(Nightrunners - 03)
Sincerest thanks to all the folks who continue to keep me sane, fed, and free of crumbs. Believe me, it's a full-time job.
First and foremost, my husband and best buddy, Dr. Doug, past whom no chapter goes unmaimed. And he cooks! The Dynamic Duo—editor Anne Lesley Groell and agent Lucienne Diver—and to the good folks at Bantam Spectra and the Spectrum Literary Agency, who keep them sane, fed, and free of crumbs. The Usual Suspects—Darby Crouss, Laurie Hallman, Julie Friez, and Scott Burgess, and my family. Assorted new readers, Michele De France and NextWavers Devon Monk, James Hartley, Charlene Brusso, and Jason Tanner. Finally, kudos to our local swordsmith (and how many of you can say that?), Adam Williams, for his technical advice and general kibitzing, and to Gary Ruddell, for giving form to my inner visions.
Thank you all for your support, expertise, and in-flight feedback.
Additional gratitude for the Eagles reuniting just long enough to record their Hell Freezes Over CD. It got me through some weary days and nights, when "You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave" pretty much summed things up. But I got over it.
A Few Remarks from the Author
Ever since the first Nightrunner book came out back in 96, people have been asking if I'm writing a trilogy. It's an understandable assumption, given the genre, so I thought I'd seize this opportunity, here in the third book, to lay that question to rest once and for all.
This is not a trilogy.
This is not a trilogy.
This is not a trilogy.
And the first person who asks if it's a pentology gets a sterling silver fountain pen straight through the heart.
Okay, I wouldn't really do that. I love that pen.
I have nothing against trilogies, it just isn't what I've set out to do here. The Nightrunner series is exactly that: a series of interrelated tales about the lives and adventures of some characters I have a lot of fun with. There will be more books, as inspiration strikes.
So, do you need to read the opening duology, Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness, to understand this book?
Then again, I have two kids to put through college.
Yes, you absolutely need to read the first two books. So do all your friends and relatives.
1 DARK HOPES
The sleet-laden wind buffeted Magyana, whipping wet strands free from the wizard's thick white braid as she trudged across the churned ground of the battlefield. In the distance, the tents of her queen's sprawling encampment billowed and creaked along the riverbank, black specters on a dun plain. In the makeshift corrals, the horses huddled together, their backs to the wind. The unlucky soldiers on sentry duty did the same, their green tabards the only spots of color against this grim palette.
Magyana pulled her sodden cloak more closely around her. Never in all her three hundred and three years had she felt the cold so keenly. Perhaps faith had kept her warm before, she reflected sadly, faith in the comfortable rhythms of her life, and faith in Nysander, the wizard who'd been a part of her soul for two centuries. This damnable war had robbed her of both, and more. Nearly a third of the Oreska House wizards were dead, centuries of life and learning snatched away. Queen Idrilain's second consort and two younger sons had fallen in battle, together with dozens of nobles and countless common soldiers—sent by blade or disease down to Bilairy's gate.
Magyana's grief was mingled with resentment at the disruption of her orderly life. She was a wanderer, a scholar, a gatherer of wonders and tales. Only reluctantly had she taken Nysander's place at the aging queen's side.
My poor Nysander. She wiped a wind-smeared tear from her cheek. You would have relished all this, seen it as a great game to be won.
So here she was, winter-locked in the wilds of southern Mycena, a nation once more bathed in the blood of two bellicose neighbors. Plenimar stretched greedy talons westward toward Skala's borders and north to the fertile freeholdings along the Gold Road. This harsh second winter had slowed the fighting, but as the days now slowly lengthened toward spring, the queen's spies brought daily reports of the unthinkable; their Mycenian allies were considering surrender.
And no wonder, Magyana thought, reaching the outskirts of the camp at last. It had been just five days since the last battle. These ravaged fields where farmers had once cut sheaves of grain were sown now with a crueler crop: shredded banners, broken buckles, arrow heads overlooked by scavenging camp followers, and the occasional pitiful scrap of human remains, frozen too hard for even the ravens to peck out. It would yield a bitter spring harvest with the thaw, one she doubted any of them would be here to witness, now that things had gone so horribly wrong.
The Plenimarans had surprised them just before dawn. Throwing on her armor, Idrilain had rushed to rally her troops before Magyana could reach her. One side of the queen's corselet had been left unbuckled, and during the ensuing battle a Plenimaran arrow found the gap, piercing Idrilain's left lung. She survived the extraction, but the wound quickly festered. Plenimaran archers dipped their arrowheads in their own excrement before a battle.
Since then, a host of drysian healers had exerted their combined skills to keep her alive while the wound putrefied and fevers melted the flesh from her bones. It was agony, watching Idrilain fight this silent battle, but she refused to order her own release.
"Not yet. Not as things are," she'd groaned, clutching Magyana's hand as she panted and shook and laid her plans.
Reaching the queen's great pavilion, Magyana sent up a silent prayer. O Illior, Sakor, Astellus, and Dalna, now is the hour! Give our queen strength enough to see our ruse through.
A guard lifted the flap for her, and she stepped into the stifling heat beyond.
Huge tapestries suspended from the ridgepoles overhead enclosed the audience chamber, already crowded with officers and wizards gathered by the queen's summons. Magyana took her place to the left of the empty throne, then nodded to Thero, her protege and coconspirator, who stood nearby. He bowed, his calm, aesthetic face betraying nothing.
The tapestries behind the chair parted, and Idrilain entered leaning on the arm of her eldest son, Prince Korathan, and followed by her three daughters. All but plump Aralain were in uniform.
Idrilain took her seat and her heir, Phoria, placed the ancient Sword of Gherilain unsheathed across her mother's knees. Bold in war, wise in peace, Idrilain had wielded the ancient blade with honor for more than four decades. Now, unbeknownst to all but her closest advisers, she was too weak to lift it unaided.
