/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Tales of Einarinn

The Thief's Gamble

Juliet Mckenna

The Secrets of the Shadow-Men Magic? It's for the rich, the powerful ... the Archmage and his elite wizards and cloud-masters. Livak is not among them. She haunts the back taverns of the realm, careful to appear neither rich nor poor, neither tall nor short ... neither man nor woman. Obscurity is her protection, thievery her livelihood, and gambling her weakness. Alas, some bets are hard to resist. Particularly when they offer a chance to board a ship for Hadrumal, the fabled city of the Archmage. So Livak follows a minor wizard, Shiv, in an attempt to turn a rune or two, never dreaming that the stolen tankard she wants to sell contains the secrets of an ancient magic far more powerful, and infinitely darker, than any mortal mage's spells.

THE THIEF'S GAMBLE

The First Tale of Einarinn

JULIET E. McKENNA 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Many people helped shape this tale. My heartfelt thanks go to Steve, for his constant support and inspiration; to Helen, for bringing so much to the original concept; to Mike and Sue, Liz and Andy, for invariably honest criticism. Also, an honourable mention goes to all at Castle Penar.

The writing is only the start. I am indebted to Emma, Val and Adrian for championing the cause, to Tim for invaluable editorial advice and to ail at Orbit for their enthusiasm.

On a personal note, I would like to thank the various branches of the Rose family for their help during the Great Chicken-Pox Crisis. I would also like to thank my mother for the unforgettable phone-call: 'You know, it was just like reading a real book!'

CHAPTER ONE

Taken from:

Wealth and Wisdom

A Gentleman's Guide to their Acquisition and Keeping

BY Tori Samed

Gambling

Most gambling revolves around the runes of the ancient races, their use for divination and other such superstitions having long been discarded in civilised countries. Some games are based purely on randomly drawing a predetermined number of runes; others rely on casting combinations that earn greater or lesser scores. In either instance, cultivating a memory for what has gone before is recommended.

The best place to gamble is with friends, in convivial surroundings accompanied by a good vintage, provided that the stakes and means of redeeming debts have been agreed beforehand. When travelling, many of the better inns in the cities and on the major coach routes will have a permanent gaming table with a resident host. Such games are generally played fair and can run to very high stakes. If you have sufficient skill, you may rise from the table, your purse heavy with coin. However, any debts incurred in such company must be honoured instantly if you wish to avoid having your goods and luggage seized in payment.

Do not be beguiled into a casual contest in a city thronged at festival time. Beware the amiable stranger who offers you a friendly game to while away a dull evening in a back-roads tavern. Such men prey on the unwary, turning the game mercilessly to their advantage with weighted runes and sleight of hand. Turned away from hearth and home, disgraced or fugitive, they are little better than mercenaries and thieves.

The Packhorse Tavern, on the Col Road

South of Ambafost, Ensaimin, 12th of For-Autumn

Some opportunities ought to come labelled 'too good to be true'. Of course, ten years of living by my wits should have taught me how to spot them. You would have thought so anyway; so would I.

The night this particular opportunity came to wreak havoc in my life, I was sitting comfortably full of good dinner in front of a roaring fire, and listening to the wind tearing at the snug inn. I was wearing my usual nondescript travelling clothes and, with any luck, the other patrons in the tap-room would have been hard put to decide my age, sex or business. Being unremarkable is a talent I cultivate: middling height, middling build, nothing special — unless I choose differently. Feet up on a stool and hat over my eyes, I may have looked half-asleep, but mentally I was pacing the room and kicking the furniture. Where was Halice? We had been due to meet here four days ago and this unplanned stay was eating into my funds. It was unlike her to be late for a meet. On the few occasions it had happened before, she had always got a message through. What should I do?

I counted my money again; not that anyone else in the room noticed as I slipped my fingers into the pouch under my shirt and sorted the coin. I carry noble coin on me night and day; I've had to abandon my belongings a few times and being caught out with no money leads to bad experiences. I had thirty Caladhrian Stars, ten Tormalin Crowns and, reassuringly bulky, three Empire Crowns. They were more than enough to give me a stake for the Autumn Fair at Col and I had a heavy pouch of common coin upstairs which would cover my travelling expenses as long as I left in the morning. If I waited any longer, I'd have to pay carriers' coach fare and that would seriously eat into my reserves.

The problem was that I did not want to work the Autumn Fair on my own. Lucrative as it is, it can be a dangerous place and while I can take care of myself nowadays, Halice is still a lot handier than me with her sword and her knives. Working as a pair has other advantages too; when someone feels their luck with the runes is going bad, it's much harder to see why when there are two people adjusting the odds. As an added bonus, people never expect two women to be working the gambling together, even in a big city. I could hook up with other people but Halice is better than most as well as more honest than some.

Of course, the most likely explanation was that Halice was stuck in some lord's lock-up awaiting the local version of justice. I cursed out loud, forgetting myself for a moment, but luckily no one seemed to have noticed. There were only three other people in the tap-room, and they were deep in conversation with the innkeeper. They were merchants by their dress; this was a well-travelled business route and the chances were they were heading for Col. The filthy weather seemed to be keeping the locals by their own firesides, which was fine by me.

If Halice was in trouble, there was no way I could help her. Identifying myself as her friend would simply land me in shackles too. I frowned. It was hard to believe that Halice would get herself into trouble she could not get clear of. That was one of the main reasons we worked Ensaimin for the most part. Competition for trade guarantees a reassuring lack of inconveniences such as circulating reward notices or co-operative Watch commanders, which make prosy places like Caladhria so inhospitable. Here trouble is seldom so bad it cannot be left behind once you cross a local boundary, and we take care never to outstay our welcome.

So there I was, sitting and fretting and sipping rather good wine, when a very wet horseman strode into the bar and beckoned to mine host. I could not hear what they were saying, and that immediately piqued my curiosity, but I could not move closer without drawing attention to myself. The horseman passed over a small parchment and I heard the chink of coins. As he left, the innkeeper unfolded the letter or whatever it was and the merchants crowded round.

'So what does it say?' a thin man in a stained yellow tunic asked.

'Dunno. Can't read.' The innkeeper shrugged his fat shoulders. 'I'll need to know more before I tack it up though, money or no.'

I bit my lip with frustration. I can read, thanks to a mother determined I should have every possible advantage to offset my birth, but there was no way I was going to make myself conspicuous by offering help.

'Here.' The thin man's companion reached for the parchment and frowned at it. 'Where's the Running Hound?'

'It's the big coaching inn on the market in Ambafost,' the third merchant piped up, peering over the reader's leather-clad shoulder.

'Well, there's a trader staying there who's interested in buying Tormalin antiquities.' The bearded man smoothed out the notice and read it through, lips moving as he did so. 'This says he'll pay good prices and that he'll be buying on market day.'

'He must be doing well, to be paying to advertise like this.' The third merchant gnawed at a nail thoughtfully. 'Is there much doing in antiquities at the moment?'

The bearded man shrugged. 'Maybe he's got plans for the Autumn Fair. There are collectors in Col and there'll be traders from Relshaz and the Archipelago as well.'

The thin man stared at the parchment with greedy eyes. 'Perhaps we should try and get hold of a few good pieces if the prices are going to be favourable.'

They huddled together and the bearded man got out a map as they discussed the possibilities.

I drank the rest of my wine and pondered my next moves. I happened to know where you could find some very fine pieces of Tormalin Empire work, and if I could get anywhere near a realistic price for one, even allowing for a merchant's cut, I could wait for Halice until the very last hour, then hire a private coach to get me to Col and still have money over to stake me for a very high playing game. The trick would be getting the piece to the merchant without the original owner being aware of it and there it seemed that the gods were smiling on me for a change. I should have known better, but at the time all I could think of was the profit I could make. There was also the little matter of a very sweet revenge which would be a substantial bonus. Was it worth the gamble?

The merchants were absorbed in their discussion, and I went upstairs without anyone remarking on it. I unshuttered the window and peered out. Rain was still falling but the wind was slackening off and the waxing lesser moon was fleetingly visible through gaps in the cloud.

Should I do this? It would be risky but, then again, it could be very profitable. Well, I'm a gambler and no one ever struck it rich keeping their runes in their pocket, did they? The temptation was just too strong. I changed clothes rapidly, swapping homespun and leather for good broadcloth breeches and tunic, boots, gloves and hooded jerkin, all in charcoal grey. Black gives hard edges which can catch the eye even in the darkest night. The rough wooden beams of the inn made leaving through the window simplicity itself, as long as I took care not to mark the intervening plaster. I was soon jogging through the woods fringing the road to Hawtree.

It was cold and wet but the prospect of a little adventure warmed me. I did not do much thieving in those days. The difficulties of fencing goods in a strange place are formidable and while weighting the runes in a game of chance can get you flogged, getting caught stealing from a noble's house gets you the pillory at best and loses you a hand at worst. Unfortunately, only nobles have anything worth stealing. You may wonder why I was chancing it this time, but I happened to know this particular noble was not going to be at home, which did rather weight the odds in my favour. Raeponin's devotees can talk all they want about balance and justice and levelling the scales, but you won't ever find me making offerings at his shrine. After all, I gamble for a living, not for fun.

I had sat on my horse under a dripping oak tree earlier that week watching the gentleman and his entourage heading north with enough luggage to indicate a lengthy stay in another place. I would have recognised him anywhere, even after ten years. You do not easily forget the face of a man who has tried to beat and rape you.

Hawtree was not far and I covered the distance easily; staying fit is essential in my kind of life. I breathed in the damp green scent of the night happily. I love being out in the country at night, for all that the sun rules my birth-runes. It must be my father's blood coming through, despite my city upbringing. The village was mostly dark and a few of the wooden houses showed dim lights, but this was farming country and most folk here slept and rose with the sun. The larger brick and flint buildings round the market square showed more signs of life despite the fact it was now past midnight, so I ducked into an alley and waited to catch my breath. I walked noiselessly through the dark lanes, keeping an eye out for dogs who might advertise my presence.

The house was just off a garden square, a favourable position for a wealthy landowner's residence. The tall front showed heavy oak shutters barred with iron and a stout door with an expensive lock; this did not bother me as I worked my way round to the alley at the back. I found a dark corner and studied the kitchen and outbuildings round the yard. My mother said I was the most useless maid she had ever known but my years as a housekeeper's daughter had given me invaluable knowledge about the domestic arrangements of large houses. A scullery maid would be trying to sleep in the meagre warmth of the dying kitchen range while her more fortunate seniors would have chilled and cramped quarters in the garrets. The cook and chamberlain would have the better rooms overlooking the yard. I couldn't tell how many servants the bastard had taken with him so I had better avoid any of those areas. The room I wanted was towards the front of the house on the ground floor so ideally I needed to get in through a first-floor window. I studied them in the fitful moonlight and blessed the keen night-sight that my father had granted me. It did not look promising but I was reluctant to give up; I wanted the money this would provide and the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of finally getting my own back on the misbegotten swine who had first brought me to this house. I suppose, to be precise, quite a chain of events had brought me to this house; the bastard with the nice collection of silver simply happened to be the last link.

I had finally stormed out of what had once passed for my home after my mother had lamented once too often about the ruin of her life, saddled with the by-blow of a minstrel, one of the Forest Folk at that. I had already taken to gambling which I had always been good at and was working small deceptions to earn my meals. I had formed no real plans beyond some vague idea of trying to find my wandering father and, looking back, I am surprised it took so long for me to land in trouble. A panicking attempt to bluff my way out of an inn without paying had left me thrown on the road with a smarting arse and my few belongings taken in lieu of payment.

I had arrived in Hawtree two days later, tired and ravenous, dirty and desperate. Neither of the decent coaching inns had let me past their doors and I had ended up in a grimy hostelry next to the slaughterhouse. It had not taken me long to realise why there were so many women sitting around the tap-room and it was a measure of my ignorance and despondency that I decided to try for a customer myself. Lack of food must have softened my brain. It was not as if I was a virgin, I had thought, and my mother, ever determined I should not get caught like her, had taken me off to a reliable herbalist as soon as she had first caught the under-gardener fondling my bottom. It had not occurred to me to worry about disease and, looking at the competition, I had felt confident that I would be able to earn a meal at very least.

I combed my hair with my fingers as best I could — I wore it long in those days — and pinched my cheeks to heighten my colour. I was still using herbal washes to bring out the red in my hair and cosmetics to make my eyes reflect green rather than grey, and, despite its stains, my russet dress looked sufficiently exotic in the dingy bar. Chances were none of these yokels had ever seen a real Forest maiden so, their reputation being what it is, I decided to increase my asking price. The next customer to survey the waiting women was tall, dark and handsome in a sharp sort of way and he rapidly passed over the others to catch my eye. The other whores looked away and muttered among themselves. Naive as I was, I felt sure they were jealous.

'Well, well, you're not from around here, are you?' He came over and gestured for wine, which I drank thirstily.

'No, I'm just passing through.' I did my best to look mysterious and alluring.

'All alone?' His hand brushed mine as he poured more wine.

'I like to travel light.' I smiled at him and my spirits rose. He was clean and young and looked wealthy; I could have done a lot worse. As I said, I was very naive in those days.

'What's your name, sweetheart?'

'Merith.' Actually that's my oldest spinster aunt but who cared.

'This isn't a very comfortable inn. Could I offer you some hospitality?'

That was a new way of putting it but I wasn't going to argue. I smiled at him from beneath my dyed lashes.

'I'm sure we could come to some agreement.' After all, I wanted some coin out of this, not just a warm bed and food.

He offered me his arm and I flaunted out of the gloomy tap-room, attributing the sudden buzz of conversation behind us to disappointed hopes.

Ten years on, I stood in the dark and looked at the windows thoughtfully. That was the salon where he had taken me, I was sure. He had shown me in and told me to wait. My spirits rose at the thought of food and clean sheets and the business to come even promised to be quite enjoyable. I wandered round the room and noted the fine tapestries, the polished furniture and the superb Tormalin silver on the mantel shelf. Stories from the ballads I had heard my father sing began to echo in the back of my mind — virtuous maiden falls on hard times and is rescued by a handsome noble, that sort of thing.

When I heard the door, I turned with a welcoming smile but my host was not bringing the supper he had promised. He locked the door behind him and his lips curved in an ugly smile as he ran a dog-whip through his hands. He was stripped to shirt and hose and flushed with anticipation. I moved to put the table between us; from the glint in his eye, I would not have bet on my chances of talking my way out of this. I may have been naive but I wasn't that stupid. I realised I was in serious danger.

'Come here, whore,' he commanded.

'If you want something more lively than plain sex, I want more money,' I countered boldly. If he thought I was going to play, he might get careless and I would be out of there like a rat from a burning barn.

'You'll get what I decide to give you.' He was not talking coin; he lunged at me and the lash flicked my cheek.

I screamed as loudly as I could but all he did was laugh. 'My servants are paid well to be deaf, you slut. Scream by all means. I like it.'

I could see that he did too. He moved and so did I, we circled round the table and he began to frown.

'Come and see what I've got for you,' he leered, lifting his shirt.

I dashed for the window but he was too fast and grabbed a handful of hair. He threw me to the floor and raised the whip but I rolled under the table. He cursed obscenely and snatched at my ankle. I kicked and twisted as he dragged me out but he was too strong. He ripped at my skirts with his other hand and my head smacked against the chair legs. He laughed as he saw the blood and oddly, that was what finally made me lose my temper.

I went limp. As he relaxed his grip, I drew my knees up. He laughed again as he straightened up to unlace himself, then I brought both of my feet up into his stones. He collapsed, retching, and I scrambled to my feet. I grabbed a fallen chair and smacked it hard into the side of his head and ran for the window a second time. As I fumbled with the catches, I heard him groan and curse. I have never been so frightened in my life, utterly occupied with opening the window, not daring to lose a moment of time by glancing behind me. After what seemed like an age, I had the casement open and the shutter beyond. I risked a glance at the bastard on the floor; he had got to his knees but was clutching himself with screwed-shut eyes. I swung out of the window and dropped to the road. With the first stroke of luck I'd had in a long time, I didn't hurt myself, and I ran as far and as fast as I could.

The first time I'd told Halice that tale, she'd been astounded I could be so matter-of-fact about it. The memory could still wake me in a cold sweat if I was overtired or feeling low, that in itself was part of the reason I wanted some small measure of revenge. As for the rest, I'd learned I'd come out of it lightly if you could believe the broadsheets' lurid tales of mutilated bodies and the sad strangled corpse I'd once seen dragged from a river.

I stared at the window. I could still feel the terror but, more importantly for my present ambitions, I pictured the details of window- and shutter-catches, engraved on my memory. I had made it my business to learn a range of skills in case I should ever again get stranded with no money and I knew I could get in if I could find a place where I could work unobserved for a while. I walked round the house and saw a side window facing the blank wall of the stable-block; ideal. It took less time than I had feared and I found myself in a library. That was a surprise; who would have thought the ape could read. I opened the door cautiously but there was no sound or light from any direction. The house smelled of beeswax and possessed a chill that spoke of several days without fires. I moved along the corridor, my soft soles noiseless on the polished floorboards. The salon door was locked but that did not delay me for long. The darkness was troubling me by now, not even real Forest Folk can see in complete blackness, but I could still recall the layout of the room and put my hand unerringly on the mantel.

What should I take? The temptation was to sweep the lot into my little padded sack; I owed the scum for the scars on my cheek and temple and for the old man I had been driven to knock over for his purse further down the road. I dismissed that foolishness; I would take one of the smaller pieces, that would be enough. I ran my hand along the shelf and lifted a long-necked vase. No, too unusual, I could not price it reliably. Next along was a goblet, a coat of arms deeply incised on its side. Too easily identifiable. I passed over a platter and some spoons that felt too light to be genuine and then found a small lidded tankard. It was plain, apart from scrolls on the handle and lid, but had a reassuring weight. The handle was smooth and fit neatly in my hand; it was just the sort if thing I would have liked for myself. It was towards the back of the shelf, behind two ornate wine jugs; did that mean it was less likely to be missed? Perhaps, but I intended to be long gone before then. I pocketed the tankard and lifted the remaining pieces to dust the shelf; no point in leaving clues and a dozy maid might not notice the loss for a few days.

By now my eyes were aching from straining in the dim light and I left rapidly the way I had come. Refastening the window took some time and the sky was starting to lighten by the time I returned to the inn. It occurred to me that some hapless footman or the like would get blamed for the theft but I cannot say that bothered me; serve them right for working for such a turd. I only hoped his anguish when he discovered the loss was as deep as I wanted. My gamble was paying off nicely so far. I got into my bed for what remained of the night and slept deep and dreamlessly.

The Chamber of Planir the Black

in the Island City of Hadrumal, 12th of For-Autumn

Share a bottle with an Archmage and you'll either be ruined or made for life — that's what they used to say, isn't it, Otrick?' The stout man speaking held out his glass for a refill and laughed fruitily at his own quip.

'I think those days were already long past when I first came here, Kalion.' Otrick poured him a full measure and then topped up his own drink, his steady hand belying the wrinkles carved in his face and the white hairs now outnumbering the grey in his steely hair and beard.

'How long ago was that, Cloud-Master?' the youngest man present asked, taking the bottle with a creditable attempt at ease, given the exalted company he found himself keeping.

Otrick's close-lipped smile was as about as revealing as a masquerader's guise. 'Longer ago than I care to remember, Usara,' he replied softly, raising his glass. His vivid blue eyes glinted under his angular brows.

'Anyway, Archmage, what was it you wanted to discuss?' Kalion half-turned on the deeply upholstered settle to address the neatly built man who was shuttering the tall windows and drawing the thick green curtains precisely together.

'Oh, it's nothing vital, Hearth-Master. You were in Relshaz for Solstice, weren't you? I was wondering if the antiquarians there have turned up anything interesting lately?' Planir lit a couple of oil-lamps and their yellow glow warmed the deep oak panelling around the room, a few gleams here and there revealing choice pieces of statuary in discreet niches. The soft light blurred the network of fine lines around the Archmage's eyes and made him look barely a handful of years older than Usara. He set a lamp down on the table.

'Do we want a fire, do you think?'

'I should think so,' Otrick said emphatically.

Kalion looked a little askance at the skinny old wizard, dressed neatly if unfashionably in grey wool broadcloth. He contented himself with loosening the neck of his own maroon velvet gown, new from the tailor in the latest style and shade and richly embroidered with a border of flames.

'You see, Usara thinks he may have turned up something new but, equally, it may just be a waste of everyone's time.' The Archmage snapped his fingers on a flash of red and dropped a flame into the fire laid ready in the spotless grate. He drew in the silken skirts of his own black robe and seated himself in a high-backed chair, warming his glass in his long-fingered hands as he leant back against the rich sage brocade. 'Sweetcake? Do help yourselves, everyone.'

'What exactly is it you're studying, Usara? Remind me,' Kalion asked the youthful wizard indistinctly round a mouthful of fruit-and-honeycake.

Usara's thin face flushed brightly, the colour clashing with his sandy hair and somewhat cruelly highlighting just how thin it was becoming above his high forehead. 'I've been working on the decline and fall of the Tormalin Empire for some seasons now, Hearth-Master. I met some scholars from the University of Vanam last year when they came to use the library at the Seaward Hall and they invited me to use their archives.'

Kalion shrugged with evident disinterest, the gesture creasing his chins unappealingly as he reached for more wine. 'So?'

Usara smoothed the linen ruffles at his neck, glancing fleetingly at Planir, who smiled reassuringly over the rim of his glass and inclined his sleek, dark head slightly. 'Go on,' the Archmage encouraged him. 'Well, when Sannin was there over the Winter Solstice, she went to a celebration where the wines were flowing pretty freely and tongues started getting loose as well.'

Otrick laughed abruptly, his thin face alight with mischief.

'If I know Sannin, that's not all that got loosened. She's a fun girl at a party.' He subsided at a glance from Planir but continued to chuckle into his straggly beard as he munched on a slice of cake.

Usara shot the old man an irritated look and spoke with a little more force. 'They started talking about history. Someone noticed her necklace, it's an heirloom piece, Old Tormalin, and one of the historians wondered what tales a necklace like that could tell, if only it could talk.'

Otrick coughed on his mouthful. 'That was an old excuse for looking down a girl's dress when I was a boy!'

Usara ignored him. 'There were scholars from all sorts of disciplines there, and a couple of wizards, and they started wondering if there could be any way to find out more about the original owners of antiquities.'

'What good would that do anyone?' Otrick frowned as he shook the empty bottle. 'Do you have another of these, Planir?'

The Archmage waved him to a collection of bottles on a gleaming sideboard but he kept his own grey eyes intent on Kalion.

Usara continued. 'Once they got talking, Sannin said, they started coming up with some interesting ideas for research.'

'Did they still look like good ideas when the wine had worn off and the headaches hit?' Otrick's tone was sarcastic.

'When she told us all this, we started to think about it ourselves. There are some old variants on scrying that we could try and some fragments of religious lore that we might be able to incorporate. We're coming up with some promising lines for further enquiry.' Usara leaned forward, face intent, unaware of Otrick's indignation at being talked over.

'You see, Hearth-Master, if we can find a way to use Tormalin antiquities to somehow look back through the generations, into the lives of ordinary people, we could have no end of new sources of historical information. Don't you see how it could help my studies? In all recorded history, the fall of the Tormalin Empire was the greatest cataclysm ever to befall a civilisation. If we could find clues to help us patch together the fragments of the written record—'

'None of which is of any more than passing interest and is of no use in the real world.' Kalion's disdain was clear as he reached for more cake and refilled his glass now that Otrick had located the corkscrew. 'Thank you, Cloud-Master.'

'Understanding our history is an essential foundation for looking to the future.' Usara's thin lips nearly vanished altogether as he squared his shoulders to contradict the larger man.

'Don't get pompous with me, young man. I can remember when you arrived here in your clay-stained apprentice rags,' Kalion said crushingly.

'Knowledge always has a value, Hearth-Master. It is—' 'Knowledge only has a value if it has an application.' Kalion spoke over Usara mercilessly. 'Why are we even discussing this, Archmage?' he demanded with a hint of exasperation.

Planir shrugged again and rubbed a hand over his smoothly shaven jaw. 'I was wondering if we should put some resources into following it up.'

'Oh, surely not.' Kalion looked as appalled as a man so well wined could hope to. 'There's so much else the Council needs to consider. You heard Imerald's account of how fast smelting is being developed in the north. That's a real advance, something we should be involved in. Look at the ways Caladhrian cattle stock is improving now that most of the Lords are enclosing their pastures. I could give you a handful more examples of other sciences where more progress has been made in the last generation than in the previous five—'

'Spare us the full speech, Hearth-Master,' Otrick yawned theatrically. 'We were at the last session of the Council, remember. We were listening.'

'You can't deny that some of my predecessors did take the isolation of senior wizardry rather too far, Cloud-Master.' Planir's rebuke was light but still unmistakable.

'That's what I've been saying for I don't know how many seasons.' The florid purple tinge on Kalion's cheekbones faded a little. 'Given the rate of the changes we're seeing on the mainland, if we don't find ourselves a role, we'll be left behind.

This prejudice against getting involved in politics, for example, is outdated and meaningless—'

'I'm not prejudiced. I just don't see the benefit to me of getting tangled up in helping to organise the boring little lives of the mundane. If I'm to spend my time on things that take me away from my own research and studies, it'll be on my terms and to achieve something I need.'

Otrick passed Kalion the wine which effectively diverted him. 'Anyway, save the speeches for the next session of Council, Hearth-Master. That's the place for important debate. Now, as far as I'm concerned, Usara, you can spend as many seasons as you like finding out who did what while the Empire was collapsing round their ears. What I want to know is whether this little scheme of yours is going to tell me anything about magical techniques and skills that were lost in the dark generations.'

'Now that would be knowledge worth having.' Kalion nodded emphatic agreement.

'I suppose we might discover such things, if we could work with artefacts that belonged to wizards…' Usara looked uncertainly towards Planir, '… if we can find a way of scrying into their activities.'

The Archmage leaned forward and refilled the younger mage's glass. 'If I were to support this project, I think I'd want to give it more focus and looking for lost magic seems most relevant.' Planir paused for moment and looked thoughtful. 'I think you have a valid point, Kalion. The time has come for the Council to consider our role in the wider scheme of things in the modern world. Equally, there's something in what Otrick says; if wizards are to become more involved in matters beyond this island, to avoid the mistakes of the past, we need to do so on our own terms.'

'If we were able to rediscover some of the magic lost during the disintegration of the Empire, we would certainly improve our bargaining position,' Otrick allowed.

'We could establish useful contacts if we were able to offer scholars solutions to some of the questions thrown up by the collapse of Old Tormalin power.' Usara spoke up boldly. 'Most of the tutors and court advisors to nobilities all the way across the mainland come from the various universities.'

'That's a fair point.' Planir looked enquiringly at Kalion. 'What do you think, Hearth-Master?'

'It might be worth looking into. What do you propose?' the stout mage asked cautiously.

'Hall records could give us the family names of the early wizards. We could enquire if those families have minor heirlooms they would be willing to sell,' Planir mused. 'Usara and his pupils could concentrate their researches on them.'

'It'll be a waste of time and coin,' Otrick said robustly. 'You'd be better off sending some agents into the mountains and getting some decent information about this blast-furnace or whatever it is they call it.'

'That does sound as if it could be a significant development, Cloud-Master,' Planir agreed. 'Still, if I can spare a couple of men, it shouldn't be hard to collect a few Empire antiquities with decent provenance. Don't you think? We would find out sooner if Usara's project has any value. Who knows, we might even uncover some valuable information on lost magic.'

'We might do nothing more than push up the price of Tormalin antiques and land ourselves with a room full of old pots and statues,' Otrick snorted.

'That is also possible,' Planir admitted. 'So, it's something to look at when we have resources to spare but hardly a priority now. Do you agree, Hearth-Master?'

'I suppose so.' Kalion still sounded dubious.

A timepiece on the mantel chimed four soft strokes and Kalion looked at it in some surprise. 'You'll have to excuse me, Archmage, I didn't realise it was so late.' He drained his glass and rose to his feet with some effort.

'The longer night chimes always catch me out after Solstice,' Otrick agreed, but showed no signs of moving.

'We must make time to discuss your Council speech in more detail, Kalion. Ask your senior pupil to check with Larissa to arrange a convenient time.' Planir bowed Kalion formally into the escort of the lamp-boy who had been dozing on the stairs. He closed the heavy oak door softly and then rapidly stripped off his ornately embroidered robe to reveal practical breeches and a light linen shirt which he covered with a worn and ink-stained chambercoat.

'I meant to ask you when you started using the same tailor as Kalion,' Otrick chuckled around the last mouthful of cake. 'I always say gowns are for girls in garlands.'

This time Planir's smile showed his teeth and, with the gleam in his eye, he looked positively predatory. 'Details are important, Otrick, you taught me that.'

'So did we dance your measure correctly, Archmage?' Much of Usara's diffidence had departed along with Kalion. He crossed to the sideboard and helped himself. 'Cordial, anyone?'

'I'll have some of the mint, thanks.' Planir lounged in his chair and stretched his soft leather boots out to the fire with an air of satisfaction. 'Yes, I think that went very well. If any more rumours about our little project surface, that story should cover them.'

'You think so?' Usara passed the Archmage a little crystal goblet. 'Kalion didn't seem all that convinced.'

'He didn't think it was worth much interest,' Planir corrected him. 'Which is what I hoped for.'

'He's got a lot of influence among the Council, being the senior Hearth-Master and all that goes with it.' Uncertainty continued to colour Usara's tone.

'He has, indeed.' Otrick nodded. 'He's also the man most people round here go to for gossip, isn't he?'

Comprehension dawned and Usara laughed. 'So if someone gets curious about what we're doing, they'll check with Kalion and he'll tell them he knows all about it and it's nothing of any significance.'

'Whereas few things attract more attention than rumours of a secret project with the personal interest of the Archmage and the oldest Cloud-Master,' Planir agreed, sipping his drink contentedly. 'You see, Usara, people have all sorts of ideas about the proper role of an Archmage but very few realise it's spending most of your time persuading people to do what you want them to do while making sure they think it was all their idea in the first place.'

'You certainly moved Kalion like a bird on a game board,' Usara acknowledged.

Otrick grinned wolfishly. 'Don't ever play White Raven with this man, 'Sar, I swear he could end up with the forest birds serving the raven rather than trying to drive him out.'

'I haven't played Raven in years, Cloud-Master.' Planir shook his head in mock sorrow. 'It rather lost its challenge after a few seasons as Archmage.'

Otrick rummaged in his breeches pocket for a little wash-leather pouch. 'So when will you be telling the Council the truth?' He popped a couple of leaves into his mouth and chewed with relish.

'When I have a full story to tell or when someone senior enough brings me a rumour I can't ignore.' Planir fixed Usara with a keen eye. 'I'd prefer it to be the former. How close are you to finding out what I need to know?'

Usara swallowed his drink with a hint of his former nervousness. 'We've managed to refine the methods of identifying the pieces we need.'

'About cursed time. Sending so-called merchants out with a sack of coin to buy up every piece of Old Empire tat they could find is what attracted attention in the first place,' Otrick snorted.

'That was unfortunate.' Usara faced the old mage with dignity. 'However, I don't recall you coming up with any better ideas.'

Planir forestalled any argument with a commanding hand. 'Given we've had people working on this for close on two seasons, I'd have been amazed if we'd got away with it any longer. Now, what results are you getting?'

'The information we're getting is very detailed, almost too much so. We need to place it in a context; it's the gaps in the written records that are holding us back at the moment.' Usara's frustration was evident.

'I think it might be time to get one of the Vanam Histories brought here,' Planir said thoughtfully. 'I'd like to see progress on this sooner rather than later.'

'We have asked but we haven't been able to persuade the

Mentors to release one to us.' Usara shuffled his feet unhappily at this admission.

'I imagine I'll have more success. An Archmage has all kind of powers, 'Sar, and actual wizardry is often the least important.' Planir's eyes shone in the lamplight. 'Have you heard from Casuel Devoir lately? When's he due back?'

'Equinox, I think,' Usara shrugged.

'I said he was a bad choice for this kind of work,' Otrick sniffed.

'Do we have a lot of choice? Casuel's had no pupillage for three seasons, so no one's missing him. He's bright enough and quite knowledgeable about the Old Empire, isn't he? It's not as if we've told any of them the full story.'

Planir slid a sideways smile towards Otrick. 'You remember that business at Summer Solstice a few years back? His determination to outdo Shivvalan should give him the sort of edge he'll need.'

'Ha!' Otrick's amusement came and went in an instant. 'If we need answers before the Council starts asking awkward questions, we must move faster. We need more people.'

Planir reached round behind his chair to take a sheaf of papers from a desk. 'I think I should be able to find three or four suitable agents without attracting too much notice.'

Usara frowned. 'They'll need to work with a mage. We'll have to find a handful or so who could be trusted with this but who aren't anyone's pupil at present.'

'Not necessarily. I got Shivvalan Ralsere hooked when he came to ask me about a pupillage. I could take on at least one more and I think it's about time we got Troanna involved. No one's going to comment if she takes on a couple, especially if they're recent arrivals,' Otrick suggested.

'True, I'll give it some thought,' Planir said thoughtfully. 'You'll need to find some scholars who can identify these trinkets as closely as possible, 'Sar.'

Otrick yawned and rubbed his eyes. 'You'll owe me if I have a headache tomorrow, Planir, I'm getting too old to match someone like Kalion cork for cork.'

'I'll turn the wine-merchant into a lizard if you feel bad in the morning, Cloud-Master,' the Archmage promised solemnly. 'Given the coin he took off me for that vintage, it'll be a pleasure.'

Otrick heaved a sigh and the animation left his face, his years plain to see for the first time.

'So what do we do when we've got the full story then? If half what we suspect turns out to be true, the mainlanders will be able to hear the uproar from Council clear across the gulf. Anyone wanting to find this particular, mystical, hidden island will just have to follow the noise.'

'A shock's greatest when it's unexpected.' Planir looked untroubled. 'I think I'll give Naldeth's projects some personal attention. That'll stop everyone sniggering behind his back and if his theories gain a little currency, you can offer him some co-operation, 'Sar. Then we can control how and when any new information becomes common knowledge.'

'If you say so.' The youthful mage's uncertainty was apparent.

'You're juggling firebrands,' Otrick warned dourly.

Planir shrugged and rose to replenish his cordial. 'That's as good a description as any of being an Archmage. Anyway, that wolf may well be a dog in the daylight; we might have nothing to worry about.'

'I'd give you better odds on a winning spread of runes first throw,' Otrick muttered.

'So you think you've got everything under control.' Usara looked to Planir for reassurance.

The Archmage's smile glinted white and even. 'I do hope not, 'Sar, that's the last thing I want. I just set things in motion; what I'm watching for is the loose rune that can turn the game for us. We all have to look for that one opportunity and make sure we seize it.'

The Packhorse Tavern, on the Col Road

South of Ambafost, Ensaimin, 13th of For-Autumn

The noises of the inn woke me, the rattle of harness and stamp of hooves in the yard and the sounds of conversation and drinking below. I checked the sun as I dressed for my role as poor but comparatively honest villager; it was quite a lot later than I had intended to rise but I felt refreshed despite my night excursion. Cold water woke me up fully and I checked the pouch under my pillow to reassure myself that it had not all been a wishful dream. The tankard was there and in the daylight I could see I had chosen a fine piece. The silver had the rich sheen of old Tormalin work and the maker's mark was distinct and central on the base, another good sign. I did not recognise it but silver's not my thing; I'm better on paintings. Should I take it to Col myself if the market was rising? I thought about it but the whole idea had been to get some money so I could wait for Halice and, in any case, since it was such a good piece, I did not want to be the one left holding it if the theft was noticed and the local Watch came looking. This merchant, whoever he might be, could have it and welcome. All I wanted was the pay-off.

I breakfasted rapidly and, taking out my hired horse, rode for Ambafost, cursing the inconvenience of unaccustomed skirts. The road was busy now it was past mid-morning and the previous days of rain had given way to sunshine. Farm carts and local carriages were rumbling along, occasionally overtaken by horsemen in twos and threes or delayed by a plodding mule train. This was both good and bad; more potential witnesses to identify me if someone came looking, but by the same token more faces for me to get lost amongst. I wondered about changing inns but there was the problem of Halice; I didn't want to miss any message she might send. It was market day and the square in Ambafost was packed; stalls offered everything from vegetables and meat to Dalasorian glassware and Aldabreshin silks; some merchants were clearly trading their way down to Col. People jostled and shoved and shouted, the melee smelling of damp wool and leather mingling with the scents of baking bread overhead and animal dung underfoot. I like this kind of market; they offer excellent cover. A few beggars were trying their luck without much success but there was no sign of any Watch coming to move them on which I was happy to see.

I found the Running Hound easily and forced my way through the crowd. Several carriers' coaches had just arrived and there were passengers shouting at each other as they tried to find out when the next stage of their journey would begin: some needed to change routes, some wanted food, children were crying and one couple decided to start a major domestic dispute in the centre of the hall. A Rationalist was being completely ignored as she tried to find someone to bore with her theories on why advances in magic and science meant no one need bother with the gods nowadays.

'Where's the merchant interested in buying antiquities?' I grabbed a passing potman by the elbow.

'Private parlour behind the gentles' bar.' He shook off my hand and went on his way without even looking at me.

The clamour shrank to a murmur in the tap-room reserved for gentlefolk; there were settles here and sweet herbs among the rushes on the floor. The barkeeper gave me a sharp look but since I was evidently not a farmer or stockman, decided to give me the benefit of the doubt. I gave him my brightest smile, the one that says cute but dim.

'I just got into town and someone told me there's a merchant looking to buy antiquities. Could I speak to him please?'

'I'll let him know you're here. He's busy at the moment.' He polished the already spotless pewter of the goblet he was holding.

I did not want to force the issue so repeated the smile. 'I'll have a cup of wine while I wait then. Have one yourself.' I dropped a Mark on the counter and took the wine he poured, without waiting for change.

As I sat in a discreet corner, I saw two women come out of the parlour together; one with a smug smirk, the other trying to conceal her chagrin.

'It's a shame, dear,' the first said to her stout companion. 'Your father always swore those stones were genuine.'

The woman smoothed the blue brocade of her gown. 'The sentimental value remains. It's not as if I needed to sell like you.'

The first woman's lips narrowed. 'Times are changing, dear. There's no room for sentiment in business nowadays.'

They swept out of the street door together and I caught the barkeeper's eye as he put a flagon of wine and some goblets on a tray. He gestured to me and I headed over.

'You'd better not be wasting his time,' he warned as he opened the door for me.

'Good morning, my name's Terilla.'

I fixed on the bright smile again and looked at the three men sitting across the table in the small sun-filled room. In the centre a heavily built man in red broadcloth leant back against the wall and looked at me unsmiling. He was dark of hair and beard, his rings were heavy gold without gems and unless I was mistaken he had a knife up his left sleeve. I could not see his boots under the table but he struck me as the type to have more than one blade about him; unusual in a merchant. His companions were an ill-assorted pair; to his right sat a wiry type in rough leathers over green linen. It did not suit his sallow skin and long black hair but he did not look the kind to care. He was idly casting runes as he sat, one hand against the other, and my fingers itched. The other one looked as if he had wandered in here by mistake but he was drinking wine so he had to be part of the team. Perhaps he was an apprentice of some sort: he was certainly young enough. He was wearing sensible brown homespun, close-cropped fair hair and an earnest expression; I doubted he was carrying a blade, he looked the sort to stab himself in the leg with it.

The silence was getting awkward so I dropped the smile and opened my belt pouch.

'I just got in on the coach from Sowford. Someone said you were buying Tormalin pieces and I wondered what you might give me for this.' I put the tankard on the table.

The man in red looked at it but did not pick it up.

'Where are you heading?' The rune-caster swept up his bones and gave me a frank and friendly smile that I trusted about as much as my own.

'I'm travelling to Oakmont, to join Lord Elkith's Players.' Both places were several days' travel east and west respectively and he was welcome to try finding me later in a travelling troupe of actors. I held his gaze but out of the corner of my eye could see the quiet lad pick up the tankard and start examining it.

'Working with players must be exciting. What do you do?' He leaned forward, all interest.

Don't overdo it, pal, I thought, I don't look that fresh off the farm surely.

'I'm a singer,' I replied. That much at least was true, it's another of those skills I mentioned. Despite the shades of my mother's disapproval, I'd learned a good repertoire of ballads and some basic dance tunes for the lute.

'Will you be travelling to Col for the fair?'

The boss was looking expectantly at the lad. Was he some kind of expert? He looked rather young.

'I'm not sure.' I thought it was about time I asked some questions of my own. 'Are you looking to trade at the fair? Perhaps I should take Grandad's tankard there myself.'

I saw the shadow of concern cross the lad's freckles. He looked at his boss and something unspoken passed between them. It struck me as a pity I could not get him in a game, he'd lose his breeches with a face like that.

'It was your grandfather's? How do you come to be looking to sell it?' The boss smiled at me in what he clearly thought was encouragement. I giggled: wearing skirts does that to me nowadays.

'Oh it's mine all right,' I lied fluently. 'He gave it to me on his deathbed, for my dowry. I wouldn't sell it but you see, I need to get away from home. I want to sing but my father wants me to marry his partner's son. He's a clothier and fat and boring and only interested in wools and satins. I had to get away.'

Freckle-face's mouth was open and his expression was full of sympathy but the other two looked less impressed. Perhaps I'd laid it on a bit thick; I blame the dress. 'So how much would you give me?' 'What do you think it's worth?' The man in red leaned forward and I took a pace back, his gaze was uncomfortably piercing.

'Um, well, I'm not really sure.' Should I take a low price and get out or show them I knew its real value? 'I'll give you six Marks for it.'

'Caladhrian or Tormalin?' Either way, the offer was a joke.

'Tormalin of course,' he assured me; as if the six extra pennies would make any real difference.

'The reeve always said it was very valuable.' I looked up, wide-eyed and woebegone. 'Isn't it?'

Freckles shifted in his chair and would have spoken but Lanky in the green silenced him with a gesture. The boss sat back and ran a hand over his beard.

'It's worth what I'm willing to pay for it,' he said silkily, 'and that's six Marks, which I feel is more than generous, since I know it's stolen.'

Shit. Now I was looking to get out of there as fast as possible. Should I try and bluff it through? No point, I decided swiftly.

'Fine. Give me the coin and I'll be on my way. I've got a coach to catch.'

Lanky drew a swift pattern in some spilled wine. There was not a soul in the room beyond us four yet the bolts on the door slid shut behind me. A chill went right through me. Double shit.

'I'm sure you've got time for a little chat,' the boss said smoothly, making no move to get any money out. 'Why don't you tell us where you got this? You could tell us your real name too since we're here.'

'I got lucky in a game a few nights back. Some bloke in an inn wagered the tankard; I didn't know it was lifted.'

The skinny one poured me some wine but I ignored him. Catch me drinking with a wizard; not likely.

'Not good enough, I'm afraid.' The boss sipped his wine and wiped his beard. 'This tankard is part of a small but valuable collection belonging to a particularly unpleasant wool merchant in Hawtree. You see, we approached him but his price was too high.'

'Why did you choose this particular piece to steal?' Freckle-face could contain himself no longer and the boss scowled at the interruption. I looked at the windows but did not fancy my chances of getting out fast.

'Relax, we're not going to hurt you.' Lanky pushed the wine towards me again. That was all very well for him to say. I do not trust wizards; not at all. It's not that I believe all the ballads: the immunity to pain, the immense powers, the reading minds and so on. The few I've known have been handy with some spells but as vulnerable as anyone else to a knife in the ribs. As far as I'm concerned, wizards are dangerous because their concerns are exclusively their own. They will be looking for something, travelling somewhere, after someone to hear his news or just to find out who his father was, don't ask me why. Whatever they want, they'll walk over hot coals to do it and if you look handy, they'll lay you down and use you as a footbridge. I gave Lanky a hard stare back.

'We won't but the local Watch might have other ideas.' The boss lifted the tankard. 'He's an influential man. Catching the thief would do the Commander a lot of good.'

I was not going to reply; he had the air of a man making an opening bid and I would bet I had played in more high-stakes games than he had.

The silence lengthened. I could hear the din of the marketplace outside; traders shouting their wares, beasts neighing and carts clattering over the cobbles. Two drunks lurched past the window, giggling helplessly, their shadows falling across us all waiting, motionless. The tension grew so thick you could have stuck a spoon in it and spread it on bread. The boss was impassive, Lanky smiled and Freckles looked frankly miserable.

'Of course, we need not tell the Watch anything.' Lanky grinned and lifted the untouched goblet to me in a toast. The boss scowled at him but went on.

'You see, there are other pieces we would like to acquire whose owners are not keen to sell and I wonder if we could come to some arrangement. You clearly have talents we could use.'

Good, we were down to business. 'Why can't your tame conjuror just magic them out for you?'

'I need to know exactly where they are and to get a sight of them,' Lanky shrugged. 'Can't always be done.'

So, no problem with ethics here. That made things easier.

'What you're saying is work for you or you'll hand me over to the Watch and let them cut my hands off.' Freckles winced and I marked him down as the weak link in the chains they were trying to lock on me.

'Basically, yes.' The boss's stare was getting distinctly unfriendly.

'We'd make it worth your while,' Lanky assured me. 'You'd get a good percentage of the value.'

'Fat lot of use that'll be if I get caught.'

'I'll be able to get you out of any lock-up. Once I know you a little better, I'll be able to track you like a trail-hound.'

That was a thrilling prospect, a wizard on my tail whom I would not be able to shake off.

'What if some outraged noble sticks his sword into me to save the Watch the worry?' I challenged. 'Can you bring me back from Saedrin's lock-up too? I didn't think wizards did resurrections.'

'If you're good enough to find this,' the boss picked up my tankard again, 'you're good enough to take the time and care to not get caught.'

He laced his fingers and cracked his knuckles with a satisfied air which gave me one more reason to dislike him. 'In any case, I don't think you're in any position to argue the point, are you?'

Sadly, I had to agree. We could spend all day trading clever remarks, with Lanky playing friendly house-dog to the boss's nasty street-cur but I was not going to get out of here before they agreed to let me go, whatever wild ideas keeping me in here gave the innkeeper. I could give them a flat refusal but I did not like the idea of being handed over to the Watch. I could probably sob my way to a flogging or the pillory but what if the Commander decided to hang on to me until Turd-breath the would-be rapist got home? I kept my gambling face nailed on but I was cursing myself: that's where revenge gets you, you dozy bitch.

'All right,' I said slowly. I took the wine, drained the goblet and refilled it. That made me feel better. 'So what's your business? You're not just buying and selling with a wizard and a scholar in tow. What's so important that you have to hire a wall-crawler?'

'You need not worry about that. My name is Darni and my companions are Geris and Shivvalan.'

'Shiv, please,' Lanky smiled. 'Your name?'

'Terilla, I told you.' That was my aunt who had married a baker and grown as round as one of his loaves.

Shiv shook his head apologetically. 'You're lying again.'

That could get tiresome; I decided to think very carefully before volunteering any information about myself. Still, they had to call me something. Why not the real thing?

'I'm Livak.' I raised my goblet in an ironic toast and Shiv returned it.

Darni snorted. 'Right, we'll get you a room here. We're moving on tomorrow; in the meantime, keep yourself to yourself.'

I shook my head. 'Sorry, I'm staying at an inn back up the high road. I'll see you in the morning.'

Darni looked at me contemptuously. 'Don't ever make the mistake of thinking I'm stupid.'

'I've got luggage there and a bill to pay,' I snapped back.

'I'll go with her to collect it,' Shiv volunteered and Darni's angry colour subsided.

'While I'm out, you can decide on a proper deal for my services. I'll owe you for not ringing the Watch bell on me over the tankard but don't push it. I want half the value of everything I lift, for a start.'

Darni evidently didn't like that idea.

'Be back before dusk,' he said curtly.

Shiv unbolted the door — normally this time — and waved me through with a courtly gesture.

'So what were your plans?' Shiv sat on his solid black cob like a sack of grain as we headed out along the high road. I noted the worn gear and the droop of the tired horse's head. My hired horse on the other hand was fresh and keen; I pictured the road ahead in my mind and thought about a good spot where I could kick into a gallop and lose him. I'd wager my abilities at getting lost against his tracking skills, whatever they might be. They were welcome to my luggage at the inn; they would find no clues about me in it.

We waited for a heavily laden wagon to negotiate a rutted wallow.

'I hope we haven't inconvenienced you too much, Livak.'

That nearly did it; he was setting himself up as a handy target for my frustration.

'Were you travelling to Col for the Fair? Wouldn't thieving there risk falling foul of the local talent?'

I ignored him. A donkey began making a fuss about something behind us and, as Shiv turned, I dug my heels into my job-horse's flanks. Fresh from days in the stable, he stretched out eagerly for a gallop and I lay down on his neck to avoid the branches.

Suddenly he came to a crashing halt and I hit the ground hard; I've never managed that'relax as you fall' trick horse traders tell you about. For one awful moment I thought the horse must have put a foot in a rabbit hole; I did not want the poor beast's death on my conscience. After a moment he scrambled to his feet; I did the same. Nothing broken, thank Halcarion, but I'd be black and blue.

'Sorry about that, but I don't think Darni would be too pleased if I lost you.'

I looked up to see Shiv sitting alert on his big black steed with green light glowing round his hands.

'You bastard, I could have been killed.' I spat leaf mould.

'No, I made sure of that.' The concern in his voice sounded almost genuine. 'I don't blame you for trying, Livak,' he assured me.

'Easy for you to say.' I swore as the horse shifted and had me dancing on one foot, the other in the stirrup iron.

'Here.' Shiv caught the reins. 'Just give me your word that you won't try that again.'

'Thanks,' I said stiffly. 'All right, I'll swear.' I rattled off the standard vow to Misaen.

'I can appreciate you being annoyed at Darni dragging you into all this.' The wizard persisted in trying to be friendly. I was having none of it.

'Oh, can you really? Has he threatened you to get your co-operation? Have you had your plans completely ripped up? Are your friends going to worry themselves sick when you don't turn up as expected?'

He looked uncomfortable. 'We really do need your help.'

'Can't get rich enough? I thought wizards were supposed to keep honest with their magic. Isn't that what stops us ordinary folk from stoning you all as a flaming menace?'

'This is not about money. We're buying up special pieces for the Archmage.'

I could smell the scorching as those hot coals got closer.

'I don't want to know,' I snapped. 'I'll do a couple of jobs for your boss to even the scales, but if you come sniffing after me, you'll find trouble.'

He dropped his gaze in the face of my challenging stare. 'Fair enough. By the way, Darni is not my boss. I can overrule him if he tries to take unfair advantage.'

That could be interesting to see, a wizard's idea of unfair.

'What about the boy? Does he get a say?' Let him think he was winning me over, see what else he'd tell me.

'Geris?' Shiv laughed. 'He wouldn't dare.'

'Is he a mage or what? Is he your apprentice?'

'No, he's what you guessed, a scholar. He's from the University at Vanam, an expert on Tormalin art.'

The world can be a very small place at times; I'm from Vanam originally and I know the grim facade of the University. It's one of those places that only looks good in soft light or snow. I have no idea what the inside is like; it's strictly for the wealthy who can afford to send surplus sons and daughters off to learn Saedrin knows what useless stuff. I decided to cosy up to Geris if I got the chance and see what I could get out of him. I did not figure he would take much unpeeling.

'What about Darni, then? Is he a mage?'

'No, not really.'

'What's that supposed to mean? I thought you got born a wizard.'

'We do in so far as elemental affinity is innate, but it's not as simple as that.'

'I beg your pardon?'

Shiv had the grace to look abashed. 'Sorry. A wizard's power comes from the elements; the ability to affect an element is what makes you a wizard and that's something you're born with. It comes from within; we're still trying to establish how, and it varies in strength. Really powerful mages are quite rare in fact, and since most people only have one affinity, that limits them in any case.'

'So what about Darni?' I persisted.

'He has a double affinity which is unusual, but it's very weak. His parents live in Hadrumal; his mother cooks for one of the Halls and his father's a baker. If he'd lived anywhere else, no one would have noticed his talent. He'd just have been a chap with a knack for starting fires in difficult conditions and a better-than-usual weather sense.'

I'd never really thought about Hadrumal, fabled city of the Archmage, having cooks and bakers. It rather undermined all the tales told in lofty ballads; I wondered who did the cleaning!

'Once it was clear his talents were going nowhere, he started working for the Archmage's agents,' Shiv went on. 'This is his first mission on his own, so he's looking to prove himself on several levels.'

'What are Archmage's agents?' I exclaimed.

Shiv gave me a sideways look. 'Planir doesn't sit in a lofty tower in Hadrumal staring into a scrying bowl to get his information.'

Well, that was a cheery thought. One of the few good things about wizards is that the really dangerous ones stay safely out of the way on their lost island.

'So where do you fit in?' I eyed Shiv suspiciously.

'I am a wizard of the Seaward Hall, an adept of water with the air as my secondary focus. I am a member of the Advisory Circle to the Great Council.'

Well, that was all so much goose-grease as far as I was concerned. 'Which means?'

'It means most wizards around here will bow and scrape and do their best to find out just how close to Planir I really am. Back in Hadrumal, I'm a middling fish in a busy pond.'

The inn where all this nonsense had started came into view.

'You wait outside and I'll settle up and pack.'

Shiv shook his head. 'I'll come in. We'll eat before we head back.'

