(Nightrunners — 02)
The lean ship smashed through foaming crests, pounding southwest out of Keston toward Skala. By night she ran without lanterns; her crew, accomplished smugglers all, sailed with eyes lifted skyward to the stars. By day they kept constant watch, though there was little chance of meeting another ship. Only a Plenimaran captain would chance deep water sailing so late in the year and this winter there would be none so far north. Not with a war brewing.
Ice sheathed the rigging. The sailors pulled the halyards with bleeding hands, chipped frozen water from the drinking casks, and huddled together off watch, muttering among themselves about the two gentlemen passengers and the grim pack of cutthroats who'd come aboard.
The second day out, the captain came above slobbering drunk. Gold was no use to dead men, he howled over the wind; foul weather was coming, they were turning back. Smiling, the dark nobleman led him below and that was the last anyone heard of the matter. The captain fell overboard sometime that same night. That was the story, at least; the fact was that he was nowhere to be found the next morning and their course remained unchanged.
The mate took over, tying himself to the wheel as they wallowed along. Blown off course, they missed Gull Island and sailed on without respite through lashing sleet and exhaustion. On the fourth day two more men were swept away as waves nearly swamped the ship. A mast snapped, dragging its sail like a broken wing. Miraculously, the ship held true while the remaining crew fought to cut away the tangled ropes.
Clinging among the frozen shrouds that night, the men muttered again, but cautiously. Their finely dressed passengers had brought ill fortune with them; no one wanted to chance attracting their eye. The ship plunged on as if helpful demons guided her keel.
Two days out from Cirna the gale lifted. A pale sun burst through the shredding clouds to guide the battered vessel westward, but foul luck still dogged her. A sudden fever struck among the crew. One by one, they sickened, throats swelling shut as black sores blossomed in the warmth of groins and armpits. Those untouched by the illness watched in horror as the gentlemen's men-at-arms laughingly tossed the bloated corpses overboard.
None of the passengers sickened, but by the time they sighted the towering cliffs of the Skalan Isthmus the last of the crew could feel the weakness overtaking them.
They reached the mouth of Cirna harbor in darkness, guided by the leaping signal fires that flanked the mouth of the Canal. Still sagging at the wheel, the dying mate watched the passengers" men strike the sails, lower anchor, and heave the longboat over the side.
One of the gentlemen, the dark-haired one with a long scar under his eye, suddenly appeared at the mate's elbow. He was smiling, always smiling, though it never seemed to reach his eyes. Half-delirious, the mate staggered back, fearful of being devoured by those soulless eyes.
"You did well," the dark man said, reaching to tuck a heavy purse into the mate's pocket. "We'll see ourselves ashore."
"There's some of us still alive, sir!" croaked the mate, looking anxiously toward the signal fires, the warm lights of the town glimmering so close across the water. "We've got to get ashore for a healer!"
"A healer, you say?" The dark gentleman raised an eyebrow in concern. "Why, my companion here is a healer of sorts. You had only to ask."
Looking past him, the mate saw the other man, the weedy one with the face like a rat's, at work chalking something on the deck. As he straightened from his task the mate recognized the warning symbol for plague.
"Come, Vargul Ashnazai, isn't there something you can do for this poor fellow?" the dark man called.
The mate shuddered as the other man glided toward him.
Not once during the voyage had he heard this man speak. When he did now the words were unintelligible and seemed to collect in the mate's throat like stones. Gagging, he slumped to the deck. The one called Ashnazai laid a cold hand against his cheek and the world collapsed in a blaze of black light.
Mardus stepped clear of the bile spreading out from the dead sailor's mouth. "What about the others?"
The necromancer smiled, his fingers still tingling pleasantly from the mate's death. "Dying as we speak, my lord."
"Very good. Are the men ready?"
"Yes, my lord."
Mardus took a last satisfied look around the deck of the ravaged vessel, then climbed down to the waiting boat.
Cloaked in Ashnazai's magic, they passed the quay and custom house without challenge. Climbing a steep, icy street, they found rooms ready for them at the Half Moon tavern.
Mardus and Ashnazai were just settling down over a hot supper in Mardus' chamber when someone scratched softly at the door.
Captain Tildus entered with a grizzled man named Urvay, Mardus' chief spy in Rhiminee for the past three years. The man was invaluable, both for his skill and his discretion. Tonight he was dressed as a gentleman merchant and looked distinguished in velvet and silver.
Urvay saluted him gravely. "I'm glad to see you safe, my lord. It's nasty sailing this time of year."
Mardus dismissed Tildus, then waved the spy to a nearby chair. "What have you to report, my friend?"
"Bad news and good, my lord. Lady Kassarie is dead."
"That Leran woman?" asked Ashnazai.
"Yes. The Queen's spies attacked her keep about a week ago. She died in the battle. Vicegerent Barien committed suicide over the matter and there are rumors that the Princess Royal was implicated somehow, though the Queen's taken no action against her. The rest of the faction has gone to ground or fled."
"A pity. They might have proved useful. But what about our business?"
"That's the good news, my lord. I have new people in place with several influential nobles."
"Lord General Zymanis, for one-word is he's about to be commissioned with overseeing the lower city fortifications. And one of my men just got himself betrothed to Lady Kora's second daughter and has the run of the villa. But of particular interest, my lord—" Urvay paused, leaning forward a little.
"I'm in the process of establishing a contact inside the Oreska House."
Mardus raised an eyebrow. "Excellent! But how? We haven't been able to get a spy in there for years."
"Not a spy, my lord, but a turncoat. His name is Pelion i Eirsin. He's an actor, and highly thought of at the moment."
"What's he got to do with the Oreska?" demanded Vargul Ashnazai.
"He's got a lover there," Urvay explained quickly, "a young sorceress said to be the mistress of one or two of the older wizards as well. Her name's Ylinestra, and she's got a bit of a reputation around the city; a fiery little catamount with an eye for handsome young men and powerful old ones. This man Pelion is evidently part of her collection. Through him we may be able to get to her and perhaps others. She's not a member of the Oreska herself, but she lives there and has rooms of her own."
"I hardly think we need the services of some slut to get into the place," the necromancer scoffed.
"Maybe not," Urvay interrupted, "but this slut numbers the wizard Nysander among her lovers."
"Nysander i Azusthra?" Mardus nodded approvingly. "Urvay, you've outdone yourself! But what have you told this actor of yours?"
"To him, I am Master Gorodin, a great admirer of his work. I also understand how important patronage is to a young actor on the rise, and to a certain playwright who's willing to create roles especially for him. In return, my new friend Pelion passes on whatever bit of gossip he picks up around town. He likes the deal, and knows better than to ask too many questions. As long as the gold flows, he's ours."
"Well done, Urvay. Spare no expense with him. We must infiltrate the Oreska before spring. You understand? It is imperative."
"I do, my lord. Shall I make arrangements for you in Rhiminee?"
"No. Nothing's to be arranged in advance. I'll contact you when I need you. For now, keep an eye on Pelion and his sorceress."
Urvay rose and bowed. "I will, my lord. Farewell."
When he was gone Mardus returned to his interrupted meal, but Vargul Ashnazai found his appetite had fled.
The Oreska, he thought bitterly, fingering the ivory vial that hung from a chain around his thin neck. That's where they'd gone, the thieves who'd stolen the Eye from under his very nose.
Mardus had nearly killed him that night in Wolde. Worse yet, he'd threatened to banish him from their quest. If Mardus had entrusted him with the disks in the first place, of course, it would never have happened, but that was a point not worth arguing. Not if he cared to live longer than his next word.
His standing with Mardus had eroded steadily ever since.
Even with the power of the Eye itself to aid him, he'd been unable to exercise sufficient power over the fugitives to stop them. The Aurenfaie had proven infuriatingly resistant to his magicks and when he'd finally succumbed to the dragorgos attack at the inn, the boy, that wretched boy, had outmaneuvered them, spiriting his partner away before Mardus and his men could reach the place.
Still holding the vial between his fingers, Vargul Ashnazai pictured the precious blood-soaked slivers of wood inside, slivers he'd gouged from the floor of the Mycenian inn where his dragorgos had overtaken them.
The talisman he'd made with their blood was a powerful guide, so powerful that he'd almost caught them at Keston. But then they'd slipped on ahead by sea and another's power was growing around them, occluding his own. He'd recognized the resonance of the magic at once. Oreska magic.
And so Mardus and his men had tracked them by methods thoroughly mundane, while he, a necromancer of the Sanctum, rode along like so much useless baggage.
Mardus had been sanguine. They already knew where the thieves were headed, result once again of Mardus' cold-blooded methods rather than his own. One of the river sailors captured after the destruction of the Darter—this, at least, was Vargul's work—had screamed out with his last breath what they'd needed to know.
To be sitting here now, no more than two days ride from the stronghold of his enemies, was maddening.
So close! he thought, closing his fist around the vial.
Mardus saw, and guessed his thoughts. "Why not scry for them again?"
Vargul Ashnazai shifted uncomfortably. "It's been the same for weeks now."
Mardus glanced over at him, much the way any man might look at another who's said something mildly surprising. But Mardus was not just any man.
As his gaze met Ashnazai's, the necromancer felt a stab of fear. It was not madness he saw in his companion's eyes—never that—but something worse, an obdurate purposefulness steeped with the shadow of their god. Mardus might not have magic, but he had power.
He was touched, chosen.
Held in that remorseless gaze, Ashnazai felt the blood slow in his veins. Clasping the vial more tightly, he placed his other hand over his eyes and summoned the image of the thieves.
For a moment he felt the reassuring pulse of his own considerable power. The inner blackness flowed through him to the vial and beyond, using the essence of the blood to seek its source. Ever since the thieves had reached Rhiminee, however, a veil had dropped over them.
Someone had placed a protective spell over them, and the resistance to his magic was fierce and decisive.
This time was no different. The moment he focused his concentration on their location, he was blinded by a searing vision of fire and huge, leathery wings. The message was clear enough: These people are under the protection of the Oreska. You cannot touch them.
Gasping, Ashnazai let go of the vial and pressed both hands to his face.
Ashnazai could tell without looking up that the bastard was smiling.
"Then Urvay's actor is truly a blessing placed in our path. If these two are still under the protection of the Oreska wizards, where better to seek them?"
"I hope you're right, my lord. When I find them, I'll crush their beating hearts in my hands!"
"Vengeance is a dangerous emotion."
Looking up, Vargul Ashnazai saw a familiar blankness pass across his companion's face, the touch of the god.
"You should be grateful to them for leading us to the completion of our quest," Mardus continued softly, staring into the depths of his cup. "This actor and his sorceress are the seal on that. Patience is the key now. Be patient. Our moment will come."
Sleet-laden winds lashed in off the winter sea, racketing through the dark streets of Rhiminee like a huge, angry child. Loose shingles and roof tiles tore free and clattered down into streets and gardens. Bare trees swayed and clashed their branches like dead bones in the night. In the harbor below the citadel, vessels were tossed from their moorings to founder against the mores. In upper and lower city alike, even the brothel keepers put up their shutters early.
Two cloak-wrapped figures slipped from a shadowed courtyard in Blue Fish Street and hurried east to Sheaf Street.
"I can't believe we're out in this to deliver a damn love token," Alec groused, shaking his wet, fair hair from his eyes.
"We've got the Rhiminee Cat's reputation to maintain," Seregil said, shivering beside the boy. The slender Aurenfaie envied Alec his northern-bred tolerance for the cold. "Lord Phyrien paid for the thing to be on the girl's pillow tonight. I've been wanting a peek into her father's dispatch box anyway. Word is he's maneuvering for the Vicegerent's post."
Seregil grinned to himself. For years, the mysterious thief known only as the Rhiminee Cat had assisted the city's upper class in their endless intrigues; all it took to summon him was gold and a discreet note left in the right hands. None had ever guessed that this faceless spy was virtually one of their own, or that the arrangement was as much to his benefit as theirs.
The wind buffeted at them from all sides as they pressed on toward the Noble Quarter. Reaching the fountain colonnade at the head of Golden Helm Street, Seregil ducked inside for a moment's shelter.
"Are you sure you're up to this? How's your back?" he asked as he stooped to drink from the spring at the center of the colonnade.
Less than two weeks had passed since Alec had pulled Princess Klia from the fiery room below the traitor Kassarie's keep. Valerius' malodorous drysian salves had worked their healing magic, but as they'd dressed tonight he'd noticed that the skin across the boy's shoulders was still tender-looking in places. Not that Alec would admit it and risk being sent back, of course.
"I'm fine," Alec insisted as expected. "It's your teeth I hear chattering, not mine." Shaking out his sodden cloak, he tossed one long end over his shoulder. "Come on. We'll be warmer if we keep moving."
Seregil looked with sudden longing toward the entrance to the Street of Lights across the way. "We'd be a hell of a lot warmer in there!"
It had been months since he'd visited any of the elegant pleasure houses. The thought of so many warm, perfumed beds and warm, perfumed bodies made him feel even colder.
Invisible in the shadows, Alec made no reply, but Seregil heard him shifting uncomfortably. The boy's solitary upbringing had left him uncommonly backward in certain matters, even for a Dalnan. Such reticence was unfathomable to Seregil, though out of respect for their friendship he did his best not to tease the boy.
The fashionable avenues of the Noble Quarter were deserted, the great houses and villas dark behind their high garden walls. Ornate street lanterns creaked unlit on their hooks, extinguished by the storm.
The house in Three Maidens Street was a large, sprawling villa surrounded by a high courtyard wall. Alec kept an eye out for bluecoat patrols while Seregil tossed the grapple up and secured the rope. The roar of the storm covered any noise as they scrambled up and over. Leaving the rope in a clump of bushes, Seregil led the way through the gardens.
After a brief search, Alec found a small shuttered window set high in a wall at the back of the house. Climbing onto a water butt, he pried back the shutter with a knife and peered inside.
"Smells like a storeroom," he whispered.
"Go on then. I'm right behind you." Alec went in feet first and disappeared soundlessly inside.
Climbing up, Seregil sniffed the earthy scents of potatoes and apples. Squeezing through, he lowered himself in onto what felt like sacks of onions.
He reached out, finding Alec's shoulder in the darkness, and together they felt their way to a door.
Seregil eased the latch up and peeked out into the cavernous kitchen beyond.
The coals in the hearth gave off enough of a glow to make out two servants asleep on pallets there.
Deep snores sounded from the shadows of a nearby corner. To the right was an open archway. Tapping Alec on the arm, Seregil headed for it on tiptoe.
The arch let onto a servant's passage.
Climbing a narrow staircase, they crept down a succession of hallways in search of Lord Decian's private study. Not finding it, they moved up to the next floor and chanced shielded lightstones.
By this dim light they saw that these nobles left their shoes outside their bedroom door for a servant to collect and clean. Seregil nudged Alec and flipped him the sign for "lucky." The lord of the house had only one daughter; it was a simple matter to find the footgear appropriate for a maiden of fifteen.
A pair of dainty boots stood before a door at the far end of the corridor. A stout pair of shoes next to them warned that the young woman did not sleep alone.
Seregil stifled a grin. Alec was in for more than he'd bargained for, in more ways than one.
Alec lightly fingered the latch, found the door unbarred. The delivery was his task tonight, more training in the ways of the Cat. This sort of job, though hardly as significant as their recent work for Nysander, required a high level of finesse and he was anxious to prove himself.
Sliding his lightstone back into his tool roll, Alec took a deep breath and lifted the latch.
A night lamp burned on a stand beside the bed. The hangings were open and inside he could see a young girl with heavy braids asleep on the side nearest the door, her face turned to the light. Beside her, a larger form, her mother or nurse perhaps, stirred restlessly beneath the thick comforter.
Creeping to the side of the bed, he took out the token, a tiny scroll pushed through a man's golden ring.
Left to his own devices, he'd simply have put it on the lamp stand and been done with it, but Lord Phyrien had been very exact in his instructions. The ring must be left on his sweetheart's pillow.
Bending over the girl, Alec placed the ring as specified. Too late he heard Seregil's sharp intake of breath. The heavy ring immediately rolled down the curve of the pillow and struck the girl on the cheek just beside her mouth.
Startled brown eyes flashed wide. Fortunately for Alec, she saw the ring before she could cry out. Her look of fear changed instantly to one of mute joy as she mistook his muffled form for that of her lover.
"Oh, Phyrien, you are bold!" she breathed, stealing a quick look at the sleeping woman beside her. Grasping Alec's hand, she drew it gently but insistently under the bedclothes.
Alec blushed furiously in the depths of his hood.
Like most Skalans, she slept nude. He didn't dare resist, however. Any kind of struggle would not only seem suspicious, but probably shake the bed enough to awaken its other occupant.
"You're so cold!" she said with a hushed giggle, pulling his hand still lower. "Kiss me, my brave lover. I'll warm you."
Holding his hood in place with his free hand, Alec pressed his lips hastily to hers, then motioned warningly at the other woman. Pouting prettily, the girl released him and tucked the token away beneath her pillow.
With his heart hammering in his ears, Alec extinguished the lamp and hurried back out into the corridor.
"Seregil, I—" he began in a whisper, but his companion cut the apology short, grabbing him by the arm and hustling him off the way they'd come.
Damn, damn, damn!
Alec berated himself. A simple little delivery job and I cock it up.
Braced every moment for an outcry, they hurried down to the kitchen and weaseled back out the storeroom window. Outside, Seregil was still implacably silent. Climbing over the wall, he set off at a run. Alec followed, grimly convinced he was in disgrace.
Three streets from the villa, Seregil suddenly stopped and hauled him into an alleyway, then bent over, hands on knees, as if to catch his breath.
Braced for a scathing lecture, it took Alec a moment to realize that Seregil was laughing.
"Bilairy's Balls, Alec!" he burst out. "I'd give a hundred sesters to have seen the look on your face when that ring rolled away. And when she tried to pull you into bed—" He sagged against the alley wall, shaking with laughter.
"But it was so stupid," Alec groaned. "I should have seen it would slide off."
Seregil wiped his eyes, grinning. "Maybe so, but these things happen. I don't know how many times I've pulled a blunder like that. It's the recovery that counts and you did just fine. "Learn and live," I always say."
Relieved, Alec fell into step beside him as they headed for home. Before they'd gone another block, however, Seregil let out another snort of laughter. Leaning heavily on Alec's shoulder, he moaned in a lilting falsetto, "Kiss me, my brave lover. I'll warm you up!" then staggered away, cackling into the wind.
Perhaps, Alec thought in exasperation, he hadn't heard the last of the matter after all.
Back at Cockerel Inn, they nicked a late snack from Thryis' pantry and crept up the hidden staircase on the second floor. Warding glyphs glowed briefly as Seregil whispered the passwords.
At the top of the stairs, they crossed the chilly attic storeroom to their own door.
The cluttered sitting room was still warm from the evening fire. Tossing his wet cloak over the mermaid statue by the door, Alec shucked off soaked clothing as he crossed to his bed in the corner by the hearth.
Seregil watched with a faint smile. The boy's considerable and, to his way of thinking, unnatural degree of modesty had lessened somewhat over the months of their acquaintance, but Alec still turned away as he stripped off his leather breeches and pulled on a long shirt. At sixteen he was very like Seregil in build: slim, lean, and fair-skinned. Seregil quickly busied himself sorting a pile of correspondence on the table as the boy turned around again.
"We don't have anything in particular planned for tomorrow, do we?" Alec asked, taking a bite from one of the meat pies they'd purloined.
"Nothing pressing," said Seregil, yawning hugely as he went to his chamber door. "And I don't intend to be up before noon. Good night."
With the aid of a lightstone, he navigated past the stacks of books and boxes and other oddments to the broad, velvet-hung bed that dominated the back of the tiny room. Peeling off his wet garments, he slipped between the immaculate sheets with a groan of contentment. Ruetha appeared from some cluttered corner and leapt up with a throaty trill, demanding to be let under the covers.
It had been a busy year overall, he thought, stroking the cat absently. Especially the past few months. Just realizing how long it had been since he'd visited the Street of Lights underscored the general disruption of his life.
Oh well. Winter's here. There'll always be work enough to keep us occupied, but plenty of leisure too for the pleasures of the town. All in all, I'd say we earned a bit of a respite.
Imagining quiet, snowy months stretching out before them, Seregil drifted contentedly off to sleep—only to lurch up sometime soon after from a nightmare of plummeting into darkness, Alec's terrified cry ringing in his ears as they fell down, down, past the walls of Kassarie's keep into the gorge below.
Opening his eyes with a gasp, Seregil was at once relieved and annoyed to find himself slumped naked in one of Nysander's sitting-room armchairs.
There was no need to ask how he'd gotten there; the green nausea of a translocation spell cramped his belly. Pushing his long, dark hair back from his face, he scowled wretchedly up at the wizard.
"Forgive me for bringing you here so abruptly, dear boy," said Nysander, handing him a robe and a steaming mug of tea.
"I assume there's a good reason for this," Seregil muttered, knowing very well that there must be for Nysander to subject him to magic so soon after the shape-changing incident.
"But of course. I tried to bring you earlier, but you two were busy burgling someone." Pouring himself a mug of tea, Nysander settled into his usual chair on the other side of the hearth. "I just looked in for a moment. were you successful?"
"More or less."
Nysander appeared in no hurry to elucidate, but it was obvious he'd been working on something. His short grey beard was smudged with ink near his mouth, and he wore one of the threadbare old robes he favored for his frequent all-night work sessions. Surrounded by the room's magnificent collection of books and oddities, he looked like some down-at-the-heels scholar who'd wandered in by mistake.
"Alec is looking better, I noticed," Nysander remarked.
"He's healing. It's his hair I'm concerned about. I've got to get him presentable in time for the Festival of Sakor."
"Be thankful he came away no worse off then he did. From what Klia and Micum told me, he's lucky to be alive at all. Ah, and before I forget, I have something for the two of you from Klia and the Queen." He handed Seregil two velvet pouches. "A public acknowledgment is impossible, of course, but they wished to express their gratitude nonetheless. That green one there is yours."
Seregil had received such rewards before. Expecting another trinket or bit of jewelry, he opened the little bag. What he found inside reduced him to stunned silence.
It was a ring, a very familiar ring. The great, smooth ruby glowed like wine in its heavy setting of Aurenfaie silver when he held it closer to the fire.
"Illior's Light, Nysander, this is one of the rings I took from Corruth i Glamien's corpse," he gasped, finding his voice at last.
Nysander leaned forward and clasped his hand. "He was your kinsman and Idrilain's, Seregil. She thought it a fitting reward for solving the mystery of his disappearance. She hopes you shall wear it with honor among your own people one day."
"Give her my thanks." Seregil tucked it reverently away in its bag. "But you didn't magick me out of bed just for this?"
Nysander sat back with a chuckle. "No. I have a task which may be of interest to you. However, there are conditions to be set forth before I explain. Agree to abide by them or I shall send you back now with all memory of this meeting expunged."
Seregil blinked in surprise. "It must be some job. Why didn't you bring Alec?"
"I shall come to that presently. I can say nothing until you agree to the conditions."
"Fine. I agree. What are they?"
"First, you may ask no question unbidden."
"Oh, all right. What else?"
"Second, you must work in absolute secrecy. No one is to know of this, particularly not Alec or Micum. Will you give me your oath on it?"
Seregil regarded him in silence for a moment; keeping secrets from Alec was no easy business these days. Still, how could something so shrouded in mystery fail to be interesting? "All right. You have my word."
"Your oath," Nysander insisted somberly.
Shaking his head, Seregil held out his left hand, palm up, before him. "Asurit betweenuth dos Aura Elustri kamar sosui Seregil i Korit Solun Meringil Bokthersa. And by my honor as a Watcher, I swear also. Is that sufficient?"
"You know I would never impose such conditions on you without good reason," the wizard chided.
"Still, it seems to be happening quite a lot these days," Seregil retorted sourly. "Now can I ask questions?"
"I will answer what I can."
"Why is it so crucial for Alec and Micum not to know?"
"Because if you let slip the slightest detail of what I am about to tell you, I shall have to kill all of you."
Though spoken calmly, Nysander's words jolted him like a kick in the throat; he'd known the wizard too long to mistake his absolute sincerity. For an instant, Seregil felt as if he were looking into the face of a stranger. Then suddenly, everything fell into place as neatly as a three-tumbler lock. He sat forward, slopping hot tea over his knees in his excitement.
"It's to do with this, isn't it?" he exclaimed, tapping his chest. There, beneath Nysander's obscuring magic, lay the branded imprint of the wooden disk he'd stolen from Duke Mardus at Wolde—the same strange, deceptively crude disk that had nearly taken his life. "You went white the night I told you about showing a drawing of it to the Illioran Oracle. I thought you were going to fall over."
"Perhaps now you understand my distress," Nysander replied grimly.
They'd never spoken of that conversation, but the dread Seregil had felt then returned now in full force. "Bilairy's Balls! You'd have done it, too."
Nysander sighed heavily. "I would never have forgiven myself, I assure you, but I would also have been furious with you for forcing me into such an act. Do you recall what I said to you then?"
"To pray I never found out what that disk really is?"
"Precisely. And to undertake this task, you must continue to accept that as my answer on the subject."
Seregil slouched glumly in his chair. "Same old answer, eh? And what if I say no to all this? That if you don't tell me the whole story I want no part of it?"
Nysander shrugged. "Then as I said before, I shall remove all memory of this conversation from your mind and send you home. There are certainly others who could aid me."
"Like Thero, I suppose?" Seregil snapped before he could stop himself.
"Does he know the Great Secret?" The old jealousy gripped Seregil's heart. The last thing he wanted to hear was that the young assistant wizard knew more of this than he did.
"He knows less than you," Nysander replied, exasperated. "Now do you want the task or not?"
Seregil let out a frustrated growl. "All right, then. What's this all about?"
Nysander pulled a sheet of vellum from his sleeve and handed it to him. "To begin with, tell me what you make of this."
"Looks like a page from a book." The vellum was darkened with age or weather. Seregil rubbed a corner of it between his fingers and sniffed it, then examined the writing itself. "It's old, four or five centuries at least. Poorly kept at first, though later carefully preserved. And the vellum is human or Aurenfaie skin, rather than kid." He paused again, examining the stitching holes on the left edge. "These are still intact, showing that it was carefully removed from a book, rather than torn. It was already damaged by dampness, though. Judging by the color I'd say the page was steeped in poison after that, but that's obviously been neutralized or we wouldn't be handling it."
Oblivious now to everything but the task at hand, Seregil tugged absently at a strand of hair.
"Let's see. The writing is Asuit Old Style and it's written in that language, which originated with the hill people north of Plenimar. From that we can infer that our author was either from that region or a scholar of languages."
"As you are, dear boy. I assume you can read it?"
"Hmm—yes. Looks like the ravings of a mad prophet. Very poetic, though. "Watch with me, beloved, as demons strip the fruit from the vine." Then something about horses—and "The golden flame is married with darkness. The Beautiful One steps forth to caress the bones of the house " No, that's not right. It's "the bones of the world.""
Moving to the table, he pulled a lamp closer.
"Yes. I thought it was just a few errors with the accent marks, but it isn't. There's a cipher here."
Nysander passed him a wax writing tablet and a stylus. "Care to try it?"
Scanning back through the document, Seregil found sixteen words with misplaced accents. Listing only the wrongly accented letters, he came up with twenty-nine.
Frowning, he tapped the stylus against his chin, "This is a bitch of a thing."
"More difficult than you know," said Nysander. "It took my master Arkoniel and myself over a year to discover the key. Mind you, we were working on other things at the time."
Seregil tossed aside the stylus with a groan.
"You mean to tell me you've broken this already?"
"Oh, yes. That is not the task, you see. But I knew that you would prefer to work with the original and draw your own conclusions."
"So how does it work?"
Joining him at the table, Nysander turned the wax tablet over and began to write rapidly. "To begin with, the accented letters come out to nonsense, a fact it took a discouragingly long time to discover. The key is a combination of syllabification and case. As you know, Old Asuit is an inflected language with five cases. However, only three-the nominative, dative, and genitive—are used for the cipher. For instance, look at the words making up the phrase 'of the world."»
Seregil nodded thoughtfully, muttering to himself, "Yes, it was that misplaced accent that threw me. It should be over the second vowel of the last syllable, not the first."
"Correct. As 'world' is in the genitive case and the misplaced accent appears in the antepenultimate syllable, you use the last letter of that word. If it occurs in the same case but on the second, or penultimate, syllable, then you use the first."
Seregil looked up and grinned. "I didn't know you were such an accomplished grammarian."
Nysander allowed himself a pleased wink. "One learns a thing or two over the centuries. It is truly an exquisite system, and one fairly secure from inadvertent detection. In the nominative case, an erroneous accent over the antepenult indicates that you take the last letter of the word immediately following the one wrongly accented, and so forth. In the dative case only the accents over the penult have any significance. The upshot of it all is that you come out with just fifteen letters. Properly arranged—keep your eyes on the writing now—properly arranged they spell out 'argucth chthon hrig.""
"Sounds like you're getting ready to spit—" Seregil began, but the words died in his throat as the writing on the page swirled into motion. After a few seconds it disappeared entirely, leaving in its place a circular design resembling an eight-pointed star that covered most of the page.
"A magical palimpsest!" he gasped.
"Precisely. But look more closely."
Tilting the vellum closer to the lamp, Seregil let out a low whistle; the entire design was made up of the finest calligraphic writing. "Our mad prophet must have written this with a hummingbird's quill."
"Can you read it?"
"I don't know. It's so cramped. The script is Konic, used by the court scribes in the time of the early Hierophants, but the language is different, as if the writer wanted to approximate the sounds of one language with the alphabet of another. Yes, that's exactly what he was doing, the clever old bastard. So, attacking it phonetically—"
Muttering under his breath, Seregil slowly worked his way through the tangled writing. Half an hour later he looked up with a triumphant grin. "Pure Dravnian! Nysander, it's got to be Dravnian."
"The Dravnians are a tribal people scattered through the glacial valleys of the Ashek Range, north of Aurenen. I haven't been up there since I was a boy, but I've studied the language. Great ones for sagas and legends, those Dravnians. They have no writing themselves, but this captures the sound of it. This fellow was certainly a student of obscure tongues. Once you untangle all this mess, it's just the same few words written over and over again to form the design. Written in blood, too, by the way and probably his own if he was loony enough to create something like this."
"Perhaps," Nysander broke in. "But can you make out what it says?"
Seregil glanced up at him, then let out a crow of triumph. "Ah ha! So that's what this is all about. You can't read it!"
Nysander affected a pained look. "I would remind you of the oaths you have given—"
Seregil held up a hand, grinning smugly. "I know, I know. But after all your restrictions and secrecy, I think I've earned the right to gloat a little. All it says is, "Stone within ice within stone within ice. Horns of crystal beneath horns of stone." Or vice versa. There's no way of telling which is meant to be the first line. Why he would go to such extremes to hide anything as obscure as this is beyond me, though."
"Not at all, not at all!" Nysander clapped Seregil on the shoulder, then began pacing excitedly. "The palimpsest begins in Asuit Old Style, an archaic language of Plenimar, which predates the Hierophantic settlements. The seemingly meaningless hidden phrase "argucth chthon hrig" operates as the key word to the hidden writing. This, in turn, is composed in the alphabet of the Hierophantic court, based at that period on the island of Kouros, yet in the language of an obscure tribe of the southern mountains across the Osiat Sea near Aurenen. I had reason to suspect as much but you, dear boy, have provided the final clues. What an amazing document!"
Seregil, meanwhile, had been doing some further pondering of his own. "The Dravnian tribes keep to the highest valleys of the Ashek Range, building their villages along the edges of the ice fields. "Stone within ice within stone within ice." And the horns of stone part reminds me of a story the mountain traders used to tell, something about a place up there where demons dance across the snow to drink the blood of the living. It was called the Horned Valley."
Nysander halted in front of Seregil, grinning broadly. "You have a mind like a magpie's nest, dear boy! I never know what odd bit of treasure will tumble from it next."
"If the Homed Valley really exists, then all this" — Seregil tapped the stained vellum—"it's not just some convoluted riddle. It's a map."
"And perhaps not the only one," said Nysander. "According to recent intelligence from Plenimar, several expeditionary forces have been dispatched west toward the Strait of Bal. We could not imagine what they were up to, but the Ashek peninsula lies in that direction."
"At this time of year?" Seregil shook his head.
Crossing the Bal meant making for the southern rim of the Osiat Sea, a place of dangerous shoals and forbidding coastlines in the best of weather. In the winter it would be worse than treacherous. "So whatever this "stone within ice" thing is, the Plenimarans want it pretty badly. And I take it you don't mean for them to get it?"
"I hope that you will assist me in forestalling that event."
"Well, it would certainly help to know what I'm looking for. If it wouldn't mean revealing too many sacred mysteries, that is."
"It is rumored to be a crown or circlet of some sort," Nysander told him. "More importantly, it possesses powers similar to those of the coin, which you have already experienced."
Seregil grimaced at the memory. "Then I'll be certain not to wear it this time. But if your information is correct, haven't the Plenimarans stolen a march on us?"
"Perhaps not. The fact that they sent several expeditions suggests that they do not know the object's precise location. We, on the other hand, may have just determined that. And I am able to transport you there in a much swifter fashion."
Seregil blanched. "Oh, no! You can't—translocation from here to the Asheks? Nysander, I'll be puking for hours."
"I am sorry, but this matter is too important to chance anything else. Which brings us to the matter of Alec. Will he be difficult about being left behind?"
Seregil raked a hand through his hair. "I'll manage something. When do I leave?"
"By midday if you can manage it."
"I think so. What will I need, besides the obvious?"
"How would you fancy playing an Aurenfaie wizard?"
Seregil gave him a wry look. "Sounds fun, so long as we aren't relying on my magical abilities."
"Oh my, no," Nysander said with a laugh. "I shall provide you with items necessary to give credence to the role, and those for the task itself." He paused and clasped the younger man by the shoulders. "I knew you would not fail me, Seregil."
Seregil raised an eyebrow wryly at the wizard. "Bet now you're glad you didn't kill me, eh? What's the hour?"
"Nearly sunup, I should think. Regrettably, I must send you back the same way you came."
"Twice in one night? Just be sure you drop me handy to a basin!"
Alec woke to the sound of sleet lashing across the roof. Ruetha had burrowed under the covers sometime in the night. He stroked the thick white ruff under her chin and the cat broke into a loud purr.
"What are you doing here?" he asked sleepily.
Sitting up, he saw Seregil's battered old pack sitting ready outside the bedroom door.
Seregil's sword belt was draped over it, the newly mended quillon shining in the milky morning light.
Alec eyed the tidy pile with rising suspicion; Seregil had obviously been up for some time, making preparations for a journey. And he hadn't bothered to wake him.
"Seregil?" Poking his head around his friend's door,
Alec found the normally cluttered little room utterly impassable.
"Morning!" Seregil called cheerily from somewhere beyond an overturned chest.
"What's going on? Have you been up all night?"
"Not all night." Seregil waded free of the mess with an armload of heavy sheepskin clothing and dumped it by the pack. "I found this," he said, handing Alec a dusty sack containing half a dozen complex locks. Some were still attached to splintered fragments of wood.
"Thought you might like to have a go at these, since you've mastered most of the others on the workbench. Be careful, though. Some of them bite."
Alec set the bag aside without comment and leaned against the door frame. Seregil was dressed for traveling and still hadn't told him to start packing.
"What's going on?" he asked, watching as Seregil wrestled a pair of long snowshoes out of a wardrobe. "Where are you going to find snow in this weather?"
"Give me a minute, will you?" said Seregil, checking the rawhide webbing. "I've got a few more things to find, then I'll explain what I can."
Alec let out a sigh and went to the window over the workbench. The panes rattled as a fresh gust of wind buffeted the inn. Outside he could see Thryis' son Diomis hurrying across the back court. Curtains of icy rain rippled past, obscuring all but the closest buildings. Behind him, he could hear Seregil still rummaging about.
Fighting down his rising impatience, he pulled on a pair of breeches and set about lighting the fire.
The coals had died in the night. He heaped tinder and kindling on the ashes and shook out a firechip from the jar by the hearth. Flames leapt up and he stared into them, trying to marshal his racing thoughts.
"You know, from the back your head looks like a disheveled hedgehog," Seregil remarked, emerging at last. Ruffling Alec's ragged hair, he dropped into his favorite chair by the fire.
Alec was not amused. "You're going off alone, aren't you?"
"Just for a few days."
There was a guardedness in Seregil's tone that Alec didn't like. "On a job, you mean?"
"I can't say, actually."
Alec studied his friend's face. On closer inspection, he noticed that Seregil looked rather pale. "Is this because of last night? You said—"
"No, of course not. This is something I can't speak of to anyone."
"Why not?" the boy demanded, stubborn curiosity mingling with disappointment.
Seregil spread his hands apologetically. "It's nothing to do with you, believe me. And don't bother pressing."
"This is something for Nysander, isn't it?"
Seregil regarded him impassively. "I need your word you won't track me when I go."
Alec considered further objections, then nodded glumly. "When will you be back?"
"In a few days, I hope. You'll have to do that papers job for Baron Orante, and anything else coming in that looks like a one man job. There's Mourning Night to think about, too, if I'm not back in time."
"Not back in time?" Alec sputtered. "That's only a week away, and you're holding a party at Wheel Street that night!"
"We are holding a party," Seregil corrected.
"Don't worry. Runcer sees to all the arrangements, and Micum and his family will be here by then, too. You'll just have to play host. Remember Lady Kylith, the woman you danced with our first night there?"
"We're sitting with her at the Mourning Night ceremony."
"Right. She'll see to your etiquette."
"People are bound to ask about you, though."
"As far as anyone knows, Lord Seregil is still away recovering from the shock of his arrest. Tell anyone who asks that I was delayed. Cheer up, Alec. Chances are I'll be back in plenty of time."
"This secret job of yours—is it dangerous?"
Seregil shrugged. "What do we do that isn't? The truth is, I won't know much myself until I'm in the middle of it."
"When are you leaving?"
"As soon as I've had something to eat. Get dressed now and we'll have our breakfast downstairs."
Alec smelled freshly baked bread as they crossed the lading room to the kitchen.
The breakfast uproar was over. A scullery boy was scrubbing down the scarred worktables while Cilia bathed Luthas in a pan. Old Thryis sat peeling turnips by the hearth, a shawl draped over her shoulders against the damp.
"Well, there you are at last," the old woman greeted them, though she seldom saw Seregil before noon. "There's tea on the hob and new current buns under that cloth there. Cilia made them fresh this morning."
"And how's this lad today?" Seregil smiled, holding a forefinger out to the baby. Luthas immediately grabbed it and pulled it into his mouth.
"Oh, he's feisty," replied Cilia, looking rather dark under the eyes. "He's got a tooth coming and it wakes us all night."
Alec shook his head. One minute Seregil was speaking of mysterious journeys, the next here he was playing uncle to the baby like he hadn't a care in the world.
Not that his affection for Luthas wasn't genuine.
He'd told Alec how Cilia had offered him the honor of fathering her child when she'd made up her mind to avoid conscription. Seregil had politely declined. While his interest in women seemed marginal at best, Alec suspected the real reason for Seregil's reticence was that it would have cost him his friendship with her grandmother. Thryis had been a sergeant in the Queen's Archers in her youth and despaired that neither her son nor granddaughter had followed a military career before settling down.
Cilia had never revealed who the child's father was, but the man must have been dark. She was fair, while her son's eyes and hair were as brown as a mink's.
Going to the hearth, Alec leaned down next to Thryis and reached for the teapot warming by the fire.
"You're looking down in the mouth today," Thryis observed shrewdly. "Going off without you, is he?"
"He told you?"
The old woman gave a derisive snort "He didn't have to," she scoffed, deftly quartering a turnip and pitching it into a kettle beside her. "There he is in his old rambling boots, chipper as a sparrow. And you here with the long face and still in your shirtsleeves? Don't take no wizard to figure that one."
Alec shrugged. Thryis had run the Cockerel since Seregil secretly bought it twenty years before. She—together with her family and Rhiri, the mute ostler—were among the select few who knew anything of Seregil's double life.
"Now, don't go fretting yourself over it," she whispered. "Master Seregil thinks the world of you, and no mistake. There's none he speaks so well of 'cept Micum Cavish, and those two have been friends for years and years. Besides, it'll give you and me a chance to talk shooting again, eh? There's still a trick or two I haven't shared and that fine black bow of yours shouldn't be gathering dust."
"I guess not." Alec gave her a quick peck on the cheek and went to sit across from Seregil at the breakfast table.
Studying his friend's face as Seregil joked with Cilia over breakfast, Alec felt certain he saw small lines of tension around his eyes. Whatever this secret job was, there was more to it than he was letting on.
There was no use asking further about it, though.
Upstairs in their room again, Seregil finished with his scant collection of gear and clapped a battered hat on his head.
"Well, take care of yourself," he said, "especially on that job for the baron. I don't want to find you in the Red Tower when I return."
"You won't. Want help getting all that down?"
"No need." Shouldering his pack, Seregil clasped hands with him. "Luck in the shadows, Alec."
And with the flash of a crooked grin, he was gone.
Alec listened to his footsteps fading rapidly away. "And to you."
Seregil paused in the kitchen on his way out.
Pulling up a stool beside Thryis, he slipped her a flat, sealed packet.
"I'm leaving this with you. I've got to go off for a few days. If I don't come back, this should take care of Alec and the rest of you."
Frowning, Thryis fingered the wax seals. "A will, is it? No wonder young Alec was looking so dark."
"He doesn't know, and I'd like to keep it that way."
"You've never left a will before."
"It's just in case I meet with an accident or something." Shouldering his pack, he headed for the door.
"Or something!" The old woman's mouth pursed into a skeptical line. "Mind that a 'something' don't jump up and bite you on the arse when you're not looking."
"I'll do my best to avoid it."
Outside, the sleet had turned to rain. Pulling the hood of his patched cloak up over his hat, he dashed across the slick cobbles to the stable where Rhiri had his new mare saddled and ready. Tossing the fellow a gold half sester, Seregil swung up into the saddle and set off at a gallop for the Oreska House.
It was midafternoon before Nysander completed his preparations for the translocation. "Are you ready, Seregil?" he asked at last, looking up from the elaborate pattern chalked on the casting-room floor.
"As ready as I'm likely to be," Seregil said, sweating in his heavy sheepskins. He carried his pack, snowshoes, and pole to the center of the design and piled them on the floor.
"These should establish your reputation as a wizard."
Nysander held up a half-dozen short willow rods covered with painted symbols. "When broken, each will produce a different gift for your hosts. But you must be certain to keep this long one with the red band separate from the rest. It contains the translocation spell that will carry you back."
Seregil tucked the red wand carefully away in a belt pouch, then slipped the others inside the white Aurenfaie tunic he wore beneath his heavy coat.
"These are the most crucial items, however," the wizard continued, stepping to a nearby table. On it sat a wooden box two feet square and fitted with a leather shoulder strap and a strong catch. It was lined with sheets of silver engraved with magical symbols and contained two flasks wrapped in fleece.
Seregil frowned. "What if this crown or whatever it is that I'm after is too big to fit inside?"
"Do the best you can and return to me at once."
Seregil lifted the flasks. They were heavy, and the wax seals covering the corks were also inscribed with more symbols. "And these?"
"Pour the contents around the crown and inscribe the signs of the Four within the circle. It should weaken any wards protecting it."
A nasty twinge of uncertainty shot through Seregil's innards. "Should?"
Nysander wrapped the flasks carefully in the fleece and shut them in the box. "You survived the magic of the disk with no assistance. This should be sufficient."
"Ah, I see." Seregil glanced doubtfully at his old friend. "You believe the same inner flaw that kept me from becoming a wizard protects me from magic as well."
"It seems to be the case. I only wish it did not cause you such distress with translocations. Considering the distance involved in—"
"Let's just get it over with." Seregil gathered his gear in his arms as best he could. "The Asheks are far enough west that I should have a few hours of light left, but I'd rather not press my luck."
"Very well. I have done a sighting and should be able to send you to within a few miles of a village. It will be safest to drop you on the glacier itself, rather than risk hitting the rocky outcroppings along the edge."
"That's very comforting. Thanks so much!"
Ignoring the sarcasm, Nysander placed his fingertips together in front of his face and began the incantation.
After a moment a particle of darkness winked into being within the cage of his fingers. Spreading his hands slowly, he coaxed it larger until it spun like a dark mirror in front of them.
Seregil stared into it for a moment, already queasy.
Tightening his grip on his snowshoes, he took a resolute breath, closed his eyes, and stepped forward.
The whirling blast of vertigo was worse than he'd feared. For most people, a translocation was as simple as stepping from one room to another. To Seregil, however, it was like being sucked down in some vile black whirlpool.
It seemed to go on endlessly this time, buffeting him with darkness. Then, just as suddenly, he tumbled out into frigid brightness and sank up to his hips in drifted snow.
Stuck fast, he bent forward and spewed out his scant breakfast. When the spasms were over, he struggled free and crawled away from the steaming mess.
Collapsing on his back, one arm over his eyes, he lay very still as the world spun sickeningly. The wind sighed over him, blowing fine ice crystals across his lips. Rolling onto his belly, he retched again, then cleaned his mouth with a handful of snow.
At least Nysander can aim, he thought, looking around.
The glacier hung in a steep valley. At its head a few miles away a pair of high peaks towered above the rest, marking a narrow pass and giving the valley the name Seregil had remembered.
Slanting sunlight reflected back from the white expanse before him, bright enough to make his eyes water.
Frozen waves, wind scoured out of the hardpack, thrust glistening up through the fresh powder to cast shadows as blue as the sky overhead.
Seregil's heavy outer garments kept the worst of the biting cold at bay, but his nose and cheekbones were already numb. His breath condensed with every exhalation, freezing in a glistening rime on the fur edging of his cap. Untangling the snowshoes, he checked them for damage and quickly strapped them to his boots.
His thick gloves were cumbersome, but it would be courting frostbite to remove them even briefly.
With firmer footing on the snow now, he set out for a nearby rise to get his bearings. Anyone backtracking his trail would discover that he had more or less fallen from the sky, but that couldn't be helped; he was, after all, supposed to be a wizard.
From the top of the rise he spotted thin columns of smoke marking a village a few miles away on the western slope. Farther down the valley he could just make out a second village. The first was closer to the "horns of stone," so he headed west.
He was still nauseated and the thin, frigid air cut at his lungs, making dark spots dance in front of his eyes. Setting himself a steady pace, he marched along until he struck a trail leading toward the village. He was within half a mile of it when a pack of children and dogs appeared, running out to meet him.
Seregil paused, leaning on his snow pole with a grin of relief. Dravnian hospitality was legendary among those few who knew of it. Members of a neighboring village were greeted as family, which they often were. Anyone from beyond the limiting peaks was regarded as a veritable marvel. Goats were probably already being slaughtered in his honor.
"May I visit your village?" he asked in Dravnian as the children crowded excitedly around him.
Laughing, they shouldered his baggage and led him in.
Dogs barked, goats and sheep bleated from their stone enclosures. Villagers hailed him like some returning hero.
The little settlement was made up of a collection of squat towers, round two-story affairs of piled stone topped with conical felt roofs. The main doors were set high in the upper level and reached by a ramp when the snow was not piled up to the doorsill.
At the center of the village stood a tower broader than the rest. A sizable crowd had already collected outside, hoping for a look at the newcomer.
The Dravnians were a short, broad-set people with black, almond-shaped eyes and coarse, dark hair that they wore slicked back with liberal applications of oil. A few among them, however, had lighter hair or finer features that spoke of mixed blood—probably Aurenfaie, since few others found their way to these remote valleys.
The headman of the village was one of these half castes. As he stepped forward, smiling broadly, Seregil saw that the man's eyes were the same clear grey as his own.
"Welcome in this place, Fair One," the fellow greeted him in a patois of broken Aurenfaie and Dravnian. "I am Retak, son of Wigris and Akra, leader of this village."
"I am Meringil, son of Solun and Nycanthi," Seregil answered in Dravnian.
Grinning, Retak lapsed back into his native tongue. "We've not seen one of your tribe since my grandfather's time. You honor our village with your presence. Will you feast with us in the council house?"
"You honor me," Seregil replied, bowing as gracefully as his thick clothing allowed.
The upper level of the council house, used as a communal storehouse, was floored over except for the large central smoke hole. Rough stone steps led down to the lower chamber, where a huge fire of dried dung chips had already been kindled in a fire pit surrounded by thick carpets and bolsters. Women bustled excitedly around a cooking fire across the room, preparing the ritual meal.
Seated at the central fire with Retak and the other principal men of the village, Seregil closed his eyes for a moment as his belly did a slow, uneasy roll. The smell of slaughtered animals, mingled with the more immediate aromas of unwashed bodies and greased hair, was overpowering after the clear mountain wind.
Every available inch seemed to have been filled by curious villagers. People talked excitedly on all sides, leaning across their neighbors to shout to someone else or calling down from above for details. Children ringed the smoke hole overhead, chattering like swallows. The women labored with noisy cheer, wielding cleavers and clattering skewers and bowls.
Seregil felt all eyes on him as he stripped off his heavy outer garments. Posing as a traveler from his native Aurenen, Seregil had worn traditional garb. His long white tunic and close-fitting trousers were comfortable and unadorned except for thin bands of patterned weaving at the hem and neck. To complete the effect, he pulled a loosely woven head cloth from inside his tunic and wrapped its many folds about his head with practiced skill, leaving long ends hanging down his back. A small, ornate dagger hung at his belt, but he laid it and his sword aside as a gesture of good faith.
