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

Western Shore

Juliet Mckenna

Warlord Daish Kheda has been building political alliances, working to consolidate power over his new realm. Although he has saved his people from the twin evils of wizardry and dragons, he feels tainted by association with forbidden magic and fears he may bring great ill-fortune to his people. So Kheda resolves to once more join his Northern wizard allies in the hope of removing the dragon threat once and for all, and to seek whatever purification he can find. Only time can tell whether he will be condemned for his actions, or whether magic is less a sin than he was brought up to believe ...He tells his son in secret that he may not return, and sets his face to the future.

Western Shore

(The third book in the Aldabreshin Compass series)

Juliet E McKenna

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Any on-going series is shaped by new ideas and unforeseen events. I am grateful to Steve, and to Mike and Sue, for supplying essential feedback, most especially on the vexed question of the final rewrite. For sharing their very personal perspectives on the arrivals of Scotty, and of Jaimee, my thanks to Matt and Trisha, and to Iain and Nici, and also to Liz B for midwifery lore. I'm also indebted to Declan for technical details on eye-trauma.

The generous support of many people helps ensure home life keeps ticking over when professional calls on my time come thick and fast. Gill and Mike are pals above and beyond the call of duty. Ernie and Betty continue to provide essential assistance for which I am most grateful. The usual circle of friends helps me keep a sense of humour and a sense of proportion; most notably, Liz, Helen, Corinne and Penny.

On the business side, my gratitude as always to Tim, Gabby, Jess and the Orbit team. I'm indebted to Lisa for both her professional skills and her friendship and my affectionate thanks go to my agent Maggie, and to Camilla and Jill.

Writers in other genres often tell me they're envious of the well-established SF&F convention circuit and fan networks. They should be; fan enthusiasm is a constant source of inspiration and motivation and here I'm particularly grateful to Michele, Matt and Toby. I would also like to thank those hard-working convention committees

here and abroad who've given me so many enjoyable opportunities to meet other authors, artists and keen readers of all manner of writing. Never doubt that you and your efforts are appreciated.

CHAPTER ONE

What a beautiful day. The rains are long past, all malaises driven out by the heat of the sun, yet the dry season is still far from punishing us.

Seated on a wide, low-backed bench, Kheda looked around the immaculately tended garden in the hollow square at the heart of the luxurious dwelling. In the centre, grey and scarlet shadow finches sang merrily in their spacious aviary. The turquoise-painted wood echoed the roof tiles adorning the white-walled buildings. Above, the sky was the soft blue-grey of a courier dove's wing and the garden still husbanded the early-morning cool. When the heat of the day came, spinefruit trees would cast their generous shade. Vizail, jessamine and basket-flower shrubs flourished in the moist, fragrant air, nourished by rich earth, black in contrast with the paths of pale sand. Though none of the bushes were flowering as yet.

They 're saving their strength for the trials of the hotter weather. Their glorious blooms will be harbingers of the rains to come when the first clouds blur the horizon. Then they'll blossom and this garden will be full of sunbirds and butterflies. Then seeds and fruit will fall to the moist earth to wait out deluge and mildew before sprouting to drink in the sunlight.

'Are you sure it's not too early?' Beside him, Itrac shifted and tossed a silken cushion petulantly onto the raked sand. 'It should be a year less a hundred days—' She broke off, catching her breath.

Kheda laid a gentle hand on the light cotton gown swathing his wife's swollen abdomen and waited for the contraction to pass. Eyes closed, her face twisted with pain as she groaned and rocked back and forth. Kheda allowed himself a grimace as she gripped his hand.

At least I remembered to take my rings off. And Itrac's hands are barely swollen.

He looked at her slender fingers crushing his fingers atop her gravid belly, hard as rock as the contraction racked her. With blood from northern and western domains in her lineage, her skin was more golden than bronze. Her knuckles showed white. Itrac drew a shuddering breath and opened her eyes, sweat beading her forehead.

'Twins always come early,' Kheda said gently.

'You really think it is twins?' Itrac brushed a stray wisp of hair from her forehead with a shaking hand. The thick plait of her waist-length black tresses was tousled and uneven after the long night of her steadily progressing labour. Stripped of the intricate cosmetics expected of a warlord's wife, she looked very young.

As young as my eldest daughter, very nearly. Born half my life ago. When life had none of the complications that have so beset us both and forced us together like this.

'Your womb grew by more than two fingers for every turn of the stars.' Kheda resisted the temptation to press harder as her belly softened with the passing of the contraction, to try to feel which way the babes were lying. 'I'm sure I could feel more than one head.'

Was I right? Is one of them safely head-down? What do we do if they are both head-up? I can't feel any movement. But there's rarely any kicking this far into a birthing.

He resolutely thrust away half-formed fears and used a scrap of muslin to mop Itrac's forehead. 'You're already as big as any woman bringing a babe through ten full turns of the stars.'

As big as any of my former wives when the birthing came upon them.

'But it's taking so long,' Itrac wailed. A weary tear escaped one hazel eye to glisten on her cheek. 'If I die, you must bury me here.' Her voice trembled. 'In this garden, so your next wife will be able to bless the domain with children—'

'The first birth always takes the longest. Many women labour much longer—' Kheda swiftly changed tack at Itrac's mordant look. 'There is no reason to fear any danger to you or the babies.' He wiped away the tear and cradled her face in his sword-callused hand. 'Look at me.'

Itrac obeyed, her face shadowed with fear.

'Every turn of the stars has seen you in good health,' Kheda continued, reassuring. 'You've eaten well and rested as you needed to. I've done this before, many times—'

'No you haven't!' Itrac's face contorted at the onset of another contraction. 'You may have watched. I watched—' She bit her lip, unable to continue.

True enough; I have only watched, like any man. But I was there to receive my children wet with their birth blood as they slid from Janne, from Rekha. Such is the most intimate expression of a warlord's duty to care for every man, woman and child of his domain. But my former wives and children are lost to me, along with my former domain. Now all I can do is see Itrac safely delivered of these innocent babies that I have begotten on her with undoubted affection but no real love.

The dull ache of loss gnawed beneath Kheda's breastbone as the contraction passed and Itrac's ragged moans gave way to weeping. 'I'm so tired,' she sobbed. 'I wish Olkai was here, and Sekni.'

'It won't be much longer,' Kheda soothed as he put an

arm around her shoulders. 'Jevin!' He snapped his fingers and the youth who'd been waiting motionless beneath a flame tree hurried forward, bearded face anxious. Like Kheda, he wore an unadorned tunic and trousers of unbleached cotton. This wasn't a day for the finery expected of a noble lady's body slave. Unlike Kheda, he had the straight black hair and compact physique of these southernmost domains.

'Yes, my lord.'

'A drink for your mistress.' Seeing the uncertainty in Jevin's eyes, Kheda frowned at the young man.

Do you remember I told you you 're to show no fear? No one must voice doubt as to a wholly favourable outcome.

The youthful slave immediately forced a cheerful smile as he proffered the brass ewer and goblet he had been clutching. 'My lady?'

'It's izam juice.' Kheda helped her take the goblet. 'Your favourite. Do you want another of the rosehip sweetmeats?'

'I don't think I'll ever want to eat rosehips again.' Itrac managed a watery smile before sipping obediently.

'Not too much.' Kheda's hand hovered, ready to ensure she didn't drink too deeply.

Rosehips crushed with quail berries and yellow-fan seeds to ensure you don't labour in vain, just to feel the pains fade and the babies die with them, within you. Those herbs have done their work and better an empty stomach for what is to come. Izam juice with its sweetness to give you strength, with just enough poppy syrup to take the edge off the agonies for you without putting the children at risk. I learned to mix those doses precisely after Rekha and Janne's early labours.

'Twins born to the domain will be a powerful omen.' Jevin was clutching the ewer so tightly he was in danger of leaving dents in the metal.

'A portent of fertility and fair weather for all our islands and their people,' Kheda agreed robustly.

As long as I can deliver them both safely and see Itrac through all the perils of childbed. These people could see few worse omens than the death of any one of them.

'What do the stars say?' Her voice faint, Itrac looked up at the cloudless square of sky framed by the roofs of the pavilion.

/ never even thought to look at the skies when her pains first began. No matter. I could draw the jewels and constellations in every arc of the heavenly compass blindfold. I might as well be blind, for all the truth they can show me.

Kheda looked up as he drew her close, feeling her trembling within the circle of his arm. 'The Pearl is in the arc of death -' he spoke resolutely over Itrac's inarticulate murmur of distress '- which in its positive aspect is also the arc of inheritance. With the Pearl waxing so close to its full, its talismanic properties make positive aspects dominant. Of all the heavenly gems, the Pearl's the most potent charm against death and for the present it's set among the stars of the Sailfish. That's always a symbol of fertility, all the more so when it swims with either moon.'

'The Lesser Moon as heavenly Pearl must be a talisman for you, my lady.' Jevin looked at Kheda with uneasy hope. 'With our domain's pearl harvest so fruitful last year.'

'In claiming that arc of the compass, the Lesser Moon also forms the point of a triune reading of the whole sky.' Kheda smiled confidently at Itrac. 'Today, of all days in the year, the Opal, the Amethyst and the Diamond are all in the heavenly arc of parenthood.'

'Truly?' Itrac's wonder momentarily relieved her near-exhaustion.

'Opal is a talisman for truth, while Amethyst counsels

calm and humility. Believe me — we'll need both as parents.' Kheda handed the goblet back to Jevin. 'Diamond, talisman for all warlords and symbol of long life. The stars with them are those of the Horned Fish, a powerful emblem of life and renewal.'

'They live and give birth in the open seas,' Jevin said encouragingly, 'even though they breathe the same air as us.'

'If that's two points of the triangle, what's the third?' Itrac shifted, her bulk unwieldy, so unlike her usual elegant slenderness.

'The Ruby is in the arc of life.' Kheda brushed a kiss across her clammy forehead. 'Talisman of vigour. In the arc of life where the stars of the Vizail Blossom are particularly bright at this season, and that's one of the most potent tokens of the hope all women carry within them—'

'And the Ruby is a powerful talisman against blood loss,' Jevin interrupted.

'Indeed.' Kheda shot a repressive look at the anxious youth.

Weren 't you listening when I told you all she needs from you is constant reassurance? Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to warn you about all the things that can go wrong in childbirth.

Another contraction seized Itrac. She moaned, low in her throat. Kheda took her hands and braced himself as her nails dug deep into his palms. Her groan rose to a howl that startled a cooing pair of glory-birds out of the nearest shade tree.

That's a new note in her agony. It won't be long now, for good or ill. Jfevin can put his trust in rubies and heavenly conjunctions if he likes. I'll rely on all I was taught and all I've seen and all the preparations I've made.

Kheda watched Itrac intently as the contraction passed,

leaving her panting. A shiver ran through her and clear liquid darkened the cotton skirt of her loose dress. 'Oh, Kheda,' she gasped, suddenly scared.

'My lord?' Jevin was equally alarmed.

'That's the birth waters.' Kheda rose, lifting Itrac to her nerveless feet. 'It's time to go inside. Jevin, take her arm.'

With the young slave supporting her other side, the warlord guided his wife towards the rear of the garden. Double doors stood open revealing a handful of apprehensive maidservants hovering inside.

'Touai.' Kheda nodded to the foremost among them. He noted that two of the girls shared the older woman's lean build, their angular features softened by youth but still marking them as Touai's daughters.

She brought her own living proof of successful childbearing, if Itrac's in any fit state to take comfort from their presence.

Itrac's personal withdrawing room had been stripped of its customary lush carpets, the banks of silken cushions and low tables of polished and inlaid wood. Only the pale-pink walls painted with a riot of colourful birds flitting among nut palms and lilla trees remained the same. A sturdy bed with a firm cotton mattress had been set against one wall of the airy room and the cool lustre floor tiles were covered with swathes of calico. The morning sunlight filtered through thin muslin drapes tightly secured to bar entry to any flies drawn to the scents of blood and birth to come. As Kheda escorted Itrac inside, the maidservants circled around to close the door behind them and refasten the curtain, hiding the garden outside.

'Let's get you to the bed.' As he spoke, another brutal contraction gripped Itrac, forcing them all to a halt. 'Where's Lihei?'

'Here, my lord.' A sturdily built woman with tightly braided greying hair stepped forward and smiled reassurance at Itrac. 'Most honoured to be here, my lady.'

/ hope you got some sleep last night.

Kheda set his jaw against his own fatigue. 'Let's get her to the bed.'

Itrac collapsed onto the mattress as the next contraction seized her. She crouched on her hands and knees, keening wordlessly. Lihei hugged her shoulders, crooning soft reassurance. 'It'll pass, my lady, just let it pass.'

Forcing himself to leave Itrac to the grey-haired woman's tender care, Kheda crossed the room to a wide table covered with more calico.

She should have sister-wives to support her, offering that understanding no man can hope to match. All we have is our steward's new wife, a widowed weaving woman until she caught his eye. But Olkai and Sekni are dead and gone and I'm done with marriage for alliance or advantage in trade or territory. I wouldn't have married Itrac if there had been any other way to see her safe from those who would have abused her.

'Touai, you're certain there will be plenty of warm water when we need it?'

'Yes, my lord.' The older maidservant filled a basin from a tall ewer, her hands steady.

Kheda felt a tremor in his own hands as he scooped soft soap from a shallow dish and rubbed it to a lather. As he scrubbed his hands and nails scrupulously, he surveyed cotton cloths neatly folded, ready to swaddle the newborns. A silver tray held smaller squares of muslin as well as a handful of brilliant red ribbons weighted down by a small set of gleaming steel shears. A copper box hid its contents from view.

Needles cleansed with flame. Boiled thread for sewing, inevitably.

'It hurts so much,' Itrac moaned, turning her head into Lihei's accommodating bosom.

'I know, flower.' Lihei hugged the young woman close. 'You rest a moment and let me see how we're doing.'

With Jevin's anxious help, the grey-haired woman persuaded Itrac to sit up against the head of the bed, propped on firm cushions, her feet planted wide. Itrac's head lolled forwards, her chin on her chest, her eyes closed. Kheda rinsed his hands as Lihei sat on the end of the bed and lifted Itrac's skirts up over her knees to see how matters were progressing.

Jevin came to meet him as he approached the bed. 'She's exhausted, my lord,' he said, low and fearful. 'How can she go on?'

'She's past the point where she has any choice,' Kheda said with compassion.

Itrac gasped before Jevin could say anything. 'I have to push.'

'That's as it should be,' Lihei agreed calmly. 'I'll be easing you with warm cloths and oil, my lady, to see if we can't do this without leaving you too sore.' The older woman glanced over her shoulder at Kheda. 'It won't be long now, my lord.'

The warlord nodded. 'Jevin, open that blue bottle and sluice my hands.' He held them over the bowl. As the young slave obeyed, the sharp alcohol stung small scratches on Kheda's hands that he hadn't even realised were there. 'Empty the basin,' he ordered. 'No, not in there!'

About to empty the basin into a shallow ceramic bowl underneath the table, Jevin froze.

'That's for the afterbirth,' Kheda reminded the slave, curbing his own irritation with some difficulty.

Jevin's face was already muddy with weariness after the long, sleepless night. He went positively ashen before scurrying away to empty the basin into a slop bucket standing by a far door.

Kheda glanced at an ebony coffer tucked away beneath the table's calico drape.

Blue casque in case the pains stop altogether; we shan 't need that now. Saller rust, perhaps, if there's too much bleeding, but not before the afterbirth is delivered. Hind's herb and black bark, to bring on her milk and ease the pains after the babes are born; that can wait awhile. The root of the yellow earth star will be the most important, to strengthen her blood against childbed fevers. But we have to see these children born first.

Kheda refused to contemplate the other contents of the physic chest: the thin-bladed, razor-sharp knives brought out when all hope for the mother was gone and only the child could be saved; the bright slicing wires used when the babe must be given up for dead and the only thing worse than that loss would be the woman dying with the child unborn within her.

My former wives were safely delivered of ten children between them. I don't intend taking up such butcher's tools now.

He looked at the bed where Jevin was sitting behind Itrac. Her fingers dug into the slave's muscular forearms as she leaned against him, secure within his embrace. Her eyes were closed, her feet set wide, her toes digging into the mattress.

Kheda glanced at Touai, her daughters behind her. 'Stay out of the way but be ready to bring me swaddling cloths and the ribbons to tie the birth cords.' He joined Lihei at the end of the bed and saw that Itrac's labour was indeed proceeding apace. He glanced up at Jevin and managed a bracing smile. 'Just hold her and keep telling her how well she's doing. Encourage her to push until I tell her to stop.'

The slave looked back as Itrac's head rested on his shoulder, her unseeing eyes rimmed with white. 'She seems so distant, my lord.'

'That's as it should be.' Another contraction seized Itrac and her feral cry drowned out Kheda's words. He nibbed her cramping feet, adding his own meaningless endearments to Jevin's encouragement as she struggled with the merciless demands on her body. The spasm |);issed and Itrac went limp, sucking down deep breaths.

'You'll be surprised how little she remembers. Jaime—' Kheda bit down on the name of his former first wife.

'Women would never do it a second time if they did.' Lihei chuckled before another contraction put an end to such levity.

And men and women alike lose all sense of time. I was astonished, when Janne finally delivered Sirket as my firstborn, to find that it was already evening.

Itrac yelled, pushing with all her strength. Successive contractions came harder and faster, each one arching her back more brutally than before. As Kheda and Jevin encouraged her, the labouring woman showed little sign of "hearing them. With every new spasm, her energy and understanding turned inwards, the dictates of instinct driving her body and brooking no denial.

Lihei continued diligently applying warm, oiled compresses. Kheda watched intently past the woman's calm brown hands for the first sign of the first child.

This could all still go horribly wrong if the first thing I see is buttocks.

Some indeterminate time later, relief flooded him at the sight of black wispy hair.

'Itrac, try not to push, just for the moment.' He spoke loudly and firmly. 'I can see the head.' As he heard Jevin pleading with Itrac to hold back her straining, Kheda cradled the tiny crown, ready to ease the wrinkled little face gently into the air.

Not too fast, to save Itrac damage. Not too slow, to be

sure the baby thrives. Not pulling, not twisting, just guiding as I will do for the rest of this child's life.

There was a moment of total stillness in the room as the baby's head emerged. No one spoke. Kheda found he wasn't even breathing, stunned by the marvel before him.

As astonishing as the first time I saw a child of mine born. You always forget how small they are.

The tiny form slipped sideways as Itrac's womb inexorably expelled it, first one pale golden shoulder emerging, then the second. In a rush of blood and fluid, the baby was in Kheda's hands, the cord still linking it to Itrac thick and blue and pulsing.

'Bring ribbons,' Kheda called hoarsely. 'And swaddling.'

'Is it all right?' Itrac rasped.

'She is.' Kheda held the baby in his cupped hands, keeping her low beneath Itrac's hips. 'You have a daughter, my lady.'

Now we wait, just a moment, until the thread of blood linking you to your mother stills. How strong are you, little one?

The tiny girl drew her first breath with a faint mewling noise and then began crying, a high, reedy sound that was encouragingly robust. Her little arms and legs waved, congested face screwed up against the light and this strange new place.

'Let me, my lord.' Lihei was ready with a soft cotton wrap.

Reluctantly surrendering the child, Kheda turned his attention to the birth cord, watching it shrink and grow pale.

'My lord.' Touai was at his elbow with the silver tray.

Kheda tied a ribbon loosely around his newest daughter's fragile wrist, making sure the knot was secure. 'We need to be careful she doesn't lose this, so we know she was

first,' he warned all the women as he tied off the birth cord a finger's length from the baby's round belly. Taking up the shears, he cut through the cord.

Tough as sinew, just like always.

Itrac moaned as a new contraction ran through her, her feet flexing.

'Clean our new daughter while we wait for her brother or sister,' Kheda said softly.

As Lihei withdrew with the newborn, Touai at her side, Kheda looked up to see Itrac smiling through her utter exhaustion. Behind her, Jevin's face was wet with tears, eyes wide with wonder.

Kheda realised his own close-trimmed beard was damp, his eyes full. Another contraction gripped Itrac and he wiped his face awkwardly on one shoulder before turning his attention to waiting for the second baby. It wasn't long in coming. As Kheda received the tiny buttocks, he smiled. 'It's another girl.'

She slid easily from Itrac now that her sister had opened the way. Touai was ready with the ribbons for tying the cord when the moment was right and Kheda cut it deftly. Both babies' cries filled the room, rising above the shaky congratulations the maidservants were offering their lord and their lady.

'Let her suck, my lady.' Lihei returned with the firstborn baby clean and lightly swathed in soft cotton.

Dazed, Itrac obediently opened the front of her gown and brought the baby to her breast. After a moment's nuzzling, the questing mouth found her nipple and one of the quavering cries was stilled. Itrac gazed down at her daughter, oblivious to anything else.

'Do you want to take her, my lord, while I wait for the afterbirth?' Touai offered Kheda cotton cloth to wrap the new baby.

'Yes, thank you.' He carried this second new arrival

to the swathed table, close to his body with one hand supporting her tiny head.

You have more hair than your sister, little one. What am I to do now? I was so determined to leave you both to your mother's rearing, to save myself from the pains of loving you lest I lose you. Yet how can I do anything but love you and your sister both?

He laid her gently down in a nest of soft cotton and took up a clean cloth as one of the maids poured fresh water into an unused basin. Dampening one corner, he began carefully wiping the blood and fluid from the baby's flawless golden skin. His own hands were dark and creased in contrast.

Will you share your mother's colouring or will your complexion darken to resemble mine? Will you have her beautiful eyes or will they be green? Will your hair stay black and fine like your mother's or grow brown and curly?

Once he was satisfied the baby was quite clean, he accepted a spotless white cloth from the attentive maid. 'Come and let your mother see you,' he said softly as he wrapped his new daughter securely.

Over on the bed, Itrac was still rapt in adoration of her firstborn. She looked up, disconcerted, first at Kheda and then at the steward's wife. 'Can I give them both suck, at the same time?'

'Of course.' Lihei snapped her fingers at Jevin who was gazing wide-eyed at the baby already suckling at Itrac's breast. 'You can move now, my lad.'

As Lihei saw Itrac settled back against her pillows with a baby at each breast and supported with cushions, Kheda noticed Touai waiting patiently at the foot of the bed with the shallow ceramic bowl.

'Each came with her own afterbirth my lord.' The gaunt maidservant showed him the basin's gory contents.

So there'll be none of that nonsense about them being

two halves of one whole and wondering whether the good and the bad in their character has been evenly distributed.

'Good.' Kheda steeled himself to be certain nothing had been left behind to poison Itrac and rob these children of their mother before she was anything more to them than milk and comfort. Finally satisfied, he nodded, and drew a cloth over the basin with relief. He glanced over at the table where the copper box holding needles and sutures waited. 'Does she need ... ?'

'No, my lord, thankfully.' Fellow-feeling with the new mother was evident in the older maidservant's eyes. 'That's often the first blessing of twins, with them being so small.'

'Not too small?' Kheda asked, watching Itrac's face lit with wonder at the strange new sensations of suckling her babies.

It's early days, Janne's second son didn't live beyond his first half-year, despite all we could do for him .. .

'No, my lord, not too small.' Touai smiled. 'And they're strong.'

'As is Itrac' Holding his bloody hands away from his sides, Kheda tried to ease a stiffness in his neck and shoulders that he hadn't felt until now. Tiredness threatened to overwhelm him. Relief that everything had gone so well seemed to have broken down his defences. 'But don't keep her here too long. She needs to be in a clean bed—'

'Leave me and Lihei to our duties, my lord.' Touai flapped her hands at him. 'As you do yours,' she prompted. 'The omens?'

Kheda did his best to hide his reluctance. 'That can wait until I've given Itrac a draught of childbed herbs.'

He returned to the table, where Touai's diligent daughters brought him yet more hot water and he scrubbed his hands until they tingled. Bending to retrieve the ebony physic coffer, he felt all the weariness of the long night

in his back and legs as he lifted the heavy box and set it on the table. 'Bring me a small goblet of izam juice, please,' he asked one of the two beaming girls.

'Hind's herb, to begin with,' he commented to Touai as the maid scoured her own hands clean, 'and tincture of earth star.' He took up a silver spoon and measured out crushed, dried petals and then the pungent liquid. 'Is she bleeding too much?'

Touai shook her head, angular face relieved. 'Not with the two of them sucking so readily.'

'Keep a close watch and let me know as soon as you suspect she needs something to stanch the flow.' Kheda stirred the medicines into the izam juice.

Itrac stirred herself to smile at him as he walked back to the bed, though she looked wholly exhausted and more than half-asleep. 'Twins,' she murmured drowsily.

'You were as strong and as brave as I knew you would be.' Kheda kissed her on the forehead, strands of hair still plastered across it.

'I had no idea it could hurt so much.' Itrac bent to nuzzle her second daughter's fluffy black head. 'But it was all worth it.'

Jevin was perched on the edge of the bed beside Itrac, still lost for words. Kheda handed him the goblet as both of Itrac's arms were fully occupied. 'Make sure she drinks it all, and some water.'

'I am thirsty.' She sounded surprised. A yawn interrupted her, drawn from the very depths of her being. The movement dislodged the elder babe from her suckling. Tiny eyes tight shut, she sought the comfort of her mother's breast for a moment, then settled to sleep instead.

'You give that to Touai and strip off your tunic, my lad,' Lihei instructed Jevin.

'You heard.' Touai took the goblet from the startled

.__________

youth and edged him aside as she helped Itrac drink from it.

Jevin obediently tugged his tunic over his head, puzzled.

'For the next ten days or so, if my lady's nursing just one of them, you must keep the other warm.' Lihei wound a length of soft cotton deftly around Jevin's ribs. 'Sit down.' As Jevin obeyed, Lihei handed him the sleeping elder baby. Wide-eyed, he held her with infinite care as Lihei bound her gently and securely against his tautly muscled abdomen.

'We'll need you to take your turn, my lord.' Touai glanced at Kheda. 'When my lady takes her first bath.'

Kheda nodded. 'Naturally.'

'Can I go to sleep now?' With a faint wince, Itrac shifted to lie more to the side where the second baby was still intently feeding.

'Yes.' Kheda leaned forward and kissed her forehead again. 'I'll be back in a little while.'

I wouldn 't mind a chance to sleep myself but I had better do what is expected of me.

He headed for the doors opening into the garden, where a little maid had armed herself with a feathery grass whisk to make sure no flies got past her guard. As he stepped outside, trying to stifle a yawn, Kheda was pulled up short. A silent, anxious crowd was clustered in the garden. Almost all the household servants and slaves were there, creased and dishevelled silk tunics identifying those who had kept vigil throughout the long night. Cotton-clad gardeners were clutching hoes and rakes and porters held baskets or brass ewers to their chests.

Beyau, the steward of the extensive residence, stepped forward. His blunt features were uncharacteristically vulnerable, though his stance was still that of the warrior he had been before all the upheavals that had swept over this domain. 'My lord?'

Kheda composed a confident, triumphant smile. 'My lady Itrac has given the Chazen islands two beautiful daughters.'

The garden rustled with exultation dutifully stifled to spare the exhausted mother within.

Beyau beamed at him. 'The beacons are ready, my lord.'

'Then light them.' The crowd parted to clear a path for Kheda across the garden and some eager hand opened the door to the hall on the far side of the pavilion. 'While I see what the omens say.'

Kheda kept smiling and nodding to acknowledge the murmured congratulations as he passed through the garden. Eager hands patted his arms and shoulders in tangible approbation. As he passed into the long, high-ceilinged audience hall, he noted five times the usual number of maids busy brushing the thick, soft carpet and polishing the tall, elegant vases that lined the walls. They all turned hopefully towards him.

Kheda tried to make his smile a little less stiff. 'My lady Itrac is safely delivered of twin girls.'

The women curtseyed, their individual congratulations merging with the gathering swell of relief and celebration that followed Kheda out into the bright sunshine in front of the pavilion. He blinked and shaded his eyes with one hand as he saw the sparkling sea before him crowded with boats. Some might be dutifully ferrying necessities to the warlord's household from the outlying islands with their comfortable huts of tight-fitted wood and closely woven thatch. Most had no such excuse.

/ don't think I've ever seen this harbour so full.

This most southerly residence of the Chazen warlords was built on a chain of small islands at the heart of a broad expanse of reef. Those who had ruled here before Kheda had put their trust first in the open waters and then in the

tortuous channels among the corals that barred the way to any ship whose master wasn't privy to the anchorage's secrets.

He watched the news sweep through the assembled boats, like the breeze that bellied the triangular sails of the fishing skiffs and the mighty square-rigged masts of the fat merchant galleys. Delight surged through the ships like the waves toying with the rowing boats. Signal flags were raised and Kheda heard the distant note of brazen horns sending word to the ever vigilant triremes patrolling the deeper blue seas beyond the turquoise waters of the lagoon.

Word will soon be carried from one end of the domain to the other. And to every neighbouring domain beyond.

The crowds outside the pavilion were more voluble in their exultation, their words an unintelligible jumble of congratulation. Those further away contented themselves with raising a cheer that soon spread out across the harbour. Feet and oars drummed on decks and thwarts, swelling the tide of jubilation.

Itrac is truly bound to this domain now, not just as wife to their former lord. The threads of her daughters' birth blood are a better and stronger bond than her role as only survivor of the disaster that overthrew her dead husband's authority. Now she has given Chazen an heir and a second daughter sharing the same birth stars, should any calamity befall the elder.

Acknowledging continued congratulations, Kheda walked down the neatly raked path leading away from the pavilion and crossed a small bridge of ropes and wood swaying on piles driven deep into the reef. Any attacker would find themselves wrong-footed and exposed to arrows from all sides as they fought across these narrow walkways that the defenders could cut at will.

I'd forgotten how tightly one of those tiny hands can get

a grip upon your heart. A grip that cannot be broken. And I am bound by my duty to make sure no battle or other woe blights those new lives. I have no one to blame for that but myself. I chose to take on this role as defender of Chazen and Itrac 's protector. The domain I was born to was lost to me. Can these births help me finally put Daish behind me and look to the future? That might be easier if I had any confidence in what the future might bring.

A nub of coral supported a square platform where more bridges ran away across the crystal-clear waters. They linked islands where more low pavilions of white stone were roofed with tiles like a reflection of the brilliant sea. Flashes of red and orange sunset fishes in the water beneath his feet caught Kheda's eye as he crossed to the next island.

Everyone is so pleased at present. Will there be any dissenting voices, once the village soothsayers have taken time to consider the implications of a girl as heir to the domain? Will there be whispers of regret behind discreetly raised hands that I could not give the domain a son, to be a true-born lord of Chazen when he grew to manhood?

A few slaves and servants clustered on the wide steps of the building here, shaded by the broad eaves. Kheda glanced at the humble dwellings where the servants were quartered and the shuttered, more opulent and spacious buildings beyond.

Beyau will soon have every maid and manservant cleaning and polishing, fitting out those halls with every luxury to welcome the dignified lords and gracious ladies of the domains that border Chazen. They will soon be discussing the news that these islands are now fated to pass into the hands of a ruling lady. So if my first duty is to hold this domain secure for her to inherit, my second must be to teach her all the intricacies, contradictions and deceptions necessary to rule once she has reached an age of discretion.

As Kheda crossed the next bridge, he accepted further profuse congratulations with smiles and nods. He felt his smile becoming irretrievably fixed and crossed the final swaying walkway across the reef with carefully concealed relief. The slaves and servants of his personal household were gathered on the steps of the warlord's pavilion. There was one warrior in chain mail among the silk and cotton funics and dresses.

'Ridu.' Kheda nodded as the armoured youth came clown the steps.

'Congratulations, my lord.' Ridu bowed low.

'Thank you.' Kheda couldn't restrain a jaw-cracking yawn.

'You're tired,' Ridu observed unnecessarily.

'I'm also crumpled and stale,' Kheda said frankly. 'Have them fill me a bath while I visit the observatory.' He nodded towards the very last building on the chain of little islands. 'Then I'll sleep.'

Ridu bowed again. 'Do you want anything to eat, my lord?'

Kheda was already walking towards the observatory. 'Nothing special, just some steamed sailer grain and meat, perhaps some fruit.'

'Very good, my lord.' Ridu turned and clapped his hands at the attentive servants as Kheda continued on his way to the observatory.

For my guard captain, Ridu makes a competent personal attendant. Not that I'll convince Beyau it's acceptable to use him as such. Nor that the last thing I want is a body slave shackled to me and my fortunes ever again. He'll start pressing me on that again soon, especially now we can expect visits from all our neighbouring lords.

The long shadow of the observatory reached across the dusty ground. The tower rose three times the height of the single-storeyed building surrounding it whose half-circle

halls held the accumulated wisdom garnered by generations of Chazen's warlords. The topmost level of the tower was open to the sky.

How long do I have to stand up there to convince everyone I've studied the patterns of the clouds and the flight of birds, the ripples and shades of the sea, to determine what lies ahead for my new daughters? The whole household would wait patiently for days if I said I needed to read all the books within, searching out interpretations of every conjunction of the stars and the bright jewels that circle through the heavens, checking through the records left by each warlord interpreting the validity of each construction placed on the concatenations of signs and stars. Can I bring myself to dissemble like this for much longer?

He opened the solid wooden door. Ignoring the spiral stairs curling upwards through the core of the tower, he passed through the archway leading to the eastern-facing hall. Star circles in bronze and silver hung on the walls, glinting as shafts of sunlight piercing the oiled wooden shutters fingered them. The paths of every constellation were incised on each plate, heavenly jewels inlaid on the net of pierced metal overlaying the circles, a measuring bar precisely aligned across each one.

Kheda halted, taken quite by surprise. 'Risala?'

A young woman was sitting on a stool at one of the long tables set in the middle of the room. She had a small ivory circle before her, one of those marked out for reading the heavens as well as registering the path of the sun and taking directions for setting sail.

'I picked this up on a trading beach in the Tule domain.' She rotated the disc this way and that. 'I thought it would make a nice addition to the Chazen collection.'

Kheda surveyed the extensive array of stargazing apparatus. 'Chazen Saril's collection.'

Risala waved a thin hand at the euphoria still ringing

round the anchorage outside. 'You're the only person in this entire domain who still has qualms about your claiming dominion here. I've made it my business to be certain.' She stood up, brushing back a lock of unbound black hair that fell to her shoulders, and looked at Kheda with fond irritation. 'Do I have to remind you what Itrac's fate would have been if you hadn't offered her marriage? She would have fallen prey to some monster like Ulla Safar, ready to rape her and call that a wedding. What would have happened last year, even if Chazen Saril had still been alive? No one I've spoken to is under any illusion that he could have saved them from one dragon, let alone two.' She narrowed her sapphire-blue eyes at Kheda. 'So was it twins? Boys or girls or one of each?'

'Two girls.' Kheda scrubbed his face with his hands, trying to stave off his weariness. 'Each will be her own woman - they're not mirrored twins. They're small but strong and healthy. Itrac's exhausted but she suffered no damage in the birthing. There's every reason to believe she'll recover fully and fast.'

'So now you've come to read the signs in the skies and the earthly compass to be sure of that, and to see what lies ahead for the children.' There was an unmistakable note of command in Risala's voice as she came over to Kheda.

'You're here to make sure I do my duty?' The bitter mockery in his reply wasn't directed at her.

'We can see that as an omen, that I just happened to arrive on the day Itrac gives birth.' She slid her arms around his waist. 'You know what you have to do.'

'While you alone of this whole domain know that I think it's a wholly futile exercise.' Kheda clasped her narrow shoulders with his broad hands and looked at her.

You 're much the same age as Itrac, and as my lost eldest

daughter. And I love you with more passion than I ever thought possible.

'Do you plan on telling anyone else?' She stiffened in his embrace and stared up at him, her blue eyes clouding. 'No, I didn't think so.'

'Why do you still wear this?' Kheda stroked a finger along the chain of small silver-mounted shark's teeth around Risala's neck. 'Can you honestly tell me you still believe the portents we imagined were woven around it?'

She looked stubborn. 'I know it's a token of your faith in me. It tells me I can trust you with my life.'

'As I trust you with mine.' Kheda bent to kiss her.

Risala's lips were soft and eager, the flicker of her tongue prompting a spark of desire in him. A spark that faded and died as another yawn would not be denied, Kheda drew her close nonetheless. 'Everyone's eyes will be turned to Itrac for a good long while. We'll be able to find some time for ourselves.'

'As long as we're discreet,' Risala warned. 'The lords and ladies of Redigal and Ritsem will be visiting soon j enough. I'll be no more use as your confidential agent if | their spies hear gossip that I'm your concubine.'

'I won't have anyone visiting too soon.' Kheda stifled another yawn. 'Itrac needs time to regain her strength and the babies must build up theirs. I suppose I must consult the star circles for an auspicious conjunction of the heavenly compass for visits.' He scowled with distaste.

'Especially from the Daish domain,' Risala said neutrally.

Daish, where I was warlord until a malign succession of disasters convinced my formerly faithful wives that I was no longer fated to rule over them. There was no brooking their determination to see me driven out, short of taking up arms against my own son. Some thanks that was for risking my life to bring them some means of salvation from invaders who

had already laid waste to Chazen and slaughtered Itrac's sister-wives and their children.

When Kheda didn't answer her, Risala twisted in his arms to look back at the ivory star circle on the table. 'It's forty days until the new-year stars align. That would insure Itrac a generous recuperation.'

Kheda nodded reluctantly. 'I imagine I can read some lies into the sky to argue for such a delay.'

'Go and read the omens for your new daughters, for their sakes.' Risala rose up on her toes to kiss him. 'It's not their fault your faith in such signs is wavering.'

Kheda looked unblinkingly at her. 'The only signs I look for are hints on the wind or in the sea's currents that we're to be invaded by those wild men and their magic once again, or worse still, see another dragon land on Chazen soil.'

Risala shuddered involuntarily. 'Then look for those signs as well, as long as you read the sky for your daughters' births. Or do you want to scandalise the gossips around the island cookfires, and have them looking askance at the babies from their birth?' A new thought struck her. 'What are you going to call them?'

Kheda shrugged. 'Itrac said, if it proved to be twins and they were girls, she wanted to call them Olkai and Sekni.'

Olkai and Sekni who were so well loved and respected. That didn 't save them from death at the hands of the invaders who ravaged this domain for their own foul purposes. None of us saw any portent that presaged such disaster. With all she's seen since then, how can Risala wonder why I no longer have faith in the signs of the heavenly compass?

'That'll be popular among the islanders.' Risala was biting her lower lip absently. 'And it's news I can trade—'

Kheda frowned as he belatedly saw something else in Risala's expression. 'What is it? You didn't just come here

to make sure I didn't scandalise the domain and blight my daughters' lives by declaring my abandonment of portent.'

'I picked up something else in Tule waters besides that ivory compass.' She wouldn't meet his eye, looking down. 'I got a message from Velindre.'

Kheda's blood ran suddenly cold. 'What did she say?'

Has that strange barbarian woman seen some sign that fire and magic and death are about to overturn all our lives once again?

'Nothing to send us running for the boats and fleeing the domain.' Risala laid her cheek against Kheda's chest, her hands linked in the small of his back. 'She wants to meet me on the most northerly of the Endit domain's trading beaches, on either of the days bracketing the Ruby's passing into the arc of wealth.'                                

'She's been brushing up on her stargazing,' Kheda commented cynically. 'What do you suppose she wants?'

'There's only one way to find out,' Risala said ruefully. 'I'll take the Reteul and visit the other main trading beaches on my way to see what news is being bought and sold along with word of Itrac's new daughters. I can get there and back before the new year if the winds stay in my favour. Which would be an omen,' she added lightly.

'For those fool enough to put their trust in such things.' Kheda allowed himself a moment's comfort as her body j pressed against his. 'Still, the trip will certainly be a chance to read moods in the domains you pass through.'

'Such as Ulla waters. You can't avoid inviting Ulla Safar to celebrate Chazen's good fortune,' Risala warned,

Kheda sighed. 'Not when the venomous slug can snap his fingers to summon more armed men than any two other domains could muster from all their islands.'

'Not when his ill will would close so many sea lanes to stifle Chazen's trade,' Risala pointed out more prosaically.

'Let's hope he'll content himself with finding spiteful portents in his reading of the heavens over Chazen's new daughters' births.' Kheda reluctantly released Risala. 'I supposed I had better go and see what's to be seen, if only to confound his malice.'

To match Ulla Safar 's undoubted lies with lies of my own. What does that make me?

Risala reached up to take his face in her hands. 'I need no signs to tell me those girls couldn't wish for a better father.' She drew him down to kiss him soundly.

'That remains to be seen,' he said tersely. 'All right, I'll go and see what I can make out. Wait for me here.'

Heaving a weary sigh, he left the room with its myriad star circles and climbed the spiral stair to the open observatory with leaden feet.

Do my other children still think I have been a good father to them? How do they judge me, forced to abandon them I hanks to my own choices and those of their mothers? I won't be able to avoid inviting Sirket, any more than I can shun (Ilia Safar. Daish Sirket, my son, my firstborn, forced to assume rule of the Daish domain when he's barely older than llrac. But if I hadn't allowed everyone to believe me dead, so I could forswear all I held true and bring a wizard to fight the invaders' magic, Sirket and everyone else in Daish would have suffered the same slaughter as Chazen. Does he know that? Has Janne told him? What exactly has she told him?

Kheda squinted as he emerged onto the open observatory level. The sun was growing hotter and the black and ochre tiles dividing the floor with the cardinal lines of the compass were warm beneath his bare feet. He turned and looked to the north, where the Daish domain lay hidden far beyond the horizon.

Will Janne or Rekha come with Sirket? Will they deign to tell me if Dau is married yet, without my knowledge or consent? How much will Mesil or Efi and Vida have grown? Would I

even recognise Mie or Noi, barely more than babies the last time I saw them? I've never even seen Yasi, Sain's firstborn, and he'll be walking by now.

He walked slowly around the waist-high wall, one finger tracing the carvings on the wooden rail that delineated aspects of the particular omens to be read in each third of the quadrant. He paused at the curling script marking out the arc of marriage.

What would Sain Daish say of me as a husband? Does she still trust in omens? Fearful as she was, she came to marry me trusting in the portents that I and her brother saw promising her a long and successful marriage. Look how that turned out. But everyone will be expecting me to tell them how the portents promise a long and happy life for each of my newest daughters. Risala is right about that.

He sighed and returned to the centre of the open floor, fixing his attention on the south and east where the successive arcs denoting the fates of children, parents and siblings ran round the compass towards the west. A steady breeze blew in from the open ocean.

Below the horizon at this season, the stars of the Winged Snake writhe in the arc for children. Its restless nature is said to bring hidden things into the light, as well as being token of courage. Shall I tell everyone I saw a rainbow there, to be certain that all possible positive interpretations can draw the sting from whatever signs village soothsayers claim for this day?

Kheda gazed out over the ocean. Where the green and gold of the waters around the reefs faded to mysterious blue, a puff of spray caught his eye. He saw another, then another, at odds with the ruffles of white rising and falling.

Whales. A sign of vitality and of determination, also of mystery and an unknown fate. Though the whale is always read as a positive sign by the sages of Chazen. This is the only domain where men are brave enough, or sufficiently foolhardy,

to take to their boats to pursue the great beasts. Will they try to catch up with those I see and drive some laggard into the shallows where meat for a birthing festival can be harvested along with fat and bone? The whale's a sign of plenty in this domain, isn't it? I can tell Itrac that our elder daughter is born to the expectation of her resolute rule bringing fruitful times for Chazen. She'11 be happy to hear that and I won't be telling her an outright lie.

That didn't particularly relieve the heaviness weighing clown his spirits.

There's no earthly omen in the arc of parenthood. That's no great concern. The heavenly conjunction of Amethyst, Diamond and Opal will keep the soothsayers hunched over their books of lore until the rains come. And the Horned Fish's stars swim there. Those beasts have been known to succour drowning mariners if the books in the libraries here are to be believed. I can tell Itrac that augurs well for our care of these babies.

He looked past the point of due south marked on the observatory's tiled floor to the next arc.

The Net's myriad stars shine in the arc of siblings. If I stress the aspects of unity and cooperation, Itrac can hope our daughters' life together will be harmonious. Though nets can entangle and subdue. How difficult will it be for this second daughter when she realises she isn't the heir, when the two of them are so nearly of an age? Will she fret over whatever twist of fate held her back to be born second? Girls born when both moons are waxing are said to be precocious.

An unexpected flash of white caught the warlord's eye. This time it wasn't on the sea but rising into the far blue sky. A zaise spread long white wings with a span as wide as a tall man as it soared above the boundless ocean, spurning the land.

All white birds are a sign of beauty and fertility. I can claim that as well as the zaise's stamina and constancy for

the younger girl. And mariners say the bird is an omen of returning safe to harbour, even if it's rarely seen to rest on the waters and never known to land on solid ground. Some even say it builds a nest that floats on the waters beyond the outermost islands.

I suppose there will be those who would say that was a valid omen for a girl who must fly away to some other domain to fulfil her destiny. Still, with a bird portent for the younger one, and the whale omen for her elder sister, I can argue that each girl should be treated as an individual from the outset, not as two halves of some whole. And both omens carry an element of mystery, so perhaps I can protect them from the burden of false expectations wrenched from the heavens.

Abruptly weighed down with weariness, Kheda turned away from the vast sweep of the southern horizon to go back down the stairs.

That's sufficient nonsense for the soothsayers and everyone to debate over their cookfires. I just want some sleep.

CHAPTER TWO

A won't be able to escape inviting these noble warlords to share my observatory. How will they read these new-year stars? I'd better not give any of them reason to suspect I no longer share their trust in portents plucked from the heavens. Though there should be plenty of distractions. I haven't seen the anchorage so crowded since the day little Olkai and Sekni were born.

Kheda stood on the steps of his personal pavilion where the wide eaves cast welcome shade from the hot afternoon sun. He looked out across waters thronged with the undecked shallow galleys that came and went between the islands of the domain. After dutifully obeying his decree securing an extended respite for Itrac, it looked as if half the loyal populace had seized this opportunity at the turn of the year to bring gifts to their warlord, his lady, the domain's new heir and her sister.

And everyone, rulers and ruled, slave and free, expects to see me in all the elegance of my position.

Immaculately groomed, Kheda smoothed the front of his azure-shot emerald tunic, resisting the temptation to fold his arms across his chest. It wouldn't do to crease the silk. His mouth watered as the breeze brought tempting scents of broiling fish and spiced sailer grain. Roasting pits and cookfires on the shallow islands across the lagoon were readying a lavish feast to impress the rowers bringing their warlords and noble ladies to Chazen. A slew of bright awnings were also rigged and

ready to offer shade for other guests on one of the outlying islets.

Traders trusting in the new-year stars will be warmly welcomed by Chazen. The merchants who sail the domains have shunned these beaches for too long. Though we can hardly blame them, when these last few years have seen Chazen battered by invasion and terrified by monsters. I hope Risala gets back soon enough to gauge the value of the transactions. If the scales tilt even a little in Chazen's favour, that'll be an augury I can trust beyond anything imagined in the heavens.

Absently, he twisted one of the many rings he wore: a heavy silver band carved with intricate sigils and set with a massive uncut, highly polished emerald. More emeralds glinted in his earrings and in the gold bracelets binding the full sleeves of his tunic. Looking beyond the trading galleys with their single tiers of oars, he gazed at the high-sided triremes patrolling deeper waters beyond the reef, lean and menacing. Kheda identified the distant warships as the Brittle Crab andthe Stilt Bird.

That's something else I can trust in — the dedication and skill of the mariners, warriors and archers manning Chazen's defences. They won't let opportunists make free with our sea lanes. I even believe they'd face down foes backed by magic again, spitting in the wind to defy the evil. Chazen men have killed a dragon. No other domain can make that boast. But let's hope we don't have to fight any kind of invasion again in our lifetimes.

Steps sounded on the walkway leading to this easternmost island at the heart of the Chazen warlord's residence. Kheda saw Beyau approaching with a purposeful stride and nodded to acknowledge the steward. Scarlet glory bird feathers were embroidered across the shoulders of his cerulean silk tunic and down the sides of his trousers, and he wore a heavy gold chain around his thick neck.

'My lord.' The burly man bowed his head briefly. 'A

gift for your daughters has come from a village spokesman called Isei. He speaks for the people on Gisaire.'

'Isei?' Kheda reached out an open hand. 'Is he here?'

'No, my lord.' Beyau handed him a small box of pale-green silkstone. 'He sent his apologies that his duties called him to the outlying reefs.'

Where the first fruits of the pearl harvest are being gathered. Everyone is wondering how rich the harvest will be this year. That's an omen that will be pondered in Chazen and beyond. All I want to know is whether the seas will give up the wealth we need to restore Chazen.

Kheda studied the box, carved from a single block of soft, translucent stone. Canthira leaves made from slips of the nacre that lined pearl oyster shells were expertly inlaid into the closely fitting lid. He looked over the lagoon to the hopeful awnings on the trading beach. 'Is this the quality of the craftsmanship that visitors will find over yonder?'

'Along with choice trinkets in turtleshell and hakali wood, as well as pearls strung in all different fashions.' The steward smiled broadly. 'The rains were long and gentle, the sailer harvest the best we've seen in ten years. Storms spared the vegetable plots and fruit trees and the forests are full of game.' He glanced along the chain of islands linked by bridges and walkways, his stern face softening with affection. 'My lady Itrac traded last year's largesse from the pearl reefs to good effect, for iron and cloth and more besides. Even after rebuilding their homes and filling their families' bellies, Chazen folk have had leisure to turn to profitable use.'

'Indeed.' Kheda nodded approvingly, keeping darker thoughts to himself.

Of course, there are far fewer bellies to fill, after the disasters of the past few years. But this is a new year. Let's look to the future — especially the next few days.

'I take it everything is quite ready for our guests?' he said lightly.

'Naturally, my lord.' Beyau grinned. 'We'll be putting my lord of Redigal and his retinue in the marble pavilion. Those of Ritsem and their entourage will be sharing the ebony hall while we'll be giving Daish the golden pavilion. The Ulla contingent can make what they will of the turtleshell hall. Would you care to see?'

'I'm sure everything is just as it should be.' Kheda weighed the pretty box in his hand and realised something was shifting within. Prising the lid free, he found two fine discs of whalebone threaded on silk ribbon iridescent as pearl. One was expertly carved with a horned fish, the other with a sailfish.

'The same but different, my lord,' Beyau said approvingly. 'Just right for twins.'

Isei obviously made note of the stars when the girls were born. That's to be expected: a village spokesman watches for conjunctions of the heavens. And he didn't shirk his duty in setting his people's difficulties and needs before me last year. What does he expect of me under these new stars?

Kheda nodded thoughtfully. 'I had better make plans for a tour of the domain as soon as we're done with these celebrations.'

I can undertake my duties as law-giver, arbiter and healer in all good faith. But will I still be convincing playing the part of augur, reading the portents and omens for every isle and village? I shall have to be. No warlord can hold onto power without his people behind him, not without ruling through fear and brutality like Ulla Safar.

'Your people will be glad to see you,' Beyau agreed. 'Though you'll have to find a new body slave before you can make such a voyage,' he added firmly.

'Not for travelling within my own domain.' Kheda shot the steward a quelling look. 'I'm mindful of the ill-fortune

that beset my last two body slaves. Telouet was nearly killed saving me from Ulla Safar's murderous plot.'

'He made a full recovery from his injuries,' countered Beyau.

And now serves his new lord Daish Sirket. At least one good thing came out of that disastrous night; there's no one I would rather trust to care for my son.

'What of my last slave?' Kheda challenged. 'Dev followed me into the fight against that first dragon's foul magic and died in the fires the beast summoned.'

At least, that's the story everyone believes, apart from the three of us who survived.

'Dev was a barbarian from the unbroken lands. Who knows what choices in his past might have led him to such a fate?' There was a hint of uncertainty in Beyau's voice. 'Sorcerers do as they please in the north, tainting everything there with evil.'

Do you suspect that Dev was in truth a wizard? Do you suspect that I brought a mage here against law and custom that condemn magic from one end of the Archipelago to the other? Would you have helped me shelter and protect him, for the sake of his spells that were the only effective weapon against the invaders' magic, and then against the dragon that followed them here? Would you have denounced me for those crimes, demanded my dishonoured death and seen Dev skinned alive?

Kheda looked impassively at Beyau, his face betraying nothing of the turmoil in his mind.

No, you still trust me, Beyau. You'd never have followed me into battle against that second dragon, if you hadn 't trusted me with your life.

'It's just not fitting, my lord,' the steward pleaded. 'You must have a personal body slave.'

'When I read omens assuring me I do not risk condemning an innocent man to an undeserved fate, slave

though he might be, I'll find one.' Kheda realised he was knotting his fingers so tightly his rings were digging in painfully and forced his hands apart. 'Until then, Ridu can serve as my bodyguard as well as captain of my personal warriors.' He gestured towards a figure crossing the next island but one.

'Yes, my lord.' It cost Beyau visible effort to smooth the dissatisfaction from his face.

Kheda looked up to check the position of the sun above the wheeling coral gulls. 'Do you suppose something's delayed Ulla Safar? His shipmasters aren't usually this far adrift of their tide.'

'We're expecting Redigal Coron's galleys for the sunset high water.' Beyau let his exasperation show. 'If Ulla Safar's galleys can't cross the reef when they arrive, they'll just have to stand off in the main channel while we see the Redigal flotilla anchored.'

Kheda shrugged. 'Ulla convenience is the least of my concerns.'

By tomorrow Ritsem Caid and the contingent from Daish will be here as well. Irrespective of omens, I must start this new year by renewing my ties with those domains I hope will remain my allies. And by getting the measure of those who at best wish me no good fortune, and at worst would happily see me dead. Is Itrac up to the challenge of besting their women in their silken combats?

He carefully fitted the lid back onto the box. 'We'll see if Ridu has news and then I'll take this gift to my lady.' He walked down the steps of the pavilion and headed for the bridge to the next islet, Beyau falling into step beside him. 'What are we serving our guests tonight?'

'Spotted deer from the forests of Boal. Bristle-mouthed fish from the knot-tree swamps. Silver fowl from Esabir. Green turtle from the shallows of Dalao.' Beyau ticked off delicacies on his fingers as they crossed

the swaying planks. 'Purple conch flesh from the Snake Bird Islands—'

'My lord.' A young warrior halted on the sandy path and bowed low. Straightening, he took off his steel helmet and tucked it under one arm, the veil of fine chain mail fixed to the shining brass brow band rasping against his brass-inlaid vambraces.

'The residence warriors are looking forward to testing themselves against the honour guards escorting our quests?' hazarded Kheda.

The grin widened on Ridu's cheerful brown face. 'We must uphold Chazen's reputation, my lord.' He rested one hand lightly on the hilt of the scabbarded sword thrust (hrough his wide belt. Bronze inlay on the steel plates inset into his gleaming mail hauberk to protect his vitals caught the sun with a flash of fire.

'As dragon slayers?' Beyau smiled reluctantly as he reached out to straighten the ridged grey scale hanging from a sturdy copper chain around the young swordsman's neck.

'We of Chazen owe those of Ritsem and Redigal a debt of gratitude for their help in driving out the wild men's invasion the year before last,' Ridu said with dignity. 'But we killed that second dragon ourselves last year. None can say doing so did not reclaim our standing as warriors in full measure.'

What would you say if you knew that cloud dragon we killed was a northern wizard's simulacrum, summoned to kill the true evil? The only real dragon was the one that came before it, linked in some mystery to the wild men who invaded in its vanguard, all of them wielding foul magical fires that no Aldabreshin could withstand. We could never have defeated a dragon without me forswearing myself and making that pact with Dev and then with Velindre. I wonder if Risala's found her yet.

Kheda set such concerns resolutely aside. 'Test

yourselves against the Ritsem guards, by all means. Ganil, Ritsem Caid's body slave, will be in command.'

'He's a good man,' Beyau allowed grudgingly.

'The Redigal warriors will test your mettle as well.' Kheda frowned slightly. 'I don't know who Redigal Coron's body slave might be. I imagine he still changes his personal attendant with each season.'

'Are you sure you don't want to come back to serve in the residence contingent?' Ridu regarded Beyau with spurious innocence.

'Spend the heat of the day in full armour taking orders from a whelp like you? No, thank you.' Beyau sounded almost convincing. 'Though I might dig out that talon I won from the dragon,' he mused.

'The Daish contingent will be led by Telouet, Daish Sirket's body slave.' Kheda succeeded in keeping his voice calm. 'Look for his help, and Ganil's, to make sure no one responds to provocation offered by Ulla Safar's entourage.'

'My lord.' Ridu hid his surprise at Kheda's candour with a bow.

Beyau showed no such discretion. 'You think they'll cause trouble?'

'They'll make the most of the least opportunity to do so,' Kheda said frankly, 'but I don't think even Ulla Safar would have his men start a fight wholly without justification. Not if you make it clear that Chazen, Ritsem and Daish stand shoulder to shoulder.'

Our neighbours may not see the same portents in the upheavals of these past two years but they agree that Ulla Safar overstepped the mark in trying to have me killed.

Ridu drew himself up to his full height. 'Yes, my lord.'

Kheda nodded to Beyau. 'Send word to my lady Itrac's pavilion as soon as any galleys are sighted.'

'Very good, my lord.' Beyau bowed low before turning

a stern eye on Ridu. 'I'll show you just where visiting warriors will be accommodated, in case of trouble.'

Ridu followed Beyau away across the island and Kheda took the walkway that led towards Itrac's pavilion. Household slaves and servants were in evidence but there wasn't the bustle that had reverberated around the lagoon for the past few days. Today, suppressed anticipation hung around maids dusting already immaculate steps and the water carriers delivering shining brass pots.

The sand before Itrac's pavilion was raked with elegant lines and an old man stood ready to smooth away Kheda's footprints. He bowed low and pushed open the tall door. The warlord acknowledged him with a brief smile and won a wrinkled grin from the old man.

Jevin was standing just inside. 'My lord.' Like Ridu, he wore a burnished hauberk of fine chain mail. Unlike the guard captain, he could boast no dragon scale around his neck, though rock crystal gleamed in the silver brow band of his helmet, on his broad silver-studded belt and on the pommels of his twin swords and crescent dagger.

If my deceits are ever discovered, no one will be able to condemn you as tainted with magic. You were guarding Itrac when Ridu, Beyau and I were killing an already dying dragon. You will guard her against any accusations that she shares my guilt.

Itrac's audience hall was ready for their anticipated quests. The floor tiles were the soft green of water over sandy shallows, while hangings of translucent silk echoed the countless shades of blue uniting sea and sky. Brightly coloured fish decorated a thick carpet of mottled blue silk. They swam in shoals and pairs and spirals through a deceptively simple pattern of drifting sea grass, bordered by clusters of sea stars, pearl oysters and particoloured clams. Kheda smiled as he placed the little box on one of the low ebony tables set at each corner of the

carpet. All were painted with intricate scenes of busy pearl divers.

No one is to be left in any doubt that the seas are rapidly replenishing this domain's wealth.

'Are you thirsty? Shall I send for juice?' Itrac was sitting cross-legged on a bank of cushions at one end of the carpet. She wore a full-skirted, long-sleeved gown of white silk shot with all the colours of the rainbow.

'Not on my account.' Kheda took a moment to flatter Itrac with his full attention.

Where her dresses had usually been designed to flatter her modest bosom, this one proudly celebrated the splendid cleavage granted by her new motherhood. She wore a collar of pearls touched with pink and blue and gold, lustrous against her copper skin, and bracelets of those same prized coloured pearls. More glistened in the midnight of her hair, drawn back to fall in a cascade of ringlets around her shoulders.

'Do you approve, my lord?' She smiled, her lips carefully outlined and glossed with coral softness. Subtle silver cosmetics brightened her eyes and highlighted her fine cheekbones.

'I do,' Kheda assured her. He sat down beside the twin babies who lay kicking their legs contentedly on a thick rug of stout white cotton prudently spread to protect the rich carpet from mishap. Each little girl wore a simple shift made from the same silk as Itrac's gown, along with a sturdy clout about her little bottom.

'Is it time to pretend we're happy to see Ulla Safar and whichever vicious shrews he's seen fit to bring?' Itrac twirled a twist of polished coral on a cord as baby Olkai watched with bright curiosity. The baby reached out, her wrist now adorned with a solid silver bangle. Little Sekni's wrists were bare as she chewed on one plump fist, fascinated by the silken hangings flickering

in the breeze that filtered through the high louvred windows.

'Not yet.' Kheda waved back the elder of Touai's daughters who'd promptly stepped forward from her post by the far door.

'I had a courier dove from the western reefs this morning,' Itrac announced with ill-concealed glee. 'This year's pearl harvest promises to be as rich as last year's.'

'That's good news.' Kheda searched Itrac's face for undue weariness concealed by Jevin's skilful cosmetics brush. 'But this isn't a visit for trade. I don't want you tiring yourself out.'

Not that any two warlords' wives can ever get together without at least making some exchange of promises. But you don't look too weary. Touai's daughters are certainly proving their worth as mistresses of the nursery.