I glared at him, irritated; when I give my word, I keep it. Who knows, Misaen might really exist and I don't fancy fiery dogs chasing me through the Otherworld when I'm dead. I'm going to have to do enough fast talking to Saedrin as it is. I had wanted to see if Halice had managed to get a letter through and to leave message for her in turn.

'You're going to have to trust me sometime,' I snapped.

'I'm hungry,' Shiv said mildly.

I stalked ahead, feeling a little foolish. The tousled blonde wench behind the bar counter smiled at Shiv, who smirked back and trotted out some line calculated to appeal to that type. I left them to it and found the innkeeper tapping a cask in the cellar.

'I need to move on, so I'll pay my reckoning now. Can I leave the horse at the Running Hound?'

'Fair enough. Three Marks will cover it.'

I opened my belt-pouch and paid the man. This inn was not cheap but the landlord's determined lack of curiosity meant Halice and I had used it more than once before. Look on the bright side, I told myself, if you had got away earlier, you'd have had to leave a bad debt here which would have fouled the nest for the future.

'Have there been any messages for me?'

He shook his head.

'Saedrin's stones!' What had happened to Halice? Apart from anything else, I wanted someone I trusted to know what had happened to me.

'Can I leave a letter, and some money?' We had done this before and I knew the man could be trusted.

'Sure.'

I went to my room and packed swiftly. If it were not for the nagging worry about Halice, I would have been running my mind over all the possibilities in this unexpected turn of events. I wrote Halice a short note full of gambler's slang and private allusions and sealed an Empire Crown into the wax. It was the best I could do but I was still not happy.

'Writing to someone?' Shiv entered without knocking.

'Do I need your permission? Do you want to read it?' Being startled made me shrill.

'That's not necessary.' He flushed and turned on his heel. Interesting, I had managed to shake that irritating self-possession and I had not even been trying.

We ate in silence and rode out, Shiv kicking the cob into a trot.

'The letter was to my partner. We were supposed to meet up at that inn.' If I was stuck with this trio for the present, what with Darni's attitude and the lad's meekness, I figured I would rather have Shiv's friendly face back.

His back relaxed and he reined in until I drew level.

'Partner? Lover?' He raised an eyebrow.

I laughed. 'Strictly business. Her name's Halice.'

'So, does she… er…' he fumbled for words,'dispose of your… um… acquisitions?'

About to take offence, I realised his error. 'No, I'm not a window-cracker except in special circumstances. We play the runes.'

'I'll give you a game sometime.'

'Play with someone who can see right through the bones? Not likely!' I spoke before I could stop myself but Shiv did not take umbrage.

'If you make a living playing the runes and you work with a friend, I don't suppose the bones always fall without a little help,' he observed. 'You won't use your skills, I won't use mine. Deal?'

'Deal.' Actually the prospect was an interesting one.

'So when's your friend due?'

'Overdue already, I'm afraid. That's why I lifted that cursed cup; I was running short with the delay.'

Shiv reined to a halt. 'Would you like to know what has happened to your mate?'

I gaped at him. 'What do you mean?'

'If you've got something belonging to her, or something she's handled regularly, I should be able to find her.' I was relieved to see his smile again. 'It's part of the trail-dog act.'

'Sure.' This I had to see. I dug in my saddlebags and found Halice's preferred set of bones. 'These any good?'

'Fine.' Shiv caught the pouch as I tossed them over and turned his horse off the road.

I followed, consumed with curiosity as he dismounted next to a large puddle. He rummaged in a pocket and uncorked a small bottle of blue liquid. He squatted down and poured a few drops on to the surface of the water. I knelt beside him, wide-eyed as the puddle began to glow with a green light.

Shiv closed his eyes and grasped the runes tight; the same eerie radiance gathered round his fist and I shivered involuntarily. Magelight is what distinguishes the real from the fake and I had only seen it a few times before. I've seen a fair few more claim to be mages and it's remarkable what reasons they come up with to explain why they must suppress the outward signs of their magic. Shiv breathed deeply and the glow of the magic round his hand reached out to the pool.

'Look in the water,' he commanded, opening his eyes.

I obeyed and could not restrain an exclamation. 'That's her, that's Halice.' I stared at the image; it was like looking through thick glass, but she was clearly recognisable. I bit my lip; she was in a bed, eyes closed and hair tangled over her sweaty face. Her right leg was splinted and bandaged from hip to foot; this did not look good. Blood stained the dressings; that leg was a mess and no mistake.

'She's hurt,' Shiv observed unnecessarily. 'Can you tell where she is?'

I peered intently at the blurred image, searching for any clue, but could find none. 'It's an inn of some sort but I can't tell you where.'

Shiv drew some lines in the water, and the reflection shifted and moved. Have you ever been on a wagon looking backward when it's going at the gallop? You know the way everything gets smaller? That's as best as I can describe the way the picture changed. In a few seconds, we were looking at the outside of the inn. I breathed a sigh of relief.

'It's the Green Frog in Middle Reckin, I'd know that buttercross anywhere.' It was a good enough inn and more importantly, the small town had a reliable apothecary. Our associates, the brothers Sorgrad and Sorgren, had introduced us to him when a rather complex enterprise had left me with a gashed arm.

Shiv's brow wrinkled. 'That's on the Selerima road, isn't it? Just past Three Bridges?'

I nodded. 'Why?'

'I know someone who lives just beyond. I can ask him to make sure your friend's taken care of.'

Halice would hardly thank me for handing her over to a wizard but equally I did not think she would be too keen on dying of wound-rot or a fever.

'Could he take her some money and make sure the apothecary treats her? I'm good for it if he'll wait a while.'

Shiv nodded. 'Of course. He has some healing skills himself as well.'

I took a deep breath; this trust had to go both ways after all. I'd seen people crippled for life by breaks like that.

'Can you write to him? A carrier should be heading for Selerima today or tomorrow and could take the letter.'

'No need.' Shiv smiled and raised his arms above his head. Faint blue-green light hovered round his head and followed the breeze off down the road. His eyes were open but vacant; I waved a hand in front of them but he did not even blink, his mind leagues away. This was trust with a vengeance; I could have stuck a knife in his ribs as he stood there. Well, I could have tried, I thought; surely any wizard with a penny weight of sense would have some defence against that kind of thing. At very least, I could be mounted and lost in the trees in an instant. Let him try tracking me then.

There are times when I wish I had done just that. My mother always said curiosity would get me hanged one day. But I was intrigued by this whole set-up now, I wanted to know what was bringing together valuable antiquities, Archmage's agents and scholars from the University. I was not just a gambler; we had friends like Charoleia whose role as 'Lady Alaric the dispossessed noblewoman' had netted us handsome profits in various places. Information and especially advance knowledge of significant happenings could make me rich, and the' Archmage's involvement had to be significant, didn't it? Halice wasn't going to be going anywhere for a good while and I make a rotten nurse, so I didn't see any profit to be made from sitting and holding her hand while her leg knitted. Maybe this gamble would turn a profit after all.

The Old Tun Tavern, the Hanchet Road

East of Oakmont, 13th of For-Autumn

Casuel looked round the small room and sniffed. Adequate, he supposed, it would suffice. He stripped the soft, worn linen sheets from the bed and dumped them heedlessly in a corner. There was no sign of vermin, he was pleased to see, but it never hurt to take precautions. Examining the horsehair mattress carefully before remaking it with his own crisp linen, he sprinkled vinegar-water liberally around the bedstead.

He heard a knock and a muffled question through the door.

'I'm sorry, could you repeat that?' Casual opened up, striving to keep his voice light and to hide his disdain for the grizzled peasant bowing and scraping before him. There was no point in aggravating the fellow, after all. One has to be courteous to the lower classes, he reminded himself.

The innkeeper made a rapid comment in incomprehensible dialect to the lad holding the jug of hot water and they both stifled a grin. 'I said,' the old man went on with heavy emphasis, 'will your honour be dining in the common room tonight or do you want to hire the parlour?' There was a lascivious hint in his smile.

'We will dine alone, as is customary when travelling with a well-born young lady.' Casuel spoke slowly to emphasise the purity of his own diction. The example of a native-born Tormalin should show these rustics what a bastard garble they were making of his noble tongue, he thought with satisfaction.

'As your honour wishes.' The old man gestured the younger out of the bedroom, drawing the door closed but neglecting quite to shut it.

Casuel moved to latch it with a hiss of irritation and scowled to hear the two daring to discuss him as they clattered down the stairs.

'What do you think his business is then, Uncle? You reckon he's selling 'owt from those books and the like?'

'He won't do much trade unless he mends his manners, for all his fancy clothes. He couldn't sell garbage to a goat with that attitude.'

'So who's the lassie? Reckon he's dipping his quill there?'

'She don't look the type to me, too young, too quiet. Wouldn't fight a mouse for its cheese, that one.'

Casuel slammed the door to with a violence that made his candle flicker. He paused for a moment, deciding what he should have said to the insolent youth, then stripped off his shirt to wash away the grime of the day. Shuddering at the memory of the leagues spent crammed into a carriers' coach with Raeponin only knew what class of people, he scrutinised his white arms and rather narrow chest first, somewhat mollified at finding no flea-bites. Whisking soap to a foam with his silver-mounted brush, he lathered his face briskly.

Casuel held his polished steel mirror up, angling it to get the best light. He studied himself, drawing comfort from the aristocratic lines of his brow and jaw. The blood of Devoir still marked its sons with the faces of ancient power, he thought with returning good humour. He drew the fine steel blade down carefully, to make sure none of that noble — if no longer ennobled — blood marked his towel.

Turning to his bag for his toiletries, he looked at the modest selection of faded volumes stacked neatly on the scuffed table next to a smaller, uneven heap of parchments. His self-possession wilted a little; it would be better to have rather more to present to Usara on his return to Hadrumal, wouldn't it? He combed his wavy brown hair back thoughtfully.

A timid hand tapped at the door. 'Come in.'

Allin peered hesitantly round the door before entering.

'The inn-lady said dinner was ready to serve.' She bobbed a half-curtsey, caught herself and blushed furiously.

'I've told you, Allin, there's no need to do that.' Casuel tried to curb his impatience, not wanting to provoke another weeping fit in the girl, especially not when they were alone in his bedchamber, he with no shirt on.

'Sorry, Messire Devoir.' Allin ducked her head and smoothed her skirts unnecessarily but her voice stayed just about level, if all but inaudible.

'No need to apologise,' Casuel said in what he imagined to be a kindly tone. 'Remember, to be a mage is to command respect. You should accustom yourself to it.'

He pulled a clean shirt from his bag, frowning at the creases. 'Is your bedchamber satisfactory?'

'Oh, yes.' Allin twisted her plump hands around each other. 'Though I would be happy to sleep in the women's room, if that would suit better.'

'Your days of sharing beds with your sisters are behind you, let alone with strangers in the common dormitory.' Casuel brushed some dust from the sleeve of his coat. 'Let us go down to dinner. I'll show you the book I bought today.'

He picked up a couple of volumes and some notes.

Allin closed her mouth on whatever she had been about to say and took his arm obediently, scurrying rather to keep up with Casuel. No more than average height, he still topped her by a head or more. He smiled down at her and wondered again how much irritation he had let himself in for. Surely the girl should have been delighted at the prospect of a room to herself; she couldn't ever have had such privacy before.

He was pleasantly surprised with the parlour, which was neatly if plainly furnished. As they seated themselves at the old-fashioned table, the door opened and a fat woman swung it aside with her hips, hands occupied with a laden tray.

'Beg pardon, your honour.' The woman bobbed a perfunctory curtsey and swept Casuel's books and papers aside to make room for her burden.

'Let me do that!' Casuel snapped, snatching a precious volume away from the danger of slopping soup.

'There's broth, roast fowl, a mutton pudding, some cheese and an apple flummery,' the woman said with satisfaction. 'Eat hearty, my duck, you could do with some flesh on them shanks.'

Casuel opened his mouth but was unable to think of a dignified retort before the dame swept out again in a bustle of homespun skirts. The savoury smells from the table set his stomach clamouring with reminders about how long it had been since breakfast.

'This looks very good,' he said with some surprise.

Allin leaped to her feet and went to serve him some chicken.

'Do sit down!' Casuel snapped, immediately regretting it as her eyes filled. She ducked her face, leaving him with a view of braids neatly coiled and pinned around the top of her head.

Casuel heaved a sigh of exasperation. 'You must understand, Allin. You are mage-born, you have a rare and special talent. I understand this is all new and somewhat alarming, but I will take you back to Hadrumal with me and you can apprentice to one of the Halls. Your life has changed and for the better, believe me. I know it will take time to accustom yourself to the idea but you are no longer the disregarded youngest daughter whom everyone orders about. Now eat some supper.'

He pushed the tureen towards her and, after a long moment, Allin dabbed at her eyes with the edge of her shawl and hesitantly ladled herself some soup. They ate in awkward silence.

Allin broke it with a hesitant murmur which Casuel didn't quite catch, her Lescari accent still oafish to his ear.

'Sorry?'

'I wondered when we would be going to Hadrumal.' Allin peeped up from under her fringe.

A gust of wind rattled the shutters, and the gold embossed on the tattered spine of one of his recent acquisitions gleamed in a flicker of candlelight. Casuel's mouthful of mutton pudding suddenly tasted leaden and fatty. It was an undeniably old copy of Minrinel's Intelligencer. The notes in the margins looked interesting, but it was hardly a rare book. He pushed the mutton aside.

'I don't think it will be until after Equinox.' He spooned up flummery absently. 'I need to have something worthwhile for Usara.'

'Is he a very great mage?' Allin asked with some awe.

Casuel could not help a laugh. 'Not exactly. He's not that much older than me, and hardly what you'd call a commanding personality, he's a senior wizard in the Terrene Hall, where I study, but with a seat on the Council and rumour suggests he has the Archmage's ear from time to time.'

'And you work for him?'

'It's not as simple as that.' Casuel sipped some ale with a shudder of longing for a decent wine. 'He's probably testing me to see if I'm worth a pupillage, the opportunity of working with him on a special project.'

He nodded confidently to himself. 'I'm Tormalin-born, the earth is my element, as is his. Who better to help him research the end of the Empire? I'll wager I'll know more about the last days of the Empire than any five Council members he could name.'

'The books you bought from my father are for him?'

'That's right.' Casuel stifled the unworthy thought that the price for those undeniably desirable volumes was proving higher than he had anticipated. He had thought he was getting a bargain; after all, the man had been desperate to turn what valuables he had salvaged into solid coin before winter set in. Driven out of their Lescar home by the uncertain currents of the summer's fighting, Allin's parents were struggling to provide for their numerous brood when they had heard about the travelling scholar interested in purchasing books.

Still, once Casuel had realised that the child who was always called to light the stove was mage-born, he could hardly have left her there. Besides, having one mouth fewer to feed was as good as coin in the hand for her harried father. Especially this particular mouth, he noted, watching Allin finish the flummery with inelegant haste.

He took another drink and leaned forward, succumbing to the temptation to confide in someone.

'The problem is, I rather think I'm not the only one being sent to the mainland in connection with Usara's projects. Once he'd approached me, I made it my business to keep a weather eye on him as well as his acknowledged pupils. Various people had conversations which could have meant something or nothing, it's hard to tell.'

He poked at the cheese with his knife and sniffed it doubtfully; it looked too much like the stuff his mother used to bait traps for his peace of mind.

'I can't decide what to do for the best. It might be to my advantage to be the first back, with a modest start and some good leads, because then Usara might retain me on a more formal basis, sign me to an acknowledged pupillage. On the other hand, with the Equinox coming up, there'll be all the various fairs, people buying and selling all manner of things, scribes with stocks of random volumes and so forth. It might well be worth waiting. I could find something really impressive.'

Casuel jabbed his knife into the cheese with savage irritation and pushed his chair back abruptly, rocking the table violently.

'Though I'd probably return to find Shivvalan Ralsere had come up with the self-same thing the day before.'

'You don't seem to like him very much,' Allin ventured timidly.

'I have nothing against the man personally,' Casuel lied firmly. 'It's just that things seem to fall rather too readily into his hands. It's simply not just. Shivvalan hasn't done half the work I have but, inside three years of arriving in Hadrumal, he was rag-tagging after mages like Rafrid and even Shannet. The woman hadn't taken a pupil in ten years and all of a sudden, she lit on Shivvalan Ralsere, overlooking mages who've spent seasons putting together a proposal for study, waiting for the offer of pupillage.'

The surface of the ale in the flagon stopped slopping and gleamed in the candlelight. A sudden thought diverted Casuel from that particular set of oft-rehearsed grievances.

'You see, I rather suspect Shivvalan's being a little underhand, using his powers for his own advancement. Scrying, for example. That's what Shivvalan's supposed to be so good at.

That's what Shannet had been working on, locked away in her tower, according to all the gossip at least.'

'Will I be able to scry?' Allin's rather small eyes brightened.

'Well, mages with an affinity for water are best at scrying. Your talent is for fire, but you should be able to master it. I have.'

Allin looked up at Casuel with an awe that flattered his bruised conceit.

An unaccustomed boldness gripped him. Trying to ignore the fluttering in his belly at his own daring, Casuel reached for a dish and poured water into it.

'Let me show you.'

He rummaged in his writing case for ink, and let fall a few careful drops. Amber light flickered stubbornly around his fingers before he could raise a muddy green to dimly illuminate the water. Biting his lip Casuel concentrated on picturing Shiv's seal-ring, something he could do easily. After all, he'd worn the reverse image printed on his jawbone for long enough after that disgraceful incident at Solstice.

The recollection distracted him, and he had to start again. The fresh trails of ink eddied in the water and then Casuel had it, a blurred image of Shivvalan sitting in an inn, evidently a far better one than this pest-hole, he noted with irritation.

'That's Ralsere.'

'Who's that with him?' Allin peered into the bowl, mouth open.

Casuel frowned at the lively-looking redhead sharing the ale flagon and playing runes.

'Some Forest maid fresh from the woods and fancying her chances,' he muttered. 'She'll have a surprise if she's got plans for tonight.'

'Pardon?'

'Nothing,' Casuel said hastily. Actually, the trollop wasn't bad-looking. Why did he never meet women like that, he wondered, glancing sideways at Allin's immature, dumpy figure, her plain, round face and snub nose.

The passing surge of lust faded when he recognised a man on the far side of the room.

'Darni Fallion? What's he doing there?'

Casuel watched open-mouthed as Shivvalan crossed the room to exchange a few brief words with the mercenary before returning to the girl.

His agitation conveyed itself to the water and the vision dissolved in a confusion of mossy greens and browns. Casuel ignored it and the ink now staining the crackled glaze of the bowl.

'Who is he, that other man?'

'He's one of the Archmage's agents,' Casuel said grimly. 'This could be serious. I mean he's fairly insignificant as agents go, but if Shivvalan is travelling with Darni, that means Planir must be involved somehow.'

There was no way Casuel could let an opportunity like this slip through his fingers; he had to know what was going on.

'Wait here.'

Casuel left Allin sitting wide-eyed at the table and left the room, returning rapidly with his mirror. Moving with unaccustomed purpose, he opened the shutter and set a candle on the sill, ignoring the chill blast of the weather. Allin shivered and wrapped herself tighter in her shawl, kept quiet by the ingrained habits of her scarcely passed childhood.

Settling himself on his stool, Casuel snapped his fingers and orange fire at once lit the candle with a flame burning steadily in defiance of the wind. He angled the mirror to catch the image and it began to glow with an inner radiance of its own, reflecting a golden light back first into Casuel's intent face and then Allin's eyes as she came to peep over his shoulder at the revelations in the shiny surface.

'So where are we heading for next?' The voice of the little image sounded both tinny and muffled in the silent room.

'Who's that?' Allin whispered hesitantly.

'Geris, some irritating boy from the University at Vanam. Saedrin knows what he's doing there!'

Casuel kept his eyes fixed on the mirror where he could now see Darni clearly

'Drede, Eyhorne, then Hanchet.' Darni tapped the map by way of emphasis.

'Horn far are we taking the girl? Geris lowered his tone, looking uncertainly across the room.

Darni shrugged. 'As long as the Watch don't come looking for her, she can come as far as she's useful. A lot 'II depend on whether she can acquire that item for us or not. If she can and my contact in Hanchet comes through, we'll double back for Friern. She can earn her cut of the coin properly, greedy sow.''

'Are you sure? It'll be very risky? Geris was clearly unhappy about something, his eyes flickering between Darni and the others on the far side of the room.

Darni took a long swallow of ale before answering in a low, even tone. 'If that herbalist is right, those are books that we need and there's no way we'll get them out of Armile any other way. You heard the apothecary; he's sure the chamberlain's living in Hanchet now and will be only too pleased to give us the layout of the library in return for a little coin and the promise of revenge. You knew I've been wondering where we might find an upper-storey man without attracting too much attention.''

'What if she's caught? Geris' voice rose and Darni scowled blackly at him.

'As long as he's got someone to clap in the pillory and hang if it suits him, Lord Armile won't bother looking any further. Who's going to believe her if she starts talking about wizards hiring her light fingers?'

'I still don't like it,' Geris said defiantly.

'You don't have to like it; it's not your decision.' Darni's voice rang harshly against the metal of the mirror. 'Either she's good enough to keep out of trouble or she just has to take the runes the way they fall. Anyway, if she makes a complete pig's arse of the first job, there'll be no point taking her to Friern, will there? We'll pay her off and dump her.'

Casuel gaped at the mirror, appalled at what he was hearing. 'I don't believe it! That girl isn't just some slut with a taste for the long grass, she's a common lockpick!' He shook his head.

Once again, agitation unravelled Casuel's spell. He cursed and slammed the shutters closed against the cutting wind.

'They're planning to rob someone?' Allin looked at him, aghast.

'That's not the worst of it! Think about it, they could very well succeed! I've always suspected Shivvalan used intrigue to advance himself, and that Darni is no better than a common blade for hire. A season and a half of my painstaking work is going to be overlooked yet again because that pair have all the morals of wharf-rats!'

Casuel looked down with surprise at his hands, shaking with impotent frustration. 'Raeponin pox the pair of them!'

'What are you going to do about it?'

Casuel opened his mouth to deny any such idea but stopped, open-mouthed, staring at nothing for a moment. He coughed and took a reflective sip of ale.

'Well, if they're prepared to use such despicable tricks, I have a duty to do something about it, don't I? What if it all goes wrong? If a plot like that is traced back to a wizard and an Archmage's agent as well, the reputation of Hadrumal will be strung up on the gallows along with that red-headed bitch!'

Allin's trusting, respectful gaze spurred him on. Casuel lifted a long, thick book from his bag.

'What is that?'

'It's a set of itineraries, maps of the coach roads,' he replied with satisfaction. 'Be quiet a moment.'

It took him a few moments to locate the roads he needed, and cross-referencing wasn't easy, as he had to unfold several of the lengths of paper at the same time. Casuel cursed under his breath. Hanchet, there it was. It was a small place, wasn't it? Only really there to serve the bridges on either side as two rivers drew together, not a real town in the Tormalin sense of the word.

'You know, we could be there by the day after tomorrow, look,' he breathed at last.

He refolded the maps of the roads with trembling hands. 'No, we have to be realistic. We have no idea of whom we would need to contact, for a start. All we know is they're looking for someone who used to be chamberlain to Lord Armile.'

'If it's anything like back home, that should be enough to find him. Everyone knows everyone else's business in a village that size,' Allin said timidly.

Casuel looked at her thoughtfully. 'Local gossips would make hay with something like that, wouldn't they? I know my mother and her sewing circle would. I suppose there would be an inn where I could ask a few questions without arousing too much suspicion.'

Indignation rose in Casuel's throat and he washed it away with a long draught of ale. 'How dare Ralsere and Darni think of robbing Lord Armile? Friern's one of the few fiefdoms between here and Col where the roads don't leave coaches bogged to the axles and horses muddied to the hocks! They're some of the safest roads around too, come to that; remember those footpads we saw being pelted in the stocks outside that market-hall?'

'Yes I do!' The edge to Allin's tone surprised Casuel until he realised what value a family driven from their home by the chaos of civil war would place on the rule of law.

He stared across the room, eyes looking far beyond the lime-washed walls. After a long moment, he straightened up in his seat.

'I could make some enquiries of this chamberlain fellow, there could be no harm in that. If it turns out that Lord Armile has some of the books Usara wants, why shouldn't I approach him openly? Raeponin rewards the ready, that's what they say, isn't it?'

'Is it?' Allin looked blankly at him.

Casuel began to pace back and forth across the uneven floorboards, audacity born of long-held resentments gradually winning over his natural caution. 'I've got to bring myself to Usara's attention, I've just got to, and that means throwing the runes at a venture, doesn't it?'

He stopped, turned on his heel with a decisive air, and reached under his coat for a fat pouch of coin. 'It'll be squandering the Archmage's coin in lush coaching inns that leaves Ralsere having to steal books rather than buy them like an honest man.'

He sorted the noble coin in front of him with a sneer on his face. 'I can simply ask to look at his library and then offer a fair price for those things we're looking for. Why not? Lord Armile's sure to be a reasonable man. He's nobly born after all, even if he is just some Ensaimin hedge-lord.'

A superior smile curved Casuel's full lips. 'I don't think we need complicate matters by telling him we're wizards. I find travelling as a dealer in books is sufficient explanation.'

His smile faded a little and he frowned. 'You know, Allin, I wouldn't want you talking to anyone about this when we get to Hadrumal, not until I've had a chance to speak privately to Usara. This sort of thing could reflect very poorly on the dignity of wizardry if word got around. Obviously I have a duty to make sure action is taken to prevent Shivvalan and his associates making such a reckless design in future, but I wouldn't want it to look as if I were simply bearing tales about a fellow pupil. I'll need to choose my moment carefully. Usara's project must be important if the Archmage is involved, however peripherally, and that means it warrants co-operation rather than confrontation between mages. Do you understand?'

She nodded hastily. 'Of course. I won't say a word to anyone.'

Casuel smiled approvingly at her unquestioning obedience.

'You'll do very well in Hadrumal, my dear. You have a quick mind and the right attitude. I will make sure you get tuition at one of the best Halls.'

That should be easy enough to arrange, once he had impressed Usara, hobbled Shivvalan's horses for him and secured the proper recognition that had unaccountably eluded him for so long.

The echo of a remembered ache stirred in Casuel's jaw. There was still the question of Darni. Hadn't he been the last one left standing in one of Hadrumal's dockside inns when those sailors had challenged all comers to a free-for-all fist fight? It might be better if Usara kept his name out of things when he reported this disgraceful business to Planir. But then, how else could Casuel come to the attention of the

Archmage? He would have to give the matter some careful thought.

CHAPTER TWO

Taken from:

The Geography of the East

being a description of lands formerly provinces of the Tormalin Empire, compiled by Marol Afmoor,

Mentor and Scholar of the University of Vanam, including comprehensive recital of the principal towns, industries and wares of each.

Ensaimin

The name Ensaimin is a corruption of Einar sai Emmin,'the land of many races' in the tongue of Tormalin antiquity. The plural Einarinn is of course more familiar, being the ancient word for 'world'. Historians concerned with enlarging the reputation of that lost Empire represent it as a province held with the sure grip that characterised Tormalin rule of Dalasor, Lescar and Caladhria, but this is not the case.

In the subjugation of Caladhria, Tormalin power pushed as far as the White River, the natural boundary between the upper reaches of the Gulf of Peorle and the mountains of the Southern Spurs, the narrowest stretch of defensible terrain in that region. At this juncture, formal contact was first made between the Tormalin Empire and the Kingdom of Solura. King Soltriss, having laid claim to all lands west of the Great Forest, sent emissaries into that as yet unclaimed territory beyond. In their travels among the indigenous inhabitants, these delegates encountered diplomats from the Emperor Correl the Stalwart, who at that time was considering the annexation of lands beyond his existing boundaries.

It is indeed fortunate for those innocently dwelling on the broad plains of this fertile region that these mighty rulers each recognised the perils of attempting to expand their domains. Correl was already pushing his Cohorts north across the Dalas to possess himself of the mineral wealth of the Gidestan mountains and for his pan, Soltriss was rightly doubtful about the viability of a province that would be separated from his other domains by the impenetrable mysteries of the Great Forest. It is undeniable that the Forest Folk would have seen such encirclement as a threat and resisted with all the arcane means at their disposal.

Thus the happy land of Einar Sai Emmin accrued much benefit as trade between the Tormalin Empire and the Kingdom of Solura developed in stead of conflict. Pack-horse routes became major highways east to west, Forest Folk began to travel and trade on their own account, and both Gidestan and Soluran exploration into the Dragon's Spines brought metals and gems from the north to the sea. Even traders from the wastes of Mandarkin beyond those forbidding mountains risked the dread passes to bring furs and amber to the markets of the south.

Fiefdoms ruled by lordlings with self-bestowed titles rose, interspersed with the self-governing cities grown up around the unions of road and river and the few safe anchorages along the coast, to produce the patchwork character of modern Ensaimin. Rivalry in a land dependent on trade discouraged unification, and many scholars make a convincing case for seeing the subtle hands of both Tormalin and Soluran nobilities in this, alert to the benefits of maintaining a buffer between such mighty powers.

The Running Hound Inn

Ambafost, 14th of For-Autumn

I had some vague idea of rising at dawn and heading off at the gallop; that's what people do on quests, isn't it? Not these three. When Shiv knocked on my door, it was well past sunrise and for a good long while I had been fully dressed and half-wondering if I should make a run for it. My promise not to make a run for it only applied to the day before, as far as I was concerned. We ate a leisurely breakfast in the private parlour, Darni wading through beef and onions, beer, bread, honey, more bread and sweetcakes. I asked for porridge and ignored Darni's amusement. I like porridge, and I also like to be able to walk after a meal rather than waddle. Still, it started me thinking; these three weren't scraping by and I wondered what an Archmage's agent earned in pay and expenses.

When we finally set off, Shiv and Darni rode while I joined Geris in a neat two-horse carriage. I sat up front with him as the back was loaded with a couple of iron-banded coffers and everyone's baggage. The coffers looked interesting, and I wondered if Shiv had taken any precautions or whether a quiet session with my lockpicks might prove fruitful. I can get very curious about locked boxes. I concentrated on the road ahead; the last thing I wanted was for Darni or Shiv to notice my interest.

Geris drove well; his hands on the reins were relaxed and he spoke to his bay horses with ease. Evidently he'd been driving for years, probably since childhood, which almost certainly meant noble blood; commoners like me are lucky to get the use of a mule. I'd been on the road for a couple of years before it was worth my while even learning to ride, and I don't suppose I'd ever have learned to drive if it hadn't been essential for a swindle Halice and I had worked in Caladhria.

'They're a nicely matched pair,' I commented after a few miles of companionable silence.

'I picked them up last spring,' Geris smiled. 'They are pretty, aren't they? Still, their paces are so good I'd have bought them if one was black and the other white. I'm not bothered about a stylish shade of coat.'

I like friendly, open people like Geris; they tell you so much more than they realise. In Vanam, it's only the wealthy who can afford to be so choosy about the colour of their horses, or who have the confidence to ignore fashion for that matter. So, wealthy as well as noble, two conditions not always related. Wealthy, noble, trusting and naive; why could I not have met him on his own? A less happy thought occurred to me; perhaps he was financing this gentlefolks' tour, not the Archmage. Still, I could be less careful not to win too much off him next time we played the runes.

'Shiv tells me you're from Vanam?' I commented idly.

'Yes, that's right.'

'That's quite a coincidence. That's where I come from originally.' I gave him my warm, sisterly smile. Geris smiled back, reminding me of one of those eager Aldabreshi lapdogs.

'Whereabouts do you live? Perhaps we have acquaintance in common?'

It was quite funny to watch his brain catch up with his mouth. As a gambit for polite chit-chat, that was a fine question, but was it really what he wanted to ask a woman from whom he had bought stolen property? His face reflected his dismay as he saw the conversational pit he had just dug ahead. I was tempted to claim a handful of city notables as people I had robbed. Would that count as acquaintance?

'I doubt it.' I took pity on him. 'My mother is a housekeeper.'

'Oh, for whom?' Still not the most tactful question but this time he didn't seem to notice.

'Emys Glashale. He lives east of the river, off the Rivenroad.'

Geris shook his head. 'I don't really know that part of the city. My family live on the Ariborne.'

'Oh?' I didn't have to fake a tone of interest. The Ariborne means money, but not necessarily old money. Some very shady characters try to purchase respectability with that address.

Geris glanced at me and then concentrated on a bend in the road which was badly rutted and boggy with the recent rain. His face showed eagerness to chat was warring with instructions to be discreet, doubtless from Darni. I sat patiently and we negotiated the curve without accident. Geris looked sideways at me again, and I saw his eyes brighten as they lingered on my breeched legs. I stretched them out and leaned back in the seat, which also helped to pull my jerkin tighter over my breasts.

'There are some beautiful houses on the Ariborne,' I said wistfully. 'Have you lived there long?'

As I hoped, the social code could not let Geris ignore a lady's conversation, even one as dubiously qualified as me.

'My father built the house about ten years ago, when he—' Geris broke off and hesitated. He laughed. 'Oh well, you might as well know. My father's Judal Armiger.'

'Never!' I gaped at him. 'The Looking Glass man? That Judal?'

Geris blushed but I could see he was proud of his parentage and no wonder.

'Why are you so shy about it? Judal's the greatest actor Vanam has known in three generations!' I let my enthusiasm have full rein. 'My mother told me how he formed his own company rather than seek a wealthy patron. She says everyone was astounded. And then, to build his own playhouse rather than use the temples like everyone else, well, that was a stroke of genius.'

'He's a clever man.' Geris sat straighter on his seat as pride filled him.

'Clever hardly fits it! People are still talking about the first time he staged a Lescari romance. It made the priests livid. How did he find the nerve to go and buy in a Soluran masquerade after that, just to show them what he thought?'

I laughed; I'd seen the masqueraders as a child on a rare day out with my father and I could still picture them vividly.

'He writes his own material too,' Geris boasted. 'He's survived mockery, sabotage and imitation to set the standard by which any troupe is judged.'

That had the sound of one of Judal's own lines to me but I wasn't going to quibble. He is certainly a remarkable man. Incidentally, he has made a great deal of money.

'My mother and I queued all afternoon to see The Duke of Marker's Daughter, you know.'

Geris turned eagerly. 'Did you enjoy it? What did you think of it?'

'My mother said she'd never realised one mother putting a switch across her daughter's backside could have stopped the Lescari wars before they'd got started.' I laughed in sudden remembrance of her dry tone.

'I don't think that's entirely fair.' Geris looked more than a little put out.

'I thought the play was very fine,' I assured him. 'I really admired the way the princess stood up to them all and refused to let them rule her life, no matter what.'

Geris looked mollified so I didn't elaborate; I may have admired the stubborn Suleta as a bloody-minded girl myself, but nowadays I'd be more of my mother's opinion, unlikely though that sounds.

'Well!' I shook my head in wonder. 'So how do you come to be jaunting round with that peculiar pair?' I waved a hand at the backs of Darni and Shiv.

Geris relaxed a little. 'My mentor at the University is an expert on Tormalin Empire history, especially Nemith the Seafarer and Nemith the Reckless. Something — that is, when Planir needed someone to help with some — when he wanted to know more about that period, he contacted my master. He recommended me to Darni and Shiv.'

I hoped no one was trusting Geris with anything vital. With all his hesitations, he couldn't have been more obvious with 'I've got a secret' chalked on his back.

'Didn't you want to go into the Looking Glass?' I would have sold all my aunts and cousins for a chance like that. Well, to be honest, I would have sold my aunts and cousins for a lot less, but I still could not understand how Geris could have walked away from something so exciting.

'Not really. I could never be a player.'

Well, that was true enough.

'I got interested in history when Father was writing Vamyre the Bold. I did some writing for the stage but it wasn't very good. I liked the studying best, trying to make sense of the old sages, shrine records, chronicles from the Empire, that kind of thing. Did you know the Tormalins reckoned a generation was twenty-five years, but the Solurans say it's thirty-three; that's why tying up their histories is so difficult.'

'And your father doesn't mind?'

'Father always said that we could choose our own path; he'd had to run away from home to be able to do what he wanted and he says he vowed not to be so hard on his own children. Most of the time he manages. Anyway, I've two brothers and a sister who act, a brother who writes really well and a sister who keeps things organised, so I don't think they miss me.'

He smiled, serene, content with his lot. I wondered what a strife-free family was like.

'This must sound stupid but I never knew Judal had a family; I don't think anyone ever thinks about Judal's life off-stage.'

'He'd be delighted to hear that.' Geris urged the horses to a trot as Shiv and Darni vanished into a wooded stretch of road. 'He never wants his own repute to interfere with our lives. My mother and my younger brother and sisters can walk around town without being- recognised, and that suits her just fine.'

How many children did that make? 'She must be quite a woman.'

'She is,' Geris said proudly.

I smiled; I doubted he meant it in the way I did.

We passed a waystone and I frowned as I realised we were on the Eyhorne road.

'Where are we headed? I'd have thought you'd have been heading for Col, if you're dealing in antiquities.'

Geris' smile faded and he looked at Darni's stiff back uncertainly. I persisted.

'You must have seen an Almanac, surely? They're putting an extra day into the Equinox, you know, to keep the Calendar right. It's going to be the biggest fair in years. You could find all sorts of dealers there.'

'Of course, they use the Tormalin Calendar there, don't they?' Geris frowned. 'Didn't they add a day at the same time as the Solurans, three years ago?'

I shrugged; I did not want Geris distracted by errors in the various methods of measuring a year; keeping track of who uses which system and making sure you're working from the right Almanac is enough of a pain as it is.

'So where are we headed?'

'Oh, Drede,' Geris said absently. 'Are the Tormalins adding any days at Solstice, do you know?'

'What's in Drede?' This made no sense. Drede is the sort of place that only exists because there's only so much countryside people can take before they get an overwhelming need to build a tavern.

Geris shook himself and abandoned calendar calculations for the present. 'I'm not sure I should be talking to you about it,' he admitted.

'If I'm going to be doing a job for you there, I need as much time as possible to plan it.'

'I don't see how I can help.'

'Well, what am I supposed to be lifting? Who from? Why are these things so important?'

Geris shifted on the seat. 'It's an ink-horn,' he said finally.

'A what?'

'An ink-horn. You keep ink in it, it's made from horn.'

'Yes, I know what one is. What's so special about this one? Darni could buy a handful in Col.'

'We need this particular one. The owner won't sell so we've been wondering how to get hold of it. You came along at just the right time.' He gave me a wide-eyed smile.

Geris could keep his attempts at charm as far as I was concerned. The timing could not have been more wrong from my point of view. I was suddenly tired of this game.

'Look, either you tell me what's going on or I'm off this cart and into those woods before you can pick your nose. Try explaining that to Darni.'

He blinked at the hard edge to my tone.

'Darni said he'd tell you what you needed to know,' he pleaded.

'Geris,' I said warningly. 'I can be out of sight before you can get Darni's attention.'

'It's complicated,' he said finally.

'We've got half a day before we're anywhere near Drede and I'm a good listener, so talk.'

He sighed. 'Did I say my mentor at the University was an expert on the end of the Empire?'

I nodded. 'Yes, Nemith the Reckless's reign.'

'He collects old maps, temple ledgers, contemporary records, anything he can get his hands on. Dealers know him, and a few years ago he started picking up antiquities too, mostly things to do with scholarship — pen-cases, magnifiers, scroll-ends. Nothing very valuable, you understand, but interesting for their own sake.'

Where was this leading? I kept quiet.

'This is going to sound really peculiar.' Geris looked reluctant so I gave him a glare.

'He started having dreams. Not just ordinary dreams, but really detailed, vivid ones. He said it was like living in someone else's life and he could remember every detail once he woke up, for days afterwards. I don't suppose anything would have come of it if he hadn't been at a mentors' convocation at Solstice last winter where they all got drunk. He started talking about these peculiar dreams, and it turned out two other mentors were having the same. Now, Ornale, that's his name, was thinking he was just working too hard, his sleeping mind was getting involved in his studies. He was telling the story against himself really, but the two others were actually quite relieved to hear about it. One's a geographer who's investigating weather patterns, and the other's a metallurgist who's trying to find out just how the Empire mints purified white gold.'

Him and several thousand others, I thought. Life will get very interesting if someone rediscovers the secret of the white gold that makes Tormalin Empire coins the only unforgeable currency around

'So?' I prompted.

'Well, their studies had nothing to do with Empire history as such. The geographer was starting to wonder if he was going mad, I mean, he's a Rationalist and a real extremist; he says he doesn't even believe in the existence of the gods. The metallurgist was putting it down to too much exposure to mercury fumes. Anyway, they got talking and it soon became clear that these dreams featured people and events that Ornale recognised from his studies but that the other two had never even heard of. You see, the records about the end of the Seafarer's reign are pretty incomplete and Nemith the Reckless's reign was so short, what with the Empire falling apart around his ears, that there's virtually nothing to find. Anyway, there was a governor in Califer and Ornale, because of his studies, is just about the only person who knows anything about him, but Drissle, that's the metallurgist, he was able to tell him the name of his dogs and things like that.'

I could see why Geris would never make a playwright. I broke in as he paused for breath.

'So how do we get from weird dreams to stealing an ink-horn in Drede?'

'You see, they couldn't find anything in any sources about dreams like this. There are some temple traditions about using dreams for foretelling, but that led nowhere. There's a Gidestan legend about a man who had visions in his sleep but—'

'Geris, I don't want to know all this,' I interrupted. 'Why am I supposed to steal an ink-horn?'

He looked a little sulky and was silent for a moment, collecting his thoughts. 'They decided to see if they could find a common factor which might have some significance.'

The scholarly mind, I thought, a complete mystery to the rest of us.

'It turned out they each had a small collection of Old Empire artefacts. Drissle had a money-scale, some seal matrixes and an alchemy chest, and Marol had maps, cases and a model of Aldabreshi, showing the way the currents move through the islands and change with the seasons. It's really interesting, you see—' He bit his lip. 'I don't suppose you want to hear about that either. They found they each had one thing that they felt really attached to, that they wouldn't sell for any money. All these things dated to within a few years of each other, just before the fall of the Empire, and they all cropped up in the dreams. They decided to experiment and swapped the artefacts with each other, but once the things were out of their possession, the dreams stopped. When they had them back again, the dreams started again.'

I looked ahead, we were catching up with Darni and Shiv. 'Get to the point, Geris,' I pleaded.

'They couldn't find an explanation so they decided there must be magic involved. They asked around, and found out that one of the mages, Usara, is researching into the fall of the Empire and the founding of Hadrumal. He thinks these dreams could produce valuable information, so he's organising people to find more of these antiquities.'

'And this ink-horn is one of them?'

'It's the right period and it's the sort of small personal item we find is associated with these dreams. The real clincher is the old boy who's got it really doesn't want to sell. That's generally significant.'

'He could just be greedy, looking for a high price, like over the tankard.'

'I've been meaning to ask you about that.' Geris grew more animated and his tone rose. 'Why did you choose that particular piece? That merchant had quite a few things we were interested in; that was the really likely one but it's not the most valuable. Did you handle it for long? Did you feel anything when you took it?'

'Geris!' Darni and Shiv had halted, waiting to cross a toll-bridge. 'What did I tell you?' Geris subsided into silence as Darni rode up.

'I'll tell her what she needs to know, when she needs to know it.' He rode forward to dispute the toll with the bridge-keeper and I stared at his back with real dislike.

We crossed into Friern and I let Geris drive us on in silence. I had plenty of questions but they could wait. Friern was not the place to have a major argument with Darni which might end up with me leaving the trio. We passed a tavern, the Grey Stag, and some while later stopped at a coaching inn, also the Grey Stag, to rest the horses and eat. I really don't like places where every inn is called after the local lord's badge. Lord Armile's militia were well in evidence as usual, galloping down the road with scant regard for anyone else. Enclosing the land had gone much further than the last time I'd been down this road: things were not looking good for the peasants here, significant numbers of whom were breaking rocks at the sides of the road for the work-bread. I was glad to realise we would only be cutting across the corner of the district.

It was late afternoon when the waystones listed Drede as our next destination and the road started to climb up into the downs. When we were still a little way short, Darni called a halt under a stand of willows and we let the horses drink.

'Now, Shiv and Geris will wait here,' he instructed me curtly. 'You and I will go into Drede. I'll show you the house and you can find your way in once it gets dark. As soon as you've lifted the horn, we'll be on our way.'

'Where to?' I asked mildly.

'I know a place we can stay, a private house not an inn. We should make it by dawn if we push it. Lesser moon's at three quarters, so there'll be enough light.' He addressed this last to Geris who was clearly about to object on his horses' account.

'What's the butt's house like?'

'The what?'

'The target, the victim?'

'It's a small place, a street house near the shambles.'

'And the man?'

'He's an old eccentric, an antiquarian. He's sixty if he's a year and in poor health, must be knocking on Saedrin's door every night.'

I shook my head. 'I'll need to see it first but I can tell you, I'm not doing it at first dark.'

Darni looked angry. 'You'll do as I tell you.' 'Not if you want this piece as badly as I think you do. Even with only a lesser moon there'll be people about until it sets at least, even in a small place like Drede. It's a street house, no yard, built up against the ones either side? That's not easy. If he's an old man, he won't be a heavy sleeper and let me guess, the house is packed full of oddities, floor covered, tables and books everywhere?'

'That's right.' That earned Geris a sour look from Darni. 'I'll go in just before moonset. You lot should go right through the town and put up at the first inn on the Eyhorne road. I'll meet you at dawn and we can set off like innocent travellers, keen to get a full day on the road.' 'I think—'

Shiv cut Darni off short. 'Livak's the expert here, so we'll do it her way.'

Darni shot him a filthy look but kept quiet. Interesting, I thought.

'So, who went to see the old man when he wouldn't sell?' 'Me and Geris,' Shiv replied.

'Then Darni's right, he'd better show me the place. Let's eat now and we can go in for an evening ale.' I flashed him a smile, doing my best to keep any triumph out of it, but he wasn't impressed. Sulk all you want, I thought, no skin off my fingers.

We ate fast and left Geris and Shiv playing runes under the tree. They were going to move on a little later when the roads were quieter and Geris seemed to want to improve his game for some reason. I'd told them to try and avoid any contact with anyone. The old boy might be halfway to Saedrin's table but I bet he'd make the connection between a memorable couple like them wanting to buy his ink-horn and it walking out of its own accord. The Watch round here weren't particularly bright but there was no point in risking witnesses who could identify them and their route.

We strolled into town and I considered taking Darni's arm, mainly to annoy him, to be truthful. I decided against it; he wasn't really worth the bother. I looked around as we walked, getting my bearings as it was a while since I'd been there. Drede is a nice little town, jumbled lines of houses of the local yellow stone, roofed with neat stone slates.

'Green door,' he murmured in conversational tone, 'alley to the right and ivy on the gable.'

I looked sideways under my lashes at the place he meant, scanning it for crucial information.

'He lives downstairs pretty much, from what Shiv saw,'

Darni continued. 'You can go in through the eaves window.'

'I could just put the door in with an axe,' I offered. 'That would be quicker and make about the same amount of noise.'

Darni was about to snap something back at me but I silenced him with a gesture to the other people in the street. I was getting very tired of him and his arrogance.

'That window hasn't been opened since it was built, by the look of the cobwebs and the ivy.' I kept my tone level and reasonable. 'Trust me to know what I'm doing, Darni. Isn't that why you dragged me into this masquerade?'

We moved on to the modest little inn on the market square and shared a flagon of ale. It is not a hostelry I'll be recommending to any of my friends but, to be fair, it may have been the expression on Darni's face turning the beer sour.

The sun set and the lesser moon rose pink and gleaming in the south. I got up and Darni had the wit to follow my lead. We sauntered along the Friern road and into the darkness; I matched my steps exactly to Darni's.

'Keep going, don't look around and I'll see you at dawn.' I slipped down an alley towards the shambles and Darni walked easily on his way, his pace not altering a beat. I shook my head with mixed exasperation and admiration.

The alley smelled of old blood, fresh dung and frightened animals. Not the sort of place where any courting couples would be trying their chances, so just the sort of place for me. I worked my way round the back of the slaughteryard and up another lane. I squatted down and made myself comfortable to watch the old man's place.

The mean glow of a single candle moved about from time to time and then the front went dark. The houses on either side went through the usual routine of cooking, eating, throwing out the slops and shuttering the windows. The chimneys stopped smoking and two lads from next door on the left went down to the inn, wandering unsteadily back as the moon rode high in the sky. There was a minor disturbance when they discovered the door had been bolted against them and their mother let them in with shrill rebukes.

I sat and waited. The little town grew silent and still. Soon all I could hear were rats foraging in the middens behind me and the occasional scuffle as a hunting cat was successful. I crossed the street and moved stealthily down the alley. Woodsheds, privies and pigsties were tucked into the narrow space that divided the uneven lines of houses. The old boy's sty was vacant judging by the lack of smell, which was a relief; pigs have good hearing and more than their fair share of curiosity as well as the ability to make an ungodly row. I ducked into the shadows and studied the door and windows. Not good; the casements were as warped shut as the front ones and the ivy just as rampant too. I didn't like it but I was going to have to try the door. I knelt and studied the mud by the step; no claw marks or paw prints, no dog hair caught in the frayed wood of the door jamb. So far, so promising.

I looked closer and blessed Drianon for looking kindly on her wayward daughter. The old boy had gone to the trouble and expense of a lock. Praying that he'd abandoned bolts on the strength of it, I pulled out my picks and went to work. I can shift bolts but it's slow work at best and often noisy.

He'd paid good money, I realised as time crept on. It was a complex lock, could even have been Mountain Man work. Finally I had the last tumbler shifted and I tried the latch as slowly as I could. It moved reluctantly against rust and grime, but there were no bolts. I slipped inside and paused to get my bearings. The room was stuffy with wood smoke, urine and sour milk. Rattling breaths came from the far side of the room and the dying embers showed a hunched-up shape in a chair by the range. My Forest sight was growing used to the dark and I could see a table laden with unwashed vessels and half-eaten food, logs heaped carelessly on the floor, rags and rubbish everywhere. I approached the door to the front room, then entered another world.

Books lay everywhere but all were organised by subject and author. No dust marred their leather and the central desk bore a stack of parchment covered in neat script. A gleaming spy-glass rested on a meticulous drawing of the night sky, and the bench by the window held herbs and flowers with detailed notes on their uses and habitats. The ink-horn sat on a small table beside quills, knife and dyes. It was a beautiful thing, a pale honey-coloured horn that I could not identify, mounted in red gold, the bands chased with delicate decoration. I reached for it and hesitated. I did not want dreams from the dark ages invading my sleep and I half wished I'd stayed ignorant about the whole affair.

Coughing from the kitchen startled me and I grabbed the piece, my heart pounding. What if he was in the middle of one of these uncanny dreams? Would moving it wake him? I shoved it back on the table like a candle dripping hot wax. My heartbeat drummed in my ears as I stared at the cursed thing.

Pull yourself together, I commanded myself silently.

I drew a deep breath, carefully picked up the ink-horn and held myself motionless, waiting for any reaction next door. I heard a blanket rustle and the creaking of the chair, then the old man's breath settled back to a rhythmic rasp. His lungs sounded bad. I wondered how he would manage the winter.

I scanned the piles of books quickly while I waited for him to return to a deeper sleep. If Geris and Shiv were searching for information about the end of the Empire, there was too much here to risk losing if he died in his sleep and the local peasants cleared the place. One small stack was devoted to the last emperors of the Nemith line so I tucked them into my tunic, drawing my belt tight. Once I was sure the kitchen was calm again, I slipped out. I took the time to relock the door, ignoring my accelerating pulse and the sweat that itched between my shoulder blades. There was no way the scholar was going to miss the theft but if there was no sign of entry, with luck the Watch would dismiss him as a confused old idiot.

Satisfied with my work, I trotted through the dark streets and out along the high road, leaving Drede to its sleep. What I had trouble leaving behind was a feeling of being somehow soiled by what I had done. Yes, I know that sounds stupid for someone like me but I couldn't help picturing the wretched old man's distress at his losses. This wasn't thieving for profit, or revenge, like taking the tankard. It wasn't even stealing out of necessity from some cream-fed cat who could afford the toll. The old boy lived in his mind more than his body, and I wondered what vivid dreams of a distant age had meant to him in his straitened life as his body and senses failed with age.

'Pull yourself together, you nanny goat!' I scolded myself. 'He could be the sourest old bastard since Misaen organised the sun and moons.'

I'd tell Geris to ask some sympathetic mentor from the University down here to take care of the old boy; he did not belong in that hovel. I increased my pace and my qualms receded with the road behind me.

The sky was paling with the first hints of dawn when I reached the inn. I walked openly but silently into the yard, wondering how I was going to find the others. I need not have worried; Darni was sitting by the carriage-house door, snugly wrapped in his cloak and comfortable on a bale of straw. His eyes opened as I approached.

'Got it?'

I nodded and handed him the purse with the ink-horn. 'Have you been out all night? Are you going to be fit to ride?'

'I got enough rest. It's a skill you learn soldiering.' His mood seemed better than before.

'Any chance of something to eat before we get started?' I was tired now the night's stimulation was wearing off.

Darni handed me bread and cheese and small beer from the floor next to his straw bale and then passed me his cloak. 'You need to rest. I'll get the others moving and we'll be off as soon as the sun's up.'

I was not going to argue with this unexpected cordiality. I wrapped myself in the good wool, still warm from his body, and curled up on the straw.

CHAPTER THREE

Taken from:

The Duke of Marker's Daughter

A Tragedy in Five Acts by Awlimail Kespre

Act Two, Scene Three

The bedchamber of Suleta

[Enter Tisell.]

