is to lack such necessities, you won't see your people's anxiety if a spring fails in the dry season or a rainy-season storm leaves a village's saller rotting in the granary and all the firewood so sodden, aflame to dry it simply cannot be sustained.' Daish Reik's smile had been more challenge than reassurance. 'If you do not see such obvious things, how can you see the greater subtleties of portents? Share the concerns of the domain and its people and they will drive you to puzzle out the meaning of omens. Value the stuff of life, those that bring it to you and the domain that provides it, and people and domain both value you.'

I do value my domain and its people both and I'll risk the taint of magic by defying these wizards with a sword in my hand myself, before I let them stain and despoil the Daish islands. Redigal Coron can look to his own problems. I must find some way of defending the Daish domain.

Kheda cut down a half-dead tandra sapling rising from a stained tangle of last year's fibrous pods and suddenly found himself face to face with a startled hook-toothed hog. The beast grunted and shied away but it didn't flee. With the bristling crest running along its arched spine on a level with Kheda's midriff, it didn't need to. Planting its hooves in the remains of the rotting log where it had been foraging, it turned red-rimmed black eyes on Kheda with a belligerent snort. Its lips, slimy with spittle and dirt, drew back from the downward curve of its lower tusks, fangs the length of Kheda's dagger, yellow and spotted with leaf mould where it had been digging for grubs and beetles in the log. Its upper tusks curved the other way, coiling round to meet over the long flexible snout twitching at this new, intrusive scent. Kheda took a careful step backwards.

'Not fast enough to provoke it into a charge, nor yet slow enough for it to decide you're a threat and it may as well get its attack in first. If it does run at you, get out of its way, up a tree if you can. Those tusks can disembowel a man and leave him bleeding his life out on the forest floor. And remember, if it does kill you and no one finds your corpse, it'll come back when you're rotten meat and eat you itself.'

That's something else we learned on those hunting trips, isn't it, Daish Reik, that there are more ways than one of killing or catching every kind of prey and stealth a part of most of them. Challenging these wizards face to face would be a quick way of getting myself killed. I have to find some more subtle weapon. Show me I am on the right path here, hog.

Kheda halted and waited. The hook-toothed hog looked at him, almost comical as it peered past the twisted tusks in front of its eyes. With another snort and a shake of its mottled brown and black hide, it turned tail and disappeared into the all-enveloping leaves of a sardberry thicket, the forest soon muffling the sound of its retreat.

A flock of little scarlet-headed waxbeaks swooped down to land on the ravaged log, trilling with excitement as they pecked at insects disturbed by the foraging hog. Kheda realised the trees and bushes all around were bustling with birds of all sizes and colours stirring to greet the new day. He hurried on through the trees, moving back down the long shallow slope of the river valley. Cautious, he looked out across the patchwork of vegetable fields and sailer plots and to intermittent huts of Ulla Safar's people marking out the line of the distant river, narrower here but still wider than any in the Daish domain. Mists still hung in swathes across the low-lying land, drifting into rags and tatters where breezes tugged at them.

There it was. Indistinct yet unmistakable, a raw outcrop of black rock broke through the valley side, stark intrusion shocking against the soft green, irresistibly drawing the eye to its brutal shape. Sheer sides rose up as clean and glistening as meat fresh cut with a fine-honed blade. No plants had managed a foothold on that slick surface. On the foremost crest, a few scrubby bushes had sprouted, only to be crushed beneath the sprawling weight of an enormous nest, built by the silver eagles who had claimed the crag for their own. The ground below the crag was untouched. None would dare till it and risk being touched by the great birds' shadows, wide as the span of a grown man's arms, as they wove their portents in the skies. Only in the thirstiest season would they approach to draw water from the pool beneath the unfailing waterfall tumbling in gouts of brilliant white down the midnight face of the rock. No matter what the season, no one would approach the ornately carved gate in the high wall that surrounded the topless tower standing just to the south of the crag. No one except a warlord or his acknowledged wife.

Kheda began making his way towards it, finding a path winding through the remnants of the much-harvested brushwood. Soon stands of berry bushes and little lilla trees marked the edge of proper cultivation. There was no fruit to be had though, no matter how fiercely Kheda's belly griped with hunger. Then a few black-veined ruddy leaves wilting beneath a lilla sapling caught his eye. Hira beets. Dropping to his knees, Kheda dug with his dagger until he uncovered the roots. Hands clumsy, he peeled them, the dark juice staining fingers and dagger alike. Wizened and leathery at this season, they still had some sweetness as he chewed them resolutely.

Let that chance find be a good omen, like the hog, that I'm on the right path.

Meagre as it was, this food put new heart in him. Kheda hurried on, seeing the great black crag grow brighter with every touch of the strengthening daylight. The mists shifted and drifted around it, shapes half seen tempting his eyes and memory but disappearing before he could decide just what they were. Following the lie of the land, slipping gradually downhill, the path took him more than half the way to the great black crag before it swerved in a prudent detour back towards the huddles of close-shuttered houses. Kheda looked warily over towards the river. He could see a few figures now, tiny and indistinct in the mists, stooped over nursery beds where the sailer seedlings were being cherished, waiting for the longed-for rains to soak deep into the earth-banked fields lying hoed and ready.

There's a time for stealth and this isn't it. This is no time to be seen and hailed, asked who you are and what you're doing, half naked and filthy and yet carrying a sword twice the value of any of those houses and everything in it. Not that any of them would recognise you in this state, not as the mighty lord of the Daish domain, reader of portents, giver of laws, healer and protector of all his islands.

Leaving the track, Kheda cut a straight path towards the white stone wall surrounding the tower of silence. A perfect circle, it was topped with sharp peaks of opaque white crystal and broken only by a single gate of ebony stained with the verdigris that had long since dulled the bronze fittings to a murky green. Kheda laid a scratched and dirty hand on the latch and, pushing the gate open, slid inside the compound. His breathing sounded harsh and ragged in his ears as he leaned against the wall, relief suddenly robbing him of any strength for an endless instant.

The solid pillar of the tower rose above him. Broad, shallow steps wound up the outside in a slow spiral for those who would bring the honoured dead of the domain here, to lay them down on the empty, open platform at the top, its four pillars set in a cardinal square. There were no rails or barriers. For anyone engaged in such hallowed duties to complete them in safety or, by contrast, to fall to injury or death was a potent omen either way. Kheda walked slowly across the dusty space, intent on putting the tower between himself and the gate. Out of long habit, he noted the few plants that had seeded themselves inside the enclosure.

Sailer stalks rattling dry kernels cloaked in rough husks; a good omen that, for the fertile land all around supplying the vital harvest to come. That tiny sapling already has the distinctive leaves of the bloodfever tree, though it's a fragile promise of health for the people hereabouts. I wouldn't be any too sanguine for local villages, not with the size of that serpent bush thriving next to it.

That was one of your other purposes on our forest hunting trips, wasn't it, my father, teaching us to recognise our healing plants.

'See these upthrust ridged fingers hidden among the sard-berry leaves? This is a serpent bush and it's as vicious as any snake, its sap just as venomous. Never touch it; these spines will break off in your fingers and fester. Don't cut it; the juice will blister your skin. Make sure you never gather any in with dead wood for your fire. Meat cooked over it will kill you.'

'Then what purpose does it serve?' Kheda had stammered. He'd not long begun his herbal studies but the one thing he had already learned was every plant was supposed to have a function.

Daish Reik had looked at him for a long moment of silence. 'It serves as a warning. Let that be sufficient for now.'

It was only later, when I was left your sole son, searching the tomes of herb lore in the tower for all the teaching your untimely death had denied me, that I learned its full potential among the subtler means of attacking one's enemies, of inflicting timely indispositions and discreet wasting sicknesses. Is this one of the malevolent plants that Ulla Safar uses to clear inconveniences like Orhan's mother from his path?

Is this where Ulla Safar brings those pathetic little corpses he writes out of this domain's records barely before they've drawn breath? Does he deem them important enough to be raised to the silent heights, that the birds and the insects might disperse their essence as widely as possible over the domain? What influence could they have, such tiny children, for good or ill on the domain? Perhaps he simply buries them, like humble islanders with no greater ambition than returning all that they have become to the place where they lived out their lives. Or does he deny them even that grace, since he doesn't deem them worthy of even the chance of life, something even the scrawniest offspring of the lowest dirt farmer can claim in the Daish islands. Does he burn the tiny bodies or throw them to the tides to be washed far from the Archipelago? I wouldn't put it past him. Still, at least it doesn't smell as if he's murdered anyone with a blood claim on the domain of late.

Kheda sat with his back to the tower and looked up at the steps rising above his head. The still air was fresh with the transient cool of dawn, no carrion stench drifting down from the tower. There were a few scraps of cloth on the ground, sun-bleached and rain-faded, some dull white rounded pieces that could only be bone. The greatest concentration of both was clustered around the base of the serpent bush.

'It serves as a warning. Let that be sufficient for now.'

Kheda stared unseeing at the blank stone wall in front of him. There was no sound but the steady thrumming rush of the ceaseless waterfall hidden from view by the enclosure wall. The sound made Kheda thirsty again, his mouth as dry as sun-bleached cotton. Resolutely ignoring it, he marshalled the arguments he would need honed and ready, if he was going to keep the upper hand in the inevitable argument with Janne, to convince her of the truth that had come to him in the darkness of the night, alone on the silent river bank. Despite his determination, he still didn't feel ready by the time he heard Janne's sharp voice rising above reluctant steps drawing close to the gate in the wall.' He sat, motionless, forcing himself to breathe slow and careful, trying to still the pounding of his heart.

'Wait at the bottom of the rise.' Janne's voice outside the gate was harsh with weariness. She rounded on some low rumble of protest from Birut. 'Because I do not want any distractions.'

Tense, Kheda waited as she lifted the latch, entered and closed the gate firmly behind her. He heard her heave a tired sigh before her soft tread approached the tower. 'Kheda?'

He stood and looked cautiously around the curve of the stone. 'I'm here. Who's with you?' he asked in the same low tone.

Janne took an impulsive step forward, hands outstretched, before she halted, hugging herself instead. 'Birut, a detachment of our own swordsmen and some of Ulla's men who insisted we could not make such a journey without fitting escort. Don't worry; I've left them well out of earshot and Birut will make sure no one trespasses on my grief.' Her face showed all the strain of the long and troubled night but she was immaculately dressed regardless, a white shawl of silky goat's hair wrapped around the shoulders of a grass-green dress with a pattern of dancing herons. Braided close, her hair was adorned with chains of emeralds mounted in silver.

'How's Telouet?' That abrupt concern overrode what Kheda had intended to say.

'His arm is broken and the wound looks dangerously inflamed but he's awake and says his sickness is past.' Janne paused, anger and hurt naked in her tired eyes behind their mask of cosmetics. 'Frantic about you, I might add. What am I to tell him?'

'What did you tell Ulla Safar?' Kheda had questions of his own before he'd be giving any answers.

'That every portent must be sought, every omen consulted as to where the river might have carried you.' Janne settled her shawl lower on her arms, speaking with something of her customary self-possession. 'Since visiting a tower of silence is the sole divination that's a wife's province, I said I would come here and seek some dream to give us a hint as to your fate. As I have not slept, the chances of some guidance must be all the greater.' She looked at him meaningfully.

Kheda looked past her to the gate, face thoughtful. 'What signs has Safar pointed at, in his interpretation of events?'

'He has yet to devote himself to such considerations,' Janne said with asperity 'He feels the first priority is organising search parties to scour the banks downstream for your corpse. He wished me peace in my meditations and, of course, to let him know at once whatever image was in my mind on waking. He said I could have Orhan to assist me in divining its meaning.'

'How generous,' said Kheda dryly. 'You should keep an eye on Orhan though. He may be looking to the Daish domain for an ally. He certainly saved me from death at least once last night.'

'Could that be why Safar tried to have you killed?' Hope rose in Janne's voice. 'Could the Chazen troubles have nothing to do with the night's calamities?'

'I don't know and I don't really think I care,' Kheda said brusquely.

Janne was taken aback. 'We have to know what lies behind all this. This is our first chance in years to get the upper hand over Safar. We have to decide the best time for your return, to our best advantage. Redigal Coron is all but shoulder-to-shoulder with Ritsem Caid now. Safar was summoning his people to mourn your death when Coron stepped in and forbade it, insisting there's every chance you're still alive.'

'But what if I am not?' Kheda asked softly.

Janne looked puzzled. 'What do you mean?'

'What if I am dead?' he persisted.

Janne stared at him, still uncomprehending. 'Don't say such a thing, not below a tower of silence. You tempt the future, my husband.'

'What if I am dead, my first wife?' repeated Kheda, steel in his voice.

Janne cupped her face in her hands, closing her eyes. 'Then Sirket inherits, if we can get word to him to make sure he declares your death and his accession before anyone else can do it.' Her eyes opened with a snap. 'Which is why Safar is searching so diligently for your corpse. If he can prove your death before Sirket has a chance to declare himself, the domain is masterless, the chain of succession broken.'

'To be seized by whoever may prove strongest.' A humourless smile twisted Kheda's mouth. 'Safar must be all but spilling his seed at the prospect.'

'Caid would never stand for it.' Janne looked appalled. 'It would be war between Ulla and Ritsem.'

'It's a good thing there's no corpse to be found then.' Kheda shrugged with sour satisfaction. 'Sirket must declare himself as soon as possible. If Telouet's fit to travel, send him. Everyone will suspect what that signifies but no one can challenge you, not as long as you stay here and encourage Safar in his search parties and dragging the river bed.'

'What are you saying?' A sharp frown creased Janne's brow. 'You want Sirket to take on the domain, an untried boy between Ulla Safar's malevolence to the north and reeking savages wielding magic to the south? What are you thinking?' Barely catching herself before her voice rose to a shout, her words rang with suppressed anger.

