/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Imager's portfolio

Imager's challenge

L. Modesitt


L. E. Modesitt

Imager's Challenge

1

On Vendrei, the twentieth of Erntyn, just before the bells rang out the seventh glass of the morning, I hurried across the quadrangle of the Collegium to the administration building to meet with Master Dichartyn-imager Maitre D’Esprit, the director of all security operations for the imagers of Solidar, the second-most senior imager of the Collegium Imago, and my immediate superior. The faint mist that had hovered above the grass earlier had lifted, and the morning was cooler than usual, perhaps foreshadowing the end of harvest and the coming chill of fall. Both moons were high in the morning sky, with Artiema full and Erion waning, although they were easy to miss in the white sunlight angling over L’Excelsis, sunlight that tended to turn the granite buildings of Imagisle a whitish gray.

As I reached the open door to Master Dichartyn’s first-floor study, the first bell rang out from the tower of Anomen Imagisle.

“Come in, Rhennthyl.”

I entered the small room with its single desk and bookcase, and but two chairs. Master Dichartyn stood beside the narrow window with its louvered leaded glass panes cranked full open. He turned and nodded for me to close the door. His dark brown hair was shot with gray, more than even a few months before, it seemed to me, but the circles under his eyes did not seem quite so dark, and his narrow face was not quite so haggard. A faint smile rested on his lips.

I closed the door, but did not sit.

“How are you feeling, Rhenn?”

“Most of the soreness in my ribs is gone, and Master Draffyd feels that I’m ready. He did suggest that I wear the rib brace for another two weeks as a precautionary measure.”

“Given your . . . tendencies, that’s doubtless wise.” He gestured toward the writing desk, on which rested a silver pin-the four-pointed star of the Collegium, encircled by a thin band of silver. “You’ve seen those, haven’t you?”

“Only on Master Poincaryt, sir. I wondered if he wore it because he was the head of the Collegium.”

Master Dichartyn shook his head. “You know we don’t wear images of rank . . . not precisely. The pin merely signifies that you are a master imager, but not what class of master. We’ve found that it reduces misunderstandings for those imagers who have to work outside the Collegium. You wouldn’t be wearing it except for your assignment as Collegium liaison to the Civic Patrol of L’Excelsis.” He paused. “Go on. Put it on.”

I picked up the pin and fastened it onto my gray waistcoat-the same cut and style as worn by all imagers-at the same spot where Master Poincaryt had worn his, just below the point of the left collar of my pale gray shirt.

“Good. That’s where it belongs. Now . . . take it off. You only wear it while you’re away from the Collegium and on duty with the Patrol-or going to or returning from such duty.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ll report to Commander Artois at eighth glass on Lundi. After that, I imagine you’ll have to be there at seventh glass. Do you know where the Patrol headquarters are?”

“They’re a block or so up Fedre from East River Road, aren’t they?”

“That’s right. Now . . .” Master Dichartyn fingered his clean-shaven chin, not that any imager was bearded, as he often did when he was considering how to word something precisely. “Commander Artois is a solid, sometimes brilliant man. He doesn’t like the Collegium, but he does like imagers like you-too brave for your own good. He knows that you’ve taken out the Ferran and three other assassins.” Master Dichartyn smiled wryly. “He also doesn’t like facts being kept from him, but he’s not terribly fond of surmises or other ideas that aren’t backed with solid evidence. This could present a certain problem for you.”

I could see that, because I often felt how things might go long before I could prove it. While I was usually right, I certainly wasn’t infallible, and that could prove difficult.

“Oh . . . you might be interested to know that while you were recovering, the First Minister of Ferrum recalled their delegation to Ferrial for consultations and a proper period of mourning for the death of Envoy Vhillar.”

“Did Master Poincaryt have to suggest anything?” I wanted to know if the head of the Collegium had been required to use the threat of revealing that Vhillar had been a renegade imager.

“Apparently not.” There was a glint in Master Dichartyn’s eyes before he added, “The letter of sympathy for the unfortunate accident did mention that Master Poincaryt also sent his regrets for the loss of such an able envoy with talents that were far beyond his portfolio. That was sufficient, it appears.”

I nodded.

“From time to time, you will continue to meet with Maitre Dyana, Rhennthyl. Your skills in indirection may be adequate for the civic patrollers, but they leave something to be desired for someone who will need to deal with High Holders in the future.”

That was a veiled reminder and reprimand all in one. “Yes, sir.”

“Now . . . so far as your new duties go . . . you’ve studied the procedures manual of the Civic Patrol closely, but remember that events on the street seldom accommodate themselves to written procedures. I’m certain that you’ve considered this, but wherever possible, let the patrollers have the credit for what happens. If matters go badly, and it is your fault, take the blame. Take all of it. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” What that meant was that matters had better not go badly where I was involved.

“Do you have any questions?”

“No, sir.” I didn’t know enough about my new duties to have questions, and as in so many events of the past year, I had the feeling that by the time I knew enough to ask questions, it would be too late.

“Unless you run into extreme difficulties, I’ll see you here next Jeudi evening at half past five.”

“Next Jeudi at half past five.”

He nodded, and I inclined my head in return, then opened the door to the small study, a chamber most modest for the second-most powerful imager in Solidar, and perhaps in the entire world of Terahnar.

As I walked across the quadrangle to return to my quarters and to continue my studies of the procedures manual of the Civic Patrol, I couldn’t help but wonder over the circumstances that had brought me from a journeyman portraiturist to an imager Maitre D’Aspect. While I certainly hadn’t planned on being an imager, I knew that being an imager was far more palatable to my father than being an artist had been. As an imager, even as a low-level master, I had status, even a hint of power, and that was something my father the wool factor could appreciate, and now that I had a beautiful and acceptable young woman in Seliora interested in me, my mother was hopeful that, despite her Pharsi background, a marriage would be in the offing.

There were a few problems with being an imager that they did tend to gloss over, such as my having been wounded twice in the past year, and others that I hadn’t mentioned in any detail to them, such as my unresolved difficulties with High Holder Ryel, who was absolutely certain, sooner or later, to try to destroy me in some fashion or another, or the fact that Seliora’s family, while certainly wealthy, still possessed certain connections that were highly useful, but not necessarily totally legal.

2

Although Samedi was the first day of the weekend for most people in L’Excelsis, for me the weekend didn’t begin until almost noon-at the earliest. I still had to rise just before dawn and hurry down to the exercise chambers. Because of the bruises and other injuries I’d suffered in dealing with the Ferran spy and his assassins after the Council’s Harvest Ball, I couldn’t do a number of the exercises, and my running was far slower than it had been. After the four-mille run, I just stood there on the west side of the quadrangle, catching my breath, panting, and sweating. My ribs ached, but not so badly as they had almost three weeks earlier.

Clovyl stepped over to me. “Not too bad for a cripple.” Even though he was an imager tertius, he was in charge of conditioning and training for all imagers in the covert branch of the Collegium, and he knew exactly how much to press me. “You’re improving.”

Not too bad at all, considering I’d only been able to run for the past week or so, but then, I’d been in good shape before the explosion that had thrown me into the stone wall surrounding the Council Chateau, and my shields had taken the brunt of the impact, although Master Draffyd had pointed out that was also why I’d been bruised all over, because they had distributed the impact as much as cushioning it.

“We’ll wait another few weeks before you get more training in hand-to-hand combat,” he added. “Master Dichartyn thinks you’ll need it sooner or later.”

I just nodded. My suspicions were that Master Dichartyn felt I needed it more to keep me humble than for any other reason . . . but he’d been right most of the time. I just had to remember what Seliora’s Pharsi grandmother had said-that while Master Dichartyn and the Collegium were not my enemies, neither were they my friends. The Collegium looked out for the best interests of imagers as a whole, not for individual imagers, and individuals often paid the price. That was why Claustyn-one of the friendliest imagers I’d known-had died in Caenen, the only reminder a stone plaque bearing his name on the memorial wall adjoining the dining hall. I didn’t even know how or why he’d died.

“I’ll let you know,” Clovyl added before turning away and addressing Dartazn. “You’re slowing down there.”

“Late night last night, sir.” Dartazn smiled apologetically.

I couldn’t help grinning as I walked back toward my quarters in the building that housed single imagers tertius and a few single junior masters like me.

After showering and shaving, I dressed and headed for the dining hall. Once there, I still felt strange taking a seat at the masters’ table, the smaller table at one end of the hall, set perpendicular to the two long tables, one for imagers primus, and the other for imagers secondus and tertius. My lack of ease came from the fact that I’d only been a master for a little over two weeks, and I was by far the youngest at the table. Ferlyn was the only master who was close to my age-the only officially revealed master, at least, because some of the field and covert operatives, such as Baratyn, who headed security at the Council Chateau, held the hidden rank and pay of Maitre D’Aspect. I sat next to Ferlyn, and we were joined by Isola who, although technically a tertius, was granted master privileges as the chorister of the Nameless at the Anomen D’Imagisle.

“Good morning, Rhenn, Ferlyn.”

“Good morning,” I replied. Isola was always cheerful, and while we were generally expected to attend services on Solayi evening, for me that had been no real problem, because her homilies were usually so good that it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t even sure whether I believed in the Nameless.

“Did either of you see Veritum this morning?” asked Ferlyn.

“I’m part of Clovyl’s morning torture group. I usually don’t get a chance to pick up the newsheets until after breakfast. What’s happened now?”

“The Oligarch of Jariola claims that the Ferrans are massing forces on the border next to the coal mines, and Chief Councilor Suyrien has sent a communique to Ferrial suggesting that Solidar regards that as a hostile and provocative act.”

“Is our southern fleet heading north from Caenen and Tiempre?” asked Isola as she passed the flatcakes and berry syrup to me.

“There’s nothing in either Tableta or Veritum,” Ferlyn replied. “The First Speaker of Tiempre issued another warning about our trade agreement with Caenen, though.”

“Their implied surrender,” I said dryly. “What did he say?”

“Something about now Solidar would pay deeply and in its heart for the treachery of its agreement with the demons of Caenen, that sort of thing.” Ferlyn snorted.

“They’re unhappy we didn’t declare war on Caenen over their killings of our envoy’s staff members,” I suggested. “Then they could have had an excuse to invade and grab land.”

“Submissive treaties are a less expensive way for the Council to get cheaper raw materials.”

“The Abiertan Assembly is debating a declaration of neutrality, or they were last week,” offered Isola. “If war breaks out, that would deny us use of the ports in the Abierto Isles for recoaling and resupply, wouldn’t it?”

“If they pass such a measure,” Ferlyn replied, “but I’d judge that they’re stalling to keep Ferrum from declaring war on them, while they wait to see what we’ll do.”

That seemed more likely to me, but I concentrated on the corn flatcakes and sausage and syrup, along with the mug of hot tea that I’d poured.

“Does Ferrum have that large a navy?” asked Isola.

“Only ours is larger, and not by much, but our ships are newer and better. They have a larger army and more troop transports. If we didn’t stop them on the high seas, they could certainly overrun the Isles.”

I didn’t pretend to understand the hostility of the Ferrans, especially since both Ferrum and Solidar tended to emphasize freedom of commerce, and neither was controlled by a hereditary ruler, despot, or oligarchy in the way lands like Jariola, Caenen, or Tiempre were. My own experiences with the late and less than honorable Klauzvol Vhillar suggested that they were every bit as ruthless as the Collegium was reputed to be.

I just listened as Isola and Ferlyn talked.

After breakfast, I hurried north along the west side of the quadrangle toward the large, oblong, gray granite building that held workrooms of various sizes, as well as some of the specialized manufacturing chambers-all lead-lined so that one imager’s work didn’t affect another’s, the same reason why we all had separate quarters with lead-lined walls and leaded glass windows-because imagers’ dreams and thoughtless desires could have most unfortunate consequences-as I well knew. After I’d become an imager tertius, Master Dichartyn had arranged for one of the smallest workrooms with northern light to be turned into a portraiture studio, and one of my additional duties, as possible, was to paint the portraits of senior imagers. I’d only just completed the first-that of Master Poincaryt-not only the head of the Collegium, but also a Maitre D’Esprit, one of but two, the other being Master Dichartyn. Master Poincaryt was supposed to come by the studio to see it sometime after eighth glass. He hadn’t seen the finished version, and I was more than a bit nervous about showing it to him.

Because I reached my workroom-studio with a good quarter glass to spare, I spent the time sketching an alternative design for the portrait of Seliora. While the convention was to paint most portraits-especially of women-in a sitting position, I’d decided to do Seliora standing. I’d seen the miniature that Emanus had done of his unacknowledged daughter-Madame Juniae D’Shendael-and that had been done with her standing, and it had a power that a sitting portrait seldom possessed.

Absently, I still wondered exactly what the connection had been between Vhillar and Madame D’Shendael. They hadn’t been lovers. Political allies, perhaps, since Vhillar had represented Ferrum-which opposed all blood-based hereditary nobility, such as the High Holders of Solidar or the Oligarchy of Jariola-and since Madame D’Shendael had been writing and pressing for a Council of Solidar with at least some councilors being directly elected, rather than being appointed by their guilds or associations or by a vote among High Holders.

Just as the first bells of eighth glass began to chime from the anomen tower, Master Poincaryt stepped through the open studio door. “Good morning, Rhennthyl.”

“Good morning, sir.”

Master Poincaryt frowned, ever so slightly, an expression that lent severity to a lined and squarish face softened but a touch by a chin that was slightly pointed and rounded. Under jet-black hair and heavy eyebrows, also jet-black, his pale gray eyes took in everything, as always. He wore exactly the same gray garb as did every imager, with the addition of a small silver four-pointed star circled in silver and worn high on the left breast of his waistcoat, seemingly identical to the one Master Dichartyn had given me the day before. “Do I want to see the final version of the portrait?”

“I would hope so, sir. But it’s not framed, and that will improve the setting.”

“Is it that unflattering?” His words were offered with a smile.

“No, sir, but since it’s your portrait, in the end you’re the one who has to judge.”

He laughed. “You flatter me, Rhenn. In the end, the artist is always the judge, for the portrait always outlasts the person painted.” He walked over to the easel and studied the image. “It’s accurate, and not too unflattering. It’s a good work.” He paused. “You didn’t sign it, Rhenn, not fully.”

“According to the Portaiturist Guild, only paintings which are commissioned and sold through the guild can be signed. So I just used my initials-‘R D’I.’ That seemed the best compromise. Since it’s acceptable, I’ll arrange with the cabinetmakers to get it framed.”

Master Poincaryt nodded. “Whom do you think you should paint next?”

The person I really wanted to paint next was Seliora, but I’d have to work out how to pay for the paints and supplies for that, since the Collegium had equipped the studio fully, but I didn’t want to bring that up with Master Dichartyn. Not yet, anyway. “I hadn’t thought about that, sir, but shouldn’t it be Master Dichartyn, Master Rholyn, or Master Jhulian?”

“Those would be good choices, but of the three I would suggest Master Rholyn . . . for a number of reasons. I will discuss it with others. Whoever it is will be here next Samedi.”

After Master Poincaryt left, I worked more on the design for Seliora’s portrait and then tried a rough sketch of Master Rholyn from memory, setting him in the Council chamber at the Chateau, standing below the upper dais where the High Council sat.

Ferlyn and I were the only masters at lunch, unsurprisingly on a sunny Samedi, since there were perhaps a score and a half of Maitres D’Aspect across all of Solidar, only a handful of Maitres D’Structure, and just two Maitres D’Esprit. At present, the Collegium had no Maitre D’Image, and there had been but a handful of imagers that accomplished in the entire history of the Collegium. Most of the masters were married, and seldom took meals in the dining hall, except the noon meal during the week or when they had duties that kept them near the quadrangle.

Afterward, I reread sections of the patroller procedures for a while in the study of my personal chambers. I had mixed feelings about the evening ahead. I knew I’d be glad to be with Seliora, but I couldn’t say that I was totally looking forward to a dinner with my parents and two other couples who were their friends.

I walked across the Bridge of Hopes at just before fourth glass, glancing down at the lower than usual gray waters of the River Aluse. I was holding full imager shields, as I’d had to do for months now, although I had doubts that High Holder Ryel would resort to something as direct as assassination, not after he’d had Taudischef Artazt garroted for attempting to have me assassinated. Still, matters couldn’t have gotten any better, either, not since the High Holder’s daughter had asked me to dance at the Council’s Harvest Ball, and flaunted the fact before her younger brother, the heir to his father.

Once across the bridge, I looked for a flower seller, but I didn’t see one. Then, no one had taken the place of the woman who had been shot when the Ferran had tried to kill me. In a strange way, I missed her and her faded green and yellow umbrella.

Before I had stood at the corner of East River Road and the Boulevard D’Imagers all that long, I saw the familiar brass-trimmed brown coach that belonged to my parents. Charlsyn spotted me at close to the same time and eased the coach over to the curb, just in front of the west end of the narrow gardens that flanked the boulevard-behind the low stone wall at the edge of the sidewalk.

“Master Rhennthyl.” He nodded.

“Charlsyn, thank you for picking me up.” Although Charlsyn had never said a word, I had the feeling that he was as pleased as my mother had been about my becoming an imager master.

“You’re most welcome, sir. NordEste Design?”

I nodded, trying not to smile too broadly, then climbed into the coach. Normally, I’d have used a hack to pick up Seliora, but when Mother discovered that, she’d insisted that the family coachman pick both of us up, declaring that it was unseemly that a master imager arrive in a coach for hire. Unseemly, anyway, if certain guests might be there.

From the east side of the Bridge of Hopes, the drive took only about a third of a glass before Charlsyn brought the coach to a halt before the north entrance of NordEste Design on Hagahl Lane. That was the private family entrance, with gray stone steps up to a small square and pillared covered porch that shielded a stone archway, and a polished oak door. NordEste Design was manufactory/crafting hall/home, all in one, to Seliora’s family. The yellow brick building with its gray cornerstones rose three stories. All the casements and wooden trim-even the wood of the loading docks at the south end-were stained with a brown oil.

I clambered out and looked up. “If you’d just wait, Charlsyn. She’s usually ready.”

“Yes, sir.”

I continued to carry full shields all the way to the door, but I didn’t have a chance to even lift the brass knocker before Bhenyt-Seliora’s young cousin-opened the door.

“Master Rhennthyl.” He grinned at me. “She’s already waiting.”

“Thank you, Bhenyt. Lead on.”

I followed him up the stairs toward the second level, which held the more public rooms of the two living levels, the second and third levels of the building, since the ground-floor level was given over to workrooms and power loom spaces. The carved balustrades and shimmering brass fixtures emphasized the elegance of the staircase, which opened at the top into an entry more than eight yards wide and ten deep. The walls were paneled in light golden oak from carved baseboards to ceiling. Only a yard or so of the intricate parquet floor was visible, largely covered as it was by a deep maroon carpet, with a border of intertwined golden chains and brilliant green leafy vines. An assortment of various chairs and settees were upholstered in the fabric designs that I now knew had been largely designed by Seliora and her mother. A pianoforte dominated the far end of the hall.

Seliora stood at the front edge of the carpet, wearing a crimson dress, trimmed in black velvet, with a filmy and shimmering black jacket and a matching black scarf. With her black eyes and jet-black hair, the effect was stunning-and not just to me, I’d discovered over the past year. If I could somehow capture that in the portrait . . .

She smiled, and for a moment, all I could do was look. Then I stepped forward and embraced her . . . gently, not wanting to disarrange her, at least not before dealing with my parents and their guests. I did get a warm kiss.

“You look wonderful,” I murmured. “As always.”

“If you had the chance, you’d tell all the women that.”

“Only if they looked so good as you, and that wouldn’t ever happen.”

Seliora shook her head.

I offered my arm, and we walked down the steps and outside toward the coach. I extended my shields to cover her. Charlsyn kept his eyes on Seliora from the time we walked out the door until I helped her into the coach. So did young Bhenyt, closing the door only after we were both settled into the coach.

Once the coach was moving, Seliora turned to me. “Are there other guests besides the Ferdinands and the Veblynts?”

“Not that I know.” I grinned. “What did Grandmama Diestra find out about them?”

Seliora offered a sheepish grin. “Ferdinand not only has his own brick kilns, but he has arrangements with other brick and stone manufactories across Solidar. That wouldn’t work except for the ironway, you know,” she pointed out. “I was thinking about that when we toured the textile manufactories last summer . . . just how much things have changed in the last century.”

Steam engines and turbines had changed the world-in some ways, but not in others.

“What did she find out about Veblynt?” I was interested to know, because Veblynt was a newer acquaintance of my father, newer meaning in the last ten years. “Father had mentioned that he’d started by buying lots of ruined cottons.”

“First, he’s the son of a former ruined High Holder, who killed himself with an antique dueling pistol or died deliberately in a race, depending on which story you believe, about twenty-five years ago. Grandmama said that was too good for him, and that he made High Holder Ryel look like Rholan the Unnamer. Veblynt used what remained of his share of the family fortune and perhaps his wife’s dowry to build a paper mill that uses hemp and rags and some sort of clay, I think, and now he supplies most of the paper for the printers in L’Excelsis. Mother thinks he was also an illegitimate son.” She looked at me. “What do you think of him?”

“I don’t know. He’s quite charming. He was, anyway, the last time I met him, but that has to have been a good seven or eight years back.”

“You haven’t seen him or his wife since then?”

I laughed. “You might recall that I spent most of my time with Master Caliostrus and that my father wasn’t all that pleased with my artistic ambitions.” I shrugged. “Now I’m more respectable.”

“And feared.” Seliora tilted her head slightly. “I’ll be interested to meet this Factor Veblynt.”

“Oh?”

“No one becomes a success in ten years without secrets, especially someone with his background. I’d like to see whether he hides or flaunts them.”

“More farsight?”

“Maybe.”

I didn’t press on that, knowing she’d said what she would.

Charlsyn drove right under the portico of the two-story brick dwelling in the fashionable section of L’Excelsis to the east of the Plaza D’Este, a dwelling large enough to signify prosperity, but definitely not a chateau or a mansion.

We were the first to arrive, but not early enough for me to ask Father or Mother questions because a deep burgundy coach pulled up under the portico right after Charlsyn had let us off and driven toward the stable. So we just waited inside the formal parlor as the other couple made their way to the door and were escorted inside. I could tell it was Veblynt and his wife, because I recalled that he had been shorter and slighter than I even years ago, while Ferdinand was stocky and close to my father’s height.

Father made the introductions. “Rhennthyl, you might recall Factorius Veblynt, and this is Madame Eliesa D’Veblynt.”

Madame D’Veblynt could have been a cousin-or some other close relation to Dulyk D’Ryel’s sister Iryela-as petite and blond as she was, an older version of Iryela in a way.

“I’m pleased to see you both,” I offered.

Father looked back to Veblynt. “Rhennthyl is a master imager. Rousel, whom you met last year, handles the business in Kherseilles. He and Remaya had a son this past summer.”

“A very junior master, I might add,” I quickly interjected, all too aware that I wouldn’t have held the rank, at least not openly, if it hadn’t been required for my assignment as liaison to the Civic Patrol of L’Excelsis.

“And this is Mistress Seliora D’Shelim. Her family owns NordEste Design,” Mother said quickly.

Veblynt was slender, slightly shorter than Seliora. When he smiled, he revealed perfect white teeth, but the corners of his eyes didn’t crinkle. “Mistress Seliora . . . the crafting of NordEste is indeed well known, as is all that lies behind it.”

Seliora inclined her head politely. “I’m certain that what lies behind your success with your paper mill is far more intriguing.”

Mother’s eyes flicked toward me, but I just maintained a polite smile.

“Hard work,” declared Father abruptly. “That’s what’s behind anything of value. All the ideas and all the inspiration don’t amount to anything without hard work.”

“A most blunt and accurate summation, Chenkyr,” offered Veblynt.

At that moment, Ferdinand and his wife appeared, and there was another round of introductions, this one matter-of-fact, and before long everyone was seated in the formal parlor, and Nellica was bringing around a tray with the wines everyone had requested. I’d chosen the Dhuensa, and so had Seliora.

“As I recall,” Ferdinand said after a sip of his Cambrisio and a moment of silence, “you were once a portraiturist, were you not, Rhenn?”

“I was journeyman for Master Caliostrus. That was before I discovered I had imaging abilities. I even painted a few portraits, mostly of young women and their cats, but also of a factor or two.”

“Oh?”

“Factorius Masgayl was the first.”

“Ah . . . the rope and cable fellow. I’d imagine he’ll be doing quite well with his new facility near the naval yards at Westisle. I heard he won the contracts for the new cruisers, for all the cabling, that is.”

“And Rhenn did a marvelous one of Tomaz’s niece,” Mother added.

“Ah . . . the one of little Aeylana. She looks so alive in that. I’m her unnamed, you know?”

“I didn’t know that,” Father said, but then he didn’t really believe in the old custom of a fallback unnamed guardian, supposedly known by name only to the parents and the chorister of the Nameless.

I merely smiled. I had liked that portrait.

“Does your background as a portraiturist help you as an imager?” asked Eliesa.

I would have appreciated the question more had I not seen the momentary look that had passed from Veblynt to his wife. “I suppose everything helps, but since I’m the first artist who’s become an imager in some time, it’s probably more a matter of personal inclination than a result of artistic training.”

“Can you still paint?” asked Veblynt.

“I can paint. Anyone can paint. I just can’t sell anything that I paint.”

He merely nodded to my reply, and that suggested he knew more than he was saying.

“Are you painting anything right now?” pressed Eliesa.

“At the moment, madame, I’m engaged in imager business.” I smiled. “Except, of course, at times like this, which are seldom enough.” Before they could ask another question, I turned to Ferdinand. “With all the concerns about war, how is your business coming?”

The bluff and square-faced Ferdinand shrugged. “It doesn’t change much here. If I were in Estisle or Westisle, there would be some more Navy contracts, but they wouldn’t be for much. If war breaks out, things will get worse. Afterward, if we win, I might have more business.”

“Do you think war will break out?” asked Seliora.

“You might ask Rhenn,” Ferdinand said with a laugh.

“He always tells me that he’s often the last to know,” she replied.

“There will be war,” said Father. “The only question is who’ll be fighting. There’s always someone fighting, and it’s all Namer foolishness.”

“Don’t you get more business when we’re involved?” asked Veblynt.

“We get a bit more in terms of yards of wool sold, but the higher quality wool doesn’t sell as well. . . .”

Before long, Mother rose and ushered us all into the dining chamber, where Father stood at the head of the table, his hands on the back of the armed chair, and offered the blessing.

“For the grace and warmth from above, for the bounty of the earth below, for all the grace of the world and beyond, for your justice, and for your manifold and great mercies, we offer our thanks and gratitude, both now and evermore, in the spirit of that which cannot be named or imaged.”

“In peace and harmony,” everyone murmured.

Ferdinand sat to Father’s left, and Madame Ferdinand to his right; the Veblynts in the middle of the table, with Eliesa to my right, Seliora across from me, and Mother at the foot of the table to my left.

As soon as everyone had wine, Father offered a simple toast. “To friends and family.”

Then he carved the marinated and crisped lamb, and various dishes appeared, beginning with individual salads of wild greens. Then came rice fries, sliced and boiled new potatoes in butter and mint, asparagus under lemon cream, and, of course, dark spicy gravy. Nellica carried them all in with her usual dispatch.

I’d just finished handing the gravy boat to Mother when Eliesa turned to me. “Are there any High Holders at Imagisle?”

“Even the children of High Holders must go to Imagisle, dear,” Veblynt said. “Is not that so, Rhenn?”

“Very much so.”

“Are they . . . treated the same as others?” Eliesa asked.

“So far as I’ve seen, everyone is treated in the same fashion.” That was true in terms of the way the Collegium operated, but not necessarily in terms of the way people reacted, as I’d discovered with Johanyr, the eldest and most spoiled son of High Holder Ryel, who had tried to maim me for life and whom I’d partly blinded-enough to ruin his imaging and set his father after me.

“Have you known any? Personally, that is?”

“Imagers generally don’t talk about their backgrounds, but I’ve known two, and there certainly might be others.”

“I would imagine that with their training they might do well.”

“One is a Maitre D’Structure, and she is quite accomplished. The other had far too great an opinion of himself and did not like to work, and ended up partly blinded because of his arrogance.”

“I had heard rumors about something like that,” mused Veblynt. “That might make matters rather difficult for the Collegium were his father a powerful High Holder.”

I smiled. “One runs that risk in doing anything of value, as I imagine you have discovered in building such a profitable enterprise.”

“Building something is often the easy part, young Rhenn,” replied Veblynt. “Holding it is what takes talent. That’s one reason why High Holders are called that.”

“Some of them have reputations for, shall we say, ruthlessness,” I offered. “Do you think that such reputations are overstated or understated?”

“Both. It depends on the High Holder.” Veblynt smiled. “What would you think about Councilor Suyrien?”

“I’ve only seen him at official occasions,” I temporized, “but I’d be most hesitant to cross him without a very good reason.”

“That is true . . . from what I know. Yet he is considered a man of honor and moderation compared to, say, those such as High Holder Lhoryn and High Holder Ryel . . . as you may know.”

The last words suggested that Veblynt knew that I’d had some dealings with Ryel-and that bothered me, because I’d never told anyone in my family about my blinding his eldest son. Johanyr had been a total bastard, who’d used his position to abuse young women and torment younger imagers. He and his toady Diazt had tried to cripple me, and in self-defense, I’d partly blinded Johanyr so that he couldn’t image any longer. The only ones I’d ever told about the depth of my problems with Ryel were Seliora’s family-and that was because Grandmama Diestra had discovered them in investigating my suitability as a suitor for Seliora. One never knew, but I doubted that anyone in the Collegium had told Veblynt-and that suggested High Holder Ryel-or Dulyk or Iryela, his other children-had been the ones to spread the word.

“I can’t say that I’ve had any personal dealings with either, with the possible exception of dancing one dance with High Holder Ryel’s daughter.”

“Rhenn . . . you didn’t ever mention that,” Mother said, her voice containing hints of wonder and worry.

“That was at the Council’s Harvest Ball. She asked me, and my duty required me to dance with her.”

“What was she like?”

“She is quite good-looking, much in the same way as Madame D’Veblynt is.” I nodded to Eliesa. “In appearance, they might well be related.”

Eliesa flushed. “You flatter me.”

“I think not.” I paused. “I did not mean to imply more than I said, yet you could have changed places with her, and few would have noticed the difference.”

“I must confess to being slightly older than Iryela.”

I managed a polite and warm smile. “Will you also confess to being distant cousins . . . or some such?”

“Alas, you have discovered one of my secrets, sir.”

“You really are related?” asked Mother.

“In a very roundabout way, but I would appreciate it if you did not mention this. Explaining can be so troublesome.”

If explaining was so troublesome, why had I been set up to reveal the relationship? To give Veblynt some advantage in dealing with Father? Or was it the first step in High Holder Ryel’s campaign against me? Or something else entirely?

“Family ties-and unties-can be most tedious, and better not plumbed in depth,” said Veblynt smoothly before turning to Ferdinand. “We will be building an addition to the mill shortly.”

“You’re looking for stone and brick, like before?” asked Ferdinand, his voice hearty.

“As always.”

I glanced at Seliora, but she had already begun to speak. “Eliesa . . . are all the High Holder balls as stiff and formal as Rhenn has said?”

“They are most formal, and the slightest misstatement can lead to difficulties.” Eliesa laughed, if with a slight brittleness behind the sound. “That is why so often so little is said, for all the words that are exchanged. You are very fortunate to have wealth without holdings.”

“I am fortunate to be able to contribute through honest work to what we have,” Seliora replied warmly. “I’ve found it most rewarding to help create things of beauty. I must say that I pity anyone who must scheme and plot just to hold on to what they have, especially when they create nothing of lasting beauty or substance. Even worse are those who seek to destroy others because they spoke the wrong words.”

I managed to suppress a smile at Seliora’s ability to say everything so warmly and apparently guilelessly.

“And you, Rhenn, what do you think?” asked Veblynt.

I shrugged. “I was an artist. Now I’m an imager. We all do what we can, but it seems to me that scheming and plotting leaves one with very little in the end.”

Veblynt actually frowned thoughtfully. “There are certainly High Holders and even some factors who would disagree with that.”

“I’m sure they would, but that’s why they’re what they are and why I’m what I am.”

Ferdinand laughed, perhaps more loudly than necessary. “Well said, Rhenn.” He turned to Veblynt. “You know, that’s one of the things I like about bricks and stone. I’d almost forgotten.”

Almost everyone at the table looked confused.

Following a moment of silence, Ferdinand went on. “Worked stone and well-fired bricks are what they are, and they stay what they are. They don’t rot like wood, and they don’t say things that they don’t mean, like all too many folks do.” Then he looked at Father. “Excellent lamb, Chenkyr. Crisped just right, and I can’t say that I’ve had better new potatoes in a long time.”

After that, conversation stayed limited to food, the weather, the harvest, and general observations about just how irrational the Caenenans were with their dualogic god. Dessert was a solid apple and raisin cobbler, followed by brandy.

When both the other couples had left, while we were waiting for Charlsyn to bring the coach, I turned to Father. “I know you’ve always been close to Ferdinand, but why did you decide to invite Veblynt? He’s nice enough, but I didn’t realize that you were that close.”

Father stiffened, as he always did when I asked a question he didn’t like. “I just did. Besides, he hasn’t been buying the offcasts as much as he once was.”

“Dear . . .” Mother interjected, “wasn’t it Ferdinand’s idea? Didn’t he say that it had been too long . . . or something like that?”

“Oh . . . that. He also said something about the fact that Veblynt had contacts, and that they might be useful if the Council had to order more uniforms and cloth goods.”

“That poor Eliesa,” Mother said. “I feel for her.”

I wasn’t sure whether I did or not, not after my brief dance with Iryela at the Council’s Harvest Ball. I also had the feeling she was far more closely related to Iryela than she was saying.

At that moment, Charlsyn pulled the coach under the portico, and I eased the front door fully open, taking Seliora’s arm.

“Will we see you two next week?” asked Mother.

“No. We’re having dinner with her family and friends next Samedi. I don’t know about Solayi yet.”

“Thank you so much,” Seliora said. “The dinner was lovely, and you both have been so warm and kind.”

“You’re very good for Rhenn, dear,” Mother said. “I’ve never seen him so happy.”

“He’s very good to me. Thank you for a charming evening.”

The warmth of her words sent a chill up my spine that lasted until we were in the coach and headed back to NordEste Design. The glass windows chattered in their frames with a gust of wind that foreshadowed the coming cooler winds of fall.

“What did you think of Veblynt?” I asked Seliora.

“He’s definitely the son of a ruined High Holder, and he won’t forget it. He doesn’t like Ryel. He’d be more than pleased if you did in Ryel, but then he’d try to have your throat cut.”

“No . . . he’d use me, and find some way to have me vanish without a trace. He still thinks of himself as a High Holder.”

“You’re right.” Seliora nodded. “She’s not much better, either.” She smiled once more in the dimness of the coach. “That was a nice touch with the comparison to Iryela. You scared her.”

I hadn’t seen that, but I trusted Seliora’s feelings about such things. I didn’t understand what role Ferdinand was playing, especially if he’d been the one to suggest that Father invite Veblynt, unless he had a grudge against the man . . . or unless the suggestion was a warning to Father, who tended not to accept words of warning from others. I’d have to see what Master Dichartyn had to say about Veblynt, if he had anything at all to offer. For the moment, there was little enough I could do, except enjoy the little time left with Seliora.

“Next Samedi?”

“Fourth glass.” Seliora grinned. “You’ll have to put up with my family and their form of maneuvering.”

I had the feeling that would be far less stressful, but I didn’t want to talk about it. Instead, I put my arms around Seliora for the rest of the coach ride to NordEste Design.

She didn’t object. In fact, she had the same thought.

3

One of the drawbacks to becoming a master, which Master Dichartyn had not been slow to point out, was that I had to take my turn as the duty master for the Collegium every so often on a Solayi-and this Solayi morning was my first duty. Because it was, Master Draffyd, who had helped heal my injuries, would remain at his home in the family dwellings on the north end of Imagisle so that I could send a messenger if something for which I was not prepared did in fact occur. During the previous weeks I’d been briefed on the duties, and from what I could tell, the duty master’s task was basically to be present in case of problems, and to handle those that he could and to refer those that he could not to those who could-basically to Maitres Poincaryt, Dichartyn, Jhulian, or Dyana. I could go anywhere in the Collegium, just so long as the prime at the granite duty desk knew exactly where I was. If necessary, in the case of an emergency involving an imager, I could even leave Imagisle, but I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t have to do that. There was also a secondus on standby duty in a small room off the receiving hall.

I’d never had duty as either a prime or a second, because such duties generally didn’t fall on those still in training, and because I’d come to the Collegium at a far older age than most imagers. My first duties had not occurred until I was a tertius at the Council Chateau.

Before breakfast, I walked the grounds-those around the quadrangle, and that was a pleasure compared to the exercise routine and running I had to do every other day of the week. Since I was supposed to spend a good portion of my duty time in or near the administration building, immediately after breakfast I’d taken my copy of the patroller procedures to the conference room where I’d first been questioned. I’d told Haensyl, the duty prime, when I returned, although he was less than twenty yards away, and there I sat, reviewing the procedures.

I’d just finished the section on apprehension and charges when Haensyl appeared, his youthful face showing a certain worry. “There’s a young little sansespoir here, with his taudischef.”

A slum child with what amounted to an area gang leader? I stood quickly. “I’ll be right there.” After the problems with Diazt and his brother, who’d also been a taudischef, I wasn’t all that eager to deal with one, but I didn’t suppose anyone was.

Haensyl hurried out, and I followed.

Two figures stood waiting before the polished granite desk in the receiving hall, a chamber where walls, floors, and columns were all polished gray granite. I’d discovered all that gray did have an effect in sobering people. One of those waiting was a squarish, almost squat, man with limp black hair cut in the jagged fashion affected by some of the younger adult male taudis-dwellers. He stood no more than to my nose, but there was a toughness about him. The other was a child, probably no more than ten, if that.

“This is Master Rhennthyl,” Haensyl said.

The squat man studied me. “You don’t look old enough to be a master.”

“I am. Rhennthyl D’Imagisle, Maitre D’Aspect. You are?”

The man’s posture changed, if slightly. “I beg your pardon, Master Rhennthyl. I’m Horazt.”

“You’re the taudischef where?” I asked politely.

“Estaudis off South Middle, west quarter. This is Shault here. He . . . he did . . . he created a copper . . . a very bad copper. . . .” He extended an oval piece of copper.

“Ma . . . she said that we didn’t have no coins.” Shault’s look was both defiant and fearful.

I took the copper and studied it. It was either a badly imaged copper or a bad forgery, but I couldn’t see why anyone would go to the trouble of forging something as small as a copper. “Shault . . . I’d like you to walk over to the front steps with me. The rest of you stay here.”

Horazt frowned, but nodded to the boy.

The boy followed me tentatively. Once we were just outside the administration building, I took a good copper from my wallet and showed it to Shault. “This is a good coin. I’d like you to look at it closely and then see if you can image a better-looking copper.”

“You won’t hurt me ifn I do?”

“If you can, you can keep the good copper, but I want you to sit on the steps and see if you can image it onto the stone beside you.”

Shault sat down. “You really mean it?”

I handed him the copper. “You can keep it if you can make another.”

He looked at the copper for a long time, then set it on the stone step.

The second copper wasn’t much better than the first, but he was definitely an imager.

“Good. I need the copy, but you can keep the one I gave you. You can stand up.”

He wobbled as he stood, and I grasped his shoulder to steady him. “Is Horazt your father or brother?”

“Nah . . . he’s Ma’s cousin, but he’s the taudischef for the west quarter.”

What that meant was that the finder’s fee would be double-a gold for Shault’s mother and a gold for Horazt. “What’s your mother’s name?”

“Chelya.”

“Just Chelya?”

“That’s all. Da died when I was little. Ma said it was elveweed.”

“You’re going to stay here on Imagisle and be an imager, Shault.”

“I can’t go home?”

“It wouldn’t be safe for you,” I pointed out. “You know that. Here, you’ll have your own room, and three meals a day, as much as you can eat. After a few weeks, your mother can come visit you, and after a longer time, if you want to, you can see her on end-days. You’ll have to learn to read and write.”

“I know my letters.”

But little more, I suspected. “You’ll also get paid a few coppers a week.”

“Better’n getting beaten . . . I guess.”

That was about all I’d get in concessions. “We need to tell Horazt.” I stayed close to Shault as we walked back into the receiving hall.

“Well?” asked the taudischef.

“He has imaging ability.”

“I knew it.”

“Horazt, do you have a full name, an official one?”

“A’course I do. Horazt D’Estaudis.”

I should have guessed. “As taudischef, you get a draft on the Banque D’Excelsis for two golds. One gold is for you, the other is for Chelya. You will make sure she gets all of it.”

“Couldn’t do otherwise, now, could I?”

I smiled. “I will find out if she doesn’t get it, and I’ll also find out if anything happens to her, and if either happens . . . the west quarter will have a new taudischef.”

For a moment he studied me. Then he laughed, wryly. “You know Mama Diestra, don’t you?”

I nodded. “I also work with the civic patrollers.”

“She’ll get her gold, Master Rhennthyl.”

“I thought she would. You’ll have to pick up the draft here tomorrow. I’ll give you a promissory note for it now. If you don’t want to go far, one of the duty imagers will escort you to the branch of the banque here, and you can cash the draft for the golds without leaving Imagisle.”

“I have to wait till then?”

“The banques aren’t open on end-days, and we don’t leave golds out. Does anyone sensible?”

A sly smile flitted across his lips. “Some might.”

“I’ll be right back with the note for you, Horazt.”

I was glad I’d checked over the duty desk earlier, and that Master Dichartyn had briefed me on the procedures for intaking. The forms for the notes were in the second drawer, and all I had to do was fill in dates and names and the amount, and the reason. I did have to wait a moment for the ink to dry before bringing it back to the taudischef.

Horazt took the promissory note. “You write good, Master Rhennthyl.” He slipped it inside his shirt.

“I’d hope so. I was once an artist.”

At that, he stiffened once more, and just slightly. “Things’ll be quiet in the west quarter.”

“I’m sure that Commander Artois will be pleased to know that.”

“Yes, sir.” Then Horazt bent slightly and looked at Shault. “Boy . . . you listen to Master Rhennthyl. You do what he says, and if you got problems, you tell him. You got a chance to be someone. Someone your mama’ll be proud of. You understand?”

Shault nodded somberly.

Horazt stood and looked at me. I understood the look, and I nodded. “We’ll do our best.”

He looked at Shault again, then turned and walked out of the receiving hall.

“Haensyl . . . get Kuert Secondus. Shault needs something to eat before anything, and we need to get him set up with a room.”

The younger primes still needed their own chambers, but that section of the east quarters was arranged so that all the younger primes were quartered close together.

Kuert arrived in moments, his gray eyes taking in the worried-looking Shault. Then the second looked to me.

“Kuert, this is Shault. He’ll need to eat something right away. He’s imaged several things, and he’ll need a room. I’ll have one checked while he’s eating. After he eats bring him back here.” That wasn’t the strict procedure, but Shault was pale, and I doubted that he’d hear or remember much until he ate.

“Yes, sir.”

After they left, I checked the available quarters and, thankfully, there were two rooms left in the section for the very young primes. Once we’d settled on a room, I asked Haensyl, “Is there anyone who you’d trust to take Shault under their wing?”

“There’s Mayra. She just made second. She’s good with the young ones, and she’s here now. I saw her just a bit ago.”

“If you’d see if she’d help settle young Shault.”

“Yes, sir.”

Haensyl hurried off, but it seemed like only moments before he returned with an angular and gawky girl-close to being a young woman.

“Master Rhennthyl.” She inclined her head.

“The Collegium needs your skills with young Shault. He’s a taudis-boy, and being here is going to be hard on him for the next few days. Could you show him around today?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He’s eating now.”

“I can wait, sir.”

“Thank you. Where are you from, originally?”

“Gheant . . . it’s a village outside Extela.”

“Do you miss the mountains?”

“No, sir. I broke my arm chasing goats in the rocks. . . .”

Before all that long, Kuert and Shault returned. Shault looked far more alert, and the paleness had vanished.

“Are you feeling better?”

“Yes, Master Rhennthyl.”

I looked at Kuert and Mayra. “Mayra will accompany you two and spend a little more time with Shault. He’ll be in room nine in the junior prime quarters. I’ll need a few words with him first, though.”

They both nodded, clearly familiar with that aspect of matters, probably more so than I was, I suspected.

“Shault . . . if you’d come with me.”

We walked to the conference room without speaking, and he took the chair on the side of the table. He looked lost in the large chair.

“Shault . . .” I offered quietly. “You need to understand a few rules about Imagisle.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The first rule is that you are not to try any more imaging except when a master tells you to try. The reason for this is simple. Imaging certain things will kill you. Imaging other things in the wrong place will also kill you. You don’t have to give up imaging, and you won’t. You will learn how and where to image. . . .” From there I went through the preliminary advising, although I did change the way I offered certain things, based on what I’d learned about the way things were done in the taudis.

Then I walked him back to the two seconds, who escorted him out of the receiving hall.

Haensyl looked up from the granite desk at me. “Sir . . . do many of them from the taudis make it?”

“Some do, but it’s harder for them. Shault’s young enough that in some ways it will be easier, but he’s going to be lonely.”

Haensyl nodded.

I went back to the duty study, thinking. Concentrating on the patroller procedures was even more difficult, because I kept thinking of Shault. The remainder of the day was uneventful, except for the drizzle that began just before the evening meal.

When I got to the dining hall, I was pleased to see that Mayra had arranged for several of the younger primes to sit with Shault. From what I could tell, while he was subdued, he occasionally spoke, and not just in monosyllables.

After dinner, I did attend services at the Anomen Imagisle, on the south end of the granite isle that held the Collegium. I did have to stand on one side, in a spot reserved for the duty master. Except for the imagers emeritus, of course, everyone stood through the services.

A small choir of imagers offered the choral invocation, and they sang well, a talent I certainly did not possess, and after that Chorister Isola followed with the wordless end to the invocation. She still remained the only woman chorister of the Nameless that I’d ever seen, not that choristers were restricted to being men, since no one could know or presume whether the Nameless was male or female, or indeed both at once. After that, she opened the main part of the service.

“We are gathered here together this evening in the spirit of the Nameless and in affirmation of the quest for goodness and mercy in all that we do.”

The opening hymn was “Without the Pride of Naming,” and I sang it softly, for the benefit of those near me, but I did speak more loudly through the confession.

“We do not name You, for naming is a presumption, and we would not presume upon the creator of all that was, is, and will be. We do not pray to You, nor ask favors or recognition from You, for requesting such asks You to favor us over others who are also Your creations. Rather we confess that we always risk the sins of pride and presumption and that the very names we bear symbolize those sins, for we too often strive to arrogate our names and ourselves above others, to insist that our petty plans and arid achievements have meaning beyond those whom we love or over whom we have influence and power. Let us never forget that we are less than nothing against Your nameless magnificence and that all that we are is a gift to be cherished and treasured, and that we must also respect and cherish the gifts of others, in celebration of You who cannot be named or known, only respected and worshipped.”

After the confession and offertory, Chorister Isola stepped to the pulpit for the homily. “Good evening.”

“Good evening,” came the reply.

“And it is a good evening, for under the Nameless, all evenings are good.” She paused momentarily. “In this time of year, harvest is drawing to a close, and before long, the winds will turn chill. With that cold that will end the year, many of us will feel a loss, often an unnamed loss, as if a year passing is a year lost. Yet there are those who seize upon the year, the name of the year, as if it were a vintage. You will hear people say, ‘755 was a good year, better than 754 . . . ’ ”

Certainly, the past year, 755 years after the founding of L’Excelsis, had been a year of profound change for me, and in that sense, it had been better.

“. . . yet when we focus on the names, whether those names are those of years or of people, or of places, we cling to the names as if they were locks on doors or bars on windows that would protect us. Names are but a false security because they do not reflect all that is. The number of a year does not capture the events of that year, the warmth of loves found, the bitterness of loved ones and friends lost, or the satisfaction of accomplishments. . . . The greatness of Rholan the Unnamer lies not so much in his rejection of names, but in his affirmation of life beyond names and labels. . . . The very name of the place where we meet-the anomen-is a reminder that we should hold to what is and not to the names of such places, just as we should recall the experiences of the years we have lived and not merely their numbers. . . .”

I listened as she finished the homily, glad that she was a good chorister, and one who made me think, even as I doubted whether the Nameless did indeed exist.

For some reason, her homily triggered thoughts about my own losses, but mostly about Shault, who had just lost all that was familiar to him, humble though it might have been. I was glad to see that Mayra was with him. She towered a good fifteen digits over him, but she seemed patient, and occasionally whispered instructions to the taudis-boy. Twice Shault pointed to me and murmured to Mayra. I was surprised that he’d located me among the more than two hundred imagers in the anomen.

After services, I hurried to catch up to Mayra and the two boys with her.

“Mayra?”

She stopped and turned. “Yes, Master Rhennthyl.”

“Is Shault settled in?”

“As well as he can be until we can get him to the tailor tomorrow.”

“Good . . . and thank you.” I looked to Shault. “In the morning, you’ll meet with Master Dichartyn. He can be very stern, but you should listen to him carefully.”

As I hurried away from them back to the duty study, I caught a few words from behind me.

“. . . must be strong . . .”

“. . . young for a master, but he’s very powerful . . .”

And still less experienced than I would have liked, something that having had to deal with young Shault had reminded me.

4

Needless to say, at quarter before sixth glass on Lundi morning, when I entered the receiving hall to close out the end-day duty, Master Dichartyn was the one who was there, rather than Master Schorzat or Master Jhulian.

Master Dichartyn smiled at me. It wasn’t a wry smile, not exactly, but it held a trace of amusement. “I understand you took in a young imager yesterday afternoon. A taudis-child.”

“Yes, sir.” Had I done something wrong?

“You seem to have made quite an impression on him, Rhenn.”

“I just followed the procedures.”

“He said that you scared his taudischef, and no one ever scared Horazt. Exactly what did you say to him?”

“I just told Horazt my name and that if the second gold didn’t go to the boy’s mother, sooner or later I’d find out, and there would be a new west quarter taudischef.”

“I thought as much.” Master Dichartyn shook his head. “You know that young imagers from the taudis have much more trouble adjusting to the Collegium. You’re really too young to mentor a young imager, but Shault respects you, and that’s half the battle. Master Ghaend will handle his assignments and day-to-day work, but you need to talk to him twice a week, at least for a while, starting tonight, after dinner. You know why, don’t you?”

“He needs another taudischef, and one approved by Horazt.”

Master Dichartyn nodded. “You’d better get on your way, if you want to eat and get to Patrol headquarters on time.”

After that, I hurried to the dining hall, early enough that most of the primes and seconds weren’t there. Neither was Shault. I slipped into a seat next to the gray-haired Maitre Dyana, because any other seat I would have taken would have suggested I was avoiding her.

“Good morning,” I offered.

“Next time, don’t scan the table when you’re close enough to have your eyes read.” Her bright blue eyes pinned me in my seat. As always, she wore a colorful scarf above her imager grays, and this one was a brilliant green, with touches of an equally bright violet. Her unlined face suggested she was far younger than did her hair and experience.

I laughed, if apologetically. “Every time I see you, I learn something.”

“Good. You might even learn enough to survive your abilities, young Rhenn. Commander Artois has a good brain encumbered by solid grasp of protocol and procedure. He might listen to you if you can avoid offending him. The easiest way to offend him is to flaunt protocol and ignore procedures.” She handed me the platter of sausages and scrambled eggs. “You’d best eat. You don’t have much time, not if you don’t want to arrive sweating and flustered.”

I took her advice and drank my tea and ate quickly, then set out for my first day at the Civic Patrol, adjusting the gray visored cap that imagers wore when on duty off Imagisle.

Although the headquarters of the Civic Patrol of L’Excelsis was slightly less than a mille from the south end of Imagisle, there wasn’t a bridge there. Instead, I had to take the Bridge of Hopes across the River Aluse and then walk almost two milles along the East River Road, before turning east on Fedre and walking another half mille.