Suleta Tell me, tell me, does my father yet breathe?

Tisell Oh sweet mistress, he does, but one hears the rattle of Saedrin's keys in every breath he takes. The door to the Otherworld anil soon unlock to welcome that noble shade.

Suleta I cannot bear it!

TisellFor his sake, you must bear the burdens that fall so heavily on your slender shoulders.

Suleta Alas that I was ever born to such sorrow!

Tisell Curse not your birth, dearest child, but rather the faithless jade that has so besmirched her husband's bed!

Suleta Speak not so of the Queen's grace beyond these walls, Tisell, or I will not be able to save you from the lash.

Tisell I speak the truth as all men know it, my lady. Queen she may be, but trull she has proved herself and worse, she has dragged her children through the filth of the kennel with her.

Suleta Do not remind me of my cousins' grievous sufferings! The taunt of bastard will be no less cruel a lash than that which flogged their mother naked before the rabble.

Tisell You are all goodness, my chick, to think of others when you face such a choice.

Suleta What do you mean?

Tisell Has your lady mother not spoken with you? I had thought

Suleta I have not seen her since they bore my father home

[Enter Albrice, Duchess of Marlier.]

Tisell Your Grace [curtseying].

Albrice Leave us, I would be private with my daughter.

[Exit Tisell.]

Albrice Your father has not yet turned his face from this world but the surgeon tells me he will do so ere dawn. No, there is not yet time for tears, dearest child, we have not that luxury. In marrying for love, I set aside my rank as princess but with one brother dead at your father's hand and the other taken in adultery with that bitch, I am alone the living child of King Heric. Now I must answer the demands of blood and family. That blood flows pure in your veins alone, daughter, and whose sheets it stains upon your wedding night will decide the fate of this unhappy land. Their Graces of Parnilesse and Draximal have claims to the throne that would weigh equal in Raeponin's very scales. It is your hand that will tip that balance to one or the other.

Suleta I am to be portioned out like so much meat?

Albrice Speak not so saucy to me, lady! Have I raised you so wanting in wit?

Suleta Draximal is a vicious sot whom three wives have already fled in Poldrion's barque, while Parnilesse treads the lady's measure with his dancing masters nightly! You tell me I must wed one of these and say I want wit when I recoil? I tell you plainly, blood or not, royal in my veins or shed upon the thirsty soil, I will have none of this!

[Exit Suleta.]

East of Drede on the Eyhorne Road,

15th of For-Autumn

I did not expect to sleep but the next thing I knew Shiv was lifting me into the carriage and Geris was trying to arrange space for me between the baggage.

'It's all right.' I wriggled free of the cloak's folds. 'I can sit up front.'

Shiv smiled at me. 'Are you sure?'

I yawned. 'I can doze as we go, I've done it before. Ow!' The hard edge of a book dug me in the ribs and I yelped.

'What is it?' Geris looked around wildly.

'These.' I reached into my tunic and pulled out the books. 'I must have been tired to sleep on this lot!'

Shiv's eyes brightened as he saw the titles of the volumes but Darni reappeared as he was about to open the first one. He tucked them inside a linen sack and put them in this saddlebag.

'I've paid the reckoning, so let's be on our way. No one's seen Livak so let's keep it that way and leave everyone thinking we're the dyestuff traders we claim to be.'

That made sense of the locked coffers and setting a guard. I looked at Darni with the faint stirrings of respect; maybe he had hidden talents.

Geris drove off and I dozed. I can sleep anywhere as long as I feel safe, with the possible exception of the top of a carriers' coach, but this was no trouble since Geris was driving as if he had a cargo of eggs and the road was in good repair. By the time we stopped to rest the horses at noon, I was well refreshed and interested to see what the next stop on this deranged trip would be. I did not have long to wait.

We were not far short of the Eyhorne border when Darni led us off down a side road. We crested a rise to see a small knot of buildings beside a tree-fringed lake. The squat bulbous chimneys of kilns rose above the roofs of workshops and trailed plumes of dirty smoke into the blue sky.

'Darni!' A heavily built man in clay-stained shirt and breeches emerged from a low shed and waved to us. He turned and yelled across the water to a lad fishing from a low bough.

'Seyn, come here! My son will see to your horses,' he explained. 'Come on inside.'

He registered my presence and acknowledged me with a courteous nod. 'I'm Travor, welcome to my home.'

He helped Darni with the first coffer while Geris and Shiv took the second into the solid brick-built house at the centre of the cluster. I trailed on behind into a large kitchen where a pink-faced woman about my own age was kneading bread at a well-scrubbed table while a bevy of equally well-scrubbed children played around her feet on the tiled floor.

'Shiv!' Her pleasure at seeing him was obvious as she kissed him on the cheek, carefully holding her floury hands to one side. 'Hello Darni, and Geris, how are you?'

'Very well, thank you.'

'Geris!' The children swarmed round him and I saw there were five of them, ranging from a slender blonde miss who reached his waist to a determined crawler who seemed certain he could walk despite evidence to the contrary. One a year by the look of things, and from our hostess's thick waist I'd bet the potter had a firing in her kiln again. She wiped her hands on her apron.

'I'm Harna, you're very welcome.'

'Livak.' I offered my hand and she shook it.

'So, how long are you stopping?' She put the dough aside to rise under a clean cloth and turned to Darni.

'Tonight, then we'll be on our way.'

Shiv interrupted. 'We could do with a little longer, I think, Harna. Livak acquired us some books as well as the item, Darni. They could be very useful and I'd like Conall's opinion.'

Darni shot me the first sour look of the day. 'I see. We'll discuss it later,' he said in a tone which promised unpleasantness. He paused for a moment then stalked out into the yard.

Harna ignored him and looked at me more closely. 'You look tired, let me show you to your room. How about a bath?'

'That would be wonderful.' I followed her eagerly, leaving Geris sharing sugar-fruits out among the children and Shiv busying himself with bread and cold meat from the pantry.

'Everyone seems at home here,' I commented as we went up the narrow stairs.

Harna laughed. 'I've seen more of Darni in the last two seasons than I have in the last six years. I don't mind, it's for a good cause.'

I resisted the temptation to probe further.

'What are you doing with them?' She clearly had no such qualms.

'Oh, this and that.'

She nodded and let the matter drop.

'Here's your room.' Harna opened a low door into a small chamber tucked under the eaves. I breathed in the lavender scent of the spotless linen and nearly fell asleep on the spot.

'It's lovely, thank you.' It was too. The washstand had a jug and bowl of lustre ware that would have commanded top coin in Vanam, the walls were lime-washed a subtle pink and the small casement was framed by neat linen curtains.

'The bath's this way.' Harna showed me down another stair to a tiled room with a huge tub and a drain cunningly set into the floor.

'This is very fine,' I observed. She smiled.

'Travor likes to make things efficient. When you're bathing seven children, it can be like a ford on the Dalas in here.'

Seven? Drianon save me!

Travor entered with a huge kettle of steaming water. 'I'd say more like a storm on the Caladhrian Gulf myself.'

He poured the water into the tub and I looked at it greedily. 'Thank you. Are you sure I'm not taking too much hot water?'

Travor shook his head. 'The are kilns working today and I

built coppers beside them to use the heat. We can bathe you all and still have plenty over.'

He left and Harna reappeared with soft towels. 'Enjoy yourself,' she said as she closed the door.

I certainly did. There were bottles of scented oils on a shelf and I found some essence of Grassgild, one of my favourites. Soaking in the fragrant water and being able to wash my hair improved life enormously. When the water grew cool I dragged myself out reluctantly and dashed in a towel back to my chamber, where clean shirt and linen completed my transformation.

The house was quiet. I could hear the children playing somewhere off in the distance and a cart rumbled out of the yard. I stretched out on the goose-feather bed and reached into my scrip for the book I'd held back from Shiv. On the Lost Arts of Tormalin. Sounded promising, I thought.

I opened it and began to pick my way through the narrow script; it was not easy going. We all speak Tormalin in Ensaimin but it's the common tongue. This text was in the Old High dialect, the language that had held the Empire together. I frowned over the oddly accented words, trying to decipher the intonation marks over and above the lines. I yawned and rubbed my eyes. This was too hard so I contented myself with looking at the section headings: On Astronomy, On Mathematics, On Refining Ore, On Oculism, On Pharmacopoeia, On Oratory.

Not exactly intriguing. I'm not sure how soon I fell asleep but when I woke to a gentle knock on the door the sky outside the window was soft with the pink and orange of dusk.

'Livak? It's Harna. I'm just going to call them all in for dinner. Are you coming down?'

'Yes, thanks. I'll be with you in a moment.'

As I went down the stairs, I could hear Shiv and Darni in the kitchen. I waited to hear what they were saying.

'I don't like her making decisions on her own like that,' Darni was grumbling.

'Well she could hardly come and get our approval, could she? That old man was going to notice the thing had gone, wasn't he? Taking some of the books might just make the

Watch think it was a chance robbery, someone trying their luck. Recluses like that always get the reputation of being misers; I bet half the town reckon he sits on secret chests of Empire Marks. With any luck, they'll decide someone broke in and just grabbed the nearest things that might be valuable.'

'You think she thought that far ahead? Anyway, how many people in Drede would know the value of books like these?' Darni's tone was scornful.

'Who cares? She knew enough to realise these books could be useful and that's just with the half-tale Geris told her.'

'That's more than she needs to know anyway. She's a thief, remember, that's all we want her for.'

'I disagree.' Shiv's tone was calm but firm. 'She's good at stealing but she can think fast too. The more she knows, the more chance we have that she'll come up with something the rest of us might miss. Planir told us to use any means we could find.'

I grimaced in the gloom. Did I want to get any deeper into this? This was some wizards' chicanery after all. I caught a mental whiff of those hot coals I had started to forget. On the other hand, there was going to be money in this; half the value of that ink-horn would make a tidy pile of coin for a start. Information always had value too.

Darni started to speak but the opening door and a riot of children interrupted him. I stamped on the spot for a few paces then made my way loudly down the remaining stairs and joined them.

The meal was excellent and plentiful. Harna clearly had a lot of practice since, as well as our party and their seven children, she was feeding two other men, whom I gathered were Travor's journeymen in the potteries. If Ostrin ever decides to disguise himself as a mortal and go around testing hospitality like the legends say he used to, Harna won't have anything to worry about, other than the possibility of a permanent divine houseguest. The journeymen ate, thanked her and left for their own quarters, and Harna started threatening the children with bed.

'Please can we see Geris do some tricks?' the oldest girl pleaded, blue eyes wide open in appeal.

'I'd be happy to,' Geris offered.

Harna smiled. 'Just a few.' She began to clear the table while Geris proved remarkably competent at sliding coins round his fingers and making them appear out of the baby's ears. I resisted the temptation to join in and turned to Shiv.

'Are you sure those two won't gossip about their master's strange visitors over their ale?' I gestured to the door after the journeymen. 'Harna said you've been here a lot since Spring Equinox.'

Shiv shook his head as he took a long drink of Travor's excellent mead. 'They won't talk.'

'Can you be certain?' I didn't even attempt to conceal my scepticism.

'Absolutely.' There was no doubt in his voice.

Rather to my surprise, my instincts told me to trust him.

'Shiv, Shiv, can you do us an illusion?'

I stared at the boy who was asking and choked on my mead.

'Harna?'

'Oh, all right.' Harna smiled and filled a large flat bowl with water. Shiv rubbed his hands together and green magelight gathered round his fingers. My eyes must have been as round as any of the children's as I watched a pond appear, grassy banks, reeds round the fringe, lilies dotting the surface.

'Do ducks, do ducks,' one of the little ones begged. Shiv obliged with an improbably yellow bird with a tail of ducklings following her. The image nickered suddenly and the ducklings began hiding in the reeds and leaves, the mother trying in vain to round them up again.

Shiv suddenly burst out laughing. 'Harna!' he protested. I looked up to see green light flickering in her hands and amusement in her eyes.

Shiv got the ducks under control again. 'Right, that's enough. Bedtime for you lot.'

The children obeyed with remarkably little protest. Well, the trick with the ducks certainly left tales of the Eldritch

Kin looking pretty dusty as bedtime entertainment. Harna and Geris chivvied them upstairs and Darni and Shiv went out for a last check on the horses. I wondered in passing where the chests had disappeared to.

'Come into the study.' Travor rose and led me to a neatly furnished room next door. He lit the fire, laid ready and waiting, and then opened a polished cabinet and offered me a delicate ceramic cup.

'Wine? It's heathberry, we make it ourselves. Or there's some juniper liquor, or more mead.'

I've had some bad experiences with fruit wines. 'Juniper, please.'

He poured me the hefty sort of measure you only get from someone who doesn't drink the stuff himself then stole a sideways glance at a desk where a large slate lay covered in neat diagrams.

'Are you working on something? Don't let me stop you if you want to carry on with it.'

'If you don't mind.' He sat as he spoke, relieved to abandon social niceties.

'What is it?' I peered at the drawing but could make no sense of it.

'There's a new way of smelting being developed in Gidesta; the Mountain Men have come up with something called a blast furnace.' He frowned at some calculations, wiped a patch of his slate clean and started afresh.

I peered over his shoulder. 'Is Harna a mage then?' The liquor had me speaking before my brain caught up with my mouth.

'That's right.' Travor seemed unconcerned.

'So…' I could not think how to frame my next question.

He looked up and a grin relaxed his square, rather harsh features. 'So how does she come to be married to a potter in the arse-end of nowhere?' Clearly a question he was used to.

I laughed. 'Something like that.'

He shrugged and returned to his mathematics. 'She has the talents but what she really wants out of life is a good marriage, a happy home and lots of children. We met when she was travelling with another mage, we stayed in touch and when she fell for Seyn, we got married.'

I drank my juniper; it was quite beyond me.

A sudden commotion of dogs outside made Travor look up. 'I'd better go and see to the hounds.'

As he left, Shiv reappeared. 'Any problem?' I asked.

'A fox or something sniffing round the ducks.' Shiv poured himself a small measure of barley spirits and sat down with a sigh.

'So, how long are we going to be here?'

'I've sent a message to a chap called Conall who lives over in Eyhorne. He's been working with some of the early records from Hadrumal and I'd like him to take a look at those books you found. That was good thinking.'

'If you tell me what's really going on, I might be able to pick up more useful things,' I said casually. 'Unless Darni won't let you.'

Shiv laughed and ignored the bait. 'We'll probably be here for a couple of days, so make the most of the rest. We'll be heading into Dalasor next so it'll be camping and cooking on open fires not feather beds and clean linen.'

'I thought all Dalasor had to offer was grass, sheep and cattle.'

'Have you never been there?'

'I make a living gambling and moving on, Shiv.' I refilled my glass. 'There's not a lot of use me getting into a game where the minimum stake is ten goats.'

Shiv laughed again and took a sip of his drink. I looked at him in the soft lamplight and felt a warm quiver. He was quite handsome really, even allowing for the not inconsiderable glow I was feeling from the mead. I crossed the room and joined him on the settle by the fire.

'Harna was saying she's seen a lot of you since Spring Equinox. That's a long time to be away from home.'

Shiv stretched out and closed his eyes. 'It is,' he agreed, 'but Pered's very understanding.'

I blinked. 'Pered?'

A faint, fond smile curled round Shiv's lips. 'My lover. He's an illuminator for a copyist in Hadrumal. We've been together for six years now, so he's used to my being away.'

I took another drink to cover my confusion and sought wildly for a way of turning the conversation. At least I hadn't made a fool of myself.

'You're not from Hadrumal originally though, are you? Your accent's nothing like Darni's but I can't place it.'

'No, I'm from western Caladhria, the fens beyond Kevil.'

I remembered something Halice once told me; where everyone else tells jokes about Caladhrians, Caladhrians tell jokes about Kevilmen.

'Drianon! You must really have been a fish up a tree there!' My mouth was definitely running away with my brain tonight; I put down my goblet.

'What do you mean? Because I'm a mage or because I'm…' Shiv opened his eyes and gave me a wicked grin. 'How does a lady put it in Vanam nowadays? One who scents his handkerchiefs? A man who doesn't cross the dance floor? Or do you favour the more literal descriptions? Rump-rustler? Sack-arse?' he said with relish and a flash of his eyes.

Well if he wasn't bothered, why should I be? 'Both, I suppose.'

'Oh, Caladhria's not as backward as you people think.'

'Come off it,' I scoffed. 'Half the Caladhrian houses I've been to don't even have chimneys. How many people in your village used oil-lamps?'

'Rush-lights work perfectly well. Why should they change?' His serious tone nearly fooled me but I saw the glint in his eye. 'But you're right; my family did not know what to do with me. There was no unpleasantness, I just felt like a pig in a cowshed. My uncle had a cousin whose wife was able to recommend me to a mage in Kevil and he sent me off to Hadrumal.' Shiv's eyes looked inward. 'That was fifteen years ago, half a lifetime.'

I'd forgotten Caladhria was like that; if your grandmother knew a man whose brother's sons had once sold your cousin a horse, you're as good as related. It makes for a difficult place to work my sort of business but it has its good points; I've never seen children begging on the streets there. A memory struck me.

'Why've you been chatting up every serving-girl we've met, if you're — er — otherwise inclined?'

'They tend to expect it and a friendly girl can tell you useful things.'

That was fair comment; I've batted my eyelashes at enough men I've no intention of touching let alone anything more.

'Can you imagine Geris trying to spread a little charm around? Or Darni?'

I laughed at the picture. 'What about Darni? Just what is his problem? Does he have any family?'

'Oh yes. He's married to an alchemist who came to do some work for the wizards who specialise in fire magic.'

There was little to say to that. 'Oh.'

'They had their first child just after Winter Solstice and I think Darni's not too happy to be doing so much travelling at the moment.' Shiv's tone was sympathetic.

I sniffed. 'No need for him to take it out on the rest of us. So do you know Harna because she's a mage then? Is that why you stay here?'

'That, and she's Darni's cousin.'

'Isn't that awkward? I mean, if Darni couldn't be a real mage and she's…'

Shiv shook his head. 'There was a time when Darni would have given his stones for half Harna's talent, but he's moved on. Meeting Strell helped him realise there's a lot more out there than magic.'

He yawned and rubbed a hand through his hair. 'I'm for my bed. See you in the morning.'

I wondered about going up too but with my afternoon's sleep I wasn't really tired. I went to look at Travor's slate and was absorbed in trying to follow his calculations when the door opened. I jumped.

'Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you.' Geris looked apologetic.

'Never mind.' I stared in fascination at the drawing of Travor's furnace. 'Have you seen this?'

'What? Oh, yes, it's very interesting, don't you think?'

I looked up; for someone who seemed to gather any stray scrap of useless information, Geris did not sound very keen. He was standing awkwardly by the fire.

'Everything all right?' I was curious.

'Oh yes.' Geris helped himself to a large measure of the wine and blinked a little as he drank it down. It apparently gave him the courage he was seeking. 'I really wasn't sure you'd be able to get that ink-horn, you know.'

'I'm very good at what I do.' I heard an unexpected edge in my voice.

'No, I didn't mean I thought you… that is, I thought it would be impossible for anyone.' There was no mistaking his wide-eyed admiration and I hid a smile under my gambling face.

'Oh?'

'Do tell me about it,' he urged.

Maybe this was my chance to feature in one of Judal's plays, if only at second hand. 'All right.' I smiled at him and we sat on the settle.

'Well, we went to look at the house first, and then we went for an ale…' I may have exaggerated the difficulties a little and I don't suppose Darni featured much in the tale but Geris' appealing face was hard to resist.

'I think you did marvellously,' he breathed as I wound up my somewhat colourful yarn. 'We can't thank you enough.'

'Sure. You're the only one who's thanked me at all.' The realisation hit me harder than I had expected and a tremor in my voice surprised me.

'No, we're all grateful.' Geris sounded quite distressed. 'When Shiv said he couldn't get to the piece, we thought we'd have to go back without it. Darni was furious.'

'And then I walked in and solved all your problems,' I snorted. 'Darni could show a little more gratitude.'

'I'll speak to him about it,' Geris said firmly and I could not help laughing.

'Don't worry about it, I've met his type before.'

'Have you?' Geris looked eager for more tales and I obliged, flattered by his interest and enjoying the chance to boast of some of my more spectacular successes.

I wasn't too surprised when he put a friendly arm around my shoulders as I was explaining Charoleia's latest plan to separate the Relshazri authorities from some of their revenues; I snuggled encouragingly into his side. I was quite happy to let him kiss me as we compared notes on the various ale-houses in Vanam; his breath was sweet with the wine and his lips firm and dry. I don't think he had expected to end up in his bed quite so soon, nicely brought-up boy that he was, but I had been sleeping alone for quite a while and I decided I'd passed too many solitary nights. It did cross my mind that, the last time I'd mixed business and pleasure, there had been tears all round but Geris's delicate hands and eager kisses soon saw off my reservations.

He may have been naive in some ways but there had been a few lucky girls back in Vanam, if I am any judge. He was a good lover, new enough to the pastime still to treat it with an awe I found quite touching, but experienced enough to know that pleasure shared is pleasure doubled. He was sensitive and responsive, and even did his best not to just roll over and fall asleep when we were done.

'Go to sleep.' I brushed the hair from his sweaty forehead and kissed him. He tucked the crisp linen around me as we nested together like spoons. I drifted off to sleep with his soft breathing in my hair.

Hanchet Marketplace

15th of For-Autumn

Hold it, you beauty.' Casuel gritted his teeth as he hauled on the reins. The sudden shock of cobbles underfoot helped, and the horse skidded to an uncertain halt, snorting its disapproval.

'That's better.' Casuel applied the gig's brake and looked around the marketplace for the principal inn. He pursed his lips in surprised approval. 'This is an improvement on what I had imagined. And we made good time too,' he commented to Allin good-humouredly.

'This is much more comfortable than travelling by carriers' coach.' The last stage in an open carriage had given her pasty cheeks an attractive colour for a change.

Casuel glanced round, hesitating about which way to take; the tail-end of the day's market was still cluttering up what passed for a town square.

'Clear the road, mester!'

The horse shied as some peasant waved an irritated staff in their direction and Casuel was about to tell the oaf what he thought of him when he realised he had stopped, in fact, directly in front of the water-trough. He clicked his tongue and slapped the reins on the horse's rump, looking disdainfully over the head of the impatient fanners waiting to water their beasts before setting out for home. He lurched before he remembered to loosen the brake so that they could move off.

An urchin spoke up hopefully from somewhere near Casuel's knee.

'What did you say?' This mangled dialect was even thicker in these hamlets off the main coach routes, he realised with a shock.

'Hold your horse for a copper quarter, sir?'

Casuel narrowed his eyes at the lad but after a moment reached into his pocket for the coin. This was hardly Col, after all. He held up a whole penny and the youth's eyes brightened.

'Where can we get rooms and stabling for the night?'

'Over yonder at the Stag Hound.' The urchin bobbed an attempt at a bow. 'Follow me.'

Casuel directed the horse awkwardly through the bustle. 'You see, I don't have much need to drive in Hadrumal,' he explained to Allin, but she was too busy looking round. The inn yard was busy, but the sight of such a well-dressed driver soon brought an ostler to the gig's side.

'We require accommodation and livery for the night.' Casuel reached round for their bags and handed them down. 'Take these and bespeak us two chambers.'

'I can see to it, sir.' The groom clutched Allin's tattered valise to his chest, looking a little startled.

Casuel descended and grimaced as shoulder muscles unused to the demands of driving protested. He looked at the crowd growing around the water-trough and beckoned to the urchin.

'Walk the horse till he's good and cool, water him, and then bring him back here, and the penny's yours when I leave in the morning.'

Stalking a little stiffly into the inn, Casuel was satisfied he had cowed the child into obedience. Allin scrambled down awkwardly in a confusion of petticoats and followed, bumping into Casuel as he halted, taken aback to find the bar counter three deep in thirsty peasants. He hovered uncertainly for a few moments then gritted his teeth. His future could depend on what he learned here, he told himself.

'Excuse me. By your leave.' Politeness was going to get him nowhere, he realised, as an elbow caught him agonisingly in the ribs and a burly farmer shoved past him to reach for an ale.

'Service!' His unfamiliar accent rang out over the hum of the busy tap-room and he fought a blush as the suddenly silent throng stared at him.

'I would like a jug of ale, if you please.' Casuel shook the dust from the folds of his caped cloak and coughed to cover his embarrassment.

The buzz of conversation resumed around him and the innkeeper shoved a jug and cups across the bar. Casuel took a seat at the end of the counter and looked suspiciously at the oily surface of the brew. Allin examined it dubiously.

'I know. I'd have preferred wine but there's no point even asking outside the larger towns in Ensaimin.' Casuel heaved a sigh of homesickness for his neat rooms in Hadrumal or better yet, his parents' well-ordered house.

'Excuse me.' He caught at the sleeve of a maid hurrying past with a tray of bowls.

'You can order food at the kitchen door.' She tried to shake her arm free without losing her load, not even turning her head towards him.

'No, I'm looking for someone,' Casuel began.

'Try the wash-house next door,' the maid snapped, twitching her elbow out of his reach.

Casuel sipped his drink and immediately regretted it. The barkeeper was at the far end of the counter and there was no sign of the pace of business slowing.

'I'd say we've got a rat in a dog-pit's chance of managing a quiet conversation here,' he muttered to Allin.

She nodded, momentarily silenced as thirst overcame caution and she tried the ale. She screwed up her eyes and coughed.

'Do you think they might have some milk?' She blinked.

'Not drinking?' A sour smell assaulted Casuel's nostrils and he turned to see a creased and dirty little man hovering by the yard door, eyes darting from side to side.

'Not this swill,' Casuel grimaced.

The ragged man's eyes brightened and he reached for the jug.

'Not so fast.' Casuel lifted it out of reach for a moment. 'I'm trying to find someone…'

'Wash-house next door,' the old vagrant said promptly, eyes still fixed on the jug.

'What's so special about this wash-house?' Allin wondered in an undertone.

Casuel shook his head, exasperated. 'We might as well go and find out. We'll get nothing here but a night in the privy.'

He caught the barkeeper's eye and dropped some coppers on the counter, only too happy to abandon the ale to the gleeful vagabond and to leave the heaving tavern. He stood on the step and took a long breath of fresh air. Allin squeaked behind him and squeezed her way under his arm, rubbing her rear.

'Where do you suppose this wash-house is, then?'

'There's steam coming from those shutters.' Allin pointed across an alley.

'Come on. I suppose the washerwomen will know who lives where. Women always know that sort of thing, don't they? My mother generally knows the life history of anyone moving into the square before they've even unpacked their trunks.'

Allin smiled uncertainly. Casuel led the way but then hovered uncertainly by the door as he heard giggles from inside. He'd never really been at ease with women, especially not when they gathered together. He looked at Allin; perhaps she could do the talking. No, perhaps not.

Casuel squared his shoulders and went inside. He nearly stepped straight out again when he found himself facing a girl wearing an extremely low bodice over little more than a shift. She greeted him with a very frank smile.

'Can I help you?' A woman of about his mother's age looked up from a wash tub.

'I'm looking for some information.' Casuel tried to ignore the sweat beading on his forehead. Of course, it was bound to be hot in a wash-house. Obviously women working here would wear light clothing.

A smile twitched the corners of the matron's mouth. 'What kind of information would that be?'

Casuel removed his cloak, fearing sweat stains in his coat, and loosened the neck of his shirt. 'I'm trying to find a man who was once chamberlain to Lord Armile of Friern.'

'That'd be Teren, I'd say.' The speaker was a blowsy type with hard eyes and improbably russet hair loose around her shoulders. She looked past Casuel at Allin and a faint frown wrinkled her brow.

'Can you tell me where I might find him, madam?' Casuel asked with stiff politeness, gratified that this was proving so easy.

The redhead exchanged a rapid glance with the washerwoman. After a still moment, she looked at Casuel, amused. 'You know the track to the Dalasor high road?'

'I can find it,' Casuel said confidently.

'Cross the bridge beyond the coppices, carry on till the third ride on the left, there's a shrine to Poldrion next to a red-oak.'

'I'll find him there?' Casuel was puzzled.

'Fifth niche on the right, middle shelf.' The redhead laughed heartily and took a drink from a leather flask she'd been holding among the folds of her skirts. She smiled warmly at Allin.

'I'm sorry but he's dead and burned, two and a half seasons gone.' The washerwoman gave her linens a half-hearted stir with a copper stick.

Casuel nearly turned on his heel, outraged to be the butt of such tasteless humour for such women.

'It's no joke for his poor wife.' The lass with the loosely laced bodice emerged from a back room with a basket of bread and cheese which she shared around, offering some to Allin after giving her a long, considering look. 'Come in, girl, no need to wear out the step.'

A flash of inspiration struck Casuel. 'He has left a widow?'

The woman with the flask looked serious for a change. 'Poor bitch, her with five to bring up and no family closer than a three-day walk.'

'It's hard to be so far from your own at such a time.' The washerwoman's tone was sympathetic and she sighed as she chewed on her bread.

'If I cannot do business with her husband, I can at least do what I can for the poor unfortunates he has left behind,' Casuel announced loftily. 'Charity is the duty of all Rational men.'

The redhead muttered something which he didn't catch, what with her mouth full and her dialect suddenly thicker than before. The washerwoman nodded and her expression was thoughtful. Casuel ignored this irrelevance.

'Where would I find this lady?'

'You might catch her at the buttercross about now,' the younger lass volunteered, after checking for a nod from the redhead. 'She sells cheese for Mistress Dowling most days.'

Casuel nodded his thanks graciously. A thought struck him. 'How much would it cost for you to brush and sponge my cloak?'

The women exchanged a glance and the redhead suddenly hid her face in her apron with a sudden fit of coughing. The washerwoman's smile quirked again but she managed to reply civilly enough.

'Four pennies should see to it, your honour.' She smiled at Allin. 'You look like you could do with a freshening, lassie. Why not wait here while his honour's busy?'

'That would be nice.' Allin hesitated, clutching her shawl to herself.

'I'll call later.' Casuel handed over the garment and left, a little bemused by the burst of laughter he heard behind him.

He had no time to waste on the odd behaviour of laundresses, he chided himself. The market square was nearly empty now, the last few wagons either heading out along the tracks to the farms or waiting, canvases laced down, for their owners to quit the taverns which were now bright with lanterns and ringing with noise. With some distaste he picked his way between the straw, dung and fallen vegetables that littered the cobbles, heading for the neat thatched roof of the buttercross. He quickened his step as he saw several women packing up their baskets and leaving the broad stone steps to a few foraging thatch-birds.

'Excuse me, ladies.' He bowed formally and the women halted in startled surprise.

'I am looking for the Widow Teren.' He tried for a winning smile.

'Why's that, then?' one asked cautiously.

'I had business with her late husband.' Casuel decided a masterful approach was called for, since charm seemed to have little effect round here.

The women spent a long moment exchanging glances which conveyed nothing to Casuel. One of them looked round the square and the people going about their business; she nodded to her companion.

'She's with her children, round the far side.'

'Brown dress with a blue apron,' the second added. The two of them moved away, crossing over to the well where they stood in apparently idle conversation, empty baskets swinging loosely on their arms.

The widow was not hard to find as Casuel walked briskly round the buttercross. She was about his own age, thin face tired as she packed her panniers with some heels of bread and vegetables that Casuel's mother would have rejected as unfit for her pigs.

'Just sit down and stop Miri rampaging around, will you?' she snapped at a ragged little boy who was chasing pigeons with his younger sister. The child opened his mouth to protest, wisely thought better of it and grabbed the girl by her tattered skirt, plumping down his skinny behind on the lowest step.

'Shouldn't those children be in bed?' Casuel frowned, looking at the length of the shadows.

'What's it to you?' The woman did not snap at him. She simply sounded defeated, not even looking at him, pushing ineffectually at wisps of hair escaping her headscarf as she tied the little girl's apron strings.

'I'm sorry, let me introduce myself.' Casuel bowed low. 'I am Casuel Devoir. I understand you are the Widow Teren?'

'Pleased to meet you, I'm sure,' the widow replied, standing and looking at him, bemused. The children simply stared at him, mouths open.

'I had been hoping to see your husband…' Casuel halted at the sight of the numb pain on the three faces before him. 'I heard of your loss,' he went on hurriedly, 'and was hoping I might be able to assist you somehow.'

A spark of life returned to the woman's dark eyes. 'Drianon knows we could do with some help. Here.' She passed a frayed basket to Casuel and slung the yoke of her panniers over her shoulders. 'Like you said, this pair should be in bed. Walk me home and we can talk there.'

Casuel opened his mouth to protest but shut it again. He had to have that information, he told himself. If it was important to Darni, it was doubly so to him. He walked after the woman and children, awkwardly trying to hold the basket to prevent the sharp spikes of wicker damaging his clothing. To his relief, the widow soon turned down a narrow entry and knocked on the door of a neat row-house. An older child with a squalling infant in her arms opened up, using her foot to foil a determined toddler's attempt at escape.

'Get your supper and take it in the back.' The widow settled herself on a low settle near the fire and opened her bodice. The children obediently filled bowls with thick soup and helped themselves to the coarse bread, filing out through the narrow door.

'I beg your pardon, I'll wait outside while you nurse your child.' Casuel turned to go, scarlet as the baby suckled with evident enjoyment and no little noise.

'I've my family to see to and I've been up since before dawn.' The widow's voice was uncompromising. 'This is the only time I get to sit down, so talk to me now or leave.'

Casuel cleared his throat and concentrated on staring into the meagre fire.

'I understand your husband used to be in the household of Lord Armile.'

'That's right. What's it to you?'

'I am interested in doing business with his lordship, I deal in books and manuscripts. Do you happen to remember your husband ever talking about the library at Friern Lodge?'

He turned his head despite himself at hearing the widow's tired laugh.

'It was me did the telling to him, what with me dusting the cursed place every other day.'

'You were a servant too?'

'Upper housemaid, until my lord decided to turn us both out for daring to wed without his permission.' Venom thickened the woman's voice and she blinked away tears as she hushed her startled baby.

Casuel did not know what to say. Women were enough of a mystery and crying women were completely beyond him. To his intense relief, the woman shook her head after a moment and sniffed.

'What do you want to know?' she asked.

'I'm interested in works dealing with the fall of the Tormalin Empire. Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you recall anyone perhaps mentioning any books on that subject?'

The widow lifted the child, laid it over her shoulder until it belched loudly and settled it to the other breast, her face thoughtful. She reached up and unknotted her head scarf, shaking loose fine dark hair sprinkled with white at the crown. 'I think we'd get on a lot better if you stopped treating me like some lackwit, Messire whatever your name was,' she said tartly at last. 'I'd read a good number of those books myself before we were turned out, so I should imagine I can tell you what you need to know. Before I do, I'd like to know why you want to know and what that might be worth to you.'

Casuel hesitated, not wishing to antagonise such an unexpected source of information, but struggling for a reply. He opted reluctantly for as much of the truth as he dared. 'I have a customer interested in literature dealing with that period of history. If Lord Armile has any such, I could then approach him and see if he might be interested in selling. Do you remember any titles, names of authors?'

'Hoping he doesn't know the value of what he has and working your way round to it like an afterthought.' There was a hint of laughter as well as a sharp edge in the widow's voice. 'Not so honest, are you, for all your fancy graces? Not that I mind. I'll serve his lordship an ill turn if I can and glad to, Drianon rot his stones.'

Casuel opened his mouth to defend his honour then shut it again. 'What can you tell me?' He took a waxed note-tablet from a pocket.

'Let's agree a price,' the woman countered, fixing him with a stern eye that made Casuel feel about five years old. 'I want to take my children back to my own village. I need carriers' fare and the price of a cart for our belongings.'

'Will five Marks cover it? Tormalin?' Casuel reached for his money pouch.

The widow blinked. 'That would do handsomely.'

She kissed her sleeping baby's fluffy head and laid the child in a wicker crib, then to Casuel's profound relief laced her bodice, looking up at him with a smile teasing her lips. 'Bargaining prices for books not the same as haggling for horses then, is it?'

Casuel made a half-bow. 'I can drive as hard a bargain as any man, madam; my father is a pepper merchant and taught me his trade well. However he is a man of honour and has also taught me that one should offer charity, not seek advantage, when encountering widows and orphans.'

Besides, the money would put some decent clothes on their backs so the widow needn't present her family to her relations as beggars, he thought with some satisfaction.

'And you don't get drunk on holy days and you remember your mother at every shrine to Drianon, I take it.' There was more humour than irony in her voice now. 'Let me get the children to bed and then I'll tell you what I know. All I ask is you stitch that bastard up tighter than a festival fowl's arse.'

She looked at the pot over the fire and bit her lip. 'You'd better step out for something to eat; we've nothing to spare, I'm sorry.'

The third chime of the night was sounding before Casuel finally made his way back to the marketplace and the inn, elation filling him as he strode along, despite the repeating taste of a pie which he now suspected had contained horsemeat. A breeze blew a gust of warm soapy air across his path.

'Allin!' he exclaimed, remembering her with a guilty start. 'No matter; she can't have come to much grief in a wash-house.'

Nevertheless he quickened his step but was held up by a man at the door, whom it appeared, having drunk rather too much, had inexplicably decided this was the time to dispute the cost of his laundry.

'Excuse me.' Casuel pushed past to see Allin deep in conversation with the washerwoman.

'If he's taking advantage, you can stay here. Just to do the linens, nothing more. We'll look after you.'

'Evening, your honour.' The redhead greeted him loudly and stepped into his path, his cloak over her arm.

Allin scrambled to her feet, cheeks red, her hair freshly dressed with ringlets coiling in the damp air.

'Are you ready?' Casuel enquired curtly, taking his cloak and handing over a Mark. 'I think we should return to the inn. I want to make an early start tomorrow.'

The washerwoman gave Allin a rough kiss of farewell. 'You know where we are, dear.'

Casuel tutted impatiently as Allin tied her shawl about her.

'Did you find the widow?' she enquired as they picked their way back to the inn through the dim moonlight.

'I did.' His good humour returned. 'You know, this should be quite straightforward. According to her, Lord Armile barely knows what he's got on his shelves. He simply inherited the collection along with the title. I think I should find something to impress Usara, and perhaps even Planir.'

Almost as satisfying, an extra Mark had persuaded the widow to deny all knowledge of the library should anyone else come enquiring, Darni or Shiv, for instance. Casuel decided not to burden Allin with that detail.

He strode into the inn and halted on the threshold, surprised to see it as busy as before.

'Excuse me, I bespoke a room earlier.' He held up a hand to intercept the maidservant, her hair now coming loose from its pins and her apron stained with ale and food.

'Yon's the door to the stairs. Find one of the maids up there to bother.' She brushed past him, sweeping up a handful of flagons from a table as she went.

'Excuse me—' Casuel began indignantly but the girl was gone.

'Come on,' he snapped at Allin crossly and pushed through the carousing farmers to the stairs. Once upstairs he was none too pleased to find his bag shoved under a bed in a room crowded with nine others.

He went into the narrow corridor and beckoned a harassed maid with an armful of well-worn blankets.

'That's right, your honour. You in there and the lady in the women's room upstairs.'

'We bespoke two chambers,' he began indignantly.

'There's none to be had on a market day.' The woman made to push past him, annoyed when Casuel prevented her. 'There's no use kicking up about it. If you don't want the bed, I can let it five times over.'

Casuel coloured at her tone. 'Oh all right then.'

He escorted Allin up to the long garret above, relieved to find a group of clean, decently dressed farmwives already there. He returned to his own bed and dragged out his travelling bag, deciding to make some notes before he settled down.

Casuel drew a shocked breath, his grievance at the petty annoyances of the inn evaporating.

'Raeponin pox the lot of them!'

Someone had been going through his things! He shuddered with distaste at the thought of grubby sneak-thieves pawing through his linen, however slight the disturbance. He checked his various volumes, laying them on the bed, and reached down to the bottom of the bag for his packet of papers and letters. It was still sealed with his own signet but as he brought his candle closer Casuel could see the tell-tale smudges where the wax had been lifted off with a hot knife blade. He cracked the seal and sorted through his notes, hands shaking with indignation.

'Greetings.'

Casuel turned, surprised to be addressed in oddly formal Tormalin. A blond man in neat travelling clothes had taken the bed next to him.

'Good evening,' he replied curtly.

'You're a long way from home.' The stranger shook out his blankets and smiled.

What business was that of this undersized fellow? 'I travel in the course of my trade,' Casuel replied repressively.

'You deal in books, I see?' The blond man's eyes were blue and cold, despite the warmth of his smile.

'Among other things.' This curious character could answer a few questions himself, thought Casuel. 'I don't recognise your accent, where do you hail from?'

'I have travelled from Mandarkin.' The man's smile broadened. 'I find it much warmer here.'

If you're Mandarkin-born, I'm an Aldabreshi, Casuel thought. That lie might satisfy peasants who've never travelled more than ten leagues from their homes, but he had met several Mandarkin in Hadrumal and this man's accent was nothing like theirs. Something was not quite right here.

He yawned ostentatiously. 'Excuse me, I'm for my bed.'

Casuel took off his boots and breeches and got beneath the soft blankets, promising himself a thorough bathe and complete change of linen when he returned to a civilised hostelry.

'Raeponin only knows how anyone's supposed to sleep with that row going on,' he muttered to himself as the hubbub from the tap-room continued unabated.

Men in various states of drunkenness and undress began entering the room and Casuel huddled under his blankets in an attempt to isolate himself from the unsavoury gathering. The room gradually quietened, the thick darkness broken only by intermittent snores, usually interrupted by a kick from a neighbouring bed.

Surprisingly, it seemed Casuel had barely closed his eyes before the morning light was streaming through the shutters and the maid was hammering on the door to announce breakfast. He dragged himself reluctantly from the blankets, temples pounding and eyes gritty, unrefreshed after a night of unexpected and peculiar dreams. Conversations with Usara, other people he knew in Hadrumal, that scrying he'd done of Ralsere and Darni, all manner of inconsequential nonsense and memories had jumbled together, rolling over and around in his sleeping mind.

Allin soon gave up trying to engage him in conversation over breakfast and they departed shortly after in gloomy silence.

Travor's Pottery, the Drede Road,

West of Eyhorne, 16th of For-Autumn

I woke early, a little cramped, but I'm not complaining. Geris was still deeply asleep so I dropped a kiss on his tousled head and slipped out. Cold water soon had me fully awake and I began to hear movement in the rest of the house. I reached under my pillow for the book; I didn't fancy explaining why I'd held on to it. I wondered where Shiv's room was; if I could put it with the others, I felt sure he would not say a thing.

A heavy tread passed my door and I opened it a crack to see Darni's back heading for the staircase.

'So what are you doing about Conall? Do you know when he's coming?'

I couldn't hear the reply but it was clear he was talking to Shiv further down the stairs. I closed the door silently behind me and tried the next room along. It had Darni's kit in it so I moved on. Shiv's room not only had the books on the dresser but also the mysterious coffers at the end of the bed. I sniffed and rubbed a hand over my mouth.

Curiosity got Amit hanged. My mother had told me that jolly little tale for children often enough but it had never seemed to take. Caution, however, was a lesson I had learned. This was one time in my life when I wished briefly I did know more about wizards. Would Shiv have some magic woven around these boxes that would have him charging back up the stairs if I so much as touched them? Had Darni been standing guard at the inn to protect the boxes, or was that just a subterfuge to explain his presence in the yard as he waited for me?

My palms itched and I fingered my lockpicks. Saedrin's stones; what did I have to lose? It wasn't as if I was going to take anything and even if Shiv did find out and threw me out of this masquerade, which I somehow doubted, I was no worse off than I had been the day before last. He would not renege on the deal over the ink-horn and half the value of that would see me happily on a coach to Col. Sorgrad and Sorgren would be there by now and I could work with them.

I closed the door and settled myself to work on the nearest lock. It was a good piece but nothing I could not handle and I soon had it free of the hasp. I raised the lid of the coffer; it was full of neat velvet-wrapped bundles. I reached in for a handful and unrolled a couple. I let out a slow breath of mystification. There were certainly some valuable pieces in there, rings and necklaces of old gold with gems cut ten generations out of fashion, but they sat next to trinkets you could pick up for a couple of Marks: a little crystal jar with a silver lid, a chatelaine's waist-chain with keys, scissors and pomander, a needle case for the obsessed embroiderer. There were a couple of daggers, but while one was decorated with filigree and gems to an extent which made it unwieldy, the other was a plain and serviceable knife that you'd use to cut your meat and bread. Strangest of all was a broken sword. The shards of blade were lost but the deer-horn handle was as carefully wrapped as the priceless bracelet next to it. Tales of lost swords proving rights to kingship and broken blades reforged are the stuff of Lescari romances — and Lescari politics come to that — but I could not see Shiv falling for that kind of nonsense.

High-pitched voices and running feet went hammering past the door and I hurriedly replaced everything and locked up the box. The children seemed to have descended on Geris so I was able to slip downstairs under cover of the commotion. Breakfast was a chaotic meal with people coming in and out so it was a while before I realised we had been joined by a grey-haired old man with a fussy manner at odds with his serious face.

'Shiv?' I nodded an enquiring eyebrow in the newcomer's direction.

Shiv swallowed his mouthful. 'Sorry, I keep forgetting you don't know everyone yet. This is Conall.'

'Pleasure.' I shook the hand he offered.

'Conall, this is Livak. She's a gambler by rights, but she's kindly been helping us get hold of some of the more difficult pieces.'

It was better than simply being introduced as a common house-breaker, I suppose, but what was this 'kindly helping'? I let it pass.

'You had the wit to pick up some books, Geris tells me?' Conall's eyes were bright with interest.

Saedrin save me from wizards and scholars, I thought. When would I ever be able to get back to decent, ordinary folk: horse copers, swindlers, gamblers and the like?

'Can you use the study, please? I want to get on.' Harna started whatever it is that mothers of small children do all day and we retreated next door.

'Now these are very interesting.' Conall rubbed his hands together with glee. 'Heriod's Almanac. I've only seen one other copy of this version and it was badly corrupted.' He leafed through it, scanning the cramped script eagerly. 'Have you checked on the phases of the moons for the changes of season? What about the festivals — are there any clues there? Can we pinpoint the generation at all?'

'There's a D'Isellion's Annals with an appendix I haven't seen before.' Geris handed him another volume and Conall looked momentarily distressed, like an ass between two bales of hay.

'Could you have a look at this one first.' Shiv passed over a thin blue-bound volume, its pages darkened by age. I peered across the table but could barely make out the script, let alone read it. Conall frowned and took an enlarging-glass out of his pocket, humming softly as he studied the book.

He looked up with an expression of wonder. ' The Mysteries of Misaen?’

Shiv nodded. 'It seems to be a journal of some sort, an initiate's work, I think.'

Geris produced a sheaf of parchment from somewhere and began searching through it.

'There's a lot here on the farseeing,' Conall breathed. He looked up at Shiv. 'Am I reading this right? Does it say they could hear as well as see?'

'I think so. Look at the next page.'

'Here!' Geris pulled a sheet out of his notes. 'There's a reference to D'Oxire's Navigation. What do you think? Is it the one we found last winter?'

He and Conall bent over the table while Shiv and Darni watched patiently.

'Would anyone care to tell me what this is all about?' I asked acidly.

Darni opened his mouth but Shiv got in first. 'I think we can trust you.'

'Oh, yes,' Geris chimed in with a fond gaze that I found somehow disquieting.

'You see, there's rather more to this than strange dreams that might tell us more about the fall of the Tormalin Empire.'

'That's important though.' Conall raised a peremptory finger. 'We're only just beginning to piece together what really happened. So much knowledge has been lost.'

'True, and not only historical knowledge.' Shiv hesitated.

'I'm listening,' I prompted him.

'We did a lot of work in Hadrumal trying to find out why certain items were making people have these odd dreams. We don't have a spell that would command this sort of effect nowadays, but we've always known the Old Tormalins could do much that we've yet to find out how to duplicate. This looked like a good chance to do some serious investigation. We had plenty of material.'

Shiv rubbed a hand through his hair. 'I shan't bore you with the details…'

'Thank you so much,' I murmured. 'Sorry, do go on.'

'It's starting to look as if this is a whole new — or rather, ancient — form of magic.' His expression was that of a man who had just lost his inheritance on the wrong runes.

'I don't follow.'

'It's completely different from all that we nowadays know as magic. It's not based on the elements at all.'

'I'm sorry but I'm not with you.'

Shiv clicked his tongue in exasperation. 'You know magic relies on manipulating the constituent—'

'Not really, no.'

They all stared at me and I felt very uncomfortable. 'Look, I've never had anything to do with wizards,' I said defensively.

'Air, earth, fire and water.' Darni spoke up from the corner of the room. 'Wizards are born with an innate ability to comprehend and manipulate one of the elements. With training they can learn to manage the others. That's magic.'

'Well, there's more to it than that but basically, yes, that's how it works.' Shiv fixed me with a serious eye. 'But the magic surrounding these things has nothing to do with the elements at all.'

'So what is it?'

'If I knew that, I'd be in line for the Archmage's chair.'

'We know it draws on some kind of power.' Geris spoke up eagerly. 'It's stronger in some places than others, but we haven't been able to find any common factors. We're calling it aether, the source of the power, I mean. I've got a reference here…' He shuffled his notes.

Aether. A nice, impressive scholarly word meaning, if I remembered right,'thin air'. I suppose plain language would not instil the same kind of confidence.

'So what do you really know?'

'The only clues we have are fragments in Old Tormalin writings and the garbled traditions of the mystery cults.' Conall leaned forward earnestly. 'That's where I come in. I'm an initiate of Poldrion. It's a family priesthood, the shrine's on our land and the older people round here are quite devout so we've kept it up. I broke an arm last year and it festered, so I was laid up for nearly a season; I amused myself by collating all the records.'

Some people certainly know how to have a good time, I thought.

'I came across some instructions on what the priests called miracles, and I found I could actually make things happen by following them.'

'I know that sounds incredible—'

I waved a hand to silence Geris' interruption. 'No, not really. Most religion's a sham as far as I'm concerned but I've seen a few priests do things I couldn't explain. Go on, Conall.'

'Let me show you.'

The old boy was clearly dying to do his festival trick. 'Go ahead.'

He placed a candle in the centre of the table and recited a complex mouthful of gibberish. I frowned as the candle-wick began to smoulder.

'Talmia megrala eldrin fres.' He repeated himself and the flame jumped into life. I stared as it died.

'But what's to say Conall's not really mageborn and just hasn't realised it before?' I looked up at Shiv.

'You can't hide magebirth; it usually comes out in childhood.'

'You find yourself setting fire to your bedclothes or making the well overflow,' said Darni, his lack of emotion remarkable in the circumstances.

Shiv nodded. 'It'll come out somehow, even when people do their best to suppress it. Some talents appear later but the oldest age of emergence on record was still only seventeen. Conall's more than fifty. Anyway, I could tell if this was elemental. I'd feel it.'

I stared at the thin trail of smoke winding up from the candle. Something was tugging at the back of my memory.

'Do it again.'

Conall obliged and I found my lips moving along with him.

'What is it?' Geris was watching me intently.

'The rhythm,' I said slowly. 'Can't you hear it?'

I picked up a quill and tapped it out. 'One two-three, one two-three, one-two, one.'

'What are you getting at?'

I repeated the nonsense words, stressing the metre, wondering why no one else was getting it. I've always had a good ear for rhythm, having the harp in my lucky runes. The quill I was holding burst into flames.

'Shit!' I dropped it and we all gaped stupidly for a moment as it burned a scar into Harna's polished table.

'Shit!' Shiv quenched it with a brief green flash and we all began to cough on the acrid smoke of burned feather until Darni opened the window.

'All right, I'm convinced,' I said a little shakily.

'What was so important about the rhythm?' Geris was looking more than a little piqued.

'I'm not sure,' Conall said slowly, eyes narrowed in thought. 'We'd better look into it. What made you pick up on it?'

'My father was a bard,' I said reluctantly. 'I suppose I've got his ear. Anyway, a lot of the old elegies he used to sing me to sleep with had that kind of lilt.'

'Did they?' Conall was rummaging through his parchments to find a clean page and began making notes. 'What were they? Can you remember the titles?'

I shrugged. 'I've no idea. They were old Forest songs that he used to sing to me.'

Conall looked at me as if he were noticing my red hair and green eyes for the first time. 'You're Forest blood?'

'Half-blood. My father was a minstrel who came to Vanam, where he met my mother.'

'Where can we find him?' Conall poised his pen eagerly.

'Not in Vanam, that's for sure,' I said shortly. 'He stayed for a while, then went back on the road. He came back from time to time but less and less frequently. I haven't seen him since the Equinox I was nine.'

'What was his name?'

'What is this? Why do you want to know?' You learn to live without a father; this was not something I wanted to get into.

'We know so little, almost anything could be significant,' Shiv said calmly. 'We should follow this up. Forest Folk travel widely but their traditions are kept very close. They could have something the rest of us have lost over the generations.'

'If we knew your father's name, we could identify his kindred at very least.'

'Jihol,' I said curtly.

'Jihol?' Conall looked at me expectantly. 'And his epithet?'

'Sorry?'

'The descriptive part of his name. It's important if we're to find him.'

I stared at him and something stirred in the depths of my memory. 'Deer-shanks,' I said slowly. 'That's what my grandmother called him.'

Well, spat would be a more accurate description. I squashed the recollection of her contempt breaking into a rare family afternoon in the sun.

Conall was busily writing things down. Geris frowned and then smiled.

'That would make you…' He paused. 'If you're half-blood, that would make you Livak Doe-daughter.' He said this as if he was announcing my right to a Lescari throne.