'As long as there is no body to display, for weeping and lamentations over such a tragic accident, Safar cannot move against Sirket.' Kheda kept his words calm. 'Doing so would be as good as saying he knows I am dead because he killed me himself. Caid will never stand for it and I don't imagine Coron will either. His retinue won't let him for one thing. That reminds me, you must talk to Telouet as soon as he's got his wits about him. He's heard word those Redigal zamorin are planning their own change of dynasty. They won't want Safar starting a new trend for seizing disputed domains by force of arms.' Kheda ticked off his next argument on his fingers. 'If Sirket is warlord, facing this threat of magic, Caid and Coron will back him, out of self-interest as much as compassion. They might have left me to make shift against unknown invaders as best I could but they won't see Sirket as anything like a strong enough bulwark between them and that danger.'

'And you do?' snapped Janne, incredulous. 'He's barely grown!'

'I have considerable confidence in him,' Kheda replied firmly. 'Still more since he'll have you and Rekha to support and advise him. He's not yet married, so no one will be expecting either of you to quit the domain. He'd better not wed,' he added sharply. 'I know it'll be expected but let him adopt Mesil as a son, if you feel it necessary to demonstrate the succession is secure.'

Janne just stared at him. 'And what of Sain?'

Kheda was thrown off his stride. 'What of her?'

'You'll let her think you're dead, that her babe is to be fatherless? You'd condemn the child to birth under such ill omen, all the while knowing it to be falsehood?'

'If it is no true portent, the child cannot be harmed by it.' Shaken, Kheda tried not to show it.

'You expect Sain to conceal such a truth?' Janne shook her head, disbelieving.

'No,' said Kheda gruffly. 'She must not know the truth, nor must Rekha. You must not breathe a word of this to anyone, not even Sirket, or Telouet.' He swallowed a sudden tightness in his throat. 'Telouet must become Sirket's body slave. There is no one I would rather trust either of them to.'

'Kheda, the children will be devastated! Rekha will grieve as you cannot imagine. It's a good thing Sain's all but reached her time; otherwise such news would likely make her lose the babe. But you're not dead. Why are we talking like this?' Janne ran silver-ringed hands into her thick hair, gripping painfully tight, before staring into her husband's eyes. 'Disappearing for a night, even a few days, if only to save yourself and to disconcert Safar, yes, I can see that, but what can we possibly gain from persisting in this folly?'

'We came here looking for help against the magic that's afflicting the Chazen domain.' Kheda reached forward to disentangle Janne's hands from her hair, holding them close between his own. 'We find everyone playing the same old games of suspicion and intrigue, nursing festering grudges and seeing every augury through the twisted prism of their own hatreds. We cannot afford to get caught up in this tangle of squabbles and intrigue when unknown savages are wielding brutal magic no more than a few days' sail to our south.'

'So you propose to play dead?' Shrillness in Janne's words cut the stillness like a knife.

'Safar cannot distract us with any more attempts on my life if I do, or worse, actually succeed. We talked of sending word to the north, remember?' Kheda held her hands tight between his own. 'To ask if any domains would share their tactics for dealing with barbarian wizards from the unbroken lands?'

'We agreed you would suggest it, simply as a ploy.' Janne narrowed her eyes at him. 'To make Safar and the others believe aiding the Daish domain themselves was lesser evil than inviting strangers into these reaches.'

'I saw firedrakes in the sky last night, Janne, burning a path to the north. What if I follow them, go looking for such lore, in all truthfulness?' Kheda swallowed hard a second time. 'You said yourself, the price we'll have to pay for aid from Ulla Safar and Redigal Coron will beggar our domain for ten years or more. What if I could find some other means, some arcane knowledge that would enable us to drive this vileness out of Chazen and into the southern ocean?'

'We can hold them off, with Ritsem Caid at our back, and Redigal Coron,' Janne protested. 'If you are there to lead the Daish domain, that is.'

Kheda shook his head resolutely. 'The best we could hope for is holding them to the Chazen isles. How long can we do that, especially once the rains have passed? Simply stopping their advance is no answer, not beyond a season or so. We need to drive them out of Chazen isles and Daish alike, clear down to the southern ocean. I truly believe the only way we'll find the means to do that is if I seek it in the northern domains. I can travel through the rains and be back before the dry season reopens the seaways.'

'And what becomes of Sirket when you return to us?' Janne burst out, pulling her hands free of Kheda's, heedless of her shawl falling to the ground. 'If he declares himself warlord, you have to fight him to regain your place. How's that to be resolved without one of you killing the other?' Fury all but choked her.

'Sirket is in no danger from me.' But Janne had thought he might be, if only for a moment, even after all they had shared together. Kheda felt cold despite the heat of the sun now rising above the tree-crowned crest of the valley side. 'He can step aside; the Daish domain answers to no one else, as to how we manage our affairs. And having proved his quality in this trial, his eventual succession will be that much more secure.'

'And what if you don't come back?' Janne's eyes were brimming with tears. 'Don't go! Don't risk yourself like this—' Words failed her.

'I have to.' Kheda drew a deep breath as he bent to pick up Janne's fallen wrap. 'I have to find some way of countering this magic and it's plain I'll not find it here or in any of our neighbours' domains. None of them sees the peril that lies over the southern horizon for the danger it is. There's more, besides. I couldn't read the portents on the Chazen beach, did I tell you that? I'm beginning to wonder if the taint of this magic is spreading ahead of these wizards, corrupting the omens that should be convincing Caid and Coron.'

'What?' Janne stared, disbelieving, ignoring the proffered shawl.

'I saw none of this.' Angry, Kheda waved the white wrap in an arc encompassing the tower, the crag and the whole Ulla domain. 'I worked every divination I thought appropriate before we set sail, you know that, and a few that I give precious little credence, just in case. I sought every possible guidance, alert for any potential warning. I saw none of this,' he repeated bitterly. 'I had no notion that Safar's hostility could reach such a pitch as to have me killed. I saw no augury of sickness, real or induced, nor any sign of a fire to threaten us.' He was twisting the fine silky wool until it cut painfully into his palms. 'The only sign I have seen that can have any meaning is last night's shooting stars. At the very least I have to travel north until I'm free of this miasma and can see our path clear again. I cannot lead the domain in a fight against wizards if the touch of that magic is cutting me off from every sign that should guide me. I would only lead the domain into darkness and death.'

'And how is Sirket to do better?' Janne waved frantic hands, bracelets jingling.

'Sirket did do better,' Kheda said ruefully. 'He did see peril waiting here for me, when he consulted the triune candles, even if it was unclear. I don't think the same confusion is afflicting him. Maybe it's because I went south, actually faced these wizards' monsters.'

'Caid and Coron haven't. Why should they be afflicted?' Janne's anger was rising above her distress. 'Besides, you assured Itrac that to be an unwilling victim of magic is to remain innocent.'

'And half the books in the tower library argue different.' Kheda threw up his hands. 'I don't know. All I do know is we're finding no help here and we need help, Janne, we need it. It's my duty to find it and the only path I can see offering any hope leads north.'

Janne snatched back her shawl and wrapped it close around her shoulders. 'And what are we to do, my lord and husband, while you are following this path?' Her voice was cold but a single tear traced a shining line down her cheek.

Kheda cleared his throat. 'Make sure anyone fleeing north from Chazen is kept in our southernmost islands. They can fish from the shore but not from boats. Don't let Sirket get lured into an advance if the invaders do come north,' he said with more urgency. 'He must fight where he can, kill where he can but don't let him go on the attack, not until I have brought some means to counter the sorcery. If the savages should attack in the rains, our people should fall back, hide in the forests, keep themselves safe until we can carry the attack to these wizards with real hope of success.'

Janne closed her eyes on more tears, shoulders trembling. 'Until you return?'

Kheda embraced her, holding her tight. 'Until I bring whatever lore the northern warlords use to keep magic's evil from invading their domains, to defend our children and their future.'

Janne nodded mutely, stiff within the circle of his arms. 'Tell me, how do your propose to travel north, all but bare-arsed and with no status to call on?'

'I'll cross the central heights and make for the trading beaches on the north side of the island. I will take an oar in a merchant galley in return for passage north.' Kheda shrugged. 'I'll find some clothing on my way. I believe the Ulla domain owes me that much at least. I can feed myself from the forest.'

Janne broke free of his hug and wiped away her tears with the fringe of her shawl, careful not to smudge the green and silver paint around her eyes. 'The Ulla domain owes the Daish a great deal more than tunic and trews for the loss of its lord under Ulla Safar's hospitality.' Her mouth set with new purpose.

'Then you and Rekha can make sure they pay, in arms and men to hold back these wizards until I get back,' Kheda said vehemently.

'How will I know when you have found this lore to drive out magic, that you're on your way home?' Janne looked at him. 'You'll have no message birds, no couriers.'

Kheda scratched at an itch in his beard. 'We'd better keep it secret, that I am still alive, until I am safely back in Daish waters or, better yet, carrying the fight to these invaders in the Chazen isles. I don't want to give Safar a chance to finish last night's work or to get caught up in explaining myself to any other domain. They can find out what I've been doing once I've driven these wizards out. That should put paid to most of their questions of itself.' He paused, thinking. 'There's a tower of silence on the thousand-oyster isle, do you know the one I mean?'

'Where your great grandsire and his elder sons were dashed to death on the reefs.' Janne nodded, visibly determined to get a grip on her unruly emotions.

'No one will be going there until the pearl harvest.' Kheda nodded. 'That's where I'll head for. You can meet me there and tell me how things stand in my absence. Then we can decide how best to go forward.'

'I'll send a trusted slave to keep vigil there,' Janne said slowly. 'Because the sea has yet to give up your body.'

'I will be back as soon as I can,' Kheda promised.

Janne looked straight at him. 'While you're looking for lore to drive out magic, search out as many rites of purification as you can. We have to rid ourselves of every stain these wizards leave.' She shook herself, her white shawl fluttering like the wings of a bird. 'I don't think we have anything else to discuss. I'll return to Derasulla.'

'So soon?' Kheda was surprised. 'Ulla Safar will be expecting you to look for some guidance in a dream here.'

'I've changed my mind,' Janne said with steely precision. 'That is ever a wife's prerogative. If he presses me, I shall simply become distraught with grief.' Her face was cold and calm.

Kheda drew a deep breath. 'So this is farewell, my wife, until the thousand-oyster isle, that is.'

'Farewell, my husband.' Janne turned abruptly towards the gate, lifting the latch and sliding through it. Birut's voice approached, concern lost in the solid clunk of ebony on stone and the rattle of the handle.

Kheda slid down to sit at the base of the lofty tower, struggling not to yield to the doubts suddenly clustering round him.

How long to leave it before escaping the confines of the enclosure? Long enough to avoid being seen by Janne's departing escort but not so late that some labourer in the sailer fields or some child sent to gather firewood raises a hue and cry after this unknown man profaning the sanctity of the tower of silence. Then it's into the forest and head for the heights, for the passes that will take you over to the northern side of the island, to the trading beaches and passage north. How am I to secure that?

'How am I to do this?' The knife in his hand had been as long as his forearm but had still looked entirely inadequate to Kheda, faced with the thick brindled belly hide of the dead water ox.

'Think it through,' Daish Reik had said firmly. 'Decide what you must do first. Do that and then you'll see the next step.'

Hunting for dappled deer, they had surprised the water ox drowsing where a stream formed a pool around a stubborn rock in its path. Daish Reik would never have chosen such a quarry with the children in the party but now it was roused, the beast was far too dangerous to leave. He had shouted at Kheda to get all the boys into the trees, Agas already throwing hunting spears to the other swordsmen. The warriors had fanned out into a half circle, the broad leaf-shaped spearheads held low, as the ox lumbered out of the water brandishing its vicious, down-curved horns, incongruously draped with a tendril of the waterpepper weed it had been browsing on.

Two men and Agas had challenged the beast with shouts and taunts. It had charged them, the force somewhat dissipated by its inability to chose a target, but it had still sent one of the men flying with a great buffet of its brutal head. His valour had served its purpose when Daish Reik had driven his spear into its back, in between the animal's angular shoulder blades, deep into its vitals. Its knees had buckled, bowels voiding, collapsing even as it still sought to gore the fallen swordsman.

'Kheda, deal with it.' Daish Reik had abandoned the ox as soon as he was sure it was dead, turning to salve the horrifying bruises on the man's chest, tearing up his own tunic to wrap his broken ribs. 'That's too much meat to leave for the jungle cats.'

Which was why Kheda had stood before the massive, stinking, steaming carcass.

'How am I to do this?'

How was he to get the leathery hide off without ruining it? How was he to gut it without puncturing the endless loops and pouches of its entrails? How was he to read any signs in the heavy, slippery liver before the sheen that reflected the unseen future dried in the heat? How was he supposed to direct the other boys in butchering something that weighed as much as all of them put together? Where were they going to find the perfume leaves to smoke this much meat?

'Decide what you must do first. Do that and then you'll see the next step.'

Tense, waiting until the sounds of Janne's departure had subsided, Kheda lifted the latch of the gate and slipped out of the silent tower's precinct.

First things first. Which means you want a tunic and a belt to hang Telouet's sword on, since the one Daish Reik made for you from the water ox's hide is back in Derasulla.

Chapter Ten

Was he going to find what he was looking for here? Or was he going to end up chasing his tail again like some serpent maddened by the heat? After so many frustrations, it was almost enough to make Dev spare a prayer to the gods of his childhood. Not quite enough. After all, they'd never answered him.

Dev hauled on the rope to spill wind from the Amigal's triangular sail, pushing the tiller away as he did so. The lithe little ship turned through a narrow channel cut between two gaunt islets of bare, crumbling stone. Rocky hummocks of veined and fluted coral rose to within a finger's width of the sea's surface, the frothing gullies between them thick with vicious prongs of jagged sea thorn.

'Can you lend us a hand?' A light galley slightly bigger than the Amigal was wedged firmly on a reef. Her embarrassed master shouted over the noise of the breaking waves, his exasperated rowers slumped idle over their oars.