The two-story headquarters building was of undistinguished yellow brick, with brown wooden trim and doors. There were three doors spaced across the front. The left one clearly was for a working patroller station, because I could see patrollers in their pale blue uniforms hurrying in and out, the mark of a shift change. The right door looked disused, as if locked. So I took the middle door, or rather the right-hand door of the set of double doors in the square archway above two worn stone steps leading up from the sidewalk. The left-hand door was locked.

Inside was a table desk, with a graying patroller seated behind it. He took in my imager’s uniform and the silver imager’s pin. “You’re here to see Commander Artois, sir?”

“Yes . . . if you’d direct me.”

“Second floor, up those steps and to the right. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.”

The wide steps weren’t stone, but time-worn dark oak. I arrived just before eighth glass on the second floor of the anteroom that led to the commander’s private study. There were two small writing desks in the anteroom facing the wall on each side of the door through which I’d entered. Each had a straight-backed chair behind it, and two backless oak benches were set against the wall, facing each desk. Between the desks was a door, presumably to the commander’s private study. At the left desk sat another graying patroller.

“Master Rhennthyl?”

“Yes. I’m here-”

“To see the commander. You can go in. He’s expecting you.”

I opened the door and stepped into the study, a space no more than four yards deep and six wide. Artois had risen and stepped around an ancient walnut desk set at the end of the study closest to the river. To his right, on the innermost wall, was a line of wooden cases. On the wall opposite the desk was a tall and narrow bookcase, filled with volumes. Facing the desk were four straight-backed chairs. Two wide windows, both open, were centered on the outer wall and offered a view of the various buildings on the north side of Fedre and some beyond, but not so far as the Boulevard D’Imagers. There were no pictures or anything else hung on the walls, and only a pair of unlit oil lamps in wall sconces flanking the desk.

Artois was three or four digits shorter than I was and wire-thin. Under short-cut brown hair shot with gray, his brown eyes seemed flat, the kind that showed little emotion.

“Our latest imager liaison.” He nodded. “Young . . . doubtless powerful and shielded, and with Namer-little understanding of the Civic Patrol.”

“Yes, sir. That’s an accurate summary.”

“Are you being sarcastic, Master Rhennthyl?”

“No, sir. I’ve studied the procedures, but I’ve only worked briefly with one patroller. I do think I can learn, and there are situations where I might be helpful.”

“Outside of being an imager, what do you know?”

“I was a journeyman artist for three years after a seven-year apprenticeship, and my family is in the wool business. So I know something about art and the guilds, and about factoring and commerce. I’ve been trained to take care of myself.” I doubted that there was much else I could say that he didn’t know.

“Do you know accounting?”

“I used to do ledger entries.”

“You’ve killed men in the line of duty. How many and under what circumstances?”

I had to think for a moment. Diazt, the first assassin, the Ferran, Vhillar, and at least two others. “At least six, sir.”

“At least? You don’t remember?”

“When the Ferran envoy’s assassins tried to attack, I blew up their wagon. There were at least three people killed, but I got knocked unconscious. So I don’t know if there were more.”

“Let me put it another way. How many have you killed face-to-face at different times?”

“Three.” That was counting Vhillar.

“You realize that many patrollers have never killed anyone. That’s not our task.”

“Many imagers have not, either, sir, but even more people would have died if I had not acted.”

“How many did you attack first, before they did anything?”

“None, sir. One of them tried to kill me three times before I killed him.”

“Three times?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I doubt they were all reported.”

“The first and last times were.” I paused. “I don’t know that. Patrollers were there the first and last times. I don’t know what they reported.”

Artois smiled faintly. “Don’t you trust our finest?”

“It’s not a question of trust, sir. I don’t know what they did. I reported to Master Dichartyn. He was my superior.”

Those words actually got a nod, a grudging one, I thought.

“Do you know why we agree to have imager liaisons, Rhennthyl?”

“I’ve been told why the Collegium wants me here; I haven’t been told why you agree to it, and it would be only speculation on my part to say.”

“Only speculation.” Artois repeated my words, sardonically. “Would you care to speculate?”

“No, sir. I’d rather know than speculate.”

“You are here because you are potentially a powerful imager. Powerful imagers can cause great problems if they do not understand how L’Excelsis works. The Civic Patrol is a key part of the city. We want you to understand how matters really work. Occasionally, you will be helpful. Until you have a better idea of how, just stand back, protect yourself, and watch.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will actually report to Subcommander Cydarth, and he will rotate you through observing various patroller operations. When and if you finish your initial rotations, you will use the empty desk in the outer study here. That won’t be for some time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You need to meet the subcommander.” Without another word, Commander Artois turned and walked past me, opening the door.

I followed him out through the anteroom and to the right to the next door, where we entered a slightly smaller anteroom arranged in a similar fashion to that of the one outside the commander’s study, save that there was only one desk, and no one was seated there. Artois pushed open the study door, already ajar, and stepped inside.

Subcommander Cydarth was standing beside his desk, looking out the window. He turned. He was taller than the commander and had black hair and a swarthy complexion. Part of his upper right ear was missing.

“Cydarth, here’s your liaison, Maitre D’Aspect Rhennthyl.” Commander Artois nodded to me. “I’ll leave you in the most capable hands of the subcommander.” He left the study without a word.

“The commander can often be abrupt, but he’s quite effective.” Cydarth’s voice was so low it actually rumbled. I’d read of voices that deep, but I’d never heard one before.

“That is what Master Dichartyn said.”

“I doubt he said it quite that way.” Cydarth’s smile belied the sardonic tone of his words.

I waited.

“There’s one thing I want to emphasize before we get you settled. Most patrollers will call you ‘sir’ or ‘Master Rhennthyl.’ That is a courtesy, in the sense that you are not their superior. You cannot order even the lowest patroller to do anything. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, sir. Master Dichartyn made that clear.”

“He would have. He understands a bit of what we do.”

I managed to keep a pleasant smile on my face, but I had no doubts that Master Dichartyn understood far more than either the commander or the subcommander realized.

“For the next few days, you’ll be assigned to observe the charging desk here in headquarters. I want you to study every person charged, and then read whatever past records we have on them, not that there will be many.” He looked at me. “Do you know why?”

“To note on their charging record, because those who have committed a single major offense will either be executed or will spend the rest of their life in a penal workhouse. Those who have more than three minor offenses will be spending years in the penal manufactories or on road or ironway maintenance.”

“Exactly . . . except for one thing. Do you know what it is?”

I had no idea. “No, sir.”

“What if they’re of common appearance and have changed their names?”

“Aren’t repeat offenders branded on their hip?”

“They are after a second offense, but there are minor offenders who move to another city after serving time for one offense and then change their names. You’ll learn to recognize that type.” He gestured toward the door. “Let’s get you settled in with First Patroller Gulyart. He runs charging downstairs.”

Again, I found myself following as Cydarth walked swiftly to a narrow staircase at the end of the hall and headed down it. At the bottom was a door with a heavy iron bolt, which he slid aside before opening the door and stepping into a ground-floor chamber a good eight yards long and four wide. While there were several benches, most of the space was without fixtures or furnishings, except for wall lamps. On one side of the room was a low dais, or the equivalent, on which rested a solid-front wide desk. There were two chairs behind it. One was occupied.

When the patroller behind the desk saw us, he stood immediately, if slightly awkwardly. On each shoulder of the upper sleeve of his pale blue shirt was a single chevron of a darker blue.

“Gulyart, this is Master Rhennthyl. He’s the new imager liaison to the Patrol. He’ll be spending the next two weeks with you.” Cydarth turned to me. “For now, you’re just to observe.” Then he turned back toward the staircase.

I’d expected another far older patroller, but Gulyart looked to be somewhat less than ten years older than I was, with short blond hair and pale brown eyes. He offered the first genuine smile I’d seen since arriving at headquarters. “Master Rhennthyl, I’m glad to meet you.” He gestured to the wide desk. “The other chair is for you. A bit crowded, but this is the only way you’ll see how charging works.”

I didn’t even have a chance to sit down before someone called out, “Gulyart! They’re bringing in the prisoners from last night.”

“The charging desk is only open until midnight,” Gulyart explained quickly. “After tenth glass, they just put them in the holding cells. Most are just troublemakers or drank too much . . . a few elvers, at times, but we don’t get that many most nights.” He squared himself in his chair and adjusted the ledger-like book in front of him.

I sat down quickly.

The first prisoner was a little man with a big head and unruly wavy blond hair that stuck out from his skull. His hands were manacled behind him. His eyes were bloodshot and had dark circles beneath them. The patroller escorting him looked from Gulyart to me and back to Gulyart.

“He claims his name is Guffryt. He was picked up on the Midroad just off the triad. The charge is drunkenness and attempted assault on the patrollers who apprehended him.”

“I was just heading to my place to sleep, and they grabbed me,” protested Guffryt.

“Where is your place?” asked Gulyart mildly. “Your home address, please?”

After a long moment, Guffryt looked down.

“Where do you live?”

Finally, Guffryt replied, “Where I can.”

“You’re charged with public disturbance, drunkenness, assaulting a patroller, and vagrancy.” Gulyart looked to me and gestured toward a set of stacked cases against the wall behind us. “The files are there. The names are alphabetical. The stack of cases to the left has the live files, the one to the right the names of victims where no one was charged. If you wouldn’t mind seeing if there’s any paper on this man?”

It took me several moments to find the case with the names beginning with “G” and a few more to get to the end. “There’s no one listed under that name.”

“Thank you.” Gulyart turned to the patroller. “Just a moment.”

I sat down, watching as he wrote out a charging sheet, with the same information as he’d already entered in the charging ledger before him, then handed the sheet to the patroller. “He goes to the magistrate.”

I did know that lesser offenses were handled by the magistrates, rather than by one of the full justices.

“Let’s go, Guffryt. Count yourself lucky,” said the patroller, a hefty man.

I wouldn’t have called him lucky, because he was facing at least a year on a road gang or in one of the penal manufactories.

Before the next prisoner arrived, I pointed at the cases behind us. “Are those all the records?” How could there be that few files when there were close to two million people in L’Excelsis?

“Once someone’s executed, their files go to the execution records in the cellar. If they go to a penal workhouse or permanent manufactory, the records go with them.”

With that explanation, the smaller number of file cases made more sense.

Then yet another prisoner appeared, a scrawny dark-haired woman, more like a girl, I thought, until I saw the lines in her face.

“Her name is Arinetia,” offered the patroller. “Battery with a broken wine bottle.”

“He deserved worse than that. Ripped my clothes and wouldn’t pay.”

Gulyart looked at the patroller. “Do we have a patroller witness or a statement by the victim?”

“No, First Patroller.”

“Nothing? I can’t charge her with anything without a statement or a witness or a victim.”

“Lieutenant Narkol had his men bring her in, sir.” The escorting patroller looked helplessly at Gulyart.

“I’ll have to release her.”

At that point, the woman, even with her hands manacled, turned and lunged at her escort, trying to bite his arm.

Gulyart sighed. “I’ll book her for battery against a patroller. Magistrate’s court.”

“Yes, sir.”

I went to the file case, but there was nothing under the name Arinetia.

Right after the patroller hurried the woman out, Gulyart turned to me. “Odds are that the man she attacked was a taudischef, and if she’s released, no one will ever see her again. Two to four months making brooms is far better for her.”

“Did you get that from the lieutenant’s action?”

“It’s a guess, but his district has the south taudis-town, you know, the one east of Sudroad and south of D’Artisans.” He turned to the next prisoner, not only manacled but gagged as well.

“This one’s Skyldar. Jariolan, probably,” explained the patroller. “He knifed a cabaret girl when she wouldn’t go with him. She was dead when they got there. Here are the statements.” He handed over a sheaf of papers.

While Gulyart wrote out the charging sheet, I went to the cabinet and was surprised to find a single sheet. “Gulyart, there’s a sheet here on a Skyldar from Jariola. He served two months . . . just got out, it looks like, for roughing up a cabaret girl.”

Gulyart shook his head. “Same girl, I’d bet, or one he thought was the same. Bring me the sheet, if you would, Master Rhennthyl.”

At the mention of my name, the prisoner tried to jerk away from the patroller, who immediately clouted him with a short truncheon.

I handed the sheet to Gulyart.

“He’s charged with murder, premeditated. Justice court.”

I had the feeling that the morning would be long, very long.

5

After the initial surge of prisoners on Lundi, matters slowed down until midafternoon, when another group of prisoners-those arrested in the morning-arrived. In between the two busy periods, Gulyart filled out supplementary reports, checked the holding cells, and explained more about the charging duties. We also went across Fedre to a small bistro and ate quickly while a regular patroller took the charging desk. That meant he sat there, and if anything came up, he’d come and get Gulyart. The same pattern of activity followed on Mardi, Meredi, and Jeudi. On Meredi after dinner, I did stop young Shault and talk to him for a bit about his studies, as well as doing my best to encourage him. I didn’t know how much it might help, but it couldn’t hurt.

When I returned from my duties, such as they were, late on Jeudi afternoon, there was a message in my letter box, confirming that I was to meet with Master Dichartyn at half past fifth glass. I was glad for the reminder, but chagrined to realize I might well have forgotten without it. I immediately hurried back across the quadrangle.

The door to his study was open, and I knocked and stepped inside.

He was sitting behind the writing desk, fingering his chin. He gestured for me to sit down. I did.

“The good news is that Commander Artois has not sent me a message complaining about you. Other matters are not so sanguine, however, particularly given the invasion of Jariola by the Ferrans. That could easily lead to a similar invasion of Caenen by Tiempre, Stakanar, and other members of the Otelyrnan League.”

“Because we’ll have to deal with Jariola, Ferrum, and the Isles and because Caenen will be unsettled until a new High Priest is selected?”

“Our treaty with Caenen upset the Tiempran strategy, as it was meant to do. In reaction, the First Speaker of Tiempre has let it be known that great rewards will fall to those who strike at the enemies of equality.” Master Dichartyn’s words were dry. “Especially those who strike close to the heart. Keep that in mind.”

Something else to keep in mind, as if there weren’t too many things already.

“The Ferran government has stated that they have no issues with us and will respect our neutrality with regard to the unavoidable conflict with Jariola, but they suggest that we take special precautions to assure the safety of their envoy.” Dichartyn looked at me.

“They think we’ll side with the Oligarch, and they will immediately act if there’s evidence of that. They also aren’t pleased with what happened to Vhillar.”

“Would you be?”

I didn’t answer that. “Besides keeping my eyes open, what do you want me to do?”

“Report to me if you see anything unusual, even if you can’t determine the cause.”

“What about High Holder Ryel?”

“All actions have a cost, all choices a price. You should know that.” His words were flat.

“You and the Collegium have made that very clear, sir.”

“Can you imagine a land where any citizen believed he could do anything he wanted?”

“I can imagine it,” I replied carefully. “I don’t think it would last very long. Everything anyone does has an impact on others, in some way. Most people desire more than they can obtain through their own efforts, but if they felt that they could take what they could get away with taking, they would try. Before long, there would be chaos and no rule at all except by those who were very powerful in some fashion.”

“The reason societies have laws, as well as unspoken rules and traditions, is to balance the costs and prices of the actions of individuals. In general, most individuals do not wish to pay the price of their actions, or not the full price.”

I could see that. I could also see that the High Holders of Solidar were especially guilty.

“The Collegium’s function in Solidar is very basic, and very simple. We are the price all imagers in Solidar pay for their comparative freedom and existence.”

I wasn’t so sure about that.

“Think of this, Rhenn. What is to keep you from putting on normal clothes and walking away from the Collegium?”

“Nothing . . . until you or Master Schorzat track me down,” I replied dryly.

“Could we find you in a land of fifty million people? With what you know now?”

“But . . . other than becoming a laborer or a clerk or the like, there’s little that I could do without being discovered. . . .” I paused. “Oh . . . in a way, that’s part of the price. By the fact that you could track me down if I used imaging abilities, you restrict my use of them, which is what the Collegium does anyway.”

“And if you took passage to another land, while you might be free of the Collegium, your use of your talents would still be limited by your need to survive.”

“So . . . by abiding by the rules of the Collegium, paying that price, we obtain a better life than we could otherwise, and by paying the price of having and heeding the Collegium, Solidar also benefits.”

“That’s true, and obvious, so obvious that most imagers accept it without thinking deeply about it. The problem is that most outside of Imagisle neither understand nor accept that agreement between the Council and the Collegium. Any land has to decide, or at least agree to accept, who determines the public prices people must pay for their actions. In Solidar, at first we had warring rexdoms, but in all of them the rex was the one who made those decisions. Now we have the Council. In Jariola, the Oligarch and his council decide, in Caenen, the High Priest. What do they all have in common?”

“Property and golds?”

“And more. They all have power, position, and/or property at stake. Even in the Abierto Isles, where they have an elected parliament, the electors must have property. Is this important?”

Obviously, Dichartyn thought it was. “It must be.”

He shook his head. “If those who decide the rules and the prices have nothing at stake, they will adopt rules and laws that will take from those who have and give to themselves, and they will pay little or no price at all. Our system of government is not perfect. No government can be, but it recognizes who has property, who has wealth, and who has power. No individual artisan has power, but artisans as a whole do, and our government structure recognizes that. Why do we not let those in the taudis have a Council representative?”

“Because they have little to offer and nothing material at stake?”

“Exactly. Government has a responsibility for their safety, for providing certain services, such as water and sewers, and for affording them access to public grammaires. The cost of those services is roughly in proportion to what those in the taudis offer to Solidar in terms of their labor and what they buy from others who pay taxes on what they sell. But . . . most of them don’t think so. They feel oppressed and exploited.”

“That’s where agents and troublemakers will head, then.”

He nodded. “Just keep watching.”

“Sir . . . Master Poincaryt’s portrait is framed.”

“Have it delivered here. I’ll have it hung in the receiving hall. That would seem most appropriate, don’t you think?” He stood.

So did I. “Yes, sir.” I inclined my head politely, then slipped out of his study and closed the door behind me, leaving him fingering his chin and standing at the window.

I still had a little time before dinner, but not much. So I walked across the quadrangle to the dining hall, picked up copies of both newsheets-Veritum and Tableta-and checked my letter box-the inscription now reading MARHE, short for Maitre D’Aspect Rhennthyl. Not so long ago, the inscription had been TE-RHE.

There was an envelope in my letter box, squarish, and of high-quality paper. The address on the outside was formal and written precisely in black ink.

Rhennthyl D’Imagisle

Maitre D’Aspect

Collegium Imago, Imagisle

The address was written in an unfamiliar hand, neither that of Seliora nor my mother, nor my sister Khethila. I couldn’t imagine who else might be writing. I finally opened the envelope.

Inside was a blank formal card. Glued to the card was a miniature knot tied in silver ribbon. There was no writing whatsoever.

I just looked at it for a long moment. It could only have been sent by or at the behest of High Holder Ryel, and I understood why he had waited long months. He wanted me to become a maitre so that I would lose more when he took his revenge for my partial blinding of his eldest son. To him, it didn’t matter that his son and the brother of a taudischef had attacked me with the intent of maiming me and disabling me for life. To him, all that mattered was that I had dared to strike out against the scion of a High Holder-even if Johanyr had been an evil and lazy excuse for a student imager who had abused the sisters of junior imagers unbeknownst to the maitres. I paused. I hoped that abuse had been unknown.

Then, I shrugged. I couldn’t change the past.

Master Dichartyn was at the dining hall for dinner. Usually, he ate at his dwelling on the north end of Imagisle with his family. I intercepted him before he could seat himself.

“Sir, I just thought you’d like to know I just received a formal card with a silver knot.”

“That was to be expected, don’t you think, once it became known you’d become a master? You’re free to deal with it in any fashion that meets imager standards. If you’ll excuse me, Rhenn . . . I see Maitre Jhulian.”

I stepped back. While I hadn’t exactly expected a reaction much different, his attitude still irritated and angered me. Part of the reason I was in trouble with Ryel was because Master Dichartyn hadn’t understood just how evil Ryel’s son Johanyr had been or how vicious the attack on me had been. And now it was all my problem? My problem alone? Seething within, I took a seat next to Maitre Dyana, the last chair on the left side. I could see Shault at the primes’ table, talking to one of the other primes.

“I assume you told Dichartyn that you’d received notice from Ryel,” she said calmly.

“Yes. You saw the card?”

“I saw a formal envelope, white. You just made master, and while it was not posted, word would have reached Ryel in a few days after you became Civic Patrol liaison . . . and you would not have spoken to Master Dichartyn here were the matter not of import.”

I just wished I could have reached conclusions as quickly and as accurately as she did, but since she was the daughter of a High Holder, she did have some advantages in the matter at hand.

“What do you suggest, maitre . . . in general terms?”

“Protect yourself at all times, and arrange for accidents to occur to his agents.”

“So Ryel can strike at me, and possibly at those around me, and the Collegium will do nothing unless it is so overt that the entire world would know?”

“Do not make it sound so dramatic, Rhennthyl. The Collegium does not ever become involved in individual disputes unless one of those involved has clearly and overtly broken the laws of Solidar, and often then only if such disputes threaten the Collegium. Ryel has merely sent you notice. Has he broken any law? Has he yet harmed you in any way that you can prove?”

The answer to that was unfortunately obvious. Still . . .

“So what can I expect from Ryel? Beside the fact that he will attempt to destroy me?”

“He will, indeed, attempt that.”

“And I’m supposed to do nothing?”

“You are so impatient, Rhennthyl. He must strike first. You should know that. Then you can act as you will. So long as it does not involve the Collegium.”

The unspoken code of the Collegium was never to strike first. But I didn’t have to like it.

“High Holders can be most indirect. Such notice might just be a step to hasten you into rash and unwise action. In any case, I seriously doubt that any imager would wish the Collegium looking into his or her background and personal life. Once you are convinced by evidence, and not a mere card, that there is a danger, we should talk again.”

That was both a warning and a threat. I nodded politely and changed the subject . . . slightly. “What can you tell me about High Holder Ryel?”

“He has extensive lands well north of L’Excelsis. He has the controlling interest in several banques. Like all successful High Holders, he is never to be trusted.”

“Does he have a chateau here in L’Excelsis?”

“Did you not dance with his daughter at the Harvest Ball?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Perhaps I should have asked where it might be located, then.”

“The majority of High Holders have what others would call estates near major cities, such as L’Excelsis, Nacliano, or Liantiago. They do occasionally like to see the theatre and opera, or hear a concert. I believe Ryel has a less than modest establishment several milles north of Martradon. There are a number of others in that general area.”

“Does he have an extensive family?”

Maitre Dyana smiled wryly. “No High Holder survives an extensive family, and no extensive family survives a High Holder. Ryel had two sisters, one of whom died in childbirth, and the other of whom is married to a High Holder well to the west. I understand they do not speak. He had only one brother who died several years ago in a boating accident on the upper reaches of the Aluse. I believe there is one surviving nephew at this point.”

“Could Johanyr ever inherit?”

“No. The Council Compact is quite firm on that. No one ever declared an imager may inherit property . . . from anyone. If you are fortunate enough to amass some golds, you can buy property and bequeath it-except to an offspring who is an imager. If you marry a High Holder’s daughter, and she has property, none of that may pass to you, but it can pass to any offspring.”

I hadn’t realized that I’d never inherit anything from my family. I hadn’t exactly expected to, but it was still strange to realize that I couldn’t. “Do daughters of High Holders inherit?”

“Very seldom. Daughters are at best often regarded as markers in the equivalent of a High Holder’s version of black-hand plaques.”

“Wives are not all that well treated, either, I understand.” I couldn’t help but recall the one I’d had to execute-covertly-in learning certain imager abilities. Her husband had beaten her repeatedly, and she’d finally murdered him. She’d been convicted and sentenced to death.

“You’d best eat and get on with matters, Rhennthyl,” Dyana added more gently. “As I told you when I first worked with you, technique is everything. Not power, but technique. That applies to covert actions and to High Holders.”

I had the feeling that I needed to consider her words carefully and at some length.

6

Vendrei was no different from the rest of the week, starting with exercises, although I was still not participating in the hand-to-hand sparring, but doing solitary knife and truncheon routines, followed by cleaning up, eating, and a long walk to Civic Patrol headquarters, and another day at the charging desk. I did have to admit that the duty with Gulyart had given me a good indoctrination into the myriad forms of petty and mundane violence seldom seen by most citizens of L’Excelsis. But then, that was doubtless the point.

On Samedi, once more, I dragged myself up and to Clovyl’s training and running session. By the time we finished the last of the exercises, it was pouring. We still had to run through the slop and puddles. For the first time ever, I beat Dartazn. Did that mean anything besides I ran better through water? I doubted it.

After a cold shower and shaving, I dressed and headed to the dining hall for breakfast, glad that I could at least use an umbrella crossing the quadrangle. I still hadn’t figured out a practical way to use imaging shields against rain. Maybe there wasn’t one. Master Dichartyn used an umbrella, I’d noticed.

There were no other masters present for breakfast, except for Ferlyn and Maitre Chassendri, both of whom were Maitres D’Aspect. Ferlyn and I sat on either side of her, since she was far senior to each of us. I still remembered the chemistry laboratory studies under her and how she insisted on perfection every bit as much as did Master Dichartyn.

I passed her the platter of egg toast, then the berry syrup. While she served herself, I poured some tea. “Would you like some?”

“Yes, please.”

The egg toast was darker than I would have preferred, but not black-brown, and the sausages were perfect.

“You know, except for Maitre Dichartyn,” Maitre Chassendri observed, “you’re the youngest imager to become a maitre in centuries.”

“I had the advantage of having him as a preceptor,” I said, “and some fortune as well.”

“Misfortune,” she corrected. “Rapid advancement always comes from success in dealing with difficulties in hard times. We’re looking at harder times, I fear.”

“Because of the Ferran-Jariolan conflict?” asked Ferlyn.

“More than that,” she replied. “The free-holders in the west are harvesting more produce than are the High Holders, and they’re able to sell it for less. The same is true for timber holdings. Before long, the same may happen in the east, although the water control issues there make it harder.”

“Why should that-” Ferlyn broke off his words as he looked at Chassendri.

“The free-holders are making more golds on their harvests,” I said, “and the High Holders comparatively less. The only way the High Holders can compete is to impose stricter conditions on their lands. That will cause unrest, increase costs, and reduce their profits. If the High Holders sell land, the free-holders will buy it and use it to become wealthier-”

“All right, Rhenn . . . I see that.”

“Fighting wars is expensive, and that means higher taxes,” I pointed out. “The High Holders are pressing to support Jariola, and given the way the Ferrans have dealt with us, the Council doesn’t have much choice.”

“And tax levies are on land,” Ferlyn finished. “So the High Holders are going to be squeezed two ways.”

“Three,” suggested Chassendri. “Conditions will get worse on some of the holdings, not all, because most of the High Holders actually manage their lands well, but workers on the poorly managed lands will leave. They’ll either work for the free-holders or get conscripted. More High Holders will fall to debts, and their lands will be split between successful High Holders and free-holders, but in the end there will be more free-holders and fewer High Holders.”

I could see that, but I didn’t see it happening that quickly. “Won’t that take time?”

“There are at least fifty High Holders who are so land-poor that were they businesses, they’d be close to bankruptcy,” replied Chassendri.

“But they could sell their lands, or part of them, and besides,” Ferlyn pointed out, “there are hundreds of High Holders.”

“More than a thousand,” said Chassendri cheerfully, “one thousand and forty-one High Holdings, to be precise.”

Something . . . there was something. Then I had it, an obscure section of the compact that had created the Council. “The rebalancing provisions. The High Holders would lose a Council seat, probably to the factors, and the head of the Council would no longer be a High Holder.”

“But . . . the High Holders could just split a few holdings up, couldn’t they?” asked Ferlyn. “To keep the numbers above a thousand.”

“They could,” Chassendri pointed out.

Left unspoken was the point that few High Holders ever willingly let go of anything.

Those thoughts put a damper on matters, especially since we were close to being done with breakfast anyway, and I had another concern as well-Shault.

He looked so forlorn that as soon as I swallowed the last drops of my tea, I rose and walked over to the long table that held the primes and the seconds and said to him, “I’ll need a few moments with you after you’re done eating. I’ll meet you by the doors.”

“Yes, sir.”

Then I just stood there for a moment and let my eyes run down the table, face by face, before I turned and walked away, slowly, listening.

“. . . one you don’t want to cross . . .”

I wondered about that, because I’d never done anything harsh to any of the primes or seconds, except for Diazt and Johanyr. I didn’t have to wait long before Shault hurried out of the dining hall, his thin face pinched in worry.

“Sir?”

“I take it that there’s a second who’s giving everyone trouble, maybe from the taudis? More than likely, he’s even suggesting to you that you need to do what he wants, or something will happen to you or someone else.”

Shault’s mouth started to drop open, but he closed it with a snap.

“Have you ever heard of Diazt or Artazt?” I asked.

“No, sir.”

“Diazt was a second here. His brother Artazt was a taudischef in the hellhole. They’re both dead.” I paused. “Right now, there are two things you need to know. First, no one will rescue you from being pushed around unless you study and work hard and unless you do your best to learn everything you can about imaging. Second, in time, things happen to bullies here at the Collegium.” I paused. “Why do you think I’m telling you this?”

The poor prime shivered. I just waited.

“So I know it will get better? Sir . . . will it get better?”

I offered as gentle a smile as I could. “It will, but it won’t be easy. You have more imaging ability than most primes and even some seconds, but you haven’t had enough book education. Do you have someone helping you to read better?”

“Yes, sir. Mayra and Lieryns are helping me.”

“Good. That’s important.” I paused. “One other thing. No student imager is allowed to harm another. That doesn’t mean there won’t be threats, or other nasty things. No one has actually hurt you physically, have they?”

“No, sir.”

His response was firm enough and without hesitation that I believed him.

“Keep that in mind.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll talk to you later.” As I left him, I wished I could do more for him, but that would only make matters worse. The way I’d approached him would certainly not have let the others think he was getting any favors. But Master Dichartyn had told me that I needed to talk to him at least twice a week, and he certainly had raw talent, more than I’d had at his age, and I couldn’t help but hope that he’d be able to become at least a third in time. I was also pleased that Lieryns was helping. I’d always liked Lieryns.

At eighth glass I was in my studio, after trudging through a rain that showed little sign of dissipating. While I was waiting, I’d checked the small storeroom that held an assortment of unused items and found a fairly solid and flat crate that I hoped no one would mind my borrowing. At slightly past the hour, in walked Master Rholyn.

“I apologize for being late, Rhennthyl, but Master Poincaryt wasn’t that precise in explaining where your studio was, especially for someone coming from the north quarters.”

I’d assumed that Master Rholyn was married and living in one of the separate gray stone dwellings for senior imagers situated on the north end of Imagisle, but I hadn’t known for certain. I smiled. “I barely knew whose portrait I’d be painting next. Master Poincaryt just indicated that I should be here.”

“He can be terse to the point of being cryptic,” replied Master Rholyn. “One reason Master Poincaryt decided you should paint my portrait is not only your present duty, but your past duty as well. Before we get into that, should I sit there?” He gestured to the chair.

“Not for a moment, sir. I’d like to ask a question. I didn’t often observe the Council. When you speak to the entire Council or to the Executive Council, do you remain seated at your desk or do you stand?”

“In open discussion, councilors remain seated. To offer a motion, one stands.”

“Then I will portray you standing.” I carried the low crate over next to the chair. “If you’d put one foot . . . the one you’d use if you stood that way . . .”

“Rhennthyl . . . you know the chamber floor is flat.”

“Yes, sir, but not if you were making a motion to the High Council.” I paused. “I realize that’s unlikely, but it’s perhaps more politic.”

He laughed. “Did Master Poincaryt suggest that?”

“No, sir, but if I didn’t do it that way, he might.”

Rholyn shook his head, then stepped forward and took the position.

“Look a touch to the right . . . please.” I began to draw in the details on the design I’d already started.

After a time, I had him sit down for a bit while I worked on some of the angles, but I couldn’t help asking, “Do you think the Council will actually declare war on Ferrum, sir?”

“No one really wants Solidar in a war, even the High Holders, but it’s looking less and less likely that we can avoid it. Ferrum will use any pretext to try to obtain the iron and coal mines near the Jariolan border, and their army is large and well trained and equipped enough that any attempt to invade by us would be a bloodbath on both sides. Even if Jariola put all its efforts into attacking Ferrum, and we were able to blockade the Ferran ports, it could devastate both Ferrum and Jariola.”

“So the strategy is likely to stall and negotiate and try to avoid all-out war until the covert field operatives can find a way to persuade Ferrum not to attack?”

Master Rholyn shook his head sadly. “Even if your assumptions were correct, accomplishing a change in Ferran policy would still be difficult, because all those who have power in Ferrum think alike, and the number of illnesses, accidents, and deaths necessary to change the collective political mind of the Ferran Assembly would be so noticeable that it would unite everyone against us.”

That, unfortunately, made sense, and I had to wonder what the Collegium might be able to do against such a united opposition with a mere handful of talented covert field operatives.

By the time the anomen bells struck nine and Master Rholyn had left, I’d changed the design twice, but finally had one that would work while revealing-I hoped-something of the councilor’s wit and temperament.

I thought about taking a hack out to see my parents before going to Seliora’s, but with the rain splashing down everywhere, I decided against it. Instead, I stayed in the studio and set up the canvas. That took me far longer than I’d thought, and I worked through lunch.

What with one thing and another, and from changing from damp grays into better and drier ones, checking some aspects of the patroller procedures, and making sure that I had the “silver knot” card and envelope, it was after third glass when I set out. As always, I held full shields from the time I left my quarters. I allowed for extra time, but the rain had lightened into a drizzle, and the hack I took from the west side of the Bridge of Desires actually got me to the corner of Nordroad and Hagahl Lane well before fourth glass.

Seliora’s cousin Odelia was the one to open the door. “You’re early, Rhenn, but I don’t think Seliora will keep you waiting.”

“Can you tell me who’s coming for dinner this evening?” I asked as we walked up the staircase to the second-level formal entry hall.

“I could.”

“But you won’t because that’s Seliora’s privilege.”

“We don’t infringe on each other.” Odelia smiled. “I’ll tell her you’re here.”

With so much of the extended family living together in the huge building that combined manufactory and lavish quarters, I could see that made good sense.

As I ambled around the entry hall, waiting for Seliora, I noticed a chair I hadn’t seen before. It looked new, and I walked over to study it. The seat was upholstered in what I had earlier learned was a Jacquard-loomed needle-point, a family crest of some sort. The design had to be Seliora’s.

I’d barely walked away from it when I heard footsteps coming down the side staircase from the private quarters on the third level. I turned to wait for her. She was wearing blue and silver, flowing dark blue trousers and a matching blouse, with a pale silver jacket trimmed in the dark blue. I couldn’t help smiling as we walked toward each other.

“You’re early. I’m glad.” She took my hands, then tilted her head and kissed my lips, gently but warmly. “You don’t mind if we just sit here? I told Mama that we’d greet everyone.”

“Who is ‘everyone’? Odelia wouldn’t tell me.”

“Good.” Seliora grinned, then turned and led me toward the settee closest to the archway at the top of the entry staircase. “She shouldn’t have. Papa’s sister Staelia and her husband, and Papa’s cousin Duerl and his wife. Staelia has a bistro not that far from the river. Odelia and Aunt Aegina and Grandmama Diestra will join Mama and Papa and us . . . and Shomyr and Methyr. It’s cool enough that you’ll finally get to eat in the dining chamber.”

We settled onto the settee.

“Is that a new chair?” I asked, gesturing to the one I’d looked over earlier.

“Unhappily.”

“Oh? Done for a client, and they didn’t like it?”

“High Holder Tierchyl. He did himself in with his favorite pistol last Mardi. Your ‘friend’ Ryel managed it. I don’t know the details, but Tierchyl was overextended. He arranged a huge timber harvest to pay the interest on his debts. Everything in the sawmill and in the drying barns, as well as the timber waiting to be stripped and milled, caught fire, including Tierchyl’s mill itself. The Banque D’Rivages refused to extend any more credit or to even extend the term of the notes.”

“But . . . a High Holder has to have tens of thousands of hectares.”

“Most of them will have to be sold, Mama said. He had almost no cash at all remaining, and supposedly all his lands were security for the notes at ninety percent. There will be more than enough golds for a comfortable life for his widow and children, but nothing like what a High Holder requires.” Seliora shrugged. “We’re out the cost of the chair, as well as a hundred yards of special fabric. The wood isn’t a problem, because most of it hadn’t been even rough-shaped and can be used for other commissions in the future. It’s still a loss of close to a hundred golds.”

I winced. While I knew her family could afford it, the loss of more than I’d make in two years wasn’t something to dismiss lightly. “Are you sure Ryel was involved?”

“Some of their lands adjoin, and Tierchyl had refused to sell certain properties to Ryel. That’s the rumor anyway.”

And Ryel had declared me his enemy. I glanced toward the chair. “It is beautiful.”

“The design is unique. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to use it as a model for someone else in the future.”

“If not, it makes a lovely addition here.”

“An expensive addition.”

Within a few moments and before anyone thumped the big brass knocker on the main door, I heard another set of footsteps, slower but lighter, coming down the steps.

Without thinking I said, “That’s your Grandmama Diestra. She wants a few moments with us before dinner.”

Seliora looked at me, then at the archway, where Grandmama Diestra emerged, glancing at Seliora.

Seliora shook her head. “I don’t care what your mother thinks. There has to be Pharsi in your background. You didn’t even think about it, did you?”

“No,” I admitted, somewhat sheepishly, before standing to welcome Seliora’s grandmother. “Good afternoon.”

Seliora rose and stood beside me.

“The same to you, Rhenn.”

Seliora just said, “He knew you were coming before he saw you, and he knew what you had in mind. I hadn’t said a word.”

“You’re surprised, granddaughter?” Grandmama Diestra chuckled.

I grinned, then gestured to the settee. While they settled themselves, I retrieved the chair I’d admired and set it down on the rich gold-green border of the magnificent maroon carpet that covered much of the parquet floor of the entry hall, then sat down facing them.

“Seliora tells me that you’re working with the patrollers now. Which senior patrollers have you met?” asked Grandmama Diestra.

“Except in passing, just the commander and subcommander-and a first patroller named Gulyart.”

“Do not trust Artois. He is not corrupt, but he would sacrifice his first-born son to preserve the honor of the Patrol.” She laughed softly. “Since it has no honor, there is no point in being sacrificed. Cydarth will do what he must, but there are rumors . . . I have heard nothing bad about Gulyart. Be most careful with Lieutenant Mardoyt or Captain Harraf. Neither is even honestly corrupt.”

“ ‘Honestly corrupt’?”

“They don’t stay bought,” was her dry response. “What are you doing now?”

“I’ve been observing the charging desk. I’m supposed to do that for another week.” Since she offered nothing else, I asked, “Do you know of a taudischef named Horazt?”

“He’s one of the new ones, grandson of Chorazt.” Diestra snorted. “I haven’t heard anything bad about him. Why?”

“He brought a boy to the Collegium. The boy’s named Shault. He’s a beginning imager. I was wondering if there were any way to learn if the mother got the gold she was supposed to. Her name is . . . Chelya.” I’d had to think a moment to call it up. “I think she’s a cousin of Horazt’s.”

“Chelya . . . she’s Mhyala’s daughter, or one of them.” She smiled, and a glint appeared in her eyes. “I’ll find out, and I’ll make sure that Horazt understands that you know. Might scare the little bastard. It won’t hurt you.” Her eyebrows lifted. “You have something else?”

I slipped the envelope I’d received on Jeudi out of the inside pocket of my gray wool imager’s waistcoat and handed it to Seliora. “Open it . . . both of you should see it.”

She deftly extracted the card. Both sets of black eyes-so alike were they-narrowed as they beheld the silver ribbon knot.

“Ryel . . .” murmured Seliora.

“As soon as he discovered I’d been made a master imager,” I said.

“That way he loses no prestige among the other High Holders,” added Grandmama Diestra. “Prestige is another form of power.”

“A master imager of twenty-five is a worthy foe?” My words came out sardonically as I reclaimed the card and envelope and tucked them inside my waistcoat.

“There are far fewer master imagers than High Holders,” Diestra said.

“There are far fewer total imagers.” By that standard, poor scared Shault was a worthy opponent. I didn’t like either of Ryel’s sons, and from what I’d experienced, his daughter was just as cutthroat-all of which confirmed that they took after their father.

The knocker thumped loudly.

Both Seliora and I stood immediately, and she headed for the steps down to the entry. I let her lead the way.

Once on the street level, Seliora glanced out the side window. “It’s Aunt Staelia and Uncle Clyenn.” She opened the heavy polished oak door. “Do come in!” Her voice and posture were warm and welcoming.

“Every time I see you,” replied Clyenn, stepping into the small foyer at the base of the steps, “you’ve gotten more beautiful.” He turned to me. “You must be Rhennthyl. You’re a most fortunate man.”

“I am, indeed,” I replied, keeping a smile on my face. I couldn’t say that I disliked Clyenn on sight, but I would not have trusted him any farther than I had Johanyr. I didn’t wonder that he had a scar that ran from below his left earlobe almost to the corner of his mouth.

Staelia was statuesque, more like Odelia and Aegina, but not so attractive, just tall, plain, and graying, but she had a radiant smile, bestowed primarily on Seliora.

“Aunt Staelia,” Seliora said, “this is Rhenn. I didn’t have a chance to tell you, but he’s been made a master imager.”

Staelia looked me over-our eyes were close to level-and smiled again, not quite so radiantly, but certainly warmly. “You two suit each other, I think.”

Seliora led the way up to the main foyer.

Seliora’s parents must have heard the knocker or the greetings, or been watching the lane from the third floor . . . or Bhenyt had told them. The possibilities were numerous, but Shelim and Betara moved to join us within moments of the time that Seliora and I had escorted Staelia and Clyenn up to the entry hall. In that short time, various servants had appeared, and a sideboard with wines had been opened. Shomyr-Seliora’s older brother-brought out several bottles of wine. He was followed by Methyr, her younger brother.

“I see you’ve met Rhenn,” said Betara, her voice and expressions so much like Seliora’s that mother and daughter looked like sisters.

“We have indeed,” boomed Clyenn. “Yes, indeed.”

“Indeed,” said Staelia. “Clyenn . . . if you wouldn’t mind getting me a white Cambrisio.”

“I can do that.” He turned and started for the sideboard.

“You’re one of the younger master imagers, I’d imagine,” Staelia said.

“Yes, madame.”

“Staelia, please.” An amused smile appeared. “Save the ‘madame’ for Betara or Grandmama. Perhaps one of the youngest master imagers ever?”

“One of the younger ones,” I admitted. “Not the youngest ever.”

“Polite and modest, too. Dangerous, as well. I’ve seen that with the patrollers. The most deadly ones are the most courteous.”

The instant assessments by Seliora’s family-or by the women in the family-were both amusing as well as unsettling. I inclined my head. “And I believe no one is ever disorderly in your establishment.”

Both Staelia and Betara laughed.

“A point to you. With Taelia and Sartan running it tonight, I hope it stays orderly.” The last words combined dryness and worry.

Another series of thumps issued from below.

“That must be Duerl and Aesthya,” offered Betara. “I’ll greet them.”

Shelim, who had said nothing, departed with his wife, leaving Seliora and me with Staelia.

“You must come and eat lunch or dinner at the bistro with us when you can.”

“I’d like to, but it might be a while. I’m still learning my way around headquarters.”

“It won’t take you long,” she predicted. “But don’t order the baked pastry sausages. They’re the one thing that Clyenn does that aren’t that good-but people don’t want them good. They want them soft and slathered with greasy white gravy.” She shrugged. “So that’s the way we fix them.”

Betara and Shelim reappeared with another couple, guiding them toward us.

“Aesthya, Duerl, this is Rhenn.”

“Ah, yes,” offered the slightly plump but still sprightly Aesthya. “We have heard so much about you, and”-she looked to Seliora-“learned so little . . . other than you’re a master imager.”

“Very recently, I must confess,” I replied. “I’m pleased to meet you both.”

After that, there were goblets of wine in everyone’s hands, and many pleasantries, and a few more questions about what I’d done. Before long, a set of chimes rang, and we all repaired to the dining chamber, through the recessed doors at the end of the foyer that the serving girls began to open as the sound of the chimes died away.

The dining chamber held a table set for eleven, but I could tell that the long cherry table could have taken leaves enough to seat twice that many, and the unused chairs set against the walls at the sides of the china cabinets and sideboards reinforced that impression. The chamber was illuminated by wall lamps set in polished bronze sconces with reflectors, as well as by three sets of candelabra on the table itself. The cutlery was all silver, and the porcelain chargers were gold rimmed with the NordEste design in the center.

Seliora offered the grace, and then we all took our seats. She and I had been placed in the middle of the table, with Shelim at one end and Betara at the other. I was flanked by Aesthya on my right, and Staelia on my left, with Seliora across the table-sort of, because with four on her side and five on mine, I was actually across from the space between her and Clyenn.

The meal began with a light red wine I didn’t recognize and a cream of gourd soup with wild mushrooms, followed by sweet and bitter greens with vinegar and nuts, and then by what I could only have called a Pharsi ragout in flaky pastry.

The entire time the conversation varied from topic to topic, but never touched on any form of business.

“. . . people fleeing here from everywhere . . . causes problems and unrest in taudis, especially in the hellhole.”

“. . . hasn’t been this bad since the troubles years back . . .”

“Mama Diestra . . . she has fewer connections there . . . or in the south . . .”

“Capolito is bringing back the traditional Pharsi singers to sing . . .”

“. . . won’t draw diners . . . people want to eat and talk . . .”

“. . . factors, maybe, they only talk about business anyway.”

“. . . wager it’ll be less than three weeks before Stakanar and Tiempre are inside Caenen.”

“. . . couldn’t believe that a high factor’s wife would wear pink after the end of harvest . . .”

I ate sparingly, but I still took in more than I should have, and that was before dessert, which was a pastry tart with jelled and sweetened lime glaze over apples.

There was more conversation over dessert, and over the tiny goblets of warm brandy that followed, and it was approaching ninth glass before people began to drift away, although Grandmama Diestra had slipped out before dessert.

In the end, Seliora and I found ourselves sitting in the dim light of a single lamp, back on the same settee as where we had started, seemingly alone in the entry foyer.

“What did you think of the rest of the family?” asked Seliora.

“I like Duerl and Aesthya, and I really enjoyed meeting Staelia.”

“Your feelings are much like everyone else’s.”

“What does Clyenn do?”

“You know Staelia runs a small bistro. It’s only about two blocks from the Patrol headquarters. It’s east of there and a half block off Fedre on Pousaint. Clyenn isn’t too bad a cook, and he does exactly what Staelia tells him to. He’s only strayed once.”

“The scar?”

“The second one will be across his throat . . . not that anyone would find his body.” Seliora’s words were absolutely matter-of-fact.

“Pharsi treatment of infidelity?”

She shook her head. “Stealing of funds. You don’t steal from family, ever. Infidelity can happen. It’s frowned on, but people are people. Theft is deliberate. You have to think it out, and that’s betrayal.”

Put that way, I definitely understood. I also realized that I didn’t understand Seliora’s family quite so well as I’d thought I did. I smiled wryly.

“Why the smile?” Curiosity and worry lay behind her question.

“I was thinking of Rousel, and how it’s a good thing he’s operating a factorage for my family, rather than a spice brokerage for Remaya’s family.”

“They don’t hold the Pharsi traditions as strongly,” she said.

“I wouldn’t know.”

She smiled, slightly possessively, I thought. “I’m glad.”

I thought about saying something about how she was so much more than Remaya, but decided against it, because the words would have implied the comparison, and comparisons are always odious, especially to a beautiful woman who loved me.

“You should stop by Staelia’s. It’s called Chaelia.”

We talked a bit more, and I could see her yawning. “I should go.”

Abruptly she straightened. “There’s someone outside.”

“We should go down and look.”

Arm in arm, we did, and I looked through the small window to the left of the door casement. “I don’t see anyone, but there’s a hack there.”

“Mother paid him to wait for you.”

“I shouldn’t keep him waiting, then. I’ll be very careful.” I raised my shields even before Seliora opened the door.

The muffled crack of a weapon and the impact against my shields were almost simultaneous, and I couldn’t help but stagger back into Seliora.

“Namer-damned . . .” Who could have been shooting at me? Straight assassination wasn’t what High Holder Ryel would have done. At least, I didn’t think so.

In the distance, I could hear footsteps. Much as I was tempted to give chase, the shooter had too much of a head start, and it could also have been a trap.

“They’ve gone,” Seliora said.

The hacker was looking around.

“I’ll be right there!” I called.

I wasn’t right there, because Seliora and I did need a little time to say good night and good-bye, but the hacker did wait. Betara had obviously paid him well, for which I was glad.

On the drive back to the Bridge of Hopes, I couldn’t help but wonder if High Holder Ryel had changed his mind . . . or if I’d become someone else’s enemy. But whose? I hadn’t done anything to anyone at the Civic Patrol, and all the Ferrans had been taken care of . . . hadn’t they?

Yet whoever it had been had known exactly where I’d be. I frowned. It couldn’t be Ryel. He would have known I had shields. But who?

7

Tired as I was, I woke up on Solayi early enough to see both Artiema and Erion in a semidark sky before I trudged down to shower and shave. I took my time before heading off to the dining hall for breakfast. Even so, the only master there was Heisbyl, another senior and graying Maitre D’Aspect. Caliostrus had done a portrait of his daughter, and from what I recalled, the daughter did not look much like her father, except for the hazel eyes. Caliostrus had painted her eyes as warm, but Heisbyl’s were flat. Given the tendency of my late portraiturist master to flatter his subjects, I would have wagered that her eyes were like her father’s.

“Good morning, Rhenn.” He shook his head. “To be young again, like you, and able to greet gray mornings early and cheerfully.”

“Early,” I replied. “Not always cheerfully.”

“When you get to be my age, you’ll look back on them and think they were cheerful.”

That was a truly frightening thought, but I didn’t say so. Instead, I just smiled and passed the teapot to him. “You have the duty today.”

“Why else would I be here? And you?”

“I discovered I had a few things on my mind.”

“Most of you who report to Dichartyn seem to. It’s not something I’d wish to do. Running the armory workshops is far more to my taste.”

“To each his own.” I took a swallow of the tea before I started eating, but I couldn’t see why supervising the armory production was any less disturbing than covert operations, except that we occasionally had to kill people directly, and what he did resulted in killing far greater numbers of people-just far less directly.

After breakfast I went to the library once more. I had another set of ideas I wanted to try out. Rather than look directly for High Holder Ryel or for books on High Holders, I decided to see what there was on laws dealing with land transfers, or anything on land holdings, or material on the original compact.

All in all, I spent more than two glasses tracking down one piece of information and then another. I did discover that a High Holder had to pass a minimum of four-fifths of his holdings on to his heir-unless the total of the lands to be received were greater in size than the average of all High Holdings, in which case the inheritance merely had to exceed the average. I supposed that meant a truly massive High Holding could actually be split among two or three heirs. The heir was first the oldest son, then other sons in birth order-but could be a nephew or a grandson. The only way a woman could inherit was if there were no male descendants, and no blood nephews, and her husband had to take the family name. That did create some interesting speculation about Junaie D’Shendael. If the four-fifths requirement could not be met from the estate itself, unless the putative heir could purchase or otherwise provide evidence of lands and assets sufficient to add to the inherited holding to meet that requirement, the High Holding was registered as dissolved.

The last point was that any High Holder had the right to override a purchase agreement for lands sold to a non-High Holder by registering such an override, but the High Holder undertaking the override had to pay fifteen percent above the original purchase price, and one-third of the fifteen percent went to whoever had contracted to buy the lands, and ten percent went to the seller, usually to the heirs who were no longer High Holders.

I did find out, through some obscure footnotes, the general location and extent of the holdings of the Ryel family-and the name passed with the lands to the heir, so that Dulyk would become High Holder Ryel with the death of his father. The Ryel familial lands lay some hundred odd milles almost due north of L’Excelsis and ran from the edge of Rivages to well beyond Cleville to the east. The holding had to be more than fifty milles east to west, but I couldn’t determine how far north and south it ran. Ryel’s colors were black and silver, and I knew I’d seen them somewhere, but couldn’t remember when or where. Certainly, Iryela hadn’t worn black, though I did recall silver.