Her thick grey hair fell smoothly over her shoulders beneath her golden circlet, hiding her thin neck. Soft leather gauntlets covered withered hands. Her wasted body was muffled in robes to hide the extent of her decline. The drysian's infusions blunted the pain enough not to tax her exhausted heart, but there were limits to even their powers. It took Thero's magic to limn the semblance of flesh and color in the queen's cheeks and lend false power to her voice. Only her pale blue eyes were unchanged, sharply alert as an osprey's.
The effect was flawless. The pity of it was that such deception must be practiced on Idrilain's own children.
The queen's two consorts had given her three children each, the two triads as different as the men who'd fathered them. The elder three—Princess Phoria, her twin Korathan, and their sister Aralain, were tall, fair, and solemn.
Klia, the youngest and sole survivor of the second three, had the same handsome features, chestnut hair, and ready wit as the father and two brothers for whom she still wore a black baldric. Of these six, it had always been the eldest and youngest girls whom the Oreska wizards watched most closely.
Skilled and fearless in battle, Phoria had risen through the ranks of the Queen's Horse Guard to High Commander of the Skalan Cavalry. Nearing fifty now, she was as renowned in military circles for her tactical innovations as she was at court for her blunt speech and ill-starred barrenness. While her merits as a warrior might have
been sufficient for the crown in her great-grandmother's day, times had changed and Magyana was not the only one to fear that Phoria lacked the vision to rule a nation touched by the intricacies of the wider world.
Just before his death Nysander had also hinted to Magyana of a breach between heir and queen, but was forestalled by some oath from revealing more.
"We are the oldest of the Oreska wizards now, my love. No one knows better than we how precariously the common good balances on the edge of Gherilain's Sword," he'd warned. "Keep close to the throne, and to all those who might one day sit upon it."
Magyana turned her attention back to Klia and felt a familiar surge of fondness. At twenty-five, she not only commanded a full squadron of Queen's Horse, but had demonstrated a talent for diplomacy, as well. It was no secret that a good many Skalans wished she was the firstborn.
Idrilain raised her hand and the assembly fell silent. "We will lose this war," she began, her voice a husky wheeze.
Magyana silently guided a stream of her own life force into the woman's ravaged body. The connection brought a backwash of pain, threading her veins with the dull crush of Idrilain's suffering and exhaustion. Magyana forced herself to breathe slowly, letting her mind rise above it and retain its focus. Across the room, Thero was doing the same.
"We will lose this war without Aurenen," Idrilain continued, sounding stronger. "We need the Aurenfaie's strength, and their wizards to turn the tide of Plenimaran necromancy. And if Mycena falls, we will need Aurenfaie trade, as well: horses, weapons, food."
"We've done well enough without the 'faie," Phoria retorted. "Plenimar hasn't managed to push us back from the Folcwine, for all their necromancers and abominations."
"But they will!" Idrilain croaked. An attendant offered her a goblet but she waved it away; no one must see the tremor in her hands. "Even if we manage to defeat them, we shall need the Aurenfaie after the war. We need their blood mingled with our own again."
She gestured imperiously for Magyana to continue.
"The power of wizardry came to our people by the mingling of our two races, human and Aurenfaie," Magyana began, reminding those who needed reminding of their own history. "It was the Aurenfaie who taught our first wizards the ways of Oreska magic." She turned to the Royal Kin. "You yourselves still carry the memory of
that blood, the legacy of Idrilain the First and her Aurenfaie consort, Corruth i Glamien. Since his murder and the closing of Aurenen's borders against us three centuries ago, few Aurenfaie have come to Skala and so their legacy dwindles among us. Fewer wizard-born children are presented at the Oreska House each year, and the abilities of the young ones are often limited. Because wizards cannot procreate, there is no remedy save a renewed commerce between our two lands.
"The Plenimaran's attack on the Oreska House cut down some of our best young wizards before the war had truly started. The fighting since has thinned our ranks still further. There are empty beds in the Oreska's apprentice hall now, and for the first time since the founding of the Third Oreska in Rhiminee, two of the House's towers stand empty."
"Wizardry is one of the foundations of Skalan power," Idrilain rasped. "We had no idea, before this war began, how strong necromancy had grown in Plenimar. If wizardry is lost to us when they are so clearly gaining strength, then in a few generations Skala will be lost!"
She paused, and Magyana again felt Thero's magic joining her own as she willed more strength into the queen's failing frame.
"Lord Torsin and I have been negotiating with the Aurenfaie for over a year," Idrilain went on. "He is there now, at Viresse, and sends word that the Iia'sidra has at last agreed to admit a small delegation to settle the matter."
Idrilain gestured at Klia. "You will go as my representative, daughter. You must secure their support. We will discuss the details later."
Klia looked grave as she bowed her acceptance, but Magyana detected a flash of joy in her blue eyes. Satisfied, the wizard quickly skimmed the minds of the others. Princess Aralain glowed with relief, anxious only to return to her own safe hearth. The rest were another matter.
Phoria's expression gave nothing away, but the jealousy that gripped her left the bitter taste of bile at the back of Magyana's throat.
Korathan was less subtle. "Klia?" he growled. "You'd send the youngest of us to a people who live four centuries? They'll laugh in her face! I, at least—"
"I do not doubt your abilities, my son," Idrilain assured him, cutting short his protest. "But I need you here to assume Phoria's command." She paused again, turning to her eldest daughter. "As you,
Phoria, must step into mine for a time. My healers are too slow with their cures. You are War Commander until I recover."
She grasped the Sword of Gherilain in both hands. On cue, Thero levitated the heavy blade, allowing Idrilain to pass it to her daughter.
Though Magyana had orchestrated this moment, she felt a chill of premonition. The sword had passed from mother to daughter since the days of Gherilain, the first of the long line of warrior queens, but only upon the mother's death.
"And Regent?" asked Korathan, rather too quickly for Magyana's taste.
Or for his mother's, it seemed. Idrilain glared at him. "I need no Regent."
Magyana saw a muscle jump in Korathan's jaw as he gave her a silent bow.
Are you so anxious for your sister's honor, or to see her on the throne? wondered Magyana, brushing the surface of his mind a second time. The Afran Oracle might prevent male heirs from ascending the throne, but it had never prevented one from ruling from behind it.