An excited hum went around the room as he reclined at last and accepted a bowl of llaki from Seune, the headman's wife. He sipped the fermented milk as sparingly as good manners allowed.
His duty as guest was to repay hospitality with news and he slowly related such events from the south as might be of interest to them. Most of it was thirty years out-of-date, mixed in with snippets he'd picked up since his banishment, but it was all fresh to the Dravnians and very well received.
When he'd finished, the traditional storytelling commenced. Great lovers of tales that they were, the Dravnians had no system of writing. Each family had its own special stock of stories that only members of that clan could relate. Other tales were general property and were demanded of those who told them best. The children frequently chimed in with familiar lines and the women were called upon for the proper songs.
Seregil joined in with tales of his own and was quickly hailed as a biruk, "one who remembers many stories" — highest praise in such company. By the time a gigantic platter of roasted goat was set before them, he'd begun to enjoy himself.
Roasted shanks, haunches, and ribs lay arranged on the communal platter in a great ring surrounding cooked entrails, sweetbreads, and boiled goat's heads. When the guest and council had eaten their fill, the platter would pass on to the secondary guests, and after them the children and dogs. Seregil was served by Seune and her eldest daughters.
The two girls knelt on his right, holding out slabs of dark bread that their mother loaded with choice bits-of meat. Nodding polite acceptance, Seregil picked up a chunk of meat and bit into it, signaling his hosts to begin.
The tough, savory meat settled the last of his queasiness and when the meal was over he made a great show of presenting gifts to Retak and his village.
Motioning for the others to clear a space in front of him, Seregil secretly palmed one of Nysander's painted wands from his sleeve and snapped it between his fingers while making elaborate motions with his other hand. Several bushels of fruit appeared instantly out of thin air before his delighted audience.
The baskets passed from hand to hand and up to the crowd overhead as the people exclaimed over their good fortune.
Smiling, Seregil drew another wand, which produced a casket of silver coins. The Dravnians had no use for currency, but were pleased by the glint of the metal and the fineness of the designs. Subsequent conjurings brought bolts of bright silk and linen, bronze needles, coils of rope, and bundles of healing herbs.
"You are a Fair One of great magic and generosity, Meringil, son of Solun and Nycanthi, and a true biruk," Retak proclaimed, clapping Seregil on the shoulder. "You shall be known as a member of my clan from this day. What can we offer you in return?"
"It is I who am honored by your excellent hospitality. My gifts are given in thanks for that alone," Seregil replied graciously. "Though there is a matter in which you may be able to assist me."
Retak motioned for the others to pay attention. "What has brought you so far to our valley?"
"I've come seeking a place of magic spoken of in certain legends. Do you know of such a place?"
The reaction was instantaneous. The elders exchanged hesitant looks. A woman dropped a spit with a clatter. Overhead the children left off exclaiming over their new treasures and leaned farther over the hole to listen.
Retak motioned with his staff and an ancient little man wearing a coat decorated with sheep's teeth shuffled forward. In the firelight he looked like an ancient tortoise, with a tortoise's leathery, slow-blinking gaze. Kneeling slowly before Seregil, he held up a bone rattle in one tremulous hand and shook it in a wide circle before speaking.
"I am Timan, son of Rogher and Borune," he said at last. "And I tell you that there is such a place in this valley. It has been the duty of my clan to watch over it since the time of the spirit's anger. It is a spirit home, deep in the rock beneath the ice. How it came there no man knows. Sometimes the door is there and sometimes it is not there, according to the will of the spirit."
"And this spirit has grown angry?" asked Seregil.
Timan nodded, shaking the rattle softly in time to his words. It was more of a chant than a story, as if he'd told it many times before, and in exactly the same words.
"The spirit made a chamber for men to dream in. Some had visions. Some did not. Some heard the voice of the spirit. Some did not. All was with the will of the spirit. When the spirit chose to speak, those who heard were called blessed, bringers of great luck to their clan. But many generations ago the spirit grew angry. Men came out maddened. They did deeds of terrible evil. Others never returned and no trace of them could be found. A man of my clan was the first to go mad, and so it has been the burden of my clan to guard the spirit home since that time."
He stopped, wrinkled mouth moving in silence, as if he'd run out of sound.
"Why do you seek this place?" Retak asked.
Seregil stared into the fire for a moment, quickly weaving this new information into a usable form. "I'd heard legends of this place and was curious to see if they were true. You know that the Aurenfaie are people of great magic. I have shown you my powers already. If you will show me this sacred place, I will speak with your spirit and find out why it's so angry. Perhaps I can even make peace between you again."
A murmur of approbation went around the cramped room.
Old Timan laid his rattle at Seregil's feet. "This would be a great feat indeed. Many times I have tried to placate the spirit, but it has been silent to me, or driven me out with terrible noises in my head. Truly, can you do such a thing?"
"I'll try," Seregil replied. "Bring me to the spirit chamber at first light tomorrow and I'll speak to your spirit."
The murmur changed to a roar of acclaim.
"The guest sleeps in my house this night," Retak announced proudly, ending the feast. "The mountain nights are harsh for your kind, Meringil, but I have many healthy daughters to keep you warm,"
Overhead the children shouted with delight as the older girls craned for a better look at Seregil.
Seregil blinked, "What?"
"To get a round belly from a guest gives a young woman highest status," Retak explained happily. "New blood brings new strength to the whole village. My own grandfather was a light-eyed Aurenfaie, as you can see. But not a great magician like you! Tomorrow Ekrid's clan will offer you hospitality, and then Ilgrid's and—"
"Ah, of course." Seregil looked around to find mothers reckoning on their fingers their place in the hierarchy. Clearly, there were a few Dravnian guesting customs he'd forgotten about.
Ah, Nysander, he groaned inwardly, scanning the gaggle of moonfaced maidens, reading clearly enough the greedy gleam behind their modest smiles.
This had damn well better be the right valley!
Alec lowered himself from the villa window, then whirled in alarm as a menacing snarl erupted on his right.
There'd been no sign of a dog when he'd first climbed into the baron's courtyard, but there was sure as hell one here now.
What he could see of it in the darkness was big, and the rising timbre of the growl was enough for him to imagine the beast closing in on him, ears laid back, teeth bared.
It was too far to the courtyard wall for a dash.
Racking his memory for the thief's charm Seregil had shown him, he raised his left fist with index and little fingers extended. Snapping his hand to point the little finger down, he whispered hoarsely, "Peace, friend hound."
The growling ceased at once. A cold nose thrust briefly against his palm, then he heard the dog padding away.
It had never occurred to Alec to ask how long the charm lasted. Taking no chances, he ran for the wall.
The top was studded with shards of glass and crockery set in mortar; in his haste he reached carelessly and caught his left hand on one of the jagged points, gashing the palm just above the wrist. Pain bloomed through his hand as a warm trickle oozed down into his sleeve. Hissing softly through his teeth, he slid down the far side and headed for home.
His route took him by Wheel Street and he halted a moment at the corner, holding his torn hand to his chest. It would only take a moment to duck in there, and he knew where Seregil kept bandages and salve.
The growing throb in his hand decided him.
Letting himself in the front door, he took out a lightstone and whistled softly to the dogs, making himself known. A huge white shape materialized at once. Marag padded out of the dining room, wagging a greeting as he sniffed Alec's hand. His mate would be on patrol in the back court. Accompanied by the hound, Alec walked through the main hall to the kitchen.
The supplies he wanted were on the shelf by the door. Carrying the rags and salve pot to the table, he set his lightstone by them and examined the gash. It was jagged and sore, but no major veins or tendons seemed to be damaged.
"This must be my unlucky hand," he muttered, rubbing his thumb over the shiny circular scar left by the cursed disk they'd stolen from Mardus. They'd both been branded by it—Seregil on his chest where it had hung, Alec on the palm of the hand as he'd grasped it during their strange struggle at the inn.
He bandaged the cut as best he could one-handed, then sat back and stroked Marag's silky head. The thought of his own bedchamber upstairs was tempting. He was cold and tired and suddenly Blue Fish Street felt very far away. But there was always the complication of appearances; Sir Alec and Lord Seregil were not expected to arrive for several more days and it wouldn't do to have untoward signs of occupation just yet. With a resigned shrug, he cleared away the evidence of his visit and set out through the dark, cold streets.
Within a block of Wheel Street he suddenly sensed pursuit. Stealth was difficult on the icy streets and whoever it was shadowing him was making a poor job of concealing their movements. When Alec slowed, they came on. When he increased his pace, so did they. It was too dark to see, but he could hear more than one set of feet. One of them had metal nails on the soles of his boots; in the silence of the street,
Alec could hear them scraping against the cobbles.
There was no question of returning to the house. Even if he could get back past his pursuers, he couldn't risk leading them there.
Ahead of him, a street lantern burned at the intersection of Wheel and Golden Helm. A right turn would bring him to the Astellus Circle and the Street of the Sheaf. There was a chance of meeting with a Watch patrol there, but he couldn't be sure of it.
A left turn would take him toward Silvermoon Street and the Palace.
At the corner he deliberately walked through the pool of light and swung sharply to the right. Once beyond it, he doubled quickly back toward Silvermoon.
His pursuers caught the trick, however, and charged after him, their boots clattering on the paving stones.
There was nothing left to do but run. Abandoning any attempt at stealth, Alec pelted down the center of the broad boulevard, cloak flapping behind him.
High garden walls presented an unbroken barrier on either side, blocking any hope of a quick sidestep. The pounding of his feet and those closing in on him echoed like the clatter of dice in a cup.
Tearing his cloak strings loose, Alec let it fall away behind him. A muffled curse rang out an instant later, and the sound of a man falling heavily.
Dashing past another lantern, he glanced back to see two swordsmen no more than twenty yards behind.
He veered into Silvermoon Street and saw the wall surrounding the palace grounds looming on his right. As he'd hoped, a watch fire burned in front of one of the postern gates. He dashed toward it, lungs bursting.
A cluster of soldiers of the Queen's household guard were huddled around the brazier. At the sound of Alec's approach, four came forward with swords drawn.
"Help!" gasped Alec, praying they didn't attack as he barreled into their midst.
"Footpads—chasing me—back there!"
Two men grasped him by the arms, half restraining, half supporting him as he skidded to a halt. "Steady, lad, steady there," said one.
"I don't see anyone," growled another, squinting in the direction Alec had come from.
Looking back, Alec saw no sign of his mysterious pursuers.
The first guard ran a skeptical eye over his fine coat and sword. "Footpads, eh? More likely an angry father or husband at this hour. Been up to mischief, have you?"
"No, I swear," Alec panted. "I was coming home late from—from the Street of Lights." The others grinned knowingly at this.
"Just the place to get your purse lightened, one way or another, eh?" the sergeant said with a chuckle.
"Well, it's late for the nighthawks to be out, but they might just lurk around for you. Do you live close by?"
"No, across the city."
"Then you're welcome to tuck up here with us round the fire 'til first light."
Alec gratefully accepted a spare cloak and a pull from a water skin, then settled down with his back to the wall, the warmth of the brazier warming his face and chest. All in all, he thought as he drifted off to sleep, it wasn't the worst end to an evening's work.
Retak's daughters bid Seregil a fond farewell as he and their father left to meet Timan at the council house early the next day. To Seregil's dismay, a crowd had already assembled and many had snowshoes and poles ready.
Timan presented a young man to him. "I am too old now to make the journey, but my grandson, Turik, knows the place. He can guide you. These others will carry your belongings and gift offerings for the spirit."
Seregil groaned inwardly. The last thing he wanted was an audience, but he was too close to his objective to risk offending the village. Amid much cheering and singing, they set off for the head of the valley.
The Dravnian youths marched along easily, talking and joking as they broke trail. Seregil toiled doggedly in their wake, struggling with the thin air and a poor night's rest. One of Retak's sons fell in beside him, grinning.
"You had good hospitality last night, eh? My sisters were happy this morning."
"Oh, yes," wheezed Seregil. "I was kept very warm, thank you."
They reached the base of the pass just after midday.
Turik called a halt while an older man named Shradin went ahead to scout the snow.
Turik pointed up the pass. "The spirit home is there, but it's difficult going from here—fissures beneath the snow and avalanches. Shradin can read the snow better than anyone in the village."
Squatting on their snowshoes, the others watched as the guide explored the pass.
"Well, what do you think?" asked Seregil when Shradin returned.
The Dravnian shrugged. "It's only a little dangerous today. Still, it would be better if just a few go on from here. Turik knows the way and I know the snow. The rest of them better go home."
After some disgruntled grumbling, the others headed back to the village.
Shradin took the lead as they began their cautious ascent. Seregil and Turik following in single file. Seregil watched in silent admiration as the man probed ahead with his pole, leading them safely around deep fissures concealed just beneath the deceptively unbroken snow. Glad as he was of this, however, Seregil couldn't help glancing nervously up at the tons of snow and ice clinging precariously to the mountainsides above.
As they neared the top of the pass, Turik took the lead. "We are almost there," he said at last, pausing for Seregil to catch his breath.
Struggling up a last, steep face, Turik halted again and began casting around where the lip of the glacier met the rock face. After frequent sightings up at the peaks and much prodding with his pole, the young Dravnian raised his hand and waved for the others
Hung with icicles and half drifted over with snow, the opening of the passage resembled a fanged and sullen mouth. Digging with hands and snowshoes, they soon cleared the opening and peered down the steep black tunnel that descended into the ice.
Seregil felt a strange tingling in his hands and up his back as leaned over it; strong magic lay below.
"The first part of the way is slick," Turik warned, pulling a sack of ashes from his bag. "We'll need to scatter these as we go, or it's nearly impossible to climb back out again."
"I have to go alone from here," Seregil told him. "My magic is strong, but I can't be distracted worrying about the two of you. Wait for me here. If I'm not back by the time the sun touches that peak, come down for me, but not before. If your spirit kills me, give all my things to Retak and say he is to divide them as he sees fit."
Turik's eyes widened a bit at this, but neither he nor Shradin argued.
Seregil took off his bulky hat and tied his long hair back with a thong. Taking the small lightwand from his tool roll, he grasped the handle in his teeth and shouldered an ash bag and the cumbersome box.
"Aura's luck be with you," Shradin said solemnly, using the Aurenfaie name for Illior.
Let's hope it is, Seregil thought nervously as he began his descent.
The steep tunnel was narrow and slick as glass in places. Scattering ash in front of him, he crawled down, dragging the box behind. By the time the ice gave way to a more level stone passage, he was smeared black from head to foot.
The magic permeating the place grew stronger as he went down. The uncanny tingle he'd first noticed increased swiftly. There was a low buzzing in his ears and he could feel an ache growing behind his eyes.
"Aura Elustri malrei," he whispered, speaking the invocation to Illior aloud to test the effect. The silence absorbed his words without an echo and the tingling in his limbs continued unabated.
The tunnel ended at a tiny natural chamber scarcely larger than the passage itself. The shards of a broken bowl lay against the far wall.
The ceaseless noise in his ears made concentration difficult as Seregil began a careful search of the place. It wasn't a steady tone, but rose and fell erratically. At times he seemed to catch a faint hint of voices beneath the rest, but put it down to imagination.
Satisfied at last that no other passages were concealed by any method he could detect, he tucked his chilled hands into his coat and hunkered down to review the few facts he possessed.
"Horns of crystal beneath horns of stone. Stone within ice within stone within ice," the palimpsest had said.
Seregil looked around, frowning.
Well, I'm certainly beneath horns of stone. And to get here I've gone through the ice first, and then stone.
That left stone within ice still to go, but where? Though obscure in method, the palimpsest had been quite specific in giving the necessary directions. If there was some secret way beyond this point, then logic suggested that the final clues leading to it were also concealed in that same document.
Massaging his throbbing temples, he closed his eyes and recalled the details of the palimpsest's various inscriptions. Could he and Nysander have missed something in the rambling prophecies? Or perhaps Nysander had been wrong in his assertion that only one side of the document concealed a palimpsest.
Now there was an uncomfortable thought.
He was startled from his reverie by a blast of cold air. Opening his eyes, he found himself lying in the snow outside the tunnel entrance with Turik and Shradin kneeling over him with obvious concern. Over Shradin's shoulder he saw that the sun was already low behind the designated peak.
"What happened?" Seregil gasped, sitting up.
"We waited as long as we could," Turik apologized. "The time came and went for you to return. When we went down, we found you in a spirit dream."
"There's a storm coming," added Shradin, frowning up at the clouds. "They come on fast this time of year. We need to get back to the village while there's still light enough to go down safely. There's no shelter here, and nothing for a fire."
Seregil looked around in sudden alarm. "My sword! And the box—Where are they?"
"Here, beside you. We brought them out, too," Turik assured him. "But tell us, did you speak to the spirit? Do you know the reason for its anger?"
Still chagrined at having fallen so easily under the spell of the place, Seregil nodded slowly, buying time as he collected his thoughts.
"It's not your spirit who is angry, but another, an evil one," he told them. "This evil one keeps the other prisoner. It's a very strong spirit. I must rest and prepare myself to banish it."
Shradin looked up at the sky again. "You'll have time, I think."
Taking up their packs and poles, the Dravnian guides led Seregil back to the village for another night of exhausting hospitality.
As Shradin had predicted, a savage blizzard roared in through the teeth of the mountains during the night.
People fought their way through the howling wind to drive their livestock up the ramps into their towers, then sealed their doors and settled down to wait out the storm.
It raged steadily for two days. One house lost its felt roof, forcing the inhabitants to flee to a neighboring tower.
At another, a woman gave birth to twins.
Otherwise, the time was given over to eating, storytelling, and general husbandry. The Dravnians were philosophical about such conditions; what was the use of complaining about something that happened every winter? The blizzards were even beneficial. They piled snow around the house and helped keep the drafts out.
One family in particular regarded this storm as a stroke of luck, for it kept the Aurenfaie guest in their house for two nights.
Seregil was less complaisant about the-situation.
Ekrid had nine children, six of them daughters. One girl was too young, another in the midst of her menses, but that still left four to contend with and he didn't much like the competitive gleam in their eyes as they welcomed him.
To further complicate matters, the lower level had been given over to Ekrid's herd of goats and sheep, and their bleating and odor lent little to the general atmosphere. For two days, Seregil had to choose between evading the amorous advances of the girls or trying to walk three feet without treading in shit. His success was limited on both counts and his concentration on the problem at hand suffered.
Stretched out with two of Ekrid's daughters still twined around him the second night, Seregil stared up at the rafters and decided he'd had enough of women to last him for some time. Shifting restlessly in their musky embrace, he caught a hint of answering movement across the way where Ekrid's sons slept.
One of them had made long eyes at him the evening before—He gave the possibility a moment's consideration, but resolved dourly that there was little to be gained in that direction. The young man smelled as strongly of goat tallow and old hides as his sisters, and lacked a front tooth besides.
Lying back, he allowed himself a moment's longing for his own clean bed and a freshly bathed companion to share it. To his surprise, the anonymous figure swiftly transformed into Alec.
Father, brother, friend, and lover, the Oracle of Illior had told him that night in Rhiminee.
He supposed that, after a fashion, he had been father and brother to Alec, having more or less adopted him after their escape from Asengai's dungeon.
Seregil smiled wryly to himself in the darkness; it'd been the least he could do, considering that Alec was one of dozens of innocents captured and tortured by Asengai's men during their hunt for Seregil himself.
In the months since then they'd certainly become friends, and perhaps something more than friends.
Seregil had kept this possibility resolutely at bay, telling himself the boy was too young, too Dalnan, and, above all, too valued a companion to risk losing over something as inconsequential as sex.
And yet, lying exhausted among Ekrid's daughters, he suffered a guilty pang of arousal as he thought of Alec's slender body, his dark blue eyes and ready smile, the rough silken texture of his hair.
Haven't you had enough hopeless infatuations in your life? he scowled to himself. Rolling onto his belly, he turned his thoughts to the palimpsest, running through its cryptic phrases once again.
Horns of crystal beneath horns of stone. Stone within ice within stone within ice.
Damn, but there seemed little enough to be wrung out of it at this point. Slowly he repeated the phrase in its original Dravnian, then translated it into Konic, Skalan, and Aurenfaie, just for good measure.
Start again, he thought.
You're overlooking something. Think!
After this came the directions to the chamber. Before it were the prophetic ramblings: first the dancing animals, then the bones, and the strange words of the unscrambled cipher that unlocked the secret—
One of the girls stirred in her sleep, running a hand down his back. He forced himself to lie still, heart pounding excitedly.
The phrase! The phrase itself.
Those alien, throat-scraping words. If they were the key to the palimpsest, then why not to the magic of the chamber itself?
Assuming he was correct, however, this raised other considerations. If the words were simply a password spell, then he could probably use them without danger to himself or anyone else. But if they worked a deeper magic, what then?
He could go back to Nysander now with what he already knew. Still, the Plenimarans might be beating a trail up the valley at this very moment and Nysander would be too drained from the first translocation spell to send him or anyone else back immediately. Unless, of course, he enlisted the aid of someone more magically reliable rather than risk mishap—Magyana perhaps, or Thero.
To hell with that! I haven't come this far for someone else to see the mystery's end. First light tomorrow I'm going up that pass again, avalanches be damned.
As he drifted happily off to sleep, he realized that the wind had dropped at last.
Someone pounded on Ekrid's door just before dawn, waking the household.
"Come to the council house!" a voice shouted from outside. "Something terrible has happened. Come now!"
Extricating himself from a soft tangle of arms and thighs, Seregil threw on his clothes and ran for the council house with the others.
Faint, predawn light painted the snow blue, the towers black against it. Snowshoeing through the icy powder, Seregil found the village almost unrecognizable. The storm had buried the towers up to their doorsills, leaving the exposed upper story looking like an ordinary cottage drifted up with snow.
Shouldering his way through the crowd at the council house, he hurried downstairs to the meeting chamber.
The central fire had been lit and beside it crouched a woman he hadn't seen before. Surrounded by a silent, wide-eyed crowd, she clutched a small bundle against her breast, wailing hoarsely.
Retak's wife knelt beside her and gently folded back the blanket. Inside lay a dead infant. The stranger clutched the baby fiercely, her hands mottled with frostbite.
"What happened?" Seregil asked, slipping in beside Retak.
He shook his head sadly. "I don't know. She staggered into the village a little while ago and no one has been able to get any sense out of her."
"That is Vara, my husband's cousin from Torgud's village," a woman cried, pushing her way through the crowd. "Vara, Vara! What's happened to you?"
The woman looked up, then threw herself into her kinswoman's arms. "Strangers!" she cried.
"They came out of the storm. They refused the feast, killed the headman and his family. Others, many others, my husband, my children—My children!"
Throwing back her head, she let out a scream of anguish. People gasped and muttered, looking to Retak.
"But why?" Retak asked gently, bending over her.
"Who were they? What did they want?"
Vara covered her eyes and cowered lower. Seregil knelt and placed a hand on her trembling shoulder.
"Were they looking for the spirit home?"
The woman nodded mutely.
"But they refused the feast," he went on softly, feeling a coldness growing in the pit of his stomach.
"They affronted the village, and you would not deal with them."
"Yes," Vara whispered.
"And when the killing started, then did you tell them?"
Tears welled in Vara's eyes, rolling swiftly down her cheeks. "Partis told them, after they killed his wife," she sobbed weakly. "He told them of Timan and his clan. He thought the killing would stop. But it didn't. They laughed, some of them, as they killed us. I could see their teeth through their beards. They laughed, they laughed—"
Still clutching her dead child, she slumped over in a faint and several women carried her to a pallet by the wall.
"Who could do such things?" Retak asked in bewilderment.
"Plenimaran marines," Seregil growled, and every eye turned to him. "These men are enemies, both to me and to you. They seek the evil that lurks in your spirit home. When they find it, they'll worship it and sacrifice living people to it."
"What can we do?" a woman cried out.
"They'll come here," a man yelled angrily.
"Partis as good as set them upon us!"
"Do you have any weapons?" Seregil asked over the rising din.
"Nothing but wolf spears and skinning knives. How can we fight such men with those?"
"You're a magician!" shouted Ekrid. "Can't you kill them with your magic?"
Caught in a circle of expectant faces, Seregil drew a deep breath. "You've all seen the nature of my magic. I have no spells for killing men."
He let disappointment ripple through the crowd for an instant, then added, "But I may have something just as effective."
"What is that?" the man demanded skeptically.
Seregil smiled slightly. "A plan."
Retak called a halt at the base of the pass as the first lip of sun showed over the eastern peaks.
Shradin went ahead to assess the danger. The others—every man, woman, and child of Retak's village waited quietly for word to move on.
Mothers whispered again to their younger children why they must keep silent in the pass. The infants had been given llaki to make them sleep.
Seregil climbed an outcropping and shaded his eyes as he looked back across the snowfield. Blue shadow still lay-deep in the valley, but he could make out a dark column of men closing in on the village. It wouldn't take long for them to see that their prey had fled, or what direction they'd gone.
"There they are," he whispered to Retak. "We have to move on quickly!"
Hardly daring to breathe, they continued up the pass.
It was a fearsome journey. The villagers moved as swiftly as they could, some bowed under loads of fuel and food, others carrying children on their backs or aged relatives on litters. Only the muffled creak of snowshoes and pack straps broke the silence.
Old Timan trudged painfully along near the rear, supported by Turik and his brothers.
Mercifully, Vara had died and she and her child were hidden now in the drifts beyond the goat enclosures.
But her death was not in vain; she'd given Retak's village time to prepare.
Shimmering veils of snow blew across the pass, dislodging small falls down the slopes.
These gave out harmlessly in fine bits of crust, rolling down to leave mouse trails across their path.
Ominous cracks and groans echoed between the cliffs overhead, but Shradin gave no warning sign and Retak silently motioned his people on.
Trudging along in their midst, Seregil was deeply moved by the mix of fear, trust, and determination that drove these people forward. They'd welcomed him—a stranger-given him the best of all they had. When Retak claimed him as a member of his clan, it was meant literally. In the eyes of the Dravnians he was now a blood member of the community for as long as he wished to claim kinship.
The Plenimaran marines pursuing them had been offered the same welcome.
Looking back as they neared the cave, he saw that the enemy had reached the village and was now turning toward the pass.
You bastards! he thought bitterly.
You'd carve these people like sheep for whatever lies hidden at the end of that tunnel. You slaughtered Vara's village. But you were sloppy my friends, and that makes all the difference!
Up ahead Retak conferred briefly with Shradin, then motioned for a halt. Seregil climbed up to join them.
"Do those men know how to read the snow?" he whispered..
"Let's hope not. Retak, tell the others to move a bit and higher and watch for your signal. Are the young men in place?"
"They're ready. But what if this plan of yours doesn't work?"
"Then we'll need another plan." Feeling much less confident than he sounded, Seregil went to take his own position.
The villagers nervously watched the Plenimarans. The sun was higher now, and glinted back from spears and helmets below. What first appeared only as a long, dark movement against the snow soon resolved into individual men toiling toward them.
Whatever the Plenimarans think they're after here, they not taking any chances, Seregil thought, counting over a hundred men. He glanced briefly up the slope, trying to make mouth of the spirit chamber tunnel and wondering again what could be worth all this..
The Plenimarans were close enough for Seregil to make out the insignia on their breastplates before Shradin and Retak. The headman raised his staff overhead with both arms and let out a bloodcurdling yell. Every villager joined in
screaming at the top of their lungs. At the same time Seregil, Shradin, and the young men of the village shoved piles of loosened rock and ice chunks, sending them ca down the steep slope.
For an instant nothing happened.
Then the first rumblings sounded along the western face as tons of snow and ice sloughed off, plunging down on the column.
Seregil could see the pale ovals of upturned faces. The soldiers realized too late the trap they'd been drawn into. The neat column wavered and broke. Men foundered in the snow, throwing aside their arms as they sought some direction of escape it implacable wave bearing down on them.
The avalanche overtook them in seconds, carrying men like dead leaves in a flood, blotting them from sight.
A great cheer went up from the Dravnians and the sound brought down a second deafening avalanche from the east wall. It crashed down the valley to lap over the first with a roar of finality that echoed for minutes between the stark, sun-gilded peaks.
Shradin pounded Seregil joyfully on the back. "Didn't I say it would fall just so?" he shouted. "No one could have survived that!"
Seregil took a last wondering look down at the massive slide, then waved for Turik. "It's time I completed my work. This evil must be removed from your valley so no others will come seeking it."
Amazingly, the tunnel opening was still clear, though drifts were piled thickly around the spot. With the women singing victory songs behind him, Seregil once again made his way down the slick, cramped passage. The noises in his head and the tingling in his skin were as bad as before, but this time he ignored them, knowing what he had to do.
"Here we are again," he whispered, reaching the chamber.
Refusing to consider the various ramifications of being wrong about the nature of the magic, he hugged the box against his side and said loudly, "Argucth chthon hrig.»
An eerie silence fell over the chamber. Then he heard a soft tinkling sound that reminded him of embers cooling on a hearth. Tiny flashes like miniature lightning flickered across the rock face at the far end of the chamber.
Seregil took a step back, then dove for the mouth of the tunnel as the stone exploded.
Jagged shards flew up the tunnel, hissing like arrows as they scored the back of his thick coat and trousers. Others ricocheted and spattered in a brief, deadly storm around the tiny chamber.
It was over in an instant. Seregil lay with his arms over his head a moment longer, then cautiously held up the lightstone and looked back.
An opening had been blasted in the far wall, revealing a dark space beyond.
Drawing his sword, Seregil approached and looked into the second chamber. It was roughly the size of his sitting room at the Cockerel, and at the back of it a glistening slab of ice caught the glow of his lightstone, reflecting it across a tangle of withered corpses that covered the floor.
The constant cold beneath the glacial ice had drawn the moisture from the bodies over uncounted years, leaving them dark and shrunken, lips withered into grimaces, eyes dried away like raisins, hands gnarled to talons.
Seregil sank to his knees, cold sweat running down his chest beneath his coat. Even in their mummified state, he could see that their chests had been split open, the ribs pulled wide. Only a few months earlier his friend and partner, Micum Cavish, had come upon a similar scene nearly a thousand miles away, in the Fens below Blackwater Lake. But there some of the bodies had been newly killed. These had been here for decades, perhaps centuries. Putting this together with Nysander's veiled threats and secrecy, Seregil felt a twinge of genuine fear.
The singing whine in his ears was much worse here. Kneeling there at the mouth of the chamber, Seregil suddenly envisioned what the victims' last moments must have been.
Waiting to be dragged into the killing chamber.
Listening to the screams.
The steam rising from torn bodies—
He could almost catch the sound of those tortured voices echoing back faintly over the years.
Shaking such fancies off uneasily, he climbed in to examine the mysterious slab.
The rough-hewn block of ice was half as long as he was tall, and nearly four feet thick. The aura of the place was worse here; a nasty prickling sensation played over his skin, like ants beneath his clothes. His head pounded. The ringing in his ears swelled like a chorus of voices wailing an octave beyond the scope of pain.
More disturbing still was the sudden flair of pain around the scar on his chest. It burned like a fresh wound, driving a deep spike of pain at his heart.
Working swiftly, Seregil took the two flasks from the box, unwrapped them, and poured out the dark contents of the first in a circle on top of the ice. With his dagger, he scratched the symbols of the Four inside the circle: a lemniscate for Dalna; Illior's simple crescent; the stylized ripple of a wave for Astellus; the flame triangle of Sakor. They formed the four points of a square when he had finished.
Unnatural flames licked up as the liquid ate into the ice and a soft, answering glow sprang up in the center of the slab, revealing the outline of a circular object embedded there.
A fresh blast of pain tightened Seregil's breath in his throat. He reached into his coat and felt wetness there. Tearing open the neck of his coat and shirt with bloodied fingers, he found that his skin had opened around the edges of the scar.
There were voices all around him now, whispering, sighing, keening. His hands shook as he quickly emptied the second vial onto the ice. More flames licked up, guttering in the faint, unnatural breeze rising around him. Invisible fingers brushed his face, plucked at his clothing, stroked his hair.
A first translucent point of crystal protruded from the shrinking ice, quickly followed by seven more in a slanting ring.
The singing, at once tortured and exultant, rose to fill the cramped chamber. Seregil pressed his hands to his ears as he crouched, waiting.
The magical liquid burned and boiled away until eight blade-like crystal spikes were revealed, set in a circlet of some sort.
Seregil bent to pull it free and a drop of blood fell from his chest onto the ice within the circlet.
He paused, strangely fascinated, as another followed, and another. A stone shard had grazed the back of his hand and this, too, was oozing blood. A rivulet of it ran down between his fingers onto the point he was grasping, streaking it like ruby as it trickled to the little pool gathering in the center of the crown.
The singing was clearer now, suddenly sweet and soothing and somehow familiar. Seregil's throat strained to capture the impossible notes as the blood dripped down from his chest.
Not yet, the voices crooned. Unseen hands stroked him, supporting him as he stooped over the crown.
Watch! See the loveliness being wrought.
The gathering blood sank into the ice as an answering rubescent blush spread slowly up through each crystal point.
Oh, yes! he thought.
Their sides were sharp. They cut into his palms as he gripped them. More blood trickled down and the crystal blushed a darker red.
But a new voice was intruding from a distance, rough and discordant.
Nothing, sang the voices.
It is nothing. There is only our music here.
Join us, lovely one, join our song, the only song. For the Beautiful One, the Eater of Death.
It was distracting, this ugly new tone. But as he bowed his head, straining against this raw new voice he found that it, too, was familiar.
He'd almost succeeded in blocking it out when all at once he recognized it-the sound of his own hoarse screams.
The beautiful illusions shattered as searing bolts of pain slammed up his arms, seeking his heart.
"Aura!" he cried out, wrenching the crown free with the last of his strength.
"Aura Elustri malrei!"
Staggering through a haze of agony, he thrust the crown into the silver-lined box and drove the latch into place.
Silence fell like a blow. Collapsing among the corpses, he pressed his bloody hands to the front of his coat.
"Maros Aura Elustri chyptir," he murmured thankfully as he slipped into a half faint. "Chyptir maros!"
The Beautiful One, the voices had said. The Eater of Death.
Gradually he became aware of another presence in the chamber, and with it a pervasive sense of peace mingled with sadness.
This, he realized, must be the true spirit, the one that had created this place and inhabited it until the crown was hidden here. With an ironic grin, he recalled the tale of warring spirits he'd concocted for Turik and Shradin the first time he'd come out of the cave. It seemed he'd spoken the truth in spite of himself.
"Peace to you, spirit of this place," he rasped in Dravnian. "Your sanctuary will be properly cleansed."
The presence gathered around him for a moment, soothing away his pain and weariness. Then it was gone.
Shouldering the box, Seregil crawled slowly back up the tunnel. Turik and Timan were keeping watch at the opening when he stumbled out into the sunlight.
The old man clutched Seregil's arm wordlessly, tears of gratitude glittering in his rheumy eyes.
"He lives! The Aurenfaie's alive! Bring bandages," Turik called to the others, examining Seregil's hands with concern.
The cry passed from mouth to mouth and soon the whole village had gathered solemnly around them.
"Terrible sounds came out of the ground, then all was still," Retak told Seregil. "Timan said you had driven out the bad spirit, but he didn't know if you'd survived the ordeal. Tell us of your battle with the evil spirit!"
Seregil groaned inwardly.
Bilairy's Balls, they want another story!
Climbing to his feet, he held up the box.
"I've captured the evil spirit that troubled you. It's imprisoned here."
Round-eyed, the Dravnians regarded the battered wooden chest. Even the children did not venture to approach it. Filthy and exhausted, Seregil did his best to look like a victorious wizard as he mixed fact and fiction to best effect.
"In the time of Timan's ancestor, this evil thing came to your valley and invaded the spirit home, holding the true spirit prisoner and troubling those who entered the chamber. I found its secret lair and battled it there. It was a strong spirit and it fought mightily, as you can see."
The villagers' eyes grew rounder as they pressed around him to see what sort of marks a spirit left on a man.
"By my magic, and by the powers of sacred Aura and the true spirit of this place, I vanquished and captured it. Your spirit came to me, easing my wounds and asking that the sanctuary be cleansed so that your people may once again come to it in peace. There are bodies there now, victims of the evil one. You must not fear them. Take them away and burn them as is proper, so that their spirits can rest. This is no longer a place of evil."
The Dravnians cheered wildly as he paused to catch up with his own invention. By the time they'd settled down again, he was ready.
"If any man comes seeking the evil one, bring them to this place and tell them how Meringil, son of Solun and Nycanthi, mage of Aurenen, captured the evil spirit and took it away forever. Remember this day and tell the story to your children so that they will remember. Let no person among your clans forget that evil was cast out from here. And now I must go."
The villagers surged forward, imploring him to stay.
Unvisited maidens wept with disappointment and one of Ekrid's daughters threw herself into his arms sobbing. Putting her gently aside, he gathered his gear and palmed the last of Nysander's painted wands from the pouch at his belt. He snapped it behind his back and the Dravnians shrank back in fear as the translocation vortex opened behind him. Waving a last farewell, he forced a smile as he stepped backward into emptiness.
Thero was on his way upstairs when a muffled crash halted him in his tracks. There was no doubt where the sound had come from; every door along the curved corridor—the bedchambers, the guest room—stood open except one.
The sitting-room door, with its magical wards and protections, was always kept shut unless Nysander was inside. Nonetheless, putting his ear to the door, Thero heard a low groan inside.
"Nysander!" he called, but his master was already hurrying down the tower stairs, robes flapping beneath his leather apron.
"There's someone in there," Thero exclaimed, gaunt face flushed with excitement.
Nysander opened the door and snapped his fingers at the nearest lamp. The wick flared up and by its light they saw Seregil sprawled in the middle of the room, his back arched awkwardly over the pack he wore, the strap of the battered wooden chest tangled around one leg. His eyes were closed, his face colorless beneath streaks of grime and blood.
"Get water, a basin, and linen. Hurry!" said
Nysander, going to Seregil and pulling at the front of his coat.
Thero hurried off to fetch the required articles.
When he returned a few moments later,
Nysander was examining a raw wound on Seregil's chest. "How bad is it?" he asked.
"Not so bad as it looks," said Nysander, covering the wound with a cloth. "Give me a hand with these filthy clothes."
"What happened to him this time?" Thero asked, gingerly pulling off the unconscious man's boots.
"He's got the same sort of preternatural stench he had when he came back—"
"Very similar. Fetch the things for a minor purification. And, Thero?"
Halfway out the door already, Thero paused, expecting some explanation.
"We shall not speak of this again."
"As you wish," Thero replied quietly.
Focused on Seregil, Nysander did not see the hot color that leapt into Thero's sallow cheeks beneath his thin beard, or the sudden angry set of his jaw.
Later, with Seregil asleep under Thero's watchful eye, Nysander paid his nightly visit to the lowest vault beneath the Oreska House. He was not the only one who wandered here late at night. Many of the older wizards preferred to pursue their research when the scholars and apprentices were out of the way. Proceeding on through the long passages and down stairways, he nodded to those he met, stopping now and then to chat. He'd never made any secret of his evening constitutionals. Had anyone over the years ever noticed that he seldom followed the same route twice? That there was always one point, one stretch of blank, innocent wall, which he never failed to pass?
And how many of these others, Nysander wondered as he went on, kept watch as he did over some secret charge?
Reaching the lowest level, he wended his way with more than even his usual caution through the maze of corridors to the place, though his carefully woven magicks kept all from perceiving the box he carried.
Satisfied that he was unobserved, he lowered his head, summoned a surge of power, and silently invoked the Spell of Passage. A sensation like a mountain wind passed through him, chilling him to the bone.
Hugging the grimy box to his chest, he walked through the thick stonework of the wall and into the tiny chamber beyond.
Alec squinted as sunlight flashed off the polished festival gong under his arm. Shifting his grip, he struggled the rest of the way up the ladder braced against the front of the villa.
"Really, Sir Alec, this is not necessary. The servants always take care of these details!"
Runcer dithered from the curb, clearly embarrassed by this display of labor but powerless to countermand it.
"I like to keep busy," Alec replied, undeterred.
He'd reluctantly resumed his public role at Wheel Street the day before. The Festival of Sakor began tonight and—Seregil or no Seregil—Sir Alec had to make an appearance.
Runcer was stubbornly determined to defer to him as master of the house in Seregil's absence, a role he was acutely uncomfortable with. He detested being waited on, but every servant in the house seemed to take it as a personal affront every time he so much as fetched his own wash water or saddled a horse.
Grasping the wooden brace set into the wall, Alec slid the gong's leather hanging straps over it. They held and it swung gently in the morning breeze, a rectangular battle shield displaying the elaborate sunburst design of Sakor.
Runcer handed up a swath of black cloth and Alec draped it carefully over the shield face.
Similar gongs were being hung all across the city. Mourning Night, the longest of the year, began with solemn ceremonies at the Temple of Sakor. The symbolic passing of the old god would be enacted, and every fire in the city extinguished except for a single firepot guarded by the Queen and her family at the temple. At the first hint of dawn the following morning, the gongs would be uncovered and sounded to welcome the resurrected god as runners carried the new year's fire to every hearth.
Similar versions of the ceremony would be carried out all over Skala.
He was halfway down the ladder when a rider clattered around a corner down the street.
Recognizing Seregil's glossy Aurenfaie mare, Alec jumped down and ran to meet them.
Seregil reined Cynril to a walk and looked Alec over with a disapproving frown as he continued up the street. "Out in your shirtsleeves like a common laborer? What will the neighbors say?"
"I did remark upon it, my lord," Runcer commented blandly as they came up.
"I guess they'll say I'm more likely to do a lick of honest work than my fop of a guardian," Alec said with a laugh, too relieved to see Seregil safely home to care what anyone thought.
Wherever Seregil had been, he'd costumed himself carefully for the role of returning lord. His mud-spattered boots and gauntlets were of the finest chestnut-brown leather, his riding mantle lined with dark fur. Beneath it he wore a velvet surcoat, and tall pheasant feathers bobbed at a jaunty angle from the jeweled cockade of his cap.
"Ah well, we must forgive him his rough ways," Seregil said, throwing an arm around Alec's shoulders as they went inside. "These northern squire's sons are badly raised—too much honest labor in their youth. How's everything here?"
"Come see for yourself."
Inside, the main hall was still swarming with servants.
The carpets were being rolled back in preparation for the night's dancing and fragrant garlands of plaited wheat and winter greenery festooned the walls. Rich aromas had been floating out from the kitchen since dawn. The feast after the ceremony would be cold, but well laid on.
"What about the lightwands?" asked Seregil as he sat to tug off his boots.
"They arrived from the Oreska House yesterday, my lord," Runcer informed him, hovering close at hand. "Nysander i Azusthra and Lady Magyana a Rhioni have confirmed that they will contribute to the evening's entertainment again this year."
"Good. Any word from the Cavishes?"
"They are expected this afternoon, my lord. I prepared the upstairs guest chambers myself."
"We'll leave you to it, then. Come on, Alec, you can give me the news while I freshen up."
"Nysander's invited the Cavishes to sit with him," Alec told him as they went up the stairs to Seregil's room, adding wistfully, "I wish we could."
"I know, but Kylith's group is likely to be more informative. Besides, you need practice playing nobility."
Seregil's bedchamber overlooked the garden at the back of the villa. Unlike the other rooms, it was furnished in Aurenfaie style, with walls whitewashed rather than frescoed, and the furnishings were done in pale woods and simple lines. In contrast, the cushions, carpets, and hangings around the bed were vibrant with pattern and color.
The shutters had been opened and a fire crackled invitingly in the marble fireplace.
"Runcer's right, you know," he went on, tossing his cloak over a clothes chest and going to the fire.
"It's not good for you to be seen out there in your shirtsleeves. When you're playing a role—"
Alec sighed. "You play it to the bone, I know, but—"
"No excuses. It's part of the game." Seregil leveled a gloved forefinger at him. "You know as well as I do that it doesn't matter at the Cockerel or half the time around here, but on a real job something like that could get you killed! When you play Sir Alec, you must be Sir Alec. Either live it from the heart, or stand outside yourself like a puppet master and direct every movement. You've seen me do it often enough."
Alec stared glumly out over the snow-dusted garden.
"Yes, but I doubt I'll ever be as good at it as you."
Seregil let out an impatient snort.
"Horseshit. That's what you said about swordplay, and look how you've come along. Besides, you're a natural actor when the role doesn't go against your stiff-necked, Dalnan yeoman's pride. Relax! Flow with the moment."
Seregil suddenly grabbed him by the arm and whirled him into an eccentric jig around the room. Alec hadn't even heard him approach. But he recovered swiftly and took the lead.
"But Sir Alec is a stiff-necked Dalnan yeoman," he said, laughing as he clomped through the steps of a country dance Beka and Elsbet had taught him.
"Wrong!" Grinning wickedly, Seregil yanked him into a formal pavan. "Sir Alec is stiff-necked Dalnan gentry. Besides, he should be picking up a few of Lord Seregil's airs along the way."
Alec leaned back in mock horror. "Maker's Mercy, anything but that!" Still gripping Seregil's gloved hand his thumb found a ridge beneath the thin leather. Frowning, he felt at it. "What's this? A bandage?"
"It's nothing, just a few scrapes." Seregil stripped off the gloves and showed him thin strips of linen across each palm. "And what about you?" He turned Alec's left palm up and examined the scab there.
"I cut myself going over a wall the other night," Alec told him, letting Seregil's obvious evasion go without argument, knowing it would be futile to press him. "I got chased on the way home afterward, too, but I got away all right."
"Any idea who it was?"
"Footpads, probably. I didn't get much of a look at them."
"How many 'thems' were there?"
"Three, I think. I was too busy rabbiting to take count."
"Let's hear it."
Dropping into a chair by the fire, Alec launched into a well-rehearsed and somewhat embellished account of his escape down Silvermoon Street.
"That was quick thinking, using the palace guard for protection," said Seregil when he'd finished. "And speaking of the Palace, I've got something for you—a little thank you from the Queen and Klia, I think."
He took a small pouch from his coat and tossed it to Alec. Opening it, the boy found a heavy silver cloak brooch fashioned to look like a wreath of leafy branches surrounding a deep blue stone.
"Silver leaves." Alec smiled slightly as he admired it. "The first time I met Klia up in Cirna I was calling myself Aren Silverleaf."
"That's a good stone," Seregil remarked, looking at it over his shoulder. "You could get a fine horse for that, if you ever need to. Just be sure not to let on where it came from, or why. We've got reputations to hide."
Ilia Cavish burst into the hall like a small, happy hurricane just after midday. "Uncle Seregil! Alec! We're here!"
From the musicians' gallery, Seregil watched as she tackled Alec, who'd just come out of the dining room.
"I can stay up for the party this year because I'm six now," she announced, hugging Alec excitedly.
"And I got new shoes and a real gown with a long skirt and two petticoats and—Where's Uncle Seregil?"
"I'm on my way," Seregil called. Going down the steep narrow stairs from the gallery, he strode across the hall and claimed a hug of his own.
"Did you ride in from Watermead all by yourself, madame?"
Illia pulled a long face. "Mother's still being sick from the baby, so she had to ride in a cart with Arna and Eulis. Father and Elsbet and me all had to ride slow. But he let me come ahead when we got to your street. I'm the van soldier!"
"I think you mean vanguard," Alec corrected with a smile.
"That's what I said, silly. Do Elsbet and I get to sleep in the room next to yours, Uncle? The one with the dragon-shaped bed and the ladies painted on the walls?"
"Of course you do, so long as you don't pop out at the guests once you've been put to bed the way you did last year."
"Oh, I'm much too old for that now," she assured him, taking him and Alec by the hand and drawing them toward the door. "Come on, now. Father and Mother must be here by now."
Wheel Street was thick with traffic, but Seregil quickly spotted Micum's coppery head bobbing toward him through the press, followed by his second daughter and a covered cart driven by a pair of servant women. Old Arna spied him and waved.
"I see Illia found you," Micum said with a grin as they dismounted in front of the house.
Seregil embraced his old friend, and then Elsbet, dark and shy in her blue riding gown. "You're just in time. Alec's done all the work."
"We'd have been here sooner if I could have ridden," Kari complained, struggling from a nest of cushions and robes in the cart. Weeks of morning sickness had thinned her face, but the journey had put the challenging glint back in her dark eyes. Micum helped her down and she embraced Alec and Seregil happily.
Seregil eyed her rounding belly. "Breeding agrees with you, as usual."
"Don't tell her that before breakfast just yet," Micum warned.
Old Arna made a blessing sign in her mistress' direction. was "The sicker the mother, the stronger the son."
Kari rolled her eyes behind the old woman's back. "We've heard that at least three times a day for the past month. Even if it's another girl, I expect the child will be born with a sword in her hand."
"Another Beka," Alec said, grinning.
"And what about you?" Seregil asked Elsbet.
"Last I heard, you were going to stay on at the temple school."
"That's right. Thank you for recommending me. It's what I've always wanted to do."
"First Beka's commission with the Queen's Horse Guard, and now Elsbet a scholar." Kari slipped an arm about Elsbet's waist and gave Seregil a dark look. "Thanks to you, I'll be lucky to get any of my girls married off before they're old and grey."
"Scholars marry, Mama," Elsbet chided.
"I'll get married!" Illia chimed in, still clinging to Alec's hand. "I'm going to marry you, Alec, aren't I?"
The boy gave her a gallant bow. "If you still want me when you're grown up a beauty like your mother and sister."