Itrac smiled serenely. 'I shall plead fatigue if anyone hopes lack of sleep has blunted my wits and tries to inveigle me into a disadvantageous deal.'

'By which time they will have given away their bargaining position?' Kheda grinned.

Was I wrong to think Chazen Saril only married you for your youth and beauty? Had he seen the seed of this acumen that's come to full flower?

Itrac's smile hardened. 'My main concern is determining the state of the Daish pearl harvest before I make covenants with any other domain.'

'You think their reefs will be barren for a second year?' Kheda's stomach felt hollow.

Which would be a truly disastrous omen for Sirket's rule.

'If they are, I see no reason to help them conceal it this lime. Last year, we needed so many things to rebuild the domain—' Itrac shrugged, an unconsciously voluptuous movement. 'I won't let Janne Daish force my acquiescence as she passes off Chazen pearls as Daish's again.'

How will you manage that, when my former wife has twenty years and more experience in the tortuous negotiations between domains?

Kheda traced a thoughtful finger along sea grass swirling around a steel and sapphire blade fish. 'You'll need passage for Chazen ships through Redigal sea lanes secured before you risk having Daish waters closed to us.'

'I will be inviting Moni Redigal to extend her visit here.' Itrac twirled the coral and smiled at Olkai as the baby cooed.

'I don't want you asking too much of yourself—' Kheda began.

'We won't allow her to tire herself out, my lord.' Jevin spoke up from his place by the door.

Kheda looked at the nursemaids and saw all three were united in determined agreement.

'Satisfied?' Itrac queried dryly. She nodded at the green silkstone box Kheda had put on the table. 'What's that?'

'Gifts for our daughters from the island of Gisaire.' He showed Itrac the pendants.

'They're lovely.' Itrac smiled with delight before snapping her fingers on sudden recollection. 'Jevin, where's that offering from Sechel?'

'Here, my lady.' The slave retrieved an unassuming roll of cloth tucked away behind an alabaster vase holding dried afital grasses.

Kheda was startled to see a wholly different material wrapped within the cotton. 'Is that cloth of pearl?'

'A length for each of your daughters, my lord.' The slave proudly displayed the shimmering fabric wrought of countless small pearls, each one pierced and invisibly woven together with fine links of silver wire.

'So the Chazen folk that Janne Daish's people sheltered as they fled north from the invaders brought valuable craft

secrets back with them.' Kheda smiled down at Sekni so that Itrac wouldn't see a qualm on his face.

What will it mean for your future, little one, if fanne Daish becomes Chazen's outright enemy? Because I find I am bound more surely to your future with every passing day, and to your sister's. While your mother seems to need me less and less now she has you two to fill her days and her heart.

The baby stared back, dark eyes solemn. Then her gaze fixed on the carved pendant dangling from Kheda's lingers and she charmed him with her pink, toothless smile.

'I suppose I will owe her some recompense—' The warning cadence of a signal horn beyond the lagoon interrupted Itrac.

Kheda got to his feet with relief mixed with apprehension. 'That must be the Ulla ships.'

'Put that somewhere out of sight.' Itrac gestured to Jevin to roll up the priceless gift in its concealing cotton and beckoned to the nursemaids. 'Take Olkai and Sekni hack to their own apartment. It's too hot to take them into the sun.'

'You're coming with me?' Kheda was a little surprised.

'I am.' There was no sign of any weariness in Itrac as she handed her babies to their doting nurses. 'We'll begin as we mean to go on and that means not giving Ulla Safar or his wives any reason to think we're not wholly prepared to meet them.' She kissed each tiny girl and stood patiently while Jevin repaired some invisible smudge to her lips with a deft finger. 'I wonder what gift they will be offering our daughters.'

Kheda offered Itrac his arm. 'That will certainly be a significant sign.'

Never mind the empty symbolism of the gift; I'll want to read the intent behind it. I still don't know why Ulla Safar

tried to have me killed. Custom forbids such open questions, especially when he took such pains to be sure he could deny all knowledge of the assault. I can't complain. That same custom is what keeps the other warlords in these reaches from asking me outright why I fled that chaotic night and left everyone thinking I was dead. But they want to know. Risala's web of informers hears their questions whispered on all the trading beaches.

The warlord and lady walked out onto the raked path. The confusion of boats in the lagoon had cleared to leave a broad-beamed galley picking a careful path between the outcrops of coral. The square-rigged ochre sails on the three masts were furled in heavy swags and the vessel was in the hands of the oarsmen toiling unseen on her middle deck. The lithe Chazen triremes that had escorted the galley wheeled around in a flurry of foam and headed back out to deeper water.

'The Yellow Serpent should return from the eastern sea lanes tomorrow.' Itrac glanced over her shoulder to Jevin, following a pace behind. 'Bring me the shipmaster's messages as soon as they're anchored.'

'Yes, my lady.' The slave bowed obediently.

My lady Itrac Chazen follows the tides of opinion these days as skilfully as her sister-wife Olkai ever did.

A chill struck Kheda as he saw that a single-masted boat with a triangular sail had slipped between the two triremes. As the lesser vessel dutifully dipped the pennant signifying its right to travel these waters, he saw a golden-haired figure at the distant tiller. A cold grip tightened around his heart.

What is Velindre doing sailing theReteul.? Where's Risala?

'Which galley is that?' Itrac was concentrating on the Ulla domain's ship making its way towards an anchorage cut into the reef.

'The Velvet Fowl.' Kheda dragged his wits back to more

immediate concerns and frowned. 'I'd have expected them (o bring more than one ship.'

Is this some insult? What do we do if Ulla Safar is openly selling his face against us? Can I strengthen ties with Redigal and Ritsem sufficiently to blunt his hatred? I need to know whatever Risalas learned of the moods in Ulla waters. I certainly don't want Velindre within a day's sail of my new daughters.

The Velvet Fowl wallowed, ungainly, as her helmsman turned her stern to the anchorage. Deep within the ship, the pipe that governed the oarsmen could be heard. As the Ulla rowers eased the high-sided vessel close to the piles driven solidly into the coral, Chazen men threw ropes up to the crew on deck. The Velvet Fowl came to rest against the floating walkway with barely a" crunch of the bulbous lenders of woven sailer straw. Ridu immediately led a double column of Chazen swordsmen to line the landing stage with glittering steel as the fat-bellied vessel was securely tied to the dock.

'My lord.' Itrac looked expectantly at him.

Kheda was trying to see past the vast bulk but the Reteul had vanished as the comings and goings across the lagoon resumed. He forced a smile. 'My lady.'

Arm in arm, they walked down the raked path and onto the immaculately swept planks of the dock. A knot of richly dressed women were descending the stair-like ladders fixed on either side of the great galley's stern. Their nervous expressions were at odds with their finery as they turned to curtsey to a grotesquely fat man making his ponderous way down to the landing stage. A sizeable contingent of armoured men waited up on deck, blank-faced as they surveyed the Chazen warriors.

'Ulla Safar.' Kheda bowed, not acknowledging the unusual number of visiting swordsmen with so much as a glance.

'Chazen Kheda, thank you for inviting us to your domain.' Ulla Safar's courtesy was perfunctory. Sweating profusely, he mopped his brow and long black beard with a white silken kerchief before tucking it into the heavy silver belt girdling his golden tunic. The fabric was richly embroidered with the dusky velvet fowl for which his galley was named. His sleeveless overmantle was finest transparent gossamer embroidered with the fire creeper such birds wove into their bowers deep in the forests cloaking the massive central island of the Ulla domain.

'You and yours are most welcome, my lord,' Kheda assured him with pleasure.

Safar looked suspiciously at him. His pale yellow-brown eyes were veined with red and half-hidden in the folds of fat disfiguring a once-handsome face. 'My wives are delighted to congratulate you on your safe delivery from the trials of childbed, my lady.' He spared the gaggle of women fawning around him a cursory gesture as he turned to Itrac. His smile turned to an open leer as he took in her decolletage. 'You're looking well, my dear.'

Look all you like, you fat lecher, but lay a finger on my wife and jf Jevin will cut off your hand.

'Indeed.' Mirrel Ulla advanced hastily, hands outstretched, silver and onyx bracelets bright against her ebony skin. Her brittle smile didn't reach eyes as blank and secretive as the dark gems studding the silver collar she wore. 'We are so glad to see you so obviously recovered.'

Kheda bowed and made sure his eyes didn't stray to Mirre'ss generous bosom, seductively displayed by a dress of fine silvery gauze.

That gown's more suited to a boudoir than a boat. What game are you playing now? Shall I let slip that I wouldn 't let my least-valued slave soil himself satisfying your lusts?

'I have my household to thank for that,' Itrac replied with nicely calculated ruefulness. She turned to indicate a long roof. 'You will have the turtleshell pavilion—'

Chay Ulla stepped forward. 'We trust your new daughters are consolation for all the bereavements you've borne so bravely these past few years.'

Kheda cut her off smoothly. 'The new year reminds us above all else that life must go on, my lady.'

Spiteful as always, Chay, but clumsier than you 're wont to be and you 're looking daggers at Mirrel, not Itrac.

Itrac's composure was unshaken. 'Those gone from us are never wholly lost, not while we honour their memories.'

'Indeed.' Dark-brown eyes clouded, Chay's smile took on the same fixity as Mirrel's. She twisted an unconscious linger among the ropes of striped golden agates hanging to her waist. The Ulla domain's second lady was taller (ban her sister-wife, her skin a warm brown against the gold silk of tunic and trousers that flattered her long bones uid solid build.

What's going on? Chay's lost weight since we last had the dubious pleasure of Ulla company, and her slave's best efforts with the cosmetic brushes haven't hidden whatever strain is carving those new lines around her eyes.

Kheda let his gaze slide to the nameless huddle of lesser wives and concubines behind Ulla Safar and caught glimpses of open apprehension. The women's body slaves were uniformly blank-faced, though Ulla Safar's massively muscled attendant glowered beneath the rim of his ruby-encrusted helm.

'It is certainly a time to look to the future.' Ulla Safar smiled sweetly at Itrac before turning a look of honeyed malice on his own women.

If Safar's malevolence is focused on his own household, does that mean the rest of us will escape it? Will Jevin catch

hints dropped by the Ulla wives' body slaves? But he's bound to Itrac and besides, he won't be looking for things I need to know as warlord.

'You must be tired after your voyage and the heat of the day is upon us,' Kheda said artlessly. 'My steward will show your retinue to your accommodations, if you would care to take some refreshment with my lady and myself.' He waved a hand to summon Beyau from the Chazen servants waiting beyond Ridu's honour guard.

'My thanks.' Ulla Safar thrust his broad hands into his belt, spurning Chay and Mirrel who had both reached out fruitlessly to claim his arm.

A signal horn sounded out beyond the reef and Beyau looked askance at Kheda. 'That's the Redigal ships, my lord.'

'Then we must wait to greet our friend Coron.' Suddenly jovial, Ulla Safar turned around with an alacrity belying his bulk. 'I can suffer the sun for a little longer.' He turned an unexpected sneer on his wives. 'You all make yourselves scarce, and make yourselves presentable before you shame me any further.'

'Show our guests to their accommodations.' Kheda nodded at Beyau. The steward was frozen with astonishment at the Ulla warlord's overt discourtesy to his women.

'At once, my lord.' Beyau bowed low and departed with ill-concealed relief. The Ulla wives hurried after him like whipped children.

Ridu caught Kheda's eye with a discreetly questioning look. The warlord answered with a minute jerk of his head and a contingent of the honour guard on the quay peeled off to follow the Ulla retinue. The rest waited for the Ulla warriors to disembark and an equal number detached themselves to escort the visitors to their temporary barracks.

'I wonder which of Redigal Coron's wives will be accompanying him.' Kheda offered his arm to Itrac before smiling at Ulla Safar and leading the way towards the next anchorage along the reef where Chazen men were waiting, ready for the rapidly approaching Redigal galley. The two warlords strolled along the planks with every appearance of amity, Itrac gliding between them. Ridu and the remaining Chazen swordsmen followed behind. Kheda noted Ulla Safar mopping his brow again.

I know it's hot but you're sweating more than I'd expect and if Chay has lost weight, you've gained it, my lord slug. Your body slave was watching your wives' slaves with more mistrust than Ridu was. How many discarded concubines has that faithful brute beaten to death for you?

The remaining Chazen honour guard drew up with a rattle of armour to receive the new arrivals, the thud of their feet making the landing stage tremble. Everyone stood in silence as the galley drew closer.

The Redigal warlord was standing by the stern rails, broad-shouldered and long-legged, a head taller than any other man on deck. While Coron was Kheda's elder by nearly ten years, hair and beard now more grey than black, his dark skin gleamed with health. He moved with the vigour of a man in his prime as he came down the stern ladder as soon as the ropes were secure.

'Chazen Kheda, we're delighted to join you in reading this new year's auspices.' He held out both hands, topaz and amethysts shining around his wrists and in his rings.

Kheda matched Coron's firm grip. 'You honour us with vour presence.'

'My dear!' Moni Redigal slipped past her lord and embraced Itrac with due consideration for the finery they both wore. The silk of her gown was precisely the shade of her husband's topaz, the colour flattering a complexion paler than any Kheda had ever seen other than on a

barbarian slave. Sparkling filigree adorned her wrists and the tight curls of her distinctive russet hair. Her necklace was a web of gold dotted with garnets and diamonds.

'Elio, Hinai, it's so good to see you.' Itrac's smile took in Redigal Coron's other wives, resplendent respectively in emerald and sapphire silk and jewellery. Both were pretty rather than beautiful, with the long black hair, warm brown complexion and light-boned build common among the seafaring islanders of the Archipelago's southern reaches.

'And you, my dear.' Elio held out her hands to take Itrac's with evident affection.

You all look a great deal happier than Ulla Safar and his wretched women.

'Chazen Kheda, you'll remember my son and heir, Redigal Litai.' Redigal Coron beckoned to a youth who was making a creditable effort at matching the poise of his elders.

'Now of an age of discretion.' Kheda smiled warmly at the boy.

He was born halfa year before Mesil, so he's into his fifteenth year. Does Mesil have a beard shadowing his jaw now too?

'Ready to begin learning how to rule wisely and well.' Coron laid an encouraging hand on his son's shoulder.

Ulla Safar cleared his throat with a hint of displeasure at being overlooked thus far. 'It's good to see you, Coron.'

'Ulla Safar.' The curtness of Coron's tone and the briefness of his bow were equally insulting. 'You haven't brought Ulla Orhan to share this joyous occasion?'

'My son is indisposed.' Safar bit off the words, sensuous lips thinning.

'I am sorry to hear it.' Itrac stepped into the awkward moment with a tranquil smile. 'Coron, our steward is attending to the Safar retinue. As soon as he's free, he'll

make your people comfortable. In the meantime, shall we retire to my pavilion for refreshment?'

'That would be most welcome.' For Itrac, Redigal Coron was all courtesy.

Kheda took the opportunity to look beyond the warlord, his wives and their faithful slaves. Chazen servants were busily unloading all the chests and coffers that held everything necessary to keep the Redigal nobles richly dressed and perfectly groomed throughout their stay.

But where are thezamorin who've attended Coron so assiduously since before his father died?

Kheda realised that Ulla Safar was also looking for those plump, smooth-skinned counsellors. Unguarded anger twisted Safar's heavy features as he glanced at the tall, well-muscled slave at Coron's shoulder. Redigal Coron's man was watching the thick-bodied brute shadowing Safar warily.

Coron has a new body slave and he's clean-shaven. Does that make him a lover of men or a castrate? Either way, he's certainly not another blunt-witted swordsman like those the faithfulzamorin counsellors always foisted on Coron and replaced so frequently. This day is full of puzzles.

'I see you've only bought the one galley,' Ulla Safar commented brusquely.

Kheda smiled deprecatingly at Coron. 'Chazen is a small domain, but we could have accommodated more than one of your ships.'

'We set out with a second vessel.' The Redigal warlord shook his head with transparently spurious sorrow. 'It foundered as we crossed the deep channel north of Ocal.'

'That's a tragedy, my lord.' Kheda allowed some of the shock he felt to show on his face.

'Your family are all safe?' Wide-eyed, Itrac looked at the Redigal wives for confirmation.

Moni Redigal nodded, unconcerned. 'We left the other children at home with our sister-wife Uva.'

'We look forward to the day when our daughters can become friends with yours.' Hinai Redigal seemed equally untroubled by the calamity.

'All your counsellors were lost?' Kheda took pains not to notice that Chazen's curious slaves and servants had given up any pretence of being busy about their duties.

With these eager ears on every side, this news will travel the domains faster than froth on the tide. How will you want this omen read, Coron?

'What of that galley's oarsmen?' Ulla Safar held Redigal Coron's eyes with a challenge just short of accusation.

Coron looked levelly back. 'As soon as we saw the ship was in trouble, we sounded our signal horns. Boats from the closest islands took almost all of the mariners from the water.'

'Yet none of your counsellors lived?' Itrac asked artlessly.

'The stars and choices that had brought them to that day decreed otherwise.' Coron gave a perfunctory shake of his head.

'A sad loss,' Kheda managed to say.

If the mariners were all rescued, the Redigal islanders must have left thezamorin to drown. They wouldn't have done that unless they were forewarned. What can have driven Coron to rid himself of his lifelong counsellors so ruthlessly?

'It's too hot out here.' Ulla Safar was mopping his brow again, the white silk kerchief obscuring his face. He lowered his kerchief and addressed Itrac with scant politeness. 'My lady, you offered us refreshment—'

'The heavenly compass had been indicating some threat to our household.' Redigal Coron continued as if Safar hadn't spoken. 'I turned all my attention to ensuring that my wives and children were safe.' Coron shook his head

with apparent regret. 'I never imagined catastrophe would befall my counsellors.'

Did you have travelling seers visit the islands around Ocal with such ominous prognostication that no one dared pluck the drowningzamorin to safety?

'There is seldom opportunity to avert disaster, if the heavens decree it,' Kheda lied evenly, 'as we know only too well in Chazen. Just as we know those who suffer misfortune and survive it are in no sense to blame for what has befallen them.'

Which is simple truth, and if you want my support in whatever you 're plotting, my lord of Redigal, you'1l do all in your power to give the lie to rumours of had luck still hanging around Chazen waters like foul air.

Coron promptly swept a hand around to encompass the islands of the residence, the lagoon and the whole domain beyond. 'The good fortune that has blessed Chazen since you drove out the curse of magic makes that plain.'

'Let's see what the new year brings.' There was a hard edge to Ulla Safar's words as he tucked his kerchief back in his belt.

The rest of us will be more than satisfied to see a permanent breach in the long alliance between the two of you.

Kheda smiled cheerfully at both warlords. 'Let's see what refreshments await us.'

Redigal Coron turned to indicate three armoured swordsmen drawn up a few paces apart from the Redigal honour guard. 'I know this visit is to read the new-year omens and to welcome your daughters, but we've brought you a gift, Kheda.'

'We know you've been looking for a new body slave.' Moni Redigal dimpled a smile at the warriors anonymous behind the face plates and chain-mail veils of their helms. 'Your lady Itrac bade us bring the best of our warrior slaves for your consideration.'

'I'm honoured,' Kheda managed to reply with barely any hesitation.

'Prai has tested them all in single combat.' Coron glanced at his own new body slave with guarded affection. 'He vouches for their skills, though you'll have your own guard captain verify that, of course.' -

Kheda inclined his head to the young warrior, who was grinning with open satisfaction. 'See they are suitably accommodated, Ridu.'

Ulla Safar subjected the three warriors to scornful examination. 'I could have brought you an excellent selection of slaves, had you only asked.'

'I'm sure I mentioned it to Mirrel.' Itrac held out a hand to Redigal Litai, who was watching the three warlords with some trepidation. 'Let's retire to my audience hall.'

Stiff with courtesy, the warlord's son offered her his i arm and the two of them led the other Redigal nobles away from the landing stage, Coron with one wife on either arm. Ulla Safar stumped up the path alone after them, scowling blackly. Kheda offered Moni his own arm and followed. As the slaves formed an armoured phalanx behind them, \ Kheda saw Moni Redigal's slave shoot a conspiratorial grin at Jevin. The younger man answered with a knowing half-smile. Redigal Litai's slave looked as nervous as his young ' master as he fell into step beside Jevin.

If the boy has his own attendant, he can travel to other domains without his parents. Coron is serious about training him in his duties as heir. He looks a promising lad; he won't equal his father's height but there's an encouraging breadth to his shoulders. I wonder how much Sirket will have changed when I see him—                                                                  

'My lord Chazen.' As they reached the shade of the nut palms beyond the landing stages, Beyau reappeared to inter- rupt Kheda's painful thoughts. He promptly subjected the three unknown armoured slaves to a penetrating scrutiny.

'I take it the Ulla contingent are all settled in?' Kheda prompted after a moment.

'Indeed, my lord.' Beyau recollected himself and handed Kheda a fine slip of paper. 'A courier dove brought word from Daish Sirket. They expect to arrive early tomorrow morning.'

'We shall be very glad to see our friends of Daish,' Moni said warmly.

'Indeed.' Kheda glanced down at the message slip and schooled his face to immobility as he realised it said something else entirely.

Who does Velindre think she is, summoning me to her presence? Why is this wizard woman here? Where is Risala? I need to know what she's heard about this breach between Redigal and Ulla, about Coron 's drastic removal of all his zamorin, and if she's heard any rumour of Ulla Orhan being unwell. What I don't need is any more dealing with wizards and certainly not with so many inquisitive eyes around here. He screwed up the ciphered slip of paper and smiled at Moni Redigal as they continued on their way towards Itrac's pavilion. The sun's glare struck up from the white sand of the paths as the shimmering sea's inadequate breezes played with the fronds of the nut palms. As the path split into branches leading to Itrac's pavilion and away to the other islets of the residence, Kheda forced himself to halt, feigning sudden recollection.

'Moni, that mishap on your voyage here might just make sense of an omen that's been puzzling me for days. Will you make my excuses while I just go and reread the record? I'll rejoin you all as soon as I can.' Just as soon as I've sent Velindre on her way. 'Of course.' Moni Redigal looked at him with lively curiosity before going on alone readily enough.

'My lord?' Ridu paused with the hopeful newcomers at his heels.

'Get yourselves to the barracks and out of all that armour before you faint in the heat.' Kheda waved the swordsmen away with a careless smile. He waited, looking expectant, until Ridu had no choice but to obey. Then Kheda took a deep breath and made his way towards the distant observatory isle as fast as he could without attracting too much attention. He waved an absent hand to acknowledge the bows of the servants on the steps of his own pavilion before disappearing into the cool hall at the base of the tower.

It's all very well Beyau and Ridu and Itrac all expecting me to find myself a new slave, but how can I encumber myself with some unsuspecting shadow? How would I explain this meeting, never mind my more lethally incriminating secrets?

He went through the open archway into the west-facing room where closely packed bookcases stood back to back in a line broken by tall sloped reading desks of carved russet wood. 'Velindre, I didn't expect to see you here.'

'No, I don't suppose you did.' The wizard woman was examining a cabinet of black lacquered wood packed with rows of tiny drawers. As self-assured as ever, she was as tall as Kheda, and much of an age with the warlord. Her blonde barbarian hair had been bleached to palest silk by the Aldabreshin sun, in striking contrast to her deeply tanned skin. Only her brown eyes could suggest she had any Archipelagan blood in her, along with her fluent mastery of the language. 'Congratulations on the birth of your new daughters, my lord.'

'Where's Risala?' Kheda asked, peremptory.

'I know where they came from, Kheda.' Velindre stuck her hands inelegantly in the pockets of her creamy cotton trousers. Cut from the same cloth, her baggy tunic hung loosely on her spare frame, effectively concealing any hint of femininity about her.

Kheda glanced involuntarily over his shoulder to be quite certain there was no one to overhear them. He looked back at the magewoman. 'The savages? The dragon?'

'Both. At least, there's no reason to think they came from different places,' Velindre amended.

Kheda folded his arms obstinately. 'Make this quick. I have to rejoin my guests.'

'As soon as the last rains ended, Isailed for the westernmost reaches of the central domains.' Velindre gazed out of the window, one hand idly resting on the Chazen dagger she wore on her plaited sharkskin belt. 'I've been making the most of this disguise you foisted upon me. You'd be amazed what people will tell a travelling zamorin scholar.'

I'm still amazed that no one's seen through your disguise. Then again, everyone knows to givezamorin due privacy lest their condition is the result of particularly savage mutilation.

'What did the people of the western reaches tell you?' demanded Kheda.

'Sailors' legends of men from ships thought long lost washing up on their shores on rafts of broken timbers,' Velindre mused. 'Some telling stories of escaping a distant perilous land that no one could ever find. Those who sailed in search of it were generally never seen again.'

'What makes you think that's anything more than a poet's fiction?' Kheda asked sceptically.

'Strange trees have fetched up on outlying reefs after deadly storms have lashed the deep,' countered the magewoman. 'Unknown birds are occasionally blown ashore by those same storms. Those aren't stories - they're taken as omens and recorded as such. I've seen talismans made from such wood and feathers plucked from the birds and they're like nothing else found in the Archipelago.'

'You've visited each and every domain to be certain of that?' interjected Kheda.

'I have ways of being sure of such things. Would you like me to explain in detail?' Velindre's hazel eyes challenged him.

Kheda answered with a curt shake of his head.

What must it be like, to be able to read the very essence of nature and have the ability to warp it to your will?

'Such occurrences are all precisely recorded as omens of the earthly compass.' Velindre gestured towards the accumulated records of every event Chazen warlords had deemed significant throughout the turning aeons. 'Along with unknowable lumps of scaled and spiny creatures washing up in stinking pieces when the currents shift north for no readily apparent reason. Not readily apparent, that is, to anyone unable to read the elemental currents of air and sea,' she added with satisfaction.

What trouble will it bring down on our heads if you're discovered to be a wizard while you We here?

'Just tell me what you think you know.' Kheda found his throat was dry and not just from the heat of the day.

'There's a sizeable piece of land far out to the south and west of here,' Velindre stated with absolute certainty. 'In the ordinary course of things, ocean currents and the prevailing winds make it nigh on impossible to reach the Archipelago from there.'

'Those savages managed it,' Kheda reminded her bitterly, 'on rafts and boats made from hollowed-out logs.'

'Because they had their crude but undeniably powerful magic to help them.' Velindre was unperturbed. 'And latterly, the winds and currents have swung to the north. Otherwise those wild men would have been eaten by the ocean sharks and no one would have been any the wiser.'

Kheda shrugged. 'Then let me know as soon as the currents shift back so we can all sleep easier in our beds.'

'That's all you want to know?' A brief smile deepened

the crow's-feet around Velindre's eyes. 'When you have how many questions about those wild men and their wizards and just why they came to plague you? The only way we'll find the real answers is to go there; you know that.'

Kheda shook his head stubbornly. 'I cannot leave Itrac. I owe her—'

'Don't you think you owe it to Dev to see this through?' Velindre's words were icy cold. 'After he died in your service, saving your domain from the destruction that dragon was wreaking?'

'I didn't ask him to sacrifice himself,' Kheda retorted.

'What has that to do with anything, my lord of Chazen?' Velindre countered with infuriating confidence. 'I've learned every custom governing obligations great and small while I've been sailing the Archipelago. That debt lies on the ledger, Kheda, until you've repaid it by securing the future Dev laid down his life to protect.'

'So I'll honour him by guarding Chazen's islands and people and not leaving them unprotected,' said Kheda with some heat.

'How do you propose to protect Itrac or get your newborn daughters to safety if another wave of wild men washes up on your islands?' Velindre asked bluntly. 'I'll tell you for nothing that those wind and ocean currents are still curling north out of their usual paths and I see no sign that they'll revert to the south any time soon. What will you do against another dragon landing on your beaches?'

'What will happen to my wife and daughters and to Chazen, if I'm away on some half-witted hunt for an unknown land with you?' Kheda shot back.

'If you're here and taken unawares like last time, you'll have just as little chance of defeating savages or dragons as you did before,' Velindre overrode him. 'Certainly

without me or some other wizard to fight their fire with magic of our own. If you come with me now, we'll know if there's any such danger heading this way long before it even darkens the horizon. I can use my magic to send you back here in the blink of an eye, faster than a dragon can fly. You know that. Forewarned, you can be forearmed. And while you're getting your people out of immediate danger, I'll go straight to my own people in the north. I told you - we barbarian wizards take grave exception to the abuses of magic that these savages obviously delight in. All things being equal, all you'll see of the savages is a few corpses washing up in the westernmost isles of the Archipelago.'

'Then carry the fight to them on your own account,' Kheda protested. 'Don't involve me.'

'You involved yourself when you bound Dev's fate to Chazen's.' Velindre looked at him, unblinking. 'If you don't come, I won't go either. You can deal with whatever comes your way on your own. I'll go home to the north and not look back.'

'Do all barbarians do business with threats and coercion?' Contempt curled Kheda's lip. 'Or is it just wizards? I don't believe you.'

'I don't know about other wizards.' Velindre's sudden smile almost disarmed him. 'But I know I can't do this on my own and I won't risk it. I'll need more than magic on such a voyage. I need you,' she continued ruefully. 'You're used to reading the slightest signs of something amiss in the flight of birds or the run of the sea's fishes, even if you assign them entirely spurious meaning. You may well see things that I'll overlook just because they have no elemental significance. You're also used to foraging and hunting, which I'm certainly not, and you're an expert swordsman while I'd be dead inside a few strokes of a knife fight if 1 couldn't use my magic' She looked

at him, wholly serious. 'I don't want to use my magic unless I absolutely have to on an island where our experiences suggest wizardry would draw every wild mage and any dragons straight to me.' She shrugged. 'Besides, I (rust you more than anyone else I can think of taking on such a voyage.'

'I don't find your flattery any more convincing than your threats,' Kheda said coldly.

'Don't you want to know what prompted that dragon to fly and drove those savages to come here?' the mage-woman challenged him. 'Whatever that was, it happened around this time of year. Don't you Aldabreshin believe that fateful things come in threes?'

Kheda looked down at the russet tiles cool beneath his bare feet and then back up at the tall barbarian in her androgynous garb. 'Where's Risala?'

'Waiting for you and me to join her and sail for the west,' Velindre assured him. 'All I'm proposing is that we find this island and go ashore discreetly to learn a little more about these savages. If we can determine just what their relationship might be with any dragon still there, we can come back and decide what to do with such knowledge at our leisure.'

'Why can't you just use your magic to learn what you need to? Or to take you to this island?' Kheda asked stubbornly.

'Because, as I know I have told you, I cannot use magic to go to a place I've never actually visited. No wizard can.' Her composure wavered just a little. 'And as for scrying, you do recall that fire dragon insinuating itself into my spell when I came looking for Dev? I don't want to risk (hat happening again.'

'You don't suppose there might just have been the one dragon?' Kheda wondered with faint hope. 'And we killed it?'

'Possibly.' Velindre ran a hand over her cropped golden hair with a grin that lifted the years from her angular face. 'But I wouldn't wager my hide on it.'

She risks her hide sailing these waters. If she is ever discovered to be a wizard, she will be flayed alive. Her skin will be nailed to some warlord's gates to turn aside the evil of her magic lest it distort the omens of the earthly compass.

'I have to entertain Chazen's guests. I certainly can't leave without arousing suspicions. I'd come back to find I've no domain to rule.' Kheda scowled. 'I don't want to risk that happening again.'

'Do you want to risk wild men or dragons assailing Chazen with no time to do anything about it?' demanded Velindre. 'I'm not leaving here until you agree to come with me, Kheda.'

Curse her, and curse all wizards. But she's right, and curse her thrice for that. If there's any chance murder, fire and magic could threaten Chazen again, I have to know about it in time to defend the domain. There's no one I can send in my stead, not with a mage. But how can I find an excuse to leave here for some voyage into the unknown ocean?

'We'll see about that,' said Kheda curtly. 'Very well, I'll consider what you've said. In the meantime, you stay here in the observatory or on the Reteul. I'll tell my steward you're a visiting scholar who's to be fed and watered and left alone in the library. With everything else he's got to keep an eye on at present, he won't look beyond your disguise. Others might. Go nowhere else. And don't count on me coming with you.'

He turned and walked back out into the warm sun and the clean salt scented breeze playing over the island. The freshness wasn't enough to rid him of the sour realisation that the magewoman had powerful arguments on her side.

Where is Risala? Would she think it was her duty to go on this voyage alone, if I refuse and Velindre is determined to go regardless? I truly believe all wizards are mad. Some just hide it better than others. Mad and perilous to know.

CHAPTER THREE

They would come for her. The old woman knew it. Not tomorrow, with the old man's death still a raw wound for the whole village. Perhaps not while the younger men recalled his stories of hunts long ago and still used the knives that he had shaped. But knives didn't last for ever.

The women would spare her what scraps they could. Until the weather turned hotter and drier and they must save what little they could forage for their hungry children. They would forget that she had helped them through the travail of bringing those children into the light.

She had no children left to offer her a grudging corner of their hut. Her daughters were all gone; some bright-eyed and willingly, others reluctantly bartered, one simply vanished, seized in some raid. She had never given the old man a son to stay in the village and hear his forefathers remembered in the lists of names recited by the painted men.

He had never reproached her for bearing only daughters. She turned away from the doorway of the hut to look back at the old man lying dead on the earthen floor, wrapped in hides. He had not beaten her. He had not given her up to be fodder for the beast, as some would have done. After all, he had not chosen her for his woman, not wooed her away from the maidens' dances beneath the eyes of the sky. She had just been his share when his raiding party had ransacked the village she could barely

recall, somewhere through the dark forest and beyond the green grassland.

She returned to the doorway, looking out into the rapidly darkening twilight. They would come for her. When they decided she offered the village nothing in return for whatever food and water she consumed. When the beast came, and the painted man demanded fodder for the creature, in return for his favour for the village. No one would risk his disfavour.

Should she just wait patiently? More than one old woman or old man had done so, in the long years she'd lived here. They had lived out their last days with full bellies and soft hides to sleep on. When he had come, the painted man, whichever one it had been, he had praised their courage and their devotion to their children in offering up this last good deed.

Others had chosen a quicker end to life's trials. Could she throw herself into the flames when they came to burn the hut around the old man? He had earned that much respect from the hunters — his body would not become fodder for the beast or be cast out into the forest to sate some lesser scavenger. Besides, the dwelling was dead now that he was dead and could never be lived in again.

What else could she do? She looked back once more at the old man lying still and lifeless in the gloom. He had been kind and he had been brave. He had hunted the great birds of the grasslands and the wily lizards of the muddy rivers. He had never returned empty-handed from the chase. He had never given in. Nor had she. He had taught her that much. She had fought to save him from the fever that had laid him low, cooling him with poultices and bringing gourd after gourd of water from the river, her burdened back aching from the long walk.

She fought back tears and despair. Was she just going to wait here until they ushered her out of the hut, their

eyes averted? They wouldn't want to see her weeping as they brought an ember from the communal hearth to fire the walls of woven lath and the parched grass thatch.

No. She would not. Her stiff knees and hips protested as she rose from the hides she had been sitting upon. Bending painfully, she picked up the topmost hide, a length she had scraped and soaked and oiled to a thin softness none of the other women in the village could match. She wrapped it around her desiccated nakedness, knotting the corners over one withered breast. Moving slowly around the hut, she amassed a small pile of prizes in the middle of the second hide, a thicker piece with scurrier's mottled fur still clinging to it in matted patches.

Her face fell as she considered a knife that the old man had made, the black stone rippling along the cutting edge. Some young hunter would have had his eye on that. He might even now be offering to help burn the hut, in hopes of finding that knife and keeping it for himself. If she took it with her, someone would know and they would pursue her. Such a treasure wasn't to be lost along with some useless old woman.

She could take the lump of black stone, though, half-used but still worth having. Together with the bent length of thick bone, battered with use. Her finely tapered digging stick, worn smooth and well fitted to her swollen-knuckled hand, was certainly of no interest to anyone else. Nor were the few scraps of hide, the skein of cord twisted from pounded bark and the best of the gourds she had diligently gathered throughout the long hot season. She and the old man had feasted on the soft flesh that was so much easier on their gums and remaining teeth. Then she had dried the carefully emptied husks and offered them to women tied to the village by their crawling and suckling children. The mothers had traded eggs that their older children had dug from the sandy banks of the river

or sometimes even a portion of the meat that their men had brought them.

Her stomach rumbled at the recollection of sweet, slippery liver, so much easier to chew. She was hungry. How could she leave with an empty belly? Would someone take pity on her if she joined the circle around the hearth? Perhaps. Perhaps they would come and burn the hut while she wasn't here. Perhaps the hunters had already decided who would keep her tied like a dog to a post of his hut until the painted man and the great beast came again.

Careful to stay in the shadows, she looked out of the doorway once again. Men and women alike were unidentifiable shadows crossing the firelight of the communal hearth. The noise of the naked children running around rose like bird chatter above the crackle of the flames. She heard the occasional chink of one stone pot against another as the women set their families' meals in the outer ring of embers. The adults' conversations were too quiet to hear, men and women standing with their heads close together, some being shaken with regret. Others wiped tears from their eyes.

The defiance that had set her shouting at the old man in the days of their youth rose within her. Could she steal an ember from the hearth unnoticed and fire the hut herself? That would deny those who relished the prospect, and would spare those who would weep a few discreet tears for her fate, and out of fear of their own old age.

It would also draw unwelcome and immediate attention. Besides, she had nothing to carry an ember in. The stoppered hollow bones that the old man was wont to carve were all gone. Everything had been traded for food to sustain him through his slow decline and that final cruel fever.

She glanced behind her towards her own stone cooking pot lost in the darkness beyond the old man's body. There

was no way she could carry that away with her. All the same, the water it held would deceive her hungry belly for a little while. She slipped back into the darkness to kneel stiffly down by the heavy stone bowl. Cupping her hands, she drank as much as she could of the water she had so laboriously brought up from the river.

When she felt uncomfortably full, she returned to the mottled scurrier hide and gathered up the corners. Trussing the whole bundle with a fraying rope of plaited bark, she clutched it in her fleshless arms and edged close to the doorway. Peering out, she satisfied herself that everyone else was busy around the hearth or their own dwellings. The old man's hut was on the edge of the village. It had been in the middle when he had first brought her here. When the changing seasons saw them all return to this place, the old huts were repaired and news huts built but never on the same spot where a previous dwelling had died with its builders. So, as the years passed, a gap had opened up as the huts that had surrounded theirs were burned and the rest of the village edged away. The old man had outlived everyone else in the hunting party that had brought her here as a captive.

She stood by the corpse for a moment. There was only the faintest hint of decay in the still darkness. He had been kind to her, even when she had tried to run away. He had taken care that her bonds weren't too tight and had refused to listen to the older men insisting that he beat her into submission. One of the girls taken with her had died from such a beating and two others regularly bore bruises until they had proved their worth by bearing children. He hadn't even forced himself on her, waiting until she finally turned to him in loneliness and despair and surprising her with tenderness that offered at least Heeling gratification to lighten her misery. Eventually she had been happy enough in her way, with her daughters,

and when they were gone, with the old man. He had made no secret of sharing her sorrow at the loss of their children.

She looked back out to the distant fire in the centre of the village. She had never given up in her youth. Even in the darkest nights she had never been tempted to do the same as that girl who had refused all food and secretly eaten dirt from the floor of her hut until she had died. She wasn't about to give up, even in this wretched old age.

Clutching her bundle, she stole out of the doorway, pressing so close to the fragile walls that splinters from the laths caught at her skin wrap. Heart pounding, she slipped into the shadows by the side of the hut and waited. No shout of surprise or greeting came and she slipped further round to put the whole hut between her and the rest of the village. Still no one seemed to have noticed her.

Scrubby trees and bushes had reclaimed the deserted plots where those long dead had once built their huts. Beyond the rustling undergrowth, the taller trees of the dark forest rose up black against the star-filled sky. The twin eyes of the sky looked down on her. Half-closed, they still shed enough light to show her the faint scar of the path worn by women and children fetching kindling from the forest margins and water from the distant river in the cool of each morning. She hurried away down the track, moving as quietly as she could lest she startle some ground-roosting bird into raising a shrieking alarm.

Ignoring the fork where the path branched off towards the river, she took the hunters' trail into the depths of the dark forest. She had never done so before, but what did she have to lose? If they looked for her, they would look by the river first, so this way she might avoid notice just long enough to escape.

The blackness beneath the sprawling canopy of the trees was absolute, giving her no choice but to stick to the main path. Mysterious feet pattered alongside her from time to time or scampered in the branches overhead. Menacing snarls and pitiful cries spoke of battles for life and food won and lost. She hugged her pathetic bundle tight to her breast and hurried on as fast as she could, her old bones aching with the exertion.

She lost all sense of the night passing. There was only the endless darkness. Once she heard something larger than a man moving slowly through the trees. Saplings creaked and snapped as it forced its way through a thicket. She could hear its rasping breath and smelled a rankness she had never encountered before. Frozen with terror, she stood trembling on the path, face buried in her bundle to muffle the impulse to cry out in sheer terror.

Whatever it was moved away unseen, uninterested. She stumbled onwards on numb feet, shaking with relief. Gradually her calm returned. She wouldn't have made much of a meal for whatever the creature had been. Old age had dried her to skin and bones. But she wasn't ready to die just yet. Not that she knew what she was going to do, or where she was going to go. That didn't matter, not yet. A curious peace filled her as she walked on through the night. She just had to keep on moving. Every day she kept moving was another day gained. Life was hard but she wasn't done with it yet.

Little by little, the sky paled up above the treetops and she could see further into the grey colourlessness beneath the trees. She began searching for some animal trail leading off the main path. Hunters from other villages would be up with the dawn and she was a prize to be Captured without mercy or malice. A prize to save them from giving up one of their own when a painted man cameand demanded tribute for his beast.

The path curved around a mighty fallen tree that was fast subsiding into decay. Green tufts growing along the length of the mouldering trunk spread their leaves to the open sky above. The old woman moved more cautiously in case birds were browsing on the tender shoots in the transitory glade. In case men lay in wait for the birds with their spears and slings.

She looked along the void ripped into the forest by the falling of the great tree. Beyond, the green shadows led away towards the higher ground. Fewer people lived on the higher slopes, that much was certain. Life was harder up there, with less water and food for hunting or foraging. What was that to her? She was leaving one death behind her. If she ran into another, she was no worse off. And if there were fewer people on the higher slopes, surely there was less chance of her being seized? And if there was less prey for the hunters, there must surely be fewer creatures that might hunt her.

Her stomach gnawed within her and she felt lightheaded with hunger. If she didn't find something to eat, and soon, she might as well just lie down to die here. Hands shaking, she untied the rope around her bundle. Setting down the scurrier hide, she took out her digging stick and gave the rotten wood of the fallen tree an experimental prod. It crumbled to damp splinters. She dug harder beneath the edge of a sheet of bark, ignoring the hot ache in her gnarled knuckles.

She snatched at the fat white grubs squirming in the unwelcome light, biting down hard on the pulpy bland-ness twisting on her tongue and swallowing hastily. She managed to eat a couple of handfuls before the rest writhed in blind terror away from the daylight. Drawing a deep breath, she spat out a few fragments of sour wood and wished fruitlessly for a drink of water. At least the meagre meal had dulled the worst of her hunger pains.

Where should she go now? The sunlight was strengthening and this was a well-trodden path. Better to trust in the concealing gloom of the forest. She peered cautiously around the tangled mossy roots before leaving the shelter of the fallen log and picking her way through the tangled vines and bushes enjoying their brief tenure of the open glade. She would make for the higher ground, she decided. Though the underbrush was scant beneath the mighty trees blocking out the sunlight, the leaf litter lay thick under her feet. She walked carefully, alert for many-legged stingers and poison snakes. The few patches of open ground were smudged with marks that she could not identify, ripped up by vicious claws.

She noted fallen wood here and there out of old habit. Would a fire protect her when darkness fell again and the forest's night dwellers came hunting? She dismissed the notion with caustic self-censure. Where would she get an ember from? Besides, a fire would surely snag the all-seeing eye of a painted man or a great beast.

The forest grew quiet as the day progressed. Only the birds were busy, flitting from tree top to tree top high above, serenading each other. She stopped when she heard a harsher note of disagreement. Picking her way towards the sounds of yellow birds squabbling, she found a tree ripe with brown furry fruit.

A scurrier was already feasting on the fallen bounty, cramming food into its mouth. It looked up, its dark muzzle clotted with fruit pulp. Lashing its fringed tail, it raised one clawed hand towards her and snarled, its sharp teeth white and pointed.

The old woman retreated, but only far enough to find a rotten bough lurking beneath a sprawl of leaves. She edged back towards the brown-fruit tree and saw that the scurrier had forgotten her, more interested in filling

its already bulging white-furred belly. Gritting her teeth, she hurled the length of crumbling wood at the scurrier. It screeched, surprised, and scampered away up the tree trunk, claws digging deep into the ridged bark.

It settled on a high bough and looked down. The old woman watched it for a while. It showed no signs of moving. Cautious, she approached the fruit tree, careful of the striped stinging flies. The scurrier chattered angrily in the tree top and threw twigs and leaves at her. The old woman ignored it as she poked through the glutinous mess with her digging stick. She was more concerned about the noise the scurrier was making. Hunters could be coming to see what was causing such a commotion. And the creature had had the best of the fallen fruit. Still, she found a few fruits fallen or knocked down before they were too ripe. Better yets, they showed no worm holes or signs of gnawing.

She jumped as a stinking lump of scurrier filth thudded onto the leaves beside her. Leaving the scolding scurrier to its tree before the creature showered her with its piss, she ate the brown fruit as she walked away, savouring the sweetness. She spared a moment to hope that some hunter might hear the spiteful beast and come to claim its hide for his bed, its meat for his children.

She was still thirsty, though. Thirst killed long before hunger, every child knew that, and everyone knew there was less water the higher up the slopes you went. She began looking more closely at the smaller trees clustered in the spaces opened up by the death of some long-dead forest giant. Finally she spotted the thick ridged fronds of a drought tree and pushed her way through the undergrowth towards it, doing her best to avoid thorn scratches that would fester and kill her.

Setting down her scurrier skin by the tree, she picked

up the least rotten length of fallen wood she could find and thumped the nest of feathery fronds sprouting from the stubby trunk as hard as she could. She didn't want to disturb any snakes or stingers lurking in the depths. Untying the bark rope around her bundle, she spread out the hide and sat down. She picked up the broken lump of black stone and looked at it this way and that. Gripping the angled piece of bone tight, she set the black stone down on the hide and, catching her tongue between her dry, cracked lips, she hit it hard. A flake split away, one good enough to do the job. The old man had taught her well. Protecting her palm with one of the scraps of hide, she looked for the best cutting edge and smiled triumphantly.

Getting to her feet, she circled the drought palm looking for a frond thin enough to yield to her failing strength. Seeing a likely prospect, she pressed close to the tree, the prickly trunk jabbing painfully at her old skin through the gap in her scant leather wrap. She pulled the frond down as far as she could, using all her meagre weight to bring the tip lower than the base. She worked slowly, cautiously, sawing at the stubborn green skin with the cutting stone. Dark sap from the outer layers stained the pale fibrous inside. It tore loose with an abruptness that surprised her. Doing her best not to spill the precious water on the uncaring forest floor, she sucked frantically at the hollow stem of the frond. The water was pure and faintly sweet and soothing.

Thirst quenched, she sat for a little while on the scur-rier hide, absently swatting away the flies instantly drawn by the breath of moisture. Some while later, she got up with a sigh and, cutting a second frond, she managed to pour more than half its hoarded water into the bigger of her two gourds. She plugged it with a twist of greenery torn from the discarded frond and knotted a sling for it from her skein of bark cord. The gourd sloshed at her

side as she went on her way, bundle balanced on her other hip.

The ground was definitely rising. She walked doggedly onwards. There were fewer villages in the uplands. All she had to do was stay out of sight.

CHAPTER FOUR

That rich scent is purple poppy and that drier astringency is redlance. I'm surprised it penetrates the dense spiciness rising from the clumps of aspi leaves.

Refreshed by the night's dew, the physic garden surrounding the observatory tower breathed a heady mix of perfumes into cool air barely stirred by the new day's breezes. It was still early enough for the stone steps of his pavilion to feel cold beneath Kheda's feet. He was already dressed in fine indigo silk embroidered with silver, his silver and sapphire jewellery dull in the muted light.

'I don't know that Daish Sirket will expect you to greet him when they're arriving so early,' Itrac said neutrally as she padded over the smooth tile on soundless feet. Her night plait was unbrushed and she wore a crumpled pink robe over ungainly padded breast bands and supportive binding wrapped tight around her belly.

'1 couldn't sleep. But you should rest all you can.' Kheda put his arm around Itrac's shoulders and gave her a gentle hug to make it plain he wasn't rebuking her. 'And don't exhaust yourself entertaining all our guests today.'

'I was awake to feed Olkai and Sekni.' She tugged absently at the front of her gown. 'Has Ritsem Caid said what omen he sees in Redigal Coron's loss of hiscounsellors?'

Nothing to give me a clue as to what mendacious interpretation I should be concocting for best advantage.

Kheda answered her with a question of his own. 'Did Sekni and Olkai sleep well?'

'Well enough for me to be sufficiently rested for today. Jevin says you're permitting some travelling scholar to consult the Chazen archive,' Itrac persisted with some concern. 'Does he bring some contrary portent for Olkai and Sekni's fortunes from some other domain?'

'No, no,' Kheda assured her. 'He's only interested in mariners' histories.'

She laid her head on his shoulder. 'You'll rest more easily when you read the new-year stars. It'll be interesting to see something of what lies ahead for the Ulla and Redigal domains,' she added thoughtfully.

'Indeed.' Kheda glanced towards the shuttered observatory, satisfying himself there was no sign that the magewoman within was stirring.

Will there be the slightest chance I can read some false omen into the heavens or the earthly compass that would justify my departure on this cursed voyage into the unknown with Velindre? To think I would once have sooner cut off my sword hand than tell such lies.

'The Ritsem slaves are already awake,' Itrac observed. Servants were emerging from the shadowed portico of the distant ebony-doored hall and heading towards the kitchens flanking a lofty storehouse on the next islet. 'Despite their late arrival.'

'Ritsem Caid said he'd welcome Daish Sirket with me.' Kheda turned his attention to the drifts of mist beyond the outermost edge of the reef, trying to discern any hint of a ship. 'Which will demonstrate Ritsem's closeness to Chazen. Not that he needs to, even if Ulla Safar made so much of his surprise that he had only come with one of his wives.' He didn't hide his irritation.

'They brought Zorat with them.' Itrac was unperturbed. 'Ritsem Caid would hardly take his heir to a

domain he didn't trust, and Taisia's his first wife.' She spoke more softly, for his ears alone. 'Taisia Ritsem is with child. She told me and the Redigal wives, and Chay and Mirrel, when we were in the nursery last night. Isn't that proof that Ritsem are our faithful allies? Taisia would hardly risk any lingering shadow of Chazen's misfortunes falling on her unborn child. I'm not surprised Mirrel Ulla and Chay ate so little at dinner. The news must have curdled their stomachs.'

'Why?' Itrac's evident pleasure in this diverted Kheda from the empty seas beyond the lagoon.

'Because they are both desperate to find themselves with child. It seems Ulla Safar is hoping to breed himself a new son.' Itrac's nose wrinkled with distaste. 'He has kept them both shut up in Derasulla along with his lesser wives and concubines since the end of the rains, and the first woman to give him one will be raised to first wife over Mirrel.'

'Ulla Orhan must really be ill.' Kheda stared out across the lagoon.

I'm going nowhere until I know what Ulla Safar is up to. Velindre can protest all she wants. And I want Risala back here, not least to learn what rumours she's picked up in Ulla waters.

'Safar obviously misread whatever signs led him to poison every other boy child his women were inconsiderate enough to bear him.' Itrac shuddered.

What omens convinced my father to raise all his sons to the brink of manhood instead of allowing our mothers to send us away as infants? How difficult was it for him to set his seal to that final decree declaring me his heir on his death? How could our mothers enforce his wishes, offering the rest the choice between castration and life aszamorin slaves or a quick and simple death? How could they do otherwise without throwing Daish into chaos? Were they glad that custom demanded they

quit the domain after they had condemned their own sons to such a poisoned choice? How could I ever have believed the circling stars could sanction such a thing?

Kheda grimaced. 'So how many of his women are brooding swollen bellies inside that fortress?'

'None,' said Itrac with vicious amusement. 'And from what Elio Redigal was telling me, indulgence in his barbarian liquors and intoxicant smokes generally leaves Safar too limp to make good on his intentions, no matter how firm his resolve to get himself another male heir.'

'Let's hope that omen unmans him still further, or he dies of an apoplexy between some concubine's thighs.' Kheda's gaze drifted to the hall whose doors were patterned with turtleshell plaques. 'But what about Tewi Ulla? If Orhan dies, she's next born and becomes the heir, and there's that whole gaggle of girls to come after her.'

'All those girls have had any courage or wit in them crushed by Mirrel and Chay's inventive cruelties.' Itrac shivered and folded her arms beneath her milk-heavy breasts. 'Besides, Safar's trying to marry them off, even the ones barely of an age of discretion. Hinai Redigal says he doesn't care who he gives them to, as long as wedding into another domain gets them out of the line of succession.'

'Who has he palmed them off on?' Kheda realised the breeze was rising and moved to shield Itrac.

'He's had precious few takers.' Itrac was torn between satisfaction and pity for the hapless Ulla daughters. 'Didn't you see how Ritsem Caid and Redigal Coron both changed the subject when he mentioned that their heirs were now of an age to marry?'

'Is that what's caused this breach between Ulla and Redigal?' Kheda wondered doubtfully.

'I don't think so.' Uncertainty drew out Itrac's reply.

'That new slave of Coron's is involved somehow, and Moni made a point of letting us all know he's sharing Coron's bed, not just sleeping at the foot of it.'

Kheda frowned. 'It's been a long time since Coron last took a male lover and he's never done so openly.'

'Moni was saying she shouldn't be surprised if Coron went clean-shaven before long,' remarked Itrac. 'Let me know what Ritsem Caid makes of that notion.'

'Daish Sirket might know something, or Janne Daish,' Kheda said reluctantly. 'And here they are.' He pointed to the unmistakable shape of a fast trireme coalescing out of the distant mist. A signal horn from the wider, taller galley following the warship startled a flurry of coral gulls from their roost.

Itrac hunched her shoulders inside her pale-pink gown. 'I had better go and prepare myself

'They've yet to dock and their servants must settle everything in their accommodations,' Kheda said firmly. 'You don't need to receive them until mid-morning if you don't want to.'

'I don't need to antagonise Janne Daish.' Itrac surprised Kheda with a pert smile. 'Not until I choose to. Not until we've found out what they know about Ulla Safar's preoccupations and Redigal Coron's new boldness.' She walked away towards the bridge leading to the next island and Jevin detached himself from the shadows of the portico to follow.

Kheda watched the fast triremes curl away to leave the mighty Daish galley picking its way through the reefs of the lagoon.

'They're only bringing one ship.' Beyau appeared at Kheda's side. 'Do you suppose that was the young warlord's decision or has that bitch of a mother of his still got his sash knotted around her hand?'

'Watch your tongue,' Kheda advised tersely. 'I don't

want to be forced to have you flogged if Daish Sirket takes offence at that kind of talk.'

To think I used to worry about the people of Chazen being too reticent to speak their minds. They certainly trust me now. What will they think of me if some menace reappears from this island Velindre has found beyond the western horizon? What will my lords ofRedigal, Ritsem and Ulla make of it, and read into such an omen for my new daughters' futures? What willjanne Daish think or say? Will she finally choose to betray my secrets and reveal just how I drove such foes away before? What will that mean for little Olkai and Sekni?

Kheda watched a contingent of Chazen warriors march swiftly down towards the empty anchorage as the Daish galley drew closer. Ritsem Caid followed after them, his faithful slave Ganil one pace behind. Kheda began walking along the paths and walkways towards them. Ritsem Caid saw him and waited where three bridges met on a lump of rock ringed with slow ripples.

Kheda inclined his head in greeting. 'My lord, I appreciate you making this early start with me.'

'I was already awake, brewing a ginger and wax-flower-leaf infusion to settle Taisia's stomach.' Caid ran a hand over long curly hair tamed in rows of tight braids. The rising breeze flattened the dove-grey silk of his tunic, showing muscles built on his lithe frame by years of practice with sword and bow.

'Congratulations, my lord.' Kheda grinned as they walked on together.

'It was unexpected news,' Caid confessed, hands clasped loosely behind his back. 'But it's every woman's right to decide when and if to bear her children.'

'Not according to Ulla Safar, it seems,' Kheda said caustically. 'Have you heard anything about Ulla Orhan being ill?'

'No.' Ritsem Caid was plainly puzzled. 'Talking of Safar,

I know you won't heed his nonsense but Trya and Ri will visit as soon as they've balanced their ledgers.' As he gestured, the strengthening sunlight caught the carnelians studding his gold rings. 'We've just entertained Toc Faile, and before that, Jahal Luso's household. All too soon we expect Endit Fel and his ladies to join us for the transit of the Emerald across true east.'

So Trya and Ri are doing all they can to undermine the Ulla domain's grip on trade to the north and east of here, seeing Mirrel and Chay so distracted.

'They will be most welcome.' Kheda waved away Caid's explanations. 'We're sufficiently honoured that Taisia was prepared to make the journey now she is with child.'

'Taisia is determined to bid for the oyster shells from your pearl harvest,' Ritsem Caid admitted ruefully.

So Ritsem can burn the shells for the lime they need for smelting the iron ore they have so recently discovered in their domain. Ulla Safar's influence over my lords of Endit and Jahal must be slipping now that his stranglehold on the trade in metals has been broken.

Kheda smiled. 'Itrac will be happy to make such a trade.'

In return for a fair share of Ritsem iron.

'We see it as a potent omen that Itrac named your daughter and heir for Olkai Chazen who was born my sister.' Ritsem Caid's voice tightened. 'And that your domain is blessed with twin daughters.' He rubbed a hand over his neatly plaited beard. 'If Taisia's baby is a boy, Kheda, would you consider him as a husband for your daughter Olkai? As long as he shows the necessary talents for a warrior consort? Taisia has already given up two sous to live other lives under distant stars to save Zorat from any challenge by a credible rival. I'd like her to keep this new child close, boy or girl.'

'Itrac and I would give such a match every consideration,' Kheda said cautiously.

Ritsem Caid sighed as he watched the Daish galley draw near. 'We are both blessed that our first-born sons were so well fitted to be our heirs.'

'Sirket is warlord of Daish and acknowledges no kinship with me now that I am of Chazen,' Kheda said distantly.

The two men walked on in silence broken only by the stirring of rowing boats setting out with stealthy oars to fetch the day's necessities from outer islands around the lagoon.

Ritsem Caid looked sideways at Kheda as they crossed another bridge. 'There must have been whispers from some who'd rather have seen a son born to be the next warlord of Chazen in his own right.'

'Chazen Saril's final year as warlord was a disaster,' Kheda said bluntly. 'And my accession hardly took place under ideal circumstances. Most see such omens arguing that it's a good thing little Olkai will be able to choose a husband sanctioned by favourable portents for the domain.'

As long as there's still a domain for her to inherit and we haven't all been eaten by a dragon.

'You've done well enough by Chazen,' Caid said robustly.

'There are still those with doubts.' Kheda abruptly changed the subject. 'What do you read into Redigal Coron's loss of his zamorin counsellors?'

'I never trusted any one of that nest of lizards.' Ritsem Caid shook his head and his slave Ganil let slip a wordless grunt of agreement. 'Though I'm surprised at Redigal Coron's equanimity over their deaths.'

'He seems confident the domain will not suffer for lack of their counsel.' Kheda chose his next words carefully. 'I wonder if Daish Sirket foresaw any hint of the disaster.'

Will you tell me if he tells you anything, Caid? Because I don't imagine he'll want to speak to me any more than he absolutely has to.

The Daish galley approached with the creak and rush of oars rolling over the calm waters. Voices floated from the stern platform as the helmsman in his high seat called out to the rowing master as he deftly used his twin steering oars to guide the broad-bellied vessel.

'The Rainbow Moth.'' Ritsem Caid studied the pennant at the top of the central mast as the ship wheeled around to present its wide stern to the anchorage. 'Rainbow for new light cast on old certainty,' the warlord mused idly. 'Moth for change and new beginnings.'

All I see is Janne's favourite ship commanded by her most loyal shipmaster. What does jf Janne know about Ulla Safar's new obsession or Redigal Coron's unexpected ruthlessness? How can I expect her to tell me?

Ritsem Caid halted as they reached the landing stage. 'Redigal Coron can look to that new body slave for wise counsel instead of those zamorin.''

'Let us hope so,' Kheda agreed.

Janne is the only other person who knows that one of those drownedzamorin was born my brother. Will she find a way to use that against me?

Ganil spoke up behind the two warlords. 'Prai joined us on the practice ground yesterday evening, my lords. He knows how to handle a blade.'