As a result of my absorption in the library, I missed lunch, but that was not a burden, since I wasn’t that hungry. Close to the first glass of the afternoon, I crossed the Bridge of Desires and hired a hack to take me to see Seliora. I hadn’t said I was coming, but she was usually there on Solayi, and I wanted to see if she had any thoughts on who had shot at me on Samedi night.

Seliora was home. In fact, she was the one who answered the door. Once I was in the foyer, she did kiss me warmly before she escorted me up to the main entry hall. She wore simple dark blue trousers, a wide leather belt, a severe tan shirt, and a soft leather jacket.

“I’m glad you came now, rather than later. I wouldn’t have been here.”

“You have to go somewhere? Now?”

“In a half glass or so.” She shook her head. “We don’t usually work on Solayi, but one of our longtime clients has decided that his salon needs to be redone before his daughter’s wedding at the end of Feuillyt. That’s only eight weeks from now, and we have to meet with him and his wife today because they’re leaving for Nacliano on Lundi.”

“I should have asked about coming today before I left last night, but I didn’t think about it after what happened. Do you have any idea-”

“It can’t be Ryel. High Holders don’t operate that way.”

“Unless he knows about my shields and is just having people shoot at me to wear me down and get me upset . . . or upset those close to me.” I really didn’t believe that, but I thought I should mention it.

Seliora frowned. “That could be, but I don’t think so. When I get a moment, I’ll talk to Grandmama Diestra about it. She might have some ideas.”

“I could use some.”

“Rhenn . . . if you walk anywhere with other patrollers, you might consider . . .”

“Extending my shields to cover them? I’ve thought about it. It won’t do me any good if every patroller around me gets shot.” That would tax me even more, but the alternatives were worse. From what I knew about how High Holders handled revenge, Ryal was unlikely to have been behind it . . . but who else would have been? “You will see if anyone knows about any others like the Ferran?”

She nodded.

That was all I could ask. I grinned. “Did I behave acceptably last night?”

“Oh, Rhenn . . . you’re always polite and charming . . . even when people don’t deserve it.”

I wasn’t so sure about that, but it was nice to hear. “Do you think that we could go out to dinner next Samedi? Even at Terraza?”

“We could go to Azeyd’s . . . if you’d like to try authentic Pharsi fare.”

“I’d like that.” I paused. “Is it owned by relatives?”

“Friends of Mother’s. She’d be pleased.”

Another set of chaperones, in a way, but just to be able to talk to her alone would be good, and the thought of Pharsi cuisine appealed to me. “Done. Fifth glass?”

Her smile was answer enough.

After that, we got to spend a few moments talking about nothing of great import, but before too long she had to go.

I spent more coins taking a hack from NordEste Design to my parents’. Because it was Solayi, and Nellica had the day off, Khethila was the one who answered the door.

“Rhenn!” She gave me a warm sisterly hug. Then we went to the family parlor where Khethila dropped into Father’s chair. I took the one across from it.

“Rhenn, I finally got my copy of her book.”

“Whose book?” I did grin as I said it.

“Madame D’Shendael’s. You know that. I still can’t believe you danced with her. You’ve never said any more about what she said, you know?”

“I can’t, except that I did tell her that you had read all her books except for On Art and Society. She asked me twice if I made that up. I told her it was the truth.”

I still wondered exactly what Juniae D’Shendael’s connection had been with the late Ferran envoy, but I supposed I’d never know.

“She had to be polite, but what else was she like?”

“On guard. She’s been pressing for a Council that has some councilors directly elected by the people, the way they do in the Abierto Isles. I heard that Councilor Caartyl invites her to every Council ball just to keep her in view of the other councilors.”

“Would that vote include women? If it didn’t, I don’t see that it would make much difference in the way the Council worked.” Her tone was dismissive.

“As far as the High Holders go, it would.”

“Not that much.”

“You might be right.” I thought it would make a great difference, but I wasn’t about to argue about it.

“You’re being condescending, Rhenn.”

I shrugged, then lowered my voice. “How are matters in Kherseilles?”

Khethila frowned, as if debating whether to pursue what she thought had been my condescension, then shook her head. “Someone bought the notes Rousel took out and demanded immediate payment. We arranged it, but it cost another twenty golds . . . and Father had to post a bond of another hundred with the Banque D’Kherseilles to keep the line of credit.”

“So he lost nearly three hundred golds this season?” That amount of loss was hard for me to understand. Through bad judgment Rousel had lost in two months more than I’d make in six years, and the factorage in Kherseilles wasn’t that large.

“Four hundred, if you count the bond,” Khethila said quietly. “His receipts are down, too. I think someone has put out the word not to buy from him. We’ve even gotten orders here lately, asking us to ship to places like Mantes, and they used to take delivery from Rousel in Kherseilles.”

“Do you know who bought the notes?”

“The Banque D’Rivages, but they wouldn’t have done it except as an agent. Why would a banque nearly thirteen hundred milles from Kherseilles buy notes secured by the stock of a small factorage in Kherseilles?”

I had an idea, but at the moment I certainly had no way to prove it. Even if I did, what had been done was strictly legal. Ryel would have made certain that everything remained within the law, or at least within the appearance of the law.

“Someone’s here . . .”

That was my mother’s voice, coming from the hall.

“Rhenn! You didn’t say you were coming.” Accusation mixed with warmth in Mother’s voice.

“I didn’t know I was coming.”

“That’s probably because he’d planned to see Seliora, and she had other plans,” suggested Khethila sweetly, a statement clearly offered as retaliation for what she thought had been condescension.

“I did see her, already, but it had to be brief because she had to work.”

“On Solayi?” asked Mother.

“A large and urgent commission.”

“Good for her,” Father said bluffly. “She and her family know what’s important. That’s why they’ve been so successful.”

The briefest of frowns crossed Khethila’s brow.

“So long as they don’t do it every Solayi,” added Mother. “Didn’t you have dinner with her family and some of their relatives last night? How was it?”

“They were all very nice. One of her aunts runs a bistro not all that far from Patrol headquarters. It’s called Chaelia, I think.”

“I haven’t heard of it,” Father replied.

“Is it in a good area?” asked Mother.

I laughed. “I don’t know. I haven’t been there, but it can’t be too bad because it’s only a few blocks from Civic Patrol headquarters, and that’s only a half block off East River Road.”

“If you eat there, dear, I do hope it’s in a good area.”

After that, we talked about, or rather I listened to Mother rhapsodize about Remaya and Rousel’s son Rheityr.

I barely made it back to Imagisle in time to eat and then go to services. I stood where I could watch Shault. Lieryns was next to him, I thought, but I wasn’t totally sure in the dim light, and I didn’t want to get close enough that my observations would have been noted.

As often was the case, one part of Chorister Isola’s homily resonated with me.

“. . . Naming is as much about control as about labeling or identity. We tend to think that when we name something or someone we have gained control. The superior always uses a diminutive to an inferior. That, too, is part of the sin of naming. The man or woman who can act as though there were no names is far greater than one who insists on a hierarchy of names. . . . Is it any accident that those who most relish naming are those who are most loath to give up power, position, or control? . . .”

I had to admit that I really hadn’t thought about the way names were used as a symptom of power and of how people used them in that fashion, but it certainly made a great deal of sense, and I made a mental reminder to try to watch for that in the days ahead.

8

Lundi was a very busy day at the Patrol charging desk. So was Mardi. Meredi morning didn’t look to be that much better because, when I got to headquarters, there were offenders waiting everywhere even before Gulyart and I started to register the charges. By tenth glass, when we had three-quarters of a glass off to eat lunch, we both were more than ready to leave the confines of the Patrol building. The rain had subsided to a comparative drizzle, not too uncomfortable for mid-fall, as we stepped outside.

“This week has been like most of them,” Gulyart said. “There’s no charging done past Samedi at noon, and none on Solayi. So the holding cells are full by Lundi, and sometimes more than that, and it takes days before we get caught up. Last week was lighter than usual.”

“I liked last week better,” I said with a laugh. “You’d think some of them would learn.”

Gulyart shook his head. “They only get one chance to learn, two at most, before they end up on penal work duties for life. Most who get caught aren’t bright enough to see that.”

That was obvious-once he’d pointed it out, but I hadn’t thought of it that way. Some people just took longer to learn, but I could see the Civic Patrol’s view. Why should law-abiding citizens have to pay because lawbreakers had a hard time learning?

We walked to the second closest bistro-Saliana’s-because Gulyart said that he could only take so much of the heavy potato noodles at Fiendyl’s, the bistro almost directly across Fedre from headquarters. Heavy noodles didn’t bother me, just so long as they weren’t greasy. Saliana was supposedly from Tilbora in the far northeast of Solidar, and her place offered more than a few goat dishes. I had a red-spice goat curry over rice, and I used every bit of the rice, flatbread, and lager to try to keep the food from burning my mouth.

“Hot, isn’t it?” Gulyart grinned. “Brown-spice is as hot as I can take it. Captain Lheng won’t go farther than yellow-brown.”

“Next time, I’ll have the yellow-brown.” Even with the lager, flatbread, and rice I’d had with the meal, my mouth still felt like it was erupting in flame.

When we stepped out of Saliana’s, something slammed into my shields. I couldn’t help but stagger. A quick glance around revealed nothing other than people going about their business, and none of them even looked in my direction.

“You all right?” asked Gulyart.

“I slipped . . . tripped on something.” I looked down as if trying to locate what it might be. I wanted the bullet-anything to give me a clue as to who was shooting at me-and yet I knew I didn’t dare spend time searching. So I tried the idea of imaging it into my hand-and I had it in my palm. Except it was so hot that I almost dropped it and had to juggle it before slipping it into my waistcoat pocket. “I don’t know what it was. Maybe I kicked it away.” I shook my head. “I hate feeling clumsy like that.”

I didn’t want Gulyart, or any of the patrollers, to know that I was a target. That would just make learning about the Patrol even harder.

“Just be glad you weren’t wearing riot gear,” replied Gulyart. “Couple years back, more than that, I guess, because it was when I had just joined the Patrol, we had to go into the taudis below South Middle to put down a fight between two taudischefs and their enforcers. Some bastard threw hundreds of scrap bearings onto the street just as we charged them. Mualyt smashed his elbow so bad he got stipended out. That was the last time anyone talked about getting rid of the mounted riot squad. Most of them have other duties, though, these days.”

There were three more prisoners waiting when we got back to the charging desk, and the rest of the afternoon wasn’t much better, because they kept bringing in more prisoners.

As soon as I returned to the Collegium late in the day after finishing my observational duties, I made my way to Master Dichartyn’s study, where I rapped on the door.

“Rhennthyl, sir. I need a few moments with you. Something’s come up.”

“I’ll be with you in a moment.”

A moment was close to a quarter glass, but that wasn’t surprising once I saw Master Schorzat leaving, since he ran the covert field operative section of the Collegium and reported to Master Dichartyn.

As soon as I’d entered the study, Master Dichartyn looked up at me, almost wearily. “What have you to report?”

“On Samedi night, someone took a shot at me, and the same thing happened today at lunch, when Gulyart and I were walking back toward the headquarters building. I think the shot came from a window or the top of a building. I just told Gulyart I stumbled on something.”

“Do you think he figured out what really happened?”

“He didn’t press me or look at me strangely. If he did, he’s not saying, not to me.”

“If he is, I’ll learn later,” Master Dichartyn said. “Did you see anyone?”

“No. They were using a rifle, possibly a sniper rifle.”

“Were they actually trying to hit you?”

“There was just one shot both times. Each hit my shields. Today, I managed to image the bullet into my hand.” I slipped the flattened lead from my waistcoat pocket and handed it over to him.

“You imaged it into your hand?” His eyebrows went up.

“I couldn’t very well go grubbing around for it. I thought it would either work or it wouldn’t.”

“How do you know you didn’t just image a new bullet?”

“I don’t, I suppose, except it was so hot it almost burned my hand, and it’s flattened on one side.”

“It’s probably the one fired at you. Still . . .” Master Dichartyn studied it for a moment. “Definitely a sniper bullet. It could be Ferran or Jariolan, or even Solidaran. Might be Tiempran.” He smiled faintly. “Have you offended any more envoys?”

“I haven’t even met any more, sir.”

“That doesn’t mean you didn’t offend them. It’s likely that you didn’t get all of those involved with the Ferran operation. Someone who was watching and identified you got away, and now has orders to remove you.”

“Do the Ferrans even have a new envoy?”

“They do. He’s been here a little over two days. One Stauffen Gregg. The Honorable Stauffen Gregg. He brought a staff of ten.”

“I don’t believe you mentioned that.” I managed to maintain a pleasant smile. The “recall” of the previous staff now sounded like more of a return to a reprimand . . . or worse, not that my experiences had left me with any liking for the Ferrans.

“There was no reason to, until now. You aren’t working Council security any longer.”

There were times that Maitre Dichartyn could be condescendingly, obnoxiously infuriating. This was one of them. I kept smiling. “What do you suggest that I do about the sniper?”

“You’ll need to get a good look at him if you want to deal with him. And it’s probably best that you don’t tell anyone on the Patrol.”

Master Dichartyn’s words were a veiled reminder that I wasn’t to trouble the Collegium by leaving a would-be assassin alive. Nor was I to mix Collegium business with Patrol business. I didn’t ask for more information. He didn’t know any more or wasn’t about to tell me, but I suspected the former.

“Is there anything else?” asked my superior. “I need to see Master Poincaryt.”

“I’ve spent a little time on Samedi and yesterday evening with young Shault. I have to say that I worry about him.”

“So do I, but your short visits are definitely having an effect. Ghaend reports that he is studying and making good progress, and Gherard says that the seconds have decided that if you’re watching him, they’d best leave him alone.”

I had my doubts that such forbearance would endure, but I could hope it would last long enough for Shault to gain understanding and confidence.

Master Dichartyn rose from behind his writing desk. “If that’s all . . .”

“That’s all for now, sir, but I thought you should know.”

He just gestured toward the door. I left and headed back to my rooms.

Immediately after I entered my chambers, and the room that was study and salon, I walked to the writing desk, where I placed several objects on the left side of the writing desk-an oval ceramic paperweight, a copper pen nib, and a Solidaran silver crown. Then I covered them with a sheet of writing paper and stepped back four paces. I concentrated on imaging the pen nib onto the open palm of my right hand.

It appeared there, almost light as a feather.

I repeated the process with the coin and the paperweight. After looking closely at all three and seeing that they looked the same as they had before, I then set the three on the right side of the desk and lifted the paper on the left side. There was nothing underneath. To my way of thinking, I’d imaged the originals to my hand, rather than creating new objects by imaging. Either that, or I’d destroyed the originals and created copies, but that seemed most unlikely to me, since I didn’t feel that tired, and imaging something from nothing or duplicating something through imaging took much more effort. Master Dichartyn had been skeptical of my ability to image the bullet that had been fired at me back to myself. Yet he’d seen me image items from one point to another before. Or was it that I’d been able to image something I hadn’t seen or studied . . . and quickly?

I shrugged. I was hungry, and it was almost time for dinner. So I turned and headed out of my rooms, toward the staircase down to the quadrangle and then directly for the dining hall.

9

The rain and drizzle lifted on Meredi night, and the weather cooled so much that there was frost everywhere early on Jeudi. The grass and walkways were so slick that no one ran all that fast, and we finished in a ragged pack. I did wear my cold-weather cloak and gloves for the walk to Patrol headquarters, and with the wind, I was more than glad that I had. The building seemed empty when I hurried in off Fedre and made my way to the charging desk-also vacant, since I’d clearly arrived before Gulyart.

The glass was just ringing as Gulyart hurried in. He wasn’t wearing a cloak, but a heavier blue wool uniform. “Good morning, Master Rhennthyl.”

“Good morning, Gulyart. There’s no one here.”

“That’s because there was trouble in the South Middle taudis last night, and the subcommander called in everyone he could, even some who had morning duty. We’re going to be busy. We won’t get a break for lunch, and we’ll probably be working till sunset or beyond.”

“What happened?”

Gulyart shrugged. “I don’t know, except someone started street preaching one of those southern religions-”

“Not Caenen duology?”

“No. The Tiempran equality stuff.”

I stiffened inside. Master Dichartyn had said something about the Tiempran First Speaker rewarding those who struck near the heart of their enemies. Was that the reason for the riot . . . or part of it? A year earlier, I wouldn’t have known much more than the words he used, but the Collegium had been good for my education, if at the cost of a certain naive tolerance.

The main faith in Tiempre was monotheistic, but the key tenet of their single powerful god was that all good qualities were present in all human beings. That in itself wasn’t all that bad, to my way of thinking, but some of the corollaries were anything but good. If a trait wasn’t present in all people, then it was suspect or evil. Because something like only one in a hundred thousand people had the talent for imaging, imagers were agents of the evil one. So were people who were excessively tall or short, and those who were what might be called village idiots were imprisoned in work plantations lest they contaminate others. Very intelligent people were looked on with skepticism, as were the deformed.

“It got out of hand,” I suggested.

“Someone started preaching that the Council was following evil because it gave special privileges to the most evil of all-you imagers. He started in on the High Holders after that, screaming that they denied the goodness of equality and made it impossible for the people in the taudis ever to get good jobs, and then he finished up by inciting them to strike out against the Civic Patrol, because we’re the agents of the evil oppressors of equality . . . something like that.”

“And that started a riot?”

“It wasn’t too bad.” Gulyart snorted. “They’ve got almost a hundred waiting to be charged.”

“Disturbing the peace and damaging property?”

“Mostly. Maybe twenty or so got caught assaulting someone, and a few attacked patrollers. They didn’t get the street preacher, though. He’d better be hiding. Street preaching’s a straight shot to life in a penal manufactory.”

I could understand that. Any religion in Solidar had the right to assemble and worship-but only on private property and under a roof. It could be in a hovel or a barn or any structure, but street preaching or soliciting was banned. Soliciting was a misdemeanor the first time, but not street preaching. The possible connection to the Tiempran government was also disturbing, but how could one prove it?

“First Patroller Gulyart! The first prisoners are coming in.”

A gaol patroller appeared with two men. “These two were part of the mob, disorderly. Nothing much else.”

“What is your name?” Gulyart looked at a short, swarthy young man about my age.

After the slightest hesitation, the man looked blank.

“Appelio? Niomen? Habynah?” asked Gulyart.

“Adyon Khurnish.”

“Adyon, son of Khurn,” Gulyart murmured, “but put it down as he said it.”

I checked the files for both versions of the name. “There’s nothing here.”

“If I hear him right, he’s speaking what sounds like accented Tiempran. That means he’s probably from Gyarl.”

The prisoner had said nothing, but there had been a flicker of something when Gulyart had mentioned Gyarl-a comparatively small land, landlocked and sandwiched between Caenen and Tiempre with about half the people of Caenenan background and half of Tiempran. “He’s from Gyarl, I’d wager,” I offered, “but he doesn’t want to let us know it.” I had to wonder at that, because Solidar let in anyone who wanted to work as a laborer. It cost too much to post guards everywhere along something like eight thousand milles of coast-that was the area ships could approach enough to let down boats, anyway. Besides, unless someone spoke decent Solidaran, except it really was Bovarian, as it had adapted since Rex Regis had unified all of Solidar, he wasn’t going to go anywhere but the fields or day labor. That wasn’t exactly a threat to our peace and prosperity. Besides, how many could afford ocean passage?

“That’s his problem, not ours,” Gulyart said, hurriedly writing out the charging slip and filling out the line on the charging ledger, then looking at the other prisoner. “You? Habynah?”

“Isoloh Solonish.”

I checked his name as well, but there was nothing. So I slipped back beside Gulyart and wrote out the ledger entry while he finished the charging slip.

“They’re both charged with disorderly and disturbance.”

As the two were marched out, I had the feeling that both had understood at least some of what we had said, but I didn’t have time to say anything, because they were followed by another gaol patroller with three men, all in manacles.

“Hydrat, here,” announced the burly patroller, “he was in for disorderly maybe a year back, far as I recall. Be under Hydrat D’Taudis. No father . . . half-Pharsi scum.”

Hydrat’s name was there, but the note was that the charges had been dropped.

“Charges were dropped against him,” I told Gulyart.

“You’re the fortunate one,” Gulyart said.

“They’ll drop these, too . . . officer. I wasn’t doing anything.”

“No, just being disorderly,” added the gaol patroller, “throwing buckets of piss at the riot squad.”

“I never touched a bucket.”

Gulyart didn’t say a thing, and I copied what he’d written on the charging slip, including the charges of disturbance, disorderly, and assault on a patroller.

“This one looks like all-Pharsi scum. Says his name is Chelam D’Whayan. He was one of the others throwing buckets of piss.”

“That’s not assault,” claimed the scrawny and small black-haired figure, barely a man, if that. “Disorderly, not assault.”

“You can tell the justice that. Is Chelam D’Whayan the right name?” asked Gulyart.

“Yeah. . . .”

The patroller yanked the manacles. “He’s ‘sir’ or ‘officer’ to the likes of you.”

“Yes . . . sir.” The words were quiet, but Chelam’s eyes flared.

There was no record on him, either.

The third was taller, with black hair and an olive skin. Pharsi-Caenenan heritage, I would have guessed. He gave only his name-Chardyn D’Steinyn.

The following prisoner was manacled and gagged. Welts covered the left side of his face, and a wound below his ear had been bandaged. Blood had soaked through part of the dressing.

“This one’s major. Name is Fhalyn D’Sourkos. Disorderly, disturbance, and assault with a weapon. He used a pair of dirks against a mounted riot patroller. Horse had to be put down. He’s gagged because he spits.”

Gulyart didn’t have the gag removed, but that name didn’t have any record, either. Fhalyn did try to kick the gaol patroller on his way out. That type used the riot as an excuse, hoping he wouldn’t get caught in all the chaos. I’d have wagered that as many as we’d end up charging, even more had escaped.

We must have charged close to twenty people before a woman patroller, wiry and tough-looking, appeared with two women who looked to be in their late twenties, but then . . . they might have been younger under all the smudged makeup.

“These two are charged with disturbance and street soliciting. They left their premises during the riot and solicited on the street.”

Like street preaching, soliciting on public grounds and streets was an offense, a misdemeanor, but still a crime. Sexual favors could be solicited, but only if the solicitor stood inside a doorway or a window of property with the consent of the owner. Most of the time, I’d heard, patrollers allowed a little leeway.

“We didn’t,” said the brunette. “Aloust would have beaten us.”

“Enough to bruise us where it really hurts,” added the other, a thin, black-haired girl, who, upon closer inspection, probably wasn’t any older than Khethila. “One of the rioters dragged me from the window. Then two patrollers grabbed me!”

“Your name?” asked Gulyart firmly.

“Alizara. That’s it.”

There were no Alizaras listed in the records, nor did the records show anything for the older woman, who had given her name as Beustila.

“Likely as not, neither name is real,” muttered Gulyart.

“Aren’t many of them false?”

“Not so many as you’d think, not when we can check for a hip brand, but there are plenty of false names. The girls change their names, or they use false ones for their work.”

As Gulyart had predicted, we didn’t finish until well after sixth glass. Because I knew I’d already missed dinner, I stopped and ate a sausage blanket and noodles at Fiendyl’s. I only got a few glances, probably because everyone there had seen me more than a few times.

One man kept looking toward me until one of the servers stopped and murmured a few words to him, something like “. . . works over at the Civic Patrol . . . eats here a lot . . .”

I had a long walk back to Imagisle, and one that required carrying full imager shields the entire two milles plus. As I walked through the cool evening, glad for my winter cloak, with a brisk wind blowing out of the northeast, carrying a chill that must have come all the way from the Mountains D’Glace, I couldn’t help thinking about all the people who had been charged and how almost none of them had any past record. There were never many, because the Patrol didn’t like repeat offenders, but there had been one or two, sometimes three, out of every ten on the other days. Today, I only recalled two out of close to sixty. Maybe there had been three.

I was more than tired when I reached the quadrangle at close to eighth glass. Given the day, how late it was, and especially given Master Dichartyn’s condescension of the afternoon before, I didn’t see any necessity to report on what had happened at the charging desk. He would have been briefed on the riot, and a report was bound to be in both Veritum and Tableta as well.

I just washed up, undressed, and went to bed.

10

Vendrei wasn’t all that much better than Jeudi at the Patrol headquarters charging desk, because we got another twenty prisoners who had been held at Third District station until we could work through those we’d already dealt with-and we still had to charge those brought in for the daily range of crimes and offenses.

The chargings slowed to a halt in the afternoon around fourth glass, and at that moment, a fresh-faced patroller, several years younger even than I was, appeared. “Master Rhennthyl, the subcommander would appreciate a few moments with you.”

“I’m fine,” Gulyart said. “Go while things are slow.”

The young patroller led the way up the back stairs, and in moments I was in Subcommander Cydarth’s study. Although Cydarth was standing by the window, looking out at a clear gray-blue sky, he turned to face me. He did not sit, nor motion for me to do so.

“Rhennthyl, how have you found the past two weeks on the charging desk?”

“Most instructive, sir.”

“Oh, and in what fashion, might I ask?” As when I had talked to him before, his words were even, but still carried a sense of the sardonic.

“Certainly in more than any one fashion, sir. The volume of senseless and petty offenses cannot help but remind one of the need for law and patrollers. The few vicious crimes point out that there are always those who would hurt others, if not removed. The care with which the patrollers I have seen carry out their duties increases my respect for them.”

“If you take only those thoughts back to the Collegium when you eventually return, the Patrol will be more than repaid.”

I ignored the condescension and the implication that I would provide nothing to the Civic Patrol while assigned as liaison. “In time, I’m certain that I will learn more.”

His face tightened for a moment. Then he shrugged. “You saw all those who were charged in the riot on Jeudi night, did you not? What did you think about them?”

I’d thought more than a little about it, but I was not about to share all those thoughts with the subcommander. “It seemed strange to me. The weather wasn’t hot. There weren’t any problems such as the time when that lace mill burned and they discovered that the women had been chained to their machines and burned alive. There wasn’t a conscription team near. . . .”

“Exactly. You were here barely more than a week, and you can see that it shouldn’t have happened . . . but it did.” He paused. “You worked security at the Council Chateau, Master Dichartyn said. How closely did you observe the councilors and their visitors?”

“Most closely in the course of my duties. Otherwise, I never saw them.”

“A few assassins ended up dead due to your efforts.” He paused and looked at me. “Sometimes . . . one can determine where one stands by his enemies.”

“That well may be, sir, but almost every councilor was a target of some assassin or another even in the time I was there. From what I observed of those charged here, there were a few more that looked to be of Ferran origin, but that may have been just what I saw.”

“One of the men picked up in the riot spoke Tiempran and had a wallet with some Jariolan golds. How likely is it that a taudis-dweller who speaks Tiempran and Solidaran and has Jariolan golds in his wallet happens to be in a taudis riot in L’Excelsis by accident?”

“That would seem highly unlikely, sir.”

“You might pass that on to Master Dichartyn.”

“I’m certain he will appreciate that.”

“As for you, Commander Artois has decided that you should spend the next week or so observing cases presented in the justice courts. That way, before you start accompanying patrollers, you’ll have an idea of the process after someone is arrested and charged. You’ll be observing and assisting Lieutenant Mardoyt. He’s in charge of making sure that the prisoners and the officers involved in each case appear on time and with all the supporting evidence.”

“Yes, sir.” There was something behind Cydarth’s words, and it didn’t help that Grandmama Diestra had warned me against Mardoyt.

“Lieutenant Mardoyt has the study two doors down. He’s expecting you.” Cydarth turned and looked toward the window.

I didn’t bother to say more, but stepped out of his study and walked through the empty anteroom and down the slightly dusty hallway. The second door was ajar. I rapped gently.

“Master Rhennthyl?” asked a smooth baritone voice.

“The same.”

“Do come in.”

As I entered, the man who rose from the small writing desk in a narrow room with a single window was blond, blue-eyed, and slender. Slightly shorter than I, he also offered a warm smile, and there was the slightest crinkle around his eyes when he smiled. “I’m very pleased to meet you. Subcommander Cydarth has been most favorable in his assessment of you, and I have to say that anyone who has demonstrated master qualities as both a portraiturist and an imager has my admiration.”

I smiled as warmly as I could in response, even though I felt there was a calculating coldness behind the lieutenant’s superficial warmth. “The subcommander was most admiring of your abilities, sir, and I hope that I’ll be able to be of some assistance in addition to observing.”

“I’m sure you will be.” Another smile followed the words. “What we do-that’s me, and now you, and four patroller clerks-what we do is to prepare the presentation of charges to the justices in the central judicial district here. Not for the minor cases that go to the magistrates; we just send them there with the charge sheets. There are six districts that serve L’Excelsis, and we handle all of the major charges from them. We have to make sure that the charging slip matches the prisoner, that a date and time is set for the case before the justice, and that we have an escort and a covered wagon to take each consignment of prisoners to the court building in the Square of Justice. We also have to make sure any patrollers involved in a case are present, and witnesses as well. Once the sentence is passed, we then make sure the papers are correct and complete before we turn the prisoner over to the penal guards.”

“Is there an advocate for the ones who can’t afford to pay for one?”

“There are two public advocates on duty every day at the court. They get half a glass, sometimes a little less, to meet with each prisoner before they go before the justice. But don’t worry. You’re mostly here to watch and ask questions. Just be here a bit before eighth glass on Lundi. Then we’ll go over the prisoners and the schedule for the day, quickly, so that you can see what’s involved. The clerks actually prepare the final schedule the afternoon before, but schedules are roughed out sometimes a week in advance. . . .”

The lieutenant went on for another quarter glass before he sent me back down to the charging desk. After that, we only charged two more offenders, both for trying to make off with hams from a butcher.

As we got ready to leave for the day, I turned to Gulyart. “Thank you. I appreciate your time and showing me how the charging desk works. On Lundi, I start to observe Lieutenant Mardoyt and the courts.”

“I appreciated the help, especially this week.” Gulyart grinned. “The lieutenant is very smooth, very polished. Watch him closely, and you’ll learn a lot.”

“I’m sure I will. I just might stop back here occasionally.”

“You’re always welcome, sir.”

As I walked back toward Imagisle, I couldn’t help but think that my own impressions, not to mention Gulyart’s polite words, tended to confirm what Grandmama Diestra had said.

Once I got to the Collegium, I did have a little time to clean up before I headed to the dining hall. But when I did head in to dinner, I picked up a copy of Veritum because my eyes picked up the headline-“Ferran Fleet Alert.” To one side was another story about the need for increased conscription.

I saw that the masters’ table had only a handful of people there. Ferlyn was on the side away from me, seated with Ghaend and Draffyd. That reminded me that I had to see Maitre Draffyd at ninth glass on Samedi morning, right after the portrait session with Master Rholyn.

Closer to me were the two women maitres, and I stepped toward them.

“I see you’ve been perusing the scandal sheets,” said Maitre Dyana from where she sat beside Maitre Chassendri. “Did you learn anything?” She flipped back the brilliant blue scarf, one of the many bright-colored ones she wore to complement her imager grays.

“Only that they don’t seem to know much more than I do, and that’s discouraging.” I slipped into the chair beside her.

“That’s the beginning of wisdom,” added Chassendri, “when you realize that almost no one really knows much about anything and that the sum total of human knowledge can explain only a fraction of what we observe.”

“Spoken like a true scientist.” Maitre Dyana’s words were both dry and cutting. “If we know so little, you might explain why we still don’t live in caves.”

“Given how intelligent so many seem to be,” countered Chassendri, “why has it taken so long for us to learn how to build warm and comfortable dwellings, let alone steam engines and turbines, and ironway systems?”

“Politics,” I suggested, “and the fact that there are far too many people who want more than they contribute. Or who would rather take from others than build or make it themselves.”

“You’re almost as cynical as Maitre Dyana,” said Chassendri, “and you’re far younger. I shudder to think of how misanthropic you’ll be by the time you’re her age.”

“Young master Rhenn has lived longer beyond the walls of the Collegium than have most imagers his age,” replied Dyana, her voice gentle, almost sweet. “He’s been required to look at life from three very different perspectives. That sort of experience does tend to create a more realistic outlook than laboratory expertise.”

“A lofty perspective, such as that of a High Holder who has to become an imager.”

“Any High Holder’s daughter would murder if she thought it would make her an imager, and bribe and suborn almost anyone to marry one . . . as you should know, dear Chassendri.”

I froze, unable to say anything. Those were the most cutting words I’d ever heard from Maitre Dyana, as sweetly as they had been spoken.

After the briefest of pauses, Dyana went on in the same tone. “Rhenn has a far wider perspective than a High Holder, and that will make it harder for him to deal with such, but also will make him less understandable to them.”

For the moment, listening to them, I felt more like a chemical substance or a creature on Master Draffyd’s dissecting table. I still smiled, then asked, “What do you two think about the taudis riot?”

Chassendri shrugged. “They do riot at times. It comes with poverty and deprivation.”

“You don’t think it was that, do you?” Maitre Dyana looked at me.

“No. It’s too soon after harvest. Food isn’t dear, and it’s neither that hot nor that cold, and the Council didn’t announce increased conscription levels until after the riot, and the Patrol hasn’t been harassing the elvers.”

“What do you think?” inquired Dyana.

I grinned. “You have far more experience than I, despite your kind words. I was hoping you might offer an opinion based on your expertise.” I poured some red Cambrisio into her goblet, and then into mine. I could use it after dealing with both Cydarth and Mardoyt.

Chassendri managed to hide a grin behind the platter of sliced Mantean beef.

Dyana chuckled. “Unlike my compatriot, I would so love to see you in twenty years.”

I waited through that gambit while Dyana served herself the beef, the gravy, and the brown rice. Then I served myself.

Finally, she said, “The riot was most likely instigated by an outside source, but whoever did so will not have left any direct traces, but evidence leading to some other party.”

“Couldn’t it just be some of the High Holders who fear the factors and guilds getting more power in the Council?” asked Chassendri.

“It could be, or it could be the mercantilist factors who want to prove that the poor are that way because they deserve to be-that’s the way the Ferrans operate. Or it could be someone in the taudis trying to get the Civic Patrol to crack down on the territory of a rival taudischef. Or it could be a foreign power with the aim of creating unrest and disruption here in L’Excelsis so that we would be less likely to become involved in war elsewhere. Or . . .” Dyana offered an enigmatic smile. “There are more than a few possibilities.”

There were, and I didn’t much care for any of them. I doubted that we even knew all of them . . . but I couldn’t help wondering how much the words of the First Speaker of Tiempre had contributed to the riot . . . and whether it had just been his words.

11

When I walked along the edge of the quadrangle toward the exercise chambers on Samedi morning, I could see there was no frost on the grass or trees or walkways, but it didn’t feel much warmer than earlier in the week because a stiff wind blew out of the northwest.

After the warm-up and conditioning exercises, and before I started the blade and truncheon routines, Clovyl drew me aside for a moment.

“Lundi, if Master Draffyd says it’s all right, you’ll start on a refresher in hand-to-hand combat, with some work on techniques that might prove useful on the streets with the patrollers.”

“Good. These solitary routines get tedious after a while.”

“They still might save your guts someday. You can’t always image your way out of all the troubles you might face.” He lowered his voice. “You’re talented enough that you’ll end up in more tight places than most could imagine. Master Dichartyn doesn’t hesitate to use talent.”

Or sacrifice it for a great gain for the Collegium. But I didn’t say that.

Dartazn was back in running form, and I didn’t finish the four-mille run within a hundred yards of him. He’d already headed for the showers before I stumbled to a halt outside the exercise chambers.

Master Schorzat wasn’t all that far behind me. He gave me a smile. “How are you finding the Civic Patrol?”

“It’s interesting, and I’m learning.”

“You might think over if there are other ways to do what the Patrol does, and what implications they would have.”

I laughed. “Are you trying to get me to think like a field imager?”

“No. That sort of thinking can help you figure out whether procedures can be changed-or why they shouldn’t be when someone has a brilliant new idea.” He snorted. “Someone always does, and half the time it’s a very bad brilliant new idea. A senior imager needs to be able to recognize those. That’s all.”

“Thank you, sir.” I had my doubts whether the reason he’d given me was the only reason why he wanted me to analyze Civic Patrol procedures.

After getting a shower and shaving, and dressing, I hurried to the dining hall, where, just after I appeared, Ferlyn arrived with a graying master I’d seen a few times when I’d been a third, but whom I’d never met. “Rhenn, have you met Quaelyn?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure.”

“Quaelyn, this is Rhennthyl. He’s the newest Maitre D’Aspect. He also has the distinction of having survived more assassination attempts than any third in the history of the Collegium. The last time was when he stopped the Ferran spies from exploding a firewagon near the Council security force.” Ferlyn laughed softly. “They had to make him a master after that.”

“Ferlyn gives me too much credit,” I replied, although I had the feeling he might have been right about the assassination attempts.

“I doubt it, not if you report to Master Dichartyn,” replied Quaelyn.

“Might I ask your specialty?” I asked as we walked to the masters’ table.

“Me? I guess you’d call me the master of patterns. I look at ledgers and books and rosters, and report what I see in the numbers and figures and . . . everything.”

We sat down on the left end of the table. I looked out at the table holding the primes and seconds and could see Shault, sitting next to Lieryns. That was good. Surprisingly, Lieryns looked up, then nodded. I nodded back.

“Just before we saw you,” Ferlyn said, pouring tea for Quaelyn and then handing me the pot, “we were talking about the assassinations of imagers. Did you know that we lost another one last night?”

“Another junior imager? Or someone more senior?”

“Thenard. He was still a prime, but he was close to making second.”

I recalled Thenard. He’d offered a few suggestions and observation when I’d first come to Imagisle, and he’d been friendly and good-natured. “How did it happen?”

“He just crossed the Bridge of Desires. There’s a good patisserie not more than two blocks down the Boulevard D’Council, off a side lane. When he came out of the patisserie, someone shot him. No one saw the shooter.”

I turned to Quaelyn. “You weren’t discussing this as a coincidence, I take it?”

“No. It is an example of patterns. I’m working with Ferlyn on many of these. I’m not so young as I once was.”

“This is getting serious,” Ferlyn went on. “We find something between thirty and forty new imagers every year. Master Poincaryt thinks we get about half that are born in Solidar, later, of course. We’re fortunate to find even half, but that’s the way it is. Maybe ten imagers die naturally every year-on average, anyway. Another ten die because they’re imagers and either do something stupid or die as field or covert types, and, like it or not, five to ten get killed every year because some people don’t like imagers. Those are the numbers. The problem is that for the past year, we’ve had close to twenty junior imagers shot, and most have looked to be planned assassinations. And as soon as we stop one group, it’s like another pops up.”

While he was speaking, I served myself and handed the platter of cheesed eggs and sausage chunks to Ferlyn. “Why do you think that’s happening now?”

Ferlyn looked to Quaelyn.

The older master smiled. “Master Poincaryt and Dichartyn have their doubts, but I believe that it’s the result of intersecting patterns. Societies and cultures all function because they adopt patterns. Some of those patterns are so ingrained that no one even knows they’re patterns. Others aren’t so natural, and they need reinforcement. Laws are a form of pattern reinforcement . . .”

I just listened for a time.

“. . . as societies or whole lands change, the patterns have to change, and people need to be made aware of the need for change. If they don’t see that need and accept it, there’s always trouble. Even when those in power try to create greater awareness, people get upset. Those who were well off under the old ways fight change-”

“Like the High Holders?” I asked.

“That is an unfortunate truth,” Quaelyn admitted. “Sometimes, those who hold power merely find a way to keep holding power in a new fashion with new patterns. Usually, some fail to change, and they can be most bitter and dangerous. Those who gain power, such as the factors and the manufacturers, often adapt the mannerisms of the old elite, and the same control of power. That is the pattern in Ferrum. When patterns must change and times are unsettled, many turn to what they think of as unchanging.”

“Nothing’s unchanging, you said,” Ferlyn interjected.

Quaelyn smiled patiently. “Follow my words, Ferlyn. I said they turned to what they think is unchanging.”

“Faith in the Nameless, or Duodeus, or . . . what’s the Tiempran god?” I asked, then dredged up the answer to my own question from somewhere. “Puryon, that’s it.”

“That is what I surmise,” replied Quaelyn. “All theologies seem to embody the idea that because a deity is powerful, if not omnipotent, that deity is eternal and unchanging. That is a pattern of belief that comforts people. That is why it endures. Yet . . . all religions include the point that the deity created the world and the wider cosmos, and we can see how the world changes. Records show where harbors once were that have now silted up. Rivers change their courses. Parts of coasts fall into the sea. The world changes. We age and change. Yet religions all assume that their creator does not change. Such assumed inflexibility is anything but logical.” He shook his head. “These days, we live in a time of changes. . . .”

I wished I could have stayed at the table and listened longer, but I had to get to the studio and get set up for Master Rholyn’s sitting. So I finally excused myself and made my way through the still-chill air in the quadrangle north to the workshop building that held the studio.

As I went through setting up and deciding which paints to mix, my breath did not quite steam in the chill air of the studio. If Master Poincaryt wanted me to keep painting portraits in the winter months I’d need some heat in the space. Even oils congealed if they got too cold.

Master Rholyn arrived as the bells rang out the glass.

“Rhenn . . . good morning, chill as it is.” He paused. “Do you want me standing or sitting?”

“Sitting for the moment.” I walked over and studied his face, trying to fix the coloration and shading before I went back to my palette and finished mixing the shade I wanted.

“I noticed you dancing with Madame D’Shendael at the Council’s Harvest Ball.” Master Rholyn smiled.

“She asked me to dance, sir. It caught me quite off guard.” That was true enough.

“Did she say why?” The tone of his words suggested he already knew the answer.

“No, sir. She just said that she required a partner. If you would stand, now, sir, and take that position with your foot on the crate?”

He rose, more awkwardly than I had remembered, but that might have been because the grace and eloquence of his speech colored my memory. “This way?”

“Please turn your head a bit toward me. Good.” I eased the tip of the brush into the oils I’d mixed.

“Madame D’Shendael is quite intelligent, Rhennthyl. She never does anything without a reason. Did her words hint at any such purpose?”

“She talked only briefly, about art, and how little it was respected.”

Rholyn nodded almost sagely. “She believes in art, but that is not all.”

I said nothing, but continued to work on getting the set of his nose and eyes precisely.

“Did she speak of the Council?”

“No, sir, except that she told me that I was an imager, and that it was a silly fiction of the Council that I couldn’t even admit it.”

“A silly fiction? She would use such a term. You know that she does not approve of the current fashion of selecting councilors?”

“Master Dichartyn mentioned such, sir. He said she would prefer that some councilors be chosen by a form of popular voting.”

“As if the populace as a whole would ever choose wisely.”

I concentrated on the canvas before me.

“What do you think, Rhenn?”

I didn’t want to say what I thought. “It seems to me that the present way of selecting councilors provides a balance among artisans, factors, and High Holders. No one group or individual has control.”

“Balance of power . . . yes . . . there is a balance of power, and it is necessary, because those in the Council are far less honorable than those who lead the Collegium. Throughout our history, we’ve been fortunate that the imagers appointed to senior positions and to the Council by the senior maitre of the Collegium have proven themselves honorable and worthy types.” He paused. “I’d best stop talking and let you paint.” He smiled warmly.

Master Rholyn was as good as his word and said little after that. As a result, I got a good start on his face, especially around the eyes. Some portraiturists concentrate on the shape of the head and face first, and sometimes I had, but with Master Rholyn, there was a difference in the set of his nose, eyes, and eyebrows that I needed to address first.

I had to clean up the studio in a rush and then make my way to the infirmary to see Master Draffyd. I had to wait in the anteroom for almost a quint before he appeared. The smooth gray stone walls made the space seem even colder than it was, but the anteroom was far better than being in the cold gray individual rooms where I’d already spent too much time recuperating.

Draffyd strolled in with a pleasant smile. “Good morning, Rhenn. This way, please.”

I followed him into a small chamber off the anteroom where I removed my waistcoat, scarf-cravat, shirt, and undershirt.

“Does anything hurt?”

“Not any longer,” I admitted.

“What was the last thing to stop hurting, and when did it stop?”

“My ribs . . . on the right side. Here.” I pointed. “Maybe a week ago.”

He poked, prodded, thumped, and pressed and asked more questions before he finally announced, “You look good, and everything feels to have healed. Clovyl and Master Dichartyn have been asking when you’d be ready to handle more hand-to-hand combat training. You can start on Lundi, but no full-body throws. Make sure that you tell Clovyl that. He can be too enthusiastic. Those will have to wait another few weeks.”

“I’ll tell him.” I didn’t want to spend any more time healing. Close to a third of the last year I’d been recovering from wounds and injuries of some sort.

That left me with time for a leisurely stroll back across the quadrangle to the dining hall, where I was the only master there. I ate quickly and went back to my chambers. There I spent some time reading and reviewing court procedures. They were so tedious that I ended up dozing in my chair, and I had to hurry to get ready to leave for Seliora’s. I took a hack on the east side of the Bridge of Hopes . . . and no one shot at me.

The hack dropped me off outside Seliora’s door at half past four, but that was by design, although I’d originally thought to be there somewhat earlier.

Once more, Odelia opened the door, rather than her younger brother Bhenyt. “You seem to be making a habit of this, Rhenn,” she observed warmly.

“Coming here, or arriving early?”

“Both.”

“Actually, I had hoped to speak with Grandmama Diestra for a few moments.”

“I can ask her.”

“With Seliora,” I added.

“I’ll ask them both.”

We walked up the steps to the main second-level foyer, where she left me, heading up to the third level, and I walked around looking to see if there were any new chairs or upholstery designs. There weren’t.

Bhenyt was the one who came bounding down the side stairs and skidding out into the foyer. “Grandmama says you’re to meet her in the small plaques room upstairs, Master Rhenn.”

“I haven’t been there. If you’d lead the way.”

He grinned and turned. I had to walk quickly to catch up with him, but we reached the top of the narrower side staircase almost together. The small sitting room was almost directly across the smaller upper hallway from the archway from the staircase foyer. The stained oak door was open, and I stepped inside. The curtains were drawn back from the single long and narrow window, and pale white light formed an oblong on the Coharan patterned carpet.

Grandmama Diestra sat in an upholstered straight-backed chair at a small table on which was laid out a complicated form of solitaire. The three other chairs around the table were vacant. She wore a black jacket over a black sweater. Her steel-gray hair-looking almost silver above the black garments-was cut neatly at midneck level. She turned over the plaque she had in her hand and smiled, ruefully, before setting it facedown on the dark blue felt. Her black eyes focused on me.

“Sometimes, you play the plaques, and sometimes they play you.”

I wasn’t quite certain how to respond to that and had barely inclined my head to Diestra when Seliora stepped through the doorway behind me, closing the door firmly. She smiled, but it wasn’t the happiest of smiles. The crimson and black of her wool jacket was becoming, but it also made her look stern when the smile vanished, and her black eyes met mine.

“I’m very sorry,” I said, turning to her. “I didn’t mean to hurry you, but I’ve run into one of Grandmama’s warnings, and I’m afraid I’m going to need some help. More than some help, I think. It happened late yesterday, so that I really didn’t have time to send a note, and what happened I wouldn’t have wanted to put on paper.”

“Why don’t you both sit down?” suggested Diestra, before looking to Seliora. “If you really want him to be part of the family, he has to have the right to ask to talk to me directly.”

Her words clearly brought Seliora up short. After a moment, she said, “Yes, Grandmama.”

Diestra looked to me. “Your turn will come, when you least expect it. Try to be equally gracious.”

I inclined my head. “Thank you for the warning. I will try.” Then I turned to Seliora. “I do apologize. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Her second smile was warmer, and she nodded and let me pull out the chair to the right of Grandmama Diestra for her. I went to the other side of the plaques table and sat down across from Seliora.

“What is this problem?” asked Diestra.

I offered a sheepish look. “Actually, I have three. First, I have to start working with Lieutenant Mardoyt on Lundi. He handles all the trial preparation for the patrollers. Now that I’ve seen how offenders are charged, Commander Artois wants me to see how the trials work before I accompany any patrollers.” Since I didn’t see any great reaction, I went on. “Second, on Meredi, when we were leaving Saliana’s at lunch, someone took another shot at me, and the bullet was a heavy sniper type. Third, the riot in the South Middle taudis wasn’t something that just happened, and I’d hope that you’d be able to arrange a meeting with that young taudischef I met at Imagisle when he brought his cousin in. His name was Horazt.”

“You think all of these are linked together?” asked Seliora.

“The shots at me and the riot might be linked. I can’t believe Commander Artois or the subcommander would be involved in the riot, but I feel there’s a reason behind my being assigned to observe Mardoyt.”

“The obvious reason is that Mardoyt is getting to be a problem, and that the commander wants you to discover something so that the blame falls on you,” said Diestra.

“That was my feeling. I thought that Horazt might know something about Mardoyt, and he certainly should be able to tell me about the riot.”

“Arranging such a meeting would not be impossible,” mused Diestra, “but would it be wise? Why would he agree?”

“He needs to show he has control, even contacts. I can tell him about his young cousin. He might even care.”

“Already, you are cynical.” Diestra’s words were dry.

“I’d also like advice from both of you on dealing with Mardoyt and all the things I need to watch out for.”

“The easiest thing,” began the gray-haired Pharsi woman, “is to arrange the meeting with Horazt. Between your position and our interest, he would rather have us owing him than the other way around. How is the boy-his young cousin-doing?”

“He seems to be all right. I’ve been watching from the background, and talking to him once or twice a week. Some of the other primes are watching out for him as well.”

“That is good. Betara and I can also make a few inquiries about the riot. That will seem natural, and we can also see if Staelia has overheard anything. The shootings of an imager are not something we should ask about. Such questions from us will do you more harm than good.”

“I can see that.”

“Mardoyt is another question. Whatever he asks of you, only do what the procedures demand. Nothing else. Be most polite. If he feels slighted, you will become his enemy. You must learn with whom he works. I would suggest that you play the role you can play so well, young Rhenn. That is of the eager young imager who wants to learn and not to offend. Just keep thanking him for every insight and bit of information. But do not ever trust him, even on the slightest of matters. He is doubtless well aware of the weaknesses of imagers.” A crooked smile crossed her lips. “It is unlikely that he will do anything wrong or improper while you are around, but that does not mean he will not do such.”

That meant I’d have to find evidence of some sort, and Mardoyt didn’t sound like someone who left many tracks.

“If that is all, you two can go and leave an old woman in peace.” The words were said with a smile.

“Thank you.” I stood and bowed to her.

Seliora did not say anything until we were out in the upper hallway, with no one close by. “You didn’t tell Grandmama Diestra everything, did you?”

I shook my head. “We-the imagers-have another problem. Someone is shooting junior imagers. Whether it’s a group of assassins, or whether someone has offered a bounty for every dead imager, no one knows, but it’s happening.”

“Most people feel the same way about imagers and Pharsis.”

“That may be, but over the past year, they’ve killed over twenty young imagers-that’s about half the number the Collegium finds every year. If someone shot half the Pharsis born in a given year, Solidar would be in shambles.”

For a moment, Seliora just stood there in the foyer. “I didn’t think of it that way.”

“I didn’t either, until Ferlyn pointed it out this morning at breakfast. There’s another problem-”

“Announcing it will just make matters worse.”

I nodded.

“You’re going to ask Horazt, aren’t you?”

“I’d thought to. I could bring up the fact that I’d like to resolve the problem before Shault is free to leave Imagisle.”

“That might work.” She paused. “If you don’t find anything, Mama and Grandmama could ask if anyone’s been promising payoffs for shootings, without mentioning imagers. They might find something. If they don’t . . . doesn’t that suggest it’s someone like the Ferran who was after you?”

“It wouldn’t be absolute, but it would seem more likely.”

“Good! I’ll talk to them.” She looked directly at me. “We’ve both had long weeks. Can we not talk about them and enjoy dinner?”

“Absolutely. That’s the best suggestion I’ve heard.” With that, I offered her my arm, and we walked down the staircases.

Bhenyt had hailed a hack, and it was waiting. I slipped him a copper. More, and the family wouldn’t have approved. He grinned at me as I offered Seliora a hand getting into the hack.

“Azeyd’s,” I told the hacker.

“Azeyd’s it is, sir.”

Once inside the coach, I turned sideways to face Seliora. “I am sorry . . .”

“Are you sorry you did it? Or sorry you upset me?”

“I didn’t mean to upset you.”