'It makes me nothing of the kind,' I snapped, disliking the way this conversation was exposing my ignorance of what I suppose you could call my heritage. He looked hurt but I had no time to waste on his romantic notions.

'Let's get back to the game, Shiv. So you've found a different sort of magic, what's so important?'

'I don't know.' He spread his hands. 'It could be just a curiosity, or it could be potentially earth-shattering. We just don't know what we're dealing with and ignorance can kill.'

'What you mean is, you wizards don't like the idea of other people using magic, do you?' I sniffed. 'What's the problem? You still seem to know more about all this than anyone else.'

'But wizards can't do this sort of magic.'

'Geris!' Shiv and Darni spoke together in a rare moment of unity and Geris blushed.

'They can't?' That was an interesting throw of the bones. I looked enquiringly at Conall.

'Um, no. Even people with minimal elemental talent have proved absolutely unable to work the few things we've discovered.'

I laughed until I saw Darni's expression. They had found a new type of magic but his useless mage talents were still enough to bar him from it; what a kick in the stones. I suppose he had some excuse for acting like a dog with a sore arse at times.

'But other people can? Who can and who can't?' I was getting interested in this.

'We don't know. We can't find any common trait.' They all looked solemn and fell silent.

A question that had been nagging at the back of my mind popped its head up again.

'Does this have anything to do with why you couldn't get that ink-horn for yourselves?'

'Pardon?' Shiv was singularly unconvincing as he tried to look blank.

'You said you could get things by magic if you had seen them and knew where they were, Shiv. You and Geris had visited the old man, so why did you need me?'

'You said she was sharp!' Conall laughed and I threw him a quick grin.

'There does seem to be a conflict with the two sorts of magic,' Shiv admitted. 'It's not always the case, but certainly, over really strongly enchanted items like the ink-horn, I can have real problems.'

Geris opened his mouth to elaborate but I waved him to silence.

'So now I know all this, how about telling me where we're going and what we're doing? The more I know, the more I can help.'

Darni looked as if he was going to object but decided to go with the run of the runes. He pulled out a map from Geris' now chaotic heap of parchment and spread it on the table.

'We're going through Eyhorne and up the high road to Dalasor. There's a man I need to see in Hanchet; he may have some information we can follow up. What we do next depends on how that goes. I certainly want to head for Inglis before winter. There's a merchant from there who outbid us on a piece we're particularly interested in, and I want it back. That's where you come in.'

I looked at the map and estimated the distance involved and the time it would take.

'Are you serious?' I asked incredulously.

'Absolutely.' Darni's tone was flat and hard.

So no chance of the Autumn Fair at Col this year. Oh well, if this was important enough for the Archmage to send people clear across the Old Empire, who was I to argue? I could keep quiet and wait for my coin. I wondered about trying to negotiate a daily rate.

I looked at the map again. 'What about Caladhria? There must be plenty of nobles with nice trinkets in there?' Caladhria was a lot closer and has nice things like real roads and inns and baths which Dalasor is notoriously short on.

'That's in hand,' Conall assured me. 'I've been working as an enclosure commissioner there for some years and I've got plenty of contacts.'

I'd bet he had, given the Caladhrian love of bureaucracy. A ruling council made up of the top five hundred nobles keeps ink- and parchment-makers in luxury there. It's always amazed me they ever managed to come up with the idea of enclosing the land but then, when you realise how much it's done to improve their stock-breeding, it becomes clearer. Have you ever known an aristocrat miss a chance to make more coin?

'So we're off to the delights of Dalasor; as much grass as you can eat and sheep as far as the eye can see.' Shiv clearly welcomed the prospect as much as me.

'Conall, it's market day in Eyhorne, isn't it?' Darni looked at me with a measuring eye. 'We'd better try and get you your own horse. I don't want to waste too much time crossing Dalasor, so we'll buy some remounts as well. Come on.'

We left Geris and Conall to peer excitedly at blurred ink, and Shiv to his efforts to restore Harna's table-top. Muttered curses were an essential part of both processes.

Eyhorne was not a long ride and the market was in full swing when we arrived. When it came to bargaining, Darni's 'cross me and I'll rip your arms and legs off expression proved a real bonus and we soon picked up a sturdy-looking mule, cooking gear, blankets and tents. Darni clearly knew exactly what he was looking for, as much an expert in his field, literally in this case, as I am in mine. I relaxed and amused myself watching the local pickpockets at work.

'So what do you like in a horse?' Darni led the way confidently to the pens.

'No teeth and an inability to kick?'

He looked at me curiously. 'You do ride?'

'Hire-horses, as and when necessary.'

'So we needn't bid for that?' He pointed to a pen where a black and white brute seemed to be doing its best to eat the auctioneer's assistants.

'Not on my account,' I said fervently.

Darni looked at the vicious beast with faint longing. 'Shame; I'd like to get my hands on one of those Gidestan types.'

For my personal horse we eventually settled on a nicely behaved gelding with a coppery coat and kind eyes. We also found remounts for all of us and a spare carriage horse. The final price made me blink, but Darni paid up without visible pain.

'Time of year,' he commented as we saddled up and prepared to leave the town. 'It's a sellers' market at the moment.'

'Is he part of my payment or what?' I rubbed the horse's silky shoulder.

Darni shook his head. 'Call it a bonus. Planir can afford it.'

I started to wonder again about a longer-term association with the Archmage's agents.

We left the next morning and headed north. Darni set a brisk pace and I found myself enjoying riding a well-bred, well-schooled horse for a change.

'So, what are you calling him?' Geris asked as we waited our turn at a ford.

'What? Oh, I don't know.'

'He's got a noble head; how about Kycir?'

I laughed. 'Geris, it's a horse! You sit on it and it gets you places faster than walking. Anyway, why should I land it with a name like that?'

'What's wrong with it? He was the last undisputed King of Lescar.'

'He was also a complete plank!'

'He was a hero!'

'He died in a duel defending his wife's honour and when they went to tell her they found her in bed with his brother!'

'Kycir died believing in her!'

'He was the last one who did. That heroic tale left Lescar ten generations of civil war!'

We bickered away happily and, when we finally worked our way back to the horse, we settled on Russet as a name.

We travelled on for several days without incident to that stretch of heath between Eyhorne and Hanchet which runs up against the Caladhrian border. There was a slightly awkward moment when Darni realised Geris was planning to share my tent and hauled him off into the trees, supposedly to collect firewood.

'I'll get some water.' I casually picked up the kettle.

'Of course you will.' Shiv did not look up from the meat he was spitting.

I grinned at Shiv and moved quietly into the woods. Darni was ringing the curfew over Geris and no mistake.

'And how is she going to be climbing into attics with a two-season belly on her? Had you thought of that?' he hissed.

Geris mumbled something indistinct. Should I tell Darni I had thought of just such an event and taken appropriate action? No, it was none of his business. Let him ask me himself if he had the stones for it.

His voice rose in exasperation. 'Look, I don't care if you two are playing stuff the chicken ten times a night—'

I winced at the smack of fist on flesh and judged it time to leave. Darni and Geris appeared a little while later, carrying a good supply of firewood, which was something of a surprise. Nothing was said, I didn't ask and the evening continued in good enough humour so I suppose they must have sorted themselves out. I sighed a regret for the simple life of working with other women.

We made Hanchet a couple of days after that, just as the lesser moon passed the full and the greater waxed to three quarters. I for one was looking forward to a real bed and a bath. Unfortunately, Hanchet proved a disappointment in more ways than one. It's low-lying so most of the houses are wooden-framed withy and daub; the recent rain made the whole place thick with mud and stagnant-smelling. The bridge up the road had been washed out in an earlier storm and the town was full of travellers and traders waiting for it to be repaired. Even the Archmage's coin could not get us rooms anywhere decent and I was forced to renew my acquaintance with the various wildlife that thrive in cheap hostel beds. Our inn had no baths and, given the tension in the town, I didn't fancy the wash-house over the way, which had far too many 'laundresses' hanging round it. Hanchet's current ruler is a dry old maid who inherited unexpectedly and who has a particularly censorious attitude towards commercial sex. All the brothels had been cleared, but her ladyship had not yet caught on to the reason for the sudden boom in places to get your clothes and your body washed, if you get my drift.

Next morning Darni left us sitting over indifferent ale and worse food in the tap-room and went to find his contact. He returned unexpectedly fast with an expression that would have soured wine.

'Trouble?' Shiv pushed the jug towards him as he seated himself with a sigh.

'He's dead.' Darni scowled into his ale and fished something out.

'How?' Gens' eyes were wide with concern.

'Abscess. The surgeon pulled the tooth, but it was too late. The poison was in his blood and two days later…' Darni shrugged.

I ran my tongue round my own teeth, grateful to my mother for the gap I had there. I'd bet the others were doing the same; it's a story we've all heard, after all. I frowned at Geris, who was looking inappropriately cheerful, and he blushed and ducked his head.

'Did he leave any word, anything for you?' Shiv asked hesitantly. 'Your letter…'

Darni shook his head. 'Not that I can find out. The widow's sold up and gone back to her own family. You can't blame her, he's left her with five to bring up.'

He glowered at his ale and went off to start an argument with the potman about it.

'So who was this man? What was Darni hoping to get from him?' I asked, curiosity pricking my neck.

'It's not important.' Shiv managed to combine smiling at me with a warning glance at Geris.

So that was that. I let it go; if there was no information and as a result no risky job for me, they could keep their little secrets if it made them feel important. Still, distracted men make poor gamblers. I took my runes out and smiled cheerfully at them both.

At least we could leave muddy Hanchet and, although we had to make a long detour to the next bridge, we were still in Dalasor before the full dark of the night.

CHAPTER FOUR

Taken from:

Thoughts on the Races of Antiquity

Presented to the Antiquarian Society of Selerima by Weral Tandri

I am sure, gentlemen, that, as children, you and I were entertained and on occasion chastised by our nurses with tales of the Eldritch Folk. Did any of you lose a fallen tooth, as I did, and lie awake that night, afraid lest some little blue man step out of a shadow and demand one from my mouth in place of his rightful offering? We can all laugh now and, as grown men of learning, we might feel such subjects too trivial for consideration. I will not argue with those who do so, but I have chosen to search for whatever seeds of truth may have nourished such flowers of children's fancy.

With the increasing popularity of antiquarian studies among gentlemen of breeding and fortune, several Eldritch rings have been excavated in recent years. Some fascinating discoveries have been made; from their bones, we learn these people were indeed shorter than modern men by some hands-widths. A warrior found buried on Lord Edrin's lands near Ferring Gap was found to have black hair and possibly swarthy skin, although this may have been a result of the remarkable preservation of his remains in ground akin to a bog before drainage allowed cultivation. Tales of little dark men do not seem so very far from the truth.

The Shadow-men were said to ride upon the wind. Well, a ring opened in Dalasor last spring found a woman of rank, by her garments, buried with six horses, bones all draped with the remains of richly ornamented harnesses. More workaday effects included tents, quilts, distaffs, a quern and a brazier, but there was no sign of any wheeled conveyance; indeed none such has ever been found even depicted in Eldritch art. Consider the vast windswept plains of Dalasor even today, and it is not so hard to imagine a race of people living and travelling with those herds of horses that we know once roamed the lands.

Gentlemen, the time has surely come to gather and examine the evidence in a more scientific manner. Our ancestors, in their ignorance, could not see beyond conflict with the ancient races of wood and mountain. Consider, however, the benefits accrued now that miners of Gidesta work with the Mountain Men of the Dragon's Spines; the very knives you use at table benefit from skills and techniques lost to our smiths for generations. When the Crusted Pox struck Hecksen last winter, their apothecaries could soothe and save many sufferers with simples learned from their commerce with the Forest Folk.

Our tales for children credit the Eldritch Folk with many miraculous powers but, alas, they have left no descendants in modern times. Their burials and artefacts are all we have to study, so I am here today to ask for your co-operation and yes, it is true, your coin. If we can establish a proper programme of study, we can add inestimably to our knowledge of antiquity and may even discover lost marvels to benefit ourselves and generations yet to come.

The South Road, Dalasor

38th of For-Autumn

I shivered as I stood looking across the grasslands early in the morning. The grass was damp with dew and silvered with icy fingers wherever the few scrawny trees gave shelter.

'Cold?' Geris opened his arm and I stepped inside his cloak gratefully.

'How long is it to Equinox?' I frowned. 'Isn't it a bit early for frost?'

Geris pursed his lips as he rummaged in a small trunk, typically emerging with three assorted Almanacs. The rest of us make do with one to a household, if we're lucky.

He flipped over the pages and compared the charts of the waxing and waning moons.

'It's five days if there's no lesser moon tonight,' he said finally. 'We've come a long way north, don't forget.'

I dug out my own cloak. 'So we won't get to Inglis until we're into Aft-Autumn then. Have you got an Almanac covering Inglis? What'll be going on?'

Geris consulted one of the other books but shook his head after a moment. 'It's all guild business, fixing prenticeships and the like.'

That tweaked my curiosity and I was about to ask for a look when Darni called us over to get mounted. As we moved out, I decided I really didn't like Dalasor. Among other things, there's almost no cover and that makes me seriously uncomfortable. I always like to have a discreet route out of any situation but out here you could be seen for leagues. As we rode, I found my back prickling like a child who's convinced there's a monster in the well-house or the privy.

We reached a turning off the high road and I was surprised to see Darni take it. I kicked the horse, sorry, Russet, into a canter and caught up with him.

'Aren't we going to take the river? I thought that's the fastest way to reach the coast.'

Darni shook his head. 'All the miners and trappers will be coming out of Gidesta at the moment; winter comes early to the mountains. The boats will be full of them and they're rough company at the best of times. I want to steer clear of trouble.'

'Oh, oh well.' I tried to hide my disappointment.

Darni grinned at me. 'Looking forward to a game, were you?'

'They say you can make a killing on the bigger boats if you manage to get out without a knife in your back,' I allowed.

'Sorry. You'll have to try and win a few head of cattle off some herders instead.'

It was all very well for Darni to laugh but, a few days later, I did manage to win us half a beef and a load of fodder when we stopped to spend the night with some drovers taking beasts south for slaughter. I slept well despite the noise of the cattle shifting around us but that was my last decent night.

'You're very jumpy,' Darni observed neutrally as we crossed yet another featureless stretch of plain and I kept looking over my shoulder.

'I'm not used to being so conspicuous,' I admitted. 'The sooner I feel cobbles under my feet and can see a wall to hide behind, the happier I'll be.'

He smiled broadly and took a deep breath of the bracing air. 'I like it up here.'

'Well, I don't. I know this sounds daft but I'm sure I'm being watched.'

Darni considered this. 'Maybe we should ditch the last of that meat. We might have some wolves on our tail, I suppose. There are a lot of animals and birds up here, haven't you seen them? Aren't you Forest Folk supposed to be sensitive to animals?'

I shrugged. 'I've no idea. I don't tend to notice dogs unless they're biting my leg. All I know is I've got crawlers running up and down my spine.'

'Sure you didn't bring them with you from Hanchet?'

It was all very well for him to joke but I was serious. I went to help Shiv when we stopped to eat, trimming the meat while he lit the fire. Wizards do save you a lot on tinder and flint.

'Do you have to look for something specific when you're scrying, like you did with Halice?' I asked casually. 'Or can you just have a general look around?'

Shiv nodded. 'Why do you ask?'

'This may sound stupid but I can't shake the feeling we're being watched. Darni thinks I'm just getting the creeps from the local wildlife but I don't think that's it.'

'You're sure?'

'Certain.' I realised just how certain as I spoke, and Shiv heard it in my voice.

'That's good enough for me. I'll check back along our trail if you like.'

He took out his oils and worked his spells and we all gathered round to look into the fascinating images he drew out of the water. He found the herdsmen we had met and we watched as they forded a stream, tiny horns nodding as the cattle plunged through the water.

'All right, let's work backwards,' Shiv breathed.

The image sped along and I wondered if this is how the land looks to a bird, a tapestry of green and brown, laced with glinting waters, dotted with the darker green of trees and spotted with the last flowers of summer. My stomach lurched as the ground fell away down a valley.

We saw a few deer racing across the plain with lithe grey shapes in pursuit, their passage startling a bevy of fowl into the air. A raven was picking at the remains of a wild horse come to grief in a gully but, other than that, we saw no signs of life. Shiv brought the image back to us.

'Nothing you wouldn't expect to see,' Darni said as the picture showed four figures, bent heads together while the horses grazed. I blinked as the image dissolved in a dizzying spiral.

'I looked all around, not just on our trail,' Shiv agreed. 'There's nothing out there.'

I shook my head. 'I must be imagining it,' I said reluctantly.

'We'll try to find better cover when we camp,' Geris said comfortingly but I saw a gleam in his eye. Oh well, I thought, nothing works like good sex to give you a decent night's sleep, not an unpleasant prospect. I winked at him and stifled a smile when I caught Darni's expression.

'I know a place we can use.' Darni pushed on the pace and by late afternoon I realised he was heading for an earthwork that rose out of the grassland ahead like a small, flat-topped hill.

'Isn't that an Eldritch ring?' I gaped at him. 'Is that where you're planning to camp?'

'That's right.' His eyes challenged me. 'What's the matter? Frightened that shadow-blue men will step out of a rainbow and shoot you full of little green arrows?'

'They're copper, you know, Eldritch arrows,' Geris piped up. 'All their metalwork was.'

His flow of inconsequential information covered the fact that I was at a loss for words and I was able to keep a level face as we found the way through the ramparts of turf and made our camp.

After all, the Eldritch kin are just tales for children and, while those with their feet still in cow dung might believe in them, we more sophisticated city types are above such things. That's what I kept telling myself anyway, sounding about as convincing as a huckster selling baldness cures.

'They were real people, you know,' Geris said helpfully as we unpacked and I had just about got myself persuaded that I really should ignore such childish worries.

'What, little grey men who can step into shadows?' I managed a shaky laugh.

'No,' he said seriously. 'But people lived here and in places like this. One mentor took his students to dig up a ring near Borleat. They found a man buried in a boat with treasure all around him.'

'You're joking!' I frowned. 'That's a long way from navigable water. You can't get barges any higher than Tresig, can you?'

'Maybe they used to be able to. There are dry wharves nearby, aren't there?'

Shiv came over at this point. 'It's nearly Equinox.' He pointed at the last faint sickle of the greater moon. 'Is it anyone's birth festival?'

Geris shook his head. 'I'm a For-Winter baby.'

'Darni and I are Aft-Autumn.' Shiv shrugged. 'Oh well, I expect we can come up with something to drink to.'

'Er, well, it's my birth-festival actually. I was born in Aft-Summer.' I felt a little shy about admitting it for some daft reason.

'Not much chance of celebrating out here.' Geris looked really worried which both touched and concerned me. 'It won't be much of a festival for you.'

'Oh well, we'll—'

Shiv's plan was lost in a shattering scream from one of the horses and for one heart-stopping moment I really believed the Eldritch kin had woken.

'Backs to the fire!' Darni's bellow brought us back to reality and I saw men cresting the rampart, drawn swords glinting in the firelight. Their helms and mail chinked as they ran and their studded boots thudded into the soft earth. None of them spoke but they moved with a unity of purpose more chilling than any battle cry. The effect was slightly spoiled when some of them slipped on the slope, now slick with dew, but thank Saedrin, it gave us a breath to collect our wits and to realise we were badly outnumbered.

I fumbled in my belt pouch for my darts and stepped back to get distance for throwing. I felt heat on the backs of my legs; I didn't have much room before I would be treading in the embers.

'Kiss Saedrin's arse,' Darni snarled as he stepped out to meet the first attackers. Their air of confidence was terrifying and the first swept up his hand to bring his sword down into Darni's head. I watched the attacker's hand rise, and then carry on rising as Darni took it off at the wrist with an explosive strike. His mate was momentarily distracted by a faceful of blood and his troubles ended with Darni's short sword in his guts. When a third went down to a boot in the stones, the attack lost a little of its impetus and we were able to form a defensive circle before they hit us.

Swords met in a flurry of sparks, slash, parry, feint, lunge, hack. Darni's sword flashed in the light of the flames until he managed to reach in over a guard and rip into his opponent's throat. Blood sprayed across him, but he simply blinked it clear and kicked the bubbling corpse aside.

The dancing shadows from the firelight were confusing my aim. I threw a dart and for one gut-wrenching second, it looked as if the victim was unaffected. He staggered forward then sank to his knees clawing at his arm, dying in seconds with a choking cough. What a relief; the poison hadn't lost its strength after all.

My darts took out a couple more but I was soon running low. Darni was fighting like one of Poldrion's own demons and I kept him between me and our attackers. I glanced over my shoulder to check we weren't being encircled and saw Shiv and Geris were back to back with us. Geris had the reflexes and speed for swordwork but was making a slow job of finishing off his opponent. Even I saw a chance which he had just failed to follow through. The vicious face attacking him knew it too, and teeth shone in a triumphant sneer. Too many years fencing like a gentleman, whereas Darni had been killing for real; blood was running down the sleeve of Geris' off arm and I realised he was used to fighting with a shield.

He must have realised he was in trouble as he suddenly kicked himself to a quicker pace. He drove the attacker back with rapid slashing strokes. Confused, the man let down his guard and Geris split his skull; I saw his grimace as he turned his head to avoid the shower of brain and blood.

Back at our side of the fire, I used my last dart then found myself facing a bearded heavy, who thought I was now unarmed. His mistake; I slid a dagger down my sleeve and as he came in for a downward smash I got him through the armpit. I couldn't get the dagger loose as the bastard fell and began to feel cold fingers of fear as I screamed at Darni's back.

'I need a weapon! Darni, I haven't got a sword!'

He kicked a loose sword backwards, nearly taking off my toes. Shrieking obscenities, he drove his distracted opponent back a couple of paces. Blondie facing him made the mistake of thinking he saw an opening and came in to meet the blade in his guts. He sank to his knees, screaming wetly, and Darni kicked him in the face.

I moved to Darni's side and began to relearn my swordsmanship very speedily indeed, blessing Halice for insisting I practise with her and wishing for her skills.

A big bastard with a yellow beard came round to me, looking to take the weaker option. He was strong and quick and it was all I could do to match him until he slipped in the slime of his friend's entrails and I was able to smash my blade through his ugly face. Teeth and bone gleamed for an instant in the firelight as he fell headlong into the fire. His hair blazed with a revolting smell as his arms flailed wildly. I stamped frantically on the back of his head until he stilled.

Darni dropped another with a low sweep that took out his knees and then finished him with a thrust into the eyes. Our gazes met in an insane instant of calm.

'Get behind me. How are the others doing? What about the horses?'

The horses! If we lost those, it was a long walk home. I looked round and saw why Darni had not bothered hobbling his mount. The brutish-looking chestnut was rearing, kicking and biting with the controlled savagery of the trained warrior's horse, and several figures bled writhing under his hooves.

Shiv was using a beam of amber light like a halberd and the attackers screamed like pigs whenever it made contact. He dropped two of them, who went down as if they'd been poleaxed, not even twitching, the only movement the blood streaming from under their helms.

'Shiv!' Darni bellowed like a rutting bull and Shiv spared us a glance.

Acid fire tore into my leg and I nearly paid the ultimate price for being distracted. I shrieked like Drianon's own eagle and this bought me a second to recover myself. Darni was fighting two on one now, and I was facing serious trouble. He was not as big as the others but he was quick and strong and whipped his blade around mine with terrifying ease. I was being driven back step by step until I felt the fire crunch under my boots and scorch my legs.

The man I fought sneered at me with savage glee. I honestly thought I was lost. Sapphire light ripped past and the triumphant face exploded into a blackened ruin as it shot backwards. I gaped stupidly; we all did in a mad moment of stillness that seized friend and foe alike.

'Move!' Darni shoved me through the dying fire and the three of us bracketed Shiv as he wove coruscating, multicoloured light round the ring of earthen ramparts.

A flash like forked lightning knocked two more backwards into scorched hulks of flesh and brilliance shot from Shiv's hands to the embers of the fire. Red light, bright as a new day, flashed across the ground to finish off the wounded and then shot through the air to crown the crest of the ring with flames where reinforcements died in screaming agony. Saedrin, how many were there? How many were waiting outside? I thrust away rising panic with real difficulty and concentrated on my own private mayhem, realising with some unoccupied fraction of my mind that I was whimpering. Piss on that, I thought. I joined in with Darni's litany of curses at the top of my lungs.

Down in the blood and death of the ring, another fell as his sword exploded into red-hot razors which tore his face apart. Those remaining now realised they were trapped and redoubled their efforts, defence giving way to desperation as they fought to get to Shiv and kill the magic. Now they were screaming back at us, my ears only hearing nonsense but recognising the vicious hatred in the tone. Terror built in the pit of my stomach and threatened to come howling out at any second. Now I was screaming at myself as much as the enemy.

Darni yelled something I missed but Shiv dropped his handfuls of blue fire and began to weave a multihued web of power. In an instant, black shadows began to ripple down the length of our swords, vanishing like smoke in the air. I landed a blow on the man in front of me: the mail on his shoulder parted, the flesh beneath melting like tallow and smoking with a revolting stench. Geris moved to follow up when his opponent shrank away from the deadly darkness and nearly took a thrust in the ribs from the side. Shiv saw the danger and the man screamed like a girl as his arm fell apart under a blast of green light, the small bones of his hand and wrist scattering like runes. He sank to his knees and I finished him through the back of the neck.

It took me a few maddened moments to realise the fight was over, my ears still ringing, disoriented. Crazy shadows ran round the ring as Shiv's wall of fire flared one last time and then died. We braced ourselves for new dangers but none came. Darni broke from our frozen group and ran up the rampart, yelling defiance into the night.

Sudden terror flashed through me as a hand gripped my arm but it was only Shiv. I caught him as he sank to his knees, face deathly pale and eyes dark-shadowed like a man in a fever, his breath coming in tearing gasps.

'Darni!' I shrieked, my voice rising, scant moments from hysteria. He looked back from the crest of the ring.

'Geris, help Livak, it's Shiv!'

Geris came and helped me lay Shiv down. I dragged the corpse out of the fire, my stomach rising at the sickly roasting smell. No time to be sick, I threw more wood on the embers and stood, not knowing what to do.

'Spirits, the red bottle.'

Geris carefully poured a mouthful down Shiv and he coughed weakly.

'Wine, no mead. Thanks. Now, get some wine and heat it with some honey.'

I obeyed with shaking hands. Shiv's colour improved a little and his breathing slowed. Geris tended him with single-minded concentration, loosening his shirt and checking him for wounds, ignoring his own bloody arm.

A dark shadow came over the top of the ring and I had my sword ready before I realised it was Darni, his eyes bright as a wild dog's.

'Well?' He kept his face to the night as he returned to the fire.

'He's exhausted but a good night's sleep should see him right.' Geris' tone was calm and confident as he went to his leather case of parchments.

'What are you doing?' I asked in bemusement.

He looked at me as if only just realising that I was present.

'Something to help Shiv sleep.' He showed me a sheet of neatly written couplets and then spoke the complex syllables over the fallen wizard. His breathing became deeper and more normal as the tension left his long body.

'Is that this aetheric magic?'

'Yes.' Geris frowned. 'It's never worked that quickly before. I wonder what it is about this place?' Frustration edged his tone.

'What else can you do?'

'Not much. Shit! The old books say they could heal wounds, cure fevers, all kinds of things. All I can do is put him to sleep. If only—'

'If a bitch had balls, she'd be a dog. Don't knock it, sleep's what Shiv needs.' Darni stripped off his blood-soaked tunic and shirt and began to wash the worst of the gore off himself.

'Are we safe?' I asked stupidly.

'For the moment. I couldn't see any sign but they might be regrouping.' Darni glanced round the carnage. 'I'd be surprised if they came back but we'll be ready.'

As he wiped himself dry with the remains of his shirt I saw several broad purple scars on his shoulders and chest. A fresh cut on his arm was oozing slowly and his knuckles were bloody and raw on both hands. He turned and I saw there were no marks on his back.

'There's a small green bag in my kit, Livak. I'd rather not get everything bloody…'

I fetched it for him and winced in sympathy as he poured neat spirits on his wounds before trying to dress them.

'Here, let me.' I worked fast and he grunted approvingly.

'That's fine. Now, let's look at that leg.'

I had forgotten my own wound, crazy as that sounds, but as soon as he mentioned it I felt as if I'd been kicked by a plough horse. I sat and watched numbly as he cut away my breeches to reveal a deep gash. The fire had scorched my leg as hairless as a high-priced whore's but there were no burns, which was a relief given the way they fester.

'This'll need stitches,' Darni said in a matter-of-fact tone. 'Do you want to do it yourself?'

'Hang on.' Geris finished cleaning the long, shallow slice in his own arm and came over.

'This is going to hurt,' he said unnecessarily as he clamped his hands on my thigh.

Darni wiped it with a spirit-soaked wad of lint; I managed not to vomit or faint but it was a close thing. He worked fast but, by the time he was finished, I was shaking and dripping with sweat.

'Get some sleep. Geris and I will stand first watch.'

'Urn.' I could not trust myself with words and rolled myself in my cloak next to Shiv. Slowly my heart stopped pounding and the terror and elation of the fight receded. The shakes took longer to subside, just leaving me with the thumping pain in my leg. I closed my eyes and listened to the crackling of the fire. It reminded me of childhood illnesses bedded down in the kitchen and I screwed my eyes shut on sudden tears.

'Livak?' I was amazed to realise Geris' low question had woken me. I blinked up at his face, bleak with strain and tiredness in the grey light of dawn.

'Could you keep awake for a while? I've got to sleep.'

I sat up and rubbed my face, grimacing at the ache in my leg. 'Surely.' I looked round. 'Where's Darni?'

'Here.' Darni was sitting at the top of the slope keeping watch, tense like a good hound.

'Don't you want some rest?'

He shook his head. 'I couldn't; a fight like that leaves fire in the blood for hours. I'll rest later; I don't think they'll be back.'

'Who were they?'

'Bandits, I suppose. Probably out of Lescar, a group whose Lord came off second-best in some challenge.'

I squinted up at him, hair and beard still matted with blood, face cheerful and relaxed.

'Poldrion's ferry will be busy today,' I observed at last.

He grinned. 'I don't think he'll take many of these without fixing a price first. I wonder how many he'll tip over the side halfway.' He surveyed the corpses littering the grass with an untroubled air.

'I hope he'll credit you with a commission. Where did you learn to fight like that?'

'Lescar, fighting for the Duke of Triolle ten years back.'

'You're good.'

'I've got to be good at something.'

I let it go. 'What's wrong with Shiv?'

'He exhausted himself. You can't throw power like that around without paying for it.'

'I didn't realise,' I said in a wondering tone. 'I really should learn more about wizards.'

Darni stretched his arms above his head, grimacing as he tested his injuries. 'Before they realised I had no power as a mage, I attended some of the lectures. There's a dangerous old bastard in Hadrumal called Otrick; he's about the best there is with air magic. Anyway, he gives a lecture posted as “Why don't wizards rule the world?”' He gestured at Shiv's motionless frame. 'That's one reason.'

I wondered what the others were but did not like to ask.

'Otrick gives new students practical lessons too; I've seen some carried out of his hall.' Darni looked at me and smiled. 'Not being a mage isn't all bad, you know.'

The sun rose higher, Geris woke and we ate a breakfast made tasteless by the blood-soaked surroundings. Flies began to gather and we set about the revolting task of shifting the dead so we could get out without the horses going hysterical on us. Shiv slept on but his colour was back to normal, he stirred from time to time and his twitching eyes showed he was dreaming.

'We might get more trouble so we'll take some armour,' Darni ordered and we wrestled with the less mangled corpses. When I finally got a mail-shirt off, I was surprised to realise it was nearly right for me in length. I looked at the bodies with new interest.

'Stumpy lot, aren't they? You'll need to put two of these together for Shiv.'

Geris paused. 'Shiv can't wear armour; all that metal round him screws up the magic.' He put down the sword he had been cleaning and began to inspect the bodies more closely, pulling his dagger out. 'Yes, they are all rather short.' I wondered queasily if his academic interests included anatomising, but to my relief he contented himself with cutting away clothing.

'Darni, this is all rather peculiar.' He moved round the dell, removing helmets and coifs.

'How do you mean?'

'They're all very similar; they're all yellow-haired for one thing. How often do you see that?'

Darni peered at a few of the faces, bloodless with livid purple lips and tongues or revoltingly mottled depending on the way they had fallen. He shrugged, uninterested.

'So they're all related. Bandits often work in families, you know that.'

'So many of them? So close in age?' Geris looked puzzled.

'They're just robbers trying their luck.' Darni produced a pair of snips and began taking some of the excess out of the hauberk I had selected.

'Looking for what? We're hardly a merchant's train loaded with coin.' Geris sat back on his heels. 'All we've got worth stealing is the horses and they weren't their target.'

'That's because anyone who went near them got their head stamped on,' Darni grinned.

Geris did not look convinced. 'I'm going to have a look around.'

'Don't go far and be careful. Yell if you see anything.' I watched him leave with concern, half inclined to go too, but Shiv chose that moment to wake.

'Is there any water?' he croaked. 'My mouth feels like the inside of a muleteer's glove.'

I fetched him a cupful. 'How are you feeling?'

He propped himself on one elbow and wrinkled his nose at the leathern taste of the water. 'I've felt better but I'll recover.'

'You scared a season's growth out of me.' It was supposed to be a joke but it did not come out right.

'I think I used up a season's growth.' He sat up and looked around. 'Saedrin! What a mess!'

Gens reappeared, looking dissatisfied. 'They didn't have any horses.'

'Their mates will have taken them back to wherever they are hiding out. I don't suppose we got them all.' Darni threw the mail at me. 'Try that.'

I draped it round myself, grimacing at the prospect of that weight on my shoulders. 'Good enough.'

Darni began lacing the rings together with leather thong. 'I should be riveting this, you know,' he muttered with dissatisfaction.

'No, listen,' Geris persisted. 'They did not have horses; I'm telling you they came on foot.'

'Out here? We're leagues from anywhere. You must be mistaken.'

'I've been looking at their tracks. I know what I'm talking about,' Geris insisted with uncharacteristic force. I looked up from the swords I was trying for weight.

'Go on.' My own sense of unease was returning.

'There are no signs of horses anywhere. Look at them, none of them are booted or spurred for riding. They were on foot!'

'So they're holed up somewhere dose and watching the road.' Darni was not convinced. 'We'd better get out of here before they come back. Let's get working.'

Now Geris had got me wondering. As I went round searching for my darts, I looked more closely at the nearest body and shoving aside my revulsion, pulled apart the remnants of the clothing.

'This is odd.'

'How so?' Geris came over and Shiv looked at me with interest.

'Well, these clothes are certainly old and worn but he's all clean underneath.' I bent closer. 'Look, there's old blood here on the linen, I'd say from lice or fleas.' I ran a finger over the marble-cold flesh below. 'He's spotless, not a bite anywhere. He's clean too, scrubbed.' I moved to the next roughly intact corpse. 'This one's the same.'

'So they've got rid of their vermin. Where's the mystery? Have you ever had lice? Believe me, you don't want to keep them.' Darni concentrated on his work.

I sat back on my heels. Darni was probably right, but I didn't think we had read the runes right here. What was I missing? I searched further.

'None of them have any coin on them.' I rummaged in a few belt-pouches and pockets, brushing aside the flies and trying to ignore the smell of blood. 'None of them are carrying anything personal at all. No rings, jewellery, nothing. What's this?'

I showed Geris a patch of raw skin on an arm. He looked on the others but could not find anything similar.

'A stray shot from Shiv?'

'They're all dead, that's all I need to know. Come on, I want to get out of here as fast as we can.' There was an edge to Darni's tone that forbade further investigation or speculation. Geris muttered something and returned to cleaning his sword and Shiv started to get slowly to his feet.

We were soon packed up and ready to return to the road.

'Are we going to do anything about all this?' I paused on our way out of the ring and looked back at the pile of dead.

Darni shook his head. 'It'll take too long to get fuel to burn them.' He gestured to the far side of the rampart. 'They'll take care of it.'

I looked at the waiting ravens and swallowed hard. Thirty or more bodies should see the birds well fed for half a season. * # *

Back on the road the clean air blew the scent of death out of my nostrils, and I felt better. We paused at the next ford and all stripped to wash the last of the blood from ourselves and our gear. Geris tried to get me to use a pool further down the river for modesty's sake, but I was having none of it; not with Drianon knew what bandits lurking in the area.

'I still think that was all a bit strange,' I murmured to Shiv as I dried my hair, one eye on Darni whose ears where muffled in soap as he scrubbed at his beard.

'I agree.' Shiv pulled his shirt over his head. 'I can't think why I didn't pick them up when I did that scrying. If they weren't on horseback, they should have been in the area I covered.'

'Maybe they rode in so far and then came in on foot,' I said dubiously.

'Why would they do that?'

'I've no idea.'

We rode on in dissatisfied silence.

Friern Lodge,

40th of For-Autumn

Casuel grimaced as he stepped carefully out of the coach, alert for muck; it was going to be important to make a good impression. He tugged at the skirts of his coat to pull out some of the creases and frowned at the scuffs on his boot where some overladen yeoman had trodden on his foot.

'Is this it?' Allin looked round at the huddle of little brick houses.

'Well, I don't think we need to ask directions,' he replied tartly.

They stared at the broad brick frontage of the manor standing four-square and imperious behind the tall iron gates on the far side of the road

'That's a lodge?' Casuel couldn't blame Allin for sounding incredulous. Lord Armile's dwelling might have started life as a hunting residence but he doubted if any of the original building was left by now. He looked thoughtfully at a straggle of cottagers waiting by a door in the paling where hard-faced men in grey livery rested on halberds and periodically let a few through, palms brushing briefly.

A horn sounded behind them. 'Make way!'

Casuel stepped into a handy doorway before a coach rattled past, wheels spraying Allin's skirts with mud from the rutted road. The horses' hooves crunched briskly up the gravelled driveway and Casuel watched with a qualm of regret. He would have made a far more imposing arrival if he'd hired a vehicle, he realised belatedly. Still, the expense could not have been justified, could it?

'Come on, Allin.'

He picked his way across the road and approached the guards, head high and back straight, ignoring the curious glances of the peasantry. Allin copied him, Casuel pleased to see she was finally managing something that approached fitting dignity.

'Good afternoon. I wish to see Lord Annile's chamberlain.' Casuel made a carefully calculated half-bow and looked expectantly at the man with a ribbon sewn around the stag badge on his jerkin.

'Expecting you, is he?' the gate-guard asked cautiously.

'I do not have an appointment, no.' Casuel smiled politely.

'Then wait your turn.' Arrogance clearly came more easily to this militia than courtesy.

Casuel's smile did not waver as he reached into his pocket for a letter prepared earlier.

'Please present this with my compliments. He will see me.'

The guard looked uncertainly at the letter, at Casuel and then back up at the house.

'Here.' He gestured to a nervous-looking lad whose grey livery had been cut for a man at least a hand's-width taller. 'Take this to Armin.'

The lad ran off up the drive, slipping on the gravel in his haste.

'Is it the custom here to remain seated while ladies stand?' Casuel raised his eyebrows at two guards lounging on a bench.

'Get up!'

The two scowled at their leader but obeyed. Allin bobbed a curtsey and sat down, tucking in her skirts nervously. Casuel broadened his smile somewhat and took a note-tablet from his pocket, making a few jottings which he was pleased to see substantially increased the air of awe around him.

'He'm to come.' The lad soon reappeared breathless and sweaty despite the cool day.

'Thank you.' Casuel took his time, acknowledging the militiaman on the gate with a gracious nod of the head and a silver penny.

'You see, Allin, you have to know how to deal with these people,' he murmured.

He stifled a smile at the buzz of speculation behind them as the gate closed but his satisfaction soon evaporated as they walked towards the manor. Curbing underlings with their petty abuses of power was one thing; the man who lived here was going to be a horse of quite a different mettle.

'Why does this look like a Lescar noble's house?' Allin enquired tensely.

The ground-level windows had been recently reduced to narrow embrasures and they could see men working on the roof to add crenellations and a watch tower. A line of pinkly dusted peasants were stacking bricks to one side of the main gateway and logs lay ready for scaffolding. The ringing of hammer and chisel rose from somewhere over the back.

'Oh, these petty lordlings like to impress their neighbours with their fortifications,' Casuel said airily.

'This way.' They followed the nervous lad around a dry ditch where a gang of burly men in grey were fixing sharpened stakes. A side door stood open and a flat-faced man in dark blue was waiting expectantly with a maid who dipped a curtsey and took their cloaks.

'Good day.' Casuel was pleased to receive a practised bow in reply to his own and followed the man, his spirits rising as they were led through a panelled and polished hallway, steps ringing on the spotless flagstones. Allin looked around uncertainly, clutching her shawl.

'This way, please.' The lackey opened a door and ushered Casuel through with immaculate courtesy.

He paused for a moment to admire the fashionable room then turned to address his companion.

'May I ask—' His words tailed; the menial had closed the door behind him, leaving the two of them alone.

'I don't think we're very welcome,' Allin whispered nervously.

A faint chill breathed across the back of Casuel's neck; he ignored it.

'Ah, refreshments!' He headed for a sideboard, gratefully pouring himself a full goblet to settle a little commotion in his stomach. 'Here you are, that'll put some colour in your cheeks, my dear. I expect you're suffering from a touch of carriage-sickness.'

He raised appreciative eyebrows as he sipped the wine. 'Now, I would not have expected to find Trokain vintages this far west, Allin. Lord Armile is certainly a man of excellent taste.'

He turned slowly, taking in the room, its elegance carefully understated to form a backdrop to the full-length portrait over the fireplace. The standing figure in formal dress was half turned, one arm resting on a pedestal where a small statue paid lip-service to the family's hereditary priesthood.

'Is that him?' Allin breathed in awe.

'I imagine so. That's the latest Tormalin style, you know, quite the height of fashion.'

The face was hardly flattering to Casuel's eyes. The piercing gaze and harsh set to the full mouth presented an uncomfortable challenge but the vital realism of the painting made it stand out from the other, smaller, portraits around the panelled walls, their older, flatter style awkward and clownish by comparison.

'I had to pay the fellow a sack-weight of coin to come so far from home, but I think it was worth it, don't you?'

Casuel started and turned to see the picture's original emerge from a door concealed in an alcove.

'Who—' He coughed and cleared his throat. 'Who is the artist?'

'Some fellow Messire Den Ilmiral recommended.' Lord Armile's Tormalin was polished and marred only by a slight lisp betraying an early tutor's Lescari accent. He looked Allin up and down before bowing to her with a faintly puzzled air.

'It is an impressive work.' Casuel sipped his wine, realising that the artist had indeed worked to flatter his client in softening the harsh lines around mouth and eyes and reducing the sneering nose.

'Such an accolade from a man of education is praise indeed.' Lord Armile smiled with broad good humour and unfolded Casuel's letter.

'Now, you say you have business which will be to my advantage?'

Casuel smiled in return. For all his manners and decor aping Tormalin fashions, this was still an Ensaimin hedge-lord he was dealing with, no subtlety or decorum to him.

'Indeed.' He took a seat. 'I deal in books, writings, antiquarian documents. I have heard that you have a fine library.'

'From whom?'

Casuel hesitated for a breath. 'Does that matter?'

'I always like to know who's talking about me.'

Casuel failed to notice Lord Armile's smile did not reach his eyes.

'I did not catch the fellow's name, we were simply conversing in a hostelry.' Casuel took a sip of wine. 'The thing is, I have clients interested in purchasing various texts and I wondered if you might have some of those I'm seeking.'

'Who are your clients?'

'Scholars and antiquarians, the details are not important.' Casuel stumbled a little over his attempt at unconcern.

'Details are always important.' Lord Armile remained standing. 'I have no wish to sell any of my library. Be on your way.'

He turned back to the concealed door.

Casuel gaped for a moment then scrambled to his feet. 'Sir, I do not think you realise… that is, I can offer you significant coin.'

'I have sufficient sources of income.'

'You could earn the gratitude of powerful men,' Casuel said desperately.

Lord Armile turned to look over his shoulder. 'I am a powerful man,' he said softly. 'And you are not the first spy who has tried to gain an entry into my house and my business.'

'I am no spy.' Casuel's voice rose in indignation.

'Then who are you?' Lord Armile pulled twice on a bell-rope and Casuel heard booted feet scrape outside the door.

'I am a travelling dealer in texts and documents, I told you.' The flare of indignation burned away, leaving Casuel suddenly-cold, the wine souring in his stomach.

'Are you indeed? Have you visited any of my neighbours? They have fine libraries, after all. No, you have not, I would have been informed of it. You have come straight to me, fresh off the coach from Market Harrall, not even a bag between you! Tell me, how is Lord Sovel?'

'I have not the honour of that gentleman's acquaintance,' Casuel said stiffly.

'No, I don't suppose you have. That scut of a son of his does his dirty work these days.' Armile clapped his hands and two thickset men in the ubiquitous grey livery slammed open the door. Allin squeaked in alarm and gripped Casuel's sleeve.

'You are making a grave error.' Anger thickened Casuel's tone. 'I am no spy, I am a mage.'

Armile raised a hand and the men halted. 'Are you indeed? Prove it.'

Casuel blinked and pried Allin's fingers from his arm. 'I beg your pardon?'

'Prove it!' The threat in Armile's voice was unmistakable and Casuel's meagre courage fled.

Feeling his hands shaking, he rubbed them together before weaving the amber lights of his power into a close net. Emboldened by the murmurs of awe he heard behind him, he drew deep on his resources and flung the power out into the form of a gigantic hound, eyes blazing, jaws dripping foam which sizzled as it hit the floor. Allin clapped her hands to her mouth to stifle a squeal.

Lord Armile stared unmoved at the phantasm. 'A pretty festival trick, I suppose.'

Casuel narrowed his lips, the beast bayed deafeningly and he was gratified to see that Armile's hands moved involuntarily towards his ears. Allin was now as white as the flagstones.

Perceiving a threat to their master, the men moved towards Casuel but he turned the hound towards them, setting it snarling, looking from one to the other. They exchanged dubious glances, each unwilling to find out how real those finger-length teeth might be.

Laughter startled Casuel, but he held the weave together.

'I am impressed. I must apologise, but these are troubled times hereabouts.' Lord Armile moved to the sideboard, keeping a wary eye on the hound as he filled a goblet and handed it to Allin, who sank it in one draught.

'Please, let us start afresh.' Armile gestured to the men, who retreated all too willingly.

Casuel froze the hound for an instant then let it unravel into a gout of flame which rushed towards the ceiling, then through it. Lord Armile forced a smile once he saw his expensive plasterwork was unmarked.

'Will you do me the honour of staying to dine?'

'Thank you, I would be delighted.' Casuel smoothed the front of his coat; this was more like the reception he was entitled to, even if he had been forced to obtain it through such a vulgar display.

'Let us go through to the library. We can see what books might interest you. My lady.' He offered Allin a courteous arm with a winning smile.

Casuel nodded, straightened his shoulders and followed as Lord Armile led the way.

The library was a long room along the side of the house, the deep windows separated by bookcases and facing a wall lined with even more volumes.

'This is most impressive.' Casuel did not scruple to disguise his awe. 'I have rarely seen a private library of this quality outside Tormalin.'

'Thank you; my father was something of a scholar.' There was an edge to Lord Armile's voice which escaped Casuel. 'Please look around, I must let the kitchen know we will be two more for dinner.'

Lord Armile left through another panelled door and Allin looked after him, puzzled. 'You'd think he'd have someone to run his messages for him.'

'Do be quiet, there's a good girl.' Casuel was eagerly searching the shelves and scroll racks, checking against the list engraved on his memory.

'Oh yes, this is an excellent copy of Mennith's History. Look, here's the Selerima Pharmacopoeia, Tandri's Yesteryears. This is all very encouraging.'

He soon identified a handful of other texts in varying states of repair and annotation and sat at a handy desk to make some rapid calculations. Allin came to look over his shoulder and gasped.

'Oh, I knew this would not be a cheap transaction but I have inferior copies which I can sell on,' Casuel reassured her airily. 'Besides, I'm not exactly short of coin. Now, please let me work without interruption.'

Allin plumped down on a sofa, twisting her fingers in the fringe of her wrap.

It was some while later when Casuel looked up with a start as the blue-liveried lackey opened the door.

'Dinner is served. Please follow me.'

Casuel glanced at the window and was surprised to see dusk deepening above the trees.

'Yes, thank you. Come on, Allin.' He tucked his notes into a pocket and followed the servant.

He was surprised to find dinner served in a smaller salon with older, heavier furniture. Evidently Lord Armile's taste for the up-to-date had not reached this part of the house. Casuel stifled a smile; the profits from the sale of the books could be usefully spent here.

'Did you find much of interest?' Lord Armile gestured to the footman, who began to uncover the various dishes.

Casuel helped himself to a pigeon and some bread. 'Thank you, yes. I think I should be able to fulfil several of my commissions.'

'Who did you say you were acting for?' Armile nodded to a second lackey, who began to carve from a thick joint of beef. Casuel was pleased to see Allin relax as she filled her plate.

'I am assisting some of the Council of Mages in their research,' Casuel replied easily. He had established his position sufficiently to adopt a more friendly approach, he decided. 'Wizardry is a co-operative discipline.'

'These mages have antiquarian interests, you mentioned?'

'Among others,' Casuel said with as lofty a tone as he could manage with a mouthful of pigeon leg.

'Do try some of the game pie.' Lord Armile raised a ringer to the footman, who quickly filled their goblets. 'Do you return to Hadrumal soon?'

'That depends.' Casuel reached for a dish of cutlets. 'I have various tasks to complete first.'

'But you are a free agent, you have discretion over your duties?'

'Oh, quite.' Casuel nodded. 'I am entirely my own master.'

Lord Armile smiled broadly, though this deepened the harsh lines around his mouth and made him look almost sinister. Casuel's admiration for the portrait artist increased still further.

'So, what did you find of interest in my library?' Lord Armile leaned back in his chair and sipped at his wine.

Casuel swallowed hastily and wiped his mouth with his napkin. 'There are certainly some interesting texts there, although I'm not sure how many my funds will allow me to purchase.'

Lord Armile raised a hand. 'My dear sir, I would not dream of taking your coin, not if the Council of Mages needs these books for their research.'

Casuel gaped. 'Well, that is, I mean, obviously I appreciate your generosity but—'

'You can repay me in kind, with a small service.' Armile inclined his head, unsmiling.

'What kind of service would that be?' Casuel asked uneasily. He looked across the room at the burly footman who stood by the door, arms folded across his broad chest.

'You do not know my neighbour. Lord Sovel, I believe?' Lord Armile snapped his fingers and the second lackey poured small glasses of white brandy. He was also unusually well built for a house servant, Casuel noticed belatedly.

'Well, you see, he has a gravel pit, and I wish to buy it. I have made him a fair offer for the land but he refuses to deal with me.' Armile shrugged. 'You can persuade him.'

'Why do you want a gravel pit?'

Casuel looked at Allin in some surprise, although grateful for the interruption.

'To reduce the costs of maintaining my roads, my dear.' Armile offered her some brandy which she declined with a blush.

'You certainly have excellent highways, my lord.' A little flattery would not come amiss, Casuel judged. 'Your merchants and tenants must be very grateful.'

'Curse the merchants; I simply want to know I can move my militia where and when it's needed,' Lord Armile replied, his expression stern. 'I believe in ruling with a firm hand.'

Casuel shifted in his seat. 'I certainly support the rule of law, but I'm afraid it is simply not done for wizards to involve themselves in local politics. I'm sorry.'

'So am I.' Lord Armile snapped his fingers and Casuel found himself seized from behind. Heavy iron manacles were clamped around his wrists as he struggled ineffectually in the grip of the footmen.

'This is an outrage!' he spluttered. 'Anyway, how in Saedrin's name do you think I could persuade Lord Sovel of anything?'

Armile stood and leaned over Casuel, who sank back in his seat. 'Threaten to render him impotent, immolate his entire household, I don't care.' His voice was low and infinitely threatening. 'Do whatever you must to convince him that the dangers of denying me outweigh the disadvantages of selling.'

He turned and made a deep bow to Allin, who was sitting, frozen, a half-eaten tartlet in her hand. 'Consider how best to assist me. You have until the midnight chime.'

He swept out of the room with his henchmen and they heard the key turn in the lock.

'Oh no,' Allin whimpered. 'What are they going to do to us?'

Casuel closed his eyes and took deep breaths until he felt in control of bladder and bowel once more.

'Do be quiet, you silly girl,' he snapped in awkward Lescar.

This at least startled Allin into silence. There was a long pause, in which they heard low voices outside the door.

'What are we going to do? Shall I try the window?' said Allin after a while, her voice still quavering but no longer edged with outright hysteria. Casuel was relieved to see she was using her wits as well as her mother tongue.

'I think Lord Armile needs to learn that he cannot order a wizard around like some housemaid,' Casuel said shakily.

'But you can't work magic in chains; all the ballads say so.'

Casuel forced a wavery smile. 'That's a hedge-wife belief we've never felt the need to correct. Certainly a wizard with air talents wouldn't be able to work in these manacles and you'd better never try working standing in water but I am an earth-mage.'

He closed his eyes and concentrated, tendrils of amber light crackling over the manacles. Allin held her breath but nothing happened. Casuel opened his eyes and looked down at his hands in dismay.

'I shouldn't have put so much energy into that cursed illusion,' he muttered woefully.

'I thought wizards were supposed to be able to disappear and walk through walls and things like that?'