'I'm glad of that.' Kheda watched the Chazen islanders securing the vast galley. Brown-skinned and black-haired, the Daish crew with longer, straighter daggers at their belts were otherwise indistinguishable from those of Chazen with their crescent blades.

'Is Daish offering any slaves for your consideration as you look for a new personal guard?' Ritsem Caid was studying the armoured men lining the ship's rails.

'I don't know if Itrac has requested their help.' Kheda forced an amiable half-smile as a young man and an older woman descended the stern steps with their personal slaves a few paces behind.

/ don't imagine Itrac would offer Janne the chance to plant a spy in our household. Will that snub have put Janne Daish on her guard or on the attack?

Clearing his throat, Kheda walked forward to greet his former wife and erstwhile heir. 'My lord of Daish, my lady. You are both most welcome.'

'My felicitations on your new daughters' birth.' Daish Sirket's response was stilted and emotion shadowed his eyes, as green as Kheda's. He was plainly his father's son, with the same high forehead and oval face, cheekbones and nose more sharply defined than was usual in the southern reaches. Janne's blood showed in Sirket's fuller lips and darker skin, in his jet-black hair and close-trimmed beard. He wore a red silk tunic a shade darker than his mother's gown, embroidered with soaring brindled eagles. Rubies glittered in the woven gold of his intricate collar and diamonds caught fire at his wrists and fingers in the sunlight.

Rubies for courage and strength and diamonds to clear a warlord's mind of emotions that would cloud his purpose. I swear you 're taller, my son, and you 're certainly broader across the shoulders.

Kheda smiled over the tightness in his throat. 'Thank you.'

'It's good to see you, Sirket.' Ritsem Caid stepped forward to offer his hands to the young warlord. 'Taisia and I have brought Zorat with us and he's eager to see you again.'

Daish Sirket addressed himself to Ritsem Caid with ill-concealed relief. 'I'll be glad to offer whatever advice I can to Zorat. I trust it will be many years before he

has to take up care of the Ritsem domain,' he added hastily.

'Let's hope so,' Caid agreed with amusement. 'Redigal Litai is here as well.'

Kheda inclined his head to Janne Daish. 'I take it the other ladies of Daish chose to stay close to home for the new year?'

What do you know about the recent changes in Redigal's fortunes, my lady? I see you're wearing ropes of the finest pink and grey pearls that the Daish reefs can boast. Is that to remind us of your shrewdness as guardian of Daish's trade? Or are you hoping that they will soothe your emotions? I'm not about to place any such reliance on talismans.

'To support Mesil as he reads the stars in his lord and brother's absence.' Janne calmly smoothed her ruby silk dress over her hips. It was simply cut and loosely flowing as befitted her status as the warlord's mother, and a long over-mantle of dull crimson embroidered with white basket flowers further concealed her shapely figure.

We taught Mesil to be loyal to Sirket since his birth. I thought the omens spared me my father's choices. I thought I would be there to see them grow to manhood and guide them through any quarrels that would threaten the peace of the domain. So much for predictions.

'Ri and Trya send their regards.' Ritsem Caid tried to lighten the awkward silence. 'And you must take their best wishes to Rekha and Sain.'

'Gladly.' Janne spared Caid a brief smile. 'Excuse me, my lords, but it's very early and I'm not as young as I was. I would like to rest a little before paying my respects to Itrac Chazen. Lend me your arm, Sirket.' Her expression impenetrable, Janne walked away, not so much leaning on Sirket's arm as leading him.

Beyau and Ridu took that as their signal to come forward, lulling instinctively into step. A few words

sufficed to impose their separate authority on the armoured men and cotton-clad servants now spilling onto the landing stage from the galley.

Janne and Sirket's respective slaves bowed low to the two warlords before following their mistress and master. Like Ganil, they wore simple silks and twin-scabbarded swords thrust through double-looped sashes, as well as two and three daggers apiece on their brass-studded belts. Birut, Janne's attendant, looked impassively at Kheda, a fearsome-looking warrior with the more curly hair and stockier build of a hill man, though with more height than most. The other slave was equally well muscled, his broad face made distinctive by a flattened broken nose. He bowed and turned away, not giving Kheda any hope of catching his eye.

Will I ever be able to make things right with you, Telouet?

'The swordsmen will be out on the practice ground by now,' Ritsem Caid said briskly. 'Let's go and see how those slaves Taisia brought are faring against Moni Redigal's offerings.' He didn't give Kheda the chance to demur, leading the way off the landing stage. 'What particular qualities are you looking for in your body slave?' Caid asked as they took the convoluted path towards an island where long wooden huts roofed with palm thatch surrounded an expanse of hard-packed sandy ground. 'You'll be wanting someone good with children, obviously. I'm sure Taisia took that into account. Ask her any questions you might have as to the provenance of each slave.'

The dew on the planks of the swaying walkways had dried apart from a few patches where the shadows from the nut palms fell.

Caid continued talking. 'If you find you're not happy with your choice, you can always trade him on. We won't take offence and I'm sure Redigal Coron won't either. There

were some likely prospects in Jahal Luso's household according to Ganil.'

'I'd be honoured to advise you, my lord Chazen,' offered the slave following behind them.

Kheda glanced over his shoulder. 'How long have you been with your master, Ganil?'

'Sixteen years, my lord,' the burly slave replied.

'Telouet served me for more than twenty years,' Kheda said quietly. 'More than half my life. I find it difficult to imagine anyone else at my back.'

'You have to look to each day and its omens, Kheda.' Ritsem Caid stopped and gave him a hard look. 'And to the future above all else.' The warlord started walking again, picking up the pace.

As they arrived at the practice ground, the Chazen swordsmen were emerging from their wooden huts, bare-chested and wearing mismatched cotton trousers.

Kheda did his best to gather his thoughts. 'Ganil, tell me about the two you brought here.'

'Kiba was traded out of the Seik domain by my lady Trya.' The slave followed Kheda and his master into the dappled shade of a flame tree. 'He had been body slave to Soi Seik until she married into the Mahaf domain and decided to choose herself a new attendant. He was with her for three years.' He pointed to a mature man with a wiry beard. Heavily built, his dark eyes were alert as he scanned the other swordsmen making practice swings with empty hands.

'My lady Taisia acquired Aitu from Masoal last year,' Caid chipped in, pointing to a solidly muscled young man with fine black hair slicked back with oil and a beard precisely shaved along the line of his determined jaw. 'We've been training him up. It won't be long before our daughters are looking for slaves of their own,' he added ruefully.

'I wonder sometimes where the years have gone.' Kheda searched the sandy expanse for unfamiliar faces. 'Where are the slaves Redigal Coron is offering?'

'Over there, my lord.' Ganil nodded to three men standing a little apart from the Chazen men.

Kheda eyed the trio. 'What do you know of them?'

Ganil frowned. 'I think Haro—'

'They are called Luri, Haro and Capai.' Ridu appeared at Kheda's side. The young guard captain had shed his armour for faded blue cotton trousers and a sleeveless oarsman's tunic. 'Luri's originally from the western reaches.' Ridu pointed to the closest, whose ancestry was obvious in his dark complexion and the sparse hair dotting his skull with tight black curls. 'His father's crimes saw the whole family enslaved and he became attendant to a Galcan daughter who married into Tabril. He was traded on to Yava a few years later, then on to Calece and Viselis.'

'If I were you, I'd want to know why so many warlords and ladies were happy to see the back of him,' Ritsem Caid observed.

'Haro was slave-born in the northern domains,' Ridu continued. 'He came to Redigal through my lady Moni's sister who married into Kithir.'

Kheda studied the man whose raw-boned frame and paler skin spoke of barbarian blood somewhere in his line. 'I don't recall him ever serving Redigal Coron.'

'Those unlamented zamorin counsellors can't have considered him suitable,' the Ritsem warlord said dryly. 'Which could be a recommendation.'

'Capai is from the Aedis domain.' Ridu pointed to the youngest of the trio, who had the coppery complexion and lithe build of a fisherman. 'He gave himself up to Aedis Harl after his village was overwhelmed by a tempest and nearly everyone drowned.'

'That's hardly the best of portents.' Ritsem Caid frowned.

'He survived,' Kheda pointed out.

'And had the courage to give up mastery of his own life in hopes of escaping further misfortune.' Ridu studied the youth critically.

Or just gave up, when no portents or soothsayer could make any sense of the troubles that beset him. I could sympathise with that.

'Their skills are more important than their pasts,' Kheda said tersely. 'Let's see what they could offer me.'

'Yes, my lord.' Ridu strode out onto the practice ground, adjusting swords thrust throngh his doubled belt of plaited cords.

'He's certainly grown into the role, your young captain of warriors,' mused Caid.

'He proved himself against the wild men and then against the dragon.' Kheda watched Ridu directing the swordsmen into pairs. 'As for his youth, well, we lost nearly all the domain's experienced warriors to those savages and their wizards.'

'Chazen Saril lost them,' Ritsem Caid corrected Kheda firmly. 'You saved this domain.'

'My lord.' There was a warning note in Ganil's soft words.

Kheda turned to see the unwelcome sight of Ulla Safar approaching the practice ground, massive in mossy green robes, with his brutish attendant and two unknown slaves following behind him.

'I didn't expect to see him here.' The Ritsem warlord

scowled,

'Nor I.' Kheda made sure his own expression was suitably opaque as Ulla Safar arrived.

'My lords.' This morning, Ulla Safar was smiling broadly, his pale eyes keen. 'I've brought two of my own

swordsmen for your consideration, as you look for a new body slave.'

'I didn't know you had slaves in your guard.' Ritsem Caid frowned again.

Ulla Safar's smile hardened. 'Every day we discover things that we don't know.'

Whereas we all know you show scant consideration for the niceties distinguishing free islanders from slaves. These men know better than to protest or they'll see their whole families clapped in irons. Do they hope they can win a place in Chazen and bring all their loved ones beyond Ulla's malign reach? If they buy them back by spying on me.

'Let's see their paces,' Kheda said neutrally as he gestured towards the practice ground.

Each visiting slave faced a Chazen warrior. At Ridu's command, every sword flashed from its scabbard, the lethal tips of the leading blades just touching, secondary swords held low by each man's off side. At Ridu's second shout, every warrior slid into practised routines of thrust and sliding parry, counter-thrust and hard block. Kheda found himself counting the steps while Ritsem Caid shifted beside him, following the drill once, twice and then a third time.

'Cease!' Ridu's voice cut through the slither and smack of steel and all the men stood motionless.

'They've barely broken sweat.' Caid studied the Ritsem slaves with satisfaction.

'Indeed.' Kheda noted that the Redigal and Ulla slaves were equally unwearied by this brief exercise.

'Turn about,' barked Ridu.

This time the Chazen warriors who had played the attacker waited for the visiting slaves to launch the first thrust before side-stepping out of the line of danger. Some came closer than others to rolling their own leading sword up and over their foe's killing blade to threaten his throat. The swordsmen on the defensive withdrew a

pace to retaliate with murderous side-swipes of their secondary blades. Each man repeated his moves and the drill ended in a rattle of clashing steel.

'Now they're sweating,' Ganil noted with satisfaction.

'What did you say that one's name was?' Kheda pointed to the copper-skinned youth, who was showing a deft turn of speed.

'Capai, my lord, and I don't think much of his footwork,' Ganil said disparagingly.

'No one doubts the excellence of your warriors, Chazen Kheda,' Ulla Safar observed thoughtfully, 'but you are looking for a new body slave, not more guards. Surely you should be testing them against each other.'

He pulled a pale-jade kerchief from one full sleeve and dabbed at his dry forehead. The supposed slaves he had brought with him immediately turned from Chazen swordsmen to face the Redigal and Ritsem candidates.

Ridu looked to his warlord for instruction, jaw clamped tight on his irritation.

'Let them make one pass against each other,' Kheda called out.

Then perhaps we'll see what you want out of this, my lord of Ulla.

This time Capai was forced onto the defensive by one of the brawny Ulla slaves, but he held his own against successive thrusts to his face. When it was his turn to attack, however, the youth barely made his first move before falling back. He was bleeding from a deep slice to one shoulder where the Ulla man's blade had nickedhim.

'You need a body slave who can move faster than that.' Ulla Safar tucked his kerchief back in his sleeve.

'Cutting a man on the practice ground suggests your man can't control his blade,' countered Ritsem Caid.

Ridu said something to the Ulla swordsman, who

bowed low. Plainly determined to stay on the sand, Capai shook his head as the young captain gestured back towards one of the huts. Ridu shrugged and walked away, raising his own sword to the rest of the Chazen swordsmen.

Kheda watched Capai complete the sequence of moves without mishap this time. As a result he missed seeing exactly what the other Ulla slave did to send the ebony-skinned Luri sprawling in the dust. The Redigal man was back on his feet in an instant, spitting abuse at the Ulla slave.

'He tripped him, my lord,' rumbled Ganil with disapproval.

Ridu separated the belligerent slaves with an upward sweep of his sword, his expression scathing. As Luri stepped back, raising his hands to protest his innocence, he stumbled and stooped to clutch at one knee, face twisted with pain. Ridu shook his head, dismissal from the practice ground unmistakable. Capai had his hand clamped to his wounded shoulder. Ridu ordered him off the practice ground as well, denying the youth's futile protests with a shake of his head.

Two Redigal slaves wounded and humiliated. No one could consider them a well-omened choice for my body slave. Is this about punishing Redigal Conn for whatever has come between you, my lord of Ulla? Or do you plan on having your men wound every slave on offer so that I'm forced to choose one of your spies? What are you plotting if I refuse to oblige?

Kheda's frown deepened as two newcomers in ragged cottons appeared between the palm-thatched huts.

'Word reached Telouet quick enough.' Ganil grinned. 'And Prai's curious as well.'

Kheda wasn't amused. 'I hope they have their masters' permission to be here.'

'You can ask them yourself.' Ritsem Caid turned to bow politely to Daish Sirket and Redigal Coron, who were

coming to join the gathering of warlords beneath the flame tree.

The young Daish warlord bowed politely to Kheda. 'My lord of Chazen, we were thinking it would be a good idea to test your potential body slaves against men who know just what is asked of them.'

Redigal Coron said nothing, simply staring stony-faced at Ulla Safar.

What is going on here?

'I see no harm in that.' Kheda watched Ridu exchanging a few words with the two experienced slaves. The rest of the Chazen warriors were standing with their swords hanging loose by their sides, faces alight with interest.

Ridu snapped his fingers to indicate that Telouet should take on the man who'd injured Capai. Telouet planted himself in front of his foe, both hands on his sword hilts, face impassive as he waited for Ridu's shout. Prai drew himself up in front of the slavS who'd tripped Luri. Bare-chested, the Redigal slave bowed without ever taking his eyes off his opponent, oiled muscles glossy in the morning light.

The next pattern of sword strokes was woven around disabling thrusts and cuts to thighs and knees. The Ulla slave moved fast, both blades scything down and round. Telouet moved faster, blocking and twisting to turn all four blades back against the Ulla man time and again. Kheda held his breath as the Ulla slave managed to lock the hilts of his own swords with Telouet's, digging his feet into the ground. Telouet pushed hard and broke free with a feint that threatened to hamstring his opponent.

The startled slave sprang backwards, all his attention slipping downwards. Telouet took an unexpected pace forward, deftly reversing his second sword. He struck the man hard between the eyes with the polished pommel

stone. Blinded by painful tears, the slave slashed one sword round at Telouet's midriff. The Daish slave met the threat with a rapid parry and followed up with a shove to the Ulla man's chest, knocking him down onto his rump.

'You should discipline your slave, Daish Sirket,' Ulla Safar said angrily, 'with a good flogging.'

'An assassin intent on the Chazen warlord's life will hardly be obeying the rules of the practice ground.' Sirket kept his eyes fixed on Telouet as the slave stood waiting for Ridu to examine the Ulla man's forehead.

Has Telouet told you about that night in Ulla Safar's fortress, my son? When the fat snake tried to kill me and

Janne and all our retinue with a supposedly accidental fire, and sent some club-wielding murderer to dash out our brains in the smoke for good measure. When none of these noble lords could set aside their immediate rivalries to join forces against the savages already devastating Chazen. Nothing's changed there. But at least Ulla Safar seems on the back foot now. Could I persuade Ritsem, Redigal and Daish to join forces now, if I come back with proof that the savages are still lurking over the horizon?

'Your man is forced to retire, Safar,' Ritsem Caid said with satisfaction as Ridu waved the slave off the sand, still rubbing his eyes and blinking.

'He's the lesser of the two.' Safar looked at Redigal Coron with an unpleasant sneer.

'Prai has the measure of him.' Coron looked confidently at his slave, who smiled back with open affection.

All the men on the practice ground withdrew to fighting distance again. At Ridu's nod, they circled and sidestepped in a new pattern of thrust and parry. Now that Telouet was safely paired with one of the Ritsem slaves, Kheda watched Prai's adroit evasions of the second Ulla man's merciless attack.

So Coron and Sirket are taking this chance to humiliate Ulla Safar for some reason best known to themselves. If I had a body slave, I might have some chance of finding out why. But I can't have a body slave, certainly not while Velindre 's lurking in the observatory library. I have to find some excuse for putting off making a choice, no matter how set everyone else is on helping me.

Prai's bout with the Ulla slave ended without mishap and Coron's handsome body slave stepped back, weight lightly balanced on the balls of his feet, his beardless face alert.

'You've a fine slave there, Coron.' Ulla Safar scowled and tugged his kerchief from his green sleeve to dab at beads of sweat catching the light on his forehead.

Redigal Coron showed no sign of hearing him. 'All the omens have been telling me I must look to a new direction, Chazen Kheda, for myself and for Redigal.' He watched the fighting men intently as they embarked on another series of sword drills. 'That dragon was first and foremost a dire menace to you and yours. But it was a powerful omen for the rest of us as well.'

'Many sages say a dragon's outline in the clouds presages disaster driven by discontent and false reasoning,' Ulla Safar interjected darkly.

'Poets weave dragons into their epics as a symbol of untrammelled power choosing a capricious path that leads to destruction.' Coron was still following Prai's every move. 'Whatever prompted those beasts to come to Chazen last year led directly to their deaths. Since then, Chazen has prospered. I felt it right to address various discontents within Redigal, both in the wider domain and in my own household. 'He smiled as Prai wheeled stylishly around the Ulla slave's rapid sword strokes and left the man baffled, unable to keep up. 'Now we all seek a fresh direction under the new year's stars in hopes that we might prosper.'

'Who knows what the new year will bring.' There was no mistaking the menace in Ulla Safar's words.

Sirket spoke up unexpectedly. 'I hope it will bring a visit from Ulla Orhan to Daish.'

'What?' Safar's head whipped round to stare at the young warlord. He swiftly recollected himself. 'I think not. My son is unwell with a most debilitating fever.'

'I am sorry to hear that.' Redigal Coron dragged his eyes away from Prai to show every appearance of concern. 'What are his symptoms?'

'We will all be happy to share our healing lore, my lord,' Ritsem Caid chimed in with spurious sympathy.

'There are no symptoms of particular significance,' Ulla Safar said curtly. 'Which is what makes it so difficult to treat,' he added with spiteful satisfaction.

'Is there much fever on Hakere?' Sirket asked. 'Perhaps some village healer there has had success treating the sickness.'

'What has that to do with anything?' Ulla Safar's eyes fixed on the young warlord.

'That's where his last letter came from.' Sirket looked uncertain. 'If there's no other disease in Derasulla, he must have caught the contagion there.'

'He sent you a letter?' Ulla Safar took a step towards Sirket, his face ugly.

Kheda moved to block his path. 'I trust there is no widespread fever in Derasulla, my lord Safar,' he said sternly. 'If that were the case, you and your wives visiting this domain when our daughters are still so young and vulnerable would be a most unfriendly act.'

Give me that justification for throwing your fat carcass back onto your galley, with orders to quit my waters by sunset, taking your vile wives with you.

'What?' Safar was momentarily distracted. 'No, it's only Orhan who's ill.' He looked back at Sirket, pale eyes

narrowing. 'And he's been kept apart from everyone else for a full cycle of the Lesser Moon.'

'But his letter arrived just before we set sail.' The young warlord looked quite bemused.

'Was it dated?' Ulla Safar asked quickly.

'I don't think so.' Sirket sounded unconvincing.

'Ridu has concluded this practice session,' Ritsem Caid said loudly, gesturing towards the youths appearing at the far end of the practice ground carrying brightly polished brass water jars.

'If you'll excuse me, my lords, I should return to my lady mother.' Sirket raised a hand to Telouet, who made a brief bow to Ridu and disappeared between two huts.

Kheda noted a swift look of complicity pass between Redigal Coron and Sirket.

What is this all about? I can't ask you directly because me never discuss such things openly, do we? And one never questions another warlord's management of his own affairs.

'1 low do you rate them, my lord of Chazen?' Ritsem Caid nodded towards the sweating swordsmen now quenching their thirsts.

'You'll excuse me as well.' Ulla Safar watched Sirket's rapid departure with a glower. 'I should join my beloved wives for breakfast.' He snapped his fingers at his thickset slave and hurried after the youthful Daish warlord.

'You don't think his presence in that black mood will give them all indigestion?' quipped Ritsem Caid. 'Kheda, do you see a slave to your liking?'

Kheda fell back on the excuse he'd been using to fend off Beqau, 'Given what has befallen my previous personal slaves, I don't want to make this choice lightly.'

'You don't think you'll be seeing a dragon here again, surely?' wolfed Caid.' When every scale of the beasts who died here is a talisman to ward them off.'

You can believe that if you like, Caid. I don't and I don't suppose Velindre does either, curse her. If she did, she wouldn't be here plaguing me.

'You should look for a portent to help guide your choice,' Redigal Coron said seriously.

'The simplest augury would be just spinning a blade between them and seeing where it falls,' Ritsem Caid suggested.

Coron looked askance at him. 'You don't think a blade-bone divination would be more fitting? This is a weighty decision.'

You don't seriously think any truth can be read in the patterns of cracks appearing on some animal's shoulder blade laid across a fire? I might as well be landed with a slave on the haphazard fall of a sword.

Kheda tried to hide his growing irritation. 'It is indeed, so I will take my time to consider it.'

Redigal Coron frowned. 'It would be best if we hunted a deer specifically for such a divination. Then you could read its entrails as well.'

'There are no deer on any island closer than a day's hard rowing for a fast trireme and I don't see how we can take ourselves off on a hunt without annoying all our lady wives,' Kheda said apologetically. 'Not to mention disrupting my lady Itrac's plans for the new-year festivities.'

'Let's go to the observatory,' Caid suggested with a shrug. 'If there's a relevant omen, it should be plain to see.'

Velindre will be plain to see if we go over to the observatory now. You 've spent your life surrounded byzamorin, Coron. I don't imagine her disguise will fool you.

Kheda cleared his throat. 'The new-year stars aren't yet fully aligned. That must surely be the best time to consider my choice of a new body slave and look for omens to guide me. Let's breakfast, my lords, and see

what entertainments my lady Itrac has planned for our day. Our work tonight will come soon enough.'

When every interpretation will be as open to debate as the maze of cracks appearing on a blade bone set over afire and I'll have had some time to consider what lies I can get away with to justify my refusal to burden myself with a slave.

'It'll be the omens around the earthly compass that will be crucial for all our domains.' Redigal Coron abandoned the subject of the slaves. 'There are no patterns being drawn in the heavens, in triune, square or any other figure.'

'I'm inclined towards hope nevertheless.' Ritsem Caid's expression lightened. 'The Topaz is moving into the arc of life and self to join the stars of the Bowl. With both moons all but full, we can look to the positive aspects of faithfulness that Bowl and Topaz both share.'

'The Diamond is in the arc of children.' Redigal Coron smiled at Kheda. 'With the twin moons meeting at their full three times this year, such aspects are propitious for you and your daughters.'

Will you still be so optimistic if some new invasion washes up on Chazen 's shores or another dragon blights our skies?

'Go and breakfast with your lady wives, my lords.' Kheda smiled. 'I'll see if my guard captain has anything to say that has a bearing on my choice of a slave.' As he looked towards Ridu, deep in conversation with Prai, the Redigal slave noticed his movement and promptly headed towards them.

'I hope Taisia's stomach is a little more settled or I'll be breakfasting on dry sailer and cold water. I'll see you when my lady Itrac summons us all.' Ritsem Caid nodded to Ganil and departed without further ceremony.

'You fought well, Prai.' Redigal Coron greeted his approaching slave with a faint smile.

'Thank you, my lord.' Prai's gaze lingered on his master's face, his eyes fond.

As the two of them departed, Prai barely the requisite pace behind his master, Ridu walked across the sand to join Kheda. His bow wasn't deep enough to hide his chagrin. 'I don't know that we learned a lot from that, my lord. I'm sorry—'

'You've nothing to apologise for,' said Kheda firmly, 'not if Redigal and Daish choose to take the opportunity to settle some score with Ulla Safar. That alone makes me disinclined to accept any of these slaves.'

Ridu was taken aback. 'My lord, you must have a new slave—'

'Bloodshed on the practice sand is hardly a good omen.' Kheda shook his head, feigning concern. 'I'm going over to the observatory. I may see matters more clearly for some solitude. Tell Itrac to send Jevin to fetch me when she wants me.'

'Yes, my lord,' said Ridu unhappily.

'This practice may have been ill-omened but that's not your fault,' Kheda said firmly. 'Put it behind you and ready the guard for the rest of the day.'

'Yes, my lord.' Ridu bowed again, still looking unconvinced.

Kheda left the practice ground and made his way over the bridges linking the scatter of islands. Overhead, coral gulls wheeled and mewed across the lagoon.

Courier doves mil soon be flying north as Vila Safar tries to find out just how Orhan could have sent Sirkel a letter. Is Orhan ill or imprisoned? What are Redigal Coron and Sirket up to? There's plainly some agreement between them. Could Janne Daish shed any light on this if I could secure her goodwill? What would her price he? How can I possibly leave on some voyage with Velindre with so many questions unanswered? And I still have to find some justification to

avoid being lumbered with a new body slave without offering insult to Redigal or Ritsem.

Frustration quickened his pace sufficiently that he was grateful for the cool within the half-circle halls when he finally reached the observatory.

'My lord Chazen Kheda.' Velindre appeared in the arch leading to the east-facing library and bowed low with all dutiful courtesy.

'We'll be reading the new-year stars from the tower this evening,' Kheda said bluntly. 'You'd better make yourself scarce. I doubt Caid will give you a second glance but Ulla Safar is a notorious lecher and Redigal Coron might well see through your pretence given his long familiarity with zamorin.''

'Surely he only has eyes for that new slave of his.' Velindre was amused. 'I had no idea he sharpened his sword on both edges.'

'I had no idea you listened to gossiping maidservants,' said Kheda curtly. 'Regardless, we don't want to be taking any chances.'

'I'll hide myself away on the ReteuV Velindre dismissed the matter with a flick of a long-fingered hand. 'How long before we can set sail for the west? You do realise you have no real choice in this?'

'Everyone else is trying to force me to choose a new body slave.' Kheda scowled. 'At least Dev could pretend to be a swordsman and play that part.'

'I apologise for my lack of forethought in being a Woman,' Velindre said sardonically. She paused for a moment, 'You know all manner of herb lore. Dose these slaves with an emetic to lay them low or something to raise a rash., That would be an ill omen and you'd be freeto refuse them.'

'Which would lender those slaves valueless at best and suspect at worst,' Kheda retorted. 'What have they done

to deserve that? Besides, Janne would smell something fishy and so would Itrac. They were both there when Ulla Safar poisoned Telouet to leave my back unprotected.'

Velindre gnawed at an already bitten thumbnail. 'Very well, then. Choose a slave and we'll get rid of him on our way.' '

Wizards. Though you 're not quite as callous as Dev. He would have suggested that from the start.

'You'll cut an innocent man's throat?' retorted Kheda. 'That's the only way to be certain he won't make his way back here or to Redigal or Ritsem and tell everyone exactly what I'm doing and who I'm with. Besides, I haven't even agreed to come with you. As matters stand—'

'There must be some barren rock where we can strand him where he won't be found.' Velindre spat out a fragment of nail.

'Without water or food?' Kheda challenged. 'Why not just cut his throat and be done with it?'

'You have the power of life and death over your slaves, don't you?' Velindre said with reluctant distaste. 'Besides, wouldn't his fate lie in his stars?'

'You don't believe that any more than I do,' Kheda snapped. 'And a warlord's power of life and death over his slaves is a responsibility he accepts because their fortunes and choices have brought them so low that they cannot be masters of their own future. Hasn't travelling the Archipelago this last year taught you that much?'

'I've learned more than you know, and I've seen more than a few domains where such niceties are barely observed.' Velindre coloured beneath her tan. 'Then find some way to put off making a choice, as well as an excuse for leaving as soon as possible. We don't want to delay and find that whatever prompted last year's dragon to fly has come again while we've been dithering. That would make all Redigal and Ritsem's manoeuvrings look pretty

trivial, along with whatever quarrel Daish is looking to foment with Ulla Safar.'

'You have been gossiping with the maidservants.' Kheda shook his head obstinately. 'I am not about to consider leaving until I'm sure Itrac and the domain will be secure without me. Which would be a lot easier to ascertain if Risala were here,' he growled.

'Risala considers the wild men and their dragons a more pressing priority than your neighbouring warlords' bickering.' Velindre shook her head. 'Besides, she's more use keeping my .. . associate company.'

'You've brought another barbarian into the Archipelago?' Kheda stared at this unexpected revelation. His blood ran cold. 'Another wizard?'

'Who might possibly betray that fact, left unchaperoned.' Velindre raised her chin defiantly.

'Who might betray you, at the threat of the flensing knife?' spat Kheda. 'Is that why you're in such a hurry to leave?'

'There's nothing to be gained by delay.' The mage-woman looked back at him, unblinking. 'And if he's taken for a wizard, what do you suppose will happen to Risala?'

Curse you, wizard, you know exactly where to stick your knife. Well, perhaps I will come with you, just far enough to get Risala out of your clutches..

'Supposing I can come up with some excuse to leave, we will have to move fast.' Kheda tried to sound as if he were genuinely capitulating as he reached for the chain of keys threaded on his belt. 'You had better stow a few things aboard the Reteul, if you can manage that without being caught for a thief.' He walked round the curve of the inner wall to a wide, deep chest and unlocked it. He threw open the lid and lifted out a small silver-bound ebony COffer. 'This is my travelling physic chest, and no one will miss these swords. They're not my best blades.'

Velindre took the scabbarded weapons and looked closely at one. 'Wasn't this Dev's?'

'Yes.' Kheda wondered if he was imagining the gleam of a tear in her eye. He dismissed the notion and reached into the chest to pick up a small circular brass box. Opening the physic chest, he tucked it between the tight-packed, tightly sealed vials and little lacquer containers.

'You can spend the rest of the day in the library before hiding on the boat tonight,' he ordered her brusquely. 'You've been brushing up on your stargazing, haven't you? Look for any justification in the current state of the heavenly compass for using more methods of divination - candles, mirrors, molten metal in water, the more obscure the better. The more predictions we seek, the more contradictory answers we can concoct.'

'How will that help us?' Velindre was curious.

'The more uncertainty I can stir up—' Kheda hesitated. 'I might just be able to argue that I need to travel somewhere else in the domain to look for greater clarity.'

For a few days at least. For long enough to find Risala.

The magewoman looked unconvinced. 'Then you'll be expected elsewhere in the domain. What happens when people realise you're nowhere to be found?'

'Probably at least as much trouble as I got myself into the last time I disappeared,' Kheda snapped, exasperated. 'But you're the one who wants me to do this. Why don't you put some of the learning you're always boasting about to good use and find me some kind of excuse for abandoning all my responsibilities here?'

Velindre smiled sweetly at him. 'As you command, my lord.' She took a book bound in dull grey leather tooled with gold from a shelf and opened it to the first page. It was a volume of exquisitely drawn and coloured pictures of flowers.

Kheda didn't bother to identify them. 'Where is Risala?' he demanded. 'And this associate of yours, exactly?'

Velindre looked levelly at him for a long moment before unexpectedly capitulating. 'There's a burned isle three or four days' sail from here. Risala said it was the first place you encountered the wild men's magic. She said no Chazen islander would be sailing there.'

Kheda stared at the magewoman. 'No,' he said eventually. 'They wouldn't.' Turning abruptly, he walked rapidly out of the tower.

CHAPTER FIVE

Your mariners' displays this afternoon were most impressive, Chazen Kheda.' Redigal Coron saluted him with his golden goblet of velvet-berry juice. The drinking vessel's silver inlay shone in the soft light cast by lamps set on tall stands around the edge of the thick mossy carpet softening the grey marble floor of the vast dining hall.

'Indeed.' Ritsem Caid echoed the gesture before drinking deep. 'And now another splendid feast. Taisia will be tested to be certain our hospitality equals yours when you next visit.'

As the warlord lowered his goblet, Ganil promptly stepped forward to refill it from a ewer of beaten gold.

'The bounty of your domain is an excellent omen.' Coron held out his hand and Prai replenished his lord's drink. The slaves were standing the requisite few paces away on the interlaced pattern of striol leaves that framed the flower-studded carpet. Chazen household slaves and servants hovered further back in the shadows. As the dusk deepened, the palm fronds carved into the beams of the painted ceiling high above were already becoming indistinct.

'Indeed.' Kheda sipped at his own richly scented sard-berry juice.

I wonder when this dining hall was last this full? Probably not since Itrac came here to wed Chazen Saril.

Kheda glanced at his wife, but her face betrayed no such memories as Moni Redigal shared some amusing

tale. Elegant in aquamarine silk brocaded with pale flowers and wearing ropes of pearls of pristine purity, Itrac's laughter floated above the lively chatter filling the hall. The two women shared a bank of cushions with Elio Redigal beside a low table bearing remnants of the sumptuous dinner. Elio's remark prompted new hilarity, lamplight flashing from the garnets on her bracelets as she illustrated her point with indecorous gestures around her silk-swathed bosom. Moni Redigal fanned herself, laughing. Her dress of red-shot violet silk was elegantly draped to flatter her figure, while her intricate coiffure, studded with jewels, declared her power and status.

Across the table, Mirrel Ulla and Chay sat in forced unity, their laughter striking a false note. Mirrel wore another revealing dress of white gossamer and a profusion of diamonds set in flowers of gold while Chay's black gown was relieved by a girdle, collar and bracelets of vivid enamelled silver. Both women's faces were impenetrable masks of paint and powder.

'Such a shame Ulla Safar finds himself indisposed this evening,' Redigal Coron remarked inconsequentially as he reached for a dish of rustlenuts. 'I suppose he got too much sun.'

"Which can be no one's fault but his own.' Ritsem Caid dismissed the absent warlord with a flick of his hand. 'Zorat and Litai were paying close attention to the triremes and 1 was pleased to see Sirket sharing his knowledge withthem.'

At a table on the opposite corner of the carpet, under the gentle supervision of Hinai Redigal, Litai was striving to join in the lively exchanges between Daish Sirket and

Ritsmen Zorat.

' They look as if they're ready to take a turn at a galley's oars.' Kheda managed a smile as he brushed crumbs of nut cake from his emerald tunic, brocaded with the same

jade avahi flowers as Itrac's gown. His belt was crafted from the finest turtleshell.

All three youths were wearing tightly fitted sleeveless tunics, albeit of richly embroidered silk. In silks to match their masters, their slaves stood alert for any sign that their service was required.

You haven't looked in this direction once, Telouet.

'I wonder what Taisia and Janne Daish are discussing.' Kheda looked towards the far table where his erstwhile wife and the Ritsem warlord's lady were absorbed in conversation.

'Babies, doubtless,' said Caid fondly.

Taisia was absently smoothing her rich saffron gown over her barely rounded belly, her rings studded with yellow jasper and her bracelets with polished pebbles of golden chrysolite. Janne Daish wore a dull gentian dress belted with a single gold chain and an unjewelled necklace of twisted gold wire. Plain ivory combs held her greying hair off her face, and with her lips and eyelids no more than glossed with gold, all could see that her years easily equalled Redigal Coron's.

Because you're no longer first wife of Daish, Janne, just the unwed warlord's mother.

'They'll be talking trade.' Ritsem Caid reached for a bowl of sliced lilla fruit dusted with crushed sweet-pepper.

Redigal Coron went to pick the few remaining palm kernels from a dish glutinous with honey then changed his mind, laying down his spoon. 'So, Kheda, are you any closer to deciding which slave you'll lake for your new attendant?'

'I would choose sooner rather than later if I were you.' Ritsem Caid rinsed sticky fingers in a shallow bowl of water proffered by Ganil and dried his hands on linen draped over the slave's arm. He leaned back on his cushions to loosen the vivid azure sash around the waist of his full-sleeved sapphire tunic.

'It would be best to have decided before we read the new-year stars,' agreed Redigal Coron, tugging at the vivid ochre mantle overlaying his scarlet tunic.

'All in good time, my lords.' Kheda saw Itrac trying to catch his eye down the length of the hall. He nodded briefly and she signalled to Beyau. Kheda rose to his feet as the household servants came forward to clear away the emptied bowls and platters. 'Excuse me, my lords - I'll take a little air before we're delighted by Itrac's musicians.'

Just to be sure we won't be tripping over Velindre in the observatory. I wonder if her gossiping with the maidservants has turned up any clues as to why Ulla Safar has shut himself away this evening. Does Beyau know anything?

Taking care not to hinder the sturdy slaves bodily picking up and removing the low tables from the carpet, Kheda caught the steward's eye. They moved to one of the pairs of tall doors set along the side of the hall to admit cooling breezes when Chazen's warlord sat there in judgement. For now, the slatted doors were draped with pale-yellow muslin curtains, denying the night's insects.

'I take it Ulla Safar's retinue have been suitably fed in their pavilion?' Kheda raised a brow.

'Fed and watered, my lord.' Beyau lowered his voice. 'Safar's locked himself away in an inner room with that thick-necked slave of his and a whole cage of courier doves.'

'Send a hawk handler out on a fast trireme.' Mirrel Ulla was watching him suspiciously so Kheda smiled amiably back. 'If we can bring down one of Safar's birds, we might learn what messages he's sending to Derasulla '

Because I cannot leave here, even for a few days to extri-cate Risala frome these wizards, unless I know Itrac will be safe.

Beyau looked at the busy slaves, indecisive. 'Give me a few moments, my lord—'

Kheda shook his head. 'I'll go to the observatory and write a note for the Brittle Crab's shipmaster. You can take it later.'

'Make your choice of body slave, my lord, and he can take it.' Beyau walked away to rebuke a maidservant for spilling water from a brass ewer onto a marble step.

/ need a body slave for a warlord's duties but I cannot risk one betraying my association with wizards. Because that is a betrayal of every law and custom that a warlord is supposed to uphold. But there would be no domain for me to rule if I hadn 't betrayed that trust. Am I ever going to be free of this paradox?

Kheda descended the broad, shallow steps that surrounded the hall on all sides. His stride lengthening, he crossed the short bridge leading to the island where his personal pavilion stood dark against the clear moonlit sky. Honeycanes planted around clusters of palm saplings rustled in the night breeze and he relished the cool air on his face.

'Searching for omens on the horizon?' Janne's dress rustled as she stepped onto the planks of the bridge. 'Birut, return to the hall. Chazen Kheda and I wish to talk alone.'

A shadow behind her, Janne's faithful slave muttered something under his breath as his heavy tread retreated down the sandy path.

The night breeze teased Kheda with Janne's familiar perfume and the soft radiance of the twin moons high above stripped away her years. He could see the beauty he had married half a lifetime before, He spoke before she could. 'How are my children?'

'Settled for the night, as far as I know.' Janne sounded faintly surprised that he should ask her. 'A nursemaid brought word to Itrac just before she had the tables cleared.'

'How are my elder daughters?' Kheda found his grip tightening on the plaited rope of palm bark strung either side of the bridge. 'How are my sons?'

'The younger children of Daish are very well,' Janne replied smoothly. 'Our sister-wife Sain has proved a loving and devoted mother to them all.'

'Leaving you and Rekha free to concentrate on trades and intrigues.' Kheda's tone was accusing despite his best efforts. 'Where is she? Doesn't Itrac warrant the courtesy of a visit from both of you, after she let the two of you pass off the bounty of Chazen's reefs as Daish pearls last year?'

'Rekha is on an extended tour of the Aedis, Sier and Tule domains,' Janne said more curtly. 'She will pay her compliments to your new daughters in good time.'

'She will if she doesn't want her discourtesy to jeopardise Daish trade with Ritsem or Redigal,' Kheda shot back.

'They plainly have no qualms about renewing their ties with this domain.' There was just a hint of anger in Janne's words.

'It would make your life easier if Chazen was shunned, giving you an excuse to avoid me.' Kheda tried to curb his resentment. 'But you and I and Rekha and Sain are tied through our children, Janne. Don't think I have forgotten them just because Itrac has given me new daughters.'

'According to custom—' Janne snapped.

'Custom?' Kheda spoke over her. 'What custom? If we had divorced, you would have been the one to leave the Daish domain. Those of our children of an age of reason would have stayed with me. Those below it would have gone with you but they'd have been given the choice of returning when they reached it. How many times do the histories record a warlord separated from his children in circumstances like these? If you've found precedent, do

share it. I've found none.' Kheda waved a hand at the dark observatory and swallowed hard. He managed to moderate his tone as he continued. 'How are Mesil's studies progressing? Is Sirket teaching him his stargazing and herb lore and all the history of the domain?'

Is he going to prove an ally for Sirket as he grows into his full strength, as you and I always hoped and planned? Or need we worry that he might turn out to be a rival? How could I turn such a circumstance to Chazen's advantage without hating myself?

Janne answered his unspoken question after a moment. 'Mesil is still happy to leave questions of warfare and lawmaking to Sirket while he studies healing and divinations.'

'I'm glad to hear it,' Kheda said with frank relief. He found he couldn't hold back more questions. 'What about Dau? Does she have any plans for marriage yet? What about the little ones? I take it Efi and Vida are learning their letters and their numbers? What about Noi and Mie and Sain's son, Yasi?'

He's my son, too, even if I wasn't there for his birth.

Kheda fell silent, choked by the bitterness of his losses. Waves sluiced over the corals with a low murmur of surf. Songs and laughter echoed across the lagoon as Chazen islanders made merry with the visitors come to trade and the crews of the warlords' great galleys.

'Turn your hopes to your new daughters, Kheda.' Janne cleared her throat, her voice unexpectedly gentle. 'You can leave the Daish children to my care, and Rekha's, and Sain's. The choices you made look you from them. There's no going back.'

'It was the choices you made that denied me any hope of going back to Daish.' Kheda couldn't help himself. 'Your choices have denied a father to our children.'

'Your children had already mourned you as dead.'

Janne's tone hardened, her arms folded tight below her bosom. 'Daish had a new warlord in Sirket. All Chazen had was Saril who was utterly broken by fear and doubt.'

'Who never had a chance to go back and redeem himself,' Kheda retorted. 'Not after you fed him white mussels gathered in a red tide that killed him stone dead.'

'All three of us ate from the same shellfish,' Janne said steadily. 'If Saril had been fated to return to Chazen, he would have lived. If I had erred in reading the dreams that guided me to that place and that deed, I would have paid for it with my life.'

She glanced involuntarily over her shoulder. The white sand paths were empty in the moonlight and no motionless shadows lurked among the gently shifting stands of nut palms beyond. She looked back at Kheda and he was surprised to see vulnerability in her face.

'Just as if you had been the one in mortal error, when you sought out that foul barbarian to help you fight the invaders' magic with northern sorcery, you would have been the one to die on those sands. How can you doubt the omens of that day, Kheda?' she went on, strain tightening her voice. 'And what of last year? Chazen Saril could never have stood up to a dragon arriving in these waters, even if he had managed to reclaim his domain after he had disgraced himself by fleeing from the invaders who came before it. As for two such creatures—' she shuddered. 'And that sorcerer masquerading as your slave proved your salvation a second time. Chazen was even cleansed as his evil poisoned the beast when it consumed him. That is what really happened to him, isn't it?'

Kheda made no move to answer her.

So you didn't believe the tale that Dev was burned to ashes by the dragon's fiery breath. Not that you would ever believe the truth, even if I could share it with you. Once we shared everything.

'So yes, Kheda, I'll allow that your choices cannot have been as corrupt as I thought them.' Janne spoke through gritted teeth. 'Not if you were able to lead the men of this domain to kill that second dragon with sword and spear. The poets will be composing epics around that feat for generations to come. They're already singing your praises from one end of the Archipelago to the other now that you have been so plainly vindicated by Chazen's prosperity and your new wife's fertility.'

Kheda heard the faintest of tremors running below Janne's words.

Your faith in the heavens and the portents of the earthly compass hasn 't been shaken in the least. You seize on the random turns of chance as justification for what you have done. Whereas I can no longer believe in any such guidance or excuse. If nothing else had come between us, this would have driven us irrevocably apart.

'I'm glad to see Itrac so happy again,' Janne Daish said with clipped neutrality, 'because Chazen Saril couldn't bear to have her near him at the end. Did she tell you that? Her devotion to this domain was a constant reproach to his cowardice in fleeing Chazen. He rejected her utterly. He could barely live with himself, never mind anyone else. But of course you know that. Why else would you forbid him a resting place among the honoured dead of the domain? What did you do with his body, Kheda?'

'That's none of your concern.' Kheda drew a breath. 'As for his death, all right, I'll allow you thought you acted in the best interests of the Daish domain, Janne, as you have always done.'

'I'd prefer the unequivocal reassurance of the heavens or the earthly compass.' Janne moved to the little bridge's rope rail and stared out over the open sea.

You're not just playing the part of the dowager to throw the other wives off balance. You are truly dispirited, and more

weary than I can ever recall seeing you. It would be so easy to take you in my arms, to offer you comfort. But I must be satisfied that your weakness will strengthen Itrac's position. I must not let slip how wearisome I find all this manoeuvring.

'Let's hope Sirket sees hope for Daish in the new year's stars.' Kheda looked away over the silken waters. 'Ritsem Caid believes the earthly compass will counsel faithfulness between allies. Daish and Chazen will always have interests in common.' He drew a bracing breath of the salt-scented air. 'And common enemies. Why do you suppose Ulla Safar snubbed us all with his refusal to dine in our company?'

What inside knowledge can you offer me? You always had the most well-informed network of eyes and ears of any warlord's lady.

Janne Daish rallied, squaring her shoulders beneath her gossamer wrap. 'I imagine our hurt feelings are the least of Ulla Safar's concerns.'

'How so?' Kheda prompted.

Janne considered her reply. 'You may as well know,' she said at length, twisting the fringe of her wrap around her fingers. 'Ulla Orhan has been actively seeking support among the spokesmen of the domain's villages and islands. It's whispered he is looking to overthrow his father. So Ulla Safar had him locked in Derasulla's deepest dungeon.'

The back of Kheda's neck prickled as if a chill breath of wind had blown from the north. 'And Orhan will be sliced to quivering shreds for the fat snake's entertainment as soon as he's got a new son who looks healthy enough to live to an age of reason.'

'More likely it'll be a death leaving a presentable corpse,' Janne said dryly. 'Safar's predicament is compli-eated by the affection of the Ulla people for Orhan, despite their fear of Safar, Safar has had plenty of practice using

venoms to make it seem as though someone has died of a fever. Remember Orhan's mother.'

'Hence the tale of him being unwell.' Kheda shook his head. 'But Sirket said he'd had a letter—'

'I take it he let that slip with appropriate clumsiness?' Janne's smile gleamed in the moonlight.

Kheda was puzzled. 'It wasn't true?'

'It was true.' Janne tossed a shred from the fringe of her wrap into the silent water beneath the bridge. 'But the letter didn't come from anywhere on Hakere, so Safar can waste all the time and men he chooses beating the bushes on that isle.'

'Orhan has escaped his father's clutches?' Kheda frowned as he tried to make sense of this unexpected news. 'Is that what you were telling Taisia Ritsem?'

'That and warning her not to take any food or drink from Chay or Mirrel,' Janne said with distaste. 'They're frantically trying to dose each other and any other wife or concubine they suspect of receiving Safar's attentions, to be certain any babe he begets slips away. I wouldn't put it past either one of them to ruin Taisia's happiness out of sheer spite.'

'They are truly vile.' Kheda didn't hide his disgust. 'I've always thought they deserved each other, those two and Safar.'

'They're reaping a full harvest from the misery they've sown in the past.' Janne settled her wrap anew around her shoulders. 'With any luck they'll poison each other and Safar for good measure, while Orhan thrives on sailer pottage and spring water out in the forests.'

'Wouldn't we all be safer if Orhan were recaptured?' Kheda picked at the rope rail. 'If he dies, Tewi Ulla becomes the heir and there's no way she could hold that domain together.'

'Orhan has been paying court to Dau for over a year

now.' Janne folded her hands deliberately across her golden belt. 'Sirket, Rekha and I all agree that it would be a good marriage.'

'You want Dau to marry Ulla Safar's son?' Appalled, Kheda pushed himself away from the rope and set the whole bridge swaying.

'Not unless she chooses to,' Janne said with asperity, putting a hand on one of the posts to steady herself. 'I know you always thought Orhan a fool, but we've come to realise that was a feint to divert his father's suspicions.'

'It was a convincing deceit.' Kheda picked at the frayed palm rope again, biting back more heated words.

He's still not fit to wash the dust from my daughter's feet. But I have no say in such matters now that Sirket is warlord of Daish. Does he know anything more of the plots inside Derasulla's labyrinthine walls? Another of my lost brothers chose to serve the Daish domain as azamorin slave in that termite hill. Who does he send word to now?

'Ulla Orhan played a significant part in saving you from Ulla Safar's assassins,' Janne said pointedly into the silence.

'Is all this what's caused the breach between Redigal Coron and Safar?' asked Kheda abruptly.

'No, that was Ulla Safar overreaching himself once again,' Janne said with satisfaction. 'Coron discovered that those zamorin counsellors of his were plotting to overthrow him—'

Kheda searched his memory for some half-recollection. 'There was rumour—'

''This was no rumour,' Janne said tartly.

Kltcdii looked towards the silent darkness of the obser-vatory, 'Zamorin are supposed to be less interested in worldly ambltion than whole men, cut off as they are from fathering their own posterity.'

'Which is why Redigal Adun sought such scholars as tutori for his sons,' agreed Janne. 'I don't suppose he

foresaw that those zamorin would become such a powerful clique, renewing their number through adopted sons and co-opted nephews.'

Kheda shook his head slowly. 'What kind of man would willingly undergo castration? When so many die—'

'Which is partly what prompted this plot, as I understand it,' Janne said delicately. 'Those counsellors looking to retire to enjoy the luxuries they've amassed have been finding it difficult to secure replacements.'

'If their numbers dwindle, so does their power.' Kheda nodded. 'Whereas if the domain was thrown into confusion by the loss of their beloved warlord, at sea perhaps, with his senior wives and his heir—'

'It wouldn't be so remarkable for one of their own to take power, to save the domain from anarchy.' Janne finished his sentence. 'A warlord need not necessarily beget his own children, as long as they are born to his wives and acknowledged as such. Several of the Redigal daughters are of age to wed—'

'With those trusted and uninterested zamorin servants ready to advise them in their choices of lovers to bring new blood into the noble line,' concluded Kheda.

'Or whoever the zamorin put forward as warlord might still have been in possession of his personal jewels.' Janne shrugged. 'Rumour also has it that several they have recruited in recent years haven't been fully qualified. Or overly astute, apparently,' she added with asperity.

'How do you mean?' Kheda was intrigued despite himself.

It's so easy to slip back into our old complicity. It was so easy to love you, Janne. I'll never love Itrac in the same way. But it's so much simpler to love Risala. She knows all my secrets and still loves me, even if I've yet to convince her I cannot believe in omens any more.

'You've seen this new body slave of Coron's, Prai.'

Janne drew closer, lowering her voice. 'Moni acquired him to be a new guard for her daughters. One of the newer zamorin counsellors saw Prai going clean-shaven, assumed he was another eunuch and let slip something that puzzled the boy. He went to Moni and she warned him not to reveal himself as a lover of men, but to play along with the foolish zamorin to learn what he could of their plots.'

Kheda nodded his understanding as Janne continued.

'She soon learned enough to blackmail the relevant counsellor into promoting Prai to be Coron's body slave. Obviously Moni knew Coron was more inclined to men than to women when she married him. Prai had come to admire Redigal Coron, so it was a short step to loving him once he had Moni's blessing.' Janne adjusted one of the ivory combs in her hair. 'Prai could pass messages to Coron in the privacy of their bedchamber without the zamorin counsellors interrupting or becoming suspicious. When Moni had proof of the plot and Ulla Safar's complicity, Prai told Coron and helped stiffen his resolve to rid himself of the zamorin in one stroke.'

'I would never have thought Coron had it in him,' Kheda said frankly. 'He's always been so in thrall to those counsellors.'

'They played no small part in guiding Redigal Adun to choose him as heir.' Pity coloured Janne's words.

'Out of six or seven brothers—' Kheda grimaced at unwelcome recollection.

When the old Redigal warlord knew he was on his deathbed, he had the rest strangled in their sleep. Our mothers told my brothers that tale to prove our father was offering them more merry limn some warlords.

He cleared his throat. 'And Ulla Safar knew of this plot?'

'And decided to enter into discussions with the leaders of the zamorin rather than tell Redigal Coron,' Janne

confirmed. 'When Coron found out, Moni says that was the stone that set the landslide in motion. Coron's been increasingly troubled by the upheavals in these reaches, suspecting some disaster lurking unseen ahead of him.' She shivered though the breeze wasn't cold. 'He's been especially concerned by the appearance of those dragons. Such a potent symbol of the twisted evils of magic and his zamorin could offer no answers as to why they had come.'

'No dragon overflew Redigal waters.' A qualm hollowed Kheda's belly.

What will Coron and the other warlords make of it if another dragon comes? Or more savage invaders?

'Coron saw their arrival as a dire omen.' Janne pulled her wrap tight around her shoulders. 'Then he discovered this murderous plot that was putting his whole domain at risk. So he offered equal weight in topaz for vials of creeth-tree resin.'

'Why?' As soon as Kheda asked the question, he realised the answer. 'Because it's called dragon's blood when it's burned for divinations.'

What would he have traded for the real thing?

'Exactly.' Janne shrugged. 'Whatever he saw reassured him that all the good he had done as warlord hadn't been in vain, since Prai had been there to forewarn him of this plot.'

Kheda frowned. 'Moni Redigal told you all this?'

'She wanted to be sure 1 knew why the Redigal domain is loosening its ties with Ulla.' Janne pursed her lips. 'She'll be making it quite clear to Itrac and Taisia Ritsem as well. Besides, now that Safar has lost his monopoly on the supply of iron in these reaches—' Whatever Janne was going to say was lost as a sweep of music rang out through the night.

Kheda saw lamplight spilling through an open pair of

doors in the side of the great hall. 'We had better get back to enjoy my lady Itrac's musicians.'

'I'll go first.' Janne's face was unreadable in the moonlight. 'So no one suspects we've been indulging in some tryst.' As she walked away, the moonlight turned her gown to dark silver, outlining the seductive fullness of her hips and hinting at her long, shapely legs.

Kheda started a slow count to a hundred as she disappeared into the darkness beneath the nut palms. A shadow detached itself from one of the upswept trees and Kheda saw the sharp line of a scabbarded sword cast on the ground by the all-seeing moons. His hand went to the crescent Chazen dagger at his own belt.

'You shouldn't be out here alone, my lord.' Telouet stepped onto the moonlit path. Not quite as tall as Kheda, he was appreciably wider across the shoulders. 'Not when you still haven't chosen yourself another body slave.' His tone was accusing.

'I've yet to find anyone who could hope to be your equal,' Kheda said lightly, hooking his thumbs in his turtleshell belt.

Not only with a sword. Who could take your place after I had shared more of my life with you than with anyone else but Janne? But I couldn't burden you with the secrets I'm hiding now.

'You don't need my equal, my lord,' Telouet said brusquely. 'You just need someone big and strong enough to guard your back. Ulla Safar might be rutting like a hog in his wallow but he could well send out spies and assas-sins again when he sees his influence cracking like mud in the sunshine.'

'Then I'm glad Sirkel has you to guard him.' Kheda hoped the half-light hid the pang those words cost him. 'Shouldn't youu be in the hall serving your master?'

'He wants to see you.' Telouet nodded past Kheda, his beard jutting belligerently. 'He's gone to the observatory.'

The observatory? What if he's found Velindre? She should be able to talk her way out of it but what if he tells fanne? What does she know or suspect?

Kheda hesitated as another swirl of music floated out through the open doors of the great hall. He made a swift decision. 'Walk with me. You can escort him back to the dining hall when we're done.'

'Yes, my lord.' As Kheda turned, the slave slipped instinctively into step a few paces behind the warlord, into the position that had been his for so many years.

'You've made a full recovery from the wounds you took at Derasulla?' Kheda forced himself to keep his words amiable.

'Thanks to Sirket, when the wound festered.' Telouet's voice was tight. 'Your son was certainly paying attention when you taught him his healing herbs.'

'I am sorry, Telouet, for your wounds and for everything else you suffered.' Kheda was glad the slave couldn't see his face as they walked on. 'For leaving you to believe I was dead.'

'I would have followed you, my lord.' Telouet's voice cracked with emotion.

And a journey to procure a wizard would have been the death of your trust in me, even if mischance hadn't killed you outright.

'Did Sirket heed his oilier lessons?' Kheda distanced himselfwith dispassionate questions. 'I low is he managing Daish's alliances?'

Telouet acceded grudgingly to the change of subject. 'When he gets the chance, he reminds my lords of Aedis, Sier and Tule how far Safar overreached himself in trying to have you killed. My lady Rekha lays the groundwork in her travels and then Sirket exploits any weakness he

sees in Ulla Safar's pacts. His reading of the heavenly compass makes a powerful argument that it's time other warlords addressed Safar's malice,' Telouet said suddenly. 'He sees a potent omen in the way Chazen has successfully defied even greater evils.'

Whereas if Safar hadn 't tried to have me killed, I'd never have been able to let everyone think he had succeeded and disappear to go in search of the magic Dev brought to defeat the invading wild men. I even believed that was some sign that I was doing the right thing.

Kheda couldn't find the words to continue the conversation and they reached the observatory in silence. He halted, turning to look Telouet in the face. 'I'm glad to know Daish is in safe hands. There's something else I want to ask of you. Will you swear to me that you'll keep it to yourself, for the sake of all the years you served me so faithfully?'

'No.' Telouet folded his arms across his barrel of a chest. 'I am Daish Sirket's slave now.'

'Then I'll ask anyway and it'll be for you to decide whether you tell Sirket.' Kheda smiled wryly. 'If some dark day comes when Itrac needs a true friend, if she needs more than just an ally and I cannot be at her side, make sure Sirket knows I want him to take my place, as he has done in Daish.'

Because there's always the possibility that I won't break free from this entanglement with wizards before I'm discovered in betrayed. If there's no one I'd rather have ruling Daish in my stead, there's certainly no one else I'd trust to cherish Itrac and our innocent newborns.

Confusion creased Telouet's broad brow. 'My lord—'

I had better talk to him before someone comes looking for us ' Kheda strode away towards the dark observatory.

'Watch the bridge for us.'

The darkness inside the entrance hall was nearly

complete. Just enough moonlight filtered though the door for Kheda to see Sirket sitting on the lower steps of the spiral stair.

The youth stood up. 'My—' He choked on his words.

'My son.' Kheda put his hand into a niche in the darkness and took up a spill of wood tipped with fluff from a tandra tree seed pod. Finding the waiting spark-maker, he squeezed it to snap the toothed steel wheel over the translucent grey firestone. A spark ignited the tandra silk and Kheda touched the burning spill to a wick floating in an open oil lamp. 'You can't begin to imagine how I've missed you.'

'Father.' Sirket stepped forward. 'I don't know—'

'I'm sorry.' Finding himself unable to look his son in the face, Kheda concentrated on nursing the fragile flame. 'Sirket, I am so sorry for everything I've put you through, you and your brothers and sisters. I had to save Daish, for all of you. Can you believe me when I tell you I couldn't see any other way of doing that?'

Could I have seen some other path if I hadn 't been blinded by staring at portents and omens?

'You were talking to my mother just now.' Sirket's voice was raw. 'Were you as cruel to her as the last time you met?'

'We've made —' satisfied the lamp was well alight, Kheda blew out the burning spill '- a truce, if not our peace.'

'She's tired and she's worried.' Sirket's own voice shook with anxiety. 'You may as well know sooner rather than later. The Daish pearl harvest has failed again.'

'No!' Kheda stared at his son, aghast.