"I must speak privately with Klia," said Idrilain, dismissing the others.
Night had fallen and Magyana retreated into the shadows between two nearby tents, waiting for the rest of the assembly to disperse. Somewhere above the blanketing clouds, a full moon rode the sky; she could feel its uneasy pull as an ache behind her eyes.
When the way was clear, she slipped into Idrilain's tent again to find Klia bent anxiously over her mother, who lay slumped back in her chair, fighting for breath.
"Help her!" Klia begged.
"Thero, fetch the drysian," Magyana called softly.
The younger wizard emerged from behind an arras at the back of the tent, accompanied by the healer Akaris. The drysian held a steaming cup ready in one hand, his worn staff in the other.
"Get some of this into her," Akaris instructed, giving the cup to Thero, then touched the silver lemniscate symbol of Dalna hanging at his throat. He placed his hand on the queen's drooping head and a pale glow engulfed both of them for a few seconds. She went limp, but her breathing had eased.
Thero and Klia carried her to the cot at the back of the tent and tucked heated stones in among the blankets.
Idrilain opened her eyes and looked wearily up at the others. Thero offered the cup again, but after a few sips she turned her head away. "This must be settled quickly," she whispered.
"You have my word, Mother, but maybe Kor's right," Klia said, kneeling beside her. "I'll look like a child to the Aurenfaie."
"You'll soon teach them otherwise. Korathan was the only other choice, but he'd frighten them to death."
"I understand. I just don't know what I can do that Lord Torsin hasn't tried already. He knows the 'faie better than anyone in Skala."
"Not quite everyone," Idrilain murmured. "But Seregil would never go—not with Korathan—"
"Seregil?" Klia looked up at Magyana, alarmed. "Her mind's wandering! He's still under ban of exile. He can't go back."
"Yes, he can—at least for the duration of your visit," Magyana told her. "The Iia'sidra has agreed to his temporary return as your adviser. If he will go."
"You haven't asked him?"
"It's been nearly a year since he and Alec were last heard from," said Thero.
Magyana laid a hand on Klia's shoulder. "Fortunately, we know someone who can find them. Don't you think that red-haired captain of yours would welcome a journey back to Skala?"
"Beka Cavish?" Klia smiled slightly, understanding. "I believe she would."
Korathan and Aralain had accompanied Phoria back to her tent, where she sat silently over her wine, waiting for word from her spy.
Korathan paced restlessly, chewing on some thought he was not yet ready to share. Aralain huddled in a fur robe beside the brazier, nervously clasping and unclasping her soft, ineffectual hands.
Since childhood Phoria had despised Aralain's timidity and reliance on others. She'd have ignored her completely if Aralain had not been the only one who'd managed to produce an heir to the throne. Her eldest, Elani, was now a tractable girl of thirteen.
"I don't understand why you're so opposed to this plan of Mother's," Aralain said at last, arching her brows in that annoying way she had when she wanted to be taken seriously.
"Because it will fail," Phoria snapped. "The Aurenfaie insulted our honor with their Edict of Separation. Now we're giving them another opportunity, and at the worst possible time. When we most need to appear strong, we're seen running for help from those least
likely to give it. Their refusal will almost certainly cost us Mycena."
"But the necromancers—?"
Phoria gave a derisive snort. "I haven't met the necromancer yet that good Skalan steel can't deal with. We've grown too dependent on wizards. These past few years Mother's been ruled more and more by them—first Nysander, and now Magyana. Mark my words, this fool's gamble is her doing!"
Phoria was nearly shouting by the time she'd finished and was pleased to see Aralain properly cowed. Kor had stopped pacing, too, and was watching her warily. Womb mates they might be, but she never let him forget who held the power. Satisfied, she forced a thin smile and went back to her wine. A few minutes later, a soft scratching came at the tent flap.
"Come!" she called.
Captain Traneus stepped inside and saluted. The man was only twenty-four, considerably younger than most of her personal staff, but he'd proven remarkably close-mouthed, loyal, and eager for preferment—a most useful combination—and she'd groomed him as a second set of eyes and ears. In turn, he had amassed a useful cadre of informants.
"I kept watch as you ordered, General," he reported. "Magyana returned to the queen's tent under cover of darkness. I also heard the voices of two men inside: Thero and the drysian."
"Could you hear what was said?"
"Some of it, General. I fear the queen's health is worse than we've been led to believe. And Commander Klia is having doubts as to whether she is equal to the task the queen has set for her." He paused, shifting uncomfortably under Phoria's probing gaze.
"Was there something more?" she demanded curtly.
Traneus fixed his gaze somewhere on the tent wall behind her. "It was difficult to make out the queen's voice, General, yet from what I was able to hear, Idrilain believes the commander is the only one of her children capable of carrying out the mission."
Phoria's fingers clenched momentarily on the arms of her chair, but she schooled herself to patience. Much as the words rankled, she knew they would only strengthen her position with the others. Korathan's face had darkened. Aralain was studying her fingernails.
"The queen plans to send Lord Seregil with Klia," Traneus added. "Apparently Magyana knows where to find him and that young man of his."
"Mother's pet Aurenfaie brought back to heel, eh?" Phoria sneered.
"Don't be hateful," Aralain murmured. "He was always kind to us. If Mother didn't mind that he left when the war began, why should you? It's not as if he'd have been any use as a soldier."
"And good riddance!" Phoria muttered. "The man was a sensualist and a fop. He clung to rich young nobles like a tick to a dog's back. How much of your gold did he help spend, Kor?" He shrugged. "He was an amusing fellow, in his own peculiar way. I imagine he'll do well enough as an interpreter."
"Keep a close eye on my mother and her visitors, Captain," Phoria ordered.
Saluting, Traneus disappeared back into the night.
"Seregil?" Korathan mused. "I wonder what Lord Torsin thinks of that? He's more of your opinion, as I recall."
"I can't imagine Seregil's people will be in any hurry to welcome him back, either," Phoria agreed, dismissing the matter. "Now, as for this mission of Klia's, we'll want an observer of our own among the company."
"Your man Traneus?" suggested Aralain with her usual lack of imagination.