Elsbet blushed noticeably at this. "How are you, Alec? Father told us you were hurt saving Klia."
"I'm pretty well healed, except for this," he replied, running a hand ruefully over his ragged hair. "Klia came out of it looking worse than I did."
"It was very brave of you. To run into the fire like that, I mean," she stammered. Blushing more hotly than ever, she hurried after Arna into the house.
Alec turned to Kari with a perplexed look. "Is she all right?"
Kari slipped her arm through his with an enigmatic smile. "Oh, she's just turned fifteen, and you're a hero, that's all. Come along now, brave Sir Alec, and let's see what can be done about your hair. We don't want you looking like the tinker's boy in front of Lord Seregil's fine lady friends tonight."
Lady Kylith's tapestry-draped box commanded an excellent view into the Sakor Temple portico. Seregil and Alec reached the Temple Precinct an hour before sunset and found their hostess and six other guests already chatting over dainties and wine.
It was a frosty evening and everyone's breath puffed out in little clouds as they talked. All were warmly swathed in black cloaks or robes out of respect for the occasion, but gold and jewels caught the light on wrists and circlets.
"Ah, now our little party is complete!" Kylith rose smiling to kiss Seregil.
He returned the kiss with genuine affection. They'd been lovers for a time years ago, and friends ever since.
Kylith must be nearing fifty now, he realized, but time had refined both her famous beauty and wit.
All of these were in full force as she turned to Alec, still hanging shyly back. "And you and I meet again under far more pleasant circumstances, Sir Alec. I trust no one will be arresting Lord Seregil tonight?"
Alec executed a perfect bow. "I believe he's rescheduled all arrests until tomorrow, my lady."
Well done, Sir Alec, Seregil thought to himself with a smile.
From the corner of his eye, he saw several of the others exchange discreet glances. Most of Rhiminee knew he'd been taken from his villa in chains only a few weeks before. Kylith had deftly removed any tension surrounding the incident by making light of it.
"Seregil, you'll sit there by Lord Admiral Nyreidian," she said, waving him to a seat beside a portly, black-bearded noble. "He's overseeing the outfitting of the Queen's privateer fleet and I know you'll want to hear all about it. Sir Alec, you sit here between us so that we may renew our acquaintance. But first you must be properly introduced—Lord Admiral Nyreidian i Gorthos, Lady Tytiana e Reva and Lady Breena e Ursil of the Queen's court, Sir Arius i Rafael, and my very dear friend Lady Youriel e Nikiria."
Pausing, she placed her hand over that of a uniformed woman on her right. "And this is Captain Julena e Isai of the White Hawk Infantry, the newest addition to our little salon."
Seregil eyed the captain with discreet interest; she was rumored to be Kylith's latest paramour.
"My friends, you all know Lord Seregil i Korit," she continued. "And this charming young man is Lord Seregil's protege, Sir Alec i Gareth of Ivywell. His late father was a knight of Mycena, I believe."
Alec's spurious pedigree elicited the hoped-for lack of interest. Leaving him to stumble charmingly along through Kylith's courtly flirtations, Seregil turned his attention to the other guests, where more interesting game was afoot.
"I expect war will be a relief for Phoria," Lady Tytiana was saying. As Mistress of the Queen's Wardrobe, she was a valuable and generally reliable gossip. "She's still under a bit of a cloud, you know, after that horrible business with the Vicegerent's suicide—Oh, Lord Seregil, forgive me. I didn't mean to be indelicate."
"Not at all, dear lady." Seregil flicked a crease from his black mantle. "My name was cleared, so my honor is no more blemished than usual."
A ripple of laughter went round the little circle.
He'd cultivated his reputation as a charmingly dissipated exile carefully over the years. While his distant relation to the royal family granted him access to most of the more fashionable salons, it was generally supposed that his foreign birth and dilettante ways kept him safely outside the complex intrigues of the city. As a result, he was taken lightly but told a great deal.
"As I was saying," Tytiana went on, "I shouldn't wonder that she'd be relieved to go off to war. Nothing like a few victories to improve one's popularity. And just between ourselves, Phoria could use some goodwill among the people, even without that other unpleasantness. An heir apparent with no offspring is always awkward."
"She's a fine cavalry commander, though," said Captain Julena.
Admiral Nyreidian leaned back and laced his fingers over his considerable paunch, "True, but she'll be at a disadvantage unless the Plenimarans are foolish enough to attempt overrunning Mycena. Plenimar is a naval power, always has been. I've advised the Queen so and she agrees. The lower city defenses are being built up as we speak."
"Only yesterday I overheard Queen Idrilain ordering two hundred wagonloads of fine red clay from Piorus to slake the slopes below the citadel," Lady Breena chimed in. "That's not been done since her great-grandmother's day."
"Surely they wouldn't be so bold as to attack Rhiminee directly?" Seregil ventured over his wine.
Nyreidian cast a rather patronizing look his way. "They've done it before."
"So you are preparing to meet them on their own terms. It must be an enormous undertaking."
"I believe I've seen every sailor, fisherman, and pirate that ever sailed between here and the Strait of Bal!" the admiral replied. "The harbor's alive with them. And investors, too. Privateering is a lucrative venture. Have you considered backing a vessel, Lord Seregil?"
"Sounds like an interesting mix of patriotism and profit. Perhaps I should look into it."
"Vessels are getting scarce already, I must warn you. Every shipbuilder in Skala has all the work he can handle, refitting old ships and building new. But the real trick is to find a decent captain."
"And yet war has not been officially declared. How can the Queen send out privateers without giving provocation? Surely she doesn't mean to precipitate a conflict?"
Nyreidian stiffened perceptibly. "I'm sure our Queen does nothing without the best interests of Skala in mind."
"But of course," murmured Seregil. "The fact that the Queen has entrusted you with this undertaking is ample proof of the gravity of such measures."
Alec breathed a sigh of relief when Kylith turned her attention to her other guests. His repertoire of invented history was slim and he was out of his depth for small talk. Luckily, no one else seemed particularly interested in him.
Seregil was still busy with the fat admiral, so he leaned his elbows on the rail to watch the spectacle unfolding before him.
The tiers of viewing boxes where he sat stood at an angle on the south side of the square, just in front of the Dalnan temple grove. Across the square another set of tiers partially obscured the fountain courts and delicate, brightly colored archways of the Temple of Astellus. The Temple of Illior was hidden by the back wall of the box to the east.
Cordoned-off pathways between the four temples quartered the broad square. Black-robed festival goers were already packing the open areas and crowding into the courtyards and porticoes of the other temples. Gulls wheeled overhead, mingling with flights of brown doves from the Dalnan grove.
Before him, the black Temple of Sakor stood massive and stark against a riotous sunset. Broad bars of light spilled out between the square pillars of the portico, silhouetting the gongs that hung between them.
Inside stood an altar of polished black stone.
A great fire burned on it, illuminating the huge golden shield that hung suspended just behind. This,
Seregil had explained earlier, was called the Aegis of Sakor. It was twenty feet high and its sunburst device was set with hundreds of smooth-polished rubies that seemed to pulse with life in the flickering firelight.
An honor guard was massed in formation on the broad stairs in front of the temple; somewhere in those faceless ranks Beka Cavish was standing watch with her regiment. He envied her just a little. The soldier's life seemed an uncomplicated one to him; no pretending, no disguise—just honor, duty, and the bravery to stand by your comrades in battle.
"I suppose they do not celebrate the Sakor Festival with such display in Mycena?" Lady Kylith remarked, breaking in on his thoughts.
"No, my lady," Alec replied, raising his voice for Seregil's benefit. "Even the Harvest Home at the end of Rhythin isn't a patch on this."
"Lord Seregil will have explained to you, I am sure, about the extinguishing of the flames?"
"Yes. I imagine this will be an uncomfortable night."
"The soldier's vigil is very weary." Kylith cast a regretful glance in Julena's direction and Alec guessed the captain would be going back on duty soon. "But for the rest of us, it's a merry time. Moonlit parties, blind games, and chases. It's a fine night for lovers, as well. They say half the people born in Rhiminee can count back from their birth to this night."
Her perfume drifted over him as she leaned closer. "And who will be keeping you warm in the darkness, hm?"
A sudden fanfare from the temple spared him the necessity of a reply.
A hush fell over the crowd as a long procession of priests filed out from the interior of the temple.
Chanting and playing reed flutes, sistrums, deep-throated horns, and timbrels, they formed themselves into two ranks flanking the Aegis. The skirling music had an ancient, mournful sound.
"The Song of Passing, sung in the original Konic tongue," Seregil whispered. "Most of this ceremony dates back at least a thousand years."
At the end of the chant, an ornately robed figure was carried forward on a litter, face covered by a golden sun mask, an unsheathed broadsword lying across his knees.
"That's the oldest of the Sakor priests, dressed to represent the dying god," Seregil went on.
"He brings the great Sword of Gerilain."
"Was it really hers?" Alec whispered. Gerilain was the first of Skala's hereditary queens instituted by the prophecy of Illior six centuries before.
"Yes. The Queen's reinvested with it each year."
When Old Sakor had been positioned in front of the altar, a priest stepped forward and addressed him in the same ancient tongue.
"She's imploring Sakor not to abandon the people,"
Seregil interpreted. "This next part goes on and on, but the gist of it is that Sakor appoints the Queen as their guardian and gives her the sacred firepot and sword."
As predicted, Sakor's reply took some time. The lower portion of the sun mask was constructed to amplify his voice, which was rather thin and creaky. When this dialogue was completed, horns sounded and the grand procession began.
Contingents of priests emerged from the other temples, each bearing a figure representing their patron deity on a litter.
The Dalnans came first, with Valerius playing Dalna. Seated beneath an arch of laurel and ivy, the irascible drysian was uncharacteristically resplendent in a green robe heavily embroidered with gold and carried a ceremonial staff wrought in ivory and gold. Someone had managed to tame his wild hair into some semblance of order beneath his circlet, but his beard bristled as aggressively as ever as he glared out over the crowd.
"I'm no Dalnan, of course, but I don't think Valerius presents a particularly comforting figure as the Maker," Seregil murmured, eliciting chuckles of assent from several of the other guests, including Alec.
Astellus would serve as Sakor's guide on his journey to the Isle of the Dawn. A plump blond priestess dressed in a simple blue and white tunic and broad-brimmed hat played this role, complete with wayfarer's staff and wallet.
Grey-backed gulls, living emblems of the Traveler, rose up from the fountain courts of the temple and circled overhead as she was carried forth.
Illior was also being played by a woman. She sat stiffly in her flowing white gown and serene golden mask, right palm raised to display the elaborate circular emblem that covered her palm.
The three groups met at the center of the square to await the final contingent. Horns sounded again. A squadron of cavalry in ceremonial scarlet and black advanced from the entrance of the Temple Precinct, followed by the royal family.
"Is that her? Is that the Queen?" Alec whispered, craning for a better look.
Grey-haired and solemn, Idrilain sat her charger like the warrior she was. Her golden breastplate was emblazoned with an upraised sword and the crescent of Illior; an empty scabbard hung at her side.
With her rode the Consort Evenir, her second and much younger husband. Behind the royal couple came her sons and daughters. Among these rode Klia, resplendent in the dress uniform of the Queen's Horse.
Alec's hand rose to the silver brooch holding the ornamental cloak at his shoulder as he watched her in the distance. Until now he'd seen her only as another cheerful, mud-spattered soldier, someone who'd treated him like a comrade, never standing on ceremony. Watching her now—among her true kind and against the pageantry of the ceremony—like seeing a stranger.
The procession advanced at a stately pace to the steps of the temple, where Idrilain dismounted and strode up to stand opposite Old Sakor and the other priests, her consort and children behind her. From this point, the ritual proceeded in the modern tongue.
Idrilain's voice was clear and steady as she spread her arms and performed a chant hailing Sakor as Protector of the Hearth and the Sword of Peace.
"Let not the darkness come upon us!" she cried at its conclusion.
The massed crowd took up the cry, repeating it in a great voice until Valerius stepped forward and raised his staff in both hands. When the crowd quieted again, he sang the Song of Dalna, his deep, resonant voice carrying well in the open air.
Alec knew this song well. When the crowd repeated the closing line, "The Maker has made all, and nothing can be lost in the hand of the Maker," he joined in gladly, ignoring the glances he attracted from Kylith's other guests.
Astellus and Illior helped Old Sakor to his feet and the assembled priests commenced a low keen.
"Who shall keep watch?" the priests of Sakor sang. "Who shall guard the Flame?"
Masked Illior answered, reciting the revelation of the Afran Oracle. "So long as a daughter of Thelatimos' line defends and rules, Skala shall never be subjugated."
The Queen stepped forward and was exhorted by Old Sakor to keep watch over her people through the long night and the new year to follow. Bowing solemnly, she pledged herself and her generations to the guardianship of Skala and was given the Sword of Gerilain and a large firepot. When she turned, holding both aloft, the crowd erupted into cheers of assent.
The last of the day's light was fading from the western sky as two priests led out a black bull. Handing the firepot to Phoria, Idrilain raised the sword in her right hand and placed her left on the animal's brow, pressing gently as she spoke the ritual greeting.
The bull snorted and twisted its neck, nicking the edge of her mantle with the tip of one horn.
A restless murmur rippled through the crowd like wind across a barley field; an unwilling victim was a poor omen.
The animal showed no further sign of resistance, however, as the priests pulled its head back and Idrilain slashed its throat. Dark blood spurted out, steaming in the cold air, and the animal collapsed without a struggle. Idrilain extended the blade to Old Sakor, who dipped a finger in the blood and anointed his forehead and hers.
"Speak to your people, O Sakor!" she intoned. "You who pass away from all living things and return renewed. What is your prophecy?"
"Let's see what they've come up with this year," someone murmured.
"You mean it's not real?" Alec whispered to Seregil, rather shocked.
Seregil gave him a hint of the crooked smile.
"Yes and no. Divinations are gathered for months from all the major temples around Skala. They vary in form from year to year, but they're generally quite supportive of current policy."
Standing before the Aegis, Sakor faced the people and raised his hands.
But before he could speak, a sudden wind gusted through the square, billowing robes and snatching at cloaks and scouring dust and dead leaves up in little whirlwinds.
Banners whipped loose from the fronts of boxes.
Shield gongs swung on their long chains, clashing ominously against the pillars of the temple.
Startled from their evening roosts, gulls and doves burst into the air again in a flurry of wings, only to be met by scores of ravens. Swooping out of the surrounding gloom as mysteriously as the wind that bore them, the black birds attacked in a frenzy, stabbing with thick beaks, tearing with taloned feet.
The spectators below watched helplessly as black wings beat against white or brown; upturned faces were spattered with blood and sticky scraps of feathers. Then startled cries rang out as broken bodies plummeted down around them.
In the temple, Idrilain stood with sword drawn, fending off scores of ravens that dove at the sacrificial bull. Phoria and her brothers and sisters leapt to her aid, driving the carrion birds off.
Beside them, Valerius laid about with his staff. Even at this distance Seregil and Alec could see the crackling white nimbus that glowed dangerously around its ivory head. The Illioran priestess, still inscrutable behind her mask, raised her hand again and a brilliant, multihued flash blazed out, leaving inert mounds of black feathers scattered in its wake. Soldiers closest to the temple ran back up the steps to assist the Queen, while others tried to maintain order as thousands wailed and screamed and sought to flee.
A thick cloud of ravens circled the square now, diving and slashing like hawks. Others flocked boldly on railings and temple pediments. One large bird flapped down to perch on the edge of Kylith's box and seemed to regard Alec thoughtfully with one black, unblinking eye.
Seregil raised his hand in a warding sign and Alec saw his lips move, although it was impossible to make out the words over the chaos around them. The raven uttered a mocking croak and flapped away.
Then, as quickly as they'd come, the baneful black horde retreated, pursued by the surviving gulls. The doves had been no match for their attackers; soft brown bodies lay scattered around the precinct by the dozens.
As the noise of the birds subsided, a new and ominous sound boomed forth from the temple.
The Aegis of Sakor, untouched by any hand, rang with a low, shivering roar. In front of it, the flames of the alter fire flared from yellow to deep bloodred.
Four times the Aegis sounded, and then four times again.
"Hear me, my people!" cried Idrilain. "Sakor speaks, sounding a call on the Aegis itself. Attend to the prophecy!"
The multitude stood motionless as Old Sakor was helped forward again, swaying visibly as he raised a trembling hand.
"Hear, O people of Skala, the word of Sakor," he called in his reedy old man's voice. "Make strong your walls, and let every sword be whetted. Guard well the harvest and build strong ships. Look to the east, O people of Skala. From thence comes thine enemy—" He paused, and the trembling seemed to worsen. "From thence—"
He sagged heavily against Valerius for a moment, then straightened and took a step forward unaided. In a voice of star fling clarity, he cried out, "Prepare you in the light, and in the shadow. From thence comes the Eater of Death!"
"The what—?" Alec looked to Seregil again, but found him white-faced and grim, one gloved hand clenching the side of the rail where the raven had perched.
"Seregil, what's wrong?"
His friend sat up abruptly, as if waking from an evil dream, and warned him off with a discreet but emphatic hand signal.
"We have heard your word, O Sakor!" said the Queen, speaking into the silence that still gripped the crowd. "We shall be prepared!"
Another roar of acclaim went up as Old Sakor was carried down the stairs of the temple to begin the long march to the waterfront in the lower city. There, accompanied by Astellus, he would set sail ostensibly for the Isle of the Dawn to be reborn and return on the morrow in the guise of a much younger priest.
The altar fire dwindled and went out and a hundred deep-throated horns sounded from the roof of the temple, signaling for every fire in the city to be extinguished.
The remaining priests joined the procession while the Queen took her place before the altar to begin the sacred vigil.
"What a remarkable performance!" said Lady Youriel with an uneasy laugh. "I think they rather overdid it this year, don't you?"
"Most impressive," Kylith agreed lightly as servants appeared at the door of the box with lightstones on long wands to assist their departure.
"But I suspect Lord Seregil has something equally impressive planned for us at his gathering. Will you two share my coach?"
Seregil rose and bent over her hand. "Thank you, but I think we'll wait here until the crowd thins a bit, then ride back."
"Games in the dark, eh?" She brushed his cheek with her lips, then Alec's. "I'll meet you at Wheel Street."
Seregil sat motionless for some moments after the others had departed, resting his elbows on the rail.
"What's the "Eater of Death"?" asked Alec uneasily. "It sounded like a threat, or a warning."
"I'm sure it was," Seregil muttered, gazing down into the square. It was full dark now, and the moon and stars shed pale brilliance over the city, casting the world into sharp contrasts of silvery light and inky shadow. Lightwands bobbed here and there in the hands of those wealthy enough to afford them, and faint laughter and cries of "Praise the Flame!" echoed up to them as people jostled each other in the darkness.
Something in his friend's face made Alec still more uneasy. "Any idea what the priest meant by it?" he asked.
Seregil pulled his hood up against the night's chill as he rose to go. Alec couldn't see his face as he replied, "I can't say that I do."
The Wheel Street house was already full of music by the time they returned. Alec handed his dark cloak to a servant at the entrance and followed Seregil into the hall. A number of guests were already enjoying the wine and food. Each had been presented with a brightly ribboned lightwand upon arrival and these provided a cool, shifting light as people danced or strolled about the room.
A flurry of applause greeted them as Runcer gravely announced their arrival from his station by the door.
"Welcome to my home on this dark, cold night!" Seregil called out. "For those of you who've not yet met my companion, allow me to present Sir Alec i Gareth of Ivywell."
Alec made a graceful bow and quickly scanned the room for familiar faces. Kylith's party was there, but there was no sign yet of Nysander or the Cavishes. In a far corner, however, he spotted a knot of officers in the green and white of the Queen's Horse Guard. Klia's friend and fellow officer, Captain Myrhini, saluted him with her lightwand from their midst and Alec waved back, wondering if Beka was with her.
He was just heading over to find out when Seregil slipped a hand under his arm and steered him off toward a group of nobles.
"Time to play the gracious hosts."
Together, they made a circuit of the room, moving smoothly from one conversation to another, most of which centered around the omens at the ceremony.
"I thought they rather overdid the thing this year," sniffed a young nobleman introduced as Lord Melwhit. "What doubt is there that war is coming? Preparations have been going on since summer."
A grave, blond woman turned from a conversation with Admiral Nyreidian and greeted Seregil in Aurenfaie.
"Ysanti maril Elustri, Melessandra a Marana," Seregil returned warmly. "Allow me to present Sir Alec. Lady Melessandra and her uncle, Lord Torsin, are the Skalan envoys to Aurenen."
"Ysanti bek far, my lady," Alec said with a bow.
"Ysanti maril Elustri, Sir Alec," she returned. "Lord Seregil is instructing you in his native language, I see. There are so few nowadays who speak it well."
"And fewer still who speak it so well as you, dear lady," added Seregil.
"It's a pretty language, if one can manage it," Nyreidian rumbled. "I wouldn't dare attempt it in front of you, Lord Seregil. I'm told my pronunciation is grotesque."
"It is!" Melessandra agreed, laughing. "Forgive our interruption, Lord Seregil, but we were just debating whether the portents at the temple tonight were genuine. Would you care to venture the Aurenfaie view?"
Alec watched with interest as Seregil struck a thoughtful pose. "Well, to question the omens' veracity would be tantamount to casting doubt on the Oracle itself, wouldn't you say?"
She gave the admiral a pointed look. "Many would not hesitate to do so."
Seregil tactfully changed the subject. "I understand your uncle accompanied the remains of Corruth i Glamien back to Viresse?"
"Yes, and allow me to offer my sympathies for the loss of your kinsman," said Melessandra. "It must have been a terrible shock in the midst of your own difficulties."
"Thank you. The reports given by the Queen's agents who found him were chilling, to say the least. Yet some good may come of it. Have you heard what the council's reaction was in Aurenen?"
Melessandra rolled her eyes. "Complete uproar. You know the old guard still contends that Skala is accountable for the actions of the Lerans. Yet there are those among the younger members who argue more and more for an end to isolationism. Adzriel a Illia is one of the chief proponents for reconciliation."
"Illia?" asked Alec, pricking up his ears at the familiar name.
"Certainly," Seregil said, giving him a level look that warned discreetly against questions. "What else would it be? Unless you're confusing her with Adzriel a Olien again?"
"Oh-yes. I suppose I must be," Alec managed, wondering what blunder he'd committed this time. "Family names are so much simpler in Mycena,"
Seregil went on lightly. "Poor Alec is still struggling with all our lengthy patronymics and matronymics and lineages."
Melessandra appeared sympathetic. "It must be overwhelming if you're not born to it. But there's Lord Geron and I must speak with him at once. Erismai."
She gave Alec a last, rather puzzled look, then strolled away accompanied by Nyreidian and the others.
"I said something wrong, didn't I?" Alec whispered hurriedly, before some other guest descended on them.
"My fault," Seregil replied with a slight smile. "If I'd been here this last week I'd have thought to prepare you better. Illia was my mother's name. My eldest sister, Adzriel a Illia, was recently made a member of the lia'sidra."
"Sister?" Never, in all the time Alec had known him, had Seregil mentioned his family, or almost anything else about his past in Aurenen. Alec had come to assume that his friend was as much an orphan as himself.
"And eldest? How many do you have?"
"Four, actually. I was the only boy, and the youngest," Seregil replied somewhat tersely.
"Little brother Seregil?" Alec smothered a grin as his entire perception of his friend subtly shifted. He could sense the old barriers going up again, however, and prudently changed the subject. "It sounds like the Skalans want Aurenen as allies again, like they were in the Great War."
"They do, but bad blood over Corruth will get in the way. Our recent discovery may make things worse rather than better, at least for now."
"But it's been almost three hundred years since Corruth disappeared."
"Remember who we're talking about, Alec. Many of the most powerful people on the lia'sidra were his friends and contemporaries. They haven't forgotten the reception he received from the Skalans when he married their queen, or his suspicious disappearance after her death. If Lera hadn't had the poor sense to leave her half sister Corruthesthera alive, there might have been war between the two nations then. As for a new alliance, I'm afraid that may depend more on the Plenimarans in the end. If they join with Zengat—"
"Oh, Lord Seregil! There you are!"
A gaggle of young nobles crowded noisily around them, wreathed in expectant grins.
"We thought you'd never come home," chided a young woman, wrapping her arm through Seregil's. "You missed my autumn revel this year, you know."
Seregil pressed a hand dramatically to his heart. "As I stood on a rolling deck under a full red moon that night, my thoughts were all of you. Can you forgive me?"
"It was a crescent moon; I recall it perfectly. But I'll grant you a conditional pardon if you'll introduce me to your new friend," she fluttered, looking boldly across at Alec, who'd been crowded to the edge of the circle.
Alec smiled his way through an onslaught of complex introductions, noting as he did so that his polite greetings were not always returned with the same grace.
A number of them, in fact, were decidedly cool.
Seregil hesitated as he came to a handsome, auburn-haired dandy surrounded by an entourage of admirers. "Forgive me, sir, I don't believe I've had the pleasure?"
The man gave an elaborate bow. "Pelion i Eirsin Heileus Quirion of Rhiminee, dear sir."
"Not the acclaimed actor, who just played «Ertis» at the Tirarie?" gasped Seregil.
The man puffed visibly. "The same, my lord. I pray you'll forgive my intrusion, but my companions insisted."
"On the contrary, I'm delighted! I hope you'll let me know when you next perform. By all reports, you're the next Kroseus."
"I've been fortunate, was Pelion demurred modestly.
"And well patronized," a man beside him announced. "Do you know that his current role was written specifically for him?"
"We knew you wouldn't mind," a sallow youth confided smugly to Seregil. "Poor Pelion is in love, you see, and his lady friend may turn up here tonight. It's all very tragic and impossible. But we've got another treat for you. Donaeus has composed the most cunningly subtle epos in twenty-three parts. It's a marvelous piece of art!"
Seregil turned to the poet in question, a petulant-looking giant in worn velvets.
"Twenty-three parts? What a monumental undertaking."
"It's glorious," a girl effused. "It's all about the death of Arshelol and Boresthia, but done in the most original fashion. And of course, he'll need a patron. You really must hear it."
"Donaeus, read it for him at once!" cried the sallow one. "No one appreciates the new verse styles so well as Lord Seregil. I'm sure Sir Alec could spare him for a bit."
The slight was not lost on Alec. There were a few suppressed titters, but he maintained his composure.
"Go on, by all means." He smiled, locking gazes with his ostensible rival. "The significance of poetry has always eluded me. Honest ballads and sword fights are more to my taste."
"Well then, let's go up to the library," said Seregil, giving Alec an amused wink as he ushered them upstairs.
Turning, Alec nearly collided with Myrhini and Beka Cavish, who'd drifted over with their uniformed comrades.
"Arrogant little turds, aren't they?" Beka muttered, glowering after the poet's entourage. "I run into a bit of that myself now and then."
"What could they have against me?" Alec burst out, not knowing whether to be more amused or insulted.
"Nothing, except that you had the poor taste to be born north of the Cirna Canal."
"There are always a few like that." Myrhini shrugged, then skillfully snagged a tray of wine cups from a passing server. "Scattering a few teeth usually quiets 'em down. In your case though, it's more likely just whey-blooded jealousy. There's more than a few among that set who'd like to be in your boots."
She paused to run an eye over him. "You're looking fitter than last time I saw you. Klia's at the Vigil, and sends her regards. I go on duty in a few hours, but felt honor-bound to assess the new recruit here, seeing as how she's under my command. Rider Beka tells me you've crossed blades a time or two— But here's someone else we know!"
"Valerius of Colath, Drysian of the First Order and High Priest of the Temple of Dalna at Rhiminee," Runcer announced.
Valerius strode into the room still clad in his ceremonial robe and circlet, though he'd exchanged the ivory staff for his old wooden one.
"The blessing of Dalna be on this house and those within it," he intoned, thumping the floor.
Alec hurried forward to greet him. "Welcome. Seregil just went upstairs to hear a poet, but he should be back soon."
The drysian let out an inelegant snort. "That fool Donaeus, no doubt, spouting his doggerel in twenty-three fatuous farts? He must still be scratching around for a patron. He read bits of the mess at Lady Arbella's banquet last week. Fairly took away my appetite. If he corners Seregil with the whole of it, we're not likely to get him back before dawn."
"Maybe Alec should go rescue him," suggested Beka.
"No, leave him. Serves him right for encouraging that pack of pedantic buffoons. What knavery have you two been up to these days? Learning swordplay, I hear, Alec?" The drysian lowered his voice to a confidential rumble. "You'll need it, considering the company you've fallen into."
"And look at you!" he exclaimed, glowering at Beka. "Running off to join regiments instead of getting married like a good Dalnan girl? This young fellow here is about your age, isn't he?"
"Leave off, you," Myrhini cried, laughing as Beka shifted uncomfortably. "She's the best rider I've had this year and I don't want to lose her to the hearth."
"Valerius!" Seregil called as he came down the stairs, apparently having escaped from the poets on his own. "Did you get Old Sakor safely launched?"
Valerius chuckled. "There's considerable chop on the harbor tonight. Poor old Morantiel was as green as a squash before they left the mooring, but I suspect he'll survive."
"I thought he sounded rather unsteady during the prophecy," Seregil remarked casually, signaling for a wine server.
"After all these years of shamming, I imagine it was a bit of a shock when something mystical actually occurred."
"Then you believe it was genuine?"
Valerius raised a bristling eyebrow. "You know as well as I do it was. I don't know what that "Eater of Death" business was all about, but I didn't like the feel of those ravens." At the door, Runcer stepped forward again and announced, "Nysander i Azusthra Hypirius Meksandor Illandi, High Thaumaturgist of the Third Oreska, with the Lady Magyana a Rhioni Methistabel Tinuva Ylani, High Thaumaturgist of the Third Oreska. And Sir Micum Cavish of Watermead, with Dame Kari and daughters Elsbet and Illia."
Nysander and Magyana, normally the least ostentatious wizards of the Oreska, had put on the rich ceremonial robes befitting their status in honor of the occasion. Behind them, the Cavishes were as splendidly rigged out as any lord in the room.
Illia clung to her mother's hand, squirming with excitement in her new dress. Elsbet looked poised and solemn in burgundy velvet.
"Didn't you invite Thero?" Alec whispered teasingly to Seregil.
"I always invite Thero! But watch. We're in for a treat."
At his signal, the musicians stilled their instruments. The other guests stepped back as Nysander escorted Magyana to the center of the room.
With a slight nod to their host, he waved a hand about in a swift, careless gesture and the painted walls sprang to life.
The high chamber was frescoed from floor to ceiling to imitate a forest glade. The branches of life-size oaks hung with flowering vines extended across the vaulted ceiling overhead. Between their grey trunks distant vistas of mountain and sea were visible. Even the stone gallery at the back of the room, where the musicians softly played, was carved and latticed to resemble a leafy bower.
At Nysander's command, golden light from some unseen sun glowed across the scene. A soft breeze stirred around the room, carrying with it the scent of flowers and warm earth overlaid with a hint of the distant painted sea. The painted trees stirred in the breeze, dappling shadows across the floor. Painted birds left their places and fluttered through the branches, filling the air with song.
A murmur of delight greeted the display, but the wizards were not finished. Magyana drew a crystal wand from her sleeve and wove the tip of it in the air, conjuring a perfect sphere of iridescent light the size of a pomegranate.
"Come, my lord." She smiled, motioning to Seregil.
"As host, the honor belongs to you."
"An honor which I in turn bestow on Sir Alec on this, his first Mourning Night with us."
Amid a flurry of applause, Alec followed Magyana's whispered instructions and reached out a finger as if to burst a child's soap bubble.
At his touch the sphere burst in a brilliant scintilla of light. Seconds later the thud of hooves against turf sounded near the gallery as a herd of white deer materialized in the painted forest and galloped once around the room before settling to graze near the dining-room archway.
Rainbow-winged serpents swooped up from a painted cavern, singing with beautiful voices. Winged sprites and willow branch maidens peeped shyly from tree trunks.
Laughing and clapping delightedly, the guests spun around to take in the spectacle. Illia pulled loose from Kari and ran to Beka, leaping into her sister's arms.
"It's magic, Beka! Real wizard magic! And you've got your uniform. You're a horse guard!"
Beka hugged her back, grinning. "That's just what I am."
"We must have proper music!" cried Seregil.
"Fiddlers, give us "The Shepherd's Idyll'!"
The musicians set to with a will and couples paired for the sprightly dance.
"Here you are!" Kari exclaimed, coming to embrace her eldest daughter.
"She was afraid we wouldn't see you before tomorrow," Micum explained. "She's been fretting about it all afternoon."
"Oh, I was not," snapped his wife. "Turn around, girl. Let me see all of you!"
"Thero was otherwise engaged, I see," Seregil remarked with a sly glance at Nysander.
"Ah, hello, Valerius," said Nysander, escorting Magyana over to them again. "You acquitted yourself bravely in the sanctuary this evening. were the ravens saying anything intelligible?"
"We were just discussing that," the drysian replied.
"Heavy-handed as the Sakorans are with their "oracles," they weren't responsible for the birds, or that business with the Aegis, if I'm any judge."
"It was unquestionably magic of some sort," mused Magyana. "It may be a portent from Sakor, but it bodes ill nonetheless."
"It certainly bears looking into," agreed Nysander, "but just now I cannot seem to resist the music. Do you think we have a dance or two left in us, my dear?"
"I think they'll have to chain your feet together to keep them still when they bury you," Magyana replied with a twinkle.
Valerius watched with gruff fondness as the pair danced away. "Ridiculous, that Oreskan celibacy of hers. Those two should have married centuries ago." Then something else appeared to catch his eye and a wry grin spread in the depths of his black beard. "Now there's someone I didn't expect to see here tonight. And just look who he's with!"
"Ylinestra a Maranial Wisthra Ylinena Erind, Sorceress of Erind," announced Runcer.
"And Thero i Procepios Bynardin Chylnir Rhiminee, Wizard of the Second Order, of the Third Oreska."
"Well, well!" murmured Seregil.
Thero did look uncharacteristically sanguine, standing at the head of the chamber with Ylinestra on his arm. The sorceress' silk gown glittered with jeweled beading and the bodice, fashionable in the extreme, showed pink half-crescent hints of nipple beneath the heavy necklace of pearl and jet she wore over her bared breasts. Her ebony hair was caught back in a similar jeweled web, exposing a graceful white neck.
Seregil propelled Alec forward with a gentle nudge. "Come on, Sir Alec. Let's greet our illustrious guests."
"Welcome to my home, lady," he said, stepping up to kiss her hand.
"Thank you, Lord Seregil," she replied with a cool nod. "And this must be your new companion I've been hearing so much about?"
"Alec of Ivywell," Alec told her, wondering with sudden discomfort whether she recalled their first brief, tempestuous meeting soon after his arrival at the Oreska House. If she did, however, she gave no sign of it. Extending her hand, she enveloped him with a heart-stopping smile.
"Ah, a Mycenian. How delightful."
She clearly meant for him to kiss her hand and he bent dutifully over it. A faint perfume rose in his nostrils, subtle yet strangely compelling.
Her hand, so warm and soft, lingered in his, and as he raised his head, his eyes swept across her breasts to her lovely violet eyes with a studied enjoyment he wouldn't have imagined himself capable of. Still she held him, and her low-pitched voice sent an unfamiliar tingle through his body when she spoke.
"Nysander speaks so warmly of you. I hope that we may know one another better."
"I'm honored, lady," Alec replied, his voice sounding distant in his ears. She withdrew her hand at last and the world returned to normal.
"Good evening," Thero said stiffly, looking somewhat less than pleased to be there.
"Forgive Thero's bad grace," Ylinestra murmured, once more wrapping Alec in the warm embrace of her eyes. "He is here only as a favor to me, I fear, and is being quite sulky. Come, Thero, perhaps wine will improve your disposition."
As he escorted her into the throng, the actor Pelion stepped into their path with an elaborate bow, which Thero evaded with a curt and proprietary nod. Pelion fell back a pace, then followed Ylinestra with lovesick eyes.
"Ah, so that's the actor's hopeless love," Seregil noted with a smirk. "He's certainly got some competition tonight. And if Thero gets any stiffer, he's likely to fall over and break."
"She was kind of abrupt with you, I thought," observed Alec.
"Well, I'm not exactly her type. Evidently you are."
Alec colored warmly. Her perfume still clung to his fingers. "I only greeted her."
The musicians struck up a reel and he turned to watch the dancers. Micum swirled by with Kari, laughing and smiling; Nysander and Magyana followed close behind. One of the poets had somehow captured Elsbet and she blushed happily as he swept her along. Across the room, Ylinestra was chatting with the actor while Thero hovered close at hand with badly concealed impatience.
"What's she doing with Thero?" Alec wondered aloud.
"Judging by the look of him, nothing he'd want Nysander to know about," Valerius remarked.
"Nysander knows," said Seregil. "I think he was getting bored with her, anyway, but I still say it was bad manners for her to grab Thero next."
"I doubt if she was the only one doing the grabbing," scoffed Valerius. "If he wants to stick his head in the dragon's mouth, let him. Just see that young Alec here keeps a safe distance."
"I just greeted her, for—" Alec sputtered, but was interrupted by Myrhini and Beka.
"I'm off for the Vigil," said Myrhini. "Hope to see you all at the investiture tomorrow."
As soon as the captain was gone, Beka turned to Alec with a knowing grin. "Ylinestra's very beautiful, wouldn't you say?"
Alec groaned. "What was I supposed to do, knock her down?"
"For a minute there I thought you were going to."
"Well, I'm sure I'm no danger to her, when she can obviously have her pick of any man in Rhiminee," he countered. "What about you, though? Can you dance in uniform?"
Beka looked down at her tabard and boots. "I think we can manage."
They made a passable business of the reel and went on dancing when the next song began, in truth, Beka was in such high spirits over her commission that Alec thought she could probably fly if the notion struck her. They soon caught each other's rhythm and went on dancing with scarcely a break until Micum cut in to say that Kari and the younger girls were retiring for the night.
"I didn't realize how late it had gotten," Beka said, letting go of Alec's hand with evident regret. "I'll go up and visit with Mother a while before I head back to the barracks. I've got to be up early for the ceremony."
Giving Alec a quick peck on the cheek, she added, "You and Seregil are coming, aren't you? There'll be hundreds of us, of course, so you probably won't even see me."
"With that hair?" Alec teased, tugging at the end of her coppery braid. "You'll stick out like a drunkard's nose!"
"I'll remember that remark the next time we work on your swordplay," Beka warned with a dire grin. "Until tomorrow, then."
Left to his own devices again, he looked for Seregil and spotted him on the far side of the crowded floor. No sooner had he worked his way through the crowd, however, when Seregil was waylaid by a noble complaining at length about some shipping venture he and Seregil were involved with. Alec listened politely for a time, but his attention soon wandered.
Looking around, he realized that the number of guests was dwindling. Off for more "games in the dark," as Kylith had teased. Nysander and Magyana were still there, moving with stately grace through the circle of a galliard. Thero was dancing as well, but not with Ylinestra.
"Where's she gotten to?" Alec wondered, looking around again.
In the garden.
The soft, caressing whisper came at his very ear, for him alone to hear.
Come into the garden.
There was no question this time; it was Ylinestra's voice.
The mysterious summons came again, and with it a delicious languor. A couple walked past, lightwands in hand, and he marveled at the rainbow corona surrounding each glowing stone. The whole room, in fact, had taken on a warmer tone.
Perhaps Nysander and Magyana were tinkering with their creation? Skirting the dancers, he slipped unnoticed into the dining room and on out into the darkened garden.
Here. Come to me.
The voice guided him to a far corner of the garden screened by a small arbor.
He heard a faint sigh of silk and Ylinestra's pale face resolved from the darkness. Her hands found his and lifted them to rest just above her hips.
She was slender and supple between his hands and he spread his fingers to better appreciate the sensation of her warmth beneath the cold fabric.
"My lady, I don't understand," he whispered, some small, distant part of him distinctly alarmed at his own actions. He'd never felt like this in his life.
"What is there to understand, lovely boy?"
How small she seemed, here in the darkness. Her lips brushed his chin as she spoke, her violet eyes pools of night just below his own.
"But Nysander—Thero? I thought—"
She laughed softly, and the sound drowned his own trepidation in another rush of voluptuous sensation.
"I do as I please, Alec, and I take what I want. And just now, I want you."
Her hands found his again, holding his palms flat against her as she slid them upward. The roughness of embroidery met his touch, then the netted web of the necklace over her breasts.
"You're trembling. Does my little magic frighten you? Do still frighten you?"
Alec drew a ragged breath. "I–I don't know."
Part of him sensed a snare, a trap, yet his whole body was gripped by a yearning unlike anything he'd ever known. Her scent
filled his nostrils again as she slipped his fingertips beneath the edge of her necklace to press the bare, yielding swell of a breast.
"You have only to ask, Alec. I'll release you if you ask. Shall I free you?"
She slipped a hand to the back of his neck to rest where Seregil's so often did. Then she kissed him again, her lips parting, tongue gently seeking entrance and gaining it as her other hand stroked his side. Pulling him closer, she kissed her way to his neck.
"So young, so smooth," she murmured, the touch of her breath sending a profound warmth to his loins. "So beautiful. Have you known a woman? No? So much the better." She shifted slightly, bringing a half-exposed nipple against his fingers. "Tell me, shall I release you now?"
"Yes! No— I don't know—"
Alec groaned softly, then embraced her. Magic or not, newly awakened passions suffused him and he found her lips again, returning kiss for kiss.
"Close your eyes, my darling," she whispered.
"Shut them tight and I'll show you another trick."
Alec obeyed, and was startled to feel himself falling, tumbling onto something soft. When he opened his eyes again, the two of them were lying in the heavily draped enclosure of a huge bed. The forbidden glow of candlelight filtered through layers of colored silk, just bright enough for him to see that somewhere in the transition, their clothing had been left behind.
"Something wrong, my dear?" asked Nysander, seeing Magyana frowning over his shoulder as they danced.
"I was just watching Thero. He's looking dour again, and he seemed to be having such a pleasant time.
Has Seregil been teasing him again?"
"Not that I observed."
Thero hovered grimly in a far corner, oblivious to the band of nymphs dancing on the wall just behind him as he scanned the room.
"I suspect Ylinestra has found more spirited companionship for the evening," he guessed.
"Mmm. Well, that is a great deal less surprising than seeing them together in the first place. What in the world does she want with him?"
"He is not such a bad-looking lad," Nysander said. "And he is young."
"Yes, but he's also your assistant," sniffed Magyana. "I realize you don't mind, but it still seems rather tactless of them."
Nysander chuckled knowingly. "Passion is seldom governed by such niceties."
Just then, however, he caught sight of Seregil standing by the cider barrel. He was fiddling absently with a mug and looking rather perplexed.
"Come, my dear, you must be thirsty," said the wizard, steering her in Seregil's direction.
"You haven't seen Alec in the last few minutes?" Seregil asked as they joined him.
The gloves were gone, Nysander noted, but a spotless strip of linen still bound each hand. He wondered what sort of explanation he'd concocted for his guests.
"Why, no. Is he missing?" replied the wizard.
"I don't know. It's been almost an hour since I last saw him. I've just been all over the house and he's not here. It's not like him to wander off. Could you take a look?"
Nysander closed his eyes and sent a seeking through the house and surrounding neighborhood, then shook his head.
"You don't suppose-?" Magyana gestured discreetly in Thero's direction.
Reluctantly, Nysander sent another of the spells to Ylinestra's chamber, intending nothing more than a brief glimpse to ascertain the boy's presence.
As he'd feared, Alec was there, but the energies surrounding him were not sexual.
"What is it? Is something wrong?" Seregil asked beside him.
Nysander held up a warning hand without opening his eyes. "He is well. But I shall need a few moments—"
Intensifying the spell, he found Ylinestra crouched over Alec, who appeared to be asleep, sprawled on his back among the disheveled blankets with a blissful smile on his face. In contrast, Ylinestra's face was a hard mask of concentration as she wove an unfamiliar sigil in the air above him. As it took form, the peaceful expression drained from Alec's face. At first he simply looked blank, then his brow furrowed as he unconsciously turned his face away, a low sound of protest rattling in his throat. The sorceress leaned closer, enlarging the glowing symbol, then struck him sharply on the cheek in frustration.
"That will be quite enough, Ylinestra!"
She whirled in surprise. The sigil snapped out of existence.
"Nysander? How dare you spy into my chamber!" she hissed, eyes wide with outrage at his disembodied intrusion. "You have no right!"
"More right than you, to work magic on an unwilling subject," Nysander retorted sternly. "Send him back at once or I shall fetch him myself."
"Such a fuss," she purred, stroking a hand down Alec's belly, knowing he would see. "I assure you, I did him no harm."
"That remains to be seen."
A moment later Nysander felt a ripple of magic from upstairs. When had she mastered the translocation spell?
With Seregil and Magyana close behind, he went up and found Alec deeply asleep in his own chamber. Satisfied that the boy was unharmed, he placed a protective ward over the bed to curtail any further mischief and quietly closed the door.
"Well, I suspect I won't be teasing him about his virginity anymore," Seregil said, sounding a bit wistful. "He certainly fell in to the spirit of the evening in a hurry."
"I doubt it was entirely his own doing," Magyana said, wrinkling her nose in prim distaste. "If it turns out he was coerced, I want to know about it. There's no place for that sort of behavior in the Oreska."
"Certainly not," Nysander said, thinking more of the mysterious sigil she'd been using. "Still, if it was his choice to go off with her, we must not make a fuss. He is old enough to decide that sort of thing for himself."
Seregil let out an abrupt laugh. "I suppose he is, really. But it may cause a bit of a chill between him and Thero."
The roar of festival gongs woke Alec at dawn. Blinking, he gazed up in groggy confusion at the bed hangings, a pomegranate pattern worked with scarlet.
He'd gone to sleep beneath layers of colored silk lit by candle glow. Ylinestra had been looking down at him, her eyes vague with pleasure.
A delicious ache ran through him at the memory, but with it came a twinge of anxiety that he couldn't immediately explain.
Stretching himself fully awake, he sat up to find Seregil dozing in an armchair beside the bed. He was still wearing last night's breeches and shirt. Slouched to one side, arms crossed tightly across his chest, he looked profoundly uncomfortable.
Alec shook him gently by the elbow and he jerked awake, rubbing painfully at his neck.
"How'd I get here?" Alec asked.
"She sent you back, I guess." The beginnings of a dangerous grin played at the corners of his mouth.
"Ylinestra, eh? And after all Valerius' warnings. Enjoy yourself?"
"Oh-yes. I mean, I did, I guess—"
Alec fell back against the pillows with a groan. "It's just that, well—I think she used some magic. At first, anyway."
"So that's what it takes." Chuckling, Seregil leaned forward and touched a finger to Alec's cheek.
"And the kind that leaves marks, too. You all right?"
Alec brushed his hand away, feeling more awkward than ever. "Yes, of course I'm all right. It was great. Just sort of—strange." He hesitated. "Do you dream? Afterward, I mean?"
"I usually talk. Why, did you?"
"Yes. I remember thinking that I was falling asleep but not wanting to. And then I saw the spinning dagger."
Seregil raised a questioning eyebrow. "The what?"
"The spinning dagger that Nysander used when I swore the Watcher's oath. It was right in front of my face, just like before, and I was afraid to say anything for fear it would cut me. I could hear Nysander's voice, too, but like it was coming from far away. I couldn't understand what he was saying. There was something else, too." He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to seize the elusive fragment. "Something about an arrow."
Seregil shook his head. "You're whisked away and made love to by the most exotic woman in Rhiminee and it gives you nightmares? You're a strange creature, Alec, a very strange creature." He grinned. "I just hope you're not too worn out. This is the biggest celebration of the year. And we'd better get ready. The Cavishes are probably already at breakfast downstairs."
Alec lay in bed a moment longer after he left, trying to sort out his feelings about the previous night's unexpected climax. He knew better than to imagine that Ylinestra considered him anything more than a virginal conquest; he doubted she'd give him a second glance the next time they met.
At least he hoped not. Pleasurable as the physical act—or rather, acts—had been, the whole affair had left him feeling low and begrimed.
Seregil's well-intentioned ribbing had only underscored his own confusion.
The sorceress' scent rose from his skin as Alec threw back the covers and got up. Wrapping himself in a robe, he called for the chambermaid, asking her to prepare a bath and see to it that his bedding was changed.
The bath helped considerably and he headed downstairs in somewhat better spirits. His one remaining qualm was that Seregil had already blabbed his exploits to Micum or Kari. But no one gave signs of being any the wiser when he joined the cheerful group around the dining table, although Seregil did raise a questioning eyebrow at his damp hair.
Illia was too excited by the prospect of a day in the city to let anyone linger over their morning tea. As soon as the meal was finished the whole party set off for the Temple Precinct.
Kari and the girls rode in a comfortable open carriage, with the men riding attendance on horseback.
In contrast to the austerity of Mourning Night, Sakor's Day was celebrated with wild abandon.
Horns blared, ale flowed, bonfires blazed at all hours.
Looking around as they rode, it appeared to Alec that there was a performance of some kind-animal trainers, jugglers, troops of actors performing out of skene wagons, fire dancers, and the like—on virtually every street corner. Food sellers, gamblers, whores, and pickpockets mingled with the revelers, plying their trades.
"It's all so loud and exciting!" exclaimed Elsbet, riding along beside him.
"You'll get used to it," Alec replied.