Indignation tinted Allin's tone and sparked an answering anger which started to burn through Casuel's incipient panic.

'A Cloud-Master might be able to; all I can touch at present is my innate element,' he snapped.

'So what can you do with it? Can you get us out of here or call for help somehow?' Allin crossed to the window and peered out into the darkness.

A qualm gripped Casuel's innards and he looked longingly at his glass of brandy. 'Give me a moment. I should be able to get these manacles off in a little while and that lock'll be no problem but I don't see how we'll get past those ruffians.'

Allin stared at him. 'Are you going to have to do what he wants? Do you think he'll keep his word?'

'I can't do it, in any case,' Casuel replied miserably. 'I mean, even if I could come up with something to scare Lord Sovel into agreement, once the Council got to hear of it — and they would — I'd be in more trouble than you can imagine!'

Allin began to rattle the shutters. 'Help! Help!' she yelled in desperation but the only answer was laughter from outside the door.

'Shut up, you silly girl!'

'Then do something yourself!' Allin turned and the branch of candles on the table flared head-high, as her anger reached the flames.

They both stared open-mouthed as the magical fire consumed the candles, leaving a puddle of wax ruining the finish of Lord Armile's table.

'Do calm down, my dear,' Casuel said shakily, suddenly grateful the hearth was unlit.

Allin's knees buckled and she dropped on to the window seat, her face ashen.

Casuel made as if to speak but snapped his mouth shut. Too late, Allin had noticed.

'What is it? Have you thought of something?'

'No, I mean, not really. It doesn't matter.' Casuel cringed at the thought of following up the notion that had just come to him. The humiliation did not bear thinking about.

'You have, you've got an idea.' Allin rose to her feet. 'What is it?'

Casuel hesitated; humiliation had to be preferable to disgrace, didn't it? 'Well, if you can conjure me a flame, and we can find something shiny, I could scry for help.'

Allin turned to the table and shoved crocks and plates aside wildly. She grabbed for a platter a breath too late and it crashed to the floor. She froze and they both held their breath but no one opened the door.

'Here.' Allin rubbed the sauce from a silver dish-cover. 'How about this?'

'Bring it here and find a candle.' Casuel drew a deep breath. 'Hold it up, that's right. Now, concentrate on the wick, very gently now. Focus your mind and bring a little fire.'

They stared at the candle, which remained obstinately unlit.

'Concentrate!' Casuel urged in frustration.

'I am!' Allin pursed her lips and bent closer. A sudden gout of flame leaped up and Casuel coughed on the stink of burned hair as one of her ringlets vanished into smoke.

'Hold it, hold it, that's right. Bring it down, calm down, you're doing very well,' Casuel gabbled hastily.

Allin managed a tremulous smile and the candle flame took on more normal proportions.

Casuel gripped his shaking hands together and focused his talents on the reflection. A surge of power startled him until he remembered the mass of iron around his wrists. Who should he try to contact? He searched his memory desperately for any wizards in the area. A sinking feeling came over him. With the range he could manage now, Usara was the obvious person to contact, wasn't he? Well, at least he might have some chance of keeping this sorry business quiet if he made a clean breast of it to a Council member straight away.

The dish-cover filled with a brilliant amber light and an image snapped into view. Casuel took a deep, reluctant breath.

'Usara!'

The sandy-haired mage looked up from his crucibles and gazed around curiously. ''Casuel?

Allin stared. 'Can't he see us?'

Casuel ignored her. 'Usara, please, I need your help.'

The wizard rolled up his tattered sleeves and gestured, the radiance of the spell darkened and the air crackled with power. Now he was looking straight at them.

''Where are you?''

'Being held by Lord Armile of Friern, who wants me to use magic in his service,' Casuel said baldly.

''How did this happen?'

'I'll explain later.' Casuel cringed; only if he couldn't find a way to avoid it. 'Please, if it were just me, I'd face him out, but I have a girl with me, a mage-born I was bringing to Hadrumal. I think she's in some peril.'

Usara spared Allin a glance. ' This Lord Armile has actually imprisoned you?'

'Well, sort of,' Casuel began.

'I think we'd better make him think twice about this sort of trick,' Usara said grimly. His face peered out from the image. ''Get ready to run?

'What—'

Casuel's question was lost in a shattering crash as the window wall exploded outwards in a cascade of masonry and glass.

'Come on!' Casuel's order was unnecessary; hampered by his fetters, he scrambled over the rubble after Allin, who had gathered her skirts above her knees and was running like a hare started by hounds. She halted, hesitating, rubbing her eyes as the darkness confused her. Shouts rang out from the house and from buildings ahead, doors slamming and dogs barking.

'This way.' Casuel flung a bolt of desperate amber energy against a garden gate. They ran for the jagged hole and plunged into a tangle of shrubs.

'Wait, let me get these off,' Casuel cursed but the manacles slid open after a few moments. He gripped Allin's shoulder as she stood, shaking, her breath coming in ragged gasps.

'Pull yourself together.' He wove a faint blue aura. 'I can get us out of here unseen if you keep quiet.'

She nodded in mute terror.

'We'll return to Market Harrall, get our things and take the first coach out.' Casuel forced more confidence than he felt into his tone. 'Once we're out of the district, we can head back to Hadrumal.'

Where he was going to have some explaining to do, he thought dismally, as they picked their way through the soaking vegetation. This was all Shivvalan's fault.

Inglis, 6th of Aft-Autumn

The rest of our journey was uneventful and both moons were waxing to a double full when we finally crested a line of hills to look down the sinuous length of the river Dalas as it met the ocean. Sprawled around the mouth was the city of Inglis, the only civilisation for leagues in any direction. I drew in a deep breath of satisfaction and said farewell to the endless grasslands.

'This looks like my kind of town, Geris. Things are going to happen here, I can feel it in the bones.'

He smiled back at me. We took the high road along the river down into the city. It was hard not to gape like a Caladhrian fresh off the farm at the huge rafts of logs being poled down the stream and the wide hulks of the riverboats coming down from the forests and mountains of Gidesta. We could hear the sounds of singing, drinking and in one case fighting coming across the water; my fingers still itched with regret at not having a chance at one of the famous games on board. I suppose Darni had a point when he said the boats were trouble, but it was not as if our journey through the plains had been all wildflowers, was it? Yells from a boat tying up made the horses shy as a man was thrown bodily over the rail. We left him cursing as he tried to climb the crumbling logs of the wharf. There were shipyards along each bank above the scour of the tide race, echoes of sawing and hammering rang back from the hills which ran down towards the ocean. I could smell fresh-cut wood and pitch and, hovering above it all, a wild salt freshness. I listened hard and could just make out the low murmur of waves below the din of the city.

Of course I had seen the sea before; I've been to Relshaz a couple of times as well as spending time on the Spice Coast between Peorle and Grennet, but the sheltered waters of the Caladhrian Gulf are a far cry from the open ocean. I was standing in my stirrups as we wove our way towards the eastward docks where the tall masts of the Dalasorian clippers swayed against the early morning sun. The road took us along the docks and we paused while Darni and Shiv discussed what to do next. I did not bother listening; I was staring at the surf breaking against the rocks of the headland, the massive bulk of the sea defences, the sun glinting on the calmer waters of the estuary and the sleek lines of the ocean-going ships. They looked like racing hounds set against spit dogs when I thought of the lumbering galleys that trade between the Sea of Lescar and Aldabreshi. No wonder the Tormalins forbid the Dalasorians passage round the Cape of Winds; let loose in the southern waters, these could hunt down anything they chose.

A foul smell and the rattle of chains broke my thrall as the wind shifted. I coughed and turned to see a row of gibbets decorating the dock. Bodies in varying stages of decay swayed in the breeze, cages frustrating birds looking for a meal.

'What do you know about Inglis then?' I moved next to Geris, who was staring around like a farmwife at her first fair. 'Who runs the city?'

Geris shook his head. 'I'm not sure; I've never been this far north. Darni will know.'

He looked back at the sound of his name. 'What did you say?'

I repeated my question.

'Later. We'll get settled first and then sit down to do some proper planning. I've got some contacts here.'

'I need to know what I'm up against if I'm to do that job we were discussing,' I warned him.

'Oh, the merchant is called—' Geris' words were drowned as I shoved Russet into his horses and scowled at him to shut up.

'Not in the street and not so loud,' I hissed. He blushed and I resisted the impulse to reassure him; he had to learn some discretion or we could all end up rattling for the seabirds' amusement; Inglis had that sort of atmosphere.

Shiv led us through the busy streets into the heart of the city. The buildings were of good white stone and the main streets were well cobbled with water running through to sluice the gutters. As we rode I saw most of the buildings were very similar in design and age; there were few haphazard roof-lines or awkward street corners. This place positively reeked planning, order and money and I wondered again who exactly was in charge.

'Piss off!' Darni raised his whip as we entered a wide square and beggars started towards us from their seats round an elegant fountain.

I threw a few pennies to one man scrambling forward on legs twisted under him by childhood disease; you can't fake that. I regretted my generosity as others headed towards me.

'Spare copper?' A thin man waved uncoordinated hands at Geris' reins and I saw he had the vacant green-tinged eyes of a tahn addict. I kicked him in the back and raised my dagger, glad I was wearing gloves when I saw the mucus oozing down his face.

'Get lost before I cut you.' He was not so lost that he did not get the message, and he stumbled off.

'He didn't touch you?' Shiv called, concerned.

I shook my head. 'Don't worry.' Having spent three days emptying my guts down to the blood after once lifting a tahn addict's purse, I won't make the mistake of getting that muck on me again.

The Archmage's coin got us clean and airy rooms in a respectable inn. As I relaxed in a steaming tub, I decided I could get used to travelling like this. Drianon, it was good to get that chainmail off; my shoulders were killing me! A knock on the door saved me from drifting off to sleep in the scented water.

'Who is it?'

'Darni's got us a parlour on the first floor.' Shiv stuck his head round the door. 'He's gone out to find the contacts he was talking about, so you needn't hurry. Come down when you're ready.'

I dragged myself reluctantly out of the tub and dressed in clean clothes, my mood brightening with the realisation that this style of inn would have a laundrymaid. Sluicing linen in rivers is better than nothing, but you still end up smelling like a frog. I frowned over my stained clothes from the Eldritch ring; I'd done my best but you could still tell it was blood. A laundrymaid would probably have better luck, but handing these clothes over would cause talk, so I decided I'd have to dump them. That did not please me; the jerkin I'd ruined was one of my favourites. Elk-skin, it would not be easy to replace. A thought struck me and I hurried to Geris' room.

'There are bound to be some good spice merchants here, aren't there?' He smiled as I entered. He was sorting his collection of little polished boxes and canisters and I could see he would not be satisfied until Inglis added something new to his range of tisanes. Our campfires were enlivened most evenings by Geris blending and sipping and fussing over the temperature of his kettle. He shared the results round very generously, but none of the rest of us shared his capacity for excitement over a cup of oddly scented hot water.

'I need more coppersalt,' he frowned. 'It'll be expensive up here, don't you think? I'll just get a Crown-weight, that shouldn't cost too much.'

I considered pointing out that, even at Vanam prices, that much coppersalt would cost my mother most of a quarter's wages but there did not seem to be much point. Still, a trip to a herbalist might be worthwhile to see if Inglis offered any interesting'spices' for my darts. I remembered what I had come for.

'Don't send your clothes from the fight to the laundrymaid; we don't want anyone to take any special notice of us here.

'Oh, I burned them one night while I was on watch,' Geris said easily. 'Do you think I'll be able to get fresh ale-leaves here?'

He'd burned them just like that, just like so much rubbish. A brushed silk shirt, broadcloth tunic and tailored breeches. What it must be to have the habits of permanent wealth.

'Come on, let's find Darni's parlour.'

'Just let me work out what I need to buy.' Geris continued sorting through his paraphernalia while I propped up the door post.

It could have been worse; we could have been in Relshaz where tisane mania is running riot. Apparently you can make a fortune there with a sufficiently startling box of herbs. Even a couple of incidental poisonings do not seem to have dampened the enthusiasm. Having said that, I was once in a high-stakes game with one of the more prominent victims and you'll never convince me his death was accidental.

'I'll take you to my favourite merchants when we get back to Vanam.' Geris took my arm as we went down the stairs. 'There's one just off the Iron Bridge who's brilliant; my mother gets all her herbs there too. You'll like her.'

He chattered on happily enough but I could see I was going to have to find a way of letting him down gently. Geris had the kind of nest-building urge you rarely see outside a hen-house. We were just too different, in too many ways. We'd passed the Equinox in a cattle-camp, one of our stops to trade for fodder and remounts, and Geris had made us all get out of bed to listen to the Horn-chain being sounded across the frosty grasslands. He'd stood there, reading out bits from his unnecessarily detailed Almanac, burbling on about the ancient origins of the rite and sun-cycle traditions. As far as I was concerned, it was just a handy way of learning how far-off other camps were and in what general direction, and I could have heard it just as well from the warmth of my blankets. I may be laying my hair on Drianon's altar one of these days but I knew it was certainly not Geris who would be doing the cutting. Still, plenty of time to worry about that later, I told myself.

'It's the last one on the right.' Shiv came up behind us and we opened the door to find Darni and a strange youth sitting in an elegant withdrawing-room, tastefully decorated in green brocade.

'This is Fremin Altaniss.' Darni waved a hand at the youth, who looked at us all uncertainly and opened his mouth.

'Wait.' I turned to Shiv. 'This strikes me as the wrong town to get overheard in. Can you do anything about that?'

'Surely.' He sketched some runes in the air with brilliant blue flashes, then sparks flew round the windows and walls, which glowed briefly.

'Now then.' I sat myself at the head of the table. 'Good morning, Fremin, and who exactly are you?'

'He's an agent assigned to watch over the merchant we're interested in.'

'Can he speak for himself, Darni?'

'He reports to me.'

The poor lad was looking like a mouse between two cats but I was not about to back down.

'Darni, when it comes to chopping people into bloody chunks, you are the best I've seen, no question. But believe me, I'm the best you're likely to see relieving people of their property. I need to know certain things which I don't think you'll appreciate, so I can ask you and you can ask him if that makes you happy but I really think it would be simpler if I did the asking myself.'

Shiv opened his mouth and then shut it as we all waited for Darni to make up his mind. The silence was made even more tense by the lack of outside noises.

'Go ahead.' He nodded, unsmiling, at Fremin, who decided he could breathe again.

'So, how well do you know Inglis, how long have you been here?'

'I followed Yeniya, that's the merchant, from Relshaz. We've been here since just before the end of Aft-Summer.'

'Ever been to Inglis before?'

He shook his head and I stifled a sigh. This job was going to be hard enough and I had hoped for better local sources.

'So what can you tell me about the city? Who thinks they run it and who really runs it?'

'The merchants' guilds run everything,' he said confidently. 'They really are in charge; different guilds do different things but their leaders organise it all between themselves.'

'Any sort of council or electors to give the people a voice?'

'No. Anyone who lives here permanently has to be a member of one of the guilds so I suppose they can get their concerns aired through their mastercraftsman.' He looked a little dubious.

'How does that work?'

'I'm not really sure; each guild has its own systems.'

I frowned. 'How tight is their control? There must be some people who want to strike out for themselves.'

Fremin shook his head again; I had a sinking feeling that he was going to do that a lot. 'Anyone who doesn't join is driven out. Anyway, there are benefits to belonging, free freight for goods to the south being the most important one. The guilds take care of running the city too.'

'There must be some who don't want to pay up,' I objected. 'Guild dues cost money and that means less profit.'

'No, it's all part of the set-up; the guilds don't take coin from their members. They pay their dues in services — street-cleaning, fire-watching and the like.'

Someone had thought this all through very thoroughly. An idea struck me.

'How efficient is the fire-watching? What's the attitude to fire-raising, come to that?'

'Livak!' Geris was outraged as he saw where I was heading.

'Look, it's not like Vanam here,' I reassured him. 'Nearly everything's built of stone for a start.'

Fremin looked unhappy. 'They'll hang you for it, just the same. Money and goods are at risk.'

'I could always raise a fire from a safe distance,' Shiv observed. 'Are you looking for a diversion?'

I nodded. 'The trick here is not just getting the job done, but getting away with it afterwards.'

'Can you do it?' The worry on Darni's face was a surprise.

'I'm not sure,' I said frankly. 'I'll need to find out much more before I can tell you. So, Fremin, or do you prefer Frem?'

'Frem's fine.' He relaxed a little more and I smiled at him; it wasn't his fault he was as much use as a eunuch in a brothel.

'How does this merchant fit in? What's her business and status?'

'She deals in furs and cloth; she buys furs from upriver and wool from Dalasor. She has a deal going with a family who do the weaving and fulling, and then she sends the cloth south to Tormalin as well as selling to trappers and the like when they come down from the hills. She also imports linen and silks from Tormalin and Aldabreshi.'

'Rich?'

'Very. Still quite young, not yet thirty certainly, and she's very pretty.'

'What do you know about her personal life?'

'She's a widow; her husband was one of the clothier family but he died of septic lungs last winter. She's being courted by a handful of men at the moment, all in the same sort of businesses and high up in the guilds.'

'How did you find all this out?'

'I found out where her servants drink and got friendly, asked around, the usual thing. I told them I'm making enquiries for a group of goatherders who are looking for new markets.'

Shiv must have seen through my gambling face. 'Is this looking too difficult?'

'Well, we have the kind of prominent citizen who will be able to call in all sorts of favours when she has a problem, such as the theft of a valuable necklace, for example. More than that, five powerful men are going to be eager to help out as a way of getting between her sheets. People will be asking questions as soon as she misses the piece and I'll bet they'll all be looking for the short southern lad with blue eyes and brown hair who's been asking so many questions and dresses in last year's Relshaz fashions.'

Frem looked a little sick and I felt sorry for him, especially when I saw Darni's expression.

'Next time, take the time to find out as much as you can just by watching. Be a beggar, filth and all, or, better yet, a madman. People might remember there was some imbecile drivelling on about the blue cats following him about, but they won't remember your face.'

'Is that what you do?' Shiv asked curiously.

I grinned at him as I sat back. 'Oh, I have a very nice line in looking for my lost children. I insist they must be around somewhere and people come out with all sorts of useful things when they're explaining why they can't be in this house or that. Once I've got all I can, I start getting odder and odder, explaining that one of the children is a goat and the other's a piglet. They can't get away from me fast enough.'

'Are you going to try that here?' Darni looked dubious.

'No. I'm staying well clear until the actual job. Frem, you can do one last thing for me then you're on your way home. Meet your drinking pals again tonight and find out all you can about these suitors. I especially want to know who's losing the race, and if she's fallen out with any of them over anything recently. Spend as much as you need to, tell them all you've made top coin on a deal for the goats and you're going home tomorrow. Book yourself passage down to Tormalin first thing in the morning and make sure you're seen getting on the boat. Pick a fight with someone on the docks or something.'

'I'll do that with you.' Darni clearly meant to reassure Frem but he looked as if he'd rather take his chances with a docker.

'Shiv, there must be wizards here. Can you find out what they do and how the guilds regard their activities? If you're going to be using magic, I'd like to know what the Watch are likely to make of it.'

He nodded. 'I can do that.'

'Right, I'm off out to see what I can find out for myself. I need to get a feel for the place before I can come up with any sort of plan.'

'I'll come with you.' Geris rose to his feet.

'I'll be less conspicuous on my own, trust me.' I'd be less conspicuous with a mule painted green but I didn't want to hurt his feelings.

'This is a rough town. It could be dangerous,' he objected.

'I can look after myself,' I said as gently as I could. 'I've been doing this kind of thing for a long time now, Geris.'

'If Frem's heading back to Hadrumal, I want to send a report. I'll need your help with that,' Darni stated firmly. 'You and I can stay here, then if Livak needs us to create some kind of diversion later, our faces won't have been seen too much.'

Geris brightened at that. I made my escape and left unobtrusively through the stable yard. I decided to walk; Darni had taken the stitches out of my leg a couple of days earlier and, although it was tender, I'd have more freedom on foot.

I breathed more freely the further I got from them all. Working at someone else's orders still felt oppressive, and it was good to feel at least the illusion of freedom once again. The faintest suggestion of hopping on a ship hovered around the back of my mind, but by now the challenge of the theft was just too enticing. This was going to be the most difficult job I'd ever tackled on my own, and I stifled a sharp regret for Halice, Sorgrad, Sorgren and Charoleia. If I had them to work with, I'd be in and out with half the lady's wealth and she wouldn't even know it. No point cursing over a rotten egg.

I strolled through the town, keeping a careful eye open to avoid anything that might get me noticed. The invisible woman, that's what I wanted to be. Now there was an interesting idea; now I was working with a wizard, I could have all sorts of advantages not open to the ordinary wall-crawler. I would have to ask Shiv more about that.

I was looking for some part of this city less obviously under guild control; in most coast towns it would have been the docks, but with trade the reason for Inglis' existence, that seemed to be the most tightly controlled area of all. I wandered apparently aimlessly, a trader newly arrived, seeing the sights. It was certainly an interesting place; metalsmiths of various sorts each had their own quarter, copper, silver, gold. Close by were gem-buyers, cutters, jewellers and craftsmen. Furriers and tanners worked together, their workshops well downwind of the clothiers and tailors whose warehouses formed most of the central district, interwoven with all the other trades of a major town. There were fruit-sellers, butchers, potters, carpenters, and all were doing brisk trade. Their customers ranged from harassed mothers in plain smocks towing reluctant children, to elegant ladies in flowing silks fawned on by obsequious merchants. Pedlars with trays of trinkets and food wove among the crowds.

I had more trouble spotting the pickpockets and cut-purses. I thought I saw one; I didn't catch him make the lift itself, but he started moving away from his victim faster than the general pace of the crowd. As his face turned towards me, I saw the expression of a rat in a bear-pit; not what the dogs are after but something they'll kill all the same. I scanned the square covertly for the hounds and saw several lightly armoured men circulating round the shops and stalls. Something else struck me. You'll find a Rationalist or two in most places these days, arguing that worshipping the gods is pointless in the modern age. Not in Inglis, it seemed; now was that policy, or just a sign that new ideas had trouble travelling this far?

I kept moving and finally found the horse fair. This was more promising; festival garlands of fruit and flowers still hung on some doors and lay in the gutters. If these people weren't so conscientious about their street-cleaning duties, they might have a more relaxed attitude to other things. I saw a priest actually handing out alms of bread and meat here too; his shrine was as unusually well kept as all the others I had passed but he was the first religious I'd seen in Inglis without a collecting box. There were a few inns across the broad dusty expanse of the sale meadow. The Rising Sun was obviously a brothel and the Cross Swords could only be a drinking den and nothing more. The Eagle promised better and I wasn't disappointed. There was plenty of merriment but no obvious drunks and a lively game of runes was being played to one side. I left them to it; no one wants to chat and gamble. There were tables with White Raven boards by the window and I looked for a vacant seat; I like playing Raven but neither Darni or Geris knew how. Shiv did, but after a few games I could tell he was not really keen, which makes sense when you think about it.

There was an empty seat across from a tall, wiry man with the dark curly hair and olive skin you see most often in southern Tormalin. He sat, seemingly relaxed over a goblet of wine, not a care in the world. I knew better; I could see the alertness in his eyes as he scanned the horse traders and every passing stranger.

He was wearing a business-like sword and sitting half-turned so that nothing would get in his way if he needed it in a hurry. Alert but not predatory, he struck me as interesting.

'Are you looking for a game?' I gestured at the board.

'I'll oblige you if you want to play.' He straightened up and beckoned to the potman.

'Do you want to play the White Raven or the Wood Fowl?' I began sorting the well-worn pieces.

'Whichever. Wine?'

I nodded and began placing the trees and bushes on the board. Let's see how good he was.

'Interesting,' he murmured and I sat back to sip an excellent Califerian red as he selected which birds to set out in the open.

'Just arrived in Inglis?' He did not look up as he set out apple-thrushes and pied crows, a polite man just making polite conversation.

'This morning.' Why should I lie when there was no need?

'Downriver?'

I shook my head and leaned forward to study his layout before placing the raven on the board. It was deceptive in its simplicity and he'd kept back corbies and owls for the next play; this might be one white raven that did get driven out of the forest if I was not careful.

'Are you in from Tormalin then? What's the news?'

Now why did he want to know where I was from? 'No, I came along the south road through Dalasor. I'm up from Ensaimin. How about you?'

'I came up the coast from 'Formalin; I'm running some errands for a few people. I've been here ten days. Perhaps I can help you out, tell you where to find a good inn, the better merchants.'

'That could be useful.' We understood each other nicely.

We played a few rounds and I forced his songbirds off the western edge of the board before he used the hawks to drive me back.

'It's a long trip from Ensaimin,' my new friend observed, refilling my goblet. 'What brings you here?'

'Looking for new opportunities, the usual.'

'It's not a town that welcomes individual enterprise, if you get my meaning.' He glanced up from the board and I could see his friendly warning was sincere.

'It looks very well organised to me,' I observed as if agreeing. 'I hear the guilds run all the services, the Watch and so on.'

'That's right and they do it very well. The Watchmen aren't the usual bunch of losers with a mate on the town council; the guilds hire out of Lescar each winter when the fighting slows down. They're well paid and well trained; there's plenty of money moving round Inglis and the guilds are very keen that everyone knows it's safe.'

'Do they patrol regularly? How good are they at following up on trouble? Suppose I got my room rifled, for example?'

'They patrol everywhere, dawn to dawn. What trouble they don't catch, they hunt down, and I'm pleased to hear they can't be bought off either. They have wizards working with them too.'

'A pretty thorough lot by the look of the gibbets. Does everyone get hanged, or do they have a lock-up as well?'

'There's a keep where they dump drunks and so on.'

'Nice to know the streets will be safe to walk at night.' We both sounded thoroughly pleased with the situation. I betrayed myself with a clumsy move and nearly fell to a hidden group of owls.

'I've not seen many Forest Folk this far east.' He drank his wine and sat back as I studied the board; things were looking increasingly complicated.

'Oh, we get about.'

'It must be a bit of a nuisance, everyone able to pick you out by that copper-top of yours.'

I grinned despite myself. 'Oh, it's surprising what you can do with herbal washes. I can be as black and curly as you if I need to be.'

He smiled back appreciatively. 'I bet you'd look good in it too. The best I can do is shave my head and grow a beard.'

That made for an interesting picture. 'Had to do that often?'

'Now and again. I'm always interested in new opportunities, like yourself.'

We each made a few more moves.

'Blond must be a good colour for hair if you need to dye it.' He was very good; it really sounded as if it had only just occurred to him. 'Not that you see real blond very often.'

'No.' I gazed round the bar at the usual variety of middling brown and darker heads and beards. 'That maid's colour is straight out of an alchemist's crucible for a start.'

'You know, I don't suppose I've ever seen more than a couple of really yellow heads together.' Casual conversation over a friendly game, that's all it was, wasn't it?

'I met someone on the road who said they'd seen a whole troop with corn-coloured hair.' Fair exchange; he'd told me the important things about the Watch. Anyway, I'd be interested to know the reason for his curiosity.

'Oh? When was that?'

'A couple of days before Equinox, just before the drove-road that turns south to Lescar.'

He studied the board, seemingly intent on his next move, but I'd bet I'd have seen an Almanac if I'd been looking through his eyes.

'How are the cattle looking this year?' He made a swift move and boxed my raven in.

'Pretty fair, the rains kept the grass good through the summer.' So our yellow-haired attackers were not the ones he was interested in.

We continued the game and chatted idly about incidental things. It was a good contest and I eventually won, which pleased me more than I expected.

He rose and offered me his hand. 'Thanks for the game. Have a good stay; Inglis is a pleasant town, as long as you don't attract the wrong sort of notice.' He flicked the raven with a finger.

I finished my wine and left a few moments later. Finding the lock-up was easy enough and I studied it for a while before making my way to the district where Yeniya the merchant lived. Despite what I'd said to the others, I wanted to see it for myself. I was glad I did, when careful pacing of the streets and studying the roof-lines suggested her luxurious three-storey house backed directly on to the trading-house she owned in the avenue beyond. I'd have bet all my noble coin on there being a connecting door, and I marked it down as a potential route in or out. I was starting to see a workable plan.

I spent the rest of daylight studying in just as much detail a weaver's guild-house, the farmers' market and two more private houses and in striking up conversations and a game of runes in a couple more inns. I have absolutely no idea if I was being watched but this was neither the time nor the place to take chances. I made my way back to the others with my purse nicely full just as the bells of the city were sounding the first chime of the night. It was so comforting to hear them again after so long in the wilds; town bells mean civilisation, hot water and decent food.

'There you are!' Geris struggled to conceal the extent of his relief and I was touched at his concern.

'I told you I'd be fine.' I gave him a quick kiss. 'Now, let's get some dinner and when the others get back we can do some planning.'

My incidental winnings bought us the best meal in the house and we were laughing and flirting over the end of the wine when Frem and then Shiv reappeared. It was the most natural thing in the world to retire to our parlour with spirits and liqueurs but once the door was locked behind us, it was down to business.

'So, Frem, what do you have to tell us?'

It turned out that Yeniya was playing all of her suitors with a skill that made me glad she'd not taken up the runes professionally. They were all keen, eager and convinced they'd be cutting her hair for Drianon within the year, if not sooner. In the meantime, she was negotiating contracts for her various businesses to increase her already considerable wealth.

I grimaced at this news; I could not see how I could turn any of that to our advantage.

'There was something more.' Frem took a drink of wine. 'There's a nephew of her dead husband who's been making trouble. He took a case to the jurists' guild over the will. He reckoned his bequests were too small and wanted more shares in the business.'

'Did he have a case?'

Frem shrugged. 'That's hard to tell, but he's been telling anyone who'll listen that he only lost because one of the key judges is after Yeniya's hand.'

I grinned; that was just the sort of thing I had hoped for.

'What are you planning?' Geris asked curiously.

'Never mind, I'll tell you later. Shiv, what can you tell us about the wizards?'

He frowned. 'They're well enough respected and fairly represented in the usual trades, but they have to be guild members just like anyone else. I have to say, I think they will have divided loyalties. My authority will make sure they turn a blind eye to anything we do — none of them will point the Watch our way, for example — but I don't think we'll get any active co-operation. Any wizard stepping over the line here is on the next boat out, never mind where it's going.'

'That shouldn't be a problem,' I reassured him. 'Just as long as you can do some magic without everyone pointing the finger.'

'What do you want?'

'If I get myself locked up by the Watch, can you get me out and then back in again?'

'Yes, if I have time to study the building.' Shiv was looking intrigued.

'Can you make me invisible?' This was the big one.

'Yes. It'll last about two chimes — will that do?'

'Good enough.' I leaned back in my chair and smiled at them all. 'I think we can start planning now, gentlemen.'

It was simple enough really; I needed to get in and out without being seen and we wanted a good smelly scent for the Watch to follow when Yeniya started screaming theft, as well as a defence hewn in stone in case I was somehow spotted. Frem told us when her servants were due their next night off and Darni and Geris spent the intervening evenings striking up a drinking friendship with the aggrieved nephew, encouraging him to pour out his complaints ever more loudly and extravagantly. I watched all this one evening from a quiet corner. The pair of them could have taken their act to the Looking Glass; I really had not thought they had it in them, but they were brilliant. I followed our diversion home a couple of nights, and soon had the measure of his small house and its simple locks. Once he had a handful of Yeniya's jewels hidden in his chimney, he should keep the Watch entertained long enough to let us make a casual and completely unremarkable departure a couple of days after the Watch stopped quizzing everyone leaving the city.

CHAPTER FIVE

Taken from:

The Yeoman's Almanac for the Ocean Coast

Sostire Heriod

Containing comprehensive schedules and instructions for all farming, husbandry and household tasks

Schedule of Seasons as Governed by the Moons and Notable Customs thereof

Winter Solstice

Sacred to Poldrion Greater and Lesser Moons Full

Gidesta: White pelt sales. Inglis Frost Fair (Wolf-bounty paid). Dalasor: Mistle Fairs. Riding the Bane-horse. Tormalin: Coin taxes. Winter Assizes. Soulsease Night.

Aft-Winter

Sacred to Misaen

Lasts until end of Second Dark of the Greater Moon Gidesta: Skull-setting to 20th day; Sled-motes thereafter. Dalasor: Marking and blessing the herds. Marrying the Mares. Tormalin: First-flower maidens crowned. Patrons' market-doles.

For-Spring

Sacred to Halcarion Lasts until end of Second Dark of the Lesser Moon

Gidesta: Rite of Dastennin's Step when ice breaks. Inglis fur sales. Dalasor: Horning the Ram-lamb. Forage sales on the Drove Road. Tormalin: Plough-dressing, seed-blessing. Fixing the doorthorns.

Spring Equinox

Sacred to Raeponin

Greater Moon waning, Lesser Moon waxing Gidesta: Mining Contracts sealed, Inglis. Apothecary Fair. Dalasor: Minstrel Day. Lots drawn for summer water-rights. Tormalin: Herd taxes. Convocation of Houses. Blossom-singing.

Aft-Spring

Sacred to Arrimelin

Lasts until Greater and Lesser Moons are both Full. Gidesta: Riverboats commence. Mountain-mote at Gerrad's Peak. Dalasor: Paying the Eldritch Wayleave. Ishelwater Races. Tormalin: Tenure services due. Blessing the hulls and nets.

For-Summer

Sacred to Ostrin

Lasts until Last Quarter of Second Greater Moon. Gidesta: Wool sales and Dyestuff Mart, Inglis. Dock festivals. Dalasor: Shearing. Smoking out the Tick-King. Ring-feathering. Tormalin: Hay-making. Crop-riding days. Rushing the Shrines.

Summer Solstice

Sacred to Saedrin Greater Moon Dark.

Gidesta: Guild Elections in Inglis. Pacifying the Mountains. Dalasor: Dairy fairs and cheese-racing. Whitenight fires. Tormalin: Summer Assizes. Land taxes due. Emperor's Dole.

Aft-Summer

Sacred to Larasion

Lasts until Second Full of the Greater Moon. Gidesta: Apothecaries' Markets. Cloth-sales. Shrine-ales. Dalasor: Crowning the Stones. Dousing the herds. Tormalin: Rose Mart. Shrine Wake-nights. Corn-plaiting.

For-Autumn

Sacred to Dastennin

Lasts through Full Dark until Greater Moon waxes. Gidesta: Close of mining season. Ore-tithe to the Mountains. Dalasor: Herd-motes. Smith-motes. Foster-motes. Tormalin: Harvest. Selling Ostrin's Pig. Sea-salt sales.

Autumn Equinox

Sacred to Drianon

Greater and Lesser Half-Moons. Gidesta: Metal and Gem Fair, Inglis. Rock-salt sales. Dalasor: Cattle fairs on Drove Road. Sounding the Horn-chain. Tormalin: Meat, milk and wool taxes due. Boundary walking.

Aft-Autumn

Sacred to Talagrin

Lasts until Second Full of the Lesser Moon. Gidesta: Sale of Guild prenticeships. Journeyman quit-rents. Dalasor: Planting the Winter-stake. Hide sales. Nut-fairs. Tormalin: Wheat-queening. Last Calf feasts. Open wood-gathers.

For-Winter

Sacred to Maewelin

Lasts until Second Full of the Greater Moon. Gidesta: Candle-auctions for trapping tracts. Ice races, Inglis. Dalasor: Burning the Ails-faggot. Dressing the Sentinel-trees. Tormalin: Green-branching the Shrines. Cording the roads.

Inglis, 10th of Aft-Autumn

The night for our little enterprise arrived and Shiv and I set out. Later Geris was going to bring the hapless nephew back to the inn for a friendly game of runes. Shiv had left a few spells to guarantee no one would be able to remember seeing the man and I had left Geris a rather special set of bones to make sure he could control the game. I'd spent a few evenings teaching him some tricks and the combination of his nimble fingers and naive manner could be quite devastating. I almost found myself wondering if we might not have a longer-term future after all; cosy nights together in a feather bed did a lot to encourage such ideas.

It was chilly and dark out, but the streets were lit by the flambeaux at wealthy doors and the linkmen with their lanterns. I took a swig of the juniper liquor I was carrying and then poured a little over my clothes and hair. I had to be careful; there was no point in being invisible later on if everyone was wondering where the smell of a pot-still was coming from. We found a quiet tavern in the kind of respectable neighbourhood that Watchmen like to look after and I launched into my celebrated impression of a drunk, maudlin and argumentative by turns. Perhaps I should audition for Judal too. It was not long before the taverner sent out a boy with a message.

'Come on, sweetheart, let's find somewhere for you to have a nice lie-down.'

'He said he loved me, he swore it.'

'I'm sure he did.' The Watchman half carried me out and escorted me firmly to the lock-up. I judged him Lescari, by his accent, and keen, by his shiny breast-plate.

I didn't see Shiv following but the cell door had not been long shut when I was caught up in a dizzying invisible spiral of air. I felt completely disoriented and not a little sick so I shut my eyes to find myself standing next to Shiv when I opened them. I managed not to vomit on his shoes; I did not think that would be much of a thank you.

'Come on.' We moved as fast as we could without attracting attention.

'I've left an illusion of you sleeping,' Shiv whispered.

'Good thinking.' There's always something that doesn't occur to you and I was beginning to wonder if Shiv might be amenable to working with me and Halice in the future.

We found the discreet alley by Yeniya's house where Darni was waiting.

'She came back at seventh chime and hasn't gone out again yet. The servants left just before dusk.'

I frowned. We knew Yeniya was due to be dining with her jurist and we were counting on the fact that she'd never yet been seen wearing the chain with evening gowns.

'All right, get back and help Geris.'

Darni left and Shiv worked his magic on me. It felt really odd; I could see myself but dimly, as if I were a shadow. I took off my cloak and when I dropped it at Shiv's feet, he jumped as it became visible.

'Get back to the inn,' I whispered.

'What if there's a problem? What if she's not going out after all?' His gaze went somewhere past my right ear.

'I'll deal with it from here. We don't want anyone seeing you hanging about.'

He left and I crossed the street to take the steps down to the kitchen yard. It rather took the fun out of it, not having to watch, wait and hug the shadows. Should I go in or not? I was invisible, after all, and we knew the servants had left. Should I risk trying to find my way around the house if Yeniya was still in there? What could she be doing alone in an empty house? I could think of a few things; one at least would mean she was not actually on her own. Was that so bad? If she was busy playing stuff the chicken with some handsome lackey, they'd be unlikely to hear me playing house cat. I only hoped she had a separate dressing-room and did not keep her jewellery in the bedchamber. Good sex may make you think the earth is spinning, but it doesn't make caskets open of their own accord or things float through the air. I made up my mind to go inside anyway; if it all looked impossible, I'd just sneak out again and we'd have to come up with something new.

The kitchen and basement were dark and the locks soon gave in. I crept through the echoing darkness of the kitchen, sliding my feet along the smooth flagstones. The lingering smells of laundry and baking mixed with the hot metal scent of the range, teasing my memory; I had been reared in a place like this. There was no sign of food preparation, so Yeniya and her swain were apparently not dining in. That was a relief, but what was going on? We'd been watching her for days now, and she was usually as regular as the rains in Aldabreshi. Something was starting to feel very wrong as I skirted the long scrubbed table and headed for the door. I was starting to wish Shiv was still waiting outside or, better yet, in here too.

I crept up the stairs and into the richly furnished hall. Even in the gloom, it made the house where I'd grown up look tawdry; Yeniya or her late husband had taste as well as coin. Lustrous vases shimmered in alcoves, passing flashes of light through the windows threw splashes of colour on to the pictures that lined the walls. Dried flowers in silver stands scented the air; the house was confident, beautiful and serene. I stole silently up the carpeted steps to the first floor and found that the lady herself was now anything but these things.

Whoever they were, they'd shown no mercy. Her elegant and painted fingers had been brutally snapped, with the broken bones worked savagely against each other, ivory splinters gleaming in the ruin of the flesh. Blood on her once flawless face showed how she'd bitten right through her lip, silently eloquent of her agony, while tears made a sorry mess of her fashionable make-up. Clumps of her lustrous brown hair had been ripped out bodily leaving the rest stickily matted. The stains of bruises round her neck had stopped darkening when death finally released her but I could see the pattern of repeated strangling and release clearly enough. Her wrists and ankles showed the prints of vicious hands, and the blood and pale stains on her green satin shift told me why. Had the rape been part of the torture, or a bonus for the boys? A dagger thrust through one eye had ended her torment but the other, glazed and rimmed with blood, stared straight at me, the bright blue dimmed in death. That eye beseeched me; why had this had happened to her?

I pressed my hands against my mouth until I got a grip of myself. This was a whole new throw of the runes. I forced myself to gather my wits; I had to find out all I could and then get clear. I reached to pull the ripped shift to cover her torn nakedness but stopped myself just in time. If wizards were working with the Watch, who knew what they could discover about who had been here and why. I must not touch anything.

I forced myself to ignore the pitiable corpse and looked around the room. It was an office and the invaders had ransacked it comprehensively. Parchments were strewn around the floor, torn, trampled and bloody. I squinted at some, blessing my Forest sight; they were business documents and even to my untrained eye looked significant, detailing percentages, commissions and purchase agreements. I glanced over at the body again; that much work had taken time. She was not gagged or bound, there were no bruises round her mouth to betray a stifling hand; the savage assault had to have made an unholy noise. Why had no one heard her screams? Why had Darni not heard her? I moved to the window; I could see the entrance to the alley where he had kept watch. This had happened while she was dressing for her dinner engagement; where was her maid? I wondered queasily. How had her assailants got in?

A massive strongbox was set against one wall, bolted to it if I'm any judge. The lid was up, though for the life of me I couldn't see how they had got it open; there were no keys anywhere about. More papers were scattered about and a stack of soft leather bags whispered seductively to me. I was not in the least tempted but something looked odd. I had a closer look at the contents, pushing things aside with my dagger point, and then sat back on my heels, frowning. There must have been coin in here; a few coins had slipped between the papers but the rest had gone. There was some jewellery left in the scattered velvet wrappings but those lovely pouches of polished gems had been left alone.

What was this all about? A hit on a strongbox to snatch coin is a fast robbery, in and out and spend the goods that same night, ideally on something you can resell fast. Why leave nice, untraceable gems behind and take highly identifiable jewellery? Torture is a long job and risky in a place like this — why torture at all for that matter? If they wanted information on her business and property, they had left stacks of it trampled underfoot. Come to that, Yeniya was a significant player in her own trade but there were bigger fish. What could she know that was worth this risk in a city where cut-purses got their necks stretched for a first offence? It all smelled very rank. I looked into the chest again; should I search for that chain? No, I'd bet it was long gone with whoever had killed Yeniya. I felt cold; was that what they had been after all along? I had no reason to think so but I was convinced all the same. Stuff this, time for me to leave.

I looked into the chest; should I take something to plant on the nephew anyway? No, he may have been an idiot and greedy with it but he did not deserve to get dropped any deeper into this mire. Was there anything of any use to us at all? Nothing that could be worth the risk of being tied to this crime.

I moved to the door and froze, heart pounding as I heard a soft noise in the hall below. Idiot, I told myself, it's probably just the kitchen cat. Probably, but what if it wasn't? I looked down at my hands, still nice and shadowy, but I cursed myself as I realised I had not been listening out for the chimes. How much longer could I rely on this handy concealment? I moved slowly to a dark corner and leaned cautiously forward until I could just see over the banister. The darkness in the well of the stairs was inky black but a passing lantern sent a gleam through the windows and I saw a shadow move quickly under the stairs. I stood perfectly still and watched as the shadow split and a dark figure ran silently down the hallway towards the kitchen.

I padded up to the next floor on silent feet, heart racing as I forced myself to move carefully round the ornaments. What had seemed elegantly decorative earlier was now just so much inconvenient clutter. I paused to calm my breathing and strained my ears for any sound of pursuit. I could hear nothing, but I was not happy. The doors around me were all closed and I did not want to risk squeaky hinges giving me away, however unlikely in a house so well maintained. I moved down the hallway with agonising stealth on the polished floorboards. Which of the doors at the end led to the back stairs? I pressed my face to the crack of each and was rewarded by the faint kiss of a draught on my lips. I tried the handle and blessed Halcarion as it moved silently and I found the servants' route to the basement.

There was no light at all. Even my Forest sight failed me and I had to feel my way down each step with hesitant feet, forcing aside fears of some unknown hand coming up out of the blackness to grab me. I had to concentrate on getting out of there before Shiv's spell wore off. My right hand was running down the panels of the wall to keep me balanced while I had my dagger ready in my left; an irregularity in the wood caught my finger and I stopped, wondering what it was. No thicker than a knife blade, the line ran round the moulding of the panel and when I pressed lightly on it, it gave a little. I let out a slow breath; could this be the door to the warehouse? It was in the right place and that would make sense. If I got out of here, I'd have to lay off the runes for a season, I was using up luck at such a rate.

I ran suddenly shaky fingers round the panel; there had to be a lock or a catch. Nothing. Stuff it. I rubbed my hands together till they stilled and tried again. This time I found a piece of moulding that slid aside to reveal a small hole. A lock; a catch would have been better but I lost no time getting to work with a lockpick while the dark silence pressed in all around me.

There, I had it. I was through and locking it behind me faster than a rat out of a burning barn. Once I had it secure, I turned to see where I was. The roof was lost in the blackness above but I could just make out tall racks marching away from me in neat lines. I could smell the harshness of new dye and, when I stretched out a searching hand, I felt the reassuring smoothness of broadcloth. I moved fast and headed for the far side where I knew there were doors. I only hoped there were no Watchmen, private or guild-employed; another thing I should have thought to check in advance. A faint scent vaguely like that of a damp dog told me I was among the fur stock and I peered into the gloom for the way out.

A footfall ahead froze me. I almost thought I had imagined it but a few seconds later it came again, the click of a steel-rimmed boot sole on the flagstones. I took a side turning and reached into the furs; was there anywhere to hide? No good. I looked at the racks; were they sturdy enough to climb? Perhaps, but as I weighed up the risks, my head suddenly started to swim. I blinked but the disorientation got worse and worse; it was like having an instant fever. I took a step forward but could not remember which way I had been heading. I turned to go back but that did not feel right either; my knees buckled and my hands started shaking. The tall racks of furs loomed, shifting and crossing in front of me, pressing down from above until I felt like screaming. The smell became a sickening, choking stench and my breath started rattling in my chest. I turned again and fell to my knees as the floor lurched beneath me. I clung to the flagstones as if I was afraid of falling off. The urge to scream was building in my throat but in some sane corner of my delirious mind I knew I must not do it. I bit my tongue hard and the bitterness of blood filled my mouth. The pain seemed to help clear my thoughts and I dived under the lowest shelf of pelts with the last of my control.

As I lay there, shaking my head and trying desperately to get a grip on my scattered wits, I saw a pair of black boots walk silently up the aisle. The rub of leather on leather whispered past and I lay as still as a statue on a shrine. As the almost imperceptible steps receded, my head cleared and I lay there frantically trying to work out which way the door would be. As I racked my brains, I became aware of a faint light ahead of me. I shuffled forwards with agonising care but what I saw made me think I was going under the delirium again. Footprints were gleaming on the stones, not with any of the colours of magelight but with a faint luminescence like the moonfire you get on ships. I stared and then a shock ran though me as I realised those were my steps being outlined for whoever was chasing me. I wriggled round to check my boot soles but there was nothing on them so there was no point in taking them off.

I scrambled through to the opposite side of the racks as fast as I could without making too much noise, but speed was more important than silence now. I stood and looked wildly round. Boots echoed a few rows behind me so I headed away from them, cursing silently as the tell-tale silver footprints followed me. I reached the large double doors and found the postern; my picks slipped in my sweaty hands as I tried to unlock it. My hands, my solid, completely solid and visible hands; I realised with a lurch of terror that Shiv's spell was gone. The scrape of a boot-heel came out of the blackness and my nerve snapped like a bowstring. I wrenched back the bolts of the main doors and shoved them open; I'd take my chances with whoever might be on guard rather than risk ending up like Yeniya.

A shout behind me summoned the hunters and I ran for my life. The streets were dark and silent. My steps echoed back from the blank stone walls of the warehouses. There was nowhere to hide even if I had wanted to. I ran on, heading for the centre of the city, my head clearing in the cool night air, thank Saedrin. Why is there never a Watchman around when you need one?

I saw the dark opening of an alley and slowed a pace; should I go down it or not? That hesitation saved my life as a black-clad man stepped out and swung a sword where my head should have been. I scrambled backwards, drawing my own sword; how in Poldrion's name had they moved ahead of me?

The killer moved and lashed out with his sword. I parried the blow, which made my arms ache, and I had to move fast to avoid the follow-up. I dropped my dagger and drew my reserve from my belt; the good news was this one was poisoned, the bad news was that I'd have to get in close to use it. Thank Saedrin Darni had agreed to practise with me after our Dalasorian encounter. I needed all the skills I'd ever learned to get out of this.

He came at me again with an over-arm stroke that would have split my skull but I was able to dodge it. I watched him carefully and realised he was signalling his moves with his off hand, not by much but even a few breaths' advantage could save me here. We circled and fought and when I saw he was going for the overhead smash again, I darted in and stabbed my dagger into the armpit gap of his hauberk. He spat something at me in complete gibberish and I leaped back to avoid his riposte. That's the trouble with poisons; the ones that are safe to carry around on weapons are not necessarily the fastest.

His next swing was slower and he was licking his lips as the venom started to work. His reflexes failed him and I was able to take out his knees with my next stroke. As he fell, I took his head off with a sweeping cut and it skittered across the street like a ball, helm coming loose to reveal a flaxen head rolling in the moonlight. Blood went everywhere and I swore; that would attract the Watch, if nothing else did.

A shout behind me died into a gasp. I whirled round to see three more men in identical armour heading straight for me. I slipped in the blood as I took a pace back and cursed, scraping my boot-sole on the cobbles as I retreated. I turned to run but the world went weird on me again. You know those dreams when you're trying to run and you can't, when it feels like you're waist-deep in water? It only took a few steps before I turned to face whoever was coming for me. If I was going to die, it wasn't going to be from a sword in the back.

They approached. I saw one grinning, teeth gleaming in his pale face. That made me furious and I spat curses at them as I spread my sword and dagger in a lethal embrace. The poison should be good for one more if I could get a deep thrust, and I'd take as many of the bastards with me as I could. They closed around me as I got my back to the wall, and I wondered how expensive Poldrion's ferry might be tonight.

'Hey, shit for brains! How about picking on someone your own size? Got the stones for it?' Three men emerged from the alleyway with a clash of drawing swords. They were rough and dirty and looked like death in hob-nailed boots; my heroes.

As my hunters froze in a moment's confusion, my own wits awake and spurred me on. I stabbed the nearest one in the neck and dashed through the gap as he stumbled from the force of the blow.

'Need some help, sweetheart?' The leader of my rescuers stepped up to my side and smiled like a mad dog through his filthy beard. Hardly a Lescari Duke riding to my aid but I wasn't going to criticise his hygiene.

He needed no answer as the hunters in black moved to attack the new threat. They moved together like trained soldiers and attacked as one. My new allies did not have the same polish but made up for it with the savagery born of life in the mining camps. They hacked with their notched swords, driving the hunters back step by step. I was still busy with the one I'd just stabbed, who was taking his own sweet time about succumbing to the poison. His eyes finally rolled and he stumbled forward, so I got my dagger up under his chin. He dropped to his knees at my feet, and I caught the incongruous scent of orris from his clean-shaven face before blood gushed from his slack lips.

I kicked the corpse aside and moved to help one of my new pals. Now we were two on one, the hunters did not last much longer. One died with his brains spread in an arc across the wall as a sword ripped through his skull and tore off his face. The other went down more cleanly when the sudden realisation of his imminent fate made him drop his guard and he took a straight thrust to the throat.

'Move.' Mad-dog had us moving before the man at his feet had stopped gurgling. We ran down the alley and it led to another street of warehouses and trading yards. We ran on through a network of alleys and back lanes until we came out into a quiet street of rooming-houses.

'Thanks doesn't seem to cover it, lads,' I said fervently as we slowed to a nonchalant walk.

'You looked like you could do with a hand, flower.'

'I can't argue with that. What were you doing there?'

'Out for a stroll.' The men exchanged glances and I could see our fragile alliance was fading.

'Good luck for me.' I reached for my purse and wondered how much to give them. Stuff it, they could have the whole lot; I cut it loose with my dagger.

'Get drunk on me and do me a favour, forget you ever saw me.'

Mad-dog blinked. 'You don't have to—' he began uncertainly.

'Cheers.' One of his mates took the purse from me and weighed it appreciatively.

We continued walking slowly along until we had passed a patrolling Watchman. The dark hid the blood on our clothes but I was as nervous as a colt in a breaking yard. I left the miners at the next street corner without looking back and hurried back to the inn as fast as I dared. I slipped through the stableyard and snatched up a cloak some fool had left on his saddle. Wrapping it round me to hide the bloodstains, I went up the back stairs. The parlour door was locked, which threw me, and I rattled the handle angrily.

'Open up,' I hissed into it.

Keys rattled and I fell forward as Darni snatched the door out of my hand in opening it. I pushed past him.

'We've got a demon of a problem on our backs—' I began breathlessly.

'Do you know where he is?' Darni grabbed my shoulder, his fingers digging in painfully.

'Where who is?' I shoved his hand off. 'Listen, this is important.'

'No, you listen.' Darni was a pace away from outright fury and I realised I did not want to see that. 'Do you know where Geris is?'

'Geris?' I looked at him stupidly. 'He's supposed to be here playing runes with What's-his-name the nephew.'