'I told you it was too late in the day to make the passage with this much cargo weighing us down,' the helmsman said with unnecessary recrimination.

'High tide will float you off before morning.' Dev held to his course. If they'd lost the best of the market for whatever they were carrying, that wasn't his problem.

He grinned as the deft Amigal sped through the narrow passage to waters suddenly crystal clear over white sand spangled with bright blue seastars and giant clams gaping up at him, sinister green lips crinkled in the deep. Scanning the broad bay girt by fawn-flanked peaks, he looked for any ships he recognised among those who'd thought it worth their while to negotiate the tortuous maze of stony spikes and fans of corals to claim Taer Badul's protection. Besides, Taer Badul's swift triremes would be about their usual business of forcibly discouraging any traders seeking alternatives to the few anchorages the warlord permitted.

There were certainly more ships than expected, when anyone with any sense should be heading for home or a friendly landing and shelter from the imminent rains. Dev studied the beach, a slim curve of white above the aquamarine waters with the Taer settlement no more than a line of sturdy huts built high on stilts against storm surges. Beyond, a narrow tangle of nut palms and perfume bushes soon yielded to the naked screes of the mountains, which the setting sun was gilding with a spurious beauty. Taer Badul's designated trading beach offered precious little welcome to anyone thinking of jumping ship to find a foothold in a new domain. Which made it all the more surprising that the sand was crowded with men, women and children, gathered around cook fires or huddled beneath rough shelters of ragged cloth and green wood in some vain attempt to escape the heavy heat.

Satisfaction warmed Dev. Someone here should be able to tell him more than vague rumours of ill-defined misfortune stalking the southern reaches. People didn't uproot their entire lives lightly, not in the Archipelago. Better yet, the Amigal had a hold full of things to loosen tongues. He spared a moment of regret for the loss of Taryu and Ekkai. There were always those who preferred willing flesh to warming liquor. Well, that was past praying for, so he'd just have to do the best he could with what he had.

He coaxed the Amigal past the tall sterns of substantial galleys swinging lazily at their anchors, carefully summoning an invisible touch of wind to give him just a little more steerage now that the calm of dusk approached. Pennants fluttered on the sternposts, permission to travel Taer Badul's waters prominently displayed and many others besides. Dev carefully studied the galleys. There had to be one he'd done business with somewhere. After a handful of strangers, he recognised a bold design on a part-furled mainsail. Not the one he was looking for but good enough to make a start. Good enough to be one of those random coincidences the Aldabreshi seized on as proof that they were reading their omens right, living cleanly or whatever else they wanted to know.

'Hello the Spotted Loal,' he called out boldly.

'Hello yourself.' A rower leaned over the fat-bellied galley's rail. 'Do I know you?'

'Lots of people know me and the Amigal, pal.' Dev favoured him with a cheery grin. 'Ask your shipmaster if he remembers Dev.' More importantly, with any luck, he'd also remember the deceptively smooth Caladhrian red wine the Amigal carried, so effective for encouraging tipsy confidences. Dev maintained his smile with some effort. It was about time he won some useful information about these rumours of magic, in return for all the precious liquor he'd squandered up till now.

'Where are you come from?' The crewman hefted a pole; ready to fend off, as Dev drifted close to the galley's steering oars.

'Barbak, looking to swing north to Galcan waters if I can make it before the rains.' Dev patted his belt where he now wore a dagger with the straight and narrow double-edged blade and ornamented thumb ring that Barbak weaponsmiths favoured. That was a plausible voyage to excuse any ignorance of local concerns. He slid the Amigal skilfully under the galley's stern. 'How about yourselves?'

'Up from the Tule domain,' the crewman said rather more tersely. 'And heading north as soon as we're rested and fully watered.'

'I'd like to make myself known to your shipmaster again,' Dev remarked genially. 'Is he aboard?' There was just enough space between the Spotted Loal and the huge galley anchored beside it for the Amigal to slide through.

Dev leaned into the tiller and turned the boat's prow out to the bay. The sail caught the fading breeze and pushed the Amigal back towards the steeply sloping beach. Dev slipped a rope loop around the tiller to hold it steady and ran to the prow to drop an anchor. It dragged through the sand and corals, slowing the boat. As soon as Dev felt the stern brush the beach, he tied the rope off. Hastily lowering the sail as he passed, he hurried back to the stern to jump ashore with a second anchor. Not daring to use any hint of magic under the galley men's inquisitive gaze, he muttered an obscenity under his breath. Landings like this had been a cursed sight easier with Ekkai and Taryu to set struggling with the heavy anchors.

'He's ashore, the shipmaster.' The galley man watched as Dev pounded his anchor's spear-like flukes deep into the sand. Another man joined him and they exchanged a few words. Diving smoothly from the galley's stern, the rower swam ashore, wiping water from his eyes as he approached Dev.

'Our rowing master reckons he knows your ship. He says you can share our fire and whatever's in the pot.' He jerked his head towards a cluster of men up beyond the high-water mark. 'I'm Jailan.'

'I'm obliged to you.' As they walked along the beach, Dev watched warily for anyone wearing weapons and armour. If hints of unknown dangers were coming up from the south, it was a safe bet there'd be chary eyes all around the beach and Taer Badul's swordsmen had an intolerant attitude to visitors at the best of times. Dev didn't want to do anything to draw suspicion his way, not with the temptations secreted in the Amigal's hold. A faint frisson of danger stiffened his spine and he welcomed the rush of blood in his veins.

Men from the galley had pulled weathered logs into a rough circle around a long-established fire pit lined with cracked and blackened stones. Wary faces looked up to see who was approaching, judgement grudgingly reserved when they realised Dev was following in Jailan's wake. Dev kept his face neutral but in no sense humble. Cowering hounds had their throats ripped out at least as often as they saved themselves by grovelling.

'There's Master Uten,' Jailan nodded.

The shipmaster squatted on a solid round of nut palm wood weathered to much the same colour and texture as his own face. A burly man with a close-trimmed beard, his long wiry hair was braided with colourful cord trimmed with small gold and silver tokens: animals and leaves, fanciful depictions of the constellations and a few mainland coins. He was deep in conversation with a man whose uncut, uncombed beard, ragged clothes and faintly distracted air made it immediately apparent he was a soothsayer.

'Take a seat.' Jailan gestured to the logs around the fire. Dev did as he was bid, trying not to make it obvious he was curious to hear the soothsayer's low words. The seer was pouring small amounts from various bottles into a gourd resting between his crossed legs. He re-stoppered each bottle carefully and replaced it in a scarred chest with much-repaired brass bindings. His clothes showed the same kind of wear; washed almost colourless, patched trousers and a mismatched tunic. One of those charlatans who felt a sham of honest poverty rather than a confident air of prosperity would win trust and more handouts from the gullible, Dev concluded.

More crewmen arrived, carrying fresh fruit and flat sailer bread still warmly fragrant from some islander's charcoal oven. A thin-faced man slipped through them, to throw himself to his knees before the galley's master, scrawny arms reaching out. 'I beg you. If I could—'

'I told you no!' The shipmaster kicked sand into the supplicant's face with a roar of fury. 'Get rid of this crotch louse!'

Jailan hastened to oblige, dragging the man away by arms and hair, his scrabbling legs digging futile gouges in the beach. Other rowers grabbed a handhold wherever they could and flung the hapless petitioner back towards a woman cowering in the meagre shade of a stunted perfume tree, wide-eyed, hungry children clinging to her soiled skirts.

'Who's this?' His conversation with the soothsayer interrupted, the shipmaster turned a sour eye on Dev. 'We're not looking to take on any more crew.'

'That's lucky,' said Dev agreeably. 'I prefer to let the wind work for me, not haul on someone else's oar.'

'This is Dev, trader, sails a one-master called the Amigal. Gyllen said you'd run across him before.' Jailan bent over the battered cook pot hanging over the fire. 'What's for dinner?'

'Fish stew,' the shipmaster replied without enthusiasm, his attention still on Dev. 'What do you trade in?'

'This and that, information among other things.' Dev grinned affably. 'I might have some seasoning for your stew if you tell me what that was all about.' He jerked his head towards the wretched family still cowering by the perfume tree. 'Or why I keep hearing I shouldn't be going south.'

'Dev? Of the Amigal? The shipmaster nodded slowly, recollection kindling a spark in his eyes. He spared the soothsayer a perfunctory nod. 'What are you waiting for? Go on, do your best by us.'

The soothsayer handed the shipmaster the yellow gourd. 'Swirl it round and then pour it out.'

Master Uten cast the liquid out so vigorously that the closest rowers had their feet anointed.

'Do not move!' The soothsayer's commanding voice kept them rooted to the ground, even though the noxious reek of his concoction was making Dev's eyes water.

'What do you see?' the shipmaster demanded.

'I see a sea flower,' intoned the soothsayer solemnly. 'And a squid.'

Dev studied the sand along with everyone else but, try as he might, he could see nothing but random splatters of dark sludge with flies fastening thirstily on them.

'The sea flower drifts through the ocean, seemingly insignificant yet trailing poison tentacles in its wake,' continued the soothsayer. 'As for the squid, there are said to be beasts beyond the western reaches with bodies longer than the biggest galleys, which spin whirlpools in the deeps to draw ships down into their maw.' He looked up sharply. 'We are all at risk of being sucked into dangerous waters, into perilous times. Certainly anyone sailing south risks meeting great peril, coming upon them all unseen, unexpected.' Then, startling everyone, he leaned forward to sweep away the stained sand, scattering the image. 'The rains will bring new luck, to wash away this stain on our futures.'

'If they ever arrive,' grunted the shipmaster. 'The Greater Moon's waxing and we've had no more than a couple of wettings. Bring me weather guidance in the morning and that might be worth something to put in your bowl.'

'I believe I've already earned some consideration,' said the soothsayer, affronted. His gaze slid towards the bubbling cook pot.

'I don't think so,' the shipmaster glowered.

Dev watched with open amusement as the seer gathered up his trappings and his injured dignity and stalked away. These last days before the rains were always good for a few entertaining fights, with every temper so frayed by the incessant heat.

'Well now.' The shipmaster's tone warmed as he glanced around his oarsmen. 'I do remember Dev, now I think on it. And I reckon we've all earned a little relaxation after the pull we made to get here. Dev's the man to supply it, if anyone's got news that he might find of interest.' The unspoken command in his words was plain.

'I've just shipped in from the western reaches,' one man began diffidently. 'There was word of sea serpents beaching themselves in the Sier domain.'

'You never said, 'remarked one of his shipmates with surprise.

The man shrugged. 'Didn't know what to make of it, nor yet if it might be true.'

'I don't see anyone making up such a tale.' Shipmaster Uten shot a challenging look at Dev.

'It would be a curious thing,' nodded Dev in apparent agreement. 'Anyone else heard of such oddities?'

'They're saying there's magic loose in the southern reaches.' A younger man volunteered this, half laughing, half looking for reassurance. 'You can ask what you like for a good talisman, I heard.'

'I heard it was warfare.' An older man beside him wasn't amused. 'Nearly as bad.'

'Which do you suppose it is?' Dev looked at the shipmaster. 'Certainty's worth more than guesses.'

The shipmaster turned to pick out a sombre face in the circle. 'Ruil, you joined us from a ship coming from the Tule domain. What was the word on the wind thereabouts?'

'I don't know about words on the wind.' The man licked cautious lips, sweat on his forehead gleaming in the low sun. 'But there was certainly smoke.'

'How so?' Dev didn't have to feign interest at that.

At his shipmaster's nod, Ruil continued thoughtfully. 'It looked like cloud at first but too high up and with no hint of rain. You could taste the char in the back of your throat. Some days it was thicker than others, like fog, only not. Some days, it was all but gone but then it came back. Three babies died around the anchorage in the same night, them and an old woman, and the spokesman's grandsire. There wasn't a mark of illness on them but they were dead all the same. Tule Reth decreed it an ill omen and that no ships from the southerly reaches were allowed to land. That's when I decided to come north.'

'That sounds more like pestilence than warfare or magic' Dev looked sceptical.

'Tule Reth wouldn't let ships coming out of the southern reaches land but he let them pass.' Ruil shook his head obstinately. 'If he thought they could be carrying some disease, he'd have set his triremes sinking any that reached his sea lanes. It was wickedness in the wind, not sickness.'

'There's no end of people looking for passage north.' The shipmaster gestured around the shallow curve of the bay now vanishing into a soft dusk. 'None are falling sick, so whatever they're fleeing, it's not disease. Whatever it is, it's bad enough to risk travelling through the rains to get away from it. There's more than one of us heard rumour that it's magic'

'Warfare or magic' Dev nodded slowly, still holding the shipmaster's gaze. He'd be cursed if he was going to look away first. 'Either way though, that's news worth something to lighten your cares.'

The shipmaster grinned and snapped his fingers at a crewman with a bucket of wooden bowls. 'Give our friend something to line his belly.'

'Thanks.' Dev accepted a steaming bowl pungent with herbs and full of chunks of fish. The rowers crowded round to collect their share and Dev grabbed a torn slab of flatbread to soak up the broth well thickened with crab-meat. Tossing the empty bowl back into the bucket, he grinned at the shipmaster. 'That's the best meal I've eaten in a while. I'll go and see what I might have to liven up your evening by way of return.'

'Jailan, go and give him a hand.' The shipmaster jerked his head at the oarsman.

Back by the water, Dev climbed briskly aboard the Amigal. Once down in the cramped stern cabin where his few possessions were stowed in his hammock or shut away in the battered chest bolted to the floor, Dev fished beneath his tunic for keys hung on a chain around his waist. Kicking aside a couple of discarded scarves and an empty pot of face paint that one of the girls had left, he unlocked the door to the little ship's main hold and went in.

Dev closed the door, shutting himself into pitch-blackness. A moment later, a small white flame appeared, dancing on his palm, illuminating his grinning face. Taer Badul could issue his petulant edicts against magic, just like every other petty Aldabreshin tyrant. They wouldn't catch him. He didn't even need his magic to evade them, superior intelligence more than sufficed.