She leaned forward and kissed my cheek. “I accept. You did need to talk to her, but there was time to tell me that was what you needed.”

I understood all too well. Offering an apology for a necessary act was hypocrisy, but not apologizing for a rude approach to the necessary was unforgivable. Since I had apologized . . . all was well. I hoped.

Azeyd’s was located on a side street without a name off Nordroad, some three blocks to the west of Guild Square. The outside was unprepossessing, just a dark red set of double doors in a yellow brick facade, bound in brass under a short awning and flanked on each side by a set of two narrow windows filled with leaded glass panes that were anything but recent in style or construction.

After helping Seliora from the hack and opening the door, I followed her into the restaurant. The woman standing at the far side of the small foyer tiled in large red and black squares looked to Seliora. “Ah . . . Mistress D’Shelim.” Then she looked to me, her eyes clearly measuring me and the imager grays that I wore. “Sir.”

“This is Imager Master Rhennthyl. He’s a friend of the family.” Seliora smiled demurely. “He’s an even better friend of mine.”

“Then he is certainly welcome here.” Her smile to me was warm, yet wary, before she turned and led us to the right into a narrow and long room that held two rows of tables-four on one side and five on the other, each row set against a pale tan plastered wall.

The wall was decorated with a form of art I’d never seen before-thin strips of colored leather braided and worked into designs, ranging in size from a diamond shape less than ten digits on an edge to a leather mosaic mural almost two yards wide and two-thirds of a yard high. The mural showed Pharsi riders charging a line of musket-bearing foot soldiers.

“The battle of Khelgror,” Seliora murmured. “The last stand of the Khelan Pharsi against the Bovarians.”

“Here you are,” offered the hostess, gesturing to an oval table against the inside wall.

“Thank you.” Seliora and I spoke almost simultaneously.

A single bronze lamp hung from a bronze chain, positioned about a yard above the center of the table. The linens were red, and a single slate sat on a polished black wooden stand set near the plaster wall and facing outward.

“What do you suggest?” I asked.

“Have you ever had Enazai? It’s a traditional ice wine, powerful, but served before a meal.” She paused. “Father claims that’s because, after drinking it, no one cared what the food tasted like.”

“I should try it.”

“Two.” Seliora nodded to the hostess, who slipped away.

I looked over the menu chalked on the slate. “How is the Bertetia? What is it?”

“Cow stomach marinated for months, sliced and fermented, and then broiled and served with blue potatoes. Grandmama likes it. None of the rest of us have tried it more than once.”

“The forest quail sounds better.”

“It’s one of my favorites, along with venison ragout, but that’s very spicy.”

The hostess returned with two half-sized goblets of a pale red, almost pinkish, wine. “What will you have?”

“We’ll share the priata platter, and I’ll have the ragout,” Seliora said, “and a red Grisio.”

“The quail with a white Cambrisio,” I added.

After the hostess left the table, I lifted the small goblet. “To you.”

“To us,” Seliora replied.

I sipped the Enazai . . . and was glad that I’d only sipped. It didn’t burn on the way down, but even that small swallow had a definite impact. Within moments, I could feel the warmth it imparted all over. “I like it, but your father has a point.”

“He usually does.”

“Like you,” I teased.

“And you don’t?” she countered.

Since I was supposed to have a point, I had to come up with one. “I heard something at breakfast this morning. One of the older masters was talking about how life and people really operate in patterns and how some of the problems we face are a result of intersecting patterns-old patterns of doing things that clash with new patterns created by the way things change.”

“Go on,” Seliora prompted.

“Things are changing in Solidar. The number of High Holders is decreasing, and those who are left are more powerful-”

“And more arrogant.”

“The larger factors are also getting wealthier and more powerful, and I have the feeling that we’re getting more people in the taudis, and they’re poorer than before.” That was more feeling than anything, but I trusted it.

“There are boys who are smoking elveweed now. Not just men.”

“Khethila has seen more men smoking it as well.”

“They can’t get jobs. We hire from there when we can, for the hauling and rough positions, but we only need a few men. It’s hard to find ones who will work and aren’t weeded out. Grandmama said it would have been hard for her if she’d arrived in L’Excelsis now.”

“Why?”

“Everyone wants to make golds the easy way, and that’s trafficking in elveweed. She wouldn’t do anything like that.”

At that moment the priata platter arrived. On it were small pastry crescents with a dark sauce oozing from the edge where the two sides of the flaky crust joined, large green olives stuffed with some sort of cheese, melon circles wrapped in thin ham, and marinated grape leaves wrapped around some sort of filling.

Seliora lifted one of the crescents, and I followed her example, discovering the sweet/sharp sauce imparted a tang to the chopped onion and ripe olive mixture within the crust.

“You said you had a point,” Seliora prompted.

Not only did I see the mischievous glint in her eyes, but I could hear a certain interest in her voice. “Besides a good dinner? Oh . . . I was thinking that better steam engines mean we need fewer strong backs and mules and horses, and more people who can do things with powered looms, the way you design fabric patterns, or the way Father can order a fabric more to a clothing factor’s requirements.”

“Those engines that power the looms and the ironway engines cost more in golds, but they produce more, and so the large High Holders get larger, and the larger factors get wealthier, and there are more smaller businesses like NordEste, and fewer individual crafters-”

“You’re not exactly small,” I pointed out.

“Compared to the wealth of a High Holder like Ryel? We’re nothing.”

“But there are hundreds of businesses like yours. Thousands all over Solidar, and that will change things. The Council is based on the way things were a century ago.”

“Rhenn . . . listen to your own words. The structure of the Council hasn’t changed. People still think of Pharsis with distaste, and shopkeepers and trades-people as unworthy of having any real rights. Do you think that the High Holders or the guilds want to give up power? Together, they outvote the factors. Why would they change?”

“Not all the guild members think that way.” I was thinking of Caartyl. “You’re right, though. Maybe they won’t change, but it’s still a pattern of conflict.”

By then we had finished off everything on the priata platter, and the hostess appeared and whisked it away, only to reappear with our dinner and wine.

From there on in, we talked about families, the world, food, wine, and each other. Before all that long, or so it seemed to me, I was helping Seliora out of the hack outside of NordEste Design and escorting her to the door-holding my shields so as to protect us both.

“Can I stop by tomorrow?” I asked just before she was about to close the door.

“Why don’t you come for lunch-except that it’s really a combination of breakfast and lunch? It’s at half before noon.”

“I’ll be there.” I couldn’t help smiling, and it certainly didn’t hurt to see her smile back at me.

The wind had turned much colder by the time I returned to the hack, and as I rode back to the Bridge of Desires, I realized that if I reached my rooms without incident, it would be one of the few times in recent months that nothing had occurred after I had left Seliora.

I didn’t relax until I was back in my rooms, but nothing happened. “Not this time,” a small voice whispered inside my skull. I had the feeling the voice was right . . . that sooner or later, I’d have an unpleasant surprise, courtesy of High Holder Ryel, but I’d still had a wonderful evening.

12

Just before eighth glass on Solayi, after waiting for nearly half a glass, I hailed a hack off the Boulevard D’Imagers and asked the driver to drop me where South Middle turned off the Midroad, close to four milles northeast of the Bridge of Hopes.

South Middle angled off Midroad, so that it actually ran almost due east-west, unlike the Midroad, which angled from the northeast to the southwest. In practice, the central part of South Middle where I was headed, almost a mille from the intersection, was the north border of the South Middle taudis, where the street riot supposedly caused by street preaching had taken place. I wanted to walk the distance to get a feel for it, and Solayi morning was a good time. It was bright, if cool with a brisk wind under a sky with only a few clouds, appropriate for the first day of Feuillyt and the official first day of fall. Not that many were out on the streets.

The first sign that I was approaching the taudis was a chest-high brick wall to my right, on the south side of South Middle. The bricks had once been yellow, but now presented a mottled tannish brown appearance. In a few places, there were patches of faint yellow, where graffiti had been scrubbed off by one of the penal road crews. The second sign was that I could hear children playing beyond the wall.

I glanced over the time-smudged brick barrier wall and across the narrow strip of dirt that had been a parkway decades earlier at the rows of ancient two-, three-, and four-story dwellings, the wall of one building indistinguishable from the next. Most of the front stoops were empty, but I saw one man with a tangled beard, puffing on a long pipe of the type used for elveweed. I glanced farther south along the row of battered brick dwellings. There might have been another elver on a stoop near the cross street.

I kept walking.

A dark-haired woman with two children, both girls, looked up as I approached.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning, sir.” She took their hands and did not meet my eyes. Her shawl and cloak were both spotless, but the wool was frayed in places, and the pattern an Extelan weave that had not been available since before I had become an apprentice to Caliostrus.

Two boys almost old enough to be working stepped through a gateless gap in the wall. The taller one looked at me defiantly, but only for a moment, until the other murmured something, and both turned and headed back into the taudis.

Just ahead, again on the right and behind the wall, was the first new building I’d seen, a narrow, single-storied, yellow-brick structure with a steeply pitched roof. A cupola of sorts rose on the nearer end above the three sets of double doors that made it look like a meeting house or an anomen of some sort, but I’d never seen an anomen like that, which suggested it was one for another faith, although they wouldn’t have called it an anomen.

For the next half mille, I saw no one else at all close to me, and I turned back.

I almost had reached Sudroad before I could hail another hack. This time, I had the driver take me a quarter mille beyond NordEste Design, farther out Nordroad, and drop me off. I didn’t know if I’d see or sense anyone with less than savory intentions, but if I did, I had an idea I wanted to try.

The only problem with my idea was that on the entire walk back, I saw almost no one. In fact, I saw fewer people than I had walking past the taudis. I did reach Seliora’s a fifth of a glass or so before I was due, but that wouldn’t be a problem. I dropped the polished brass knocker twice and waited.

Odelia was the one who greeted me. “Is there anyone you’d like to see before Seliora?” she asked, her tone innocent.

“Not if I expect to leave here with her speaking to me,” I replied, knowing that if I were a High Holder, I would have replied in a pleasant tone with words like “Were I not to speak with her first, speaking to anyone else would be an anticlimax.”

As she stepped back to let me enter, Odelia laughed at my more direct approach. “I think she’s probably in the foyer by now.”

Odelia and I walked up the stairs, reaching the foyer just as Seliora stepped out of the archway from the side staircase. She was more casually dressed than on the evening before . . . with a simple black pullover sweater and black slacks. A heavy silver chain and matching silver earrings were the only jewelry she wore. She did smile, openly.

“Everyone else will be down shortly, except Mother and Aegina. They’re in the kitchen.” She looked at me. “Your face is windburned.”

“I went for a walk. I had the hack drop me off farther out Nordroad. I walked back, but I didn’t see anyone.”

“Good. You shouldn’t have. Grandmama got tired of having people shoot at you. She called in a favor, and for a while there will be some old . . . acquaintances watching.”

I managed not to shake my head.

“Grandmama won’t know until tomorrow at the earliest when you can meet with Horazt. I’ll send a note by messenger to the Collegium. That’s better, isn’t it?”

“Much better. It has to be after fourth glass.” I paused. “It doesn’t have to be, but it would be a great deal easier if it were.”

“We thought as much. Besides, most taudischefs prefer the evening.” She paused. “I hope you’re hungry.”

“I didn’t have much breakfast, and I’ve walked a lot.”

“Good.” She led me toward the dining chamber.

Seliora had once told me that they never had a formal evening meal on Solayi, except on holidays like Year-Turn. As I looked at all the platters of food spread around the table, I could see why.

I enjoyed the meal and remainder of the afternoon before I had to leave for Imagisle and the evening services at the anomen. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I felt almost guilty on the hack ride back.

13

Lundi morning, Clovyl was relatively gentle with me in his hand-to-hand instruction, showing me ways to disarm someone with either knife or pistol. I refrained from pointing out that I could just image the weapons out of their hands. My caution was warranted, because he addressed that just before I was to actually try the moves on him.

“One of the reasons you need to learn this sort of thing, Rhennthyl, is because most imagers can’t image for a while if they get a stiff blow to their skull. The good assassins and spies know that.”

“It would have been nice to learn that earlier.”

“You would have, if you’d come to the Collegium a good bit younger than you did,” Clovyl replied mildly. “We teach that to the junior primes, but it would have taken years to go over everything with you, and it didn’t make sense to hold you back. You really would have done something stupid, then.”

“Thank you.” My words were not sarcastic. I meant them.

Clovyl looked puzzled.

“No one ever simply explained what you just did. A great deal of my frustration with the Collegium derives from the continual assumptions that I know things I don’t. If someone had just said what you did . . .”

“That’s probably true, Rhenn, but you have to realize that you’re also one of the oldest imagers ever to show up at the Collegium. No one, and I mean no one, has any experience with training a mostly developed imager. Most imagers who develop the skill as late as you did end up dead before the Collegium ever knows about them. That was why you ended up with Master Dichartyn as your preceptor. Usually, he only works with thirds and junior masters.”

That made me feel even more stupid, because I really should have noticed more. I’d known I was older than most of the primes, but before I’d had a chance to really think about it, I’d been made a second-and there were many seconds older than I was. There were even graying seconds.

I pushed those thoughts out of my mind and concentrated on learning the moves better. Then I ran the customary four milles and hurried through the rest of the morning routine so that I wouldn’t be late to Patrol headquarters.

I wasn’t. In fact, I was waiting outside Mardoyt’s door when he arrived.

“Have you been here long?”

“No, sir. Just a fraction of a glass.”

“Good. Follow me. I’ll introduce you to the patroller clerks, and you can go with First Patroller Baluzt and the coach-wagon taking this morning’s lot to the courts. He can explain how the procedures work.” Mardoyt offered a generous and open smile. “Possibly better than I can.”

“You’re the one who has to make sure all the supporting documents get to the court?”

“I also have to make certain that witnesses appear for any major offense. Tracking them down isn’t always easy, and it often takes a lieutenant and two patrollers to make sure that they do show up. We have another coach-wagon for witnesses.” He turned. “This way.”

We only walked across the hall into a room twice as large as the commander’s anteroom, and far more crowded, with seven writing desks and an entire wall filled with file cases stacked one on top of another. Three of the desks were empty, with files stacked on them. The walls might once have been white, but were now more like a dingy beige.

Only one of the patrollers seated at the desks even looked up, and that was a stocky and balding patroller first. “Sir?”

“This is Imager Master Rhennthyl, Baluzt. He’s the new imager liaison to the Patrol, and the subcommander wants him to see how we work. He spent last week on the charging desk.”

“Welcome, Master Rhennthyl. We’re not the exciting part of the Patrol, but if we don’t do our job, offenders get back on the street to cause more trouble.”

“I’ll leave him in your hands, Baluzt.” With another warm smile, Mardoyt inclined his head and then gracefully turned and left.

I stood waiting.

“Good. Follow me. I’ll introduce you to the patroller clerks, and you can go with First Patroller Baluzt and the coach-wagon taking this morning’s lot to the courts. He can explain how the procedures work.” Mardoyt offered a generous and open smile. “Possibly better than I can.”

“You’re the one who has to make sure all the supporting documents get to the court?”

“I also have to make certain that witnesses appear for any major offense. Tracking them down isn’t always easy, and it often takes a lieutenant and two patrollers to make sure that they do show up. We have another coach-wagon for witnesses.” He turned. “This way.”

We only walked across the hall into a room twice as large as the commander’s anteroom, and far more crowded, with seven writing desks and an entire wall filled with file cases stacked one on top of another. Three of the desks were empty, with files stacked on them. The walls might once have been white, but were now more like a dingy beige.

Only one of the patrollers seated at the desks even looked up, and that was a stocky and balding patroller first. “Sir?”

“This is Imager Master Rhennthyl, Baluzt. He’s the new imager liaison to the Patrol, and the subcommander wants him to see how we work. He spent last week on the charging desk.”

“Welcome, Master Rhennthyl. We’re not the exciting part of the Patrol, but if we don’t do our job, offenders get back on the street to cause more trouble.”

“I’ll leave him in your hands, Baluzt.” With another warm smile, Mardoyt inclined his head and then gracefully turned and left.

I stood waiting.

“What we do is simple, sir, and it’s the Namer’s pain in a sow’s rump.” Baluzt gestured at the piles of paper in front of him. “I get to make sure that we have all the papers on each prisoner, especially the charging slip, and Fagayn runs down the arresting patroller, the prisoner, and any witnesses that the lieutenant brings. Then I ride the coach-wagon over to the Square of Justice. Most times, we have two of them, one for prisoners, and one for patrollers and witnesses. If we’ve got a lot of prisoners, we’ll run a second load around noon. Then we sit in the chambers and produce prisoners, documents, patrollers, and witnesses when the presiding justice or the magistrate wants them. If we can’t, I get to explain to the justice why not. I don’t like that, and the lieutenant likes it less. Sereptyl handles the other chamber most days.”

“Do you ever deal with cases for districts other than in L’Excelsis?”

“Not unless we have a prisoner who’s a witness for them. That’s a pain, but it doesn’t happen often.” Baluzt stood. “You’ll ride with me, sir. We got to get this procession moving.”

I smiled. “I’ll try to stay out of the way.” I followed him down the corridor to another set of stairs that led down to the alleyway behind the Patrol building.

The two coach-wagons drawn up and waiting each took four horses. They were long enclosed wagons with but a single door and four rows of bench seats. On top, there was a seat for the driver-padded, if skimpily-and a seat behind the driver. After all the witnesses and prisoners were accounted for, I climbed up the first wagon to sit beside Baluzt behind the driver.

The patroller driver turned the coach-wagon onto East River Road, heading south, until we reached the Sud Bridge, then crossed the river and continued on the Avenue D’Commercia until it intersected the ring avenue around Council Hill. The Square of Justice, with the Hall of Justice and its various courts, was on the south end of the ring avenue. The trip took about three-fifths of a glass.

The patrollers escorted prisoners and witnesses in through a side door guarded by another patroller, and then up a back set of stairs into the justicing chambers. The one where Baluzt led me was not all that large, no more than fifteen yards by eight, with a dais at the north end. Upon the black dais was a wide and featureless black desk. Low-backed benches ran down the center of the chamber, facing the dais. They ended six or seven yards short of the dais. On each side of the open space were three shorter rows of benches.

Baluzt and I sat in the front row of the benches on the east side, with the three witnesses and the patrollers who would testify in the rows behind us. The prisoners, manacled with their hands behind their backs, sat in the benches on the west side facing us.

Shortly after we entered, several advocates appeared, and then the bailiff stepped forward and thumped a heavy oak staff, its uppermost part a bronze sheaf of some sort of grain. Everyone rose, and the presiding justice appeared, wearing a long gray robe, trimmed in black, unlike that of the Collegium justices, whose robes were trimmed in both black and red.

Another thump, and the bailiff intoned, “You may be seated. Bring forth the accused.”

Two patrollers marched forward a swarthy but graying older man until he stood before the dais.

“Sactedd D’Rien, you are charged with disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct. Who stands to defend the accused?” asked the justice.

“I do.” A man in a gray robe with white trim stepped forward and stood between the west benches and the dais.

“Who presents the case against the accused?”

“I do.” The angular prosecuting advocate was a brown-haired, clean-shaven man who didn’t look any older than I was.

“State the charges against the accused.”

“The accused faces a charge of disturbance and disorderly and using a weapon in refusing to desist in that behavior.”

The justice turned to the public defender. “How does the accused plead? Guilty, Not Guilty, No Plea, or For Mercy?”

“Guilty, Your Honor.”

The justice looked directly at the manacled old man. “Sactedd, your defender has offered a plea of Guilty. Do you accept that plea?”

“Yes, sir.” The weariness behind the words suggested a man for whom a penal workhouse or even a road crew would be a blessing.

“Having pled Guilty, this being your second conviction, you are sentenced to the rest of your natural life at light duty in the penal workhouse at Stuerlt.”

The first case was over so quickly that I was still wondering how it had gone so fast when the bailiff thumped his staff. “Bring forth the accused.”

The same two patrollers marched forward another man, younger, but clearly not in full possession of all faculties. He swayed as he walked.

“Longtime elver,” murmured one of the patrollers behind me.

“Zolierma Aayo, you are charged with public incapacity and use of a banned substance. Who stands to defend the accused?”

“I do.” The second of the two public defenders stepped forward.

Zolierma, an outlander of some sort, by his name, also pled Guilty, although I wondered if he had any idea of what he pled, and was sentenced to a penal workhouse as well.

I took more interest in the third case, when the bailiff intoned, “Bring forth the accused,” and the two patrollers marched forward two much younger men.

“Hydrat D’Taudis and Chelam D’Whayan, you are charged with disturbance of the peace, disorderly conduct, and assaulting a patroller. Who stands to defend the accused?”

“I do.” Instead of the two public defenders, another advocate, older and more dark-skinned, stepped forward.

“How do you plead?”

“They both plead Not Guilty to all charges, Your Honor,” offered the advocate.

“Very well.” The justice turned. “You may proceed, Prosecuting Advocate.”

As I recalled, there had been three men charged with throwing the liquid from slop pots at the patrollers, but I saw only two.

The prosecuting advocate turned toward us. “Patroller Tyenat to the bar.”

A tall and muscular patroller stood and stepped forward until he stood below the dais.

“Patroller Tyenat,” began the justice, “do you understand that you are required to tell the whole truth, and that your words must not deceive, either by elaboration or omission?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Proceed.”

The prosecutor addressed the patroller. “Please recount what occurred on the night of Meredi, thirty-second Erntyn, as it relates to the charges against the prisoners.”

“Yes, sir. I was just about to start off on foot patrol, when Captain Harraf came into the marshaling room and announced that there was a big disturbance in the South Middle taudis and that everyone was to take the dispatch wagon there. . . .” Tyenat went on to describe how he and nine other patrollers had reached the area just west of the Puryon Temple. “. . . they’d brought in patrollers from all across the city, and there were about fifty of us. That included a half squad of mounted riot patrollers. Three of us were posted at a gap gate in the wall east of their temple . . . the prisoners, those over there, had buckets. They jumped up on the wall. One of them threw the slop in it at us, but it missed. Morgyn told them to go home. They thumbed us, and then threw more shit at us. We charged them. They tried to kick us. Hydrat-he’s the short one-pulled a slider knife, but I knocked it out of his hand with my truncheon. . . .”

The prosecutor patiently asked question after question, then stopped and looked to the justice. “That is all for this witness, Your Honor.”

“Do you have any questions for the patroller, Advocate?” asked the justice.

“Yes, Your Honor.” The defense advocate stepped forward slightly. “Patroller Tyenat, did either of the prisoners show a weapon before you charged them?”

“No, sir. They taunted us, and threw slops at us, and refused to return to their homes.”

“How large was this purported slider knife?”

“Your Honor”-Baluzt rose-“the knife was entered as evidence.”

“So noted.”

The defense advocate asked several more questions, all aimed at trying to establish that the prisoners had done nothing more than be disorderly until they perceived that they were being attacked. Finally, he said, “No more questions, Your Honor.”

The justice looked down. “You may return to your place in the court, Patroller Tyenat.

“Are there any more witnesses?”

“We would like to have the accused state their case, Your Honor.”

Both Hydrat and Chelam told their stories, which were similar to what Tyenat had said, except that they insisted that they had not assaulted or intended to assault anyone, and that Hydrat had only drawn the knife when he thought that he would be attacked and hurt.

No one else offered anything else, and there was no mention of a third man.

After the defense advocate finished, the justice spent less than a tenth of a glass before straightening and nodding to the bailiff.

The bailiff thumped a heavy staff twice. “The accused will rise and step forward.”

The two patrollers escorted the two taudis-men forward until they stood below the dais.

“Hydrat D’Taudis and Chelam D’Whayan, the court finds you Not Guilty on the count of deliberate assault on a patroller, but Guilty of a lesser charge of negligent assault, and Guilty of disturbance and disorderly conduct. The court hereby sentences each of you to one year of service on the road crews of Solidar.” The justice looked to the bailiff.

The bailiff rapped his staff twice, and the gaol patrollers escorted the two men away.

Neither taudis-man looked particularly upset.

The rest of the day went on like that, without even a break for lunch, then ended at third glass. In no case were the charges dropped. By the time we gathered everyone together, another quarter glass had passed.

On the ride back, I asked Baluzt, “How soon do prisoners get sent to the penal workhouses or the road crew?”

“Could be as soon as tomorrow. Could be a week. They get sent once a week, usually the same day every week for each place. Tomorrow’s the day for Poignard-that’s where the dangerous ones go, or those who’ll be executed. Meredi’s for the two road crews-they’re housed in the south at the Iron Piers gaol or north at Sieuplier.”

I didn’t have much to say, but I kept thinking about the missing prisoner.

Once the wagons were unloaded, I made my way back up to the justicing preparatory study. Four patrollers were still there.

“Tomorrow’s schedule,” Baluzt said.

I heard steps and turned to see Mardoyt entering. “Lieutenant.”

“How was your day watching the justice proceedings, Master Rhennthyl?”

“Interesting, but long, I must confess.”

“It almost always is. It can be much longer if there’s an elaborate trial. If that happens, they’ll try that case with a senior justice, and cram all the minor cases into the two small court chambers with the junior justices. Means twice as much work for us with three chambers to cover. Fortunately for us, there’s nothing like that on the docket this week.” He half turned. “Is tomorrow’s schedule ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

I watched from the side as Mardoyt reviewed the cases scheduled for Mardi and as he and Baluzt discussed the arrangements and patroller assignments.

Before he left, Mardoyt turned to me. “I’ll see you in the morning, Master Rhennthyl, but you’ll be going with Baluzt again.”

After I left Baluzt, I made my way back down to the charging desk.

“Master Rhennthyl.”

“Gulyart . . . would you mind if I checked the ledger? I’m trying to recall a case we saw today.”

He laughed and pushed the charging ledger over to me.

As I’d thought, there were three names associated with the piss-bucket case-Hydrat D’Taudis, Chelam D’Whayan, and Chardyn D’Steinyn. Once I checked the names in the ledger, I went to the files in the cases behind Gulyart.

There was no sheet on Chardyn. The other two had sheets listing the charges, but not him. As I remembered, he’d been the quiet one of Pharsi-Caenenan heritage. He’d given his name and nothing else.

“Gulyart, when does a record sheet get put in here?”

“Once we charge them, the patrollers working for Mardoyt send down the sheets with the convictions and sentences. Once in a while the charges are dropped. After the trial, they send lists with the names, and when I can, I update the records.”

“Do the sheets with the charges arrive here before the trial?”

“They’re supposed to, but they don’t always.”

“Thank you.” I had the feeling that the sheet on Chardyn would never show up, but I’d still have to check later. “Good evening. I’ll see you later.”

Gulyart nodded pleasantly as I left.

I was still pondering the missing records sheet when I got back to my room and found a package wrapped in brown paper had been set inside my door. There was a note on the top.

This arrived late this afternoon.

Beleart

The envelope on top had my name, but was unsealed with nothing inside. I had to cut the heavy cord before I could unfasten the heavy gray paper wrapping. Inside were another envelope, still sealed, and a tattered long brown cloak and a frayed black-and-brown plaid cap whose brown did not match the cloak. I had to smile at that, clearly a touch of Seliora’s, but a subtlety I would not have considered.

I opened the envelope to find a plain white card with just a few words.

South Middle at Dugalle, sixth and a half, Meredi.

So now I could meet with Horazt and learn something-if I happened to be fortunate.

14

What I observed in the justice chamber on Mardi was much the same as what I had seen on Lundi, although there were three separate cases involving the sale of elveweed. Meredi followed the same pattern, except that one prisoner was released because none of the witnesses could be found, and no patroller had observed the reported assault on a taudis-dweller. The purported victim could not identify who attacked him, and three women of what I would have termed dubious occupations insisted that the accused had been with them. The advocate for the accused was not a public advocate, but the same man who had defended the two piss-bucket assailants on Lundi.

I was getting a very definite feel for matters, and I didn’t exactly like what I was seeing, but as with other matters I didn’t like, there wasn’t anything faintly resembling proof.

The caseload at the Square of Justice was heavier on Meredi, and Baluzt and I-and the coach-wagons-did not return to Patrol headquarters until almost fifth glass. I couldn’t have walked to the Collegium, eaten, and then taken a hack to meet Horazt, not and be there by half past sixth glass. Instead, I decided that I’d walk to Chaelia’s and sample the cooking there. I carried the package holding the cloak and cap. I certainly wasn’t about to wear them until after I left Chaelia’s.

According to Seliora’s directions, the bistro was two blocks east and off Pousaint. Her directions were quite accurate. I’d had the impression that the place was just a common bistro, but it wasn’t, not from the outside. The polished light oak double doors were framed by a bright green casement, and the shutters on each side of the sets of leaded glass windows were of the same green. Two large bright brass lamps were set on each side of the door, and the front facade of the bistro was of gray stone, rather than of brick.

I’d barely stepped inside when Staelia hurried forward. She wore black trousers and a gray sweater, with no jewelry. The effect was strangely impressive, perhaps because her skin was just olive-dark enough that her face stood out against the pale gray.

“Master Rhennthyl! I wondered when we might see you.”

She spoke loudly enough that several people looked up from the nearby tables to study me. The bistro was mostly full. After a moment I realized that the loudness had been deliberate, and a way of reassuring everyone that I was known and expected. I couldn’t help but smile.

“This is the first time I could get away for a meal. I haven’t had lunch off all week.”

“I’m glad you could come, whenever it happened to be.” She led me back through the tables, all of which were covered in pale green linen, and sat me at a small circular table near the rear, but not the one next to the door to the kitchen.

“No one told me what Chaelia’s was like,” I said as I seated myself in the chair that would let me watch the front of the restaurant.

“Some things are better left undescribed.”

Like Seliora, I thought. “You told me what not to order. What would you recommend? I didn’t have lunch, but I have to meet someone later.”

Staelia nodded. “The fowl with brown mushrooms and grass rice, with the blanched vegetables on the side. It comes with a small plate of greens.”

“That sounds good. Cambrisio or Grisio?”

“We have a sparkling Grisio.”

“Done.” I grinned.

Staelia returned with the wine almost immediately, and I sat and sipped it, studying the others in the dining area. Almost all the diners wore coats or dresses or skirts with jackets. I was the only person dining alone. Couples or sets of couples comprised those at other tables.

In a short time, Staelia returned, placing the “small” plate of greens before me-a full salad with fresh fall apple slivers, toasted almond fragments, and a crumbly bluish cheese.

“Thank you.”

“We’re glad you came. Would you mind if Taelia and Sartan came over and met you?”

“Not at all.” While I couldn’t have said anything else, I did want to meet them.

In moments, they were there. Taelia looked to be a year or two older than Khethila, and she took more after her father, shorter, a bit more solid than her mother, with Clyenn’s light brown hair.

Sartan was taller than his mother, a shade taller than me, black-haired, and was probably about twenty. His mother’s features looked good on him, and there was a twinkle in his eye as he said, “I’m very glad to meet you, Master Rhennthyl. Everyone has been talking about you.”

I didn’t bother to conceal the wince. “I just hope it’s not too bad.”

They all laughed. Then Sartan and Taelia slipped away.

“They’re good children,” Staelia said.

“They look that way.”

Someone entered the restaurant, and Staelia nodded and left.

I addressed the “small” salad, and after Staelia had seated the two couples who had just entered and turned them over to Taelia, she eventually returned to my table.

“Did you like the greens?”

“They were excellent. What was the cheese?”

“Blue cave cheese from north of Eshtora. It doesn’t take much to give a special flavor to greens. It’s a pity it doesn’t take heat. You can’t use it in most cooked dishes unless you add it at the very end.” She paused. “Seliora is my favorite niece.”

“She thinks most highly of you.” I had an idea what might be coming next.

“You know that Seliora thinks you’re very special.”

“I think she’s more than special.”

“That’s good. I’ve never seen her look at anyone like she does you . . . but . . .”

“You have reservations about me?”

“You could be a very dangerous man, Rhenn, and women can be hurt by dangerous men, even unintentionally.”

Staelia’s words were a bit of a shock. I’d never been called dangerous, and she wasn’t flattering me by doing so. Still, she deserved an answer. “I’m involved in a dangerous profession, Staelia, and I’ve never hidden that from Seliora or her parents.”

“I know, but Betara has her reasons.”

“I know that, too,” I replied softly. “I’ve thought about it more than a little, and Seliora knows that.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “You look the type to have done that.” A crooked smile followed, part affectionate and part wry. “That makes you more dangerous and more desirable, and not just to Seliora, you realize.”

That was something I hadn’t thought about.

“Good! You need to think about that. Now . . . I need to get your entree.” She straightened and headed for the kitchen.

I took another sip of sparkling Grisio, thinking that it was no wonder none of the men in Grandmama Diestra’s family strayed. I also wondered if the death of Aegina’s husband had been exactly unrelated to the family, despite what Seliora had said about it.

Staelia returned with a platter that she set before me. “I hope you like it.”

“I’m sure I will.” I was still hungry enough that I started right in. The fowl had been pounded thin and tender, breaded in some sort of savory crumbs I didn’t recognize, cooked quickly at high heat while only browning the covering, and then served with some sort of thickened wine sauce with sauteed mushrooms. The side vegetables-beans and carrot strips-were still crisp, yet both warm and tender.

I ate it all, enjoying every bite, and I’d barely finished when Staelia returned.

“How was it?”

“Delicious, better than you said, if anything.”

“Good. Clyenn will be pleased.”

“I’m going to have to go. I do have this meeting . . . How much?”

“You’re almost family . . .”

“I’m also with the Patrol, and not paying . . .” I shrugged. “That could cause me some difficulties. I hope you aren’t offended, but I’m a very junior master and need to be very careful.”

She smiled, an expression of both understanding and relief. “It would be a silver and one, but we do give all patrollers a tenth off. So just a silver.” Her eyes twinkled. “And you don’t tip family.”

“Yes, Aunt Staelia.”

She laughed softly, but she did take the single silver coin.

As I left, I realized that the dinner was one of the best I’d had in a restaurant, and I wondered why Seliora hadn’t suggested we eat there. Because it was family, or because she hadn’t wanted to expose me to Staelia’s protectiveness too early? I’d have to tease her about that. In any case, I wouldn’t be taking any patrollers to Chaelia’s to eat, but not for the reason I’d originally thought, but because most of them couldn’t have afforded it, and I couldn’t afford to pay for them as well as for myself. In fact, I couldn’t afford to eat there often.

It didn’t take long to hail a hack. Once inside, I donned the awful wool cloak and the mismatched plaid cap. I had the driver drop me about a mille up South Middle, past the side street that held the Third District Civic Patrol station, but a half mille short of where I was to meet Horazt.

The driver gave me a knowing smile when I paid him. Doubtless he thought I was up to something out of a swash-and-dagger mystery . . . or looking for low pleasures with lower women.

Now that the sun had set, as I walked eastward on the south side of South Middle, my shields as strong as practicable, I could see more people on the streets, but most of them were men. The worn cloak and the cap seemed to help, because I got far fewer glances than I had when I’d walked the same street earlier in obvious imager grays.

Before I reached Dugalle, Horazt stepped out of a niche in the wall and began to walk beside me. He wore a black cloak, one finer than the plaid I’d donned, but no cap.

“You wanted to talk to me, Master Rhennthyl?”

“I did. First, I wanted to tell you that Shault is doing well at Imagisle. He had a little trouble at first, but now-”

“He wrote Chelya. He said that after you talked to him, no one bothered him. His mother and I thank you for that kindness.”

“He still has a long road to walk, and it’s not an easy one.”

“He’ll do better there.”

“I think so, but it’s not easy.”

We kept walking, not slowly, but not all that rapidly, either.

I gestured to the oblong structure ahead and to the right of the chest-high wall. “That’s the Temple of Puryon, isn’t it?”

“Call it that and the equalifiers get real upset.” Horazt’s voice carried a sourness. “They want everyone to call it the House of Equality. Don’t much like taudischefs or imagers.”

“So I’ve heard. The Patrol said that the riot was caused by street preaching.”

Horazt didn’t say anything.

“Was it?”

“Nah . . . well . . . sort of. One of their priest-fellows stood on the steps and started one of their rhyme stuff. You know . . .

“To Puryon all give love and praise,

To Him all hymns of joy we raise,

Praise Him, all living here below.

Praise Him, and all equal things we know . . .”

Horazt broke off. “It’s something like that, anyhow.”

“You don’t much care for the equalifiers, I take it?”

“They’re like the stones lining the river, in the shallow water near the edge. You step in, and they’re so slippery that you’re in up to your neck ’fore you know it.” Horazt spat to the side, downwind, thankfully. “They talk about how everyone’s got equal stuff inside ’em, but they don’t say till later that anyone who’s real different belongs to the Namer-well, that’s not what they call Him, but He’s the evil one that collects the spirits when folks die and freezes ’em so they shiver forever . . .”

“Do the priests in the Temple pay for advocates when the Patrol picks up offenders?”

Horazt just spat again.

“The other day, there was a man who was in the riot. He looked like he was Caenenan or Tiempran. He got the charges dropped, and the other two went to the road crew for a year.”

“Chardyn D’Steinyn,” Horazt admitted.

“Your doing?”

He shook his head. “He’s an enforcer for Youdh. Youdh went to their priest”-he inclined his head toward the Temple building-“and Chardyn came back the next day.”

“What does it cost?”

Horazt looked at me hard.

“I’m not a patroller, but I’ve spent the last few weeks at headquarters, and there are charges dropped and prisoners released without charges. I’ve got a good idea about who does what, but I want to know how it looks from where you are. I need to know what they pocket.”

Horazt shrugged innocently. “I don’t do that dung.”

“I didn’t say you did, but I’d wager that you know what it costs those who do.”

“I heard Chefaryl say that the going rate’s three golds to kill a minor, ten golds for a major, five golds to drop a major to a minor. Can’t pay out of a charge if a patroller’s injured. Got to pay quick, right up-front, before they go before a justice.”

“Are there special occasions when a taudischef has to pay more?”

Horazt grinned. “Not me. Don’t pay. Anyone stupid enough to get caught I don’t want. I told my boys that.”

“But Youdh?”

“He’s like an old-time taudischef. Got favorites. Got lots of golds.”

“Who makes the payoffs for Youdh?”

Horazt shrugged.

“Who takes them? It’s got to be some lower level patroller, not that they stay there.”

“Mardoyt gets them. Everyone knows that. Baluzt is his pocket man. Word is that some goes back to Harraf.”

None of that especially surprised me, although I suppose that it would have a year earlier. “And it’s all in coin, with no proof of anything. Don’t Youdh and the others worry about being double-crossed?”

“It happens. That’s why Baluzt is a first patroller and pocket man. Smyrrt got too cocky, held out on Artazt, down in the hellhole. A course right after that, Artazt got mixed up in something with a High Holder. Detazt took over.”

“I suppose it works the other way, too.”

Horazt frowned.

“Someone gets arrested, and there’s no proof, no witnesses. I saw that happen last week. The justice had to dismiss the charges. I don’t suppose there’s a going rate for that.”

“Two golds . . . so I hear. Enough of all that.”

I accepted that . . . for the moment. “Did Youdh’s people start the riot?”

“They weren’t mine or Jadhyl’s.”

“And Youdh’s chefdom is the one closest to the Temple.” That was a guess.

“Horses drop dung where they please. Most times in their own stableyard.”

“How long before Youdh makes another move for your territory, do you think?”

“He’ll pay dear, friggin’ sow-sucker.”

“Someone’s been shooting at patrollers and others with snipers’ rifles.”

“Don’t know about that.” Horazt slowed and stared at me. “I’m meeting with you. My turn, now. You walk with me through Youdh’s streets, and we’d both better walk out.”

“Fair enough.” I’d known he’d want something in return, and I hoped I could keep matters from getting too expensive.

“You know when the conscriptors are coming through the taudis?” Horazt’s tone was offhand, but his bearing wasn’t.

“I haven’t heard anything. You think that might cause another riot?”

“Might. Sometimes that’d be the only way to get the young ones away ’fore they get dragged off. There’s talk of war, and a couple of black coach-wagons headed out the Sudroad yesterday.”

What Horazt said made too much sense, but I still didn’t know. “You’re probably right, but I haven’t heard anything.”

He spat once more.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” I said gently, “tell me more about the South Middle taudis, things everyone here knows, like which part is your territory, which is Jadhyl’s, which Youdh’s . . .”

“I got the part north of Dugalle . . .”

I listened and watched as we walked a half mille past Dugalle before we got to Feramyo.

“Here.” Horazt turned.

I kept pace with him

“Not so many equalifiers down here,” I said.

“Youdh doesn’t like ’em.”

The buildings were older than those near the Temple-or the House of Equality-and even the handful of better-kept dwellings with recently washed windows seemed to have years of grime caught within the glass itself-at least that was the way they seemed from the lamplight coming from within. The faint but acrid smell of elveweed was more prevalent. With the sun completely set, only a handful of streetlamps lit, and neither moon more than a crescent, seeing more than a handful of yards in any detail was difficult.

Just short of two blocks along Feramyo, two men-barely more than youths-eased from a side alley toward us.

“This isn’t your part of town,” said the shorter one, revealing a blade.

“Better just turn around,” added the taller.

“I’m Horazt. I walk where I please.”

“Youdh doesn’t care if you’re the Namer. We don’t either.”

“The streets in L’Excelsis are open to all,” I said mildly, readying a nonlethal imaging and hoping it would not be necessary.

“We warned you.” The shorter one lunged, but his feet slipped from under him on the oil I’d imaged under them, and he hit the pavement hard enough that the knife skittered across the worn stones.

The second one fired his pistol through his cloak. The impact on my shields forced me back a step, but I imaged a bit of caustic into his eyes, and oil under his feet before giving him a shove. He also went down hard. “Shall we continue?” I asked Horazt.

The taudischef glanced at the two figures, one unconscious and the other moaning and rubbing at his eyes. “Another block.”

We didn’t make it quite a block before three muscular figures in dark brown appeared. They didn’t say a word, just began swinging blades-for the moment before I imaged all three blades from their hands and onto the pavement.

One of them backed away. The other two drew old-style heavy pistols. I imaged the cartridges from both before they pulled the triggers.

“You fellows might get hurt if you keep trying to cause trouble,” I offered.

One of the two remaining took one step back, then another. The remaining tough, a good half head taller than me, charged. He took two steps before he rammed into the extra-hard shield I’d imaged for just a moment. As he staggered back, his feet went out from under him on imaged oil, and he went down hard. The only problem was that he immediately jumped to his feet . . . and slammed down a second time. When he started to rise a third time, Horazt kicked him in the temple.

He didn’t get up after that.

No one bothered us on the way back out to South Middle, but I kept full shields and a wary eye. We walked back along the south side, the way we had come.

As we neared Dugalle, Horazt finally spoke. “You’re the first patroller or imager to walk the taudis alone at night in years. Maybe ever.”

Possibly the last and stupidest, as well, I thought. “It’s not something I plan to make a habit of, but I asked for a favor, and it’s best to repay them.”

Horazt laughed, a touch nervously, I thought.

“If you do hear of things that don’t really belong in the taudis, I would appreciate hearing about it,” I said. “That might be best for both of us.”

“It might.” He paused. “It’ll come through Mama Diestra.”

“That’s fine.”

He turned down Dugalle, and I kept walking toward the Midroad.

At that moment, something flashed before my eyes-some sort of fire, I thought, climbing up the side of a brick building. For the moment that I saw the image, I tried to identify what I’d seen.

Had I really seen it?

Or was it just an illusion because my legs were shaky and my vision blurry from too much imaging in a short time? Outside of holding heavy shields, I really hadn’t done that much imaging in weeks, even several months, now that I thought about it. I made a mental note to remedy that . . . when I wasn’t already exhausted.

As I trudged westward, I hoped I didn’t have to do any more imaging anytime soon-and that I could find a hack to hail before too long. But the brief image of the fire climbing the brick wall remained with me, and I tried on the ride back toward Imagisle, without success, to recall anything-or any place-that looked like what I’d briefly seen.

15

I did stagger back to Imagisle on Meredi night, and almost overslept on Jeudi morning. I thought I’d had more dreams about fires, but I didn’t remember them at all clearly. The newsheets I picked up hurriedly after breakfast didn’t mention any large fires, either, but they might not have, because they were reporting that Ferrum was ready to declare war on Solidar, if our ships insisted on protecting “the enemies of Ferrum.” One of those enemies happened to be the Abierto Isles.

There wasn’t much I could do about that and, fortunately, all I had to do on Jeudi, again, was watch justicing proceedings, and keep mental track of two more cases where the charges were dropped.

Jeudi night, after Mardoyt was tied up with the final scheduling of prisoners, witnesses, and evidence for Vendrei’s hearings, I checked the cases. One charge sheet was missing, and in the other case, the charges were listed as being dropped. That made sense, because the accused already had a record of a year on the road crew, if three years earlier. If his record sheet suddenly disappeared, a few too many questions might be asked.

By Vendrei morning, even after a more spirited hand-to-hand sparring contest with one of Clovyl’s assistants, I was feeling back to normal. But I tried to remind myself that there was definitely a limit to what I could image. Vendrei was like every other day that week, with more cases being disposed of quickly by the presiding justice. In only two cases were there Not Guilty pleas, and in one, the justice actually acquitted the accused. That might have been because the case probably never should have gotten that far-the girl had been fast and loose with her favors, but clearly not soliciting, and she’d never used or had a weapon.

When Baluzt and I and the coach-wagons returned to headquarters Vendrei night, through a mist that was threatening to become a full-fledged rain, a patroller greeted me almost as soon as I’d stepped down into the back alley.

“Master Rhennthyl, sir, the subcommander would like to see you immediately.”

“Thank you.”

Cydarth was standing by the window again, and I had to wonder if that happened to be his favorite position for meeting people. He turned. “Master Rhennthyl, how have you enjoyed your week at the justice hall?”

“It has been informative in many ways,” I replied.

“That’s good. Both the commander and I felt that seeing the charging process and the trials would give you a better idea of what happens to offenders. Now that you’ve seen that, the commander feels that you need to see the street side of the Patrol. Starting Lundi morning, at seventh glass, you’ll be accompanying various patrollers out of the Third District station off South Middle. Captain Harraf will be expecting you.”

“Yes, sir.” Seventh glass. That meant a very quick shower and breakfast snatched on the run. Third District was the station with the responsibility for the South Middle taudis . . . and an additional two milles from Imagisle.

“I’m most certain that you will find that duty more interesting, Master Rhennthyl. I won’t keep you. If you would tell Lieutenant Mardoyt of your change of duty, I would appreciate it.”

“I will, sir.” I inclined my head, then departed, making my way down the upper level hallway to Mardoyt’s study. I caught him as he was about to leave, probably for the court preparation room.

“If I could have a moment, sir. The subcommander has decided that a week of observing your duties was sufficient. He’s assigned me to observe Third District next week.”

“What we do”-Mardoyt smiled warmly-“isn’t terribly interesting. Necessary, but not intriguing.”

“I’ve learned a great deal.” And I had, if not exactly what Mardoyt would have wished.

“You’re obviously an imager with a future, Master Rhennthyl,” Mardoyt said. “That’s clear from the ease with which you’ve picked up how the Patrol works.”

“You and the others have gone out of your way to make sure I understand, and I appreciate that.”

“You’ve been most diligent in checking the charge sheets against the justice proceedings, I also understand.”

“I just want to make sure that I understand how things really work, Lieutenant.” I smiled pleasantly.

“You’re a very bright man, especially for an imager, Master Rhennthyl, and you have quite a future. That Seliora D’Shelim is quite a beauty, I understand. Like a fine blade or a good pistol. You know, a year or so ago, a young man, not much older than you, Master Rhennthyl . . . well . . . he was shot. He was Pharsi, and he wouldn’t say anything, but there were only two girls who could have done it. One was Seliora.” Mardoyt shrugged. “He got it in the shoulder, but he lived, and no one in the Patrol thought there was any reason to get involved in a Pharsi love spat. Not when no one would say anything.”

I wasn’t surprised that Mardoyt had made his own inquiries, not after Grandmama Diestra’s cautions to me. I couldn’t even say I was surprised that Seliora had shot someone who’d attempted to force himself on her. I’d seen her use the pistol to get me to safety.

“Her family has done well, coming up from the taudis,” Mardoyt went on, “but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they still didn’t have ties to some people there that the Patrol would like to put away for a long time.”

“They’ve never mentioned anything like that.”

“I suppose they wouldn’t, not to an upstanding young imager like you.”

“It wouldn’t matter.” I laughed softly. “We get all types at Imagisle, from the children of High Holders to those from the taudis. Some have even been brothers to taudischefs. At Imagisle, what you do is what matters, not where you came from.”

“I suppose that’s true.” He shook his head. “It’s too bad that the rest of L’Excelsis and Solidar aren’t like that. I’ve seen families suffer, sometimes even to the point of being ruined, when people find out their past.” He shrugged. “Sometimes, that past isn’t even past. You never know.”

I nodded. “That’s true.” I wanted to add something, but anything I said along those lines, such as that the most respectable-seeming officers were often nothing like that, would have revealed too much. Better to leave the lieutenant guessing. “If you don’t have anything else for me, sir, I’ll be leaving.”

“Best of fortune at Third District.”

“Thank you.” I walked out of the anteroom and down the corridor to the stairs, then I stopped and stepped back into the alcove beside the steps, erecting an image shield that matched the wall-I hoped.

Before long, Mardoyt appeared, and walked past me and down the steps. At the bottom, he eased open the door, looked, and then closed it, before turning and walking back up and past me. His actions were more than suggestive, but certainly not proof. I waited until he entered the courtroom preparation chamber before slipping down the stairs to the charging area.

Gulyart was still at the charging desk, alone with several stacks of paper.

“Would you like some help filling out some of those?” I asked. “I’ve got a little time.”

Gulyart smiled faintly.

“I mean it.” I pulled up a chair. “Just tell me what you want done.”

“If you don’t mind . . . Ghrisha would be glad that I got home before it gets too dark.”

I followed his example, checking the record sheets that had been delivered, and then filing them, after making any necessary changes or entering changes on existing records sheets and then replacing them. Along the way, I sneaked a look at several areas of the files, but the sheets I was looking for weren’t there, including the one that should have been on Chardyn D’Steinyn. Only after close to half a glass, when we were nearing the end of the pile, did I speak.

“Someone mentioned a first patroller named Smyrrt who used to work for Lieutenant Mardoyt. I got the impression that something had happened to him.”

Gulyart nodded. “He was killed last winter, walking by that new stone building some three blocks up on his way home. Someone knocked over a stack of cut granite . . . fell three stories and hit him. Anyway, he was found under the stone, and his skull was crushed. . . .”

“That sounds like accidental on purpose,” I observed.

“Some said it was.” Gulyart shrugged. “But Mardoyt looked into it and said it was an accident. Everyone agreed.”

“Then it was an accident.” I paused. “Have a good weekend.”

“I will . . . and thank you for the help.”

When I left the Patrol headquarters, I did hail a hack to take me back to the Collegium, and not because of the rain, which wasn’t that heavy, but because I wanted to get there in time to talk to Master Dichartyn. I was fortunate enough to find him in and momentarily unoccupied.

“I thought I might be seeing you. Have you been reassigned yet?”

“Third District, starting on Lundi.” I eased off my damp gray woolen cloak and sat down in the armless wooden chair across the writing desk from him.

“What of great import do you have to impart?”

I ignored the sarcasm. “Mardoyt’s taking payoffs to lose charge sheets or get charges reduced before they’re presented to the justices. There’s no real proof except for missing charge sheets.”

“That’s always been a problem, with whoever’s held that position. What else?”

“A taudischef named Youdh is fairly close to the Tiempran priests who incited the riots, and they paid for the advocate to represent some of those sentenced, as well as the bribes to get some of the charges unofficially dropped. It’s well known that Baluzt is the pocket man for Mardoyt.”

“I see that you haven’t confined your observations to what has been presented to you, but you’ll have to do better if you want to change matters.”

“Should I want to change them?”

That brought a frown to Dichartyn’s face.

“You pointed out that I was only to be an observer, sir. If the Civic Patrol structure is such that it encourages bribery, that’s not exactly something for a liaison to address, is it?”

“No. But proof would help.”

I was the one to laugh. “Mardoyt has years of experience in avoiding providing proof. What I know absolutely and what I can prove are two separate matters, and you know that far better than I, sir.”