The girl grinned. "Oh, I look forward to that."
The main event of the day was the annual investing of new troops at midday. Sakor was the patron god of soldiers and the recognition of new troops was at once a martial and religious occasion.
In the Temple Precinct, the tiers of seating had been cleared away to make room for the ranks of new soldiers formed up in front of the Sakor Temple.
The day was a cloudless, bitter one and even Alec was glad of the heavy, fur-lined cloak he wore over his velvet surcoat. Seregil chatted idly with other nobles, introducing Alec to this one or that as the fancy took him.
"I've never seen so many new recruits, have you?" Kari asked Seregil, shading her eyes with one hand as they stood together on the steps of the Temple of Illior.
He shook his head. "No, never."
"Where's Beka?" Illia demanded, bouncing excitedly on her father's shoulder.
"Over with those in green there." Micum pointed out the Queen's Horse, raising his voice to make himself heard.
Glancing at Kari, Alec thought she looked rather sad and thoughtful. As if sensing his gaze, she looked over at him and held a hand out for his.
By the time the last ranks had marched in, the close-packed regimental groupings looked like colored tiles in a huge mosaic. The Queen's Horse was a block of green and white directly in front of the Temple of Sakor.
"Look, there's the Queen," said Micum.
"They'll start now."
Looking solemn and proud despite her long vigil, Idrilain took her place between the pillars of the Sakor Temple. She wore flowing robes of state and an emerald diadem and carried the Sword of Gerilain upright on her shoulder like a scepter. The golden Aegis gleamed behind her as she stood motionless before the troops, the faint vapor of her breath visible on the cold air. The tableau was intentional; there was no doubt to whom the oath was to be given. The priests might be allowed their mysteries in the darkness, but here, in the light of day, stood the embodiment of Skalan power.
Placing the sword point downward in front of her,
Idrilain grasped the hilt in both hands and began the ritual.
"Come you here to swear the Oath?" she cried, her voice carrying clear and harsh as if across a field of battle.
"Aye!" came the response from a thousand throats, thundering in the stone confines of the precinct.
From the corner of his eye, Alec saw Micum and Seregil drop their hands to their sword hilts, as did many around them. Without a word, he did the same.
"To whom do you swear?"
"To the throne of Skala and the Queen who rules!" returned the initiate soldiers.
"By what do you swear?"
"By the Four, by the Flame, by our honor, and our arms!"
"Swear then to uphold the honor of your land and Queen!"
"Swear then to give no quarter to the adversary."
"Swear then to spare the supplicant."
"Foreswear all that brings dishonor upon your comrades."
Idrilain paused, letting a moment pass in stillness. Then, in a voice that would have done credit to any sergeant, she barked out, "Display arms!"
With a ringing of steel, the various regiments brandished their weapons: swords and sabers glinted in the sunlight; small forests of lances sprang to attention; archers beat arrow shafts against longbows, producing a strange clacking sound; artillery soldiers held catapult stones aloft. Standards unfurled on cue to snap brightly over the throng.
"Then so are you all sworn together!" cried Idrilain, raising her sword overhead. "By the Four and the Flame, by land and Queen, by honor and arms. Warriors of Skala, sound your cries!"
A deafening roar filled the square as each regiment shouted its own battle cry, vying with the others to make their voices heard.
"The Queen's honor!"
"Honor and steel!"
"The Flame on the Seal"
"True aim and well sped!"
"The White Hawk!"
Drummers and pipers stepped from behind the temple pillars, setting up a martial tattoo. Great horns as long as the men that sounded them blared and bellowed on the rooftops as the ranks turned and began to march out of the square.
"It all makes you want to join in with it, doesn't it?" Alec grinned, pulse quickening with the beat of the drums.
Laughing, Seregil threw an arm around Alec's shoulders and drew him away, shouting over the din, "That's the whole idea."
The clamor at dawn went unheard by Nysander.
Seated cross-legged on the floor of the casting room, a long dead candle guttered out before him, he floated in the dim oblivion of meditation.
Images came and went, yet nothing substantial came into his grasp.
After seeing Magyana to her tower door the previous night, he'd made his usual tour of the vaults beneath the Oreska, then found himself leaving first the House, then the sheltered gardens, to stalk alone through the windy streets.
Hands clasped behind his back, he walked aimlessly, as if trying to escape the anger that had been building slowly inside him from the moment he'd found Ylinestra hovering over Alec in her chamber.
Much of this anger was directed at himself. Ylinestra had meant no more to him than a voluptuous diversion possessed of a mind of uncommon ability. Yet he had allowed his carnal desires to blind him to the true depths of her cupidity. Her sudden dalliance with Thero had reawakened his lulled sense of prudence. What he'd witnessed this night strengthened his suspicions.
He let out an exasperated growl. The Black Time was coming, he knew, coming in the course of his own Guardianship. Was he prepared?
He had an assistant he could not completely trust and yet hardly dared release. A sorceress twenty decades his junior had him passion-blind.
Nysander clenched his hands, digging the nails into his palms. Seregil, whom he loved as a son and a friend, had very nearly condemned himself to death through his own obstinate inquisitiveness. Alec would prove no different in time—that much was already clear.
For the first time in years, he found himself wondering what his own master would have to say about all this. Arkoniel's craggy face came to him as readily as if he'd seen him only the day before.
He'd been old when Nysander had first met him and never seemed to change. How fervently the young Nysander—that desperate, quick-tempered urchin of the streets, plucked starving from the squalor of the lower city-had tried to emulate the old man's patience and wisdom.
But from Arkoniel he'd also inherited the burden of the Guardianship, that dark thread of knowledge that must be kept at once intact and concealed. A thread that the events of the past few months, beginning with Seregil's finding the cursed disk and culminating tonight with the omens at the ceremony, showed to be nearing its end.
Finding no answers in the night, he'd returned to his tower and prepared for a formal meditation. Dawn found him motionless and seemingly serene. He'd been dimly aware of Thero's arrival and respectful withdrawal.
As the last light of Sakor's Day faded above the tower dome, Nysander opened his eyes, no wiser than when he'd begun. Denied inspiration, he was left with facts. Seregil had stumbled across the disk, ostensibly by accident, then found his way to the Oracle of Illior, who'd recited a fragment of a prophecy no one but Nysander himself had any business knowing about. Last night the same words—"Eater of Death" — had been spoken by the priest of Sakor following the strange omen of carrion birds.
Rising, he worked the stiffness from his joints and set off for the Temple Precinct again.
A cold sliver of moon was just sliding up from behind the white dome of the Temple of Illior when he arrived. Taking this as a favorable sign, he entered the temple and donned the ritual mask.
He'd sought the counsel of the Oracle only a few times before, and then more often in the spirit of curiosity. His devotion to Illior took a different form than that of the priests.
But now he hurried onward with a growing sense of anticipation. Snapping a light of his own into existence, he made his way down the twisting, treacherous stairway to the subterranean chamber of the Oracle. At the bottom he extinguished the light and strode on through the utter blackness of the corridor, more convinced with every step that the poor, mad creature at its end had answers to offer.
A lumpish, disheveled young man squatting on a pallet bed looked up as he entered. This was not the same Oracle Nysander recalled, of course, yet all the rest was as before: the profound silence, the dim, cold light, the attendants seated motionless on either side of the idiot vessel of the Immortal, featureless silver masks gleaming from the depths of their cowls.
"Greetings to you, Guardian!" he cried, vague eyes locking with Nysander's.
"You know me?"
"Who you are is nothing," the Oracle replied, rocking slowly from side to side. "What you are is everything. Everything. Prepare, O Guardian. The ordeal is close at hand. Have you preserved what was entrusted?"
"I have." Nysander suddenly felt weary beyond words.
How many times had he walked through the dusty labyrinth beneath the Oreska House, feigning absent curiosity? How many years had it taken to cultivate his reputation as an eccentric, albeit powerful, dabbler? How much had he sacrificed to uphold the trust of generations?
"Stand ready, O Guardian, and be vigilant," the Oracle continued. "Your time approaches out of darkness and hidden places. The minions of the Adversary ride forth in secret glory. Your portion shall be bitter as gall."
The silence closed over them again like the surface of a pool. Into that silence Nysander slowly recited words that, to his knowledge, had not been said aloud in nearly five centuries. It was a fragment of the "Dream of Hyradin," the one faint ray of hope he and all his predecessors had clung to down the long years of their vigil.
"And so came the Beautiful One, the Eater of Death, to strip the bones of the world.
First clothed in Man's flesh, it came crowned with a helm of darkness and none could stand against this
One but Four.
"First shall be the Guardian, a vessel of light in the darkness.
Then the Shaft and the Vanguard, who shall fail and yet not fail if the
Guide, the Unseen
One, goes forth. And at last shall be again the
Guardian, whose portion is bitter, as bitter as gall."
The Oracle said nothing to this, but gazed up at him with eyes that held no alternative.
After a moment, Nysander bowed slightly and went back the way he'd come, in darkness and alone.
Alec had hoped that their stay at Wheel Street would be brief—a week perhaps, to satisfy appearances. But the week stretched into two, and then lengthened to a month. Seregil had "daylight business" to attend to, as he called his numerous legitimate interests around the city. They spent a great deal of time in the lower city, where he met with ship captains in warehouses smelling of tar and low tide, or haggled with traders at the customs houses. This meant that for the time being their comfortable rooms over the Cockerel were generally off-limits; they couldn't chance a connection being made between Lord Seregil and the inn.
The business transactions bored Alec, but he contented himself with observing how Seregil played the role. Despite his affectations, he had the common touch that invited confidence and respect. He also had a reputation for openhandedness in certain matters; tradesmen were happy enough to pass on whatever rumors were current and there was little going on, legal or otherwise, which Seregil didn't soon hear of.
Equally important were the evening salons. Once it was known that the elusive Lord Seregil was home at last, a veritable deluge of scented, wax-sealed invitations poured in.
Thrown together night after night with nobles of all degrees, Alec gradually learned the gentle art of conversational thrust and parry so necessary to navigate the intricate waters of Skalan politics.
"Intrigue!" Seregil laughed when Alec groaned over manner once too often. "That's our bread and butter, and the only intrigue that pay are those of the wealthy. Smile nicely, nod often, an less-than keep your ears open."
Alec's presence excited a certain amount of comment at first and rumors regarding his relationship with Seregil circulate
hotly. The higher-minded accepted that he really was—Seregil's ward, or perhaps his illegitimate son, though the majority of opinion tended toward less altruistic possibilities. Alec was mortified, but Seregil shrugged it off.
"Don't let it bother you," he counseled. "In these circles the only thing worse than being slandered is not being talked about at all. In a month or two they'll forget all about it and think you've been around for years."
To this end, they made a point of frequenting the better theater and gambling houses. The Tirade Theater in the Street of Light was a favorite haunt of Seregil's, particularly when Pelion i Eirsil was on stage.
Alec was an instant aficionado of drama.
Brought up on ballad and tavern tales, he was amazed to see stories played out by a fill cast in costume. Whether he understood the story line or not—he frequently didn't—the pageantry of it was enough to keep him enthralled through the entire performance.
And through it all, Alec's education continued—lock work and swordsmanship, etiquette and lineage, history and disguise, the picking of surcoats and the picking of pockets—together with a hundred other skills Seregil deemed indispensable for an aspiring spy.
One grey morning several weeks after the Festival Seregil handed Alec a sealed note from the pile of new correspondence a his elbow as they sat over a late breakfast.
Breaking the seal, he read a hastily scrawled note from Beka Cavish.
Can get free a few hours this afternoon. Fancy a ride? If so, meet me at the Cirna Road gate at noon.
"You don't need me this afternoon, do you?" he asked hopefully, passing the note to Seregil. "I haven't seen her since the investiture."
Seregil nodded. "Go on. I think I can manage without you."
Arriving at the Harvest Market well before the appointed time, Alec found Beka already waiting for him by the city gate. The way she sat her horse, reins held casually in one hand, her other elbow cocked out at a jaunty angle beneath her green cloak, spoke volumes; she looked born to soldiering.
"Aren't you still the fine young dandy?" she called as he maneuvered Windrunner through the market crowd.
"Seregil's making a gentleman of me, after all." He struck a haughty pose. "Soon I'll be too good to hang about with the likes of you."
"Then we'd better get on with it while we still can. I need a good run," she said, grinning at him.
Nudging Wyvern into a trot, she led the way through the gate.
As soon as they were past the curtain wall beyond, they kicked their mounts into a gallop and rode north along the cliffs. The frozen roadway rang like metal under their horses' hooves; the sea gave back a metallic sheen beneath the pale winter sky. To the east, the mountain peaks gleamed white against the lowering sky.
Side by side, cloaks streaming out behind them, Alec and Beka raced along the highroad for a mile or more, then veered off into a meadow overlooking the sea.
"That's quite a harness you've got on Wyvern,"
Alec remarked, noting the leather breastplate and frontlet.
"That's to accustom him to the feel of it," she explained. "For battle, the leather's replaced with felt pads and bronze plates."
"How do you like military life? And what do I call you now?"
"We all start as riders, although those of us with commissions are actually officers from the start. I'll be a lieutenant when we ride off to the war. Right now all the new riders are divided up into training decuria. I'm in the first turma under Captain Myrhini. Lieutenants lead three decuriae, but it's the captain more often than not who leads the drills—"
"Hold on!" Alec interjected, reining in. "You soldiers speak a different language. What's a turma?"
"I'm still getting it all straight myself," she admitted. "Let's see, now—ten riders make a decuria, which is led by a sergeant. Three decuriae to a turma, commanded by a lieutenant; three turmae to a troop and four troops to a squadron; two squadrons to the regiment. What with officers, sutlers and the like, there's about eight hundred of us altogether. Captain Myrhini has command of First Troop of the Lion Squadron under Commander Klia. Commander Perris commands the Wolf Squadron. And the Queen's oldest son, Prince Korathan, is the regimental commander."
"Sounds like a pretty exclusive bunch."
"The Horse Guard is an elite regiment; the officers are all nobles. The riders all have to provide their own mounts and prove themselves at riding and shooting, so most of them are from well— to-do families as well. I'd never have gotten a commission without Seregil's help. Still, elite or not, you should see some of the young blue bloods tumbling off their horses as they try to draw! I tell you, I've never appreciated Father's training so much as now. Sergeant Braknil thinks Captain Myrhini will want to keep me in her troop when I've finished training. I'll have thirty riders under me. But how about you? I suppose Seregil's keeping you pretty busy?"
"Oh, yes." Alec rolled his eyes. "I think I've gotten all of ten hours sleep this week. When we're not arguing with traders or going off to some fancy gathering, he's got me sitting up half the night memorizing royal lineages. I think he secretly means to make me into a scribe."
A little pause spread out and in it he felt the distance opening between them as they headed down their divergent paths. What he really wanted to tell her about were their nocturnal adventures, but Seregil was adamant about secrecy outside Watcher circles. At some point, he thought, Nysander ought to recruit Beka.
Looking up, he found her studying his face with a faint smile. It occurred to him that having grown up around Micum and Seregil, she probably had a fair idea of his unspoken life.
"Did I tell you Seregil's teaching me Aurenfaie?" he said, anxious to reestablish common ground.
He laughed. "You, too?"
"Oh, yes. Elsbet and I were always pestering him to teach us when he came to visit. She had a better head for it, naturally, but I know a little. I suppose you'll need it, too. It's all the fashion among the nobles."
"Seregil says most of them sound like they're talking through a mouthful of wet leather when they try. He's making certain I get it right.
"Makir y'torus eyair. How's that?"
"Korveu tak melilira. Afarya tos hara'beniel?" she replied, wheeling her horse and kicking it into a gallop.
Assuming it had either been an insult or an invitation to another race, Alec galloped after her.
Dusk was settling outside the windows of Seregil's bedchamber when Alec strode in with flushed cheeks and new snow melting in his hair. The sweet tang of a cold ocean wind still clung to him.
"Tell me we don't have to dress up tonight!" he pleaded, dropping down on the hearth rug by Seregil's feet.
Seregil laid his book aside and stretched lazily. "You look like you've had quite an afternoon."
"We rode for miles! I should have taken my bow—we ended up in the hills and there were rabbits everywhere."
"I may have some other hunting for you." Seregil pulled a small scroll from his belt and brandished it between two long fingers. "This was left at the Black Feather for the Rhiminee Cat. It seems Lady Isara has lost some compromising letters and she wants them back. She thinks Baron Makrin's study is a good place to start looking."
"Tonight?" Alec asked, all weariness instantly forgotten.
"I think that's best. It's a pretty straightforward burglary, nothing fancy. Midnight's soon enough. We'll have to wait until the household's settled down, but I don't want to be out in the cold any longer than we have to."
The wind tugged at their cloaks as Seregil and Alec set off for the baron's villa on the west side of the Noble Quarter. They wore coarse workman's tunics, and old traveling cloaks covered the swords slung out of sight over their backs.
They'd gone only a few blocks when Seregil suddenly sensed someone on the street behind them. Touching
Alec lightly on the arm, he turned a corner at random and caught a hint of motion in the shadows behind them.
"Just like that time I was chased into Silvermoon Street," Alec whispered, glancing back nervously.
"I had the same thought, though it's probably just someone out for a midnight stroll. Let's find out."
Leaving the baron for later, he turned right at the next corner, heading east into the heart of the city.
A slice of moon broke free from the clouds, giving just enough light for Seregil to make out a large, dark form trailing them from a discreet distance.
Not so innocent after all, he frowned to himself. Keeping up a steady pace, he strode on into the increasingly poorer streets of the southeast quarter. Their man still kept his distance, but matched them turn for turn.
"Do you hear that?" Alec asked softly.
"That little scraping sound, when he walks over a patch of bare cobbles. I heard it that other time, too."
"Well then, we'd better let him introduce himself."
Wending his way into a disreputable warren of darkened tenements and warehouses, Seregil spotted a familiar alleyway. Pretending to stumble, he reached out and grasped Alec's elbow and signed for him to follow.
Ducking into the alley, he quickly tore off his cloak and tossed it behind a pile of refuse, then pulled himself through a crumbling window frame overhead. Alec was up beside him in an instant. From this vantage point, they watched as their man hesitated, then drew a falchion and went slowly on into the shadows of the alley. From this angle, Seregil couldn't make out his face.
An amateur, but persistent,
Seregil thought, watching as he went half the length of the alley before realizing that it was a dead end, and that his quarry was nowhere in sight.
As he turned, Seregil and Alec dropped lightly to the pavement and drew their swords.
"What do you want?" Seregil demanded.
Undaunted, their pursuer took a step forward, weapon at the ready. "If ever you called yourself Gwethelyn, Lady of Cador Ford, and Ciris, squire of the same, then we've a matter of restitution to discuss."
"Captain Rhal!" Alec examined.
"The same, boy."
"You're a long way from the Darter," said Seregil, hoping he didn't sound as shaken as he felt.
"And a good thing, too," Rhal retorted stiffly, "seeing that she lies rotting at the bottom of the Folcwine River."
"What's that to do with us?"
Rhal advanced another step, flinging his hat aside. "I've traveled a long way to ask you that. Two days below Torburn we put in for water at a little place called Gresher's Ferry. A pack of swordsmen were waiting for us there, and who do you suppose they wanted?"
Alec shifted uncomfortably beside him.
"I'm sure I have no idea," Seregil replied. "Who were they looking for?"
"Two men and a boy, they claimed, but it was you they meant, sure enough. If I hadn't caught you out of your woman's riggings I might not have tumbled, but it was you."
"You're mistaken, though I suppose you set them after us anyway?"
"By the Old Sailor, I did not!" Rhal retorted angrily. "I might have saved myself the loss of a fine ship if I had."
Certain disturbing questions had occurred to Seregil during this exchange, but before he could ask any the three of them were startled by a sudden commotion behind them at the mouth of the alley.
A gang of back alley toughs materialized out of the shadows armed with swords, cudgels, and daggers. Seregil saw in an instant that there were enough of them to be trouble.
To his surprise, he found Rhal at his side, sword leveled at the newcomers. Alec cast him one questioning look, then fell in beside the captain as the ambushers charged in at them.
Rhal took the center, striking right and left with workmanlike efficiency. Seregil had just time enough to pull the poniard free of his boot before he found himself fighting two-handed against a ruffian wielding a quarterstaff.
The alley made for close quarters fighting and the three of them were soon being forced back inch by inch toward the dead end at their backs.
"Trouble above!" Rhal bellowed as a hail of stones and roof tiles clattered down from overhead.
"Press the bastards!"
A heavy tile struck his arm, jarring his sword from his hand. A tall footpad closed in, but Seregil whirled and buried his poniard between the man's ribs. Beside him, Alec struck another across the face. Rhal rolled hastily out from under their feet, scrambling through the dirty snow for his weapon.
More stones rained down but thanks to the darkness or someone's poor aim, most of this load landed among the attackers. In the resulting confusion, Seregil and the others broke free to the street, the gang hot on their heels.
Freed from the confines of the alley, he rounded on the man nearest him and ran him through, then blocked a swing from a quarterstaff. He'd lost sight of Alec, but a fierce yell just behind told him the boy was holding his own.
Seregil was just facing off with two of the footpads when the shrill alarm of a Watch trumpet rang out nearby. A moment later a Watch patrol galloped into sight down the street, weapons drawn. The footpads left off at once and melted away into the shadows like sea smoke before a freshening breeze.
"Come on!" Seregil hissed at Alec and Rhal, and bolted off in the opposite direction.
"What are we running for?" Rhal panted.
"So we don't spend the night inventing lies for some thickheaded bluecoat," Seregil snapped.
Dodging into the next side street, he spotted a sagging bulkhead at the base of a tenement just ahead.
Hoping for the best, he yanked up one of the flat doors and tossed in a lightstone. Worn steps led down to a disused cellar.
Alec and Rhal dove for cover and he followed, pulling the door shut overhead again.
Crouched tensely in the musty darkness, they listened as the Watch made a cursory search of the area and then moved on.
Seregil looked over at Rhal. "Now, you were saying?"
For the space of a few heartbeats Rhal stared blankly back at him, then burst out laughing.
"By the Mariner, I came here to stick a knife in you and now I'm indebted to you for my life. You two had no call to cover me as you did just then."
"You had no call to let us go that night on the Darter"
Seregil replied, picking up the light and heading for the stairs. "But you did, and here we are. The boy and I have some business to attend to just now, but I'd like to continue our earlier discussion. Meet us at the inner room of the Bower in Silk Street, say in an hour's time?"
Rhal considered the invitation, then nodded. "All right then. An hour."
Seregil lifted the bulkhead door cautiously, then climbed out with Alec close behind.
"Are we really going to meet him?" Alec asked as they hurried away.
"He tracked us to Wheel Street. I think we'd better find out how he managed that, don't you?"
Seregil scowled, making no effort to mask his concern. "And who it was that came to him looking for us, although I think I can guess."
The answering look of fear on Alec's face told Seregil that he could, too.
Their unanticipated run-in with Rhal had sapped every ounce of enjoyment from the night for Alec. He floundered through the job in a daze of apprehension.
Seregil had said nothing more on the matter so far, but he couldn't shake the conviction that his own callow ignorance aboard the Darter had somehow led Rhal to them after all these months. And if he'd tracked them, then why not Mardus?
Luckily for him, the burglary was not a particularly challenging one. Evidently a smug, unimaginative fellow, Makrin had hidden the letters in a locked box behind a bit of loose woodwork in his study. Seregil spotted it while Alec was still sorting through the contents of the writing table. With Lady Isara's letters in hand, along with a few other items of interest, they stopped briefly at Wheel Street to deposit the goods, then set off on horseback for the Bower.
This was a discreetly respectable establishment Seregil often used for assignations. A yawning pot boy led them to a room at the back. Rhal was already there, but not alone; Alec immediately recognized the two men with him as the helmsman and first mate from the ill-fated Darter.
They recognized him as well, and returned his greeting with guarded nods, weapons close at hand.
Rhal pushed a wine jug over to them as he and Seregil joined him at the table.
Seregil poured himself a cup, then said without preamble, "Tell me more about Gresher's Ferry."
Rhal eyed him knowingly. "As I said, a pack of armed men was laying for us there."
"A rough-lookin" crew," the helmsman, Skywake, added darkly, "They didn't have no uniforms, but they sat their horses like soldiers."
Alec's heart sank still lower, though Seregil's face remained a carefully neutral mask.
"They came asking after two men and a boy, said they'd stolen the mayor's gold up in Wolde," Rhal continued. "When I told 'em I hadn't carried any three such as they described, they pulled swords and swarmed all over my vessel, bold as you please. Then their leader—a big, black-bearded son of a whore with an accent thick as lentil porridge—he laid into me, calling me a liar and worse in front of my own crew. The more he went on, the less I liked it. By the time he stopped for breath, I'd sooner been drowned than give him satisfaction. So I kept mum and finally they rode off.
"We went on downriver and I thought that was the end of it, but that same night a fire started in the hold and burned so fierce we couldn't even get down to douse it. Everyone got off, but my ship lies burnt and broken against the mud bank below Hullout Bend. That's just a bit too much of a coincidence for my taste, especially since we were carrying silver and bales of vellum that voyage."
"Not the most flammable of cargoes." Seregil regarded Rhal impassively over the rim of his cup. "And so you came looking for us."
"You're not going to tell me you were traveling in disguise just to make a fool of me?" Rhal snorted.
Nettles slammed his fist down on the table. "Then it was you they was looking for!"
"I don't know anything about that," Seregil maintained. "What I'm interested in is how you found me."
"Not much trick to that," Skywake told him, jerking a thumb at Alec. "This boy of yours asked around amongst the crew how to get to Rhiminee just before you got off."
Idiot! Alec silently berated himself, his worst fears confirmed.
"Who did he talk to?" asked Seregil, not looking at him.
"There were a bunch of us on deck that day, as I recall," Nettles replied. "Skywake, you was there, and the cook's boy."
"That's right. And Applescaith. He was the one wanted him to go overland the whole way, remember?"
"Aye. Him, too. And Bosfast."
Alec sat staring down at his wine cup, mouth set in a grim line. How could he have been so green?
He might just as well have drawn their pursuers a map.
Seregil took another sip of wine, considering all this. "And so, with nothing more than a few tenuous suspicions, you chuck everything and head off for Skala to stick a knife in me?" He shook his head in evident bemusement. "Rhiminee's a big place. How in the world did you expect to find us?"
Rhal scrubbed a hand over his thinning hair and gave a short chuckle. "If you aren't the damnedest creature for brass. All right then, I'll tell you straight. You're looking at a ruined man. All I came away with was my instruments and this."
Rhal held up his left hand, displaying a large garnet ring on his little finger. Alec recognized it as the one Seregil had worn while playing Lady Gwethelyn, but what was Rhal doing with it? Looking at Seregil for a reaction, he saw the hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his friend's mouth.
"With the Darter beyond fixing and winter coming on, I didn't see too many prospects for me in the north," Rhal went on. "I was a deepwater sailor in my youth. I took up the Folcwine passage when my uncle willed me his ship and the chance to be my own master. Now with the war brewing up for spring, I figured I maybe could sign on with the navy.
"To tell you the honest truth, I didn't really expect to find you. Then I caught sight of your boy back around the time you had all that trouble with the law. Since then, we've kept watch on that fancy house of yours, hoping to have a quiet chat, as it were. You're a hard pair to track down, though."
"It was you that chased me that night," said Alec.
"That was us." Rhal rubbed a knee with a rueful grin. "You're a tricky little bugger, and fast. I'd figured you two for soft gents and didn't think you'd give us much trouble. After seeing the way you handled yourselves in that alley, though, I believe I'm glad those footpads showed up when they did."
Seregil gave him the crooked grin. "It may be good fortune for all of us, meeting up again."
"How do you figure that?"
"You two" — Seregil turned to Skywake and Nettles—"do you fancy signing on as common sailors with a war coming?"
"We go where our captain goes," Skywake replied stoutly, though it was clear neither he nor the former helmsman were enthusiastic about the prospect.
Seregil looked back to Rhal. "And you, Captain—I'd think it would be difficult to serve after having a vessel of your own."
Alec began to suspect where this conversation was headed.
"Of course, I'd be the last person to discourage anyone from fighting the Plenimarans," Seregil drawled, "but it seems to me there are more rewarding ways of going about it. Have you considered privateering?"
"I've considered it." Rhal shrugged, studying the other man's face with a sharp trader's crafty interest, "but that takes a strong, swift ship and more gold than I'm ever likely to see."
"What it takes," Seregil said, reaching into his belt pouch, "is the proper investors. Would this get you started?"
Opening his hand, Seregil showed them an emerald the size of a walnut glowing in the hollow of his palm.
It was one of many such stones Seregil kept handy as a conveniently portable form of wealth.
"By the Sailor, Captain, did you ever see the like of that!" Nettles gasped.
Rhal glanced down at the stone, then back at Seregil. "Why?"
Seregil placed the stone in the center of the table. "Perhaps I appreciate a man with a sense of humor."
"Skywake, Nettles, wait outside," Rhal said quietly. As they left, Rhal made a questioning gesture in Alec's direction.
Seregil shook his head. "He stays. So, what do you think of my offer. It won't be repeated once we leave this room."
"Tell me why," Rhal repeated, picking up the gem. "You've heard my story and told me nothing, yet you offer me this. What's it really paying for?"
Seregil chuckled softly. "You're a clever man, away from the ladies. Let's understand one another. I've got secrets I prefer to keep, but there are surer ways than this to protect them, if you take my meaning. What I'm offering you, all I'm offering you, is a mutually beneficial business proposition. You find a ship, see to the crew, the provisioning, everything. I provide capital, in return for which I receive twenty percent of the take and passage wherever I say, whenever I require it, which will most likely be never. The rest of the profits are yours to be divided in whatever fashion you see fit."
"And?" Still skeptical, Rhal put the stone back on the table.
"Information. Any document confiscated, any rumors from prisoners, any encounter that seems out of the ordinary—it all comes to me directly and not a word to anyone else."
Rhal nodded, satisfied. "So you're nosers, after all. Who for?"
"Let's just say we consider Skalan interests to be our own."
"I don't suppose you have any proof of that?"
Rhal drummed his fingers lightly on the tabletop for a minute, calculating. "Ship's papers in my name alone, and I run my vessel as I see fit?"
Rhal tapped the emerald. "This is a good start, but it won't pay for a ship, nor get one built before midsummer."
"As it happens, I know of a vessel being refitted at a boatyard in Macar. The principal backer's been having second thoughts." Seregil produced a stone identical to the first. "These should be ample evidence of good faith. I'll make arrangements to have all further funds paid out to you in gold."
"And what if I just slip the cable tonight with these?"
Seregil shrugged. "Then you'll be a relatively wealthy man. Are we to say done to it or not?"
Rhal shook his head, looking less than satisfied. "You're an odd one, and no mistake. I've one last condition of my own, or it's no deal."
"And that is?"
"If I'm to keep faith with you, then I want your names, your true names."
"If you've tracked me to Wheel Street, then you've already heard it; Seregil i Korit Solun Meringil Bokthersa."
"That's a mouthful by half. And you, boy. You got a fancy long hook, too?"
Alec hesitated, and felt Seregil's foot nudge his own beneath the table. "You'll have heard mine, too. Alec, Alec of Ivywell."
"All right, then, I'm satisfied." Pocketing the gems, Rhal spit in his palm and extended his hand to Seregil. "I say done to it, Seregil whoever-you-are."
Seregil clasped hands. "Done it is, Captain."
Alec was very silent as they rode back to Wheel Street. Passing through the glow of a lone street lantern, Seregil saw that he was looking thoroughly miserable.
"It's not as bad as all that," he assured him.
"Anyone looking for Lord Seregil knows where to find him."
"Sure, but what if it hadn't been Wheel Street he followed us to?" Alec shot back bitterly.
"We're much more careful about that. No one's ever tracked me there."
"Probably because you were never stupid enough to give them the damn directions!"
"Still, considering the circumstances—me too sick to think straight, you not knowing the country—I don't know what else you could have done, except maybe have waited until we were off the ship to ask the way. You didn't know any better then. You do now."
"A fat lot of comfort that'll be when some other old mistake of mine catches up with us," Alec persisted, looking only slightly less miserable.
"What if the next one who shows up is Mardus?"
"Even if those were his men that boarded Rhal's ship—and I admit, it sure sounded like them—he didn't tell them anything."
"Then you think we're safe?"
Seregil grinned darkly. "We're never safe. But I do think if Mardus had tracked us down, we'd have heard from him by now. I mean, he'd have to be insane to hang about in Rhiminee for any length of time the way things are now."
Sarisin wore into Dostin, tightening winter's embrace on the city. Snow gusted down out of the mountains, only to be followed by icy rain off the sea that reduced it all to thick, dirty slush and churned ice, treacherous underfoot. Smoke from thousands of chimneys mingled with the fog and hung in a grey haze over the rooftops for days at a stretch.
Preparations for war continued amid a constant stream of rumor and minor alarms. Skalan merchants were harassed in Mycenian towns, warehouses were rifled or burned. Plenimaran press gangs were reported on the prowl in ports as far west as Isil. Word circulated that more than a hundred keels had been laid down in Plenimaran shipyards.
No major host could be raised before spring, but the forces already billeted in Rhiminee were more visible than usual as they worked on the city's defenses and drilled outside the walls. Seregil and Alec often rode over to view the Queen's Horse at their maneuvers, but their friends there seldom had time for more than a brief hello.
At Macar, Rhal's ship was progressing rapidly under the captain's sharp eye. As Seregil had anticipated, once assured of the good faith between them, Rhal looked out for his silent backer's interests as if they were his own.
It would be another two months before the vessel could be launched, but he already had Skywake and Nettles combing seaports up and down the coast for sailors.
The one subject he kept silent on was the vessel's name. When Alec asked, Rhal only winked, telling him it was bad luck to say before she was launched.
Though by no means oblivious to the import of the events unfolding around him, Alec moved through the grey midwinter days in a state of increasing contentment. He'd gradually settled into the role of Sir Alec and had lost most of his awkwardness around the nobles. He was happiest, though, honing his more illicit skills as he worked side by side with Seregil as the Rhiminee Cat or on Watcher business for Nysander.
He also came to appreciate the amenities of life at Wheel Street. In his former life, wandering the northlands with his father, winter had always meant hardship—slogging up and down trap lines, sheltering in brushwood huts, and the snowy solitude of the forest.
Here, fires burned at all hours against the ever-present damp and cold. Thick carpets covered the floors, food and wine were there for the asking, and warm baths—for which he had finally acquired a taste—could be had at any hour in a special room just down the hall. Some of his fondest memories of those days would be sitting by a snug fire on a stormy day, enjoying the sound of the rain lashing against the shutters.
As always, life with Seregil had a charmed quality; his enthusiasm and irreverent good humor buoyed Alec along as a seemingly endless progression of lessons were placed before him. The more Alec learned, the more he found he felt like a man who'd thirsted for years unknowing, only discovering his need when it finally began to be slaked. In return, Alec tried to teach Seregil archery and, despite all evidence to the contrary, stubbornly refused to give him up as a hopeless cause.
One stormy afternoon Seregil discovered Alec in the library, frowning pensively as he scanned the shelves.
"Looking for something in particular?"
"Histories," Alec replied, fingering the spine of a thick volume. "Last night at Lord Kallien's salon, someone was saying how this war may be as bad as the Great War. I got to wondering what that one was like. You've told me a bit about it, but I thought it would be interesting to do some reading on it. Do you have anything?"
"Nothing much, but the Oreska library does," Seregil replied, inwardly delighted at this show of scholarly initiative. Alec generally preferred more active pursuits. "We could ride over if you'd like, and see Nysander, too. It's been days since we've heard from him."
Sleet pelted wetly down on them as they galloped through the streets of the Noble Quarter to the Oreska House. As soon as they entered the enchanted gardens surrounding it the sleet turned to warm, gentle rain.
Turning his face up to it, Seregil wondered if any of the wizards ever got bored with the perpetual summer that surrounded the place.
Crossing the second-floor mezzanine on their way to Nysander's tower, Alec nudged Seregil and pointed to the walkway across the atrium.
"Look there," he murmured with a slight grin.
Following his nod, Seregil saw Thero and Ylinestra walking along arm and arm. As they watched, Thero threw his head back and let out a genuine laugh.
"Thero laughing?" Seregil whispered in amazement.
Alec watched as the pair disappeared down a corridor. "Do you think he's in love with her?"
"He probably is, the poor idiot. Or maybe she's magicked him."
He'd meant it as a joke on Thero, but Alec's sudden blush made him wish he'd kept it to himself.
The boy never spoke of his own apparently cataclysmic tryst with the sorceress, or betrayed any sign of jealousy when speculating on her other attachments, but he was rather brittle about the circumstances.
Magyana answered their knock at the tower door.
She had a few willow leaves caught in her silvery braid and a smudge of damp earth on her chin.
"Hello, you two!" She exclaimed, letting them in. "I just dug some lovely orris root in the garden and brought some up to Nysander, but he's not here. Wethis says he's off visiting Leiteus i Marineus again."
Seregil raised a questioning eyebrow. "The astrologer?"
"Yes, he's been spending quite a lot of time with him these last few weeks. Evidently there's some sort of conjunction they're both interested in. I've got a potion on the boil back at my workshop so I can't linger, but you can come in and wait for him."
"No, we've got other business while we're here. Maybe we'll catch up with him later."
"I see." She paused, studying his face for a moment in the most unsettling way. "You haven't seen him lately, have you?"
"Not for a week or more," Alec told her.
"We've been pretty busy."
There was something hovering behind the old wizard's eyes that looked very much like concern, though she seemed to be masking it. "Is something wrong?" asked Seregil.
Magyana sighed. "I don't know. He just looks so worn-out all of a sudden. I haven't seen him look this tired in decades. He won't talk of it, of course. I wondered if he'd said anything to you?"
"No. As Alec said, we've hardly seen him since the Festival except over a few quick jobs. Maybe it's this business with Leiteus. You know how he drives himself when he's working on something."
"No doubt," she said, though without much conviction.
"Do look in on him when you can, though." She hesitated again. "You two aren't angry with one another, are you?"
A sudden image leapt in Seregil's mind; the night they'd unraveled the palimpsest together, and Nysander suddenly looking at him with a stranger's eyes as he warned—if you let slip the slightest detail of what I am about to tell you, I shall have to kill all of you.
He pushed the memory away before it could show in his face. "No, of course not. What would I be angry about?"
Leaving Nysander's chambers, Alec followed Seregil back down through the warren of stairways and corridors to the ground floor.
"The Oreska library is actually scattered all over the building," Seregil explained as they went. "Chambers, vaults, closets, for gotten cupboards, too, probably. Thalonia has been the librarian for a century and I doubt even she knows where everything is. Some books are available to anyone, others are locked away."
"Why, are they valuable?" asked Alec, thinking of the beautifully decorated scrolls Nysander had lent him.
"All books are valuable. Some are dangerous."
"Books of spells, you mean?"
Seregil grinned. "Those, too, but I was thinking more of ideas. Those can be far more dangerous than any magic."
Crossing the atrium court, Seregil swung open the heavy door to the museum. They hadn't been in here since Alec's first visit during Seregil's illness. As they passed the case containing the hands of the dyrmagnos, Tikarie Megraesh, Alec paused, unable to resist peering in at them in spite of his revulsion. Recalling the trick Seregil had played on him last time, he kept his friend carefully in sight.
The wizened fingers were motionless, but he could see freshly scored marks in the oak boards lining the bottom of the case beneath the cruel nails.
"They look quiet enough—" he began, but just then one of the hands clenched spasmodically.
"Bilairy's Balls, I hate those things!" He shuddered, backing hurriedly away. "Why do they move like that? Aren't they and all the other pieces of him supposed to be dying?"
"Yes." Seregil looked down at the hands with a puzzled frown. "Yes, they are."
Alec followed Seregil through a stout door at the back of the museum and down two sets of stairs to a series of corridors below the building.
"It's this one here," said Seregil, stopping before an unremarkable door halfway down the passage. "Stay here, I'll go find a custodian to let us in."
Alec leaned against the door and looked about. The walls and floors were made of stone slabs, laid smooth and tight together. Ornate lamps were fastened in brackets at intervals, giving enough light to see clearly from one end of the corridor to the other. He was just wondering whose job it was to keep all those lamps full when Seregil came back with a stooped old man in tow.
The custodian rattled the door open with a huge iron key and then handed Alec a leather sack. Inside were half a dozen large lightstones.
"No flames," the old man warned before creaking off again about his business. "Just leave them outside the door when you've finished."
The chamber was a large one, and filled with closely spaced shelves of books and scrolls.
Holding one of the stones aloft, Alec looked around and groaned. "It'll take us hours to find anything here!"
"It's all very logically arranged and docketed," Seregil assured him, pointing out little cards tacked to the shelves here and there. On each, a few words in faded script indicated general subject areas. "Histories of the Great War" took up several bookcases at the back of the room. Judging by the undisturbed layers of dust on most of them, there had been little interest of late in the subject.
Seregil clucked his tongue disapprovingly. "People ought to make more use of these. The past always sets the stage for the future; any Aurenfaie knows that."
Alec looked at the closely packed tiers in dismay. "Maker's Mercy, Seregil. I can't read all these!"
"Of course not," said Seregil, climbing a small ladder to inspect the contents of an upper shelf. "Half of them aren't even in your language and most of the others are ponderously boring. But there are one or two that are fairly readable, if I can just remember where to look. You browse around down there; stick to things less than two inches thick to begin with—and see if you can read them."
If there was a system to the arrangement of the books, it eluded Alec. Books in Skalan stood check by jowl with those in Aurenfaie and half a dozen other languages he couldn't begin to guess at.
Seregil appeared to be right at home, though.
Alec watched as his companion went busily to and fro with his ladder, muttering under his breath as he went, or exclaiming happily over old favorites.
Alec had already extracted half a dozen suitably slim volumes when the ornate binding of a thicker one caught his eye. Wondering if it had illustrations, he pulled it out. Unfortunately, this one served as a sort of keystone, for the ones on either side of it let go and most of the shelf cascaded to the floor at Alec's feet.
"Oh, well done!" Seregil snickered from somewhere beyond the next shelves.
Alec set his books aside with an exasperated sigh and began replacing the others. He hadn't been all that interested in the war in the first place; his simple query was turning out to be considerably more trouble than it was worth. As he slid a handful of books back into place, however, he noticed something sticking out from behind some others.
Curious, he carefully pulled it free and found that it was a slim, plainly bound book held shut with a latched strap. Encouraged by its size more than anything else, he tried to open it, but the catch wouldn't give.
"How are you making out?" asked Seregil, wandering back with a book under his arm.
"I found this in back of some others. It must have fallen in behind." On closer inspection, he saw that it was actually a case of some sort. There was no writing anywhere on it to suggest what its contents might be. "I can't get it open."
Alec jiggled the catch a last time, then handed it to him.
Seregil glanced it over and passed it back. "There's no lock; the catch is just corroded good and tight. It can't have been opened for years. Oh, well, it probably wasn't anything very interesting anyway."
He gave Alec a challenging grin, one Alec had seen often enough before.
"What, here?" he whispered in surprise.
Seregil leaned against a bookcase and gave a careless shrug. "It's not much good to anyone that way, is it?"
After a quick, rather guilty look around to make sure the custodian hadn't returned, Alec drew the black-handled poniard from his boot and worked it under the strap. The deadly sharp blade cut easily through the leather. Sheathing it again, he gently opened the cover and found a loose sheaf of parchment leaves inside. They were badly stained and scorched along the bottom edge, some burned half away.
Small, close-packed script covered each on both sides.
Grinning excitedly, Seregil lifted out the first sheet. "It's in Aurenfaie. It looks to be a journal of some sort—" He read a few lines. "And it's definitely about the war."
"It's so weathered I can hardly make it out," said Alec, taking up another page. "Not that my Aurenfaie's all that good to begin with."
"Anyone would have a hard time making this out." Seregil squinted down at the cramped text a moment longer, then closed it and tucked it under his arm with the other book he'd chosen. Sorting through the ones Alec had selected, he discarded all but two and hurried Alec upstairs again, obviously eager to tackle the journal.
Back at Wheel Street again, they retreated to Seregil's chamber with a supply of wine and fruit. When the fire had been replenished and the lamps lit against the early evening gloom, they began sorting through the sheets on the hearth rug.
Taking up a page, Seregil studied it closely. "Do you know what this is?" he exclaimed with a smile of pure delight. "These are fragments of a field journal kept by an Aurenfaie soldier during the war. Alec, it's an eyewitness account of events six centuries old! Just wait until we show Nysander. I'll bet no one even knew this was there, or it would have been in a different vault."
The pages were badly shuffled in places and it took some doing to sort them out. The translation from Aurenfaie to Skalan was easy enough; deciphering the crabbed and often smeared writing while searching through mismatched pages was another matter. Seregil finally found what appeared to be the earliest entry and settled back in a nest of cushions on the floor to read it aloud.
They soon pieced together that the author had been a young archer, part of a regiment of well-to-do volunteers raised by a local noble. He'd been a faithful diarist, but the entries dealt mostly with skirmishes and fallen comrades. It was clear that the Aurenfaie had hated their Plenimaran adversaries, who were consistently depicted as harsh and brutal. There were several mercifully terse descriptions of their barbaric treatment of captured soldiers and camp followers.
The first series of entries ended with a detailed description of his first sight of Queen Gerilain of Skala. Referring to her as "a plain girl in armor," he nonetheless praised her leadership. He spoke only Aurenfaie, it seemed, but quoted several lines of a powerful rallying speech she'd given before the Third Battle of Wyvern Dug, which someone had translated for him. He described the Skalan soldiers admiringly as "fierce and full of fire."
Stretched out on the carpet, watching the shadows playing across the ceiling, Alec let the words paint scenes in his imagination. As Seregil read about Gerilain, the first warrior queen, he found himself picturing Klia, although she was anything but plain.
The second fragment had been written in Mycena during the battles of high summer, when the regiment had been joined by a contingent of Aurenfaie wizards. This was followed by an intriguing line about "the necromancers of the enemy," but the rest of the page had been destroyed.
Muttering again, Seregil sorted through the few remaining pages. "Ah, here we are. Part of it's missing, but it begins, "and our wizards have moved to the front, ahead of the cavalry. The Skalan captain met these forces only two days ago and cannot speak of them without paleness and trembling. Britiel i Kor translated for us, saying he tells of dead men rising from the field to fight the living."
"Just like in the legends," Alec murmured, forgetting for a moment that this was a factual account and not some bardic tale.
"We've heard this account too often now to call him mad," Seregil read on. "The Skalan captain claims Plenimar has a terrible war god. We have heard wounded enemies calling upon Vatharna. Now learn this is their word for god even they will not name. Nor will Skalans speak it, saying instead with great hatred, Eater of—"
He faltered to a halt.
"Eater of Death!" Alec finished for him, scrambling up to his knees. "That's it, isn't it? Just like in the prophecy at the Sakor Temple. We've got to find Nysander. The Eater of Death must be that death god you told me about, the bad luck one, Seri—"
Seregil lunged forward, pages scattering as he clamped a hand over Alec's mouth.
"Don't!" he hissed, face white as chalk.
Alec froze, staring up at him in alarm.
Seregil let out a shaky breath and dropped his hand to Alec's shoulder, gripping it lightly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
"What's the matter?"
"Be still a minute; I have to think." Seregil felt as if a black chasm had suddenly opened beneath them.
Seregil if you let slip the slightest detail of what I am about to tell you, I shall have to kill all of you
— join our song, the only song. For the Beautiful One, the Eater of Death—
For an instant the only thing that made any sense was the solid feel of Alec's shoulder, the warm brush of the boy's hair as it fell across the back of his hand.
Memories crowded in on each other, treading dangerously on each other's heels as they threatened to coalesce into a pattern he didn't wish to see.
The palimpsest, telling of a "Beautiful One" and leading to a crown surrounded by the dead. Micum's grim discovery in the Fens. The ragged leather pouch that Nysander had burned. And the coin, that deceptively prosaic wooden disk that had nearly killed him with madness and dreams-dreams of a barren plain and a golden-skinned creature that embraced him, demanding a single blue eye that winked from a wound over his heart. Voices singing-over a barren plain, and deep in the depths of a mountain cavern as blood dripped down to pool on the ice. Nysander's threat-a warning?
"Seregil, that hurts."
Alec's soft, tense voice brought him back and he found himself clutching the boy's shoulder. He hurriedly released him and sat back.
Alec closed cold fingers over his own. "What is it? You look like you've just seen your own ghost."
A desperate ache lanced through Seregil as he looked down into those dark blue eyes.
if you let slip the slightest detail Damn you, Nysander!
"I can't tell you, tali, because I'd only have to lie," he said, suddenly dejected. "I'm going to do something now, and you're going to watch and say nothing."
Taking the final page of the manuscript, he twisted it into a tight squib and tossed it into the fire.
Alec rocked back on his heels, watching in silent consternation as the parchment blossomed into flame.
When it was consumed, Seregil knocked the ash to bits with the poker.
"But what about Nysander?" Alec asked. "What will you tell him?"
"Nothing, and neither will you."
"We're not betraying him." Seregil took Alec by the shoulders, more gently this time, drawing their faces close together. "You have my oath on that. I believe he already knows what we just learned, but he can't know that you know. Not until I tell you it's safe. Understand?"
"More secrets," Alec said, looking solemn and unhappy.
"Yes, more secrets. I need your trust in this, Alec. Can you give it?"