'Do you know what the travelling seers are saying?' the youth said roughly. 'I'm sure you can guess. It seems my rule is proving inauspicious. They're not giving up on me just yet, though. Evidently this new family of yours is

giving some of them ideas. Plenty of soothsayers are seeing unmistakable signs that I should be looking for a wife, to bring a new beginning to the Daish domain.' He drew a long, shaking breath before going on, his words tumbling over each other in an unstoppable torrent. 'They don't care that would deprive me of my mothers as well as my father, never mind the grief that would bring Mesil and Dau, never mind we'd see the littlest ones taken from us, to wherever Janne and Rekha and Sain chose to go. How will the middling ones ever forgive me if my marriage means that Sain must leave them all alone, handing them over to some stranger who's probably only married me for power and status and will soon find she's made a startlingly bad bargain?'

He broke off and looked abruptly away, composing himself with visible effort. Then he glared at Kheda, accusing. 'How is the domain supposed to flourish if Janne and Rekha aren't managing the trade? It wasn't supposed to be this way, father. I should be able to wed at my leisure, and learn to rule by watching your example, just as my wife should learn what will be asked of her by travelling with your ladies. What am I supposed to do?'

'Have more faith in the people of Daish, for a start.' Seeing the gleam of tears in Sirket's eyes, green as his own, Kheda felt his throat tighten. 'They will trust you to make the right choices, over when and how you marry, whatever the soothsayers are muttering into their beards. Ruling is difficult. I always told you that. When you next make your progress around the domain, have Telouet take the spokesmen of a few key villages aside, to point out how Daish trade would suffer if you were to marry. You're hardly likely to find a wife the equal of Janne or Rekha.'

'You always told me to look for the signs and portents that would guide me.' Sirket scrubbed angrily at

his eyes with the back of one hand. 'You never foresaw this.'

'No.' Kheda looked steadily back at the young man. 'Just as no one foresaw my father's death in the collapse of his own observatory tower, least of all himself. I wasn't that much older than you when I had to learn to rule alone without his guidance. Plenty of seers were claiming that his fate was a deadly omen for Daish, within our own waters and in neighbouring domains. I was lucky no one saw some portent encouraging them to invade us.'

There are probably some even now who are harking back to that catastrophe as the start of all these misfortunes. At least now I'm no longer tempted to agree with them.

'That was different,' snapped Sirket. 'You were already married to my mother for one thing.'

'The right wife is a great comfort in such difficult times,' Kheda agreed. 'The wrong one would be worse than no wife at all. Don't rush into anything because that's what you think the people want. Take your time and make your choice when the time is right for you. See what me and your mothers got right in our marriages, and see where we went wrong. Try not to make the same mistakes,' he added ruefully.

Try not to find yourself married to a widow half your age because you feel guilty for the death of her husband and it's the only way you can protect her.

'If I marry, Janne and Rekha and Sain must leave—' Sirket protested.

'Why?' interrupted Kheda.

'Why?' Sirket stared at him. 'Custom—'

'Custom says that you're the warlord, Sirket, and that means the power of life and death and everything up to that in Daish is yours to use as you see fit.' Kheda cut the youth's words off with a sideways sweep of his hand. 'Custom is for customary times. There's nothing usual

about the days we're living through. You said yourself that no one predicted any of these catastrophes. If you choose to marry, for the sake of the domain or for love or for something in between, ask Janne, Rekha and Sain to stay. If you refuse to deprive your sisters and brothers of their mothers' love and support, who's to gainsay you?'

'What—' Sirket's mouth hung open for a moment.

The lamplight in the hallway enclosed them, the stairwell and the open arches to the halls on either side black voids framed by vines painted on the plastered stone work.

Kheda made an abrupt decision. 'I need you to hold Daish securely, my son. I need you to be Chazen's ally. I need you to be the warlord I raised you to be, the man I have always known you would become.' Kheda rubbed a hand over his beard. 'I have to go on another journey, alone. I'm glad of this chance to tell you ahead of anyone else, even Itrac. I'm leaving here, tomorrow or someday soon. I don't know quite when I'll return but hopefully I won't be away for too long.'

'You're leaving again?' cried Sirket. 'Why?'

'The first time I left you, I was looking for some means to fight the wild men who brought such destruction out of the southern ocean. I can't tell you the whole truth of what I found and what I did but I won't tell you any lies.' Kheda looked steadily at his son. 'I came back with the means to kill their wizards and it wasn't just that blend of narcotics to stifle their magic that I showed you and Redigal and Ritsem. It was what gave me the means to fight the dragons when they came last year. It's what has helped me learn why the wild men came here. They came to wait for the dragon. That's why their wizards were fighting among themselves, to see who would be left, who would be strong enough to harness the evil of the dragon's magic for his own fell purposes.'

'You killed the dragons.' Sirket's emerald eyes were rimmed with white. 'Both of them.'

'I cannot be certain another one won't come flying out of the open ocean.' Kheda's face was as grim as his words. 'There are hints that we could see another wave of wild men come ahead of another such beast, driven by the same lust for the unbounded power of magic. I don't think Chazen's fragile prosperity will persuade the domain's people to stay and face such disaster again. If Daish confidence is balanced on the knife edge you tell me it is, such a calamity will throw all its islands into chaos. I won't stand idly by and let that happen, Sirket. There's a chance I can learn whether this danger truly threatens to return to plague Chazen and Daish and all the other domains of these southern reaches. Or if we can look to a future free from such fear.'

'And you can only do this by going away on your own again?' Sirket's incredulous words echoed back from the white walls washed with golden lamplight and floated away into the darkness beyond the empty doorways.

'I won't be wholly alone.' His hands behind his back, Kheda clenched his fists. 'But don't ask me who I'm going with.'

'My mother Janne shared certain suspicions about that dead slave of yours,' said Sirket slowly. 'Was she right?'

'Do you really want to know?' Kheda challenged the youth. 'I won't lie to you if you ask me those questions. Do you want the burden of such knowledge?'

'No. I don't think I do.' Sirket looked away before snapping back, face accusing, 'What about Itrac? You're going to abandon her with two infant daughters, just like you abandoned us?'

What is that note in your voice? Was there some truth in those rumours I heard when I was travelling without a name that you were looking on her with growing affection,

when she and Chazen Saril were given sanctuary in Daish waters?

'Itrac married me, above all else, to safeguard the Chazen domain.' Kheda drew a steadying breath. 'I'll tell her I am going away to be certain we are all safe from any new threat. She won't ask any more of me than that. I'm asking you to be a friend to Chazen in any dealings you have with other domains. Rally your triremes and warriors in her defence if it comes to it. I hope it won't. Ulla Safar looks to have plenty of concerns to keep him close to home. Redigal Coron seems absorbed in his own affairs, while Ritsem Caid is busy extending his domain's influence to north and east. But you said it yourself — a lot has happened that no one's foreseen.'

'When will you be coming back?' Sirket asked with growing apprehension.

'As soon as I can, but there's always the chance I won't return. I chose that risk when I sought the means to save Chazen and Daish the last time and I must choose it now.' Kheda studied his son's face intently. 'I wish these days had never come upon us and that I had been able to see you married and grown, inheriting Daish from me in the fullness of time. If it was my choices that have made that impossible, forgive me.'

'I don't blame you, not any more.' Sirket struggled for words. 'I did, I mean, at first. I mourned you and everyone was so upset. When I learned you weren't dead, I was so angry, and my mother Janne wouldn't tell me—' His Voice broke and a glistening tear ran down his face. 'Then she did tell me, but not all of it, I could tell, and that made me more angry still

'My lord.' Telouet appeared in the entrance, a darkshadow foiling between them.

'Yes.' Sirket and Kheda spoke in the same breath.

'I can see your steward going into your pavilion, Kheda,' the slave said quietly. 'He's looking for you.'

The warlord pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes and found his own face was wet. He drew a deep breath. 'Then it's time to smile, Sirket, and make believe we haven't a care in the world. We'll go and enjoy whatever intricate follies Itrac's musicians have rehearsed for us and then we'll come and read the new-year stars with my lords of Redigal and Ritsem, and Ulla Safar if he deigns to join us.'

And I will be lying through my teeth as I pluck spurious justification from the stars for what I intend to do regardless. And tomorrow will be the last day I'll feign and mislead anyone like that.

'Yes, my father.' Sirket's voice was unwavering as he wiped tears from his own cheeks.

'I am so proud of you.' Kheda laid a hand on the youth's shoulder as they stood in the open doorway. 'I want you to know that.'

'I won't fail you,' Sirket promised fervently. The moonlight gilded his determined face, unexpectedly strengthening his resemblance to Janne.

'I won't be long.' Kheda encouraged him with a gentle push. 'I have to write a note for one of my shipmasters.'

Sirket strode away, Telouet at his heels. Kheda slipped back into the vestibule and took the lamp from its niche. He carried it carefully into the black shadows of the western hall. Chazen Sard's collection of star circles gleamed dully on the walls. 'Velindre?'

'He didn't see me.' Her voice came out of the darkness. 'I was ready to disappear but he stayed by the stairs.' She emerged into the dim light, indistinct in her loose grey clothes. 'I heard you tell him you'll be leaving with me. I'm glad you've come to your senses.'

'We'll see about that. I need to write a note for the

Brittle Crab'sshipmaster.' Kheda set the lamp on a table and opened a drawer, searching for reed paper, pen and ink.

'What's so urgent?' Velindre came forward another pace.

'I want a hawk-handler to bring down one of Ulla Safar's courier doves. I'm not going with you until I have some idea of what he's intending.' Kheda began writing. 'You can carry this for me and stay out in the lagoon on the Reteul when you're done. Then stay away. I don't want you here when we come to read the stars at midnight.'

'Ulla Safar is planning to leave here at first light, him and his whole retinue.' Velindre surprised the warlord with her ready knowledge. 'One of your mariners came here looking for you earlier, from the Green Turtle. He'd overhead Safar's men whispering on the beach. He recognised me from last year, so knew I could be trusted with the news.'

'Did he?' Kheda stared at her, not overly pleased.

'So I bespoke my associate to ask Risala if she had any idea why Ulla Safar is sailing north,' the magewoman continued. 'She says there's rumour that the people want Ulla Orhan to overthrow his father.'

'Yes, I know,' Kheda said tersely. 'You worked magic, here, with so many visitors in the residence? Did anyone see you doing anything suspicious?'

'No.' Velindre shrugged. 'Trust me, Kheda - I've no wish to give up my skin to decorate your doorposts. The important thing is that Ulla Safar is going to be far too busy with his own affairs to threaten Chazen or anywhere else. Now you just need to find some justification for your departure and we can go. I've found endless obscure divinations for you to play with.' She gestured into the darkness and Kheda saw the faint reflection of gold

tooling from a slack of books.

'We'll see.' Kheda finished writing and folded the reed paper. He found a stick of sealing wax and held it carefully in the flame of the lamp. 'Take this to the shipmaster of the Brittle Crab and then make yourself scarce. Meet me back here at dawn.'

If Safar is rushing back to scour all the Ulla islands for Orhan, I could call that a sign, to reassure Sirket. After all the conversations today, I know I can trust Daish and Redigal and Ritsem to be more concerned with their own affairs than with Chazen's, if I can only find some unexceptional reason for a brief absence.

'I am yours to command, my lord.' Velindre's reply was sharp with sarcasm.

'For the moment you had better be, for both our sakes.' Kheda let a blob of wax fall on the paper and used a sapphire seal ring he wore next to the uncut emerald to press it flat. 'And don't you dare work any more magic until we're well away from here. I'll come with you just as far as I must to find out if savages or dragons are threatening me and mine again from this wild isle beyond the horizon. As soon as we know what we're dealing with, you can use your magic to bring me straight back here. Me and Risala.'

And I might just believe in signs again if we find there's no threat and I can end my association with you and your magic once and for all.

CHAPTER SIX

It was a hunting party. They weren't hunting her but that didn't matter. If they caught her, she was fodder for whatever beast soared over these thorn-covered hills, to be taken bound hand and foot to whatever painted man held sway here. She needed to get back to the thorn scrub that cloaked the dry, broken slopes. It didn't offer the easy concealment of the dense green forests she had left behind but she could find somewhere to hide herself.

At least she had heard the men shouting to each other, their words punctuated with laughter. If they had been silently slipping through the grasses in pursuit of some quarry, they would have come across her digging in the dry river bed, forced down from the undulating ridge by her burning thirst. If they were intent on tracking some prey, they would have wondered who had disturbed the sand and followed any footprints she might have left. Scrambling to hide beneath the crumbling overhang of the river bank, the old woman drew in her scrawny arms and legs and crouched behind her mottled bundle of scurrier hide.

Earth pattered down in front of her face, falling from the underside of the overhang. A voice sounded loud above her head. It was a boy, his shadow long across the pale Itretch of sand between her and the darkness where she had been digging, drawn by the treacherous promise of water hidden from the devouring sun beneath the flood-carved channel. The boy shouted again. His

words sounded strangely made to her ears. She had never met anyone from this dry face of the crumpled hills where she had discovered that the giant forest trees couldn't sustain a foothold. She had never known anyone who had ventured this far.

The boy was still calling back over his shoulder. He had seen the darker upheaval out in the middle of the river bed and thought lizards had been digging there. He had hopes of newly buried eggs. The old woman heard scorn in the reply ringing back to the boy and allowed herself to breathe more easily. It seemed this hunting party had no need to dig for lizard eggs. The boy petulantly kicked a clod of earth threaded with grass roots off the overhang and rejoined the men of his village. Gradually their voices faded away into the distance.

The old woman's shrunken stomach griped with hunger at the thought of rich, meaty lizard eggs. Her mouth was as dry as the sand that clung to the crusted wrinkles around her sore, reddened eyes. She dared not return to the hole she had been digging. Faintly on the breeze she could hear the hunting party raising a hoarse, triumphant song. They were leaving the perilous grasslands for the comparative safety of the thorn-covered hills.

She waited for a long while, ignoring the pain in her cramped arms and legs. Finally, she crawled out from beneath the overhang, brushing the sandy earth off herself and looking warily around. The boy was no fool. There could well be lizards coming to dig in the sandy river bed. A hunting party could afford to shout out to each other and sing heedless songs. They had slings to deter attackers and clubs and spears to deal with anything that chose not to be deterred. Her digging stick wouldn't stop a big lizard making a meal out of her. All the same, she clutched it in her gnarled fist as she began walking cautiously upstream. She bent low to keep below the level

of the crumbling bank. There might be more hunters around, not singing their songs.

The river bed narrowed and sloped more steeply as the land rose up ahead of her. Tall grasses waved on either side and she halted more frequently, straining her ears to try to determine if the wind was chasing her or whether something more dangerous was stalking her unseen through the rustling clumps. She decided it was the wind but moved more quickly all the same. On the high banks to either side, the dark-green thorn scrub was growing more thickly now. She picked her way through a tumble of broken and dusty rocks scattered across the river bed by the last torrent of rainwater to scour this cleft. Some were as tall as she was and she could not have reached round any of them with both her arms. She kept a wary eye out for anything lurking in the shadows.

Lesser lizards watched her from the tops of the rocks as they basked splay-footed in the westering sun. She scowled back at them, their dark eyes glittering in the black stripes that ran down their blue hides from their noses to the tapered ends of their tails. One wasn't watching her, though, its eyes half-closed as its head bobbed up and down in mindless enjoyment. It was on a low rock that she could reach. Lizard meat was as good as lizard eggs. The old woman bent slowly down and found a heavy rock that fitted her fist. As she straightened up, her protesting knees gave a loud snap and the sun-drowsed lizard darted away with all the rest.

She closed her eyes tight, furiously begrudging the trrtiH forcing themselves out between her sparse, gritty lashes Opening her eyes, she hurled the useless rock viciously at an uncaring boulder. It bounced back to strike Another ruck and rolled over a bed of broken rubble. The rattling crack of stone in the sunken river bed startled her buck to her senses. That had been a foolish thing to do.

She couldn't risk drawing unfriendly eyes or ears this way, of man or animal.

Hampered by her unwieldy bundle, she hurried upstream, the empty gourd in its sling bouncing on her hip. Her breath was rasping in her throat and her heart was pounding. Unreasoning panic threatened to overwhelm her. She had to force one trembling, dusty foot with its cracked and flaking toenails in front of the other. Finally she reached the steep wall of the dry cataract she had come across earlier, which had tempted her down into the flatter land, tormented as she was by thirst.

The thorny forest grew thick on either side of the crumbling banks. Knife plants flourished in bushy clumps of green and brown blades. Fat, fleshy spine plants sprawled among the rocks of the cataract, pale yellow-green and studded with thick black barbs, smug and impenetrable. Thorn spikes rose up from their nests of tangled roots and immature stems. Dark green and glossy, twice as high as a man was tall, they were scaled like the leg of a monstrous bird, each flat leaf tipped with a vicious prickle. Here and there, one was topped with long, narrow flowers that clawed at the sky like talons, crimson as blood.

The sun was sinking. She had to get out of the river bed before night fell and more dangerous creatures than the blue and black lizards emerged from their lairs with the darkness. She had to get up into the thorn forest to find herself a thicket to hide in while she still had enough daylight left to weave its branches around herself. She had to do that without pricking herself with spines that would catch in her flesh to fester and poison her. She must avoid the slicing leaves that would scent the night air with her blood and draw predators that could rip apart a thorn thicket.

The old woman realised she was whimpering.

Something rustled up above and she smelled a damp,

musky odour. The old woman ducked behind a trailing mass of roots hanging over the edge of the cataract where a thorn spike had been half washed away by a wet-season downpour. The noises up above faded as whatever creature it had been took some unseen path away through the ferocious landscape.

As she clung to the roots, the old woman realised that the thorn spike was in no immediate danger of falling into the dry cataract as it waited out the endless days of the heat. The half-exposed roots clung grimly to the earth supporting them, offering hand- and footholds. She choked on a sob of relief and began climbing painfully upwards, her bundle awkwardly crushed between her chest and the dry, dusty earth. She scrambled, panting, onto a small barren expanse of the river bank between two sprawls of yellow spiny plants and forced herself to consider what she must do next.

If she stopped, she would die - and more quickly in this harsh landscape than she might have done in the green forest. So she was determined not to stop, not to die, not until lack of food or water left her too far gone to care.

She saw a way through the low malice of the fat spiny leaves and edged along, sliding her feet through the dust to avoid treading on some crippling barb. Beyond the spread of yellow spiny plants she found a well-worn track and saw that patches of thorny brush had been stripped for firewood here and there. There was a village somewhere close by. Perhaps that was where that hunting party hud come from. She followed the path unwillingly, looking for some lesser track that might lead her away from discovery and capture and death.

The track curved along the hillside, the tall tips of the thorn spikes level with her head on one side where the ground fell away so steeply. Parched rock broke through the dusty soil and curved up like a wave on her other

hand, its crest bristling with knife plants. The old woman strained her ears for any sound of people, her eyes darting in all directions.

The path divided at the end of the stretch of rock. One fork led downhill, threading through clusters of truly enormous thorn spikes. Little yellow birds fluttered around the crimson flowers, perching lightly on the blooms as they feasted on the nectar. Deft russet birds with forked tails pursued the clouds of insects drawn by the heady scent.

The other path led uphill through clumps of knife plants and spiny sprawls of fat yellow leaves and disappeared around another blunt shoulder of rock jutting out from the starveling ground. The shadows were lengthening and darkening. It would soon be night.

The old woman looked nervously from one route to the other. Going downhill would offer more immediate concealment among the thorn spikes, but that path looked dangerously well trodden. Safety lay in solitude. Gritting her teeth against the hot agony in her shoulders, she wrapped her arms around her bundle and scrambled along the upper path. She rounded the rocky outcrop and stumbled to a halt, her bare feet slipping in the slick dust. The rock had concealed a deep gash in the land and she had been lucky not to fall from the ledge she was standing on. Below, a mass of thorny forest lurked in tangled green shadows. She had no hope of reaching it.

Voices floated up from the gloom beneath and firelight flared. The old woman's heart pounded in her bony chest as she shrank back against the rock. She stumbled, falling backwards into a dark void she hadn't thought to look for. Biting her lip against the pains shooting through her back, she lay still on the stony cave floor and watched sparks drifting up from the fire below. She heard wood and dead thorn spikes being tossed into the makeshift hearth and the firelight strengthened.

The rocky ledge's shadow cut a black line across the cave wall. Above it, figures danced in the flickering light. The old woman pressed her hands to her mouth to stifle a moan of despair as she gazed at the fierce faces and dread beasts drawn out of the curves of the rock with charcoal and ochre and stains of coloured clay. She had fallen into a painted cave.

Down below, some amicable dispute arose over who precisely had played the greater part in the day's successes. The succulence of roasting meat floated up on the night air. The smell set the juices in the old woman's mouth running where it had been dry with dread. It was a hunting party, she realised. Was it the hunting party who had nearly run across her earlier? Did it matter? She sat upright and waited, silent, biting her dry and cracked lips as the good-humoured conversations were replaced by the muffled intensity of eating, broken only by brief exchanges.

She closed her eyes to the stark, accusing gaze of the cave paintings and concentrated on the muted sounds of the men at their meal. They were alive and relishing their food. She was still alive. She would be dead if anyone found her in this painted cave, but her life was forfeit anyway if she was captured. While she was alive, she could hope for another day, and another after that.

Her silent defiance faltered at a new thought. How had the men lit the fire that was cooking their prey? Had one of them been carrying an ember in a hollow bone tightly sealed with mud? Or did they have a painted man with them, to summon up a flame with a snap of his fingers?

She listened and dared to hope. Would they sound so carefree if painted man was with them? No one laughed like that with a painted man at hand, jealous of his dignity and demanding that all obey him. She lay down, pillowing her matted grey head on her bundle. If the hunting party

didn't have a painted man with them, they wouldn't be climbing up to this painted cave. She would just have to stay here till they left. Exhaustion overcame her fear of the unseen men below in the gully and dulled the pain of her aching bones, and she dozed.

When some unknown noise woke her, she was startled to realise she had slept for some considerable while. Even in the cave she could feel the settled chill of deep night. Slowly, stiffly, she shuffled to the edge of the cave, trusting in the concealing darkness. The eyes of the sky were high above, both still half-closed but shedding enough light to show her that the unseen hunters had gone. Their fire had been doused with sand, the detritus of their feast strewn around.

The old woman grabbed her bundle and hurried back along the treacherous path as quickly and quietly as she could. Something skittered away from her to be lost in the blackness as she made her way along the lower path. As she had hoped, it curled around to the hunting party's temporary hearth. This was a regular stopping point judging by the old, dry bones piled up in the hollow beneath the rocky outcrop. Perhaps their village wasn't so close, if they had to travel through the night to get home. The journey had obviously been worth it, though. A sizeable scurrier carcass sprawled half-dismembered across the remains of the fire, covered with sandy earth. It was already drawing ants and tiny black lizards to scour its bones clean.

The old woman grabbed a well chewed shoulder-blade bone and scraped the earth off the carcass. There was still meat to be had and marrow in the bones. Those men must have hunted well indeed to be so wasteful with this kill.

The makeshift hearth was still hot beneath her hands. Sparks floated up and sullen cinders glowed sluggishly. The old woman prodded the heap of old broken bones

cautiously lest snakes or stingers were lurking there. Snatching at windblown dead leaves and twisted scraps of dry hide, she piled them onto the brightest of the embers, crouching to blow softly on the tinder. A fledgling flame shed enough light to show half-burned scraps of wood and she soon had a modest fire burning.

What would she do if someone saw the firelight in the night and came to see what it was? Well, she would die, most likely, but she would die with a full belly if she possibly could. Untying her bundle, the old woman took out the lump of black stone and used the bone hammer to make herself a new cutting shard. She crouched over the scurrier carcass and, slicing and pulling, got a rib loose. The hunters had feasted on the creature's meatier limbs and flanks. Passing the rib swiftly through the fire seared away the importunate ants and she gnawed the remaining flesh as best she could. Then she smashed the bone open with the lump of black stone and sucked out the meagre marrow, relishing its richness.

Her spirits rose. She took a burning stick and went over to a yellow spiny plant. Satisfied no snakes were lurking beneath the plump leaves, she used the shoulder-blade bone to hold down a succulent barbed leaf and carefully cut it away from the main stem with her shard of stone. Careful not to catch herself on the curved black spines, she carried the fat leaf to her little fire. Sap hissed and the spines crackled and flared in the flames. While she wailed for the leathery skin to blacken and soften, the old woman set about scavenging the rest of the meat from the scurrier's ribs.

Movement in the darkness at the edge of the firelight caught her eye, Movement and black shining eyes.

Something had been drawn to the scent of blood and meat.

The old woman flung the broken rib bone she was sucking on at the eyes. They disappeared with a scuffling sound

and something else ran, too. Something had been foraging in a newly dug pit over there. Getting reluctantly to her feet, the old woman went to investigate.

She discovered that one of the hunting party had been digging up the swollen roots of a black-fingered plant. No wonder this was a favoured halting place on their journey home. Working more by feel than sight, she quickly cut a string of the bulbous tubers loose and carried them back to her little fire. Head back and mouth open, she held up the roots and sliced into them, gulping down the woody-tasting water they were hoarding. Thirst finally quenched, she tossed the fibrous hollow tubers onto the fire where they hissed and burned as she returned to the scurrier carcass.

By the time she was contemplating how best she might break open the scurrier's hips to get at the marrow in there, the spiny yellow leaf was soft and charred. Using the shoulder-blade bone to save her fingers, she hauled it onto the cooler earth and sliced it open with her new stone shard. Peeling back the slimy skin, she blew on the bland, pale pulp to cool it a little and pulled out as many of the harsh fibres as she could. Then she began eating, sucking at her fingers when the heat threatened to scald them.

When had she last eaten her fill like this? Not since the old man had been able to leave his hut. And there would be more meat to salvage when the daylight came. She could cut more yellow spiny leaves and lay them on the fire. She could pack the pulp into one of her gourds and fill the other with water from the black finger plants' roots. Finally scraping the last of the pulp from the inner corners of the fat spiny leaf, she sat back and gazed sleepily at the flickering fire.

Something moved behind her in the darkness and hissed. A surge of fear restored her to full wakefulness and she scrambled to her feet, the shoulder-blade bone

held out defiantly before her. Whatever it was lurked just beyond the meagre light cast by the fire. Something else hissed and the first creature replied. Whatever it was, it wasn't alone.

The old woman gathered up her belongings with one hand, still clutching the bone. Not that she had much hope of fighting off anything that attacked. And if she fell asleep down here, she'd wake up to find a lizard chewing off her foot or her hand. If she woke up at all.

But where could she go in the middle of the night, with no light to guide her, in this unknown land? The chittering of some night flyer drew her eyes upwards. She looked reluctantly at the dark edge of the cave mouth just visible above the out-thrust ledge in the rock.

She could sleep in the painted cave. She'd set foot in there, albeit by accident, and had not died of it - not yet, anyway. She'd even fallen asleep in there. Was she going to die of it? If so, what more did she have to fear? If not, well, that would be something to think about. And if she didn't die in her sleep, she'd be hungry when she woke

up.

Defiance lending her strength as well as courage, she ignored the menacing noises lurking in the shadows and swiftly cut two more of the yellow spiny leaves. She wedged the fat slabs into the dying fire. Perhaps the lizards and ants would leave her some of the softened pulp to salvage in the morning.

The hisses in the darkness were growing louder, with something growling deep in its throat. She had to be alive to see the morning. The old woman drew a deep breath and snatched up her bundle, trying not to run. The old man had always said that if you ran, you'd be chased. Not that she could have run in the darkness that engulfed her as soon as she left the firelight.

She picked her way painstakingly back along the path

to the fork and retraced her steps to the painted cave. Steeling herself, she went inside, deliberately this time. No beast appeared to immolate her. No painted man peeled himself off the walls to strike her down. She lay down, using her bundle for a pillow once again, and cradled her full belly. Trying not to listen to the snarling quarrels between whatever creatures had come to scavenge the rest of the scurrier, she went back to sleep. If a painted man did appear to wreak his revenge on her, she'd be dead before she woke.

CHAPTER SEVEN

You'll be fit for nothing if you don't get some sleep tonight.' Itrac tilted her head quizzically as she joined Kheda beneath a cluster of nut palms between his pavilion and the observatory. 'Beyau said you've been out here since before dawn.' A silver-ornamented band of turtleshell pushed her unbound black locks off her face. Close-cut trousers of soft pink flattered her long legs beneath a loose scarlet tunic and a gauzy mantle embroidered with trumpet flowers.

Kheda smiled briefly at her. 'I wanted to see Ulla Safar's galley safely out of the lagoon.'

'Was there any portent?' A faint crease appeared between Itrac's precisely plucked brows.

'No,' Kheda said slowly. 'And we could come to no firm conclusions as to the meaning of the new-year stars.'

So I have no lies ready to persuade you that I must leave here, just for a little while. Will I have to stay? What will Velindre say to that? What will happen to Risala if I don't go with her? Would she go off with these wizards alone, without me? I wouldn 't put it past Velindre to come up with barefaced lies to convince her that's what I want her to do.

'Did Olkai and Sekni sleep well?' he asked briskly.

'Yes, thankfully.' Itrac gestured towards an open-sided silken tent erected on an islet across the sparkling lagoon. Blush coloured hangings fluttered in the breeze that Carried laughter across the water. 'Are you going to join us for breakfast?'

'Naturally, my lady.' Kheda smoothed his white silk

tunic, bright with coppery embroidery mimicking red-lance fronds.

'It would be more fitting if you had a body slave at your heels.' Itrac began walking. 'Jevin says you've sent those hopefuls to join the swordsmen in their morning drills again. How do you propose to choose between them if you don't let them attend you?'

'Their practice yesterday was marred by possible ill omen.' Kheda looked sternly over his shoulder at the hapless slave. 'I want Ridu to get their measure without distraction, now that Ulla Safar has gone. As soon as we see some clearer portent, I'll make my choice.'

A truth that hides a lie and a still deeper truth. I won't see an omen telling me which new slave to take because I no longer fall for such foolish self-deception.

'Very well, my lord.' Jevin's self-possession faltered a little.

Itrac looked out across the lagoon. 'Then let's join our remaining guests for breakfast.'

'As you wish, my lady.' Kheda cordially offered her his arm. As they walked on together, Kheda noted the discreetly approving glances of residence slaves and servants.

These islanders of Chazen adore Itrac, and not just for standing by them after disaster overtook Chazen Saril's rule. She could have refuted her marriage after such ill omens and lost herself in some obscurity where no one could have found her, even if her birth domain refused her sanctuary out of ignorant fear of the taint of magic.

The people of Chazen even approve of me, though I wasn 't born to their domain and took power under such dubious circumstances. What else could they do, after I rescued them from such evils? And now I have supposedly secured their peace and prosperity with my astute rule guided by earthly portents and readings of the heavens.

What would I tell them if I knew the savages were about to invade again, with or without a dragon? What could they do? Wouldn't they be better left in ignorance?

As they crossed the walkways towards the tent, Redigal Litai and Ritsem Zorat appeared, running across a beach of white coral sand and stripping off their tunics. They dived into the sea barely a breath apart. As their dark arms cut the water to white foam, the Redigal wives abandoned their cushions within the shade of the breakfast tent and came to shout their encouragement.

'Who won?' Itrac shaded her eyes with one hand as she tried to follow the swimmers disappearing under a bridge.

'Litai.' As the boys clambered up onto the planks, Kheda saw the taller boy bow low to the younger.

'That's a pleasant portent for him,' Itrac said cautiously as they walked on. 'Could you and the other lords truly make nothing of the new-year stars?'

'A lack of omens isn't necessarily bad news. It may just mean one has to look further afield for guidance.' Kheda did his best to make this sound like an idea that had just occurred to him.

'You see nothing to guide you close at hand?' Itrac sounded more surprised than alarmed.

'Until I do, I must let my duty guide me—' Kheda broke off as he saw Sirket leaving the Daish contingent's luxurious accommodations.

And my duty has always been to safeguard my people, my family. All of my family.

Itrac looked at Sirket with keen pity. 'The omens for Daish are clear enough and surely undeserved.'

'Has anyone deserved the sufferings visited on us all these past two years?' Kheda said unguardedly.

We delude ourselves looking for signs in the sky that promise certainty for the days ahead when the only certainty we might

have, for good or ill, can only come through me associating yet again with wizards. What am I to do, beyond getting Risala out of their clutches?

'My lord?' Itrac was looking at him, taken aback.

Kheda tried for a reassuring smile. 'Perhaps we will see something in the earthly compass today to clarify the puzzles of the heavens.'

'Let's hope so, my lord.' Itrac quickened her pace on the white path they had reached. 'We have had many wider portents of good fortune to sustain the whole domain,' she said bracingly, 'and there will be omens in the gifts our friends have brought for our daughters.'

'Indeed.' The warlord watched Redigal Litai and Ritsem Zorat dive into the water again, swimming across the narrow strait to beckon to Sirket as he walked across a bridge. Sirket turned to say something to Telouet, his hand going to the gold chain belting his violet tunic. The slave shook his head firmly and Sirket waved Litai and Zorat away with a rueful shrug.

You 're playing very different games, my son, while they 're still free to enjoy their boyhood.

'I hope Mirrel Ulla remembered to do her duty by little Olkai and Sekni before Safar dragged her away,' Kheda asked suddenly.

'Grudgingly.' Itrac frowned.

'What was Ulla's gift?' asked Kheda.

'A pair of swords and daggers for each of them to bestow upon their body slaves when that day comes,' Itrac said thoughtfully.

'The blades are watered steel, my lord,' volunteered Jevin, 'as fine as any Ulla swordsmiths have ever made.'

'I will have to see what can be read in the patterns in the metal,' Kheda said neutrally.

A double-edged gift in every sense, given the vast and contrary breadth of lore concerning blades.

'Let's hope our daughters both grow to such beautiful girlhood that they warrant body slaves to match such handsome swords,' Itrac said resolutely.

'To remind their many suitors to pay them all due courtesies.' Kheda managed a wry smile.

'I shall drive a dagger into the nursery doorpost for each of them,' Jevin assured him, 'for the protection that bestows.'

They reached the bridge leading to the isle with the blush-coloured tent. Itrac stopped and looked Kheda straight in the eye. 'Ulla Safar is gone, taking all his vile-ness with him. Our other guests wish our daughters nothing but good, so let's enjoy this breakfast and the rest of the day.'

'As you command, my lady.' Kheda looked away to search the inner islands. 'It seems we're still waiting for Redigal Coron and Ritsem Caid.'

'There's Coron.' Itrac pointed and Redigal Coron waved back blithely, faithful Prai one pace behind.

'And Ganil's got Caid out of bed.' Kheda saw Telouet draw Sirket's attention to the approaching Ritsem warlord and Sirket slowed to allow him to catch up. The two men walked on more slowly, dark heads close in conversation. Litai and Zorat followed with discreet interest.

How easy it proved to leave our debate last night so inconclusive. Coron has never yet taken the initiative in any such discussion, while Sirket was too preoccupied as well as too conscious of his recent elevation to warlord to insist on his interpretations. I only hope Caid wasn 't too irritated with me casting doubts on all his efforts to read some meaning into the sky.

He was relieved to hear that the Ritsem warlord was talking about something entirely different as he approached with Sirket.

'. .. And now we have Barbak Moro's wives making overtures. They're eager to work their alchemy on our iron and give us a handsome share in the steel they win from it,' Caid concluded triumphantly.

Sirket looked more cautious. 'Looking to the south is a new twist for Barbak.'

'Because Toc Faile has married another of his sisters into Barbak's household.' Ritsem Caid grew still more animated. 'I know Sain Daish has largely withdrawn from trade to attend to Daish's younger children but she's another of Toc Faile's sisters and ties of blood are never broken. Use her good offices to renew your links to Toc and come to an understanding with Barbak through Faile. Then we can persuade Endit Fel to turn his back on Ulla—'

'We can discuss this later.' Sirket cut Caid off apologetically. 'My lady Itrac.' He bowed low.

'Good morning.' The Ritsem warlord bowed in turn and then grinned at Kheda. 'If we can bring the Mivai domain into line, we'd have a solid bulwark all along Ulla Safar's eastern sea lanes. What do you say to that?'

Redigal Coron arrived in time to hear this suggestion. 'Have Taisia talk to Hinai Redigal.' He waved a hand towards the women laughing together in the roseate shade of the pavilion.

Kheda nodded his understanding. 'One of her sisters married out of the Seik domain into Mivai.'

Threaten Ulla Safar's eastern borders all you want, Ritsem Caid, and do it with my blessing. I want as many things as possible distracting him before he thinks to look south and sees me gone, even for a little while.

'You can discuss such things after breakfast.' Smiling, Itrac nevertheless ordered an end to the men's discussion.

As they entered the open-sided tent ideally placed to catch the morning's cooling breeze, Kheda noted Janne's

absence from the gathering of wives. 'I hope your lady mother isn't indisposed this morning, Daish Sirket.'

'No.' Sirket's face was as unemotional as his father's. 'Here she comes.'

Everyone turned to watch Janne and her slave crossing the lagoon. Birut was carrying something large and square wrapped in white cloth. Janne swept ahead of him, elegant in a plain grey silk dress. As she moved, the side-slit skirt revealed her elegant legs and Kheda noted how the gathered bodice subtly enhanced her voluptuous bosom.

After playing the dowdy dowager, you 've decided to remind everyone just how stunning you could look at the height of your influence. Why is that?

'What do you suppose she's got there?' Ritsem Zorat speculated incautiously as he and Redigal Litai helped themselves to skewers of spiced turtle meat.

'Daish's gifts to Chazen's new daughters.' Taisia Ritsem surprised her son with a minatory glare. Her misty mantle embroidered with butterflies fluttered over a sleeveless tunic and wide trousers of pale-yellow silk. The Redigal wives wore flowing gowns in differing shades of blue brocaded with emerald vines, their jewels discreet gold-mounted sapphires.

Beyau appeared at Kheda's side. 'Honeyed curds and pitral?'

'Thank you.' Kheda accepted the unwanted bowl and took a spoonful. The aromatic honey cut through the tartness of the curds and complemented the fainter sweetness of the sliced pitral fruit. 'I hope Ulla Safar didn't manage to leave any slave behind, not even one begging for sanctuary from his brutality?' he asked the steward in a low voice.

'None of them even tried,' Beyau confirmed. 'The Yellow Serpent is following them.'

'I want to know exactly where the Ulla galley makes landfall before leaving our waters.' Kheda dug into his breakfast. 'Have all the village spokesmen send word of any unexpected merchants or poets turning up, or seers. Especially seers. I hope Daish Sirket's people will be as alert as the Ulla ship passes through their waters.' He shot Beyau a significant look.

The steward glanced swiftly at Telouet to show he had taken Kheda's meaning. 'I'm sure they will be, my lord.'

'We would benefit from knowing more about Ulla Orhan's current situation,' Kheda continued in a low tone, 'but Orhan will hardly be trusting anyone he doesn't know to be a true friend just at present.' He gave the steward another significant look.

'Indeed, my lord.' Beyau looked a little puzzled.

Will you believe I'm seeking news of Orhan if I disappear for a little while and return with Risala, whom you know to be my link with all Chazen 's eyes and ears? But that's not an excuse I can offer up for wider consumption.

After a swift glance to be sure the Chazen servants were keeping her guests well served with food and drink, Itrac stretched out her hands to welcome the first lady of Daish. 'Come and have some breakfast, my lady.'

'Thank you.'Janne graciously accepted a plate of sliced pitral and sard berries from a maidservant.

'Now we're all here.' Moving to the centre of the rich red carpet covering the palm matting laid on the sandy ground, Itrac claimed everyone's attention with a winning smile. 'Moni, would you like to show us what tokens you've brought for little Olkai and Sekni?'

Swaddled in white silk, Sekni was sleeping peacefully as her nurse cuddled her close on a cushion in a corner of the tent. Olkai was quietly wakeful in the arms of Touai's elder daughter, sucking at the silver bangle around her chubby wrist.

Moni Redigal smiled at the twins as she summoned her personal slave with a snap of her fingers. The swordsman knelt to present her with a finely carved casket of white halda wood. 'We bring your daughters opals, talisman gem of the Greater Moon, for intuition and understanding, most especially of dreams.' Moni opened the coffer, turning it so everyone could see the unset gems nestling in pale-blue velvet within. 'For Olkai, who is heir, we offer the white, for balance and truthfulness. For Sekni, who is to be her sister's support, here and wherever marriage might take her, we offer the black, for inner strength and self-knowledge.'

Even in the muted light filtering through the soft silk, iridescent flecks glowed within the stones. There were ten of each, pale and dark, all the size of Kheda's thumbnail.

Moni closed the box with a muted click and handed it to Itrac. 'Of course, opals need careful tending if they are not to spoil, just like children. Let that be a token of your duty, as parents and for Chazen as a whole. All children are in part the responsibility of the whole domain.'

'This is a handsome gift, my lady.' Itrac passed the casket to Jevin and embraced Moni.

'Redigal is glad to make it.' Moni kissed her cheek fondly.

'Ulla Safar will be spitting venom when he hears about this,' Kheda murmured to Beyau.

'I fear our gift hardly matches such munificence.' Taisia Ritsem held out a hand and her slave helped her to her feet. A second slave who had been patiently waiting outside the tent came and set a tall box covered in reddish leather on the floor before her. Taisia opened the lid and lifted out two lanterns of brilliantly polished silver. One was small, no larger than kheda's clenched fist, while the other was twice the length of his hand. The smaller one had ovals

clear as glass set into its sides, while the larger was faceted with translucent misty-white shell.

'We have found crystal oysters in our rivers once again.' Taisia showed both pieces off.

'A rare find, and a splendid omen,' Redigal Coron congratulated Ritsem Caid.

'It's no myth that the young oysters live in shells so clear their beating hearts can be clearly seen. It's only as they grow older that the shell becomes even barely opaque,' Taisia continued, smiling at the murmurs of surprise and approval from the gathering. 'As it's said the light from such lanterns reveals truth, we offer a pair, large and small, for each new daughter of Chazen. We hope they will always see clearly by their light, especially in matters of affection since every oyster can be read as a sign of the female heart.' She grinned. 'And naturally, we trust that they will both always see their dealings with Ritsem in the most favourable light.' She set the lanterns back in their box as everyone laughed.

'My lady of Daish?' Itrac turned to Janne, who composedly passed her empty fruit plate to an unobtrusive maidservant.

Everyone fell silent at the realisation that Janne hadn't laughed. 'My lady of Chazen,' she began slowly, 'I trust you'll forgive me for not bringing my gift within this tent. It's not the happiest of offerings but I couldn't think of anything more appropriate.'

Kheda noted that Sirket was looking resolutely at his dusty feet.

What by all the stars in the skies are you up to now?

There wasn't a sound in the tent beyond the idle flapping of silk and the shuffle of some slave's nervous feet on the palm matting.

Itrac's smile turned a little brittle. 'Please do explain.'

Janne looked out over the lagoon to the westernmost

reef. 'A domain is guided by its lord, who is guided in turn by the omens he reads in the heavenly and earthly compasses, supported by all the wisdom his forefathers have recorded. Only one divination is a woman's prerogative and that is the reading of dreams, bound as we are by the plaited threads of marriage, blood and birth. The dreams of a daughter born to rule must be more potent than any other.'

She paused as everyone looked to the far island where a tall wall with a single gate ringed the solid pillar of stone where open stairs spiralled up to the platform where the most honoured dead were laid.

Turning back to Itrac, Janne's voice strengthened. 'You named your elder daughter for Olkai, who was first wife and beloved friend to so many of us in the days of Chazen's peace and prosperity before the upheavals of these last few years. Those upheavals cost Olkai her life and cost Chazen even more dearly, in that she died as she came seeking refuge in Daish, despite all we could do for her—' Emotion apparently overcame Janne and she closed her eyes for an instant.

Kheda did his best to hold his own feelings in check.

Despite all I could do for her, my knowledge of healing little more than a curse when I saw how little chance Olkai had of surviving such horrendous burns. Are you looking to remind everyone of my failure, Janne?

'Olkai was so cruelly cut down in the full bloom of her wisdom and beauty.' Janne opened her clear, dark eyes. 'Sekni, too. Yet their virtues remain, as the perfume of the fallen flower lingers. Sekni's bones were lost among the carnage but Olkai's remains at least have lain atop a Daish tower of silence. Their presence has honoured our domain, but the time has come to return such vital talismans to Chazen. As you raise your daughters, you will be guided by your dreams, Itrac, and

in time, they too will sleep beneath the towers to see what truths may come through the mists of sleep and dawn. So your sister-wife Olkai's bones are Daish's gift to Chazen's newest daughters.'

Janne gestured towards Birut, waiting patiently just outside the tent, and he withdrew the white cloth from a brass-bound coffer. Kheda saw it draw thoughtful glances from the other warlords and ladies. The Ritsem warlord was looking tranquil enough, though grief for his dead sister darkened his eyes and his knuckles showed pale as he clasped Taisia's comforting hand.

'A most considerate gift, if wholly unexpected.' Itrac's voice was tight. 'Chazen is most grateful to the Daish domain.'

So this is why you were wondering what I had done with Chazen Saril's corpse, Janne. And now everyone else will be thinking along those lines. Not that anyone will ask me, because warlords don't ask one another such questions. Even Itrac hasn't asked me.

Kheda shot a swift glance at Sirket and saw utter bemusement on the young warlord's face. A knot beneath his breastbone eased.

If Janne means mischief, you 've no part in it, my son. Are you looking to make mischief here, Janne, or are you truly sincere? Either way, you 've given me a most unexpected opportunity, my lady, to twist this to my own purposes. There was a time when I would have taken this for a most powerful omen. Now I just have to manage not to choke on my own hypocrisy.

'I am more grateful to Daish for this gift than you can imagine, my lady.' Feeling curiously calm, Kheda stepped forward. His words broke the tense silence beneath the silken canopy. He smiled warmly at Janne and was rewarded with a flicker of uncertainty across her flawless face. 'Olkai was ever a woman generous with her wisdom

and her affection.' Kheda gestured towards the distant tower of silence. 'We of Chazen gratefully recall her virtues, as we cherish too our memories of Sekni who died at the hands of those foul invaders. Both women never faltered in their duty to the people of Chazen.' He took Itrac's hand and squeezed it tight. 'Just like Itrac Chazen, whose faithfulness to the peace of the past has been wholly vindicated by Chazen's present prosperity and the future promise of her twin daughters.'

Muted agreement ran around the gathering and Itrac held her head high, a threat of tears retreating as the colour rose on her cheekbones.

'I am not so confident on my own account.' Kheda's sombre words instantly silenced the sympathetic murmurs. 'I have faced difficult decisions over these last few years. I allowed you all to believe Ulla Safar had indeed killed me, believing it necessary at the time. My choices were vindicated as I led Chazen to victory over magic-wielding savages coming out of the empty ocean to plague these islands, but that doesn't alter the fact that my deceit laid undeserved suffering on the innocent children of Daish. I have paid for my deception - those children are now lost to me, as I found that my choices had bound me to Chazen.'

Not daring to risk catching Sirket's eye or Janne's, Kheda pressed on. 'I have been blessed with Itrac Chazen as my wife. We were able to evade the first dragon that came in the wild men's wake, and then to kill the second monster after it was wounded in its battle to slay the first. But in doing so, I led many brave men to their deaths.' He broke off to take a deep breath, looking out across the lagoon.

'Ulla Safar has chosen to leave us, so I can be frank with you all, as friends of Chazen. I am burdened by so many deaths laid to my account. I tell myself that the ledger is

balanced with the lives my choices have saved, but I still wonder if there might have been a better path for me to take that would have cost fewer lives and spared even a few some measure of pain. I have come to suspect this is why I am failing to see the omens that should guide me towards the best future for this domain, and in the choices I must make as husband, and as father to these new daughters of Chazen. My life has taken a new direction with their birth and I do not wish to go astray.'

Let's hope the ring of truth in that drowns out the lies I've been so carefully preparing. I won't find a better time to deceive you all, thanks to this unexpected assistance Janne Daish has handed me.

'I have been tempted to go into seclusion to meditate on these things, but I hoped the new-year stars would give me some guidance without that proving necessary. Yet we could not agree on our interpretations last night, my lords. Now I see the sign I have been looking for in the return of Olkai Chazen's bones.' He gestured towards the casket that Birut was guarding. 'This is a sign that it is Itrac who will find answers to her questions in this residence, in her dreams beneath the tower of silence. Now I see clearly that the heavens are telling me to look elsewhere. The Lesser Moon rides with the stars of the Sailfish, emblem of good fortune in voyaging, in the arc of the sky where travel leads to new knowledge. I must never forget that the twin moons will be symbols of these twin girls for Chazen throughout (heir lives. And the Greater Moon rides in the arc of honour where the stars of the Hoe remind us of every man's honest labour in service of family and domain that binds him to the land.'

He saw that Redigal Coron was about to say something, so turned away to gesture towards the south. 'All the other heavenly jewels are in arcs of the sky where the stars are beneath the horizon, which speaks of things

hidden from view. We couldn't see any potent conjunctions, yet the symmetry in the heavenly compass must signify something. The Amethyst that counsels humility rides in the arc of duty with the Winged Snake, symbol of deeds bringing things into the light.'

Is this what I have spent all my life doing, reading whatever was most welcome or useful into the meaningless patterns of the sky? Deluding myself and others? Whatever, I cannot stop now, not and get away with this.

'Beside it, the Diamond bringing clarity of purpose looks over the Horned Fish, symbol of nurturing in the arc promising omens for our children. Across that hidden half-circle, the Ruby promises strength and longevity in the arc of wealth, blessed with the Vizail Blossom that symbolises all our wives and daughters. Next to that, the Topaz that balances head and heart guides us towards new ideas, moving with the turn of the year into the arc of life where the stars of the Bowl promise not only sustenance for the body but food for thought as well.'

Kheda paused, blood pulsing in his throat. 'My lords, my friends, I must go in search of peace and solitude to come to terms with these past few years, to regain my perspective on the future. Now I understand why there has been no omen to guide me in the choice of a new body slave. I must do this alone. The omen of the return of these bones cannot be gainsaid.'

With everyone else stunned and silent, he turned to Itrac and caught her face in his cupped hands, kissing her. Embracing her, he drew her close, apparently burying his face in her neck. He spoke softly, for her ears alone.

'You have never asked me where Chazen Saril's bones lie, Itrac, and I honour you for that. But I fear I have dishonoured the domain with that secret. If I travel alone, I can bring his remains back to join Olkai's on the tower of silence and no one else need know.'

I would never have thought of this without Janne's gift. And the irony is it need not be a lie. I can bring Chazen Saril's bones back here. It's surprising how easy it is to weave truth and circumstance into a tissue of lies embroidered with a little wishful thinking.

Itrac stiffened in the circle of his arms. 'I have seen how troubled you have been, my husband, even though you have tried to hide it.-' She spoke loudly enough for the assembled warlords and ladies to hear clearly. Her voice was calm and level, though Kheda could feel her trembling. 'I believe you are right. This is something you must do for all our sakes.'

Kheda saw a single tear running down Janne's cheek. He covered his confusion by kissing Itrac's hair in apparent affection. 'I am honoured by your confidence in me, my lady.' He surprised her by unclasping her necklace of silver-mounted lozenges of turtleshell and deftly securing it around his own neck. 'Honour me with this talisman.'

Redigal Coron managed to find his tongue. 'We appreciate your confidence in us, my lord of Chazen.'

Kheda looked directly at him. 'We ask more than that of you all, my lord of Redigal. While I am gone, Chazen could be seen as vulnerable by any who wish the domain ill.' He managed a thin smile. 'Perhaps we can see an omen in Ulla Safar's unexpected departure, which allows me to be frank. We all know his malice of old, my lords. While I'm encouraged to learn that malevolence is being repaid with a host of troubles keeping him close lo home, 1 ask all of you to stand as Chazen's allies if his vicious eye turns this way. Who knows, I may learn something or see some portent that will be of benefit to us all in our dealings with him. More than that, I ask you not to wait for some move against my wife and daughters but to pre-empt any attack, if you learn of one.' He looked briefly at Beyau.

Make sure you let them know you suspect I'm going to try to make some contact with Orhan.

Ritsem Caid spoke up suddenly. 'Chazen can count on Ritsem's friendship and protection until your return.'

'There have been portents in Redigal advocating new honesty to accompany this new year,' Redigal Coron said slowly. 'I welcome your frankness, Chazen Kheda, and you may trust in Redigal's defence of your waters and your people while you seek new clarity for yourself.'

'You may treat our sea lanes as your own for purposes of trade,' Moni assured Itrac.

As Hinai added her agreement, Kheda saw Elio Redigal looking expectantly at Janne Daish. Janne looked blandly back at the Redigal wives before turning to her son, her face unreadable.

Sirket squared his shoulders. 'Given all that Daish owes the Chazen warlord and his lady, our promise of alliance is scant repayment. I offer it nevertheless and we'll make good our debt with ships and men if need be.'

'Your goodwill eases my mind more than you can know, much as I hope there'll be no need for anyone to raise arms in Chazen's defence.' Kheda was glad to be speaking the truth again. 'I'll take my leave of you, with my heartfelt thanks.'

'You're leaving now?' Ritsem Caid was quite taken aback.

'There's nothing to be gained by delay.' Kheda walked towards the nursemaids cradling Olkai and Sekni, Itrac at his shoulder.

Redigal Coron sounded uncertain. 'As long as one has taken appropriate time for reflection.'

Kheda took Olkai from her nurse and held her close, breathing in her soft, seductive scent. 'If I am to regain my faith in the future, I must put myself in its hands.'

/ am doing this for you, my new daughter, for you and

your sister, and for all my children and everyone else in this domain and Daish. Even if no one can know just what it is I'm doing.

He kissed Olkai's feathery dark hair and handed her back to her nurse, feeling a raw pain barely assuaged by the solid weight of Sekni replacing her in his arms.

'Where will you go?' Sirket asked with barely masked distress. 'You'll need a ship—'

'I know where I need to go. Do you see that small boat anchored over by the observatory?' Kheda looked up at Itrac as he kissed Sekni, still sleeping soundly, and handed her back to Touai's second daughter. 'It belongs to a zamorin scholar who brought me lore about dragons last year, lore that helped us find where they were laired after they had wounded each other in their battles. Now I understand the omen in the zamorin's unforeseen return. The boat is called the Reteul. Zorat, Litai, do you understand?'

Ritsem Zorat looked wide-eyed at him. 'The reteul is a bird of good omen,' he stammered, 'a reminder to trust in the past and hope in the future because each bird sings the same song as those that laid them in the egg and teaches it in turn to those as yet unhatched . . .' He fumbled to a halt and looked desperately at Redigal Litai.

'The birds of any one island share a particular song that no others know.' The youth twisted his hands around one another. 'We can see a good omen for your safe return in that.' His voice rose to a question as he looked desperately at his father.

Kheda smiled broadly at the other warlords. 'My lords of Redigal and Ritsem, you can be proud of your heirs. And even though I find I must leave, my lords, my ladies, please stay awhile to enjoy my lady Itrac's hospitality.' Kheda indicated the islands of the residence with an expansive hand. 'You're welcome to use my library

to help you divine whatever meaning the heavens hold for your own domains.' He looked from Coron to Caid and then around at the whole gathering. 'I hope to see you soon with a clearer understanding of what the future holds for Chazen.'

And I'll be going now, at once, while you 're all too stunned to really take this in. Before one of you comes up with all too many good reasons why I shouldn 't.

Seeing Itrac was too occupied with presenting a serene countenance to the gathering to speak, he kissed her swiftly and walked rapidly out of the pale-pink tent. He had crossed the first walkway towards the observatory isle before rapid footsteps came up behind him.

'My lord,' protested Beyau, 'let me see that this Reteul is properly supplied with food and fresh water. You can't be leaving without so much as a change of clothes—'

'Go back to my lady Itrac, Beyau.' Kheda kept his eyes on the path. 'She'll have ever more need of you while I am away and you've never failed in your duty to Chazen. Don't start now.'

Beyau halted, stricken. 'Yes, my lord.'

I'm sorry, Beyau, I know you don't deserve that, but I have to shake you off. I'll just have to share Velindre's wardrobe.

Stifling a wholly inappropriate smile at that notion, Kheda lengthened his stride and left the burly steward standing in the middle of the short bridge. Slaves and servants slowed in their tasks as he passed them, looking at each other with shrugs of incomprehension. Kheda ignored them all, heading straight for the Reteul rolling gently in the modest berth beyond the observatory.

Where is Velindre? She had better be aboard. We're only going to get away with this if we leave at once.

He jumped over the rail and landed on the Reteul's deck with a solid thump. A tanned and bony hand

instantly threw open the hatch to the single hold below. 'Who's there?' the magewoman barked.

'Stay down there.' Kheda saw that the sail was rigged and the little boat ready to depart. He moved quickly to unlash the ropes securing the Reteul to the mooring posts.

'What did you do?' the unseen magewoman asked. 'What are they all doing? I thought we were going to spend the day bamboozling everyone with divinations.'

'Circumstance played into my hands and I took the chance it offered,' Kheda said curtly. 'I've convinced everyone that I will be better off seeking insight on my own for a little while. For the moment, I hope everyone's busy agreeing with everyone else that this is plainly the only course open to me. That and reassuring Itrac that I haven't run mad,' he added caustically.

'So we're leaving before it occurs to anyone that you might be suffering from too much sun?' Velindre sounded amused.

Kheda moved to the long stern sweep and used it to push the little boat deftly out of the coral's embrace. 'Coron will spend the rest of the day in my library looking for omens that might explain my actions. Ritsem Caid won't do anything until he's thought through all the implications this might have for his current campaign to isolate and undermine Ulla Safar. With luck, Beyau will be sure to have Jevin let Ganil and Prai know that I am hoping to make some contact with Ulla Orhan while no one is looking to see what I'm doing.'

'We haven't time for any distractions like Orhan.' Velindre began climbing the ladder up from the hold. 'As soon as we sail west—'

'I'm sailing just as far as this burned isle where your associate is holding Risala,' Kheda said baldly. 'Then we'll discuss what we're doing next.'

Velindre stared at him. 'You said—'

'No,' Kheda cut her off. 'You presumed. This is as much as you're getting from me, Velindre, for the moment at least. Or do I anchor over there and go back to tell everyone I've changed my mind? I don't imagine anything will surprise them today.'

'Very well, my lord.' The magewoman's sarcasm was withering. 'Once we join up with Risala, we shall see, shan't we? Are we sailing straight to join her or do you want to circle a few islands to see if anyone's spies are tracing our wake?'

'If anyone sees us setting our course to the burned island, we'll hope they assume I'm revisiting events of these past two years in hopes of seeing my path to the future.' Kheda grunted as he strove to scull the boat into clear water. 'And I don't imagine Redigal Coron or Ritsem Caid will want to offer the insult of having me followed. More to the point, if they think I might find Orhan, or discover where he is, they'll want to be able to deny any such knowledge in good conscience if Ulla Safar does catch up with him and cut him into pieces.' He leaned into the oar again. 'The Daish domain is in such disarray that neither Sirket nor Janne will think to send curious eyes after me and Itrac certainly won't.' Kheda felt a qualm at his callous deceit. 'She thinks I'm going to retrieve Chazen Saril's bones and we agreed when we married that the wider domain shouldn't ever know where I laid him to rest, in case malcontents gathered there.'

Velindre sat on the edge of the hatch. 'How long will it take for word to reach Ulla Safar that you've gone off on your own again?'

'He doubtless has spies in Redigal and Ritsem.' Kheda slowed in his sculling to catch his breath. 'But they won't know anything until Taisia and Moni have enciphered the news for their courier doves and sent word to their

sister-wives. Then some covert bird has to fly north to Derasulla.' He looked at the nut palms to judge the prevailing breeze before fixing Velindre with a stern eye. 'Then you can use your magic to make sure there's no threat setting sail from Ulla waters before we discuss just what we do about this western isle of yours.'

'Naturally,' Velindre agreed with suspicious meekness.

Kheda looked warily at her for a moment. 'You had better see to that sail. I want to be well beyond the outer reef before it occurs to Redigal or Ritsem to look for a merchant galley flying their domain's pennant out on the trading beach.'

'Why would they do that?' Velindre went to adjust the ropes at the little boat's mast.

'To make note of every line and plank of this ship,' Kheda said succinctly. 'So they'll know you the next time they pass you on the sea lanes. And they'll be looking for you, make no mistake.'

'With the intention that I'd enjoy their hospitality until I'd given up everything I knew or suspected about where you might have gone?' Velindre suggested flippantly. 'Along with anything that might possibly explain this aberration of yours?'

'Just be grateful Ulla Safar isn't still here.' Kheda scowled. 'You wouldn't expect to escape him without being tortured to give up your secrets.'

'I heard enough tales about Safar on my travels.' Velindre shivered as she looked around the lagoon. 'Just let that oar trail in the water.'

Kheda felt the deck shudder beneath his feet. 'Magic?'

'None that anyone will notice,' Velindre assured him. 'I know better than that.'

'Just what have you learned about Aldabreshin attitudes to magic, after sailing the Archipelago for half a year?' The oar thrummed in his hands and Kheda realised

that a discreetly cooperative current was sweeping them towards the closest break in the outer reef.