Phoria spared her a withering glance. "Or perhaps we should begin with someone Klia trusts, someone she'll speak openly around."
"And someone in a position to send dispatches," Korathan added.
"Who, then?" asked Aralain.
Phoria arched a knowing eyebrow. "Oh, I have one or two people in mind."
2 AN UNEXPECTED SUMMONS
Beka Cavish paced the ship's foredeck, scanning the western horizon for the first dark line marking Skala's northeast territories. It had been a week since they'd ridden out from Idrilain's camp; it might be another before they rejoined Klia for the voyage south and she didn't take well to inactivity. She plucked absently at the new gorget hanging at the throat of her green regimental tunic. The captain's brass seemed to sit more heavily against her chest than the plain steel crescent of lieutenant. She'd been perfectly content leading her turma and they'd made a name for themselves as raiders behind the enemy's lines: Urgazhi, "wolf demons" — bestowed on them by the enemy during the early days of the war. They wore the epithet as a badge of honor, but it had been dearly bought. Of the thirty riders under her command today, only half had come through those days and knew the truth behind the silly ballads sung across Skala and Mycena, knew where the fallen bodies of their comrades lay along the Plenimaran frontier.
The turma was at full strength now for the first time in months, thanks to this mission. Never mind that some of the newer recruits had only just lost their milk teeth, as Sergeant Braknil liked to say. Perhaps, Sakor willing,
they could be taught a thing or two before they all found themselves back in battle.
Less than a month before, Urgazhi Turma had been slogging through frozen Mycenian swamps, and even that was better than some fighting they'd seen.
Fighting across windswept sea ledges, the waves red with blood about their feet.
Beka leaned on the rail, watching a school of dolphins leaping ahead of the prow. The closer she came to seeing Seregil and Alec again, the more the memories of their last parting after the defeat of Duke Mardus rose to haunt her.
That brief battle had cost her father the use of his leg, Nysander his life, and Seregil his sanity for a time. Months later she'd had a letter from her father, saying that Seregil and Alec had quit Rhiminee for good. Now that she knew the reason, she wasn't so sure arriving with a decuria of riders was the best way to coax them home.
She gripped the rail, willing those thoughts away. She had work to do, work that for at least a little while was sending her back to those she loved best.
Two Gulls was barely large enough to merit the title of village. One poor inn, a ramshackle temple, and a dicer's throw of shacks clustered around a little dent of a harbor. Micum Cavish had spent a lifetime passing through such places, wandering on his own or on Watcher business with Seregil.
These past few years he'd stuck close to home, nursing his bad leg and watching his children grow. He'd enjoyed it, too, much to his wife's delight, but this journey had reminded him just how much he missed the open road. It was good to find out that he still knew instinctively where to show gold and where to guard his purse.
Five days earlier a mud-spattered messenger had ridden into the courtyard at Watermead, bearing news that the queen required his service and that of Seregil and Alec. It fell to him to talk his friends out of their self-imposed exile. The best news, however, had been that his eldest girl, Beka, was alive, whole, and on her way home from the war to act as his escort.
Within the hour, he was on the road with a sword at his side and pack on his back, heading for a village he'd never heard of until that day.
Just like old times.
Sitting here now on a bench in front of the nameless inn, hat brim
pulled down over his eyes, he considered the task ahead. Alec would listen to reason, but a whole troop of soldiers wouldn't be enough if Seregil dug his heels in.
"Sir, sir!" a reedy voice called. "Wake up, sir. Your ship's coming in!"
Micum pushed his hat back and watched with amusement as his excitable lookout, a lad of ten, came scampering up the muddy street. It was the third such announcement of the day.
"Are you sure it's the right one this time?" he asked, then winced as he stood. Even after a day's rest, the scarred muscles behind his right thigh ached more than he cared to admit. The wounds left on a man by a dyrmagnos went deep, even after the flesh healed.
"Look, sir. You can see the banner," the boy insisted. "Crossed swords under a crown on a green field, just like you said. There's Queen's Horse Guard aboard, all right."
Micum squinted out across the cove. A few years back, he wouldn't have had to.
Damn, I'm getting old!
The boy was right this time, though. Taking up his walking stick, Micum followed him down to the shore.
The ship dropped anchor in deep water and longboats were lowered. A small crowd had gathered already, chatting excitedly as they watched the soldiers row in.
Micum grinned again as he caught sight of a redheaded officer standing in the prow of the lead boat. Old eyes or not, he knew his Beka when he saw her. She spotted him, too, and let out a happy whoop that echoed across the water.
At a distance, it was easy to see the girl she'd been when she'd left home to join the regiment, all long legs and enthusiasm. From here, she looked too slight to bear the weight of chain mail and weapons, but he knew better. Beka had never been frail.
As the longboat drew closer, however, the illusion dissolved. A mix of authority and ease emanated from her as she shared some joke with a tall rider standing just behind her.
She has what she always wanted, he thought with a rush of bittersweet pride. Just shy of twenty-two, she was a battle-scarred officer in one of Skala's finest regiments, and one of the queen's most daring raiders.
It hadn't given her airs, it seemed. She was out of the boat before it ground up on the shingle.
"By the Flame, it's good to see you again!" she cried, throwing her arms around him, and for a moment it seemed that she wasn't going to let go. When she did finally step back, her eyes were bright
with unshed tears. "How are Mother and the children? Is Watermead just the same?»
"We're all just as you left us. I have letters for you. Illia's is four pages long," he said, noting new scars on her hands and arms. Freckles still peppered her face, but two years of hard fighting had sharpened her features, stripping away the last vestiges of childhood. "Captain is it?" he said, pointing at the new gorget.
"In name, at least. They gave me Wolf Squadron, then sent me and my turma home. You remember Sergeant Rhylin, don't you?"
"I always remember people who save my life," Micum said, shaking hands with the tall man.
"As I recall, it was as much the other way 'round," Rhylin replied. "You took on that dyrmagnos creature after Alec shot her. I don't think any of us would be standing here if you hadn't."
The comments drew curious stares from the bystanders and Micum quickly changed the subject.