The flame brightened to throw light on all the various necessities for keeping the Amigal seaworthy and Dev fed that were stowed in chests and casks secured along one side of a hold barely tall enough for Dev to stand in, even with his less than common height. He turned to the row of barrels opposite. Beyond stood baskets well stuffed with tandra fluff, a motley collection of bottles poking out of the white fibres like bulbous green seeds. Dev made a quick accounting and scowled. This was the problem with coming so far south. Plenty of people wanted his wares but there were no opportunities to replenish his stocks.

Still, he would be the last one to go short. Dev pulled a horn cup from a half-empty basket and a dark bottle with a crusted wax seal declaring its distant barbarian origins. Tossing his cold little flame into the air where it hung, fluttering like a guttering candle, he levered the bottle's cork out with his Barbak dagger. He took a sip and rolled it thoughtfully around his mouth. The shining surface of the white brandy reflected the dancing flame and Dev's creased brow.

Should he bespeak Planir? Could he bespeak the Archmage at such a distance? Of course he could, working with the fire he'd been born to command. The Archmage would certainly be interested to learn these new rumours running with the tides and winds of the Archipelago. Would Planir have anything to tell him? Could there be northern wizards causing trouble in the far south? Surely not. No one from Hadrumal could have made such a voyage without Dev hearing about it.

Dev's smile turned contemptuous. No one from Hadrumal would have the stones to do something so bold, not once they learned any mage caught in the Archipelago would be skinned alive for his pains. In any case, why would they want to? Apprentices soon learned all their elders' prejudices against the world beyond northern wizardry's hidden island. The masters in the manipulation of air, earth, fire and water passed on their conviction that all wizardly knowledge was secure in their libraries and lofty halls. In their way, the great mages of Hadrumal were as spineless and ignorant as the dullards of the midden of a village where he'd been raised.

Not for the first time, Dev promised himself that one of these days, in his own good time, he'd go back to that sprawl of hovels, let those bastards know he was the trusted confidant of the Archmage of Hadrumal, acknowledged equal with all the princes and powers of the mainland.

Though Planir wasn't going to be any too impressed if Dev couldn't pin down the truth behind these rumours of magic in the Archipelago. There had to be something behind it, especially now the news had slipped through the grasp of the warlords and their ciphered messages to become common currency along the trading beaches.

Dev scowled as he drank the fiery brandy. If it wasn't northern magic, what could be happening in the south? The magelight hanging in the air by his head brightened to an unnatural reddish tint. Where could magic come from to ravage the southernmost islands? Could there actually be some unknown land beyond those final domains, beyond the endless expanse of the southern ocean? There were wizards in Hadrumal who insisted there must be, citing their tedious study of oceans' currents and the swirling storms bearing rain to the Archipelago. Dev's eyes narrowed. What manner of unknown magic might unknown wizards bring with them? What elemental insights might he learn from them, to take back to Hadrumal and toss into the complacent circle of the Council, or better yet, to use to his own advantage around the busy ports of the mainland?

Dev drained his cup with sudden decision. He wasn't going to find out anything unless he sailed south and he wasn't about to do that without all the information he could possibly gather. Time to see if the man he was hunting was looking for his usual pickings among the human jetsam washed up on this shore. He hefted a little cask from the rack and set it on the deck. Master Uten's rowers could have that; nothing special but these Aldabreshi never tasted enough wine to know the difference between piss-poor and some more valuable vintage. Unlocking the door to the cramped space in the very prow of the Amigal he snapped his fingers to summon the mage-light and examined the small store of coffers and close-tied bags stowed safely within. Dev tucked a wash-leather pouch inside the breast of his sleeveless tunic.

Securing the little forehold, he swung the wine cask up on to his shoulder and passed rapidly back through the ship to the stern ladder, climbing it carefully with the awkward weight of the little barrel. Up on deck, he walked the cask to the Amigal's rail and whistled to Jailan and one of the Spotted Loal's other rowers who'd drifted over.

'Take this to Master Uten, with Dev's compliments.' Bracing a foot against the side of the boat, he lowered the barrel down to the oarsmen's eager hands, jumping down to join them a moment later.

'Are you joining us?' Jailan invited.

Dev shook his head. 'I want to take a turn along the sand before it gets too late.'

'Bring your quilts to share our fire, if you've a mind to sleep ashore,' Jailan suggested.

'Oh I'm looking for something softer than a quilt and I don't reckon to do too much sleeping.'

As the two men laughed, Dev walked away down the beach. Barely beyond the spill of light from the galley's fire, a man emerged from the shadows of the tree line.

'I see you've your own boat, master.' His smile was both desperate and ingratiating. 'But working it single-handed, I see. That must be wearying.'

If he wasn't the one who'd appealed to the galley shipmaster earlier, he was similar enough to make no difference. Dev shrugged. 'I'm used to it.'

'I can offer a strong back and willing arms to ease your labours,' the man persisted. 'If you're well rested when you make landfall, you'll be all the more ready to make the best trades.'

Dev allowed himself an appreciative grin. 'You've got a glib enough tongue to be trading yourself.'

'No, I'm a fisherman.' The man brushed unkempt hair out of his eyes. 'So I know boats and ropes. You need have no worries about that.' He had been wearing his beard in the jawline style of the Tule domain, Dev noted, but patchy stubble darkened his cheeks now.

Dev tilted his head on one side. 'Fishermen generally come with families.'

The man's air of confidence wilted a little. 'I have a wife and two children.' He summoned up a new smile. 'My wife can sew for you and cook, help with mending nets.'

'When she isn't running around to stop your brats falling over the side.' Dev pursed his lips with disfavour.

'They can be kept below,' the man pleaded.

Dev nodded, contemplative, waiting just long enough for hope to dawn in the fisherman's eyes. 'Good enough. I'll be sailing in the morning.'

Relief almost choked the man. 'You won't regret it.'

'We'll be aiming for Tule Reth's domain,' Dev began cheerfully.

The fisherman actually took a pace backwards. 'You're heading south?'

'Is that a problem?' Dev looked puzzled.

'It is for me and mine.' The fisherman's anxious politeness had vanished. 'Magical fires are burning everything in the south to black ash.'

'There are always fires this late in the dry season,' scoffed Dev. 'I don't pay heed to heat-addled foolishness about magic'

'I'll believe what I've heard,' retorted the fisherman. 'You can sail south and find out for yourself.' He turned abruptly and vanished into the gloom.

Chuckling, Dev continued his slow meander along the shore. There was certainly something warranting investigation in the southern reaches. Dev wondered idly what it would have taken to put the fisherman off, if he had been willing to sail south. Telling the wife to lift her skirts for him and anyone else he offered her to; that would have probably sufficed. He wandered along, glancing at the fires and the people gathered around them in the deepening dusk, searching for any familiar faces. Men and women looked up as he passed, looking down again when they realised he was no one they knew.

Then a thin-faced man took a second look and scrambled to his feet. 'Dev, you cheating lizard! What are you doing here?'

'Warning honest folk against the likes of you, you thieving shark.' Dev stopped and grinned broadly. 'I heard you were sailing these islands.'

The skinny man took a stick to stir the flames of his fire; perfume leaves smouldering to keep off the evening bloodsuckers. 'Unless you're on your way to take your pleasure with Taer Badul's wives, you can spare a moment to say hello.' Beyond him, a gaggle of boys with the unmistakable stamp of his siring sweated over packing away an awning, and bundling up a miscellany of bags, netted fruit and freshly killed fowl. The remains of one such bird swung lazily on a spit above the embers. 'Help yourself.'

'I must have crossed your wake ten times between here and Mahaf waters.' Dev dropped to the sand beside him. 'What are you trading that's keeping you so busy?'

'Talismans, and I can recommend it as good business.' Majun leaned forward to pick a few shreds of succulent meat from the bird's carcass.

'Powerful ones?' asked Dev with a hint of amusement.

'Most potent,' Majun assured him solemnly. 'Links from bracelets that the most successful warlords of record wore into battle against the northern barbarians.'

'And presumably returned, victorious, untouched by enchantment?' asked Dev innocently.

'I also have rings that protected shipmasters on countless voyages into the profane waters of the unbroken lands.' Majun grinned. 'Rustlenuts? They're coated in honey and tarit seeds.'

'I've been hearing these rumours of magic to the south all the way through the Nor waters and plaguing Yava landings besides.' Dev shook his head. 'What's going on, Majun?'

'People are running so scared of enchantments on the breezes, they'd believe me if I said rubbing themselves with birdshit would avert it.' A sudden grin split Majun's face with a gleam of white teeth.

'I know that.' Dev sucked off the honeyed sweetness and the sharpness of the tarit seed before crunching the pungent rustlenut. 'What I want to know is why. Where's this rumour started from?'

Majun checked none of his sons were in earshot. 'What might you be trading for that information, that might ease a man's gripes?' His eyes shone meaningfully in the firelight.

Dev leaned forward to pull a length of crisp skin from the spitted fowl, deftly reaching into his tunic as he did so. Sitting back, he tucked something into Majun's hand.

Majun cast a cautious eye around the beach before fumbling a dark leathery leaf into his mouth. 'You don't want to be trading too much further south, my friend. There's trouble brewing and no warlord will stand for his people trilling with liquor when enemies might be landing any day.'

'But what kind of trouble?' Dev clicked his tongue with apparent exasperation. 'All I'm hearing is vague rumours of magic. It has to be nonsense. One duck mistakes a fallen branch for a lurking jungle cat and the whole flock joins in the panic'

'That's what I thought till I got the measure of it.' Majun shuffled closer to Dev, eyes bright in the firelight, pupils paradoxically wide and dark. 'I can tell you something worth a goodly supply of leaf, my friend.'

'News that'll win me proper gratitude in the north, that'll interest the barbarians who keep me in leaf for the likes of you?' Dev queried sceptically.

'I had Jacan Taer's head maidservant down here yesterday.' Majun licked his lips with a stained tongue. 'She was looking for talismans for the children, specifically against treachery and deception as well as magic. She stayed for a goodly while.'

'You've given her a fair deal over the years, haven't you?' Dev let slip a suggestion of envy in his crude laugh.

'There's always a woman with a taste for some foreign seasoning to her meat,' chuckled Majun. 'And not only maidservants. Did I tell you about the time Siella Nor came looking for something to brighten up her day?'

'You certainly did,' said Dev with a lascivious smile. 'But what did this Taer maid have to say for herself?'

Majun frowned until he recovered the thread of his thoughts. 'Taer Badul's been getting special dispatches from Tule Lek. They're full of news from the Ulla domain.'

In double cipher and sealed with a special ring and brittle wax, thought Dev with well-concealed amusement. Strapped to messenger birds trained from the chick to avoid predators or any deliberate hawk flown at them. None of which was proof against Jacan Taer's incessant chattering and her maidservant's inexplicable taste for Majun's rough-hewn charms. 'What news?'

'Mostly, that Ulla Safar is planning on taking everything between Derasulla and the southern ocean for himself.' Majun shrugged, lazily savouring his leaf.

'So that explains the smoke coming up on the winds.' Dev scowled. This had a nasty ring of plausibility about it. 'Ulla Safar's just burning everything before him.'

'And starting rumours of magic to keep anyone else from interfering.' Majun paused to chew some more. 'But Tule Lek is saying—'

Commotion further along the beach interrupted him. All along the shore, people rose to their feet, a ripple of voices raised in question.

'What's going on?' Dev called to one of Majun's sons who was down by the water's edge with an unobstructed view.

'Taer Badul's swordsmen.' The lad's bewilderment was tempered by relief someone else was in trouble.

'Doing what?' demanded Majun with as much exasperation as the chewing leaf allowed.

'Breaking up a fire circle.' The boy dragged reluctant eyes from the spectacle to jerk his head at Dev. 'Smashing up a barrel by the looks of it.'

Dev sprang to his feet and hurried to stand by the boy. Yes, curse it; that was the Spotted Loal's crew being rousted from their relaxation. The crack of splintering wood echoed along the beach, snapping through the confused protests of the men. Brutal rebuke answered them, firelight gleaming on chainmail and the flats of menacing swords.

'This is a bit much.' Majun joined them, stumbling slightly in the soft sand. 'Even for Taer Badul. That's not one of his ships. What's it to him if they addle themselves with liquor or smoke? A galley with no allegiance, they've no call on his triremes, not if they sink in a storm or wreck themselves on a reef.'

'That's looking ugly.' Dev scowled. 'Time for me to leave.'

'We can hide you in our hold,' offered Majun. 'If you want to make yourself scarce for the night.'

'I'm not leaving the Amigal unguarded.' Dev shook his head, still watching the commotion along the shore. 'This could all just be a ploy by Taer Badul, out to seize my cargo for himself. I never trust a man who protests quite so long and loud that he's never so much as sniffed distilled liquor.' As he watched, he saw the first punch thrown. 'I'll catch up with you some time soon.'

Not waiting to hear Majun's protests, Dev ran lightly along the sand, feet splashing through the slowly sliding waves. More chance of being seen down here at the water's edge, but he'd move a cursed sight faster than he could among the shadows of the trees, tripping over bemused traders and miserable beggars. Just as long as the fight was raging hot enough to hold everyone's attention, he could slip past and get back to the Amigal unnoticed. Yes, there'd be just enough water to carry him over the coral-choked channel. Could he get clear of the outer islets before a fast trireme could be signalled? He laced a little darkness around himself as he drew near to the heart of the upheaval, drawing his magic tight into himself to quell any hint of magelight.

'We'll have no drunkenness within our domain.' A tall man, commander of the swordsmen to judge by the brass sheen of his helm, was laying down the warlord's edict to Master Uten. Two armoured men held the mariner fast between them and the commander punctuated his declaration with backhanded slaps. 'No trade, no agreement, no bargain is valid here, unless all parties are sober. This is the Taer decree!'