'That largely theoretical prejudices have flowered into active hatred of all wizardry, thanks to the arrival of those wild men and the cruelty of their onslaught.' Velindre looked at the triangular sail and it bellied obediently with just enough wind to carry the Reteul forward. 'Which gives me reasons of my own to want to put an end to their predations.'

'And what would those be?' Kheda slid a sideways glance at her.

You sound as if you were born in these waters and even if you don't look like the rest of us, you 're convincing enough as azamorin slave of barbarian blood. But you 're more different from me and mine than even the most barbarous pale-skinned northerner from those unbroken lands. I mustn 't forget that.

She surprised him with her candid answer. 'I like the Archipelago, Kheda. Each domain has a fascinating history and poems and legends as elegant and sophisticated as the most accomplished mainland literature. I've met all manner of wise and friendly people, from highest rank to none. I'd like to be able to sail these waters without hiding who and what I am. I wish I could counter fable with some truths about us wizards from the north,' she added wryly. 'We mages of Hadrumal are nowhere near as numerous and as all-powerful as Aldabreshin tales make us out to be. We keep to ourselves much of the time, mostly debating how to win the respect due to our powers without striking such fear into the mundane populace that they turn on anyone suspected of magebirth. There's no hope of persuading you Archipelagans of the reality of wizardry if those wild mages reappear with all their vile abuses of magic. Come to that, if tales of the invasions here and of

dragons overflying these islands reach the mainland, I can see life for some of my associates there becoming far more uncertain.'

'How many wizards are there in the north?' Kheda wondered, not for the first time.

'Magebirth isn't that common.' Oblivious to his curious gaze, Velindre watched the foam framing their path through the outer reef. 'Think about those savages that invaded. Every wizard was backed by several hundred men without any magic within them. Those men must have had wives and mothers and sisters, and then you can count in the men too old to fight as well as children at their mother's knee.' She grinned with an irritating superiority. 'I don't think we need worry about finding wild wizards standing shoulder to shoulder on this unknown island.'

'I wouldn't bother counting the old and infirm.' Kheda raised his voice as they passed through waters noisy with surf. 'They get fed to the dragon.'

'Which is an obscenity every northern wizard would abhor,' Velindre said with sudden loathing. 'I've read enough Aldabreshin philosophy on my travels to know that your sages condemn the abuse of power, from warlords down to some swaggering bully of a village spokesman. We wizards of Hadrumal condemn the abuse of magical power just as thoroughly.'

'Condemning it is one thing.' Kheda hauled up the stern oar and stowed it by the side rail. 'Doing something about it is quite another. The philosophers are eloquent on that subject.'

'Which is why we should both want to see just what we're dealing with out in that savage land.' Velindre narrowed her eyes as the ship surged forward on the open sea, a strong wind filling the sail with scant need for magic. 'You have to come with us, Kheda. You've done the most

difficult bit — getting away from Chazen. You can't waste this opportunity.'

'We'll discuss it when I see that Risala is safe and well.' Kheda watched the Brittle Crab turn on her station around the arc of the reef. The fast trireme looked expectant, oars poised and projecting either side of the brass-sheathed beak of her ram. He held his breath but no signal horn sounded from the inner islands to set the vessel pursuing them.

Velindre turned to him with a question of her own. 'What's so ill-omened about this burned island where she insisted we hide up?'

'It's where Chazen Saril's younger brothers were kept after being blinded and made zamorin on his accession.' Kheda didn't like the distaste he saw on the magewoman's face. 'It's also where I first encountered those wild men and their wizards, when I brought Daish triremes and swordsmen down to see why Chazen ships were fleeing into our waters with tales of fire and mayhem in the night. I went there with Chazen Saril.' He tensed at the recollection and his voice turned accusing despite himself. 'We were attacked by monsters. Magic twisted lizards and birds and the crabs on the shore into abominations that ripped my men to pieces.'

It's also where we laid Chazen Saril's putrid corpse when we brought it back in shame and secrecy from Daish, on the darkest night in the five-year cycle of the heavenly compass. None of this is omen or portent. You just realised it was the safest place to hide this wizard Velindre wished on you, didn't you, Risala? Because no Chazen islander would dare set foot there or even sail close enough inshore to see who might be anchored there.

'I recall Dev saying you destroyed the monsters by setting the whole island alight?' Velindre queried.

'Fire is the ultimate purification,' Kheda confirmed shortly.

'I don't know how your philosophers are squaring that with that dragon blasting Chazen with flaming breath last year,' the magewoman mused with sly provocation. 'A crude measure, but still, I gather it was effective. I imagine you weren't facing the most powerful wizards in that invasion, if they couldn't quench the flames.'

'I have no idea.' Kheda looked ahead to the white-rimmed lumps of indistinct green dotting the horizon.

Will I find you convinced you 've seen some omens on that wretched isle, Risala? Will you be hoping I will see something to restore my belief in such guidance? You're the only one who knows I laid Chazen Saril in the blackened ruins of the pavilion where his brothers had been imprisoned. Did I still half-believe such an act might have a power to influence the days to come? I know you did. But my disillusion with portent and prophecy runs deeper than ever nowadays.

The only other person who knew where we laid Chazen Saril was Dev, and Dev's dead. He was powerful enough to fight the strongest of the wild wizards who came to plague us and he nearly died of it. He tried to turn his magic against the fire dragon and that was truly the death of him. How powerful are these wizards of this unknown isle? How many of them might there be? fust how strong is Velindre, or this new wizard that she's brought with her? Are they equal to whatever perils might lurk on this mysterious island? Can I risk finding out that they are not and dying for their arrogance? What will become of ltrac and the babies?

They'll be defended by Ritsem and Redigal and Daish besides, that's what will happen if I don't return. Can I risk not knowing what lies beyond the western horizon? Could I return to Itrac and try to live in any kind of peace of mind now that I know this unseen land could be nurturing who knows what manner of magical threat?

The vista ahead of him was empty of answers. The Reteul flew on over the turquoise waters as if driven on as much by his urgent questions as by the magewoman's magic.

CHAPTER EIGHT

How long will this place smell of burning? How far does the breeze carry the decaying breath of this place, to remind passing ships of what happened here? Does it keep them away?

Kheda watched the blackened isle rising above a slew of jagged reefs just high enough above the water to give a foothold to tenacious tangles of grey-stemmed midar. The tormented screams of dying Daish warriors echoed loud in his memory.

My swordsmen, my faithful captain Atoun, ripped apart by whip lizards transmuted to something half-way between animal and man by the wild mages. My first encounter with magic that was as foul as I had always believed it. Yet I come here now in a barbarian wizard's company, finding myself increasingly persuaded that she alone can show me what threat to the domain lies beyond the horizon.

'We could have been here last night.' Velindre sat on the Reteul's stern thwart, one hand on the tiller.

'This isn't a shore I wanted to come on in the twilight or with a contrary wind.' Kheda adjusted the angle of the sail.

We did kill all the monsters, didn't we? Surely nothing could have survived.

The Reteul continued on her way, the morning breeze negating any need for magic. Both magewoman and warlord wore the loose unbleached cotton tunic and trousers of zamorin.

Not that anyone will take me forzamorin with my beard. Not that there's anyone to see me hereabouts.

The little boat skirted the vicious corals. Kheda studied the shore. There were no trees, just stark black stumps still taller than a man where the insatiable flames had devoured the mighty iron woods. The dense stands of tandra trees and dappled figs hadn't been able to withstand the all-consuming flames, reduced to heaps of charred wood. The clusters of nut palms that had edged the beach were just a memory, their ashes a stain spread across the white sand by the storms of two successive rainy seasons.

Velindre shook her golden head at the devastation. 'If I didn't know better, I'd have said elemental fire did this.'

'It was sticky fire,' Kheda said shortly. 'We don't set such blazes lightly, but there are times when only the purification of burning will suffice, especially in times of disease.' A shift of the wind brought a richer scent to mingle with the memory of burning and he noticed swathes of fresh green among the dark ruination.

Renewal. I could have called that a favourable omen, if I still believed in such things.

Coral gulls walked splay-footed and unbothered along the sandy shore. Unseen among the newly grown low brush, crookbeaks squabbled raucously. Looking over the side rail, Kheda saw a school of sunset fish flash from yellow to orange and disappear into trailing sea grasses.

'There's our anchorage.' The magewoman waved a hand towards a blunt headland defying a sizeable reef not far out to sea and the Reteul veered obediently inshore.

'Thai's your ship?' Kheda looked at the blue-hulled vessel lying at anchor in the shallow cove. 'You've certainly applied yourself as a scholar to have sufficient learning to trade for something like that.'

'I'm flattered that you think I could do so,' Velindre said, a trifle sarcastically. 'No, I took a leaf out of Dev's book. I've been trading, which incidentally gave me an excellent excuse for idling around the beaches to listen to sailors' tales of mysteries out on the deep.'

'You didn't think such stories were just prompted by your barbarian liquors and dream smokes?' Kheda tried to keep the distaste out of his voice.

'Hardly, given that's not what I trade,' Velindre retorted acidly. 'Dev was a fool to risk being caught with such contraband.'

'What is your cargo?' Kheda was curious.

Velindre didn't answer, studying the vessel ahead instead. 'That's how they build ships in the western domains, so it's robust enough to take out onto the open ocean. We wouldn't survive this voyage in a cockleshell like this one.'

The blue-hulled vessel was nothing like the Reteul. Kheda certainly hadn't seen many similar ships in these southerly waters. The twin masts were much of a height and each carried a creamy triangular sail hanging half-furled from a raking yardarm. Bright with yellow paint and carving, a six-sided platform rose solidly above the steering oars at the stern, its angularity incongruous. Kheda would have been hard pressed to tell which was the prow or the stern without the steering oars and the cant of the sails. Both ends of the ship were equally rounded, blunted with a layer of double planking. Solid clinker-built panels were fixed to shield the steering oars from violent seas.

'You can sail that yourself without arousing suspicion?' he asked dubiously. 'Without magic?'

'It's a two-man ship.' Velindre wasn't offended. 'The sideways sweep of each sail can be governed from the stern platform as long as there's a second pair of hands

to adjust the pitch of the yardarms. You see those ropes running to the pulleys on the side rails?'

Kheda lost all interest in the complexities of the unfamiliar rigging when he saw two figures on the raised stern platform.

Risala.

'We'll beach the Reteul up above the high-water line. If anyone does sail by, they can assume you're ashore communing with the past.' Velindre took a firm grip on the tiller and lifted one long hand towards the sail. 'Hold on to something.'

Kheda grabbed at the side rail as the Reteul accelerated towards the shore. Velindre's magic drove the little ship swiftly up the sloping sand, shells grating beneath her hull.

'Don't spring any planks,' he warned the magewoman sternly. 'I shall want to sail home in this boat.'

The Reteul slowed to a halt. As Kheda waited a moment to be certain the deck wasn't about to shift beneath his feet, he saw one of the figures on the blue boat dive off the stern. Fetching anchors from the lockers in the Reteul's prow and stern, he swung himself over the side and down onto the sand. He had the little boat firmly secured by the time Risala reached the shallows.

She stood waist deep, wiping wet hair out of her eyes and smiling. 'Good morning, my lord.'

Taking a moment to appreciate her slenderness outlined by her clinging wet tunic, Kheda grinned back before a faint noise inland sent a shiver down his spine. He turned to look at the burned trees and clumps of new brush. 'We did kill all the monsters, didn't we?'

'The biggest thing on this island is a chequered fowl,' Risala assured him. 'Naldeth - the other wizard — he's been ashore several times and scried across the island besides.'

'Has he had any more success scrying out to the west?' Velindre called down from the ReteuPs deck.

Risala looked up, shading her eyes with one hand. 'Not really.'

'Why has he been ashore?' Kheda demanded, frowning.

Never mind any thought of portent, I won't have any barbarian mage disturbing Chazen Saril's bones to satisfy some macabre curiosity.

'Because his elemental affinity is with fire.' Velindre leaned over the ReteuPs rail, unconcerned. 'He was curious to see how the burning spread once you'd set your fires, and how the land is recovering.'

Kheda looked at Risala. 'He's a fire mage like Dev?'

'He's nothing like Dev.' She chuckled, running her hands through her damp hair to leave it a mass of unruly black spikes.

Kheda looked back up at Velindre. 'Is he your lover?'

'Oh no.' The magewoman laughed. 'He's not to my taste and I don't imagine I'm to his.'

Risala giggled. 'He's far too much in awe of Velindre to lay a finger on her.'

Kheda shrugged. 'I shall want to get his measure before I agree to sail anywhere with him.'

'Then come and meet him.' Velindre stood up and swung her meagre bundle of clothes tied with a leather strap over one shoulder. Kheda saw she was also carrying his little physic chest and had his twin swords thrust through her belt. 'If you don't want to be away for too long, the sooner we start this voyage, the better.' Velindre vanished in a spiral of twisted air to reappear on the stern platform of the blue-hulled ship.

Kheda stepped close and slid his hands around Risala's narrow waist. 'I've missed you.'

'No more than I've missed you.' She drew his face down to kiss him long and deep.

After some indeterminate time, Kheda reluctantly broke free. 'What do we do now?'

Risala raised one black brow and pressed her hips against his. 'I can tell what you want to do.'

'I can wait.' Kheda kissed her again. 'I meant, what do we do about this voyage Velindre's determined on? I haven't agreed to go with her. I only came here to be sure you were in no danger.'

'We'll all be in danger if those wild men come again, or another dragon.' Risala laid her hands flat against Kheda's muscular chest and tucked her tousled head under his bearded chin. 'I don't particularly want to go with them but surely forewarned is forearmed.'

'That's what she keeps saying.' Kheda tightened his embrace. 'But how can I leave Chazen and Itrac at a time like this?'

'The domain's quite at peace,' Risala said slowly. 'People have plenty of food, and new trade and newborn children of their own to occupy them. But they're still afraid of fire in the night coming to overthrow it all again. They need to know they are safe. Or if they're not, this time they need to be told to flee before they're slaughtered.' She shivered involuntarily.

Kheda heaved a sigh. 'A warning is not much to offer.'

'It's better than nothing,' Risala muttered. 'Naldeth says we can reach this strange isle by the dark of the next Lesser Moon.'

Kheda looked up to the morning sky where a pearl sliver indicated that the Lesser Moon would still be with them for a handful of days or more. He frowned. 'That's impossible, if this island is so far—'

'Not with their magic,' Risala reminded him. 'And that magic can bring us home with no need for ships.'

'Both wizards will know this place at least,' Kheda

conceded grudgingly. 'But how can I disappear for a whole turn of the Pearl?'

'What did you tell Itrac, to explain coming away with Velindre?' Risala toyed with the laces at the neck of his tunic.

'That I needed time and solitude to consider the omens for the domain,' Kheda said sourly, 'since I find I can't read any clear meaning in the earthly or heavenly compasses at present. At least that's no lie.'

Risala took a moment to answer. 'No one would think a turn of either moon was unduly long to spend on such an important thing. Besides, all Itrac's attention will be focused on her babies. She'll barely know that you're gone.'

Kheda grunted. 'Perhaps. But Ulla Safar will know as soon as word gets back to Redigal and Ritsem.'

'Ulla Safar won't spare you a second thought,' Risala said with conviction. 'He'll be lucky to still have a head on his shoulders by the time we get back, if Orhan's supporters have anything to say about it.'

'Truly?' Kheda leaned back so that he could look at her.

'That was the word on every second beach where I made a stop on my way to meet Velindre,' she assured him, no doubt in her blue eyes. 'And anyway, what would Safar do? It's not as if you're leaving the domain, as far as anyone knows or even suspects. I take it you said you were coming here?'

'I told Itrac,' Kheda said slowly, 'but no one else.'

'Jevin will make sure Ritsem Caid and Redigal Coron know.' Risala bit her lip. 'What of Daish?'

'I told Sirket I was likely to be away for some time,' Kheda admitted. 'That I needed to know if the wild men or any dragon were coming to threaten us again.'

'Then why make that a lie?' Risala slipped out of

Kheda's arms and walked back towards the sea. 'Come on. Come and meet Naldeth.'

Kheda followed, wading and then cutting through the waves with powerful swimming strokes. Risala at his side, he trod the chill water by the swelling side of the western-built ship. 'Velindre? A rope?' he called out.

A woven ladder slapped down the blue planking. Kheda steadied it with his weight as Risala climbed nimbly up. He followed, wiping water from his hair and beard as he swung his legs over the rail.

'My lord Chazen Kheda.' The unknown man standing just in front of the aft mast bowed courteously.

You 're certainly nothing like Dev.

'Naldeth.' Kheda bowed briefly in reply. 'So you're playing the slave to Velindre's zamorin scholar?'

'Slave or servant,' the mage replied easily. 'We say whatever suits the beach we land on.'

Perhaps a year or so older than Risala, Naldeth was only a little shorter than Kheda. He had the rounded features of a true barbarian and had evidently not been sailing the Archipelago as long as Velindre, for his pale northern skin was still more ruddy than tanned. He wore his unremarkable dun hair drawn tidily back in a short braid, sun-bleached to a shade just lighter than his mild brown eyes. His somewhat sparse beard was neatly trimmed along his jaw line. He wore the same unbleached cottons as Kheda.

He wears a Chazen dagger, like Velindre, but here in the south he must turn heads, he's so plainly barbarian. In the central and western domains, northern slaves are more common, so I don't suppose he warrants more than a passing glance. Apart from his lack of a leg.

Having made his bow, the wizard was leaning on a well used crutch. One cotton trouser leg was drawn up and tucked through the belt on his tunic, making it plain that limb ended abruptly at mid-thigh.

At least he has his knife hand free.

Kheda turned to Velindre, who was descending the steps from the stern platform. 'What's your vessel called, shipmistress?'

'The Zaise.'' The magewoman smiled. 'It seemed appropriate, from what I've read of bird and ship lore.'

'Would you call that a good omen, Chazen Kheda?' Naldeth's attention was fixed on the warlord.

'Kheda will suffice.' He glanced briefly at the youthful wizard. 'I don't look for omens for this voyage.'

He felt Risala stir at his side and resisted the urge to look at her.

'Did you know that western mariners venture out into the deep to catch currents running along the outer edge of the Archipelago?' the wizard persisted. 'One comes down from the north and another runs up from the south.'

'If those western mariners are lucky as well as bold, they avoid the point where the currents meet and will sweep them out west to die of thirst and madness on the open ocean,' Velindre said sardonically.

'Is that the route we're to take to this strange isle of yours?' Kheda raised his brows. 'If I agree to come with you—'

Naldeth scowled. 'You must—'

Velindre shook her head to silence him before answering Kheda. 'There's another current in the southern ocean beyond Chazen's waters that'll carry us west and then curl north to bring us to the savages' isle.'

Kheda noticed that the space beneath the stern platform had been made into a low cabin, its door tied shut. The wooden grates that would normally shed light into the ship's holds were cloaked with sailcloth held down with tightly nailed battens. 'Just what cargo have you been trading through the domains?'

'We're carrying naphtha and rock tar.' Velindre's smile

widened. 'And the sulphur and resins that go with them to make sticky fire and suchlike.'

'That's a volatile mix.' Kheda looked down involuntarily as if he could see the barrels of potential blazing death beneath his feet.

'Not with a fire mage on board.' Naldeth shifted his crutch noisily on the planking. 'Kheda, when Dev—'

'It gave us an excellent excuse to anchor well clear of every other ship on the trading beaches.' Velindre spoke over the young wizard again. 'And with incendiaries always a warlord's secret, I was trading with their most trusted stewards and guard captains, which made it all the easier for me to ask about curious omens washed up from the deep or blown in on storms.'

'I gather you set that inferno with sticky fire?' Naldeth continued, gesturing with his free hand towards the blackened isle.

That's not what you were going to say, young wizard. What do you know of Dev?

'It's the only thing that will burn long and hot enough to set fire to a whole island.' Kheda turned back to Velindre. 'This is a risky cargo to take out into the open ocean. What if some barrel springs a leak in a storm?'

'My elemental affinity is with the air, Kheda,' she said with faint rebuke. 'I don't propose to fall foul of any storms.'

'Why do we have to sail all the way to this island?' Kheda looked around the ship. 'If you can't use your magic to carry yourselves there, why can't you look for it with your bespelled waters? You could find Dev all the way from the northern wastes.'

'We've tried, believe me,' said Naldeth with feeling.

'There's magic there, Kheda, even if it's not being worked by men or dragons,' Velindre said slowly. 'It's in the earth and the air, in the seas and the rivers. There's

some confluence of power—' She broke off, shaking her head. 'Whatever it is, it foils all our attempts to scry for wild wizards or dragons. We'll just have to go and see with our own eyes.'

Kheda looked at her for a long moment, searching for any hint of dissembling or falsehood. 'You say you can get us there in the next cycle of the Lesser Moon?'

Velindre looked at Naldeth, her lips thinning. 'Perhaps. Certainly it shouldn't take much longer than that.'

Kheda rubbed a hand over his beard. 'And you could use your magic to send me home at any time? Me and Risala?'

'Oh yes.' Velindre had no hesitation about that.

'Dev said you can scry for someone you don't know if you have something of theirs.' Kheda reached into the neck of his tunic and unclasped Itrac's silver and turtleshell necklace. 'Show me that my wife and children are happy and secure.'

Velindre narrowed her eyes at him. 'If you insist.'

She took the necklace and coiled it in her palm. Moving to the barrel of water lashed to the stern mast, she dipped a handful to cover the gleaming links. The liquid lay obediently in her palm, not a drop escaping. The mage-woman passed her other hand over the necklace and the water cloaking it glowed turquoise. 'See for yourself,' she said simply.

A scene like a painted miniature was caught in the circle of silver and mottled turtleshell. Itrac was lying on a wide day bed set beneath the shade of a bower in the garden at the heart of her pavilion. She was holding little Olkai on one side and Sekni on the other as they drowsed together. Jevin stood watchful while both nurses sat placidly sewing tiny garments of shining white silk.

Kheda watched for a moment. 'I'll come with you if you show me at least once a day that all's well at the residence,'

he said with resignation. 'You'll scry for the trading beaches too, to look for any upheaval that might signify trouble between the domains. If we see any such thing, I want your oath on whatever you hold sacred that you'll send me home. Me and Risala.'

'At once.' Velindre nodded. 'On my honour and my element. Is that enough for you?'

Would I have believed Dev if he'd sworn such an oath? Doubtful, and I wouldn't necessarily have believed whatever he had shown me in a spell. But Velindre is different, isn 't she?

Kheda nodded curtly. 'Then if you can be sure this cargo won't be the death of us, let's get under way. As you've been saying, there's nothing to be gained by delay.'

Naldeth looked as if he wanted to respond to that but Velindre waved him forward. 'See to the foresail. Risala, show Kheda how we set the aft sail.' The mage-woman turned to climb the ladder-like stair up to the stern platform.

Naldeth stumped away, his crutch loud on the decking. Tossing the prop aside, he leaned against the side rail, needing both hands to adjust the ropes that angled the yardarm.

Risala tugged on a rope and cursed under her breath. 'Something's stuck.' She swung herself up onto the ladder-like ratlines stretching up from the side rail to the top of the mast. Kheda watched her run up the tarred rope rungs and reach carefully out across the spar to free the rope hampering the billowing sailcloth. The scrape of Naldeth's crutch brought his attention back down to deck.

The young wizard was waiting. 'So are you going to ask me about this?' He gestured towards the stump of his thigh. 'You're not worried that I won't be able to play my part in this voyage?'

'I'll take Velindre's word that you'll be more help than hindrance,' the warlord answered calmly.

'You don't want to know what wrongdoing or folly brought me to such a mischance?' Naldeth persisted. 'Such accidents are seen as omens in the Archipelago, aren't they?'

'I told you, I don't look for portents concerning this voyage.' Kheda's voice hardened a little.

And these past few years have disabused me of any belief that any man's future is inexorably determined by his past choices.

'It was pirates.' Naldeth wasn't to be deterred. 'I was doing no one any harm, sailing to help settlers making a new life in a wilderness. We were captured and thrown into the ship's hold. When they were pursued, the pirates trailed me in the water on the end of a rope, cutting me to bleed till the sharks came. They said they'd carry on till I had no arms or legs unless our rescuers withdrew. Do you think that's a just fate for someone as evil as a wizard?' There was a distinct edge to his question.

'You were evidently rescued before you lost all your limbs.' Kheda met the youth's hot stare with cool equanimity. 'I assume these pirates met a death appropriate to their crimes?'

Don 't you know that one of the first things a warlord learns is not to respond to contentious challenges?

'I was rescued by my fellow mages, as it happens.' Naldeth scowled. 'And yes, the pirates were hanged.'

'It's not for me to make sense of such things for you.' Kheda gave a single shake of his head. 'I don't know you. You're the only wizard I've met besides Dev and Velindre and I've no idea which of you might be typical of your breed or even of northern barbarians. I've met none of them either.' He surprised the taut-faced youth with a grin. 'I suspect you're all noteworthy in your own way. I

know you've at least enough courage to sail waters where your magic would condemn you to be skinned alive. For this voyage, I'll judge you on the evidence of my own eyes.'

Naldeth stared back at him for a long moment, unblinking. 'And I'll do the same.'

'I thought we wanted to get under way,' Velindre called down irritably from the stern platform.

Kheda turned his back on the youthful wizard and scaled the stern ladder to join the magewoman by the steering oars. 'We want to pass well to the south of that isle.' He pointed to a distant lump of land. 'Otherwise we'll spend the next three days wallowing in knot-tree swamps.'

'I know.' Velindre was leafing through a newly sewn book of reed paper filled with annotated sketches of coastlines and sea lanes.

'You've made up your own route record,' he said with some surprise.

'Naturally. What Aldabreshin shipmistress would be without one?' Velindre traced a course across the page she had sought with a nail-bitten finger. 'Then we leave that reef to the north.'

She tucked the precious book into an ample pocket inside the waist of her trousers and pulled on the ropes canting the aft-sail mast. As she adjusted the steering oars, the Zaise turned obediently away from the shore.

'Just make sure our course takes us well away from the pearl reefs,' Kheda insisted. 'Chazen's safety depends at least in part on people thinking I'm still in the domain. I can't be seen to be leaving.'

'I )on'l worry about that,' Velindre said confidently.

Would it be any use if I did?

Kheda dropped down to the deck where Risala was sitting in the shade cast by the stern platform.

She looked up at him, her face unreadable. 'Did you bring a star circle with you?'

'Only to count the days.' He sat down beside her.

'Both moons are sharing the arc of friendship with the stars of the Canthira Tree,' Risala observed stiffly, 'an emblem of new life born of fire. Let's hope that means you can be friends with Naldeth.'

Kheda studied the young wizard. He was still by the foremast, making what looked like an unnecessary adjustment of the pulley blocks. 'What have you made of him while you've been waiting for us?' He moved closer to Risala and put an arm round her shoulders.

'There's no harm in him.' Risala shifted position to turn into his embrace and kissed his cheek. 'Other than being a wizard, of course. As far as his leg's concerned, he just needs to be convinced you won't assume he's lacking wits as well as a foot.'

'Then let him convince me,' Kheda said quietly.

It wasn't long before he was at least convinced that Naldeth was practised in sailing the Zaise. With Velindre at the tiller, there was little for Kheda and Risala to do. Whether favourable winds or wizardry propelled them, the ship made good speed. By noon they were leaving the most densely settled islands behind, seeing no ships larger than fishing skiffs and none close enough to hail. The sun was gilding the western sky as they escaped the last contrary currents winding around the treachery of coral and sandbanks. The pearl reefs that were proving so valuable for Chazen were barely smudges on the eastern horizon.

They sailed into deeper, darker seas where Chazen ships didn't venture. The waves grew larger, lifting the Zaise on ever taller swells. No longer veering at the dictates of islands, the winds blew steadily from the east. As far as Kheda could judge, the barrel-sided ship was cutting through the seas as fast as any trireme.

/ wouldn't want to be caught in these winds without a shipload of strong oarsmen to fight our way back. I hope our shipmistress knows what she's doing.

'I'm hungry.' Risala heaved herself up from the deck and disappeared into the low stern cabin. She reappeared holding four lidded bowls close to her chest.

'Sailer pottage.' Kheda grimaced.

'It keeps without spoiling for days at a time, and rowers stay healthy on it,' chided Risala handing him a bowl and a spoon.

'And I ate a lifetime's worth when I was a nameless oarsman on a galley.' Kheda dug the horn spoon into the sticky steamed grain mixed with shreds of smoked meat, half-dried pepper pods and oily crushed tandra seeds.

Velindre slid down the ladder from the stern platform and accepted a bowl. 'We can trawl for fresh fish at dusk. Naldeth!' She waved to the young wizard, who had managed to stay busy about the ship all day.

He joined them and thanked Risala courteously as he took his meal from her. He looked thoughtful as he chewed. 'Chazen Kheda, I'm curious about those creatures Risala said were altered by these wild mages. What can you tell me about them?' He filled his mouth with another spoonful.

Kheda found the dense, cold pottage sticking in his throat. 'They were cinnamon cranes and robber crabs grown twice and three time their usual size.'

'That's a curious trick.' Naldeth's brows knitted. 'What about these tales of lizards turned into men? Is that some poet's embellishment?'

'No poet would invent such a lie,' Risala objected.

'There were whip lizards on the island and those are dangerous enough in themselves.' Kheda's stomach tensed at the bloody memory. 'Some spell stood them

upright like men, reshaping their bones and flesh. They attacked us like animals, though, with teeth and claws.'

Naldeth looked at Velindre, animated. 'Hearth Master Kalion's discovered a certain amount about altering minerals with fire.' He gazed avidly out to the west. 'I'd dearly love to know how one would go about changing the very substance of a living creature.'

Kheda found he had lost what little appetite he had for the sailer pottage.

Is this insatiable curiosity common to all mages? Will it prove as lethal for you as it did for Dev? Was it the pursuit of new lore that took you on that voyage where you lost your leg? An Archipelagan would have taken that for a sign to spend the rest of his life close to home and been grateful to still be alive to realise that.

'Whales,' Risala said with surprise.

'Where?' Velindre scaled the ladder to the stern platform.

'Yonder.' Risala pointed as they joined her. Naldeth followed, dropping his crutch to pull himself up the steep ladder.

Away to the south, white puffs of moist breath shot up from the cobalt waters and dark shapes rose and fell just beneath the surface. A huge barnacled head broached, underside pale and striped with deep grooves, tiny eyes black in the dappled margin between dark hide and light. The mighty beast plunged down in a flurry of foam and its massive black tail swept up. It struck the water with a resounding splash before the whale vanished. Almost at once, a second surged up from the depths and crashed back down.

'Coron will be pleased to see them in Redigal waters if they head north.' Risala looked at Kheda with a smile.

'What's that?' Supporting himself with one hand on the rail, Naldeth pointed to a swell laced with spume just beyond the whales.

Something long and sinuous slid through the ocean, a shadow quite unlike the oval backs of the whales.

'A sea serpent.' Kheda felt cold despite the sun and the sturdily built Zaise suddenly felt all too fragile beneath his feet. 'Velindre, get us away from here.'

'I don't think it's after us.' She spoke quietly as if the creature might hear her. 'If we run, there's always the chance it'll chase us instead of the whales.'

'It's hunting the whales?' Naldeth stared out at the ocean, mouth half-open.

'Better them than us,' Velindre said with regret.

'It's after one of the young ones.' Kheda pointed to a black whale blotched with barnacles riding high in the water. A shorter shape was just visible in the white foam beside it.

'There's another serpent.' Risala took an involuntary step back as a rough-skinned loop the greenish-brown of seaweed broached the surface between their boat and the group of whales.

This second serpent twisted in the waters and vanished. The whales were swimming faster.

Naldeth gasped as the greenish sea serpent suddenly shot up out of the sea, straight as an arrow and reaching taller thanthe Zaise\ masthead. A long fin ran the length of its drab body, translucent in the sunlight, and drops of water gleamed on its coarse hide. Eyes like jet shone in a head no thicker than its body with no hint of a neck. Beneath a blunt snout, its mouth was agape, lined with ugly yellow teeth. Bending itself bonelessly in half, the creature dived back into the water, pointed tail finally flicking up a trailing edge of that single fin.

Is it going to attack?' Naldeth wondered breathlessly.

'No.' Kheda pointed to the distant sea serpent as the whales veered sharply away from the more obvious threat. 'That's the one going in for the kill.'

'It's hunting the slowest.' Velindre nodded as the lithe menace slid behind a solitary black shape now falling behind the rest of the whales.

'She can't leave her young one,' said Risala, distressed. Kheda reached for her hand and laced his fingers through hers with a comforting squeeze.

'Can't she fight back?' protested Naldeth as he saw the smaller beast pressing close to its mother's dark flank.

As he spoke, the mother whale rolled in the water with surprising agility and smashed her mighty tail down towards the pursuing sea serpent. As the creature lurched away, they saw it was darker than the other, with a thick black edge to the long fin running down its back.

'She can't fight both of them,' Velindre said with measured pity.

The second serpent was now cutting a curving course through the water between the chosen victims and the rest of the fleeing whales. As the mother rolled again to put herself between her young and the black-finned serpent still harrying her, the greenish serpent dived. It reappeared snapping at the frantic youngster. Blood blossomed briefly on the turmoil of foam, shocking scarlet amid the muted colours of beasts and ocean.

'We have to do something!' Naldeth looked from Kheda to Velindre.

'Why?' The magewoman looked back, impassive.

'Why let an innocent creature suffer?' the younger wizard demanded with some heat.

'Sea serpents must eat,' Kheda said with mild regret.

'Serpent for danger and chaos,' said Risala involuntarily. 'But twin serpents of any kind can be an omen, of renewal in death or hope after peril's evaded.'

'So we mustn't act for the sake of not altering some omen?' Naldeth demanded belligerently.

He looked back out to sea where the mother whale was now striving to force the persistent greenish serpent away from her youngster. The smaller whale circled on the surface, blowing out a plume of spray snatched away by the wind. The black-finned serpent briefly broached the surface to snap at the ugly raw gash in the youngster's flank before disappearing into the depths.

'I don't see any sense in drawing those serpents this way,' Kheda said curtly. 'Haven't you heard tales of them wrecking ships?'

'Have you ever seen that happen?' snapped Naldeth.

'No, and I'd never seen a dragon before last year,' Kheda retorted. 'As it turned out, the poets' tales didn't tell the half of it.' He looked out to sea. The mother whale was drawing a circle of foam around her youngster, nimble despite her great bulk. The serpents were swimming the other way, looping through the water, drawing gradually closer and closer.

'Velindre, if you won't do something, I will,' Naldeth warned.

The magewoman looked at him, exasperated. 'The antipathy between fire and water—'

Scarlet steam exploded in front of the black-finned serpent as it broke off its circling to dart towards the mother whale. Kheda glimpsed a brilliant streak of white light cutting through the air as Naldeth made a throwing motion. The sea around the greenish serpent boiled furiously as well. The mother whale shrank back from this incomprehensible happening and blundered into her youngster. Both vanished below the seething waves along with the greenish serpent.

The black-finned serpent twisted this way and that, lethal mouth agape. Naldeth flung out both hands. He would have overbalanced if Kheda hadn't caught him with a strong arm under his elbow. The black-finned serpent

rose out of the water in looping confusion, snapping at its own coils. The mother whale reappeared to vent a noisy plume of spray and then dived deep, her wide tail smacking down hard on the surface of the sea. There was no sign of her young or of the greenish serpent.

'What have you done?' Risala watched, appalled, as the black-finned serpent's teeth ripped into its own hide. Dark blood stained the frothing water around it and uncanny crimson reflections ran along the creature's coils.

'The other one's making its escape.' Velindre's eyes grew distant for a moment, unfocused. 'The two whales are following the rest. The young one is badly bitten. Are sea serpents poisonous, Kheda?'

'Opinions vary,' he said shortly, withdrawing his arm from Naldeth's elbow. 'What did you do?'

'Burned the oils in its own skin.' The young wizard leaned on the rail, still intent on his magic. The sea serpent's struggles grew more laboured. Its blood was now a black slick on the surface of the water, glinting with scarlet malevolence. He shot a defiant glance at Velindre. 'At least those whales have a chance now.'

Can you do something like that to a dragon?

Kheda decided not to ask.

Coral gulls appeared to hover over the dying serpent with raucous cries of anticipation. Unseen scavengers from the deep pocked the sea with ripples as they tasted the spreading blood. The serpent floated motionless on the swell, then began slowly sinking. As the last hint of magic faded, the gulls dived, beaks tearing. Vicious angular fins cut through the soiled waves and the serpent's hide reappeared here and there, coils thrust up from below. Blunt grey heads broached the surface as the sharks ripped into the moribund sea serpent.

'Satisfied, Naldeth?' Velindre placidly resumed her meal of sailer pottage.

Kheda saw that the young wizard had gone pale beneath his tan, eyes wide with the shock of memory as he stared at the sharks. He shook the youth's shoulder briskly. 'The wind's shifted and strengthened. Some slack in those forward lines wouldn't come amiss.'

'What?' The wizard looked at him, bemused, before recollecting himself. 'Yes, of course.' Ungainly as he supported himself with the rail, he slid down the ladder to the deck and retrieved his crutch to stump away.

'How can we read the omens if he does things like that?' Risala looked abruptly down at the planks where Naldeth's discarded bowl was rolling to and fro, trailing sailer pottage. 'And we don't want to be wasting food,' she added crossly.

Kheda realised with some surprise that he still held his own bowl. He looked at the remains of his meal. 'I think I've lost my appetite,' he said apologetically.

'Me too.' Risala took Kheda's bowl from him and jumped down to disappear into the stern cabin.

The silence on the stern platform was broken only by the scrape of Velindre's spoon.

'Do you want me to take a turn at the tiller?' Kheda offered after a few moments.

'Not until I'm sure we've picked up that current I mentioned. After that, you two can share watches with me and Naldeth. He has no great feeling for water but his fire affinity gives him sufficient sympathy with air to be sure we're following the course I set him.'

Kheda glanced towards the young wizard, who was now standing in the prow, looking out across the ceaseless barren swells. 'When did that happen to him?'

'Three years ago.' Velindre said unemotionally.

Kheda yielded to his curiosity. 'How did you persuade him to risk himself in Archipelagan waters? What does this voyage to the west offer him?'

'The chance to learn something new about the magics of elemental fire.' Velindre smiled thinly. 'Something sufficiently extraordinary that our fellow mages will want to talk about his splendid new discovery whenever they encounter him, rather than trying to find a way to ask how he lost his leg and was he really a hero who saved those settlers. Either that or they tie their tongues in knots trying to avoid mentioning anything about it.'

The disdain in her answer left Kheda disinclined to enquire further. 'I'll go and see where Risala's got to.'

He climbed down the ladder and ducked his head to enter the low stern cabin. In the dim light filtering through small windows set beneath the aft beams, Risala was scraping the unwanted food into a bucket. 'We can throw this into the water at dusk if you're going to try fishing,' she said curtly.

Let's not discuss whether or not there might have been omens in the struggle between whales and serpents that Naldeth has polluted.

Kheda gestured to the barrels lining the wooden walls. 'What food are we carrying, besides sailer pottage?'

'Smoked fish. Duck sealed in its own fat.' Risala counted off the casks with a finger. 'Dried zira shoots and pickled reckal roots. Herbs and spices.' She nodded towards a net of plump sacks hanging from a beam. 'And there's plenty of dry sailer grain.'

Kheda contemplated the wooden trap door in the planking. 'What's down there?'

'The stern hold where we'll be sleeping.' She managed a brief smile. 'The rock tar and naphtha and the like are in the central holds. Naldeth has the fore hold and Velindre sleeps in here.' She pointed to a tidy pile of blankets in a box bed built against the bulwark.

'I think I'll see just what we're carrying.' Kheda

reached down for the brass ring sunk into the trap door. 'And that it's all securely stowed.'

'I'll call if Velindre wants you.' Risala looked upwards, her expression pensive.

Kheda pulled up the trap door and slid down the ladder beneath. This stern hold was shorter than the deck cabin with a reassuringly thick bulkhead built around the crossbeams bracing the hull. It was almost completely dark and he could taste the oily metallic bite of naphtha in the stale air.

'Leave the door to the deck open,' he called up to Risala. 'I'm not sleeping down here unless we get rid of these fumes.'

He tried the door in the solid bulkhead and found it unlocked. He went through to find more light was filtering through the canvas-shrouded deck gratings. Barrels were held back against the curved hull with plank partitions and further secured with nets wound between stout hooks. The scents of tar and oil were muted, which augured well for the seals on the casks. Kheda made a slow circuit all the same, looking for dark stains of seepage. As satisfied as he could be in the dim light, he tried the door to the next hold and found that unlocked as well.

A yellow smear on the chests of rough wood secured along one wall of the hull was bright in the gloom. It tainted the air with sulphur. Lidded baskets opposite held thick glass bottles tightly wrapped in woven straw. They were sealed with corks and twine and wax to be sure none of their viscous golden contents could leak. Kheda recognised them.

Barbarian pine resins. Janne Daish would offer equal weight in mother-of-pearl in trade for such bottles. What do these barbarians know of Aldabreshin recipes for sticky fire? Is there any quicklime here, or just sulphur?

As Kheda studied the other unhelpfully anonymous

chests, he realised that something else was tucked behind the one wedged closest to the stern bulwark. About the size of a small barrel, it was thickly wrapped in clean sacking tied with new hemp rope. Kheda reached over the inconvenient chest and tested the ropes. They had been knotted tight and not by an Archipelagan seafarer.

He eased the tip of his dagger into the heart of the topmost knot and worked it back and forth, careful not to cut the rope. Winning just enough slack to be able to shift the sacking beneath, he tugged at the coarse weave. The dim light from the covered grating fell on a dull maroon surface, gently rounded, smooth as glass, and beneath it a fresher red, the colour of blood. The web of fine cracks crazing the surface glinted softly.

Kheda drew back, blood pounding in his temples.

How could we have guessed what that dragon flying in from the western ocean wanted with our rubies? We were just relieved that chests of gems would placate it, would buy us time and lives and land. Who could have imagined the dragon could concentrate its magic so fiercely that it could meld the jewels it chose into this unnatural gem and generate a spark of new life in its very heart?

Why was it that this egg burned Dev alive when he turned his own magic to killing that nascent dragon? What enchantment seduced him to that unhallowed rapture even as the flesh melted from his bones and he was reduced to ashes?

Motionless in the breathless hold, he tried to force away the obscene recollection of the mage's death.

Why did Velindre demand the dead dragon's dead egg as her price for betraying the second dragon to me, the simulacrum she wove from air and magic to light the true fire dragon? Why did I give it to her? That false dragon would have died anyway. She'd already told me there was no sapphire at its heart to give it true life. Could I have convinced the people of Chazen that I was a warlord they could trust

if my leadership hadn 't been sanctioned by that deceitful victory? How many men died believing the lie that they were fighting to save the domain from a second predator?

As he stared at the mystery half-hidden in the shadows, the door to the foremost hold opened, startling him.

'Are you looking for something?' Naldeth stood in the doorway.

'I was just wondering exactly what you were carrying.' Kheda turned his back on the bundle, hoping to hide the disturbed sacking with his body. 'Are all these chests full of sulphur?'

'No.' Naldeth hopped into the hold, steadying himself with one hand on the door. 'We're carrying a fair amount of alum. Warlords who want to buy the stuffs to make sticky fire generally want the means of stifling it as well.' He lowered himself carefully to the floor of the hold. 'Did Risala tell you not to discard the vinegar from the pickles? It'll be more useful than water if I'm not on hand to kill a fire for you.'

'Indeed.' Kheda gazed at the remarkable contraption the one-legged wizard was laying out before him on the planks. 'What is that?'

'I thought such personal questions were considered impolite among you Aldabreshi.' Naldeth looked up from untangling a confusion of leather straps and buckles. He was grinning. 'How many folk do you think have actually asked me outright how I lost my leg since we sailed south?'

Kheda smiled back but didn't rise to the bait. 'Who made it for you?'

Dull steel was shaped into a blunt-toed foot beneath a curved metal calf riveted to a shin plate. Concentric curved plates overlapped at the front of knee and ankle to suggest that the remarkable creation would bend at both joints. The hollow thigh was topped with more straps and buckles.

'An armourer first came up with the idea.' Naldeth rapped the facsimile limb with his knuckles, the noise loud in the confines of the hold. 'We barbarians don't fight the endless battles that Archipelagan poets insist must constantly ravage the north, but there are enough pointless wars to leave all too many men missing a leg.'

'So these armourers profit when they send men to fight and again when they come back maimed.' Kheda propped himself casually on a chest.

'Don't tell me any Aldabreshi smith wouldn't do the same.' Naldeth shifted on his buttocks and eased his stump into the open top of the metal leg. 'If you're not the bloodthirsty savages our barbarian minstrels sing of, you're certainly as avid a flock of merchants as ever traded.'

'Does it bear your full weight?' As the wizard buckled a stout leather belt around his waist and began securing dangling straps to matching buckles on the metal thigh, Kheda reached stealthily behind his back and tucked the loose sacking under the ropes to hide the exposed surface of the dragon's egg.

'The steel skin's mostly for show.' Naldeth pulled a final strap tight. 'A solid wooden post runs all through the middle, down to the foot plate. There's a metal spring in the angle between the foot and the post, and this —' he tugged on a cord that disappeared into the angle behind the knee '— and some hinges inside mean I can bend it when I want to.'

Kheda nodded with admiration. 'Steelsmiths on the trading beaches must have made handsome offers for a chance to study it.'

'Velindre hasn't let me wear it in Aldabreshin waters.' Naldeth got to his feet with surprising ease, pulling and slackening the cord that bent the metal knee. 'She said you people don't wear plate armour, so it would mark me out as too newly come from the north.'

'That's true enough.' Kheda watched the wizard walk slowly up and down the hold, swinging the stiff leg out slightly with each step. 'It's a remarkable contrivance.'

'I still need my crutch if I'm not using a touch of magic to keep me upright.' Naldeth grinned. 'Which is another reason for not wearing it on trading beaches, that and the soft sand.' The wizard twisted to adjust a strap at the side of his waist. 'No Aldabreshi's ever asked me what happened to my leg, not once. Velindre said they wouldn't. No one asked how I was coping with such a loss or what I would do with the rest of my life.' He swallowed his unguarded anger and managed a thin smile. 'There's something very restful about the way you people simply accept a person for what they are. It must make life much simpler.'

'My life's hardly been simple.' Kheda strove to keep his words light. 'And every turn of the heavens seems to bring some new twist, such as Velindre turning up to propose this voyage.'

'We'll just have to see how it all turns out.' Naldeth studied the warlord for a moment. 'Are you sure you won't be looking for omens?'

Something in the wizard's gaze made Kheda a little uneasy. He looked up at the canvas-shrouded grating. 'Do you suppose it's worth trying some fishing yet?'

CHAPTER NINE

How fast is this current carrying us along? How much faster is this ship moving thanks to Velindre's magic? Why is there no wind? Is this more of her magic? Perhaps not. There are glassy seas in the central domains. Risala has crossed the windless reach between the northernmost Archipelagan isles and the seas that lap the unbroken lands. The fickleness of wind is why we Aldabreshi have always trusted in triremes and mocked becalmed barbarians.

He surveyed the sea, flat and calm all around. Without wind to swell the canvas, the Zaise's sails were furled, yet the ship sped on through the water. Kheda threw out his line and leaned over the rail to watch the hooks disappear in the curls of white water trailing alongside the Zaise. 'Risala, if I ever complain about sailer pottage again, remind me how much I dislike eating nothing but fish.'

'It's going to be plain fish if we don't make landfall soon.' Risala knelt next to him, gutting a silvery handful. 'We've nearly used up all the herbs.'

'There's some sailer grain left.' His flesh-and-bone foot tucked under the knee of his half-crooked steel leg, Naldeth sat baiting a line of viciously barbed hooks with rancid duck meat wriggling with indefatigable maggots. His northern features and plait of lank barbarian hair still looked incongruous above the cottons of an Aldabreshin slave.

'And we have all the fresh water we need.' Velindre spread her hands over the barrel lashed to the stern mast and the seawater briefly shimmered bluer than the sky

above. She frowned and a battered leather bucket emptied itself to wash the slime and fish blood from the deck planking.

'Have you managed to scry out this isle yet?' Kheda scowled. 'The Lesser Moon has gone right round the heavens, darkened and brightened again—'

'What have you tried by way of additions to your scrying water?' Naldeth looked up from his noisome task. 'Inks or oils?'

'When I need a fire mage's advice about a water spell, I'll be sure to ask you.' Velindre looked out past the prow. 'I can feel the currents of the ocean meeting some land not too far ahead. And it resonates with elemental vigour.'

'Do you suppose the confluence of elements is what attracted the dragon?' A maggot wriggled unheeded between Naldeth's finger and thumb. 'Or that the dragon somehow drew the elements together?'

How much longer before we learn something to justify my making this voyage? All I have done so far is enjoy the peace and calm of days without anyone making demands on me. Was it the prospect of such freedom that seduced me into agreeing to come, at least in part, even if I didn't realise it at the time?

Kheda wished briefly for a thin mantle to wear over his faded grey tunic and trousers. These seas were palpably cooler than Archipelagan waters. 'How much further?'

'I'm not entirely sure.' A frown deepened the fine creases around Velindre's hazel eyes. 'There's considerable turmoil ahead.'

'A storm?' Risala asked with some alarm.

'No.' Velindre shook her head confidently before frowning again. 'I'm not sure what it is.'

Kheda looked up from his taut fishing line. 'Before we get any closer, I want you to scry for Itrac. I want to be

sure that she and the children are thriving before we risk any unknown peril.'

'As you command, my lord.' There was no malice in Velindre's quip. She spread her hands over the barrel again and vivid green radiance dripped from her lingers into the water.

'You can do this without that necklace now?' Kheda moved to look into the vision the magewoman was summoning.

Velindre shrugged. 'Magic's like most skills - the more practised you are, the more effective you become.'

'A fact the Council and Archmages of Hadrumal are remarkably disinclined to make widely known, even among the mageborn.' Unblinking, Naldeth studied Velindre with a hint of envy hardening his undistinguished features. 'Your touch with water magic these days is truly remarkable for a mage with an air affinity. You learned more than I realized from Azazir.'

'If I'd ever imagined the toll his obsession had taken on his sanity and humanity, I'd never have gone near him.' There was a brief flash of anger in Velindre's eyes.

Anger and fear. Fear of the power you saw or of what you might become, if you let yourself go down that path? But if you hadn 't gone to find this wizard, be he mad or sane, we'd never have had his knowledge of dragons to help us free Chazen.

Kheda concentrated on the image in the scrying spell. He was surprised to see Itrac seated in the west-facing hall of the observatory tower. Books were strewn across the table and she was deep in conversation with Jevin. The slave stood just behind her, one hand on her purple-draped shoulder. Itrac smiled at something and looked further down the room to a rug surrounded with cushions where Touai's daughters were laughing and playing with the baby girls.

Who's reading the heavens for you, Itrac? Are you comforted to see the Diamond, talisman for warlords, riding in the arc of marriage with the Horned Fish and the Opal? Are you wearing amethyst silks and jewels as the Greater Moon rises to its full to promote truth in your dreams of me, as the Amethyst rides with the Spear that's token of a man's valour in defence of his family and home?

While in truth I'm just idling away my days and spending my nights in Risala's arms, as if I have no more onerous responsibilities than pleasuring us both. I can't even fool myself that some shift of the heavens tells me I deserve such an interlude after all the trials I've undergone.

'She looks as well as ever and little Olkai and Sekni are plainly thriving.' Velindre snapped her fingers and the vision shifted. 'There are an admirable number of trading ships in the lagoon and no sign of any unrest.' The spell sped around the islets so fast it left Kheda dizzy. 'Does that suffice or do you want me to search the sea lanes as well?'

'If you please,' Kheda said shortly. The reflections in the water dissolved into a meaningless blur as he let his thoughts wander.

Itrac looks well, but is she commanding respect through the domain and among our neighbours? Should I have Velindre send me back to Chazen? But we've come this far.

'Has no Archipelagan ever thought of building a real sailing boat?' Not for the first time on this interminable voyage, Naldeth's thoughts had drifted away on a new tangent. 'A tall ship like those that sail the eastern ocean, out beyond Tormalin and the Cape of Winds?'

'I don't know.' Kheda shook his head. 'I don't know anything about barbarian boats.'

'Triremes and galleys are far better suited to Archipelagan waters.' Risala looked up from scraping another fish's innards into the scrap bucket.

'An ocean ship would find anything but the wider sea lanes of the outermost domains a real trial,' agreed Velindre, 'given the way the winds sheer around the islands.'

'So why not still build ocean ships for those outer reaches?' Naldeth demanded.

'Because no one sees the need.' Kheda leaned against the ship's rail.

Naldeth sighed with exasperation. 'Has it never occurred to any Archipelagan that the barbarians might know something useful?'

'Archipelagahs rarely consider barbarians at all,' Risala pointed out, 'unless we're looking to trade for metals we lack or things like pine resins.'

'Most of our seers say our peoples are like oil and water.' Kheda yielded to a mischievous impulse. 'That we're fated never to mix.'

'You can mix oil and water - or vinegar, come to that,' argued Naldeth. 'If you add spice ground to a really fine powder. You people make sharp sauces that way.'

'Which goes to prove philosophers rarely tell the whole story,' Kheda replied without rancour.

Naldeth waved a slimy hand towards Velindre. 'Everyone thinks she's part-barbarian and no one cares.'

'They think I'm an Archipelagan who happens to have barbarian blood in her - or rather, his - recent ancestry.' Velindre's gaze out beyond the prow didn't waver. 'That's quite a different matter. There are some who will assume that's why I was made zamorin, to cut out that barbarian bloodline. If they bother to think about it all,' she mused. 'Anyone dealing with me is only concerned with who I am in the here and now. My past is my own affair, like my future.'

'I thought the Aldabreshi see time like that star circle of Kheda's,' retorted Naldeth. 'Always chasing its own tail.'

'It's true that the more self-referential aspects of Archipelagan thinking are influenced by Aldabreshin concepts of time,' Velindre said thoughtfully as she fitted the lid back onto the water cask. 'The cyclical nature of the heavenly compass can mean an omen seen a hundred or more years ago can be significant today or a hundred years hence. But in essence Archipelagan time is a constant entirety, a perpetual present.'

'Do barbarians even have records going back a hundred years?' Kheda challenged.

'We do.' Naldeth took up this new discussion with relish. 'But we see those days as left in the dust of the trail behind us. We look to our next step on the path, on the way to something new and better. You've been building triremes in the same way for generations. Every mainland shipwright is searching for some way to improve his craft. Your seers and sages tread the same circles as those who've gone before them, reinterpreting the same stars and omens. Kvery mainland philosopher is looking for new ways of thinking, towards a more rational understanding of the world.'

'A man who looks inward might come to a better understanding of himself, and his place within the world.' Kheda looked over at Velindre. 'Are you mages all climbing this endless ladder towards some greater understanding?'

'Climbing it and treading on each other's fingers in our haste to be first to reach some new nuance of elemental knowledge,' she said caustically.

' I thought you enjoyed sailing the Archipelago because of the lack of questions, Naldeth,' Risala remarked slyly. 'You've said how restful it must be knowing your place in life and having everyone else know it just as clearly.'

It's certainly a welcome relief from the exacting expec-tations of some of our more competitive colleagues,' Velindre agreed.

'You've not stayed in the place you were born to.' The young wizard turned to Risala. 'Shek Kul was your warlord, wasn't he, in a northerly domain?'

'He's a just and powerful warlord who keeps his people in peace and prosperity, as his father did before him.' Risala scraped blood from a gutted fish's backbone. 'They don't have to ask where their next meal is coming from or if some rival warlord's triremes are about to seize their island. They're happy for their lives to follow the same course year after year.'

'But you weren't?' Naldeth persisted.

'The stars marked out a different path for me,' Risala said sunnily. 'We're not all going round in circles.'

'So you became a poet?' Naldeth looked for Risala's nod of confirmation. 'And a spy.'

'Confidential envoy,' Risala corrected him with a grin.

'A new role where you nevertheless trade on the fact that people in the domains you visit will just see the poet and satisfy themselves with all the assumptions that go with such an occupation,' Velindre mused.

'Whose side are you on in this argument?' Kheda wondered.

'I wasn't aware we were taking sides,' the magewoman replied serenely.

Risala looked at Kheda with a smile that melted his heart.

You're the one person mho sees me for who I truly am in all this confusion that has overwhelmed my life. You 're the one person who doesn't burden me with expectation or assumption. But will you ever accept that I cannot believe in omens any more?

'I'll wager Aldabreshin seers and barbarian philosophers share the ability to tire the sun with their talking.' Kheda walked across the deck to pick up the bucket of fish guts beside Risala, bending to kiss the top of her head before dumping the rank contents over the rail. 'Do you really

have no idea how far it is to our destination, Velindre?' Keeping tight hold of the rope tied to the bucket, he let it fall into the sea to rinse itself before he hauled it up again full of clean water.

Risala came to stand beside him and began scrubbing fish blood and slime off her hands. She stopped, mouth open. 'Kheda, look—'

'A bird.' Kheda narrowed his eyes to make out this newcomer more clearly. 'And not another zaise.'

It was considerably smaller than the great white wanderers and more solidly built, akin to the coral gulls of the long-distant Archipelago. Not so closely akin, though. It had dark-brown undersides to its wings and a mottled belly as well as rusty-red legs. As it came closer, squawking on a rising note, Kheda saw a vicious downward hook to the point of its beak. It dived into the residue of fish guts floating on the water.

Velindre came to join them. 'It seems to think it's at least half-fish.'

In the clear seas, they could all see the strange gull folding its wings close to its body to undulate through the waters more like a fish than a bird.

'I don't want to hook that.' Kheda hastily dumped the bucket on the deck and began pulling in his fishing line hand over hand.

'A bad omen?' Naldeth bent to rinse his own hands in the bucket of seawater.

'Did you see that beak?' Kheda retorted. 'Would you like to try getting close enough to beat out its brains and pull the hook out of its gullet?'

He dumped the tangle of line on the deck and looked Up from his task to see Velindre hurrying up the ladder to the stern platform. 'That's no ocean bird,' she called over her shoulder. 'We must be closer to land than I thought.'

Risala grinned at Kheda. 'You can take the foremast.'

'Thank you,' he said with a grimace. 'Stow those fish, Naldeth. We don't want to lose our supper if that bird's a scavenger.'

The boat's calm passage made climbing the ladder-like ratlines to the top of the mast easy enough, though Kheda still did his best not to glance down. The deck seemed all too narrow and all too far below him, surrounded by far too much sea for him to fall into.

Though presumably Velindre would catch me.

He braced himself in the rigging and looked out to the west and to the north. On the far horizon he could see a billowing drift of white cloud.

'What can you see?' Naldeth was pacing the deck in frustration, his rocking, stiff-legged gait setting the bucket of fish swinging alarmingly.

'Clouds caught by high ground,' Risala called out from the aft mast. 'There's land ahead.'

The curious gull or one very like it swooped past Kheda, startling him with its rising cry. Choking back a curse, he pressed himself against the knotted ropes.

'Loose the sails.' Some breath of magic brought Velindre's calm words clearly to his ear amid a rush of newly summoned wind.

Kheda did so as quickly as possible and made his way back down the ladder of ropes with a treacherous tremor in his arms and legs.

We Aldabreshin have the sense to stick to oars and square-rigged sails that you can manage from deck. Only mad barbarians would risk climbing up and down masts in ocean seas.

Risala met him on deck. 'Shall we keep watch from the prow?' The rising breeze tousled her black hair and tugged at the hem of her loose blue tunic.

'Let's.' Kheda nodded amid the flap and creak of the newly liberated canvas.

The ship rose and fell beneath their feet as it had not done for days on end. Velindre's magic scorned the natural indolence of the air and lashed it into motion. Glimmers of sapphire blue threaded through the lively gusts filling the Zaise's sails, as the ship left the windless seas and the strange current that had carried them this far. The ocean swells grew taller again, blunt billows rising and falling and edged with the barest lacing of spume.

Kheda held on to the ship's rail with both hands, Risala safe between his arms. The white bank of cloud on the horizon waited motionless as the Zaise soared over the dull blue waters towards it. Kheda felt the chill wind teasing his wiry brown hair.

Naldeth came up beside them, peering straight up into the sky.

'Have you seen some more birds?' Kheda squinted upwards too.

'I thought I'd keep an eye out for dragons,' the mage said slowly.

'Look.' Risala pointed down into the water.

'A tree branch.' Kheda's heart pounded with absurd relief. 'We're definitely approaching land. Though that's not from any kind of tree that I recognise,' he added doubtfully.

'Do you want a closer look?' Naldeth raised a ready hand glowing with ruddy magelight as the branch floated away.

'No.' Kheda concentrated on the clouds ahead, piling high into solid white banks reminiscent of those above the fire mountains and scarps of higher ground on the larger islands within the Archipelago.

Almost imperceptibly, the sea took on a greener hue, and here and there they spotted drifts of weed. More gulls appeared like the first, and other smaller creamy birds with pale-blue heads and darker wingtips, diving after unseen prey. A squabbling trio floated past perched

on another sodden tree branch, heedless of the rise and fall of the ocean.