"I only count one decuria here. Where are the other two?" he asked, waving a hand at the ten riders who'd come ashore with them. He recognized Corporal Nikides and a few of the other men and women, but most were strangers, and young.
"The rest sailed with Klia. We'll meet up with them later on," Beka told him. "This lot should be enough to get us safely where we need to go."
She glanced up at the afternoon sky, frowning slightly. "It'll take a while to ferry our horses in but I'd like to cover some ground before nightfall. Can we get a hot meal in this place before we go? One that doesn't include salted pork or dried cod?"
"I've had a word with the innkeeper," he replied, giving her a wink. "I think he can come up with dried pork or salted cod."
"So long as it's a change," Beka said, grinning. "How long will it take us to reach them?"
"Four days. Maybe three if this good weather holds."
Another look of impatience creased Beka's brow. "Three would be better." With a last restless glance at the ship, she followed him up to the inn.
"Whatever happened to that young man you wrote us of last year?" Micum asked. "That lieutenant what's-his-name? Your mother's beginning to get notions about him."
"Markis?" Beka shrugged, not looking at him. "He died."
Just like that? Micum thought sadly, sensing there was more to the story. Ah, well, war was a harsh business.
The weather held fair, but the roads grew worse the further north they went. By the second day, their horses were sinking to the fetlocks as they plodded along what passed for roads in this stretch of wilderness.
Easing his bad leg against the mud-caked stirrup, Micum scanned the jagged peaks in the distance and thought wistfully of home. Little Illia, just turned nine, had been picking daffodils in the pasture below the house the day Micum left. Here, in the shadow of the Nimra mountains, snow still lingered in dirty drifts beneath the pines.
Beka still hadn't explained the exact reason for their journey, and Micum respected her silence. They rode hard, making use of the lengthening days. At night, she and the others recounted battles, raids, and comrades lost. Lieutenant Markis was not mentioned around the campfire, so Micum made it his business to get Sergeant Rhylin aside one morning when they'd halted to water the horses.
"Ah, Markis." Rhylin glanced around, making certain Beka was out of earshot. "They were lovers all right, when they found the time. Cut from the same cloth, too, but his luck ran out last autumn. His turma ran into an ambush. Those who weren't killed in the fight were tortured to death." Rhylin's eyes got a pinched, distant look, as if he were squinting into harsh light. "A lot's made of what they do to our woman soldiers, but I tell you, Sir Micum, the men fare just as badly. We found the remains—Markis hadn't been among the lucky, if you take my meaning. The captain didn't speak for two days after that, didn't eat or sleep. It was Sergeant Mercalle who finally brought her out of it. Mercalle's buried more than her share of kin over the years, so I guess she knew what to say. Beka's been fine since, but she never speaks of him."
Micum sighed. "I don't imagine she likes to be reminded. And there's been no one since?»
"No one to speak of."
Micum had a good idea what that meant. Sometimes the body's needs overrode the heart's pain. Sometimes it was a way to heal.
The road finally grew drier as it wended up into the foothills. By early afternoon of the third day, Beka could see out over the tops of the trees behind them to the lowlands they'd traversed the day be-
fore. Somewhere beyond the southern horizon lay the Osiat coastline and the long isthmus that connected the peninsular country of Skala to her mainland territories. The rest of Urgazhi Turma were probably cooling their heels at Ardinlee by now.
"You're sure we'll reach them today?" she asked her father, riding beside her.
"The way you've driven us, we should get there before supper-time." He pointed out a notch in the hills a few miles ahead. "There's a village up there. Their cabin lies up a track just beyond."
"I hope they don't mind a crowd."
The sun was a few hours from the western horizon when they reached the little hamlet nestled in the cup of a valley. Sheep and cattle grazed the hillsides, and she could hear dogs barking in the distance.
"This is the place," said Micum, leading the way into town.
Villagers gawked at them as they rode into the muddy square. There were no temples or inns here, just a little shrine to the Four, festooned with faded offerings.
Just beyond the last cottage an enormous dead oak spread leafless branches against the sky. A trail wound up into the woods behind it. Following it for half a mile or so, they came out in a high meadow. A stream ran through it, and on the far side stood a small log house. A wolfskin was stretched to dry on one wall, and a spiky row of antlers of varying shapes and sizes decorated the roofline. In the kitchen garden near the door, a few speckled hens scratched among the dead leaves. A little way off, a byre sagged next to a corral. Half a dozen horses grazed there, and Beka recognized Alec's favorite mare, Patch, and two Aurenen horses. The chestnut stallion, Windrunner, had been her parents' gift to Alec during his first stay at Watermead. The black mare, Cynril, Seregil had raised from a colt.
"This is it?" she asked, surprised. It was peaceful. Rustic. Not at all the sort of place she associated with Seregil.
Micum grinned. "This is it."
The sound of an ax came from somewhere beyond the byre. Rising in the stirrups, she called out, "Hello at the house!"
The ax fell abruptly silent. An instant later Alec loped out from behind the byre, his fair, unkempt hair flying around his shoulders.
Rough living had left him as shaggy and gaunt as he'd been the first time they'd met. Gone was the citified finery he'd adopted in
Rhiminee; his tunic was as patched and stained as any stable boy's. He'd be nineteen in a few months' time, she realized with surprise. Half 'faie and beardless, he looked younger to those who didn't know him, and would for years. Seregil, who must be sixty now, had looked like a man of twenty for as long as she remembered.
"I believe he's glad to see us," her father noted.
"He better be!" Dismounting, Beka met Alec in a rough hug. He felt as thin as he looked, but there was hard muscle under the homespun.
"Yslanti bek kir!" he exclaimed happily. "Kratis nolieus i 'mrai? "
"You speak better Aurenfaie now than I do, Almost-Brother," she laughed. "I didn't understand a word of that after the greeting."
Alec stepped back, grinning at her. "Sorry. We've spoken almost nothing else all winter."