Alec looked sidelong at the fire for a long moment, then locked eyes with him again and replied in halting Aurenfaie, "Rei phoril tos tokun meh brithir, vri sh 'ruit 'ya.»
Though you thrust your dagger at my eyes, I will not flinch. A solemn oath, and one Seregil had pledged him not so long ago. Seregil let out a small, relieved laugh. "Thank you. If you don't mind, I think I'll take a rest. Why don't you go have a look through those books we found?"
Alec got up to go without a word. But he paused in the doorway, looking back at Seregil still sitting by the fire.
"What does tali mean? Is it Aurenfaie?"
A ghost of the old grin tugged at one corner of Seregil's mouth. "Yes, it's an Aurenfaie term of endearment, rather old-fashioned, like beloved. Where'd you pick that up?"
Alec regarded him quizzically, then shook his head. "I don't know, at one of the salons, probably. Sleep well, Seregil."
When Alec was gone, Seregil walked to the window and rested his forehead against one cold pane, staring out over the dark garden.
Stone within ice. Secrets within secrets.
Silences inside of greater silences.
In all the time he'd known Nysander, he had never felt such distance between them. Or so alone.
Several days passed before Alec realized that they were not going to talk of the matter again. Despite his oath, it troubled him greatly. This silence toward the wizard seemed to create a small cold gap in a relationship that had been so seamlessly warm and safe.
For the first time in months he found himself wondering about Seregil's loyalties.
Try as he might to banish such thoughts, they nagged at him until at last he came out with it as they were out walking in the Noble Quarter one evening.
He'd feared that Seregil would evade the question or be annoyed. Instead, he looked as if he'd been expecting this discussion.
"Loyalty, eh? That's a large question for a thinking person. If you're asking if I'm still loyal to Nysander, then the answer is yes, for as long as I have faith in his honor. The same goes for any of my friends."
"But do you still have faith in him?" Alec pressed.
"I do, though he hasn't made it easy lately. You're too smart not to have noticed that there are unspoken things between him and me. I'm trying hard to be patient about all that, and so must you.
"But maybe that's not the real issue here. Are you losing faith in me?"
"No!" Alec exclaimed hastily, knowing the words were true as he spoke them. "I'm just trying to understand."
"Well, like I said, loyalty is no simple thing. For instance, would you say that you, Nysander, and I are loyal to Queen Idrilain and want to act in the best interests of Skala?"
"I've always thought so."
"But what if the Queen ordered us, for the good of Skala, to do harm to Micum? Should I keep faith with her or with him?"
"With Micum," Alec replied without hesitation.
"But what if Micum, without our knowledge, had committed treason against Skala? What then?"
"That's ridiculous!" Alec snorted. "He'd never do anything like that."
"People can surprise you, Alec. And perhaps he did it out of loyalty to something else, say his family. He's kept faith with his family but broken faith with the Queen. Which outweighs the other?"
"His family," Alec maintained, although he was beginning to feel a bit confused.
"Certainly. Any man ought to hold his family above all else. But what if his justified act of treason cost hundreds of other families their lives? And what if some of those killed were also friends of ours—Myrhini, Cilia, There. Well, maybe not Thero—"
"I don't know!" Alec shrugged uncomfortably.
"I can't say one way or the other without knowing the details. I guess I'd just have to have faith in him until I knew more. Maybe he didn't have any choice."
Seregil leveled a stern finger at him. "You always have a choice. Don't ever imagine you don't. Whatever you do, it's a decision and you have to accept responsibility for it. That's when honor becomes more than empty words."
"Well, I still say I'd have to know why he did it," Alec retorted stubbornly.
"That's good. But suppose, despite all his kindness to you, you discovered he really had betrayed your trust. Would you hunt him down and kill him as the law required?"
"How could I?"
"It would be difficult. Past kindness counts for something. But say you knew for certain that someone else would catch him—the Queen's officers, for instance—and that they'd kill him slowly and horribly. Then wouldn't it be your duty, as a friend and a man of honor, to see to it that he was granted a quick, merciful death? Looked at from that angle, I suppose killing Micum Cavish might be the greatest expression of friendship."
Alec stared at Seregil, mouth slightly ajar. "How the hell did we come to me killing Micum?"
Seregil shrugged. "You asked about loyalty. I told you it wasn't easy."
The hands moved more often now. As Nysander gazed down at them through the thick sheet of crystal that covered the case, a trick of the light superimposed his reflection over the splayed hands below, creating the illusion that his head lay within the case, gripped in the withered talons of the dead necromancer. The face he saw there was a very old one, etched with weariness.
While he watched, the hands slowly curled into fists, clenching so tightly that the skin over one knuckle split, showing brown bone beneath.
Continuing grimly on through the deserted museum, Nysander half expected to hear the Voice from his nightmares, roaring its taunting challenge up through the floor from the depths below. Those dreams came more often now, since Seregil's return from the Asheks.
Summoning an orb of light, Nysander opened the door at the back of the museum chamber and began the long descent through the vaults.
He'd wooed Magyana here in the days of their youth.
When she'd remained obdurate in her celibacy, they had continued to share long discussions as they wandered along these narrow stone corridors. Seregil had often come with them during his ill-starred apprenticeship, asking a thousand questions and poking into everything.
Thero came with him occasionally, though less often than he once had. Did Ylinestra bring him down here to make love, Nysander wondered, as she had him?
By the Four, she'd warmed the very stones with her relentless passion!
He shook his head in bemusement as he imagined her with Thero; a sunbird embracing a crow.
He'd never completely trusted the sorceress.
Talented as Ylinestra was at both magic and love, greed lurked just behind her smile. In that way she was not unlike Thero, but Thero was bound by Oreska law; she was not.
The fact that she had gone from his bed to Thero's troubled Nysander in a way that had nothing to do with former passions, though he had been unable to convince Thero of that. After two tense, unpleasant attempts, Nysander had dropped the subject.
Other wizards might have dismissed an assistant over such a matter, he knew, yet in spite of their growing differences, Nysander still felt a strong regard for Thero and refused to give up on him.
And mixed with that regard, he admitted once again in the silence of the vaults, was the fear that many of his fellows in the Oreska would be glad to take on Thero if he let him go. Many were critical of Nysander's handling of the talented young wizard, and thought Thero was wasted on the eccentric old man in the east tower. After all, he'd ruined one apprentice already, hadn't he? Small wonder Thero seemed discontent.
But Nysander knew the boy better than any of them and believed with every fiber of his being that given his head at this stage of training, the young wizard would ultimately ruin himself. Oh, he would earn his robes, of course, probably in half the time it would take most. That was part of the problem. Thero was so apt a pupil that most masters would joyously fill his head with all they knew, guiding him quickly through the levels to true power.
But more than a keen mind and flawless ability were needed to make so powerful a wizard as Thero would undoubtedly become. Ungoverned by wisdom, patience, and a compassionate heart, that same keen mind would be capable of unspeakable havoc.
So he kept Thero with him, hopeful to change him, fearful to let him go.
There were moments, such as the night he found him tending to Seregil's injuries after the misadventure in the sewers, when Nysander caught a gleam of hope—signs that Thero might be coming to understand what it was that Nysander was asking of him beyond the mere learning of magic.
Reaching the door to the lowest vault, he shook off his reverie and hastened on.
Few had reason to go to this lowest vault, which for time out of mind had been the Oreska's repository for the forgotten, the useless, and the dangerous. Many of the storerooms were empty now, or cluttered with mouldering crates. Other doors had been walled up, their frames outlined with runic spells and warnings. But as he walked along, the sound of his footsteps muffled on the dank brick underfoot, he could hear the bowl and its high, faint resonance, audible only to those trained to listen for it. The sound was much stronger than it once had been.
The wooden disk had had little effect on it; its power was incomplete separated from the seven others Nysander knew existed somewhere in the world. The crystal crown was a different matter. As soon as he'd placed it here, the resonance of the bowl had grown increasingly stronger, and with it his nightmares.
And the movements of the necromancer's hands in the museum.
How Seregil had survived his exposure to the disk unprotected by anything but his own magical block was still a mystery. Equally mystifying was how little protection all Nysander's carefully prepared spells and charms had been for Seregil from the effects of the crown. In the first case he should have died, in the second he should have had absolute protection, yet in both cases he had sustained wounds but survived.
All this, taken together with the words the Oracle of Illior had spoken to Seregil, left Nysander with the uneasy conviction that much more than mere coincidence was at work.
Stopping, he faced the familiar stretch of wall yet again. With a final check to be certain no eyes, natural or otherwise, were upon him, he spoke a powerful key spell and cast a sighting through stone and magic to the small hidden room beyond.
Immured in the darkness of centuries, the bowl sat on the tiny chamber's single shelf. To the uninitiated, it was nothing more than a crude vessel of burnt clay, unremarkable in any way. Yet this homely object had dominated his entire adult life, and the lives of three wizards before him.
To one side of the bowl lay the crystal box containing the disk; on the other, still smeared with the ash of Dravnian cook fires, was the flat wooden case holding the crown.
For no better reason than curiosity, he spoke the Spell of Passage and entered the chamber.
Magic crackled ominously around him in spite of the wards and containment spells. Taking a lightstone from his pocket, he held it up and regarded the bowl solemnly for a moment, thinking again of his predecessors. None of them, not even Arkoniel, had anticipated ever adding to the contents of this hidden and most guarded chamber. Now he had, not once but twice, and their combined song was a pulse of living energy.
His hands stole to the containers on either side of the bowl.
What would that song be if I opened these, brought even these three fragments together without the rest? What could be learned from such an experiment?
His right thumb found the catch on the wooden box, rubbed tentatively at it.
Nysander jerked back, made a warding sign, and retreated the way he'd come. Alone in the corridor, he broke the Spell of Passage and slumped against the opposite wall, his heart pounding ominously in his chest.
If just three fragments of the whole could force such thoughts into his mind, then he must be all the more vigilant.
Forced those thoughts into your mind, old man, a niggling inner voice chided, or revealed them there? How many times did Arkoniel warn you that temptation is nothing more than the dark mirror of the soul?
Inevitably, regret followed hard on the heels of memory. Arkoniel had taught him well and early the responsibility of the Guardians, allowing him to share the weight of the secret they preserved.
Whom did he share it with?
Seregil could have been trusted, but the magic had failed him. Thero had the magic, but lacked—what?
Humility, Nysander decided sadly. The humility to properly fear the power contained in this tiny, silver-lined chamber. The more apparent Thero's abilities became over the years of his apprenticeship, the more certain Nysander was that temptation would be his undoing. Temptation and pride.
Feeling suddenly far older than his two hundred and ninety— eight years, Nysander pressed a hand to the wall, bolstering the warding spells, changing and strengthening them to conceal what must remain concealed. It was a task he'd once thought he would pass along as his master had passed it to him. Now he felt no such certainty.
Seregil and Alec were lingering over a late lunch one bright afternoon toward the middle of Dostin, when
Runcer entered the room with a ragged young girl in tow.
Seregil looked up expectantly, recognizing her as the sort who made her living as a message carrier.
"Beka Cavish sends word that the Queen's Horse is riding out at dawn tomorrow," the girl recited stiffly.
"Thanks." Seregil handed her a sester and pushed a plate of sweets her way. Grinning, the child snatched a handful and hid them away in the folds of her ragged skirt.
"Take this message to Captain Myrhini, of the Queen's Horse," he told her. "As Beka Cavish's patron, I'm honor-bound to give her and her turma a proper send-off. The captain is asked to attend and keep order. She may bring anyone else she likes, so long as she gives Beka and her riders a night out. Got that?"
She proudly repeated it back word for word.
"Good girl. Off you go." Turning back to Alec, Seregil found his young friend frowning worriedly.
"I thought you said nothing would happen before spring?" Alec asked.
"The war? It won't," Seregil replied, somewhat surprised by the news himself. "The Queen must have some reason to think the Plenimarans mean to move in early spring, though, and wants troops near the border in case of trouble."
"This doesn't give us time enough to send for Micum and Kari."
"Damn! I didn't even think of that." Seregil drummed his fingers on the polished tabletop a moment.
"Oh, well. We'll ride out tomorrow with the details. In the meantime, we've got a party to prepare for."
Word soon came back by the same messenger that Captain Myrhini would release Lieutenant Cavish and her riders for the evening, with the expectation that sufficient food and drink were included in the offer.
Seregil had already turned his attention to the preparations with an efficiency that astonished Alec.
Within a few hours, extra servants had been engaged, a raucous group of musicians was installed in the gallery with their fiddles, pipes, and drums, and a steady stream of deliveries from the market had been whipped into a proper feast by the cook and her crew.
In the meantime, the salon was cleared of all breakables and three long trestle tables set up, together with hogsheads of ale and wine set on pitched braces at the head of the room.
Beka and her turma rode into Wheel Street at sunset. They were an impressive sight in their spotless white breeches and green tabards sewn with the regimental crest.
A little daunting even, thought Alec, standing next to Seregil at the front door to welcome them.
He'd always envied Beka just a little, being part of such an elite group. The idea of riding into a pitched battle surrounded by comrades had a certain romantic appeal.
"Welcome!" Seregil called.
Beka dismounted and strode up the front steps, her eyes shining almost as brightly as the burnished lieutenant's gorget hanging at her throat.
"You do us a great honor, my lords," she said loudly, giving them a wink.
Seregil bowed slightly, then looked over the crowd of riders milling behind her. "That's a rough-looking bunch you brought. Think they can behave themselves?"
"Not a chance, my lord," Beka replied smartly.
Seregil grinned. "Well then, come on in, all of you!"
Alec's awe diminished somewhat as the men and women of Beka's command filed past into the painted salon.
He'd only seen them at a distance on the practice field before-dashing figures clashing in mock battle. Now he saw that most of them were scarcely older than he. Some had the bearing of landless second sons and daughters or merchant's scions; others—those who stood gaping at the opulent room—came from humbler backgrounds and had earned their place by sheer prowess and the price of a horse and arms.
"I'd like to introduce my sergeants," Beka said.
"Mercalle, Braknil, and Portus."
Shaking hands with the trio, Alec guessed that most of them had come up through the ranks. Sergeant Mercalle was tall and dark-complected. She was also missing the last two fingers of her right hand, a common wound among warriors. Next to her stood Braknil, a big, solemn-looking man with a bushy blond beard and weather-roughened skin. The third, Portus, was younger than his companions and carried himself like a noble.
Alec wondered what his story was; according to Beka, it seemed unlikely that he would not be an officer of some rank.
Seregil shook hands with them. "I won't embarrass your lieutenant by telling you how long I've known her, but I will say that she's been trained by some of the best swordsmen I know."
"I can believe that, your lordship," Braknil replied. "That's why I asked to serve with her."
Beka grinned. "Sergeant Braknil's too tactful to say so, but he was one of the sergeants assigned to train the new commissions when I came in. I started out taking orders from him."
"A title may guarantee an officer's commission, but it doesn't guarantee the officer's quality," Mercalle put in rather sourly.
"Especially if there hasn't been a real war to winnow out the chaff in a while. I've seen a good many sporting the steel gorget who won't see high summer."
"Mercalle's our optimist," Portus chuckled, and Alec heard the remnants of a lower city accent behind the man's smooth words.
"It's early for you to be sent north, isn't it?" he asked ingenuously.
"There are rumblings from Plenimar already," Beka told him. "Queen Idrilain and the Archons of
Mycena all want troops in place near the west border of Plenimar before the roads thaw into mud holes next month. They're not making any secret of it, either. The Sakor Horse Regiment and a squadron of the Yrkani Horse have already headed up to Nanta. We'll be going farther east."
"First in, last out," was Portus said proudly. "That's been our motto since Gerilain's day."
"The Queen's Horse Guard started as the token group of soldiers King Thelatimos gave his daughter after the Oracle said a woman was to lead the country," Seregil explained. "She surprised everyone when she led them successfully in battle."
Braknil nodded. "One of my ancestors was with Gerilain and there's been at least one of my family with the Guard ever since."
Stationed by the front door, Runcer announced gravely, "Captain Myrhini and Commander Perris, of the Queen's Horse, my lords."
Myrhini strode in, accompanied by a handsome uniformed man Alec had seen around the drilling field. Beka and her riders instantly snapped to attention.
Myrhini introduced her companion as Commander Perris, who led one of the other squadrons of the regiment, then looked around, scowling. "What, no one drunk yet? Lieutenant Beka, explain yourself."
"I'll see to it at once, Captain!" Beka replied, coloring a bit.
Seregil laid a hand on her arm. "I thought perhaps some of your soldiers might be a bit self-conscious dancing with each other, so I took the liberty of inviting a few other guests to liven things up."
At his gesture, the musicians struck up a sprightly tune and a score of richly dressed men and women entered from the dining room, streaming out to partner the soldiers.
"Who are they?" asked Beka, her eyes widening in surprise.
Seregil exchanged an amused look with Alec.
"Oh, just a few friends of mine from the Street of Lights who think the Queen's best regiment deserves nothing less than the best."
Myrhini covered a smile as Beka's eyes went wider still as she recognized the significance of the colored tokens each elegant «guest» wore discreetly on their clothing or in their hair-white, green, rose, or amber.
Alec leaned closer to Beka. "From what I
understand, you'll want to stick with amber."
"From what I understand, Sir Alec, I think I'll stick with you," Beka retorted, slipping her arm through his. "Come on and show a soldier a good time, eh?"
"You are a generous patron," Commander Perris noted with amusement. "Mind if I join in? I see a familiar face or two."
"By all means," Seregil said, smiling.
Myrhini followed Seregil to the table and accepted a cup of wine. "They can do with a bit of spoiling," she said, watching the milling throng with obvious affection. "It'll be cold camps and long riding for us between now and spring."
"And then?" asked Seregil.
Myrhini glanced at him over the rim of her cup, then sighed. "And then it will get worse. Most likely a lot worse."
"Will this lot be ready?"
"As ready as green soldiers can be. These ones here are some of the best, and so is Beka. I just hope they can stay alive long enough to get seasoned. Nothing but battle experience can do that for them."
By midnight Alec was drunker than he'd ever been in his life and not only knew all the riders and courtesans by name, but had danced with most of them.
He'd just staggered through a reel with a blue-eyed, tipsily amorous rider named Ariani when Corporal Kallas and his twin brother Aulos grabbed him and hoisted him onto one of the tables.
"Lieutenant says you're lucky," Kallas bawled, pulling off his tabard and handing it up to Alec. "So we're making you our mascot, young Alec my lad."
Alec pulled on the uniform and made the company an exaggerated bow. "I am honored!"
"You are drunk!" someone shouted back.
Alec considered this, then nodded solemnly. "I am that, but as the Maker teaches us, in the depths of the cup lies the back door to enlightenment—or something like that, anyway." Snatching up a half-full bottle of wine, he waved it in their general direction. "And the drunker I get, the braver and worthier you all look to me!"
"A visionary of the vine," Kallas exclaimed, spreading his arms in mock reverence. "Give me your blessing, O beardless sage!"
Alec obligingly slopped some wine on the man's face. "Long life and a hollow leg, my son."
Laughing and cheering, the rest of the riders crowded around for his benediction. Quite a number were missing, he noted, and so were most of the courtesans.
He sprinkled the supplicants liberally until he came to the last, Beka. Her freckled face was flushed with wine and dancing; her wild red hair had escaped her brais and floated in untidy wisps around it. She was as drunk as any of them and as happy.
As she ginned expectantly up at him, however, Alec felt a brief, sobering chill. His friend his almost sister, was going off to war.
"Come on, mascot, don't you have any better luck left for me?" she demanded.
Grabbing up a fresh bottle, Alec upended it over her head. "Long life, and luck in the shadows,"
Beka sputtered and laughed and those around her cheered.
"Well done, mascot," Kallas said. "A blessing that wet's likely to make her immortal!"
"I hope so," Alec whispered, looking down at her. "I do hope so."
"Master Micum, there's riders coming up the hill," a servant shouted to him across the snowy pasture.
Standing atop the hayrack, Micum shaded his eyes against the late afternoon sun and quickly scanned the frozen river boundary. Two horsemen were riding up from the bridge a mile below.
He'd been leery of unannounced visitors since returning from the northlands that past autumn.
Despite all Nysander's assurances to the contrary, he still didn't feel easy in his mind about Mardus and his gang.
So he studied the riders with a chary eye. Seeing that they kept to the main track, and rode at an unhurried canter with weapons sheathed, he ruled out enemy or messenger. They were still too far away to make out faces, but he soon recognized the horses.
Frowning, he pushed his way through the colts milling around the hayrack and set off for the house. More often than not, unexpected visits from Seregil meant a summons to Watcher business. Kari was three moons gone now and the sickness had passed, leaving in its wake the glowing bloom of mid term pregnancy. Nonetheless, she was older this time and he disliked the thought of leaving her.
A farm hand met him apologetically in the courtyard. "Illia run ahead with the dogs to meet 'em soon as she made out who it was, Master Micum. I didn't think it no harm."
"Not this time maybe, Ranil, but I don't like her getting in the habit of it," Micum retorted gruffly.
Seregil and Alec clattered into the court a few moments later, with Illia perched proudly on Alec's saddlebow. They were both looking a little pale, Micum noted, but they seemed in good spirits otherwise.
"So I might have to marry Alec when I'm grown," Illia was prattling across to Seregil. "I hope that won't hurt your feelings too much."
Seregil slapped a hand over his heart like a troubadour in a mural. "Ah, fair maiden, I shall slay a thousand evil dragons for you, and lay their steaming black livers at your dainty feet, if only you will restore me to your favor."
"Livers!" Illia buried her face against Alec's shoulder with an outraged giggle. "You wouldn't bring me livers, would you, Alec?"
"Of course not," Alec scoffed. "What a disgusting present. I'd bring you the eyeballs for a necklace, and all their scaly pointed tongues to tie your braids with."
Shrieking with delight, Illia slid off into her father's arms.
"Hey, little bird, what are you doing running off by yourself?" he asked sternly.
"It's just Uncle Seregil and Alec. And I wasn't alone," she added coyly, shawl askew as she spread her arms grandly over the pack of great shaggy hounds jostled around them, like a general over her troops. "Dash and all the others came with me."
"You know the rules, young miss," Micum remonstrated. "Run in now and tell your mother who's here."
"What brings you two up?" he asked, turning back to the others with a twinge of relief; they were dressed for visiting rather than traveling.
Seregil waded through the dogs to hand him a stitched packet of letters. "Beka asked us to bring this out to you. Her regiment left at dawn."
"What, today? We should have been there to see her off!"
"There wasn't time," Alec explained quickly, coming up beside Seregil. "The orders came yesterday. We gave her and her riders a proper send-off last night, though." He rubbed his head with a rueful grin. "I think I'm still a little drunk."
Seregil ruffled Alec's hair with playful impunity. "Runcer will be a couple of days clearing up the wreckage. Between that, and the complaints from the neighbors, we figured it might be a good time for Lord Seregil and Sir Alec to lay low for a few days. We thought we'd put up here, if that's agreeable."
"Yes, of course," Micum replied distractedly, fingering the packet of letters. "Where were they headed?"
"The western border of Mycena," Seregil told him. "Word is Idrilain wanted them in place before the Klesin thaws muck up the roads next month. The Queen's Horse was the first to go, but the city was swarming with soldiers by the time we rode out. Idrilain isn't taking any chances."
Micum shook his head, wondering how Kari was going to take this news. "Ranil, see to their horses. If you two will excuse me a minute, I want a look at these."
Seregil laid a hand on his arm as he turned to go.
Casting a quick glance toward the door, he said in a low voice, "There's something else. Rhal tracked us down in Rhiminee about a month ago."
Micum tensed. "That river trader?"
Seregil nodded. "Some foreign-sounding swordsmen showed up looking for the three of us after Alec and I had gotten off. Rhal covered our tracks, and soon after the Darter went down under questionable circumstances. We've been careful since, and there's been no sign of trouble so far, but with spring coming on—you never know. That's another reason we want to move back to the inn."
"What's Nysander say to all this?"
Seregil shrugged. "He's keeping a wizard eye out for trouble. So far he hasn't spotted anything."
"They must have lost us in Mycena," Alec put in, sounding as if he and Seregil had had this discussion before. "Otherwise, we'd have been approached or attacked."
"So you'd think," Micum allowed. "Still, you're smart to be careful. Go see to your gear. I'll break the news to Kari."
"We won't hurry, then, eh?" Seregil said, giving him an understanding look.
Kari took the news of Beka's departure more calmly than Micum had feared. Reading over Beka's letter, and those from Elsbet, she merely nodded and then folded them carefully back into the wrapper.
Old Arna and the other household servants joined them by the central fire in the hall as Seregil described Beka's departure in glowing detail.
"They looked grand, riding out of the city by torchlight," he said. "Klia and the high officers rode at the fore in full uniform, helmets and all. And there was our Beka at the head of her turma with a steel lieutenant's gorget at her throat. The horses had bronze chest plates and cheek pieces that jingled like bells as they rode."
"She wrote that she's in Captain Myrhini's troop," noted Kari, stroking Illia's dark head as the little girl leaned against her knee.
"Myrhini's as good a captain as there is," Micum said, pulling her close. "The frontier will be quiet for a while yet, too. The Plenimarans couldn't get that far west much before mid-Lithion at the earliest and probably not until early summer. She'll have time to find her feet before any trouble starts."
"I hope so," murmured Kari. "Will there be more letters?"
"Dispatch riders go back and forth as often as possible," Seregil assured her.
"That's good, then."
Micum exchanged uneasy glances with the others, but after a moment she simply tucked the letters away and rose with her usual briskness.
"Well, Arna, you and I had better go see to the supper. Micum, tell the men to set up the tables. You two chose a good night to come, Seregil; we've got venison pie and apples baked in cream."
The meal was the usual noisy communal affair and the guests were summoned to give news of the absent daughters between mouthfuls. Watermead was a country household, close-knit and loyal. The servants wouldn't be satisfied until they'd had descriptions of Beka's regiment twice over and a detailed account of Elsbet's studies at the temple school.
Later, when a loudly protesting Illia had been put to bed and the servants had spread their pallets in the warmth of the hall, Micum and Kari joined Seregil and Alec in the guest chamber.
"Tell me about your reunion with this fellow Rhal," Micum said when he'd poured hot spiced cider for everyone.
Sprawled crossways on the bed, Seregil launched into what sounded like a highly colored tale of their ambush of Rhal and the subsequent battle with a mob of alley toughs. Alec's prowess was featured in such flattering detail that the boy, who was sitting close beside Kari, flushed with surprise.
"Well done, Alec," Kari laughed, hugging him.
"This Captain Rhal of yours sounds like a man worth knowing," Micum said. "I've thought so ever since you told how he let you go that night."
"Micum told me something of your trip, but I'd like to hear your version of it," said Kari. "Did he really fancy Seregil, Alec?"
Alec grinned. "I half fancied him myself, when he was all prettied up. As it was, I had all I could do to keep the two of them at arm's length."
With frequent interruptions from Seregil, he went on to describe Rhal's attempts at seduction, and Micum noticed that both of them skillfully omitted any mention of the wooden disk, or the influence it had exerted over Seregil. In this account, Rhal had simply walked in on Seregil in an unfortunate state of undress. It all came out sounding a great deal more humorous than the original version Micum had heard in Nysander's tower.
"Ah, Seregil," Kari exclaimed, wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron. "I've never known anyone who could get himself into such messes, and then right back out again!"
"It would have been considerably more difficult if Alec hadn't been such a faithful defender of my virtue." Seregil gave Alec a courtly nod.
"My lady," Alec murmured, rising to give him a bow of such elaborate solemnity that they all burst out laughing again.
"I was watching Seregil's face tonight," Kari said as they lay together in the darkness that night. "He's in love with Alec, you know. He wasn't last time they were here, or even at the Festival, but he is now."
"Are you surprised?" Micum yawned, resting a hand lazily on the roundness of her belly, hoping to feel the new life fluttering there.
"Only that it took so long. I doubt he knows it yet himself. But what about Alec?"
"I don't think such a thing would occur to him, with his upbringing and all."
Kari let out a long sigh. "Poor Seregil. He has such rotten luck when it comes to love. Just once, I'd like to see him happy."
"Seems to me you had your chance about twenty years back," Micum teased, nuzzling her bare shoulder.
"When it was you he fancied, you mean?" She rolled quickly on top of him, pinning him playfully as she straddled his thighs. "And if I had relinquished my claim to you, sir?" she challenged. "What would you have done then, eh?"
"I can't say," he replied, pulling her mouth to his with one hand, finding the generous curve of her hip with the other. "Perhaps it would've been handy, having a bed mate who's good with a sword."
"It's true I don't bring anything sharp into bed with me."
"Mmmmm-I can feel that," Micum rumbled contentedly. "Perhaps it's just as well things worked out the way they did."
Kari moved over him like a blessing, her lips hot against his brow. "I like to think so."
Seregil hadn't shared a bed with Alec since their last visit to Watermead. He'd thought nothing of it then; such arrangements were common, especially in old country houses.
But this time was different.
He wasn't certain just when his feelings had gotten away from him, or why. Months of close living and shared dangers, perhaps, together with the genuine affection
Seregil knew had existed between them almost from the start.
It figures, he thought dourly as they undressed for bed. He never could seem to love anyone who could return the favor.
Not that Alec didn't care for him in his own honest, Dalnan way. Seregil had no doubt of that. But he did doubt that Alec's heart skipped a dizzy beat at the mere thought of sliding in between shared sheets.
Out of deference to Alec's modesty—or so he told himself—he kept his long shirt on and pulled up the coverlet.
The old bedstead, built for company, was a wide one and Alec kept to his side of it as he climbed in.
"You're quiet all of a sudden," he remarked, oblivious to Seregil's inner turmoil.
"All that wine last night left me tired."
Seregil mustered a yawn. He could go sleep in the hall, he supposed, but that would take some explaining later on. Better to stay here and hope he didn't talk in his sleep.
Alec settled against the bolsters with a sigh of contentment. "Me, too. At least we can get some rest while we're out here. So quiet. No jobs or midnight summons. No worries—"
His eyes drifted shut and his voice trailed off into deep, even breathing.
Seregil sat up to extinguish the lamp, but paused, caught by the sight of Alec's thick, honey-gold hair fanned out across the pillow. His expression was peaceful, guileless. His lips curved in a faint smile as if good dreams had already come to him.
For an instant Seregil wondered what it would feel like to have that golden head against his shoulder, the warmth of Alec's body against his own.
If it had been simple lust Seregil felt, he could easily have driven it off. But what he felt for Alec at that moment went far beyond that.
Seregil loved him.
Little more than the length of a tailor's yard separated them, but it might just as well have been the breadth of the Osiat Sea. Allowing himself nothing more than a deep, silent sigh, he blew out the lamp and lay back, praying for sleep.
Rising early the next morning, Micum found Alec stacking wood in the kitchen. The boy had changed his city clothes for plain garb and was sharing some joke with Arna and young Jalis. Watching a moment from the doorway, Micum was struck again by how easily Alec seemed to fit into the rhythm of the household.
Or anywhere else, come to that, he amended, thinking of all the roles and identities Alec had played in the time he'd been with Seregil. They were like water, those two, always shifting shape.
"It's a fine day for hunting," he announced. "The deer have been thick up on the ridge this year. His lordship up yet?"
Alec brushed dirt and bark fragments from his tunic. "He was still buried somewhere under the covers last time I looked. I don't think he slept well last night."
"Is that so?" Micum went to the kitchen door and reached outside for a handful of loose snow. "Well then, he wants waking up, doesn't he? I'm sure he'd hate to miss such a beautiful morning."
Mirroring his grin, Alec got himself a handful and followed Micum to the bedroom.
The shutters were still closed, but there was enough light for them to make out the long form beneath the quilts on
Seregil's side of the bed.
Together, Micum signed to Alec.
Stalking in silently, they threw back the quilts and launched their assault, only to find they'd ambushed a bolster.
The shutters banged open behind them and two familiar voices shouted, "Good morning!"
Startled, Micum and Alec looked up just in time to catch a faceful of snow from Seregil and Illia, laughing victoriously outside.
"Sneak up on me, will you?" Seregil jeered as he and the girl fled.
"After them!" cried Micum, scrambling out through the window.
An ungainly chase ensued. Illia wisely dodged into the kitchen and was granted asylum by Arna, who brandished a copper ladle at all would-be abductors.
Seregil wasn't so lucky. Never at his best in a daylight fight, he stumbled over one of the excited dogs who'd joined in the hunt and was tackled by Alec. Micum caught up and together they heaved Seregil into a drift and sat on him.
"Traitor!" he sputtered as Alec thrust a handful of snow down the back of his shirt.
Micum cut him short with another handful in the face. "I believe I owed you that," he chortled, "and here's another with interest."
By the time they let him up, Seregil looked like a poorly carved sculpture done in white sugar.
"What do you say to a hunt?" Micum asked, attempting to brush him off a bit.
"Actually, I had more of a quiet day by the fire in mind," Seregil gasped, shaking snow from his hair.
Grabbing him, Micum tossed him easily over one broad shoulder. "Find me a fresh drift, Alec."
"There's a good one right there."
"I'll go, I'll go, damn you!" howled Seregil, struggling.
"What did I tell you?" laughed Micum, setting him on his feet.
"I knew he'd want to."
With dry clothes and a quick breakfast, the three of them set off into the hills above Watermead with bows and hounds.
The dogs struck the trail of a boar first, but Micum called them off that, since they hadn't brought spears.
For the rest of the morning they found nothing but birds and rabbits. At Alec's insistence, Seregil had brought a bow and no one was more surprised than he when he managed to hit a roosting grouse.
They were just thinking of stopping for a midday meal when the dogs flushed a bull elk from a stand of fir. They chased it for nearly half an hour before Alec put a broadhead shaft into the great beast's heart, dropping it in midleap.
"One shot, by the Maker!" Micum exclaimed, swinging out of the saddle to inspect the kill.
"Quick and clean," said Alec, kneeling to inspect the shot. "That way they don't suffer."
Alec had dropped armed men with the same merciful economy, thought Micum, inspecting the red-fletched shaft protruding from the animal's side.
They built a fire and began dressing out the carcass. It was messy work; the snow around them was soon stained a steaming scarlet. Opening the belly, Micum tossed the entrails to the dogs and presented the heart and liver to Alec, his due for the killing shot.
"We'll need more water before we're done," Micum remarked as they set about the skinning.
Alec wiped his bloodied hands in the snow. "We passed a stream a ways back. I'll go refill the water skins."
Seregil paused in his work, following Alec with his eyes until the boy had ridden out of sight between the trees. Beside him, Micum smiled to himself, thinking of what Kari had said.
"He's grown up a lot, hasn't he?" he ventured presently.
Seregil shrugged, going back to his skinning.
"He's had to, running around with the likes of us."
"You've come to think quite a lot of him, I'd say."
Seregil saw through his flimsy words in an instant and his smile faded to hard, flat denial. "If you think I—"
"I'd never think ill of you for the world. I just think that heart of yours leads you down some hard trails, that's all. You haven't said anything to him, have you?"
Seregil's face was a careful mask of indifference, but his shoulders sagged visibly. "No, and I'm not going to. It wouldn't be— honorable. I have too much influence over him."
"Well, he loves you well in his own fashion," Micum said, unable to think of anything more optimistic.
The silence spun out between them again, less comfortable this time. Loosening the last bit of hide, Micum set his knife aside. "Do you have any idea what Nysander is up to? I haven't heard a thing from him since the Festival."
This time there was no mistaking the troubled look in his friend's eyes. "Secrets, Micum. Still secrets. He's driven me half-mad with them," Seregil admitted, warming himself at the fire.
"Have you found anything out on your own?"
Seregil stirred the embers with a branch, sending up a little flock of sparks. "Not much. And I'm oath-bound not to talk about it. I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize. We both know how the game works. How's Alec handling it, though? He's smart enough to put things together and I'd say he's about as easy to put off a scent as you are."
"True." Seregil gave a humorless laugh. "I'm worried, Micum. Something really bad is coming down the road and I can't tell who's in the way."
Micum hunkered down beside him. "If anyone can look out for him, it's you. But there are some other things you could be telling him. He has a right to know."
Seregil shot to his feet and waved at Alec as he rode out of the trees toward them.
"Not yet," he said, his voice too soft for Micum to tell if the words were a command or a plea.
After three days at Watermead, Alec and Seregil returned to the city under cover of night and made their way quietly back to the Cockerel.
Runcer would keep up appearances at Wheel Street; Lord Seregil was in town, but not always available.
Thryis and the others had gone to bed when they arrived, but the aromas still lingering in the darkened kitchen—new bread, dried fruit, garlic, wine, and ashy coals banked on the hearth—were enough welcome for Alec.
Ruetha appeared from somewhere and followed them up to the second floor. Alec scooped her up and held her until Seregil had disarmed the succession of warding glyphs that protected the hidden stairway leading to their rooms. Alec grinned to himself as Seregil whispered the passwords that had once sounded so exotically magical.
The command for the glyph at the base of the stairs was
Etuis miara koriatuan cyris.
"Your grandmother insults the chickens."
For the hidden door at the top of the stairs the word was
The nonsense was intentional, making it virtually impossible for anyone to guess the secret words. Only the final command, the one for the door into the sitting room, had any meaning.
Bokthersa was the name of Seregil's birthplace.
Seregil crossed the room with the aid of a lightstone and lit the fire. As the flames leapt up, he surveyed the room in surprise. "Illior's Hands, don't tell me you cleaned the place up before you left for Wheel Street?"
"Just enough so I could walk across the room safely," Alec replied, going to his neat, narrow bed in the corner near the hearth. He didn't particularly mind Seregil's chaotic living habits, but he did dislike stepping on sharp objects barefoot, or having heavy things fall on him from shelves. Hanging his sword and bow case on their nails above the bed, he stretched out with a contented sigh.
Seregil collapsed on the sofa in front of the fire. "You know, it strikes me that this is all a bit of a comedown for you. After having your own chamber, I mean. Perhaps we should think about expanding our accommodations here. There are empty rooms on either side of us."
"Don't bother on my account." Yawning, Alec crossed his arms behind his head. "I like things just as they are."
Seregil smiled up at the shadow of a dusty cobweb wavering overhead. "So do I, now that you mention it."
Their pleasure at returning to the inn was marred by a sudden scarcity of jobs. The few that had come in during their absence were petty matters, and over the next week new ones were slow to follow. For the first time in their acquaintance, Alec saw Seregil grow bored.
To make matters worse, late winter was the dreariest season in Rhiminee despite the lengthening days. The icy rains brought thicker fog in off the sea, and a grey dampness seemed to get into everything. Alec found himself sleeping well past dawn, and then nodding off over whatever he was doing in the evening with the sound of the rain lulling him like a heartbeat. Seregil, on the other hand, became increasingly restless.
Returning from a visit with Nysander one dank afternoon near the end of Dostin, Alec found Seregil working at the writing desk. The parchment in front of him was half-covered with musical notations, but he appeared to have lost interest in the project. Chin on hand, he was staring glumly out at the fog slinking by like a jilted lover.
"Did you check with Rhiri on your way up?" he asked without turning his head.
"Nothing new," Alec replied, unwrapping the books the wizard had lent him.
"Damn. And I've already checked everywhere else. If people keep behaving themselves like this we'll be out of a job."
"How about a game of bakshi?" Alec offered. "I could use some practice on those cheats you showed me yesterday."
"Maybe later. I don't seem to be in the mood." With an apologetic shrug, Seregil returned to his composition.
Suit yourself, thought Alec. Clearing a space on the room's central table, he settled down to study the compendium of rare beasts Nysander had given him. The text was somewhat beyond his ability, but he stubbornly puzzled it out, relying on the illustrations for clues when the gist of a passage eluded him. With cold mists swirling against the windowpanes, a fire crackling on the hearth, and a cup of tea at his elbow, it was not an unpleasant way to occupy an afternoon.
It did require considerable concentration, however, which quickly proved difficult as Seregil abandoned the desk and began wandering around the room. First he toyed with an unusual lock he'd picked up somewhere, grinding noisily away at the wards with a succession of picks. A few moments later he tossed it onto a shelf with the others and disappeared into his chamber, where Alec could hear him rummaging through the chests and trunks piled there and muttering aloud, either to himself or the ever faithful Ruetha.
Presently he reappeared with an armload of scrolls. Kicking the scattered cushions into a pile in front of the fire, he settled himself to read. But this pursuit was equally short-lived.
After a brief perusal involving considerable rustling of parchments and muttered asides, each document was relegated in rapid succession into the fire or onto a dusty pile beneath the couch. With this task completed, he lay back among the cushions and began to whistle softly between his teeth, keeping time to his tune by tapping the toe of one boot against the ash shovel.
Not even Nysander's excellent bestiary could withstand such distraction. Realizing he'd just read the same sentence for the third time, Alec carefully closed the book.
"We could do some shooting in the back court," he suggested, trying not to let his exasperation show.
Seregil looked up in surprise. "Oh, sorry. Am I disturbing you?"
He stood up again with a sigh. "I'm not fit to be around today, I'm afraid. I'll get out of your way." With this he returned to his room, emerging a few moments later wearing his best cloak.
He'd changed his rumpled tunic for a proper surcoat and breeches, too, Alec saw.
"Where are you off to?"
"I think I'll just walk awhile, get some air," Seregil said, avoiding eye contact as he hurried to the door.
"Wait a minute, and I'll go with you."
"No, no, you go on with your reading," Seregil insisted hurriedly. "And tell Thryis not to wait supper for me. I could be late."
The door closed after him and Alec found himself in sole possession of their rooms.
"Well, at least he didn't take his pack this time," he grumbled to Ruetha, who'd stationed herself on a stack of books beside him. Tucking herself into a neat loaf, the cat merely blinked at him.
Alec opened his book again, but found he couldn't concentrate at all now.
Giving up, he made another pot of tea and looked into Seregil's bedroom while it steeped; no clue was immediately apparent in that chaotic jumble.
What's he up to, dashing off like that?
Except for that one mysterious journey, Seregil had included him in every job since the Festival. But he hadn't acted like he was going out on a job just now.
The parchment was still on the desk. Bending over it, Alec saw that it was the beginnings of a song. The words were badly smudged in places, and whole lines had been struck through or scribbled over. What remained read:
Shelter awhile this poor tattered heart.
Cool my brow with your kiss.
Tell me, my love, you will lie with me only.
Lie to me all night like this.
Sweet is the night, but bitter the waking
When the sun harries me home.
Others there'll be, who drink at your fountain
While I toss cold and alone.
Yellow as gold, the hair on your pillow,
Green as cold emeralds, your eyes.
Dear as the moon, the cost of your favors,
Below this half a dozen lines had been struck out with what appeared to be increasing frustration.
The margins of the sheet were filled with half-completed sketches and designs-Illior's crescent, a perfectly drawn eye, circles, spirals, arrows, the profile of a handsome young man. In the lower left coiner was a quick but unmistakable sketch of Alec scowling comically over his books, which Seregil must have drawn from his reflection in the windowpane.
As he set the sheet aside, a familiar binding caught his eye among the books stacked on the workbench next to the desk. It was the Aurenfaie journal case they'd discovered in the Oreska library. He'd assumed Seregil had returned it with the others; he certainly hadn't said anything more about it, or about their discovery of the reference to the mysterious "Eater of Death."
Opening it, Alec gently turned the fragile pages over. Though he couldn't read them, they all looked just as he remembered them.
He replaced the case as he'd found it, and for the first time wondered if Seregil's restlessness lately was due to something more than just bad weather and boredom.
Come to think of it, he'd been restless at Watermead, as well. Those nights they'd shared the guest chamber bed, his friend had often tossed and muttered in his sleep. He hadn't done that before.
What secrets was he wrestling with?
"Or maybe he's just pining for his green-eyed mistress?" Alec speculated aloud, scanning the parchment again with an amused chuckle.
Ruetha appeared to have no opinion on the matter, however, and he found himself pacing as he rehearsed various nonchalant comments he could use to broach the subject when Seregil returned.
Whenever that turned out to be.
Lost in the quiet of the murky afternoon, he went back to his book and read until the light failed. When he got up for a fresh candle, he saw that the rain had stopped. Beyond the courtyard wall, the street lanterns glowed enticingly through the mist.
Suddenly the room seemed close and stale. There was really no reason he shouldn't go out. Why hadn't he thought of it sooner? Throwing on a surcoat and cloak, he headed downstairs.
The door between the kitchen and lading room was open.
Through it he could see Cilia serenely nursing Luthas in the middle of the dinnertime bustle, sorting through a basket of apples with her free hand as she did so. The baby sucked greedily, tugging at the lacings of her open bodice. Her exposed breast throbbed gently with the rhythm of his demand.
Alec's experience with Ylinestra had considerably altered his reaction to such sights. He colored guiltily when she looked up and caught him hovering in the doorway.
"I thought you'd gone out already," she said.
"Ah-no. I was just, that is—It's stopped raining, you see, and I'm just going out for a walk." He gestured vaguely toward the door behind him.
"Could you hold the baby a minute before you go?" she asked, pulling Luthas off the nipple and holding him up. "My arm'll break if I don't shift over."
Taking the child, Alec held him while Cilia moved her baskets and uncovered her other breast.
It was swollen with milk; a thin stream jetted from the nipple as she moved. Alec was close enough to see the pearly drops that fell across the deep red skins of the apples. He looked away, feeling a little dizzy. Luthas let out a sleepy burp and nuzzled at the front of Alec's cloak.
"The way he eats, you'd think I'd not have a drop to spare, but just look at me!" Cilia exclaimed merrily, taking the child back and putting him to breast on the other side. "Maker's Mercy, I've got more milk than Grandmother's goat."
Unable to think of a suitable reply to this, Alec nodded a hasty farewell and turned to go.
"Hey, Alec. Take this for your troubles," she said, tossing him an apple.
Feeling wetness beneath his fingers, he tucked it into a pocket and retreated to the back courtyard.
There, with the fog cool on his face, he allowed himself a moment's guilty pleasure replaying the scene in his mind. Cilia had never treated him as anything but a friend and until just now it had never occurred to him to think otherwise of her. Of course, the fact that she was at least six years older than he made it unlikely that her opinion would change.
Settling his sword belt against his hip, he pulled his hood well up and set off through the back gate with no particular destination in mind. The fog carried the smell of smoke and the sea. He tossed a corner of his cloak over one shoulder, enjoying the feel of the cold night air.
Skirting the Harvest Market, he strolled through Knife Maker's Lane to Golden Helm and followed it, watching the evening traffic bustle past.
As he reached the Astellus Circle, he was suddenly struck by a new and unexpected inspiration.
Across the busy circle, beyond the pale, templelike fountain colonnade, stood the gracious arch that marked the entrance to the Street of Lights. He'd been down this street many times on the way to the theater and gambling houses there, and Seregil had often jested about stopping in at a brothel afterward, but somehow it had never happened.
He'd never imagined it would.
The colored lanterns-rose, amber, green, and white— glowed softly through the mist, each color signifying what sort of companionship was available within. Rose meant women for men, he knew, and white was women for women; amber meant a house for women, too, but the prostitutes there were male.
Most enigmatic of all, however, was the green lantern, signifying male companions for male patrons. Worse yet, some houses showed several colors at once.
There's no reason to be nervous, he thought as he crossed to the arch. After all, his clothes were presentable, his purse was heavy, and thanks to Ylinestra, he wasn't completely inexperienced. As his friends never seemed to tire of pointing out, he was of age for such diversions. There was no harm in just having a look around, anyway. Nothing wrong with being curious.
As usual, the street was busy. Riders on glossy horses and carriages displaying the blazons of noble houses and wealthy merchants clattered past as he strolled along, looking with new eyes at the establishments showing the pink lantern. Groups of rich young revelers seemed to be everywhere, their boisterous laughter echoing in the darkness.
A woman wearing the uniform of the Queen's Household Guard was bidding a lingering good-bye to a half-dressed man in a doorway beneath an amber lamp as he passed. Next door, a well-heeled sea captain and several of his men burst from one house showing the rose light and, after a moment's consultation, stormed off across the street to one with a green. Lights glowed in nearly every window; muffled laughter and strains of music drifted everywhere, adding to the festive feel of the place.
It occurred to him as he walked along that the color of a lantern was not a lot to go on for such a decision.
No doubt Seregil could have suggested a few likely places, but that wasn't much good to him now. At last, he settled on a house near the middle of the street for no better reason than that he liked the carvings on the door. Just as he was about to go in, however, a door swung open across the street and a group of young men spilled out in a flood of light and music. A man was singing inside, and the voice stopped Alec in his tracks. The clear, lilting tenor was unmistakably Seregil's.
"Yellow as gold, the hair on your pillow,
Green as cold emeralds, your eyes.
Dear as the moon, the cost of your favors,
But priceless, the sound of your sighs.
Well, well! So here you are, thought Alec.
And you figured out that last line, too.
Wondering what role his friend was playing tonight, he crossed the street and hurried up the stairs and into the spacious vestibule beyond. In his haste, he collided with a tall, handsomely dressed man just inside the door.
"Good evening," he exclaimed, catching Alec lightly by the shoulders to steady himself. His hair was streaked with silver, but his long, handsome face was youthful as he smiled down on Alec.
"Excuse me, I wasn't looking where I was going," Alec apologized.
"No harm done. I'm always glad to meet anyone so anxious to enter my house. You've not been my guest before, I think. I'm Azarin."
The man's blue eyes swept over him in what Alec sensed was well-practiced appraisal.
He'd given no patronymics and Alec's name was not asked for.