'He's gone.' I looked round to see Shiv kneeling by the coffers we'd been hauling over so many leagues, the now open and empty coffers.

'Gone?' Repeating everything was not very helpful but I could not get my mind round what they were saying.

'According to the innkeeper, he left just before I got back.' Darni's face was set like stone. 'He's taken three seasons' work with him and gone off with a group of yellow-haired men.'

I stared at him, jaw dropped open. I shut my mouth, turned on my heel and ran. I slammed out of the inn, ignoring Darni's outraged bellow and the startled stares of the customers.

Pelting through the dark streets, I found myself muttering the first truly sincere prayer of my adult life. 'Halcarion, please let him be there, please let him be there.' Was the Moon Maiden still going to be listening to me after I'd used up so much luck already tonight?

'Can I help you, madam?' Another of those well-polished Watchmen stepped out of a doorway to bar my path. I registered the gleam of his breastplate just fast enough to stop myself palming my dagger; my nerves were as taut as a bowstring and fraying fast.

'Sorry? No, thank you. I'm late for a meet, that's all.' I stumbled over the words but he just saluted me briefly and stepped back.

I forced myself to walk more slowly; I was still wearing bloody clothes and the last thing I wanted to do was explain that away. No one was raising a hue and cry so it didn't look as if the murder had been discovered yet but it wouldn't take long; the servants would be home soon for a start.

The horse fair was still wide awake; the corrals were full and herders in from Dalasor and Gidesta were camped round fires, singing and drinking with scant regard for anyone who might want to sleep. The Eagle was lit and lively and I pushed my way through the crowd, hampered by the need to keep the cloak wrapped round me.

I scanned the throng for the dark curly head, the long limbs. Finally I saw the man I was looking for; he was playing White Raven with a horse trader, their finely balanced game attracting a circle of people. He looked up as I approached, the lamplight glinting gold in his brown eyes, but now I had found him, I just stood there dumbly, unable to think what to say.

'Is it Grandmother? Has she had another seizure? All right, I'm coming.' He rose and escorted me out immediately, supportive arm around my shoulders, half a head taller than most of the press of people who parted before us.

'What is it?' We paused in the space beyond the horse pens where no one could overhear us.

'You're hunting yellow-haired men. Have you got a lead on them yet?' I demanded.

'Not yet,' he said slowly. 'Why do you ask?'

'Someone I'm travelling with has disappeared and I think they've taken him.'

'Shit!' His composure broke for a moment and I saw real fury in his eyes, his hand gesturing involuntarily towards his sword hilt. 'So who are you? What's your business?'

'I'm travelling with a wizard and an Archmage's agent. They're collecting Tormalin Empire artefacts for some project of Planir's. We had a Vanam scholar with us, Geris. We were out this evening and when we got back, he'd gone, apparently with a group of blond men.'

'He couldn't have gone off himself? Why do you think these men are the ones I want?' His eyes were keen and his face impassive. Not a man to play runes with when drinking.

'On the road here we were hit by a troop of these cornheads, and when I was out doing a job tonight I was attacked by more of them. That's no coincidence. You're looking for them and it has to be something important to bring you this far north.'

'What was the job?'

I hesitated; I did not want to give too much away and I felt strangely reluctant to admit to my role as wizard's tame thief. 'Can we help each other over this?' I persisted. 'I can't say more until I have your word.'

'Surely.' He nodded and swore a binding oath to Dastennin; an interesting choice.

As I told him the bare essentials of the tale, the five chimes of midnight interrupted us. He cursed and looked around. I saw the horse traders dousing their fires and the inns escorting reluctant customers to the doors. I'd only just made it.

'We can't do much tonight.' He ran a hand through his hair. 'How about I see you at first light?'

I nodded and turned to go; I could not think of anything else to do or say and the energy generated by the night's shocks was fading fast. I stumbled on some dried horseshit and would have fallen if he had not caught my arm.

'Are you all right?' I saw him rub his fingertips together, sniffing to confirm the blood.

'It's not mine.' I said tiredly. 'It's just been a pig of a night and I'm exhausted.'

'You can have my bed here if you want,' he offered.

I shook my head. 'I'll be fine. Darni will start taking the city apart if I go missing too.'

'The wizard?'

'No, the agent. Be careful of him, by the way; he doesn't take ideas from other people well.'

'Do you want me to walk you back?'

'No thanks. I'll be careful.'

He nodded and turned to go back to the Eagle. He looked back over his shoulder. 'By the way, what's your name?'

I stared at him for a moment before realising we'd not even introduced ourselves.

'Livak, I'm called Livak.'

'I'm Ryshad.' He winked at me and smiled encouragement. 'See you in the morning.'

He crossed the horse fair with rapid strides of his long legs and I lost him in the press of shadows. I walked slowly back to our inn. Now it was after midnight, the Watch would be taking more careful note of who was out and about. I raised the hood of my cloak and kept to the shadows. Perhaps I should have accepted Ryshad's escort: a couple would have been less noteworthy. I realised he had not pressed the point and I wondered when I'd last met a man who took me at my word when I said I could take care of myself. It made for a refreshing change.

Darni was nearly chewing the table when I got back. 'Don't ever go off like that again!' he spat at me in fury. 'Where the shit did you go?'

'I know someone who might be able to help,' I said curtly. 'He'll be here in the morning.'

I pushed past him and headed for the table where Shiv sat, head hanging over a cup of wine.

'Shiv!' I'd forgotten all about him; we'd been supposed to meet back at the Watch lock-up. 'What—

He cut me off with a tired gesture. 'I opened the locks on a handful of cells and the main door. With all the commotion there'll be, I don't suppose you'll be missed.'

'Thanks.' I made a mental note to be careful anyway, though one more drunk shouldn't be too memorable, should she?

'Piss on that! Who've you been yapping to?' Darni grabbed me by the shoulder.

I was less than a step from losing my temper too by now. I smacked his hand off.

'Stuff you, Darni. I nearly got killed tonight, do you realise that? Where do you think all this blood came from? You haven't even asked me how I got on, doing your dirty work for you!'

'I didn't have much chance, did I? I wanted to ask you about Geris but you ran out of here like a kicked cat! Don't ever do that again, do you hear me?'

'Don't give me orders, Darni, I'm not one of your dim-witted trail hounds. Didn't you hear me? I nearly got killed tonight; in my runes, that makes us even. I'm not working for you or your precious Archmage any more.'

'Shut up, both of you! This isn't doing anything for Geris!'

Shiv stepped between us and I noticed how tired he was looking. My anger faded and I felt frightened and weary to the bone. I helped myself to a long drink of his wine but it did no good.

'Have you been scrying? Can't you find him?'

'I can't find any trace. I've tried everything I can think of.' Shiv could not keep the fear and frustration from his voice. 'Let's get some sleep and see what we can do once it's light.'

I nodded and left, ignoring Darni completely. Going to my room, I stripped off, dumping the soiled clothes in a heap. I hurried into bed and wrapped myself in the blankets, falling asleep almost at once. I was worried to a standstill about Geris and still fretting about Yeniya, the blond men and everything else. But I had simply had enough. I was too tired even to cry.

CHAPTER SIX

Taken from:

Nemith the Reckless — 7th Year and Last

Annals of the Empire — Sieur D'Isellion

It was in this year that Nemith, last of that line, succumbed to his most foolhardy ambition, the conquest of Gidesta. The year began badly, a double dark of the moons at Winter Solstice is always inauspicious, yet Nemith scoffed at the customary rites to propitiate Poldrion at such a time and humiliated the Auspex who came to take the auguries for the coming year. Relations with the official priesthood deteriorated sharply from this point.

It was at the Imperial Solstice festivites that rumours began to circulate that the Emperor would be acclaimed at Equinox with the epithet 'Reckless'. The delay in his acclamation by the Great Houses mas already a source of considerable irritation to Nemith and his correspondence with General Palleras suggests he mas even considering the use of military force against some of his more outspoken detractors. While such an idea may seem hard to credit, this mould explain his unprecedented decision to retain the cohorts under arms from the previous year, through harvest and on into the autumn and winter seasons. Needless to say, such orders mere very unpopular with the troops, leading to considerable unrest in the camps as well as a poor harvest and hardship in the rural areas with so much of the workforce absent. This in turn forced up the cost of bread in the cities and led to growing agitation among the urban poor. The princes of the Great Houses remonstrated with the Emperor on several occasions, until Nemith showed his contempt for Sieur Den Rannion by using his letters as napkins at one of his debauched entertainments. The Princes of the Convocation refused all invitations to the Imperial residence from that point but Nemith merely took this as a sign of their acquiescence.

By Equinox, the cohorts were suffering famine in their encampments and revolt threatened. Nemith sought desperately for a campaign which would both offer the soldiers booty and remove them from the more prosperous reaches of the Empire. Believing Caladhria and Dalasor to be pacified, he ordered the troops north across the Dalas. The tales of distant riverbeds thick with gold and cliffs laced with seams of silver are repeated several times in his letters to his wife, evidently a powerful incentive. As the Imperial accounts for the year show, he was nearly bankrupt by this point and all the Princes of the Great Houses had been refusing him credit for two full seasons. He was indeed acclaimed as 'Reckless' at the Equinox Convocation, an insult all the more galling as he was, of course, unable to retaliate in any way.

The Gidestan campaign began badly as the Mountain Men emerged from their winter homes in the valley fastnesses of the Dragon's Spine and began to fight back. Their ferocity overwhelmed peasant levies used for undemanding duties in Lescar and Caladhria. More crucially, it became apparent that they had far greater numbers to field than had been expected. In alienating princes, patrons and priests, Nemith had left his armies without experienced commanders, essential intelligence-gathering and the means of rapid communication and resupply. As his losses mounted, desertion became a major problem; Nemith ordered ever more harsh disciplinary measures but of course this only made matters worse. The Princes refused to levy more cohorts from among their tenantry and openly sheltered men fleeing the Emperor's own lands. It is debatable whether Nemith could have salvaged his rule at this point by withdrawing back across the Dalas. Perhaps he could, but events in Ensaimin and Caladhria soon made this academic.

Inglis, 11th of Aft-Autumn, Morning

It was full daylight when I woke next morning and, for a fleeting moment, I lay there, enjoying the soft bed and the peace and quiet. Then I missed Gens' warmth in the soft woollen covers and the chaos of the day before came crashing back.

'Livak?' Shiv's soft voice at my door saved me from tears.

'I'm awake, come in.' I scrubbed the sleep from my face with my hands.

He entered with a steaming jug and placed it on the wash-stand. I swung my legs out of the bed and reached for my last clean shirt. It wasn't for modesty's sake; it was getting distinctly chilly in the mornings now we were well into After-Autumn. Well, I didn't have to worry about Shiv making advances, did I?

Shiv opened the shutters and I frowned at him. 'You look shattered. You told us to get some sleep — what were you doing?'

'I thought of a few more things to try,' he admitted sheepishly.

'You can't afford to exhaust yourself,' I said sternly. 'Drianon, I'm sounding like my mother, Shiv. Don't make me do that again!'

He managed a half-smile. 'There's a man asking for you. His name's Ryshad; he said you would know what it was about.'

That got me out of bed and dressing fast. 'Where is he?'

'In the parlour. Darni's organising some breakfast.'

I pitied the poor kitchen maids. When I got to the parlour, Darni was eating bread and meat with single-minded concentration and ignoring Ryshad completely. He was sitting with a mug of small beer and seemed unconcerned at the waves of hostility coming across the table.

'Ryshad, thanks for coming.' I looked at the food on offer: meat, bread, some leftovers from the night before. No oatmeal; I looked at Darni and decided to do without. I took a bowl of some sort of fruit pudding and a goblet of wine, watering it well.

'So, what's your interest in all this?' Darni looked up from his food, his eyes challenging.

'I'm hunting yellow-haired men who attacked a relative of my patron,' Ryshad said in an easy tone. 'Livak and I met a few days ago and swapped a little information. She tells me they seem to have taken one of your friends.'

'You're from Tormalin then?' Shiv looked interested and I was too.

'From Zyoutessela. I'm a sworn man to Messire D'Olbriot.' He reached into his shirt and fetched out a bronze amulet stamped with a crest.

'Which means what, exactly?' Shiv enquired.

'My sword is his,' Ryshad said simply. 'I do his bidding.'

I didn't know the name but the title and style meant old blood and if he was reckoned a patron, this D'Olbriot must be a major player in the complexities of Tormalin politics.

'Do you know him?' Shiv looked enquiringly at Darni.

'I know of him — and carrying a sworn man's insignia without commission is a hanging offence.' Darni's air of belligerence faded a little and he looked at Ryshad with a measuring eye. 'Messire D'Olbriot can trace his line back three more generations than the Emperor and doesn't mind letting him know it.'

'What did these men do to him?' I reached for more water.

'They attacked one of his nephews on his way home from a banquet. The lad was beaten and left for dead; he's blind in one eye now and cannot use one of his arms. His mind is damaged too; he's little more than a child again.' Ryshad's anger showed briefly through his dispassionate words and he unconsciously twitched his cloak away from his sword-hilt.

'Why did they do it?'

'As far as we can tell, robbery. He was wearing some heirloom rings, the only things taken.'

Shiv and Darni exchanged glances which Ryshad noted as he continued.

'My patron wants revenge for the injuries and the return of his property. If I catch up with them in a place where there's reliable justice, I have authority to hand them over. If not, I have orders to kill them myself

I didn't have a problem with that and in any case who was going to get in the way of a Tormalin prince's man?

'You're going to deal with them on your own?' Darni tried and failed to keep the sarcasm out of his tone.

'I'm working with someone and we're fairly effective in a fight if we have to be.' Ryshad's voice was assured. 'We generally hire local help if it's required.'

'What era were these rings?' Shiv asked.

'Nemith the Seafarer.' Ryshad looked at me expectantly. 'It looks as if you're not the only ones collecting antiquities.'

Shiv silenced Darni with a gesture. 'I take it Livak told you we're working for Planir?'

Ryshad nodded. There was an awkward silence as everyone wondered what to say next. I broke it by thumping my bowl down on the table. 'Right, now we've established we're all working for really important people, we can all act suitably impressed later on. What are we going to do about finding Geris? What do you know about these people, Ryshad?'

He grimaced and ran a hand over his unshaven chin. 'Not much. They're foreign, I mean really foreign, not from any of the Old Empire countries.'

'Could they be Soluran?' Darni sounded doubtful.

Ryshad shook his head. 'I know Solura quite well; these men aren't like anyone I've heard of from that side of the world. As far as I can find out, they're not speaking in Soluran, any of the old provincial languages, or even Tormalin.'

That was odd; everyone speaks Tormalin as well as their mother tongue don't they? You have to if you want to be involved in trade or learning of any kind.

'How are they managing to communicate with people then?' Shiv looked more concerned than I thought the question warranted.

'They aren't bothering. I've been trailing them up the length of the coast, and I can't find anyone who's had direct dealings with them, not that's still alive anyway. They turn up somewhere, perform a task and leave the same night.'

'What are they doing?' I was starting to think I already knew the answer.

'Taking Tormalin antiquities, mainly,' Ryshad confirmed. 'They don't make any effort to hide what they're doing. They hit someone, beat them senseless or even torture them, and then take some ancient jewels or a sword, heirloom silver, that sort of thing. It makes no sense; what they're taking doesn't warrant the level of violence they're using. When we go after them, they've disappeared like smoke in the breeze.'

'What else are they up to?' Darni's hostility was waning as his professional interest was aroused.

Ryshad sat forward. 'You may be able to make more sense of this. They've been attacking shrines and killing priests.'

He looked a little disappointed as our blank expressions showed our ignorance.

'If they're coming and going like marsh gas, how did you get here ahead of them?' Darni enquired, all business now.

'They've been working up the coast in a fairly direct line and only hitting the big cities. After Bremilayne, there wasn't anywhere else for them to go. We thought we'd got ahead of them for once. We've been waiting here for half a season and now they come out of nowhere again and take your scholar.' Frustration gave a sharp edge to Ryshad's tone.

'That's not all they've done. You'd better all know about Yeniya; we could be in a winter's worth of cowshit if the Watch come looking for us.'

I put down my drink and told the tale of my hair-raising evening. It made me shiver just to remember it, and my breakfast soured in my stomach.

'Was that coincidence, or did they know you were going to hit Yeniya?' Ryshad mused.

Darni looked a little sick. 'They could have got it out of Geris.'

'No, she was dead before we left him here, I'm sure of it.' I did not like to think of Geris in the hands of men who could do what I had seen.

'Tell me more about the disorientation,' Shiv commanded, looking up from some notes.

I went through it again. 'Was it magic?'

'It's nothing I know of Shiv sounded positively offended. He dripped sealing wax on to a folded parchment and stamped it with his ring. 'I'll be back in a moment.'

Darni looked at me as Shiv left the room. 'You're not really used to fights, are you? Remember the Eldritch ring; you were in an ungodly state after that. Are you sure it wasn't just fear getting to you?' His tone was carefully neutral.

I shook my head. 'I'm used to creeping about in dark houses, Darni. I don't jump at shadows and I've got Forest sight, remember. I was scared, sure, but that makes my wits sharper.'

There was a pause while we all looked at our hands and I thought seriously about leaving the lot of them to it and heading back for Ensaimin. I'd missed the fair at Col, but I could pick up Halice if she was fit to travel and we could head for Relshaz where Charoleia would be wintering. I sighed. I couldn't leave without knowing what had happened to Geris; I owed him that much at very least. I fought an illogical annoyance with him for getting himself taken like that. That's what comes of playing with amateurs.

Shiv came back in. 'I'm going to contact Planir,' he said abruptly. 'He's got to know what's going on and I need some instructions.'

'There's no need to do that,' Darni objected. 'We could have Geris back by tonight. These men have surely left a trail.'

'I've been after them since For-Summer and I've never found one,' Ryshad said calmly.

'Geris isn't stupid; he could well get himself free,' Darni insisted.

'If he's capable. The innkeeper said he seemed to go willingly with these men. Did he speak to anyone, do you know?' I asked.

'No, but what's that got to do with anything?'

'Oh come on, Darni.' I tried to keep my tone friendly. 'When did Geris last go anywhere or do anything without talking non-stop? He wouldn't go willingly, and that means more magic.'

'We need instructions and the Council has to know what is going on,' Shiv insisted.

'We can handle this ourselves.' Darni's colour was rising.

'I think Livak's right about Geris. Magic is involved here, and that means it's my decision,' Shiv snapped, unaccustomed iron in his tone. He slammed the door behind him. I wasn't going to stay and wait for Darni to find a target for his annoyance, so I stood too.

'I need some money, Darni.'

'What for?' The abrupt change of subject confused him.

'Half my clothes are covered in blood and I don't want to give the laundrymaid that juicy a bone to throw to the Watch. Any more fights and I'll be wearing a dancing gown and slippers.'

Darni reached into his belt-pouch and threw a handful of coins on to the table, muttering something about women and priorities.

I scooped up the coin and smiled at Ryshad.

'Let's go shopping,' he said agreeably.

Morning trade was brisk as we made our way through the streets. I was in my plain skirts and petticoats, and in his unremarkable homespun, Ryshad could pass for a local pretty much anywhere.

'Information,' I said in a low tone. 'Who has information in this town?'

'Let's check the broadsheets first.' Ryshad was clearly heading down the same trail.

The frames in front of the printers' guild-house were attracting a good crowd. When we made our way to the front, I could see why. Yeniya's murder was going to be the biggest news here for a while; no wonder when one of her most eager suitors was a major player among the paper-makers. She had been raped and strangled, according to the broadsheet. Did this mean the writer had faulty information, or were the Watch keeping back details to help them identify the killer?

Ryshad tapped a passage lower down the page. The Watch wanted to hear from anyone who had let rooms to a group of men, possibly brothers, yellow of hair and beard. I was more concerned about the description of four men seen in the area of the murder, miners or trappers by their clothes, one slight in build and red-haired. I hoped my erstwhile rescuers had the sense to keep their mouths shut. With any luck they would still be drinking their way through my money and too soaked to talk to anyone. Whatever, it looked as if I'd better stick to my skirts for a while.

We headed for a draper's stall where Ryshad bought me a shawl.

'So who writes that sheet and where does he get his information?' I wondered as I tucked my hair under the shawl, glad of the warmth as much as the concealment. 'Do we want to let him know we have an interest?'

'Would he know any more than he's written? The guilds run this city and they run the Watch.' Ryshad glanced apparently idly round the square as I pinned. 'They've got to have sources.'

'Let's keep our eyes open then.' I smoothed my skirts and we embarked on a lengthy shopping trip. I was almost enjoying myself until we passed a stall selling hot cups of tisane. I hated to think what might be happening to Geris. I forced myself to concentrate as we continued our masquerade.

'What do you think of this one?' I held out the fifth shirt again and Ryshad glanced at it.

'It's lovely, dear. If you like it, buy it.' His eyes had the glazed desperation of a man taken shopping for linen just perfectly.

'I'm not sure. What about the one with the embroidery?'

'What?' Ryshad looked back from his seemingly aimless staring into the middle distance.

'You're not paying attention, are you?' I grumbled. The draper tactfully refolded some drawers and I had to struggle to keep a straight face as Ryshad winked at me.

'I'm getting thirsty.' Ryshad raised a hand as I was about to launch into a full-scale scold. 'Buy them both and take that amber silk as well. I'll treat you.'

The draper looked delighted and no wonder, given the price of silk this far north. It was a good colour for me too. Ryshad paid up and we went on our way with yet another parcel.

'Well?' I asked.

'You'll need breeches and I think I'd better go and buy those.'

'What do I do in the meantime?'

'Sit and take a cup of wine and watch that musician.'

Ryshad steered us towards a pleasant enough tavern where I sat outside, ostensibly to enjoy the thin sunshine and the thinner wine. As I sorted my bundles, I kept a dose eye on the lute-player. He was propping up a monument to someone or other and playing jaunty Lescari dance tunes. Passers-by were dropping him coppers but I saw a couple of beggars approach him as well. They stopped to talk and he handed them each some coin. Was this just friendly co-operation among the street dwellers? That's about as common as hen's teeth where I come from.

A Watchman came to move him on and the lutenist rose to protest. I watched as they stood toe to toe and argued the point. Odd, that, I'd not seen the Watch bothering with the streetpeople before. The lutenist was not annoying anyone; in fact, he played quite well, well enough to get work in the taverns for a start. The Watchman pushed him back against the statue; I didn't see him pass anything, but I'd have bet Darni's best sword that something got handed over. The musician moved off across the square and I looked around in frustration for Ryshad; I didn't want to lose any hint of a scent.

I breathed a sigh of relief as Ryshad reappeared. I was moving before he reached me.

'You're right, he's definitely doing something for the Watch. Shall we follow him?' I looked round to check I could still see the musician.

'Not just at present. We can find him again and I don't want the Watch to notice our interest in him.' Ryshad led me in the opposite direction. 'They're out in force now and rousting all the riff-raff. Some are just getting a kicking but a few are getting off a bit too lightly and heading off fast.'

'So we let our friend with the nimble fingers gather as much as he can before we ask him a few questions? Offer him the choice of gold and keeping his mouth shut, or a dagger in a dark alley if he rings the Watch bell on us?'

Ryshad smiled. 'I think so. Let's drop this lot off and then we'll go and find Aiten, my partner. I'd better let him know what's going on.'

We stuck our heads into the parlour when we got back to the inn. Shiv was deep in conversation with a nervous-looking young man in an unnecessarily florid robe.

'So who else might be researching trail magic?' Shiv was asking in exasperation.

'No one,' the unhappy youth insisted. 'I've asked everyone I can think of, and no one is doing that kind of work. I can't even think how you'd start trying for that kind of effect. I suppose you could—

'Never mind.' Shiv looked up at us. 'Any news?'

'Sorry.' I shook my head. 'We'll be back later on. Where's Darni?'

'Out.' Shiv's expression spoke volumes.

I gestured to his companion. 'Any leads?'

'It seems the Watch are asking hard questions among the wizards. They're convinced magic was used to get to Yeniya somehow.' Shiv sighed. 'I daren't make myself too conspicuous asking around; someone could decide to cover their arse by pointing the Watch at me.'

'See you later.' I pulled the door shut and turned to Ryshad. 'So, where are we going?'

'The bear-pits.' He looked at me appraisingly. 'Can you look a little less respectable?'

I let down my hair and arranged the shawl low around my shoulders, unlacing the neck of my shirt. 'Good enough?'

He grinned. 'Fine.'

It took us some while to find his pal among the bloodthirsty crowds at the beast sports. I was very tired of having my bottom pinched by the time Ryshad waved to a face in the mass of people and gestured to the door. The smell of blood and the cries of animals in pain made me think of Yeniya; I've never seen the point in baiting anyway.

'Ryshad! Nice to see you!'

'Livak, this is Aiten.'

Aiten was middling height, middling size and unremarkably brown of hair and eye, the sort of man your eye would pass right over in a crowd. He was looking at me uncertainly so I fluttered my eyelashes at him and looked as cheap as I could.

Ryshad laughed. 'Don't be fooled, Ait. She's working with some Archmage's agents and when she gets bored with that, D'Olbriot could do worse than offer her a job.'

'So, what's the news?' Aiten was all business as we walked to the rail of the nearest arena.

Ryshad gave him an admirably succinct explanation of developments while I watched the hawk-fanciers put their birds through their paces.

Aiten looked unhappy. 'There's not been a sniff around here. The Watch came through earlier and took off a few of the more obvious ruffians, but it was more like a routine rubbish sweep than a search for anyone in particular.'

'So the bastards popped up, ripped that poor bitch apart, dropped back into their hole and pulled it in after them again?' Ryshad's face was hard and set. 'I'm getting tired of this.'

'I'll see what I can find out.' Aiten looked around. 'I'll try the hawking once the competitions get started. I'll need some money for bets.'

Ryshad handed over a plump purse. How come I had never got into business with a rich backer? Because all too often it means taking orders from someone like Darni, I reminded myself.

'Got an eye for a good bird, have you?'

'Piss poor,' Aiten said cheerfully. 'Still, it's amazing what people will tell you when they've just taken your money.'

'Come and find us at sunset.' Ryshad took my arm and we headed off for a leisurely lunch at a very expensive eating-house, courtesy of Darni's coin. We spent the rest of the afternoon sauntering round the town, idly shopping, taking in the sights and noting the way the Watch went about setting temptingly baited hooks and lines for anyone who might have something to tell them. Whoever ran this town clearly knew what they were doing.

The Chamber of Planir the Black,

Hadrumal, 11th of Aft-Autumn, Noon

Kalion swept his parchments into a neat sheaf. 'So you see, Archmage, if we are to be faced with as many apprentices next season, the financial implications are clear.' He sat straight-backed in his chair with the air of man prepared to do battle for his position.

'Thank you for bringing this to me.' Planir smiled pleasantly at the Hearth-Master, leaning back in his own seat. 'In fact, I think we should audit all the Halls' accounts and see if this is a widespread problem. I suspect it will be, and then we can agree a common approach.'

The Archmage closed the various ledgers lying open on the glossy table-top and rose to replace them on their shelf below the narrow lancets of the tall window. 'We can put it to Council next meeting. Now, as long as you're happy with the apprentice rotations, I don't think I need detain you any longer. I am rather busy.' Planir looked expectantly at Kalion but the stout wizard remained determinedly seated.

'There is one other thing that I feel I must raise, Archmage.' Kalion's tone was stern, even faintly disapproving.

'Oh?' Planir reseated himself, narrow eyebrows raised a fraction in polite enquiry.

'I am concerned about the degree of familiarity you allow others to adopt towards you.' Kalion leaned forward in his chair and his jowls wobbled as he shook his head in emphasis. 'The way Otrick addresses you, and Usara for that matter, it is simply not fitting!'

Planir reached for the carafe that stood between them and poured himself a glass of water, turning it idly in a sunbeam as a sudden shaft of sunlight pierced the autumn clouds and washed the stone towers of Hadrumal with gold.

'Otrick is one of the oldest mages in Hadrumal as well as senior Cloud-Master, Kalion,' he said mildly. 'He was a Council member when you and I were both apprentices, if you recall; I hardly feel it would be appropriate for me to insist on deference to my rank from him. As for Usara, he was my first pupil. I consider him a friend as well as a colleague.'

Planir's air of amiable reason was clearly blunting the edge of Kalion's disapproval but the Hearth-Master persisted.

'Well, it's not just Otrick and Usara I'm talking about. I have been told you were seen at the Equinox dances in Wellery's Hall, taking the floor with any female apprentice who lacked a partner. It does not become the dignity of the office you hold, to take and allow such liberties.'

'To be frank, Hearth-Master, of late I am less concerned with the dignity of my office than I am with its effectiveness.' Planir fixed Kalion with a stern eye and a sharpened tone.

'The two are indivisible!' Kalion objected with some heat.

'I think not.' Planir sipped his water, one ringed hand raised to silence Kalion. 'You have been making an excellent case recently in Council for restoring wizardry to prominence in mainland affairs. As I recall, you said mages need to be more visible and less daunting. I agree, and I happen to think exactly the same can be said of the office of Archmage. If I am seen as approachable, to even the rawest apprentice, I can find out more in a day wandering round Hadrumal and chatting in tisane-houses and libraries than I can in a week reading requests and memoranda from the Halls. I need that information if I am to do the duty laid upon me by Council to best effect.'

'There is the question of respect—' Kalion began after a moment's indecision.

'I believe respect is something to be earned, Hearth-Master, not demanded as of right.' Planir cut him off crisply. 'Times are changing on the mainland, you've said it yourself, and our apprentices have grown up with those changes. We cannot expect them to suddenly step back three generations when they get off the boat. This isn't some Caladhrian fiefdom where I only need to wear a short mantle for everyone to take shears to their cloak.'

'Distinctions of rank are essential if you are to maintain authority.' Kalion shifted in his seat and fiddled unconsciously with the ring bearing his insignia.

'Remember that we only hold our ranks by consent of the majority, Kalion, unspoken though that may be. Anyway, have you ever seen me fail to assert my authority, either in Council or among the wider wizardry?'

Planir smiled. His enquiry was mild enough but Kalion coloured and struggled for a reply before dropping his gaze. The Archmage glanced out of the window at the roofs of the halls marching down to the harbour and a slight frown wrinkled his brow. He rose and folded his arms as he looked down at Kalion.

'You know what they say, a dog that barks once gets listened to, the one that barks all night gets whipped. I use my authority when I need to, have no fear, Kalion, but you know as well as I do that Archmages with a taste for tyranny simply find themselves bypassed and isolated.'

There was a polite tap at the door and Kalion turned his head, relief in his eyes.

'That will be Usara for a consultation on his researches.' Planir inclined his head in a brief bow. 'You must excuse us.'

'Of course, Archmage.' Kalion swept his documents into a handsomely tooled folder, rose and smoothed the front of his crimson tunic with an abrupt gesture.

'Hearth-Master.' Usara bowed politely as Planir opened the door to let Kalion leave.

'Do come in.' Planir turned back to the table, leaving Usara to latch the door behind him.

'I managed to see Shannet—' Usara began eagerly but Planir shook his head with a frown.

'In a moment, 'Sar. Tell me, do you know who's feeding Kalion gossip from Wellery's Hall these days?'

Usara shook his head. 'No, do you want me to ask around?'

Planir nodded. 'Discreetly, of course. Now, what did Shannet have to say?'

'First she tried to scry for Geris herself, and then with Otrick augmenting her spell. She had no more luck than we did.' Usara sighed.

'Curse it!' Planir's exasperation was plain. 'Does she want to try with me in the link, now I've finished with Kalion and his wretched arithmetic?' He shrugged off a formal gown and pulled a comfortable woollen jerkin over his shirt.

'No, she said we could enrol half the Council and it wouldn't make any difference. She thinks he's being shielded somehow.' Usara ran a hand through his thinning hair in a gesture of frustration.

'She's the expert; she should know. So we're looking at aetheric magic again,' Planir said, lips set thinly in a grim line.

'That does seem to be the problem,' Usara agreed.

'So where do we find a solution, 'Sar?' Planir demanded, turning to a bookcase and picking out various volumes.

'Otrick's gone to look in the Archives.' Usara took a heavy tome in green leather from the Archmage and set it on the table. 'Shannet said she'd come across something that felt just the same, once before.'

Planir paused, a book open in his hands. 'When?'

'Have you ever heard of a mage called Azazir?' Usara rummaged in the pockets of his ink-stained buff breeches and consulted a scribbled note.

'Yes,' Planir said slowly. 'Why?'

'Shannet said he claimed to have discovered some islands out in the deep ocean, hundreds of leagues to the east. Azazir's pupil, Viltred, was a friend of hers and they tried to scry for these islands, to prove the truth of what he was saying.' Usara looked up from his notes. 'She's certain the same shielding that's concealing Geris is what was hiding those islands from her and Viltred all those years ago.'

'Is she now?' Planir was about to continue when the door swung abruptly open and Otrick appeared, leaning against the jamb and breathing heavily, his face nearly as pale as his shirt.

'I think it's about time we started a fashion that had mages living at ground level instead of up all these unholy stairs!' The old wizard dropped heavily into a chair and fumbled in his cloak pocket for his chewing-leaf.

'Did you find the journal?' Usara handed Otrick a glass of water.

The old man nodded, speechless for a moment, and then took a slim volume out of the front of his jerkin. 'Here. Don't tell the Archivist it was me who lifted it.'

Planir took the book and began to leaf rapidly through the yellowed pages, squinting at the spidery writing.

'Now this is interesting, in light of Shiv's latest news.' The Archmage paused and looked at Usara. 'Listen to this: “The walls of the keep were patrolled by black-liveried sentries and it was apparent our host kept some considerable standing force. When I attempted to leave the confines of the fortification, my passage was barred without word of explanation or apology.'“ Planir turned the page. 'There's more: “The food was barely adequate and we were made uncomfortable by the persistent stares and muttering coming from the lower tables. I can only assume our dark colouring was cause for such comment, the populace here being universally fair of hair and skin.”'

'I told Shannet that Geris was supposedly taken by blond men and that's what made her think of Viltred and Azazir's tales.' Usara nodded.

'So this is where these people are coming from?' Otrick's eyes were bright now and his colour improved. 'Some islands off the edge of the map? They'll need magic to cross the ocean, you know.'

'It's starting to look as if they have it; remember what that Tormalin sworn-man was telling Shiv,' Planir said thoughtfully. 'I think we'd better see what we can find out about these islands and these people. Shiv and Darni are best placed to follow this up, it would seem.'

'What about Geris?' Usara looked up from the book he was searching through.

Planir continued to turn the pages of the old journal. 'We may simply have to accept that Geris is lost,' he said finally. 'Aetheric magic is no longer just some ancient curiosity, not if an unknown people can use it to cross the ocean and work enchantments we can neither detect or counter, not if they're sending agents to rob and kill, for whatever reasons they might have. There's more at stake here than one boy scholar from Vanam. Think about Naldeth's latest theory, those Imperial chronicles he's been researching.'

'Shiv won't want to abandon Geris,' Otrick warned, a scowl deepening his wrinkles still further. 'I wouldn't, in his place.'

Planir shrugged. 'Who says they're abandoning the boy? Surely these mysterious islands will be the best place to look for a lead?'

'You don't really believe that?' Usara's tone was dubious.

'What I believe is immaterial, provided I can convince Shiv.' Planir snapped the little volume shut. 'If Azazir found these islands once, Shiv has the talents to do it again once Azazir tells him what he knows.'

'And how exactly is that to be achieved,' Otrick asked sarcastically, 'given no one's heard tell of Azazir in over a generation?'

'I beg leave to differ, Cloud-Master.' A half-smile lightened Planir's sombre expression. 'I have been keeping a weather-eye on the old lunatic ever since I took the Archmage's ring; I can send Shiv to him.'

'What if Azazir won't co-operate? You know his reputation.' Usara paused, a finger marking his place on the vellum.

'We'll bridle that horse when we have to.' Planir laughed abruptly. 'I'll exert some authority, if need be. That'll give Kalion something to think about.'

Inglis, 11th of Aft-Autumn, Evening

By the time the sun was setting, I knew the streets and back alleys of Inglis about as well as I knew Vanam. That could be useful if I ever came across a job where the profits outweighed the risks of working here but we'd turned up not a trace of Geris, nor the mysterious troop that had taken him. As we walked wearily back to the inn and started up the stairs, we could hear Darni and Shiv having a difference of opinion from the end of the hall. I hurried to the parlour and slammed the door open.

'Do you want everyone in this place to hear you? I've heard quieter dog fights!'

They were standing across the table glaring at each other. They turned to glare at me but at least I had shut them up.

'What's going on?' I demanded.

'We've got instructions from the Archmage.' Shiv was white with anger.

'I don't agree with them,' Darni began, red in the face and breathing hard.

'You don't have to agree, you're supposed to obey,' Shiv snapped. I wouldn't have believed he could sound so cold.

'So what are we supposed to do?' I sat down and poured wine for us all. Darni and Shiv sat down after a few moments of tension, each reluctant to be the first.

'Planir wants us to go on some hunt for a mad old wizard who's probably dead in a ditch anyway,' Darni said with disgust.

'Shiv?'

'Planir told me that he has heard tales of a race of yellow-haired people. There's this wizard, Azazir, who claimed to have crossed the ocean to an unknown land a couple of generations or so ago. That's where they're supposed to live.'

'That's a bit vague, Shiv,' I said doubtfully.

'There's more to it than that. Planir has confidential Imperial records from the reign of Nemith the Reckless. They mention a blond race too and, as far as Planir can work it out, these foreigners used magic to bring down the Empire. They have powers we don't know about.'

I shivered despite the warmth of the room.

'The Tormalin Empire fell because it grew too big to control. It was logistics, not magic, everyone knows that.' Darni stood again and loomed aggressively over the table towards Shiv.

'So what does Planir want you to do?' Ryshad earned a grateful look from Shiv.

'If we can find Azazir, he can tell us where these people come from. If we can get there, we should be able to find out who they are and what they want.'

'That's a lot of if and perhaps,' I said doubtfully. 'What about Geris? We've found some leads we should follow up here, haven't we, Ryshad?'

He nodded slowly. 'That's true enough, but I've had better leads in other places and they came to nothing. If this wizard could point us at them, we might do better to go straight for whoever's giving the orders.'

'Azazir couldn't point at his own nose without sticking a finger in his eye.' Darni was nearly shouting. 'You've heard the same stories I have, Shiv. He's a mad old bastard who should have been executed the last time he fell foul of the Council. Anyway, no one's heard so much as a whisper of him for years. He'll be rotting in the wilderness somewhere, and good riddance.'

Ryshad and I exchanged uncertain glances. Wizards being executed by the Archmage and the Council? That was not something I'd ever heard tell of.

'So how are you supposed to find him?' Darni challenged Shiv.

'Planir's identified an area where the elements are distorted; a lot of water's been concentrated in a way that can only mean magic. And it's in the region of Gidesta where Azazir was last heard of. I'm a water mage; once we get close, I should be able to follow his influence back to the source.'

That sounded thin, even to my ignorant ear.

'There's no guarantee of that, and anyway, you might just find some long-terms spells and his bones. All right, suppose he is still alive. Why's he going to talk to you? You're going to tell him you're working for Planir, are you? “Please help me because I'm working for the Archmage who threatened to bury you if you came within ten leagues of a village again?”' Darni was back to the top of his voice again.

'What about Geris, Shiv?' I asked, increasingly worried by this turn of events. 'They've got a day's start on us as it is and, if we go off somewhere, the trail will be stone cold by the time we get back.'

'Planir has scryed for Geris himself and used half the Council to augment the spell. If they can't find him, he's not going to be found.' Shiv's face reflected his distress.

'So our best bet is to go for the man who's giving the orders,' Ryshad said calmly. 'Find him and we've got the best chance of finding your friend.'

'Who asked you?' Darni did not look away from Shiv. 'You can't do this, Shiv. We've got to start looking for Geris now and here!'

'I can't disobey the Archmage and neither will you if you've got any sense.' Shiv only controlled his temper with a visible effort. 'I'm setting off at first light. Ryshad, the Archmage would very much appreciate it if you joined us. Livak, your obligation is cancelled but if you want to come, I'd like to have you with us.'

'I need her to help me find Geris,' Darni shouted.

Shiv opened his mouth and then shut it again, stalking out of the room and slamming the door behind him to relieve his feelings.

'I haven't finished talking!' Darni stormed after him and I thought the door was going to come out of its frame when he sent it crashing back.

'Darni's idea of a discussion is to say what he thinks more and more loudly until everyone else gives up,' I explained to Ryshad as I poured more wine.

'I've met his type before.' Ryshad seemed unbothered. 'So what are you going to do?'

'What about you?'

'Aiten and I'll go with Shiv, no question. This may be a weak scent, but it's the best we've had in nearly two seasons.'

'You don't think we might get a lead to Geris? I hate to give up on him like this.'

'If there's information to be had, the Watch will get it. They've got five of the most important men in the city breathing down their necks over Yeniya, don't forget. If this troop can be found, the Watch will do it just as fast as we would and find Geris themselves.'

'You don't sound convinced.'

'I'm not,' Ryshad said frankly. 'I was starting to wonder if they were using magic long before this. Come on, Livak, you've been around the provinces; Geris could already be dead. If he isn't, it's because they want something out of him, in which case they're most likely to take him back to their leader. Use your wits.'

I sighed. Every emotion and loyalty told me to join Darni in turning the city upside-down until we found Geris, but sense told me Shiv and Ryshad were right. When it came to a hard choice, I realised I trusted Shiv more than Darni, wizard or not.

'I suppose I'd better come with you then,' I said unhappily.

'I'm glad.' Ryshad stood and laid a quick comforting arm across my shoulder. 'I'll see you later. I've got to let Ait know what we're doing and see to a few other things.'

I watched him go and then relieved my feelings by throwing the cups across the room. Why should Shiv and Darni be the only ones allowed to lose their tempers?

I spent the rest of the day busily trying to pick up any trace of Geris' trail around the inn. I achieved absolutely nothing. I finally went to spend a lonely night in my cold bed, miserably going over and over my choices until I fell asleep, exhausted.

We left in the damp chill of the autumn morning. Darni was nowhere to be seen and as Shiv and I saddled up with few words, I realised Geris' horses were gone.

'Where are the bays?' I looked wildly round the stables.

'Darni's making arrangements for them. If necessary, he'll hire a groom to take them back to Vanam,' Shiv said shortly. His expression forbade further discussion, so I turned back to adjusting Russet's girth. I was absurdly relieved that I was not going to have to make a spectacle of myself by insisting Geris' beloved horses were taken care of, but at the same time, I felt angry with Darni for taking the matter out of my hands.

The Licorne Inn, Inglis,

15th of Aft-Autumn

Now this is more like it.' Casuel drew off his gloves and looked round the neat sitting-room with pleasure. Opening the casement, he drew a deep breath of salted air and smiled as he gazed over the regular lines of the roofs and houses. The fifth chime of the day was just fading away.

'It is good to be back east again. This white stone reminds me of home, you know.' He turned to smile at Allin, but frowned instead. She was standing dolefully in the doorway, sniffing into a grubby handkerchief.

'Why did we have to come here?' she whined. 'I want to go to Hadrumal. I didn't expect to be dragged all through Lescar in a filthy coach. Why couldn't you have taken me to my uncle's house? We passed through the next village to home, things looked peaceful enough. There won't be any more fighting until the spring, now. I don't even know if I want to be a mage any more.'

'That's not a matter of choice,' Casuel said tartly. He was getting tired of this conversation. 'We will be going to Hadrumal soon enough.'

With any luck, he thought to himself, then I can finally get you off my hands. 'I can't be expected to waste time fetching you from some muddy backwater in Lescar. What if I were summoned today?'

Allin began to grizzle into her handkerchief.

'Why don't you go and have a rest,' Casuel suggested in desperation. 'I'll get a maid to fetch you a nice tisane for that cold.'

Allin heaved a moist sigh and took herself off into the adjoining bedchamber. Casuel heaved a sigh of relief; he quickly set up candle and mirror and bespoke Usara.

''Are you in Inglis yet? the sandy-haired wizard demanded without preamble as he sent power back down the spell to establish the connection.

'Of course.' Casuel was indignant. 'Though why we had to come all this way, I really don't understand—'

''Trust me, Casuel, if I'd had any other choice, I wouldn't have sent you,' Usara said crisply.

Casuel supposed that was something like an apology. 'All right then, what is it that you want me to do?'

He saw the image of Usara rubbing his eyes and yawning. Why was he so tired? Noon here made it mid-morning in Hadrumal, didn't it? Casuel hoped Usara hadn't taken to carousing with the likes of Otrick.

Usara snapped his fingers over a cup and took a sip once it started steaming, wincing slightly. ' There's been a murder in the city, a prominent merchant, a woman called Yeniya. I want you to contact some of the local mages and find out the latest news. Be discreet, for Saedrin's sake, things will be very sensitive at the moment?

Casuel frowned. 'Forgive me, but surely there are scrying techniques you could use—

''Don't you think we've tried?'' Usara cut him off, exasperated. lNo, it's eyes in the alley that we need now. You 'II have to do the best you can, and use some cursed tact for a change?

'Don't you have enquiry agents to do this sort of thing?' Casuel asked. 'This is rather beneath a wizard's dignity, don't you think?' he added distastefully.

The glow of the enchantment flashed briefly golden. ''How about you stop arguing and just do it, Casuel? Usara's tone hardened. 'I think you owe me a little co-operation after that fiasco in Friern, don't you? I suppose I could clear it with Planir first, if you'd rather?'

Casuel hoped the amber tint of the spell hid his sudden blush. 'I'm sorry. Of course we wizards should assist one another. I'll be happy to.'

The spell flickered and Casuel missed the first words of Usara's reply. ''And another thing,' the Earth-Mage went on,

''we are looking for a group, possibly two groups, of yellow-haired men, a handful or so in each, less than average height and from nowhere in the Old Empire. Now, just ask among the mages, don't draw attention to yourself and above all be discreet. I mean it, Casuel; you don't want these people after your tail.'

'Well, if this is likely to be a little dangerous, perhaps I can find a mage here to look after Allin until she can be escorted to Hadrumal?' Casuel could not disguise the hope in his voice.

''Not appropriate, given the circumstances,' Usara said cryptically. 'Anyway, you found her, you're responsible for her; you know the rules. Now, get on with it and bespeak me tomorrow; after I've had some breakfast for preference.'

Usara severed the magic with an abruptness that left Casuel's hands stinging. He stared at the blank mirror in annoyance for a moment then rummaged in his bag for writing materials. He couldn't very well go trailing round the city, cap in hand, asking to see wizards he'd not been introduced to. After all, he couldn't leave Allin unchaperoned.

'Who are you writing to?'

He turned to see Allin standing in the doorway, dishevelled and miserable. 'Is my tisane coming?' she asked petulantly.

Casuel bit his lip and crossed to ring the bell. 'The maids here do seem to take their time answering.' He sat down and hesitated, pen poised over a scrap of parchment.

'Who are you writing to?' Allin blew her nose.

'I require information from one of the town mages.' Casuel cleaned his nib thoughtfully.

'Wizards live here as well as in Hadrumal?' Allin looked puzzled and Casuel had to remind himself that any sensible mage stayed well clear of the dangerous currents of the Lescari wars. Still, he didn't want her ignorance to reflect on him once she was apprenticed.

'Wizards who can hope to add to the sum of magical knowledge remain in Hadrumal after training,' he explained loftily. 'Those whose talents are more for the workaday, less elevated aspects of enchanting generally return to the mainland and find work. Those of us at the higher levels generally know someone in most cities.'

He frowned. Who did he know in Inglis who'd be likely to want to help him? There were times when it would be useful to have that knack of ingratiating himself with people that Shivvalan used to such advantage. There was Carral, wasn't there? He'd come here to do something involving the river, or was it gemstones? No matter, it can't have been anything important. Casuel wrote rapidly, touched a ringer to a stick of sealing-wax and sealed the parchment with his signet.

'Yes?' The door opened and a maid stuck her head into the room.

'Please have a boy deliver this letter.' Casuel rummaged in his pocket for coin.

'Of course, sir.'

'Can I have a tisane, please?' Allin spoke up as the maid went to leave. 'Something for a nasty cold, if you have it?'

The maid looked at her with some sympathy. 'Of course, I'll bring it up at once. You get yourself to bed, pet, you don't want a rheum like that taking to your chest.'

She returned shortly with a fragrant mug and another, older woman. They settled Allin with the drink and a kerchief sprinkled with aromatic oils, all involving what seemed an inordinate amount of fuss as far as Casuel could see. Finally he was left in peace and spread his books over the sitting-room table. He began to read, eager to glean any clue which might explain what Usara was up to. What could possibly be significant about the fall of the Empire? Scholars had been poring over every detail for generations, hadn't they? Occasional sounds drifted up from the street, hooves and steps on the cobbles, shouts and laughter, but Casuel ignored them as he worked steadily on through the afternoon, methodically correlating and cross-referencing.

The door crashed open, hinges splintering the frame as two enormous men with ragged hair and unkempt beards kicked it back against the wall. They stormed in and seized Casuel, slamming him against the wall, their fetid breath moist in his face as they held him pinned. He struggled for words and air, lost for both, panic seizing him as his feet left the floor although he was still left looking up into the wild, ragged faces of his assailants. A surge of dread obliterated every enchantment he'd ever learned from his memory and a feeble gleam died in his fingers.

A second pair of dark-haired ruffians entered, rough leathers stained with old blood and rankly uncured fur jerkins suggesting they were trappers fresh off a river boat. They stood, incongruous, either side of a tall young man whose elegant velvet apparel was sadly creased and stained, expensive fabrics beyond salvage. His face was unshaven and pale, eyes red-rimmed and swollen. Casuel looked at him in dismay, complete confusion hampering any sensible response.

'You, hold the door!' The young man turned to his last hireling. 'Check that room, make sure he's alone.'

He walked slowly round the table and came to stare into Casuel's eyes. His gaze was wide and full of anger, the red-flecked whites of his eyes visible all around the blue.

'Just who are you, you little shit, and what is your interest in Yeniya's death?'

'I don't know what you mean!' Casuel gasped as the men holding him slammed him down against the wall again. He struggled to regain his footing.

The irate man brandished a parchment. 'Don't come the virgin with me! Carral know who cures his bacon, he sent your little note straight to me.'

He gripped Casuel's jaw and forced his head back. 'So, talk to me.' His voice was hoarse and Casuel realised with terror that this was a man whose rioting emotions had evidently driven him beyond the reach of reason.

'Please don't hurt me!' Allin's voice was a desperate squeak of fear.

Casuel had been about to say the very same thing when she emerged from the bedroom in the grip of one of the brutes, bare feet barely touching the floor beneath the hem of her stout shift.

'There's no one else, Evern. Just this little pigeon. Plump enough, ain't she?' He flung Allin down on a chair and she shrank away from the man's leer, his teeth stained and yellow against his dirty brown beard.

'Are you the Watch?' Casuel stammered.

'You'll wish we were soon enough!' The man called Evern laughed harshly. 'No, just call us concerned citizens. You see, Yeniya was a friend of mine.'

His voice cracked and he scrubbed a hand across his eyes. 'Some bastard murdered her and I'm going to kill anyone I can find who had something to do with it!'

'It's nothing to do with me!' Casuel tried to shake his head and got a smack across the mouth for his trouble.

'Then why are you asking questions about it, arse-face? Why are you so interested in finding out what scents the Watch are tracking?'

Casuel gaped, lost for words. Evern nodded to the trapper on his left who promptly punched an iron-hard fist into Casuel's gut. Crying out in agonised amazement that something could hurt so much, he would have doubled up but the men held him firm against the wall. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, desperately trying to ease the pain.

'Why are you asking questions? Worried the Watch might be on your trail, are you? That's how it reads to me.' The young man took a pair of slim gloves from his belt and drew them on with elaborate care.

Casuel blinked tears from his own eyes. 'I'm simply trying to find out what happened.'

Evern punched him abruptly, hard in the mouth. 'Why?' he screamed, incensed.

A trickle of blood tickled down Casuel's chin. He winced as he licked at the split in his lip and fought to control a whimper as Evern stood before him, slapping a cupped hand around his fist, heedless of the blood smearing the fine leather. The sound of running feet in the corridor echoed in the tense silence and Casuel looked desperately at the door.

'You're a Tormalin, aren't you?' Evern said thoughtfully. 'There've been a couple of Tormalins asking around, but they seem to have disappeared. Who are they?'

'I really have no idea!' Casuel said desperately. 'I don't even know who you are talking about.'

'You're going to have to do better than this, shit-for-brains,'

Evern spat, his face ugly with frustration. 'I want to know what they had to do with it; why else would they disappear?'

He punched Casuel violently under the ribs, leaving him gasping and retching.

Allin broke into noisy sobs of fear, suddenly silenced when she realised that made her the centre of attention.

Evern turned to look at her, contempt plain on his drawn face. 'What have you got to tell me, then?' He twisted a hand in Allin's forlorn ringlets and wrenched her head back.

'What do you know?' He bent his face close to hers and scowled.

'Nothing,' she whimpered, clutching her hands to her breast.

Evern straightened and looked down on her with disdain. 'So you're just here to warm his sheets, are you?'

He turned abruptly back to Casuel, who flinched as far as he was able. His arms were starting to go numb below the grip of the trappers and his jaw ached fiercely.

'She's a bit young for plucking, isn't she?' Evern sneered. 'But you look as if you'd be desperate for it. So, why not share her around? Let's see what she knows that way!'