Kheda studied the fluffy fragments torn from the misty bulk growing closer on the horizon. It was strange to see clouds scudding towards them while the wind pressed his tunic to his back. He bent to speak into Risala's ear over the noisy rush of water beneath the prow. 'I want to talk to Velindre.' She nodded and he made his way back along the unsteady deck.

Velindre's eyes were bright as she directed the steering oars with one hand and twisted the easterly wind to her bidding with the other. 'What can you see?'

'There's all manner of detritus in the water.' Kheda paused half-way up the ladder. 'Are you sure there hasn't been some storm in these reaches?'

'No.' The magewoman was adamant. 'Whatever this elemental coil is, it's not a storm.'

'As soon as you know what it is, let me know.' Kheda slipped back down the steps and returned to the prow.

Dark smudges appeared on the horizon below the swelling white clouds. It still took an age to reach the islands, even with Velindre summoning all the elemental air within reach. She abandoned concealment and the Zaise\ sails crackled with azure radiance. The wind blew scraps of magelight away to fall into the foaming wake, glittering briefly before the water snuffed them. The waters were turbid now, choked with sand swirling away in patterns drawn by submerged currents. Weed and broken trees thudded against the Zaise's hull and Kheda was glad of the double planking at stem and stern.

'This reminds me of the days after a whirlwind struck Shek waters, when I was still apprenticed to Gedut,' Risala commented speculatively. 'He composed a poem about it.'

'Velindre says she sensed no storm.' Kheda drew Risala

back with him. 'Let's see what we can see from the stern platform.'

The land ahead was breaking into a chain of dark islets riven by narrow channels.

If there are wizards or even dragons, I want to be beside a mage I've seen calling lightning out of a clear sky and bringing down a dragon with a rival beast of her own creation.

Risala hesitated. 'You'll keep watch, Naldeth, so we don't run aground on anything?'

'Yes, of course.' The young wizard's eyes were unfocused. 'There's a peculiar tangle of elements here,' he breathed.

Disquiet prickled down Kheda's backbone as he hurried the length of the ship, Risala's hand in his. 'Velindre—' he began as he climbed the steps after Risala.

'Naldeth's enjoying a rush of blood to his affinity, I take it?' Velindre sounded amused. More to the point, as far as Kheda was concerned, she was clear-eyed and wholly composed. 'There's been wild fire magic at work here.'

'How recently?' demanded Kheda.

'It's difficult to tell,' Velindre said thoughtfully. 'Long enough ago for storms to have doused it pretty thoroughly.'

'There's nothing that could set your cargo alight?' he persisted. 'If Naldeth hasn't got his wits about him, we could burn to the waterline.'

'I'd say not,' Velindre replied, offhand.

Kheda wasn't overly reassured.

Could whatever accursed enchantment is rousing Naldeth's wizardry stir that dragon's egg down in the hold? Why did Velindre bring it here?

Kheda chewed his lip as they sailed on and dark rocks rose up on either side of the Zaise in the fading light towards the day's end. A few of the blue-headed

gulls hopped insouciantly along invisibly narrow ledges, chattering among themselves.

'Can you see anything?' Kheda scanned the broken facets of dull brown stone that seemed to absorb the sinking sun's glow rather than reflect it.

'Nothing bigger than a bird.' Risala was keeping alert watch on the far side of the stern platform.

Velindre gestured at the masts and the sails drew themselves back to the spars to be lashed tight by snaking ropes. 'Let's have as clear a view as possible.'

Kheda's disquiet grew as the channel narrowed and they sailed into shadows the setting sun did not penetrate. The waters grew dark and forbidding, a rank odour floating over the surface.

'What's the draught of this hull?' he asked dubiously.

'I'll know to within a finger's width of water if we can sail on or not,' Velindre assured him.

Kheda looked down over the stern platform's side, the magewoman's confidence notwithstanding. The water was stained dark with rotting vegetation hanging in clumps stirred by their passage. Stirred but not washed away. He realised what he was seeing. 'There are trees under this water.'

Risala looked around, puzzled. 'Is this a river in flood?'

'No.' The magewoman looked thoughtful. 'This is salt water, not fresh.'

Naldeth came hurrying back from the prow, his false foot loud on the planks. 'This isn't a channel between two islands.' He climbed deftly up the ladder, scarlet magelight bright in the joints of his steel leg. 'This used to be a valley. This whole expanse of land just sank.'

'How?' Kheda looked from the young wizard to Velindre.

She chewed her chapped lower lip. 'I've really no idea.'

'Let's find out,' Naldeth urged impatiently.

The Zaise slid silently over the drowned trees. The

channel or valley, whichever it was, turned an abrupt corner around a shattered cliff where a steep scree tumbled into dark shadows. The sky opened up above them as the heights retreated on either side. A long expanse of sluggish water stretched ahead to a sloping shore rising out of the lapping sea. Dead trees bristled with split and broken branches. Those closest to the water were stripped of all branches and bark to leave bare spikes jutting up from muddy ground that reeked of decay. The Zaise slowly advanced, faint blue magic shimmering like marsh light around her. Something grated along the underside of the hull.

'Velindre?' Alarmed, Kheda couldn't help himself.

'I told you, I can gauge the depth of the water beneath us,' she reminded him. 'And whatever happened here happened long since.'

Kheda surveyed the desolation. 'Did magic do this?'

Naldeth shook his head. 'I've no idea.'

Something dropped into the water with a plop that echoed around the valley.

'There.' Risala pointed at ripples in the murky water.

A blunt scaly snout caught the light. A lizard as long as Kheda's arm was swimming across the drowned valley. It reached a dead tree and climbed rapidly up it. Pot-bellied and short-tailed with sprawling legs, its stubby toes were tipped with needle claws that dug deep into the lifeless wood. A ridged red crest ran down its back.

'That's no beast I know,' said Kheda.

'There's no magic to it.' Naldeth sounded disappointed.

Odd angularities among the stubs of a handful of storm blasted trees caught Kheda's eye. 'What's over there?'

The air shone oddly around Velindre's eyes. 'Something was built in the trees,' she said slowly.

'So there were people here.' Kheda searched the shore with new intensity, his hand going to his belt knife. He remembered his weapons stowed unheeded down below. 'Risala, fetch my swords for me, please.'

'Are these people still here?' She didn't wait for an answer, dropping down the ladder and disappearing into the stern cabin.

'You won't need those.' Naldeth turned in a slow circle, one hand raised with a scarlet flame dancing on his palm.

'These wild mages can sense some new wizard working his magic in their territory,' Kheda rebuked him.

'Then they can learn who they're dealing with,' retorted Naldeth, his flame flaring.

'If there was anyone here to be drawn by magic, we'd have seen them by now.' Velindre waved at the sapphire magelight glistening on the Zaise's rails. 'All I'm sensing is the echo of old enchantments among the elemental chaos.'

'Do you remember how fast a dragon can appear?' Kheda challenged.

The boat's blunt prow nosed through the clouded water. As they drew nearer to the muddy shore, they saw that a platform of lashed logs had been fixed into notches gouged deep into the trunks of the stricken trees. Walls of woven twigs were broken and splintered, any roofing long since torn away.

Kheda looked beyond the makeshift building to piles of debris cast up by successive storms. 'Those are the hollowed logs the savages use for boats.'

'The wild men who came to plague the Archipelago lived here?' Risala climbed up the stern ladder and handed Kheda his swords. 'They fled this disaster and came to steal our lands and we killed them.'

'Did we kill them all?' Irresistible hope rose in Kheda's chest. All the same, he doubled his sword belt around his

hips and thrust the scabbarded blades securely between the overlapping loops.

The Zaise slid sideways through the water to brush up against a mottled grey trunk with a few remaining scabs of black bark. They could all see the ragged marks where the heartwood had been gouged out of the log with crude tools and rough points had been shaped at each end.

'What were they fleeing?' Naldeth sounded disappointed. 'The dragon? Do you think it pursued them?'

'As best we can tell, they were expecting it to follow them,' Velindre reminded him.

'It was only the wizards and their warriors who came to attack us.' Risala gazed around the eerie valley. 'We never saw any women or children or elders. Perhaps they stayed behind.'

Kheda joined her in scanning the barren slopes. 'To die here, without their men or magic to sustain them.'

Have we come all this way for nothing?

Somewhere a bird screeched and drilled into a tree with a resonant burr that shattered the silence.

'But what happened?' Naldeth persisted. 'What about the dragon? Did it live here before it followed the wild men to Chazen?'

'I think we should investigate a little further,' Velindre concurred and the Zaise obediently eased away from the dead trees. The ship retreated slowly back along the bright reflection of the cloud-strewn sky between the dark waters mirroring the sombre heights on either side.

Kheda looked up. 'Dusk comes later and more slowly in these reaches but we don't have much daylight left.'

'I can give you all the light you want,' Naldeth saidscornfully.

'Setting a beacon to draw anyone or anything that might be curious about us?' challenged Kheda.

'Let's just see what we can before dark.' Velindre guided the Zaise deftly down a different channel, the barest suggestion of a summoned breeze stirring her hair.

Naldeth watched the muted ripples of the ship's wake spreading behind them. 'Your studies with Azazir certainly paid off.'

'I wouldn't call it studying with him.' Velindre gave the young wizard a mordant look. 'And he's an object lesson to us all as to what can happen when you become entranced by your own affinity.'

Kheda saw Naldeth acknowledge that caution with a meek nod.

Velindre isn 't going to discuss this Azazir with you, boy, accept it. Dev said he had been banished by the other wizards as a danger to any who came near him. Yet she went to find him because he was the only one who knew the secret of weaving a false dragon out of summoned magic. How many wizards die in their quests for learning?

'This place isn't quite as dead as it looks.' Risala came to stand beside Kheda and pointed to the edge of the cliff looming above them.

As Kheda looked up to see a tracery of twisted stems tufted with leaves outlined against the sky, a cloud of pink and grey birds erupted from niches in the rocks. Their whistling cries filled the air as an eagle, or something akin, soared overhead, claws splayed. Circling, it stooped and dived to snatch something from the water in a flurry of spray. It climbed into the sky with powerful strokes of black-and-white-banded wings, pointed tail feathers sharp as shears. A long fish, brown as the decaying leaves, writhed in its grip, trailing silver drops of water.

'That would be an omen,' Risala said with a shiver. 'If we were looking for such things,' she added quietly with a hint of foreboding.

'We're looking for any sign of savages who were left

behind.' Kheda peered keenly around as the Zaise emerged into a wider channel. 'Or some clue as to what became of them.'

'Velindre, over there.' Naldeth suddenly pointed to a larger lump of land some way off rising steeply out of the water to a peak high enough to snare a skein of mist. 'There's something . . .' His words trailed away into uncertainty.

'Was this land or sea?' Kheda studied the black waters on either side of the boat.

'Does it matter?' Velindre was peering at the peak ahead, eyes narrowed. 'Naldeth, what do you sense in that cloud?'

'Ash and steam,' the youthful wizard said slowly as they drifted closer. 'That's a fire mountain.'

'We're safe enough as long as it's breathing white smoke.' Kheda searched the plume for any hint of the grey that presaged catastrophe. He caught Naldeth's slight surprise. 'There are plenty of records of the omens seen around fire mountains erupting in the Archipelago.'

'I shall have to look them up when we get back.' The wizard grinned.

'Is it safe to go any closer?' Risala was looking at the strange seas ahead. Ridges of greenish water were surging up from the depths, breaking in ragged trails of white foam.

'For the present.' Velindre was unconcerned as the Zaise rocked erratically in the confused seas. 'This is just the currents fighting their way through new paths in the deep.'

'There's fire in the deep as well,' Naldeth said suddenly, 'in the rocks underneath the sea.'

They crossed the uneasy channel and the waters abruptly stilled. Now they were close enough to see the full strangeness of the island ahead. The peak was riven from top to bottom, with a wide central cleft belching

out the pale cloud that streamed away over the mastheads. Below the sheer drop of the uppermost rocks, molten stone had congealed in ungainly twists and lumps, sparkling with incongruous beauty here and there as the sinking sun struck some glassy facet. A paler flow overlaid a lifeless black slurry disappearing into the water. The grey column of cooled stone was contorted like a tree crippled by a strangling vine, dividing to thrust rootlike tendrils into the sea, sharp and spiky where they had been brutally snapped off.

'This is close enough.' Velindre waved a hand and a cloud of green magelight gathered around the ship's hull, drawing them away from the waters sucking ominously around the ugly margin of the shattered rocks. They drifted slowly past the cliff, the cloven rock sharp as a knife edge.

'How long ago did this happen?' Kheda asked. 'How many storm seasons does it take to blunt something like that?'

'This wasn't just one cataclysm.' Naldeth gazed at the mottled rocks. 'I would say the trouble began a couple of years ago. There would have been earth tremors and lesser eruptions to begin with.'

'Then the land began sinking and the seas encroached further with each passing season.' Velindre looked back to the drowned valleys. 'So men and beasts alike moved into the heights.'

'Then the final eruption shattered these islands,' muttered Naldeth, keen eyes searching intently among the fissures and bulges.

'So the wild men came to Chazen.' Risala nodded her understanding. 'Looking for somewhere safer to live.'

'But the dragon stayed here for nearly a full year more.' Kheda studied the shore now coming into view. 'Did it do this?'

The long, smooth slope of this side of the island was a striking contrast to the destruction of its other face. It looked no more inviting, though. A thick forest of mighty trees had been laid low, like sailer stems slashed with a scythe. Barely a handful were still standing, down by the shallow curve of the beach, white and skeletal amid a choking layer of ash and boulders. The only hint of colour ran along the high-water mark where the brown decay of storm-tossed branches was valiantly nourishing a fringe of feeble grasses, a few tufts of sturdy cane and even an unknown infant tree.

'I can't think why a dragon would destroy its home,' Naldeth said dubiously. 'And it would have liked it here. The elemental fires of the mountain would have buoyed up its magic'

'Until they broke loose.' Velindre turned the Zaise broadside to the beach.

'The people fled first and finally things got too hot even for a fire dragon.' Kheda looked back across the trackless ocean towards the Archipelago. 'So it followed them.'

'But what happened to the women and children?' Risala wondered. 'They didn't come with the wild wizards and their warriors.'

No one could answer her as they sailed slowly past the pallid landscape. Velindre guided the Zaise towards a bulging crag thrusting out to sea. The ripples running outwards from the ship's blunt prow washed against the pale rock, staining it black. The stone was pocked with broken edged holes, some overlapping, some deep enough to swallow a man whole. Further up, long furrows had been gouged into the once-molten ridges.

'This wasn't caused by the fire that came up out of the earth to destroy the mountain.' Naldeth sounded pleased. 'Magic's been at work here - though long since, I'm afraid.

But this wasn't caused by a fire dragon, either. An earth dragon must have been drawn to the eruption.'

'You're sure?' Kheda regretted the words as soon as he'd said them.

'Believe me,' said Naldeth sardonically. 'My fire affinity has given me a sympathy with earth magic. Once I got back to Hadrumal after my . .. mishap, I spent a year and a half studying with one of the finest stone masters that element has ever imbued. He said -' and Kheda got the distinct impression the young mage was quoting this unknown wizard precisely '- "You may as well do something more constructive with your time than stare at that empty metal foot of yours and imagine you can feel your toes."'

'The fire dragon would have fought to defend its territory,' mused Velindre. 'I wonder if their feral magic stirred up the fire mountain.'

'I'd say it was more likely the other way round,' Naldeth demurred.

'You're sure it's gone, this earth dragon?' Kheda glanced up to reassure himself that the cloud rising from the narrow peak was still blandly white.

'Yes,' the young mage said slowly. 'Though this is still a very strange place as far as the elements are concerned.'

'Where did it go?' Risala shared Kheda's concern. 'We'd have heard if any other dragon had come to the Archipelago.'

'The news would have run the length and breadth of the domains,' Kheda agreed.

'There are plenty of places in the northern mainland where dragons could find a focus of elemental power.' Velindre shrugged. 'And hide themselves from anyone wishing them ill.'

As if anyone other than a mage could threaten a dragon with the slightest harm.

Kheda held his tongue as the ship rounded the bulbous headland to find a narrow cove clogged with the floating stone that erupting fire mountains threw up into the air and Aldabreshin seers prized for its contrary nature. But these were not the fist-sized pieces that traders offered in the Archipelago. Slabs of the frothy rock as thick as a man's arm was long bobbed in the slack water.

Tree roots and stumps were caught up with the jostling stones, dark and waterlogged yet kept afloat by the strange rock. Paler shards lay atop some of the uncanny rafts, yellow as old bone. Kheda looked more closely. It was bone. He saw sallow lengths knobbed at each end and the shattered fan of a ribcage. The stained bones were dry and free from flesh and there was no smell of putrefaction.

Countless animals must have been killed when the mountain exploded. No wonder there are still plenty of birds here. The scavengers must have feasted till they couldn't fly.

Then he saw the smooth dome of a skull, empty eye sockets vacant, lower jaw gone. Now he knew what he was looking at, his eyes were irresistibly drawn to a ghastly grin just beyond, a smashed brow above the stained teeth.

He found his voice. 'This is what happened to the women and elders.'

'And the children.' Risala pressed her hands to her face, eyes rimmed with white as she stared at a fragile broken skull amid a mess of tiny bones.

'With all the animals dead, and all the people too, there was nothing for the dragon to eat.' Velindre strove to keep her words dispassionate but her voice shook nevertheless.

Kheda looked at the uncanny, macabre scene.

Can this really be the end to it all, after this long voyage and all its apprehension?

'Their mountains were burning and their land was drowning. They had some way of living with one dragon but a second came to fight it.' There was an odd strained

note in Risala's voice as she turned her back on the charnel cove. 'The men and their mages sailed off on their logs and rafts, heading east into unknown waters full of sea serpents and whales and all manner of sharks. Did they know how far they would have to go to find somewhere safe? Did they even know the Archipelago lay out there? And the women and children and the old men and women waited and waited, but no one came back because they all died in the fight for Chazen. So everyone here died as well when the mountain exploded.'

We didn 't know. We didn 't know who they were or why they had come. They attacked us with fire and spears and magic and showed us no mercy. We didn't start the fight. All we did was defend ourselves and our own.

Kheda turned around, but any attempt at words to comfort her died on his lips. There was no more land on this side of the fire island. The eerie waters lapping this drowned domain yielded to more natural seas that stretched out dark and mysterious in the deepening twilight. The indigo sea melted into a lavender sky streaked with all the reds and oranges of sunset. Black and featureless as the sun sank behind it, a vast island lay long and low on the horizon, larger than any Kheda had ever seen or heard tell of, capped with a bank of gilded white cloud.

Risala gazed at it. 'What's over there that's so horribly frightening to people with wizards and even a dragon to call on somehow, that they'd risk the open ocean rather than make less than a day's sail to a certain shore?'

Kheda could only shake his head for an answer.

'Let's find out,' Naldeth said incautiously.

Kheda found his voice. 'Why?'

'Because that earth dragon went somewhere,' Velindre reminded him. 'And we don't know what other dangers

might lurk there. Forewarned is forearmed. That's why we came here.'

'Can't you scry from this distance?' Kheda objected. 'Why put ourselves at risk, if the wild men and their mages chose to avoid the place?'

'Hadrumal's magic is considerably more sophisticated than these savages' spells.' Naldeth sounded faintly offended. 'You must have learned that from Dev.'

'Scrying's not the most robust of enchantments.' Velindre silenced the young mage with a wave of her hand. 'There's fire beneath the water hereabouts and both are woven into the depths of the earth where the mountain's eruption has split the sea bed. The steam and the ash are weaving all the other three elements into the air. The best course is to sail over there and see what there is to see with our own eyes.'

'The confluence of elements stretches all the way over there.' Naldeth was looking increasingly eager as he stared at the distant shore. 'We've come all this way. There has to be more to learn here.'

'I suppose so,' Kheda said with deep reluctance.

/ had better return with some solid news to set in the balance against the contented indolence and self-indulgence of this voyage so far.

CHAPTER TEN

The old woman liked being by the boundless water. Not just because she could forage among the rocks when the waters receded in their daily dance and fill her belly with the sweet salty shellfish she prised from the damp crevices. Not just because she felt so safe sitting high in the cranny she had discovered half-way up the shallow rocky cliff, which was only accessible from below. She would see anyone walking along the shore long before they saw her and she had painstakingly stockpiled stones on her ledge to break the heads and hopefully the resolve of anyone who wanted to capture her. Not that she had seen anyone else on this exposed shore in all the days she had been here.

She simply loved to look at the water. It fascinated her. She had never imagined it could be so vast. The painted men had often said that the whole land was ringed with endless waves, so fleeing their supremacy was pointless. She had heard such tales since her childhood in that village she could scarcely remember. She had imagined these boundless waters were like the floods that swept through the green forests when the great storms came and the empty rivers overfilled and overflowed.

Some years the floods came quicker than others. The rivers roared down from the high ground in ravening spate, surging through the trees, felling the forest giants whose day was done and crushing lesser trees with the tumbling trunks. Once such fury was done, the flooded

forests were quiet and still. The swamped shrubs were briefly home to swimming lizards and snakes, and to the birds that preyed upon them. Gradually the waters seeped away into the soil to hide once more from the all-seeing sun and the rivers shrunk back into their narrowest courses.

The spectacle before her was so far beyond such floods that there was no comparison. This water was alive, defying the sun with a brilliance quite unlike the muddy clumsiness of the rivers. She couldn't imagine it ever drying up. It scoured the shore with crashing waves, white as a great beast's teeth. It came and went back and forth over the rocks as it saw fit. She had watched its powerful billows shaping the long expanse of dunes where the cliffs fell away. This flood wasn't about to sink into the sand and vanish.

There were mysteries in the depths of this water that she could never have envisioned. Beyond the lowest point where the waters yielded temporarily to the land each day, the shallows shone with all the colours of a butterfly's wing. Out past the strange-coloured rocks that broke the surface with a froth of white, the water turned darker, patterned with lines where swirling greens fought shadowy blues. Every so often, a breaking crest of foam surged across the dappled surface before vanishing as quickly as it had appeared.

She gazed out into the misty blue. She had never lived anywhere where there weren't trees or mountains to be seen on the horizon. If there was a horizon here, it lay too far distant for her clouded eyes to see it. Perhaps the waters simply curved upwards to become the dazzling sky somewhere beyond her understanding. This water was blue as the sky—and water fell from the sky as rain, after all.

Other things came from the sky. A shadow undulated

across the yellow and brown rocks. She looked up warily and huddled in the niche that protected her from more than the sun's unblinking eye. A few pink-and-black-striped birds swooped and chattered above the vacillating ripples on the beach. She was happy to see them. They would disappear the instant any larger shadow darkened the shallows, proclaiming their alarm. She moved out of the shade, relishing the warmth of the sun-soaked rocks that she found so soothing to her stiff back.

She looked down to her favourite scatter of rocks jutting up from the shallows. It wouldn't be too much longer before she could climb carefully down and walk over the rapidly drying sands to reach them. There would be the tiny black spiral shells she could empty with a twist of a stone splinter and the larger brown ones that clasped such sweet yellow flesh tight in their twin halves. She decided she would gather some of the frilled green weeds today and bring them back up here to dry, held secure with a rock. She had small stones to spare for shying at the pink and black birds who would steal her food given half a chance.

The painted men had never mentioned the strange burning taste of this vast blue water. Why was that? She picked up her gourd and shook it. It was less than half-full. She would have to make her way to the grudging seep of sweet water that darkened the rocks where an outcrop banded with brown and black like a lizard's back rose above the shore. She had burrowed into the flaking stone a little way with her digging stick and that useful shoulder-blade bone she had carried with her but it still took an interminable time for the precious trickle to fill the gourd. Though she didn't have anything else to do, for the first time that she could recall in all her long life. Better fetch water first, she decided, so she didn't have to leave whatever food she might gather exposed to the scavenging birds.

She reminded herself to watch for any birds gathering around one of the pools left in the hollows of the rocks. That meant trapped fish, left behind by the retreating waters. She looked thoughtfully at her bundle of mottled scurrier skin faded to an indeterminate colour somewhere between grey and brown. She needed a sharp edge to slice into a fish and she had precious little of her black stone left. Was there none to be found anywhere on this exposed shore? She had looked, time and again. She certainly didn't want to retrace her steps back inland in search of cutting stones.

The band of thorny scrub between the lower lands and the barren heights had proved remarkably persistent. It had sheltered her long after the green forests of mighty trees below had given way to lush grasslands that had reached out almost as far as this water before her. She had walked on with no expectations, with no wish beyond surviving each day uncaptured, sustained by the faint, unquenchable hope of finding sufficient food and water to stem the worst pangs of hunger and thirst. And as the days had passed, she had managed to keep herself alive and to slip unnoticed along the well-trodden trails that alerted her to the presence of some nearby village. She had stayed on the slopes as the dry scrub grew thinner and sparser and any signs of hunters or women foraging had grown fewer and further between. After all, where there was no other prey, she should surely be safer, she had reasoned.

Soon she had had no choice but to keep to the pathetic remnants of the thorny scrub. The lower land had turned to rolling expanses of sandy dunes bare of food or water. For the first time she had seen the endless waves and realised that the painted men had been speaking the truth. Finally she had looked down on a vast plain where there was nothing but sand and rocks. Great boulders were

scattered across it, catching dead drifts of crumbling wood and the strange stone plants that occasionally washed up in the waves here.

The old woman had kept on walking. She had had no reason to stop. Not until she had reached this thrusting point where the land doubled back on itself and the great waters stretched out to the horizon. There was nowhere further she could go. Then she had found this place and had learned that she could both feed herself from the creatures living in the rocks and not die of thirst as she had half-expected. As she laid herself down to sleep each evening, she found herself hoping for the first time in a long while that she might wake to see the new dawn.

She wondered, not for the first time, if anyone else had ever walked all this way to see such a marvel as the great water. Did anyone besides her know of this empty shore? None of the caves along this shore were painted with anything more than bird droppings. Quaking with fear, she had been into each and every hollow beneath the overhang of the shallow sandy cliffs when she had first reached this unforeseen end of the land. If she wasn't alone here, there was nowhere else to go. But there were no painted caves and she had seen no sign of anyone else, not even a footprint in the sand.

Her fears had gradually eased and she had come to hug the knowledge of her solitude to herself. Of course, one day she would lay herself down to sleep in the small cave in the back of this crease in the cliff and not wake up to see the sun again. Still, that was a better death than being fodder for some beast. She had escaped that fate. The painted men had said the land was ringed with endless waves so there was no point in trying to escape their domination. But she had found one remote corner where their feet did not tread, where their followers did not swing their heavy clubs and beat lesser men and women into submission.

The painted men did not come here, even though that great green beast lived down in the waters below. She looked out beyond the line of foaming rocks running parallel with the shore. She hadn't seen the green beast in some days. She had stopped fearing it would come ashore and sniff her out, reaching into her meagre cave with its lurid talons to skewer her and drag her out to crunch her aged bones. She only ever saw it in the water, ducking its ferocious head to dive, its dark-green back vanishing in the depths, or floating idly on the rolling waves, sunning its pale and shining belly.

The closest it had come to the land was climbing out onto the line of jagged rocks to devour the monstrous, gasping serpent that had unexpectedly washed up there in a surge of frighteningly green-tainted foam. The painted men had never made any mention of creatures like that. The beast had broken the scarlet-finned serpent's spine with a single crushing bite of its glaucous fangs and ripped gory chunks from its writhing flesh. It had come back to feast for several days before leaving the carcass to the exultant birds. Now all that was left was a black smear of dried blood and a few white bones wedged among rocks out of the water's reach.

She looked to see if the black stain had been washed away yet and quickly shuffled backwards into the darkness of her rocky niche. There was something out on the water beyond the rocks. Not a beast, nor yet one of the giant serpents. This thing was riding on the water, not swimming in it. The old woman frowned and shaded her faded eyes with one wrinkled hand, squinting to try to see more clearly.

The apparition came closer into the shore. The old woman struggled to make sense of what she was seeing. This strange thing was floating on top of the waves. What could ride on these waters? Painted men could bring down

tall trees with fire or lightning, so that their followers could hollow them out. They used them to float through the flooded forests and out onto the broad expanses of the swollen rivers, spearing the biggest lizards and fat snakes as thick as a man's thigh that thought themselves safe beyond the sodden shallows. Sometimes the hunters lashed their logs together and floored them with sheets of bark to make rafts to carry a raiding party across the floods. The painted men summoned shadows and mist to hide their warriors until they fell on some hapless village, to plunder and enslave whoever could not lose themselves in the forest's gloom fast enough. She had not been fast enough, when she was a girl, when her village had fallen to such raiders.

The old woman thrust away all recollection of those horrors and concentrated on the curious thing coming closer still. This was no hollow log nor yet a raft, but all the same, the old woman could see something of the same idea in the thing. It was made of split lengths of wood, though she had never seen a blue tree. There looked to be some kind of hut built on one end of it, though that was also made from pieces of solid timber, not the woven laths and grass thatch that usually made a dwelling.

In front of the hut, tree trunks stood upright, branches stripped of leaves but draped with massive lengths of hide hung out to cure in the sun. What creature had given up so vast a hide? A great beast might be big enough, but who could kill a beast for its skin? And anyway, a beast's hide was coarse with scales and spines. Was this the skin of some monstrous serpent like the one the green beast had killed? How could men hope to kill such a creature?

Because there were men on this wondrous raft. They were standing on the roof of the hut. The old woman gazed at them, astounded. They had made this thing to ride across the great water. Who could do such a thing?

Who were these men? She strained to see them more clearly as the raft turned with unexpected purpose to come closer to the shore.

They looked strangely pale and misshapen. One was wearing a headdress of bright feathers, golden in the sunlight. Another had a more muted cap of paler brown, with a long plume dangling down his white back. Yet another looked pied, like a black-bellied lizard with its white legs. She realised with a start that she had edged out of her niche onto the ledge to get a better view of this curiosity. She crouched lower. She didn't want to be seen. Painted men adorned themselves with feathers and smeared themselves with coloured clays.

Perhaps they had come from the sunset side of the island, beyond the central mountains. The painted men of the green forest had said there was nothing beyond the heights but an arid desert of lethal heat by day and murderous cold by night. But she had already decided that the painted men didn't know everything. She frowned and looked at her wrinkled hands. This point of land thrust into the water almost exactly half-way between sunset and sunrise and this strange raft was coming from the sunrise side of the island.

Had these strange people come from the lands beyond the green forest that she had turned her back on when she had fled the old man's village? What manner of strange creatures lived in whatever unknown lands opened out beyond the vast tracts of tall trees and mighty rivers there?

The pounding of her heart slowing, she concluded she was safe enough. The line of rocks barred the strange blue raft's way to the shore for as far as she could see up the coast. She watched it nosing along, coming closer to the rocks below her cliff. Were the pale men looking for a gap?

An unexpected swell rose up beneath the floating raft

and threatened to dash it violently against the rocks. The old woman gasped as green light flared deep in the dark waters. The beast that swam here had come to destroy this intruder. It rolled over and the old woman saw its pale belly, as blue-green as the shallows. Where the shadow of the hides hung on the raft dulled the water's sparkling surface, she glimpsed the beast's head clearly for a moment. The beast's massive mouth gaped, its burning eye bright beneath the crystal waters. Green fire glowed in the depths and a great burst of foam boiled upwards. The beast was trying to drive the strange raft onto the rocks. In a rush of understanding, she realised that was how it had killed the giant serpent.

The raft danced lightly away from the lethal embrace of the rocks. The beast rose up from the depths once more, a green shadow with its mighty wings folded tight against its long body. The waters surged again and the raft rocked violently. It managed to ride the swell, though now it was coming perilously close to the rocks. The beast reared up out of the water before diving back down and its spiked tail struck the raft with a hollow boom that echoed back from the cliffs.

A mighty wind arose from nowhere, whipping up sand and grit all around the old woman. Clouds suddenly coalesced far away out over the water and spun around up in the sky, darkening from white to ominous grey. A murky talon reached down towards the waters and a spine of white foam rose up to meet it. They joined to form a twisting column dancing this way and that.

The beast erupted from the waters, green as weed. Spreading pale-bluish wings, it launched itself upwards with a noise like thunder. As it hovered above the boiling foam, the raft was no longer of any interest. All its attention was fixed on the distant waterspout, clawed feet reaching forward as if it would rend the thing to pieces.

It flapped its wings a second time, striking spray from the waves as it flew towards this intolerable impudence, faster than the swiftest hawk. Then it folded its wings close to its shining green sides and dived, long spiked tail ripping a white gash into the water as it disappeared. The beast's dive roused a great surge that drove the scorned raft hard onto the rocks. The old woman gaped as the waters swelled with green fire to lift the strange blue creation impossibly high and wash it clean over the murderous barrier.

The raft bobbed contentedly in the narrow strip of water between the rocks and the sandy beach. The stranger in the golden headdress was standing stock still on the roof of the hut, like a scurrier frozen by a shadow in the sky passing over it. The rest of the outlandish men ran up and down, dragging at ropes tied to the white hangings draped on the two barren trees.

The old woman watched the beast now pursuing the waterspout mercilessly. The spiral danced tantalisingly out of reach every time the great green creature burst up from the depths, jaws snapping and claws lashing. With each twist and turn, it was luring the beast further and further away.

She looked at the whirling grey clouds drawing a perfect circle in an otherwise empty blue sky. She might not know much about this vast water or what weather might be expected on this shore from season to season, but she was certain that was no natural cloud come up so handily to tempt the beast away. No ordinary wave had carried the blue raft unharmed across the rocks, not even one thrown up by the green beast's dive. These strangers were indeed painted men who could turn the world to their wishes.

She looked down at the pale figure with the gaudy golden head still standing motionless, turned to watch the fast-disappearing green beast. Was the one with the brown

headdress his servant? Powerful painted men allowed lesser ones to attend them, all the while on the alert for their treachery, or so it was whispered around the hearths of the villages.

Did this mean that the painted men were going to land on her deserted shore? Would their followers soon be arriving, driving on captives laden with laths and grass to build their huts? Would the painted men be summoning uprooted trees to be split with wedges of stone and hammers of bone? Would the timbers be thrust into the sands to make the merciless wall of a stockade for whatever hapless captives would be offered up to sate the beast's hunger? Did that mean the green beast would be coming ashore? Presumably a painted man would know such things. And the lack of food or water wouldn't worry these painted men. They could always summon such things out of the empty air. How soon would their followers be coming? Had the painted men on the blue raft lured the beast away so they could set up their encampment without it biting their heads off before they had got started?

The old woman sighed with deep, aching regret. She had been content here. Now she would have to pick up her gourd and her bundle and start walking again. Which way should she go? Backwards, retracing her painful steps? She quailed at the thought and turned to look along the sunset side of the point of land. Surely whatever lay in that direction couldn't be any worse than the hostile barrens she had crossed?

But that was where the painted men were going. She watched the blue raft slowly picking its way along the narrow channel between the line of foaming rocks and the sandy coast. But did that mean their spearmen would soon be coming to this point of land? If they did, they would surely find her and capture her, tying her up to be fed to the green

beast. Or were they heading up the sunset side of the land to meet their followers? Would they be walking along the sands or along the shallow, crumbling cliffs? If she went that way, would she blunder into their lethal embrace?

Not if she was careful, she concluded. Whereas if she stayed here, there was every chance she would be discovered. She had left footprints in the sand and tossed broken shells plucked from the rocks carelessly from the ledge of her little cave. Not for the first time, her only hope of Safety lay in keeping moving.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Are you sure it's not following us?' Kheda stared out over the Zaise's stern, trying to see into the sand-clouded water. His gut was still tight with tension.

'Quite sure.' Velindre adjusted their course with a delicate push on one steering oar. 'It'll chase that waterspout till the magic unravels and then—'

'It'll come back to find us,' Kheda concluded heatedly.

'It will go back to enjoying the elemental forces stirred up by the collision of these incredible currents.' Velindre was unconcerned. 'I'm sure of it. It's an animal, Kheda, albeit a magical one. It's not evil or even malicious, certainly not in the way a man would be. It was more curious than intent on killing us and there must be plenty of other prey for it in such rich waters. Think how many sea serpents we've seen.'

'And it'll be finding gems on the sea bed,' Naldeth added thoughtfully. 'There must be rich seams of gemstones given how closely earth and fire are allied under these waters. The nature of rubies—' He broke off, suddenly self-conscious, and stared up at the banded rocks of the cliff.

You thought of rubies because of that dragon's egg stowed in the hold. How can magic fuse such a mass of jewels together and twist itself into whatever unnatural life gives birth to a dragon?

'But why did it chase that sea spout rather than attacking you?' Risala asked Velindre as she ran lithely up

the ladder from the Zaise's deck. 'The dragon that came to the Archipelago was set on killing Dev. You said they see any other magic user as a rival. That's why we had to dull your magic, and Dev's, with that potion Shek Kul found for Kheda.'

'That's a very good question.' Naldeth climbed rather less nimbly after her, with a grating squeak from the joints in his metal leg.

'Just in case you're about to suggest it, I have no intention of ever taking those cursed herbs again and being cut off from my affinity.' Despite her caustic tone, a half-smile widened irresistibly on the mage woman's thin lips. 'Which is why I've been practising working my magic at as much of a remove as I can, the better to go unnoticed by dragons or anyone else. Behold my success.'

Naldeth stared at her, affronted beneath his ruddy tan. 'You didn't think to share that with me?'

'I wasn't sure it would work,' Velindre admitted a little ruefully. 'Now we've seen that it does, I can explain the principle and then we'll see if you can grasp it.'

'Oh, I will,' promised Naldeth tersely.

'This is hardly the place for experiments,' Kheda broke in. 'The savages' wizards can sense magic being worked as well as dragons. They came after Dev and Risala that first time, when Dev came across them—'

'Let them come.' Velindre's composure was unshaken. 'Then perhaps we'll finally learn if anyone lives on this desiccated rock. That's what we came to find out, isn't it?'

The Zaise slid on through the treacherously narrow channel between the vivid corals of the reef and the muted rocks of the shore.

'I'm sure there must be more dragons here.' Naldeth looked up eagerly at the shallow sandy cliffs.

'Won't they be sensing whatever magic it is that you're

using to stop us being wrecked?' Risala looked around far more uncertainly.

'I doubt it,' Velindre said easily, 'any more than you'd hear someone whispering on the far side of an island in the middle of a rainy-season tempest. I'm using very little wizardry and there's so much wild magic in the very nature of this place thanks to the elements meeting here. We're sure to go unnoticed.'

Do the times I've found a wizard's confidence misplaced balance the scales against the times when they 've been able to fulfil their impossible promises?

Kheda took Risala's hand and squeezed her fingers reassuringly. 'Thus far we've seen one dragon and no sign of wild men.' He turned to Velindre, challenge in his expression. 'How far are we going to sail around this island before we decide it's safe to go home?'

Where I must take up my proper responsibilities once again.

'We're at the southernmost point of the main mass of land.' Velindre's expression grew distant, almost dreamy. 'Water that has circled the whole compass of the ocean collides as one current brings heat down from the central seas and another brings a cold surge up from the far south. The winds meet here, too. Some have travelled with the currents; others are rising from the land here and mingling with them, fighting against them.'

'Each current carries earth run off from rivers in distant lands, as well as all manner of sea creatures—' Naldeth broke off and narrowed his eyes. 'There are definitely fire mountains inland, and hot springs.'

'You're still certain this is just one island?' Kheda interrupted.

Naldeth nodded unhesitatingly. 'One island, several hundred leagues long and a hundred wide at its broadest, near enough. Where the raw elements of earth and

fire are remarkably closely interwoven,' he continued thoughtfully.

'There are powerful currents and seasonal wind patterns back in the Archipelago.' Risala looked from the tall, slender magewoman to the stockier younger wizard. 'As well as fire mountains that have blown half an island into clouds of burning dust before now. We're not plagued with dragons. Why should we expect more of them here?'

'Because dragons are creatures born of pure elemental magic. Those Aldabreshin places you talk of are still vibrant with elemental power,' Velindre added neutrally, 'as you would know if Archipelagan custom didn't condemn all mageborn to an undeserved death. The correct question is why don't they draw dragons to them as a matter of course. Well, now we have the answer.'

'Would you care to share it with us?' Kheda asked with some rancour.

'If the magic Velindre's using now is a whisper, those natural focuses of magic in the Archipelago would be a raucous shout.' Naldeth was looking up at the barren cliff tops. 'But the intensity of elemental entanglement here is still a cacophony that would drown them both out. I'm surprised we've only seen one dragon drawn here.'

'So far,' Kheda said dubiously.

'Don't tempt the future.' Risala looked up at the empty skies before continuing to survey the inhospitable shore.

'These wild men lure dragons with prisoners as ready meat, don't they?' Naldeth queried, a trifle callously. 'It can't be any too easy to get a water dragon's attention, if it spends all its time out at sea.'

Kheda glowered at the unrelieved intransigence of the fractured cliffs. 'Does this commotion in the elements you're talking about mean you won't know if any savage mages are working their spells?'

'That's an interesting question.' Velindre nodded. 'We shall have to wait and see.'

'You said their magic is remarkably unsubtle.' Naldeth looked at her. 'And almost solely woven from the element of their affinity. Surely we'll be able to feel that?' He looked at Risala and grinned. 'Like a spider feeling something blundering into its web.'

'Let's hope so,' Velindre said dryly.

'There may be nothing for you to feel.' Kheda looked at the frothing white water beyond the blunt end of the headland. 'Perhaps all the savage mages died in Chazen or on that drowned isle.'

'I wouldn't count on it,' the younger mage scoffed.

'As I said, that's the southernmost tip of the island.' Velindre raised her hand and the Zaise idled in the sparkling waters, scorning the insistent winds. 'So, are we turning around to sail back up the eastern face or do we see what lies on the western shore?'

'All we've seen on the eastern side has been destruction wrought by the waves thrown up by that outlying island erupting.' Kheda slipped his arm around Risala's shoulders and held her close. 'If there are people living anywhere here, I imagine they'll be on the far side.'

'Are we going to sail around this whole island?' Risala looked up at the barren crag looming above the mastheads. 'How big did you say it was, Naldeth?'

'Big enough for you to make an epic poem out of such a voyage.' He grinned at her.

'It's not a voyage we could hope to make this side of the rains arriving back home,' Kheda said firmly. 'We'll go on just far enough to see if there are any wild men still living here and then you can use your magic to send me and Risala back to Chazen, back to the burned isle so we can recover the Reteul. You two can stay here to try to pursue dragons without getting eaten if you choose.'

'As you command, my lord.' Velindre smiled so serenely that Kheda was instantly suspicious.

They sailed around the broken rocks beneath the headland with emerald magelight frothing around the Zaise9s hull. It didn't draw the water dragon back, to Kheda's relief. The western shore was as rocky as the eastern face and Kheda began to wonder if the seas lapped at continuous inaccessible cliffs all around this massive isle. The two wizards stood silent, absorbed in some uncanny communion with seas, skies and coastline. Noon came and went and Kheda and Risala shared a scant meal of wind-dried fish and plain water. Both mages simply waved away any offer of food.

Kheda periodically shifted his gaze from the cliffs to the seas ahead in an attempt to stave off insidious if inappropriate boredom. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, to be sure what he was seeing was real. It was still there: a red stain drifting through the clouded channel like a trace of blood. It thickened, drawing dark lines in the greenish waters that surged around the brown smudges of the corals just beneath the surface. Ashore, the ramparts of banded sandy rock finally gave way to crumbling cliffs of dark mud and russet clay, topped with a parched suggestion of yellowed vegetation. Out to sea, the reefs curled away to vanish beneath the waves and the seas turned to a colour somewhere between ochre and crimson.

Velindre shivered involuntarily and startled them all by inadvertently pulling so hard on one steering oar that the Zaise lurched sideways. 'There's a river mouth,' she explained. 'An eddy where the salt water meets the sweet surprised me.'

Scant moments later, the coastline took a sharp turn away from them, subsiding into mud flats and sandbanks. A silt-laden river oozed sluggishly into the sea through countless channels. Sere grasses clung insecurely to

patches of dry ground on the larger hummocks, sown by seeds blown from the parched scrub lining the true river banks far away in the distance. Further inland, a line of darker green promised more substantial vegetation. Beyond that, the land rose in a sweep of dun rock streaked with countless mossy, leafy hues, finally dissolving into a blur ultimately topped with the clouds that clung to awesome mountainous heights deep inland.

'Is this navigable?' Kheda asked.

'Just about.' Velindre's hazel eyes were bright with anticipation.

'If we can get even a little way inland, I can try to understand the rocks and the fires underlying this place.' Naldeth's equally unnerving eagerness made him look more boyish than ever.

'Any people living here will be near the river.' Risala didn't share the wizards' enthusiasm.

'Where there's water and food and fuel,' agreed Kheda, unwelcome tension crawling up his spine.

'Velindre, what can you do to hide us?' Risala asked. 'Without alerting any wild wizard hereabouts,' she added tersely.

Kheda didn't speak, straining his eyes as he searched for any sign of movement ashore beyond the wind stirring the vegetation.

If we do run into something we dare not tackle, the wizards' magic can carry us all the way back to the Archipelago. That's what they 've promised time and again. Which would mean this whole voyage and all my lies and contrivances to make it will have been utterly in vain. Would that be best, just to go home and put all this behind me?

Velindre glanced at Naldeth. 'Can you draw the haze rising off the land out across the water?'

'I'll make us no more than a reflection of mudflats distorted by the light,' the youthful mage promised.

Velindre gestured at the masts and the white canvas flapped and cracked and furled itself to leave only the aft-mast rigged with half its sail. The steady wind coming off the ocean pushed the Zaise steadily up the river, scorning the feeble current.

Leaving the braided rivulets and sand bars to the white-crested waves rushing in from the open water, the river gradually collected itself into a broad, curling channel. Mudflats sprawled on either side between the red-stained water and the grass-topped sandy banks some way in the distance. Low islands broke through the flow in the bends on either side, crowned with tangled greenery and crowded with ungainly brown birds chattering peaceably among themselves and preening their ragged feathers with heavy black bills.

If there's nothing to disturb them, does that mean there's nothing to threaten us? But if we scare the birds up, who or what will see them take flight?

'Kheda, over there!' Risala was keeping a lookout on the other side of the stern platform.

Naldeth leaned over the rail, intent on whatever it was. 'I see it.'

'What is it?' Kheda staggered as the Zaise scraped on a hidden sand bar and the deck rocked violently.

The wash from the Zaise's hull slopped over the slick mud. The brown birds closest at hand erupted into the air in a raucous cacophony of hoarse squawking and rattling wings.

Does that serve me right, for tempting the future?

Kheda dismissed such foolishness. 'Risala, what is it?'

She pointed. 'Over there, by that dead tree.'

A mighty bole was half-buried in the mud where some flood had wedged it into the inadequate gap between two sandbanks. Velindre eased the Zaise closer with a deft ' hand on the intricate ropes governing the half-sail. The '

enormous trunk was damp and split, a twisted tangle of dry, grey roots reaching back upstream.

Naldeth studied the indistinct grey-green cloaking the distant heights inland. 'There must be sizeable forests somewhere.'

'Where the savages fell trees for their boats,' Kheda said grimly.

They could all see two hollowed-out, pointed logs wedged in among the splintered roots, half-hidden in a wash of mud. Some of the brown birds settled on the sandbank again, rattling their black bills as they jostled each other.

'They used fire to char out the middle.' Naldeth was leaning over the rail to look more closely at the log boats.

'Magical or natural?' Velindre asked instantly.

'Natural.' Naldeth sounded a trifle disappointed.

Kheda could see black burn marks that had obstinately resisted the river's scouring. 'Was there any trace of fire on that log boat we found on the drowned isle?'

'None.' Naldeth was certain.

Kheda looked inland as the Zaise drifted past a broad curve of bank and a new vista opened up. 'If they were made differently, were they made by different people?'

'Naldeth, is that smoke?' Risala asked abruptly.

Kheda located the faint grey smear crossing the darkness of the distant trees as the young wizard straightened up and looked inland.

'You've got good eyes.' Naldeth frowned. 'Yes, it's fire, natural fire. The grass is burning.'

'What starts a grass fire under a blue sky without a cloud to be seen?' Risala wondered aloud. 'It has to be wild men.'

Kheda took a resolute breath. 'I had better go ashore and see what I can find out.'

'Let me scry—' Velindre hesitated.

'If there's anyone mageborn out there, they'll be on us in a trice,' Naldeth objected. He turned to Kheda. 'I'll come with you.'

'No.' Kheda pulled his tunic over his head before stripping off his trousers. He wound them deftly into a loincloth, leaving his long legs bare, his skin dark against the pale cotton. 'I can look like them, from a distance at least. You can't.'

Not with your pale barbarian skin, even if you had both of your legs intact.

'I can.' Risala pulled her red tunic off over her head, blue gaze defiant as she emerged, her black hair tousled.

'Four eyes are better than two,' Velindre agreed. 'We'll sit tight and feel for any tremors in the elements that might betray some mage ashore to us, won't we, Naldeth?'

'Yes, of course.' The young wizard swallowed and looked away from Risala's bared breasts.

Velindre was scanning the unhelpfully low-lying mudflats and sandbanks. 'We'll go just a little further upstream.' She pointed towards a sizeable sandbank huddled in the crook of a sharp meander. 'If you can't see us, you can see that.'

Dragging his gaze from Risala again as she wound her own trousers round her hips, the young mage addressed Kheda. 'What do you intend doing if you trip over some wild wizard and he throws a handful of fire at you?'

'I don't intend getting close enough to trip over anyone.' Kheda slid down the ladder to the main deck and laid his hand on the door to the stern cabin. 'And their mages have always worn paint or feathers or some such. As soon as we catch sight of anything like that, we'll be on our way back.'

'Do you have your star circle?' Velindre pulled a small brass sun column from her pocket, flicked up the ivory vane and turned it to the brilliant sun. The shadow fell

just short of one of the incised curves swooping down around the stem of the instrument. 'If you're not back by the next arc, I'll scry for you and if necessary I'll fetch you back here with magic' She grinned at Kheda. 'If that brings some wild wizard or dragon down on us, then we'll just have to scurry back to Chazen or Hadrumal.'

'Are you taking a sword?' Risala was tucking her sheathed dagger securely into her improvised loincloth. 'And I'll want a hacking blade for anything we might trip over in that grass.'

'Naturally.' Kheda opened the door to the stern cabin. By the time he had gone down to the stern hold and retrieved a scabbarded sword as well as a wide-ended hacking blade and a brass water flask with a braided strap, Velindre had guided the Zaise into the narrow channel pinched between the main river and a long, low island strewn with flood-tumbled boulders.

Risala was on the main deck, leaning over the rail to look at the mud below the sharply undercut bank. 'How solid do you suppose that is?'

Kheda allowed himself a moment to admire the smooth brown curve of her naked back before looking up at Naldeth on the stern platform. 'I take it you'll pull us out if we sink?'

'I should be able to do that without magic' The young mage waved a coil of rope.

'I'll go first.' Kheda swung his legs over the Zaise 's rail and pushed himself off the ship's side as hard as he could. He landed where silty water lapped the mud bank and his feet sank a little. The river water was cool around his feet, though it had an unsavoury stagnant smell.

'I think it'll hold us.' Risala jumped and Kheda caught her shoulders to steady her as she landed.

'You don't have to come with me,' he said quietly. 'You could stay safe on the ship.'

'Where's safe, out here?' She gripped the long handle of the hacking blade in its sewn-leather sleeve. 'I'll be safer with you if some wild wizard or dragon comes looking for them.' She jerked her head back at the Zaise.

'True enough.' Kheda found he could barely see the ship through the shimmering distortions Naldeth's magic was wrapping around it. Trying made him feel nauseous, so he turned his back on the disquieting sight. 'Let's get to solid ground.'

He picked his way carefully to the grassy bank, testing each step on the mud. Risala walked carefully in his footprints. He felt thirsty but realised that was only apprehension drying his mouth. Chest-high, the lip of the bank was sharply undercut and the edge crumbled as Kheda tried to pull himself up onto solid ground.

'Here.' Risala braced herself on one knee and offered her cupped hands as a step. With that slight advantage, Kheda managed to haul himself properly ashore. Kneeling, he turned to reach a hand down to pull Risala up. The two of them crouched in the colourless dry grass as something not too far away fled with a rushing rustle.

'Where's that fire?' Kheda stood cautiously upright and looked for the smudge of smoke in the distance. It was thicker now, rising from several points to mingle in a pale-grey line tattered by the breeze coming in off the sea.

'It's heading away from us,' Risala observed.

'Then let's catch up a little,' Kheda said resolutely.

He used his scabbarded sword to push aside the chest-high grasses. Growing in thick clumps, their stems were green at the base but soon bleached to creamy yellow by the merciless sun. The dry blades were coarse and sharp-edged, not quite drawing blood but leaving his bare legs sore all the same. There was seldom room enough between the clumps to take a step without wiry tendrils poking

painfully into his feet. Risala tucked herself close in behind him, intermittently biting back a mutter of discomfort. Trying to keep the line of rising smoke in sight, Kheda tripped as he found a narrow path worn through the dense grasses. Risala stumbled into him and he caught her arm with his free hand.

'What do you suppose made this?' She looked towards the smoke and then back towards the river where the Zaise should be.

'Men or animals.' Kheda gauged the line that the path took inland across the floodplain. 'If we follow this and then cut across the grass when we get closer to those fires, we can lose ourselves in the shadows of the trees.' He couldn't help glancing back towards the river but could see nothing beyond a punishing glare on the water.

They could move more quickly on this clearer path, narrow though it was. It crisscrossed other equally thin paths worn through the thick grasses. Sweating freely now, Kheda took a drink from the water flask and passed it to Risala. She gratefully took a mouthful and handed it back. Soon he could smell the burning as well as see the smoke and slowed, half-crouching so that the frayed tips of the grasses swayed above his head.

'What can you see?' Risala was looking to either side and back down the path lest anything was watching them.

'Savages,' Kheda said, resigned.

Two lines of dark-skinned men were working together, either naked or clad in scant leather loincloths. They were walking behind the slowly advancing fires, flailing bundles of twigs to make sure the fire didn't run riot instead of following the paths they desired for it. Men with clubs and spears were further away, spread out in the sallow unburned grasses. Their raised weapons were black outlines against the grey-white smoke as they searched the ground for prey fleeing the flames.

'Can you see anyone who might be a mage?' whispered Risala.

'No,' Kheda replied softly, 'but I can't see much at this distance.'

The wild men moved across the lengthening black scars burned into the grassy plain, billows of smoke swirling around them.

What are they hunting?

As he wondered, a great cry went up. The wild men ran after some creature racing towards some illusory sanctuary of unburned grass. Clubs swept back and smashed down. Arms raising long spears thrust hard into the melee.

Whatever it is, it's fighting back.

Kheda saw men reeling away from the fray. As the wind twisted to carry the sounds of battle over the grasses, wordless cries of passion and determination mingled with a tearing sound somewhere between a hiss and a screech.

The group of wild men suddenly broke apart with cries of anguish. Something came racing through the dense grasses, charging through the barrier of the flames. One of the savages who'd been tending the fires tried to intercept whatever it was, a spear raised high above his head. Whatever it was bowled him over, flinging him up so high that his bare legs spun higher than his head before he crashed back down to the ground. Then whatever it was attacked the hapless hunter where he lay. The grasses thrashed violently as his gurgling despair was lost beneath that eerie tearing screech.

Kheda drew his sword and took firm hold of Risala's wrist with his other hand. 'If it comes this way, we just get out of its path.' He could feel her trembling, her skin slick with sweat.

As the hunters raced to their fallen comrade, shouting and waving their spears, the unseen creature fled. It came running towards Kheda and Risala, the thud of its feet

breaking through the frenzied rustle of the grass. As it burst out onto the narrow track a perilously short distance away, it froze, staring at them. It was a lizard, as long as a tall man from its blunt nose to the end of its heavy tail. Its head and back were armoured with solid yellow-brown scales, with still thicker scales running down the length of its body to make black horny ridges. Its lashing tail was flattened from top to bottom and saw-edged with vicious plates stained with blood and dirt. Digging its clawed feet into the parched earth, it hissed, a bubbling sound with its jaw gaping. Kheda saw speckled yellow skin inside its maw and stained white teeth, stubby and broad. Strands of dirty green drool hung from the corners of its wide mouth.

Not a whip lizard. I've never seen anything like it.

Kheda kept Risala behind him and held his sword low and ready, the braided silk binding the hilt drawing the sweat from his palm.

The creature hissed again and lurched away from them, crashing through the brittle grasses on wide-splayed legs as it headed towards the river.

'Kheda.' Risala resheathed the blade she had half-drawn and shook his shoulder urgently as he was still trying to see where the lizard had gone.

He looked back to see the savages gathering together, beating out their fires. Some bent over prey or casualties; others were gesturing and shouting self-importantly. A few were standing idle, leaning on spears or resting their clubs over their shoulders. Torn by the breeze, their quarrelsome words were unintelligible.

Kheda crouched as low as he could while still keeping a clear view of the hunters. 'We don't move until they do.' He smiled at Risala and passed her the water flask. As she took it, he saw more fear in her eyes than he would have expected.

Eventually the wild men moved off, some carrying dead

animals slung over their shoulders, others with larger prey lashed to spears borne between two or four men.

Kheda noticed that several wounded were being left to make their way along as best they could, limping, using their spears as props.

No one's gone to see what's become of that man who fell foul of that lizard. Which is a relief because they'd come too close to us for comfort if they did. I just hope he's quite dead before any scavengers get the scent of blood.

All the same, the thought of abandoning even an unknown wild man to bleed out his life in the desolate grasses left a sour taste in Kheda's mouth. He couldn't help thinking of his modest physic chest back on the Zaise.

But there's probably nothing I could do for him. Even if I could, we'd either have to take him prisoner or risk him betraying our presence here. Besides, he's a savage. These people showed no mercy in Chazen.

The words nevertheless rang hollow inside his head.

'Where are they going?' Risala stood a little straighter.

'Over towards the trees.' Kheda watched the ragged column head for the greenery rising up the sides of this broad, shallow valley.

'What do we do now?' She glanced back towards the river.

'We'll follow them, just for a little while.' Kheda looked after the wild men. 'Let's cut across to the tree line before they do. We'll be harder to see against the shadows there.'

That was easier said than done, as the tussocks grew thicker and more densely packed away from the river bank. Kheda used his sword to cut at the stubborn grass and the blades retaliated by slicing fine cuts into his hands and forearms that instantly swelled and stung. Finally the clumps began to thin as the land rose up. A band of barren

earth where the grasses ended soon yielded to tangles of sprawling spiny plants with fleshy yellowing leaves. Beyond, contorted grey trees ran away up the steepening slope, their pale blotchy branches fringed with coarse little leaves.

Kheda crouched in the edge of the grasses and poured a little of their precious water over the shallow oozing cuts that were now tormenting him.

Risala waved away tiny black flies hovering greedily. 'Are you all right?' she asked with some alarm.

'I think so.' Kheda paused to contemplate the possibility that the grasses might have poisoned him.

No fever or chills or tremors. It just cursed stings.

He fought the urge to scratch at the red scores on his thighs and calves and looked at Risala's bare legs. She showed fewer marks but the inflammation was more marked on her lighter skin. 'How about you?'

'As long as the itching stops soon, I'll be fine,' she said through gritted teeth. 'Where are the savages?'

Kheda moved cautiously out into the barren expanse just short of the tangled plants and twisted trees and looked inland. 'They're still fighting their way through the grasses.'

Burdened with game and wounded, the wild men were making slow progress through the dense growth.

'They must have hides like water oxen,' Risala muttered, blowing to cool a swollen scrape on the tender inside of her forearm.

'Let's keep a good way back.' Kheda watched the slowly moving hunters for a moment, then searched the curious undergrowth between the unknown spindly trees for any plants he recognised.

If this was the Archipelago, I'd guess that spiky cluster was some variant of leatherspear. Sap from that would soothe these cursed cuts. But I've never seen leatherspear tainted with

purple like that. I could kill us both with ignorance and the best of intentions,

'Kheda,' Risala said warningly.

Refocusing his attention further afield, he saw that the hunters were emerging from the grassland to disappear down the barren strip along the edge of the outlandish trees. They were moving fast now. He saw some carrying a single unknown bird or a lesser lizard breaking into a run. Even those burdened with greater animals were hurrying as best they could. The wounded were left to make their own way, their able-bodied companions deserting them.

'Savages,' Risala muttered contemptuously at Kheda's side. The two of them slowed, wary of getting too close to the struggling men.

'They're scared of something in the woods.' Kheda saw the wild men glancing fearfully into the shadows with every second or third step.

'So why not stay out on the plain?' Risala's hand went to her dagger.

'Where those great lizards are lurking?' Kheda glanced at the impenetrable wall of grass waving idly in the breeze.

Cautiously, Kheda and Risala followed the wounded savages making their best speed along the open ground. He held his sword ready, alert. She had her hacking blade bared, moving along close by his open side.