“I’m glad to see you recognize that. Just don’t mention what you’ve told me to anyone except Master Poincaryt until you do have proof.” He cleared his throat. “There’s one other thing. The Council is having its annual Autumn Ball on Vendrei the thirty-fourth of next month.”

“Do they have one every season?”

“Every season except summer. Although Master Schorzat and I both have some reservations about your methods, your ability to discern trouble is extremely good. We have agreed that your presence will be salutary. Since you are no longer officially part of Council security, you will need to wear the black formal jacket of a Solidaran functionary-and the imager’s pin, of course. This is not a deception because as both a master imager and a liaison to the Civic Patrol, you are exactly that. The tailor is expecting you for a fitting tomorrow at ninth glass, after you finish your session with Master Rholyn.”

“Speaking of that, sir, it’s getting rather chill in the studio. If it gets much colder, I won’t be able to paint because the oils will harden too much. I’m going to need some way to heat the studio on the coldest days.”

“I can see that, but just talk to Grandisyn. I’m sure you two can figure something out.”

“I didn’t wish to go around you, sir.”

“For matters like that,” Master Dichartyn said dryly, “please do.”

“I have another question.”

“Oh?”

“I’d like to paint the portrait of the young woman who saved my life. But since the Collegium paid for everything, from canvases to paints, I don’t know how exactly to repay the Collegium. Also, is it possible to have her do the sittings here at the studio . . . if I make sure she only takes the public ways?”

Master Dichartyn laughed. “We’re not that secretive, Rhenn, and the Collegium certainly won’t have a problem with your painting her portrait or, as you indicated earlier, portraits of other imagers who are friends or acquaintances.”

“I didn’t want to take any advantage . . .”

“That’s very clear . . . and appreciated. Is there anything else? If not . . .” He stood.

“There was one other thing . . . some of the taudischefs are worried about conscriptors scouring the taudis for youngsters.”

Master Dichartyn shook his head. “They don’t tell me, but it will happen, and sooner than later. The Army and Navy are always short of men, and it’s been a good year since the last sweep. I don’t feel that sorry for the taudischefs. Most of the boys will fare better outside the taudis, even in war.”

He was probably right about that-and I was definitely missing something, something that he wasn’t about to tell me . . . as always.

I hurried to the dining hall, only to find that the only convenient space at the masters’ table was one to the left of the pattern-finder Quaelyn. On his right was Maitre Dyana.

“Good evening, Rhennthyl,” she offered.

“Good evening, maitre, Master Quaelyn,” I replied as I seated myself.

“How are you finding the Civic Patrol?” she returned.

“Enlightening in ways that I never considered, but possibly should have.” I tried to keep my tone light and wry, accepting the platter of river trout, each wrapped in what passed for parchment.

“A certain practicality, leavened, as it were, by personal necessity?” inquired Quaelyn.

“That’s one way of putting it.” I poured some of the red table wine. I didn’t know what it was, but felt I could use some.

“Practicality and personal necessity. Imagine that,” murmured someone.

“What do your patterns say about how the coming war will affect the High Holders?” I looked to the older master.

“Your question, Rhennthyl, contains a number of assumptions, such as there being a war, that such a war will impact Solidar in more than a minimal sense, and that such impacts will indeed affect High Holders as such.”

“If you would address Rhenn’s assumptions first, then,” suggested Maitre Dyana.

“The first assumption is the most reasonable, because whether an actual war is declared or not, there is a definite struggle for economic and military control, but the impacts of such a war are likely to be indirect at best. That is because the Ferrans-or the Tiemprans or anyone else-do not have adequate troop transport capabilities to bring an army onto Solidaran soil. In the worst case, there will be shortages of certain goods, such as spices, rarer metals, specialty woods, and minerals. Shortages drive up prices of those goods and others as well. Such price increases will impact the poorest in Solidar the most, the crafters almost as much, the factors less, and the vast majority of High Holders minimally.” Quaelyn smiled apologetically and somewhat condescendingly.

“I see your reasoning.” I smiled. “Thank you.” I might be missing something in regards to Master Dichartyn, but I had the feeling that Quaelyn was missing a vital aspect. The taudis already had periodic riots from various causes, and with another conscription effort, followed by higher prices of even a few goods, parts of Solidar-and L’Excelsis-were likely to face more in the way of riots and unrest. He might be right in that such unrest would not extend to the lands and properties of the High Holders . . . but I wouldn’t have wagered much on that, although I couldn’t have said why.

“With what patterns will the Council respond?” I pressed.

“They will lay the blame primarily upon the Ferrans, and secondarily upon the factoring class, which will respond by pointing out that they did not cause the shortages and that the Council did nothing to anticipate the problems at hand. . . .”

I nodded and kept listening.

16

Samedi morning afforded no rest, not that Samedis ever did. I hurried through everything so that I could get to the studio early enough to set up and-hopefully-to talk to Grandisyn, but he wasn’t anywhere around. I’d have to see him on Lundi, then.

Maitre Rholyn appeared in the studio a few moments before eighth glass.

“The standing position?”

“If you would, sir.” I paused. “Before we begin, might I ask where it appears the Council stands on the question of war with Ferrum?”

“You can certainly ask, but the Council has declared it opposes war and is unlikely to discuss the matter unless the situation changes.”

In short, they’d wait until Ferrum acted.

“Have you thought about my comments of last week?” he asked as he put one foot on the crate.

For a moment I had to search mentally for what he’d said-he’d implied that the Collegium was more authoritarian than even the Council, although his words had been more carefully chosen than that. “Yes, sir. There were several implications behind your words. At least, I thought there were.”

“Such as?” He smiled faintly.

“The implication that while some fictions, such as not overtly conceding the obvious in identifying Council security force members as imagers, may be obvious, they are also necessary.”

“Oh? How so?”

“Manners are often a fiction, yet without them, all too many gatherings and conversations might well end in violence.” I picked up the palette and the fine-tipped brush.

That brought a nod. “Did you . . . ponder any others?”

“I could be mistaken, but I gathered the impression that you implied there was a trade-off between accountability and authority.”

Rholyn frowned, as I’d hoped he might. “How did you reach that conclusion?”

“You discussed how the Council must reach a consensus for a decision, but how the Collegium almost always accepts the decision of the chief maitre. The difference is that all know that the Maitre D’Collegium is fully accountable to the Collegium and can be replaced by a vote of all masters at any time, whereas councilors serve fixed terms, regardless of their actions. Also, seldom, if ever, is a single councilor made accountable for a Council action. Thus, it is clear that while the Maitre D’Collegium is accountable, such sole accountability is far from clear with the Council of Solidar, even when the Executive Council acts independently.”

Maitre Rholyn laughed. I thought the sound was a trace forced.

“In time, you might well represent the Collegium before the Council, Rhenn.”

“I think not, sir. I am not always the best at reserving my views for the time most appropriate for disclosure.”

“That may come with experience.” He turned his head. “This way?”

“A bit more toward me.”

After that, Rholyn did not mention anything of great import. Once he departed, a few moments before ninth glass, I cleaned up the studio, then looked once more for Grandisyn, who remained nowhere to be found, and hastened back to the quadrangle for my fitting.

Based on the way I felt matters would be going over the weekend, after my fitting with the tailor, I immediately took a hack from the west side of the Bridge of Desires to see Khethila and Father at the factorage. As soon as the hack stopped and I stepped out, I could see that something was wrong. There was a definite odor of smoke and burned wool, and Eilthyr was standing outside by the front doors, propped wide open, just below the tasteful sign proclaiming Alusine Wool, set on the yellow bricks of the wall comprising the long front of the one-story building. The loading docks were in back, more toward the south end, but still out of sight.

“Master Rhennthyl, we’re closed ’cause of the fire, but Mistress Khethila and Factor Chenkyr are inside.”

“A fire? Where?” A coldness flashed down my spine.

“In the back on the north end.”

I hurried up the steps to the open double oak doors and inside, where the heavy acrid odor of smoke assaulted me. I glanced beyond the open area before the racks that held the swathes of various wools. To the right was another set of racks with the lighter fabrics-muslin, cotton, linen. Behind that was the raised platform with desks and files from where Father-and now Khethila-could watch the entry.

Khethila hurried toward me. I didn’t see Father.

“Rhenn . . . how did you know?”

“I had a feeling I should come.” That was accurate enough. “What happened? How bad is it?”

“Someone pried open the boarded-up window in the small storeroom-the one Father converted-and threw something in-something like a glass jug of lamp oil. Everything there is ruined, but Sherol-the night watch-he stopped the flames. He was burned badly.”

“He’s dead?”

She shook her head. “Father doesn’t think he’ll live, but he’s still alive. He’s at the South Hospital of the Nameless.”

“Where’s Father?”

“He’s in back. The Civic Patrol and the fire brigade left a while ago. The Patrol wasn’t that helpful. Oh, they were nice enough, but how can you find someone that no one even saw? It’s not like they stole goods that might be traced, or even golds. Even before this, it wasn’t that good a week.”

“Something happened in Kherseilles?”

She nodded wearily. “One of the properties adjoining the factorage building was sold. The new owner required a survey. He claims the building wall and the courtyard wall were built on his land. He’s asking that they be removed-or for five hundred golds to convey the property that the walls were built on. The discrepancy is all of half a yard. Five hundred golds for a strip twenty yards long and half a yard wide.”

“Who’s the new owner?”

“Rousel doesn’t know. The Banque D’Rivages is handling it through the Banque D’Kherseilles.”

“How long since Father built the place?” I thought it had been ten years.

“Nine years.” She shook her head. “Ten, and it wouldn’t matter.”

“Can’t Father require compensation from the original surveyor?”

“He’s dead.”

“Oh.” I had a very good idea who was behind what had happened, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the surveys and documents presented had even been forged or altered, but, again, with the surveyor dead, and the details almost ten years old, I doubted that there was any way to prove what I instinctively knew.

“Rhenn . . . do you know something?”

“No.” I didn’t know. “Seliora’s family might be able to find out who’s behind it. Or I might. Even if I can, though, it will be hard to find any proof.”

“That’s what Father said.”

“He might ask his friend Veblynt, though. He knows people.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“I’m going back to see Father.”

“He’ll be glad to see you.”

I wasn’t so sure about that, but I made my way through the racks of woolens, most of which would require a good airing out, if not more. Some of them might not be salvageable.

Father was standing in the doorway of the small storeroom. Two men I didn’t know were using large sponges to collect water and squeeze it into buckets that they emptied out through the window that had been boarded shut and pried open by the arsonists.

Father turned. “Khethila thought you might be here.” He gestured around the small room. Most of the racks were charred. “A good three to four hundred golds’ worth of ruined wool, and a good man who saved us from total ruin who will like as not die.”

He turned from the room and shut the door before looking at me. “Do you know who might have done this?”

“It’s not someone who knows the business,” I said. “They would have forced one of the doors next to the loading docks, and they would have used more oil.”

“That means it’s someone who just wants to hurt factors-like those Tiempran religious fools or Jariolan sympathizers. Or it’s personal.”

I nodded. “Has anyone gotten mad at you lately? Or have you had to collect?”

Father shook his head. “Oaletyr’s been a season late in paying all year, and there are a couple of tailors I’ll never get paid by, but they wouldn’t do this. Have you upset anyone?”

“A dead Ferran envoy, and a few dead assassins, but people don’t usually attack imagers’ families because we can’t inherit anything.”

“You can’t?” His tone of voice told me that he hadn’t known that.

“No. And it can’t go from you to any children. Now . . . if I married Seliora, her property and golds could go to them, but nothing from my family.”

“Then . . . why . . . who?”

“You might ask your friend Veblynt, and I’ll see what I can find out.” I wasn’t about to tell Father what I suspected, because, first, there was no proof, and second, if I happened to be right, no one in my family should know anything at all. I didn’t even like telling Seliora, but her family at least had experience in dealing with what I suspected I and mine were facing.

We walked slowly back to rejoin Khethila.

“I’ve been checking the bolts out here,” she said. “Most of them will be all right.”

While there wasn’t that much that I could do, it was two glasses later before I felt that I could leave, and it took nearly half a glass to get a hack headed back north.

Seliora and I had not made any specific plans for the evening, just that I would arrive around half past four, but the hack dropped me off outside the private entrance closer to a quint past third glass. I held shields and glanced around carefully as I made my way to the steps, despite Seliora’s statement a week earlier about Grandmama Diestra calling in some favors. Still . . . no one shot at me.

Bhenyt was the one to open the door and greet me. “You’re early.”

“Something happened. If you’d tell Seliora, I’ll wait in the main foyer, if that’s all right.”

With a nod, Bhenyt was gone, and another quint passed while I sat on the chair that had been designed for the ruined High Holder Tierchyl, thinking about exactly what I could do and how. I certainly couldn’t go running off to wherever Ryel’s main holding house was. First, I didn’t know where it was. Second, I didn’t know where he was. Third, I had no idea exactly how to best do what needed to be done-or what exactly that might be, given the way High Holders clearly held grudges. Fourth, I needed to make sure that whatever I did would not run afoul of the rules of the Collegium, although Maitre Dyana’s words suggested I could do almost anything so long as it never became public or linked to me. And, fifth, while I suspected, even knew, that Ryel was behind the arson, if I acted before his acts became known, I’d end up destroying myself, if not my entire family.

When I heard Seliora’s steps, I immediately stood and walked toward the archway at the bottom of the staircase. She was wearing deep green trousers, a paler green blouse, and a jacket to match the trousers. Her earrings were silver studs with green stones, and she wore a silver chain with a pendant that looked to be jadeite, matching the earrings.

She gave me a hug and a warm kiss, then wrinkled her nose. “You smell . . . like smoke.”

“I’m certain I do. I think I’m going to need even more help. I’ve just come from the factorage. Last night, someone set a fire there. . . .” I explained as quickly as I could what had happened there-and in Kherseilles.

“It has to be Ryel,” she said. “Who else would have the golds-or care that much?”

“I know that, but there’s not a shred of proof. Even the card with the silver ribbon couldn’t be traced.” I stopped. “There’s one other thing. On Meredi night after I talked to Horazt . . . Oh, I need to tell you about that as well . . . but, first . . . I was walking back down South Middle, and I felt this flash in my head. That’s what it felt like, and I saw flames leaping from a hole in a brick wall-”

“You had a farsight flash?”

“Is that what you call it? I feel so stupid. I didn’t even recognize what I was seeing, I mean, where it was. But it’s been a good ten years, if not longer since I’ve really looked at the back of the factorage, on the north end away from the loading docks. There’s nothing there, just plain old grimy bricks.”

She shook her head. “Rhenn . . . you may be an imager master, but you need help. What do you plan on doing?”

“Nothing . . . not until I learn enough to know what I can do and how. For the moment, I need at least a rough map to High Holder Ryel’s estate-the one here, north of L’Excelsis, and a way to get there. According to what Maitre Dyana has said, Ryel won’t do anything for a while now. He’ll drag it out so that he can be sure that I’ll suffer and yet not be able to do anything. That’s the way they work. Also, if something happens too soon . . .” I shook my head. “I’m just guessing. If I act too soon, I’ll end up in trouble I can’t escape, and if I wait too long, I’ll run out of time.”

She nodded. “He’ll be expecting you.”

“I’m certain he will be, but he can’t very well stop everyone passing by his grounds and gates, and I may find a better approach, but I need to look.”

“We can take you there in one of the wagons. We’ve often delivered things on Solayi.”

“Not to Ryel?”

“No, but no one cares what tradespeople do, especially if we look to be working.” She looked at me more intently. “You’re pale. Have you eaten?”

“No,” I admitted. “Not since breakfast.”

“We can go over to Terraza. They’re open all afternoon on Samedi. It will be quiet. Then we can come back here and discuss what you need and how we can help.”

That was fine with me.

17

I arrived at NordEste Design at half before noon on Solayi. I carried a bag inside which were exercise clothes and the field boots that went with them, as well as more than a few sheets of drafting paper, some marker pencils, and a small drawing board.

Seliora was the one to greet me. She wore faded heavy blue trousers and a jacket of similar material. Her hair was up and covered by a dark blue scarf. She looked at the bag. “Working clothes?”

“Such as I have. Exercise clothes and field boots. I need somewhere to change.”

“Methyr can show you one of the guest chambers. It’s likely to be one of the few times you’ll see one.” Her smile was sad.

I understood her feelings, because she’d learned early on that imagers could sleep only in lead-lined rooms-or in places well away from anyone else-not for their own health, but for the safety of others.

“Oh . . . I have some good news,” I announced, thinking it might cheer her up. “I’ve worked it out so that I can paint your portrait. We can even do it in my studio at Imagisle.”

“You’re not placating me, are you?”

“No. I just managed to get approval on Vendrei, and with everything that happened yesterday . . . I forgot to tell you. We could start next Samedi afternoon, and then go out to dinner . . .” Was she upset at coming to Imagisle? “Odelia can come, if . . .” I flushed slightly.

Seliora laughed. “I wouldn’t need her in the studio.” A more pensive expression followed. “It might be best if we traveled together, at least on those occasions when you aren’t with me.”

“You think Ryel . . . ?”

“Not yet, but . . .”

I understood that, as well. I was also getting even angrier. Ryel’s eldest son Johanyr had been a total bastard, and exactly what right did his mightiness High Holder Ryel have to attack someone who had stopped his son from continuing abusive ways? My lips curled. I knew the answer-the right of power. And the only way to stop such abuse was to remove that power in a way that did not lead back to me . . . and the Collegium.

“That was a rather cruel smile, Rhenn.”

“I’m sorry. I was thinking about Ryel.” I shook my head. “Thoughts don’t count. Actions do.”

The sad smile returned to her face. “There’s more Pharsi in your background than your mother could ever know.”

“And it’s the side you don’t like,” I said gently.

“It’s necessary,” was all she said.

Necessary? That was a bit cruel. What choice was I being given by either Ryel or the Collegium? If I did nothing, my family would likely be destroyed, and eventually I’d end up dead. I wanted to bring up what Mardoyt had said about Seliora . . . but now wasn’t the time. I was too angry to be objective.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“I’m angry. Not at you. I feel like I’m being pushed into doing things I’d rather not do because the alternatives are worse.”

“Sometimes, that’s life.”

“I know.” But I didn’t have to like it.

“We’d better get going,” she said, turning to beckon Methyr from where he was sitting reading on a settee near the back of the hall.

I followed Methyr up the side staircase to the third level and to a chamber next to the passageway leading to the east terrace, where Seliora and I had often sat and talked over the late summer and harvest. I changed quickly and hurried back downstairs, carrying the drafting paper, markers, and drawing board.

Seliora was waiting. “You look less like an imager.”

“My wardrobe is rather limited, since all my work clothes got burned in the fire at Caliostrus’s place.”

“No one will look that closely. Shomyr’s in the courtyard getting the wagon ready. I’ll be with you in a bit.”

I had to look embarrassed. “How do I get there?”

Seliora laughed. “I forgot. You’ve never gone that way. Methyr!”

Once again, Methyr led me to my destination, although it wasn’t that difficult-to the south end of the foyer and down a set of steps hidden behind a false panel, then along a narrow corridor with doors every so often.

“Those lead to the different workrooms,” Methyr said casually.

“Which one do you work in?”

“I like the woodworking best, but I’m supposed to learn something about them all.”

At the end of the narrow corridor was another door, which he unlocked and opened.

I stepped out onto a narrow stoop at the top of a set of five steps leading down to the narrow northern end of the courtyard opposite the stables, outside of which Shomyr was checking harnesses on the two mules hitched to the wagon, a simple oblong box, with a frame above, covered with oilcloth that had once been a dark brown, but now appeared mottled with various shades of brown.

After I crossed the paved courtyard and neared the wagon, Shomyr turned from the mules and their traces and surveyed me. “You look more like a factor’s son playing at being a workman.”

“It doesn’t matter, does it? So long as I don’t look like an imager?”

He smiled, then walked to the back of the wagon, reached inside, and tossed me a worn, stained, and patched leather jacket. “That should help. Boots are boots, and yours are well worn, and no one looks at trousers.”

I set the drawing board on the wagon seat, on top of the paper, and pulled on the jacket, a trace snug, but I didn’t need to fasten it.

“You’re broader than you look,” Shomyr said.

I had Clovyl and Master Dichartyn to thank for that. I glanced into the interior of the wagon, empty except for a single chair, wrapped heavily in cloth.

“One of the sample chairs,” explained Seliora, coming up behind me. “In case anyone asks. That’s unlikely.”

A temporary bench seat had been wedged in place inside the wagon, but just behind the driver’s seat. That was for me.

“We might as well get rolling.”

Shomyr vaulted up onto the driver’s place, and I clambered up and inside, settling onto the bench, in the middle, where I’d be able to look out between Seliora and Shomyr. I set the drawing materials beside me as Seliora vaulted up into her seat with grace.

Shomyr drove the wagon down Nordroad and then turned northeast on the Boulevard D’Este.

“How long will it take?” I asked.

“With the wagon this light, a little more than a glass,” offered Shomyr.

“Have you ever been at Ryel’s?”

“No. We’ve driven past the grounds. High Holder Tierchyl’s chateau is on the west side of the road a bit farther out.” Seliora paused. “Will his family keep it now that he’s dead?”

“It depends on what’s left after Ryel extracts his pounds of flesh. Tierchyl’s family is probably still there for now.”

“Not for long, from what we’ve heard of Ryel,” suggested Shomyr.

“What do you recall of Ryel’s estate here?” I asked.

“It’s near the top of one of the hills to the north, the ones between the higher ground and the valley, but not at the top. At least, the chateau isn’t . . .”

I listened until Seliora and Shomyr could say no more, and then we talked more about family. I did tell Seliora that her aunt Staelia was very much her partisan.

While we conversed, Shomyr drove on, through the Plaza D’Nord and along the boulevard for another mille before turning due north on an unmarked but well-paved road.

“To find those with golds, just follow the best roads,” Shomyr said cheerfully.

“Or the worst roads with the deepest ruts,” countered Seliora.

Before all that long, as the wagon began to head down a gentle slope, Shomyr nodded. “There it is, on the hill ahead, the right side, in the middle of the walls.”

I immediately put a sheet of paper on the drawing board and began to study the grounds framed by the wall. The chateau was set on the east side of the road, and dominated the gentler slope just below the hilltop, the building itself a good three hundred yards from end to end. It made the Council Chateau look tiny by comparison, and I would have guessed that it well might be smaller than Ryel’s chateau on his main holding north of Rivages. A gray stone wall a little more than two yards high extended around the grounds.

I began to sketch, not wanting to waste a moment, since I was imposing on both Seliora and Shomyr.

From what I could tell as we approached, the structure was laid out in a “Y” shape, with the base of the Y running parallel to the road. The southern extension ended at what looked to be a cliff-one created artificially by digging away the hillside and running a solid stone foundation straight up. A squarish tower was set on the southern-most section of the terrace overlooking the gardens and valley. It appeared no more than five yards on a side, but rose another three levels above the roofed and pillared but otherwise open terrace.

“You could see all the way to Imagisle from the top of the tower,” I observed.

“I’m certain that’s the point,” replied Shomyr. “The terrace offers almost as good a view, and the extensions of the roof allow one to sit there in the late afternoon without getting that warm. They’ll doubtless have shades or screens for the time around sunset.”

I kept sketching as quickly as I could, trying to put in the various buildings in a quick diagram of where everything was located in respect to the walls and the gates, and the curving drive from the gates leading to the covered front portico looked as though it fronted a gallery or a grand salon stretching across the west side of the chateau.

Shomyr let the mules take their time plodding up the relatively gentle, if long, slope. Neither he nor Seliora spoke as I drew.

Once we passed the gates, I scrambled to the back of the wagon and continued my work. The gates were simple but heavy iron grilles, without even a crest or coat of arms on them. Two heavy iron bars on the inside secured the gates. The stone pillars anchoring them rose almost a yard above the top of the adjoining wall. There was no exterior gate house, but I could see the shape of one against the wall and just inside the gates. The paved drive was wide enough for two carriages abreast and curved northward to the portico, then circled back eastward to rejoin itself. In the middle of that circle was a miniature garden, with a fountain statue in the center, although I could not make out the figure in any detail. The ground to the north continued to slope upward. Against the northern wall, some four hundred yards uphill, was a curved stone structure that puzzled me for a moment, until I realized that it had to be some sort of cistern or water reservoir, feeding both the chateau and the fountain, and the water source was probably a spring or a stream even farther uphill.

“There’s a turnout at the top of the hill. I can stop there for a bit. That would seem natural,” Shomyr said.

“I’d like that.”

I couldn’t see all of the chateau from the turnout, but since the wagon was barely visible from below, I took my time-almost a glass-before I told Shomyr that I had what I needed.

He turned the wagon back around and headed slowly downhill-as would any teamster.

I kept drawing and filling in all the details that I could. In fact, I drew all the way back. When we pulled up in the courtyard of NordEste Design, it was just past fourth glass. Dark clouds were massing to the northwest, and the wind had turned chill.

Once the wagon stopped and Shomyr set the brake, Seliora turned in the seat. “Could I see?”

“Of course.” I showed her the first sketch, which was almost a diagram of where all the buildings were, then the others in turn.

Shomyr looked at the sketches as well, then shook his head. “I didn’t see half of that.”

“It takes practice. Master Caliostrus would put an arrangement of fruit or something on a table, and tell me to look at it carefully. Then he’d remove it all, and make me draw it from memory. He got most upset if I left something out. You practice like that for seven years, and you get very good at noticing details.” Unless it was something that I hadn’t looked at that way, or hadn’t known how to study when I’d last seen it-like the back of the factorage.

“Can I help with the wagon?” I asked.

Shomyr shook his head. “You need to change and get back, don’t you?”

“I have some time.”

“That’s all right.” Shomyr nodded to his sister.

Seliora took my arm, not saying anything until we were farther away. “He’s happy to be able to help. He’s also pleased that you offered to do what you could with the wagon, but he likes to handle things in his own way.”

I could understand that.

“You go change,” she added, “and then we can talk, can’t we?”

“For a little,” I admitted.

She used a heavy key to unlock the door at the top of the steps, then locked it behind us. Once we were in the main foyer, she turned to me. “Go change. I’ll wait here.” She took off the scarf and shook out her hair.

For a moment, I just admired her, then headed for the stairs, carrying the drawing board and all the sketches. When I finished changing and made my way back down to her, carrying my bag filled with exercise clothes and the sketches, she had two mugs of hot tea and a plate of biscuits waiting on a side table flanked by two chairs.

“How did you manage that so quickly?” I asked, settling into the chair across from her.

“I didn’t. Mother did. She was watching for our return.”

“You and your family . . . you’re all remarkable.” I paused. “Thank you for today. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.” I took a sip of the tea, a small sip. It was hot, very hot. “If I could ride, it would have been easier.”

“You can’t?” She grinned. “We should teach you.”

“You can ride as well?”

“Why wouldn’t I be able to? I used to ride messages for Papa when I was little.”

“I should learn . . .”

“Good. Next week, we’ll put you on the mare.”

“Just like that?”

“You can’t ride without getting on a horse, Rhenn.”

She had a point there.

Her eyes met mine, and she smiled, if briefly, before asking quietly, “After today, what will you do?”

“Keep trying to find out enough to know how to deal with an arrogant High Holder in a way that threatens no one else.” Or overtly involved the Collegium.

“If anything happens to Ryel, won’t his son . . . ?”

“And his nephew. The possibility that they might is part of the problem.”

“That’s like Pharsi revenge. Sometimes it never ends.” She looked at me. “Unless there’s no one left to carry on.”

“I hope it doesn’t have to go that far.” I didn’t want to think about that for the moment, or about Pharsi revenge . . . or even bring up the pistol incident. “The biscuits are good.” I paused. “Do you want to start on the portrait next Samedi? Can you?”

She nodded, her mouth full, then smiled.

I took another sip of hot tea.

18

Lundi morning was such a rush that even by taking a duty coach, doubtless stretching the rules, I barely reached the District Three station by seventh glass. The station was anything but impressive, a one-story building whose once-yellow bricks had turned a grayish tan under the impact of time and grime, an impression not helped by the narrow barred windows, or by the overcast and low clouds. I walked quickly through open double doors of the single entrance. They were battered and iron bound oak with equally ancient heavy iron inside hinges.

A young patroller with circles under his eyes looked up from the high and narrow desk set against the wall on the right, then stiffened. “Sir . . . you’re Master Rhennthyl? Captain Harraf is expecting you. The first door there.” He gestured.

“Thank you.”

Two other patrollers on the far side of the open space inside the doors that could have been called an anteroom made a show of checking their equipment, but I could feel their eyes on my back as I walked past the duty patroller, then pushed through the already half-open door and stepped into the small study, little more than three yards by four. Captain Harraf was a small man, not much more than to my shoulder, with bright black eyes that protruded slightly, and short jet-black hair. His pale blue uniform was spotless, as was the top of the desk he stood beside-with the exception of an oblong of folded heavy bluish gray cloth. “Master Rhennthyl.”

I inclined my head. “Captain Harraf.”

“I’m glad to see that you’re the kind who takes punctuality seriously.”

“I’m glad to be here.”

“We’ll see how you feel in a few weeks.”

A few weeks-with the implication of a longer time than that? That gave me a definitely uneasy feeling, because Third District was the most dangerous district in L’Excelsis.

“Before I offer you an assignment, I want to be clear on several points. You can’t arrest or detain anyone. Only the patroller with you can. You understand that?”

“Master Dichartyn and the commander and subcommander have made that clear.”

“Good. A few points about station rules. I’m obviously in command. When I’m not here, Lieutenant Warydt is in charge. Should neither of us be here, the senior patroller first takes command. You won’t see too much of the lieutenant in the next few weeks, because he’ll usually be here from the third glass of the afternoon until ninth glass, although it’s sometimes tenth glass. We switch off on the late shift.” He cleared his throat. “For your safety, but also for the safety of the patrollers you accompany, I’m also going to insist that you wear a standard patroller’s cloak over your grays. You’ll also learn more that way.” He picked up the folded gray-blue cloth that turned out to be a cloak, and a new one at that, and handed it to me. “Your cap is close enough that most people won’t notice it anyway.”

He was doubtless right. From a distance any imager’s visored cap didn’t look all that different from those worn by the patrollers, just a touch grayer, while theirs were more gray-blue. Both cap devices were pewter, but the patroller’s cap held a starburst, while mine held the circled four-pointed star.

“Your first patrol will be one of those less adventuresome. You’ll accompany Zellyn along the triangle-down South Middle to the Midroad, then back on Quierca and up Fuosta to the station. There’s usually not much happening, but there would be more if some patroller didn’t cover it.”

“I imagine that’s true everywhere in L’Excelsis, but more so in Third District.” I slipped on the patroller’s cloak.

“Very much more so.” Harraf turned toward the door. “Zellyn!”

A patroller hurried in and stopped. “Sir.” He was red-faced with a silvering brush mustache and bushy eyebrows above sad and pale brown eyes.

“This is Master Rhennthyl, and he’ll be accompanying you on your rounds for the week.”

“Yes, sir.” Zellyn turned to me. “Master Rhennthyl.”

I nodded. “Zellyn, I’m pleased to meet you.”

Captain Harraf cleared his throat. “You two had best be off.”

As I left the study with Zellyn, one thing was very clear. Captain Harraf didn’t want to spend much time with me.

“You ready for a long day on your feet, sir?”

“I think so, but the day will tell.”

Zellyn laughed. “That it will. That it will.”

We walked out of the station and headed right, up Fuosta toward South Middle, two and a half long blocks away.

“How long have you been with the Patrol?”

“Nearly fifteen years, sir, most of it right here in Third District.”

“Would you tell me about your round?”

“We rotate through two or three rounds a year, switch every three months, usually. Means we’re familiar with the areas, but that we don’t get too friendly, if you know what I mean. This round’s the best of the bunch I walk. Biggest problem is the taudis-kids near the shops on Quierca. They’ll lift anything that’s not chained down. The Pharsis and the Caenenans are the worse. Tiemprans aren’t much better.”

“How do you tell the difference between the Tiemprans and the Caenenans?”

“Doesn’t matter. The darker the tan, the more likely they’re trouble. Not all of ’em. Lot of good kids, but the bad ones are more likely to be dark.”

Was that because they were poorer? Or because they and their families had less respect for those who didn’t follow their beliefs? Or because the patrollers just watched them more closely? Or something else? Whatever the reason, I could tell there wasn’t any point in asking.

Small shops clustered on each side of the station, and then eating places-most so small and mean that I wouldn’t even have called them bistros, but perhaps taudiscafes. Only the small cafes were open. For a moment, I wondered why they were so close to the station, until I realized that there was a far smaller chance of robbery and theft.

When we turned onto South Middle, walking toward the Midroad, there were few people on the sidewalks, but more than a handful of coaches and wagons passing by, although the wagons were more prevalent, but then, South Middle was a thoroughfare.

“You ever have trouble with the wagons?”

“Only when they’re loading or unloading. Those times, it’s still not that often because most places have at least two fellows working the wagon. Not much that’s small and light, and that’s what quick-thieves are looking for.” Zellyn waved to a graying and trim man wearing a leather apron outside a shoemaker’s shop that could not have been more than five yards wide.

The cobbler smiled and returned the wave.

After we’d walked just a single block west, the buildings on both sides changed from low brick structures, with modest shops, to stone and brick or stone-faced edifices two and three stories high, with larger shops and lace-curtained windows gracing the living quarters above.

Zellyn pointed to one of the iron grates set at the base of the curb and the side of the road pavement. It covered the opening to the storm sewers below. “We’re supposed to report any time a grate’s been broken or blocked with crap. Sometimes, the penal crews even get them fixed the same week.” He snorted. “Usually not.”

Another hundred yards on stood an iron pole topped with a blue globe. A heavy iron bar circled the pole at eye height. “That’s a pickup point for the Patrol.”

I had to think for a moment before I realized what it was-a place where an offender could be cuffed to the railing, if necessary, if a patroller could not march him or her back to the station. “How often do the pickup wagons run by?”

“Supposed to be once a glass.” Zellyn laughed.

Walking the first part of the round, back to the station, took about a glass. The second part, patrolling up and down the side streets between Quierca and South Middle, from Fuosta west to the Midroad, took about twice as long, mostly because Zellyn passed pleasantries to various people he recognized. Then we did the first round in reverse, and went back the other way. After that came a bite to eat at Kleonya’s, a bistro on Quierca, but a half block off the Midroad. After eating, we continued variations on the round.

Along the way, we helped an older woman who had tripped on a curbing and gotten her scarf caught in a wagon tailgate, listened to a grocer complain about a young thief who had stolen a melon the afternoon before when there weren’t any patrollers around, and warned a pair of youths who lounged in an alleyway, clearly eyeing some older and frailer women who made their way to the produce stand on Quierca halfway between the Midroad and Fuosta.

That was my day with Zellyn, and I paid for a hack to drive me back to Imagisle. My feet were definitely sore, and then some. Even after running down Grandisyn and arranging for him to install a small coal heater with a flue, I was at the dining hall a bit early. It had been a few days since I’d talked to Shault, and I hoped to catch him before dinner, but he was already seated with the other primes and seconds. So I walked over. He looked up.

“After dinner by the doors.”

“Yes, sir.”

I nodded and headed back toward the masters’ table, if deliberately.

“What did you do now?” asked someone in a murmur.

“. . .probably something from Master Ghaend . . . all the masters stick together . . .”

The masters’ table had more than a few there, but rather than sit next to Master Rholyn, I took the place beside Chassendri. Maitre Dyana sat to her right, this time with a thinner pink scarf, but still shimmering and brilliant.

“What are you doing now with the Patrol?” asked Chassendri, passing the wine carafe.

“Accompanying patrollers on their rounds. Last week, I watched justice proceedings, the week before I helped with the charging desk.” I poured the wine-a red, but not a Cambrisio-then handed the carafe back.

“Has it changed your view of the Patrol?”

I thought for a moment. “I don’t think so. I never saw patrollers much. So I didn’t have a good opinion or a bad one.”

“That’s probably fortunate for the commander,” added Maitre Dyana.

“Can you tell what they think of imagers?” Chassendri handed me the platter of fried river trout, not exactly my most favorite of meals.

“They’re careful to be respectful, but for most of them that respect comes from fear, I’d guess, and the respect isn’t all that deep.”

“That makes sense,” Chassendri replied.

The faintest smile crossed Maitre Dyana’s lips, but she said nothing.

“Maitre Dyana,” I asked, “do you recall if Master Dichartyn had any comments on his time as a Patrol liaison?”

“If he hasn’t mentioned it, then he has his reasons.” After a moment, she added, “Commander Artois was a district captain at that time, as I recall, but he became subcommander shortly after Dichartyn became head of security.”

“The previous subcommander was stipended off?”

“As I recall, he developed a lingering illness and died shortly after accepting his stipend.”

Lingering illness? Lead imaged into his system? Or something else? Maitre Dyana wouldn’t have said anything, let alone have phrased it that way, had matters been natural. I nodded.

Chassendri shook her head. “You covert types are chilling behind those pleasant facades.”

“I’m just a junior master trying to learn enough to keep out of trouble,” I protested.

“Maitre Dichartyn wouldn’t have sent you to the Civic Patrol without a very good reason, and it isn’t just for experience,” countered Chassendri.

That was doubtless true, but what was also true was that part of the testing and training involved was that I had to figure out the problems to solve and the ways to do so without telling anyone or revealing that I had. That much, I had begun to figure out. If a problem vanished before anyone recognized it was a problem in a way that seemed coincidental or accidental, then far fewer questions were likely to arise. The difficulty, of course, was making sure that it was indeed a problem. And some problems were obvious-like Mardoyt and possibly Harraf-and it was far harder to find an unobvious solution to an obvious problem because everyone was watching all the time.

“Would you really want to know everything that Maitre Dichartyn does . . . or even what Rhenn here does?” Maitre Dyana’s voice remained level and almost sweet as she addressed Chassendri.

Chassendri frowned.

“Would you want the world, or the Council, to know?” pressed Maitre Dyana. “Too many people prattle on about openness and the need for the Collegium and the Council to reveal everything.” Her eyes didn’t quite roll. “All that means is that they want to know for their own advantage. All ruling and government requires compromise, yet most people only want the other person to do the compromising, and when everything is known, no one will compromise, and ruling then becomes a question of force. Force leads to more force, and eventually to strife, sometimes to rebellion.”

“But too much secrecy leads to a land where no one trusts anyone. That leads to rebellion,” replied Chassendri.

“That suggests,” I interjected, “that an appearance of openness is required, and that some matters be disclosed, but not all.”

“You’re suggesting effective government is hypocritical.” Chassendri’s voice was cool.

“Isn’t it?” asked Maitre Dyana. “Aren’t many effective aspects of society just accepted hypocrisy, such as good manners toward those one detests, being courteous to someone whose treatment of others leaves much to be desired?”

A sour smile appeared on Chassendri’s lips. “I may be better suited to research and chemical development. Reagents and reactions don’t rely on deception.”

“That is true, Chassendri,” replied Maitre Dyana, “but people do.”

No one said anything immediately following that, but we finally did talk about whether there might be an “official” war between Ferrum and Solidar, but in the end we all agreed that the only way that would occur would be if the Ferrans declared it.

After I finished the lime tart-the best part of the dinner-I excused myself and headed to the corridor outside the dining hall to wait for Shault. I didn’t wait long before he appeared.

“Sir? What is it?”

“I met with Horazt the other day. He’s glad to know that you’re doing well here, and he wants you to work as hard as you can.”

“I know, sir. My mere wrote me. Well, he wrote for her. She doesn’t know her letters. She said that, too.”

“How is your reading coming?”

“It’s better, Master Ghaend says. Lieryns and Mayra have helped.”

“And your imaging?”

Shault smiled. “I can image good coppers now-but only one a week, Master Ghaend says. I’m really not supposed to image them.” The smile vanished.

“Do you want to send coins or a letter to your mother?”

“Can I?”

“I think we can manage something. You have her address, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.” Shault paused. “She can’t read, and messengers won’t go there. I have to post to Horazt, and . . .”

“When he’s short of coin . . . you’re afraid what you send won’t get there?”

The boy nodded.

“For now, until she can come visit you, if you want anything taken to her, I’ll make sure it gets there. I’m working not that far away. If you give me her address, the one where she lives, and tell me what she looks like,” I added with a smile.

“If you would, sir. Can I give it to you tomorrow? She’s not much taller than me, sir. Her hair, it’s black. She always wears a chain with the crescent.”

“I can remember that.” I paused. “No imaged coins, Shault, and don’t image coppers and trade them for a half silver, either.”

“Yes, sir.”

I noted the slightly resigned tone behind the pleasant acquiescence. “Shault . . . don’t go against the rules. Every taudis-kid who tried that is dead-not because of the Collegium, either. They either broke laws and got caught or killed themselves because they didn’t understand the rules were to protect them as well as other imagers.”

I could tell that either my words or tone had reached him, because his eyes widened, but his body didn’t stiffen into resistance. So I added, “I want you to succeed. I wouldn’t watch you and tell you all this if I didn’t. I’m not your preceptor, remember?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll find you tomorrow night.”

“Good.” I smiled and watched as he hurried away. I could only do what I could and hope he didn’t end up like Diazt.

19

Mardi was much the same as Lundi, but when I arrived at the station on Meredi morning, Captain Harraf was waiting in the doorway to his study. “A moment, if you would, Master Rhennthyl.”

He gestured, and I followed him into his study, not closing the door. He didn’t ask me to, either. So I stood and waited for what he had to say.

“So much of what the Civic Patrol does happens at night, but I’ve been told that you are not available for night duties on a regular basis because of other imager commitments. Yet I am supposed to have you accompany some night patrols as your schedule permits. I had thought that this Jeudi evening might be a possibility . . . just the first two glasses.” He raised his eyebrows.

I didn’t know why Master Dichartyn-or the commander or subcommander-had indicated that I wouldn’t be available on all nights, but I was grateful for that, given Captain Harraf, because I had the feeling that I might have been pulling more than a few night patrols.

“I would be happy to accompany whoever you think would be best Jeudi evening.”

“Huerl and Koshal have a round on the north side of South Middle. It should give you a feel for night patrolling without being unduly . . . eventful.” He paused. “That’s all I had. You’ll finish your regular round at fourth glass, and they’ll meet you at the station at sixth glass, after they’ve completed one round. That will give you a little rest and time to get something to eat.”

“Yes, sir.” It also meant that I’d be doing the patrol after sunset, which was doubtless what the captain had in mind.

“That’s all, Master Rhennthyl.” Harraf’s smile was professionally polite.

Zellyn was waiting out in the open area when I stepped from the captain’s study, and we walked out of the station. He didn’t ask what the captain had said.

“I’ll be doing part of a night patrol with Huerl and Koshal later this week,” I offered. “I haven’t met them. What are they like?”

“They’re usually on the first night shift. From what I’ve heard they don’t seem to have many problems. Except for stupid drunks and elvers.”

“The smart drunks and elvers just avoid patrollers?”

“The smart drunks just drink and don’t bother anyone. There aren’t any smart elvers.”

“Do you think there are more elvers than there used to be?”

Zellyn snorted. “When I was your age, Master Rhennthyl, I might go three weeks without seeing an elver, and I was patrolling the center of the south taudis. Today, you can’t walk ten yards in any of the taudis without tripping over one.”

“Why do you think that’s so?”

“Golds. The taudischefs found out they could mint more coins with elveweed than with cheap plonk or their bawds. Then the Pharsis got into it, and all the darkies from Otelyrn, especially the Tiemprans . . .” He shook his head. “The stuff’s everywhere.”

“It’s illegal to import it, but not to use it,” I offered.

“How’d you stop people from using it? Make smoking it against the law and throw ’em in gaol and put ’em on the road crews where they’d be useless? The only time we pick up elvers is when they do something else, and we get too many of them as it is.”

Zellyn had a point, but then what about all of those who dragged friends and family down to support their habit?

The day, unlike some, was cool enough that wearing the patroller’s cloak over my grays didn’t leave me too hot. I was thankful I hadn’t been doing rounds in the heat of summer, but then I might have just had to wear a patroller’s summer tunic with the imager’s pin in some unobtrusive place.

As we neared the Midroad, a man in gray, with a darker gray stained leather apron, rushed from a shop on the far side of South Middle. “Patrollers!”

“Burglary last night, I’d wager,” Zellyn said quietly, even as he glanced both ways before hurrying across the avenue, after letting a collier’s wagon lumber past.

I followed, and when we neared the shop, I caught sight of the small sign-KANTROS amp; SON, SILVERSMITHS.

“What’s the matter, Kantros?” asked Zellyn calmly.

“You ask what the matter is? Come and see!” The silversmith turned and strode back toward the shop, his bald pate and the gray hair that bordered it glistening in the morning sun for a moment before he stepped into the shadows cast by the shops on the east side of South Middle. After he reached the front door, he held it open. “Go see for yourselves.”

Zellyn led the way, his truncheon out, through the door set between the still-shuttered glass display windows into the front of the shop, a narrow space with display shelves-empty-on the side walls and a counter less than two yards from the door which extended across from the right wall almost to the left wall, at which point where there was a gap a yard wide to permit access to the rear. Nothing had been touched in front of the counter, but behind it the doors had been ripped off both wall cabinets and hurled against the brick base of the small forge. Four large drawers had been yanked out of a chest and thrown on the floor, with various items that looked to be tools scattered across the ancient stone floor, unlike the polished ceramic tile in front of the counter. A tool case had been up-ended, and the pages from some sort of plan or drawing folder had been ripped and thrown in all directions. Even the glass of the two narrow high windows-too small for entry-had been smashed.

“How did he get in?” asked Zellyn in a matter-of-fact tone.

Kantros led us to the rear door, hanging at an angle by two chains above and below the door bolt. The heavy iron hinges had literally been pried out of the masonry, and there were gouges in the brick above the lower hinge and both above and below the upper one.

Zellyn looked at the dust near the door in the alleyway. “Boots about average size. No other marks. No blood anywhere. Means he didn’t cut himself breaking in.” Then he nodded and walked back to the counter, avoiding the debris. He looked at Kantros. “Early last night, was it?”

Kantros shrugged. “I don’t know. It was like this when I came down this morning.”

“What did the thief take?” asked Zellyn.

“Almost nothing. The silver goes upstairs behind all the locks every night. A half ingot of copper, a handful of coppers . . . There might be some small tools missing. Who could tell?” Kantros gestured around the back of the shop. “But look at this! The damage!”

“The thief was angry there were no coins and nothing he could take and sell. That’s what it looks like.” Zellyn glanced to me. “Has to be a young tough or an elver. Any good thief would know there’d be nothing for him down here.” He looked to Kantros. “You’re lucky he didn’t know that.”

“I got double iron bound and barred doors upstairs.”

“If you can tell us what’s missing, I can put out the word.” Zellyn offered a professional and sad smile.

“Much good that will do.” Kantros shook his head. “Besides . . . how can I tell?”

Zellyn nodded. “I understand. When you find out, let us know, and we’ll do what we can.” He pulled out his blue-covered patrolling book and used a marker to jot down notes, then slipped it back inside his tunic.

“Not much good . . .” Kantros was still muttering as we left.

“We’ll have to report it, but he’ll never tell us what was taken.” Zellyn glanced across South Middle, waiting until two coaches rolled past, both heading toward the Midroad. “He probably doesn’t know himself.”

The remainder of the morning was less eventful, but mornings usually were, it seemed. Even so, when the ten bells of noon began to toll we were both hungry and thirsty, but we were nowhere near any place to eat, and it wasn’t until close to half past that we sat down in the rear of a small bistro on Quierca in an alleyway a block off the Midroad. The name on the signboard with peeling paint read Alysna’s, but inside was clean-and bare.

I followed Zellyn’s lead and had a Domchana-a batter-dipped and fried sandwich that held fowl and ham strips wrapped around mild peppers and a pungent cheese I’d never tasted before. It wasn’t bad-but not all that good-if filling. The lager helped.

I’d been thinking about the burglary and finally asked, “You said it was early last night. Why?”

“Kantros likes his brandy at night. Has ever since his son was killed. Young Lantryn ran with a bad crowd and was caught with some silvers that weren’t his. He was also probably lifting coins from his father. Justice allowed him to join the Navy, rather than do the road gangs. He was unlucky and got killed in a boiler explosion on the Chedryn. The daughter ran off to Solis, married a coppersmith. After that, Kantros’s wife died. He drank a lot before that, but lately . . .” Zellyn shook his head. “Oh . . . that much in spirits means you sleep like the dead for a glass, maybe two or three, then you’re restless after that.”

“Someone had to know him, then.”

“Wager it was one of those fellows who got Lantryn in trouble, but trying to find them . . . don’t spend two nights in the same place, and most of them went south to the hellhole. That’s not in our district. All we can do is send the patrollers in Fourth District a notice. Sometimes, it leads to something.”

His tone suggested that most times it didn’t.

“If Kantros didn’t keep silver in the shop at night, why were there all the chains and heavy hinges on the rear door?”

Zellyn smiled. “What would keep someone from coming up behind him when he’s working?”

Put that way, the chains made sense. I just hadn’t thought of it like that, perhaps because for anyone to steal anything of great value from Alusine Wool would have taken a wagon and a team. Wool was heavier than people realized.

Before that long we were back walking the rounds, looking and being seen. Nothing happened until after third glass, on what would probably be the last round of the day. We were headed up Faistasa when we heard screams.

“Help! Help!”

Both of us hurried up the street for another three houses until we reached one of the narrow wooden dwellings with a half mansard roof of cracked tiles. The house was one of those that dated back close to a century, and that had been turned into dwellings for several families. The wooden clapboards were a faded gray that might have been some other color once, and the yellow bricks in the walk were uneven and cracked.

A man in a ragged brown jacket was beating on the street-level side door, trying to force it open, while the woman screaming was trying to force it closed against him.

He didn’t even turn as we approached.

“You patrollers! Get him!” the woman yelled.

At that moment, the assailant turned and lunged toward Zellyn. Behind the attacker, the door slammed.

The patroller’s truncheon slammed into the man’s temple, and he staggered, but started to lunge again. I delivered a turn-kick to his weight-bearing leg, rather than his knee, and he went down, face-first, into the brick walkway.

Zellyn dropped onto his back and cuffed him so quickly I couldn’t believe it, but the man immediately began to kick and squirm.

“If you’d pin his legs, sir!”

I did, and Zellyn wrapped a leather restrainer around both legs, then rolled the man over. His face was scratched and bleeding, but he tried to spit at Zellyn, who promptly clouted him alongside the jaw. “Next time, I won’t be so gentle.”

“Frigging trolies!”

As I looked at the man more closely, I could see that the irises of his eyes had expanded, or his pupils contracted, so much that the pupils looked to be little more than black dots, and the whites of those eyes were so bloodshot that they looked bright pink.

“Longtime elver,” Zellyn said contemptuously, leaving the bound figure on the walk and moving back to the door. “Madame . . . we’ve got him tied up.”

There was no answer.

Zellyn rapped, then pounded. Finally, he shook his head. “No point in breaking down the door. She won’t talk anyway. The women around here never do. We’ll just charge him with attacking the woman and attacking patrollers. That’ll more than take care of him.”

The nearest pickup pole was only a block and a half away, but even with both of us carrying the squirming elver, covering that distance seemed to take forever. When we reached the pole, Zellyn didn’t attempt to uncuff the man, just used another strap to tie the cuffs to the railing.

“You . . . trolie bastards . . . sewer-rat sows . . .” From there, his curses grew fouler and far less inventive.

That made it somewhat easier to ignore him, but it was still close to another two quints before the patroller pickup wagon rolled toward us. After we lifted the still-cursing and squirming elver onto the wagon, Zellyn looked to me. “Might as well climb on and ride back. Marshyn won’t mind.” He grinned at the burly patroller driving the wagon.

“Nope. I’ll even head straight back.”

“Only because it’s your last stop.”

“Next to last.”

Since there was no one at the last pickup point, we reached the Third District station about two quints before fourth glass, but it took most of that time to write up our report and give it to the desk patroller.

Since Shault had given me an envelope for his mother on Mardi evening, I really felt that I should deliver it, and it would be easier before dark. So as soon as Zellyn and I finished the report, I hurried off up Fuosta and then east on South Middle. More than a few taudis-dwellers either looked away or disappeared into alleyways or doors when they caught sight of the patroller’s cloak. Because most of the street signs were either missing or defaced, what should have taken a quarter glass took me longer. Slightly before half past fourth glass, I rapped on a door that I thought had to be the right one.