Taer Badul's men had arrived in overwhelming strength, trampling the remnants of the cask along with food bowls, bread and fruit into a sodden mess around the wine-quenched fire pit. Even the cook pot had been stamped flat and split. Those oarsmen who'd protested had already been pounded into bloodied submission. Clustered around five deep, onlookers gaped.

Dev wrapped shadows still thicker around himself as he slipped past and dragged the Amigal's anchor out of the sand. The boat swayed, just a little water beneath her stern. Dev climbed aboard as quietly as he could and hauled up the awkward weight of the anchor hand over hand, throwing a dense blanket of air over it to muffle any sound. He looked back to the shore. Taer swordsmen were challenging any men in the crowd whose expressions they hadn't liked. Gaps were appearing as other men hastened away, doubtless to dump whatever illicit pleasures they might be enjoying.

'Where do you think you're going?' The warrior in command tired of beating up Uten and pointed an accusing finger at another shipmaster who'd been drinking with him.

Dev crept along the deck to raise the Amigal's sail, keeping the silence he'd woven wrapped tight around the mast. There was barely enough breeze coming off the land to stir the canvas. Scowling, Dev slackened his magic just enough to call up a stealthy gust. A wave took the little boat and the Amigal wallowed, afloat, if only by a hand's breadth. Dev ran forward to pull up the fore anchor, tense as he listened for any challenge from the shore. As he did so, two things struck him. Firstly, the Spotted Loal and the galley next to her were blocking his way out into open water. Secondly, there was someone in the little forehold beneath his feet. There was nothing in there that could have made the knocking sound he'd just heard.

He looked back at the beach. Satisfied that the galley's crew were thoroughly cowed, the swordsmen were spreading along the sand, new light blazing bright as anything they didn't like the look of was tossed to rekindle campfires that had all but died out for the night.

Dev wrenched the anchor free of the sea bed, and kicked a coil of rope on top of the fore hatch. Wrapping the weighty metal in yet more silence as he pulled it out of the water, he placed the twin-fluked anchor on top of the coil of hemp. Then he ran the length of the Amigal, feet slapping on the deck planking, dragging the long stern sweep noisily from its place beneath the side rail. Digging the heavy oar into the water, he drove the Amigal into the concealing shadow between the Loal and the other galley. Then he silently secured the heavy sweep against the rudder pintle with a cunning knot he'd learned from the man he'd tricked the boat out of.

Lifting the stern hatch with exquisite care, Dev slid silently down the ladder. He had to do this with natural stealth, not magic that might prompt unwelcome curiosity, even from a thief. Moving slowly, he found his keys and unlocked the door with barely a click. He sharpened his ears with a hint of enchantment, to hear any breath, no matter how shallow. There was no one there. Feel and familiarity guiding him, Dev walked slowly through the hold, anger held in check. All was as it should be, wine barrels secure, the tally of liquor bottles beneath his questioning fingers correct.

So this thief was after his other goods, chewing leaf, the powdered herbs blended for dreamsmoke and the expensive extracts that could spice a meal with myriad temptations. Dev reached unerring up into the cross beams barely a finger's breadth above his head and pulled down a long, curved knife with more than twice the reach of any of the daggers Aldabreshin warlords permitted in their domains. He walked towards the fore hold door on silent feet, feeling through his keys until he found the one he wanted. Unlock the door and be through it before the thief had a chance to think. The scum would go for the fore hatch and find it weighted. Dev would cut out the bastard's kidneys before he could make his escape.

He flung open the door and thrust with the knife in the same movement. His arm brushed past cotton loose over skinny ribs as some last-minute twist saved the thief from a gutting. Dev reached unerringly into the darkness and his merciless hand closed on a scrawny arm, the skin slick with sweat. He drew back his blade for a second thrust.

'Please don't hurt me!'

Dev's killing stroke halted halfway. That terrified shriek wasn't some shifty-eyed galley lad, nor yet some friendless fisherman driven to desperate straits. He'd caught some addle-brained slut of a girl.

'You come with me!' He hauled his squealing captive bodily out of the fore hold. 'Thought you'd try stowing away on my ship? More fool you, my lass. No matter, you can go naked into the shallows like the thief you are and take your chances with Taer Badul's men. They're so roused already they probably won't even bother asking your name, let alone your business.'

Dev dragged the wailing girl through the ship, not letting her find her footing, shoving her into the stern cabin and throwing her into a corner. She hit the wooden wall with a thud that set the whole ship rocking.

'Please don't hurt me,' she begged. 'Please don't hurt me.'

Ignoring her trembling sobs, Dev found his spark maker and reached for the lamp that hung from the beams. It was an awkward task one-handed but he wasn't about to put down his knife, not that she looked much of a threat. With the lamp lit, he saw a light-skinned girl about his own height, with hacked-off black hair no better than a rat's nest, her sleeveless tunic and knee-length trews rags over bruised and filthy limbs.

'Who are you?' He stood over the girl, voice cold. 'And I'll hurt you properly if you don't answer my questions.' He looked around for a piece of cord, a rope end, anything he might use for a lash.

As soon as he took his eyes off the girl, she moved. Not trying to reach the ladder; he was between her and that. She seized his knife hand, clawing it and biting. Taken off guard, Dev's fingers loosened and before he could regain his grip, the girl had the blade. She twisted away from him, one hand reaching for the ladder now behind her, the other holding the curved steel out.

'I want your word that you will not harm me.' Her voice was still shaking but the hand holding the knife grew steadier with every passing breath.

'You steal from me and you expect to get away without so much as an arse-kicking?' Dev laughed, mocking. He drew his Barbak dagger from his belt. 'Now what are you going to do, fight me?'

The girl quaked but the long curved knife stayed pointed at Dev. 'I know how to use this,' she warned. 'In under your breastbone, up into your chest to cut through lungs and liver.'

'And read your future in them?' He didn't take another pace forward. 'I can tell you a thief's future, lass, and it's full of pain, I promise you.'

'I am not here to steal,' she said hotly. 'I haven't touched a thing of yours. All I want is passage out of here.'

'You and half the stinking scum on the tide line,' Dev scoffed. Without taking his eyes off the girl, he stooped and caught up one of the discarded scarves from the floor. 'All right, explain yourself He sheathed his Barbak dagger and made as if to bind his scratched hand with the dirty silk.

'I didn't think you'd agree if I just came and asked.' She raised a defiant chin and Dev saw she had blue eyes that spoke of thoroughly mixed blood. They lent an exotic note to her narrow, undistinguished face. 'I thought I'd wait till you were out at sea and then show myself.'

'Then I'd have to put up with you?' Dev shook his head with insulting pity. 'You didn't think I'd just throw you to the sharks or the sea serpents? What do you take me for? Zamorin? Too lacking to stand up for myself?' I He leered, his gaze lingering on her chest. 'Your reasoning's as lacking as your tits. I've just as many stones as the hairiest man on that shore. Want me to show you?' He gestured towards his groin.

'I don't care what you keep in your trousers,' she said stoutly, knife still firmly held. 'What I want is passage south. I'll do my share of the work. '

That surprised Dev more than her assault on his knife hand. 'South? When every man and his wife is scrambling to get a berth going north?'

'That's their business.' The girl's voice grew more confident. 'You're going south. I heard you on the beach.'

'What's your business there?' challenged Dev.

'I'm a poet.' Her fierce expression dared him to doubt her.

He laughed anyway. 'You?'

The knife didn't falter.

'Prove it!' he jeered.

'My bag, where I was hiding.' She jerked her head towards the prow. 'Fetch it and I'll show you.'

'That would be in the fore hold,' said Dev sarcastically. 'Much use you'd be, when you don't even know your way around a ship. Are you any use on your back?'

'I don't spread my legs and I can learn about ships.' she sneered back at him, uncowed. 'I know barrels of wine when I see them and bottles of barbarian liquor.' She nodded upwards, her eyes not leaving Dev's face. There was still an appreciable uproar to be heard ashore. 'What do you suppose Taer Badul's men would say if I told them what you're carrying?' She paused for a moment. 'Never mind the chewing leaves and dreamsmoke powders in the prow'

'You think you can get ashore to tell them before I kill you?' Dev tightened the scarf between his hands with slow deliberation. 'I won't even need to dirty my dagger. Ever seen someone who's been strangled?'

'I'll wager I can get on deck and give one good scream. That'll bring them running, all hot-blooded, like you said. 'She cocked her head on one side. 'Do you want to try explaining a dead body still warm in your hands as well as your cargo?'

'You've thought this all through.' Dev feigned admiration.

The girl's skin was pale enough for a blush to darken it. 'No poet can afford to be a fool.'

'And there's proof of that in your bag.' Dev pursed his lips. 'Let me see. I go looking for that and you grab whatever you can steal and make a dash for the shore where you betray me to Taer Badul's swordsmen.'

'I don't see much worth stealing here.' Her mockery answered his own, but this time, her eyes strayed towards his hammock.

Dev was on her in an instant, knocking the curved knife out of her hands, the silk round her neck, his fists crossing behind her head. Before she could summon more than a stifled whine, her knees buckled and she went limp beneath him. Smiling with vicious satisfaction, Dev rolled her over, tying wrists and ankles with the scarves, binding hands and feet together behind her arched back. When she stirred, scant breaths later, her puzzlement cleared to furious realisation. She tried to spit at Dev but her mouth was too dry.

'You just rest there,' he soothed as he unhooked the lamp from the beam. 'You've got me wondering, so I'll have a look at this proof of yours.' Stroking her matted hair tenderly, he shoved the last of the rags from the floor in her mouth and gagged her. Making sure she could hear him laughing, he sauntered through the main hold.

The first thing he did in the prow space was assure himself that the boxes and bags of leaf and intoxicants were untouched. Satisfied that the scrawny little bitch hadn't been lying about that at least, he caught up a tasselled shoulder sack of heavy woven cotton, yellow trumpet flowers embroidered on the dark blue cloth.

Swinging it thoughtfully from one hand, he went back to the stern cabin. 'Feels like you've been stealing from more than me. Let's see what your loot is worth.'

The girl's glare was as fierce as a netted jungle cat's.

Dev untied the drawstring and upended the bag, sending a cascade of oddments to the floor. Squatting down, he tossed aside a tunic even more ragged than the one the girl wore, then a faded silk dress. He shook his head disdainfully. 'A fine poet you must be, if this is your performing gown.' Ignoring smeary cosmetic jars and tawdry ornaments, he reached for a solid black cylinder. 'Now, what might this be?'

It was a scroll case, leather sewn tight over ironwood, painted with dark tarit tree resin. Dev twisted the cap off and tilting the case, he slid out a thick bundle of reed papers and uncurled them.' The Ringed Dove, The Owls and the Crows, The Loal and the Turtle? He nodded with approval at the quality of the pictures. 'You stole this from a poet with a good repertoire of moral tales for children.'

The girl looked back at him for a moment before deliberately closing her eyes and turning her face to the planks beneath her.

'You'll pay attention when I'm talking to you.' Dev replaced the pictures in their case with some care, recapping the cylinder and tossing it up into his hammock.

Sitting cross-legged beside the girl he grabbed a handful of her hair and turned her face towards him. 'Try and bite me,' he continued conversationally, 'and I'll knock every tooth out of your head. Are we clear on that?'

The girl nodded but her eyes were still scornful rather than intimidated.

Dev chuckled as he ungagged her. 'You show plenty of spirit, I'll give you that.'

She licked her lips, working her dry mouth to moisten her tongue. 'You can give me my belongings and let me go.'

'But I thought you wanted passage south?' Dev looked quizzically at her. 'Changed your mind?'

She looked at him with contempt. 'Just untie me and let me go.'

'I'll give you passage south,' Dev said obligingly. 'If you are truly a poet. Though I must say,' he added with frank surprise, 'I've no notion why a poet would want to go in the opposite direction to all the potential audience.'

'I am a poet,' the girl said stoutly. 'I was apprenticed to Haytar the Blind.'

'Haytar the Blind is dead,' Dev pointed out with a grin. 'I heard that news in the Mahaf domain, not ten days since.'

She ignored him. 'Haytar was the greatest interpreter of The Book of Animals. Even a lout like you must know that.'

'I'd heard that said. Though I prefer poems about lecherous slave boys and round-arsed dancing girls myself.' Dev nodded, with an insolent glance at the girl's rump. 'So you looted his corpse and fled, did you?'

'I was his apprentice,' she repeated, tight-lipped. 'His last apprentice. He gave me that picture scroll on his deathbed and bade me use his poems to live by, until I should find a theme of my own, something to inspire a new cycle of poems that everyone would know by my name.' For the first time, tears shone in her eyes.

Dev raised sceptical eyebrows. 'And how exactly is making a voyage to the south going to lead you to one of those?'

The girl squirmed in her bonds. 'There's magic abroad in the southern reaches, truly.'

'Is there?' Dev hid his interest in disdain. 'What would a doggerel merchant like you know about that?'

'More than a vice peddler like you,' she shot back. 'There's warlords fighting wizards in domains clear across from Aedis to Ritsem. Take me as far south as you dare and when you run scared, I'll make my own way onward. There'll be tales of valour and tragedy in battles like that and I'll make an epic out of them.'

'To make your name,' Dev mocked. 'What would your name be, so I know your epic when I hear it?'

'Risala,' she said grudgingly.

'I always thought poets were mad.' Dev got to his feet, grinning. 'Now I'm sure of it. Very well, I'm tired of working this boat single-handed. I'll carry you south as long as you do whatever work I give you, and as long as you split whatever you take on shore for telling your little animal stories.' He paused by the foot of the ladder. 'Play me false and I'll cut your throat and throw you overboard for the robber eels.'

'Lizard eater,' Risala said with feeling. 'Aren't you going to untie me?'

'When we're good and clear of the beach,' Dev assured her. 'Far enough out for no one to hear you scream, if you've a mind to try tricking me from the outset. Now, you keep a civil tongue in your head, or I'll take the lamp away from you for a start.'

Risala opened her mouth again and then shut it, lips pursed.