Evidently he'd passed muster, for Azarin slipped his arm through Alec's and drew him with gentle insistence toward a curtained archway nearby.
"Come, my young friend," he said warmly, drawing aside the curtain. "I believe you'll find the company most congenial."
"Actually, I was just—"
Taking the room in at a glance, Alec froze, all thought of Seregil momentarily forgotten.
Beyond the curtain, a broad staircase led down into an opulent salon. The air in the softly lit room was heavy with incense. The walls were painted in Skalan fashion with superb murals and, while erotic themes were not uncommon, these were unlike any Alec had encountered before.
Green, he thought numbly, heart tripping a beat as he gazed around.
The murals were divided into panels, and each presented handsome male nudes intertwined in passionately carnal acts. The sheer variety was astonishing. Many of the feats depicted appeared to require considerable athletic ability and several, thought Alec, must have been pure fantasy on the part of the artist.
Dragging his gaze from the paintings, he swiftly took in the occupants of the astonishing chamber. Men of all ages reclined on couches arranged around the room, some embracing casually as they gave their attention to a young lute player by the hearth, others laughing and talking over gaming tables scattered here and there. Couples and small groups came and went up a sweeping staircase at the back of the room. There was no unseemly behavior, but many of them wore little more than long dressing gowns.
The patrons seemed to be mostly noblemen of various degrees, but Alec also recognized uniforms of the
Queen's Archers, the City Watch, several naval tunics, and a red tabard of the Oreska Guard.
He even recognized a few faces, including the poet Rhytien, who was currently holding forth to a rapt audience from the embrasure of a window.
The courtesans, if that was what one would call them, were not at all what he'd expected; some were slight and pretty, but most of them looked more like athletes or soldiers, and not all of them were young.
He hadn't heard Seregil's voice again since he'd entered, but he saw him now lounging on a couch near the hearth. He had one arm around a handsome, golden-haired young man and they were laughing together over something. As the courtesan turned his head, Alec recognized him—it was the same face Seregil had sketched on the margin of the song. Even from this distance, Alec could see the fellow had green eyes.
His heart did another slow, painful roll as he finally allowed himself to focus on Seregil.
His friend wore only breeches beneath his open robe and his dark hair hung disheveled over his shoulders.
Slender, lithe, and completely at ease, he could easily have been mistaken for one of the men of the house.
In fact, Alec silently admitted, he outshone them all.
He was beautiful.
Still rooted where he stood, Alec suddenly felt a strange division within himself. The old Alec, northern red and callow, wanted to bolt from this strange, exotic place and the sight of his friend stroking that golden head as absently as he'd petted the cat a few hours earlier.
But the new Alec, Alec of Rhiminee, stood fast, caught by the elegant decadence of the place as his ever-present curiosity slowly rekindled.
Seregil hadn't noticed him yet; to see him like this in such a place made Alec feel as if he were spying on a stranger.
Seregil's strange, virile beauty, at first unappreciated, then taken for granted as their familiarity grew through months of close living, seemed to leap out at him now against the muted backdrop of the crowd: the large grey eyes beneath the expressive brows, the fine bones of his face, the mouth, so often tilted in a caustic grin, was relaxed now in sensuous repose. As Alec watched, Seregil leaned his head back and his robe fell open to expose the smooth column of his throat and the lean planes of his chest and belly.
Fascinated and confused, Alec felt the first hesitant stirring of feelings he was not prepared to associate with his friend and teacher.
Still hovering at his elbow, Azarin somewhat misinterpreted his bedazzled expression. "If I may be so bold, perhaps you lack experience in such matters?" he asked. "Don't let that trouble you. There are many hours in the night, take your time."
He swept a graceful hand at the murals.
"Perhaps you'll find inspiration there. Or have you a particular sort of companion in mind?"
"No!" Startled out of his daze, Alec took a step backward. "No, I didn't really— I mean, I thought I saw a friend come in here. I was just looking for him."
Azarin nodded and said, ever gracious, "I understand. But now that you are here, why not join us for a while? The musician is new, just in from Cirna. I'll send for wine."
At Azarin's discreet summons, a young man detached himself from a knot of conversation nearby and came up to join them.
"Tirien will attend you in my absence," said Azarin.
Giving the two of them a final, approving look, he disappeared back into the vestibule.
"Well met, young sir," Tirien greeted him.
Thick black hair, glossy as a crow's wing, framed his face and a soft growth of new beard edged the hollows of his cheeks. His smile seemed genuinely friendly. He was dressed in breeches, boots, and a loose shirt of fine linen; for a moment Alec mistook him for a noble. The illusion was shattered, however, when Tirien stepped closer and said, "There's a couch free near the fire, if you like. Or would you prefer to go up at once?"
For one awful moment Alec was speechless; what in Illior's name was he to do? Glancing past Tirien's shoulder, his eyes happened to fall on one of the panels. The young prostitute turned to follow his gaze, then smiled.
"Oh, yes, I'm quite good at that. As you can see, though, we'll need a third man."
Seregil's eyes widened in genuine amazement at he caught sight of Alec framed in the salon entrance, amazement followed at once by a bittersweet pang of something deeper than mere surprise.
The boy had obviously stumbled into Azarin's house by mistake. The tense lines around his mouth and faint, betraying color in his cheeks attested as much.
I'd better go rescue him, he thought, yet he remained where he was, letting the scene play on a bit longer.
A quick glance around the room confirmed that Alec was attracting the notice of other patrons, as well.
And no wonder, Seregil thought with a stab of something dangerously close to possessiveness. For a moment he allowed himself to see Alec through the eyes of the others: a slim, somberly dressed youth whose heavy, honey-dark hair framed a finely featured face and the bluest eyes this side of a summer evening sky. He stood like a half-wild thing, poised for flight, yet his manner toward the young prostitute was almost courtly.
Tirien leaned closer to Alec and the boy's mask of composure slipped a bit, betraying-what? Alarm, certainly, but hadn't there been just a hint of indecision?
This time Seregil couldn't deny the hot flash of jealousy that shot through him. Thoroughly annoyed with himself, he began disentangling himself from Wythrin.
"Do you want to go back up now?" the young man asked hopefully, sliding a warm hand up his thigh.
This gave him pause. Seregil touched the back of one hand to Wythrin's cheek, savoring the faint roughness of it. This one, a favorite for some time now, had charms of his own, and talents that spared Seregil's heart even as they satisfied his need.
Wythrin, and others like him, offered safe, guiltless passion, free of obligation.
"In a moment. There's someone I need to talk to first."
He'd get Alec out of whatever jam he'd stumbled into, whether that sent him upstairs with Tirien or not, Seregil told himself sternly, then lose himself once more in Wythrin's deep bed. It was as simple as that.
Alec quickly realized that Tirien had no intention of being put off. His own increasingly embarrassed protestations that he had no experience in such matters only seemed to whet the courtesan's interest. It wasn't the first time Alec had run into this attitude; country virgins seemed to be a rare and much sought-after novelty in Rhiminee.
For a fleeting instant it occurred to him that Tirien was attractive, but he dismissed the treacherous thought at once; that sort of thinking was not going to get him out of this mess.
To his relief, he saw Seregil coming his way.
Clearly amused, he gave Alec a discreet need help? sign. Alec answered with a quick nod.
At that, Seregil strode up to them and slipped an arm around Alec's waist. "There you are at last! Forgive me for intruding, Tirien. My friend and I have some business. Will you excuse us for a moment?"
"Of course." The young courtesan withdrew with a graceful bow, betraying only the faintest hint of disappointment.
Alec braced for the inevitable ragging as they withdrew to the vestibule, but Seregil simply said, "I didn't expect to see you here."
"I heard you singing. I mean, I thought it sounded like you and—well, I just came in." Aside from the fact that he was stammering like an idiot, Alec was suddenly all too aware of the fact that Seregil's arm was still around him. Strange, enticing scents clung to his friend's skin and hair, unlike his usual clean smell. The troublesome new feelings stirred again, closer to the surface this time, but just as confusing. "I didn't think to check the lantern. I just came in."
Seregil chuckled softly. "Curious as usual, eh? Well, now that you're in, are you going to stay? Tirien's an excellent choice. Azarin knows his business."
"No." Alec glanced at the young prostitute, still waiting hopefully nearby, then hastily back to Seregil. There was no hint of challenge in his friend's face, just bemusement. Why then, held in the calm gaze of those grey eyes, did his own agitation increase? The situation was well past his ability to explain.
"No, I was just looking for you. I'd better go. This place makes me feel strange."
"There's more than incense burning in those bowls. But I assume if you were just passing by, then you're here on business of your own? Let's see now, how long has it been?"
"I was thinking of it," Alec admitted. He could feel the warmth of Seregil's skin through the thick silk of the robe now. "I don't know—I might just go on home."
"Don't be silly," Seregil said, releasing him at last. "I was planning to go back upstairs, but that can wait." The grin flashed again, and Alec abandoned all hope of escape. "There's a place just down the street that's probably more to your liking. And long overdue, too. I'll be right back."
Returning to the main room, he said something to Tirien. The man gave Alec a last wistful look, then drifted away.
Leaning in the shadow of the arch, Alec watched Seregil take leave of his companion, who was clearly dismayed by his departure. After a brief, animated exchange, Seregil pressed him back on the couch with a deep, lingering kiss, then disappeared up the stairs.
He came down again a few moments later fully dressed, sword belt slung over one shoulder.
"Come along," he said jauntily, leading the way to a villa down the block.
Well, at least there's a pink lantern here, Alec thought, nervous again as Seregil urged him up the stairs.
Seregil appeared to be well known here. A number of women greeted him enthusiastically as he led Alec into the salon. This establishment was quite similar to Azarin's. Erotic tapestries and statuary adorned this room and lovely women in various states of dishabille entertained their patrons, brilliant and lovely as rare birds.
As they handed their cloaks and swords to a page, a richly dressed woman left a knot of conversation and rushed to embrace Seregil. Her skin, generously exposed by the blue silk gown she wore, had a golden olive tone Alec had never seen before. Thick black ringlets hung in a shining cascade to her waist.
"Where have you been keeping yourself, you rogue," she cried with obvious delight.
"A million places, Eirual, my love, but none so pleasant as here," Seregil replied, kissing her throat lasciviously.
She laughed, then pushed him away, dark eyes widening in mock reproach. "I know that scent. You've been to Azarin's already. How cruel you are, coming to me with your fires already spent."
"Spent? My fires?" Seregil caught her close again. "And when, my lovely one, have you ever known that to be the case?"
"I'd like to put you to the test—upstairs."
"I accept your challenge gladly, madame, but first we have to find companionship for my young friend."
Alec had been gazing around the room during this exchange, his heart pounding in a manner even his old, Dalnan-bred self could find no argument with.
"I think he's found someone already," Eirual said with an amused smile.
Alec nodded shyly at a slender, blue-eyed brunette in burgundy silk. "She's very pretty."
"Myrhichia?" Eirual shot Seregil an arch look as she summoned the woman. "He has excellent taste, this friend of yours."
"He hasn't disappointed me yet," Seregil replied, giving Alec a wink.
Myrhichia glided over, wrapped in perfume and mystery. She was older than Alec had supposed, older than he, but that didn't matter—there was something familiar about her, something that made him wave aside the offer of wine and let her lead him up the stairs to her room.
It wasn't until she turned to speak to him over her shoulder that he realized how much she resembled Seregil, or rather Seregil as he'd looked playing Lady Gwethelyn aboard the Darter.
It was an unsettling revelation and he did his best to put it out of his mind as they entered her chamber.
Looking around, Alec felt the last of his trepidation giving way to sensuous anticipation.
A fire cracked invitingly on the hearth, its flames softly illuminating the small, elegant room. The bed was high and draped with patterned hangings. Huge cushions were piled near the hearth, together with a few oddly shaped stools. An elaborate washstand was half-visible behind a painted screen in a shadowy corner.
Myrhichia stood demurely at the center of the room, offering him the choice of where to begin. "Does it please you?" she asked, cocking her head prettily.
"Yes," he whispered. Closing the door, he went to her and loosened the jeweled pin holding her hair.
It tumbled free over her shoulders in dark, sandalwood-scented waves.
Where his experience with Ylinestra had been out of his control from the first, this woman seemed content to let him direct things. He touched her face, her hair, then hesitantly brought his lips to hers.
Her hands found his face, his shoulders, then slid slowly lower.
The fastenings of her gown were no challenge for Alec's expertly trained fingers; her clothes and his were soon in a pile at their feet.
"Shall I light a lamp?" she whispered as he took her hungrily in his arms.
He shook his head, pressing his body against the yielding roundness of breasts, belly, and thighs, letting the feel of her envelop him. "The fire's enough."
Still holding her, he sank down onto the cushions by the hearth. The warring sensations of the long, confusing evening seemed to coalesce and clarify as he at last abandoned himself to the powerful simplicity of desire.
Eirual was half Zengati, Aurenen's traditional enemy. It was that, together with the dark beauty of her race, that had first attracted Seregil.
Though hardly more than a girl at the time of their first meeting, she'd been a fiery lover and he'd entertained notions of taking her away for himself.
She'd been the one who'd dashed that plan; she liked her work, she'd told him firmly.
What's more, she planned to own a brothel of her own one day, just as her mother and grandmother had before her. Although his pride had been somewhat jarred, Seregil had respected her wishes and over the years they'd become friends.
She'd achieved her dreams. She was now the owner of one of the city's finest and most nobly patronized pleasure houses. This often brought interesting bits of information her way and, though she was no gossiping whore, she was aware of Seregil's supposed connections to Rhiminee's mysterious «Cat» and had often found it lucrative to pass on certain facts and rumors.
Their reunion this night had been spirited in spite of Seregil's earlier activities. Afterward, they lay tangled together in the damp, disheveled sheets and laughed together over little things.
Presently she sighed, then said, "You know, I saw something rather odd a few weeks ago."
"And what was that?" he murmured, contentedly admiring the contrast of his skin against hers as he stroked her thigh.
"I entertained a new visitor last week, a stranger. He was well turned out and behaved himself, but I could tell from his way of speaking and the state of his hands he wasn't upper class, just a common fellow who'd come into gold and meant to treat himself. You know the sort."
"But he was handsome and broad-shouldered and smelled of honest labor," Seregil teased. "Sounds delightful. Let's have him in."
"As if I'd share you! But I admit I was intrigued at first, though he turned out very ordinary in the end. No, I think you'd be more interested in what fell out of his coat than what fell out of his breeches."
"Oh?" Seregil raised a questioning eyebrow, knowing better than to hurry her. She always enjoyed spinning out a tale.
"He'd thrown his clothes every which way, so when he was snoring afterward—which was all too soon, I might add—I decided to tidy up a bit. A letter fell from his coat when I picked it up. The ribbon had come loose and I took a quick peek. He stirred a moment later and I had to put it away, but I had time to recognize the handwriting, and the seal at the bottom."
"Did you, you clever girl? Whose was it?"
"Lord General Zymanis."
"Really?" Zymanis had recently been appointed to oversee the defenses of the lower city. "How do you know it wasn't a forgery?"
Eirual traced a playful finger around his navel.
"Zymanis is a very dear friend of mine, as you well know. Two months ago he knocked his ring against that bedpost there behind you and chipped the stone seal. It was a tiny piece, really, but he made such a fuss over it! Quite spoiled the mood. This chip makes a tiny flaw in the impression, so tiny that most people wouldn't even notice it. But I knew what to look for and it was his, all right. What do you think of that?"
Seregil cupped her full breast in his hand like a goblet and kissed it reverently. "I think, in your place, I'd have found some way of inquiring where this lover of yours could be found again."
Eirual pressed closer with a luxuriant sigh.
"Sailmaker Street in the lower city. A tenement with a red and white lintel. His name is Rythel, a big, blond fellow with a lovely soft beard, very handsome."
"And you don't think this visitor of yours ought to have such a letter?"
Eirual shook her head. "For starters, it was addressed to Lord Admiral Nyreidian. I've never met the admiral, but I'd bet a month's gold he doesn't have fresh calluses on his hands and stained fingernails."
"Or a yellow beard," mused Seregil, thinking of the man he'd met at the Mourning Night ceremony. Nyreidian had spoken of his own commission from the Queen, too, overseeing privateering ships.
"Zymanis wouldn't let a fellow like this step on his shadow, much less write letters to him." She gave him a sly sidelong glance. "I thought maybe your friend the Cat might be interested?"
"He just might."
"I could tell him myself," she wheedled, not for the first time. Over the years the unseen Rhiminee Cat had taken on a glow of romance for many, who envied Seregil his apparently favored status.
Seregil kissed his way slowly across her chest.
"I've told you before, love, he's not what you think. He's a nasty, weedy little man who spends half his time wading through the sewers."
"Last time you said he was a hunchback," she corrected, stroking his head.
"That, too. That's why he keeps out of sight, you see, because he's so hideous. Why, his boils alone are enough—"
"No more!" Eirual laughed, admitting defeat.
"Sometimes I think you're the Cat, and you just make all the rest up to hide it."
"Me? Wading through sewers and running errands for bored nobles?" He pinned her down, feigning outrage. "Fancy me mincing across the roof slates!"
"Oh, yes," Eirual gasped, giggling helplessly at the thought. "You're the terror of the town."
"You've pegged me wrong, my girl. There's only one thing I put that kind of effort into."
"And what's that, may I ask?"
Seregil leered down at her. "I'll show you."
The candle had burned to a stub when he slipped from her bed.
Eirual stirred drowsily. "Stay, love. I'll be cold without you."
He drew the comforter up under her chin and kissed her.
"I can't tonight. I'll send a nice present tomorrow."
"All right, then." She smiled, already half asleep again. "Something with rubies and I might forgive you."
"Rubies it is."
He dressed quickly and blew out the candle. Closing her door quietly behind him, he headed for Myrhichia's room down the corridor.
He had to knock several times to get a response.
She opened the door a few inches at last, peering out with a resentful pout.
"He's sleeping," she informed him, pulling her dressing gown closed.
"How inconsiderate." Pushing past her, Seregil strode into the bedchamber. Alec lay sprawled on his back in the bed, his sleeping face the picture of weary bliss.
Looks like he managed to enjoy himself after all, he thought with a mix of pride and wistfulness, glancing around at the disordered room.
Ignoring the courtesan's simmering displeasure, Seregil leaned down and shook him by the shoulder.
Alec stirred drowsily, murmuring something amorous as he reached to pull Seregil into bed.
When his fingers encountered wool rather than whatever he'd been dreaming of, however, he snapped fully awake.
"What are you doing here?" he gasped, sitting up.
"Sorry." Seregil crossed his arms, grinning.
"Terrible timing, I know, but something's come up and I may need your help."
Alec glanced quickly from him to the girl. "A job? Now?"
"I'll wait for you downstairs. Don't be long."
Alec let out an exasperated sigh. Before he could get up, however, Myrhichia dropped her robe and slipped back into bed beside him. "Does he always barge in like that?"
"I hope not," muttered Alec.
"Are you going to leave me now?" She nibbled teasingly down the side of his neck as her hand slipped up his thigh to more sensitive regions.
He could picture Seregil pacing impatiently downstairs, waiting for him, but Myrhichia was putting up a persuasive argument under the covers.
"Well," he sighed, letting her push him back against the bolsters, "maybe not right this second."
Seregil had the bones of a workable plan in mind by the time he got downstairs. Strolling into the cloak room, he found it conveniently unattended.
He soon had what he wanted; he returned to the salon with an officer's mantle and a wineskin concealed beneath his own cloak, Alec's sword belt and cloak over his arm.
To his surprise, Alec had still not come down. Rather annoyed, he settled in a chair near the door to wait.
It was late now. A few girls remained in the salon, playing bakshi to pass the time while they waited for whatever late-coming patrons might show up. Having seen Seregil come down, they paid little attention to him.
Minutes passed and still no Alec.
Seregil was just about to leave without him when the boy came down the staircase. His loose shirt flapped around his legs as he struggled with his coat, one sleeve of which appeared to be inside out. Getting himself more or less sorted out at last, he hurried to join Seregil.
"Delayed, were you?" Seregil inquired with a smirk, tossing him his cloak and sword.
"Myrhichia isn't very happy with you," Alec grumbled, flushed and out of breath. He wrapped his sword belt around his hips and fastened the buckle. "I'm not so sure I am, either. If this is just another silly lover's token—"
Seregil tugged Alec's collar straight, still grinning. "You think I'd ruin your fun for that? Come on, I'll tell you about it on the way."
Outside, he glanced around quickly, then whispered, "I think Eirual may have put us onto a spy."
Alec brightened up at once. "That's worth getting out of bed for."
"Did you ride?"
"Good, we'll hire horses and abandon them if we have to. I'll explain as we go."
Leaving the warm glow of the lanterns behind, they hurried into the embracing darkness.
"Where are we going?" Alec asked as Seregil headed west through the dark streets.
The quickest way to the lower city was down the Harbor Way.
"I need a very special horse for this one," Seregil explained. "There's an ostler over by the Harvest Gate who's likely to have what I want, and still be hiring out at this hour."
Pausing, he opened the wineskin and took a sip, then sprinkled a more liberal libation down the front of his surcoat. Evidently satisfied with the effect, he passed it to Alec.
Grinning, he did the same. "Drunk, are we?"
"Oh, yes, and I'll be worse off than you. You'll be playing the sensible friend."
"Don't I always?" Alec took another fortifying sip and capped the skin.
A lantern was still burning in front of the ostler's stable. Seregil fell into a loose, unsteady walk as they stepped into the circle of light.
"Ostler!" he called, striking an arrogant pose, fists on his hips. "Two gentlemen need mounts. Show yourself, man."
"Here, sirs," a man replied, opening a side door a crack for a wary look at the late customers.
Seregil shook his purse at him. The ring of coins had the desired effect; the ostler swung the stable doors wide and held the lantern while they inspected the half-dozen horses inside.
Alec quickly found a decent mare and the man saddled her for him.
Seregil was longer at it. After much pacing and muttering, he finally settled on a rawboned grey.
"I'm not one to tell a lord his business, but he's made a poor choice with that one," the worried ostler whispered to Alec. "Old Cloudy there has been off his feed for days and Jias a cough. If you'd speak to your friend for me, I'll see to it he has the best of my stable."
Alec gave him a reassuring wink and counted out a generous stack of silver. "Don't concern yourself. We're going to play a joke on a friend and your grey is just what we need. We'll take good care of him, and have them both back before dawn."
They set off at a trot, but before they'd gone a quarter of a mile Seregil's cob stumbled to a halt, nearly throwing him over its head. Jerking its head down, it let out a hollow, braying cough.
"Poor old fellow." Seregil patted the animal's neck. "You're better than I could have hoped for. We'll have to send a drysian to look at him."
"What do you think this spy of yours is up to?"
Alec asked as they continued at a walk.
Seregil shrugged. "Hard to say yet. Eirual thinks this fellow Rythel has some documents that he shouldn't. I want to see if she's right."
"Do you think he's a Plenimaran?"
"Too soon to say. At times like this it's best to keep an open mind until you have hard facts. Otherwise, you just run around trying to prove your own theory and overlooking important details that may turn up in the process. It could be there's nothing to it at all, but it's more interesting than anything else we've seen in the last few weeks."
Well-dressed, slightly intoxicated lords heading down to the lower city for a roister were of little concern to the guards at the Sea Gate. The sergeant-at-arms waved them through with a bored look and returned to the watch fire.
At the bottom of the Harbor Way they rode east along the waterfront past the custom houses and quays into a moderately respectable street lined with tenements.
A few lights showed behind shuttered windows, but most of the neighborhood was asleep. A dog howled mournfully somewhere nearby, the sound carrying eerily through the streets. Seregil's horse twitched its ears nervously, then let out another rattling cough in a jingle of harness.
"Here's Sailmaker Street," said Seregil, reining in at the mouth of an unmarked lane.
Unclasping his mantle, he threw it to Alec and shook out the mantle he'd brought from Eirual's.
It belonged to a captain of the White Hawk Infantry and bore a large, distinctive device.
"Who'd you steal that from?" Alec asked, watching him put it on.
"Borrowed, dear boy, borrowed," Seregil corrected primly.
Alec peered up and down the poorly lit street.
"That must be the house there," he said, pointing to one at the end of the lane. "It's the only one with a striped lintel."
"Yes. You hang back and be ready for trouble. If it comes to any sort of a chase, I'd better ride with you. I don't think poor old Cloudy has much run left in him."
Seregil emptied the last of the wine over his mount's withers, bunched the mantle awkwardly over one shoulder, and pulled one foot loose from the stirrup. Settling into a loose, drunken slouch, he nudged the horse into a walk. Riding up to the door, he kicked loudly at it.
"You! In the house!" he bawled, swaying precariously in the saddle. "I want the leech, damn him. By Sakor, send out the bastard son of a pig!"
A shutter slammed back just above his head and an old woman popped her head out, glaring down indignantly.
"Leave off with that or I'll have the Watch down on you," she screeched, swinging a stick at his head. "This is an honest house."
"I'll leave off when I've got his throat in my hand," Seregil yelled, kicking the door again.
"You're drunk. I can smell you from here!" the old woman said scornfully. "Who is it you're after?"
Just then, the grey jerked its head down in another racking cough.
"There, you hear that?" Seregil roared. "How in the name of Bilairy am I supposed to explain this to my commander, eh? Your leech has ruined the beast. Gave him a dose of salts and half killed him. I'll run my sword up his arse, that pus-faced clod of shit! You send out the leech Rythel or I'll come in after him."
"You whoreson drunken mullet!" The old woman took another swing at him with her cudgel. "It's Rythel the smith that rooms here, not Rythel the leech."
"Smith?" Seregil goggled up at her. "What in the name of Sakor's Fire is he doing dosing my horse if he's a smith?"
Lurking in the shadows at the mouth of the street, Alec shook with silent laughter. It was as good a performance as any he'd seen at the theater.
"Half the men on the coast are called Rythel, you fool. You've got the wrong man," the old landlady sputtered. "Smith Rythel is an honest man, which is more than can be said for you, I'm sure."
"Honest man, my ass!"
"He is. He works for Master Quarin in the upper city."
She disappeared and Seregil, no doubt with knowledge born of long experience, reined his horse out of the way just as she emptied a chamber pot over the sill at him.
Seregil made her an ungainly bow from the saddle. "My humblest apologies for disturbing your rest, old mother."
"You'd best sleep on your belly tonight," the old woman cackled after him as he rode unsteadily away.
"That wasn't exactly subtle," Alec observed, still laughing as they headed back to the Harbor Way.
"A drunken soldier making a ruckus at the wrong house in the middle of the night on Sailmaker Street?" Seregil asked, looking pleased with himself. "What could be subtler than that? And successful, too. Now we know that this Rythel is a journeyman smith of some sort. Which leaves us still asking what he's doing with gold enough for the Street of Lights and a lord's papers in his pocket."
"And why he had that much gold on him with the papers still in his pocket."
"Exactly. And what does that suggest?"
"That he's been up to whatever he's doing for a while already," replied Alec, looking back toward the waterfront. "We'll have to get into his rooms, and we'd better find out who Master Quarin is."
"We'll start tomorrow. Hold up a minute."
Seregil's grey was wheezing dejectedly now.
Reining in by a lantern at the foot of the Harbor Way, he dismounted and took the animal's head between his hands. "I'd better ride double with you, Alec. This poor old fellow's at the end of his strength. I'd better change cloaks, too."
Alec kicked a foot out of the stirrup and held his hand down. Grasping it, Seregil climbed up behind him and wrapped an arm around his waist.
Alec felt another unexpected twinge of sensuality at his touch, faint as a bat's whisper, but unmistakable. There was certainly nothing seductive in the way Seregil gripped a handful of his tunic to keep his balance, yet suddenly he had an image of that same hand stroking the head of the young man at Azarin's brothel, and later embracing dark-eyed Eirual.
Seregil had touched him before, but never with anything more than brotherly affection. Alec had seen tonight what sort of companions his friend chose-Wythrin and Eirual, both of them exotic, beautiful, and undoubtedly skilled beyond anything Alec could conceive of.
What's happening to me? he wondered dejectedly. Maker's Mercy, he could still smell Myrhichia's lush scent rising from his skin. From some neglected corner of his heart, a small voice seemed to answer silently, You're waking up at last.
"Anything wrong?" asked Seregil.
"Thought I heard something." Alec nudged the horse into a walk.
Seregil bunched the stolen cloak out of sight beneath his own. "I suppose we really should return this. I don't want any of Eirual's women getting into trouble on my account. I don't suppose you'd mind going back there twice in one night?"
Alec couldn't see his friend's face, but he could tell by his voice that he was grinning.
"Me? Where will you be?" asked Alec.
"Oh, not too far away."
Alec shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. "You're going back to Azarin's."
He heard a throaty chuckle behind him. "Fowl never tastes as savory when you're hungry for venison."
At least you know what you want, Alec thought grudgingly.
Cilia was just stirring up the fire when Seregil returned to the Cockerel the next morning. "Is Alec back?" she asked.
"I haven't seen him since yesterday afternoon. You haven't gone and lost him, have you?"
"Let's hope not." Grabbing a few apples from a basket, he headed for the back stairway.
"Hang on, I've got something for you," Cilia called after him. She pulled a small, sealed packet from behind the salt box on the mantel and gave it to him. "Runcer sent this over from Wheel Street. A regimental courier from the Queen's Horse delivered it there."
Pocketing the apples, he examined the packet as he continued upstairs. The folded parchment was sealed with candle drippings and covered in smudged finger marks. Directions to Lord Seregil's house were written across the front in Beka Cavish's impatient, upright hand.
Opening it, he read the brief letter inside.
Dear S. and A.
Dostin-Have reached Isil. Tomorrow we move into Mycenian territory. One of the other turmae lost a rider at bridge over the Canal at Cirna when his horse bolted and threw him over the edge. Horrible.
The weather is foul. It's still very much winter up here.
The worst enemy we've faced so far is boredom.
Capt. Myrhini and some of the other officers break the monotony with their war stories. Some of the best come from the sergeants, however.
Billeted tonight in stables of Baron of Isil's estate. The glory of a soldier's life, eh, Seregil?
— B. Cavish
Reaching their rooms, he found Alec asleep on his narrow cot, clothes dropped in a careless heap on the floor. Seregil sat down on the clothes chest at the end of the bed and tapped him on the foot.
"Good morning. We've got news from Beka."
Alec growled something into the pillow, then rolled over. He blinked sleepily at the morning light streaming in at the windows, then at Seregil. "You just getting in?"
Seregil tossed him an apple. "Yes. Tirien asked after you, by the way, and sends his regards."
Alec shrugged noncommittally and bit into his apple. "What's Beka say?"
Seregil read him the letter.
"Maker's Mercy!" Alec muttered, hearing of the man lost off the Canal bridge. He disliked heights and Seregil had to coax him across the bridge the first time he'd traveled over it.
"Let's see," said Seregil when he'd finished, "if they were in Wyvern Dug two weeks ago and headed southeast from there, they could be across the Folcwine River by now."
"Sounds like she's doing well with it all."
"I wouldn't expect anything else of her. Beka's as good with people as she is with horses and swordplay. I'll bet you a sester she's wearing a captain's gorget the next time we see her."
If we see her again, skittered at the back of his mind as he said this, but he pushed the doubt away. He thought he saw a shadow of the same thought cross Alec's face, and the same quick denial.
"Where do we start today?" Alec asked, pushing a handful of tousled hair back from his eyes.
Seregil went to the hearth and stirred up the remains of last night's fire. "I'd like to find this Master Smith Quarin first. Unfortunately we don't know what kind of a smith he is, do we? Goldsmith, silversmith, swordsmith, blacksmith—"
Alec chewed thoughtfully, watching him. After a moment he said, "How about an ironsmith?"
Seregil glanced down at the poker in his hand, then saw that Alec was looking at it, too.
"You said Lord Zymanis is in charge of the lower city defenses, so he's more likely to need an ironsmith than a goldsmith, right? And Eirual said he had rough hands."
"You've got a clearer head than I do this morning," Seregil said, chagrined not to have thought of it himself.
"I imagine I got more sleep."
Seregil glanced over at him in surprise, fancying he heard an edge of disapproval in Alec's tone. After last night's evident success with Myrhichia, he'd assumed the boy was cured of any undue scruples.
Evidently he still retained his Dalnan attitude toward establishments like Azarin's.
Well, that's just too damned bad for him.
"There are ironsmiths scattered all around the city but they all belong to the same guild," he said aloud, letting the moment pass. "I'll have Thryis send one of the scullions over to ask after Quarin. In the meantime, I think I'll have a bit of a rest."
By midday they'd learned that Master Quarin's shop lay in Ironmonger Row near the Sea Market Gate. They set off soon after, dressed as ragged cripples.
Alec's face was half-obscured by a dirty bandage. Seregil wore an old wreck of a hat tied on with a scarf so that the brim curved down to his chin on either side. Their disguises had the desired effect. As they crossed the back court Rhiri saw them and shook a rake threateningly in their direction.
"Ah, the ubiquitous beggar," Seregil chuckled when they'd scuttled out the gate. "No one is ever surprised or glad to see you anywhere in the city."
Begging bowls in hand, they set off for Sheaf Street, the broad avenue that ran through the city between the Harvest and Sea Market gates.
As expected, they attracted little attention as they made their way through the crowded streets. Carts and wagons rumbled past endlessly. Tinkers and knife grinders chanted their availability in singsong voices. Dirty children dodged through the crowds, chasing dogs or pigs or each other.
Soldiers were everywhere, along with malodorously genuine beggars and a few early whores importuning passersby.
Watching for their chance, they stole a ride on the back of a hay wagon and clung to the tail posts as it jolted over the cobbles.
"Look there," said Seregil, pointing behind them.
Alec looked and winced inwardly. Half a block back, five heads swayed on pikes set upright in the back of a rough wooden cart surrounded by a grim formation of the City Watch. He'd seen such displays before; this was the fate of traitors and spies in Rhiminee. Their decapitated bodies would be lying in the cart below, on their way to the city pit.
"Maker's Mercy, that's getting to be a common sight," he muttered. "If we're right about our man—"
"Then he'll come to the same end." Seregil eyed the heads impassively. "I wouldn't dwell on that, if I were you. I don't."
Especially since you came within spitting distance of ending up that way yourself. Alec thought grimly. He still had nightmares about that sometimes, and what would have happened if he and Micum had failed to clear Seregil's name from the Leran's carefully contrived treason charges. He wondered if Seregil did, too.
As soon as the brightly colored awnings of the Sea Market came into sight, Seregil jumped down from the cart and led the way into Ironmonger Row, a twisting side street of open-sided workshops and smoke-stained buildings. Playing his role, he doubled over into a crabbed, sidelong limp and grasped Alec's arm.
In spite of the name, metal workers of all sorts plied their trade here, taking advantage of the proximity to both the port and the marketplace.
Acrid fumes stung Alec's eyes as they made their way through the din. Inside the workshops he could see half-naked men silhouetted against the red glare of the forges, looking like vengeful demons as their hammers struck sparks from glowing metal.
Apprentices ran here and there with tools and hods of coal; others sweated over the bellows, pumping until the forges glowed yellow-white. Pots, swords, tools, and bits of armor hung over doorways advertising the wares being crafted within.
Pausing at the first they came to, Seregil limped up to an apprentice and asked after Quarin.
"Master Quarin?" The boy pointed farther down the narrow lane. "His place is way down near the wall, biggest on the block. You can't miss it."
"Many thanks, friend," croaked Seregil, taking Alec's arm again. "Come along, son, we're nearly there."
For a single, disorienting instant Alec stared down at him. They hadn't discussed their roles in detail—hearing himself unexpectedly called «son» so many months after his father's death sent a sickening chill through him. Guilt followed hard on the heels of it; he hadn't thought of his father in weeks, perhaps longer.
Seregil peered up at him from under his hat, one sharp grey eye visible. "You all right?"
Alec stared straight ahead, surprised at the stinging behind his eyelids. "I'm fine. It's just the smoke."
Dodging heavy wagons and wrathful shouts, they finally located Quarin's shop. It was a huge establishment, much larger than the rest, and housed in a converted warehouse.
Seregil hung back a moment, sizing the place up through the open door. "Two forges that I can see from here," he whispered. "See those fellows with the metal studs across the top of their aprons? They're all master craftsmen. Master Quarin must be well established to have a crew like that under him. Let's go see what he knows of our friend Rythel."
Just inside the door, they found a woman in a studded apron putting the final touches on an elaborately decorated gate. Catching sight of them, she paused, resting her hammer on one knee.
"You want something here?" she called.
Seregil lowered his voice to a windy growl. "Is this Master Quarin's shop?"
"That's the master, there at the back." Hefting her hammer again, she pointed out a bluff, white-haired old man standing behind a worktable with several other smiths, metal stylus in hand.
"It's a Master Rythel we was sent to find," Alec told her. "We've a message to deliver and we was told he works here."
The woman sniffed scornfully. "Oh, him! He and his crew are down at the western sewer tunnel in the lower city."
"Friend of yours, dearie?" Seregil wheedled, giving her a wink beneath the cracked brim of his hat.
"He's nobody's friend here. Upstart nephew of the master, is all. That sort always nabs the plums, and damn all to the rest of us. Be off with you, and I hope you charge him double for the message. The bastard can well enough afford it."
Alec gave her a respectful bob of the head. "Thanks and Maker's Mercy to you. Come on, Grandfather, we've got a long walk ahead of us."
"Grandfather, eh?" Seregil eyed him wryly as they continued on toward the Sea Market.
"You could be anything under there. That smith didn't seem to care much for Rythel, did she?"
"I noticed that," said Seregil, straightening up and stretching his back. "The guild smiths are a proud, stiff-necked lot and seniority is everything to them. Sounds like Quarin put some noses out of joint giving the job to a relative."
"Why would anyone begrudge him working in the sewers?"
"If they're in the sewers, then they must be replacing the iron grates that guard the channels coming down from the citadel. Who do you suppose ordered that job?"
"Lord General Zymanis."
"By way of whatever underlings handle the details, anyway, which would make it a particularly lucrative contract, with extra pay for the smith in charge of the repairs and his crew. She said he'd "nabbed the plums," remember?"
"That still doesn't explain why Rythel would have papers with Lord Zymanis' seal."
"No, but it does establish the beginnings of a plausible connection. The letter he had was addressed to Admiral Nyreidian. We met him at Kylith's gathering at the Mourning Night ceremony, if you recall."
"The lord who'd just been commissioned to oversee the privateers!" Alec exclaimed. "That has to do with the war, too."
"Which means we're probably right about Rythel being a noser of some sort."
They walked on in silence to the Harbor Way.
Presently Seregil looked up again and said, "If we're right, then I may need to play with this Rythel a bit, see what I can get out of him. When we get down there, I'd better stay out of sight and let you play messenger. If he is a fellow professional, then I don't want to chance him recognizing my voice later on."
At the harbor they made their way west beyond the last quays and warehouses to a stretch of rocky land that hugged the base of the cliffs. A freshly rutted wagon track led on out of sight among the twisted jack pines and hummocks. Following it for a quarter of a mile or so, Alec and Seregil found Rythel's crew at the head of a steep, malodorous gully.
From where Alec and Seregil stood, the entrance to the sewer channel was about five hundred feet up the cut. The opening was the same size and shape as an arched doorway, tall enough for a man to walk through without ducking his head. A noisome grey torrent flowed out over its threshold and on down through a stone sluiceway to the sea beyond. A foul odor hung over the rocky cleft and Alec noted that the workmen wore wet rags over their noses and mouths.
Vinegar cloths, he guessed, to protect them from the evil humours of the place.
A forge had been set up near the opening and the black smoke from it collected sullenly on the damp air. A small wagon stood nearby and half a dozen armed bluecoats were lounging against it.
"What are they doing there?" Alec asked as they looked out from behind the cover of a boulder.
"Watching for gaterunners and spies. The sewers go everywhere under the city."
"What are gaterunners?"
"Thieves, mostly, who know how to get past all the gates and grates and travel the tunnels. They know more about where those channels lead than anyone, even the Scavenger Guild. You'd better go have a look."
Leaving Seregil behind the-rock, Alec hugged his rags about himself and followed the stony track up toward the forge.
"What do you want here?" a soldier demanded, looking more bored than suspicious.
"I've got a message for one of the smiths," Alec replied. "Man named Rythel."
"Go on then, but be quick about it," the guard said, waving him on.
At the forge two apprentices were doggedly pumping the bellows, while another held an iron rod in the coals with heavy tongs. Behind them, a smith was shaping a glowing spike of iron on the anvil. Short and dark-haired, he didn't match the description Eirual had given Seregil.
Alec waited until the man paused in his hammering, then stepped up and touched his brow respectfully.
The smith eyed his rags suspiciously. "What do you want?"
"Begging your pardon, master, but I've got a message sent for Master Rythel," Alec replied with a beggar's unctuous civility.
"Tell it quick and be off with you. The guards don't like anyone hanging about."
"That I can't, sir," Alec told him plaintively, twisting the hem of his tunic in his hands. "Begging your pardon, but I was given good silver to deliver it to nobody but Rythel his self. It'd be worth me livelihood if word got around I passed on private messages to anyone as demands to know 'em."
The smith was less than sympathetic. "Bugger your livelihood. Rythel would have my hammer if I let you go wandering around in there."
This exchange appeared to be a welcome diversion for the sentries. "Aw, he looks harmless enough," one called over, taking Alec's side. "Let him wait out here, why don't you? The message is for Rythel, after all."
"Aye, and one he'd be none too happy to miss, if you take my meaning." Grinning, Alec made a lewd two-fingered sign.
"All right, then, but it's on your heads," the smith growled, finding opinion against him. "Sit on the end of that cart, you, and don't stir."
Alec's champions lost interest in him as soon as they'd had their victory. Perched on the back of the open cart, he swung his feet idly and hunted imaginary lice among his rags.
The cart was loaded with iron grates. These were simple, sturdy affairs of upright bars and crosspieces. Apparently they were made at the shop in the upper city, then carried down for final fittings here. At the forge, the smith and his helpers were putting the last touches on one, trimming the crosspieces to fit caliper measurements and fashioning hot iron from the forge into the final bars.
When they'd finished with that, heavy metal flanges were fastened to the outermost uprights, top and bottom. The lower flanges had heavy pins protruding down from them; the upper did not.
Presently several workmen came out of the tunnel.
Their faces were covered with the vinegar cloths, but one was noticeably taller than the rest, and bushy blond hair showed beneath the rim of his leather cap.
"Ordo, we'll want those rivets when we go back in," he called to the smith at the forge.
"Are they hot yet?"
"Whenever you're ready for 'em, Master Rythel. And this young fellow's been waiting for you." The smith hooked a thumb in Alec's direction, adding pointedly, "Sergeant Durnin said it was all right."
Rythel pulled off his face cloth and scrubbed a hand over the thick, well-trimmed beard beneath it. "What do you want?"
Alec jumped down and bobbed an anxious bow.
"I've a message for you, master, from a woman."
The man's scowl lessened appreciatively.
Waving for Alec to follow him, he moved away from the others.
"What woman and what message?" he asked.
"A dark-haired bawd in the Street of Lights, master. She says she prays you remember her fondly, and that you'll come back to her soon as ever you're able."
"Did she give her name?" Rythel asked, looking pleased.
"No," Alec told him with a worried frown, then, as if suddenly remembering, added, "but she's in the House of the Swans."
"I know the one," Rythel said, recognizing the name of Eirual's establishment. "Anything else?"
"That's the whole of it, just as she sent. And if may say, master, I was lucky to find you—"
"Yes, yes!" Reaching into a wallet at his belt, Rythel dropped a few coins into Alec's outstretched palm. "Tell your lady I'll see to her when I can. Now off with you."
"Maker's Mercy to you," said Alec, hurrying away. As he passed the soldiers he looked at the coins Rythel had paid. They were all coppers.
Showing them to the grinning soldiers, he spat sideways and muttered, "Stingy son of a bitch. Let him carry his own messages."
Their laughter followed him up the gully.
At the boulder Seregil fell into step beside him and Alec told him all he'd seen as they walked back along the track.
Seregil rubbed his hands together with satisfaction.
"Well, now we know what our noser looks like."
"We still don't know much about him, though."
"But if that woman at the shop is anyone to go by, I think we can find those willing to gossip. You carried that off well, as usual. I think maybe we'll use you for the jilt again tonight."
Alec grinned happily at the praise. "What will I be this time?"
"A doughty, fresh-faced country lad, looking for an apprenticeship and a few friends."
Alec's grin widened. "That has a familiar ring to it."
Standing at the end of Ironmonger Row, the Hammer and Tongs was a traditional gathering place for the smiths in that part of town. Most outsiders were actively discouraged by that close-knit fraternity, who considered the alehouse their personal sanctuary and unofficial guildhall, but no one objected to the little wayfaring minstrel who came in out of the storm that evening. Such musicians, hardly more than beggars, were common enough in the city, playing for pennies in taverns and market squares. His cloak, stitched all over with scraps of colored cloths and cheap beads, and the flutes protruding from various pockets granted him entrance and a place near the fire.
Selecting a long wooden flute, Seregil piped out a simple tune and then sang the verse in a voice that would have made Rolan Silverleaf cringe.
Fortunately, his present audience was less discriminating and a small crowd had soon gathered at his end of the room. Rythel was not among the company, but he soon found Alec, looking the perfect bumpkin with his homespun tunic and scrubbed, beardless face. The boy gave a slight nod, signaling that all was well.
From his seat by the fireside, Seregil could see that Alec had been adopted by a group of drinkers, and that the woman they'd spoken with at Quarin's shop was among them. Judging by how they included him in their jests, he had obviously made a favorable impression.
Seregil piped on, keeping an ear open for useful tidbits of conversation around him until Alec left. He played a few short ditties, collected his coppers, and followed.
Alec was waiting for him at the public stable where they'd left horses. Stripping off their disguises in the shadow of an alley, they put on plain clothes and rode to a dram house near the north wall of the Ring.
"I didn't have much luck, unless you want to know the current price of pig iron," Seregil said as they sat down at a corner table. "How did you make out?"
"You were right about noses being out of joint among Quarin's people," Alec told him. "Maruli and some of the other smiths gave me a real earful. Not only is Rythel Quarin's nephew, but he hasn't been with him that long. He had a shop of his own down in Kedra, but it burned four months ago. That's when he showed up here."
"Is Quarin fond of his nephew?"
"Not anymore. Old Alman Blackhand told me things were friendly at first, but that there've been hard words. Quarin's hardly spoken to him since he handed him the sewer job. And some think it's strange that Rythel lodges apart from his uncle."
"Interesting. were any of those you spoke with part of Rythel's crew?"
"A few, and they don't much like him either. He has a sharp tongue and treats them like first-month apprentices, always looking over their shoulder. Early on in the job he found fault with the way the grates were being secured. Now he does most of the final fitting himself."
Seregil raised an appraising eyebrow. "I'll just bet he does."
"They've been at it for a little over three weeks. All the old grates had to be pulled out and the masonry knees repaired. That's why the guards are there. They're putting in the new grates now. Alman is in charge of measuring the part of the sewer tunnel where the grate will be, so that the flange pins and holes will set in properly, but Rythel does the final seating and pinning. And the grates are fixed, not gated. That's about it, except that I've been told to see Quarin about an apprenticeship."
"Hopefully it won't come to that."
Alec leaned closer, lowering his voice. "Do you think Rythel could be tampering with the grates?"
"Judging by his behavior, we can't afford to overlook the possibility. The question is how, and whether any of the other workmen are in on it. And who's backing this whole thing, of course."
"It's got to be the Plenimarans."
"I mean specifically who, and whether or not Rythel knows who's running the show. We've got to move very carefully, Alec. We don't want another cock-up like the raid at Kassarie's. We got the big snake there, but all the little ones slithered safely away. We'd better go talk to Nysander. This looks to be Watcher business."
He must still be keeping company with Ylinestra, Alec thought wryly as Thero let them into Nysander's tower. Several long scratches were visible on the young wizard's neck just above the collar of his robe. She'd left similar marks on Alec during their single encounter.
He's welcome to her, Alec decided.
Having let them in, Thero returned to a worktable spread with open books. "Nysander's downstairs," he told them.
"You'd better come down with us," said Seregil as he started down the stairs.
Thero shot Alec a look of surprise.
"Watcher business, maybe."
Alec was pleased to see the hint of an expectant smile cross Thero's face as he hurried to join him. He was a cold fish, and no mistake, but in the months since he'd helped secure Seregil's release from prison, albeit grudgingly, Alec had come to feel a certain sympathy for the stiff young wizard, and respect. He was talented, and his arrogance seemed a shield for his own inner loneliness.
As for the rivalry between him and Seregil, Alec had quickly learned that this was as much Seregil's fault as Thero's.
They found Nysander in his favorite sitting-room armchair, the floor around him covered in charts of some sort.
"Well, there you two are," he exclaimed, looking up with a pleased smile. "How long has it been? Two weeks?"
"Closer to four," Seregil said. "Business has been slow lately, but we may have run across something interesting."
With Alec's help, he quickly sketched out what they'd learned over the past two days. Thero sat a little apart, arms crossed, nodding silently to himself as he listened.
"Dear me, that does sound suspicious," Nysander said when he'd heard their report. "I seem to recall "hearing that one of Lord Zymanis' valets disappeared not too long ago. I had not heard of any stolen documents, though. Most curious. I assume you mean to make a closer investigation?"