The door itself was age-darkened and cracked oak, without a peephole that I could see. No one answered, and I rapped harder. I also drew open the cloak so that my imager’s grays and the silver imager’s pin would be visible.

A thin-faced woman finally edged the door ajar, but I could see the heavy chain holding the back of the door to the casement. Her eyes were barely above the loop of the brass links. As Shault had said, her hair was black, and she was tiny. I couldn’t make out the shape of the pendant at the end of the silver chain around her neck, but her face was so like Shault’s that it was hard to believe she could have been other than his mother.

“Madame Chelya?”

Her eyes widened more. “Who are you?”

“Master Rhennthyl from Imagisle.”

“No! Don’t tell me . . . No!”

Did she think I was there to tell her bad news? That her son was dead?

“Shault is fine,” I said quickly. “He’s doing very well.”

The wide-eyed alarm in her face turned to suspicion. “Why are you here?”

“You have a good and devoted son.” I eased the envelope through the narrow space between the door and the jamb. “He wanted to make sure you got this.”

She took the envelope and opened it. Three silvers dropped into her hand, and her mouth opened.

I was impressed . . . and saddened. Shault had given her everything he had earned since he’d been at the Collegium. Everything.

She looked at the note, almost blankly.

“Would you like me to read it? He gave it to me sealed.” I didn’t know that she would, but I thought that I should offer.

“Please.” She handed me the note back, but not the envelope. She did not loosen the chain.

I took it and cleared my throat, then began.

“Dear Maman,

I am well. I know times are hard. Here are three silvers for you. Master Rhennthyl promised you would get them. He has always kept his word. I can see you on Solayi afternoon-29 Feuillyt, second glass. Ask Master Rhennthyl. I miss you.”

Chelya looked at me. “Did he write it? All of it?”

“It’s in his hand.” I handed her the letter back through the chain and the narrow opening between the door and jamb.

“He is a good boy.” She smiled, if sadly, I thought. “He said I could see him?”

“Yes. Solayi the twenty-ninth at second glass. Do you know the Boulevard D’Imagers?”

She nodded.

“Just walk down it to the gray stone bridge over the river. After you cross the bridge, there is a walk and some benches on the left. That is where young imagers meet visitors.”

She looked doubtful.

“When I first came to Imagisle, that was where I met my mother,” I added. “Imagisle is very safe.”

Some of the doubtfulness vanished, but not all.

“I need to go, but I’ll tell Shault that you got his letter and his coins.” I offered a smile and stepped back.

Slowly, she closed the door.

I kept my eyes moving on the way back to South Middle. For better or worse, I didn’t see anyone who looked to be a danger, but I could smell elveweed, and caught a glimpse of two elvers up on a low rooftop. They’d had enough that they certainly weren’t looking anywhere near me. Then I glimpsed another one, sitting on a stoop. He looked right at me, or through me, as if he didn’t even see me. When I turned onto South Middle, I felt a trace less concerned, but I kept walking until I was almost to the Midroad, where I hailed a hack to take me to Imagisle.

After I got out at the Bridge of Hopes, I crossed it quickly and headed for Master Dichartyn’s study. He was in, if standing by his desk and preparing to depart.

“What is it, Rhenn?”

“Captain Harraf has ‘offered’ me an evening patrol accompanying two patrollers tomorrow night.”

“I’m certain he wants you to experience what the patrollers do.”

“Captain Harraf doesn’t like having me around.”

“Most patrollers don’t.”

I shook my head. “It’s more than that.”

“That may be, but you’ll have to deal with it, at least until you discover why. If you can.”

“He also said that he’d been told he couldn’t schedule me at night on a regular basis.”

“I did mention that to Commander Artois. Once you’re more settled in at the Patrol, you will have some additional night duties for the Collegium. That’s in addition to your attendance at the Council’s Autumn Ball.”

“And the Winter Ball?” I didn’t ask more than slightly sardonically.

“Assuming you don’t encounter another envoy you dislike,” he replied pleasantly.

“And what about Ryel?”

“What about him? Has he done anything but send you a card with a silver knot? You can’t even prove he sent the card, you know.”

At that moment, I realized that the more I said to Master Dichartyn about Ryel, the more difficult it would be for me to deal with the High Holder because saying anything more-about my family or Rousel, especially-would only provide a trail back to me if anything suspicious befell Ryel. And I was more than certain that whatever Ryel did in attacking me and my family would leave no traces leading back anywhere close to him-not in a way that would provide any proof.

“You’re right, sir. I should have thought of that.”

“Yes, you should.” He paused. “Is there anything else?”

“No, sir. Have a pleasant evening.” I smiled and left. If nothing else, I did need to tell Shault that I’d delivered his coins and that his mother was fine.

20

Jeudi’s rounds with Zellyn were relatively uneventful. As the older patroller had predicted, Kantros never offered a list of what had been taken, or even approached us. We didn’t run into any out-of-control elvers, although in late afternoon I could smell the smoke in several places along Faistasa Street. I mentioned that to Zellyn.

“Didn’t use to smell it outside the taudis at all. This whole area’ll be taudis in another four-five years, if you ask me.” He shook his head.

Zellyn had the round calculated to the last fraction of a quint, and we ended up at the station just as the last of the four bells from the nearest anomen tower died away.

I wasn’t about to take a hack to Chaelya’s to get a really good meal. So I opted for eating at Sneytana’s, one of the cafes near the station, not that there was a name posted anywhere, but Zellyn had mentioned it as not being too bad. I had fowl and rice fries, and the meal was edible, but I decided I didn’t ever want to eat anywhere that wasn’t at least “not-too-bad” according to Zellyn. I took my time, but I still ended up waiting nearly a glass, dawdling over a lager, before heading back to the station. I did leave Sneytana’s daughter a larger tip for the time, not that the place was crowded.

A few moments after I entered the station, a tall patroller, about my height, with blond hair streaked with white, stepped out of the doorway beyond the closed door of Captain Harraf’s study and walked toward me. He offered a pleasant smile. “You must be Master Rhennthyl. I’m Lieutenant Warydt.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, sir.”

“I’m glad to have you here, sir,” he replied. “If there’s anything I can do to help you learn more about the Civic Patrol, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“I certainly won’t.” I smiled. “Don’t expect any questions until I have a better feel for how the station operates.”

“I won’t.” He paused. “I see Huerl and Koshal coming in.”

“Then I’d best meet them. Thank you, sir.”

“My pleasure, Master Rhennthyl.”

I turned and walked toward the two patrollers. They looked close to what I’d envisioned. Koshal was a few digits taller than I, broader in the shoulders and looked like he’d have little trouble heaving a wrecked wagon or carriage out of the way. Heurl was thin and wiry, and half a head shorter.

“Master Rhennthyl,” offered Huerl.

“I’m pleased to meet you both,” I returned.

Both nodded, almost as one.

“Shouldn’t be too bad tonight,” offered Koshal. “It’s cold for early fall, but it’s not an end-night, and not a pay-night, either.”

“Didn’t smell any weed on the first round, either,” added Huerl.

I fell in with them, and we walked out of the station and back up Fuosta in the vestige of twilight remaining, although the sun had set more than a half glass earlier.

By the time we reached South Middle, only a thin band of lighter purple remained on the western horizon, and the avenue was lit but intermittently by the tall iron streetlamps, a good third of which were not working. Few shops and dwellings had outside lamps, and that meant a patrol through uneven light.

Koshal crossed the avenue and headed eastward.

“Does the round go all the way out to the plaza?” I asked.

“Just halfway there, maybe a block past the heathen Temple, except it’s on the south side. There’s just one round through the taudis at night, and it takes a three-man team. Ciemyl runs it.” Huerl shook his head. “Wouldn’t want that round.”

Were three men enough?

As if to answer my question, Huerl went on. “The taudischefs could take any team, but if they hit one member, we’d hit back. If they took out all three, then we could go in and level anything we wanted. They know that. No one except the elvers and the stupids gives Ciemyl trouble, and that’s fine with Horazt and Jadhyl. Youdh doesn’t like it, but doesn’t make trouble. Not often, anyway.”

South Middle was not deserted so early in the evening, but most of the traffic on the avenue consisted of occasional hacks and private coaches, and a very infrequent rider, usually one of the private couriers. There were even fewer on the sidewalks, except around the bistros, but there were no bistros once we neared the taudis, just two lonely cafes across Dugalle from each other on the north side of South Middle.

“You need to eat on the round,” offered Huerl, “take Aylsim’s. That’s on this side. That Tiempran slop Rivara serves over there . . .” He shook his head. “It’d be a real long night.”

The two patrollers moved at a moderate pace, not ambling, but not striding, their eyes constantly moving, checking the closed shutters of the shops on the avenue, as well as the alleyways we passed. At times, they stopped and listened.

Before long, we turned up Elsyor, which ran north and actually, if we were to walk far enough, would have taken us to the Anomen D’Este, where my family attended services. We didn’t walk that far, only to Marzynn, before turning back east. Marzynn was better lit than South Middle and flanked by stylish row houses that gave way to a range of equally stylish trade shops, including the milliner Mother frequented, once we neared the Midroad.

Abruptly a scream rang out, and then just ahead of us, a woman ran down a narrow lane to our right, passing directly under one of the street-lamps. Part of her blouse looked to have been torn away. She vanished down the lane, followed moments later by a larger figure, who did not pass so directly beneath the light.

Another scream echoed from the lane.

“Frig!” Koshal looked to Huerl.

“We’ve got to look.”

“Don’t rush,” muttered Koshal. “Take it a step at a time.”

I followed the two down the narrow lane between two taller three-story buildings. The first streetlight was out, as was the second, but the glow from the third one allowed some relief from the shadows and gloom. The building to the right looked abandoned. I took a closer look and realized that it was being rebuilt, with the third level being added.

Ahead to the left was a pile of discarded roofing shingles and broken timbers, forcing us more to the right. Thankfully, there weren’t any crannies or niches, just a relatively even brick wall on the ground level, although there were windows-without casements or glass-on the second level.

I dropped back slightly as the two patrollers skirted the pile of construction debris.

“See anything?”

“Nothing.”

At that moment, something slammed into me from overhead, and stars flashed before my eyes. I took two steps and whirled as I heard steps on the stone behind me.

I didn’t have any shields. That I could sense, and two figures were running toward me from a doorway half concealed by the rubbish pile. The man on the left slowed, while the one on the right, who carried a club or pipe with a padded grip-end, charged right at me. He raised the pipe, and I ducked under it and inside, and in that moment, the moves that Clovyl had drilled into me for months took over. That was the way it felt. My left forearm came up under his arm and blocked the downswing of the pipe. My knee came up, and my elbow came across. The pipe dropped with a dull clunk onto the stone, and the attacker doubled up, silently gagging . . . or trying to.

I kept moving, delivering a side-kick to the weight-bearing knee of the second assailant. I didn’t hear the crack, but could feel it through my boots. I had to dodge the wild swing of the long knife, but grabbed the back of his arm and used his remaining momentum to help him into the wall, temple first. He just lay against the brick wall.

Only then did I glance around.

Huerl and Koshal stood there. Both had their truncheons out. Koshal’s mouth was open, and his eyes were focused behind me. I turned quickly.

The alleyway was empty-except for a pile of cut stone almost knee-high that was fragmented in places and scattered across the alleyway in others. I glanced up. The stone had to have fallen from a broken platform beside a chimney at least two stories up. I swallowed, then gestured to the two bodies. “You happen to know either one?”

Huerl moved forward, looking at the ruffian with the crushed throat, who had stopped moving. In fact, he’d stopped breathing. Huerl bent down, then straightened and shook his head.

Koshal checked the other dead man. “Chykol. Used to be a bouncer at the Red Ruby. Haven’t seen him for a good year. Fleuryla said he got too heavy into the plonk.”

I was still seeing flashes like miniature stars, and despite another effort, I could not raise my shields. I couldn’t image anything. “Now what?”

Huerl shrugged. “Well, sir, if it’d just been me and Koshal, we’d report that they got in a fight over the girl and killed each other, and she ran off.”

I nodded. “It seems to me that Chykol fought off the other man, protecting her, and then got hit with the stone. Maybe their fighting loosened that platform up there.”

“That’d do,” replied Koshal. “Make Moalyna happier, too.”

“Moalyna?”

“Chykol’s girl . . . maybe his wife, now.”

“What do we do with the bodies?” I asked.

“Not much we can do but get a pickup,” said Huerl. “I’ll stay here, and you two go back to the pole off Florrisa.”

“What if I stayed with you?” I asked. “This lane isn’t all that well lit.” That was an understatement; it was barely lit at all, with only the single light farther to the south.

“Might be better,” replied Huerl.

“Good idea,” seconded Koshal. He turned and hurried off back out onto South Middle.

“We ought to look farther down the lane. Just in case,” offered Huerl. “She’s probably long gone, and one of the ones you stopped was one of those after her.”

I suspected that as well, if not for precisely the same reasons as Huerl voiced.

I moved up beside the veteran patroller as we began to check out the lane ahead.

No shields. Yet how could I complain about continuing the round with Huerl and Koshal? They’d never had shields, and they made patrols every night. Still, I wasn’t about to hint anything was wrong, not after the occurrences of the evening.

I focused my attention on the lane, checking the more deeply shadowed spots.

When we reached the end, at Dysel, Huerl turned to me. “She could have gone anywhere.”

“She probably did.”

“Might as well go back and see if they left any traces.”

We headed back down the lane, and I was listening for any sound, as well as checking windows above, but I heard nothing but the faint echo of our boots on stone.

The doorway of the building where the two had hidden-or from which they’d emerged-was locked and barred from the inside, and no one answered our pounding. No lamps were lit within, and there were no signs to indicate the building’s purpose or use.

As we waited for Koshal and the wagon, I could only hope that the rest of the round was less eventful-far less eventful.

21

When I woke well before fifth glass on Vendrei morning I tried to create shields-and ended up with a blinding headache that forced me to drop them immediately. How long would it be before I recovered from all that stone dropping on my shields? Effectively, I’d gotten a concussion from the shields, but that was better than being dead. Still, the fact that I could raise shields for a moment suggested I would recover, but not as soon as I’d prefer.

The other question, one that I’d pondered the night before, was whether the attack on me had been set up by Harraf or Mardoyt-or both. Either Harraf or Warydt had to be involved, because they were effectively the only ones who’d known where I’d be patrolling. I doubted that either Huerl or Koshal knew anything. They’d both been as surprised as I’d been. I somehow didn’t think Warydt was involved, but I had nothing but feeling to support that conclusion, and I certainly could be wrong. But whether it was Harraf or Warydt, by making sure the two patrollers didn’t know, whoever planned it was avoiding any direct links. Also, there was the case of Smyrrt, who had died suspiciously under exactly the same kind of circumstances, according to Gulyart. Since Smyrrt had worked for Mardoyt, that suggested a certain collusion between the officers. But why would they have used the same method?

It could only be because they had planned on an imager being assigned to the Civic Patrol, and that method, someone knew, might work against imager shields. Also, dropping stone on me was one of the only sure ways to disable my shields without my seeing what was happening before it occurred. That also suggested that Mardoyt knew what I’d discovered, and Harraf was afraid of what I might find out.

I wanted to shake my head. There was no way I could prove what I’d learned and figured out, and I didn’t see that I’d ever come up with enough proof to bring before a justice, not unless I spent months or longer working out of the Third District station. After my last conversation with Master Dichartyn, I also didn’t see much point in running to tell him what had happened. All I had were surmises, and he definitely wasn’t interested in those. All he wanted was hard proof.

Pondering the unlikely wouldn’t help, and I had a long day ahead of me. In the fall gloom, I struggled from my bed, dressed, and headed out for Clovyl’s exercises, sparring, and running. After the night before, I had to admit I was grateful for his tutoring, but I still didn’t have to enjoy the process.

All in all, after exercises, sparring, running, showering, dressing, and eating, I managed to get to the station slightly before seventh glass, and before Zellyn. As I waited for the older patroller and looked around, I saw Captain Harraf.

He stepped toward me and asked, “How was your patrol last night?”

“Except for the two footpads and the screaming woman, it was uneventful.” I kept my tone ironic.

“Oh . . . that. The night reports from Lieutenant Warydt mentioned that Huerl and Koshal had come upon the end of a fight between two ruffians, but that they killed each other. Wasn’t that what happened?”

“In summary. One was chasing the woman and apparently ran into the other. One of them killed the other, but in the process they knocked a scaffold or something loose, and he got his skull crushed by the stones piled on it.”

Harraf nodded. “Those things happen when people aren’t aware of their surroundings.”

“That’s very true, sir. Anyone can be surprised, and sometimes things don’t go the way they’re planned.” I smiled pleasantly.

He smiled in return. “You’re learning about the Patrol. Next week and the week after, I’d thought I’d pair you with Alsoran. His partner has leave, and that will allow us not to leave some areas less patrolled.”

“What area does his round cover?”

“The east end of the taudis and the area farther east to the Avenue D’Artisans.”

I nodded. Again, I couldn’t say I was surprised.

“I’ve told Alsoran, but you’ll need to keep your eyes open more than usual. We haven’t heard anything official, but there are rumors that there will be a conscription sweep through our area sometime this fall. Before long, some of the taudischefs will know, after that . . .” He shrugged. “Who knows?”

“I appreciate the word, sir.”

“I thought you would.” He turned and headed to his study.

Zellyn was waiting for me to finish with the captain.

We headed out. Once we were clear of the station, he looked to me.

“The captain wants me to pair with Alsoran next week.”

“He’s a good man. Lousy round, but a good man.” He paused. “What about Lyonyt?”

“He said Lyonyt would be on leave.”

Zellyn just nodded to that, and we continued on our way, going down Fuosta to Quierca, reversing the direction of the initial round.

Although in midafternoon Zellyn and I stopped at the silversmith’s, Kantros insisted that nothing of import was missing, and in the end, unlike my rounds with Zellyn on Meredi or those with Huerl and Koshal the night before, Vendrei was thankfully most uneventful.

For more than a few reasons, including the fact that trying to image still brought on a headache, if not quite so severe as had been the instance that morning, I took a hack back to Imagisle. For the past weeks, I’d not been saving much of my pay, just because of the number of hack rides I’d taken, and that bothered me. It was getting so that everything was bothering me, and that bothered me as well.

As I hurried across the Bridge of Hopes, I thought about reporting to Master Dichartyn, but decided against it, because I was more than a little tired of being told, in effect, not to bother him unless I had some sort of proof.

When I finally did get to the dining hall, I found Maitre Dyana waiting outside. That was no coincidence.

“Dichartyn suggested we might have a conversation over dinner.” Her smile was pleasant, and there was a sparkle in her eyes that intimated I was about to learn something else less than to my liking.

“If both of you agree, I’d best listen carefully.” I smiled in return as I walked beside her into the dining hall and to the masters’ table. Ferlyn was already there, seated with Chassendri on one side and Quaelyn on the other. At the center of the table sat Maitre Poincaryt with a dark-haired older imager I had not seen before. “Is Master Poincaryt with a chief maitre of one of the other collegia?”

“Not a bad surmise, and accurate this time. That’s Maitre Dhelyn. He’s from Westisle.” Dyana guided us toward the end of the table, away from the others, but to where two carafes of wine had been placed.

After we had seated ourselves, I asked, “Red or white?”

“The red, please.”

I poured red for both of us, then took a sip-after she did.

“For a young imager, even a young master, Rhennthyl, you’re comparatively bright, and you tend not to make the same mistake twice. Also, there are gaps in your education, and the combination leads older heads to assume that you know more than you do. You also don’t always see the import of what you have been told. Together, these create certain problems.” She looked to me inquiringly.

“I have a tendency to act, and not always wisely, because I don’t know things obvious to those imagers my own age who have been imagers far longer.”

She nodded, then waited as one of the servers offered her a platter on which rested slices of skirt steak stuffed with mushrooms, onions, parsley, and herbs, and covered with a cream sauce. She took a single slice.

I took two slices. It had been a long day.

Once we had served ourselves, with both the meat and the leeks and squash and fried brown rice that followed, she looked to me again. “What do you think the silver knot means?”

“A High Holder has declared me as an enemy. Beyond that, very little, except from what you’ve said, and what I’ve heard, when a High Holder sets out to ruin an enemy, obtaining the death of that enemy is almost secondary to assuring that the enemy and his family will not remain as High Holders. At least, that seems to be the goal.”

Dyana did not respond until after she took another sip of the wine, a rather tart Grisio. “In the ‘ideal’ sense, the successful pursuit of ruination first destroys the assets of the opponent, then all friendships and alliances that would allow rebuilding, and then the suicide of the enemy because everything is lost. Often matters do not go that far, but often they do. There is, however, another aspect that is seldom mentioned.”

“Which is?” I asked because I didn’t know and because the question was clearly expected.

“Should the one who issues the notice die, every male heir, in turn, is obligated to continue the effort.”

For a moment I said nothing. Finally, I spoke, trying to hold in anger. “I asked you about this earlier, and you told me we would talk if Ryel proceeded beyond the card.”

“Has he?”

What could I say? The last thing I wanted to do was admit to Maitre Dyana that while I knew Ryel had been behind the arson, I could prove nothing. “There’s no proof of anything yet. Not that I know of.”

“Then you have time, don’t you?”

There might have been a hint of irony there, but I couldn’t tell. So I swallowed my anger and ignored the thrust of her words and went back to what she’d said earlier. “So the one being attacked must either ruin the attacker or kill every male heir? Or both?”

“Exactly.” Her smile was cool.

I hadn’t exactly planned on that in dealing with Ryel, and how could I possibly ruin him commercially? I had no idea even what all his holdings were. I definitely didn’t have any economic power.

“The Council and the Collegium support this?” I found that hard to believe.

“It provides a certain, shall we say, balance of power. While you may not notice this, you can take it as a granted that seldom do High Holders declare factors or tradespeople as enemies. There are several reasons for this. First, they consider those exclusively in commerce beneath them. Second, the factoring associations will unite to refuse to trade or buy from any High Holder who attacks a member. That is one reason why few factors refuse to join the associations or pay their annual fees. Third, the gain obtained from attacking any single factor is seldom worth the cost, and there is little satisfaction from the result. Fourth, it provides a way for pruning out truly incompetent High Holders.”

I could understand all that, but what I really wanted to know was why the Collegium didn’t stand up to the High Holders the way the factors did. Maitre Dyana was assuming I knew, and I didn’t. For a moment I took refuge in my food. The skirt steak was tender and flavorful, but the onions and leeks were overcooked. I finally asked, “Why doesn’t the Collegium react the way the factors do?”

“I have a question for you, Rhennthyl. How many imagers do you think have an ability with shields similar to yours?”

I’d actually thought about that when I’d considered the numbers of young imagers that had been killed by the assassins hired by the late Ferran envoy, Vhillar. I also had been wondering if the newest Ferran envoy had been trying to continue those policies, although it had been something like two weeks since someone had fired at me. “I have the impression, maitre, that very few have that ability outside of those reporting to Master Dichartyn, either directly or indirectly. There may be some others, such as you.” That was safe enough.

“How many do you think that might be?”

I knew there were only about five hundred imagers in all of Solidar, and there were only ten to fifteen in the counterspy area, and perhaps as many field operatives reporting to Master Schorzat. “I’d say there might be forty with strong shields, and another forty who could muster some sort of shield.”

“That is close enough. How many High Holdings are there?”

“Over a thousand.”

She smiled politely. “You should find those numbers interesting, I would think. You know, the Collegium as an institution has never had to confront a High Holder . . . or all the High Holders. I have no doubt you understand why that is so.”

A cold chill went down my back. I understood exactly what message I’d been given-that the Collegium would not risk itself for a single individual unfortunate enough to cross a High Holder-but I did reply. “I assume that it is for the same reason that only a single imager represents the Collegium in the Council.”

“In a manner of speaking.” She smiled. “How are you finding being a liaison to the Civic Patrol?”

“I’m still being rotated through various duties in order to gain a better understanding of how the Patrol works.” And how it didn’t, but I was more than certain she knew that as well.

“Understanding is a two-edged blade.”

“I’m discovering that.” I managed a laugh, even as I wondered how long it would be before I regained my imaging abilities, and even as I managed to damp the anger that her words about the Collegium and High Holders had raised. Mama Diestra definitely had been right about the Collegium not being my friend, especially in dealing with Ryel.

22

When I awoke on Samedi, I again tried to raise shields, and found that I could, but with an immediate, if dull, headache. That was both a frustration and a relief, because I was improving, just not as quickly as I would have liked. I’d been thrown into a wall by an explosion outside the Chateau, and that hadn’t affected my ability at all, but a load of granite crashing down on me from above had destroyed my ability to create shields for days? The only thing I could figure was something Maitre Dyana had said months earlier-about the angling of shields. There had been no way to slide the impact of the stones because they had dropped directly down on me, whereas I’d been at an angle to the explosion. But . . . again, that suggested someone knew far too much about imager limits.

Putting those thoughts aside for the moment, I pulled myself from bed, donned exercise clothes and boots, and headed out to deal with Clovyl’s regimen. Under a sky graying with approaching dawn, the air was chill, almost cold enough for frost, and I thought that was unusual for so early in the year-until I realized it was fall. So much of the year had slipped by without my really knowing it.

Clovyl worked us so hard that the cool was more than welcome for the four-mille run that always ended the early-morning sessions. The cold shower that followed wasn’t nearly so welcome, and even after I donned the gray imager’s garb that had seemed so hot during summer and harvest I took a while to warm up as I crossed the quadrangle.

Dartazn and Martyl were standing outside the dining hall when I got there. I had missed their company at meals, and I walked over to them. “How are things going with the Council-besides your being overworked?”

Martyl grinned. “Overworked? How could you say that, sir?”

“No ‘sirs’ between us. I wouldn’t have the position if they hadn’t had to get me away from the Council.” I wouldn’t have been surprised if Dartazn and Baratyn both were Maitres D’Aspect, anyway, their rank concealed as was the case with many working for Master Dichartyn. “Is the Council doing anything?” That wasn’t an idle question. Outside of reading Veritum and Tableta, I hadn’t done much to keep up with events between Solidar and Ferrum. War hadn’t been declared, but there had been minor naval incidents off the coast of Jariola.

“Nothing that anyone can see.” Dartazn’s tone was dry. “There are lots of Navy couriers, and Councilor Rholyn has made at least two quick trips from the Chateau to the Collegium in the middle of the day.”

“Something’s about to happen, then.”

“That’d be our guess.” Martyl shrugged. “What about you? How do you like the Civic Patrol?”

“It’s more eventful. You know . . . burglaries, weeded-out elvers, toughs killing each other. And lots and lots of walking. Oh, I forgot, boredom in watching justice cases, and lots of excuses when people are charged.”

“Almost makes you want to come back to the Chateau, does it?” asked Dartazn.

“The company at the Chateau is much better. So is the food, and far cheaper.”

“You have to pay for your own lunches?”

“So far, anyway.” I paused. “Has Master Dichartyn found anyone to help you?”

“Not yet,” replied Martyl. “I don’t think he’s hurrying, either.”

“Any new kinds of attempts to attack councilors?”

The two exchanged the quickest of glances.

“Cannons?” I pressed. “Gunpowder devices?”

“Someone tried to drive another wagon through the gates,” Martyl admitted. “Like the one you exploded. It was filled with black powder and grapeshot. Dartazn, here, got it to explode outside the gates. Two guards were injured, and they had to put down a half-dozen dray horses. Good thing it was on a day when only the High Council was there.”

Did that mean that it had been a Jariolan plot? Or a Tiempran one? Would anyone ever know?

We talked a bit more and then went to our separate tables. I sat with Ferlyn, but he didn’t know as much as Dartazn and Martyl had. After breakfast, I hurried back to my studio, not because I had that much to do in preparation for the sitting with Master Rholyn but because I wanted to start on some design sketches for Seliora’s portrait. Her portrait wouldn’t be one where she was seated, although most were, but Seliora had too much energy for that. I wasn’t certain how to capture her standing, either.

By the time Master Rholyn arrived just after ninth glass, I’d gone through something like four different design sketches and found each of them lacking. I was ready to set them aside for the task of working on finishing Rholyn’s face, or as much of it as I could.

“Good morning, sir,” I offered.

He only nodded as he took off his heavy cloak and walked over to the low crate. “The same position?”

“If you would, for a moment.”

I decided not to ask any questions while I worked on the part of the portrait dealing with his neck and chin. After perhaps two quints, when I’d done what I could and he was getting stiff and tired, I said, “If you’d like to sit down, sir.”

After several moments, while still painting, I said, “I heard that someone tried to send a wagon filled with explosives into the Chateau.”

“It was rather hard to miss . . . the explosion, that is.”

“Do you think it was the Jariolans or the Ferrans?”

“The Jariolans are most secretive, and it’s rather hard to find out things when the Solidaran embassy in Ferrial is closed, even temporarily,” replied Rholyn. “The Ferran parliament, if you can term it such, was not exactly pleased at the demise of their previous envoy, accidental as it may have appeared.”

“That sounds to me like the death of envoys, however accidental, is unacceptable, but the death of tens of imagers is . . . from the Ferran point of view, at least.”

“The deaths of imagers are always acceptable, anywhere in Terahnar.” Rholyn raised his eyebrows. “Haven’t you learned that yet?”

“I’ve learned it, sir, but I’d hoped such deaths wouldn’t be that acceptable within the Collegium.” I was baiting Rholyn a bit. That was probably unwise, but I’d gotten more than a little tired of a leadership attitude in the Collegium which seemed to regard junior imagers as expendable targets and lures.

“That is an assumption that you lack the facts to support, Rhennthyl.”

“That’s quite possible, sir. Would you be willing to affirm that my personal experience or the killing of more than ten junior imagers by assassins so far this year are completely at odds with the Collegium’s actual practices?”

Rholyn actually sighed. “Master Dichartyn did mention that your inquiries could prove difficult.” After a lengthy interval, he finally spoke. “Let me reply in this fashion. It is not widely known, nor do we wish it known, that some two hundred years ago, the chief maitre of the Collegium protested, both in word and action, the practice of local patrollers and others who engaged in killing young imagers. More than two-thirds of the imagers in Solidar were seriously injured or killed. Close to two hundred High Holders died as well, and more than a thousand factors and artisans. The fleet was less than united or effective, and the Ferran autocracy was overthrown and replaced by the commercial barons who now rule Ferrum. You will find little mention of anything like this in the histories, only the mention of the Navy’s inability to affect events in Ferrum. At that time, there were close to four hundred imagers in the Collegium-before the pogroms. Less than two hundred survived. You can check the figures by going through the old rosters of the Collegium. I’m sure that Master Poincaryt would open them to you. With the widespread use of firearms now, we are possibly even more vulnerable. You would doubtless survive, but what of those who cannot raise the shields that you can?”

I didn’t have a quick answer to that. In fact, I didn’t have any good answer.

“Difficult as the present situation is, Rhennthyl, any action the Collegium takes independently and as an institution that suggests it would or could arrogate itself over the Council, the guilds, the factors associations, or any government anywhere on Terahnar would result in extreme danger to every imager, especially those you would protect. The Collegium as a whole must always be seen to support the Council and never to oppose any of the three groups it comprises.”

“As a whole . . .” I mused half aloud.

Rholyn smiled. It was a cold expression. “Personal difficulties must be handled personally and in a fashion that can never involve the Collegium as an institution, nor be seen to involve it. That is how it has been for the past two centuries and how it must be, for the sake of all imagers, not just those who have the imaging strength to stand against armed force.”

“I see, sir. Thank you.” Both Maitre Dichartyn and Maitre Dyana had been more than clear on that policy, but not the full reasons behind it. I almost asked why, but after a moment I understood. The issue arose only for the handful of imagers with abilities such as mine, and we could be handled as discrete individuals, while raising the point that Rholyn and Maitre Dyana had for all imagers would only emphasize the Collegium’s vulnerability. I also realized another reason why the Collegium guarded the Council members-to remind them that there was power in the Collegium and that such power served them.

Needless to say, I asked no more questions, but just worked on the portrait, then partly cleaned up after Master Rholyn left. I didn’t have to put everything away because Seliora would be sitting for me in the afternoon.

At lunch, I listened to Ferlyn and Quaelyn as they discussed the patterns of where imagers had been born. I hadn’t even realized that the Collegium kept such records.

After I ate, I hurried off to wait for Seliora. On the previous Solayi, she had agreed to meet me at the end of the Bridge of Hopes at the first glass of the afternoon-but only if I agreed to spend a glass on horseback in the courtyard at NordEste Design before we could have dinner. I pondered just how well I might do as I stood on the middle of the bridge a good quint before the bells rang out from the Imagisle Anomen.

A coach for hire pulled up at the east side of the bridge, and three people emerged-Odelia, Kolasyn, and Seliora. I immediately hurried toward them. The bells began to peal the glass, their sound both more mellow and yet sharper in the cool fall afternoon. As we neared each other, I could see that Seliora wore black split skirts, a simple red blouse, and a black jacket also trimmed in red.

We hugged each other briefly, then separated, and I turned toward Odelia and Kolasyn. “Thank you for accompanying Seliora.”

“It was our pleasure,” replied Kolasyn. His voice suggested that he definitely meant that.

“But we do want to be among the first to see the portrait,” Odelia added.

“You will be,” I promised.

“Until later, then,” Odelia replied.

Seliora and I watched from the middle of the bridge as the two walked back toward the Boulevard D’Imagers.

“They look good together,” I offered.

“He’s good for her,” Seliora said.

I understood all too well what she didn’t say-that nice as he was, Kolasyn didn’t have the strength to replace Shelim. Nor did Shomyr. I turned to her again. “You look good.”

“Simple, you mean.” The mischievous smile appeared. “I don’t want a portrait that shows me in something I’d never wear.”

“I could still paint it that way,” I said teasingly.

She raised her eyebrows.

“But I’d better not.” I laughed. “I thought we’d take the scenic walk to my studio, around Imagisle, so that you could see more of it.”

“I’d like that.”

I took her arm, and we turned northward and began to follow the stone-paved path on the east side of the isle that paralleled the river, if some five yards back from the granite river wall.

“That’s the administration building, and those are the quarters for primes and seconds. I had a room on the second level there.” I pointed.

“It looks rather severe,” Seliora replied, “although it’s pleasant enough with the oaks beginning to turn. I imagine it’s more austere in full winter.” She paused. “There aren’t that many trees this old left in L’Excelsis.”

“Some date back to the founding of the Collegium.”

We walked farther north, past the small docks that held two modest training steamboats, on one of which I’d done my first public imaging, although I couldn’t distinguish which of the two it might have been.

To our left was an expanse of grass, surrounded by the ancient oaks, and farther west were the armory and the building holding the various workshops. Before long, we reached the houses for the married imagers. The larger dwellings fronted the river on both the east and west sides of the isle, but all were of two stories, and of solid granite with tile roofs, and with garden courtyards behind them and stone lanes flanked with grass and hedges between. While the exteriors were similar, from the window hangings, flower boxes, and various small touches, the sizes varied somewhat, and it was clear that those who lived there had very differing tastes. I wondered which might belong to Master Dichartyn.

“That’s where the imagers with families live. The larger dwellings are mostly for the senior masters, but they’re not nearly so grand as NordEste Design,” I said with a smile.

“They have a great deal more privacy, Rhenn.”

“I can see that, and there are a few that are spacious.”

Seliora stopped. So did I. She looked at me. “They’re built so that imagers can live safely with their families, aren’t they?”

“Yes.”

“Could an imager . . .” She didn’t finish the thought.

“It’s rare, but I once lit a lamp in my sleep. I was dreaming, but thought I was awake.”

She nodded thoughtfully.

North of the houses was the park with the open grassy spaces for play and walking and, of course, the hedge maze. I would have liked to have played in one of those as a boy. Most of the time I’d walked there, I hadn’t seen many people, but perhaps because it was a Samedi afternoon, there were at least half a dozen families there. Four or five children were running through the head-high boxwood maze, occasionally shrieking and having a wonderful time.

We reached the northern tip of the isle, where there were several shaded benches with a view of the gray waters of the River Aluse. Seated on one of those in the middle were Shannyr and his new bride. I couldn’t remember her name. Although I hadn’t seen her before, he’d told me about her. He’d also been more than friendly at the time of my difficulties with Johanyr, one of the few seconds who had been truly supportive.

“Shannyr?”

He turned, then rose. “Master Rhennthyl.”

His wife stood almost immediately as well. She was slender, but with a round face and pale green eyes washed out somewhat by the dark blue woolen coat. She grasped his hand.

“I haven’t ever had the honor of meeting your wife.” I smiled, looking at her. “I have heard him speak most flatteringly about you.”

She flushed ever so slightly as Shannyr said quickly, “Ciermya, this is Master Rhennthyl.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, sir.” She smiled, a trace apprehensively, I thought.

“And I you. This is Seliora,” I said.

Seliora offered a warm smile, then said, “I’m glad to meet you. All I’ve seen here are men.”

“This is the first time she’s really seen Imagisle,” I added. “How are you finding it, Ciermya?”

“I like it very much, sir. Our quarters are lovely, and it’s a short walk to work . . . so long as I keep working, leastwise.”

“You do . . . drafting, is it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“She’s outstanding at it,” added Shannyr proudly.

“I’m sure she is.” I could tell Ciermya was not exactly at ease, so I smiled again. “We won’t keep you, but I did want to meet you after all Shannyr said. He won’t tell you, but I appreciate all that he did to help me.”

“I just did-”

“You did more than anyone else then, and I won’t forget it.” I could tell he was embarrassed, but I wasn’t about to let him minimize his actions.

As we began to walk along the west side of the isle, I looked to Seliora.

Her eyes met mine, and she nodded.

“What was that supposed to mean?”

“He’s older than you, a good five years or more, but he respects you. She fears you.”

“Am I so fearsome? I didn’t do all that well at the Council, and now I’m pounding the stone pavement of L’Excelsis with patrollers.”

“You did very well at the Chateau. It could be that you did too well.”

I almost missed a step as the combination of her words and what Master Rholyn had said earlier struck me. Did Master Dichartyn-or Maitre Poincaryt-worry that my inability to conceal my imaging might unsettle the Council? Or had I been removed as a purported disciplinary action to show the Council that the Collegium did not approve of “accidents” occurring to foreign envoys, regardless of provocation?

“Frig . . .” I barely murmured the words. It made far too much sense.

Seliora stopped, still looking at me.

“I just realized something. I’m going to have to be far more circumspect than I’ve been before. Master Rholyn hinted at that earlier today, but what you said made me think about it in a different way.”

“How so?”

“What I did at the Chateau was too much a reminder to the Council of how powerful an imager can be, and the Collegium does not want that.”

“Wasn’t it acceptable, in protecting them?”

“I’m sure it was. Once, or very occasionally.”

She nodded again.

I pointed across the river to the west where the gleaming white walls of the Council Chateau, sitting on its hill, almost sparkled in the fall afternoon light. “We do have a good view of the Chateau.”

South of the park was the armory, set almost next to the gray stone river walls on the west side of the isle. The massive gray-walled building with the workrooms was next.

“What’s that?”

“That’s where we’re headed. My studio is a small converted workroom, on the northeast corner-right there.” I pointed.

“Do they all have outside doors?”

“Most of them, and they’re all lead-lined, with leaded glass windows, and leaden sheets in the center of the doors.”

“That’s not true of the houses, is it?” She frowned.

“Just one sleeping chamber, I’m told.” I led the way to the studio, where I opened the door and gestured for her to enter.

Once Seliora was inside, as I closed the door, she glanced around the studio, her eyes alighting on the sheets of paper that held the various design sketches that I’d worked on earlier. “Can I see?”

“Be my guest. I wasn’t happy with any of them, and I decided that I needed to have you here to do a decent design.”

Then she looked to the uncompleted portrait of Master Rholyn. “I saw your study at the Guild Hall, but this is the first portrait I’ve seen.”

“It needs more work.”

“It will be good, better than he deserves.”

“How do you know that?”

“There’s a cruelty there. I can see it, even now. You paint what you see and feel, Rhenn. Isn’t that so?”

Cruelty? I studied what I’d portrayed so far. Perhaps there was a hint of that. Certainly, there was a hardness to the set of his eyes that combined with the strong jaw and the too-full lips to create an image of . . . what, I still wasn’t sure. When I finished the hair and forehead, and the one side of the neck, I’d know more.

“This afternoon is for your portrait, not his. I’d like to work on some more sketches. If you’d take off the scarf and drape it loosely over your left shoulder . . .”

“Like this?”

“That’s good.”

From there on, I began to sketch.

The third design had something, but it was too head-on; so I did a fourth . . . and the angle was perfect.

“Good. Just hold that.”

She didn’t say a word.

I called a halt when I realized that the bells had rung half past second glass. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize . . .”

“That’s fine.” She shook her head, then shrugged her shoulders, trying to loosen them. “Posing is hard work. How much did you get done?”

“The design, and I got that all on the canvas, just a light outline, as well as the lines of your face, the eyes, the cheeks. It’s a very good start, but it could take several months because I’ll need you to sit, and we can only do that on end-days.” I began to clean up, not that I had that much to do, because I hadn’t used any oils, just the fine-lined drawing pencil.

“How about tomorrow?”

“I can’t. I’m the duty master, and I really shouldn’t be this far from the administrative building.”

“Oh . . .”

“I’m sorry. I should have told you.”

“That’s all right.”

It wasn’t, but her tone was forgiving.

“I owe you a dinner for all your hard work.”

“First, you owe me some time on horseback,” she reminded me.

“Can we go to dinner afterward? Somewhere like Chaelya’s,” I suggested. “That would be family-approved, would it not?” I followed my words with a grin.

“Aunt Staelia would be pleased, and the food is good.”

“You have some reservations? Or were we supposed to meet Odelia and Kolasyn somewhere?”

“No . . . they’re having dinner with Shomyr and someone he’s interested in. Haelya is her name.”

“You’re more interested in torturing me on horseback, is that it? Or do you have a feeling it wouldn’t be good to have dinner there?” That was a guess, but with Seliora’s Pharsi farsight, that was always a possibility.

“Not farsight . . . but a feeling.”

“Azeyd’s, then? We went to Terraza last week.”

“That might be better. Next week we could go to Chaelya’s with either Odelia and Kolasyn or Shomyr and Haelya.”

“Besides, I’m growing very fond of Pharsi fare, all kinds of Pharsi fare.” I didn’t quite leer.

“Rhenn . . .” She laughed and shook her head.

For a number of reasons, including my inability to hold shields for long, we walked over the Bridge of Desires and hailed a hack on the west bank of the Aluse. The wind had turned chill during the course of the afternoon, and Seliora’s jacket wasn’t that heavy. She was shivering by the time we got into the coach. As the coach crossed the Nord Bridge, I looked out at the river, its dark gray water topped with whitecaps, thinking that we might be in for an early snowfall.

Back at NordEste Design, I got a lesson in saddling and putting a bridle on a very gentle mare, who snorted only once or twice at my incompetence. Then I managed to mount and ride around the courtyard until my thighs ached and my ears were numb, and my nose began to run.

Finally, my task-mistress relented and let me dismount, but I still had to stall and unsaddle and curry the mare. Then I had to wash up as well. We were both cold by that time.

It was well past sixth glass when we finally ended up at a cozy corner table at Azeyd, close enough to the hearth that Seliora stopped shivering, but not near enough to roast me.

“Do you want some hot mulled wine?” I asked.

“No, I’m already warm enough. A red Cambrisio, please,” she told the server, a black-haired Pharsi girl several years younger than Khethila, “and I’ll have the harvest greens, and the lamb pastry roll.”

“The red Cambrisio also,” I added, “and the harvest greens, but I’d like the cumin-cream lamb with the rice.”

“Yes, sir.” The server smiled and slipped away.

“She’s cheerful,” I offered.

“Her parents wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“She’s the daughter of the owners?”

“Martica and Chelaom are much stricter than Mama and Papa.”

I offered a wince.

Seliora laughed softly.

Once our wine and greens arrived, I began to explain, keeping my voice very low, what I’d learned over the week from Master Dichartyn, Maitre Dyana, and Master Rholyn, ending with, “. . . in short, I’ve been told that my problems with Ryel are mine and mine alone, and that I need to resolve them by myself and without any tracks leading back to the Collegium-or to you and your family.”

“My family? Oh, because too many people know we’re close, and that would lead back to you?”

“I don’t think we need both the Collegium and the High Holders after you and your family.” I tried to keep my tone dry. “Although I did hear from Lieutenant Mardoyt that you were more than capable of protecting yourself.”

“Grandmama said that would come up.” Her words were not quite defiant. “When did he tell you this?”

“This last week.” That was a bit of a stretch, but not that much.

“He’s an evil man and not to be trusted.” She offered a wry smile. “But it is true. Ricardio attempted to take some liberties with me. He ripped my blouse right off me. I shot him in the shoulder. Then I told him that if he said a word about it, he’d never say another. He said I was a bitch.” She sighed. “I didn’t want to shoot him. That’s why I had to.”

“What?” I didn’t understand that.

“I kept trying to discourage him gently. He wouldn’t discourage. I even warned him. He laughed and lunged for me. Some people only understand force. It’s best to avoid those altogether . . . if you can.”

“Because, in the end, you have to use force to stop them?” I asked.

She nodded.

By that token, if I’d had any sense, I should have avoided Johanyr totally-except he hadn’t given me that choice.

“Do you think I’m terrible for that?” Seliora asked quietly. “I suppose I should have told you, but . . .”

“You hoped I’d understand, and feared I wouldn’t?”

She nodded again.

“Dear one . . .” I smiled. “If anyone understands being pushed into doing something necessary and unpleasant, I’m certainly getting to that point. Sometimes, there aren’t any alternatives.”

“There are always alternatives,” she replied, “but if we accept them, we become less.”

I’d thought about that, if not in her case.

“What can I do to help you?” she asked after a moment, a question that also asked if we could leave the shooting behind.

“Could you find out what you can about Ryel’s commercial enterprises, especially in L’Excelsis? I’m fairly certain he has interests in or control of the Banque D’Rivages.” I paused. “But I’d rather have no information than have anything leading to you and your family.”

“I can see that. I can ask, and we’ll talk it over.” Seliora nodded slowly. “Can I ask what you have in mind?”

“In a general sense. I’m trying to figure out what might be called misdirection. I can’t wait too long, because the greatest pressure Ryel can put on me is through my family. If he presses your family right now, he offers an opportunity he doesn’t want to give.”

That was clear enough to me, because Seliora and I weren’t even betrothed, let alone married. If Ryel acted against them, now, they certainly could use their taudis contacts against him and his family, and it was unlikely that the High Holder-his heirs, especially-would get much support for attacking a crafting family not involved in his feud. That also meant that I had to deal with Ryel before I could even consider marrying Seliora.

“I see that. Still . . . I should tell Mama and Grandmama to be prepared if he does act against us.” Her smile was cold.

There wasn’t much more to say about that, not really, because I had only a vague idea of how I would actually attempt to carry out what I had in mind. So I looked at Seliora and smiled. “How are your greens?”

“Good. And yours?” The mischievous smile reappeared.

“Excellent, if not quite so good as those prepared by those in a certain kitchen off Hagahl Lane.”

We would enjoy the rest of the evening. About that, I was determined. I was also relieved to have heard Seliora’s words about the shooting. It did confirm what I already knew. She wasn’t about to be demeaned or abused, regardless of the cost. Her reaction also strengthened my own feelings about dealing with Ryel.

23

Because I was the duty master on Solayi, I could do more thinking and reading, and planning, but not much else. The day was uneventful, except for having to get up early. No would-be imagers appeared. No one reported any imagers killed or missing, and the dining hall was so deserted at midday that I was the only master there.

Even though I’d already told Shault that I’d delivered his coins and message on Meredi evening, I did motion him aside after lunch.

“How are your studies with Master Ghaend going?”

He didn’t quite meet my eyes.

“You’re having trouble with the reading?”

“Yes, sir.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that because, to me, reading had come almost naturally. “Is it the letters or the way they sound?”

“No, sir. It’s the words. I can sound them out, but there are so many that I don’t know what they mean.”

“Haven’t you heard of a dictionary?”

He looked absolutely blank.

“Come with me.”

As we walked, I began to explain. “A dictionary is a book that has all the words one could ever use, and it explains each word in smaller words, usually, anyway. . . .”

While the library was dark, as it always was on Solayi, I found a dictionary and signed it out to Shault, cautioning him that he’d have to pay for replacing it if he lost or damaged the book. Then I sent him on his way, but he seemed almost relieved.

A dictionary-something so simple that it was obvious . . . except to a very bright boy from the taudis and one who was still fearful enough that he didn’t want to ask anyone, and who would seemingly tell only me, and only if questioned.

Thankfully, that was the most eventful happening of Solayi.

I did have to get up earlier on Lundi to fit in both Clovyl’s exercises and sparring, as well as report on the duty to Master Schorzat. But I managed to arrive at Third District station before seventh glass in time to meet Alsoran before the morning patrols began.

Alsoran had definitely been picked for his patrol round on the basis of physical appearance and capability. He stood a good ten digits taller than me, and his shoulders were far broader. There wasn’t the faintest trace of extra flesh or fat around his midsection. His black hair was cut short and still faintly curly below his visored cap, and his eyebrows were thick and bushy, almost meeting above his nose.

“Good morning, Master Rhennthyl.”

“Good morning, Alsoran.”

“You ready?”

“As ready as I can be.” That meant that I was only holding very light shields, with triggers, because anything more caused a pounding headache. That wasn’t exactly ideal, but letting anyone know I was less than fully able would have been worse. I thought that it was unlikely that Mardoyt or Harraf would try anything too soon after the last incident, and I hoped I was right.

Without another word, we walked out of the station and headed southwest on Fuosta. We’d almost reached Quierca before Alsoran spoke again.

“I heard about what happened when you went with Huerl and Koshal.” Alsoran’s slightly high-pitched voice was mild. “I recall something like that happened to a first patroller out of headquarters, except he got killed instead of the brigands.”

“I’d heard that. I was assured it was an accident.” I laughed. “I’m not fond of accidents.”

“Being as you’re an imager, I’d wager you aren’t, sir. It does seem strange that they’ve got you walking rounds, not that I’m complaining, mind you.” The bushy eyebrows rose.

“The commander wants me to understand everything that you patrollers do. I got the feeling that he worries that if I don’t have that understanding, I might recommend something that might cause more problems than doing nothing.”

Alsoran shook his head. “Doesn’t hold on this round. In the taudis, someone’s always doing something wrong. You do something, and you got problems. You do nothing, and you got more problems.”

“You’re speaking from experience. How long have you had this round?”

“On and off, for six-seven years. They rotate us, but I always get rotated back here.” He laughed. “Suits me. The elvers and the taudischefs in my round know the rules, and they don’t give us problems. It’s always the young toughs, and most of them don’t last.” He shook his head good-naturedly. “Some of them get it, and they work out, but the others . . .”

I let a moment of silence pass before I asked, “How do you set up your round?”

“Always do a circle on the edges first. That way, you get a feel for the day and what’s happening before you get really inside the taudis. We go out South Middle or Quierca, doesn’t much matter, and then along the Avenue D’Artisans. The stretch along the avenue and the two streets behind it are the only part of the round that aren’t in the South Middle taudis. From the plaza or from Quierca, depending on which way we go, we head back to Mando-that’s the west end of the round. Lyonyt always says that Mando’s the border between nasty tough and really evil.”

“And your round takes in all the really evil side?”

“Nah . . . our side is just tough. But you can’t stop looking. The moment you do . . . that’s when trouble starts.”

We’d walked two blocks along Quierca. On the south side of the street were row houses, most with heavy shutters or bars on the lower windows, but the dwellings-mostly of faded and soot-stained yellow brick-were neat. Through the occasional gaps between the duplexes and triplexes, I could see hints of gardens and trees in the rear courtyards. On the north side, where we walked, there was the chest-high wall at the back edge of the sidewalk. The ground between the wall and the dwellings was mostly bare, except for straggly weeds. Still, after the first four blocks, most of the windows on the lower level had heavy shutters, and almost none had windows boarded shut, although I could see traces of smoke coming from chimneys of the few houses with boarded-up windows.