I'd rather be doing this in a decent suit of armour, regardless of the heat. How far away from the ship are we now? How far are we going to go before we turn back? How long have we been creeping along like this? Will Velindre scry for us and snatch us back with some wizardry before we 've learned anything of real use?

They went on still further as the edge of the twisted woodland curved away from what Kheda could recall of the river's winding course. They rounded a thicker clump

of the contorted trees and Risala froze. Kheda stopped dead with her and, crouching low, close together, they retreated into the shielding grasses.

A finger of low ground thrust between low hills just ahead, choked with dense tussocks of yellow grass. Beyond, the land swept steeply upwards and an irregular outcrop of pale stone reared up through the strange woodland. Caves pierced the whole face of the rock, black against the variegated stone. Ropes and notched tree trunks offered access to the upper levels where women and children looked out anxiously. Figures armed with spears stood by the lowest entrances where a single broad fire burned low in a hollow scraped across the mouth of the largest cave. A little way down the slope, a substantial screen of branches snapped from the twisted grey trees shielded the half-circle of earth that had been cleared around the rock's base. The barbed leaves of the fleshy yellow-green plants were piled high around the branches.

The wild hunters hurried towards this sanctuary. A strange clattering rang through the woods. Some of the wild men froze, raising their clubs and spears. Kheda caught a flash of movement deep among the contorted trees. Spurred on by the sight, the savages ran as fast as they could, a few dropping their burdens in the dust. Dead fowls' wings fluttered for a moment then lay still. Now left far behind, the wounded huddled together, steps laboured as they pressed desperately on.

Kheda saw movement again, closer to the margins of the trees, and unexpectedly vivid blues and greens. Sinister chattering echoed back and forth, louder and more menacing. Wild men emerged from the lower caves and lit brands of wood tipped with grass clotted with some kind of resin from the fire pit. They advanced outwards in a slow line, spears lofted at shoulder height, torches held out before them, looking in all directions.

'Can you see a wild wizard?' Risala crouched lower in the grass.

'I don't believe so.' Kheda was torn between fear of being spotted and his increasing desire to see what was going on more clearly.

The first of the hunters now had to cross the narrow expanse of grass that separated the stretch of woodland edging the valley from the shelter of the rocky outcrop. For the first time, Kheda saw that the wild men were labouring under the weight of several dead horn-plated lizards slung on spears carried between them. Those who hadn't abandoned their lesser burdens of smaller lizards or ungainly fowls clustered close, clubs and spears raised. Some were staring intently into the denser trees on either side of the rocky outcrop, others looking behind.

The men who had come out of the caves with their own spears and burning brands advanced to the crude barrier defending the outcrop. Kheda saw some using sticks to drag away the thick clumps of fat, spiny leaves and clear paths through the piles of branches. The rest held their spears ready.

Hollow chattering rang through the trees, pierced by screeches from the grasses separating the hunters from the sanctuary of their caves. The blood-curdling shrieks were so loud as to be painful, freezing the breath in Kheda's throat. Then, his hands clapped to his ears, he stared, discomfort forgotten in his astonishment.

Birds had been crouching hidden in the stands of dry grass. They stood up, as tall as a man or taller, with dark-blue plumage that shaded to vibrant green on the tips of their wings and tails. They bent long necks low, opening menacing black beaks, viciously curved. The red of their thick tongues was shockingly vivid as they screeched both at the hesitating hunters and at the men waving firebrands by the cave's makeshift defences. More birds appeared

between the twisted trees, stalking forward on long, pale, scaly legs, vicious talons clawing at the ground. They answered the rest of their flock, which had been lurking silently in the long grass, ear-splitting cries echoing back from the rock face.

The men with the firebrands shouted defiance at the birds and urged the hunting party on. Pressing still closer together, the hunters advanced into the narrow band of grasses. One of the monstrous fowl ran forward, bating wings that Kheda couldn't imagine ever lifting such a massive bird into flight. One of the savages flung a spear that the bird dodged nimbly. It raised a crest of blue-black feathers, vicious beak gaping, head questing forward. More emerged from the sere grasses. Some were as large as the first one, others smaller, without crests or the emerald flashes that the biggest birds were now displaying on their flailing wingtips.

The hunters were outnumbered. The monstrous birds blocked their way and menaced the men resolutely holding open the paths through the barrier of tree branches and spiny plants. The savages with the firebrands moved slowly outwards from the rock face to the outer edge of their defences, extending their line as far as they dared without opening up too wide a gap between any two men. The birds closest chattered angrily, ferocious heads rearing back from the flames.

Those birds that had lurked in the trees stalked forward to press ever closer to the men burdened with the precious proceeds of the hunt. Without fire to deter them, they snapped boldly at the spears and clubs that were thrust out against them. One fastened its lethal beak on a wooden shaft, splintering it as it ripped it out of die wild man's hand. It gripped the hardwood stave in one clawed foot, flapping its wings to balance itself as it bit clean through the spear and flung the shards away with a toss of its crest.

Another one darted forward and the wild man it menaced threw the mottled red lizard he was carrying full at its face. The great bird plucked the dead lizard out of the air and wheeled away. It had to lift its booty as high as it could to escape the mob of lesser birds that instantly surrounded it. Screeching their desire for the meat, they jumped up and down with their futile wings flapping.

Closer at hand, a man screamed in terrible anguish. Kheda realised that some of the smaller birds had stayed creeping along the edge of the trees. Heads low and noisy cries stilled, their blank black eyes were intent on the wounded men straggling along behind the hunters. One had sprung forward and seized a limping man by the shoulder, its hooked beak digging deep into his brown skin. The savage hammered at the massive bird with his fists, writhing in agony. He made no impression on the thick glossy feathers as the bird lifted one brutal foot and disembowelled him with a single stroke of its claws.

Risala hid her face in Kheda's shoulder as more of the smaller birds slaughtered the wounded. He held her close, swallowing bile as he forced himself to watch. The birds bent to feed, jostling, their eerily soft cries of satisfaction muted as they crammed their beaks full. One tossed its head back to swallow some unidentifiable lump. Another daintily used beak and feet to sever an all too identifiable hand from a bleeding arm. Their pale, scaly legs were soon covered with splashes of crimson darkening to black.

Nauseated, Kheda looked past the feasting birds to the hunters still trying to force their way to safety with their precious meat. The vanguard with blazing branches were holding the birds at bay while more men advanced to defend the path through the barrier. Savages high in the upper caves threw rocks and branches, their harsh shouts defying the murderous birds' belligerent screeching. The hunters carrying the heavy lizards hurried towards the

safety of the caves, dodging through the gauntlet of flame. The rest flung the last of the smaller lizards and fowl away into the tall grass. The heads of the deadly birds whipped around and they sprang after the bait.

The remaining wounded, unheeded by birds intent on easier kills, crawled and stumbled as fast as they could after the wild hunters who were now shouting encouragement from the shadows of the lowest cave mouth. Some reached the shelter of the spears and firebrands. The last stragglers died beneath the tearing beaks and piercing claws of murderous birds rushing out of the trees. A handful of the able-bodied hunters charged at the birds, brandishing their burning branches, and the monstrous fowl scattered. At a shout from the rest now dragging the spiny clumps of fleshy leaves together again to reinforce the barricade of blotched tree trunks, the hunters hurried back through the single remaining opening. As they retreated into the gloom of the cave mouth, they threw their burning brands down to leave a ring of fire smouldering on the bare earth inside the defences.

The birds scorned the tangle of branches and spiny leaves with rattling beaks but didn't try to jump the barrier. There was enough food outside to sate them without risking the flames. They bickered less menacingly, tearing chunks of meat apart between themselves as they retreated into the woods. As their noise lessened, Kheda could hear wailing coming from deep in the caves.

There are women and children in there. Do these wild men always risk such losses, for the sake of feeding their families? Why don't they burn that grassy dip to ashes, to deprive those birds of cover? Because they dare not set afire that could rage utterly out of control? They cannot have a savage mage among them, not and suffer so many deaths.

'Kheda!' Risala screamed as a middling-sized blue-green

bird darted out from behind a bulbous cluster of spiny plants. Feet splayed, it stood before them, head thrust low and beak gaping. Kheda pushed Risala backwards into the grasses as the bird pecked at him. He sidestepped to cut its head off with a single sweep of his sword. Its long neck lashed, spraying blood in all directions as it collapsed into the dust. Kheda backed away before he was wounded or tripped by the creature's scaly legs thrashing in its death throes. He looked up at a clattering sound and saw more dark eyes gleaming beneath the twisted trees.

'Come on.' He grabbed Risala's hand, hauling her upright. They backed away as fast as they could down the barren margin between the trees and the grasses, away from the caves and the slaughter. Kheda watched the birds behind them while Risala turned to make sure they didn't run into some new danger. The birds didn't follow, pausing instead to tear into the corpse of the one he had beheaded with delighted squawks.

Risala began running, dragging Kheda mercilessly with her. 'We have to get back to the river.'

He ran, his chest heaving, and saw she was bleeding from fresh cuts inflicted by the cruel grasses he had thrown her into.

'Here,' she gasped, finally stopping. 'We should be able to cut straight through to the bank where we left the Zaise.'

Kheda caught her in his arms and held her close, feeling her heart beating hard and fast against his bare chest. He realised he was spattered with the dead bird's blood. 'We'll just have to hope the smell of that slaughter over there is drawing any other predators.'

Risala sounded determined. 'There are two of us. We should be able to scare off one of those lizards at least.'

Kheda risked raising himself to his full height to see over the grasses, relieved beyond measure to see a lazy curve of gleaming water turning towards them. 'Velindre

or Naldeth should be able to see us once we reach the bank. I assume they'll make themselves visible to us.'

'Let's hope so,' Risala said fervently.

They began forcing their way through the lacerating grasses once again. Kheda barely noticed the stinging of fresh cuts as he tried to make sense of what they had seen.

What is this place, where men eat lizards and are prey to birds themselves? What manner of birds were those? Yora hawks, like those in myth and legend? Are we going to meet mirror birds and winged snakes next? Why not? Horned fish and sea serpents are real enough, if rare enough to be called portents whenever they show themselves.

I've been in border skirmishes and full-blown battles, never mind leading my men against these savages and that dragon of Velindre's. I've seen men die for the causes they believed in, good and ill. I've killed men with my own blade, when I had no other choice. Why is it so much worse to see men torn apart by animals simply intent on filling their bellies?

He realised Risala was talking to him. 'What were those things?' she asked a second time. 'Are we going to find other creatures drawn from constellations walking this land?'

'They were just birds.' He couldn't restrain a shudder despite his resolute tone.

'Just giant birds, along with hideous lizards, in a land where dragons swim in the seas.' There was the faintest of tremors in Risala's voice. 'You still don't believe there are any omens to be read here? What do you suppose any other Aldabreshin seer would make of all this?'

'That's no concern of mine.' Kheda saw the sun shining off the river through the haze of grass. 'I just want to get back to the Zaise.''

They emerged onto the crumbling bank and looked upstream and down, trying to get their bearings. Kheda was inexpressibly relieved to recognise the choke point where the low muddy islet split the meandering waters

of the main channel. He was surprised to see they had come some distance past it. He was more perturbed to see no trace of the Zaise, not even the distorted shimmer of Naldeth's magic wrapped around the ship.

'Where are they?' Risala looked around.

A faint shout from the far bank startled them both. The words weren't in the Tormalin tongue or any Aldabreshin dialect. It came again.

'Can you see anyone over there?' Kheda hid his sword behind his back, trying not to be too obvious about it.

Will we be recognised as strangers at such a distance?

The distant bank was a sea of swaying grass, scored here and there with the narrow paths worn by lizards or whatever else lived in this strange place. The plain extended a good deal further on that side of the river before the swell of the land rose up to meet the fat spiny plants and twisted trees.

'Have they gone to hide somewhere else?' Risala bit off the words, frustrated. 'Do you suppose she's scrying for us?'

'I don't know.' Movement on the far side of the river caught Kheda's eye. Away in the distance, a wide bluff jutted out from the valley side into the grassy plain. Another gang of savages were picking their way cautiously down a bare earthen slope facing the river that was somehow resisting the encroaching woodland. All the spearmen carried burning torches and, despite the bright sun, Kheda saw the unmistakable unnatural scarlet of magefire.

'There.' Risala choked on her relief.

'Where?' Kheda looked upstream but couldn't see a thing.

'Just wait a moment.' Risala stared intently at nothingness.

Kheda saw a shallow furrow carved in the silty water fade and disappear. In the next instant, the Zaise blinked

into view, Naldeth beckoning frantically from the stern platform. Wild shouts rang out across the grasses from the distant bluff, startled outrage plainly audible. The ship drifted closer and vanished again.

'So much for their magic not attracting any notice,' Kheda commented bitterly as he began pushing through the rustling grasses, heading as quickly as possible for the invisible ship.

'Are we going to be safer ashore or aboard?' Risala wondered with equal terseness.

'I really don't know.' Kheda stumbled as a chunk of the undercut bank fell away beneath his feet to land in the water with a resounding splash.

Risala caught his hand and pulled him back. 'I suppose we'll find out.'

As they approached the last point where they had seen the ship, Kheda tried to make out where these newly arrived wild men and their mage might be. It proved impossible to see where the savages had gone once they'd reached the bottom of the barren slope and disappeared into the grasses.

Does that wild wizard have a dragon to call on? The mages who came to the Archipelago came to woo that fire dragon. What do we do if some dragon appears here? I've seen one sink a trireme, never mind a ship the size of theZaise. Dev saved me from drowning. We should have made a pact — that Velindre would save Risala, and I'll take my chances with Naldeth.

The Zaise flickered into sight once again, looking strangely flat like a reflection in polished metal.

'Come on!' Naldeth's agonised whisper sounded loud in Kheda's ears, as if the mage were standing next to him.

The wild men on the far side of the river were shouting, definitely getting closer. Kheda saw scarlet flames advancing

through the distant grasses, along with the fire-hardened points of brutal wooden spears.

The ship disappeared just as Kheda dropped down from the dry bank onto the treacherous mud. Risala landed beside him with a squelch and slid a few paces. He grabbed her hand.

'Run.' Velindre's calm voice floated between them.

'Where to?' demanded Kheda.

'Just do it,' the magewoman insisted, unseen.

With Risala's fingers interlaced with his own, Kheda tried to run across the slippery mud. Inside a few paces, his feet had left the moist slickness, sinking instead into a spongy nothingness that sloped rapidly uphill. It was worse than running in soft sand; his aching calves and thighs protested. He ignored the discomfort and hurried on, trying not to look down. He didn't even want to contemplate the apparent emptiness ahead reaching all the way to the far river bank.

Something caught him across the shins with an agonising crack and he tumbled headlong onto the deck of the now wholly visible Zaise. Risala landed on top of him and rolled away, cursing under her breath.

'We have to get out of here.' Naldeth stood on the main deck, a flicker of scarlet light tangled around his outstretched hands.

'I'd say so,' Kheda hissed. Biting his lip, he rubbed his bruised legs.

'Can they see us?' Risala was still crouching on her hands and knees.

'I hope not.' Velindre was standing up on the stern platform, shaking the remnants of a cerulean flame from one hand. She raised the other to the stern mast where the half-sail obediently bellied with a sapphire-laced wind.

'Can you see them?' Kheda got slowly to his feet and headed for the ladder at the stern.

'Stand still,' Naldeth warned. 'Don't disturb the spells.'

All the youthful wizard's attention was focused on the magelight between his hands. He stretched his hands a little wider apart and Kheda saw fine threads of magic catching the light, floating outwards in all directions. The warlord stood motionless where he was.

Slowly easing herself to a sitting position, Risala looked dubiously around. 'Can they hear us?' she whispered. 'If they can't see us?'

Naldeth spared her a brief glance. 'Not if we keep our voices down.'

Velindre's hazel eyes were fixed on the half-furled sail, her other hand guiding the steering oars several paces behind her.

Fighting a pointless urge to sink below the Zaise's deck rails to hide, Kheda watched the wild men reach the thinner grasses fringing the far bank. Savages naked but for loincloths carried the mage-lit torches and their long vicious spears. The wild wizards followed, striding unhindered through the inhospitable grasses which parted before them, sending ripples running away like water.

'Two wild wizards,' Kheda said softly. 'And they are wild women.'

Both wore wraps of soft leather tied just above their breasts and reaching to mid-thigh. Their long, coarse curls were knotted around dense clusters of vivid red and purple feathers and both carried themselves with an ominous assurance.

'Do you suppose they answer to him?' breathed Risala.

A third savage mage strode forward to stand on the undercut lip of the bank, between the feather-crowned women. Where the wild spearmen wore the usual brief clouts of stained hide, this man wore a belt of plaited cords with a panel of wooden beadwork hanging at his groin. All around the rest of the belt scraps of lizard hide were

tied, interspersed with what looked horribly like hanks of black, tangled hair. He wore a band of pale-grey feathers tied just below one knee and another around one wrist. Shrugging back a heavy cloak of long blue-green feathers that could only have come from the monstrous birds that had attacked the cave dwellers, he turned to the two women, gesturing upstream and down.

'So that's a wild wizard.' Naldeth stole a quick glance before returning all his attention to his spell-casting.

'Can he see us?' Kheda couldn't see any clue on the savage mage's face. He couldn't actually see his face, he realised with a shudder. The man wore a bleached white skull as a mask, stark against his profusion of dark, matted locks. The empty eye sockets of the skull stared after the invisible ship, framed by the downward curve of the ridged horns once flourished by whatever beast had given up its life for the wild mage's adornment.

'Probably not.' Naldeth didn't sound as certain as Velindre had done, as the Zaise slipped silently away downstream.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Wild wizards, like the ones who burned the fleeing people of Chazen alive. Like the ones who twisted harmless animals into monsters to slaughter my swordsmen.

'Where are we going?' Kheda forced the words out.

'Back out to sea,' Velindre said tersely, 'before that mage thinks of whipping up a sandstorm.'

Because coating anything invisible with dust would leave it plain for all to see.

'The rawest apprentice in Hadrumal would have done that by now.' Naldeth drew his hands together, lacing his fingers tight. The whiteness of his knuckles belied his contempt for the savages standing confused on the rapidly receding river bank.

'Won't he sense your magic?' Faintest blue magelight still shimmered around the half-sail, countering the sea breeze coming inshore. Kheda moved closer to Risala.

'Not unless he's quicker witted than he has been so far.' Nevertheless, Velindre raised a hand and the sapphire radiance faded to a bare memory staining Kheda's vision.

'He wasn't so slow-witted.' Kheda couldn't help himself. 'He found us, didn't he?'

'That wizard couldn't see us,' Naldeth said stubbornly. 'I'll take my oath on it.'

'AH he knew was that something was awry,' Velindre agreed. 'He didn't know what.'

'Then how did they just happen to arrive so soon after we sailed inland?' snapped Kheda.

'The smoke could have drawn them,' Risala said reluctantly. 'From the hunters' fires.'

'I suppose it's possible,' Kheda allowed grudgingly.

'Once they were close enough, their wizard could have felt some disturbance in the elements.' Velindre considered the puzzle, ignoring Kheda's irritation. 'Though I'm certain he didn't know what it was.'

Naldeth nodded his agreement. 'If he had any notion, he would have brought down some magic on us.'

'Or some dragon,' interjected Risala.

'At least we know there are still mages here.' Kheda dismissed the cooling remnants of his anger. 'As well as potentially dangerous numbers of wild men. That's what we came to find out—'

'You're proposing we go back to the Archipelago immediately?' Velindre was still gazing back up the river. 'To sit and wait for their attack?'

'We don't know that they will attack again,' protested Naldeth.

'We don't know that they won't,' Kheda said grimly.

And I still don't know what we'd do if they did.

The younger wizard shook his head stubbornly. 'Surely this isle is big enough for their needs. It's not as if a land this size could blow itself apart and sink like that outlying chain.'

'We still don't know for certain why those savages from that drowned island sailed east to Chazen instead of coming here.' Risala grimaced, absently rubbing at a sore welt on one forearm.

'If we took a day or so to get a little closer to those mageborn, we might glean some better understanding of their magic' Velindre caught her bitten thumbnail between her white teeth, brow clouded with thought. 'Finding some weakness in their wizardry could prove vital if they do come to the Archipelago one day. That

masquerader in the feather cloak has an affinity with elemental air but he wasn't drawing on the breezes around him. I'm sure he has some tie to a dragon. I could feel it.'

Instantly Risala looked up. 'Is it anywhere close?'

'Let me read the breezes.' Velindre stared into the sky with disquieting eagerness.

'Just don't bring it down on us.' Kheda turned to Naldeth. 'Were those women with feathers in their hair mages as well?'

'I'd call them mageborn rather than mages,' the young wizard said slowly. 'One of them was keeping the torches alight with a fire affinity but I don't think she could do much more than that.'

'Not without a fire dragon's aura to draw on.' Velindre was still intent on the cloudless sky.

'The wild wizards who came to the Archipelago had lesser mages hanging around them, to begin with at least,' Risala said thoughtfully.

'And we never really understood why.' Kheda looked around dubiously.

'We don't know anything about them.' Velindre was unperturbed. 'Which is hardly surprising after barely a day sailing this coast. We came here to reconnoitre, Kheda. Will you at least spend another day seeing what we might learn?'

'One more day,' he conceded.

Because there are indeed too many questions still unanswered, and I have come too far for all this to be for nothing. And Risala and I are not alone, defenceless against evil wizardry. But is the confidence of these northern mages wholly justified or am I just seeing more ofDev's arrogance?

The Zaise slipped back down the muddy channel towards the maze of rivulets cutting through the sand bars defying the surging sea. Kheda's countless scrapes and

scratches began to throb unbearably. He realised he was still gripping his bloodied sword and clenched his fist around the hilt all the tighter to fight the urge to scratch at his itches. Finally he lost sight of the savage mage in the receding grasslands.

'We had better find somewhere to hide the ship without magic if we're going ashore,' Naldeth said irritably, 'in case some elemental concealment catches a wild wizard's eye.'

'Or a dragon's.' Velindre leaned against the tiller to turn the prow of the Zaise towards the north, beyond the river mouth. 'Let's see how the land lies this way.'

Kheda couldn't decide whether to be reassured or irritated by the magewoman's calmness.

All these scratches are doing nothing for my temper. And I had better clean this sword before we go ashore again.

'If we're going ashore again, what are we going to do?' Risala frowned, rubbing harder at her forearm.

'I suppose we could find out where that masked mage lives,' Kheda said reluctantly. 'Or see how he deals with those wretches in those caves, assuming he crosses the river.'

'Do you suppose he has any dealings with them?' wondered Risala. 'They can't have had any magic, or they'd have used it to drive off those vile birds.'

'Those caves are probably as good a place as any to make for once we've hidden the ship.' Taking Risala's hand away from the score she was absently inflaming, Kheda looked at Naldeth. 'Have you any experience of stalking game?'

'I wouldn't know how to begin without using my magic' The young mage was looking ahead to the jagged cliffs where the high ground on either side of the grassy plain broke on the seashore. 'Velindre, there are caves inside these rocks.'

This dark-grey stone was unlike any they'd encountered so far, fractured by the ceaseless battering of the ocean and smeared with the white droppings of unfamiliar seabirds that bickered on ledges fringed with meagre vegetation.

Kheda couldn't see any opening big enough for a man to slip through, never mind a boat.

'Getting into some sea cave might be easy enough,' he warned, 'but remember that we have to get out again, whatever the tide.'

'And we may not be wanting to use magic to do it.' Risala moved closer and he welcomed the reassurance of her presence beside him. She pulled away with a hiss as his sweat seared one of her grazes.

Kheda bit his lip against the sudden pain clawing at his own arm. He took Risala's hand. 'Come on, let's find my physic chest.'

They left Velindre scanning the skies and Naldeth absorbed studying the inhospitable cliffs.

Risala followed Kheda through the door to the stern cabin. He set his blood-clotted sword carefully down and bent to pull open the trap door to the aft hold.

'Did we do the right thing, coming here?' Risala asked abruptly.

Kheda let the heavy trap door fall backwards with a thud. 'I don't know. But Velindre's right - we've been in these waters for less than a day. We should see what the next few dawns might bring.'

'Couldn't you look for some portent—' Risala bit her

'I'm more concerned with getting their measure, so we know just what danger they might be to Chazen and the rest of the Archipelago.' Kheda looked down at his muddied loincloth. 'Wait here. I'll pass the physic chest up.'

He could put his hand unerringly on the ebony and silver casket in the gloomy hold. Taking a few steps back

up the ladder one-handed, he passed it up to Risala as she knelt and reached down through the trap door. Climbing back up into the stern cabin, he set the chest in the sunlight falling through the open door and knelt to unsnap the catches.

As he reached for a green glazed pot, Risala pointed to a wax-sealed lacquered box. 'Is that the powder that dulls a wizard's magic?'

'It is.' He picked up the green pot of salve. 'Though I don't plan on trying to get close enough to that wild mage to poison his sorcery with it.'

'I don't suppose there's enough there to stop a dragon blasting us with lightning or searing us into ashes?' Risala's attempt at light-heartedness fell flat.

'I doubt it.' Kheda twisted the cork of the salve pot and snapped the wax seal. 'Let's settle for stopping this accursed itching.'

He began applying the ointment, fragrant with herbs, to her numerous lacerations. The feel of her firm flesh beneath his fingertips soothed him.

Risala scooped a fingerful of salve from the pot and gently stroked it along a crusted score on Kheda's chest, 'Did you ever fathom the herbs that make up that magic-stifling powder?'

He rubbed the pale ointment into the scrapes on her narrow shoulders. 'Not wholly, and there are rare earths in the mix besides. I don't know where I might find them here, or the plants I would need to make more of the stuff. I didn't recognise anything growing ashore and the season when such things need to be harvested can make or break any concoction's usefulness. Anyway, do you think we could find a way to feed it to a dragon or a wild mage?'

'We managed to avoid being blasted or burned alive before.' Pulling away from him, Risala's voice was muffled

as she dragged her faded red tunic on over her head. 'Let's hope our luck holds, omens or no omens.'

'I'm more inclined to rely on Velindre's magic whisking us away from any danger and sending us home.' Kheda rubbed ointment into the worst of the scrapes on his legs.

Am I ever going to be able to live in any kind of peace in Chazen now, knowing this land is out here, with these wild men and their wizards and dragons, even beyond such an expanse of ocean? Am I any further forward than I was? Was I too eager to let Velindre persuade me to leave the burdens of obligation and family behind, for the temptation of solitude with Risala?

'Just as long as her magic doesn't just bring a dragon down on us.' Risala took the earthenware pot and bent to tend the scratches on her legs, shedding her makeshift loincloth. Straightening up, she handed the pot back to Kheda.

Kheda carefully replaced the empty salve jar in his physic chest. 'Any dragon will go after the two of them before it bothers with you or me,' he said quietly.

Though what would we do then, alone on a hostile shore without hope of magical aid? Was I too easily seduced by Velindre's promises that her powers would make everything simple?

Standing up with new resolution, he stripped off the loincloth he'd made of his trousers. 'We'll track these savages to their lair and the wizards can watch them for a few days.' Pulling fresh clothing from the bundle of worn cottons he had been sharing with Velindre, he dressed rapidly. 'Then Velindre can use her magic to take us to some northern backwater and we'll make our way to Shek Kul's domain.'

'Word of the two dragons seen in Chazen will have reached him.' Risala nodded her understanding. 'He'll have been searching all the northern lore he can get his

hands on for anything that the warlords of ages past used to keep barbarian mages out of their waters.'

'Velindre found lore we could use against the dragons before. I'll humble myself before Shek Kul if that's what it takes for him to share such knowledge.' Kheda took rags and a metal vial from one of the nets nailed against the wooden walls to hold oddments and necessities. 'Chazen's safety is more important than my pride, and at least I'll be able to tell him what we'll be facing, if they come again, by way of trade.'

Risala picked up the soiled sword. 'Shek Kul's no fool—'

The Zaise lurched violently. Risala dropped the blade and Kheda wrapped her in his arms, both of them fighting to keep their balance. The scrape of rock reverberated through the hull. Kheda kissed Risala's hair as the ship settled to an even keel. She tightened her arms around his chest as much as she dared given all their various contusions.

'Sorry about that.' Naldeth appeared in the doorway, the daylight dimming around him. 'Oh, forgive me.' Seeing Risala half-dressed in Kheda's arms, he retreated bashfully.

Kheda grinned and gave Risala's naked rump a fond squeeze before releasing her and handing over a pair of sturdy trousers. 'I think good stout cottons are called for hereabouts.'

'As well as footwear.' Risala reached for a sack slung on a peg. 'It would be foolish to come all this way and die from a festering thorn.'

'And we'll all carry blades, wizards or not.' Kheda picked up his sword and the cleaning materials and went out onto the deck.

The Zaise was edging into a contorted cave reaching deep into the cliff. Seawater slopped over angular ledges

as the walls loomed high on either side, and the harsh sound echoed back and forth. Gooseflesh rose on Kheda's arms as they moved out of the sun into the gloomy chill. A faint nimbus of green magelight ran along the Zaise\ rails.

Like the cold fire that is a mariner's most potent omen out of sight of land. And I am in a land where creatures of portent stalk the earth as well as the heavens. Yet I have nothing to guide me to the wisest course of action, because I have lost all faith in such signs.

'Can we get back out of here?' Beside him, Risala hugged herself, looking at the fragment of open sky painfully bright against the darkness surrounding them.

'Whatever the tide.' From her vantage point on the stern platform, Velindre anticipated the question on the tip of Kheda's tongue. 'And without any magic strong enough to be felt above the natural turmoil of these waters.'

'See that cleft?' Naldeth pointed into the cold darkness beyond the Zaise's prow.

'No.' Kheda stifled a shiver as Velindre's green wizardry dripped from the ship's rails and faded into the deck planking, leaving an iridescence like the sheen inside a mussel shell.

'It runs nearly all the way up to the top of this cliff.' The youthful wizard raised a hand and white flames flickered on his fingertips to cast hard-edged shadows onto the deck. 'I can make us a way through.'

'Let's make sure we have a ship to come back to.' Kheda set down his sword and helped Risala fetch out the closely woven fenders stowed beneath the Zaise's rails.

Velindre brought the Zaise alongside a rocky ledge where wetness caught the light filtering in from the entrance. The fenders rustled and rasped as they were crushed between stone and hull. Stuffed with the silky fibres found inside

tandra tree seed pods, their oily scent filled Kheda with an unexpected rush of desire for recognizable trees populated by readily identifiable birds.

'We must all carry blades.' He left the fenders and collected his sword, opening the vial to tip the scouring mixture of fine sand and vinegar onto a rag. Risala slipped back into the stern cabin.

'Don't worry about mooring ropes.' Velindre slid down the ladder as the Zaise froze in the midst of the jolting waters. 'Our bird's not going anywhere.'

'So, Kheda, what's it like ashore?' Naldeth asked with keen interest.

'Every leaf is edged like a razor or studded with thorns.' Risala reappeared and tossed a pair of sturdy leather sandals with nailed soles over to the magewoman, dumping an armful of other gear on the deck. 'And there are birds big enough to bite a man's arm clean through.'

Naldeth turned from looking ahead into the featureless darkness, his mouth half-open. 'Shall I take a sword?'

Kheda began wiping the grime from his blade with an oiled rag. 'Do you know how to use one?'

'Not as such—' the young mage began defensively.

'Then no.' Perversely amused by the disappointment on Naldeth's face, Kheda relented a little. 'You'll find a hacking blade will serve if you have to fight with it and it'll be more use against the scrub's teeth around here.'

'We should all carry water flasks, and something to eat.' Risala handed Naldeth a brass water flask on a braided st rap almost identical to her own as well as a leather pouch to sling over his other shoulder. 'We don't want to have to go foraging.'

'No,' Kheda agreed, scrubbing hard to be sure he was ridding his blade of every smear.

/ haven't come all this way just to have my skull crushed by some savage's club because my sword sticks in its scabbard.

'Make sure you don't lose this.' Risala offered the young wizard a square-ended blade as broad as his palm and as long as his forearm, protected by a wood and leather scabbard. The varnished handle was almost as long as the blade.

'Here, let me show you.' Kheda took a long leather belt from the pile of gear in front of Risala and looped it twice around Naldeth's hips. Kheda's foot brushed against the cold metal of the youth's toeless foot and he looked down. 'How much magic do you use to keep yourself walking?'

Velindre answered for the young mage. 'Not enough to stir the elements beyond arm's length.' She sat down to pull on stout sandals and used the laces to bind her loose trousers tight around her ankles.

/ suppose I shall just have to take your word for that.

Kheda looked at Risala. She shrugged at him, her expression unreadable in the dim light. The straps of a water flask and a light leather sack crisscrossed her chest, and she held her hacking blade in both hands, dagger ready at her belt.

'Show us the way out of here, Naldeth,' Kheda said.

The young wizard stood upright and squared his shoulders. He climbed over the Zaise's rail and walked cautiously along a ledge deeper into the gloom. A muted red glow leaked from the joints and rivets of his metal leg.

'I'll bring up the rear.' Velindre's face was more angular and androgynous than ever in the meagre light filtering through the cave. 'Just in case.'

'We'll spend a day seeing what hope there might be of learning something useful.' Kheda's tone brooked no argument from the magewoman. 'If there's any sign of danger, you take us away with your magic at once.'

Faint green radiance reflected in her eyes as she nodded calmly. 'I've no desire to find myself in some contest with a wild mage or being eaten by a dragon.'

'Gome on.' Naldeth called impatiently out of the darkness.

Kheda swung himself over the rail. The slick stone felt treacherous under the soles of his sturdy sandals and cast up a damp cold. Feeling his way cautiously towards the pale blur that was Naldeth's tunic, Kheda's outstretched hacking blade found a low ledge the instant before he cracked his already bruised shins on it.

'See up there?' Naldeth raised a hand once more tipped with pale flames that revealed riven rocks making a perilous stair. 'This cleft reaches nearly to the top of the cliffs. I'll only have to open the last stretch with wizardry.'

Kheda began climbing cautiously upwards. He paused when the young mage reached a tumble of broken stone caught between two cracked walls. 'Is that safe?'

'Quite safe.' Kheda could hear rather than see Naldeth's grin.

'I see your time in the Gidestan mines with Planir wasn't wasted.' In the shadows behind them all, Velindre sounded approving.

'You know our Archmage.' Naldeth turned with a scrape of his metal foot on the stones and began climbing again. 'He doesn't tolerate slackness.'

The cleft grew narrower and steeper and the air turned stale and dusty. Kheda looked up vainly for any chink of natural light beyond Naldeth's eerie magelight. As the roof lowered and the deceptive shadows danced around, the warlord found himself cringing, expecting to hit his head on unyielding stone with each step.

Naldeth finally halted and the flames in his hand turned to ochre. 'I will have to use a little earth magic here.'

The light showed they had reached a dead end. One

side of the cleft reared up solidly to bar any further passage while the other rolled away to disappear into some empty void echoing with the sound of the clawing sea far below.

'Be as quick as you can, and discreet,' Velindre called from the rear. 'I can sense open air not far above us.'

'Can you sense any people up there?' Kheda asked swiftly. 'Before he makes the ground fall out from beneath their feet.'

Naldeth wasn't listening, already concentrating on the unyielding rock face. Ochre light suddenly filled the air and then soaked into the dark-grey stone, running along the interstices like liquid fire. The young mage pressed himself against the rock, the glowing lines throwing strange shadows on his face. He closed his eyes and breathed deep.

Kheda reached around for Risala's hand, keeping his body between her and the magic. He braced himself and felt Risala hold her breath. The air tasted oddly metallic and warmed rapidly.

A muffled crack sounded deep within the wall of the cleft, and then another. The ochre light flickered with each snapping sound and tremors ran through the stone beneath their feet. The orange light blinked out and Risala's fingers tightened around Kheda's in the darkness.

The rock face disintegrated with a gentle sigh. Velindre summoned a pale-blue flame that showed them countless thin fragments sliding down the long slope they had just climbed, shards drifting more like leaves than stones. By contrast, the dust fell out of the air as fast as metal fragments drawn to a lodestone, leaving barely a mote to sparkle in the shaft of sunlight piercing the darkness. Kheda gazed at the patch of empty blue overhead.

'Careful,' Naldeth warned as he climbed up newly revealed artfully ragged steps.

'Don't go outside.' Kheda released Risala's hand and

hurried after the wizard. 'There might still be someone or something waiting up there.'

The velvety slick of powdered stone was disconcerting to walk on and it sifted into his sandals, gritty between his toes. Kheda ignored the discomfort, watching intently for any shadow crossing the opening ahead.

Naldeth halted in a pool of light on a broad stone shelf beneath a last brief flight of magically wrought steps that reached up to the surface. 'I think we're alone.'

'Wait there.' Kheda moved in front of him and discovered that the wizard had opened a deep crevice in the side of a rocky bluff on top of the cliff. The bright sunlight stabbed at his eyes and the heat of the open air was brutal even before he stepped out of the cool of the cave. Gripping his scabbarded sword and mindful of the hacking blade thrust through his double-looped belt, the warlord edged out onto the dusty slope.

Beneath the outcrop of grey stone, the barren earth was patched with grass dried to straw by the sun and crushed by the wind. The slope ran away to meet a sparse expanse of those blotched and twisted trees fringed with paltry leaves. Kheda could see no movement in the dappled shade beneath them. Further down the slope, larger trees lifted thicker canopies of denser green. The forest rose up again to a shallow crest and then sank once more out of sight. A series of low rolling hills marched away into the east. A few birds flapped lazily above the treetops, their fluting calls unperturbed. A little way to the south, the hills yielded to the sere yellow of the grassy plain where the meandering river glinted like steel. There was no longer any sign of the hunters' fires. He frowned as he tried to calculate where their caves might be.

'Is it safe?' Risala asked from the dark opening behind him.

Kheda slid a little way along the side of the bluff, his

back pressed to the rock. There was nothing on the cliff top between the bluff and the sheer drop to the unseen surf. 'As far as I can see.'

Risala emerged cautiously, shading her eyes with one hand. 'Where are we?'

'There's the river.' Kheda pointed. 'The caves must be somewhere over beyond that second hill.'

Velindre joined them, followed by Naldeth. 'What caves?' the young wizard asked instantly.

'The fires we saw were set by a hunting party.' Kheda kept looking but the landscape seemed wholly devoid of life. 'They were going back to caves where they live with their spoils.'

'They were being hunted in turn by truly hideous birds.' Risala shivered at the memory.

'You were serious about the birds?' Naldeth was disbelieving.

'Taller than you or me.' Kheda thrust his sword into his belt and drew his hacking blade. 'Able to kill a wild man with beak or talons.'

'Just like yora hawks,' Risala muttered darkly. 'If we were looking for an omen.'

'Let's hope we don't run into any winged serpents,' Velindre said lightly.

'Let's get out of this sun before our brains boil.' Kheda studied the vista before them. 'We'll move slowly and carefully in the trees, to be sure we see or hear any savages before they see us. Naldeth, seal off this stairway as quick as you can. We don't want to leave an open invitation to the Zaise.'

He waited, tense, the dust around their feet shivering as Naldeth's magic worked deep in the rocks.

'Done,' the youthful wizard said briefly.

'Follow me.' Breathing more easily now he was moving, Kheda headed for the widest opening between the

twisted trees. The others followed close behind, stopping with him when they reached the illusory shade of the foliage.

At least the lad moves freely enough on that metal leg of his.

Naldeth took a pull at his water flask. 'What now?' Sweat already darkened the armpits of his tunic.

'Let's start with those savages in the caves.' Kheda looked at the two wizards. 'We can cut through these trees and find a vantage point on one of the hills. That should keep us away from the skull-masked mage if he's still out on the plain.'

'Those birds were lurking in the trees.' Risala gripped her hacking blade.

'Those armoured lizards were hiding in the long grass, which also cut us to ribbons,' Kheda pointed out. 'The birds are easier to kill.'

'Did you see any sign of a wizard with these cave dwellers?' Naldeth asked.

'No.' Kheda looked at Velindre. 'But you had better be ready to use your magic to get us out of any danger I can't kill with a sword.'

'I've no plans to die here,' she assured him.

'I'm glad to hear it.' Kheda moved slowly through the trees, pushing aside stray branches where he could, only cutting where he had to, careful to avoid any strike echoing through the trees.

Have these forests ever felt the bite of metal? Who are these people, who arm themselves with sticks and stones and go in fear of birds and lizards? I would have thought there was nothing they could not do with the magic they draw from these dragons.

The ground between the trees was pale as sand. Leathery spiky plants claimed any open spaces, thrusting knife-like leaves upwards. Old growth had fallen back to surround each dull green and purple crown with desiccated brown

leaves and Kheda froze as he saw movement in one clump. A small lizard patterned with yellow and red pounced on a crawling beetle. The lizard turned back to its sanctuary, beetle legs fringing its mouth. A mulberry snake with a pale head struck from its lair beneath another crown of spikes. The lizard thrashed wildly in its mouth then went limp, bright eyes dulling. The snake dragged it into the shade and set about the leisurely business of swallowing.

Kheda glanced over his shoulder. 'Watch where you're putting your feet.'

He kept to open ground as best he could. Looking back as they drew closer to the taller, darker trees, he noticed that the others were following his trail so closely that their footprints overlaid his own. He retraced his steps, angry with himself. 'Risala, cut a branch and sweep away our tracks.'

'You think we're being followed?' Naldeth looked around apprehensively.

'We will be if any hunter worth the name comes across a trail like that.' Kheda sliced a leafy frond from a tree, careful of the vicious spines lurking amid the greenery, and swept away the pattern of nails that Velindre's soles had printed clearly in the dust.

Risala shared his chagrin. 'We've never seen any of those savages wearing sandals.'

The magewoman watched Kheda obliterate her tracks. 'I told you we needed your particular skills.'

Kheda looked up to see Naldeth drinking from his water flask again. 'You don't know when you'll get a chance to refill that,' he warned. 'And Velindre won't be summoning up water with her magic unless we're all dizzy with thirst.'

The young mage looked surprised. 'Velindre?'

She looked at him, impassive. 'We're following Kheda's lead.'

Kheda began moving again. Risala dropped back to continue brushing away their trail. Kheda slowed as they reached the thicker band of taller trees that were sheltered from the sea's storms by the slope they had just descended. The trees' trunks were black and brown and deeply buttressed, spreading canopies of broader leaves high above their heads. Vines strung fibrous loops between the lofty branches while saplings and opportune bushes clustered where the shade was less dense. The rest of the ground was covered with a thick layer of fallen leaves. The top layer was dry and crackled as they passed over it, though every step stirred up a scent of rot in the humid stillness.

We won't leave tracks here but it'll be tricky to move quietly through this.

'Watch out for snakes.' Kheda moved cautiously onwards, stabbing at the leaf litter with his hacking blade.

'What was that?' Naldeth halted, mouth open, as he stared at one of the tall trees.

'It looked like a matia,' Velindre mused. 'It was brown and furry with a long nose and a twitching tail,' she amplified for Risala's benefit.

'Whatever it was, it was running away.' Risala dismissed the unseen creature. 'That's all we need to know.'

Kheda turned to silence them all with a sweep of his hand. 'Voices carry further than we can see. Only speak if you must.'

To his relief, the forest grew no thicker. He skirted the patches of denser growth, at the same time using them as cover until he was certain the trees ahead sheltered no unwelcome surprises. Risala followed close behind, constantly scanning the underbrush, with Velindre coming after her, equally vigilant. Naldeth lagged behind, stumbling whenever his lifeless metal foot sank into unexpected softness in the dark leaf mould.

Kheda saw brightness ahead where the tall trees stopped. He pushed carefully through the thorny tangle of scrub on the shady margin of the woodland, grateful for his long sleeves and trousers. The slope they had been carefully descending fell abruptly away and the dry expanse of a desiccated stream bed opened out before them, the crumbling edge treacherous.

He took a moment to orient himself. This watercourse ran away to the south, to join the flow of the wide river they had sailed up earlier and swell it with whatever rain fell on the higher land to the north. It was plainly a seasonal tributary; at present it was a barren stretch of pale sand dotted with tufts of the razor-bladed grass and uneven slews of tumbled rocks and dead and broken tree limbs. On the far side, the next low hill rose up to be claimed by the forest once again.

And those caves and the wild men who fought those vile birds are somewhere beyond that.

'Someone's been digging.' Risala sank down behind the concealing leaves of a sapling and pointed to a dark hole excavated in the pale sandy stream bed. 'Or something. I suppose it could have been some animal.'

'Someone, I'd say.' Velindre narrowed her eyes as she looked at the diggings. 'For water.'

'Using pointed sticks and pieces of gourd.' Naldeth pointed to the detritus scattered around the hole.

'Which they dropped as they ran.' Kheda looked at the darker earth cast aside around the hole. 'And they're not long gone, or that would have dried out.'

Risala looked at him. 'Could they have heard us coming?'

'I think we would have seen or heard them running, don't you?' Kheda looked up and down the dried-up stream. There was no sign of any living creature in the silent and empty valley.

'So what do we do now?' Naldeth asked expectantly.

Kheda stared across the dry valley. There was no obvious trail cutting through the trees on the far side of the stream bed. 'We have to get across this open ground as quickly as we can.'

'Do you want me to wrap a little concealment around us?' Velindre offered.

Kheda hesitated. 'Can you be certain no wild mage will sense it?'

'Not unless he's actively looking for us and scrying this valley in particular,' she assured him.

'Very well, then.' Kheda nodded reluctantly, taking one last look to be certain there was no one in sight.

The air shivered with the disquieting shimmer of magic as he strode into the open. Apprehension prickled down his spine along with a trickle of sweat, though at least there was a breath of cool breeze once they emerged from beneath the trees.

As they reached the patch of dug-up ground, Kheda scanned the soft stream bed for any sign to show which way the unknown savages had fled. All he could see were animal tracks: splayed footprints with the telltale depressions made by taloned toes and the dragging line left by a tail cutting between them.

Is that what they were running from? What was it? A lizard? Where did the lizard go?

'Do we see if we can find whoever was digging or carry on to those caves you were talking about?' Naldeth was struggling to get a purchase on the loose sandy earth with his false foot.

Risala walked a few paces away in the direction of the unseen grasslands, scanning the ground. 'They didn't go this way.'

'They went north.' Velindre looked up the dry stream.

'Away from that wild mage with the skull mask.' Risala

turned her attention towards the black and brown trees clustered thickly on the opposite bank. 'I'm not anxious to go into that forest, Kheda, not if those birds are there.'

'Then we'll go and see if we can find the people who went upstream from here.' Kheda grinned as both wizards' faces betrayed their surprise at this change of plan. 'A wise leader always listens to those following him.' He pointed to the far bank. 'But we'll use those trees for cover. We're not going to walk up the middle of this watercourse.'

Risala looked at him with a smile in her eyes. 'As you command, my lord.'

They moved on and Kheda tried to curb his exasperation with Naldeth's halting progress. Once they were safely within the trees on the far side of the stream bed, he allowed a halt.

The young wizard evidently read something in Kheda's expression. 'If you want me moving any faster, I'll need to use more magic,' he said tightly.

'I'll try to find a path that won't be too taxing.' Kheda tried not to sound curt.

That proved easier said than done and it was an awkward task keeping close enough to the edge of the trees to see the dry stream clearly without drawing too near to the fractured lip of the bank. High above, unseen birds bickered. Now and again one squawked a peremptory warning and Kheda froze. When the idle chatter in the treetops resumed, he moved on, each time with his heart beating a little faster. The dry valley curved around a shallow bend and as soon as he got a good view of what lay beyond, Kheda stopped.

'Not all these savages live in caves.'

Back on the western bank that they had just left behind them, below another of the irregular outcrops where the rocks of this harsh land broke through the meagre soil, the

thickly buttressed trees had been claimed by the wild men. Underbrush and lesser saplings had been cleared and platforms built around the sturdiest trunks, supported by branches forced into compliance with thick plaited ropes. Crude sheaves of dry leaves showed up brown among the green, tied to cast shade, while hanging hides foiled draughts, though the dwellings could hardly be called huts. Wild men and women were moving peaceably around the wide bases of the trees with no thought that they might be observed.

'Do you suppose these people have a wizard to call on?' Risala studied them.

'We'll have to wait and see,' said Velindre, her eyes keen.

Are these allies of those cave-dwellers to the east of here? Or does this dry valley mark some boundary? Whose territory are we in? Does it make any difference?

Kheda looked up and down the bank of the stream where they stood, searching for a safe place to hide and keep watch on those new wild men without risk of being seen. A wide-boled tree whose drooping branches were thick with coppery leaves caught his eye. Cautiously, he pushed aside the dangling foliage to find a bare circle of richly scented earth within the curtain of branches. There were no snakes immediately apparent or burrows where some venomous creature might be lurking.

'In here.' He beckoned the others into this opportune hiding place.

'What now?' Naldeth sat down in the aromatic shadows wilh palpable relief.

'Concentrate on your element.' Velindre moved to get a better view across the dry stream. 'We should be able to sense if there are any mageborn over there.'

The wizards sat still in remote contemplation. Risala edged across the ground to join Kheda. Sitting cross-legged,

she delved inside the leather sack she was carrying and offered him stale sailer flatbread and a piece of dried turtle meat.

'What do you suppose those wild men are eating?' Kheda whispered as he chewed the leathery flesh.

'Something substantial given the size of that hearth.' Risala dripped a little water from her flask onto the sailer bread to make it more palatable.

Time passed tediously slowly as they watched the savages piling dry branches into a hollow dug just above the edge of the stream bed. The substantial stones ringing the pit were blackened with use. With some agreement presumably reached that the pile was big enough, a handful of dark-skinned men in leather loincloths huddled to one side. A sharp rapping noise echoed across the emptiness and after another interlude, pale-grey smoke showed that a fire had been kindled.

'Just a natural flame.' Naldeth stirred to answer before anyone could ask. 'Struck from flint and fool's gold,' he commented with some interest.

The huddle broke up as the wild men carried smoking bundles of tinder and poked them into different places around the edge of the pit. The smoke thickened and darkened and drew together into a single column. Dry wood crackled and split and the first true flames flickered to life. Children appeared to fling bundles of sticks onto the fire. As the blaze rose to a brilliant scar against the darkness of the trees behind, the men shooed the children away. They chased each other around the tree trunks with shouts and laughter that echoed along the dry valley.

The men sat around the fire, watching as the dry wood burned down to a bed of glowing embers. From time to time, women in scanty leather wraps emerged from the shadows beneath the platforms rigged in the trees. They consulted with the seated men before disappearing once

more. Finally, the men rose to fetch sticks and raked aside the ashes and stones that had been soaking up the heat of the fire.

The women reappeared in twos and threes. Some held dripping lumps of meat or ungainly burdens wrapped in thick green leaves. Others carried gourds and lengths of stout vine plugged at each end with twisted tufts of foliage. The meat hissed as it was tossed into the middle of the hot stones, while everything else was set carefully in the ring of embers. The fickle breeze carried the taste of roasting meat to taunt the unseen watchers beneath the all-enveloping tree.

If they have no metal for weapons, they certainly wouldn 't have it for fire irons or cook pots.

Hunger stirred by the appetising odours, Kheda was trying to estimate how long the food might take to cook when Risala clutched at his arm.

'Look,' she breathed.

Kheda followed her pointing finger to see a familiar figure leading a sizeable contingent of savages up the dry stream bed. It was the wild mage with the cloak of feathers and the mask fashioned from a skull.

'Don't so much as stir your element,' Velindre warned Naldeth tensely.

Kheda noted that the women with feathers in their hair were walking a few paces behind the wild mage. The three mageborn were surrounded by warriors carrying spears of fire-hardened wood and clubs studded with chips of black stone that caught the light.

'Do you suppose he goes to find the source of any fire?' Risala wondered almost inaudibly.

'These people show no sign of fearing attack.' Kheda tried to make sense of this mystery. 'Perhaps this skull-faced wizard is a newcomer to the area.'

'I can feel something stirring the earth.' Naldeth tugged

at the cord that bent the knee of his metal leg so he could kneel upright, looking down at the ground.

'I think that old man might object if this skull-faced mage has come to claim his little valley.' Velindre stiffened like a matia catching a threatening scent.

A grey-haired wild man emerged from the shadows beneath the mighty trees. He wore a loincloth like all the rest and a hide cloak slung around his bony shoulders. The skin was pale on the inside and when the old savage turned to face the approaching wild wizard, Kheda saw that the outer side was brilliant with intricate patterns of sewn beads. As other men and women gathered a few paces behind the grey-haired wizard, he noted that many of them wore necklaces of coloured beads while some of the children had strings of polished stones knotted around their waists.

Risala had seen the same thing. 'Talismans?' she wondered, with a sideways glance at Kheda.

The skull-faced mage halted. One of the tree dwellers might just have been able to reach him with a particularly fine spear cast. The skull-wearer turned and beckoned to someone in his retinue. The women with the feathers in their mud-caked hair led burly savages dragging bound and bloodied captives out from the midst of the spearmen. They threw their prisoners onto the sand in front of the skull-faced mage, who called out something unintelligible to his tree-dwelling counterpart.

The mage in the bead cloak shrugged with evident unconcern as he made some reply. It was impossible to see the skull-faced wizard's reaction but the captives writhed in their bonds in frantic, futile efforts to free themselves.

'Here it comes,' Velindre breathed.

A sound like canvas torn in a storm filled the air. The sound of a dragon's wings.

'The source of Skull-Face's power.' Naldeth shivered with anticipation.

I should have brought that remnant of Shek Kul's powder with me. Cramming it down Dev 's throat was the only thing that stopped him setting all of us alight when the fire dragon's aura overwhelmed him.

'Make sure you control your magic with the beast so close,' Kheda whispered fiercely, looking from Velindre to Naldeth. 'Or will I have to knock you senseless?'

'I'm all right.' Naldeth's brown eyes were uncannily bright nonetheless, irises tainted with a hint of redness.

The dried-up stream bed and the banks on either side shook as the skull-faced mage's vivid blue dragon landed just behind him.

'I should have been expecting this.' Velindre gritted her teeth, hugging her knees to her chest. She glared at a coil of dust spiralling up beside her and it promptly died.

The dragon was as long as any trireme that sailed Aldabreshin waters. It stalked forward on long, elegant legs, muscular tail twitching and stirring up dust with the murderous spike at its tip. The thick scales on its back and flanks were midnight blue edged with vibrant azure. Smaller scales on its belly paled to the hazy lavender of a rainy-season sky threatening thunder, a shade echoed in the membranes of the vast wings it was carefully folding tight against its sides. Arching its serpentine neck, the dragon snapped a fearsome crest of sapphire spines erect. As it opened its mouth, it hissed with an unexpected softness that was somehow all the more menacing. Its head was long and pointed, its teeth glittering crystal blades. Its predator's eyes were the blue of a late-evening sky with pinpoints of white fire shining like stars at their centre.

More lightly built than the fire dragon that was the death of Dev. Vastly more alert than the simulacrum Velindre

concocted. How dangerous is it? How dangerous is a wizard with that creature's power to call on?

Kheda glanced involuntarily at Velindre. The mage-woman was still sitting huddled, her eyes fixed on the cobalt dragon. Her ragged breath clouded in the stillness as if the air still held the chill of the dawn but Kheda was as hot as ever.

The skull-faced mage shouted something to his opponent in the beaded cloak. The grey-haired mage shrugged once again, his gesture dismissive. The blue dragon shifted its feet slightly, lethal sapphire talons digging into the sandy soil.

'Oh my,' murmured Naldeth.

A grating noise like the first warning of a landslip echoed around the valley. Kheda looked at the crag above the tree-dwellers' encampment expecting to see rocks tumbling from the heights. There was nothing to be seen. Then there was something there. He blinked, not trusting his own eyes, before looking at Risala. She didn't notice, transfixed as she stared up at the crag, her mouth half-open.

The shape of the outcrop had not altered. It was Kheda's perception that had changed, as if the harsh sound of stone against stone had somehow affected his eyes instead of his ears. Where he had seen dark stains trickling in meaningless patterns down the grey rock, now he saw the outlines of legs and a long, thick tail. Where the edge of the crag had been a random array of ragged stones silhouetted against the cerulean sky, now it was the curve of a dragon's spine, edged with regularly spaced razor-sharp scales. Shadows shifted to become a head rising up from a ledge. Kheda blinked again and the creature was transformed from a painted shape on the cliff to a living beast, not as long as the sky dragon but heavier, deeper in the chest and broader in the haunches.

It sprang down from its perch to land just behind the wild wizard with the gaudy cloak of beads. Its shining armoured hide was black as jet save for its underside where dark steely-grey scales offered no hint of vulnerability. Claws the colour of ancient unrusted iron dug into the stream bed as it crouched low. It snarled silently, showing metallic teeth like newly forged swords as its long black tongue tasted the air. Even the inside of its mouth was black. Against such darkness, the vibrant amber of its eyes was all the more striking. It glowered, spines bristling around its blunter, broader head, its unblinking gaze burning with golden fire.

No wonder these tree dwellers weren 't worried about being attacked.

Risala reached for Kheda's hand, her grip crushing his fingers. Kheda looked hastily at Naldeth. The young mage was motionless, hands pressed to his face, mouth open in wonder. He glanced wide-eyed at Kheda. The warlord breathed a little more easily, seeing none of the dangerous thrall in the young mage's eyes that he had feared.

He looked back at Velindre. Her eyes were closed as she sat still hugging her knees, her jaw clenched. Strain deepened every line and wrinkle in her face, aging her cruelly. Moisture condensed out of the dry air to bead her short-cropped hair like cold crystals, trickling down her temples like sweat.

The wild wizard in the beaded cloak clapped his hands together. The black dragon reared upright on its hind legs and extended its wings. Sunlight flashed from silver membranes stretched between the black bones.

The sky dragon reared up to match it, the draught from its outspread wings sending clouds of dust boiling into the air. The skull-faced mage was unbothered. None of the dust came within arm's length of his own people. The bound captives thrown into the space between the two

wizards weren't so fortunate. They writhed and coughed as sand blew all around them, filling their eyes and ears.

The beaded mage shouted angrily as the wind raised by the sky dragon's wings spread to set his people's tree-top dwellings swaying wildly. He raised his hand and the air around the platforms fell abruptly still. The black dragon sprang into the air with a brutal clap of its wings, swooping low over its opponent. It breathed an oily black mist at the blue dragon, which recoiled before leaping into flight itself. It spat white fog into the smoky stain on the air and the darkness dissipated, falling down to the earth. The skull-faced mage wheeled around, gesturing. He wasn't quite quick enough and black tendrils landed on two of his retinue. They fell choking to the sand, legs thrashing and hands clutching at their throats for an instant before being stilled in death.

The dragons didn't care. The blue flapped its mighty wings and soared higher. The black pursued it a little way and then fell sideways through the air, cutting a wide circle above the watching savages. Sand rose from the stream bed as the dragon passed overhead, trailing behind it. The dust coalesced into a glittering line cutting through I he sky wherever the black dragon's tail flicked. The crea-lure flexed its wings and rose to join the blue dragon, which had been carving lazy circles in the sky, spinning wisps of cloud out of nothingness.

The black dragon rolled backwards and lashed at the blue dragon with its tail. The shining trail of burning sand snapped like a whip and flung fiery droplets at the cloud dragon. It dodged deftly, though its skeins of cloud were thrown into disarray. Hissing, it spat white vapour at the burning drops, which promptly fell from the sky in a rain of hard black crystals.

The beaded mage's people stood their ground and jeered as the skull-faced wizard's retinue flinched and

ducked, even though he threw handfuls of vivid blue fire to shatter the black stones. A wind sprang up from nowhere to send the fragments tumbling away through the air.

'It's using the sand to make glass,' said Naldeth excitedly.

'But they're not fighting like the other dragons did.' Risala watched intently, as much fascinated as afraid.

The black dragon swooped low over the stream bed again, looking up at the blue beast. The sky dragon began circling once more, drawing the tattered fragments of its clouds back together. Head outstretched on its long blue neck and tail thrust out behind it, its supple legs extended fore and aft. Suddenly it rolled sideways and curled up so that its pointed muzzle was almost touching the vicious spike tipping its tail. The clouds it had summoned followed obediently, spinning a wreath in the air that thickened and grew. The blue dragon twisted sharply away from the coiling vapours to leave a whirlwind gathering pace and substance as it sank to threaten the black beast.

The jet dragon waited, hovering like a hawk, all its attention on the menacing spiral of cloud. The trees lining the dry stream bed thrashed in the downdraught and this time the mage in the beaded cloak did nothing to still them. In the last instant before the whirlwind touched it, the black dragon shot straight up into the sky. Taloned feet drawn close to its body, its silvered wings ripped through the air so close to the whirlwind that it seemed impossible the cloud would not touch them. But it didn't and, darting up the dry valley, the black dragon rapidly outstripped the relentlessly pursuing whirlwind. The blue dragon went chasing after both its foe and its magic, shrieking furiously.