Seregil nodded. "Tonight, but we'll have to be careful. So far Rythel is the only fish in our net. I don't want to get the wind up him before we find out who's behind all this."
"Have you looked into his lodgings?" asked Thero.
"Not yet. Tenements are terrible for housebreaking—every room occupied and half the time no corridors, just a series of rooms letting one onto another. I thought we'd have a look at the sewer tunnel first, then proceed from there."
"Yes, that seems to be the logical course," said Nysander.
"How do you propose to get in with the tunnel so carefully guarded?"
"The lower end is, where they're still working," said Alec. "But it shouldn't be at the upper end, where they started. There's no need, since the grates are fixed and they started at the top and worked down toward the lower city end. Seregil figures there must be at least five or six between the city wall and the sea."
"Anyone planning to bugger about with any of the grates later on would have to do them all," Seregil added.
"I know of an access passage near the south wall that should lead down to the head of the channel. If we can get to it from this end, we should be able to find out what they've been up to."
"When will you go?" asked Nysander.
"Tonight seems as good a time as any," replied Seregil, standing to go. "I'll let you know if we need any help."
"Luck in the shadows," said Thero as he passed.
Seregil raised an eyebrow in mild surprise, then touched a finger lightly to one of the scratches on Thero's neck. "And to you."
Tamir the Great's builders had laid down the sewers of Rhiminee before a single building was constructed, thereby sparing the new capital the unpleasant and often unhealthy filth common to most large cities. So extensive was it, and so often modified and enlarged to accommodate the growth of the city over five centuries, that now only the Scavenger Guild knew the full extent of it. Even among the Scavengers, most knew only the section that they maintained, and they guarded their knowledge jealously.
Alec and Seregil waited until the second watch of the night before making their way to the southern ward of the city. Though armed, they went cautiously, fading silently into alleys or doorways whenever a Watch patrol happened by.
The entrance they'd targeted was located in a small square behind a block of tenements by the south wall of the city. Half-covered by an unkempt clump of mulberry bushes, the low, iron-strapped door was set into the wall itself. The small grate near the top of it reminded Alec uncomfortably of a prison door, but he kept this to himself as they set down the torches and pry bars they'd brought with them.
He stood behind Seregil and held his cloak out with both hands to hide the light of his companion's light-wand. Kneeling in front of the door, Seregil probed the keyhole with a hooked pick, soon producing a succession of grating clicks.
The door swung in on blackness. Gathering their gear again, they slipped inside.
Alec tacked a square of heavy felt over the grate, then looked around the little entrance chamber. In front of them, stone steps led downward through an arched passage and out of sight. The faint stench already permeating the air left no doubt they were in the right place.
"Here, we'd better put these on now." Seregil pulled vinegar-soaked face rags from a leather pouch and handed one to Alec. Leaving their cumbersome cloaks, they lit their torches with a firechip and started down, Seregil in the lead.
"Why did they build it so big?" Alec whispered; the arched passage was nearly ten feet high.
"For safety. The poisonous humours that can collect down here rise. The theory is that this design lets them collect overhead, with good air below. Keep an eye on the torches, though; if they burn blue or gutter, the air's bad."
The stairway led down to a tunnel below. Narrow walkways bordered a central channel, full to the brim now with a swift, evil-smelling stream.
Turning to the right, they followed the tunnel for several hundred feet. The recent rains had swelled the flow, and it had overflowed whole sections of the raised walkway, forcing them to wade ankle deep in the foul, frigid waters.
Suddenly they heard high-pitched growling and squeaking coming from the darkness ahead. Seregil edged forward, torch held high, until they came to an iron grate fixed across the width of the tunnel.
The lower ends of the vertical bars extended down into the channel and the body of a small dog was caught against them, held there by the pressure of the stream as it flowed through. Dozens of fat, snarling rats swarmed over the carcass, tearing at it and each other. Others paddled down the channel toward the feast or perched on the crosspieces of the grate. They paid little attention to the human interlopers as they fed, beady eyes glaring red in the torchlight.
"This one is gated," whispered Seregil, driving off the closest rats with the burning torch. "It's locked up, but it's nothing we can't manage. Want to do the honors?"
"Go ahead," Alec rasped, not wanting to have to squeeze past his companion in such a narrow place.
Jiggering the lock, Seregil swung back a narrow section of grate on protesting hinges and stepped through, Alec close on his heels.
There were more rats beyond, rats everywhere. The chuckle of the flowing water and the sounds of the rats echoed in the silence as they paused at a sort of crossroads where another channel flowed into the one they were following.
Leaping the four feet to the other side, they continued on to a second hinged grate. Beyond this the way began to slope downhill noticeably.
No other tunnels intersected theirs and finally they came to a fixed grate. The ironwork was new and of the same design Alec had seen at the work site.
The broad flanges set at the four corners of the grate rested against stone knees jutting from the walls of the tunnel and were held in place by thick iron pins set in holes drilled into the stone.
"Here we are," Seregil whispered, setting down his bundle. "Light your torch from mine and go check that side."
"What are we looking for, exactly?"
"I don't know, so be thorough. It could be some fault in the iron or the stone."
Alec jumped across the channel and began his examination of the ironwork, looking first for something as obvious as bars sawn through. They seemed sound enough, however. The sockets for the pins had been sealed with rivets hammered in hot and the lower flanges, which bore the weight of the grate, rested solidly against the stone knees.
"Let's try moving it," said Seregil.
Grasping two crosspieces, they braced their shoulders against the bars and lifted. The grate lifted an inch or two.
"Push!" Seregil grunted, shaking his side of it.
But the grate was solidly held in place by the pins. Giving up, they let it fall back into place with a dull clank.
"I thought maybe he'd sawn off the lower pins,"
Seregil panted, flexing his arms. "I guess not."
"It did move, though." Alec squinted up at the flanges overhead. It was impossible to see anything from this angle, so he climbed the crossbars for a closer inspection, torch in hand.
Across the channel, Seregil was about to do the same, but his torch was burning low. Pulling a fresh one from his belt, he paused to light it from the old one. "See anything?"
"There's nearly three inches of pin exposed up here," Alec replied, clinging one-handed to the top of the bars.
"I'm no expert, but that seems like a lot. How does it look?"
"Like a metal pin." Alec held his torch closer. "No marks or cuts. Hold on.
Hey, it's melting like wax and there's—"
Searing white sparks erupted inches from Alec's face with an angry spitting sound. With a startled cry, he dropped his torch and threw an arm across his face.
"Alec! Alec, get down," Seregil yelled.
Alec crouched awkwardly, one leg jammed between the bars. Overhead, sparks still rained down from the sizzling corona of light.
Dark spots danced in front of Seregil's eyes as he launched himself across the channel. Grabbing Alec, he dragged him to the floor and tried to roll him onto his belly to smother the smoldering patches on his tunic.
"My eyes!" Alec gasped, struggling away in pain and confusion.
"Hold still," Seregil began, but Alec's foot found sudden purchase against the wall and, with a final lurch, he toppled Seregil backward into the icy channel.
Fortunately, Seregil had the presence of mind to clamp his mouth shut as he went under. For a horrifying second he tumbled helplessly against the side of the channel, unable to find the bottom with his feet. Fetching up against the grate, he righted himself and used the crossbars to pull himself back onto the walkway.
Sputtering and retching, he grasped Alec by the back of the tunic and hauled him out of range of the sparks, then held him forcibly still while the white light faded slowly to a small orange glow. One torch still burned, and by it he could see the thin pall of smoke curling lazily near the roof.
Alec groaned again, hands pressed over his face.
Fearing the worst, Seregil dug the lightwand from his sodden tool roll and pulled the boy's hands away to inspect the damage.
Alec's hair and the vinegar mask had protected most of his face from the sparks, but half a dozen tiny blisters were already bubbling up on the backs of his hands. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he turned his head from the light.
"Can you see anything?" Seregil asked anxiously.
"I'm beginning to." Alec pressed one sleeve across his eyes, then blinked. "Why are you wet?" A look of shocked realization slowly spread across his face. "Oh, no. Oh, Seregil, I'm sorry!"
Seregil managed a tight grin, trying hard not to think about the water dripping down his face toward his mouth.
"What was that light?" Alec asked.
"I don't know." Going back to the grate, he climbed up to inspect the damage. "The pin is burned completely away, stonework cracked from the heat, top of the flange warped. And whatever it was, it must work on the other side, too, or you still couldn't move the grate."
Jumping the channel, he gripped the handle of the lightwand between his teeth and climbed up to inspect the upper corner.
"Tell me again what you saw."
Still blinking, Alec came across and picked up the torch. "I held the flame close to the pin, trying to see if it had been cut. It must have been the heat, because the surface of the pin began to melt and run like wax. I think I saw something white underneath, just before it flared up the way it did."
Craning his neck cautiously, Seregil found several inches of exposed pin between the flange and the stonework above. Using the tip of his dagger, he scraped gently at the surface of the pin. Curls of some black, waxy substance shaved off easily, revealing a white layer below.
"You were right. A band of silvery white metal has been set into the pin."
The white substance cut easily as lead.
Extracting a tiny sliver, he handed it down to Alec on the tip of his blade. "Put it on the floor and light it."
Alec set the sliver gingerly on the floor and, standing well back, held the torch to it. It burst at once into a brief, sputtering blaze of light that left black burns on the stone.
Alec let out a low whistle. "Bilairy's Balls, I think we found what we're looking for."
"There must be enough iron in the center of the pin to strengthen it, but this stuff burns right through it."
"Is it magic?"
Seregil cut away another small sample of the white substance.
"Maybe. I've never seen anything like it, but Nysander might know."
Seregil placed the shavings carefully in the little ceramic jar he'd carried the firechip in, then handed it down to Alec.
"I sure made a mess of that corner," Alec said, casting a worried look at the blackened stonework.
"True." Seregil climbed down to join him.
"Our saboteurs are bound to come checking sooner or later and even if they don't, there are the
Scavengers to consider. We'd better get Nysander down here, or Thero."
Alec's sight slowly returned to normal as they cleaned up the site as best they could and started back.
"What about the locks?" he asked, reaching the first of the gated barriers.
"Best leave 'em as we found 'em," Seregil replied. "I'll scout ahead to the next one. You catch up."
The lock was rusty; swearing softly under his breath, Alec ground a pick against the wards until something dropped into place.
Seregil was out of sight beyond a bend in the tunnel by then. Anxious to leave the rats and echoing dampness behind, Alec hurried after him.
He'd just caught sight of him ahead near the intersection of channels when Seregil suddenly collapsed sideways into the water with a startled grunt. The torch he'd been carrying hung precariously over the edge and by its light Alec saw two ragged, hooded figures jump out from the side tunnel, cudgels raised as they reached for Seregil's floating form.
Without stopping to think, Alec let out a yell, drew his sword, and charged.
The gaterunners were caught by surprise, but the one closest to Alec got a long club up in time to block the first downward slash. Alec jumped back a pace and braced, ready to fight.
The narrowness of the walkway kept the fight to a one against one affair, but it also severely restricted the range of Alec's swings. His opponents were more accustomed to such conditions. The second quickly jumped across the channel to outflank him from behind. Alec did the same, keeping his face toward them. He couldn't see Seregil anywhere.
The current must have swept him back the way we came, he thought, and for a sickening instant he pictured the dog's carcass and its attendant rats trapped against the lower bars of a grate. The gaterunners didn't allow him time to dwell on the image, however. The one on his side of the channel was advancing, cudgel at the ready. From the corner of his eye, Alec saw the other reaching into his tattered tunic for something, presumably a knife or dart.
Suddenly, however, the runner slumped against the wall with a high— pitched wail, clutching at a throwing knife protruding from his shoulder.
"Hammil!" the one facing Alec cried out, and he realized it was a woman.
"Let's not anyone be stupid," said a familiar voice from the shadows downstream.
Alec and the woman both turned in time to see Seregil step into sight on the far side. He was wetter than ever but held a second dagger at the ready as he walked slowly toward the wounded runner.
The boy scuttled weakly back, still clutching his arm.
"We don't mean any harm here," Seregil said calmly, motioning for Alec to back slowly away.
The woman pushed her hood back, showing a harsh, deeply lined face. "Get away from my boy," she growled, shaking her club threateningly in Alec's direction.
"You started this. What do you want?" asked Seregil, stopping a few paces from the boy, dagger in hand.
"Nothin'," the woman replied. "You's just strangers is all, and strangers is getting to be a hazard down here. We've lost friends to strangers down here lately."
Seregil sheathed his knife. Bending over the fallen boy, he examined the wound, then pulled the small throwing blade out. "It's not too bad a cut," he told the woman over his shoulder. "You're lucky my aim was off."
"I'm alright, Ma," the young gaterunner gasped, cringing away from Seregil. By the dying light of the torch, Alec saw that he was younger than himself. He could also make out a thin ribbon of blood running down Seregil's right cheek.
"You all right?" Seregil called over.
"Yes. Are you?"
Seregil nodded, then stepped over the wounded boy and addressed his mother again. "I'll leave yours if you'll leave mine," he told her, holding his hands out palm up.
Without a word, she sprang across, grabbed the boy up, and hurried him away into the shadows.
Alec crossed over and reached to inspect the cut on Seregil's scalp. "That's quite a lump she raised."
"Serves me right," he muttered through chattering teeth. "Illior's Fingers! Jumped by a pair of gaterunners. If the cold water hadn't brought me around I'd have drowned."
"I'm glad you didn't kill him. He couldn't have been more than twelve."
Seregil braced one arm against the wall and let out a long sigh. "Me, too. It's strange for them to have attacked in the first place. Runners are usually a pretty elusive lot. They steal and spy, but they generally avoid a fight."
Frowning, Alec pulled off his face rag and pressed it to the cut on Seregil's head. "Are you sure you're all right? You're looking kind of shaky."
Seregil closed his eyes for a moment, resting one hand on Alec's shoulder. Then, taking the cloth from him, he held it himself and continued on down the tunnel. "Come on, let's get out of here. I've had all the swimming I care for tonight."
They reached the upper entrance behind the mulberry bushes without incident, but the combined effects of cold and the blow were beginning to take their toll on Seregil.
"You go for Nysander," he said, shivering even with his dry cloak pulled tightly around him. "I'd better stay and make sure no one tumbles to our little adventure in the meantime."
To his surprise, Alec balked.
"No, you go," he stated flatly. "Your head is still bleeding and I can hear your teeth chattering from here."
"I'll survive," Seregil retorted. "I don't want you here alone. What if someone does show up?"
"All the more reason for you to hurry," Alec said stubbornly. "I'll stay out of sight—they'll never know I'm here. You're the one needs looking after. Go on!"
Seregil could tell by the set of Alec's jaw that his mind was made up. Cutting a small strip from the hem of his cloak, he handed it to Alec. "Hang on to this. Nysander can use it to find you. And keep out of sight no matter what, understand? No heroics."
Seregil let out a defeated sigh. "If I'm not back soon, you get back to the Oreska, understand?"
"All right, yes! Will you just go? I don't want to be here all night." Pulling up his hood, Alec melted back into the shadows.
The pounding in Seregil's head worsened as he dashed through the darkened streets toward the Oreska, but he managed to ignore the pain by worrying about Alec instead. Despite his faith in the boy's quick wits, he couldn't seem to shake off visions of Alec being caught unawares by the Watch or stealthy spies returning to check their handiwork.
Arriving at the Oreska filthy, wet, and bloody, he argued his way past the watchman and hurried up the twisting stairs to Nysander's tower.
Thero opened the door and recoiled, covering his nose with one full sleeve. "By the Four!" he gagged, blocking the doorway. "You smell like you just crawled out of the sewers."
"Very observant of you. Get out of my way."
"You're not coming in here like that. Go down to the baths first."
"I don't have time for this, Thero. Now move or I'll move you."
The two glared at each other, years of mutual dislike laid open between them without the gloss of banter or social nicety. Either could have done the other considerable harm if it came to open confrontation, and they both knew it.
"Alec's alone out there, and we need Nysander's help," hissed Seregil.
With a last disgusted look, Thero stepped aside and let him through to the workroom. "He's not here."
"Where is he?"
"Out for his nightly walk, I imagine," Thero replied stiffly. "Or perhaps you've forgotten about those?"
"Then summon him!" Seregil paused, took a deep breath, and said through clenched teeth, "If you please."
Thero conjured a message sphere with a casual wave of his hand. Balancing the tiny light over his palm, he said to it, "Nysander, Seregil needs you right away. He's in the workroom." The light shot away through the floor. He waved Seregil to a wooden bench near one of the tables, but remained standing himself.
The young wizard was immaculate as ever, Seregil noted sourly, his robe spotless beneath his leather apron, his curly black hair and beard neatly trimmed, blunt-fingered hands unsullied. The thought that he'd inhabited that angular frame himself, if briefly, still made him cringe inwardly. That Thero had had the use of his body didn't bear thinking about.
"You're bleeding," Thero said at last, stepping reluctantly toward him. "I'd better have a look."
Seregil drew back from his touch. "It's just a scratch."
"You have a lump the size of an egg over your ear and fresh blood on your cheek," Thero snapped.
"What do you think Nysander would say if I let you sit there like that?"
Wethis, the young servant, brought clean water and dressings and Thero set about cleaning the wound.
Nysander returned just as he was finishing. "What an unprecedented tableau," the wizard exclaimed, hurrying in between the stacks of manuscripts. He was dressed in a threadbare surcoat and trousers. Seregil noted with a twinge of pride how kind and unwizardly his old friend looked in comparison to his stiff assistant.
"By the Light, Seregil, what an appalling stench! When you have finished there, Thero, please go and find him a clean robe."
Folding the bloodied towel next to the basin, Thero disappeared down the back stairway to their quarters.
Nysander smiled, examining his assistant's handiwork.
"He does surprise me sometimes. But where is Alec?"
"Take this." Seregil pulled out another scrap of cloth he'd cut from his cloak and pressed it into Nysander's hand. "We found what we were looking for, sabotage in the tunnels, but made one hell of a mess doing it. I need you to fix it up for us. Alec's waiting by the entrance, so we'd better hurry."
Nysander shook his head. "Yes, of course, but I see no reason to drag you out again. You are still chilled to the bone, and a translocation would not be the best thing for you after such a knock on the head."
Seregil rose to protest and was very surprised to feel the floor lurch beneath his feet in a decidedly unpleasant manner.
"There now, you see?" Nysander chided, pressing him back down on the bench. "You go downstairs and sit by the fire. Alec can show me whatever it is I need to see."
"I can't just sit here," Seregil insisted again, though his head was still spinning. "We ran into one pair of gaterunners down there already tonight. There could be others, or worse."
Nysander raised a shaggy eyebrow at him. "Are you suggesting that Alec would not be safe in my company?"
Seregil sank his head in his hands as Thero reappeared with clean garments over his arm.
"I leave Seregil in your able care," Nysander told him. "I suggest a cup of hot wine and, by all or any means necessary, a bath." Clasping the scrap of woolen cloth Seregil had given him, he traced a series of designs on the air and disappeared into the wide black aperture that opened briefly beside him.
When Nysander opened his eyes again, he was in a small deserted square.
"There you are," whispered Alec, crawling out from behind a clump of leafless bushes. "Is Seregil all right?"
"Yes, just a bit dizzy. He says you have something to show me."
"Something we need fixed," the boy replied with a familiar grin. "Follow me."
This was the first time he'd actually seen Alec at work, and he was impressed with his quickness and efficiency.
"My, but Seregil has been busy with you!" Nysander remarked as Alec let him through the second gate.
"Ruint me for honest work, he 'as," Alec replied, making a passable stab at a dockman's accent. "It's not far now."
Reaching the damaged grate, Nysander climbed up to inspect the damaged stone and ironwork, then moved across to see the intact corner.
"I see," he murmured to himself, peering closely at the remaining pin. "Most ingenious. And ingenious of you to have discovered it. Yes, I am quite satisfied.
"Can you fix it?"
"Can I fix it?" Nysander snorted, climbing down again. Grasping the bars with both hands, he closed his eyes and listened to the voice of the cold iron.
Letting his own energy pass into it through his hands, he visualized the metal, felt it stir under his hands.
Standing beside him, Alec felt a powerful ripple pass through the rank air. There were no flashes of light or magical signs, just the brief scrape and whine of metal. For a moment it seemed to Alec that the metal came alive, like a plant, growing and moving as it healed.
Looking up, he saw that the damaged corner now looked as it had before. "Illior's Light!" he gasped, hardly able to believe his eyes.
Nysander laughed. "I hope you did not expect me to come down here with a hammer and anvil." Opening his hand, he showed Alec a long iron pin. It was scored along its length where it had been driven through the flange and blackened from forging, except where the white metallic substance showed through near one end.
Without a word Alec scaled the left side of the grate to find a solid pin in its place.
"That's amazing," he exclaimed, tapping the iron with his knife blade.
Nysander shrugged. "It is only magic."
Seregil grudgingly accepted the willow bark infusion Thero prepared, then went down to the baths. As soon as he was clean and dressed, however, he returned to the workroom and refused to be moved, despite Thero's obvious desire that he wait elsewhere.
Anxious and impatient, Seregil prowled the crowded room, fiddling with bits of delicate apparatus.
"Give me that!" Thero snapped, snatching away a cluster of fluid-filled glass spheres. "Drop that and we'll be up to our eyes in swamp sprites. If you won't go downstairs then for Illior's sake, sit down."
"I know what it is." Scowling, Seregil climbed the stairway to the catwalk overhead and stared out through the thick glass panes of the dome, watching the movement of lights below.
By the time Nysander and Alec materialized neatly in the center of the room, it would have been difficult to say which of the two looked more relieved.
"There you are!" Seregil exclaimed, bounding down.
"No, everything looks as good as new," Alec told him, grinning.
"Shall I fetch fresh clothing?" Thero inquired, wrinkling his nose again.
"Yes, in a moment," said Nysander. "First, however, I must congratulate our two able spies on a most valuable find." He shook the iron pin from his sleeve. "I will keep this for now. Seregil, Alec tells me you took a sample of this curious white material?"
Seregil held up the small container. "Right here. Want to see it work?"
"Yes, but not here, I think. Too many flammable items." Taking a crucible from a nearby shelf, he ushered them into the casting room.
Placing a few of the white shavings in the crucible, Nysander set it on the floor and touched a candle flame to its contents. A small fountain of white sparks flew up and scattered across the floor.
"Incredible!" murmured Thero, nudging the remaining shavings about with a small glass wand.
Seregil watched him surreptitiously, recognizing the sudden light of enthusiasm in those pale eyes. At such moments he could almost see what maintained Nysander's hopes for the young man—the keen and wondering mind that underlay Thero's cold facade.
"Have you ever seen anything like this before?" Thero asked, turning to Nysander.
The older wizard lit another fragment, then sniffed at the smoke left behind. "It's a sort of incendiary metal, I believe. It's called Sakor's Bite or Sakor's Fire for obvious reasons. Very, very rare but" — Nysander paused to raise one bushy eyebrow at Seregil—"found in greater quantities in certain regions of Plenimar."
Seregil exchanged knowing grins with Alec.
"Looks like we've got ourselves a decent bit of work at last."
Over the next few days Alec and Seregil shadowed their man closely, but learned little more than that Rythel was annoyingly regular in his habits. He rose early, gathered his crew, and worked the day through without leaving the site. At night he took supper at his lodgings and turned in early.
Lounging across the street from the Sail-maker Street tenement the fourth evening, they saw a broad, ruddy young man step out into the street.
"That's the landlady's grandson," Seregil whispered to Alec. "He's been down to that tavern on the corner every night so far."
True to form, the fellow set off for the corner tavern, stopping to chat with neighbors along the way.
Seregil stood up and stretched, still following the young man with his eyes. "He looks like a talker to me. I think I'll nip in for a pint and try to strike up a conversation."
It was a clear, windless night, but cold. Moving restlessly from one cold doorway to another, Alec watched the house, and the half moon sailing slowly over it. It had gained the chimney by the time Seregil reappeared, chuckling to himself and smelling warmly of beer.
"You look pleased with yourself," Alec muttered, shifting his frigid feet.
"I am." Seregil threw his cloak back and presented him with a wooden cup of the Dog and Bell's best lager. "Let's go home. Rythel's unlikely to stir out for another couple of nights yet."
Alec took a grateful swallow of the watery beer as they headed back to the court where they'd left their horses. "Then you did get something out of the grandson?"
"Our smith appears to be equally disliked by almost everyone who knows him, with the exception of his landlady, who judges her tenants solely by how punctual they are with their rent. Her grandson, young Parin, has had a few run-ins with him around the house. Apparently harsh words were exchanged when Parin entered the smith's rooms unexpectedly one day. "Mind you" "grinning, Seregil mimicked Parin's somewhat slurred complaints—""he was only messin" about with some drawerings. Not like he was tupping nobody or nothin'. Just drawerings, for the love a' hell! He's a queer one, and a miser, for all his high and mighty ways."
"A shrewd judge of character, our Parin," Seregil said with a chuckle. "He wasn't much help about the nature of the 'drawerings," but he did tell me that Rythel always keeps to his rooms on work nights, but come end of the week he goes on a regular spree."
Alec's hunter instincts stirred. "Tomorrow night."
"That's right. According to Parin, he appears downstairs in gentlemen's clothes, sends Parin next door to hire a horse, tips like the miser he is, and rides off not to be seen again until dawn or the next night."
"That explains how he came to be in the Street of Lights."
"And I'm willing to bet he makes a few other stops along the way. I think it's time Lord Seregil put in an appearance."
Alec shot him a sharp look. "Just him? What about me?"
Seregil threw an arm around his shoulders and playfully ruffled his hair. "Well now, if Master Rythel is out gambling and whoring all night, what better time for a bit of housebreaking?"
The following evening Rythel rode out from Sailmaker Street just as expected. The streets were busy, making it an easy matter for Seregil to follow him up to the main city. A heavy cloak masked the fine surcoat and breeches he'd put on for the evening's role.
The smith rode easily, apparently enjoying the evening air, and ended up at the Heron, a stylish gambling house on the eastern fringe of the Merchant's Quarter.
That's a lucky turn.
Seregil grinned to himself, watching from a distance as Rythel disappeared inside. Lord Seregil was well known at the Heron from the days when he'd made his living in such dens. And gaming-house friendships were easy enough to manage.
Leaving Cynril with a groom, he strode inside.
The elderly doorkeeper took his cloak with a bow.
"Good evening, my lord," the old man said. "It's been some time since we last saw you. Will anyone be joining you?"
"No. A canceled engagement has left me at loose ends." Pausing, he slipped a discreet coin to the man, murmuring, "Any new blood tonight, Starky?"
Stark palmed the bribe and leaned closer. "A few, my lord, a few. Young Lady Lachia has become quite addicted to bakshi since her marriage, but her husband's with her tonight and he may know you rather too well from times past. There's a country knight, Sir Nynius, with plenty of gold and a passion for eran stones who plays badly as a rule. And there's a third, a newcomer. Not noble, but well turned out. Calls himself Rythel of Porunta."
"How will I know him?"
"He's tall and fair, with quite an impressive beard. I expect you'll find him in the card room. A bold player, as I hear it, though not always clever. He's become a regular over the past month or so and takes both wins and losses philosophically."
Seregil slipped him a second coin and a wink.
"Illior's luck to you, my lord."
The Heron was a modestly opulent establishment divided into a number of large rooms. Those near the front featured various sorts of games open to all corners; smaller rooms at the back were reserved for private affairs.
Seregil found Rythel in one of the latter, settled down to a round of Rook's Gambit with several rich merchants and a few officers of the Queen's Archers.
A number of them knew Seregil and invited him to join in. He took the empty chair nearest Rythel and set his purse on the table.
"Good evening, Lord Seregil," Vinia the wool merchant greeted him, gathering up the brightly painted cards for a new deal. "The hazard is three gold sesters, the limit eight. As the new player, you begin the bid."
Keeping one eye on Rythel's style, Seregil played conservatively for the first few rounds, managing to collect a modest pile of winnings. He chatted with the others as they played, spicing the light banter with investment advice and allusions to recent successful ventures, including an interest in the privateer fleet being overseen by Nyreidian.
Rythel listened with polite interest, saying little until the deal came around to him again.
"I suggest a change of game," he said, gathering the pack. "Sword and Coin? There are enough of us to partner two games."
The other players were agreeable and when the chairs and tables had been shifted, Seregil was not surprised to find himself sitting across from Rythel. With a silent nod to Illior, he settled down to make his partner a richer man.
The less circumspect players were soon winnowed out as Seregil, no stranger to creative card shuffling, gently tipped the scales in his and Rythel's favor. Rythel, too, showed signs of certain talents; in an hour's time the two of them had exhausted the resources of the other players.
Seregil gave him a slight bow as they rose to divide their winnings and extended his hand.
"Well played. I'm Lord Seregil, as you may have gathered. And you?"
"Rythel of Porunta, my lord." His hand was hard in Seregil's, but not as stained and roughened as he'd expected. The man had obviously taken pains to hide his current occupation.
"Porunta? That's down near Stoneport, isn't it? What brings you so far north this time of year?"
"I'm in commerce there, my lord, in a modest way."
Rythel paused, giving Seregil a disarmingly open smile. "I must confess, some of the ventures you've mentioned tonight interest me."
"A man of vision, eh?" Seregil said with a knowing wink. "I'm a great admirer of ambition, and our brief partnership tonight didn't do my purse any harm. Perhaps you'd like to discuss things further over a bit of supper?"
"I'd be honored, my lord," Rythel replied, just a hint too eager.
"Anyplace in particular?" Rythel shrugged. "No, my lord. I've no plans for the night."
Damn, thought Seregil.
Looks like we'll spend the evening plying each other with drink and fishing for secrets.
A harsh, clear dawn was breaking when Seregil returned to the Cockerel. Alec was asleep on the couch, legs stretched out toward the ruins of a fire.
He awoke with a start when Seregil flopped wearily down beside him.
"Well, how did it go?"
Seregil shrugged, running both hands back through his hair. "He's not the greatest spy in the world, but he knows how to keep his mouth shut. We spent most of the night drinking at the Rose, then he decided he wanted a woman. I hoped maybe he needed to meet someone at a brothel, but instead he was ready to take up with the first pair of clapmongers we passed in the street. I finally managed to steer him into the Black Feather."
"The Feather? That's quite a comedown from Eirual's."
"The same thought occurred to me. Either he was putting on an act for my benefit, or his fortunes fluctuate considerably from week to week. It's something to keep an eye on. At any rate, we parted company there a few hours ago and I followed him down to Sailmaker Street. He didn't go out again."
"Sounds like a wasted evening."
"As far as this sewer business goes it was. Still, you can't spend a whole evening drinking and whoring with a person and not learn something. He's passing himself off as some well-heeled merchant and, to tell you the truth, he carries it off so well that I wonder if some of it isn't true. I'd say he's Skalan born, and has done a bit of this kind of work before-a small-time noser. The Plenimarans know how to find that type and use them."
Alec gave him a wry grin. "So do you."
"It's too soon to tell with this one, though."
Seregil stretched wearily. His night at the Feather had left him feeling gritty and in need of a bath. "Although Lord Seregil clearly made quite an impression on him. I let a few details slip about privateers and suddenly he was my boon companion. I passed on a few rumors; it'll be interesting to see where they pop up later. How'd you do?"
Alec pulled a flattened roll of parchment from inside his tunic and waggled it triumphantly.
Carrying it to the table, he pinned the corners down with books. As he reached to secure an upper corner, Seregil saw a ragged tear in his left sleeve that appeared to be stained with blood.
"What happened to you?"
Alec shrugged, avoiding his eye. "It's nothing."
"Nothing?" Grasping his friend's hand, he pushed the torn sleeve back. A rough bandage was tied around the boy's forearm and stained through with a circle of dried blood the size of a two— sester piece. "Nothing doesn't usually bleed like that."
"It's just a scratch," Alec insisted.
Ignoring Alec's objections, Seregil drew his dagger and cut away the dressing. A shallow, jagged cut began at a puncture just below his elbow and ended dangerously close to the delicate tendons just above Alec's wrist.
"Illior's Fingers, you could get blood poisoning with a cut like that!" he gasped, fetching brandy to clean the wound. "What happened?"
"I just slipped going over the roof to his window,"
Alec admitted with a grudging sigh. "I figured that would be the safest route in, but it was a little steeper than I thought, and the slates were really slick—"
"Ever heard of rope?"
"By the time I realized I needed one, I was already up there. Anyway, my sleeve caught-a nail sticking out of the gutter—"
"The gutter?" Seregil sputtered, feeling his stomach give a little lurch. "You went over the edge? It's a forty-foot drop to stone paving! What in the name of Bilairy's—"
"Actually, there's a shed right under his window," Alec corrected. "It would've broken the fall—"
"Oh, so you had it all carefully planned, then?" Seregil said with heavy sarcasm.
Alec shrugged again. "Learn and live, right?"
Illior's Light, that must be the same look I give Micum or Nysander when they're berating me for surviving some stupid escapade!
Shaking his head, Seregil turned to inspect Alec's work, a crude, gridlike drawing done in charcoal and smudged here and there with blood.
"This is a copy of a map I found in a hollowed-out post of Rythel's bed," explained Alec, frowning down at it. "It's not very good, I know, but I knew I'd never remember any of it unless I marked it out somehow."
"You didn't steal this parchment from his room?"
"Of course not! I remembered what Parin said about drawings in his room and thought I might need to copy something. I took all the materials with me."
"Except a rope."
At first glance Alec's map, done in a feverish haste by an unpracticed hand, seemed little more than a meaningless scrawl of lines.
"I think it's a map of the sewers," said Alec.
"There wasn't any writing on it, just marks here and there, but it looked a lot like those plans we found at Kassarie's, remember?" He pointed to a circle near the bottom of the sheet. "I'd say this represents the outlet where they're working, and this is probably the top of the channel, where we found the sabotaged grate."
Seregil nodded slowly, then tapped a spot just beyond where a number of lines radiated out from a single terminus. "Several large channels come together here. One goes west, toward the Noble Quarter; this one here probably leads under the middle of the city—Is this exactly what you saw, line for line?"
"I think so, but I didn't get all of it. It was really complicated and I was jumping at every noise. Finally I did hear someone coming, so I just grabbed what I had and rabbited. Sorry."
"No, no, you did well," Seregil mused, still puzzling over the layout. "This is solid grounds for arresting him, but how in hell did he get this much information?"
"Could the Plenimarans use it to attack the city through the sewers?"
"Not a mil-scale attack, but they could cause plenty of other mischief-enemy sappers opening gates from inside, assassins popping out of the royal privies, or anywhere else in the city, for that matter." Straightening up, he thumped Alec proudly on the shoulder. "Good work. This is more than I came up with."
Alec colored, grinning. "The smiths I talked to from his crew expect to be done in a couple of weeks. That means that Rythel has to complete whatever work he has left on this by then." He paused. "What I want to know is how he learned all this if he never goes out at night and never leaves the work site?"
"That's the real question, isn't it? Exploring and mapping out all these tunnels would take weeks, months even. But what if you find someone who knows already?"
"Like a Scavenger!"
"Or a gaterunner. What did that one who jumped me say?"
"Something about strangers in the sewers, someone she was afraid of."
"Right." Seregil looked down at the smudged parchment, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "I wonder what Tym's up to these days?"
"You must remember him, the thief who cut your purse for me that time?"
Alec grimaced. "I remember him, all right. He's not a gaterunner, is he?"
"No, but he has connections there, and just about everywhere else among the poor and the criminal. That's what makes him so useful to us."
"I didn't think it was his charm," Alec remarked sourly.
"How do you know he'll come?" Alec asked as they climbed to the empty room over the nameless lower city slophouse the following evening.
"He'll come." Seregil eyed the greasy table with distaste, then sat down on one of the stools next to it. "He's probably already around somewhere."
He hadn't been hard to contact An informal network permeated the lowest classes of the city like the roots of a tree; a coin and discreet word with the right party was usually sufficient.
Almost before Seregil had finished speaking, they heard a light step on the stairs behind them. Tym paused in the doorway, scanning the room suspiciously.
With a deferential nod to Seregil, he sauntered in.
Alec eyed the thief with carefully guarded dislike.
The last time Alec had seen him was outside the city that day with Micum and Beka. Cocky with his new skills, Alec had surprised him in a crowd, hoping to pay him back for cutting his purse.
Instead, Tym had nearly knifed him.
He was still thin and dirty as ever, and still cloaked in an air of hungry arrogance. Slinging one leg over the bench opposite Seregil, he favored Alec with a long, appraising sneer.
"Still with 'im, eh? Must be gettin' something you like."
Alec returned the look impassively.
Tym snorted a brief, humorless laugh and turned his attention to Seregil. "You asked after me?"
Seregil rested one fist on the table and slowly opened it to display a thick silver half sester.
"Any queer customers about?" he asked, using the common slang for spy.
Tym snorted again, a harsh, ugly sound. "What do you think?"
Seregil snapped his hand closed over the coin, opened it again. A second coin glittered in the hollow of his palm. "Are you working for any of them?"
Tym eyed the coins, an almost thoughtful look smoothing his narrow face for an instant. "Think I'd tell if I was?"
Seregil's hand closed, opened. Four coins.
Alec studied Tym's face. The aloof mask stayed firmly in place.
"Could be," Tym replied cautiously.
Close. Open. No coins.
That got a reaction. Tym sat forward, looking like a man who'd just overplayed his game. "Bugger! No, I ain't working for nobody, but there's them that might be."
Seregil opened his hand again. Five coins.
"Rat Tom come by a stash real suddenlike, wouldn't say where from," Tym confided, all crafty compliance now.
"Where's Rat Tom now?"
Tym shrugged. "Turned up dead in an alley not two weeks ago, throat cut."
"Fast Mickle claims he did a papers job in Helm Street."
"Where could I find Fast Mickle?"
Tym shrugged again. "Ain't seen him for a while."
Seregil snatched the coins away with a disgusted sigh and rose, motioning for Alec to follow. "Let's go. There's nothing to be learned here."
"There's talk," Tym added hastily.
Halfway to the door already, Seregil turned with an exasperated frown. "What talk?"
"It's the gaterunners mostly. Some turn up flush all of a sudden, then they turn up dead or not at all."
Alec exchanged a quick look with Seregil, thinking of what the woman had told them in the sewers.
"Madrin, Dinstil, Slim Lily, Wanderin' Ki, all of 'em dead one way or another just in the last month," Tym continued.
"Tarl's been lookin" for Farin the Fish for a week now."
"I thought Farin was a breaker?" Seregil returned to the table. Alec remained standing just behind him.
"He is, but still it's funny he's gone. Him and Tarl been together for years."
"Virella maybe, she's another runner, but you don't never know with her. And that young breaker, Shady—they found her floating in the harbor out past the moles. Some are even wondering about the Rhiminee Cat, but he's another you don't never know about."
Seregil jingled the coins in his fist. "Who's supposed to be doing all this killing?"
For the first time Tym looked uneasy. "Don't know. Don't nobody know, and that is strange. The snuffers claim ain't none of them doing it. Folks is gettin' nervous. You don't hardly know whether to take a job or not."
"I have a job, if you're interested," Seregil told him, sliding the silver enticingly closer.
Tym looked hungrily at the stack of coins. "This wouldn't be a running job would it?"
"No, just a snoop. There's a house near here I want watched. If you see anyone you know go in—breaker, runner, keek, anything — I want to know about it. Or anyone you think doesn't fit with the neighborhood. Is that clear?"
"Breakers and runners?" Tym's eyes narrowed again. "This got to do with the killings?"
"Maybe he's scared," Alec suggested quietly, speaking for the first time.
Tym lurched up, gripping the hilt of his knife. "Maybe I ought to fix that pretty face of yours!"
"Sit down!" barked Seregil.
Alec stiffened, but remained where he was. Tym sullenly obeyed.
"Now," Seregil resumed calmly, "do you want the job or not?"
"Yeah, I want it," Tym growled. "But it'll cost you."
"Name your price."
"Two sesters a week."
"Done." Seregil spat in his palm and clasped hands with the thief. As Tym tried to withdraw his, Seregil gripped it tight.
"You've never turned on me yet. This would be a poor time to start." Seregil smiled, but that only made the threat implicit in his tone more ominous. The force of it drove the cocky sneer from Tym's face. "If anyone tumbles and offers you more to turn to them, you smile and you take their money, then you come straight back to me."
"I will, sure I will!" Tym stammered, wincing. "I ain't never turned on you. I ain't going to."
"Of course you aren't." Seregil relinquished his hold at last, but the imprint of his long fingers glowed for a moment in white, bloodless stripes across the back of the thief's hand. "The house is the tenement in Sailmaker Street with the red and white striped lintel. You know the one?"
Tym nodded curtly, flexing his hand. "Yeah, I know it."
"You can start now. Report to me in the usual way."
Alec shook his head incredulously as Tym disappeared down the stairs. "You actually trust him?"
"After a fashion. He just needs the occasional reminder." Seregil drummed his fingers lightly on the table. "In his own way, Tym trusts me. He trusts that I'll pay. He trusts that I won't double-cross him, and he trusts that I'll hunt him to the ends of the earth and slit his throat if he turns on me. You'd do well to watch your step with him, though. That was no idle threat just now."
"I was just trying to push him along," Alec began, but Seregil held up a hand.
"I know what you were doing, and it worked. But you don't understand people like him. He respects me because he fears me. I nearly killed him once and he's the sort that takes to you afterward because of it. But he'd slice you open in a minute and worry about my reaction later. Insulting him the way you did is enough to make him your enemy for life."
"I'll keep that in mind," Alec said. He'd never quite gotten around to telling Seregil of his last confrontation with Tym. Now didn't seem to be the right time, either, but he stored away the advice.
Through the next week the dreary Klesin rains rolled in off the sea in earnest, melting away the last of the filthy snow still lingering in the shelter of alleyways and corners, and insuring that Seregil and his company were perpetually damp.
Tym kept watch over the Sailmaker Street house, but reported nothing beyond Rythel's expected movements between there and the sewer site.
Work for the Rhiminee Cat—a papers job—came in at midweek. This fell to Alec, who spent the next few days scouting the household of a certain lord whose estranged wife wanted certain papers stolen. During the evenings, however, he became a welcome regular at the Hammer and Tongs.
Whether Rythel would remain in his uncle's shop once the work was completed seemed to be a matter of speculation, though it was unclear whether this was grounded in some hint from Rythel or mere wishful thinking on the part of the other smiths. Meanwhile, Seregil set to work on the connection between the smith and Lord General Zymanis, but his discreet inquiries yielded little beyond what Nysander had already told them.
A young valet had disappeared four months before, but there was no evidence that he'd stolen anything.
At week's end the winds changed, shredding the clouds into tatters of vermilion and gold against the late afternoon sky.
"Rythel will be going out soon. What's the plan for tonight?" asked Alec, gazing out the window beside the workbench.
Seregil looked up from a pick he'd been repairing and smiled. The slanting sunlight bathed Alec's profile as he leaned against the window frame, striking fiery glints in his hair and casting his cheekbones and the folds of his clothing into fine relief.
A painter should capture him like that, all light and eagerness.
"What are we going to do?" Alec asked again, turning to look at him.
"Since we don't have any new information, I think I'll shadow him this time," Seregil replied, sliding the pick back into Alec's tool roll and handing it to him. "Why don't you go ahead with that papers job for Lady Hylia?"
Alec grinned. "On my own?"
"You've done all the legwork. You're sure Lord Estmar will be away until tomorrow?"
"That's what his cook says. It looks like an easy job, too. Lady Hylia's instructions to the Cat said the papers she wants are hidden in the wine cellar. The door leading down to it is in the second pantry, which has a decent-sized window."
"All the same, take your time and be careful," Seregil cautioned. "The cook knows your face. You can't afford to get caught."
"I know, I know," Alec muttered happily, only half listening as he checked his tools and tucked the roll away in his coat. "I expect I'll be done by midnight, in case you need me later on."
"I'll look for you here if I do."
Either he's following some plan, or he's the most dismally predictable spy in Rhiminee, Seregil thought, watching from a discreet distance as Rhythel went into the Heron.
A few coins to the doorkeeper, Stark, bought Seregil hourly reports on the goings-on inside. Rythel asked after Lord Seregil and expressed regret at not finding him among the company. He soon consoled himself by falling in with another young noble, the son of Lady Tytiana, Mistress of the Queen's Wardrobe. They parted company early, however, and Seregil shadowed him to the Maiden's Laugh, a moderately respectable tavern and brothel near the center of the city. Settling in with the tavern crowd downstairs, Seregil soon charmed a weary tap girl into confiding which girl Rythel had gone up with, which room was hers, and that he'd paid for the entire night.
After giving the pair time to settle in, Seregil slipped through the boisterous crowd and made his way unnoticed up the stairs to a dim third-floor corridor. Waiting until he was alone in the passage, he went to the door at the end of it and peered through the keyhole.
Inside, Rythel and his woman were attending earnestly to business. The tiny room had no window or other exit that Seregil could see.
Paid for the whole night, did you? Seregil thought, stealing back the way he'd come.
Outside, he unhobbled his mare and glanced up at the moon; just past midnight. Alec was probably back by now, waiting for word from him. Gathering the reins, he headed for the Cockerel.
Alec was home. Seregil found him pacing morosely in front of the fire. He was still wearing his cloak, and there were twigs and dead leaves tangled in his hair.
"Problem with the job?"
Alec paused, scowling. "Lord Estmar is out for the night, but his new lady friend isn't. Seems she decided to have a few hundred friends in while he's gone. The whole damn place was lit up bright as noon. I skulked around the garden for hours, thinking things might die down. I gave up when fresh musicians showed up just before midnight. Anything new with Rythel?"
"Only his choice of whores," Seregil replied. "Come on. I've had enough of trailing around after this bastard. Show me this map of his."
"All right." Alec arched an eyebrow knowingly, then went to his bed and pulled a coil of rope from beneath it. "And this time, I'm prepared."
Galloping through the darkened city under a wan, lopsided moon, Alec felt a hunter's-thrill of anticipation. The seemingly fruitless days of stalking Rythel wouldn't be wasted if they could use him and his map to bring down larger game. And for once, he was the one to lead. He was rather proud of himself for finding the hollowed bedpost on his own and was looking forward to showing Seregil.
Just as they came within sight of the Sea Market, however, one of Nysander's tiny message spheres materialized suddenly in front of Seregil. Although Alec could not hear it, he knew by the way his friend reined sharply to a halt that there was about to be a change in plans.
"What did he say?" he asked when the little light had winked out.
Seregil pushed his hood back and Alec saw that he was frowning. "He wants us at the Queen's Palace immediately. He didn't say why, just that I should come right away, and bring you if you're with me."
"Damn! Look, you could go back and I'll meet you—"
"He asked for both of us."
"But what about the map? And what if Rythel does come back and then heads out somewhere else?"
"I know, I know—" Seregil shrugged. "But Watchers can't ignore a summons to the Palace. Besides, Rythel's out for the night and Tym's clever enough to keep an eye on things until we get back. Come on now. Back we go!"
But Rythel did return to Sailmaker Street, and not long after Seregil and Alec turned back toward the Palace.
What the bloody hell are you doing home on this fine night?
Tym thought. More surprising yet was the fact that the smith was not alone. A lantern still burned over the door and by its light Tym caught a glimpse of the two men with him. They had their hoods pulled forward, but the gleam of their fine boots in the lamplight told him they were not denizens of the area. Reaching behind him, he gave a rough shake to the small ragged boy dozing against the alley wall just behind him.
"Skut, wake up, damn you!"
The child jerked up, instantly tense and alert. "Yeah, Tym?"
"You ever see any gentleman types go in there?"
"Naw, nothing like that."
Watching a house was child's work, and it hadn't taken Tym long to find a child to help him do it. Having survived to the lucky old age of nine, scrawny, gap-toothed little Skut knew all the Folk as well as he did himself and feared Tym's wrath enough to be dependable. It was Skut, in fact, who'd spotted a gaterunner called Pry the Beetle late that same afternoon while Tym was off to his supper. The Beetle had shown up soon after the smith returned from work that evening and, by Skut's estimation, stayed long enough for a decent conversation.
Learning this, Tym had gone off again to track the Beetle down and soon found him already half-drunk in one of the filthy waterfront stews the runner frequented. A little silver loosened the man's tongue and Tym judged the resulting information well worth the price. It seemed a certain tenant on the top floor of the Sailmaker Street house was buying information about the sewers, information only a Scavenger or runner was privy to, so to speak.
Tym allowed himself a wolfish grin; that was just the sort of information Lord Seregil might loosen his purse strings for.
Returning to Sailmaker Street, he'd settled in for another uneventful evening, but here was something else unexpected. And lucrative, no doubt.
He waited until light showed through a chink in the shutters of the smith's room, then turned to Skut again.
"I'm going up for a listen. You keep your eyes open down here and give the signal if anyone comes along that might see me," he whispered, punctuating his instructions to the boy with a light cuff over the ear. "You doze off while I'm up there and I'll strangle you with your own guts, you hear?"
"I ain't never dozed on nobody," Skut hissed back resentfully.
Unwittingly following the same route Alec had taken several days before, Tym clambered up the rickety wooden stairs at the back of the house and crept over the slates to the edge of the roof just over Rythel's window. Stretched out on his belly, he peered carefully over for an upside-down view of the window below. A crack at the top of the left shutter showed only a thin slice of the room, but he could just make out scraps of the conversation going on inside.
"Three more days." That was the smith; Tym had heard him speak in the street.
"Well done," said another man. "You'll be well rewarded."