“Quiet this morning. Usually is on Lundi,” observed Alsoran.

Even the Avenue D’Artisans seemed to have fewer wagons and coaches, but that might well have been because I’d never been there so early in the morning before. The shops were still all shuttered. The walk back down South Middle was equally quiet, but the row dwellings on the south side, in the taudis, looked even more dilapidated than those off Quierca.

When we reached Mando, Alsoran looked to me. “From here on, don’t stop looking.”

“I won’t.” Especially since I was in no shape to hold full shields.

Mando was more like a lane than a street, and an odor of wastes, human and otherwise, drifted up around us.

“Don’t work on the sewers here much,” said Alsoran. “Can’t say I blame ’em.”

The lane ran three long blocks, then turned almost at a right angle and ran another three long blocks back to Quierca. We didn’t see anyone on the lane itself all the way, but a block or so short of the end I caught the smell of elveweed-a strong odor.

“Elveweed,” I noted.

“From the brown place there on the left,” replied Alsoran. “Always smell it there in the morning. Haven’t had any trouble, though. Not yet, anyway.”

“How long has it been that way?”

“Two-three years.”

“Have you noticed more elvers?”

“The captain just rotated us back here a month ago. Spent four months on a round east of the Guild Hall. Must be twice as many elvers since we were here last. Younger, too. The young ones steal more. Older ones work as loaders, smoke when they’re off. Youngers can’t be bothered to work.”

We turned back out Quierca to the next street. I couldn’t tell the name because the paint on the wall had been scratched away.

We made it to the last lane at the east end of the taudis area before we ran into trouble. Two blocks in on Saelio, a burly youth a half head taller than me leaned against a brick post that might once have held a lamp. He had a straggly beard that did little for his appearance, and the nearly new yellow and red plaid cloak did even less.

“Alsoran! You got a newbie.” The tough spat in my direction, but not at me.

I smiled. “You do that again, and you won’t have teeth to spit through.”

A long knife appeared. “Says who?”

“Don’t you think that’s an assault on a patroller?” I asked Alsoran, keeping my eye on the youth.

“Old man . . . stay out of it,” the tough warned. “What you going to do, newbie?” He spat again.

I cheated, admittedly, because I lifted full shields, if against my body, before I disarmed him, swept his legs out from under him, and dumped him on the stone pavement. The knife clattered to the stones. I kicked it away.

Inadvertent tears welled from his eyes as he massaged what was probably a sprained wrist. “Trolie bastard . . . get you . . .”

“No, you won’t. All you had to do was not spit and not draw a knife. I could have smashed your kneecap so you’d never walk right again,” I said in a conversational tone. “Consider it a kindness. Also consider that if you try it again, you just might not wake up after your face smashes into the pavement, rather than your backside.”

His eyes dropped to the gray imager trousers, then widened, and he scrambled to his feet, backing away and holding the injured wrist. “Yes, sir.”

I watched as he scuttled toward the narrow alleyway between two houses with crude heavy shutters over the lower windows.

“Gave you special training, did they?” asked Alsoran.

“Not that special. There are probably fifty others as good as I am. I’m just the newest.”

“You didn’t image anything.”

“Generally, I’d rather not.” That was true, if misleading.

“Better that way. He’ll remember that you took him without it.”

I hoped so. Even from the momentary use of shields, my head ached.

Fortunately, while we began to see people on the streets and lanes of the taudis during the second round, most were older.

One graying woman called from her front stoop. “Alsoran . . . Fedark got promoted. He’s a boatswain third.”

“I’m glad to hear it. Give him my best!”

As we continued on, Alsoran said, “Her boy was too smart and too good to stay here. I talked him into enlisting. They give a better deal to the enlistees than the ones they conscript.”

“That’s true of the imagers, too.” Very true, because imagers who didn’t come to the Collegium often ended up dead.

After the second full round, we stopped to eat at Elysto’s-a small bistro in the one good section of the round, just off the Boulevard D’Artisans-and I enjoyed the batter-fried lamb and onion croissant and the rice fries with the balsamic vinegar.

Then we were back on our feet once more, reversing the direction of the round.

For a good half glass, nothing occurred, although there were more people on the streets. We headed down Mando once more, where I caught sight of three taudis-toughs leaning against the low brick wall of a front porch.

One of them called out, “Such brave trolies. We do like our brave trolies.”

Another sang,

“See our trolies prance and go

Till the scripties start their show . . .”

“Such brave trolies.”

Alsoran flushed, but said nothing, not until we had almost reached South Middle.

“Hate the conscription teams. Most of the ones they pick up here just end up in the Westisle penal crews, and it takes weeks for things to settle out after they leave.”

“Do you think it could be worse this time, with the Tiempran priests stirring up things?”

“Sure as the Namer won’t be better.”

We walked through another round and more. It was close to third glass when we started up Kyena from Quierca toward South Middle.

Just as we neared a lane that was more like a narrow alleyway, I heard a faint click. A taudis-tough stepped out with a pistol aimed in our direction. I threw up shields, even as I snapped, “On the right.”

Except that it wasn’t on the right. As the one tough fired, three others charged from the left.

Crack! Crack! Crack!

The shots slammed into my shields, driving me back. The impact felt like knives driving into my brain, and for a moment I couldn’t even see. Any imaging was definitely not a possibility.

As my eyes cleared, I saw that all five of the toughs had iron bars, and the bars had pointed ends.

I charged the one on the left, so that I could get under the bar before it swung down. My block was good enough that he dropped the bar to the pavement. It landed with a dull clang, but I’d already put an elbow through his throat, and he staggered away.

I used a side-kick on the next tough, right on his knee, and he pitched forward.

Alsoran had used his truncheon on one, who’d gone down, and had slammed it down on the wrist of a second with a sickening crunch. Another iron bar clanked on the uneven stones of the sidewalk.

The last tough vanished up the side lane.

Two figures lay on the pavement. The one hit with the truncheon on the head was unmoving and not breathing. The other had a leg twisted from the knee down and a bruise across his forehead. He was breathing.

Alsoran scooped up the pistol dropped by the one tough and slipped it somewhere under his cloak. Then he picked up the wounded taudis-tough and slung him over his shoulder like a sack of meal. “We’ll have to leave the other. One of us needs to have both hands free.”

It might have been better with me lugging the wounded tough, but I didn’t feel like saying so. My head was throbbing, and intermittent stabs of pain ran down my spine.

The remaining block of Kyena was eerily empty. So were the two short blocks from Kyena down South Middle to the nearest pickup point, where Alsoran laid the tough out on the ground next to the pole.

“He’s not going to wake up soon, maybe not at all.” Alsoran straightened, shaking himself to relieve sore muscles. “Those weren’t local, not from this part of the taudis.”

That didn’t surprise me. They had to be from the territory to the west of where we had been attacked, that part controlled by Youdh. That meant I had more to do after I finished my round with Alsoran. I realized that I had more than a few bruises, but I hadn’t felt being hit. Mostly I was angry. Every which way I turned, someone was after me for something. There wasn’t even much I could say as we waited by the pole for the pickup wagon.

“You didn’t image,” Alsoran finally said.

“I did. I blocked the shots from the pistol. After that, there wasn’t time. You have to be able to concentrate.” Again, that wasn’t totally true, but close enough.

He frowned.

“We do much better one on one,” I said, “or when there’s some distance between us and an attacker. Why do you think they train us to use our hands and feet?”

“For a middling-sized fellow, Master Rhennthyl, you do wallop folks.” He glanced down at the tough.

Even though I was taller than most, I guessed that I was just middling-sized to the massive Alsoran.

By the time we got back to Third District station with the still-unconscious tough, our round was supposed to be over, but it was close to two quints past four before we finished the round report and the initial charging sheet.

After that, I left the station and walked back up South Middle to Dugalle. My head still ached, if not quite so sharply. I saw one of the typical taudis-toughs, young with ragged-cut hair. He just looked at me as I walked closer.

“You know Horazt?”

“Yeah.”

I flipped a silver into the air. “That’s yours if you’ll find him and tell him Master Rhennthyl wants to see him. Now.”

The tough stiffened, then looked at me more closely, seeing the gray trousers and black boots for the first time. His eyes went back to the blue patroller’s cloak that I wore.

“I’m assigned to the Patrol for now. He knows that.”

“How do I know-”

“I can get word to Horazt in other ways, but it takes longer. If I have to do that, you won’t want to stay anywhere in L’Excelsis.”

“See what I can do.” He moved away, not quite ambling, but not hurrying too much, not in my sight, anyway.

I waited a good half glass for Horazt, and the sun had already dropped behind the taudis-dwellings south and west of South Middle before he appeared, accompanied by the younger man. As they sauntered toward me, Horazt’s almost-squat form was partly concealed by the black woolen cloak he wore.

“Here’s the silver I promised.” I tossed it over to the younger tough, who caught it.

“Bougyt . . . you can go.”

This time, the younger man hurried away.

“Master Rhennthyl. Must be important for you to come here so late, and to spend a silver just to find me.”

“I thought you’d like to know that your nephew Shault is doing well. He’s very bright, but he’s having to work hard.”

“That’d be good. Not why you came, I’d wager.”

“It’s not. Something happened that could matter for both of us. Five taudis-toughs attacked another patroller and me earlier this afternoon. We were patrolling the west end of the taudis. One’s dead, one’s been charged with assault on patrollers-if he lives.”

“You’re with that Alsoran . . .”

“He said that they weren’t from there, that they didn’t belong to the taudischefs in his round. I’d guess they didn’t belong to you, either.”

“If you know that, why come to me?”

“Because you might be able to tell me if they were Youdh’s men and why he sent them against Alsoran and me.”

“Don’t know.”

I waited, my eyes on the young taudischef, my thoughts suggesting that he’d be far better off telling me.

“Word is that Youdh’s got a deal with Harraf. Do favors for each other.”

“So Youdh’s got deals with the Tiempran priests and the captain?”

“That’s the word.” Horazt shrugged.

“And?”

“Word is that the taudis might get off easy when the scripties come if an imager isn’t around.”

I laughed. “Harraf can’t do anything about the conscription teams. Neither can the Collegium. They’re usually Navy, with naval marines doing the hard work, and they don’t even tell the Civic Patrol or the imagers when they’re coming. Even if Harraf knew, he couldn’t do anything about it.”

“What I figured,” Horazt said, “but I’m just a young taudischef, don’t know sowshit.” His words were delivered with a cheerful banter, but I suspected there was a bitterness behind them that would have curdled fresh cream.

“What will Youdh do?”

Horazt smiled. “Kill the ones who failed. If anyone asks him, he’ll claim that he had nothing to do with it.”

I’d almost expected that. “What would happen if something happened to Youdh?”

“Saelyhd would take over. He’s worse. Stupid and vicious.”

I didn’t need that, either. “That’s too bad. Might be better if he vanished before anything happens to Youdh.”

Horazt looked at me.

I ignored the look. “Will they try again soon?”

“Wouldn’t think so. Youdh wouldn’t want to lose too many with Jadhyl and Deyalt both wanting more territory.”

“They’re the taudischefs to the east of Youdh?”

Horazt nodded. “Best I be going. Good evening, Master Rhennthyl.”

I headed back down South Middle to where I could find a hack to take me back to the Collegium. I didn’t stop looking and studying every shadow in the twilight, not until I was in the coach and well clear of the area around Third District station.

So now what was I supposed to do?

24

Most, but not all, of my headache had departed by the time I dragged myself out of bed in the near-darkness of Mardi morning. I still had no real idea how to deal with Mardoyt and Harraf. I had no proof at all that they were involved, but who else could be? And how did the attacks on Alsoran and me by Youdh’s toughs fit in? Beyond that, I had only the vaguest idea of what to do about High Holder Ryel. In fact, if I wanted to be honest with myself, I was having trouble just staying alive and in one piece . . . and I hadn’t had to deal with anything involving Ryel yet.

I managed not to think too hard about that through the morning exercises or breakfast, but when I got to the Third District station just before seventh glass, Captain Harraf gestured for me to join him in his study. I didn’t close the door, and he didn’t ask me to.

For a moment, he said nothing, just looked at me.

I waited for what he had to say.

“The man you brought yesterday died before he could say anything. It’s a pity you couldn’t have been more gentle. Alsoran does his best, but you as an imager . . .”

“I protected him against gunshots and after that we did our best against five taudis-toughs, Captain. As the report stated, they didn’t say a word to us. They started shooting and then attacked.”

“Surely they must have had a reason.”

“I’m most certain they did, but since neither Alsoran nor I had ever seen any of them before, whatever that reason happened to be was not based on personal contact with us. It might be the result of decisions you or the commander made or just because they were feeling like they wanted to make an example of two patrollers, or because they’re worried a conscription team may be sweeping the taudis before long. I couldn’t say.” I could sense Harraf stiffen, but I just smiled politely. “You certainly have a better idea of such matters than do I.”

“I’m so glad you grant me that, Master Rhennthyl.”

“You have far more experience than I do, sir. I’m here to learn.”

For some reason, he paused at my words, if only momentarily. “That you are. I trust you will convey what you learn to other imagers. Still, it was unfortunate that there was no one to question.”

“Yes, sir.” It was indeed unfortunate-but not for Harraf, I thought.

“That’s all I had, Master Rhennthyl.”

“Thank you, sir.” I smiled and slipped out of his study, wondering why he’d even brought the matter up at all. Was he that stupid to think I didn’t see? Or was I that stupid in not overtly recognizing how much power he wielded in the Third District?

Alsoran was waiting as I walked into the front area of the station.

“How are you feeling this morning?” I asked as we left.

“I’m fine. Still can’t figure out why those toughs attacked us yesterday.”

“It could be that someone told them I was an imager, and they don’t like that.”

“If they’d been from that part of the taudis . . . maybe . . . but they were intruding.”

“Could it be that they wanted to cause trouble for the taudischefs on your round?”

Alsoran considered that for several moments before saying, “It’s possible.”

“But you don’t think that’s it.”

“Nope. Couldn’t say why, though.”

I could, but I wasn’t about to say that it was Youdh’s doing at Harraf’s prompting. Or that if I’d failed to protect Alsoran, matters would have been worse for me and the Collegium.

While there were more people on the streets as we walked the round, especially on South Middle and the Avenue D’Artisans, no one even gave us more than a passing glance, except for the handful of older women who smiled at Alsoran or passed pleasantries.

We were near the end of the first pass through the east end of the taudis, on Saelio, when I caught sight of three men, all wearing dark green cloaks, walking slowly toward us. They stopped a good ten yards away.

“Jadhyl,” murmured Alsoran.

“You were right,” I murmured back.

“Good morning, Jadhyl,” offered Alsoran. “Have you met Rhennthyl? He’s filling in for Lyonyt for a while.”

“I cannot say that I have.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Jadhyl.” I inclined my head politely. While Jadhyl’s speech was precise, far better than any of the taudis-toughs I’d heard, there was a hint of an accent, and his skin had a trace of a golden tinge that I’d never seen before. His hair was also an unusual golden brown.

“I wanted to inform you that no one associated with me was involved in the unfortunate incident yesterday afternoon. That would not be in my interests, nor Deyalt’s.”

Alsoran nodded. “Master Rhennthyl and I sort of thought that, but it’s good to hear it from you.”

“I appreciate your not reaching an untoward conclusion. Thank you.” He nodded, then turned, flanked by the two others. They disappeared down the next side lane.

Once they were out of sight, we continued onward.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up the head of all the taudischefs here,” I said quietly.

“That’s what the captain’s afraid of,” replied Alsoran. “You notice the streets here?”

“They’re neater. Not perfect, but better than those to the west.”

“Look at the windows. Close.”

I did as we walked along the block, and then it struck me. I’d half noticed it before. There weren’t any boarded-up windows. Some had very crude shutters, stained rather than painted, but shutters. “Is that Jadhyl’s doing?”

“Couldn’t say, but that tough you handled yesterday . . . you see him today?”

“No.”

“He’s been leaning on that post for two weeks, every morning. Wager you won’t see him again, one way or the other. Wager I won’t, either.”

I wasn’t about to take that wager.

Later, when we had reached the end of our second round, I asked, “Who patrols the part of the taudis between the station and your round? During the day?”

“That’d be Melyor and Slausyl. You thinking about those toughs again?”

“I was.”

“I asked them if they thought they might be Youdh’s. They didn’t know. Slausyl’s heard word that Youdh wants to be a sort of head taudischef over the whole South Middle taudis. He might want to see if we’d do something against Jadhyl or Deyalt.”

“That’s possible.” Or had the point really been to see if they could get me . . . and failing that, get Alsoran and discredit me?

While we kept a careful eye on the narrower lanes and alleys for the rest of the day, we weren’t looking so much for the locals, but for crazy elvers or those who didn’t belong. We didn’t see either, not that there weren’t elvers and more than the occasional odor of the weed by late afternoon, but no one smoking it ever came close to us.

I kept thinking over what I’d seen. Why was Harraf worried about Jadhyl? Because he might end up controlling the entire taudis? Or because he wouldn’t funnel payoffs to Harraf? How did the priests of Puryon fit in?

Just before we headed back to the station, I finally asked, “Do you know how Jadhyl gets along with the priests of Puryon?”

“Can’t say as I know for certain, Master Rhennthyl. Heard it said that anyone from his area who uses their advocates goes over to Youdh. They do, and they have to move out of here, though.”

“Jadhyl looks different.”

“His folks came from Stakanar.”

The more I saw and heard, the less I liked what seemed to be going on in Third District. Yet . . . it was all vague. The one thing that was clear, once Alsoran had pointed it out, was that the area controlled by taudischef Jadhyl was far more orderly and better kept. But that didn’t prove anything about Captain Harraf.

Because we hadn’t had any more troubles, I was able to leave the station just after fourth glass. I hadn’t seen anyone in the family for over a week, and since I was already closer to the house than I would have been at Imagisle, I took a carriage for hire out to the house.

Khethila was the one to open the door.

“Rhenn . . . I didn’t expect you, not in the middle of the week.” She stepped back.

I followed her inside, closing the door behind me. “I would have come on Solayi, but I was the duty master and couldn’t leave Imagisle.”

“Mother’s over at the neighbors’, and Father won’t be home for a bit. He wanted to check some of the inventory after they closed.”

“Are you still enjoying doing the accounts?”

Her smile was brief. “That part is good. I even figured out a way to ship woolens to Solis and Asseroiles faster and cheaper.”

“Oh?”

“Most people don’t ship on Samedi, but if we have the shipment ready on Vendrei night, we can send it down to the ironway freight depot first thing on Samedi morning and have the wagon back by midday. I negotiated a ten percent discount that way.” She shrugged. “It won’t work on urgent shipments, but it does help.”

I didn’t like the sound of that.

“Is there anything new from Kherseilles?” I was almost afraid to ask.

Khethila was silent for a long moment. “Unless things get better, Father will probably have to close the factorage there.” She kept her voice low. “He doesn’t want to admit it, but we’re losing more golds every month there.”

“It’s that bad?”

“The Abiertans reneged on their contracts because the Council won’t send a fleet to protect the port, and our ships won’t steam there, and theirs can’t afford to approach Solidar. Rousel has been relying on the Abiertans for trade with Tiempre and Caenen, and all the cargo space on Solidaran merchanters heading to Otelyrn has been bought up. The Caenenans and Tiemprans aren’t sending that many vessels north.” Khethila pursed her lips, then continued. “Rousel can’t seem to find anyone to tear down the warehouse wall and rebuild it where it should be, and the new owner of the adjoining land is threatening to have it done-and it’s in the middle of the fall rains there. Rousel missed one major shipment because the dray wagon broke the trace pole and he couldn’t get a replacement in time, and he couldn’t hire any other teamsters to carry the bales. Whether he’ll get paid for the delayed shipment . . .” She shrugged.

All that sounded like Rousel, never quite following through, never quite making sure of the details. Yet after what was happening to me, I almost questioned whether it made a difference. I’d tried to be careful, and I was still in trouble.

“Can you do anything?”

“I’m afraid . . .” She stopped. “Father wants to extend more credit. I’ve told him we can’t afford it. We could. This time.” Her eyes met mine. “Am I wrong?”

How could I answer that? Finally, I said, “Do you remember how I got strapped for not trimming the hedge properly?”

“I just remember you punched Rousel, and Father strapped you again.”

“He was supposed to use the small shears and follow up. He never did. He went off to play, and Father punished me for not catching him. If I’d caught him, he would have complained that I hurt him. That sort of thing happened more than once.”

“You’re saying that if I . . .”

I nodded. “You’ll only make it harder for Father.”

“Rousel will plead that the problem with the wall wasn’t his fault and that he just needs a little more credit and time.”

“I’m sure he will. He hasn’t paid out anything for the wall or rebuilding, has he?”

“No. Not yet.” She sighed. “I see what you mean. I knew it, but it’s so hard.”

I knew that, too, and I knew Ryel would find a way to make it harder. I just didn’t know how.

25

Compared to previous days, Meredi was uneventful, and I didn’t even see Captain Harraf. Nor were there any taudis-toughs waiting on corners or by posts. We did have to deal with a window smash-and-grab at a small silversmith’s off the Avenue D’Artisans in the afternoon, but the thief made the mistake of smashing the glass when the owner’s son-who overtopped me-was returning to the shop. All we had to do was cart the thief away. He was an elver, desperate for coins.

When I woke on Jeudi morning, I could actually lift shields without a headache. One blow to my shields from above, and I’d been limited for a week.

After completing my now all-too-regular prebreakfast routine, I walked quickly to the dining hall. I was about to enter when the large headline type from the topmost newsheet in the full boxes caught my eye: “War Looms!” I immediately hurried over and picked up a copy of Veritum, then scanned the lead story quickly.

A Ferran fleet had attacked a Solidaran flotilla off the harbor at Teusig, wherever that was, using fog as a cover and apparently taking our ships by surprise. The losses had been heavy on both sides, with only two Solidaran ships out of eight surviving. Reportedly, some fifteen Ferran ships had been sunk. The Council was expected to declare war imminently.

The Abiertan Isles had declared their neutrality, insisting all merchant vessels were welcome, but no warships. That cut off one of the major refueling ports for the Solidaran Navy and meant more colliers would have to accompany the fleet. The newsheet said that several advisors to the Council had raised the question as to whether Solidar should take over the port at Abierta-or the coaling station operated there by our Navy.

After folding the sheet and thrusting it inside my waistcoat, I entered the dining hall. Ferlyn was the only other one at the masters’ table, and I sat down beside him. No sooner had I poured my tea than Chassendri joined us.

“What do you think about war with Ferrum?” I asked.

“It had to happen sooner or later,” Ferlyn replied calmly. “The Ferrans don’t like us, and they don’t like the way we run our country, and we’re the ones who might keep them from annexing the chunk of Jariola that they want. They’ve been trying to provoke a war for months.”

I offered the teapot to Chassendri because her mug was on the side away from me. “And you?”

“It won’t solve anything, really. They think they won a battle, but they destroyed six older frigates and lost fifteen of their own. The Council will declare war. The war will destroy the Ferran fleets and much of Ferran commerce, and weaken ours. All the more repressive regimes will benefit, and that will assure that political change across Terahnar will take longer and require more rebellions and bloodshed. In the end, we both lose.”

“Aren’t you the cheerful one,” replied Ferlyn dryly. “You’ve obviously been listening to Maitre Dyana.”

“She’s right more often than not.”

“And she has a way of letting us know it without saying a word,” Ferlyn replied with a laugh.

“I wish I were that effective,” I said.

“You do rather well yourself.” At least Chassendri smiled when she spoke.

We didn’t decide much at breakfast . . . or agree, and I ate hurriedly.

Then I used a duty coach to get to Third District station because I’d decided that I shouldn’t be paying for transportation required by the Collegium. I’d still have to use a hack or my feet to return, but halving the cost was better than bearing it all myself.

The station didn’t look any different that morning, even with the possibility of war hanging over everyone. I didn’t even see Captain Harraf, and that was fine with me.

I didn’t have to wait long for Alsoran, and we walked out into a chill breeze that had seemingly risen in the short time since I’d entered the station. I was glad that I was wearing the heavier winter waistcoat under the patroller’s cloak.

We walked almost to Quierca before I asked Alsoran, “What do you think about the Council declaring war?”

“They’ll do what they will. It’s not as though we can do anything about it. I’m just glad my son’s only nine. Be trouble for Third Station, because the conscription teams will be here sooner and more often.”

“Next week?”

“More like two, I’d wager. Or three.”

Throughout the day, even when we patrolled the Avenue D’Artisans, I didn’t hear anyone talking about war or Ferrum. I overheard a few comments at Elysto’s, most definitely Alsoran’s favorite place to eat lunch.

“. . . Ferrans won’t learn . . .”

“. . . good at counting golds, but not at counting shells . . .”

“. . . think our Navy’s that good?”

Even when we returned to the station just after fourth glass, when the shifts were changing, I didn’t hear a word about the coming war. Did it matter that little? Or did all the patrollers feel the way Alsoran did? Or was it just that they fought their own skirmishes, day after day, with little or no recognition?

When I returned to my quarters, I found that my black formal jacket and trousers had been delivered and laid out across my easy chair and that an envelope had been slipped under my door. Inside was a note with a single line: “Meet me at fifth glass. D.”

I reached his study just before fifth glass. The door was open. I stepped inside. “Sir?”

Master Dichartyn turned from the window. “If you’d close the door, Rhenn.”

I did. Although my feet were sore, I did not sit because he remained standing.

“Did you hear that the Council declared war on Ferrum?”

“No, sir. I saw the newsheets this morning, but I hadn’t heard anything more. I had the feeling they would.”

“They don’t have much choice. Ferran forces have invaded Jariola, and the Ferran fleet attacked our other flotilla, with far less success than in the earlier battle. The Jariolans will likely be pushed back or retreat, even after our main battle fleet arrives.”

“How will that help? We aren’t going to invade Ferrum or send troops, are we?”

“We won’t have to. Once the Ferrans lose their fleet, and we confiscate the majority of their merchanters for damages, it’s likely that their Assembly might see matters rather differently.” He shrugged. “If not, a blockade on the ports will eventually bring them to their senses. If that doesn’t, the Jariolans will, once full winter hits.”

“Won’t that just create an opportunity for smugglers?”

“It doubtless will, but smugglers can’t bring in large quantities of anything. They’ll bring luxury goods and small high-value items that will damage the Ferran economy even more.”

“Won’t the fighting in Jariola continue, though?”

“For months, if not far longer, but the Jariolans have more troops, and they’ll be fighting in winter in the mountains of their own land. All that heavy equipment of the Ferrans won’t be that useful in snow and rugged terrain.”

“Isn’t this going to be . . . costly? For us, I mean.”

“Very much, Rhennthyl. Very much. But if one goes to war, one does it right, so that future adversaries understand the dangers. It’s been almost a century since the Reduction of Stakanar, and that’s about as long as people choose to remember. Now . . . there are likely to be agents of various sorts appearing in L’Excelsis, and the Tiemprans may want to cause trouble, if they see an opportunity. If you see someone who might be such, unless he attacks or threatens you, do nothing except observe and report to me. If you cannot find me, tell Master Schorzat.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now . . . what do you have to report about your Patrol activities?” Master Dichartyn’s voice dropped into a tone somewhere between tired and bored, as if nothing I said would matter all that much.

“Five taudis-toughs attacked me and Alsoran on Lundi. They weren’t from within that round and didn’t belong to the local taudischef. We injured two, killed two, and the one uninjured and two injured ones escaped. They were most likely Youdh’s men, acting on behalf of Captain Harraf.”

“That’s a serious charge. Do you have any proof?” His tone was skeptical.

“Not much. The local taudischef came out and told us that the men weren’t his. They weren’t Horazt’s, either. Beyond that, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have any proof. That doesn’t make it any less true.”

“As far as the Collegium goes, Rhennthyl, only that which can be proved is true.”

“Would you rather I not report what I can’t prove?”

“No. If you feel you have to tell me, just say that it’s a possibility without proof. Never put anything in writing without proof behind it.”

“Yes, sir. I’d like to report, verbally, that five taudis-toughs fired pistol shots at us, then assaulted us with pointed iron bars and that it is a possibility that they acted under orders from taudischef Youdh. The word among the other taudischefs, which is only rumor, is that Youdh and Captain Harraf have an arrangement of some sort, and that Captain Harraf and Youdh also have a similar arrangement with the Equalifier priests of Puryon.”

“You know, Rhennthyl, it might be better if you were somewhat more circumspect in your speech.”

“That might be, sir, but it’s rather difficult to be circumspect when so many people are trying to kill one, and when one has been informed that such problems are strictly one’s own.”

“The Collegium, as you well know, cannot take a position that will endanger all imagers, now and in the future, for the sake of one.”

“I understand that. Perfectly. I would ask, sir, that you not expect me to show great pleasure about that policy. While I understand its need, it does present certain rather significant difficulties for me.” Not to mention for my family, but there wasn’t any point in declaring that.

“All imagers face difficulties. That is the nature of the world in which we find ourselves. You might remember that you are far from the first to be placed in such a situation.”

I barely managed to refrain from asking that if there had been so many in that position, why the Collegium had not done something about it.

“Rhennthyl . . . although you should have asked, it is proper to take a duty coach in the morning. You are undertaking duty.”

“Thank you for the clarification, sir.”

“Do you have anything else to report?”

“Elveweed use is continuing to rise, but mainly in the taudis area controlled by Youdh.”

“That’s not surprising. He has connections to more smugglers. Anything else?”

“No, sir.”

“I may not be around for a time. If I’m gone for more than a week, get in touch with Master Schorzat.” With that, he nodded a dismissal at me.

I left, and I didn’t close the door behind me.

Then I made my way back to my quarters, where I tried on the formal wear that I’d have to wear to the Council’s Autumn Ball. It fit. I hung the coat and trousers up in the wardrobe in my sleeping chamber, which held little enough, and settled into the chair behind my writing desk. While I had some ideas for dealing with Ryel, I knew I could not implement them until something else happened that could be linked to Ryel, and I had no ideas-except the most unpalatable-for handling Harraf and Mardoyt.

I frowned. I couldn’t be certain just how guilty Harraf was, not for sure. I paused, knowing that there was something . . . something I wasn’t quite seeing.

Finally, I shook my head. I knew Mardoyt was definitely fixing charges and pocketing golds. I could start there . . . and Horazt might be able to help.

26

On Vendrei, Alsoran and I finished the last round at half a quint before fourth glass, and I was on my way out of the station even before the glass struck, heading up toward South Middle to see if I could find Horazt or one of his toughs who could locate him. Of course, because I was finally working out something, where time might be a factor, I didn’t see anyone except elvers on stoops and bent women with baskets and laundry, and a handful of boys who scurried away when they caught sight of the blue patroller’s cloak.

So I opted for the fallback plan, and that was to go to Chelya’s place. After two wrong turns, I came to what I thought was her door. I rapped several times. Finally, it eased open, just a crack.

I opened my cloak to let the imager’s gray show. “Shault’s doing well. That’s not why I came.”

Someone widened the crack, if just slightly, and enough light fell on her face for me to confirm that Chelya stood there.

“I need to talk to Horazt, but I don’t know how to reach him. If you see him, I’d like to meet him on South Middle on Solayi at the first glass of the afternoon.”

She just looked at me.

“I’m asking a favor, one I’ll pay for. I need some information from Horazt, and nothing that would hurt him or you. Would a silver help?”

I thought she nodded, and I extended a silver. She took it, almost reluctantly, as if she disliked being beholden to me, even for a service.

“I will see what I can do, Master Rhennthyl.”

“You will come to see Shault a week from Solayi, won’t you?”

“If it does not rain or snow I will come.”

“He may not say so, but he would be glad to see you.”

There might have been a hint of a smile behind the sadness in her face, but then, I might have imagined it.

“Thank you.” I inclined my head to her.

She inclined her head in return and slowly closed the door.

As I headed back toward South Middle, I hoped that Horazt would be there on Solayi. One way or another, I’d find him, but Solayi would be better, far better, than later.

On the way out of the taudis, I still saw no one who looked like one of Horazt’s men. Once I was back on South Middle, headed west, as I passed Dugalle, I could see a pair of patrollers ahead. As they neared, I recognized Huerl and Koshal, heading eastward.

“Good evening,” I offered.

The two stopped, although Koshal glanced past me, as if to indicate that they had rounds to make. I ignored the glance and smiled politely.

“Evening, Master Rhennthyl,” offered Huerl.

“I was wondering if anything ever came of those two who killed themselves that night I patrolled with you.”

“No, sir. Never heard anything.” Koshal looked past me again.

“Have you noticed any spread of elvers into your patrol round? Or any more break-ins?”

“No, sir.”

“Thank you. I wondered because some of the taudis-toughs have been attacking folks outside their usual territories.”

“Alsoran said something about that,” replied Huerl.

“He thought that Youdh might be trying to expand his territory, and the word seems to be that he’s not happy about something.”

The two exchanged glances.

“Hadn’t heard that, sir,” said Koshal. “Wouldn’t be good, that wouldn’t.”

“I won’t keep you. I’d just wondered if you’d seen anything like that.”

“No, sir.”

I kept a pleasant smile on my face and nodded, then continued back up South Middle.

It took longer than usual to hail a hack, possibly because the wind had picked up, and a light rain had begun to fall. That meant that I was more than a little late for dinner, close to half a glass, but when I entered the dining hall, Maitre Dyana beckoned for me to join her.

“Thank you,” I said as I took the seat to her left.

“I’m glad to see that you’re actually working late. You were working, I trust?”

“Searching out information, at least.” I decided on hot tea because the wind and rain had picked up and I had gotten chilled on the walk across the Bridge of Hopes and the quadrangle.

“That’s always a start, but only a start.” She smiled, passing the platter of curried ribs. “Most people don’t respond to information by itself. They tend to dismiss it if it doesn’t fit their opinions, or ignore it in favor of those facts presented by someone who is more powerful.”

“You’re suggesting information is useful only in determining what action to take, then?”

“I don’t recall saying exactly that.”

More word games from Dyana? “Or are you saying that one can only use information after conveying a sense of power?”

“That can be effective, but as you’ve already discovered, being perceived as powerful can also make one a target.”

I managed a smile, then took several bites of the ribs, slightly overcooked, followed by seasoned yellow rice that was moist and savory. I took another sip of hot tea before I spoke. “You have great experience, Maitre Dyana, and I’m afraid that you have the better of me, because, upon considering your words, I seem to be able to come to no other conclusion than the fact that information is effectively useless without power, and yet having power makes one a target, and being a target will eventually destroy one’s power, because targets usually do get destroyed in time.”

“Your logic is good, Rhennthyl, but you are missing one point. I’m not going to tell you what that is, not tonight anyway, because you need to think it through.” She smiled again. “How are you finding the Civic Patrol?”

“As it is, I trust. So far, from what I have seen, some patrollers are dedicated. Others do their job, and a handful shouldn’t be patrollers at all.”

“That is true in all fields.”

“That is my impression, maitre, and I suppose that it applies to High Holders as well.”

“Very much so, although High Holders tend to be less tolerant of those who squander their heritage or whose actions threaten other High Holders for no worthwhile reason.”

“That makes sense.” For all that it did, I didn’t think that she had said it as a pleasant observation.

“It does indeed. Oh . . . I must congratulate you on the portrait that you did of Maitre Poincaryt. I saw it in the receiving hall earlier this week. It’s not only an excellent likeness and lifelike, but it also conveys a sense of power.”

“Thank you.”

After that, the most interesting topics were the weather and the decline of portraiture in Solidar. When I left the dining hall, I picked up a copy of Tableta and read the lead stories, but in the first paragraphs there was little real news about the war, except that the last elements of the “northern fleet” had steamed out of Westisle on Jeudi. Not until I reached the end of the story did I come across an interesting section.

. . . to increase the Army and to assure greater safety in the cities of Solidar, the Council approved a measure, effective immediately, to allow increased conscription levels of young men without permanent trades, positions, or advanced education.

I didn’t like that implication at all, especially since it appeared I’d be working out of Third District station for a time yet.

In fact, I didn’t like the implications of most matters affecting me. High Holder Ryel was clearly trying to squeeze my family, and while I had my own qualms about Rousel’s overall competence, his shortcomings and Ryel’s machinations, unless stopped, would ruin my father and my family. And, like it or not, either Mardoyt or Harraf, if not both, seemed to want to have most unfortunate difficulties befall me.

My efforts to date, based on my observing during the official “working day” of the Patrol, weren’t resolving that problem, and I had yet to put anything in action to deal effectively with High Holder Ryel.

I was going to have to spend a lot more time on the problems facing me . . . before they overwhelmed me and everyone for whom I cared.

27

Samedi morning was foggy, and it had rained during the night, leaving the grass and the walkways damp when I headed out for the obligatory exercise and sparring session. None of the older masters was there except for Schorzat. That left less than half of the normal complement-Baratyn, Dartazn, Martyl, and me. I ended up sparring with Baratyn and getting bruises that would turn sore indeed by the end of the day.

“Not bad, Rhenn,” he told me.

If I hadn’t done badly, I certainly didn’t want to do worse. But then, Baratyn had a good ten years’ experience on me.

With so few older imagers undergoing Clovyl’s exercise session, I wasn’t exactly surprised to find myself alone at breakfast with Heisbyl, a Maitre D’Aspect far older and grayer than I, who almost never ate in the dining hall unless he was the duty imager, but I had to wonder because Samedi wasn’t usually a duty day.

“Good morning,” I offered politely as I poured my tea.

“Good morning, Rhennthyl. A mite cool outside, wouldn’t you say?”

“It’s not too bad, not if you keep moving.”

“That’s fine for you young fellows.” He frowned. “You were a portraitist for a time, weren’t you? For Caliostrus?”

“I was, and that was when he did the portrait of your daughter.”

“A good work, if dear. I saw your portrait of Maitre Poincaryt for the first time this morning. Rather fine, I fancy, and I daresay it cost the Collegium far less than what I paid Caliostrus for Verinya’s portrait.” He laughed.

“Far less, at least in coin,” I replied lightly.

“Oh, all of you young masters think you’ve cost the Collegium dearly, and so you have, but so has anyone who’s made master. One cannot make master without self-confidence, and self-confidence combines with youth and ability to make mistakes, and those are costly both in coin and blood.”

I couldn’t argue that . . . and didn’t. I just offered an exaggerated shrug and set to eating the fried cakes dowsed in syrup along with the slab of bacon.

After I excused myself and rose to leave, Heisbyl smiled faintly and said, “It remains to be seen whether you’ll be a greater master imager than you could have been as a master portraiturist. Ability, self-confidence, and dedication suffice for a master portraiturist. They aren’t enough for an imager.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied politely.

“I hope you do.” The smile faded. “I did not.”

“Thank you,” I added.

As I walked northward along the west side of the quadrangle in the cool and still air, Heisbyl’s last words still echoed in my thoughts, as did the sadness behind them. Especially after those words, I didn’t mind getting to the studio early. I’d already wanted to look over what I’d done on both Master Rholyn’s portrait and the one of Seliora that I’d barely begun.

When I walked into the studio, I saw a small iron coal stove that sat almost against the outside wall. An iron chimney had also been installed, with new brickwork around where it went through the wall. A full coal scuttle stood on the stone floor. After opening the stove door to load it, I realized that the ashes were warm and that the studio, while not warm, was certainly not as cold as it had been. That meant Grandisyn, or someone, had been fueling and watching the stove while I was working with the Patrol. After loading the stove, I did manage to image some of the coal into flame.

After that, not only did I get everything set up, but I worked for more than a glass on the background of Master Rholyn’s portrait before he arrived in the studio. By then, the air was far warmer than when I’d first entered the studio, so much so that Master Rholyn had his heavy winter cloak off even before he closed the door behind him.

“Rhennthyl . . . this morning I can only sit for half a glass. I’ve a meeting with Master Poincaryt.”

“If that would press you, sir . . .” I offered.

“No . . . a half glass will allow me more than enough time.”

“I imagine that the events between Ferrum and Jariola-and the Council-have created more than a few problems,” I offered, gesturing toward the crate. “If you don’t mind taking the standing position . . .”

“That’s fine. I’ll be sitting for a good long time after I leave you, I expect.”

I touched the oils on the tray with the brush tip and began to work on an unfinished section where his neck met the collar of his gray shirt. “What will happen now that the Council has declared war on Ferrum, sir? Besides the northern fleet attacking Ferran warships and merchanters, I mean.”

“No one on the Council wishes to land troops anywhere in Cloisera, either in Jariola or in Ferrum itself. High Councilor Suyrien is deeply concerned that Solidar not be perceived as showing favoritism to the Jariolans. He and Caartyl have already drafted a communique insisting that the Oligarch and his council immediately begin reimbursing Solidar for its efforts in assisting Jariola.” Rholyn raised his eyebrows. “What does that indicate to you, Rhenn?”

“The Council wants to make clear that the war is about the actions taken by Ferrum, and not about a preference for the Jariolan system of government.”

“That is certainly one purpose.”

I decided against asking what the real purpose was, not directly. “Will the Jariolans actually reimburse us, or is that just a posture?”

“I doubt that they can.”

“But if I might ask why, sir . . .”

“When they demur, we will most likely request a ninety-nine-year lease on Harvik-that’s a small isle off the port of Jaaslk-along with a guarantee of coal sales and shipment, at the prevailing price. The isle does have a harbor, but virtually no inhabitants, and a single pier. But it will make a good sheltered anchorage for the new northern fleet, and we could build our own port there and garrison it. It’s less than a day’s steaming to Ferrial from there.”

“The Council must anticipate problems there for some time to come.” I kept my voice even, trying to concentrate on painting.

“For several centuries, Maitre Poincaryt believes.”

“Problems lasting that long will not please the Council.”

“Lengthy expenditures on anything seldom do.” A quick wry smile crossed his face, and I tried to hold it in my mind, because that expression captured a certain essence of Maitre Rholyn. I stopped working on his neck and switched to his mouth and cheeks. Neither of us spoke for a time.

Then . . . I had the expression, and with the brush itself, and not imaging. Just those touches, and it brought his face to life, not that I didn’t have a great deal more work to do. I even got his neck and collar just right before the bell announced the half glass.

At lunch, I joined Ferlyn and Heisbyl, and we talked about the war, and what might occur once the northern fleet reached the waters off Cloisera. After eating, I took my time walking across the quadrangle and to the Bridge of Hopes, where I stood in the damp chill and waited.

Shortly before first glass, Shomyr escorted Seliora to the east end of the Bridge of Hopes. She was wearing a black cloak over the same outfit she’d worn the week before and carrying a flat parcel of some sort. I walked toward her, and Shomyr waited until we were together. Then he turned and waved, returning to the coach that had brought them.

“That was good of Shomyr.”

“Aunt Aegina, Mama, and Odelia went to a luncheon for Yaena, and he didn’t want them to have to worry about me.”

Yaena? Then the name came to me-Seliora’s cousin who’d gotten married the day after I’d nearly gotten myself killed at the Council’s Harvest Ball. I hoped that the Autumn Ball in two weeks would be far less eventful.

“Oh.” Seliora handed me a large envelope. “This is what Ailphens could discover.”

“Ailphens?” The weight of paper suggested more than a few documents.

“The advocate for NordEste Design. We thought going through him would obscure matters sufficiently.”

After she’d explained, I recalled the advocate’s name as one she’d told me months before. I wished I’d recalled it before she’d had to tell me again. “Have you read what’s in here?”

“Yes. It’s typical for a High Holder. He’s got the main holding, and ownership of various other sections of land across Solidar, but most of his known interests outside his main holdings are in various banques.”

“Such as the Banque D’Rivages and the Banque D’Kherseilles.”

“If you knew that, why did you ask . . .”

“I didn’t know. I suspected, but it was only a guess.”

“You knew. You just couldn’t prove it.” Seliora looked at me. “Did you see it, or just know it?”

“I knew it. The only thing I’ve seen is the fire at the factorage.” So far.

“You’ll see more. You will.”

“Is that a promise?” I laughed softly.

She flushed. “You are . . .” Then she shook her head.

I held the package in my right arm and offered the left to Seliora. We walked off the bridge and along the lane and then across the north end of the quadrangle before turning north toward the workrooms and my studio.

“What about dinner? We’ll meet Shomyr and Haelya at Chaelya’s?” I asked.

“At half past sixth glass. That will give you more time to paint . . . and to learn a bit more about riding.”

“You’ve seen me riding-Pharsi farsight-haven’t you?”

“Just that. Nothing frightening, but it can’t hurt for you to know a little about riding.”

“I doubt that I’ll ever know more than a little. I know enough to ask for a gentle horse.”

On the stone walkway coming toward us were two young imagers. I recognized them both-Gherard and Petryn.

The two looked at Seliora, exchanged knowing glances, then stopped.

“Good afternoon.” I paused. “And yes, she is beautiful, and might I present Mistress Seliora D’Shelim. I’m painting her portrait.”

“Good afternoon, sir, mistress.” Their words were not quite synchronized, and they looked away from Seliora.

“Good afternoon, imagers,” Seliora said, her voice warm, her eyes on Gherard.

The older imager inclined his head. Then, so did Petryn, before the two stood back to let us pass.

“There will be rumors all over Imagisle by tonight.” She smiled at me.

“Among the seconds and thirds, anyway.”

“Not among the masters?”

“Even at meals, we don’t see much of each other. Well . . . I might at midday, but I’m not here then. Sometimes there are only one or two of us at the masters’ table. Most are married, and they eat with their families at breakfast or dinner, unless they have work on Samedi or duty on Solayi.”

“It doesn’t sound like there are that many masters.”

“There might be fifteen or twenty here.”

“And you led me to believe that you’ve done nothing special?” She raised her eyebrows. “In less than a year, you’ve gone from being a prime to a master, and there are only twenty masters out of four hundred imagers?”

“I was fortunate to have a great deal of imaging talent.”

Seliora shook her head. “Do you really believe it’s just that?”

I was glad I didn’t have to answer, because we’d reached the studio door, and I opened it. Before I started painting, I opened the stove door and shoveled more coal inside.

The position I’d finally decided on was one where Seliora looked like she’d been walking, then stopped and half turned to look at something. When I got to painting the split-skirts, I knew that I’d depict them as still flared, as if she’d just turned and they hadn’t settled back down.

This sitting, though, I was concentrating on her face.

One of the hardest parts, as I’d known it would be, was to get the right skin tone. Seliora was fair-skinned, but her face was not that pale bluish white that many women of Bovarian heritage-such as Ryel’s daughter Iryela-flaunted. Nor did Seliora have either an olive complexion or the dark-honeyed look of many Pharsi women, yet her skin held the faintest trace of a bronze-gold. I’d have called it goddess-gold, almost, but I kept that thought to myself.

After working on her face for the entire time, I called a halt to the painting at half past three. That gave me half a glass to clean up the oils, the studio, and myself-and a quick stop by my quarters to drop the information package inside. All that actually took a quint longer, but we were still at the NordEste Design stables by half past four.

This time, Seliora rode a gelding beside me, and we chanced some of the side lanes to the northeast of Hagahl Lane. I managed to stay in the saddle, but I still felt awkward. I was certain I looked even worse than I felt.

After we returned, Seliora didn’t make me groom the mare, but let the ostler do it, noting that she’d prefer not to have to bathe again before we dined, although we both did wash up.

“Now . . . you could actually ride the mare somewhere and arrive,” she said.

“I’m not up for much more than that.”

“No, but that’s all you’ll probably need.”

I hoped I didn’t need even that, but that was hoping against hope, I feared.

In the end we made it to Chaelya’s just slightly after half past six.

We had barely stepped inside the door when Staelia hurried forward to meet us. “It’s so good to see you!”

“We’d hoped to come last Samedi,” I offered, “but things didn’t work out. Shomyr and . . . Haelya . . . they were supposed to meet us here.”

“Four of you, then? We can take care of that.” Staelia immediately escorted us to a circular table in an alcove near the rear of Chaelya’s. “You two sit down, and I’ll have Taelia bring you each a glass of something special.”

“You don’t have to . . .” I began.

“We want to.” With a smile, she turned.

“Is that why we can’t eat here often?” I asked.

“She’d do anything for family, no matter what it cost her.” Seliora paused. “Would you like to come to brunch tomorrow?”

“I’d like that very much. I do have to meet Horazt at the first glass of afternoon, and I should stop by to see my parents. I saw Khethila earlier this week. Matters aren’t going well in Kherseilles.”

“Ryel, you think?”

“Ryel and Rousel’s lack of attention to details. The combination is anything but good, but I can’t say anything about either.”

“You learn failure with details is expensive in crafting.”

“It’s expensive in factoring as well. He just isn’t ever the one to pay the full price.”

“Rhenn . . . I feel sorry for him.”

Sorry for Rousel? I just raised my eyebrows. I didn’t want to say what I really thought.

“People like your brother go through life not understanding the true costs of anything. He didn’t have to pay with pain or patience or much of anything for the love of a woman. He didn’t have to learn factoring from the bottom up with a whipping or loss of coins for failure.”

“That’s true.”

“When you don’t pay, you don’t know what something’s worth. You only think you do, and you make mistakes. That’s why I feel sorry for your brother. He may never learn the worth of what he has.”

I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but I couldn’t say more because I saw Shomyr and a woman following Staelia toward our table. I rose just before they arrived.

“I’m sorry we’re late,” offered Shomyr with an embarrassed smile. “We were delayed.”

“My parents wished to talk,” added the woman, who was close to a head shorter than Seliora with orange-flame hair, freckles, and a figure with curves excessive for her height. She also had an open smile and exuded warmth.

“This is Haelya. Haelya . . . Master Rhennthyl. You’ve met Seliora.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Haelya.” I gestured for her to take the seat to my left. “We just arrived ourselves.”

As soon as everyone was seated, Taelia appeared with a tray holding four goblets of an amber wine. The first goblet went to me, the second to Seliora.

“The special tonight,” said Taelia, “is capon marinated in walnut oil and naranje, with special spices, then grilled and served in Father’s special naranje cream sauce. We also have the flank steak especial and a poached sole . . .”

In the end, both Seliora and I ordered the special capon, with greens topped with crumbled cheese and walnuts. Shomyr ordered the flank steak and Haelya the sole.

Once Taelia retreated to the kitchen, I lifted my goblet. “I don’t have a specific toast, except to family.”

“To family.” The others raised their goblets as well.

I sipped the wine, which held a hint of cinnamon and butter, as well as just enough sweetness so that it was not bitter. It was good, but I think I would have preferred a white Grisio.

“How is the portrait coming?” asked Shomyr, looking to his sister.

“I don’t know. I haven’t looked,” Seliora replied.

“Portraits take time,” I said, “and I can’t work on it that much.”

Haelya looked confused, but said nothing.

“Haelya,” I asked, “how did you and Shomyr meet?”

Seliora laughed.

I glanced at her.

“It’s always better to ask the woman,” she replied.

“At the apothecary shop,” Haelya said in a low voice. “He was always so kind and cheerful.”

“And she was always so helpful, especially with the liniments for Grandmama,” added Shomyr. “Her family has four apothecary shops here in L’Excelsis, and they have a separate formulation building. That way, the products are the same in all the shops.”

“Father will be opening a fifth before long,” added Haelya, “a street beyond the Plaza D’Nord.”

At that moment, Taelia reappeared with four plates of greens, three of the mixed with walnuts and one of fall fruits over greens. That was for Haelya.

“How did you two meet, if I might ask?” Haelya looked from Seliora to me and then back to Seliora.

“It’s not that mysterious,” I offered. “I was a portraiturist before I became an imager, and Seliora and I attended the Samedi get-togethers at the Guild Hall. . . .”

“But I had to ask him to dance the first time.” The mischievous grin appeared. “And the second.”

“I was a slow learner.”

Haelya looked puzzled, once more. “But you’re a master imager.”

“A very junior master imager from a very conservative wool-factoring family. Seliora has taught me a great deal.”

Shomyr grinned.

Seliora raised her eyebrows.

Conversation for the rest of the evening revolved around such topics as Haelya’s family and siblings, the range of crafting handled by NordEste Design, the relative taste of the various dinner entrees, and the early coolness of autumn.

After a lengthy and good, but not exquisite, meal, I made a coachman for hire relatively happy by paying him to deliver Haelya to her home, on one of the lanes on the lower slopes of Martradon, Shomyr and Seliora to their place, and me to the foot of the Bridge of Desires.