'Leave her alone, you swine!' Casuel struggled futilely, jumbled thoughts anguished. What would Usara do to him if the silly poult got herself raped! 'She's got nothing to do with any of this.'

Evern pushed his face close and Casuel could smell the expensive scents beneath his rank sweat. 'Convince me!' he snarled in a low tone.

Casuel closed his eyes and mentally cursed the day he'd left Hadrumal. 'I am a wizard, you know.' He groped for some dignity and missed, his voice emerging as little more than a desperate squeak.

'So what?' Evern stood back a little, his face hard. 'Am I supposed to be impressed or something? Wizards do what they're paid to do, in my experience. Going to turn me into a toad, are you?'

He drew a thin dagger and laid the gleaming steel against Casuel's throat. 'They're saying whoever killed Yeniya used magic to get away. Why don't I kill you anyway, on the off-chance you were involved?'

He pressed harder and turned the edge of the blade into Casuel's skin. Casuel began to shake as a burning line of pain crawled down his neck.

'I swear, I had nothing to do with it,' he croaked. 'I'm sorry for your loss.'

Evern closed his eyes on unbearable anguish and a tear beaded his lashes. He turned away with a gesture and the trappers began to beat Casuel with systematic brutality that spoke of considerable experience.

He tried to curl himself around his guts and groin, dimly aware of Allin wailing as his world shrank to a nightmare of pain beyond anything he had ever imagined he might experience.

'I don't think he knows anything, chief. Mel, shut that bitch up or give her something to really cry about.'

Casuel heard the trapper's words through the ringing in his ears after what seemed an eternity.

'He's not the type to hold out, not after a good kicking.'

Tears of relief joined the slime and blood on Casuel's cheeks. He lay still, tense, not daring to move but cautiously opened his eyes. There was a slight sound outside the room and they all turned their heads towards it.

The trapper on the door grunted as the handle rattled, but as he shifted his feet he got the white-painted panels in the face, sending him sprawling to the floor. Before he could regain his feet, a heavy-set man with a dark beard entered and kicked him swiftly in the groin. Sword drawn, he swept his blade round in a menacing arc and glared at Evern.

'Call off your dogs, or I'll have to kill them.'

'Darni!' Casuel tried to get up, halting on his knees as agonising pain lanced through his chest.

'Bet you never thought you'd be so glad to see me, Cas.' Darni smiled wickedly.

Evern took a step back from Darni's sword point, hands low and wide. 'Who the shit are you?' he spat in baffled rage.

Darni sketched a bow. 'Someone telling you that you're making a big mistake here. It's lucky for you that Carral had the sense to let me know about that letter. This sorry pot of piss had nothing to do with Yeniya's death.'

'And how do you know that?' Evern's dagger began to rise.

'Why don't you drop that rat-sticker?' Darni's voice was cold as ice. 'Kick it over here.'

Evern hesitated but then obeyed and Casuel began to breathe again in shallow gasps.

'I know he had nothing to do with her death, because he's working for the same master as me.' Darni looked around at the trappers. 'Why don't you all sit down and we can discuss this sensibly. That's what I would prefer and I am the one with the broadsword, when all's said and done.'

Evern's lips narrowed and a furious growl of frustration escaped him but he finally nodded. 'All right.'

The trappers moved to help their colleague still groaning on the floor as he clutched himself, face grey under his dirt. They moved to stand in a row by the window, leaving Evern between themselves and Darni.

'So, who do you work for?' Evern folded his arms and looked arrogantly at Darni.

'The Council of Mages, of course.' Darni sounded surprised that the man needed to ask. 'Planir is most concerned over the possibility of magic being used in such an appalling crime.'

'He's an Archmage's agent?' Evern stared down at Casuel with patent disbelief.

'No, but I am. Get up, Cas.' Darni drew a thong from the neck of his shirt and Evern looked open-mouthed at the bronze ring on it.

'Show me that,' he demanded. Darni drew the string over his head, tossing it over.

'How do I know this is real?' he asked, flinging it back after a moment.

Darni shook his head, snatching the ring out of the air. 'Do you think someone's going to risk faking that? People don't cross Planir, believe me.'

He looked at Casuel, who had struggled to a chair, still hugging his aching ribs. 'I don't know what he's going to think of this,' he said contemplatively. 'You've made a right mess of poor old Cas, haven't you?'

'I had my reasons,' Evern spat. 'No wizard's going to tell me how to do things in my own city, Archmage or not. I had reason to think this waste of skin was mixed up in this and I'm entitled to find out. Magic helped kill Yeniya and if any mage was involved, we'll drive the whole sorry mess of them into the ocean. What's your precious Archmage going to do if we close the city to you bastards? The guilds don't need you, we run this city and that's the way it'll stay.'

Darni simply shook his head again. 'Don't make pointless threats. You're the ones who'll lose in the long run if you force out the wizards.'

He smiled at Evern, an expression Casuel found the most frightening thing he'd seen so far.

'Anyway, if Planir finds out a mage was involved in this, that sorry bastard won't be able to hide at the bottom of the ocean, inside an ice-field on the Dragon's Spines, or underneath an Aldabreshi fire-mountain. Slow drowning in a bucket of his own shit would be a better fate than the one the Council will put together for him. Isn't that right, Cas?'

Casuel gagged at Darni's disgusting image and nodded mutely.

Evern raised his hands, the gesture cut short as Darni's sword swung up to block it.

'So who killed Yeniya? How do I find the pox-rotted bastards? What's your cursed Archmage doing to avenge her?'

'That's not your concern,' Darni said coldly. 'However, you might like to consider helping me. I'm after some men who I know were involved and I'd say we've got a good chance of catching them.'

'They killed her?'

'No, but they can lead us to the ones who did.' Darni swapped his sword to his other hand and reached out to Evern.

'My word on it. Help me get them and we'll say no more about your little mistake here. Shut up, Cas,' he added as the mage opened his battered mouth to protest.

'So, are we going to co-operate on this, or do I have to organise a little pay-back for my friend here?' Darni glared at the trappers, who exchanged doubtful glances.

Evern stood, hope warring with grief in his face. The silence was broken by a loud thud as Allin fainted and slid gracelessly into a heap on the floor.

'Drianon's tits,' Darni said in exasperation. 'Just who is this, Cas? Whatever you're paying her, it's not enough!'

The tension in the air snapped and Evern lowered his head, blinking away confused tears. 'All right. But you'd better be right about this,' he warned.

'Trust me,' Darni said grimly. 'I want these people as badly as you do.'

Casuel looked up at him and was appalled to realise this was absolutely true. He started to think he could almost feel sorry for these people whenever Darni caught up with them, but the thought evaporated in the mass of aches and pains growing in every part of him.

The Gidesta Road out of Inglis,

15th of Aft-Autumn

Travelling on horseback and camping in the open was soon going to lose its charm as a winter pastime, I decided sourly. I'd take up quilting instead. I poked Russet in the ribs to make him loose the breath he was holding as I saddled him; he wasn't going to catch me like that twice in one day. Some chance I was going to have to forget Geris, riding the horse we'd named together, I thought gloomily.

Luckily, before my mood descended further into dejection, Ryshad and Aiten rode up on their scruffy chestnut horses that looked as if they came straight off the Gidestan steppes.

'So where are we headed this afternoon?' Ryshad swung his mount round to ride with Shiv.

'We need to cross the river and take the northern road.' Shiv kicked his horse harder than was strictly necessary and Ryshad let him go ahead.

We were well on before the sun began to sink. I glanced back over my shoulder to see dusk climbing over the gleaming sea before the hills finally hid the ocean. We let Shiv lead, as he clearly wanted to be on his own. As Aiten regaled Ryshad with a few rather dubious stories, I realised he'd been doing his scouting in all the low parts of town; I'd heard those tales before but only in a brothel. Don't misunderstand me; a lot of whorehouses offer gambling as an additional way of separating fools from their money and I'd spent an interesting three seasons a few years back helping a couple of houses bend the odds in their favour. It had been an illuminating experience which had certainly cured me of any romantic notions about a prostitute's life but it hadn't been much of a challenge; none of the men had been giving the game anything like their full attention.

I listened idly as Aiten was bringing Ryshad up to date with the latest witticisms doing the rounds of the bear pits; Ryshad was laughing and groaning in the appropriate places but his attention remained on the road ahead and the woods around us. Aiten did not seem to find this unusual and carried on with his tales; he had yet to come up with one I had not already heard. Inglis was the town where old jokes came to die. I trailed along behind with the mule carrying our supplies and came to the conclusion that it was probably the most cheerful one of us.

Shiv paused to stick his hands in the river and stare thoughtfully at the tributary we had reached.

'We'll follow this.' His tone was the mildest I'd heard it since we'd lost Geris and I moved up to ride next to him, relieved to see his good humour resurfacing.

'We're following the rivers? Is Azazir a water mage then?'

'Didn't I say? Yes, one of the best.' Shiv gave me a half smile.

'So how did he…' I couldn't quite decide how to phrase the question that had been hovering at the back of my mind all day.

'How did he fall foul of the Council?' Shiv moved across the muddy track and we rode on the somewhat drier grass. I let him take his time in deciding what to tell me. When he eventually answered, he spoke slowly and thoughtfully.

'You have to understand that, for a mage like Azazir, his element is the most important thing in the world. He's fascinated by water, by its effects on things, how it makes up part of things, what he can do to affect it. Many of the really powerful wizards are like that.'

'Is he powerful? Is he dangerous, come to that?' I asked a little nervously.

'He's very powerful but I don't suppose he's dangerous unless you get in the way of something he's taken an interest in.'

I'd have preferred a little more certainty, myself. 'So, what was Darni saying about him being executed?'

Shiv frowned. 'Azazir was always a loner. He went off and did peculiar things like this supposed trip across the ocean. The Seaward Hall is full of tales about him and it's hard to know what is really true. He used to exaggerate half the time and tell outright lies for the rest if you believe some of the Council. What finally got him banished was the flooding of half of Adrulle.'

'What?' Ryshad exclaimed. I turned in my saddle and saw he and Aiten were listening with as much interest as myself. Aiten laughed and Shiv smiled at him. 'It wasn't funny at the time; it was For-Summer and he drowned a sizeable part of the southern Caladhrian harvest. The price of bread doubled that winter and there were riots in some of the towns.' 'Why did he do it?' I asked.

'He wanted a marsh to study,' Shiv said simply. 'So he diverted most of the Rel into the nearest low-lying area.'

'How low did the river get?' No wonder this wizard was such a menace. The depth and width of the Rel is all that keeps the endless bloody squabbles of Lescar from spilling over into the bland stability of Caladhria.

'Low enough for the Duke of Marlier to send over raiding parties,' Shiv replied.

'What about Relshaz?' Ryshad was looking as stunned as I felt.

'The Magistrates' Convention raised a militia as soon as it became clear the river was falling. They were the first to demand Azazir be executed.'

That was no surprise; the Relshazri take their independence and security very seriously, given their position on the delta between Caladhria and Lescar. Since that depends on the river, any proposal, never mind attempt, to build a permanent bridge carries the death penalty. Not surprisingly, no one ever makes one. Apart from that, it's an easy-going city with plenty of opportunities for someone like me. I was gripped with a sudden longing for warm southern sun and cool southern wines and missed Ryshad's next question.

'No. The Council won't take orders from any other power.' Shiv looked serious. 'Actually, if the Relshazri hadn't made such a fuss, Azazir might well have been executed. As it was, the Archmage wasn't going to do anything that suggested he was giving in to them so Azazir was exiled up here.'

I was still having trouble with the idea of wizards killing each other.

'They really thought about executing him?'

Shiv looked at me, his expression serious. 'The trouble he caused cost many lives, much coin and three seasons' work to clear up. That sort of thing causes wizards to be seriously disliked. We are very powerful, and that can frighten people, so we do our best not to let them see it. When someone like Azazir goes around doing what he wants with no thought for the consequences, people worry. If the Council lets the like of him get away with it, we're heading down the road leading to mageborn children left to die of fevers and wizards stoned out of villages. The Council controls wizards so that no one else has an excuse to do it.'

'Otrick on “Why don't wizards rule the world?'“ I murmured to myself.

Shiv heard me and grinned again. 'Most of them could not be bothered. It would be a distraction from the really important business of studying their element. Still, a few have decided to try every now and again, and the Council has dealt with them too.'

We reached another place where streams joined the river and Shiv dismounted to dip his hands in again. I couldn't decide if I was sorry that he had been interrupted or not. Some of these ideas were seriously scary.

A well-beaten track ran along the river bank; with the hills getting steeper and more wooded, it was the natural way to go. We made good progress and hit a mining settlement a few days north of the Dalas. It was quite sizeable for a hill town and possessed an unusual air of permanence, with a stone-built forge and an inn that looked as if it might even offer more than whores and spirits raw enough to make your teeth dissolve.

Shiv led us into what I suppose you would call the market square, though no one looked to be selling anything. Men and women in rough working clothes gave us a faintly curious appraisal. Shiv sat tall in his saddle and stared round arrogantly. I stared back and realised that the bastard was suddenly spotlessly clean, unlike the travel-stained rest of us. Good spell if you can do it, I acknowledged silently.

'I am a wizard of the Archmage's Council and I am looking for news.'

Aiten and Ryshad drew up their horse in a line with mine, shrugged their cloaks aside from their sword arms and rested negligent hands on their blades. The three of us exchanged a glance and waited for the muddy locals to laugh, jeer or throw horseshit depending on their inclination. None of this happened, which surprised me; I'd like to see a wizard try that trick in Vanam.

'What sort of news?' The smith walked forward from his hearth, wiping his hands on a rag. He was formidably muscled and his face and hands were pitted with tiny scars but his voice was calm and assured. I started to think we might get some useful information after all.

'I am seeking an old mage called Azazir; he dwelt north of here some years ago.' Shiv raised his hands and wove a spinning web of blue fire in the centre of the square. The gleaming strands curved around shimmering panels of air, tossing fleeting reflections around the circle. The lines suddenly thinned and flashed into nothingness, leaving an image hanging in the air above the well. About half true size, I saw a scrawny figure in a long green cloak over a mossy robe. Azazir had thinnish grey hair cut off in a straight line at his shoulders and a stoop which brought his narrow face questing forward like a heron, a likeness heightened by his prominent nose. His eyes shone green and, as we watched, the image swept round in a circle, hands spread and skirts flaring, for all the world as if it could see the stunned diggers staring back at it.

I managed to catch my jaw before it dropped too far and I did my best to copy the unimpressed cool of Ryshad and Aiten's poses. I nearly lost it when Ryshad winked at me, but the inhabitants were still so staggered I could have reached down their throats and stolen their guts without them noticing.

'So,' Shiv's voice cut through the silence like a whip,'does anyone here know of him?'

The crowd shuffled and muttered and a reluctant old woman was pushed forward from the back.

'Can you help me?' Shiv leaned down to her, voice smooth as silk and just as enticing.

The grubby old hag stared back like a rabbit in front of a weasel and then shook herself to what I'd bet was a more usual truculence.

'He did used to come down for flour and the like ten years back,' she snapped.

Shiv gave her a smile, blending gratitude with condescension, and, more crucially as far as she was concerned, slipped her some coin.

The gleam of gold they would not have to dig out of the rocks themselves suddenly loosened tongues all around us.

'He was living up beyond the oak stands, where the beeches come down to the river.'

'That was in my father's time. He had a hut by the trout pools last I heard.'

'He'd gone further than that, idiot. He was living by the lake when Emmer caught that big fish, you know, the one with the green scales.'

'It was Summer Solstice three years back he was last here. I remember it was just before Nalli was born and we'd had that swarm of bees in the thatch.'

'He was older though, he'd lost most of that hair and walked with a stick.'

'My uncles said they'd met him up past the snowline, winter before last. They knew he must be a wizard because he was only wearing a tunic and that was one they'd not give a dog to sleep on. Anyone normal would have been iced solid.'

'Reckon he's probably dead by now.'

Shiv held up a commanding hand and the babble fell silent. 'Has anyone seen him since the spring of last year?'

The crowd, which seemed to have doubled since we arrived, shuffled their feet and looked at each other but no one spoke up.

Shiv bowed from his saddle and then gazed imperiously around. 'I thank you on the Archmage's behalf. Is there any service I can do you by way of payment?'

If I'd thought they were stunned before, now they were completely poleaxed. The sounds of the rushing river chattered through the silence. Just when I was about to kick Russet on and take us out of there, a voice piped up from the back.

'Can you tell us where the silver lode is headed?' The opportunist was quickly hushed but Shiv smiled and I could see laughter bubbling behind his lordly manner.

'Look for a crag shaped like a bear with rowans above and below.' Shiv distributed a handful of Tormalin Marks and then moved off, Aiten and Ryshad kicking their horses to tuck in behind him like an Imperial escort. That left me holding the mule so I turned to a nearby peasant and adopted Shiv's lordly tones.

'We would be grateful for bread, any fruit you can spare and flour if you have it.'

Several people scurried off and returned with baskets and sacks. I'm sure the mule looked at me reproachfully but I was too pleased at the prospect of fresh bread again to care.

The mule decided to co-operate and I was able to ride out of the little town in fine style. Shiv must have been the biggest thing to hit that place since the last mudslide.

Aiten was waiting for me when I reached a bend in the track above a fine deep pool in the river.

'Didn't want to lose you, flower.' He grinned when he saw the mule's acquisitions. 'Good thinking. Something nice for dinner?'

'Where are Shiv and Ryshad?' He'd better not think the only woman was automatically the cook. I wondered whether to tell him straight or just let him find out by tasting my efforts; even Darni had done better on our trip through Dalasor.

'Shiv's washing his hands again.' Aiten helped me coax the mule over a slippery patch and we headed towards a flurry of rapids showing white through the trees.

'You've spent time up here, haven't you?' I followed Aiten's lead and dismounted to lead Russet over a bank ribbed with exposed tree roots.

'That's right, three seasons in the gold camps, west of the Celiare. How can you tell?'

I smiled thinly. 'If you see me playing the two-Mark thrice-a-night again, then you can call me “flower”. Other than that, my name's Livak, all right?'

Aiten waited for me to draw level and I was glad to see he took no offence. 'I'm from a little town near Parnilesse originally.' He offered me his hand over a slippery patch. 'My family are farmers. I didn't fancy life with a hoe so I joined the Duke's militia. We spent one season allied with Triolle against Draximal and the next we were fighting Triolle along with Marlier. I soon worked out that His Grace wasn't going to reunite Lescar short of a major plague killing everyone else off, so I struck out on my own. I made a good bit mining but it's not so easy to keep it up here. I headed south four years back.'

We reached the river bank and saw Shiv studying the trunks of the beeches while Ryshad was poking about in a tangle of wood caught by a fallen tree.

'The high water mark's even further up here,' Shiv was saying.

'Here, look at this.' Ryshad pulled something out of the shallows and we all went over to examine a piece of beam, shingles still hanging from rusted nails.

'I'm sure this is fascinating, but would you mind explaining why to an ignorant town-dweller?' I asked politely.

'This river's flooding on a regular basis and the water's going unusually high,' Shiv said, as if that made everything clear.

'And it shouldn't be?' I hazarded.

'Of course not.' Shiv caught himself and shook his head. 'I'm sorry. No, it shouldn't be doing this amount of damage, not this far up its course.'

'No offence, Shiv, but I've lived in these mountains,' Aiten said hesitantly. 'When these rivers are in spate with the snow melt, they rise like a boiling kettle.'

'I'm taking that into account,' Shiv assured him. 'It's still not natural. Look, there are buildings being washed out further upstream. This is part of a roof! How many people would be stupid enough to build below the high water mark?'

Personally, I've known people stupid enough to set their feet on fire trying to dry their boots, but after the little display at the village, I had to reckon Shiv knew his business. That reminded me of something.

'How did you know about their silver mining, Shiv?'

He laughed. 'Planir told me about it. He thought we might need to sweeten a few people up here. He's an earth mage by affinity, so he sees that kind of thing when he's scrying.'

That sounded a useful talent; I bet he wasn't a wizard short of coin. 'So why can't he just tell us where this Azazir is?'

'There are difficulties with the correlation of elemental combinations with the distances involved. It's complicated.'

Shiv wasn't usually given to such vague answers and did not look me in the eye as he remounted. I followed on thoughtfully as we headed deeper into the increasingly tangled woods.

Shiv's little pageant had been the high spot of the day and, as we headed still further away from any possibility of a real bed and a bath, it began to rain. It was not heavy but a fine drizzle, though I soon discovered it left you just as wet. I stared gloomily at the beads of moisture glinting on Russet's ears and for about the tenth time since we'd left Inglis I started to wonder just what I was doing here. We picked our way along the narrowing trails until the light got too dim for the treacherous going underfoot and we made camp. The temperature dropped like a stone that night and we woke freezing cold, stiff as boards and totally unimpressed. Even the mule was starting to look miffed.

We pushed on higher and further and things went from bad to worse as the rain grew heavier and the air colder. We didn't even manage to finish eating the bread before it developed great smug spots of mould and we lost half the fruit when the mule had a fall when its harness slipped, the sodden leather straps slackening as they stretched. We decided to risk cooking flatbread even though the flour had soaked down into an unappetising gluey mass; the next day proved us wrong as, one after another, we had to dash for the undergrowth with racking stomach cramps. We endured two days where meal breaks were spent drinking and collecting large, moist leaves rather than eating, but once the squits had passed we were able to make better progress.

I must have read a handful of Lescari romances and heard twice that many ballads about quests through the wilderness after this magical amulet or that lost princess and not one has mentioned what a miserable business it can be. I began to dream about hearing cobbles under Russet's hooves again. Unfortunately, I also dreamed about Geris and that was pretty much the only thing that kept me from turning round and heading back towards warmth and dry clothes.

Shiv rode through it all oblivious and I'd swear he wasn't getting as wet as the rest of us somehow. Ryshad and Aiten put up with all the discomforts without visible irritation, which only goes to prove how insensitive men can be. They finally lost their composure one miserable afternoon but it didn't really make me feel any better.

Lips thin with irritation, Ryshad was busy with his usual routine, trying to clean tiny spots of rust off his sword, while Aiten went off into the tangled thickets to try and catch some rabbits or squirrels for dinner. Shiv was off communing with the puddles or something, and I was sorting through the luggage, checking Russet and the mule for harness galls and trying to get the worst of the mud and leaves off their legs.

'Do you really think it's worth carrying this?' I looked at the rusty roll of my chainmail with distaste. Just looking at it made my shoulders ache and I would smell like a bag of old horseshoes besides.

Ryshad shrugged. 'It's no use on the mule's back. Wear it or dump it.'

'It's filthy,' I grumbled. 'I'll freeze in it and it weighs a sack-weight. It stinks too.'

Ryshad waved a wire brush at me. 'Clean it and oil it if you want.'

I looked from him to the chainmail and back again, on the verge of full-scale sulks. I didn't want practical advice, I wanted sympathy, understanding and someone else to tell me it was all right to dump the evil stuff.

'You don't wear mail,' I said accusingly.

He tapped his thick buff coat and I was surprised to hear a solid knock. 'Coat of plates,' he explained, shrugging out of it and letting me feel the metal discs sewn between the leather and the linen lining.

'That looks more comfortable,' I admired. 'Where can I get one?'

'Nowhere this side of the Dalas. I got mine in Zyoutessela.'

'Is that where you're from originally? Tell me about it. Is it true you can see the ocean and the Sea of Lescar at the same time?' I could do with going somewhere warm, civilised and exotic even if it was only on the back of someone else's memories.

Ryshad sat back and forgot his work for a moment. 'Well, you can if you climb a tower the Den Rannions have built at the top of the pass. The two anchorages are in fact quite a way apart, I suppose they're more like two cities joined by the portage way, what with the mountains in the middle. We live on the ocean side, my father's a mason, a tenant of Messire D'Olbriot. The patron owns about a third of the land on that side and has a fifth share in the portage way.'

Perhaps I should think about working for him, after all. Ryshad was talking massive wealth.

'Do many ships risk the route round the Cape of Winds rather than paying to transfer their cargo?' I remembered the sleek Dalasorian ships in Inglis.

'Some do in the summer but a lot come back as wreckage on the autumn tides.'

Ryshad gave his sword one last polish with an oily rag and went to sheathe it. It stuck unexpectedly and he swore as he jarred his arm.

'Now what's wrong?' He stripped off sword-belt and scabbard and examined them closely.

'Dast's teeth!' He wrenched the scabbard free and began peering down the length of it. 'It's warped! Can you believe it? I've had this five years and one lousy trip to Gidesta ruins it.'

He sat and began unpicking the leather covering the wood, cursing under his breath, as Aiten came crashing back into the glade, ripping clinging snarls of vegetation off himself with loud exasperation.

'I can't find a thing out there,' he announced. 'I've seen no tracks smaller than water-deer and a wild goat.'

'I'll eat goat,' I shrugged.

'Not tonight you won't.' Aiten threw a broken tangle of wood and binding on to the fire where it hissed and spat.

'That's your bow!' I objected.

'And the only way I could kill anything with it would be to creep up behind and club it to death.' Aiten rummaged in his saddle bag for a flask of spirits. 'It's as twisted as that mule's back leg. It's all this pissing rain. Where's Shiv? He's supposed to be a water mage, why can't he do something about this ungodly weather?'

He tried to warm his hands by our miserable fire. At least the bow had raised a few feeble flames. I left them to it and went in search of Shiv. He was crouched over a deep pool of water but when I peered over his shoulder, all I saw were complex patterns of ruby, amber, sapphire and emerald light. He stood upright and rubbed the small of his back.

'Did you want me for something?'

'Ait can't find anything for dinner. He was wondering if you could do anything about this weather, stop the rain for a bit.'

Shiv grimaced. 'Sony, weather magic's well out of my league. It takes a whole nexus of power and at least four mages.'

I sighed. 'It was worth a try. What are you doing?'

Shiv turned back to his pool. 'I'm looking at the elemental distortions around here. The water power's been tied up in some fascinating ways.'

'How so?'

Shiv gave me a distinctly shifty look. 'It's complicated, you wouldn't understand.'

I looked at him, eyes narrowed as lurking suspicion crept up from the back of my mind. 'Are you sure? It wouldn't have anything to do with all the things that have warped or rusted or rotted lately, would it?'

'All right, it does,' he admitted. 'Still, it means we're on the right trail, doesn't it? If Azazir is taking the trouble to try and discourage us.'

'As far as I'm concerned, he's succeeding,' I growled. 'So have you any idea how much further we must go?'

Shiv moved to the river bank and pointed higher into the hills. 'See that double outcrop above the rock fall? I think he's somewhere just beyond that.'

I didn't look at the hill so much as the grey mass of storm clouds seething above it. I frowned as I tried to work out what was wrong with what I was seeing.

'Shiv, those clouds aren't going anywhere,' I said slowly. 'Look, they're just going round and round in circles. That doesn't make sense. The wind's blowing a northerly gale up there, you can see it from the trees.'

'Is it?'

His air of surprise didn't fool me. 'You said a wizard couldn't do weather magic on his own,' I accused him.

'No, he can't.' I really did not want to hear the note of uncertainty in Shiv's voice. 'Well, he shouldn't be able to.'

CHAPTER SEVEN

Taken from:

An Account of the Founding of Hadrumal Ocarn, Third Flood-Master of Wellery's Hall

Once the domain of Hecksen mas laid waste, popular fear of the mage-horn increased. Appalling though we may find the folly and ambition of the mages Mercel and Frelt, the claims of the Lords of Peorle and Algeral that they had in fact been ensorcelled can be nothing but lies. Worse, the Elected of Col seized upon this pathetic excuse, purporting to discover their involvement had been forced by a conspiracy of wizards and priests planning to seize power. Rumours inflated this calumny, resulting in wholesale panic among the ignorant; even mere scribes found themselves subject to beatings and the few schools were ransacked. The official priesthood was dissolved and the library of the Temple burned. With Col one of the last remaining Temples to survive the chaos of the Dark Generations thus far, the loss of knowledge this represented is incalculable. It must remind us never to underestimate the dangers of the narrow minds of the mundane populace.

Trydek was then travelling in Caladhria as a tutor. Anti-scholastic bias was not so prevalent, but ignorance was still a pernicious blight. It was now considered enough that a noble retain a scribe, rather than learn to read or write for himself, and many libraries were left to rot and worm. To be mage-born was increasingly considered an oddity if not downright unlucky and many unfortunates became victims of their own untutored powers. A few notable disasters such as the burning of Lady Shress and her baby in childbirth became widely known in a variety of garbled

legends. The Duke of Triolle actually declared use of what he termed arcane arts punishable by ordeal and other Lescari nobles followed suit. Of course, all this achieved was to put intolerable strains on already untrained and terrified youths and maidens with inevitable results. Soon any natural flood, fire or lightning strike would be attributed to a mage-born and a frantic search would commence, naturally enough unearthing some unfortunate with a trace of affinity. If lucky, they would simply be driven away; if not, increasingly, killed.

Trydek gathered a coterie of dispossessed mage-born around himself and attempted to settle in various places. As a young man, I heard him speak in his last years, telling most affectingly of the fear and ignorance he and his little band encountered. Various wizards who had contrived to nurture and develop their talents attempted to resist such trends in their localities. With hindsight, we must admit that actions such as the destruction of Genü Market, the blinding of Lord Arbel and particularly the Parnilesse Rising were ill-judged, if understandable. It was after this last that Trydek finally agreed to remove from the mainland altogether, at the suggestion of Vidella, later First Flood-Mistress of the Seaward Hall.

Gidesta, 19th of Aft-Autumn

Rain, rain and more rain. The closer we came to the circle of clouds, the heavier the rain became. That stationary storm soon looked as convincing as a priest's condolences; I noticed Ryshad and Aiten exchanging uncertain looks and slipping dubious glances in Shiv's direction. We struggled on and I mean struggled. The tangles of trees, brambles and ivy got more and more dense and with growing irritation we were frequently brought to a standstill while we cut ourselves and the animals free, or cast about for a path. The rune that tipped the hand came when we stopped to camp and no one could light a fire. I was rummaging in the mule's packs, hoping to find some halfway dry food. I was trying to cut some dry-cured meat with fingers numb with cold when the knife slipped and I gave myself an agonising scrape across the knuckles. I was just about to dissolve into angry tears when I realised Ryshad and Aiten were nearly coming to blows and got a grip on myself. 'Here, let me try. You're doing it all wrong.' 'You're welcome to it. That flint's next to useless.' 'Did you keep the tinder inside your shirt like I told you?' 'For all the good it did. It's as wet as the rest of me.' 'Well, why didn't you wrap it in some oilcloth?' 'Why is it down to me? Why don't you do something useful instead of criticising?'

'I slept with the bloody stuff in my breeches last night. It was dry when I gave it to you.'

I judged it time to intervene. 'Shiv, can you help us get this rotten fire started?' 'Sorry?' 'The fire, Shiv, we need something warm to eat and drink.'

'Are you sure?'

That gave us a spark of sorts; it certainly got Ryshad's temper flaring up.

'Of course she's bloody well sure. We're all soaking wet and freezing cold, at least we three are. Rain doesn't run off normal people like the water off a duck's arse, in case you hadn't noticed.'

I interrupted while he drew breath; he looked like a man heading for something Shiv might regret.

'Just light the fire, Shiv, please.'

Shiv came over to the half-built fire which was already wet enough to wring out and bit his lip as he spread his hands over it. There was a long, cold and tense pause.

'There seems to be a problem.' Shiv looked up at the three of us unhappily.

'Meaning?' Ryshad's tone was ominous.

'It's the elements. Fire seems almost completely closed off in this area.'

'How much is almost?' I was glad I wasn't having to answer Ryshad. We had another of those pauses.

'Enough to prevent anyone lighting a fire, magically or otherwise.'

I waited for the eruption from Ryshad or Aiten but none came.

'So what do we do now?' Ryshad relieved his feelings by kicking the pitiful collection of twigs and tinder halfway across the scrubby hole that passed for a clearing in this undergrowth.

Aiten thrust his hand under Shiv's nose. It was dead white and wrinkled like a wet rag.

'See this? My fingers look as if I've been in a bath for three days. I'm so cold I'm not even shivering much any more. If you don't do something, we'll all be down with exposure by morning, that's if we're not dead in our sleep. I've lived in these mountains, Shiv, I've seen it happen.'

'Maybe we should turn back?' Looks from Aiten and Ryshad told me they were thinking the same way but neither had wanted to be the first to suggest it.

'No, come on.' There was a pleading note in Shiv's voice which surprised me. 'We can't give in. Azazir's doing this to discourage us.'

'As far as I'm concerned, he's succeeding.' Ryshad had got his temper back under control but his face was grim.

'Well?' Aiten's harsh question hung in the air as we all avoided each other's eyes.

'I can't light a fire but I can get you all drier and try to keep the rain off,' Shiv offered.

Aiten looked up from trying to unknot his boot laces. 'Rysh? What do you reckon?'

Ryshad sighed. 'We need to do something to get us through the night. It's too late to set off back down to the valley anyway.'

Now we had something positive to do, we all moved fast. I pulled the driest of the blankets out of the bedrolls while Ryshad and Aiten rigged a canopy out of the largest piece of oilskin. We stripped off our sodden cloaks and tunics and sat in a circle, knee to knee, to share as much of our warmth as possible. It was awkward but we wrapped the blankets around our shoulders, overlapping them and pulling them tight.

'Now just relax and let me work without interrupting.' Shiv gathered faint tendrils of blue light in his hands and closed his eyes. Even I could see the magic was skewed around here; normally his magelight working with air was a clear azure, but now it was shaded like the turquoise the Aldabreshi prize so highly.

I hadn't planned on interrupting, but I soon realised why he'd cautioned us when the shimmering lines of power started creeping over and around us. The water was forced out of our clothes and hair and rose from our huddle in wisps of steam; it tickled horribly. I shut my eyes tight but that just made things worse so I opened them again. It was like the worst case of fleas or lice you've ever had, multiplied by ten. My skin was crawling like a drunk's with the screaming fits upon him and from the fixed revulsion on Ryshad's face, he felt much the same.

I was starting to think this was worse than being soaked when I realised I could feel my toes again. As they itched and burned I told myself this was an improvement but I took some convincing. Aiten shuffled and cursed under his breath but subsided under a stern look from Shiv. I bit my lip and concentrated on the coils of steam twisting out into the gathering dusk. Any passing animal could have mistaken us for a compost heap. Just as I saw the first of the two crescent moons slide up over the tops of the trees, Shiv heaved a sigh and let the magic go.

'That should be better.' I could hardly see him in the dark but I heard the uncertainty in his voice.

I felt my shirt; it was stiff under my roughened hands but pretty well dry and I realised my fingertips had lost their wrinkles.

'Thanks, Shiv.' Aiten rummaged in his belt-pouch. 'Anyone care for some Thassin?'

If I want stimulation, I generally stick to spirits but I decided this was a time for taking whatever was on offer. 'I'll try it, thanks.'

Aiten found my hand in the dark and pressed a small round nut into it. 'Break it up, then tuck the pulp in your cheek,' he advised.

'May I?' Shiv lit a small ball of magelight and held out his hand. 'I didn't know you were a chewer.'

'I'm not as a rule.' Aiten paused to crack the tough outer casing of the nut between his teeth. 'I carry some for emergencies and I think this qualifies. Rysh, do you want some?'

Ryshad sighed and I saw his face tighten in the eerie blue glow. 'I'd better, I suppose. How much do you have?'

'Enough to get you back down gently.' Aiten's face was sympathetic as he handed over a couple of the dark shells.

'I used to be a chewer,' Ryshad explained as he cracked the nuts with practised ease. 'Took me the best part of two seasons to shake the habit.'

I was impressed. 'That's quite an achievement.'

Ryshad grimaced. 'It's not something I fancy doing again.'

We sat and chewed like a huddle of milk cows and I soon found the warmth in my jaw spreading to my stomach and legs. The sour aggravation of days and days spent cold and wet dissolved into a petty annoyance and I began to see why people used this stuff. To my surprise, I began to feel hungry and felt around my feet for the meagre meal I'd managed to salvage.

'When we get back to civilisation, I'm going to buy the biggest piece of cow a butcher can sell me. I'll fry it with onions and butter and eat a day's bread with it,' I muttered with feeling.

'Don't,' Ryshad groaned.

We ate the bits of food, all oddly flavoured by the Thassin, and our spirits rose. We all knew it was artificial but after a while we really didn't care.

'So what's the worst meal anyone's ever eaten? Apart from this one, that is.' Aiten grinned at me, teeth stained and breath bitter from the nuts.

Shiv gave us a highly exaggerated account of student food in Hadrumal; at least I hope he was exaggerating. If he wasn't, Planir could have my report in writing; you won't catch me in a place where someone found a mouse in his stew.

We moved on from disastrous meals to disastrous actions and Aiten had us roaring with laughter with his tales of life as a Lescari mercenary. My personal favourite was the one about the sergeant who led his troop into an ambush one night. 'Come on, lads,' he shouted to get his men going. 'Lads?' All he got was the sound of running feet and the sight of the pennant-bearer's lantern bobbing away at high speed! Another case of death by stupidity.

Ryshad countered with the difficulties of persuading militia levies to use a shield without doing more damage to themselves than to the enemy, and I managed to drive all three of them to distraction by challenging them to guess the single most difficult defence against uninvited entry that I'd ever come across. In case you're wondering, it's not dogs, locks or watchmen, it's those cursed little bells on coils of wire that people hang inside doors and windows. I've won a lot of drinks with that challenge.

Dawn came more quickly than I had expected and we broke up our huddle, stretching cramped legs and preparing for the next stage of this ungodly journey. Shiv had done his best with our clothes and boots but putting on a damp, cold tunic and cloak was one of the nastiest things I had done in a long time. Needless to say the rain was still teeming down and I don't think I have ever seen an animal look quite so pissed off and reproachful as that mule.

Another day of hacking and slipping and cursing through the thickets brought us to a ridge, and when we crested it, we looked down on a totally different scene. It was a valley with a lake in its floor, but where most lakes are fed by one or two streams, this was the focus for hundreds. I know it sounds fanciful but these brooks weren't just following nature downhill, they were aiming for this lake. I'd bet if we'd tried we'd have found others flowing uphill to get here. Water streamed down the steep sides of the valley: few plants had been able to get a foothold here and it looked as if the grass and soil would soon be losing the battle. The lake was a dark murky green and a dense fog swirled above its lurking surface.

'Is this it?' Aiten asked unnecessarily.

Shiv nodded slowly, turning as he scanned the area intently. I followed his gaze but saw nothing. I felt very uneasy and wondered what it was that felt so wrong. The well-spring has always been a lucky rune for me; what was it trying to tell me? After a few moments, I grasped it.

'Can you hear anything? Is it just my ears or are there really no birds here?'

We all stood and listened but the only sounds were rushing water and below that a dull murmur from the far end of the lake.

'This way.' Shiv headed for the noise and we picked our way cautiously along the muddy shoreline. The back of my neck began to prickle and I knew without question that someone or something was watching us.

Russet snorted and paced skittishly as the lake lapped at his feet. I cursed him and had to use all my skills to get him moving again. I had my hands full since I was also leading the mule; the wretched creature had decided I was the only one of us that she'd co-operate with. I'm all for females sticking together, but I felt this was a bit much. I managed to get her moving in a sulky trot, but when I looked forward, the others were quite a way ahead. Tendrils of fog were creeping into the gap and I shivered suddenly.

'Wait up.' I used my heels on Russet and he skipped forward but the fog was growing denser by the second. Shiv and the others were indistinct shapes in a few breaths as clammy whiteness coiled round us.

'Wait for me!' I bellowed but the dead air smothered my voice like a pillow.

I looked down to check for the water's edge but Russet's hooves were already lost in the rising mist. He stopped and snorted nervously, ears pricking forward then laying flat back to his head in turn. I looked at the mule; all I could see now was her head but she was doing the same with her large furry ears, eyes rolling and showing white as something spooked her.

I sat and forced myself to breathe calmly and strained my own ears to try and detect whatever the animals were reacting to. Horrid whispering floated from the direction of the lake but I couldn't make it out. I shook in the chill breeze and kicked Russet hard but he wouldn't move.

Sudden chattering behind us startled the mule into a leap forward that sent her into Russet's rump. He whipped his head round, teeth bared, and snapped at her. She snapped, he reared and I slid gracelessly off his rear end.

'Stop, you bastard horse!' I grabbed helplessly for the trailing reins but the cursed creature vanished into the fog, which was now as dense as rotten milk. I scrambled to my feet and looked wildly round. At least I still had hold of the mule. If there was something out there hoping for a meal, it could have her first. Would there be bears around here? Wolves? Something worse?

'Come on.' I held her by the bridle and leaned into her shaggy shoulder as I took a few cautious steps. I felt water lap round my feet and swore. Back-tracking, I tried what I thought was another way but a few short paces had me paddling again.

As I turned the mule round I caught a glimpse of something in the fog, a dark indistinct shape about man high.

'Shiv? Ryshad? Is that you?' I walked forward slowly but all I could see was fog. There was a scrape on the stones behind me and I whirled round, pressing my back into the reassuring solidity of the mule. I screamed as something or someone tapped me on the shoulder but when I looked wildly round, there was nothing to be seen.

All those fears that you keep locked away in the back of your head started hammering on the doors of my mind. The terror of walking through the house in the dark as a child, the horrors that pursue you back to your bed and the safety of your blankets, the panic of being separated from your parents in a busy street. More adult dreads came crawling up to join them and add their weight; I felt the shock of that near-rape again, the whimpering nausea when I had faced a flogging for theft, the peril and uncertainty when I had been separated from Sorgrad in a riot in Relshaz. I began to shake as the crowding fears made thinking and even walking forward more and more difficult. The mule was shaking now, sweating like a beast facing a predator, head swaying from side to side as shadows in the fog chased around us and evil sounds whispered on every side. I heard echoes of my grandmother scorning my Forest blood, the slap of leather against flesh, the deranged laughter of the would-be rapist. I quailed before the mounting onslaught, sinking to my knees, but still clinging to the mule's reins as if I were drowning.

I don't know how long I crouched there, paralysed by nameless dread in the fog. Eventually a faint voice of reason began to cut through the clamouring terrors in my head. When the fear became too much to bear with my eyes closed, I realised I could see a difference in the fog over to one side. Where it had previously all been white, dead as a pauper's shroud, I could now see faint colour. An almost imperceptible shading of blue was lighting up the heavy wet air.

Shiv, it had to be. I got to my feet and forced my trembling legs towards the colour, dragging the reluctant mule behind me. As I moved, I managed to get a grip on my mind again and hurried the pace. I cannot describe my relief when I saw Shiv standing in a shimmering blue sphere of clear air. The boundaries of his spell were expanding and, as the brilliant blue light swept over me, I felt the fears wash away; it was almost a physical release.

'What's going on?' I hurried to his side and looked round, still apprehensive.

He shook his head and concentrated on his spell. A change in the light made me look up and I saw the fog melting above us. Soon we could see the lake shore and the surrounding valley walls. I drew in deep breaths of clean air until the trembling finally stopped.

'Azazir!' Shiv's roar startled the mule dreadfully but I managed to hold her. 'Your spells are a mighty defence against the untutored. I honour your skills but let us stop this trial! We have urgent business with you; we would not disturb you if it were not a matter of life and death!'

There was a crack like thunder on the plains and in an instant the fog vanished. I blinked away sudden tears as blue sky and sunlight hit my eyes and, for a breath, the valley was bathed in the clear light of a crisp autumn day. It was over so fast I almost doubted my senses; the clouds returned and the rain poured down on us once more, heavier than ever.

'Shiv!' Aiten and Ryshad stumbled towards us through the sheets of rain, feet sliding in the treacherous mud. They had lost their horses too, and each looked white and strained. Vomit stained Aiten's cloak; I didn't want to think what could have terrified him to that extreme. Ryshad's face was set and pale, his naked sword dull and grey as the clouds above us.

'It was a spell.' Shiv held out his arms and we stood in a circle, clasping each other's hands and drawing strength from each other, breath hammering in our chests as we cleared the echoes of the dread from our minds.

Ryshad broke the silence. 'What now, Shiv?'

'We go on.' His tone allowed for no argument and he led the way further towards the head of the lake. We followed, the three of us gathered close to the reassuring bulk of the mule. I realised the rest of us had drawn our swords without stopping to discuss the matter.

The murmur of rushing waters grew stronger and, now the mist had cleared, we saw a waterfall plunging over a cliff ahead of us. Vapour floated over the waters like steam, foam roiling under the onslaught of the cataract.

'Look there.' Aiten pointed over to the base of the cliff. What I had taken for a heap of rocks proved strangely regular on closer examination and, as we drew nearer, I saw crude windows and the dark shadow of a wooden door. It was definitely a dwelling of some sort.

'Come on.' Ryshad moved out ahead of Shiv and Aiten followed him.

'Careful, we need to be patient,' Shiv called after them.

I'm not quite sure what Aiten said but I think it was something along the lines of 'Patience, my arse.' In any case, he walked swiftly up to the door and kicked it in with practised violence. He didn't get the impressive splintering crash he'd wanted, more of a soggy creak; having to pull his foot free of the rotting timbers spoiled the effect further.

Shiv muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath and hurried after them. I took my time tethering the mule and followed once it was clear no maddened wizard was going to turn them all into frogs. Once inside, it was obvious that this had once been someone's home but its former occupant was long gone. Crude wooden furniture stood covered in fungus, whatever materials had softened the chairs had long since vanished to line mouse nests, leaving only a few chewed fragments. Ryshad and Aiten were opening the cupboards and a chest but found nothing beyond rank leavings sodden into unidentifiable pulp. Moisture streamed down the walls and the air smelled dank and unwholesome.

'If this was his home, he must be dead,' I said at last. 'Darni said he could have left guard spells behind him, didn't he? Maybe that's all we've found.'

Shiv stood in the middle of the fetid hovel and turned slowly around. 'No, that magic is alive and that means Azazir must be too. There must be some clue here.'

'There's something through here.' Ryshad was examining the far wall carefully and, when he ran his hand around the outline, we could just make out a door cut from the stone.

'Let me see.'

As Shiv and the others crowded round it, I moved over to the fireplace. It was raised up in the wall with a grill for cooking on and slabs set to either side for warming and simmering. It hadn't seen any activity for a long while, the ashes had been almost completely washed away. I leaned in to peer up the chimney but could see no light; it had to be blocked further up, a nest perhaps, built before the birds fled this unnatural area. I wondered, would a wizard be any more imaginative than the rest of us when it came to hiding valuables?

'There!'

I looked round to see Shiv illuminate the rock door with amber light. It swung open and the three of them looked into the blackness beyond.

'Come on.' Shiv raised a ball of magelight and they went in cautiously.

I reached up the flue and felt around, moving the rusted ironwork built in for smoking and hanging kettles. Nothing unusual there so I rolled up my sleeves and examined the grate. Far to the back, I felt a different sort of stone, smoother to the touch than the rough-hewn rock. I pressed all around it and, somewhat to my surprise, it yielded, pivoting stiffly on a central pin. There was a hollow behind it and I was working at full stretch now, face pressed up against the dirty bars of the hearth. My fingers recoiled from something cold and slimy but I shoved my imagination firmly to one side and forced myself to bring the sodden bundle out.

Once it had been fine, soft leather but that was a long time ago. I pulled the stinking folds apart to reveal a long white rod of some sort and a fine silver ring. I was still alone so I slipped the ring on a thong I keep round my neck for oddments and examined the rod more closely. It was patterned with six-sided shapes like a honeycomb and each had a small carving inside. There were tiny figures, monstrous faces, spider's webs, snow-flakes, all sorts of images. It was a long piece of bone, smoothed and polished with small gems set at one end. I realised this must be something to do with wizardry; they were amber, ruby, sapphire, emerald and diamond, the jewels of elemental magic.

'Nothing in there.' Ryshad's boots crunched on the rubbish underfoot as he led the way out of the back room.

'I've got something.' I turned and held out the rod to Shiv.

'His focus!' Shiv snatched it from me and peered at it closely.

'So?' Aiten tried to see the rod but Shiv moved it away from him.

'If his focus is still here, he must be somewhere close,' Shiv muttered, speaking more to himself than to the rest of us.

'What is that?' Ryshad asked curiously.

'Sorry? Oh, this is Azazir's focus. A wizard makes one to record his magical training, it's part of the discipline. It's a way of concentrating your mind on what you are doing.' Shiv gazed round the dismal cave-house and frowned.

'Come on.' He led us outside and I shivered as the rain struck us with renewed force.

'Where are you, you old madman?' Shiv scowled, peering through the torrents of water.

'Ait, this way.' Ryshad started to move further round the lake but before he had got more than a few paces things started to change with frightening speed.

The cold became intense and the rain changed to snow, then to hail, and a driving wind roared up from nowhere to hurl it stinging into our faces. I cried out as a hailstone the size of an egg thumped into my arm and then covered my head as more came hammering down. We darted for the shelter of the cave but before we reached it the assault stopped and the air became clear again. We stood and looked uncertainly at each other, rain dripping off our hair and noses. A large bruise was growing on Ryshad's cheek.

My skin began to crawl again, but this time it was the hairs on my exposed arms rising as the air began to crackle with energy. Grey clouds above us deepened to black and billowed menacingly downwards.

'Run!' Shiv's voice galvanised us to action and we reached the cave just before the first spear of lightning blew a shower of mud and water into the air.

'Azazir!' Shiv stood in front of us and raised his arms in protest. 'If you want to continue this, show yourself. If you wish to test me, I'll accept a direct challenge — or none. Come and try my magic, if you dare!'

Ryshad and I exchanged horrified looks. Getting involved with a trial of strength between two wizards seemed like a quick way to a booking with Poldrion.

There was a pause which seemed to last for half a day, but I suppose it was really only a few breaths before the tension drained out of the air and the clouds drew back to their usual task of dropping rain by the bucketload.

I looked at Shiv and saw his gaze fixed, fascinated, on the waterfall at the far end of the lake. An eerie delight lit his eyes and his lips curved in an uncanny smile as he slowly shook his head in wonder. He had never looked so far removed from us ordinary folk and it unnerved me more than I can say.

I licked my suddenly dry lips. 'What is it, Shiv? Is there a cave behind the waterfall? Is he there?'

'Oh no,' Shiv breathed. 'Can't you see? He is the waterfall!'

He walked swiftly along the lake shore, leaving the rest of us gaping stupidly as we tried to make sense of what he was saying. Shaking my head, I was the first to move to follow him but none of us got too close as we drew nearer to the cataract.

I stared into the streaming flow and narrowed my eyes; was there something in there, or was I imagining it? One patch of water in the midst of the torrent seemed somehow stationary, circulating endlessly in on itself rather than racing down to vanish into the lake.

'Azazir!' Shiv sent a flash of green power into the waterfall and whatever I thought I could see vanished. I was about to turn away when a figure drew itself up on to the surface of the lake and walked across the water towards us. Initially as clear as the crystal waterfall, the man-shape grew more distinct as it approached. By the time it reached the shore, I saw an old man, naked, no more than skin and bone. His hair and beard were colourless rather than simply white, slicked down with the water; his eyes were pale, piercing and to my mind completely insane.

'Who are you?' The ancient mage's voice echoed with the murmur of the waterfall and he stared at Shiv, unblinking as a fish.

'I am Shivvalan, initiate of the Seaward Hall, adept of water and air. I serve the Great Council and, on the authority of the Archmage, I am here to ask you questions.' Shiv's tone was calm and assured.

A faint frown rippled across Azazir's face. 'Who is the Archmage now?'

'Planir the Black,' Shiv replied steadily.

Azazir's sudden cackle made us all jump. 'Planir! I remember him! A miner's son from the pits of Gidesta, coaldust in everything he owned, down to the scars on his knees and knuckles. Planir the Black! My oath, it was the other apprentices gave him that title when they saw the state of his linens!'

He stepped off the water and I was relieved to see contact with the earth granted him more solidity and colour.

'So what does his eminence want of me?' He fixed Shiv with his fishy stare.

'Let's go somewhere more comfortable.' Shiv turned towards the cave but Azazir simply squatted down in the mud.

'I'm comfortable here.'

I saw his arms and chest were patterned with what I first thought might be scales but I realised they were more of the honeycomb pictures, some tattooed, but most simply scratched into his skin and left to scar over. I shivered, not just because of the cold and the rain.

'You travelled across the ocean in your youth,' Shiv began hesitantly. 'You found the home of a race of blond men. We need to know anything you can tell us about them.'

Azazir turned over a few flat stones. 'Why should I tell you my tales? No one believed me then. Why should I help the Council now?'

He scooped up a handful of snails and popped them into his mouth, crunching them shells and all. Aiten exclaimed in revulsion and turned away.

'These people are travelling to Tormalin and Dalasor. They are robbing and killing people. We need your help.' Shiv kept his tone level and persuasive.

'Nothing to do with me.' Azazir rooted about in the dirt and quite suddenly I lost my temper with him.

'Fine. If you're not interested, after we've come all this way to see you and put up with all your stupid tricks, you can go stuff yourself. Just do me a favour and wrap up this pissing rain long enough for us to light a fire and have something warm to eat. We'll be on our way and you can play mud-castles for as long as you like.'

Azazir looked up at me and I saw the first faint shading of humanity in his cold, dead eyes. 'I suppose if you weren't stupid enough to let the magic kill you, you might be interesting enough to talk to.'

He rose and walked towards the remains of his hovel, glowering at the ruined door. He was looking more and more human the further we got from the lake, and by the time we reached the cave he was starting to shiver slightly. Once inside, the walls glowed with cold green light as the house recognised him.