Dev winked at her. 'Not so hard, is it?' He climbed up the ladder, his amusement fading. How much time had that nonsense cost him? How far had the Amigal drifted?

Once on deck he was relieved to see the little ship was still lolling in the dead water between the two great galleys. Better yet, the fat-bellied ships had drifted apart to leave him a way out. There was still a fair amount of commotion on shore but Taer Badul's swordsmen appeared to have left the beach. Time to go before they came back. Loosing the stern sweep from its knot, Dev drove the broad blade through the water, manoeuvring the Amigal out into open water, wondering how best to turn this unexpected turn of events to his advantage.

So Majun said that Ulla Safar was starting a war? That could be true, then again, maybe not. The girl sounded certain magic was abroad in the domains just south of Ulla waters. The first thing to do when he had her well away from shore, with nowhere to swim for, was to find out just what that certainty was based on. She could tell him or bleed for it.

What then? A more important question: was this Risala any good? If she wanted to stay aboard, she'd better give him a little recital. If she was any good, she could be an excuse for him sailing south. Everyone knew poets were mad. A trireme's shipmaster might still look askance at him, but Dev could let slip he was pandering to the girl's whims by day in exchange for the favours she was doing him by night. Besides, sailing single-handed was attracting more attention than he liked. A girl aboard would put an end to that.

He leant hard into the oar, to ease the Amigal out through the narrow space between the great galleys. Risala had just been an apprentice, had she? A likely story. He'd wager old Haytar'd had at least one eye not yet blind and most poets' dancing girls were little better than the whores of the mainland docksides. The girl could drop on her back to satisfy any trireme shipmaster with a deaf ear for verse.

Looking up, Dev saw clouds that must surely herald the overdue rains obscuring the moons, greater still several days from full and lesser waning past its last quarter. He changed his mind about trying the channel in the uncertain light. Anchor on the sand bar in the middle of the bay, he decided, and sleep on deck. The light would wake him and he could cross the reefs while there was still enough water.

Chapter Eleven

Kheda stirred. Then he felt a distinct sensation of being watched. He opened his eyes to find he'd rolled over in his sleep, doubtless to escape the inexorable light of dawn. All he could see was the nut palm fronds he'd gathered to build a low shelter the previous evening.

Not that you need have bothered. When are the rains going to come? The nights are as hot as the days now. Is this delay some evil stirred up by the magic to the south, driving away the storm winds? What is that noise? There's definitely someone behind you. Who could it be? You hid yourself more than adequately.

He'd found a gully lined with thick cane brakes and well away from any game trails or the wider track running to some distant village. He'd lit no fire to risk attracting curious attention, even though his ankles throbbed with bites from the bloodsuckers hereabouts that weren't deterred by crushed perfume-tree leaves.

Besides, you had nothing to cook. Daish Reik wouldn't be too impressed, to see your efforts at fending for yourself in the forest. What excuse would you offer him, for your hunger and thirst and weariness? That you're waiting for Telouet to bring you breakfast?

Kheda rolled slowly over, doing his best to look like a man still asleep. The dry lilla branches he'd piled for a bed crackled softly beneath him. Slowly, he opened his eyes just enough to see through the lattice of his lashes. He was indeed being watched. A loal was looking warily at the sloping shelter of palm fronds Kheda had constructed, wide cat-like ears pricking towards him. It sat on its rump, long feathery tail curled casually to one side, a stick in its disconcertingly man-like hands for digging through the leaf litter. If it were to stand on feet more like hands than paws, it might be chest high to a man. It would be easily as strong as a man, its densely furred arms and legs quite as sturdy as Kheda's own. Its face had nothing that was human about it: a black muzzle sniffed the air, pink tongue startling as it licked the last fragments of some hapless lizard from long, white teeth. Any hound would have been proud to boast such fangs. It blinked slowly, eyes perfect circles, as dark as its woolly black-brown pelt. Concluding Kheda was either no threat or of no interest, the creature returned to digging, hunching shoulders bearing a broad white swathe of fur.

Which is why they call you a caped loal. I had no notion you grew so big though. The Daish domain's striped loals are half your size.

Something in the dirt caught the loal's eye and it snatched up a wriggling millipede, cramming it into its mouth and chewing with crunches audible across the clearing. Kheda cautiously propped himself on one elbow and found his belly was crying out for something to add to the shrunken hearts of a few succulent tarit stems that were all he'd been able to find before darkness had fallen. Kheda allowed himself a grin.

Poets tell of children benighted in the forest being offered ripe fruit or tasty nuts by loals. Do you have anything you'd care to share, something without quite so many legs?

In the nut palms and thick stands of red cane, Kheda heard glory birds rousing themselves to full song. As the sun rose to flood the gully with light, a deeper, more resonant note echoed beneath their trills. Looking up, Kheda saw more loals, smaller pied ones, like those he'd seen on hunting trips with Daish Reik. Sitting upright, they were facing the sun, arras raised and basking in the promise of warmth, crooning with pleasure.

'There are many reasons to despise the northern barbarians, my son, not least the way they turn the sun and the moons into meaningless gods, no better than singing loals.'

I wonder, do these southern invaders worship false gods of their own, my father?

The ceaseless urgency of his quest drove Kheda to a sitting position. A chittering in a nut palm made Kheda and the caped loal both look up. It was a smaller beast, a female clutching a delicate infant to its chest. It sounded most indignant.

This would be your lady wife, I take it, and none too pleased that you've not brought home her breakfast.

Abruptly the female stopped her cries, turning her face uphill. Her tail curled up sharply, a long fringe of fur falling across her shoulder. She barked something at the male, who abandoned his stick to climb hand over hand up the nut palm, long tail lashing behind him. With startling speed, the two beasts leapt across the void to a tall ironwood tree, propelled by the spring of their powerful legs, strong hands clasping the trunk. In the next instant they were gone, lost in the dense green canopy of leaves. The pied loals had fled too, ringing silence telling its own tale. A blue-backed crookbeak raised raucous calls of alarm in a cane brake further up the slope and a brief echo relayed the unmistakable sound of a man's cough.

Kheda reached for Telouet's sword and thrust it through his belt before crawling towards the sparse cover of a thicket of dusty sardberry bushes. He kept a wary eye on the ground, no wish to put his hand on some millipede or scorpion stirred up by the digging loal. The cough came again, cut short. Faint but deliberate, Kheda heard a crack of dry twigs and the rustle of the tightly packed red cane stems. Some hunting party was coming stealthily down the gully.

Even if they're not hunting you, you don't want to be explaining yourself to anyone who might carry word back to Derasulla, not when you're so close to the shore, not after crossing the whole width of this cursed island.

Wishing he had ears he could twist like a loal, Kheda skirted slowly around to put the berry bushes between himself and the sounds, searching the forest for any sign of waving greenery, any flutter of disturbed birds. The sounds of men coming nearer grew suddenly louder. Kheda rose to a crouch, turning to slip away down the gully as fast as he could, still bent to stay below a pursuer's natural eye line.

A cry went up, then another, higher in the gully. Kheda straightened up and ran. He reached the stream, no more than a chain of puddles around green-stained rocks. The dark soggy ground sucked at his feet. He sank to his ankles, thrown off balance, reaching out for a sapling only to find its roots so shallow, he pulled it bodily from the pungent soil.

'Want a hand?' A hunter appeared, grinning broadly. A net slung over one shoulder, he carried a sturdy spear that he levelled at Kheda. 'Come and see what I've caught,' he shouted to his companions.

Kheda studied the mire around his feet until he saw a firm place to brace the sapling and haul himself out. By the time he'd managed, six men surrounded him. Kheda kept his face neutral, eyes downcast.

Two of them on the wrong side of the stream and only armed with daggers; that's in your favour. You'll only have four to deal with in the first instance but two of them have spears, so better pick the right moment. What would Telouet say? 'Never start a fight until you can do it on your own terms'

'What have you got to say for yourself?' Swinging a heavy, square-ended hacking blade, the leader of this hunting party walked slowly down the slope to stand face to face with Kheda.

'I have nothing to say to you,' Kheda replied curtly. 'I am just a traveller.'

The hunter's fist drove hard into Kheda's belly, just beneath his breastbone. 'You'll keep a civil tongue in your head, beggar.'

Kheda dropped to his knees, struggling to regain his breath, unable to stop the hunter as he bent and pulled at Telouet's sword, ripping it out of Kheda's belt and scoring a gouge across his naked ribs with the end of the scabbard.

'Beggar or thief? Nothing to your name but the clothes you stand up in and the weapons at your belt. Honest traveller would have a wrap against the night, some goods to trade or the tools of his craft.' The man whistled with approval as he tossed his own hacking blade to a companion, the better to study the sword. 'Scum like you shouldn't be carrying a blade like this neither.'

Kheda managed to regain his feet, his side burning and his gut aching, and strove for a conciliatory tone. 'That is my sword, you have my word on it.'

'Your master's sword, slave,' the lead hunter chided as he lifted it for a closer look. 'Gilt and silver and sapphires in the hilt besides.' He slid the scabbard a little way clear. 'And a watered steel blade. No one carries something like this outside a warlord's retinue, nor wears silks.'

All the other hunters were dressed in coarse cottons, once dyed green, now faded from countless washings and marked with stains from innumerable hunts.

'Silk's no good for the journey you've been making.' One of the others smirked at the rips and filth ruining Kheda's trousers.

No, it isn't. So why didn't you find something else to wear, you fool? It's not as if you haven't seen enough clothes left out to dry on the perfume bushes around those far-flung hill settlements. Don't you think you're going to pay for those scruples now, all those worries about some innocent getting the blame, some friendship soured by suspicion?

'We've been tracking you for a day now.' Irritated by Kheda's silence, the lead hunter shoved his shoulder to get his attention. 'Since you crossed the ridge. Lost you for a while but picked up your trail this morning.'

Kheda glanced involuntarily up towards the jagged heights still lost in the morning mist. 'Then you'll know I've done no harm, taken nothing but what the forest offers.'

'You're still a fleeing slave,' sneered one of the men, leaning on his spear.

'Daish slave, I see now.' The leader nodded at Kheda's curved dagger.

Kheda couldn't help himself. His spine stiffened, shoulders squaring defiantly.

'See him jump like a startled fowl,' another hunter commented with warm satisfaction.

'That dagger's a fine piece.' The leader swung Telouet's sword idly. 'That'll tell us whose household you've fled, once we show it to someone in the know. Then I think it'll make a fine price for bringing you back, don't you, lads?'

And as soon as Ulla Safar gets wind of this, he'll send an army through the island to find the man Daish Kheda's dagger has been taken from, dead or alive.

'I am no runaway,' Kheda said quietly.

'They're saying Daish Kheda is dead, drowned no less.' The leader leant forward, breath stale, hair and beard long unwashed. 'You've made a break for it, haven't you, out to get well clear before any new warlord is proclaimed?'

Kheda shook his head but his heart sank.

Of course. Ulla Safar will be spreading the news as widely as possible, thrilled to see anyone trying to take advantage of a Daish interregnum, all the while shaking his head with dismay. And slaves always go missing whenever a warlord dies, sometimes in droves. Sirket has no legal title to anything until he's proclaimed himself ruler and decreed inventory of the domain be taken. Ulla Safar will be more than happy for Daish losses to pile up in the interim. You didn't think to consider such possibilities, while you were crossing the highlands, admiring the scenery?

'Nothing to say?' the leader mocked, still swinging Telouet's sword. 'Run out of lies?'

'Do we take him back to Derasulla?' asked the hunter who'd taken the hacking blade.

'That's a hard route overland,' one of the others said doubtfully. 'Eight, nine days at best.'

'Body slave, swordsman, whoever he is, he'll be worth his weight in silk or sandalwood,' the leader rebuked him. 'But who will deal more honestly with us, Ulla Safar or Ulla Orhan?' He looked round for opinions.

If they think taking me back is going to be so simple, these men plainly have no idea how a body slave is trained to fight. Nor yet how a warlord's son is taught to escape assassins.

Kheda punched the lead hunter full in the throat with a sweeping uppercut. The man staggered backwards, pulled up short as Kheda dropped into a crouch, snatching Telouet's sword from his numb hands. The warlord drew it in the same fluid movement, the glittering arc of steel sending the second hunter recoiling in fear. A deft sidestep took Kheda out of the path of the man's clumsy swing with the hacking blade and a full-blooded kick in his belly shoved the choking leader full into the second hunter. Both fell heavily with a crack of bone that left the man beneath yelping in sudden agony.

The hunter with the closest spear swung his net at Kheda, weights around its edge whistling through the air. Kheda stepped forward to catch the clinging cords full around his midriff, stiffening his belly to save himself from being winded. The net bruised the raw score on his ribs but ignoring the pain, he used the whole weight of his body to pull the hunter forward on to the point of Telouet's sword, ripping into his shoulder. He knocked the man's spear aside with the scabbard in his other hand, before punching upwards, fist weighted with that same scabbard, to smash the hunter's nose to bloody pulp.

As the man fell to his knees, clutching at his face, Kheda whirled around to catch the second spearman's biting blade between sword hilt and scabbard, shoving the weapon backwards to throw the startled man off balance.

As the spearman recovered himself, Kheda raised Telouet's sword menacingly. 'I am just a traveller and you have no call to hinder me.' He shot a threatening glance at the men on the far side of the stream. Both were gaping, one with a hand on the dagger at his belt but his face making it plain he didn't fancy his chances against this unexpected warrior. The other already had both hands raised in abject surrender.

'Then I'll be on my way.' Kheda kept Telouet's sword levelled as he tore away the clinging net. No one made a move towards him. The leader of the hunting party was still sprawled on the ground, struggling to draw breath, clawing at his injured throat. The second man cowered beside him; face wretched with fear and pain as he cradled a foot twisted at an excruciating angle.