Once I reached my chambers and undressed, I was tired enough to fall into bed and find sleep quickly.

28

“Ryel will ruin my family, if not worse.” I looked across the study to where Master Dichartyn sat behind his desk. “And the Collegium will do nothing? When I was the one attacked by Johanyr?”

“Rhennthyl, you must understand. The Collegium simply cannot allow you to destroy a thousand years of hard-fought effort that has created the only protection for imagers anywhere in the world.” Master Dichartyn looked calmly at me.

“I’m supposed to sit by and watch this arrogant High Holder destroy my family one person at a time, while the Collegium does nothing?”

“We’re supposed to hazard the lives of hundreds who cannot protect themselves for the sake of a few people?” countered Dichartyn. “Do what you will, but do not involve the Collegium.”

“That’s fine for you to say.” I could feel my anger rising.

“You seem to think that you’re special, Rhenn, and that the world and the Collegium should accommodate to your view. You seem to think that good deeds are always rewarded, and that evildoers are always punished, and that there’s no price to be paid. . . .”

The sardonic belittling in his words touched something . . . somewhere . . . and from I knew not where flame exploded across the study. The entire study was enveloped in it.

Heat flared across my face.

I was lying in my bed . . . and the front of the armoire was aflame.

After a confused moment, I ran to the corridor and grabbed the bucket of damp sand-there were usually five on every corridor-and dashed back into my bedchamber. I immediately imaged a thin layer of sand across the armoire. Most of the flames died away.

I imaged the rest of the sand across the remaining patches of flame, until there were only a few embers. Then I used a towel wetted in the water pitcher to make sure all traces of embers and flame were gone.

Only then did I sit down for a moment, shivering and coughing.

My room stank of smoke, but I slowly rose and managed to open the louvered windows wide enough so that when I imaged cold fresh air into the bedchamber several times, the odor was bearable.

Then I imaged all the ashes and sand into the waste bin and carried it out into the corridor and down to the main level and out to the enclosed rubbish area, where I dumped it all into one of the large waste-wagon beds.

All in all, it was a good two glasses before I got back to sleep. I didn’t sleep well, and I didn’t sleep all that late, and I woke up wondering if I was worrying so much that I’d have more nightmares that called up imaging. That brought a shudder.

I sat up and decided to read through the information gathered by Ailphens before breakfast, although I had to light my desk lamp because the heavy clouds hovering over L’Excelsis made it seem more like the glass before dawn, and I could still smell smoke. I concentrated on the papers Seliora had given me. I had to. The nightmare just added to my concerns.

Ryel’s main holding could only be described as massive-an expanse that stretched roughly some sixty milles east to west and forty north to south and included prime growing and grazing lands, more than a score of small towns, and two coal mines and one iron mine, not to mention the ironworks itself. He or his forebears had never sold any lands within the holding, and the leasehold rentals alone amounted to close to a quarter million golds annually. Based on the finance taxes paid on his earnings from the holdings in ten banques, his banking income was triple that. There was no way to calculate the revenues from the annual sales of grain and livestock, or the proceeds from the mines and ironworks, but the indications were that those exceeded the revenues from leasehold fees several times over. Ryel was also extremely conservative, with no known borrowings or debts.

Considering that an annual net income of a thousand golds a year was more than all but a few thousand people in L’Excelsis-out of more than two million-made, one obvious conclusion stood out: No one was going to be able to ruin High Holder Ryel commercially, not without destroying Solidar itself.

That didn’t leave me too many options, but I’d known that all along. I just hadn’t really wanted to deal with it. I kept thinking about the implications and the possibilities as I shaved, showered in water that was all too chill, and then dressed. I kept thinking all the way to the dining hall.

There, Maitre Dyana was the duty master, and since it was Solayi, she and I were the only masters at breakfast. So I sat beside her, and poured a healthy mug of steaming tea.

“I had a nightmare last night, and I awoke with the armoire on fire.”

“That happens . . . occasionally.” Her voice betrayed concern. “You obviously found a way to deal with it.”

“I did, but . . . I have a rather charred armoire.”

She laughed softly. “You’re not the first. You won’t be the last. Just tell Grandisyn, and they’ll replace it. That’s a contingency that the Collegium has anticipated.”

“Do we . . . lose imagers?”

“Seldom. Those who are strong enough to do such damage are usually strong enough to contain it once their imaging wakes them.” She paused. “It is a reminder of why we always sleep alone and behind leaden walls-or with the help of drugs.”

I’d almost forgotten why all the quarters had lead sheets behind the walls. Almost.

I took a sip of tea, but only a sip because steam was still rising from the mug.

“How are you finding Third District, Rhenn?”

“About as I expected, maitre, with an exception or two.”

“Oh?” She adjusted the silver and crimson silk scarf, almost not looking at me.

“I met one of the taudischefs-Jadhyl. He was extremely well spoken and had the air of education.”

“You expected stupidity in a taudischef?”

“Hardly.” I laughed. “I expected a combination of strength, cunning, and intelligence . . . and the ability to inspire others, but not refinement.”

She actually paused, waiting for me to say more.

So I did. “The part of the taudis he controls looks better than the others, and some of the people actually talk to the patrollers.” I thought about the enforcers in green, but didn’t mention them.

“A mailed fist in a velvet glove?”

“More like a reluctant mailed fist, I think.”

“He won’t last long, then.”

“Why not?”

“If your description is accurate, he has judgment and cares. That approach will gain him support and followers. Support and followers will make him a threat, for differing reasons, to both the Patrol and the other taudischefs.”

“Are you suggesting an unspoken agenda to keep the taudis disorganized and poor?”

“I don’t believe I suggested anything at all. Were I into suggestions, however, why on earth would I suggest something like that to the Collegium’s liaison to the Civic Patrol?”

Keeping a polite face, rather than laughing outright, was difficult. The alternative would have been anger. Neither would have been productive, I was learning. I took refuge in another sip of tea before replying. “I beg your pardon. It was foolish of me to think that the guilds, the factors, and the High Holders would even consider measures, particularly covert measures, that effectively keep the cost of day labor lower for those without contacts or guilds. I cannot imagine that I might have thought that someone without an association with the guilds or factors might marshal political and organizing skills in a way to unsettle a political system that has worked so well for so long.”

“Ill-timed imagination can be more deadly than gunpowder, or imaging,” she replied dryly. “Your fancies about this taudischef might well amuse us, and in a calmer time, they might indeed entertain Master Rholyn and most members of the Council.”

“Not to mention High Councilor Suyrien.”

“Indeed.” She served herself an omelet from the platter held by a server. “I understand these mushroom and cheese omelets are quite excellent. They’re not something my cook does well.”

“Nor mine,” I quipped, since I had no cook and was unlikely to have one anytime soon.

“The bacon is also good.”

I got the message and concentrated on eating.

Once I finished breakfast and took my leave of Maitre Dyana, I made my way back to my chambers, where I considered the difficulties facing me and which steps I should take to deal with each. Part of my problem was that I had too many separate difficulties. Could I address that multiplicity? I was beginning to do so, but I needed to speed up my efforts.

By the time I stepped out of the hack on Hagahl Lane at two quints before ninth glass, I had a better idea of what I needed to do.

As soon as I stepped to the door and dropped the polished knocker, young Bhenyt opened the door. A blast of chill wind almost pulled the heavy oak door out of his hand before he grabbed the brass lever with both hands. “Come in, Master Rhennthyl.”

I hurried inside, and he closed the door quickly and shot the bolt. We walked up the stairs, but I only had to wait a few moments in the main second-level foyer before Seliora appeared. She wore a red sweater-vest over a black long-sleeved silk blouse whose shade and hue matched her black trousers and boots.

“You’re not dressed for riding in this weather.” Those were her first words.

I almost missed the glint in her eyes, but managed to reply, “Neither are you, not in silk, and I fear I still need instruction.”

She laughed, then stepped forward and hugged me. I held on longer than I should have, but she felt so good against me, especially after the way the day-or the very early morning glasses-had gone.

When she stepped back, she said, “I was serious, if not about today.”

“You foresaw me riding in the rain?”

“In bad weather,” she admitted.

“It could come to that. If you and your family will agree, I may have to borrow a horse.”

“I’m glad you mentioned me.” The smile I loved appeared. “The mare is mine.”

“I do love propertied women.” I grinned.

“Just for that, you can sit next to Methyr . . . or the twins.”

“If you sit across from me . . .”

She didn’t carry out on the threat, thankfully, but I did end up between Aegina and Betara, both of whom were most interested in the portrait of Seliora. I really didn’t like discussing unfinished work, but I didn’t want to be rude.

“When will it be done?” asked Betara.

“Several months,” I replied.

“What do you think about it, Seliora?” asked Aegina.

“I haven’t looked at it yet,” Seliora replied. “I don’t like people looking at my designs until they’re done, and Rhenn deserves the same courtesy.”

My only serious question to Seliora’s mother was about the taudis. “Do you know anything about two taudischefs-Youdh and Jadhyl?”

“No one knows much about Youdh. They say that few have ever crossed him and lived. He’s been taudischef for close to ten years now. Jadhyl . . .” She frowned. “He’s an outlander, but Mama Diestra says he’s the most trustworthy of the taudischefs. He won’t tell us much, though, but he’s planning to be taudischef for a long time.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He goes out of his way not to make enemies, and those he can’t charm, and who continue to cause trouble for him . . . they vanish.” Betara smiled ironically.

“A very polite local despot.”

“Less of a despot than most, and he doesn’t let his men take liberties with the locals.”

“What about Youdh?”

“He’s more like the older taudischefs. He doesn’t take slights easily, and he doesn’t think much of women or those less fortunate.”

In the end, I did enjoy the meal, as much for Seliora’s presence as anything, but I left while most everyone was still at the table, although I didn’t see Grandmama Diestra anywhere.

The clouds outside were darkening when I hailed a hack, but because I’d caught the coach earlier than I’d calculated, I had the driver drop me almost directly outside Third District station. Then I hurried inside through a rain so fine, but so wind-driven, that the small droplets stung my face and neck like needles.

The antechamber was empty except for Sansolt, the patroller on the duty desk. I’d only passed a few words with him over the past weeks. Taciturn as he’d been, he’d seemed solid.

“Master Rhennthyl . . . you aren’t supposed to be accompanying someone today, are you? No one told me-”

I shook my head. “I have to meet someone near here, but I was thinking, What do you know about the taudischefs?”

Sansolt glanced toward the door, although no one had entered the station, then cocked his head to one side. “You hear a lot. Some of it might be true. Some might not. There’s four right now in the taudis-you’re talking about our taudis, right?”

I nodded.

“Horazt is the new one on the west end. Grausyn and Lykyt patrol that round. They haven’t had any trouble, but the equalifiers and the Temple types don’t like him, and that could be trouble before long. The chief before him disappeared just before the riots. The east end, there are two, Jadhyl and Deyalt, but Deyalt might as well be the subchief because he goes along with whatever Jadhyl wants. But you’re patrolling with Alsoran, aren’t you?”

“I am. Jadhyl talked to us last week. He said the toughs who attacked us weren’t his.”

Sansolt frowned. “Alsoran said that. Guess I believe it, but . . .”

“You think Youdh was trying to set up Jadhyl or Deyalt?”

“I wouldn’t put it past him. Don’t know as there’s anyone with a good word to say about him.”

“So why is he still taudischef?”

Sansolt laughed. “Anyone who crosses him ends up dead real quick.”

“Have you ever seen him?”

“No one’s ever seen him. I mean, no patroller ever has. Not that I ever heard.”

“Has the captain ever met any of the taudischefs? To get the plaques on the table, face up, so to speak?”

“When he was a lieutenant, he met with Worazt, the taudischef before Youdh. That’s what Melyor said, anyway. Didn’t do much good. The next week some toughs tried to take out a patrol on rounds. The captain hasn’t said anything about meeting any of them since.”

“Thank you. Everything I can learn helps.”

“Sir . . . some say you know Horazt.”

“I do, but not from working with the Civic Patrol. He brought his nephew to Imagisle on a day when I was on duty. The boy is an imager. He’s very young, but he has promise.”

I didn’t like the idea that someone was circulating word that I knew Horazt, because I’d told no one. The most obvious answer was that Youdh had gotten word to Harraf-or someone-at the station because of the time I’d openly walked through the taudis with Horazt.

“An imager . . . from the taudis?”

“Imagers can be born into any family. My father’s a wool factor, but I’ve known several imagers whose parents were High Holders.”

I could tell that surprised Sansolt, but he only nodded and said, “Hadn’t thought of that, but you say so, it must be.”

“Thank you again.” I smiled and turned, heading out of the station.

The wind and rain were stronger as I walked up Fuosta toward South Middle and then east to Dugalle. The Puryon Temple ahead seemed empty, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if people were watching.

A bell struck, the sound coming from an anomen I couldn’t see, announcing the first glass of the afternoon. Of course, Horazt was nowhere to be seen.

I kept moving, walking a ways east on South Middle, and then back, back and forth, for what seemed like glasses, but was probably closer to two quints, before a figure emerged out of the mistlike hard rain.

“Afternoon, Master Rhennthyl.”

“Good afternoon, Horazt.”

“You paid coin to get a message to me. Must be urgent.” He turned and began to walk westward, back toward the Midroad.

I took two quick steps to catch him, then matched his pace. “It might be. Youdh’s put out the word that you don’t like the equalifiers and the Temple priests.”

“So?”

“It doesn’t sound like Youdh’s any sort of friend of yours.”

“Taudischefs aren’t friends with other taudischefs.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Not much I can do about what he feels.”

I waited to say more until we passed an old man trudging eastward. He didn’t even look in our direction, just kept his head down against the fine rain.

“Do your men have something that identifies them as your taudis-men? A kind of belt buckle, a certain cloak, like the green cloaks that Jadhyl’s men wear?”

“You think I should tell you?”

“I’m not asking what it is. I’m thinking that each taudischef’s men carry or wear something like that. I’d like to know if you know what Youdh’s men use, or if Youdh sends messages with a special seal or sign.”

Horazt laughed harshly. “The only message he sends is a slashed throat, with a wide-bladed dagger through the voice box. That’s how he deals with squeals.”

“No tattoos for his men? No jackets of a special color?”

“His enforcers wear purple jackets. That’s only the top ones.”

“Can you get me-”

“You don’t think-”

“Not a jacket. Just a small piece of the material.” I held my fingers barely a digit apart. “Just a shred like that. I’ll pay a gold for it.” Once I had it, I could always image something just a bit larger.

A sly grin crossed his face. “Might be worth the risk at that. If I can get it, I’ll send it with Chelya when she goes to see Shault. You and me, we been seen too much together.”

“I’ll be there. No one will think that’s strange for her first visit.” I’d have to be there, because I didn’t want Shault to see what I had in mind. “Do you want me to give her the gold?”

“You can owe me, Master Rhennthyl. You’re good for it.” He slowed and looked at me. “You really think Shault can make a life as an imager?”

“He has the talent, and he has more chances than anyone I know of from the taudis, but he has to want it. It’s not easy for a taudis-kid because the best imagers are those no one sees.”

“You’re good, or you wouldn’t be a master, and people know who you are.”

“I’ve also been shot at and attacked more times than any other master, and I could have died twice. I wouldn’t want Shault to go through that.”

“He’ll want to follow you.”

I didn’t bother hiding the sigh. “We’re all afraid of that, but we’ll help him all we can.”

“His grandfather was quiet. So was his uncle. They both died young.”

“I understand. Quiet doesn’t always work in the taudis. I can only tell you that I’ll do what I can.”

“That’s all anyone can ask.” Horazt raised his hand. “Later. Don’t get too wet.” He turned and crossed South Middle, walking into a narrow lane on the other side and disappearing into the misty rain.

I kept walking until I was on the Midroad. Eventually, I managed to hail a coach for hire.

By the time I reached my parents’ house and walked up under the portico roof, my cloak was more than a little damp. I lifted the knocker and let it drop twice before the door opened.

Mother stood there. “Rhenn! I thought it might be you. Come in before you get any wetter.” Her eyes went over me. “From the look of your cloak, I don’t know that you could.”

Once inside, I immediately shed the cloak.

“Dear, let me hang that up in the kitchen. The stove is still hot.”

“Thank you. Are you here alone?”

“Oh, no. Your father’s in the parlor. Khethila’s over at Brennai’s this afternoon, but you did see her last week when we weren’t here.” Mother bustled toward the family parlor and the kitchen beyond.

As I followed, I ignored her attempt to inject guilt into the conversation. “I can’t always come every Samedi. I was painting until late yesterday.”

“Whose portrait?” asked Father from his chair, setting down the book he had been reading.

“I’ve been working on several, but the important one is Master Rholyn’s. He’s the Collegium councilor.”

“Khethila said that you were working hard.” Mother stopped at the door to the kitchen. “Can I get you some hot mulled wine or some tea?”

“Tea would be good. I can only stay a glass or so.”

“The kettle’s still warm. It shouldn’t take long.” Mother scurried into the kitchen.

I settled into the chair across from Father, grateful for the warmth from the hearth stove. “I haven’t seen you for a bit. Is there anything new happening?” I doubted that Father would say anything about the problems in Kherseilles.

“There is one thing.” Father beamed. “That dinner we had with Veblynt and Ferdinand last month actually led to a contract from the Navy. One of the supply commanders said that Veblynt had recommended me, and he asked me to bid on a large contract. That was several weeks ago. On Meredi, I received notice that the bid had been accepted.” Father smiled. “That was most welcome.”

“Will it be profitable?”

“A solid profit’s to be had, but the margin on military contracts is lower. Always has been, but it’s not to be sneezed at.”

“No contract backed by the Council is to be ignored,” Mother added, returning with a mug of tea.

I took the mug and held it under my chin, letting the steam warm my face for a moment before taking a sip. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, dear.”

I turned back to Father. “I suppose Veblynt showed up on Jeudi to congratulate you?” I kept my tone idle.

Father frowned. “On Vendrei, actually.” After a pause, he went on. “He congratulated me on getting the bid, but he also said that you were to be equally congratulated for your efforts in dealing with his wife’s most distant relations.”

Mother looked up sharply. “You didn’t mention that, dear.”

“I’m certain I did, Maelyna.”

“Perhaps you did.” Mother’s tone indicated that he had not, but that she was not going to make an issue of it-not at the moment. Instead, she looked to me. “What did Veblynt mean, do you think?”

“I don’t know. I suspect that he was referring to my avoiding problems with the daughter of High Holder Ryel.”

“Why would there be problems?”

“Iryela is most determined, extremely good-looking, and to be as safe as possible, she needs a husband who cannot inherit from her. Imagers fit those criteria. By not angering her, and by choosing Seliora, I hoped to avoid involvements of that sort.” All that I said was true, if somewhat misleading.

For whatever reason, Veblynt had steered the wool contract to Father. While I did not know the reason, I had the feeling that it was strictly to give me time to deal with Ryel . . . or at the least to make Ryel work harder to ruin me and my family. Then, it might have been to force Ryel into making a mistake. I had strong doubts that it was merely to help Father, but how could I tell? I wasn’t about to ask Veblynt . . . not now, at least.

“Seliora is beautiful and well endowed . . . especially coming from a crafting family,” Mother offered.

What she really meant was that she was still surprised to find a Pharsi girl who was as beautiful and well off as Seliora. She was also suggesting that I might have done better to look more closely at Iryela.

“Indeed she is, and her brothers are far more welcoming than Iryela’s brothers would have been. High Holders would prefer not to have imagers privy, even indirectly, to their family and their affairs.”

“That’s a pity,” Mother said. “Is this . . . heiress . . . attractive?”

“She’s quite attractive, if in a cold and calculating fashion,” I replied. “You know I don’t do well with that.” I took another sip of the tea.

“Maelyna, even I know that Rhennthyl needs someone warm and kind, especially since he’s become an imager. All the gold in Solidar doesn’t warm a home or a bed.”

That comment from my father surprised me, although it shouldn’t have, because, for all his bluster at times, he’d always been appreciative of my mother, and seldom said anything unkind. He also didn’t tolerate anyone else saying anything negative about her.

“You and Seliora haven’t had dinner with us recently,” Mother said.

I had to think about that, but she was right. It had been over a month.

“You could come next Samedi. Culthyn has never met Seliora, you know?”

“Could we make it for sixth glass?”

“Of course, dear.”

“I’ll have to send her a note.” Seliora had agreed that we’d go out, and I hoped she wouldn’t mind. “Plan on it, and I’ll let you know if there’s a problem.”

“It would be nice to get to know her better.”

That might well be, but it would be nerve-racking for me. I just smiled.

“Will you keep painting?” Mother asked. “Khethila mentioned something . . .”

“I’ve finished one portrait. That’s of the head maitre of the Collegium. They hung it in the receiving hall. . . .” I went on to talk about Maitre Rholyn’s portrait, but not Seliora’s. It wasn’t far enough along that I felt comfortable discussing it yet, although I’d certainly have to by the next Samedi.

29

Lundi morning, Clovyl canceled the running, but not the exercises and sparring, because so much water had pooled all over the isle and because tree limbs had fallen everywhere in the high winds that hadn’t even awakened me during the night. I hurried through cleaning up and breakfast so that I could post the note to Seliora about our change in dinner plans, run down Grandisyn to request a replacement for my armoire, and so I could get to Third District station earlier than usual. Grandisyn didn’t even seem surprised, but he did say it would be a few days.

I made it to the station early only because I had the use of a duty coach. I also carried a small bag that held the frayed and worn brown cloak and brown-and-black plaid cap. I didn’t see many hacks on the road. Captain Harraf must have switched to supervising the late shift, because Lieutenant Warydt looked up from talking to a patroller on desk duty and nodded to me as I entered the station and put the bag in the square cubby that had been assigned to me.

I didn’t see Alsoran, but that was secondary for the moment. I was looking for the pair who had the round covering that part of the taudis controlled by Youdh. It didn’t take long to run down Melyor and Slausyl, although I only knew them by sight and in passing.

Slausyl was about my height, with blue eyes, blond hair, and a round boyish face on which the deep lines on his forehead seemed out of place. Melyor was shorter, squatter, with washed-out and limp brown hair and sad hazel eyes.

“A moment, if you would,” I offered as I stepped toward them.

“What did you want to know, sir?” asked Melyor.

“Whatever you can tell me about Youdh. Alsoran may have told you what happened . . .”

“Yeah,” replied Slausyl. “It doesn’t make much sense.”

“About Youdh?” I prompted.

“We’ve never really seen him-except at a distance-if he was even the one. He looks to be big, but not so tall as Alsoran, maybe not quite so broad, either.”

“Does he always have guards with him?”

“You aren’t thinking . . .” Melyor glanced to Slausyl.

I shook my head. “It seems to me that an imager or a Civic Patroller’s taking out a taudischef would just create a bigger problem. I’m just trying to learn enough so that things make more sense to me.”

“Sometimes the toughs with him wear purple jackets,” said Slausyl. “There’s always one in purple.”

“Probably his enforcers,” I speculated. “How does he handle enemies?”

“Has ’em killed. How else?” asked Melyor.

“But is there anything to show that’s why?”

Both patrollers exchanged glances.

“Why else would they be dead?” Slausyl finally asked.

“Lots of reasons.” I paused. “I’ve heard that the Tiempran priests-the ones who believe in equality-they’ll cut their heretics into two equal halves. The High Holders leave silver knots to make sure people know why something happened. Does Youdh do anything like that?”

“Oh . . . that,” replied Melyor. “Don’t know as it always happens, but we’ve found a couple of bodies in the middle of where two lanes cross with their throat cut and a dull knife through their voice box. That’s for squealers.”

“I’d heard that Youdh makes deals with the Puryon Temple priests.”

“That’d be hard to say, sir,” said Melyor. “Sometimes one of the advocates that the priests use will show up in court for someone that might belong to Youdh. But who could tell whether they were working for the priests or Youdh?”

“Or both,” I added.

Melyor looked at me, as it to ask if I had any more questions.

“What do you think will happen if a conscription team enters your round?”

Both patrollers laughed harshly.

“Nothing Namer good, sir,” Slausyl finally replied.

“Do you know when they will?” asked Melyor.

“They don’t tell anyone, especially not imagers . . . or patrollers. Since I’m considered both right now . . .” I let the words hang.

“Too bad.”

“Exactly.” I nodded. “Thank you both.”

“Our pleasure, sir,” replied Melyor.

No sooner had I stepped away from the two patrollers and turned to look for Alsoran than Lieutenant Warydt stepped away from the duty desk and began to walk toward me.

I was getting leery of Patrol officers. Whenever one approached me, the results were seldom good, but I smiled and said, “Lieutenant.”

“Master Rhennthyl . . . how would you feel about accompanying Lyonyt next week on the round you’ve been doing? That would be a real help. We just found out that Alsoran’s been made a patroller first, and he’s being transferred to Fifth District. We won’t get a replacement by then, and it might be longer.”

“I’d be happy to help.” What else could I have said?

“The captain and I appreciate that very much. Thank you.” With a smile, he turned and headed toward his study.

By then, Alsoran had arrived, and I walked to join him. I didn’t say anything about his pending promotion until we were outside and walking down to Quierca. “I understand congratulations are in order.”

Alsoran offered an embarrassed smile. “I guess I was fortunate.”

“I’m sure you deserve it. What have you heard about Fifth District?”

“It won’t break my heart to spend some time there. That’s the area that includes Plaza D’Este, and there’s no taudis or taudis-types around. I won’t have as many stories to tell, but that’s just fine.” Alsoran grinned.

“I’m glad for you.”

“Not as glad as my wife.”

We’d walked more than five blocks southeast on Quierca, just about two blocks short of where the round started, when I noticed a taudis-tough leaning against the wall. He made no attempt to conceal the fact that he was watching us.

“Do you know him?” I asked Alsoran.

“I don’t recall seeing him before, but that’s Youdh’s territory.”

The man said nothing, but I could feel the tough’s eyes on my back after we passed. A little more than a block farther along was another tough, leaning against a stone gatepost. Like the first, he watched, but said nothing.

“They’re looking at you, sir,” observed Alsoran.

They were the only taudis-toughs we saw all day, and the only difficulty we had was with a smash-and-grab by a muddled elver in late afternoon. I had to chase him a block, but I couldn’t claim much credit because he looked back at me and ran into a lamppost and went down. The old woman got her bag and wallet back, and the elver went off to gaol, and we rode the pickup wagon back to the station.

After I finished the round report with Alsoran, I reclaimed my bag and then walked up Fuosta and out to the Midroad, where I waited nearly half a glass to catch a hack. The driver didn’t say much, but I could sense he didn’t like taking me to the intersection of Fedre and East River Road, because he’d end up on the wrong side to pick up fares. While I was in the hack I donned the brown cloak and plaid cap and slipped my visored uniform cap into the bag.

Once I’d paid the driver, and I did give him a few extra coppers, I dodged through the welter of coaches and wagons, and the occasional rider, back across East River Road. As soon as I turned up Fedre, I began to build concealment shields, just enough so that anyone who looked in my direction would see a workman in mismatched cloak and cap, without really picking up much more than that.

The sky was hazy and overcast, and the sun was only a faint glow in the west, already dropping behind the buildings on the west side of Fedre. When I neared Patrol headquarters, I eased closer to the buildings and began to increase the concealment of my shields. When I reached the main entrance I eased back against the stone wall and waited.

Nearly a glass passed, and while I saw both the commander and the subcommander leave, I didn’t see Lieutenant Mardoyt. Had he taken the day off? Or was he on leave? I couldn’t afford to ask about such. So I decided to keep waiting and watching.

Close to two quints passed before I saw him hurry down the steps and turn toward the river. I followed, maintaining concealment shields and trying to stay close, but not too close. The fading light helped, or at least I thought it did, because no one even seemed to see me.

When Mardoyt reached East River Road, he stopped and began to signal for a hack.

Once Mardoyt was inside, I swung up on the luggage rack in the rear, hoping that the trip wouldn’t be long or rough . . . and that the driver wouldn’t take undue notice of the extra weight.

The coach followed East River to the Avenue D’Artisans, then headed east, but only for a mille or so, when it came to a halt. When I heard the coach door open, I slipped off the luggage rack, but waited at the rear of the coach where, even had I not been using shields, it would have been impossible for the driver to see me.

Mardoyt glanced around, then began to walk up the side street, whose name I couldn’t make out in the dimness. He turned right at the second cross street, which had to be Saelio, although this portion of the street was a good two milles, if not more, from the part that bordered the taudis near Third Station, and somewhere southwest of Sudroad.

Both sides of the street were filled with modest row houses, either duplexes or triplexes. They were established enough that the trees lining the narrow strip next to the walk were older and would offer considerable shade during the day. Almost all were oaks.

Mardoyt walked up the walk of the fifth house, the left side of a duplex, which had a covered porch on the east side. A girl opened the door, and Mardoyt stepped inside.

I moved under a tall and not quite ancient sycamore, one of the few softwoods, and leaned against the trunk.

From what I’d seen of Mardoyt’s schedule during the time I’d been at headquarters, if he were meeting with those outside the Patrol, it most likely had to occur after he left headquarters or before he arrived. I knew very few people, except imagers working for Master Dichartyn, who were that active in the early morning, and I was wagering that if I followed Mardoyt long enough, I’d learn something.

Although I watched the house for close to two glasses, no one entered or left, and I finally walked back to the avenue and waited another half glass to pick up a hack. It cost me double because it was so late.

30

When I got out of the duty coach outside Third District station on Mardi morning, the pale blue sky was clear and crisp, and the wind had died away. I nodded to Melyor and Slausyl as they headed out of the station, and to Zellyn, who was just inside the station door. He gave me a smile.

Alsoran arrived right after I stowed my bag in my cubby, and we immediately walked out of the station and up Fuosta to South Middle. Well before Dugalle, we passed the first of three toughs, all on the edge of Youdh’s “territory,” and all of whom watched me as we passed. I thought I caught a hint of purple under the nondescript dark brown cloak of the second tough.

Once we were past the third tough-who was barely visible and indistinct from where he watched from within an alleyway-and started on the round proper, Alsoran cleared his throat. He didn’t quite look at me as he spoke. “Looks as you did something that Youdh didn’t like. Any idea what that might have been?”

“The only thing I’ve done recently is ask some of the other patrollers what they know about Youdh. I asked Melyor and Slausyl because that’s their round.”

“Good men, and they do their best.” He paused again. “No one else?” His tone was casual.

“I did ask Sansolt about Youdh on Solayi. He was on the desk.”

“Sansolt knows a great deal. He talks to everyone.”

The flatness of Alsoran’s tone suggested even more than his words.

“I’ll have to keep that in mind. Is there anyone else you think I should talk to who might know why Youdh’s men are watching me?”

Alsoran didn’t speak for several steps, then fingered his chin. “You know, Master Rhennthyl, I can’t think of anyone who’d be helpful besides the ones you’ve already talked to. No patroller worth his stipend wants to get too close to the taudischefs. Folks believe the worst. The taudischefs think you’re out to get them somehow, and everyone else thinks you’re getting something from them. No way to come out ahead.”

I laughed. “It’s too bad, but it makes sense. It seems to me that a taudischef like Jadhyl wants the same thing as the Patrol. He wants things to be orderly and go smoothly.”

“He also wants to line his wallet.”

“That’s true, but who doesn’t? The question is how people do it. Youdh likes to kill people if they don’t pay him. Does Jadhyl? You’ve patrolled here. What do you think?”

“Jadhyl will . . . I think, only if he has to. Someone’s disappearing every week around Youdh. That’s what Melyor says. Is it true? Who knows? We don’t find bodies, and that’s fine with the captain.”

I had doubts about that policy, but I wasn’t the captain.

Meredi was again comparatively uneventful, although we did have to investigate a break-in at one of the bistros. A side of beef was missing, along with flour and oil and an empty cashbox that had held only a handful of coppers, but it had happened in the middle of the night, and the thief hadn’t left many traces except where he’d pried the bars away from a window opening onto the alley.

Since we didn’t bring in any malefactors near the end of our round, I was able to leave the station close to fourth glass. Again, I hailed a hack to take me to Patrol headquarters. This time, I didn’t put on the cloak and cap in the coach, but left them in the bag. I didn’t slink around, either, but had the driver deliver me right to the building. I actually walked right into headquarters to the charging desk. Gulyart was still there.

“Working the late glasses again?”

Gulyart looked up from the charging sheet. “Master Rhennthyl.” He shook his head. “It takes longer by myself. I heard you were still at Third District.”

“I am, but I thought I’d stop by and see how things were going here.”

Gulyart shrugged. “Same as always.” He looked at me. “Maybe not quite. We’re not getting as many prisoners from Third District.”

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve been walking rounds with patrollers, mostly in the taudis areas. The patrollers haven’t said much about numbers.”

“There aren’t as many.” He gave a crooked smile. “Could be that some of them don’t want to try anything with an imager.”

I shook my head. “From what I’ve seen, offenders don’t think about patrollers or imagers.”

“They don’t, but the taudischefs might.”

I just shrugged. What else could I have done? My next words were far lower. “Has anything changed here?”

He was the one to shake his head. Then he glanced toward the closed door that led to the upper level and Mardoyt’s study. After a moment, he asked, “Have you heard about when they might send in the conscription teams?”

“No. They wouldn’t tell me or anyone I know. I’d have to believe that it won’t be long, but who knows?”

“Be nice if they’d let us know.”

We both knew that the Army and Navy would do what they’d do.

At that moment, the door from the upper level opened, and Baluzt stepped out, hurrying toward the charging desk. “Gulyart, do you have the charging sheets-”

He actually stopped in midstride, and his mouth opened, if for just a moment before he smiled. “Master Rhennthyl, I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“I missed headquarters,” I replied cheerfully.

“It’ll be another quint,” Gulyart said to Baluzt.

“I’ll be back then.” Baluzt nodded to me. “It’s good to see you, Master Rhennthyl.” Then he turned and headed back through the doorway to the staircase, closing it behind him.

I had no doubts at all that Baluzt was reporting my presence to Lieutenant Mardoyt, and that suited my purposes.

“I won’t keep you, Gulyart, but I did want to stop by and see how you were doing.” I smiled, not out of calculation, because I liked Gulyart and thought he was doing the best he could.

“I’m glad you did, sir.”

Once I left headquarters, I raised concealment shields and waited.

While I still waited close to two quints, Mardoyt left headquarters close to a glass earlier than he had on Lundi. I used the same technique, holding on to the luggage rack at the back of the hack. I managed to get the brown cloak out of the bag and on, and to switch caps before we reached Mardoyt’s destination. This time, the lieutenant took the hack two blocks farther from the river on the Avenue D’Artisans before leaving the coach. There he stopped by a flower stall and purchased a large bunch of yellow chrysanthemums and then walked, whistling cheerfully, back down the avenue and then to his house.

Several times he paused, looking back. Once he shook his head.

Yet . . . I didn’t have the feeling he was looking for me, or at least not in my direction. I looked around as well, but I didn’t see anything. Who would have seen me through shields?

A girl, perhaps the one who had opened the door the night before, stood waiting for him in the twilight on the porch. Holding the flowers in one hand, he gave her a hug with his free arm. They entered the house together.

Because it was earlier in the evening than when I had seen the dwelling the night before, I had a better chance to study it. Although it was a row duplex, it was a good fifteen yards in width, and deeper than that, rising three stories. The third level was probably cramped and smaller, but the dormers suggested that there was at least one usable room there.

Whether the lieutenant leased the dwelling or actually owned it, given what I recalled about Patrol pay scales, he would have had difficulty paying for such lodging, unless he’d inherited money or had other income. I was wagering on the latter, based on what I’d observed when I’d been assisting on the charging desk and observing the justice hearings, but I did need to get a copy of the pay scales and see if Seliora could have her advocate find out who owned the house in which Mardoyt lived.

Once more, I watched the dwelling for more than two glasses, until the lamps were extinguished on the lower levels and only a faint trace of light escaped from one room on the second floor.

31

On Meredi morning, right after breakfast, I stopped by the receiving hall and asked Beleart when he expected Master Dichartyn to return.

“Not for several days, sir. He didn’t say when exactly. He said it would be late this week.”

“Thank you.”

I headed for Master Schorzat’s study, hoping to find him in-and I did.

“Rhennthyl . . . what can I do for you?” He did not rise from behind his writing desk.

“Sir, I was wondering if you happened to know where I could lay my hands on the pay schedules for civic patrollers.”

“Pay schedules?”

“I’m looking into something, and Master Dichartyn said I needed proof. Part of the proof happens to be what a civic patroller makes.”

“If you’re looking for proof of bribes, pay alone won’t do it. They’ll claim legacies, inheritances from widowed uncles without children, even gaming wins.”

“That may be, sir, but I have to start somewhere.”

Schorzat nodded. “I’ll have a copy made and left in your letter box.” He paused. “By the way, I do like the portrait you did of Thelya. I hadn’t realized you’d been the one to paint it.”

For a moment, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but then realized that it was the portrait of his niece, Thelya D’Scheorzyl. “She was a very sweet girl.”

“She still is.”

“Do you have any idea when the conscription teams will begin their canvass of L’Excelsis, sir?”

“They started in the western quarter, out beyond Council Hill, on Lundi, but they don’t say where they’ll go next. It usually takes a good week for each area.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome.” As soon as he finished speaking, his eyes dropped to the stack of papers before him.

I slipped out of the study and eased the door closed behind me. Then I hurried toward the duty coach station, still carrying the bag with the brown cloak and plaid cap. Because two wagons had collided and created a welter of carriages around the intersection of the Avenue D’Artisans and Sudroad, it was slightly after seventh glass when I arrived at Third District station.

Alsoran was waiting outside the station. In the shade, his breath almost steamed. “I was wondering . . .”

“Two wagons collided on the avenue,” I explained. “We couldn’t get to the side roads for a bit.”

“Both teamsters blaming the other, I imagine.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised, but I didn’t try to find out.” I matched my steps to Alsoran’s, and we headed toward Quierca.

Unlike Mardi, there were no taudis-toughs watching as we walked down Quierca past the section of the taudis that Youdh claimed as his. Why would they be watching one day and not the next?

I didn’t have all that much time to think about it, because the day was busy. The same thief as the one who had burgled the silversmith-or one using the same methods-had broken into a tavern just off the Avenue D’Artisans, and as soon as we finished talking to the owner, we had to subdue an older elver who’d mixed beer and weed and who’d decided that he wanted to pull shutters off a tinsmith’s shop.

After that, a teamster on a wagon carrying lamp oil broke an axle, and one of the barrels rolled off and smashed. With oil in the gutters, we had to make sure no one was smoking or had anything that would cause a fire until the fire brigade arrived with a sand wagon and a clean-up crew. We ate quickly at Florena’s, and with the gut-aches I had for the next three glasses from her special ragout, I decided I never wanted to eat there again.

On the second round of the afternoon, we happened on two youngsters having at each other with knives, but I flattened one with a shield and Alsoran disarmed the other before they had more than a minor cut or two. One of Deyalt’s enforcers showed up, and we let him escort them off. Neither one of us wanted to charge them. Someone might have to later, but it was worth the risk, given what I’d seen about Jadhyl and Deyalt. If they didn’t learn, they’d end up dead, or on a penal crew for life.

All in all, it was a long, long day, and I wasn’t looking forward to tailing Mardoyt yet another night, but Baluzt’s reaction on Mardi had convinced me that I was on the right track. So, after more than a half glass of writing out reports, I took a hack back down to East River Road and Fedre and donned my disguise on the way.

For better or worse, Mardoyt left headquarters later that evening and only took a hack as far as he had on Lundi. Once more, I rode on the rear luggage rack, but there was a trunk with a rounded lid fastened there, and I was more than glad when the hack finally stopped.

I eased up next to a post in order to allow my shields to blend me into the background because Mardoyt didn’t immediately cross the avenue, but stood there for several moments, glancing around. Once he crossed, he didn’t look back, not once, but he didn’t rush, either, just walked deliberately down two blocks or so and then up on Saelio toward his dwelling. I let him have more space, now that I knew where he was headed.

That turned out to be wise, because slouching against a gatepost, across Saelio, was a figure in a black cloak, and that figure looked to be a taudis-tough, although I couldn’t tell if he happened to be one of those who had been watching me on Mardi.

“Over there,” hissed someone.

I turned in the direction of the sound, to see another tough, one who looked to be wearing a purple jacket under yet another nondescript black cloak. The second tough was looking in my direction, but not at me. I took another step, and at the scuff of my boots on the sandy stone, his head turned more toward me.

Then something twisted at my shields, and I staggered for a moment. Another imager? After me? I strengthened my shields and tried to determine from where the attack had come, just as something exploded against my shields, rocking me back again.

Whoever the other imager was, he was powerful, but I could sense the lack of technique. I dropped behind a scraggly hedge, trying to see through the dimness. Could it have been the second tough?

Dust flared into a column, just on the other side of the hedge.

“Now!”

With that single command came a flurry of shots, all aimed at the dust column. Most missed, but several hit my shields, and one twisted me around, and I sprawled on the ground behind the hedge.

I decided not to move, and held my shields as I watched and waited. After a time, perhaps half a quint, I heard footsteps. Then I could see the first tough moving through the late twilight across the street and toward me. He held a pistol.

Given his intent, I didn’t wait any longer, but imaged air into his brain and heart vessels. He convulsed and pitched forward onto the walk. The pistol dropped onto the dirt beside the walk. I grabbed the weapon, aimed it at his head, and fired.

After that single shot, I heard boots on stone, running, followed by voices, and someone yelling.

I got to my feet, dropped the pistol by the dead tough, and eased around the hedge to the street. The second tough had vanished. So had Mardoyt, and his house was unlit.

Holding concealment shields, I walked back toward the avenue, thinking about what had just happened. Mardoyt had known he was being followed, and he’d gotten word to Youdh. That didn’t surprise me, but what did was that one of the toughs, seemingly one of those working for Youdh, was an imager of sorts, and had the ability to detect another imager.

That was anything but good, especially since Mardoyt had to know that I was looking into his activities.

I kept walking until I reached the avenue, where I turned westward, still watching around me and thinking. I’d been shot at, attacked by an unknown imager, and I still had no proof of anything at all-even though I knew Mardoyt was connected to Youdh and the unknown imager. I thought about reporting the imager to Master Dichartyn . . . and decided against it. First, I didn’t have the kind of proof he wanted. Second, I didn’t even know where to start as far as identifying the imager, and third, Master Dichartyn wasn’t even around, and I wasn’t about to report so little to anyone else. Besides, then I’d have to explain too much about what I was doing . . . because I didn’t have any real proof to back that up, either.

32

Even though I’d walked all the way back to Imagisle on Meredi night, trying to puzzle out what I should do next, and arrived footsore and tired, I didn’t sleep all that well. My dreams were filled with imagers I could not see, and whenever I tried to move toward them, Master Dichartyn appeared between me and what I could not see. I tried to image a light, and he imaged darkness around it. When I woke on Jeudi, I definitely had the feeling that I was not only fighting against Mardoyt and Harraf and the unknown taudis imager, but the Collegium itself-and that didn’t even take into account my problems with High Holder Ryel and his efforts to ruin me and my family. At that thought, I had to wonder what Ryel might be planning next . . . but I had to deal with the Civic Patrol problems first.

After breakfast, I did remember to check my letter box, where I found two items. One was the copy of the Civic Patrol pay schedules and the second was an envelope note addressed to me in Seliora’s handwriting. On seeing the pay schedule, I had the definite feeling that I should not have asked for it, although I couldn’t have said why, and not just because of what Master Schorzat had said. I slipped it into the inside pocket of my waistcoat and opened Seliora’s note, not without some qualms.

Dear Rhenn,

I am so pleased that your mother wants us for dinner. I hope that you have already accepted. I look forward to seeing you on Samedi.

The closing read, “With love.”

I took a deep breath. I hadn’t really expected anything else, but . . . I also knew I wasn’t necessarily that good at predicting how women might react. Then I hurried back to my quarters and dashed off a quick note to Mother to confirm that we would be there, rushed to the reception hall, because Beleart could post the note from there for me, and hurried to the duty coach.

All in all, I made it to the station just before seventh glass, but not before Alsoran.

“Good morning, Master Rhennthyl.”

“Good morning.” I glanced back toward the study doors of the captain and the lieutenant, but didn’t see either. “Has anything happened?”

“According to the duty desk, it was real quiet in the taudis last night.”

That didn’t surprise me. At least some of the toughs had been elsewhere. “Let’s hope it continues that way until you get to Fifth District.”

Alsoran smiled and turned toward the door. “I wouldn’t be arguing against that.”

“I didn’t think you would.”

The first and outer round was as quiet as the night before had been reported. Then, halfway through the second round, we heard screams and found an elver trying to batter his way into a dwelling that wasn’t his. It took both of us to subdue him and keep him restrained until the pickup wagon carted him off.

After that, there were more people on the streets and lanes, and two times when older women reported grab-and-runs. We couldn’t find either youth.

Lunch came, and we ate, and then went back to walking the round.

In midafternoon, I happened to ask Alsoran how he’d worked out the way he’d developed of patrolling the round.

He grinned. “Just did.”

“You must have put some thought into the order.”

“All things have an order. That’s true. My papa told me that time after time when I was little. You do things in the wrong order, and you run into trouble. If you try and it doesn’t work, maybe you forgot to do something first. He was a great one for doing it step-by-step.” Alsoran laughed. “Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s always worth trying.”

I nodded slowly. That didn’t seem to be my problem.

“The thing I learned here on the Patrol is that sometimes you do the opposite.”

“The opposite?” I had an idea what he meant, but I wanted to see if I did.

“You put in too many steps.” He shook his head. “Take elvers who’ve gone crazed. The procedures say that we’re supposed to tell them to halt and that we’re patrollers. There’s no elver who’s overweeded that’ll hear anything. You try to talk to them, and before you can say three words, they’re either running from you or at you. You have to know what steps to skip.”

As we finished the last round of the day, Alsoran’s words kept echoing in my thoughts. That could have been because Master Dichartyn-all the maitres, really-had pressed so hard on me the need to proceed logically, to go through all the steps, one by one. There were more than a few problems with that. First, any logical progression would lead back to me. Second, no matter how hard I searched, I would never have the kind of absolute proof that Maitres Jhulian and Dichartyn had kept stressing. But . . . that worked two ways. And it meant that I never should have asked for the pay schedule.

It also meant that there was little point in following Mardoyt until I made another set of preparations. So I just took a hack back to Imagisle.

As I sat in my quarters before dinner, I continued to think about Mardoyt. I knew that he was changing charges, even eliminating the records of any charges in some cases, or sending back notes that the charges had been dropped. He was also connected to taudis-toughs and a taudischef, most likely Youdh, and those toughs had tried to kill me. Twice-through imaging and shooting at me. Equally important, I hadn’t done anything to threaten anyone. I’d only followed Mardoyt.

I also had to wonder if imaging had been used to topple the pile of granite that had left me without shields for almost a week. If that were so, it suggested most strongly that both Harraf and Mardoyt were linked to Youdh, but in the case of Harraf, I had less information. I certainly couldn’t call it proof.

At dinner, I ended up sitting between Chorister Isola and Quaelyn.

“How is your pattern analysis going?” I asked Quaelyn, after we had served ourselves from the platters brought out by the servers. I hoped he might reveal something of interest.

“There are always patterns.” He smiled. “Sometimes we can read them, and sometimes we can’t.”

“Do you analyze patterns that affect the Ferrans?”

“I have, but there’s little point in that now.”

“When we’re at war?”

He shrugged. “Their response will be to build as many weapons, ships, and landcruisers as they can and train as many soldiers and sailors as possible. Ours will be to deny them effective use of all that materiel. Because we control the sea after last week’s battles, they will turn their fury against the Jariolans on land. The Jariolans will let them attack until they are overextended, and until winter is at its height, when the steam engines of the landcruisers have a tendency to freeze up, and they will counterattack. That is what the patterns indicate.”

“People aren’t patterns,” Isola pointed out.

“No, honored chorister. People are patterns. We could not function without routines, schedules, and habits, and the confluence of these create patterns in every society. Success in war is being able to maintain your vital patterns and to deploy others the enemy cannot replicate or counter while anticipating and disrupting all his patterns.” Quaelyn shrugged. “Those words make it sound far simpler than the strategies and tactics necessary to do so, but in the simplest terms, that is what war is all about.” He smiled at Isola. “One of the patterns that few recognize is that of titles and naming, but I would judge that you as a chorister would see that.”

I recognized that titles formed a pattern in any society, but what did that have to do with war? I didn’t ask, but I might as well have, because Isola read the inquiry in my expression.

“You have to remember, Rhenn, that names and titles are like chains. Some few people wear them like fine light jewelry links that can be snapped in an instant, but for most the links are heavy enough to bind them within the confines and expectations that their name and title impose on them. The more traditional or formal a society is, the stronger those links, and both the Ferrans and the Jariolans are like that.”

I frowned. “And we aren’t?”

“The Council is, and much of Solidar is. The Collegium, or those who lead and direct it, is not . . . and yet is. Think about your training.”

While I was thinking, she went on.

“This is also true in families. Names come with expectations. Parents don’t say that the eldest child should be especially responsible, but the way in which they act effectively adds that expectation to the child’s name, perhaps every time that the child hears his name.”

I hadn’t thought of it in quite that fashion. Then, I was more interested in the implications of what she and Quaelyn had been discussing . . . and how it related to me.

There was a silence. A thought had occurred to me. “You know so much about this . . . but you’re here in L’Excelsis . . .” I looked to Quaelyn.

He laughed. “I’m an analyst of patterns, not a military commander.” After a pause, he cleared his throat and added, in an almost embarrassed tone, “Every year, I teach a course at the staff college in pattern recognition and analysis. That’s for senior officers.”

“Oh . . . I didn’t know.”

“There’s no reason you should have,” he said gently.

It was just another example of something else that the Collegium did that appeared nowhere in writing.

After dinner, I did not return to my quarters, but instead walked to the south end of Imagisle, past the anomen, to the west side, where a stand of ancient oaks formed almost a second barrier between the grounds and the River Aluse. I had an idea, but as I was discovering, not all ideas translated into practice in the way I had envisioned.

I walked up and down the line of oaks, under the all too faint light of Artiema, only half full. Erion was full, but already low in the western sky, his grayish red light far less helpful, although it gave a sinister look to the abandoned and partly burned-out old mill across the river. I looked away from the mill, concentrating on the trees. The second oak from the north end had several large branches near the top that appeared to be dead.

After studying them more closely, I set to work, beginning near the branch tip, and imaging out a section of wood. The branch wavered, but did not break.

I imaged out a bit more of the dead wood. Nothing happened.

Another attempt brought a cracking, and then the branch broke, but only hung.

After wiping my forehead, I took a deep breath. Like everything else, making my idea into a practical device was going to take more work and skill than I’d thought. But I kept at it for more than a glass before I finally learned how to make the heavy wood fall in the general, and then the specific area where I tried to direct it.

33

Vendrei was misty, with intermittent rain, and a damp chill that suggested a bitter late autumn, although winter proper was a bit more than a month away. I slipped several times on the four-mille run, but Dartazn slipped more, and I managed to finish closer to him than usual. Master Dichartyn wasn’t there for either the exercises or the run, and I wondered when he would be returning to Imagisle . . . and where he had been.

After a cold shower and a shave that left my face blue, it took two full mugs of steaming tea at breakfast to lift the chill from my body, but I got to the duty coach early enough that I arrived on time for my last day of rounds with Alsoran. I even had to wait for him.

He was smiling when he walked into the station.

I couldn’t help smiling back. “Good morning. Ready to head out?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

I shrugged, and we left the station and started off up Fuosta.

“Will you miss any part of Third District, do you think?” I asked.

“I’ll miss some of the patrollers. Lyonyt was always good to do rounds with, and Zellyn’s a good fellow. Some of the others, too. But they say that Captain Telleryn runs a good station.” He smiled. “Jotenyr told me I’d eat a lot better out in Fifth District, and that he sees a lot more pretty women.”

“That sounds promising.”

“Have to admit I could stand better food than the bistros on this round.”

With that I could definitely agree.

As was usually the case in the earlier part of the morning, we didn’t see any taudis-toughs on the first two rounds, and only sniffed a hint of elveweed when we were two blocks or so past the Temple of Puryon on the first leg of the first round.

Youdh’s territory, I thought.

“Have you hear