The beaten look he'd had back in Plenimar was gone; looking into those dark blue eyes, she read the signs of something her father had hinted at in his letter. She'd asked Alec once if he was in love with Seregil, and he'd been shocked by such a notion. It seemed the boy had finally figured things out. Somewhere in the back of her mind a tiny twinge of regret stirred, and she squelched it mercilessly.
Releasing her, Alec clasped hands with Micum, then cast a questioning look at the uniformed riders. "What's all this?"
"I have a message for Seregil," she told him.
"Must be quite a message!"
It is, she thought. One he's been waiting for since before I was born. "That's going to take some explaining. Where is he?"
"Hunting up on the ridge. He should be back by sunset."
"We'd better go find him. Time's running short."
Alec gave her a thoughtful look but didn't press. "I'll get my horse."
Mounted bareback on Patch, he led them up to the high ground above the meadow.
Beka found herself studying him again as they rode. "Even with your 'faie blood, I thought you'd be more changed," she said at last. "Do I look much different to you?"
"Yes," he replied with a hint of the same sadness she'd sensed in her father when they'd met at Two Gulls.
"What have you two been doing since I saw you last?"
Alec shrugged. "Wandered for a while. I thought we'd head for the war, offer our services to the queen, but for a long time he just wanted to get as far from Skala as possible. We found work along the way, singing, spying—" He tipped her a rakish wink. "Thieving a bit when things got thin. We ran into some trouble last summer and ended up back here."
"Will you ever go back to Rhiminee?" she asked, then wished she hadn't.
"I'd go," he said, and she caught a glimpse of that haunted look as he looked away. "But Seregil won't even talk about it. He still has nightmares about the Cockerel. So do I, but his are worse."
Beka hadn't witnessed the slaughter of the old innkeeper and her family, but she'd heard enough to turn her stomach. Beka had known Thryis since she was a child herself, playing barefoot in the garden with the granddaughter, Cilia. Cilia's father had taught her how to carve whistles from spring hazel branches.
These innocents had been among the first victims the night Duke Mardus and his men attacked the Oreska House. The attack at the Cockerel had been unnecessary, a vindictive blow struck by Mardus's necromancer, Vargul Ashnazai. He'd killed the family, captured Alec, and left the cruelly mutilated bodies for Seregil to find. In his grief, Seregil had set the place ablaze as a funeral pyre.
At the top of the ridge Alec reined in and whistled shrilly through his teeth. An answering call came from off to their left, and they followed it to a pond.
"It reminds me of the one below Watermead," she said.
"It does, doesn't it?" said Alec, smiling again. "We even have otters."
None of them saw Seregil until he stood up and waved. He'd been sitting on a log near the water's edge and his drab tunic and trousers blended with the colors around him.
"Micum? And Beka!" Feathers fluttered in all directions as he strode over to them, still clutching the wild goose he'd been plucking.
He was thin and weathered, too, but every bit as handsome as Beka remembered—perhaps more so, now that she saw him through a woman's eyes instead of a girl's. Though slender and not overly tall, he carried himself with a swordsman's grace that lent unconscious stature. His fine-featured Aurenfaie face was sun-browned, his large grey eyes warm with the humor she'd known from childhood. For the first time, however, it struck her how old those eyes looked in such a young face.
"Hello, Uncle!" she said, plucking a bit of down from his long brown hair.
He brushed more feathers from his clothes. "You picked a good time to come visiting. There've been geese on the pond and I finally managed to hit one."
"With an arrow or a rock?" Micum demanded with a laugh. Master swordsman that he was, Seregil had never been much of a hand with a bow.
Seregil gave him a crooked smirk. "An arrow, thank you very much. Alec's been paying me back for all the training I've put him through. I'm almost as good with a bow as he is with a lock pick."
"I hope I'm better than that, even out of practice," Alec muttered, giving Beka a playful nudge in the ribs. "Now will you tell us what brings you and a decuria of riders clear up here?"
"Soldiers?" Seregil raised an eyebrow, as if noticing for the first time that she was in uniform. "And you've been promoted, I see."
"I'm here on the Queen's business," she told him. "My riders know nothing of what I'm about to tell you, and I need to keep it that way for now." She pulled a sealed parchment from her tunic and handed it to him. "Commander Klia needs your help, Seregil. She's leading a delegation to Aurenen."
"Aurenen?" He stared down at the unopened document. "She knows that's impossible."
"Not anymore." Dismounting with practiced ease, Micum pulled his stick from the bedroll behind his saddle and limped over to his friend's side. "Idrilain squared things for you. Klia's in charge of the whole thing."
"There's no time to lose, either," Beka urged. "The war's going badly—Mycena could fall any day now."
"We get rumors, even here," Alec told her.
"Ah, but there's worse news than that," Beka went on. "The queen's been wounded and the Plenimarans are pushing their way west every day. Last we knew, they were halfway to Wyvern Dug. Idrilain's still in the field, but she's convinced that an alliance with Aurenen is our only hope."
"What does she need with me?" asked Seregil, handing the unread summons to Alec. "Torsin's dealt with the Iia'sidra for years without my help."
"Not like this," Beka replied. "Klia needs you as an additional adviser. Being Aurenfaie, you understand the nuances of both languages better than anyone, and you certainly know the Skalans."
"Given all that, I could end up with neither side trusting me. Besides which, my presence would be an affront to half the clans of Aurenen." He shook his head. "Idrilain actually got the lia'sidra to let me return?"
"Temporarily," Beka amended. "The queen pointed out that since you're kin to her through Lord Corruth, it would be an affront to Skala to exclude you. Apparently it was also made clear that it was you who solved the mystery of Corruth's disappearance."
"Alec and I," he corrected absently, clearly overwhelmed by this news. "She told them about that?"
Before Nysander's death he, Alec, and Micum had been part of the wizard's network of spies and informers, the Watchers. Even the queen had not known of their role in that until he and Alec had helped uncover a plot against her life. In the process, they'd discovered the mummified body of Corruth i Glamien, who'd been murdered by Lerans dissenters two centuries earlier.
"I don't suppose it hurt that your sister is a member of the lia'sidra now," said Micum. "Word is that the faction favoring open trade is stronger than ever."