"I have another letter, as well."
"Are you certain no one—" a third man broke in, and this voice carried a strong Plenimaran accent.
Tym heard movement inside and the voices dropped too low for him to make out. Cursing silently, he kept still, hoping they'd move closer to the window.
He was just wondering if he should chance opening the shutter a bit more for a peek when some inner alarm sent an uncomfortable prickle down his spine. Gripping the lead gutter with one hand, his knife in the other, he twisted sharply around, scanning back up the steep pitch of the roof.
There, just to the left of a chimney pot, the black outline of a head was visible above the roof peak.
More of the figure rose up, moving with uncanny silence.
There's something wrong about him, was Tym's first thought.
The other stood in full view now, a long black stain against the starry sky. He looked unusually tall, and he didn't move right, either. There was none of the ungainliness of a cripple-and what in hell would a cripple be doing up here? — but a queer set to the shoulders of the silhouette, the crooked thrust of the torso over the legs—
The other suddenly jerked his head in Tym's direction. The thief could still make out no more than the stranger's outline, but he knew instinctively that he'd been spotted.
The figure stooped, bent down as if making Tym a ridiculously low bow. But that was not the end of it, and Tym's mouth suddenly went dry.
The other somehow curled himself downward, arms still at his sides, until his hooded head touched the roof slates below his feet. Down he went, and down, sinuous as an eel-chest, belly, legs, all bent at angles chillingly wrong. And like some huge and loathsome eel, the long black shape began slithering down toward him.
A coldness that had nothing to do with the weather reached Tym, driving a numbing ache into his bones that left his hands as stiff and useless as an old man's. Still, it wasn't until the stench hit him that he began to suspect the sort of nightmare that was bearing down on him.
For the first time in his hard, rough life, Tym screamed, but the ignominious sound came out of his throat as a faint, futile squeak.
The thing came to a halt scant inches away from where he crouched and coiled upright again.
Instinct overrode terror. Still clutching his knife, though he could scarcely feel it in his fist, Tym lunged up and slashed at the apparition and felt his hand pass through a vacant coldness where the thing's chest should have been. The attack overbalanced him on the slick slates and he crouched again, wobbling for balance.
The black thing hovered motionless for a moment, radiating its icy stench. Then it laughed, a thick, bubbling laugh that made Tym think of rotting, bloated corpses floating in foul water.
The hideous thing raised long, wrong-jointed arms and he braced for a blow.
But it didn't strike at him.
Standing faithful watch in the shadow of the alley,
Skut saw a dark form topple from the roof.
Plummeting down, headfirst, the falling man struck the cobbled pavement of the yard with a dull thud.
Skut froze, waiting for an outcry. When none came, he crept out to the body, squinting down at it in the waning moonlight.
Tym was unmistakably dead. His head had been smashed into a terrible lopsided shape. His chest was caved in like a broken basket.
Skut stared down in shocked disbelief for an instant, then burst into tears of frustration. The bastard hadn't paid him yet!
Tym carried no purse, no valuables. Even his long knife was missing from its sheath.
Wiping his nose on his arm, Skut gave the body a final, furious kick and disappeared into the night.
Vargul Ashnazai moved restlessly around Rythel's tiny room while the smith was making his report to Mardus. So far the man's spying attempts had turned up little of any significance, for all his self-important airs. But his sabotage of the sewer channels had been brilliantly carried off and, more importantly still, his compilation of the map of sewer channels beneath the western ward of the city.
Mardus had it before him now, making a final painstaking check before paying the smith for its delivery.
Ashnazai's job was to maintain a cloaking glamour about the two of them; through Rythel's eyes, they were fair, heavyset men with Mycenian accents. He also had a dragorgos on watch, ranging the courtyard outside—an especially taxing task for a necromancer of his degree, but a necessary one, as it turned out.
Soon after their arrival, he suddenly felt a silent call from the dragorgos.
Closing his eyes, he sent a sighting through his dark creation and discovered the intruder on the roof overhead, a rough-looking young fellow with a knife.
Vermin, he thought.
A common thief.
With a barely perceptible smile, he mouthed a silent command. A moment later he felt the stalker lunge and heard a satisfying thud from the yard below.
Mardus glanced up from the document the smith was showing him.
"It's nothing," Ashnazai assured him, going to the window and pushing back one of the warped shutters. As he looked down at the body sprawled below, a small figure darted over to it from the deep shadows across the street. Ashnazai sent a quick stab into this one's mind: a child thief, too grief-stricken at the loss of his compatriot to notice the ripple of blackness flowing down the side of the building toward him.
The dragorgos gave a hungry, questioning call. Ashnazai was about to release it for another kill when his hand brushed something on the windowsill, something that sent an unpleasantly familiar tingle through his skin.
Incredulous, he forgot the child completely as he bent to scrutinize the sill.
There, so faint no one but a necromancer would ever have noticed, was a thin smear of blood. And not just any blood! Pulling out the ivory vial, he compared the emanations of its contents to these.
Yes, the boy! Known here as Alec of Ivywell, minion of the Aurenfaie spy, Lord Seregil.
That much they'd learned since their arrival in Rhiminee. Urvay had tracked the troublesome thieves as far as a villa in Wheel Street, where they acted the fine gentlemen as they consorted with nobles and royalty.
Ashnazai had seen them several times since then, could easily have had them at any point, but the two were still under Oreska protection; any move against them would alert the real enemies in the Oreska House. So he had stayed his hand and soon after the Aurenfaie and his accomplice had dropped maddeningly from sight yet again.
Vargul Ashnazai clenched a hand around the vial for a moment, using its power to detect other traces of Alec's blood around the room: droplets on the shutter, a smudge on the table by Mardus' elbow, a tiny brownish circle dried on the floor near the hollow bedpost that Rythel thought such a clever hiding place, and none of it more than a day or two old.
Standing there, surrounded by the essence of the hated boy, Ashnazai experienced a brief twinge of the fear a hunter feels realizing that the prey he's been stalking has circled to stalk him. In the midst of his silent fury, he was startled to hear Rythel speak the Aurenfaie's name.
Seated at ease across the table from the smith, Mardus was regarding his spy with polite attention.
"Lord Seregil, you say?" Mardus inclined his head slightly as if greatly interested, but Ashnazai saw through the pose; at such moments Mardus reminded him of a huge serpent, chill and remorseless as it advanced unblinking upon its prey.
"A lucky meeting, my lord," the smith told him proudly. "I happened across him in a gambling house one night last week. He has quite an interest in the privateering fleet and likes to brag about it. A puffed-up dandy, full of himself. You know the sort."
Mardus smiled coldly. "Indeed I do. You must tell me everything."
Ashnazai bided his time impatiently as the smith described how he'd courted the supposed cully, and the information he'd had from him. He made no mention of the boy.
Standing behind the smith, Ashnazai caught Mardus' attention, pointed to the window, and held up the vial with a meaningful look. The other gave a slight nod, betraying no reaction.
"You've surpassed all expectations," Mardus told Rythel, passing him a heavy purse in return for the sewer map, together with a packet of the sabotaged grate pins. "You've done an excellent job with the map, and I believe I can arrange an additional reward once you've completed your work in the tunnels."
"Another week and it'll be done," the smith assured him, eyes alight with greedy anticipation.
"If there's anything else I can do for you, you just say the word."
"Oh, I shall, I assure you," Mardus replied with a smile.
Unseen and unheard under the cover of Ashnazai's magic, he and the necromancer made their way down through the crowded rooms and stairways of the tenement to the yard.
The thief's body lay where it had fallen, twisted like a child's discarded doll.
Mardus turned the corpse's head with the toe of one boot. "The face is damaged, but it clearly isn't one of them."
"No, my lord, just a common footpad who blundered into the dragorgos by chance. But the boy has certainly been here within the past day or two. His blood is all over the room. He must have been wounded."
"But not by Rythel, I think. There was nothing in his demeanor to suggest he was hiding anything of the sort."
The necromancer closed his eyes for a moment, his pinched face narrowing still more as he concentrated.
"There's blood on the eaves above the window. He must have cut himself breaking in."
Mardus looked down at the dead man again.
"Two thieves in as many days? Rather a lot, don't you think, even for this part of the city." He watched with satisfaction as a fish hook of anxiety tugged in the necromancer's cheek. "A pity we weren't here the night our young friend made his visit," he continued.
"Then it could have been him lying here dead and unable to be questioned, instead of this useless piece of meat. Get rid of it before it attracts any attention."
Vargul Ashnazai muttered a summons through clenched teeth and the darkness beside them convulsed. A second dragorgos materialized, a wavering, faceless presence that hung like smoke for an instant before streaming down into the dead man's mouth and nose. The body gave a convulsive jerk, then lumbered clumsily to its feet. There was no semblance of life in the face; the dead glazed eyes remained fixed, the one on the ruined side of the head bulging grotesquely from its smashed socket.
Mardus regarded the thing with detached interest. "How long can you maintain it in this state?"
"Until it decomposes, my lord, but I fear it would be of little use. So much of the magic is consumed simply to animate it that it lacks the dragorgos' strength. That, of course, will not be the case once our purpose has been accomplished."
"Indeed not." Mardus touched a gloved hand briefly to the corpse's chest, feeling the black emptiness of death within—such power in that void, and so nearly in his grasp.
The necromancer spoke another command and the corpse loped away in the direction of the nearby harbor.
Still cloaked by the necromancer's spell, they rode up to the main city. The few folk they passed in the streets at that hour were aware of little more than a momentary chill, a fleeting bit of movement caught from the corner of the eye.
"It's of little consequence really, even if they do discover Rythel's work in the sewers," Ashnazai ventured nervously as they rode down Sheaf Street toward their lodgings near the Harvest Market. "The map is the important thing, and we have that. Still, it's unsettling, having the two of them both nosing around Rythel."
"On the contrary, I see the hand of Seriamaius at work in it," said Mardus. "It seems our journey has been a long spiral path, one narrowing quickly now to tighten around our quarry. You may have been correct after all about these thieves being of some importance, Vargul Ashnazai. They wouldn't be crossing our trail so often unless there is some greater purpose in it. We have only to bide our time until the others arrive. Meanwhile, I think it's time to deal with Master Rythel. Arrange something unremarkable, would you?"
Nearing the market, Mardus reined in. "I'm to meet with our new friend, Ylinestra. I shouldn't be long."
"Very good, my lord. I'll check on Tildus and the others at the inn."
Parting ways with the necromancer, Mardus turned his mount down a side lane. Halfway down it, he glanced at the fine pair of brass cockerels decorating the entrance to an inn of the same name.
He'd passed through Blue Fish Street several times since arriving in Rhiminee and the figures, each holding a lantern suspended from an upraised claw, often caught his eye.
A Watcher password got them by the guards at the same postern gate Alec had used as a refuge a few months before. Riding through the palace grounds, they dismounted at a tradesman's door near the Ring wall of the Palace.
"I feared you would not come," Nysander said, hurrying them inside. As he reached to close the door behind them, Alec noticed the hem of a finely embroidered robe beneath the wizard's plain mantle.
"You caught us in the middle of a job," Seregil told him.
"I suspected as much, but I had no choice. Come, there is little time."
Nysander inscribed a faint sigil in the air over their heads, then led the way silently down a servant's passage. They hadn't gone far when a serving woman came around a corner ahead of them carrying an armload of linen. She looked directly at Alec as she passed, but gave no sign that she'd seen him.
Seregil motioned him onward with an impatient nod. still hope I don't have to find my own way out of here, Alec thought as Nysander hurried them up stairways and through more corridors and increasingly lavish public rooms. Climbing a final, curving stairway, they reached a closed door. Nysander took a key from his sleeve and let them into a long, dimly lit gallery.
An ornate balustrade screened by panels of wooden fretwork ran the length of the right side of the room. Light streamed up through the openings, casting netted patterns on the ceiling overhead.
Nysander raised a finger to his lips, then drew them to one of the panels. Putting his face close to the fretwork, Alec found himself looking down into a brightly lit audience chamber.
He'd seen Queen Idrilain only once before, but he recognized her at once among the small knot of people gathered around a wine table at the center of the room. Phoria sat at her left with several other people in Skalan court dress. To Idrilain's right sat a man and two women dressed in a fashion he'd never seen before.
All three wore tunics of soft white wool accented only by the polished jewels glowing on their belts, torques, and broad silver wristbands.
Two of them, the man and the younger woman, wore their long dark hair loose over their shoulders beneath elaborately wrapped head cloths. The older woman's hair was silvery white, and on her brow was a silver circlet set with a single large ruby in a fan of blade-shaped gold leaves.
Intrigued, Alec turned to Seregil but found his friend pressed rigidly to the screen, his face a mask of anguish washed with stippled light.
What's he seeing?
Alec wondered in alarm, looking down at the strangers again. Just then, however, the younger woman turned her head his way and Alec felt his breath catch in his throat as he recognized the fine features, dark shining hair, and large, light eyes.
Still staring down, he reached for his friend's shoulder, felt the slight trembling there before Seregil shrugged him away.
The conference below continued for some time. At last the Queen rose and led the others out of the chamber.
Seregil remained where he was for a moment, forehead resting against the screen as a single tear inched down his cheek. Wiping it quickly away, he turned to face Nysander, who'd stood silently behind them all the while.
"Why are they here?" Seregil asked, his voice husky with emotion.
"The Plenimaran Overlord died today," the wizard replied. "The Aurenfaie had the news before we did and translocated a delegation here tonight. There is still no official alliance between Plenimar and Zengat, but both Aurenfaie intelligence and our own suggests that secret agreements have in fact been made."
"What's that got to do with us?" Seregil's face was stony now, the naked sorrow too thoroughly erased.
"Nothing, as yet," said Nysander. "I summoned you here because the lia'sidra has granted permission for you to speak with her briefly. There is a small antechamber just through that door behind you."
Still rigidly expressionless, Seregil stalked away into the next room.
As soon as he was gone, Alec let out a pent-up gasp. "Illior's Hands, Nysander-Aurenfaie!"
"I thought you should see them, too," Nysander said with a rather sad smile.
"Who's he meeting?"
"That is for Seregil to tell you. And with any luck, before you wear a trench in this excellent carpet."
Seregil paced the small, well-appointed sitting room, one eye on the side door. And as he paced, he fought to maintain some semblance of inner calm. There was a looking glass on the wall and he paused in front of it, ruefully inspecting his reflection. His hair was tangled and windblown, and a week of puzzling over Rythel had left dark circles under his eyes. The old surcoat he'd thrown on that evening was frayed at the cuffs and one shoulder was torn.
Don't I look the ragged outcast? he thought, giving the glass a humorless smile as he combed his fingers through his hair.
Behind him the side door opened and for a moment another face was reflected next to his, the two images so similar, yet worlds apart. When had his eyes grown so wary, the lines around his mouth so harsh?
"Seregil, my brother." Her pure, unaccented Aurenfaie washed through him like cool water.
"Adzriel," he whispered, embracing her. The scent of wandril blossoms rose from her hair and skin, blinding him with memories. She had been both sister and mother and suddenly he remembered what it had been to be a child, smelling her special scent as she comforted him or carried him home from some moonlit festival. Now she felt small in his arms and for a long moment he could do nothing but cling to her, his throat tightening painfully as he blinked back four decades of unshed tears.
Adzriel stepped back at last, still holding him by the shoulders as if afraid he'd disappear if she didn't.
"All these years I've carried the image of that unhappy boy looking down at me from the deck that awful day," she gasped, her own tears flowing freely. "O Aura, I missed seeing you grow into a man! Now look at you; wild as any Tirfaie and wearing a weapon in the presence of your kin."
Seregil quickly unbuckled his sword belt and hung it over a nearby chair. "I meant no offense. It's like another limb to me here. Come, sit down and I'll try to remember how civilized people act."
Adzriel stroked a hand through his unkempt hair.
"And when were you ever civilized?"
Sitting down next to him on a divan, she drew a small bundle of scrolls from her tunic. "I have letters for you from our sisters and your old friends. They haven't forgotten you."
More memories held at bay pressed in, and with them a pang of long suppressed hope. Swallowing hard, he examined the heavy silver bracelet of rank on her wrist. "So you're a member of the lia'sidra now. And an envoy, too. Not bad for someone who hasn't seen her hundred and a half birthday yet."
Adzriel shrugged, though she looked pleased. "Our family's tie to Skala may be useful in the coming years. Idrilain welcomed me as a kinswoman when we arrived, and spoke highly of you. From what little your friend Nysander i Azusthra had time to tell me, I gather you've been of some service to her?"
Seregil studied her face, wondering how much Nysander had said about their work. Little enough, evidently.
"Now and then," he told her. "What did your companions make of that, I wonder, Seregil the Traitor praised by the Skalan Queen? I remember old Mahalie a Solunesthra, but who's the other?"
"Ruen i Uri, of Datsia Clan. And you needn't worry about either of them; they're both moderates, and good friends of mine."
"And you're here because of Plenimar?"
"Yes. All recent reports indicate an alliance being attempted with Zengat and there can only be one reason for that."
"To keep Aurenen too busy defending her western borders to ally with Skala. But if the Plenimarans had just left things alone, wouldn't the Edict of Separation have done their work for them?"
"There's been considerable progress against the Edict since you left. The recent discovery of our kinsman Corruth's body—well, you can imagine the effect that has had in the lia'sidra."
Seregil watched her again; no, she didn't know the part he'd played in that, and his oath as a Watcher prevented him from telling her. "Total uproar, I hope," he said with a smirk. "All those years of accusing every Skalan in sight of foul play. Old Rhazien's faction must be choking on their own isolationist rhetoric."
Adzriel chuckled. "Nothing so dramatic, but it has tipped the scales a bit for those of us who want to renew the old alliances. With Petasarian gone and his successor, young Estmar, already rumored to be the puppet of his own generals and necromancers, I don't think we can afford to stand alone any longer."
"Adzriel?" He hesitated, knowing what he must ask next, but dreading the answer. "Does this have anything to do with why you've been allowed to see me?"
"The lifting of your banishment, you mean?" Adzriel smoothed a thumb over one of the jewels in her bracelet. "Not officially. The time isn't right. Not yet."
Seregil jumped to his feet, clenching one hand against his side where his sword usually hung.
"Bilairy's Guts, I was a child. Willful, misguided, guilty as hell, but still a child. If only you knew what I've done since then." We found their precious Lord Corruth, Alec and I! The words burned his throat. "I know the Skalans, their culture and politics, their language, better than any envoy."
"Yes, but whose interests would you be representing?" Adzriel's level gaze stopped him in his tracks.
"So I'm to sit idle here while the Zengati boil out of the hills and descend on Bokthersa once again?"
Adzriel sighed. "I hardly think you'll be idle, not when the might of Plenimar is pounding against your shores and their armies roll across Mycena to batter at your northern borders. And mark my words, it will come to that before it's over. I understand your pain, my love, but you've spent more than half your life here." She paused. "I sometimes wonder if things haven't worked out for the best, somehow."
"My being exiled, you mean?" Seregil stared at her. "How can you say that?"
"I'm not saying I'm glad you were taken from us, but in spite of all the loneliness and pain you must have known, I wonder if life among the Tirfaie doesn't suit you better? Truly now, could you ever be content to sit under the lime trees at home, telling tales to the children, or debating with the elders of the Bokthersa Council whether the lintel of the temple should be painted white or silver? Think back, Seregil. You were always restless, always demanding to find out what lay over the next hill. Perhaps there's some purpose in it."
Rising, she took his hands in hers. "I know you've paid for your mistakes. Believe me, I want your exile lifted, but you must be patient. Changes are coming for Aurenen, great ones. Make your stand here for now, in this dangerous, wonderful land of yours. What say you, my brother?"
Still frowning, Seregil muttered, "Silver."
"What?" asked Adzriel.
"Silver," Seregil repeated, looking up with the crooked grin that had always won her over. "Tell the elders of the Council I said the lintel should be silver."
Adzriel laughed, a wonderful, radiant sound. "By Aura, Father was right! I should have beaten you more. Now where is this Alec i Amasa Nysander told me of? He interests me greatly."
"You know about Alec?" Seregil said, surprised.
"More than he does himself, it would seem," Adzriel chided.
Seregil gave her a chagrined look. It seemed Nysander had packed a great deal into a short conversation.
If Nysander hadn't been with him in the gallery, Alec would have been hard-pressed not to eavesdrop. As it was, he could hear a steady murmur of voices from beyond the door where Seregil had gone.
After what felt like an interminable length of time, the door opened and Seregil came back into the gallery, accompanied by the young Aurenfaie woman.
His air of anguish was gone, erased by an almost sheepish grin.
Alec knew before his friend spoke who she must be. Her lips were fuller and had none of the hard set of Seregil's, but the beautiful grey eyes were the same, with the same expression of appraising intelligence.
"This is my eldest sister, Adzriel a Illia Myril Seri Bokthersa," said Seregil.
"Adzriel, this is Alec."
What little Aurenfaie Alec knew deserted him.
"My lady," he stammered, making a passable bow.
The woman smiled, holding out her hands for his. "My people seldom use such titles," she said in heavily accented Skalan. "You must call me Adzriel, as my brother does."
"Adzriel," Alec amended, savoring the sound of it, and the feel of her cool hands in his.
Rubies and moonstones glowed in the rings she wore on nearly every finger.
"Nysander tells me you are my brother's valued companion, a person of great honor," she said, gazing earnestly into his face.
Alec felt his cheeks go warm. "I hope so. He's been a good friend to me."
"I am glad to hear such things said of him." Bowing gracefully to him and the wizard, she stepped back toward the door. "I hope one day soon I may greet you all in my own land. Until then, Aura Elustri malron."
"So soon?" Seregil asked, his voice hoarse with emotion.
Alec looked away in embarrassment as the two embraced, speaking softly to each other in their own language.
"Aura Elustri malron, Adzriel tali, " Seregil said, releasing her reluctantly.
"Phroni soutua neh noliea. " Adzriel nodded, wiping her eyes. Nysander went to her side and offered his arm.
"Aura Elustri malron, dear lady. I shall accompany you back to the others."
"Thank you again, Nysander i Azusthra, for all your assistance in this matter." As she turned to go, however, she spoke once more to her brother in their own language, glancing at Alec as she did so.
"Quite right," Nysander said. "It is the boy's right to know; he should hear it from you."
With that, he escorted Adzriel back the way she'd come.
Turning to Seregil, Alec found his friend looking pale and uncomfortable again. "What did they mean?"
Seregil pushed a hand back through his hair and sighed. "I'll explain everything, but not here."
The unexpected reunion with his sister had shaken Seregil to the core of his soul. A fierce sorrow seemed to emanate from him as they left the Palace, and the weight of it left Alec feeling mute and helpless. What could he say, what could he offer in the face of this? And what was it Nysander had meant, that Seregil had something to tell him?
He trailed anxiously in his friend's wake, the sound of their horses' hooves echoing from the ornate walls of villa gardens as the misshapen moon sank slowly toward the western rooftops. Alec couldn't forget the sight of that single tear rolling slowly down Seregil's face. He'd never imagined him capable of weeping.
Seregil paused long enough to steal two flasks of sweet red wine from a vintner's shop, then rode on until they reached the wooded park behind the Street of Lights. Dismounting, they led their horses along a path to an open glade beyond.
A small fountain stood at the center of the little clearing, its stone basin filled now with rain and dead leaves. Sitting down on the rim of it, Seregil handed Alec a flask, then uncorked his own and took a drink.
"Go on," he told Alec with a sigh. "You'll need it."
Alec found his hands were shaking. He took a long swig of the sweet, heavy wine, felt the heat curl down into his belly. "Just tell me, will you? Whatever it is."
Seregil was quiet for a moment, his face lost in shadow, then he gestured up at the moon. "When I was a child, I used to sneak out at night just to walk in the moonlight. My favorite times were in the summer, when people would come from all over Aurenen to the foot of Mount Barok. For days they'd gather, waiting for the full moon. When it rose over the peak, we'd sing, thousands of voices raised together, singing to the dragons. And they'd fly for us across the face of the moon, around the peak, singing their answering songs and breathing their red fire.
"I've tried to sing that song once or twice since I've been here, but do you know, it just won't come? Without all those other voices, I can't sing the Song of Dragons at all. As things stand now, I may never sing it again."
Alec could almost see the scene Seregil had described, a thousand handsome, grey-eyed folk in white tunics and shining jewels, massed beneath the round moon, voices raised as one. Standing here in this winter-ruined garden, he felt the crushing weight of distance that separated Seregil from that communion.
"You hoped your sister was going to say you could go home, didn't you?"
Seregil shook his head. "Not really. And she didn't."
Alec sat down beside him on the rim of the fountain.
"Why were you sent away?"
"Sent away? I was outlawed, Alec. Outlawed for treason and a murder I helped commit when I was younger than you."
"You?" Alec gasped. "I–I can't believe it. What happened?"
Seregil shrugged. "I was stupid. Blinded by my first passion, I allowed what I thought was love to cut me off from Adzriel and all the others who tried to save me. I didn't know how my lover was using me, or what his intent really was, but a man died all the same, and the fault was rightly mine. The details don't really matter—I've never told anyone else this much, Alec, and I'm not going to say more now. Maybe someday—At any rate, two of us were exiled. Everyone else was executed, except my lover. He escaped."
"Another Aurenfaie came to Skala with you?"
"Zhahir i Aringil didn't make it. He threw himself overboard with a ballast stone tied around his neck as soon as we lost sight of the coastline. I very nearly did the same, then and many times later on. Most exiles end up suicides sooner or later. But not me. Not yet, anyway."
The few inches between them felt like cold miles.
Clasping his flask, Alec asked, "Why are you telling me this now? Does it have something to do with what Nysander meant?"
"In a way. It's something I don't want secret between us anymore, not after tonight." He took another drink and rubbed his eyelids. "Nysander's been after me since he met you to tell you that—"
Seregil turned to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Alec, you're faie."
There was a gravid pause.
Alec heard the words, but for an instant he couldn't seem to take them in and make sense of them. He'd rehearsed a dozen dark possibilities during their walk from the Palace, but this had not been one of them.
He felt the flask slip from his fingers, felt it bounce on the damp, dead grass between his feet.
"That can't be!" he gasped, his voice unsteady. "My father, he wasn't—"
But suddenly it all fell into place—Seregil's questions about his parents, veiled remarks Nysander had made, all the rumors that he and Seregil were somehow related. The impact of this sudden revelation made him sway where he sat.
Seregil's grip on his shoulder tightened, but he could scarcely feel it. "My mother."
"The Hazadrielfaie," Seregil said gently, "from beyond Ravensfell Pass near where you were born."
"But how can you know that?" Alec whispered. It felt like the entire earth was spinning out from beneath his feet, leaving him stranded in a place he couldn't comprehend.
At the same time, it all made terrible sense: his father's silence regarding his mother, his distrust of strangers, his coldness. "Could she still be there?"
"Do you recall how I told you the Hazadrielfaie left Aurenen a long, long time ago? That their ways are different than ours? They don't tolerate any outsiders, especially humans, and they kill any half-breeds that are born, along with the parents. Somehow your mother must have broken away long enough to meet your father and have you, but her own people must have hunted her down in the end. Even if she'd gone back of her own accord, the penalty would still have been death. It's a miracle your father and you escaped. He must have been a remarkable man."
"I never thought so." Alec's pulse was pounding in his ears. This was too much, too much. "I don't understand. How can you know any of this?"
"I don't, for certain, but it fits the facts we do know. Alec, there's no getting around the fact that you are faie. I saw the signs that first morning in the mountains, but I didn't want to believe it then."
Seregil hesitated, then shook his head. "I was afraid I was wrong, just seeing what I wanted to see—But I wasn't wrong—your features, your build, the way you move. Micum saw it right away, and the centaurs and Nysander and the others at the Oreska. Then, that first night we came back to the Cockerel, I went out again, remember? I went to the Oracle of Illior about another matter,and during the divinations, he spoke of you, called you a "child of earth and light" — Dalna and Illior, human and faie—there was no question what he meant. Nysander wanted me to tell you from the start but—"
At that, a wave of anger burst up through Alec's shocked numbness. Lurching to his feet, he rounded on Seregil, crying out, "Why didn't you? All these months and you never said anything! It's like that Wheel Street trick all over again!"
Seregil's face was half black, half bone pale in the moonlight, but both eyes glittered. "It's nothing like Wheel Street!"
"Oh, no?" Alec shouted. "Then what, damn it! Why? Why didn't you tell me?"
Seregil seemed to sag. Lowering his face, he rested both hands on his knees. After a moment he let out a ragged breath. "There's no single answer. At first, because I wasn't certain." He shook his head. "No, that's not true. In my heart I was certain, but I didn't dare believe it."
"Because if I was wrong—" Seregil spread his hands helplessly. "It doesn't matter. I'd been alone for a long time and I thought I liked it that way. I knew if I was right, and if I told you then, if you'd even believed me, then it might create a bond, a tie. I wasn't willing to risk that either, not until I figured out who you were. Illior's Hands, Alec, you don't know, you can't know, what it was like—"
"Enlighten me!" Alec growled.
"All right." Seregil let out another unsteady sigh. "I'd been exiled from my own kind for more years than you've been alive. Any Aurenfaie who came to Skala knew who and what I was, and was under prohibition to shun me. Meanwhile, all my human companions age and die before my eyes."
"Except Nysander, and Magyana."
"Oh, yes." Now it was Seregil who sounded bitter. "You know all about my apprenticeship with him, don't you? Another failure, another place I didn't belong. Then, from out of nowhere, comes you, and you were—are—"
Alec looked down at the bowed figure before him and felt his anger slipping away as quickly as it had come. "I still don't understand why you didn't want to say anything."
Seregil looked up at him again. "Cowardice, I guess. I didn't want to see the look that's on your face right now."
Alec sat down next to him again and sank his face in his hands. "I don't know what I am," he groaned. "It's like everything I ever knew about myself has been taken away." He felt Seregil's arm go around his shoulders, but made no move to push him away.
"Ah, tali, you're what you've always been," Seregil sighed, patting his arm. "You just know it now, that's all."
"So I'll see Beka get old, and Luthas, and Illia and—"
"That's right." Seregil's arm tightened around him. "And that wouldn't be any less true if you were Tirfaie. It's not a curse."
"You always talk like it is."
"Loneliness is a curse, Alec, and being an outsider. I don't have a clue why the two of us ended up in the same dungeon cell that night, but I've thanked Illior every day since that we did. The greatest fear I've had is losing you. The second greatest is that when I finally did tell you the truth, you'd think it was the only reason I'd taken you on in the first place. That isn't so, you know. It never was, not even in the beginning."
The last of the shock and anger drained away, leaving Alec exhausted beyond measure. Reaching down, he retrieved the wine flash and drained what was left in it. "It's a lot to take in, you know? It changes so much."
For the first time in hours Seregil chuckled, a warm, healing sound in the darkness. "You should talk to Nysander, or Thero. Wizards must go through these same feelings when they learn they have magic in them."
"What does it mean, though, with me being only half?" asked
Alec as a hundred questions and comparisons flooded in. "How long will I live? How old am I, really?"
One arm still around Alec, Seregil found his own flask again and took a sip. "Well, when the faie blood comes from the mother it's generally stronger. I don't know why that is, but it's always the case and all those I know of lived as long as the rest of us, four centuries or so. They mature a bit faster, so you're about as old as you thought. There's also a good chance you'd inherit any magic she had, although it seems like that would have shown itself—"
He trailed off suddenly and Alec felt him shiver. "Damn it, I'm sorry I didn't say anything sooner. The longer I waited, the harder it got."
Without giving himself time to evaluate the impulse, Alec turned and put both arms around Seregil, hugging him tightly. "It's all right, tali" he whispered hoarsely. "It's all right now."
Taken by surprise, Seregil hesitated a moment, then returned the embrace, heart beating strong and fast against Alec's. A weary peacefulness came over Alec at the feel of it, and with it a whisper of pleasure at their closeness. From where they sat, Alec could see the glimmer of a few lanterns shining through the bare trees from the Street of Lights beyond. Seregil's fingers were twined in his hair at the nape of his neck, he realized with a guilty start, the same way he'd touched the young man at Azarin's a few short weeks ago.
First that strange, perception-altering night, he thought wearily, and now this. Illior's Hands, if things kept up in this manner, he'd end up not knowing who he was at all!
Releasing him at last, Seregil looked up at the moon, half-hidden in the tangled treetops.
"I don't know about you, but I've had about all the excitement I can deal with for one night," he said with a hint of his crooked smile.
"What about Rythel?"
"I guess Tym can keep an eye on things one more night. We'll track him down in the morning."
As they mounted for the ride home, it was Alec's turn to chuckle.
"What's so funny?"
"It could have been worse, I guess," Alec told him. "In the old ballads, orphans turn out to be the long-lost heir to some kingdom, which means they end up either cooped up in the family castle learning royal manners, or get sent off to slay some monster for a bunch of total strangers. At least I get to keep my old job."
"I don't think anyone will get much of a ballad out of that."
Alec swung up into the saddle and grinned over at him. "That's fine by me!"
"Where are we?" Zir shouted over the jingle of harness.
"We're in Mycena!" someone else called back. Beka grinned in spite of herself.
They'd worn the joke threadbare weeks ago, but every once in a while someone trotted it out again just to break the monotony.
Sergeant Mercalle's riders were in high spirits this morning. Beka had received orders to take a decuria and ride to a nearby market town to buy supplies for the troop. Mercalle had won the toss.
For weeks they'd ridden through rolling, snow-covered hills, oak forest, and empty fields; past thatch-roof steadings and small country towns where soldiers of any sort were regarded with guarded resentment. Mycena was a country of fanners and tradesmen. Wars interrupted commerce.
It had taken the regiment nearly a month to reach the port city of Keston—a month of cold camps and thrown-together billets in garrisons and courtyards, and slow-march riding over frozen roads. At night, the green new officers sat around the fire and listened to the veterans' war tales, hoping to pick up some of the things they hadn't had time to learn during their brief six weeks of training.
The more Beka listened, the more she realized that despite all their drilling and individual prowess with horse, sword, and bow, it would take a battle or two to sort out how well the turma worked together and trusted one another.
And how much they trusted her.
She'd noticed that many of her riders still looked more often to her sergeants for guidance than to her. That stung a bit, but then, they were the turma's only seasoned veterans. To their credit, they all showed the strictest respect for her rank, even Braknil, who was old enough to be her father.
In return, Beka was mindful of the fact that without Seregil's patronage and the commission it had won her, sergeant would have been the highest rank she could've hoped for in such a regiment. Some of the other squadrons' new lieutenants—the sons and daughters of Rhiminee lords—seemed to keep this in mind, too, and let her know with the occasional sneer or condescending remark. Fortunately, her brother officers in Myrhini's troop were not among these.
At Keston the regimental commander, Prince Korathan, had taken Commander Perris' Wolf Squadron and split off to follow the coastline.
Commander Klia's squadron headed inland toward the Folcwine Valley. The Folcwine River was the southern leg of the great trade route that ran north all the way to the Ironheart range in the distant northlands. The river was the first prize the Plenimarans were expected to reach for.
That had been two weeks ago; it would be another two before they came to the river.
Turning in the saddle, Beka looked back at the column snaking darkly over the hills behind her: nearly four hundred horsemen and officers of Lion Squadron, the sledges of the sutlers and armorers, provision wains, livestock and drivers.
It was like traveling with a small town in tow. Scouting trips, vanguard duty, even mundane provision runs like this offered a welcome break.
Catching Mercalle's eye, Beka said, "Sergeant, I think the horses could do with a run."
"You're right, Lieutenant," Mercalle answered with the hint of a smile; they both knew it was the restless young riders who needed it more.
Beka scanned the rolling terrain ahead of them and spied a dark line of trees a mile or so off. "Pass the word, Sergeant. At my signal, race for the trees. The first one who gets there has first chance at the taverns."
Mercalle's riders fanned out smoothly, catcalling back and forth to each other. At Beka's signal, they spurred their mounts forward, galloping for the trees.
Beka's Wyvern could easily have outdistanced most of the other horses, but she held back, letting Kaylah and Zir end the race in a tie.
"I hear they always finish together," Marten grumbled as the rest of the riders reined in around the winners. A few of the others smirked at this.
Sexual relations in the ranks were frowned on, and a careless pregnancy got both parties cashiered, but it happened, nonetheless. Still celibate herself, Beka chose to turn a blind eye to who was sharing blankets with who. A number of her riders had come into the regiment already paired, including Kaylah and Zir. Others, like Mirn and Steb, had formed bonds during the march.
"Don't worry about it," Braknil had advised after she'd noticed certain blankets moving late at night. "So long as it's honorable, it'll just make them fight the enemy all the harder. No one wants to look a coward to their lover."
Kaylah and Zir already seemed proof of this; during training they'd competed fiercely against each other and everyone else. Kaylah was a pretty blonde who looked almost too fragile for a warrior's life, but she was like a centaur on horseback, and could match anyone in the turma with a bow. Zir, a young, black— bearded bear of a man, had
Sakor's own sword arm mounted or afoot.
The trees turned out to be a thick pine forest.
Skirting along its edge, they struck a well-packed road that led through in the direction of the town. Just before noon they came out on the far side into a valley overlooking the town. It was a prosperous-looking place, with a palisade for protection and a busy market square.
Their dark green field tunics attracted less attention than their dress tabards might have, but the townspeople still looked askance at their swords, bows, and chain mail.
Better us than the Plenimaran marines, Beka thought, pulling her gorget from the neck of her tunic to show her rank.
Their Skalan gold was welcome enough, however. In less than an hour's time they'd found all the supplies they'd been sent for— parchment, flints, wax, honey, meal and flour, dried fruit and beans, salt, smoked meats, ale, four fat sheep and a pig, oats and winter fodder for the horses-and hired three carters to haul the goods back to the column under escort.
Her riders had also found time to purchase items for themselves and those left behind with the rest of the turma: tobacco, playing cards, sweetmeats, fruit, and writing materials were always in demand. Some even had chickens and geese slung from their saddlebows.
Mercalle shopped for the other sergeants; Portus was partial to nuts and raisins, Braknil to Mycenian cider brandy.
Mercalle glanced up at the sun as the carters secured the last of their load on their sledges and hitched up their oxen teams. "The column should have just about caught up by now. It'll make a shorter return trip for the carters."
"Everyone back?" asked Beka, counting faces.
"All accounted for, Lieutenant."
"Good. You, Tobin, and Arna take the point. The rest of us will ride escort with the sledges. We'll switch off point riders now and then, just to keep them from getting bored."
Mercalle saluted, and galloped off with the two riders. Beka and the rest fell in around the sledges.
No one seemed to mind the slower pace; it was pleasant to saunter along with the sun on their backs and a cold breeze in their faces. Leaving town by the same road they'd entered, they wended their way back up into the pines.
"Do you travel this road often?" Beka asked, striking up a conversation with the lead driver.
The man twitched the reins across his team's broad backs and nodded. "Often enough spring to autumn," he replied, his accent thick as oat porridge. "My brothers and me drive goods up to Torburn-on-the-River. Boats take it on to the coast."
"That must be a long trip at this pace."
He shrugged. "Three weeks up, three back."
"Have you heard much news here about a war coming?"
The carter spared her a sour glance. "I should think we have. Seeing as how we're like to get trampled once again when you lot and the Plenimarans go at each other. There's some say we ought to just trade land with one or t'other of ye, so's ye can fight without bothering us."
Beka bristled a bit at this. "We're on our way east to keep that from happening. Otherwise, your armies will be left on their own when Plenimar comes after your land and the river."
"They ain't took it yet. And you lot ain't never stopped 'em from wading in to try it."
Beka bit back a retort and eased her mount away from the sledge. There was no sense arguing the point. "Marten and Barius, you go take point. Tell Sergeant Mercalle I'll be up to relieve her as soon as the others get back."
"Right, Lieutenant!" Barius said, grinning through his new beard. He and Marten set off at a gallop, cloaks streaming behind them as they raced each other out of sight around a bend in the road.
The sound of their hoofbeats had just faded out of earshot when the scream of a horse raised the hair on the back of Beka's neck. Wheeling Wyvern, she saw Syrtas' mount buck him off behind the third sledge. The horse screamed again, then bolted for the trees.
Rethus reined in beside the fallen man, then slung himself from the saddle.
"Ambush!" they shouted, dashing for cover behind the sledge.
An arrow sang past Beka's horse and struck the side of the lead sledge. A glance told her that this was no military attack. The arrow was double fetched, rather than the military triple vane style, and the fletching was done clumsily, with one white vane and one a ragged brown.
"Bloody bandits!" the carter growled, pulling a short sword from under his seat and jumping over the side.
"Take cover!" Beka yelled, although the others were already doing just that. She slid off Wyvern with her bow in hand and whacked the horse on the haunches, hoping he'd get clear of the archers.
Heart pounding in her ears, Beka dove for the scant cover at the front of the sledge. Crouched there beside the carter, she tried to size up the situation.
The point riders weren't back yet; that left Zir, Kaylah, Corbin, Rethus, Mikal, and Syrtas—assuming none of them were already killed—and the three drivers.
Judging by the hail of arrows whining at them from the cover of the trees, however, her group was considerably outnumbered. Worse yet, they were being fired on from both sides of the road.
"You said nothing about bandits when we set out," she hissed to the driver.
"Ain't seen any most of the winter," he replied grudgingly.
"This crew's come north early. They must of laid for us until they saw you send off them other two."
Beka moved to the opposite side of the sledge just in time to spot three swordsmen running at them from the woods. Almost without thinking, she fitted an arrow to her bowstring and shot one of them; the other two fell to someone else's shafts.
Arrows snarled and hissed over her head as Beka dashed back to the next sledge, where she found Mikal, Zir, and Kaylah shooting wildly into the trees to either side.
"Stop shooting!" Beka ordered. "We can't afford to waste the arrows."
"What do we do?" Mikal demanded.
"Wait for a clear shot. And grab any spent arrow you can reach without getting hit."
Ducking low, she made it to the last sledge.
Rethus and Corbin were unscathed. Their carter lay panting beneath the sledge, an arrow shaft protruding from his hip.
That first enemy arrow had cut Syrtas just above the knee before striking his horse. The wound was bleeding freely, but it didn't seem to be slowing him down much as he and the others shot into the trees.
Beka repeated the order, and then nocked another arrow on her bowstring, waiting for one of their attackers to show himself.
The bandits mistook their actions as a sign of surrender; in a moment the arrow storm stopped and swordsmen burst from the trees, yelling wildly as they charged the sledges on foot.
"Now hit them, both sides!" Beka shouted, scrambling to her feet. Heedless of any archers who might still be lurking in the trees, she sent shaft after shaft at the swordsmen running at her, downing three of them. For the first time since the skirmish began, it occurred to her that she was taking human lives, but the thought carried no emotion. The thrum of bowstrings and the cries and shouts of battle filled her mind, leaving room for nothing else. Beside her, Rethus fired with the same silent determination.
An arrow nicked the shoulder of her tunic and pinned her cloak to the side of the sledge behind her. Yanking the brooch pin loose, she dropped to one knee and continued to shoot.
A dozen or more bandits fell to their arrows, but an equal number were closing in around them.
"Swords!" Beka shouted. Drawing her blade, she strode out to meet a bearded man in scarred leather brigadine and ragged leggings. Ducking his wild swing with a broadsword, she whirled and struck at the back of his neck.
She'd practiced the move a thousand times against her father and others; this time she drew blood.
There were plenty more with him, though, and she drew a long dagger in her left hand, using it to fend off thrusts to her open side.
Syrtas was to her right, Kaylah to the left.
Covering each other as best they could, they waded into the knot of bandits.
The attackers outnumbered her side at least three to one, but Beka quickly realized that most of them relied more on brawn than skill. With almost disappointing ease, she ducked another swing and ran a man through, then pulled her blade free in time to strike another on the arm as he attacked
Kaylah. The girl flashed her a grin, then lunged at a tall, scrawny youth who turned tail and fled.
Looking around, Beka realized that there were mounted fighters at work, too. Mercalle and the others had come back at some point and were charging into the fray, their helmets flashing in the sunlight as they scattered ambushers and struck down the stragglers with their swords.
The bandits were already beginning to fall back when more riders of the Horse Guard thundered down the road from the direction of the column. Tobin was at their head, with Portus and Braknil beside him.
The enemy broke for cover and the horsemen followed, driving them into the trees and dismounting to give chase.
"Come on!" cried Beka, rallying her blood-streaked comrades. "Let's not let them steal all the fun!"
When the rout was over, more than twenty ambushers lay dead in the snow. Beka's riders had sustained nothing worse than a few sword cuts and arrow wounds.
"By the Flame, that was a fair-sized gang," Mercalle exclaimed.
The lead carter crawled from under his sledge. "Looks like old Garon's crew. They been harrying the traders up and down the valley for nigh onto three years now. The sheriffs couldn't never catch 'em."
"They chose the wrong prey this time," Sergeant Braknil remarked, grinning as he strode over to join them. "Looks to me like you had things pretty well in hand by the time we got here, Lieutenant."
"I wasn't so sure," Beka said, noticing for the first time how shaky her legs felt. "What are you doing here, anyway? Not that I'm not glad to see you."
"When Barius and Marten showed up, I sent Tobin and Arna back," Mercalle explained. "But all of a sudden they came belting back with word that you were under attack. They didn't know how big the force was or who, so I sent Arna back to the column for help and came on with the others. As it turns out, Braknil had talked the captain into letting the rest of the turma come meet you. He and Portus were less than a mile away when Arna met them."
The rest of the turma had drifted over to listen.
"Any losses?" she asked.
"Not a one, Lieutenant!" Corporal Nikides reported proudly. "Not bad for our first battle, eh?"
"I don't know that I'd claim routing bandits as a battle, but we acquitted ourselves well enough," Beka said, grinning around at the others. "You did well, all of you."
Braknil exchanged a look with Mercalle and cleared his throat. "With all due respect,
Lieutenant, there's a custom some of the riders should observe. For their first kill, that is."
"Drinking the blood of the first man you kill to keep off the ghosts, you mean?"
"That's the one, Lieutenant. Some call it superstition nowadays, but I say the old ways are sound."
"I agree," said Beka. She'd heard of the custom from her father, and from Alec, who'd done the same after his first fight. "How many of you made your first kill today?"
Everyone in Mercalle's decuria stepped forward, and several more from the others. "All right, then. All of you archers, find your first killing shaft. Come back here when you find it. The rest of you bring your swords."
Beka walked to the body of the first swordsman she'd killed, a middle-aged brigand with a braided beard.
He lay on his back, a look of mild surprise on his unremarkable face. She stared down at him a moment, making herself remember the murder in his eyes as he charged at her. She was glad to be alive, but not to have killed him.
It was an odd mix of feelings. Shaking her head, she pulled the arrow from his chest and joined the others standing in a rough half circle beside the road. When everyone else had come back, she looked around and felt the weight of the moment settle upon her.
"Sergeants, I'm as new to this as the rest of them. Are there any special words to be spoken?"
"Whatever you want to say," Braknil replied with a shrug.
Beka raised the arrow in front of her. "May we all fight together with honor, mercy, and strength."
With that, she touched the arrowhead to her tongue and the coppery tang of the blood flooded her mouth. She wanted to grimace and spit, but she kept her face calm as she cleaned the arrowhead in the snow and dropped it back into her quiver.
"Honor, mercy, and strength!" echoed the others, doing the same with arrows and sword blades.
"I guess that's it. Now we've got supplies to deliver," she told them. "Anyone seen my horse?"
That evening Captain Myrhini's troop feasted on the first fresh meat they'd had in weeks and drank the health of Beka and her turma several times over.
When they'd finished and were settling in their tents for another cold night, Captain Myrhini drew Beka aside.
"I've been talking with some of Mercalle's riders," she said as they walked together past the campfires of the various turmae. "Sounds to me like you kept your head and took care of your people."
Beka shrugged. She'd been doing some thinking of her own. "It's a good thing. I made a mistake sending out two riders when three were already up on point. I don't think it was any accident that those ambushers jumped us when they did."
"Oh?" Myrhini raised an eyebrow. "What could you have done differently?"
"I was going to relieve Mercalle anyway. I should've ridden up alone and sent the other two back for their replacements."
"But that would have left your riders without an officer or sergeant."
"And the way I hear it, it was you who kept those green fighters from wasting all their arrows on the bushes, which the raiders were probably counting on. The fact is, it was me who made a mistake today."
Beka looked at her in surprise, but Myrhini motioned for her not to interrupt. "I assumed that because we were in neutral territory, it was safe to send a decuria out on its own. If you'd had the turma with you, those brigands would never have attacked. Of course, you were far too tactful and inexperienced to bring this to my attention when I gave you that order, weren't you?"
Beka couldn't quite read the officer's cryptic smile. "No, Captain, it just never occurred to me that we'd need any more people than that for a supply run."
"Then we were both in error," Myrhini said. "But learn and live, as a certain friend of ours always says. You did well, Lieutenant. Sergeant Mercalle thinks you've got the makings of a good fighter, by the way."
"Oh?" Beka asked, caught between pleasure at the veteran's appraisal and a certain pique that the sergeant had evidently not had the same confidence in her abilities before now. "What made her say that?"
"I think it was the way you were grinning as you fought," Myrhini answered. "At least, that's what she hears from those fighting beside you. Tell me, were you scared?"
Beka thought about that a moment. "Not really. Not during the fight, anyway."
"Sakor touched!" the captain exclaimed, shaking her head. But Beka thought she sounded pleased.