'Can we light a fire?' Aiten asked hungrily; his face reflected all our relief when Azazir nodded slowly.

'The chimney's blocked.' I stopped him before he tried to get a spark to some tinder and we went outside to clear it from the top. When we came back inside, Ryshad had started a small blaze and was breaking up the remains of the door and stacking it to dry by the hearth. Azazir was wrapped in Shiv's cloak and they were deep in conversation as Shiv explained the events that had brought us here. We ate a sparse meal but I would have paid all my noble coin for a cup of hot soup by now so I wasn't complaining. Even the mule was looking more cheerful as we tethered her by the door and a pile of grass.

'So, can you tell us about your journey?' Shiv asked finally. We all looked expectantly at the old wizard.

He cupped his chin in his hands, elbows on bony knees, and stared into the past. 'I was looking for the lost colony,' he began at last. 'I was born a Tormalin and we don't forget our families, even when magebirth takes us away from our duties to our blood.'

'What was your family?' Ryshad asked, earning a stern glare from Shiv for interrupting.

'T'Aleonne.' Azazir smiled at the memory. 'I was Azazir, Esquire T'Aleonne, Scion of the Crystal Tree.'

I could see this meant something to Ryshad and Aiten but realised I'd have to wait to find out what that was.

'We were a powerful family in the Old Empire,' Azazir went on. 'We had power, wealth; we were related to half the Emperors of the House of Nemith and descended from the House of Tarl. We could have been the founders of the next dynasty at home but my ancestor was caught up in the search for lands over the ocean. When Den Fellaemion took his ships to Kel Ar'Ayen, we sailed with him and helped build the new cities of the Empire overseas. My ancestors sat at the high table with Nemith the Seafarer and sailed the oceans with him. We were going to rule the new lands. We had the right and the blood claim.'

Anger and contempt twisted the old man's face. 'Nemith the Reckless, that's what the historians call him. I suppose Nemith the Whorestruck would be too honest for those arse-lickers. When they appeared, these blond men, the Men of the Ice, the colonists sent message after message asking for help, but none ever came. Nemith the last was too busy running the Empire into the fires to satisfy his lusts for gold and whores. He would rather fight the Mountain Men in his mad ambition to conquer Gidesta. I'll wager he was glad to know he need not face a challenge from a house ten times more fit for rule than his own. My ancestors did what they could. They spent every crown they had, but it was too late. The colony was lost and the Empire fell apart and my family sank into penury while lesser houses grew fat scavenging on the ruins of Tormalin's glory.'

Azazir stared sourly into the fire, brooding on wrongs to his blood, twenty generations past.

'You knew where to find the colony?' Shiv prompted gently.

'We had our archive. My family lost much, but we kept our history, not like the scum who came after us, who had no more ancestry than a street dog.'

Azazir's tone became indignant. 'No one believed us. The other families who had sailed the oceans were long lost and their knowledge was gone. My father was called senile and confused, mocked for his learning. I bided my time while I trained, but I knew that one day I would learn how to cross the open seas like my ancestors and claim what they had bequeathed me.'

He looked around at us, eyes bright with the conviction of the completely obsessed. 'I was born to do this, to restore my family fortunes. Why else would I be a mage?'

Grievance soured his tone again. 'I thought wizards would be different, they're supposed to be open-minded but they're as rotten with jealousy as the rest of them. No one would help me, they worked against me, I'm sure of it. No one wanted me to succeed. I could have been the greatest mage of my generation if petty minds had not thwarted me. I should have been Archmage but no one had my vision.'

'But you crossed the oceans, despite them?' Shiv managed to divert Azazir from his tirade.

'I did!' His tone was triumphant. 'I spent years learning the currents of the ocean and the secrets of the deep. I spoke to the fish and the beasts of the seas and even to the dragons of the southern waters. They taught me their secrets and I finally found an apprentice with the foresight to join his power to mine and make the crossing.'

'Who was he?' Shiv asked before he could stop himself.

Azazir scowled. 'Viltred, he called himself. He came with me but lost his nerve in the end. He was as spineless as the rest when it came down to real magic. None of them have the dedication that noble blood demands of its sons.'

Shiv gave me a rueful look as we sat and waited for Azazir's spite to run its course.

'So you made the crossing?' Shiv was able to ask when Azazir finally paused for reflection.

'I did. They said it could not be done, but I proved I could master the currents and the storms.' The old wizard straightened his shoulders with pride and raised his head high.

'Kel Ar'Ayen turned out to be a land of islands, separated by channels and sand banks and circled by the deep ocean. Those men, the Ice-dwellers, the Elietimm they were called in the old tongue, they must have bred like rabbits. They were everywhere, they had scoured the land nearly barren. I could find no trace of the Tormalin cities, all was lost. All I found were these savages with their yellow heads and fertile loins.' The sadness in his tone made Azazir sound nearly human.

'How can you be sure it was Kel Ar'Ayen?' Shiv asked cautiously.

Azazir looked at him, eyes bright with anger again. 'I found relics of our lost ancestors there even if the cities had fallen. I announced myself to the ruler of the place where we landed and at first he treated us as honoured guests, as was only fitting. The wealth of his house included silver, weapons and other valuables that could only have come from the Old Empire. His ancestors must have despoiled the dead like savages.'

The old wizard drew the cloak tighter around his shoulders and gazed into the fire again. 'That dog soon showed his true blood. We were detained, forbidden to leave our rooms, if you please, and when we protested, we were threatened with chains. He should not have done that, I am not some peasant to bow to a cock on a dunghill. He had no right to detain me or to hold the property of families ten times more noble. I took those heirlooms that I could find and we left. I was not going to be insulted when I should have been ruling those lands with his kind beneath the lash to till the soil and grateful for their miserable lives.'

'You brought heirlooms home?' Ryshad's urgent question made no impression on Azazir, who continued his rambling tirade.

'It's very hard to be sure of Old Empire relics, they're almost certainly just copies,' I said loudly, blending patronising scepticism with just enough pity to annoy.

Azazir took the bait and sat upright, fixing me with a cold green eye. 'You are an ignorant wench. What do you know of such matters?'

'Don't upset yourself, Grandad,' I soothed. 'If you want them to be Empire treasures, that's what we'll call them.'

Azazir got up from his seat with an oath and stalked into the back room.

'What do you think you're playing at?' Shiv hissed at me. I waved him to silence as Azazir came back with a cloth-wrapped bundle. Wherever he'd been keeping it was well secured, as it was dry and fragrant with preserving spices.

'If any of you have the skills to examine such valuables, you may look for yourselves,' he said loftily as he unrolled what proved to be a cloak a generation out of fashion.

I left Shiv to continue the questioning and looked eagerly at the contents. Ryshad joined me, sorting through jewellery, some weapons, a scribe's case and more of the small, personal items so similar to those Geris had disappeared with.

'What do you think?' I held a set of manicure tools up to the light.

'They're Tormalin all right, end of the Empire.' Ryshad ran his fingers over the crest on a silver goblet. 'This is D'Alsennin's insignia. That's Den Rannion and I think this must be a collateral line of Tor Priminale.'

None of that meant much to me. 'What's this about a lost colony?' I asked in an undertone.

Ryshad frowned. 'That's all a bit odd. There are stories of a colony being set up by Nemith the Seafarer, but all the histories say it was founded in Gidesta, when the House of Nemith were trying to expand the Empire northward. I've read some of the writings; whatever he's saying, it certainly wasn't on any islands. They talk about great forests, new sources for gold and copper, a river with gravel shoals full of gemstones.'

I whistled soundlessly. 'That would be worth finding again, just to break the Aldabreshin monopoly.'

'I agree.' Ryshad sat back on his heels with a sword in his hands. 'How could the histories be wrong?'

'What do they say happened to this colony?'

'It was overrun by the Mountain Men. They were far more widespread in Gidesta then and drove the Empire back. Nemith the Reckless swore vengeance and sent an army across the Dalas, but they got tied up in a campaign with no clear goals in sight. He got so obsessed with adding Gidesta to the Empire that he let the rest go rotten. The Empire fell, magic was almost lost until Trydek founded Hadrumal, and no one ever got to rule Gidesta.'

I pondered this story. 'Have you ever met any Mountain Men, Rysh?'

He shook his head. 'Not to speak of. They don't come south as a rule.'

'I know a couple of brothers who are old Mountain folk. They're pretty much pure blood, from some valley in the back of beyond, up near the Mandarkin border.'

'So?'

'They're shorter than most; the tallest is only about my height. Sorgrad is sort of sandy-haired but Sorgren is much fairer, almost as blond as these mystery men we're chasing. What if those historians of yours were confused, mixed up Nemith's war in the north with the fight for these lands overseas? If these colonies got wiped out like Azazir's saying, there can't have been many people left to put the archive right.'

Ryshad looked unconvinced. 'That's an ungodly leap in the dark, Livak. Anyway, there's no way these islands could be the colony, the description's just too different.'

I was about to answer but something in the folds of the cloak caught my eye. It was a long thin dagger, three blades joined to give vicious triangular wounds.

'What's this?' I turned it over to Ryshad, who shook his head.

'I've never seen anything like that before.'

Aiten looked up at this and came to see what we had. 'There's a nasty mind behind that,' he said admiringly.

'That's not Tormalin and I'd wager it's not Mountain Man work either.' I rummaged among the heap and came up with an oddly curved knife. 'What about this?'

Ryshad shrugged. 'Two unidentifiable weapons don't mean much.'

A sudden commotion ended our discussion.

'So all you came here for was to rob me, is that it?' Azazir sprang to his feet and glared at Shiv.

'No, what I asked was—'

'You don't believe me any more than the rest of them. All you want is to plunder the last of my fortune and enrich yourselves. I don't believe there are any strange invaders. You're lying to me, just like all the rest.'

Shiv winced as Azazir's bony hand slapped across his face. He coughed on a sudden mouthful of blood and swore as he held a hand to his gushing nose.

'I swear we are honest.' Ryshad fumbled under his shirt and drew out his medallion. 'I am a sworn man of Messire D'Olbriot and I seek vengeance on these foreigners for a grave insult to his blood. Here is his crest and my authority to use my sword in his name.'

'D'Olbriot? Of Zyoutessela? Have they risen so high?'

'Messire D'Olbriot is one of the Emperor's most trusted counsellors,' Ryshad said firmly.

'Who is Emperor now? Did Tadriol manage to hold it for his line? Who was chosen from his sons?' Azazir's anger vanished as rapidly as it had appeared.

'Tadriol, third son of Tadriol the Prudent, was chosen. There has been no acclamation as yet, so he has no title.'

I looked at Ryshad with interest. If he had advance knowledge on what the Tormalin patrons might decide to call their ruler, we could win an impressive sum in the gambling houses of places like Relshaz. I would have to discuss it with him further.

Azazir was diverted long enough for Shiv to recover his poise and, between them, they managed to calm down the outraged old lunatic. The price for his good humour was having to listen to more of his rambling spite against everyone and anyone who'd ever crossed him and I soon got tired of listening. I found his dismissal of women as only good for cooking, cleaning and sex particularly irritating and soon decided to get some sleep, if only to avoid the temptation of telling the old bigot exactly what I thought. I settled down in the luxury of dry blankets near a warm hearth and was soon away to the Shades.

The Silverlane, Inglis,

19th of Aft-Autumn

As far as I'm concerned, my presence here is entirely unnecessary, especially two nights in a row,' Casuel grumbled, sinking deeper into the fur of his hood.

As uncaring as the stars twinkling high above in the frosty night, Darni was staring intently at a narrow alleyway some distance away from their perch on a narrow balcony.

'Oh, stop moaning, Cas, just be ready to slam a ward across that door when I tell you,' he murmured, breath rising like smoke in the crisp air.

'You seem to forget that I have several broken ribs,' Casuel hissed with some asperity.

'Pigswill,' Darni retorted briskly. 'Cracked ribs maybe; if they were broken you'd be flat on your back, crying into a cup of tahn tea. I know; I've done it.'

Obviously nothing could be gained pressing that point; Casuel sulked for a while before trying again.

'Sitting cramped up here in the freezing cold is becoming most uncomfortable. It's past midnight and I'm getting tired and hungry. And stop calling me Cas, you know full well I don't like it.'

'I'd say I've earned the right to call you what I like, if we weigh things in Raeponin's balance. You still haven't said thank you to me for rescuing you, you know.' The grin in Darni's voice annoyed Casuel still further.

'Thank you, then, I'm very grateful, I'm sure,' he said stiffly. 'That doesn't alter the fact that I shouldn't even be here; that apothecary said I could have suffered interior damage as well.'

'Nothing to worry about, those trappers knew their business,'

Darni said in a bored tone. 'You're not pissing blood, are you? Stop fussing.'

'I should be in bed.' Casuel's voice rose indignantly. 'The apothecary said—'

'Keep your voice down.' Darni turned to frown dauntingly at him, eyes shadowed and forbidding in the dim light. 'You've been strapped up, haven't you? You want to take some exercise, put some muscle on; that'll keep your ribs in one piece next time.'

'There's not going to be a next time,' Casuel muttered into his collar.

'I'd say the chances of that depend on how long you'll be working for me.' Darni's teeth flashed in a faint gleam of moonlight.

Casuel shuffled his feet, clenching his buttocks against the stomach-churning notion that he might find himself in such an appalling situation ever again. A pot chinked against the railings, one of a clutter of urns discarded up here to await spring planting.

'Sit still,' Darni growled, low-voiced.

Casuel tucked his hands inside his cloak and cautiously prodded his ribs until a sudden stab of pain made him gasp and fold his arms against the temptation to test any further.

'I still don't understand what we're doing here. Ever since yesterday evening you've been saying you'd tell me in a moment, and I'm still waiting.'

'I want a wizard whom I can trust to seal up that door,' Darni said softly, not shifting his gaze. 'These local boys and girls might suspect I'll rip their legs off and kick them to death with their own boots if they cross me. You know it for certain.' He chuckled evilly and winked at Casuel.

'I don't find that amusing,' the mage snapped crossly. 'And you still haven't told me why we're here.'

Darni moved cautiously back from the balcony rail and scrubbed a hand across his beard to remove the moisture condensing around his mouth in the chilly night.

'That shop down there, the green door you're to ward, it belongs to a money-changer. He had a visit yesterday afternoon from a blond half-measure wanting to trade a hefty sum in Lescari Marks.'

'So someone didn't check the coin down to the bottom of the bag when he got paid for something?' Casuel snorted. 'Being stupid enough to get stuck with more than a handful of lead coins is uncommon, I'll grant you, but it's hardly suspicious.'

Darni stared at him with evident puzzlement. 'Do you ever listen to anything apart from the sound of your own voice? You were there when Evern explained this old coin-clipper is an antiquarian on the side, or did I imagine it? It looks as if he's got some of those antiquities Planir's after. We know these corn-tops are after them as well. So we wait for them.'

'You know, I should have been told about this business with Tormalin artefacts.' Casuel forgot the aches in his chest as this new grievance aggravated him afresh. 'I don't know how I'm supposed to work effectively with Usara if I'm not told what's going on.'

'I'd say everyone's a cursed sight safer, the less you know,' Darni said dismissively. 'You didn't get very far with Lord Armile, did you?'

'How did you hear about that?' Casuel stared at Darni, outraged. 'You can't bespeak Usara, you haven't the talent!'

'Allin told me.' Darni leaned closer and Casuel shrank back into the folds of his cloak. 'It all sounds very interesting. She said you'd been to Hanchet as well; I wonder who you saw there.'

Words failed Casuel, to his intense frustration. He jumped at a scraping sound as the shutters on to the balcony slowly edged open.

'There's no sign of anyone so far.' Evern slid through the gap and hunkered down next to Darni. 'I think this is a waste of time.'

'The Watch commander didn't think so.' Darni's voice was curt. 'He's given us men and permission to keep a vigil for five nights if we have to.'

'You think they'll come then?' Evern persisted.

'Yes.' Darni continued to stare at the distant alley.

'And they'll lead us to whoever killed Yeniya?'

'Yes.'

'You're sure about that?'

'They'd better or they're booked for a quick trip with Poldrion.' Darni stared grimly at the doorway.

A hiss of discomfort escaped Casuel as he shifted in a vain effort to restore some feeling to his numbed behind. Evern turned to scowl at him but, before he could speak, Darni tensed like a hunting dog scenting prey.

'Cas, come here,' he ordered, picking up a dark lantern. 'Light this.'

Casuel succeeded on the second attempt, fingers shaking. 'I'm too cold,' he said unconvincingly.

Darni and Evern ignored him, intent on stealthy movements in the street below. Several men ambled casually along the gutter and, as they crossed a side alley, an uncovered head gleamed pale under the stars.

'There!' Evern pointed at a brief flash of light from a distant window. Darni grunted and drew back the slide on his own lantern in answer.

Casuel struggled to see what was going on. 'Excuse me.' He tugged at Evern's elbow in annoyance.

Evern ignored him but moved to the balcony windows. 'I'll be with the Watchmen.'

Darni nodded, not taking his eyes off the darkness of the alleyway. 'Cas, get ready,' he commanded.

'They've gone past,' Casuel objected. 'They—'

He subsided as Darni raised a warning hand. 'Just do it when I tell you.'

Casuel narrowed his lips and peered through the railings at the door, now no more than a darker patch in a grey wall. He worked a little magic to help him see more clearly, reluctantly admitting to himself that he was somewhat fearful of the consequences of failing Darni. Catching shadowy glimpses of movement, he reached desperately down to the earth that provided his powers, sending that mageborn part of himself into and along the narrow street. The touch of stone and soil steadied and reassured him, restoring his wounded confidence.

His eyes glazed as he felt his way around the stone step of the door, spreading fingers of power into the masonry around it, gathering the magic into himself, poised for Darni's command.

Steps echoed in Casuel's mind as booted feet moved cautiously across the cobbles and halted. Men stood each side of the doorway, another bent to the lock and Casuel's senses tingled oddly as the door opened with no sound of key or lockpick. High-laced boots stepped quickly inside. More followed, iron nails striking sparks from Casuel's magic, walking rapidly across the road and entering without hesitation.

'Now.' Darni gripped Casuel's arm with a vice-like hand. He slammed down the spell with a wordless exclamation, commanding the stone to obey him, to clamp itself silently to the wood of door and window shutters in a bond no ordinary force could hope to defeat. He reached deep into the fibres of the timbers to extend the spell, giving it the strength of rock.

'Come on.' Darni sprang to his feet.

'No, I'll just wait—' Casuel was unable to complete his sentence, gasping as Darni hauled him roughly through the window and down the stairs.

'Run.' Darni moved, fast and surprisingly light on his feet for one so heavy-set.

Casuel hesitated for a moment then scurried after him, even more afraid of whatever dangers might be lurking in the black alleys than he was of what might await him in the house. At very least, he could keep Darni between him and any menace in there.

Evern caught up with them and Casuel saw lamplight shining on breastplates as Watchmen flung back their cloaks to run unencumbered. A squad gathered at the doorway as hammering sounds from inside echoed around the close-packed houses.

'Cas, blanket the noise,' Darni ordered at once. Casuel fumbled with the air, a blue flash escaping him, and the noise was muffled. He heaved a sigh of relief and grimaced at the shooting pain in his side.

Darni nodded at Evern. 'See, wizards do have their uses.'

'You,' Evern pointed at a Watchman and then up to a window where a yellow gleam showed,'tell whoever that is to go back to bed, that everything's under control.'

'Is it?' Darni demanded.

Evern lifted a silver whistle and blew a short sequence. Answering whistles came from over the rooftops and Casuel noticed another curious candle instantly snuffed in a house across the way.

'Ready,' Evern confirmed.

'Let's get in there.' Darni looked expectantly at Casuel, who laid a trembling hand on the wood of the door. The magic resonated under his fingers and the door flung itself open at his command. There was a thud as it slammed into whoever had been hammering on the inside and the Watchmen followed like an armoured stampede. Darni drew a gleaming dagger and paused on the threshold, barring Evern's grim-faced advance.

'We do this my way,' he warned before raising his arm. 'Gas, stay behind me.'

'I'll wait out here, if it's all the same to you,' Casuel said hastily.

'It's not. Get inside and give us some light,' Darni glared.

Casuel bit his lip and moved hesitantly to the rear as they entered the cramped house together. He winced at the sounds of fists smacking flesh and grunts as returning blows landed on unexpected armour. A hasty spell was sufficient to illuminate the room with bluish magelight and he hovered in the entrance, guts in turmoil at the prospect of more violence.

Now they could see what they were doing, the Watchmen moved to subdue the would-be robbers with practised brutality. Two were already pinned and being bound with cruel efficiency. Casuel exclaimed as a blond-haired youth was clubbed to the floor, blood streaming down his face. Another went down under a hail of blows, scrambling desperately under a table but dragged out to vanish under a heap of breastplates.

Casuel frowned and bit his lip; their resemblance to the man he'd encountered in Hanchet was striking, but he didn't really want to enter a conversation about that trip with Darni; well, it would hardly be relevant now, would it?

'Careful!' Darni snarled. 'We want them fit to talk.'

One at least showed he was still capable of that, albeit incomprehensibly, yelling what could only have been abuse as he fended off three Watchmen with a chair. They lunged towards him but he moved quicker, felling one with a smack in the face that brought the Watchman to his knees. A boot to the face sent the hapless trooper tumbling back into the legs of his colleagues, spitting blood and teeth, jaw hanging helplessly broken.

Darni was moving carefully round to his flank when a flash of silver startled Casuel and a throwing knife came hissing past his ear to bury itself in the pugnacious man's throat. He sank to his knees with a scream cut short into a bubbling gasp as blood gushed from his mouth. He swayed, clawing desperately at his neck, heedless of the cuts to his hands as he groped for the blade, slipping on his own blood as he tried in vain to regain his feet.

'Shit!' Darni darted forward, grabbed the man's hair from behind and cut his throat with a sudden gash reaching almost to the spine. The man collapsed like a marionette, blood spraying everywhere.

'We need them alive, you piss-head,' Darni yelled at Evern.

'Go stuff yourself, I don't take orders from you,' Evern snarled. 'Look what he did to Yarl.'

Darni did not spare the wounded Watchman a glance as a colleague supported him from the house. 'We need them alive to answer questions. Do anything like that again and I'll kill you myself.'

There was a still moment as all eyes went from Darni to Evern and back again, wondering, waiting. Casuel clamped his hands over his mouth, desperate not to vomit, panic-stricken at the thought of just how much that would hurt with cracked ribs.

Evern dropped his gaze first, turning to the wide-eyed captives. 'So, let's ask some stuffing questions,' he demanded.

Darni moved carefully around the gore and filth pooling round the corpse and came to look at the results of the Watch detail's handiwork. The youngest one was hanging limply in his bonds, only upright because of the burly Watchman propping him against the wall.

'What's your name?' Darni waved a hand in front of the white face. 'He's out on his feet, look at his eyes,' he said disgustedly. 'You lads are too heavy-handed for this work.'

The next man was eyeing him warily. When Darni spoke to him, he answered in a rapid scatter of harsh words. The other two stiffened in their captor's hands and their faces hardened. Darni silenced the man with a smack in the mouth but even Casuel could see new determination on the fair faces, eyes fixed on their fallen comrade lying in his own blood, the charnel scent filling the room.

'You can tell us what we need to know and you will be treated well,' Darni announced in a loud voice, taking a pace backwards to look at the captives in turn. 'Keep silent and it will go very hard for you indeed.'

Casuel looked at the blond men, wondering what was going to happen now and desperately hoping it wasn't going to be too messy. The stillness was broken only by a few heaving breaths, chinks and creaks from armour and leather as the Watchmen shifted their grip or their feet. The captives all looked back at Darni in defiant silence.

Darni shook his head and turned his back on them. He glanced at Evern and raised his eyebrows, tilting his head backwards a fraction. Evern frowned, then nodded minutely.

'Oh well, we'll just have to get Gas here to use that magic of his to turn their heads inside out for us,' Darni commented in a conversational tone. 'I'd rather they could keep their wits but we can cut their throats when he's done.'

Casuel opened his mouth, about to deny any such possibility when Evern trod heavily on his foot.

'That one, right-hand end.' Evern stepped up to glare at the man with a hatred that needed no translation. 'He blinked and the others both looked at him.'

'Right.' Darni stood in front of him, beard virtually brushing the shorter man's nose as he slowly wiped his bloody dagger down the man's homespun jerkin, cleaning first one side, then the other. He raised the blade and grinned viciously. 'This is going to hurt you a lot more than it's going hurt me, pal.'

'What are you going to do?' Casuel quavered, looking at the gleaming blade with sick fascination.

'Only what we need to, just enough to get our friend here to talk.' Darni slid the edge of the dagger up behind the man's ear. 'You see, there are all sorts of bits a man doesn't really need, not to talk with at any rate.'

A thin trickle of bright blood slid down the blade and Casuel ducked hastily out of the doorway, gulping down the cold night air as he sought desperately to control his stomach. A yell from inside the house startled him and he hastily wove handfuls of air to block his ears, screwing his eyes shut.

'How did I ever get dragged into all this?' he moaned wretchedly to himself. No amount of recognition or advancement could be worth this, not even a seat on the Council.

He gradually regained some measure of control and, shivering from cold and tension, leaned against the wall of the house, exhausted. Six chimes came faintly from a distant timepiece and Casuel wondered miserably if he could go home to bed. Better not, he decided reluctantly. This didn't seem like a good time to risk annoying Darni.

'All right, then?'

A hand on his shoulder nearly made Casuel piss himself but just in time he realised it was one of the Watchmen. The others followed, dragging along their doubled-over captives, boots scraping slackly on the cobbles.

'Here you are, Cas — souvenir!' Darni loomed out of the doorway and tossed a bloody gobbet of flesh at him.

Casuel skipped backwards with a squeak of revulsion, gorge rising as he saw it was a human ear. 'You didn't?' he gasped, appalled.

'No, I didn't.' Darni picked up the sorry fragment and tossed it back in the doorway. 'Sorry, couldn't resist it, not after I saw your face in there.' He grinned in high good humour.

'Then, then—' Casuel stammered as Evern emerged, followed by a Watchman carrying the last prisoner limp across his shoulder.

'We took him into the back room and told him we'd carve up his mates until he talked.' Darni wiped his hands on a gruesomely stained towel with an air of satisfaction. 'They all screamed pretty convincingly once we had their stones in the log-tongs. And we cut bits off the dead one to show him.'

'You are a nasty bastard, aren't you?' Admiration warred with awe and no little fear in Evern's tone.

'Worst in the pack,' Darni said agreeably. 'Come on, Gas, let's get home.'

Casuel stumbled after him as Darni set off through the silent streets at a cracking pace; he wanted to ask how the man could do things like that but did not dare.

A bleary-eyed maid let them into the Licorne Inn, squeaking with alarm when her candle revealed the blood on Darni.

'Don't worry, chick, it's not mine.' He smiled down at her and she backed away nervously. 'Any chance of something to eat? It's been a busy night.'

She bobbed a mute curtsey and lit a branch of candles on a nearby table before scampering off in the direction of the kitchen.

'You're hungry?' Casuel could not believe it. He hugged his aching ribs and longed for his bed. 'All right. What did you find out?'

Darni waved him to silence as the maid reappeared with a loaded tray. 'Thanks, chick. Here, buy yourself a new hair-ribbon. We'll take this upstairs.'

Casuel led the way with the candles and waited with growing annoyance as Darni chewed on a shank of cold venison, ladling on a fragrant sauce.

'Can I go to bed?' he demanded at length.

Darni shook his head. 'Sorry, I need you to bespeak Usara or Otrick,' he said thickly through a mouthful of bread.

'Not tonight!' Casuel groaned. 'What do you have to tell them anyway?'

'These flax-faces are from some islands, way out deep into the ocean.' Darni looked up from his food. 'What do you think of that?'

Casuel sat down and reached for a cup of wine. 'I think that's very interesting,' he said at length.

'Why so?' Darni's eyes were keen.

'I've come across a few odd passages in the writings I've been studying, things which would make more sense if there were lands across the ocean.' Casuel looked round vaguely for his books.

'Well, as far as I'm concerned, the important thing is that we've got a lead on where Geris is being taken.' Darni tore at the meat with his teeth.

'Oh, yes.' Casuel looked thoughtful. 'Did they say exactly what they were doing here?'

Darni shook his head, mouth full. 'No, not beyond tracking down and stealing Tormalin antiquities. Only he called it repossessing, kept rattling on about hereditary enemies.'

'These men that Shivvalan and the girl went off with, you said they were sworn-men to Messire D'Olbriot, didn't you?' Casuel fetched a map and unrolled it, pulling the candles closer.

'So?' Darni pushed the tray aside, heaved a contented sigh and poured more wine.

'So, he has an interest. More importantly, he's a leading Prince with interests all along the ocean coast.' Casuel looked up at Darni. 'He could get us a ship.'

Darni gazed at him for a moment before laughing. Casuel gritted his teeth and wished for just one chance to wipe that patronising smile off his beard.

'No, listen.' Casuel fought to hide his exasperation; this was important. 'Of course we'll tell Usara but, whatever they say in Hadrumal, if you want to rescue this boy Geris, you'll need a ship to get you there. The faster we organise one the better.'

The greater his own chances of attracting some positive attention from Usara as well, and perhaps even Planir, he added silently to himself. He needed something to set beside his less than spectacular record thus far. The benefits of such a service to a patron like Messire D'Olbriot weren't to be scoffed at either.

Darni shook his head. 'No, I don't want to involve any more people than we absolutely have to. Anyway, we'd lose the best part of the season trailing all the way down to Zyoutessela.'

Casuel pushed the map across. 'All the Princes will be in Toremal through For-Winter; that's when all the serious politics happen, the harvest is in and the seas are too rough for trade. If we can get to Bremilayne, we can send a message by Imperial Despatch. Those boys cover fifteen leagues a day; we'd have an answer in less than four.'

Darni peered at the map, his expression still unconvinced. 'I can't see the Despatch taking a letter from me, Planir's signet or not.'

'I can send it.' Casuel held up his own seal-ring. 'My father pays enough coin-tax.'

Darni leaned back and sipped his wine. 'I keep forgetting you're Tormalin-born,' he commented, rubbing his beard, dark eyes contemplative in the candlelight.

'Messire D'Olbriot is already involved from what you were saying, with that attack on his nephew or whoever it was,' Casuel went on. 'Surely Planir would be contacting him in due course anyway, if these men of his are working with Shivvalan?'

Darni shook his head and chuckled. 'You're as obvious as the stones on a stag-hound, do you know that, Cas. All right, we'll go for it.'

Casuel paused, momentarily at a loss. 'You mean it?'

Darni drained his goblet. 'Evern's already said we won't get a ship to sail from this far north, not this late in the season. All right, you can go to bed. We'll tell Usara that's what we're doing first thing in the morning. A handful of chimes won't make much difference.'

Azazir's Lake, 20th of Aft-Autumn

I don't know if Shiv used some magic on the fire but it was still alight when I woke the following morning, banked up with turf from Saedrin knew where. Ryshad, Shiv and Aiten were still snoring. There was no sign of Azazir. I poked the fire into life, added more wood, then took a kettle out to get some water. The mule greeted me with as much affection as she ever showed anyone and neighing from further down the shore proved to be Russet and the other horses, hobbled and making a hearty meal of the drying grass. Azazir had clearly not forgotten all he knew about normal life, for they had been unsaddled and roughly groomed, the gear dumped to one side of the doorway. I checked it quickly. Everything was intact, if covered in burrs and snagged with thorns; Azazir's magic must have caught them as they bolted terrified from the fog. That really was good news, as I'd expected them to be halfway to the Dalas by now.

I was looking uncertainly at the lake, wondering if it was safe to drink from it, when Shiv came out of the cave, yawning and stretching.

'Where's Azazir?' I asked.

Shiv shook his head. 'I don't know. He left just after midnight. I expect he's back in the water somewhere.'

He shivered and not from the cold. 'I've heard about mages becoming obsessed with their element but I don't think I'd ever really appreciated just what it meant. Do me a favour, Livak — if you ever see me going that way, stick one of your daggers in me, one of the rapid-acting ones.'

He stared at the waterfall, his expression now one of distaste.

'So what else did you learn about these Ice Men?' I asked briskly, disliking the fear in his eyes.

'What? Oh, well, I expect the Council will be able to locate these islands after further research. From what he was saying, I think we can be sure that's where these people come from. Ryshad seems to think several of the families targeted in Tormalin are descendants of those who were involved in the Seafarer's colony, so there is a link. I'm not sure where that gets us though.'

'Will the Council do something? What about Geris?'

Shiv's answer was lost in a rush of water as Azazir erupted out of the lake in front of us, naked body pale and unearthly again, eyes mad with rage.

'Did you lie to me, or are you just fools?' he hissed. 'You claim to be hunting these men, but I see they are hunting you! Do you take me for an idiot?'

'What? Show me!' Shiv wove power in an instant and the lake boiled at his feet. I ran for the cave and kicked Ryshad's feet.

'Wake up! Company is coming.'

While the others scrambled for boots, clothes and swords, I hurried back to Shiv's side. He was scrying in a pool of lake water and Azazir was sending his own shower of emerald light into the spell, enhancing the depth and clarity of the image immensely.

We gathered round and watched as the disc of enchanted water showed a group of the now familiar yellow heads bobbing through the tangling brambles and thickets of the forest.

'How did they know where we were?' I scowled down at the water. 'What if they've got Darni; would he have told them?'

Shiv shook his head. 'He'd die first.'

I could believe it; I hoped it hadn't come to that, despite my differences with Darni.

'I'd say they're hunting Azazir themselves,' Ryshad said after a few moments. 'They must be after the Tormalin valuables he stole from them.'

'Why now, after so many years?' I asked, frustrated again by all the mysteries in this business. 'Why, just when we happen to be here as well?'

No one had an answer as we watched the approaching enemies. The main difference between them and us was their direct path, unhesitating as they followed our trail. Even where we'd left no trace or where paths split, they did not even pause to debate the direction.

'More magic,' Ryshad murmured.

'Not that I can feel.' Azazir stared down at the image, face hard and suspicious. 'Let's see what they make of my defences.'

We watched as the invaders' advance was slowed by tangling briars, roots twisting up from the earth to catch feet and hooves, low branches swinging into faces and hair. There was no way to hear what they were saying but I'd bet it was profane.

'Wait a moment.' Shiv raised a hand and Azazir halted his assault. One of the Elietimm, as I suppose we could now call them, was raising a hand and seemed to be chanting something, his mouth moving in a more exaggerated fashion. My own jaw dropped open as we watched the tangle of vegetation unravel itself and part before them.

'What was that?'

Azazir looked mystified. 'It didn't touch my spell, it wasn't a counter-magic of any kind. He was dealing directly with the trees somehow.'

His expression turned to one of indignation. 'Let's see how he likes this.'

As the vicious old wizard threw more and more obstacles in the attackers' path, I studied the little figures in the image. The man with the chants was dressed just like the others, mail over black leather and sword in hand. Metal obviously posed no hindrance to his magic.

'Ryshad, what were the men you were chasing dressed like?'

'They were in local clothing mostly. We found out they were stealing it from laundries and the like.' He frowned at the scrying. 'What about the ones that went for you?'

'The ones in Inglis were in leathers like this lot but the ones in Dalasor were in old homespun and linen.'

'Are we looking at more than one group then? How do they move so fast?'

I was still trying to frame a reply when a shout from Aiten startled us away from Shiv's spell. Aiten had remained watching the lake shore while the rest of us studied the invaders.

'Over there!'

I followed his pointing arm to the far side of the water. A purposeful knot of brown-clad men was heading towards us. Their clothes were homespun but their swords were gleaming in the sunlight and surprise, surprise, so were their heads. A shout rang across the lake and I saw another group of the same make-up coming round the other way.

Azazir and Shiv dropped the scrying and turned to meet the new threat while Aiten and Ryshad moved forward together, swords drawn. Green fire from Azazir's hands flashed across the water and, where it touched two attackers, they halted, frozen, encased in thick, grey-green ice. Shiv wove air above the lake and twisted a great waterspout into the troop. Mud and debris flew into the sky and more of the Elietimm were torn limb from limb, the water blushing briefly red.

I was just starting to think it would all be over before they reached us when Shiv gave a cry. Blood spurted from a gash on his arm and he sank to his knees as some unseen force smacked into the side of his head. I approached him, but felt again the dragging, disorienting slowness that had hit me in Inglis.

'Can you tell who's doing this?' I yelled in desperation. 'Hit them with something. Stop them chanting.'

Azazir's hands wavered in the air, uncertainty on his face as he tried to decide on a target. I swore as a cut from nowhere opened up the back of my hand.

'It's the one towards the rear, with the cowl on his cloak.' I turned to see Ryshad had got a spy-glass out to study the attackers, hand steady despite blood oozing from his cuff.

The Ice Men wavered and a couple sank to their knees, water pouring unceasingly from mouths and noses. They began to choke and splutter and were soon drowning in the open air. My legs began to work again but, though Azazir had halted their magic, we still had to face their swords.

I cursed as I reached for my darts. Another fight and I wasn't wearing that bloody chainmail again. Luckily Ryshad and Aiten had shrugged on their armour and I moved behind them as I looked for targets; these men proved just as susceptible to my poisons and barely a handful of the first group survived to join direct battle.

One made the mistake of heading for Azazir and his sword passed straight through the wasted old body. I don't mean he cut him in half, I mean his sword passed straight through, the flesh opening and closing behind the blade, ripples spreading across the white skin. I could see the shock still freezing the man's face as Azazir plunged a suddenly liquid arm down his open mouth and drowned him where he stood.

I helped Shiv backwards and we watched as Ryshad and Aiten showed just what well-drilled Tormalin swordsmen can do. Evidently long used to working as a team, they protected each other as they cut into their foes with hard, economical strokes, moving in a deft and deadly pattern. Down was as good as dead and the first to reach us were coughing out the last of their lives in the mud while their mates fell back under the onslaught of two Tormalin-trained warriors.

I turned to check on the other group and saw them hesitating on the far side of the outflowing river. Azazir raised a hand and their very own hailstorm came hammering down, causing visible consternation. One stepped to the lake shore and threw something into the water. Azazir cursed and ran forward, diving cleanly in, hardly raising a ripple.

The group split. Some started to run away but more headed for us. Ryshad and Aiten came forward but, before they were needed, the waters of the lake soared upwards in an explosion of white foam. Torrents crashed back down to reveal gleaming green scales, a crest of scarlet spines and the sinuous shape of a water dragon. It reared up from the lake and its long head swung from side to side, tongue flickering around gleaming white teeth the size of swords. Wings like the sails of an ocean ship unfolded to shine in the sunlight, beating the air as the dragon curved upwards to stand impossibly on the surface on the lake. A shrieking challenge echoed back from the surrounding hills; everyone froze in shocked amazement.

Aiten broke our thrall. 'Come on, it can only be an illusion. Let's hit them while they're off balance.'

He and Ryshad ran forward and Shiv and I hurried on after. I was a little more wary.

The dragon hissed and darted forwards, snapping at the man nearest the shoreline. The great vicious head shot down and the gleaming teeth shut on his head like a bear trap. It tossed the ragged remains aside like some huge ungodly cat and ripped a second victim in half, then a third.

Ryshad and Aiten skidded to a half and we watched as the remaining Men of the Ice broke and ran in total panic. I nearly joined them as the dragon turned to hiss at us, bloody rags of flesh caught between its jaws. It regarded us with blazing crimson eyes, cat-slit pupils black as pitch. We stood in a still moment of uncertainty, then it folded those massive wings and sank beneath the turbid waters of the lake.

'That's some stuffing illusion!' Ryshad said shakily.

Aiten shook his head in disbelief. 'They killed the last one of those in my grandfather's time, he skippered one of the last dragon-boats. How could it live up here? They're warm-water beasts!'

'Was that Azazir?' I asked Shiv, who was looking as staggered as the rest of us.

He frowned and dipped cautious hands into the lake, whipping them out again as if the water were scalding. 'No, he's in there, but so's the dragon. They're definitely separate.'

'But dragons never came this far north,' Aiten insisted, clinging to what he thought he knew in the face of impossibility.

'I think,' Shiv began hesitantly, 'I think Azazir created the dragon somehow. They're elemental creatures after all.'

'Forget the dragon,' Ryshad said urgently. 'We're losing our best chance yet to catch up with those killers.'

'They're running scared.' I looked at him in agreement. 'They could lead us straight to their base.'

'Shiv, keep track of them while we get the horses,' Ryshad commanded. We left him kneeling over a pool while we ran back and threw gear and harness frantically on the beasts. Russet caught the scent of my urgency and became unexpectedly skittish. I swore at him and yanked on the bridle to settle him; we could not afford delay, these men might even lead us to Geris, if he were still alive.

When we returned to Shiv, he was weaving a complex pattern of amber light among the stones. He looked up and cold triumph coloured his smile.

'I've marked their trail. They can't get away from us now.' He looked past me to Ryshad. 'You've got the relics?'

Ryshad nodded as we mounted up.

'Azazir gave you his treasures?' I asked, incredulous. 'How did you manage that?'

'I pointed out that if I were busy studying them and pursuing the Archmage's orders, I'd be unlikely to have time to tell Planir about Azazir's tinkering with the rivers and messing about with the weather up here.'

Shiv's tone was as grim as his face. 'That's before we knew about the dragon of course, I'm not sure I can keep that a secret.'

I shuddered and looked nervously at the lake. 'Let's get a move on, shall we?'

Shiv rode ahead to follow whatever magic he was using and I found myself riding next to Ryshad. I noticed something different about him.

'You're using one of those swords from Azazir?'

He grinned a little uncertainly. 'Shiv said I should. I can't say it feels comfortable having a couple of thousand Crowns' worth of somebody's heirloom strapped to my side.'

That raised my eyebrows; I knew old swords were valuable, but that valuable? I wondered if I could claim a share of its worth, like the ink-horn. Probably not, I decided regretfully.

We soon reached more normal-looking woodland and halted as Shiv raised a hand. 'We're nearly on top of them,' he said quietly. 'I'd better take some precautions.'

The air around us shimmered like sunlight reflecting off a stream.

'Are we invisible?' Aiten asked hesitantly.

Shiv shook his head. 'Not as such, just difficult to see. If we stay at a distance and keep quiet, they shouldn't notice us.'

The day passed slowly as we picked our way after our quarry. Their initial panic-stricken flight slowed after a while but they continued at a steady pace considering the terrain.

'We're heading east, aren't we?' I asked Ryshad, trying to see the sun through the golden autumn leaves of the dense forest.

'At the moment,' he agreed. 'I'd say they're heading for the coast.'

I was beginning to wonder if they were ever going to stop as dusk deepened into night and they kept up their steady march, though both moons were virtually at full dark by now. I saw Shiv signalling us to stop and breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

He dismounted and walked back. 'They're making camp in a little glade just over that rise,' he said softly. 'We'll take turns to watch them, but I don't suppose they're going anywhere.'

Ryshad looked up from hobbling his horse. 'I'll take first watch, if that's all right.'

'I'll join you.' I gave Russet a final pat and we crept towards the ridge.

Ryshad moved through the woodland debris almost as quietly as me and I grinned at him approvingly when I caught his eye. We dropped to hands and knees for the final stretch and lay down to peer over the top of the rise. It was a cool night but dry and still, we weren't uncomfortable.

Our quarry were gathered around a small fire but I frowned as we watched them.

'They're not talking to each other much, are they?' I murmured to Ryshad.

He nodded agreement. 'They seem to be doing everything by drills.'

I soon saw what he meant. Half of the ten survivors ate while the others stood guard, they took turns collecting wood and water, and even stripped off and washed in unison, five by five. It made me shiver to watch them; I'm reckoned to be a bit obsessive about personal cleanliness, but even I'd pass on an open-air wash in this weather.

The squad wrapped themselves in their blankets in unspoken agreement and two sat in silent watch, staring out into the blackness of the forest night while their companions slept. Some instinct or training woke another pair some time later and they took over the guard, all without a word.

'They've lost their officer,' Ryshad said softly after a while. 'No one's giving orders, no one's discussing what they should do. There's no one in charge.'

I bit back a curse. 'We forgot to check the bodies, didn't we?'

The dark shape of Ryshad's shoulders shrugged. 'No time, was there? I reckon the ones throwing that weird magic around are the leaders in this outfit. This mob are just following their training, they haven't got anything else to do.'

'So where does that get us?'

I saw the gleam of his teeth in the dark as he smiled. 'I'll bet they're heading straight back for whoever's in command, or the quickest way home. Want to put a few Crowns on it?'

I shook my head before remembering he probably couldn't see me. 'No wager, Rysh.'

Nothing happened that night apart from the Elietimm getting more sleep than the four of us, which I mentally added to their debt against me. I sat and ate a cold breakfast while I watched them prepare for the next day's march and the others sorted out our gear. It was almost becoming boring, until I reminded myself just what these men had been doing. I wondered how men so lacking in initiative could have made such a calculated ruin of Yeniya; if they had just been following instructions, what kind of man could give those orders? I decided I was glad that we had probably killed him at the lakeside.

That day and the next few passed in similar unremarkable fashion as we trailed the increasingly dispirited squad further and further east. Their pace slowed and their routines became ragged. The trip was no hardship, the weather was cold but sunny and dry, and then we caught the salt scent of the ocean on the breeze and I realised we were nearly at the coast.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Taken from:

D'Oxire's Precepts of Navigation The Ocean Coast

Sailing off the ocean coast is a totally different proposition to navigating the Lescar Gulf or the Aldabreshin Archipelago. Any mariner coming to the ocean must relearn all his seamanship or perish. The weather is much harsher, storm-force winds coming straight in from the deeps. The waves are both bigger and more forceful, which means vessels are narrower, deeper in draught and carry a greater variety of sail and rigging. Galleys cannot be used with any confidence in these waters, since fierce storms can blow up from nowhere. However, given the lack of coastal routes on land and the length of time it takes to move goods via the inland routes, a mariner who learns what he must to survive will make impressive profits quickly. Those who don't bother will drown.

Ocean currents are the major danger to shipping on this coast. Any mariner venturing out of sight of land must be alert for the danger of being earned off his planned route. Obviously, it is relatively easy to tell if you are too far north or south, but this may be of little help. There are relatively few anchorages along the cliffs of the coastline and most of those that exist are limited to fishing vessels. Hiring a pilot with personal knowledge of the coastline, its hazards and landmarks and the points where fresh water can be taken on is essential. Not all harbours are easy to approach, especially with contrary winds, and many have shoals at their entrances. Experienced crews are worth paying for. Former pirates are useful crew members as long as their numbers are limited.

Being carried too far east will almost always prove fatal one way or another. The currents move fast and dead reckoning is of no use in calculating daily rate of travel. Any harbourmaster will be able to list ships lost in any season, where no trace ever returned to land, even in the winter storms. The currents that circulate south of Bremilayne are particularly rapid and can carry a vessel tens of leagues out of its way. If a ship gets favourable winds and escapes such a current, the danger then is that the prevailing winds will drive it rapidly west and wreck it on the ocean coast, especially if landfall is made at night. This happens sufficiently often that most fishing families earn extra coin recovering cargoes washed inshore.

The weather deteriorates fast once south of Zyoutessela and the currents become highly unpredictable. Attempting the passage of the Cape of Winds is for the mad or the desperate, not for serious seamen. Portage of goods across from one side of Zyoutessela to the other is less expensive than losing a ship and cargo. Most traders make portage a condition of any agreement with a mariner. No one reputable will lend money against purchase of a cargo unless portage is written into the contract.

Sholvin Cove, Gidesta

26th of Aft-Autumn

The cries of seabirds came winging over the tree-tops, followed, after a while, by sounds of human activity — the creak and splash of vessels, hammering, snatches of voices swept towards us by the strengthening wind.

'Careful,' Shiv cautioned us as we tethered the horses and moved to the edge of the trees to look down the steep hillside.

'Sorry,' he said as I shot him an irritated look.

We saw the Elietimm heading openly into a village sitting in an irregular inlet cut deep into the rocky coastline by a vigorous river that Azazir would have been proud of. Fishing boats were tied to a jetty of dark grey stone and drying nets fluttered in the breeze, which was now bringing us a powerful mix of weed, fish innards and mud, the usual delightful scents of the seashore.

I frowned as we watched our quarry head straight for a large three-masted vessel tied up at the far end of the quay, some distance from the nearest boat where a handful of grubby locals were heaving baskets offish out of the hold. The crew did not even look up from unloading their catch as the Elietimm passed by in two even-paced ranks, discipline having suddenly reappeared.

'Shiv, are they using magic to hide themselves too?'

'Not that I can tell.'

'But no one's even noticing them, let alone speaking to them. What's going on?'

We watched as the orderly squad marched to the side of the boat and went through what must have been some kind of identification.

'Saedrin, this is peculiar.' I ignored Shiv and Ryshad's objections and slipped carefully down the path, keeping as much cover as possible between me and the boat until I reached the muddle of stone-built cottages around the river where there were enough people to hide me.

None of them had any trouble seeing me; they looked at me as if I were a travelling fair.

'Morning.' A grizzled old gaffer, sunning himself on a bench, eyed me suspiciously.

I tried the bright smile, cute but dim, even if it didn't go with the stained cloak and breeches.

'Can you tell me anything about that boat over there?' I pointed at the three-master.

He looked at me in complete mystification. 'A boat, you say?'

'Yes, that one, the one with the green pennants,' I said slowly, wondering if I'd managed to find the village idiot at the very first attempt.

His eyes narrowed as he peered out to sea, completely ignoring the huge ship right in the centre of his field of view.

'Is it coming in then? My eyes aren't what they used to be.'

'Never mind.' I was about to move away when a woman with hands like leather and a face to match opened the door of the cottage.

'Dad? Who're you talking to?'

She looked as sharp as the gutting knife she was holding so I abandoned any attempts at charm. Women rarely fall for it, at least not from other women.

'Can you tell me if you've seen any strangers round here lately?'

The gleam in her eyes reflected the silver she saw appear smoothly between my fingers. 'Who might they be?'

'Fair, like Mountain Men. Foreign, keeping themselves to themselves.'

She eyed the coin but shook her head after a moment. 'Sorry, I've seen no one like that.'

'How about ships you don't know? Ocean-built, like a Dalasorian.'

'We've seen no one new since a trader sailed up from Inglis for the Solstice.'

Disappointment coloured her tone but there was no doubting her sincerity. I would have believed her absolutely if only I hadn't been able to see the ship with its crew busy doing whatever it is that sailors do.

'How about that boat at the end of the dock, when did they come in?'

She looked rather puzzled as she followed my gaze and her eyes lit upon the fishing boat. 'That's Machil and his brothers. They got back from the fishing grounds just after dawn.'

I pressed a couple of Marks into her slimy palm to distract her from wondering just who I might be and walked briskly back through the village with enough self-assertion to dissuade anyone who might have accosted me.

Ryshad looked none too pleased with me when I got back to the others. 'Well?'

'It's peculiar. No one seems able to see that ship or the men from it,' I said simply.

Ryshad and Aiten looked puzzled but Shiv looked dismayed.

'You're sure? Sorry, stupid question.' He was looking as if his dog had just died.

'Why's that such bad news?'

Shiv rubbed a hand over his tired face. 'One of the magic disciplines in the Old Empire was mental control: they could do this kind of thing. We've never been able to duplicate it in Hadrumal. Do you reckon they know something we don't?'

There was a moment's silence before we all turned to Shiv at the same instant.

'So, what do we do now? Can you tell if they've got Geris in there?'

'How do we get to your mate if they have him here?'

'Can you get him out the same way you got me out of the lock-up?'

'Give me a moment,' Shiv snapped. He closed his eyes and frowned as magelight of several different colours flickered round his head. 'Shit. There's something blocking me, I can't see inside the hull at all.'

I sighed. 'I think that proves a different sort of magic is at work here.'

We stood in a indecisive circle until Aiten looked down into the anchorage and cursed. 'Dast's teeth, they're not wasting any time. They're casting off.'

We watched helplessly as the crewmen loosed the lines to the quay and long oars moved the ship out of the shelter of the inlet.

'Come on,' Shiv snapped. 'We need a boat.'

Oh, wonderful; things were just getting better and better. I wondered yet again which deity I'd offended to get landed with this.

We hurried down the hill and out on to the quay, ignoring the curious stares of the locals.

'Machil!' The sun-browned sailor looked up from the deck of his boat, clearly wondering how this strange redhead knew his name.

Shiv cast his instant-respectability-for-dealing-with-peasants spell again and looked down imposingly from his horse.

'I am on urgent business for the Archmage and require a vessel. Are you for hire?'

Machil looked sadly unimpressed as he turned to continue washing fish guts and scales off his deck. 'No.'

Ryshad drew out his amulet. 'I'm working for Messire D'Olbriot of Zyoutessela. He would be extremely grateful for your co-operation.'

Machil shrugged. 'What's that to me? I'm not going that far south, not at this time of year.'

Since appealing to the man's better nature was clearly failing, it looked like my turn.

'We'll make it worth your while.' I didn't bother with a smile, just a rattle of my belt-pouch. He wasn't to know it only held Caladhrian pennies; I just hoped Shiv had collared some more of Darni's expense money before we started on this mad trip.

Like they say, you can always get to a man's hands through his pockets. Machil put down his bucket and raised his eyebrows, still unsmiling. 'How?'

I looked at the boat, the size of its cargo and the size of the village; an idea struck me so I ran with it. 'You don't sell all that fish here, do you?'

He looked suspicious. 'What of it?'

'So, you salt it, smoke it, whatever, and take it inland? How about the mining camps? I bet they'd pay top coin for it?'