The black dragon stopped dead in midair before

abruptly doubling back on itself to soar up over the whirlwind. Looking down, it breathed a shimmering grey smoke that fell into the heart of the spiral of cloud and melted it away like ice under the sun. The black dragon didn't pause to admire its success, wings pumping as it flew straight back down the valley. For a moment it looked as if it would collide head on with the blue dragon. At the last instant, it soared over its foe's back, head turning to breathe another noxious cloud down the length of its spine.

Slick greyness folded around the blue dragon. It yelped, head and tail whipping this way and that as it fought to escape the miasma coating it. The greyness dulled the blue dragon's vibrant colours, dragging it inexorably down towards the ground. It hissed, breathing white smoke down its own flanks to burn through the cloying murk. Just as it seemed as if the blue dragon must crash into the stream bed, it fought its way free of the clinging remnants. Turning its back on the skull-faced mage, it departed, the strong beats of its powerful wings ripping through the air.

The tree dwellers cheered loudly, with mockery in their laughter. The skull-faced wizard whirled around, his cloak of blue feathers swinging out wide behind him. The mage in the beaded cloak watched him depart with his retinue trailing behind him. The feather-crowned women hurried to catch him up, their shoulders hunched and heads hanging dispirited. The challengers made no attempt to take the hapless captives with them, still lying bound and half-choked with sand in the middle of the stream bed.

The black dragon landed in the dry channel with a resounding thud and looked steadily at the mage in the beaded cloak. The other tree dwellers fell prostrate on the ground, some hiding their heads in their cradling arms. The beaded mage sank slowly to his knees, not taking his

eyes off the dragon. The black beast crept towards the bound captives, steely belly low to the ground, mouth agape and black tongue tasting the air. The wild wizard shuffled backwards, his whole posture one of submission, though he still didn't take his eyes off the dragon for an instant.

The dragon snapped at the nearest captive, cutting the unfortunate in two with a single bite. The wild wizard continued retreating and now all the tree dwellers did the same, wriggling backwards through the dust on their knees and elbows. The dragon ate a second prisoner, turning its full attention to the task. The wild mage got warily to his feet and walked backwards to the shelter of the trees. Another captive died with a whimpering gurgle as the dragon hooked it closer with its lethal talons. The tree dwellers scurried back to their settlement. Women emerged from the shadows, paying no heed to the slaughter continuing in the stream bed, going instead to check on their fire pit and resuming whatever tasks they had been about. A low murmur of voices drifted across the dry valley, and the occasional burst of relieved laughter, broken only by the gruesome crunching as the dragon continued feeding.

'The dragons didn't want to fight.' Naldeth was sweating profusely but his voice was steady.

'They wanted to see who was most powerful.' Velindre looked up, shivering uncontrollably. 'But they weren't about to risk serious injury to do it.'

'Are you all right?' Kheda reached for the mage-woman's shoulder. She was so cold to the touch that his fingers burned and he snatched them back. 'And what about the savage mages?'

'What about them?' Velindre's laugh had a hysterical edge. 'They have no power over those dragons. The beasts just know that where there are mages, there'll be

easy meat. You have jungle cats in the Archipelago, don't you? They're quite happy to trail a hunting party and steal its kill if they can. It's less effort than hunting for themselves.'

'And as long as the wild mages can keep the dragons content with easy meat —' Naldeth's face twisted with distaste '— they have all the power of the dragons' auras to draw on for their own magic, for whatever their own purposes might be.'

'How can you be sure of this?' Risala looked from one wizard to the other.

'You felt it?' Velindre looked at Naldeth, half-shamefaced.

'Oh yes,' he assured her, a catch in his voice.

'You both held your own magic in check.' Kheda didn't know what else to say. 'That counts for something.'

'Where's the dragon?' asked Risala suddenly.

Kheda looked back to find the stream bed empty. 'Where did it go?'

All that was left of the erstwhile captives were gruesome tatters of crimson flesh and white bone amid dark, bloody stains on the sand.

'Naldeth—' Velindre began cautiously.

'It's not back up there.' He peered up at the crag beyond the platforms in the trees. 'But it's somewhere close. I can feel it.' He looked at Velindre, biting his lip. 'And it'll feel us if we move, I'm certain of that. It's on the alert in case that skull-faced mage comes back.'

Kheda looked out at the stream bed. Ridges and rocks teased him, mimicking the lines of the vanished beast before looking as innocent as they had done before. 'We can't hide here until some savage gathering wood trips over us.'

'Then brace yourself,' Velindre said with sudden decision.

White light blinded Kheda as the air crackled with the tinny odour of lightning. He gasped as dizzying enchantment swept all sensation away. He gritted his teeth until the light fled and he fell to his knees, still dazzled. He spread his hands on the ground and felt hot, dry earth. Opening his eyes, he squinted at the unwelcome barrenness of the savages' island. There was no sign of the dry valley or the grassy plain they had visited, nor of the rocky bluff above the cave where the Zaise was safely hidden.

'Where are we?' he rasped, his mouth dry.

'I have no idea.' Fear equalled the chagrin in Velindre's answer.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Kheda wheeled around in a slow, measured circle. He realised he was gripping his sword hilt so hard his knuckles ached and forced himself to slacken his fingers.

Losing my temper is not going to improve matters.

As his first furious impulse to berate Velindre subsided, he registered the sound of surf crashing on rocks and noticed the land falling precipitously away on their western side. The dusty rock beneath his feet was redder than the darker cliffs beyond the river mouth. 'We're still on the coast at least.'

'We passed by here earlier.' Naldeth's eyes were strangely vacant. 'Velindre, what went wrong with your spell?' He sounded simply curious rather than condemnatory.

'I drew the skeins of element around me easily enough,' she said thoughtfully, 'only the air twisted back out of my control and flung me away. Flung us all away to the south.' Her voice strengthened. 'I hadn't realised just how all-encompassing that blue dragon's influence would be. That's a useful lesson learned, if nothing else.'

Kheda bit back a sharp retort and scanned the unhelpful rocks for any familiar landmark. 'Are you saying the dragon wanted rid of us?'

'What about the black one?' Risala searched the sky. 'Is either of those dragons about to come sniffing after you?'

Naldeth stooped awkwardly to press a hand to the ground. 'I don't sense the earth dragon anywhere close.' He

stood up, brushing his hands together. 'Velindre, were you more susceptible to the dragon's influence because the air is your element, or was it the spell that was vulnerable in itself, as a working with elemental air?'

'You can discuss your theories later,' Kheda said sharply. 'Velindre, is the blue dragon anywhere near?'

'No. It's headed inland.' Velindre gazed into the sere interior of the island where the wind scoured dull green land riven with dry gullies and backed by the crumpled flanks of copper-coloured mountains.

'You're certain?' Kheda demanded.

'Oh yes,' Velindre assured him, with the sensuous shiver of a woman surprised by a lover's caress. 'I can feel it.'

Disquieted, Kheda pulled the little ivory star circle out of his pocket. 'I'd say we're quite some way south of that river.'

'How long a walk is it back to the Zaise?' Risala looked to the north.

Kheda scowled at Velindre. 'Will that wild mage wearing the skull have been caught up in whatever this dragon did? Will he know you're here?'

'The dragon's humiliated and spoiling for a fight.' Velindre spoke slowly, still distracted. 'It failed in its challenge to the black dragon so it's circling its territory, to make sure no other rival is tempted to think it is weakened.'

'How many dragons are there here?' Risala couldn't hide her alarm.

Velindre looked puzzled. 'I can't be sure.'

Kheda was most concerned with the immediate threat. ''Can you tell what this sky dragon is thinking?'

The magewoman struggled for the right words. 'I can feel the impulses driving it, through the resonance of the elements. It's a very odd sensation,' she added frankly.

'Why aren't they fighting each other?' Risala wanted

to know. 'That's what you said dragons do. That's how we saved Chazen, by setting two dragons on each other.'

'It was enough for that black dragon to display his superior magic' Naldeth plainly approved. 'He didn't have to risk bodily injury to prove himself stronger than the blue.'

'Like a matia?' Velindre was incredulous.

'A what?' Naldeth looked bemused.

'A small furry beast that hunts snakes,' Kheda explained. 'They never fight to wound each other, because a wounded matia will soon be dead and none of them want to risk that. The males chase each other up and down the biggest trees to prove who's the most agile.'

'And the most cunning,' continued Risala slowly. 'They aim to trap their rivals on some branch too high and exposed to offer escape. When the winner relents, the defeated one slinks off.'

'And sometimes the winner doesn't relent until an eagle has spotted the treed matia and plucked it off the branch to feed its chicks,' Kheda added.

'Which is considered a notable omen.' Risala looked at him, her expression bleak.

'But dragons aren't matia.' Velindre reached for her own flask and gulped down half her water. 'Let's not forget that.'

'True enough, but that black dragon was certainly out to defeat a rival.' Naldeth spoke with complete conviction.

'Will it see you two as a threat if we use magic to try to get back to the ZaiseV Kheda looked from Naldeth to Velindre. 'Will it find you out?'

'When the fire dragon came to Chazen, it hunted Dev like a hound on a ripe scent.' Risala plainly shared his concern. 'And it was looking to kill him, not just to prove it could work more impressive magic or chase him off.'

'Maybe fire dragons are different. Fire mages have a

reputation for volatility, even if Naldeth here proves the rule by exception. Maybe it just didn't like Dev. He could be pretty objectionable when he put his mind to it.' Velindre's smile was a wry blend of pain and affection. 'All I can tell you is that blue dragon isn't the least bit interested in pursuing me.'

'I don't suppose you look much of a threat when it can snatch a simple translocation spell away from you so easily,' Naldeth commented incautiously.

'My instincts didn't wholly fail me,' retorted Velindre waspishly. 'We didn't land out on those reefs, did we?' She flicked a hand towards the lethal seas foaming beyond the cliff edge.

'Are we going back to the ship?' Risala took a drink and screwed the cap back on her water flask. 'Or somewhere else?'

'Can you use your magic to get us back to Chazen?' Kheda shoved the star circle in his pocket. 'You two could stay to try to fathom the mysteries of these dragons and these wild mages and then come to warn us if there's any sign of them taking to the ocean again.'

And what preparations would we make? What lies would I have to tell my allies to persuade them I'd seen portents foretelling such an attack?

'Let's see what I can see.' Velindre sounded oddly tense as she poured a little water into her empty palm and summoned up a mossy glow within it.

Kheda moved to her side. All he could see was a tangled mass of unfamiliar forest. 'Where's Itrac?'

'Never mind Itrac, that's not even Chazen.' Velindre's brows knotted as she passed her other hand over the uncommunicative puddle of water. The dark-green glow brightened to emerald radiance, obliterating the useless image. The magelight grew brighter in the shadow of Velindre's hand and then dissolved into sickly jade threads

that wavered like weed in the water. Velindre cursed as the magical tension holding the water together snapped and the liquid dripped through her fingers to vanish into the thirsty ground.

Naldeth stared at the damp dust with disbelief. 'If she can't hold a scrying together, you don't want her risking your lives with a translocation.'

Kheda reluctantly set aside any thoughts of an immediate return to Chazen. 'What about just getting us back to the Zaise, so we don't have to skirt round that skull-faced mage or the tree dwellers and their dragon?'

'I was trying to scry out the Zaise that second time,' the magewoman said bitterly.

'What's happening?' Naldeth couldn't restrain his curiosity.

Kheda rounded on him before Velindre could answer. 'Can you try the necessary magics?'

'Me?' The young wizard stared at the warlord. 'My affinity's with fire and scrying's a water spell, so there's the antipathy—'

'Don't even try,' Velindre advised tartly. 'With the turmoil in the elements hereabouts, Hearth Master Kalion couldn't see further than those trees.'

'You don't know—' Naldeth began hotly.

'Then it seems we're walking back to the Zaise,'1 Risala interrupted with deliberate composure.

'Indeed.' Kheda took a moment to gather his thoughts.

This is no time for a quarrel. We can argue when we 're back on the ship— where I'll tell Velindre she's to sail us at least as far east as she needs to be sure of sending me and Risala back home with her magic. We 're not staying here if these mages can't keep us safe with their wizardry.

The others stood looking expectantly at him.

'We need shade and cover from unfriendly eyes.' Kheda pointed to the sparse greenery a little way inland.

'We're far too exposed on this cliff. But we had better stay alert for any sign of those murderous birds or worse.'

'You and I can do that.' Risala shot a stern glance at the wizards. 'You two keep watch for any dragon or wild mage.'

'I don't know how much daylight we have left.' Kheda started walking, the sun still uncomfortably hot on his back. 'I'm not sure we'll get back to the Zaise before dark.'

Risala followed close by his shoulder, her hacking blade held ready. The wizards followed a few paces back, Velindre curbing her long stride to match Naldeth's irregular gait.

At least this ground is hard enough for him to walk fairly easily.

Once they had crossed the open expanse of hard-packed ruddy soil, the dusty green proved not to be trees after all but a bizarre blend of thistly bushes and plants that thrust long fingers as thick as a man's arm into the air. They had no branches or side shoots; they were just stems densely covered with spine-tipped leaves that looked more like the scales of some lizard than the skin of any plant.

'There's cover, if not a lot of shade,' Kheda said bracingly to Risala.

She looked behind her to be sure the two wizards weren't lagging. 'We can hope no one's fool enough to come in among all these thorns just wearing a few scraps of hide.'

It was relatively easy to pick a path between the upthrust spikes and the desiccated thistle plants. The only obstacles were intermittent sprawls of pale yellowy-green plants with thick, succulent leaves studded with curling black thorns.

Kheda kept an eye on the broken line of the cliff edge away to his off hand. The sun sank steadily in the sky, and by the time the western sea took on the golden glow

that promised sunset, they had reached a stretch of this strange spiny forest where brilliant scarlet blossoms dotted the scaly green stems. Tiny grey birds fluttered around the flowers, together with the largest butterflies Kheda had ever seen, yellow as sulphur.

'What was that?' Naldeth halted and whirled around, searching the lattice of green pillars casting long shadows across the dry ground. 'I heard footsteps,' he said with complete conviction.

Kheda strained his ears. In the distance he could hear the sea's ceaseless murmuring. Close at hand, at first the silence seemed utterly complete, as the onset of dusk vanquished the day's breezes. Gradually, he picked out the chirruping of some insect and the idle trills of the tiny grey birds flitting overhead from lofty bloom to lofty bloom, burying their long beaks in the flowers. Red scissor-tailed finches snapped incautious flies out of the air.

'Perhaps it was some animal,' he said at length.

'Hunting us?' Risala was still keeping a keen eye to the fore.

'Perhaps,' Kheda acknowledged readily, 'but we're hardly as defenceless as those savages.' He nodded to Naldeth. 'Draw your blade and keep watch behind us. But don't go rushing into the attack, and don't use magic unless something's about to bite your head off.'

'Or someone else's.' Naldeth unsheathed his hacking blade and gripped it resolutely.

Velindre looked up at the vivid evening sky. 'The dragon's still a good way away.'

'Both of them?' Risala's vigilance ahead wavered for a moment.

'I'd feel the black dragon coming anywhere close,' Naldeth reassured her. 'Fire and earth are sympathetic elements and given that creature's power—'

'We can discuss all this when we're safely back at the Zaise? Kheda narrowed his eyes as he thought he saw some movement among the motionless forest of upthrust stems.

Was that some brush stirred by a breeze or some animal or just my eyes deceiving me?

He swapped his own hacking blade to his off hand and drew his sword. 'We move as quietly as we can. Sound will carry further than we can see once it gets dark.' He picked up the pace, Risala at his side.

'How are we going to cross that river in the dark?' she asked in a low tone.

'Without using magic?' He glanced at her and shrugged. 'I don't know. I don't even know if we'll get that far. It might be better to find some shelter on this side and cross at first light.'

'That skull-faced mage lives on this side of the river,' she reminded him.

He grimaced. 'And the black dragon lives on the far side, between us and the Zaise?

'I take it we're not stopping for food?' Velindre was rummaging in the leather sack she was carrying. She handed Kheda a scrap of salted duck meat wrapped in stale sailer bread.

He chewed it, finding his mouth too dry for comfort. 'We'll certainly have to look for water before long.'

'Will you look for omens at first light?' Risala asked with unexpected insistence. 'Please—'

'Kheda,' Naldeth warned from the rear, 'there's definitely something following us.'

'Quiet.' Velindre hushed him. 'Listen.'

A night breeze was rolling down from the hills inland. Faint yet unmistakable, Kheda heard heart-rending sobbing. 'Where is that coming from?' he breathed.

Velindre raised a hand, magelight no brighter than starshine flickering between her outspread fingers. 'Over

there.' She pointed inland, not far off the line Kheda was estimating would take them back to the river.

'Do we head back towards the coast?' Risala looked towards the cliffs that were now a black rampart across the golden horizon.

A.s Kheda pondered their options, a scream tore through the silence, raw with anguish. Gooseflesh prickled down the back of the warlord's neck. 'Wait here while I scout ahead,' he ordered.

'With something creeping along behind us?' Naldeth shook his head. 'Not when you're the one with the sword and the skills to use it.'

The scream came again. Louder sobbing followed, ripe with panic.

'You might need more than a sword to deal with whatever or whoever's inflicting those agonies.' As Velindre ilosed her hand on her magic, a pale glow within her lingers showed she had not wholly quenched it.

Risala looked at Kheda, her eyes dark as the fading light muted everything to colourless shades of grey. 'I don't think we should split up.'

'Then stay close and stay quiet.' He began picking a eareful path in the direction of the screaming.

Better to know what the danger might be and avoid it than leave such uncertainty at our backs.

He halted when he reached an unexpectedly wide sandy track. There was no doubting that this path had been trodden by countless men over many years. Kheda crouched low in the meagre shadow of a cluster of spiky plants and Risala and the two wizards followed suit. Beyond the open swathe of ground that had been cleared of even the smallest thistly plant, a crude barrier had been woven from thorny stems pulled down and lashed together with cords of twisted grass. The yellow-green fleshy plants grew thickly inside the fence.

Another shriek ripped the silence apart. A hubbub of pleading sounded shockingly close before it was cut short by a commanding shout.

No animal is inflicting these agonies, then, or at least, not a four-legged one. Isn 't that all we need to know?

Kheda glanced at Velindre. 'Is that sky dragon anywhere close?'

She shook her head, mute.

Naldeth was peering back into the gloom behind them. 'Whatever's following us has no magic, I'm sure of that much.'

'We know what brutalities these savages are capable of.' Kheda looked at Risala. 'We don't need to see it again and we might still get to the river before we lose all the light if we keep moving.'

'But there's someone with magic out there.' Velindre pointed in the direction of the frantic weeping that was still tearing at their ears.

'That skull-faced mage or his women?' Kheda looked along the cleared path and tried to judge if it curved away from the sounds of torment.

That sky dragon wasn 't the only one humiliated. Many a man would look to share such mortification around to take the sting out of it.

'Let's get well away before he feels a wizard's presence out here and comes looking for a fight.' Risala stood up in the same movement as Kheda.

Naldeth rose more slowly, gripping his hacking blade with both hands. The last rays of the sinking sun burnished his steel leg. 'So we let whoever is screaming just go on screaming until they die of it?'

'Give me one good reason why we should risk the same fate,' Kheda said curtly.

'A wizard is doing that.' Naldeth looked at Velindre. 'We came here to stop their abuses of magic'

'A wizard with all the aura of a dragon to draw on,' she pointed out, not unsympathetic. 'How do we fight that?'

'It's not our concern,' Risala said roughly. 'They're savages. And your magic wasn't working as you wished earlier. Do you want to confront some wild mage and find yourself powerless?'

Naldeth stared at her, outraged yet unable to find the words to answer her.

'We came here to learn what this place means for Aldabreshi and mages alike.' Kheda forestalled him, voice low and forceful. 'Which means we must pick any fights carefully, when we've worked out as much of this puzzle as possible.'

Somewhere across the tangled barrier of spiny stems, ragged cheers were now drowning out the fading lamentation. Naldeth looked at Kheda, his mild face hard. 'I'm not sailing away until I know exactly what uses magic is being put to here.'

'We'll discuss it when we're back on the Zaise? Kheda stepped out onto the open path and set a rapid pace towards the river. Disconcertingly, the land sloped upwards and the curious forest of upthrust stems and thistly plants fell back to leave a dry plateau dotted with the strangest trees Kheda had ever seen. Their squat brown trunks were three or four times the height of a man yet ten men would be hard pressed to link hands around the largest of them. Each was crowned with an incongruously small tangle of knotted branches twisted into fantastical shapes and topped with tousled twigs.

'Watch your step.' Kheda noticed hummocks dotting the bare sand that were too regular to be the work of wind or rain. 'Something's been digging here.'

He slowed to move cautiously from the cover of one massive trunk to the next, doing his best to look in all

directions as tension pricked between his shoulder blades.

We 're far too exposed.

'There's the river plain.' Risala pointed to a pallor beyond the edge of the open plateau and they heard the soft, welcome rustle of grasses.

Kheda realised they were on the bluff of high ground that reached out into the valley. The barren slope that the skull-faced mage had descended must be somewhere ahead.

A scream ripped through the dusk behind them, closer than the sounds of torment they had been trying to leave behind. Running footsteps slapped the hard-baked earth.

Kheda pressed his back against the swollen tree and cursed the thing for having no branches low enough that they might at least try to climb and hide out of sight. The Greater Moon was rising, now at its full and casting cold, unwelcome light on the events unfolding below. He slid down to crouch in the barrel-like tree's shadow.

Risala and I might escape notice but the wizards' pale skins and Velindre's yellow hair will show up like candles in the night.

He looked around to urge the mages to hide behind the tree. They weren't there.

Risala looked at him, white rimming her eyes. 'They just disappeared.'

The running feet reached the open expanse of the trees. Kheda crouched still lower, Risala on hands and knees beside him.

The fugitive was a girl on the brink of womanhood, long-legged and slender, wearing a scanty hide wrap. She dodged between the barrel trees, jumping over the treacherous hummocks. Threatening shouts pursued her. Men appeared and one flung a wooden spear. Narrowly missing the girl, it went skidding across the unyielding earth, Coming perilously close to Kheda and Risala.

The girl fell headlong as if she had been poleaxed, not even putting out a hand to save herself. But she wasn't insensible. Kheda could see her struggling against invisible bonds.

Struck down by magic.

Whatever bound her was tightening. Her struggles grew more frantic and at the same time weaker. He could see her mouth opening, the cords of her throat taut as she screamed. No sound escaped whatever foul wizardry entangled her.

Her pursuers came clpser and no such spell muted their jeering. Some carried stone-studded clubs and Kheda braced himself to see the unfortunate girl's brains dashed out. He felt Risala pressing close to his side.

To Kheda's surprise, the pursuers didn't touch the girl. After venting their scorn iwith unintelligible insults, they withdrew. The wizard With the cloak of blue feathers walked slowly through the mob of them, his women in faithful attendance two paces behind. The skull that formed the mage's mask shone red in the light of the handfuls of flame that his feather-crowned women held aloft, making black pits of the empty eye sockets. Turning, the wild mage said something, and Kheda saw that more people were being brought to witness whatever was planned for the girl.

Bold and arrogant, the wild warriors of the wizard's retinue forced the reluctant onlookers forward with clubs and their spears of fire-hardened wood. They sneered as their shoves provoked whimpers of distress from the hapless savages clad in scraps of animal hide. Women cowered, bare shoulders hunched, some seeking to protect their children in a vain embrace. One man pressed his hands to his face, trying to stifle his weeping. Tears spilled through his fingers, shining like blood in the unnatural red light of the magefire.

The girl had given up her helpless struggles. Dust swirled around her as she was lifted up by invisible strings, the skull-faced mage extending his hand to guide his spell. She hung in the air, her arms and legs limp and dangling, her head twisting this way and that in anguish. The wild mage flicked his hand and a waft of blue radiance tore her hide wrap away, revealing her undernourished nakedness. Two of the burly spearmen closest to the wizard let their weapons fall to the ground, eager anticipation on their faces. Now the skull-faced mage let the girl's hysterical sobbing be heard, stirring answering anguish among the onlookers. One of the warriors who was already unknotting his loincloth gave the nearest savage a back-handed slap to the face, chuckling as he did so.

The brute's laughter broke off as he looked down. A tree root had twisted up out of the bare earth and knotted itself around his ankle. As he looked up, mouth open in a surprised shout, a second wiry root snaked around his other leg, reaching up to his muscular thigh. With a snapping sound, more roots sprang up to tie all the girl's would-be assailants solidly to the ground. Blood dripped dark onto the pale sandy soil as merciless tendrils gouged into bare skin.

The skull-faced mage shouted angrily, the dead creature's horns lowered as his head whipped from side to side. A quivering hedge of roots surrounded him, barely held at bay by the sapphire fire flowing from his outstretched hand. The women with their crowns of feathers huddled behind him, holding their balls of scarlet magelight close to their chests.

The unarmed savages melted rapidly away with wails of distress and confusion. The skull-faced mage bellowed with outrage and flung one hand above his head. A spiteful wind flung sharp grit in the eyes of those trying to flee.

Here and there, a discarded spear sprang up of its own volition to belabour their unprotected backs.

The cordon of wriggling roots immediately drew tighter around the wild mage. Grit and weapons alike fell to the ground. This time he had to thrust out both hands to hold the squirming tendrils just beyond arm's reach.

The girl fell to the ground, landing hard, a last moan jolted out of her. Two men ran to snatch her up. Flinging her arms over their shoulders, they hauled her away. Cringing as the skull-masked mage screamed his fury, nevertheless they didn't stop and vanished into the night.

The wild wizard snatched a ball of fire from one of the leather-crowned women. As he threw it at the roots hemming them in, the magelight turned from scarlet to cold blue-white. Magic crackled between the roots like lightning, instantly crisping the tendrils to black ash. Shooting outwards, claws of sapphire magelight flashed across the ground to rip away the roots holding his spearmen immobilised. Vicious burns in their tender flesh glistened in the moonlight but few dared cry out.

The unpleasant smell of singed skin and hair caught in Kheda's throat. He fought a desperate urge to cough, gripping his sword in one hand and his hacking blade in the other.

I've never needed a third hand so badly, so I could take light hold of Risala. We'll have to make a run for it and let the wizards make shift for themselves. Let's just hope we can hide in the grasses without being eaten by a lizard.

Risala's fingers tightened on his shoulder. Her face was determined in the pitiless moonlight and he felt the tension quivering in every fibre of her. He braced himself, ready to spring up as he saw the wild mage turning this way and that, all his attention on the ground.

The wild mage's blue-black magic was burning newly emerging roots to carve dark lines in the pale ground. Kheda

watched intently as the ominous blackness converged on one of the giant barrel trees, which burst into purplish flames, the leathery bark spitting and splitting. The wild mage yelled at his warriors, gesturing, and they converged on the burning tree.

One yelped as he skirted a sandy hummock and stumbled. He tried to stand up but the ground betrayed him. The sandy earth flowed away beneath his feet and new fissures opened up elsewhere in the dry expanse. Shouting their alarm, the spearmen dodged and sidestepped. Relentless, the crevices pursued them, gaping ever wider. The wild men were soon struggling in a slough of smothering sand, the solid ground retreating, always a step ahead of their plunging feet, out of reach of their flailing arms. The wild wizard screamed furiously, penned with his cowering women on a shrinking pedestal as the earth around them crumbled.

'Head for the river.' Velindre's dry voice whispered in Kheda's ear.

Slowly, carefully, Kheda retreated, Risala close by his side, their steps matching. Once the bulbous barrel tree was directly between them and the skull-faced mage, Kheda sheathed his sword and grabbed Risala's hand. They ran for the edge of the magic-racked plateau and slid down the scoured slope towards the dubious shelter of the rustling grasses. The tall blades were as vicious as they had been before. Kheda ignored the sting of new slices on his hands and face as he slashed a path through the vegetation, Risala pressed close behind him. He didn't stop until they reached the river.

'What now?' Risala gasped breathlessly.

'Shall we swim for it?' Kheda looked over the lip of the bank down to the mudflats below. A menacing shape broached the water and for an instant the moonlight glistened on rugged scales.

Who knows what could be lurking in the rivers here to pull us down to drown and eat us.

'Follow me.' Naldeth walked stiff-legged out of a haze of crimson that vanished almost as soon as it appeared. He strode towards the central channel where the drought-stricken river still flowed deep. Mud surged up to meet his steps, banishing the water in a flurry of ripples.

Kheda followed, still holding Risala's hand and watching the river with lively suspicion. 'Where's Velindre?'

'Keeping our skull-faced friend busy with a sandstorm.' Naldeth hurried onwards.

Risala looked up into the star-studded night sky. 'What about the blue dragon?'

'There's been no sign of it.' Naldeth swallowed a tremor in his words.

Kheda glanced back over his shoulder to see the river washing away their footprints as the transitory bridge of enchanted sand melted away behind them. Movement caught his eye and he saw a shadowy shape moving in the grasses fringing the river bank. 'Who's that?'

'Not a mage,' Risala said with relief as no spell attacked them.

'Hurry up.' Velindre appeared on the far bank and offered Naldeth her hand. Thrusting his blades through his belt, Kheda hoisted Risala up and then scrambled up the crumbling bank himself.

Naldeth was staring back over the river. 'It's an old woman. She must have run the wrong way in the panic'

'Let's get clear of here before that wizard sends his minions after us.' Kheda turned his attention to Velindre. 'Now that we know where we are, can you carry us back to the ZaiseV

'No wizard with any sense translocates himself or anyone else into a cave,' Velindre said reluctantly. 'Not with the risk of being entombed in solid rock.'

Kheda looked out at the black bulk of the rising land, the trees cutting a mysterious silhouette against the starry sky. 'Then we had better start walking and hope those tree dwellers are fast asleep.'

'And that black dragon.' Risala shot a questioning look at Naldeth.

He was still gazing at the figure on the far bank. 'She's all alone. If those spearmen don't kill her, she's prey for anything else hunting tonight.'

'Those spearmen won't cross the river without their mage, and his dragon for good measure,' Velindre stated with absolute certainty. 'That's the boundary of the blue dragon's territory, which makes it their border as well.'

'Come on.' Kheda gave Naldeth's shoulder a shove.

'In a moment.' The wizard shrugged him off. 'If the wild men won't cross the river, she'll be safer over here.'

He thrust a hand out towards the water and a narrow bridge of glistening mud rose out of the depths.

'You don't think the tree dwellers will just kill her out of hand?' Kheda objected.

'Or those vile birds,' said Risala with feeling.

The young wizard ignored them both, moving to stand clearly visible, beckoning to the hesitating figure on the far bank.

Slowly, the old woman lowered herself down onto the mud and hobbled towards them. She moved awkwardly, hunched over some precious burden, the moonlight silvering her grey hair.

'She can take her chances.' Kheda turned away before she had reached the middle of the river and thought back to the terrain he had seen earlier in this interminable day. 'Let's make for the edge of those twisted trees and hope those birds are roosting deeper in the forest. If we stick to the very edge of the higher ground, we should be able to cut across the bottom end of the tree-dwellers' valley. We'll

go right to the sea and work our way up along the cliffs till we reach the Zaise.'

He hefted his hacking blade at an unnerving rustle deep in the dense grasses. A furred creature appeared, held startled in the moonlight as it crouched on all four limbs. Its snout was reminiscent of a hound's, yet it had long-fingered paws as if it lived in the trees and it was more catlike than dog in its lineaments. Before Kheda could decide what it was, it vanished into the darkness.

Like a loal, yet quite unlike. How many strange creatures live in this place?

Restraining the impulse to slice and force a path through the grass as quickly as possible, Kheda moved slowly and quietly, alert for any huge lizard lurking somnolent in the cool of the night. He could hear the harsh breathing of the others close behind him, and back beyond that some faint splashing from the river. Closing his ears to such distractions, he concentrated on the grassy plain ahead. He didn't let himself relax when they reached the sparse, spindly trees. Straining his eyes for any sign of the lethal birds, he went just far enough up the slope and into the woodland to gain a vantage over the plain and the river and the bank beyond.

'That old woman's following us.' Naldeth was trailing behind, looking over his shoulder.

'Forget her. There's someone over there.' Risala sank down as she pointed into the deceptive patterns of shade and moonlight beneath the blotched trunks of the trees.

Kheda realised they were closer than he had realised to the dry grass-choked gully where the birds had lain in wait for the hunters. 'I'd guess they're cave dwellers.'

'Come to watch the show,' Velindre murmured.

Kheda breathed a little easier as he realised she was right. The distant figures were all watching the commotion on the far side of the river. Several of the barrel trees

up on the barren plateau were still burning with vivid purple flames while shouts and screams suggested that the wild mage was taking out his wrath on some unfortunates. In the meantime, his spearmen were beating noisy paths through the grassy plain to the river bank.

'Let's leave them to it.' Stooping uncomfortably, Kheda led the way stealthily in the direction of the unseen cliffs. The twisted woodland meandered along the margin of the grassy plain. He tried to see if any of the bigger trees were rising up in the darkness, to warn him they were approaching the tree-dwelling wizard's dry valley.

'Wait.' Naldeth startled him with a warning hand on his back. 'We woke the neighbours as well.'

'The dragon?' Kheda was torn between the urge to stand upright to see what lay ahead and a fervent desire to cower in the dirt.

'No,' Naldeth said slowly, 'but his favourite mage has come to see what's going on.'

'This way.' Velindre slid deeper into the spindly woodland. She found a shallow scrape in the ground and crouched down behind an inadequate barrier of the thick-leaved spiny plants. The others joined her.

'Where is he?' Kheda looked westwards along the edge of the trees. He soon made out a knot of people standing beneath a broad-canopied giant that marked the edge of the dry tributary valley. The mage in the beaded cloak stood a few paces in front of the rest, intent on the barrel trees burning in the distance.

'He'll know us for wizards if we move any closer,' Naldeth whispered. 'He probably felt my magic coming across the river,' he added apologetically.

'We couldn't have stayed on the far bank.' Kheda looked around the depression. 'We'll just have to stay here till he gets bored and goes back to bed.'

Does he have anything to do with the cave dwellers? If he

sends any messenger to them, or they send word to him, whoever it is will be bound to see us. Unless Velindre uses her magic. But that will just alert the mage in the beaded cloak. So much for a simple day spent reconnoitring this land and then getting back to our boat unscathed.

'I'm more concerned with what might have made this place for its bed.' Risala shifted a clump of dried grass that lay flattened in the hollow and Kheda saw that something with frighteningly large claws had scraped deep furrows into the hard earth.

'We'll just have to deal with whatever it is if it turns up.' Kheda looked from side to side. 'They can't stand there watching all night, can they?'

'We'll just have to see.' Velindre tapped Risala on the shoulder. 'If we all sit facing outwards, we can lean on each other as we keep watch.'

The magewoman sat herself down to look inland along the tree line towards the unseen caves. Kheda settled himself to watch the softly swaying grasses while Risala stared into the gloom of the twisted woodland. Naldeth lowered himself awkwardly to the ground, vigilant in the direction of the tall tree and the mage with the beaded cloak.

The flames of the burning barrel trees eventually began to gutter. The shouts of the searching spearmen faded as they toiled back up the slope and disappeared beyond the bare plateau.

No one spoke. Kheda felt his own breathing slow and heard the inconsequential sounds of the night landscape for the first time. He looked up to gauge the progress of the moon past the fronds of the spindly trees and surprised himself with a yawn. After the long day's walk and the constant tension, he realised he was exhausted. Then he noted just how still Naldeth was sitting beside him, all his weight resting on Kheda's shoulder.

Has he fallen asleep? He had better not start snoring.

The young mage was still awake. 'We're being watched,' he said softly.

'What?' Velindre turned her head towards the plain.

'There.' Kheda focused on a dark shape lurking motionless behind the fringe of grasses. It hadn't been there before.

Risala twisted awkwardly to see. 'What is it?'

'It's more a question of who.' Kheda got slowly to his feet, letting his hacking blade hang loosely by his side. He spared a quick glance to either side and saw that both the tree dwellers and the men from the caves still had sentries keeping watch across the river.

Are we about to be betrayed to them?

The shape shifted and stepped onto the open ground at the edge of the grass. The moonlight showed them the old woman in her hide wrap. Close to, Kheda could see that her bare legs were no more than skin and bone and her grey hair was matted in filthy clumps. She would have been shorter than Risala if she had been standing upright. She was shorter still as she stooped over the bundle cradled in her skinny arms. She stood motionless, head cocked slightly to one side, her expression lost in shadow.

'I don't think she's about to attack us,' Risala said with reluctant compassion.

'She certainly has no magic' Velindre's level tone nevertheless betrayed her relief.

Kheda tensed as the old woman moved. All she did was lay her bundle down on the ground and knuckle her back in an eloquent gesture of weariness. She looked from side to side and then cocked her head at him again. Kheda didn't move. The old woman folded her arms across her meagre chest and thrust her head forward at him. Both wizards and Risala froze as she took a step Forward. Surprising them all, she skirted nimbly around

the sprawl of fleshy plants and vanished into the dark woodland.

'Where did she go?' snapped Velindre.

'Do you want to risk magic to find her?' Naldeth asked.

Risala was looking at the bundle on the bare earth. 'She left all her things.'

Or made us some offering, to try to buy her life?

'Let's just keep our ears open for a moment,' suggested Kheda.

All he could hear was the same idle night sounds as earlier. Kheda found he was too tense to sit down again. In between glances to check on the patiently watching savages hemming them in, he looked over his shoulder in the direction the old woman had gone.

For no reason he could have explained, he was more than half-expecting her to return. She did so, and sooner than he had anticipated. Hurrying on silent feet, she gathered up her belongings and looked expectantly at the four of them gathered close together in the shallow scrape. She jerked her head and walked back past the sprawl of fleshy plants. When they did not follow, she beckoned insistently, shifting her burden to one bony hip.

'She wants us to follow her,' Naldeth said cautiously.

'It could be a trap.' Risala was dubious.

'If she wanted to betray us, all she had to do was shout to those sentries.' Kheda stood slowly upright.

'Can we assume she wants to avoid them as well?' Velindre rose beside him. 'Where do you suppose she wants us to go?'

'There's only one way to find out, and we're none too safe here.' Kheda took a deep breath and walked up out of the hollow.

The old woman nodded vigorously and moved deeper into the trees, pausing to look back to make sure they were

following. Kheda went first, Risala close behind him, Velindre and Naldeth spread out a little further back.

Kheda squinted as he saw the old woman heading unerringly towards a solid darkness within the gloom. As they drew closer, he saw a low outcrop of grey stone sheltering a black hollow leading down into the earth.

That's surely too small to be some dragon's den.

He couldn't decide if he was reassured or not to see the old woman scramble down what was evidently a steeply sloping entrance.

'Are we going in there?' Risala sounded torn. 'Why do you suppose she's helping us?'

'I don't know,' Kheda admitted, 'but it doesn't sound as if there's anything in there eating her.' Kheda looked around the inhospitable wood. 'That's a better hiding place than any we've found, and as long as we know where she is, she can't be betraying us.'

'I helped her. She's returning the favour. Come on.' Naldeth pushed past them both to clamber down awkwardly into the cavern.

Velindre shrugged and did the same.

'Go ahead.' Kheda nodded to Risala, making a last survey of the encroaching darkness before following her.

The entrance was even steeper than he had anticipated, a slick expanse of rock with some uncomfortably sharp ridges. Inside the darkness was absolute.

'Is this just a cave?' Kheda instantly regretted asking as both wizards kindled flames.

A blue-white feather danced on Velindre's upturned palm. 'It's remarkable,' she murmured.

'What does it mean?' Naldeth's magelight made a candle of his forefinger as he gazed around.

Risala was watching the old woman closely. 'She doesn't seem overly bothered by magic'

'Just as long as it doesn't bring some wild wizard

down on us,' Kheda said tersely. 'Is it safe for you to do that?'

'Don't worry.' Velindre chewed absently on her ragged thumbnail as she walked deeper into the darkness.

'It's only a tiny flame.' Naldeth followed her, the radiance nevertheless filling the cavern.

There wasn't much space between the walls of faceted grey rock and windblown leaves were scattered all along the floor. Kheda didn't have a chance to consider what vermin might be lurking among them: he was too astonished by the riot of colours splashed all around him.

'It's those birds.' Risala traced a wondering finger over a startlingly effective representation of the murderous fowl. It was drawn with just a few deft strokes of charcoal around natural bulges in the rock that shaped the body of the bird. Fingers dipped in some green pigment had been pressed against the stone to make surprisingly realistic feathers.

'And those armoured lizards.' Kheda picked out an ochre shape lurking in pale grass made by rapid scratches scored into the rock and through the picture.

'And a dragon.' Velindre slowly raised her hand and her magelight burned brighter to show a spur of stone thrusting down from the rocky roof. It had been skilfully shaped and painted to bring out the full likeness of the dragon's profile that some unknown artist had seen in the rock. It loomed over them, perhaps a quarter as long as the real thing, every scale painstakingly picked out with red pigment rubbed into the shallow grooves carved into the stone. The jaw was closed, the muzzle a bulbous protrusion, the spiny crest a fan of crevices.

The eye glinted and Kheda saw that a shard of crystal had been wedged into the rock there. Velindre stepped aside and as her magelight moved with her, the answering

spark in the crystal eye shifted as if the beast were watching her. The shadows stirred and all the creatures on the walls shared an instant of illusory life with the dragon. Naldeth shivered and Kheda couldn't blame him. The effect was uncanny.

'Why did she bring us here?' the young mage wondered.

Kheda turned and saw that the old woman had gone. 'To trap us after all,' he spat.

He saw instantly that there was no other exit from the cave and leaped up the slope, sword ready as he scanned the darkness. He cursed again as he found himself all but night blind thanks to the magelight in the cave. A step whispered on the dry earth and he turned, blinking as his eyes struggled to adapt to the moonlight.

It was the old woman, clutching an armful of dry sticks to her bony chest. She looked at Kheda with wretched terror. Belatedly he recalled he had had to step over the old woman's pitiful bundle to reach the steep slope of the cave's entrance. He lowered his sword. She stepped closer, still tearfully apprehensive. Dumping the sticks on the ground, she took a hasty pace backwards, wrinkled chin quivering.

'What's she doing?' Risala was close behind him.

'Bringing firewood.' Kheda hesitated for a moment, then sheathed his sword and bent to gather up the scattered sticks. He stepped aside and nodded towards the open cave mouth. 'Offer her your hand. Let's get her inside.'

'You're sure about this?' Risala still had her doubts.

'We came all this way to find out more about these people,' Kheda reminded her.

The old woman watched them warily as they spoke. When they fell silent, she stooped awkwardly to pick up a stick that Kheda had missed and offered it to him, her hand shaking.

'Come on.' Kheda added the stick to his armful and smiled pointedly at Risala.

She pursed her mouth but held out her hand to the old woman, who walked hesitantly towards her. Kheda took a last look around at the shadowy night before following them back into the cave. Once inside, the old woman took the firewood off him and squatted down to build a neat lattice on a ledge at the foot of the slope.

'Can we risk a fire?' He noted black stains that suggested the stone had been used as a hearth before. Close to, he also noticed that the old woman had a distinct odour, mostly thanks to the hide wrap she wore, and to whatever was matted into her hair.

At least she doesn 't smell of any fever or incontinence that would threaten us with some illness.

'How is she going to light that?' Risala was watching the old woman askance.

'Are you sure she has no magic?' As Kheda turned to ask Naldeth, the old woman stood up stiffly and walked towards the young mage. He and Velindre both stiffened. Velindre had set her magelight clinging to the rock wall just in front of the painted dragon and the pale flame flared azure.

The old woman gently took Naldeth's hand, tugging at him. He followed her obediently to the hearth, mystified yet willing to cooperate. The old woman pulled his hand forward and thrust his fingers into the sticks.

Kheda saw unmistakable exasperation in her eyes. 'She wants you to light it.'

Naldeth smiled at her and looked at the others. 'I can keep the elemental aspects confined within the cave without anyone being the wiser.'

'What about the light?' Kheda asked. 'A savage need not be a mage to have eyes in his head.'

'It won't leave the cave,' Naldeth assured him.

Kheda wavered for a moment, then nodded. 'Very well, then.'

Naldeth smiled briefly as he gently removed the old woman's insistent hand from his wrist. Snapping his fingers, he dropped a scarlet flame into the dry twigs. They crackled and the fire rapidly shifted from the scarlet of sorcery to a reassuringly natural gold.

'Do you think we dare sleep now?' Velindre yawned and Naldeth couldn't help but do the same.

'You two can try. We'll keep watch, or I will, if you're exhausted.' Kheda glanced belatedly at Risala.

She managed a thin smile. 'We can sleep when we're on the Zaise?

'Are we taking her back to the ship with us?' Naldeth studied the old woman, who was sitting quietly by the fire, one hand on her bundle, studying the painted walls of the cave. Her expression veered from awe to fear and back again.

'We'll discuss that in the morning.' Now there was firelight to see by, Kheda realised the outer layer of the woman's bundle was a furred and spotted hide faded to a dun between grey and brown.

Not from any beast we've seen so far. Which isn't all that surprising, given that we've not exactly been on a hunting trip. I wonder if the furry beast is predator or prey?

His stomach rumbled with protest at the thought of food. Risala came to sit beside him and tugged her leather sack open. 'Has anyone got any food left?'

'I have a few pieces of sailer bread.' Naldeth looked surprised as he investigated the bag Risala had given him before they left the Zaise. 'And some meat.'

'Share it out.' Kheda saw the old woman watching with open curiosity. 'Give her some as well.'

'What do you suppose she wants with us?' Velindre accepted her meagre share and sat leaning against the cave wall.

'How are we going to ask her?' wondered Naldeth. He tore a piece of sailer bread in half and chewed on his own portion as he offered the rest to the old woman.

'I don't know.' Kheda watched her turn it this way and that, furrowed brow creasing further with bemusement.

She sniffed at it and tried to take a bite. As she opened her mouth, they all saw she was lacking a significant number of teeth on one side of her upper jaw.

'She can't chew that.' Exasperated, Risala shook her flask to attract the old woman's attention and unscrewed the cap to drip a little water onto her own sailer bread. 'It's softer this way,' she explained as she bit into it with an exaggerated smile.

The old woman cocked her head on one side and held out her piece of bread. Risala wetted it for her and she tried again. A faint smile deepened the wrinkles on her fleshless face as she evidently found the bread more palatable.

Kheda swallowed the last of his own bread with difficulty. 'Is there any magic you can use to make her understand our tongue?'

'Us?' Unexpected pain twisted Naldeth's face. 'No, we—'

'Elemental magic can't do things like that.' Velindre spoke over him sufficiently hastily to pique Kheda's curiosity.

Is there something you 're not telling me? Or do you just want to avoid discussing another instance where all your vaunted powers can't actually solve a problem at hand?

Kheda turned his attention to the old woman, who was steadily chewing the stubborn sailer bread. He saw her dark beady eyes slide from Velindre to study him with new frankness. The warlord found himself intrigued.

'What do you want with us?' He tried to put his question into his tone, raising his eyebrows and spreading out his hands in supplication.

The old woman narrowed her eyes, considering him thoughtfully. After a couple of abortive gestures that conveyed nothing to Kheda, she reached for a stick of firewood waiting beside the little blaze. Gnarled knuckles tightening, she snapped it clean in two and set the pieces down on the floor.

'What does that mean?' Naldeth wondered, perplexed.

The old woman silenced him with a peremptory wave of her hand and carefully counted out five more sticks. Looking at Kheda, to be sure he was paying attention, she picked them all up and, with an exaggerated lift of her elbows, tried to snap the entire handful at once. Laying the sticks down carefully next to the one she had already snapped, she folded her thin arms and looked expectantly at Kheda.

He rubbed his beard. 'Do you suppose she knows she's vulnerable alone and that there's strength in numbers?'

'It's difficult to think what else she could mean.' Risala handed the old woman a strip of the dried duck meat Naldeth had found in the depths of his bag. 'And she doesn't look stupid.'

'I don't think any of these savages are necessarily slow-witted.' The young wizard surveyed the intricate artwork decorating the cavern thoughtfully.

'But why has she thrown in her lot with us?' Risala looked troubled. 'Where did she come from?'

'Would you throw yourself on the mercy of that villain wearing the skull mask?' retorted Velindre.

'Especially when you're old enough to qualify as dragon fodder,' Kheda agreed with distaste.

'She knows we're wizards.' Naldeth picked a dark shred from between his teeth. 'She must have seen us take on

the skull-faced mage. She saw us beat him. She must think we're a fair bet.'

I'd nearly forgotten about that little display of yours. Thank you for reminding me, Naldeth.

'Just what did you two think you were doing back there?' Kheda demanded abruptly.

'Besides saving some innocent girl from being raped or worse?' Naldeth was wholly unrepentant.

'And making sure that villain and his brutes were sufficiently distracted not to stop us escaping,' added Velindre tartly.

'Will he come after us when it gets light?' Risala shivered even though the fire now had the cave cosy and warm.

'Let him,' scoffed Naldeth. 'There's no subtlety to his magic, no sophistication, no true understanding. In Hadrumal he'd be no more threat than some buffoon at a masquerade.'

Kheda was stung. 'We're not in Hadrumal, wherever that may be, and he has a sky dragon's power to call on. These people wrought havoc in Chazen with their crude magics.'

'Only until you had magic to counter them.' Naldeth sounded incautiously patronising.

Fatigue tripped Kheda into an ill-tempered response. 'That masked wizard couldn't brutalise these people without magic. Everything I see here tells me Archipelagan suspicions of mages are more than justified.'

'It's not a question of magic,' Velindre broke in before Naldeth could snap back. 'It's a question of power, Kheda. I'll grant you magic gives that rogue his power, and sustains it, just as long as everyone else is too cowed to club him over the head some night when he's sleeping. But the magic is just the tool he misuses. There are warlords in the Archipelago who rule through fear and violence and they don't need wizardry to accomplish that, just the strong arms and sharp blades of their swordsmen.'

'What about Ulla Safar?' challenged Naldeth. 'And I saw as bad as him and worse sailing the Archipelago with Velindre.'

Kheda stared at him. 'There's no comparison and you know it.'

Naldeth was unrepentant. 'At least we wizards curb our own if they abuse our common birthright. The Archmage and the Council of Hadrumal keep a very close eye on any wizard who shows signs of straying down perilous paths.'

'They know you're here, do they?' Kheda retorted. 'Looking for some arcane knowledge to elevate your standing among your peers? Don't pretend you have no interest in power.' He shot an accusing look at Velindre. 'Dev told me you had ambitions to higher rank among your peers. Any benefit to the Archipelago last year was an incidental dividend as long as your curiosity about dragons was satisfied.'

'Dev didn't know all he claimed.' The magewoman's tight expression suggested the contrary. 'And holding rank among the wizards of Hadrumal is a far cry from imposing this kind of magical tyranny.'

'What are we going to do about that wild wizard?' Naldeth turned to her. 'I don't relish the thought of standing before the Council and telling them we hid in a cave until we could run away from him.'

'Kill that sky dragon,' Risala said bluntly. 'You summoned up a false dragon to fight the fire dragon that attacked the Archipelago. If you think that savage mage is no more than a fool in a mask without its power behind his magic'

'No.' Velindre refused absolutely. 'These dragons aren't evil, whatever your Aldabreshin superstitions might say. They're animals, even if elemental affinities make them magical. All they want to do is to thrive and

survive and leave their young to come after them. It's not their fault if these savages have allowed these mages to subjugate them—'

'You think they had a choice?' Kheda waved towards the old woman and was startled to see she had laid her head on her bundle and quietly gone to sleep. Refusing to be distracted, he returned to the argument. 'Facing fire and lightning with bare hands and stone knives? What about that girl who was caught in his spell's clutches?' Kheda turned to Naldeth. 'How should she have fought back?'

'This is getting us nowhere and it's late,' Risala interrupted with sudden weariness. 'There's nothing we can do until the morning. Savage or not, she's got the right idea.' She nodded towards the old woman, who was now sleeping peacefully, curled up like a child.

Naldeth wasn't about to let the argument go. 'What you have to understand about wizardry is—'

'Just hush.' Velindre had lost her taste for debate the same as Risala. 'Go to sleep, Naldeth, or you'll be in no fit state to do anything useful tomorrow.'

The younger mage's chin jutted belligerently, though he didn't say anything further. He settled himself against the wall as best he could and shut his eyes with a huff of irritation.

Velindre sighed and her eyelids closed, her angular face softened just a little by the sinking firelight.

Kheda was still too exasperated to think of sleep. 'I'm going to find more firewood.'

Risala nodded resignedly. 'Don't go too far.'

'I won't.' Kheda scrambled up the steep slope towards the entrance. Out in the dark night, the breeze was chill after the warmth of the cave.

This whole day has just lurched from confusion to chaos time and again. Why did I ever come on this voyage? What are we going to do? What are we going to do with that old

woman? What if we have to make a run for it, to escape that wizard in the beaded cloak or anyone else on this side of the river? Do we abandon her to her fate? If we don't, is she going to be the death of us, deliberately or all unwitting? And Risala expects me to find the answers in the heavens.

He looked up angrily at the blithely twinkling stars.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

When she woke, the old woman had no notion where she was. The walls of the painted cave were a meaningless blur in the half-light, while the smell of old wood smoke stirred confused memories of the village she had left behind. Then someone close at hand stirred and murmured, the sound like a brooding bird.

Stealthily, she rubbed her eyes to wipe away the stickiness of morning. As her vision cleared, she looked covertly around, bony fingers clutching her bundle of precious possessions. Satisfied that the strangers were all still asleep, she sat slowly upright, biting her lip against pain and stiffness. Moaning would bring no relief and might wake the strangers.

So they hadn't been some fever dream as she lay senseless somewhere, her only hope that she would be wholly dead before scavengers found her. Who were they? Where had they come from?

She studied the two closest at hand. The girl was lying on her side, her knees drawn up like a child. The man was slumped against a ridge of stone running down from the roof to the floor of the cave, one hand protectively resting on the sleeping girl's shoulder.

The old woman reached out, careful not to touch the sleeping girl, though. She saw that the skin on her own arm was only a little darker. The girl's flesh had all the silkiness of youth and good feeding while the old woman had long been half-starved, but they were not so different.

w

Apart from the girl's hair. Short as it was, the old woman could see it was as straight as falling water. She ran an unconscious hand over her own tight-curled, matted locks.

Quite the strangest thing about the girl was her garb. The old woman risked a feather-light touch on a fold of the loose stuff that covered the girl's arms and body. It wasn't hide, of that much the old woman was certain. Looking more closely, she concluded it was somehow akin to the ropes everyone twisted out of grass and tree bark, but try as she might, she couldn't imagine how the two things were related.

She gazed at the garb. The most wonderful thing about it was the colour. It was the pink of a sunrise sky or a cliff-bird's breast feathers, and patterned with silver leaves. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Not even the most favoured women of the most successful hunters had ever had anything so glorious to wear.

The man stirred in his sleep and the old woman hastily withdrew to crouch beside her bundle, feigning sleep. She didn't hear him wake, so she opened her eyes again and studied him. His skin was a familiar hue but he had hair as brown as a tree scurrier's, even if it curled as tightly as her own. She recalled the reddish-brown tint that sometimes appeared in children's hair when the end of a long dry season left them with swollen bellies and shrunken limbs, their cheeks hollowed by hunger. But like the girl, this man was straight-limbed and well fed and showed no sign of having ever gone hungry.

The old woman looked at the man's long knives, hidden in their hide casings. Whatever were they made of, that could be crafted into so long and narrow a blade? A niomentary pang surprised her. The old man would have been fascinated by these people and their strange knives.

As the strangers slept on, the old woman shifted to sit

cross-legged and considered the other two newcomers. She had never seen anyone like either of them.

The older one, with the golden hair and light-brown skin, was fast asleep in a niche, knees drawn up and head uncomfortably canted to rest on one shoulder. The face was softened in sleep and lacked any hint of a beard, so the old woman concluded this one was most probably a woman, despite her lack of curves at breast or thigh.

She clenched her hand tight against the desire to creep over and touch the golden stranger's hair. It was as straight as the dark-skinned girl's but cut shorter still. Would it feel like the pelt of some animal or like the sun-dried grass it so closely resembled? What lay beneath the stranger's dusty garb? The old woman could see the brown skin end and creamy pallor begin where the fibrous stuff the stranger wore had slipped awry around her neck. Was she parti-coloured like some lizard? Did she have stripes or patterns beneath her strange garments?

The other man — and he plainly was a man, judging by the stubble shadowing his jaw - was as much of a puzzle as the golden stranger. His hair was the brown of leaves at the end of the dry season, his skin a sandy colour with an underlying reddish cast on his nose and forehead. Had he come from the same place as the golden stranger? Where could that be?

They were evidently both painted people with all the power that implied. The old woman watched them sleep on. There was no point in being afraid of them now. They could have killed her last night if they had chosen to. They could just have left her on the other side of the river to take her chances between the lizards and the followers of that painted man with the horned skull. Instead, they had helped her cross over the river. They had even invited her to share the cave's shelter instead of killing her there and then for profaning it. Why had they done that? Were

they keeping her to make an offering of her? Much good it would do them. There wasn't enough flesh on her bones to impress a beast, not if she was offered up alone.

She debated whether or not she should creep away while they were all still asleep. But if she ran away, she still risked being captured by the followers of the painted man with the horned skull. Or by those other people she had seen last night. The skull wearer evidently didn't rule everyone in this valley. No, she concluded, leaving was just too dangerous a prospect.

On the other hand, if she stayed, just possibly, these painted strangers might protect her, for a little while at least. She had made herself useful to them, even if it was only by bringing them firewood. Everyone knew that painted men showed most consideration to those who made themselves useful or held precious knowledge. Besides, now they knew her, they would find her if she ran away. Everyone knew there was no escaping a painted man's power.

She frowned as she considered a new puzzle. She had found this cave easily enough, even in the dark. The moonlight had shone on the scores cut into the trees and on the arrangements of stones that warned of its presence. Since her life was forfeit to whoever caught her anyway, and she had hidden in other painted caves on her wanderings without her skin catching fire to melt the flesh from her bones, she had been ready to risk it again, to escape a night so full of dread.

Yet all the while the strangers had been huddling like addled children in some terrible lizard's scrape, even after they had attacked the skull wearer, after they had humiliated him in front of his followers and the local people. They hadn't shown themselves to claim their victory, nor asserted their authority over this place and any who dwelt there. They hadn't killed the skull wearer nor yet

challenged him to yield to their greater power and serve them instead. They had just run away and hadn't even been able to find this sanctuary for their kind.

But then, wherever they had come from must be further away than she could imagine. They didn't understand her words and she certainly could make no sense of their tongue. Their talk sounded like the evening birds chattering back and forth in the depths of the green forest.

The old woman rubbed a thoughtful hand around the back of her neck. Why had she returned and shown them the way to the cave? Perhaps they wouldn't have bothered pursuing her if she had just disappeared into the night. But there had been so many terrors out there in the darkness. Well, the old man had always told her there was no point in regrets. They had helped her cross the river and that meant she should help them, if she could. Because the gratitude of a painted man had a value beyond reckoning in an ordinary life, never mind when you were caught in an ominous valley where a river separated two painted men's territories.

Had they come to drive out both painted men and seize the valley for themselves? There was no doubt that these strangers were painted people. She had seen them kindle coloured light and set tree roots and the ground itself against the skull wearer. The reddish-skinned man had summoned flame out of the empty air to light the firewood. They had the power even if they wore none of the usual adornments to declare it. Unless that was what the reddish stranger's peculiar shining leg was. The old woman looked at that for a while, utterly mystified.

Some while later, she looked back at the other man, the dark-skinned one with the brilliant knives. She'd seen no sign of him using a painted man's power. Or the girl in the soft pink garb. Yet the golden stranger and the reddish one both followed this man's lead. Well, he did

hold the most lethal weapons she had ever seen. How many men had he killed or beaten into bloody submission in their unknown homeland? How many would a warrior have to kill to establish such authority over two painted

ones?

Reluctant to pursue that notion, the old woman looked at the black-haired girl. She had kept close to the tall man as he had led them all the long way through the spine thickets and down to the grassy plain. Even in sleep they were close together. The girl must be his woman, she concluded. Not the golden stranger, though. There was no hint of such closeness in the way the two of them had dealt with each other. Or in the way the golden stranger and tiie reddish one had behaved. They weren't mated, she was sure of that.

Where was their blue raft? This new question struck her with the force of a blow. She hadn't expected to see them again after they had floated away ahead of her up the coast. She had only been concerned with escaping the followers she expected would come after them. But there had been no sign of followers, and now there was no sign of the blue raft. They had been walking through the spine thickets when she had seen them in the distance.

She sighed. Why had she given in to the curiosity that had drawn her to follow them? Why hadn't she gone back to the headland and the emptiness where she had lived unbothered by anyone? It had been an unpleasant surprise to discover that the skull-wearer's territory had been so close, but she hadn't seen his people before. Now he and all his followers and that wide river besides lay between her and that barren coast. And his quarrel with these strangers would only be ended when someone was dead.

Could she possibly get back to her headland without being ca