'Go and may your journey be cursed,' the second spearman snarled, on his knees beside his companion. He wadded a filthy rag frantically into the wound gaping in the man's shoulder, blood already soaking the cloth slippery beneath his fingers. The injured man whimpered, tears and slime running through his fingers as he clutched at his broken nose.

'Follow me again and I'll kill you,' Kheda said with all the menace he could muster. 'All of you.'

He backed away through a spindly thicket of sardberry bushes, barely glancing over his shoulder to see what lay in his path. An impenetrable stand of wrist-thick red cane finally halted him. Pausing, he listened to the hunters' urgent shouts of argument and lamentation ringing loudly through the forest. There was no obvious sound of pursuit. Turning, Kheda ran, twisting between nut palm saplings tangled with logen vine, his immediate concern to put as much distance between himself and the hunters as he could.

Not down the gully; if they try tracking you, revenge in mind, that's where they'll look first. What will you do then? Kill them in all truth? You've probably killed their leader as it is, crushing his windpipe like that. That shoulder wound will likely fester and it's too high up to save the hapless bastard by taking off his arm, if the black rot gets into it. What did they do to deserve that, only seeking to do their duty by their lord and Daish Sirket, returning a runaway slave?

Sour bile rising from his empty stomach like acid remorse, Kheda pushed on through the lightest patches of underbrush, trying not to slide too far down the hill. He slashed furiously at tendrils of firecreeper, at frail tandra saplings, with Telouet's bloodied sword. Finally, he broke through to a narrow, overgrown track. Sweat stinging the countless scratches he'd collected in his flight, Kheda stopped, heart pounding. With all the birds and animals fled from the noise he'd made or crouching in silent hiding, the forest was tense with stillness. He counted ten deliberate breaths. There was still no sound of pursuit.

And you'd have been easy enough to follow, noisy as a raging fire. So much for all Daish Reik's lessons in stealth and forest craftiness. Now then, get yourself in hand. Where are you in relation to the shore, to the trading beach you've been making for? Getting clear of this domain is more essential than ever now, preferably before half that hunting party's village come looking to nail your hide to a tree.

Kheda walked slowly down the tortuous path, berating himself. The forest stretched out ahead of him, all around, ever changing, always the same. The morning wore away beneath his feet. Only thirst finally put paid to his recriminations, its stranglehold tightening around his throat. Belatedly recalling one of Daish Reik's lessons, he left the path to find a bristled creeper snaking up an ironwood tree. Mindful of Agas's laughter when he'd got this trick wrong as a youth, he made his first cut as high as he could, slicing an arm's length of the dun creeper free with a second lower slash of Telouet's blade. The plant's jealously hoarded water gushed free and splashed over his face as he caught all he could in his gaping mouth, stale and woody tasting as it was.

And I wouldn't trade it for the promise of a dozen flagons of the finest golden wine.

He threw the length of cut creeper aside and such idle thoughts evaporated as he glimpsed a yellowing square of old palm fronds bright through the muted green of the living trees, some little way down the slope. Moving cautiously forward, as quietly as he could, Kheda saw it was indeed what he'd guessed; the roof of a hut, ramshackle and in need of considerable repair if the imminent rains weren't to soak anyone within as they lay in their beds. The ground all around showed more recent care though, newly dug with black earth piled high along trenches waiting impatiently to capture all the precious water that the tardy rains would bring. Kheda left the path and circled round the edge of the dusty barrenness where the underbrush had long since been taken for firewood.

Long since, but none too recently. Those sardberry bushes have a good few seasons' growth on them. There's no fowl house either, ducks or geese ready to raise a commotion if strangers come too close to a hut outside the more usual protections of a village.

Behind the sparse cover of a withered perfume bush, he hunkered down to see inside the decrepit hut's splintered shutters, hanging crooked on sagging hinges. From his vantage point, Kheda could clearly see a heap of quilts were tossed all anyhow on a narrow bed. A tumble of clothes lay on the floor, together with a single lidded cooking pot and a half-unrolled length of sturdy cotton, such as any Daish islander might use to gather up a few belongings for a short journey.

Who's making a stay here? Someone not wanting to live in such an isolated hut for the present but still making use of the fertile garden until the forest reclaims it. But where might this diligent farmer be now'! Out foraging or squatting over a privy scrape?

Kheda crept closer, the skin between his shoulder blades crawling with apprehension lest the unknown gardener return. He sheathed Telouet's sword with sudden decision, driving the hilt home with a snap. Swinging himself over the low sill of the window, he grabbed the topmost quilt and a leather thong left curling across the floor. Seeing a sweat-stained tunic, he pulled it over his head, grimacing with distaste as he fought his arms through the sleeves. Cut for a taller and fatter man, it would at least help hide his own ragged trousers from a casual glance.

Going bare-chested on to a trading beach will attract entirely too much attention and I think we've had more than enough of that this morning. So what else is there, to make you look more convincing as a traveller? You can't afford scruples, not now.

Kheda knelt and made a rapid roll of the quilt, lashing it tight. His stomach rumbled, startlingly loud in the quiet gloom. He lifted the lid off the cooking pot to find a cold smear of sailer pottage, the grain long since cooked and mixed with crushed tandra seeds, some pepper pods and salt to keep it from spoiling. Lilla fruit rinds had been dumped on top of it. After a moment's hesitation, Kheda fished out the rinds and scraped the greasy remnants out of the bottom of the pot, spitting out fragments of lilla pulp and choking the humble food down over his first instinctive revulsion.

So it's come to this, eating a lowliest islander's leavings. Is this plan sense or insanity? I don't know. All I do know is, just now, food's more use to me than pride.

Then he saw the knife that had been used to cut the fruit. It wasn't much of a knife, a short length of clumsily sharpened steel stained with juice and pitted by rust. The wooden handle was cracked where it had once got wet and been left to dry without care or oil. Kheda sat back on his heels, one hand on the hilt of Telouet's sword, the other on his own dagger. Both blades marked him out, as a man belonging to some significant household. This knife would brand its owner as the lowest of the low. Everyone scorned a man who'd reached an age of discretion without a decent dagger to call his own, born to a father who'd never managed to trade sufficient goods, skills or service to be able to give his son such a gift.

Better the lowest of the low than an escaped slave, just at the moment.

Kheda sprang on to the bed. It raised him just high enough to reach up into the crudely hewn rafters. He threaded Telouet's sword carefully into the tight-packed palm fronds, twisting it sideways so it lay flat, hidden in the roof. Shoving his dagger up to join it, he jumped off the bed, caught up the quilt, shoved the paltry knife into the sheath at his belt and ran out through the open door.

Let this be a test of my judgement here, if I get clear without being called to account for this theft. That can be an omen to show me if I'm following the right course.

Tense with expectation of outraged shouts behind him at any moment, Kheda hurried down the winding path. The ramshackle hut was soon left far behind, along with any possibility of recrimination. Some way further, he stumbled upon a wider track and, following that, found it took him out along the top of a long reach of low, broken cliffs, waves lapping dark at their base. With no option but to go on, he finally rounded a corner to stand on a shallow bluff. It took Kheda a moment to realise he was looking down on the dappled stretch of sand he'd been seeking ever since he'd seen it from a vantage point high in the uplands.

Any satisfaction at this turn of events was short lived. Kheda scowled. There were only four galleys anchored in the sheltered strait between the beach and a sprawling palm-crowned reef and only a couple of smaller sailing vessels drawn up in the shallows. A few awnings fluttered bright on the beach, hiding whatever wares were on offer but there was no one passing along the sand to look or haggle. Kheda walked on a little further to see the broad space between two hospitable stands of spinefruit trees only boasted two cook fires. A warlord's retinue for a full progress could have set up camp between them without anyone feeling unduly cramped.

How delighted you would have been, not ten days ago, to learn Ulla Safar's most notable trading beaches are being scorned by merchants and the domains people alike. What pleasure it would have been, to commiserate with fat Safar, in terms carefully calculated to let him see your satisfaction.

'It's entirely permitted to take pleasure in your enemy's misfortunes' Daish Reik had always been open about such matters. 'Mindyou, it's rarely wise to let them see you doing so, unless you have their triremes sunk below hope of rescue and your swordsmen at the gates of their final stronghold.'

But now Safar's ill luck is yours as well. What would Daish Reik have to say about that? 'You can wait for your fortunes to change, or you can make a lot of your own luck by taking any opportunity that offers itself.'

Kheda watched a rowboat from one of the galleys approaching the shore, oarsmen hampered by water casks lined up between them. Sliding down the loose earth of the cliff face, he managed to reach the beach just as the rowboat grounded on the coarse sand.

'Can I be of any help to you?' Kheda stepped forward into the lazy surf.

The rowing master threw him a rope. 'Haul us in.'

Kheda gripped and pulled, the rowing master jumping over the side to join him. The boat rocked once with protest and then grounded solidly.

'I want those casks scoured and refilled and no one goes seeing what they can see until it's done.' The rowing master scowled mock ferocious at his crew.

'Doesn't look like there's much to see here on this shore anyway,' called out one of the oarsmen as the men began lifting the empty casks over the side of the boat.

'Let me help you with your barrels,' Kheda suggested a little stiffly. 'And I could take an oar with you, when you leave here.'

'An oar?' Surprised, the rowing master reached out to take his hand, turning it palm upwards to trace the red line where the rope had pulled across it with a finger callused and hard as old leather. 'Soft hands, my friend. You may be willing but you're no oarsman and we're heading for the northern reaches as fast as we can. There's no room on our benches for anyone who can't pull all day and all the next.'

Kheda forced himself to duck his head in acceptance. 'Of course.'

The last barrel splashed into the shallows as an oarsman heaved it over the boat's side. The rowing master hesitated. 'Help us fill the water casks and that should be worth some bread.'

There's a good question for a lordly discussion of ethics with your fellow rulers, over a full belly with sweetmeats to hand as you relax on silken cushions. Is it worse to be forced to steal from an islander who has nothing worth having in the first place, or to accept the charity of some good-hearted mariner, who pities your friendless and destitute state?

The realisation of how completely he was alone went down Kheda's spine like runnels of cold water. He took a deep breath. 'Thank you.'

'Here.' Someone tossed him a scrap of sacking. 'It gets scoured with plenty of sand or we're drinking green slime inside a couple of days.'

Kheda leaned to reach down inside one of the wide barrels, inadvertently clashing heads with another rower. 'Sorry.'

'Scrub as hard as you can.' The oarsman grunted with effort as he scooped a handful of gritty sand into the barrel.

Kheda did his best to do the same. It was horribly uncomfortable work, bent double yet still working at full stretch, the rim of the cask digging into his midriff. His breath echoed harsh in the confines of the wood and the man working with him didn't smell any too fresh.

He probably thinks you stink bad enough to scare fish. And you won't be finding Telouet ready with hot water, perfumed soaps and softly scented towels. The best you can hope for is a wetting in the sea and scouring yourself with sand. Ah, so be it. If I'm reduced to beggary, I can still be clean.

'That should do it!' The rower stood up with an explosive gasp. 'Let's get it rinsed and refilled.'

'Right.' Kheda toppled the barrel over and gave it a shove towards the feeble spring staining the crumbling cliff face.

'Get them refilled before they dry out too much,' called the rowing master. 'Spring one of the staves and I'll thrash you with it.'

There was precious little water in the pool at the base of the bluff so rinsing the barrels free of sand was an awkward and laborious process. The cool of the water didn't come amiss though, not with the sun sailing high overhead. Kheda was startled to realise it was nearly noon.

'That's the last, is it?' The rowing master reappeared as the last cask had its top hammered securely back on. He handed Kheda a misshapen loaf of flat sailer bread, split and filled with smoked fingerfish. 'Right, lads, let's get this lot aboard and we can be on our way' The rowers left Kheda by the meagre pool without comment, no one sparing him so much as a backward glance.

No one wants your help getting the barrels back, even if they are heavier and more unwieldy now. No one wants to raise your hopes that you might be allowed aboard their galley. That's their choice and they've made it. What are your choices? To start with, not to stand here forlorn like some abandoned hound. You're entitled to that much pride.

Chewing on the bread and pungent fish, Kheda strolled along the sand towards the camping ground between the shade trees. Those men lounging around the ashes of the burnt-out fires spared him a glance, not hostile, not welcoming, barely curious.

They've all seen beggars before, after all, scavenging around the trading beaches, no domain to claim their allegiance, no island to call home, no village to shelter and feed them.

Uncomfortable at seeing himself through such people's eyes, Kheda kept walking until he passed the far stand of shade trees and found a broken line of grey-stained rocks running across the beach, like stumps of broken teeth in a weathered jawbone washed clean by the seas. He walked down to the water and on into it, washing himself clean as best he could. Coming back on to the beach, he enjoyed a moment's blissful cool before the unwelcome hot wind that would blow unceasing till sunset dried him. The fickle tides had cast up a curious array of debris among the rocks: dull urchin shells and knobbled rusty fragments of reef crab legs, rags of seaweed dried to papery twists.

Then a hard white glint caught Kheda's eye. Crouching, he swept aside the detritus to uncover a piece of ivory. It was the broken tip of a horned fish's twisted rapier, not long enough in the water for sand and sea to dull its sheen. It was barely scuffed. Kheda closed his fist around the white spiral. It felt warm and vital in his grasp.

Ivory. Incorruptibility in its whiteness, an emblem of rank in its scarcity and its durability. Sea ivory no less; a yet more potent symbol, coming from a beast of the waters that carries a horn like some animal of the land. Learned warlords have long written treatises, debating what such a thing can denote. Every theory differs but for one thing: there must be nameless evils in the deeps, to prompt such a mighty sea beast to wield such a weapon. Sea ivory washing up on a beach must always be an urgent call to arms.

'Any portent that comes unsought and unheralded is likely to be of the greatest significance.' That's what Daish Retk told you time and again. Can you trust this sign? Are you far enough away from the taint of magic to trust your intuition for the unseen currents of present and future? How can you tell?

Kheda stowed the ivory deep into his paltry quilt bundle before turning back towards the twin stands of shade trees. As he walked, he searched the sands, bending down, picking up shells, keeping some and discarding others.