"So you see, there's no problem with all that," Beka broke in impatiently. If she had her way, they'd be riding back down the mountain before sunset.
Her heart sank when Seregil merely stared down at his muddy boots and mumbled, "I'll have to give it some thought."
She was about to press him when Alec laid a hand on Seregil's shoulder and gave her a warning look. Clearly, some wounds hadn't healed.
"You say Idrilain is still in the field?" he asked. "How badly was she hurt?"
"I haven't seen her. Hardly anyone has, but my guess is it's worse than anyone is letting on. Phoria is War Commander now."
"Is she?" Seregil's tone was neutral, but she caught the odd look that passed between him and her father. The "Watcher look," her mother called it, resenting the secrets that lay between the two men.
"The Plenimarans have necromancers," Beka added. "I haven't met up with any yet, but those who have claim they're the strongest they've been since the Great War."
"Necromancers?" Alec's mouth tightened. "I suppose it was too much to hope that stopping Mardus would put an end to all that. You and your people are welcome to make camp in the meadow tonight."
"Thanks," said Micum. "Come on, Beka. Let's get your people settled."
It took her a moment to realize that Alec wanted time alone with Seregil.
"I expected him to be happy about going home, even if it is only for a little while," she mused, following her father down the trail. "He looked as if he'd received a sentence."
Micum sighed. "He did, a long time ago, and I guess it hasn't really been changed. I've always wanted to know the story behind what happened to him, but he never said a thing about it. Not even to Nysander, as far as I know."
A pair of otters was frisking on the far bank, but Alec doubted Seregil saw them, or that it was news of the war that had left him so pensive. Joining him at the water's edge, Alec waited.
When they'd finally become lovers, it had done much more than deepen their friendship. The Aurenfaie word for the bond between them was talimenios. Even Seregil couldn't fully interpret it, but by then there'd been no need for words.
For Alec, it was a unity of souls forged in spirit and flesh. Seregil had been able to read him like a tavern slate since the day they'd met; now his own intuition was such that at times he almost knew his friend's thoughts. As they stood here now, he could feel anger, fear, and longing radiating from Seregil in palpable waves.
"I told you a little about it once, didn't I?" Seregil asked at last.
"Only that you were tricked into committing some crime, and that you were exiled for it."
"And for once you didn't ask a hundred questions. I've always appreciated that. But now—"
"You want to go back," Alec said softly.
"There's more to it than that." Seregil folded his arms tightly across his chest.
Alec knew from long experience how difficult it was for Seregil to speak of his past. Even talimenios hadn't changed that, and he'd long since learned not to pry.
"I better finish plucking this goose," Seregil said at last. "Tonight, after the others are settled, I promise we'll talk. I just need time to take this all in."
Alec clasped Seregil's shoulder, then left him to his thoughts.
Alone at last, Seregil stared blindly across the water, feeling unwelcome memories rising like a storm tide.
the solid finality of the knife's bloody handle clenched in his fist — choking, suffocating in the darkness — angry faces, jeering —
Bowing his head, he pressed his hands over his face like an eyeless mask and sobbed.
3 OLD GHOSTS STIRRING
An early half-moon was already rising in the evening sky when Seregil returned. Beka's riders had set up camp and had cook fires going. He looked for familiar faces, wondering which decuria she'd brought, and was surprised at how few people he recognized.
"Nikides, isn't it?" he asked, approaching a small group gathered around the nearest fire.
"Lord Seregil! It's good to see you again," the young man exclaimed, clasping hands with him.
"Are you still with Sergeant Rhylin?"
"I'm here, my lord," Rhylin called, coming out of one of the little tents.
"Any idea what all this is about?" asked Seregil.
Rhylin shrugged. "We go where we're told, my lord. All I know is that we head back down toward Cirna from here, to meet up with the rest of the turma. The captain's waiting for you over at the cabin. Just so you know, she's in one hell of a hurry to move on."
"So I gathered, Sergeant. Rest well while you can."
Beka was sitting with Alec and Micum by the front door. Ignoring her expectant look, Seregil tossed Alec the goose and went to wash his hands in a basin by the rain barrel.
"Supper smells good," he noted, giving Micum a wink as he sniffed the pleasant aromas wafting from the open doorway. "Lucky for you Alec's the cook tonight, and not me."
"I thought you looked thin," Micum said with a chuckle as they went in.
"Not quite your Wheel Street villa, is it?" Beka remarked, gesturing around the cabin's single room.
Alec grinned. "Call it an exercise in austerity. The snow got so deep this past winter we had to cut a hole in the roof to get out. Still, it's better than a lot of places we've been."
The place was certainly a far cry from the comfortably cluttered rooms he and Seregil had shared at the Cockerel, or Seregil's fine Wheel Street villa. A low-slung bed took up nearly a quarter of the floor. A rickety table stood near it, with crates and stools serving as chairs. Shelves, hooks, and a few battered chests held their modest belongings. Squares of oiled parchment were nailed over the two tiny windows to keep out the drafts. In the stone fireplace a kettle bubbled on an iron hook over the flames.
"I looked in at Wheel Street last month," Micum remarked as they crowded around the table. "Old Runcer's been ailing, but he still manages to keep the place just as you left it. A grandson of his helps out around the place now."
Seregil shifted uncomfortably, guessing that his friend had meant the statement as more than a casual remark. The house was his last remaining tie in Rhiminee. Like Thryis, old Runcer had kept his master's secrets and covered his tracks, enabling Seregil to come and go as he pleased without arousing suspicion.
"Where does he say we've been all this time?" he asked.
"By last report, you were at Ivywell, watching over Sir Alec's interests and providing horses to the Skalan army," Micum said, giving Alec a wink. Ivywell was the fictitious Mycenian estate bequeathed to Alec by his bucolic and equally fictitious father. This obscure squire had supposedly made Lord Seregil of Rhiminee the guardian of his only son. Seregil and Micum had concocted both tale and title over wine one night to explain Alec's sudden appearance in Rhiminee. Given the insignificance of the title and locale, no one had ever questioned it.
"What's said of the Rhiminee Cat?" asked Seregil.