'What are you looking for?' A merchant with no customers to reward his diligence strolled over, open ochre robe flapping over brightly embroidered trousers, a thick gold chain around his neck.

Kheda nodded an acknowledgement but continued looking. 'Storm eyes, well-matched ones, ten of them.'

'Here's one.' The merchant was happy to join in the search to alleviate his own boredom. 'Oh, no, it's broken.' He tossed the creamy shard away.

'I'm looking for the ones with the darker inside.' Kheda held up a white oval, its edges curling over towards each other, serrated edges not quite meeting. A rich brown sheen spread up grooves leading down to the hidden inner face, like lashes fringing a nearly closed eye.

'How about this one?' The merchant reached for another shell; a line marking sun-darkened skin from paler flesh showed as the sleeve of his robe slid up his arm. 'What are we doing, anyway, making a necklace?'

Kheda took the shell and compared it to his current haul. 'This one's a bit too pink inside.' A pace later an unbidden thought made him grin.

'What's the joke?' the merchant asked genially, stirring the sand with a darkly tanned foot.

Kheda cleared his throat. 'Nothing, just recalling something my father once told me.'

'The darker ones are storm eyes, plain enough. The pinker ones, well, let's just say they can remind a man at an age of discretion of something else entirely. You can gather a double handful of those if you're looking for particular divinations concerning a woman's fertility or the consequences of childbirth.'

'Either of these any good?' The merchant stooped and stood up with shells in each hand.

'That one, certainly' Kheda took it. 'The other's a bit too yellow.'

The merchant looked at him, amused. 'Why so particular?'

Kheda shot the man a challenging look. 'I will be casting them for a portent.'

'You're a soothsayer?' Rapid understanding replaced the merchant's incredulity. 'Of course.'

'What else could you be, so ragged and filthy?' At least you've the good manners to leave that much unsaid, my friend. And it's true, isn't it, after a fashion? Why lie, especially when you're looking to test your skills? Daish Reik told you often enough, 'Speak the truth as far as possible, certainly when taking any augury. If you cannot govern the truth in your own words, how will you recognise the truths spoken by omens?'

'My father was a seer of sorts,' Kheda replied with an attempt at carelessness. 'I have something of his skill.'

'I've not seen you in these reaches before,' the merchant commented.

'I've not travelled much hereabouts. I had to leave my wife—' The break of anguish in his own voice surprised Kheda as his situation struck him with a brutality he'd not had to face on his resolute journey across the vast island, focused only on the path ahead, finding something, anything to eat, some shelter for the night. 'My children—' The words stuck in his throat.

Rekha and Sain, Sirket and Dau, Efi, Vida and Noi, little Mie and the unknown son or daughter that Sain is to bear. Will you ever see them again?

'I didn't mean to pry,' the merchant apologised, distressed.

'You weren't to know.' Kheda managed a wry smile as dark amusement lanced his hurt.

Let that pain bleed into your words when anyone asks and you surely won't be expected to explain yourself.

A gust of wind fluttered the nearby awning. The merchant seized on the chance to change the subject. 'I don't know where you come from but in my home reaches, we call this wind the dragon's breath. Foul, isn't it? Why don't you come and share my shade?'

'I will and gladly.' Kheda followed the man to the brightly striped canvas efficiently erected over a wide array of bells and chimes that he had displayed on a sturdy length of green cotton. Some of the bells were large enough for a village's talisman pole and the chimes went all the way down to straw-fine cylinders small enough to sew on a dancing gown's hem, for a gleaming fringe of silvery sound.

'Will those shells tell you when the rains will finally get here, before we all drop dead of the heat?' The merchant sat down on a travel-beaten chest, half covered by an assortment of drapery. He wiped sweat from his forehead with an exaggerated grimace.

'I can read the weather for you, if you want.' Kheda sat cross-legged, leaning forward to draw a perfect circle in the sand. He glanced up at the sun and then deftly notched the rim to mark the quarters and the three aspects within each quarter. 'This is looking for something else.' He felt his hand trembling so cast the shells before his apprehension could make a nonsense of any divination.

The merchant was intrigued. 'What do you see?'

Kheda looked up at the sky to make absolutely sure he had the earthly compass correctly aligned before allowing himself a look at the sand. 'Travel.'

The merchant chuckled. 'That's no surprise hereabouts.'

'And a successful journey.' Kheda felt a release going far beyond his own laugh as he studied the circle. No fewer than five shells had fallen within the arc denoting travel and all had their open sides uppermost. A most favourable omen.

'Anything else?' The merchant looked hopefully at the sand.

'Friends.' That was where four of the shells had fallen, the next most significant indicator.

'Old friends or new?' wondered the merchant, intrigued.

'New friends.' Kheda nodded with growing satisfaction. 'The shells are close to the edge of the circle. Old friends would be marked in the middle.'

'What about that one?' The merchant pointed at the last shell.

Kheda saw it had fallen on the cusp between friendship and enmity, closed side turned towards him in warning. 'I'd say that's just a reminder not to be too trusting.'

You haven't left every foe behind in Derasulla and don't forget it.

'That's not a divination that I've seen before but your face says it's offering sound advice,' approved the merchant. 'Would you cast for me?'

Kheda looked at the merchant, studying his dress properly for the first time. His embroidered trousers were striped with lines of little animals and trees, upside down from Kheda's perspective but entirely the right way for the merchant when he was sitting down. That style was a peculiarity of the furthest eastern reaches, he recalled. 'You're a long way from home.'

'Indeed.' The merchant waved a rueful arm at the all but empty beach. 'And picked a dire time to come voyaging, with all these upsets in the south.'

'You shan't make it back to the eastern reaches before the rains.' Kheda checked the horizon from ingrained habit. 'Do you have a safe anchorage to head for?'

'We're going to cut across to Endit waters,' nodded the merchant. 'And carrying a boatload of unsold goods with us,' he added apologetically, 'so we've no room to take a tame songbird on board, never mind a passenger.'

'That's all right; I'm going north, not east.' Kheda scooped up the shells and poured them carefully from one hand to the other. 'You spoke of trouble in the south. I'll trade you a reading of these for whatever you know.' He hoped the merchant wouldn't see the tension stiffening his spine into a rod of iron.

'There's magic abroad south of here, friend,' said the merchant bluntly. 'I've heard it from too many people for it to be falsehood.'

'In Redigal waters?' Kheda wondered with studied casualness.

'Nowhere so close.' The merchant shook his head with unfeigned relief. 'Chazen is all I've heard, magical fires setting the islands alight and everyone fleeing to Daish waters. Oh, have you heard the rumour that Daish Kheda is likely dead? Some people are wondering if that's just coincidence or malice working ahead of the magic'

'I heard something about that.' Kheda didn't dare look up and meet the man's eyes. 'What do you reckon to Daish Sirket's chances, if he is to be warlord?'

'If he's as much his father's son as Daish Kheda was son to Daish Reik, he should be strong enough to stand up against anything short of outright wizardry,' said the merchant stoutly. 'I shall hold to that thought next time I sharpen my blade, to sharpen the lad's luck.'

'Any portent that comes unsought and unheralded is likely to be of the greatest significance.' And how often did Daish Reik tell you truth often speaks through chance-heard words?

'Is there any word of this magic coming north?' Kheda asked, tension knotting in the pit of his stomach.

'No.' The merchant shook his head with welcome certainty. 'Not with the rains due any day'

Kheda smiled warmly at the man. 'Let's see what the shells have to say about your voyage to Endit waters.'

He threw the shells and looked up with a smile. 'I'd say you'll have fair winds to take you there and good fortune when you make landfall.'

'What are you at, friend?'

Kheda looked up to see three other men walking up the beach towards them, their attention caught by the only activity on the beach. Like his new acquaintance, they were evidently merchants who sailed as their own shipmasters.

'Having my fortune told. Our friend here's a soothsayer.' The merchant narrowed his eyes against the bright sun. 'I reckon I'll be under way before the day's end. There's no trade to be had here.'

'I'll probably follow you,' shrugged one of the shipmasters, wearing an Endit dagger with its sharply back-bent blade. 'We only had each other to deal with yesterday and it doesn't look as if we'll do any better today.' Wiry rather than muscular, his beard and hair were freshly plaited and he wore white cotton robes immaculate despite the inadequacies of the campground.

'If we all stay, we may yet tempt some of the Ulla people down from the hills,' protested a second, thickset man with grizzled hair and beard, his voice gravelly with years of shouting over wind and wave. Kheda noted a Taer blade with its deer-hoof handle at his belt. 'All we'll be sure of if we leave is sailing back home with a full half of the cargo we set out with. Where's the profit in that?'

'Endit Nai may not be thrilled to see me report such paltry trade but at least I'll be able to promise him a voyage as soon as the weather clears, with plenty of goods all ready to ship.' The dapper merchant had plainly made up his mind. 'And maybe this uproar in the south will be past,' he added with a meaningful look at the Taer shipmaster. 'I imagine that's one of the things keeping the Ulla people close to their huts.'

'There's no word of that kind of trouble anywhere north of Chazen,' protested the Taer man.

'What does the soothsayer say?' The third galley master stood, weight on his back foot, arms folded as he watched the other two argue. All three wore the same style of clothes, sleeveless tunic and trousers like any other sailor, but his were of better cloth, better cut and embroidered sea serpents coiled around his shoulders. He was also as much of a barbarian as Sain's slave Hanyad, though younger, barely Kheda's age. The sun had burnished his skin to a coppery sheen and lightened his hair to a dull gold, as unexpected among the dark heads all around as a Mirror Bird suddenly alighting in their midst.

'Can you tell us when the first rains will arrive?' demanded the Endit shipmaster.

'Can you tell us if we'll prosper for a longer stay here?' interrupted the Taer merchant.

'I can read the auguries for you,' Kheda answered calmly. 'Whether I will or not depends what you can do for me in return.'

That silenced the Endit shipmaster and the Taer merchant both.

'What do you want?' asked the barbarian, amused.

Time to test your luck, Daish Kheda.

'Passage north.' Kheda was momentarily disconcerted to see the man had green eyes, not unlike his own. 'I am no rower, you can see that from my hands, but you have my promise that I'll do my best. I can carry water to your oarsmen, take a turn for a tired man, tell you everything I see of the weather and seas ahead.' He poured the shells from one hand to the other again.

'I don't think my rowing master would thank me for you.'

Kheda wondered if the Endit shipmaster had some reason to look so suspicious or whether it was just a habit.

'I can take you to Tule waters,' offered the Taer shipmaster grudgingly.

'How far north do you want to go?' asked the barbarian. 'We're an Ikadi ship and bound for home.'

The other merchants looked at him, surprised.

'He's the closest thing we're going to find to an augur on this shore,' the Ikadi captain pointed out. 'You can go looking in the villages if you like, but even if you find someone who can read you the portents, it'll cost you dear, you know that.'

Kheda was searching his memory for any mention of the Ikadi domain.

How far north is that? Nearly all the way to the unbroken lands? This has to be an omen in my favour. You were right, my father. Seize an opportunity and you can make your own good luck.

'I'll travel as far as you are going.' He smiled at the barbarian. 'And read the weather and the auguries for you all the way.'

'You've certainly got a good trade out of that.' The Taer shipmaster looked at Kheda with disfavour. 'What will it cost me for your insights, now I can't offer you passage?'

'A pair of trousers,' Kheda said boldly. 'A tunic, not new if you can't spare them but clean, if you please.'

'We should have had our pick of four or five soothsayers on this beach,' grumbled the Endit merchant. 'Last time there was that one with the chest of crystals and a silken star map to cast them on.'

'This time, there's just me.' Kheda smiled at the man. 'And if you want any warning of foul weather or anything worse coming up from the south, it'll cost you a bowl and a spoon and a water skin.'

'If your father was a soothsayer, was your mother a trader?' chuckled the eastern merchant who'd first befriended him.

Kheda winked at the man. 'Of sorts.'

'Oh very well,' said the Endit merchant with considerable ill grace. 'It's a deal for my part.'

'If there wasn't this uproar in the south—' The Taer shipmaster broke off. 'All right.'

'Did you all share the same fire?' Kheda stood up and hitched his bundle up on to his shoulder.

'We did.' The Endit merchant looked dubious all the same.

Kheda led the three galley masters and the friendly eastern merchant towards the camping ground, stopping at the first blackened circle. 'This one?'

'And all our crews gathered firewood,' the Ikadi barbarian confirmed.

'Then we can take the augury here.' Kheda bent to pull a half-burnt stick from the ring of rocks and used the charcoaled end to score a circle on the ground. He went on to mark every quarter and arc in full, carefully drawing the signs for each constellation around the outside. When he glanced up, he saw the Ikadi shipmaster consulting a small compass.

He nodded approval at Kheda. 'You have north exactly.'

Kheda grinned. 'My father taught me well.'

'What now?' asked the Endit merchant impatiently.

'Tell us the prospects if we stay on this beach in hopes of more trade,' said the Taer shipmaster quickly.

Kheda was about to cast the shells on to the circle, when a sudden thought held his hand.

You could give them any reading you wanted. You're not Daish Kheda, whose every pronouncement will be talked over, compared with previous utterances, your words scrupulously examined in the light of whatever events might later confirm or contradict them. No one will ever see a resemblance to the Daish warlord, once glimpsed on a distant trireme's deck or in some splendid procession aglitter with silks and jewels. You're nobody, a soothsayer they'll likely never see again.

Nobody but still a man with power. Not Daish Kheda's power but power all the same. You could foretell the direst consequences if they stay here, and not only for now, but if they ever return. You could predict disaster for any ship venturing into Ulla waters between now and the return of the dragon star to signal the new year. These mariners would pass the word to their fellows; they wouldn't dare not. You could do untold harm to the Ulla domain, with just a few well-chosen words. Beggarly oracle you may be but what reason would such a man have to lie?

'Well?' The Ikadi shipmaster looked int