Micum chuckled. "After six months or so, rumors began to go round that he must be dead. You may be the only nightrunner ever mourned by nobility. I gather there was a significant lapse of intrigues among that class in the wake of your disappearance."
Here was one more reason not to return. Seregil's clandestine work as the Cat had made his fortune. His work as one of Nysander's Watchers had given him purpose, while the public role he'd played as foppish Lord Seregil, the only one left him now, had become increasingly burdensome.
"I suppose I should sell the place off, but I don't have the heart to put Runcer out. It's been more his home than mine. Perhaps I'll deed the house over to your Elsbet when she finishes her training at the temple. She'd keep him on."
Micum patted Seregil's hand. "It's a kind thought, but won't you be needing it again, one of these days?"
Seregil looked down at the big freckled hand covering his own and shook his head. "You know that's not going to happen."
"How is everyone out at Watermead?" Alec asked.
Micum sat back and tucked his hands under his belt. "Well enough, except for missing the pair of you."
"I've missed them, too," Seregil admitted. Watermead had been a second home to him, Kari and her three daughters a second family. They'd claimed Alec as one of their own from the first day the boy had set foot in their house.
"Elsbet's still in Rhiminee. She took sick in the plague that swept through last winter, but came through it whole," Micum went on. "Temple life suits her. She's thinking of becoming an initiate. Kari has her hands full with the two babes, but Illia's old enough to help now. It's a good thing, too. Ever since Gherin learned to walk he's been trying to keep up with his foster brother. That Luthas has the gift of mischief. Kari found them halfway down to the river one morning."
Seregil smiled. "Shades of things to come, I'd say, with you for a father."
They chatted on for a while, exchanging news and stories as if this were some casual visit. Presently, however, Seregil turned to Beka.
"I suppose you'd better tell me more. You say Klia's in charge of this delegation?"
"Yes. Urgazhi Turma's been assigned as her honor guard."
"But why Klia?" Alec asked. "She's the youngest."
"A cynical person might say that makes her the most expendable," Micum remarked.
"She or Korathan would be whom I'd choose, in any case," Seregil mused. "They're the smartest of the pack, they've proven
themselves in battle, and they carry themselves with authority. I assume Torsin will go, along with a wizard or two?"
"Lord Torsin is in Aurenen already. As for wizards, they're as hard to spare in the field as generals these days, so she's taking only Thero," Beka replied, and Seregil knew she was watching him for a reaction.
And with good reason, he thought. Thero had succeeded him as Nysander's pupil after Seregil had failed in that capacity. They'd disliked one another on sight and bickered like jealous brothers for years. Yet they'd ended up in each other's debt after Mardus had kidnapped Thero and Alec. From what Alec had told him afterward, they'd kept each other alive through a horrific journey, long enough for Alec to escape before the final battle on that lonely stretch of Plenimaran coast. Nysander's death had laid their rivalry to rest, yet each remained a living reminder to the other of what had been lost.
Seregil looked hopefully at Micum. "You're coming, aren't you?"
Micum studied a hangnail. "Not invited. I'm just here to convince you to go. You'll have to make do with Beka this time out."
"I see." Seregil pushed his dish aside. "Well, I'll give you my answer in the morning. Now, who's for a game of Sword and Coin? It's no fun playing with Alec anymore. He knows all my cheats."
For a time Seregil was able to lose himself in the simple enjoyment of the game, the pleasure made all the more precious by the knowledge that this moment of peace was a fleeting one.
He'd enjoyed their long respite. He often felt as if he'd stepped from his world into the one Alec had known before they'd met: a simpler life of hunting, wandering, and hard physical work. They'd found enough mischief to get into along the way to keep up their nightrunning skills, but mostly they'd done honest work.
And made love. Seregil smiled down at his cards, thinking how many times he and Alec had lain tangled together in countless inns, by countless fires under the stars, or on the bed Micum was currently using as a seat. Or on the soft spring grass beneath the oaks down by the stream, or in the sweet hay of fall, or in the pool on the ridge, and once, floundering half-dressed in deep new snow under a reckless waxing moon that had broken their sleep for three nights running. Come to think of it, there weren't too many spots around here where the urge hadn't overtaken them one time or another.
They'd come a long way from that first awkward kiss Alec had given him in Plenimar, but then, the boy had always been a fast learner.
"Those must be some good cards you're holding," said Micum, giving him a quizzical look. "Care to show us a few? It's your turn."
Seregil played a ten pip and Micum captured it, cackling triumphantly.
Seregil watched his old friend with a mix of sadness and affection. Micum had been about Beka's age when they first met—a tall, amiable wanderer who'd happily joined Seregil in his adventures, if not in his bed. Now silver hairs outnumbered the red in his friend's thick hair and mustache, and in the stubble on his cheeks.
Tirfaie, we call them: the short-lived ones. He watched Beka laughing with Alec, knowing he'd watch silver streak her wild red hair, too, while his was still dark. Or would, Sakor willing, if she survived the war.
He quickly kenneled that dark thought with the others baying somewhere in the back of his mind.
They burned two candles to stumps before Micum threw down his cards. "Well, I guess that's enough losing for one night. All that riding's finally caught up with me."
"I'd put you up in here, but—" Seregil began.
Micum dismissed his apology with a knowing look. "It's a clear night and we have good tents. See you in the morning."
Seregil watched from the doorway until Beka and Micum had disappeared among the tents, then turned to Alec, belly already tight with dread.
Alec sat idly shuffling the cards, and the flickering light of the fire made him look older than his years. "Now?" he asked, gentle but implacable.
Seregil sat down and rested his elbows on the table. "Of course I want to go back to Aurenen. But not this way. Nothing's been forgiven."
"Tell me everything, Seregil. This time I want it all."
All? Never that, tali.
Memories surged again like a dirty spring flood bursting its banks. What to pluck out first from the debris of his broken past?
"My father, Korit i Solun, was a very powerful man, one of the most influential members of the Iia'sidra." A dull ache gripped his heart as he pictured his father's face, so thin and stern, eyes cold as sea smoke. They hadn't been like that before his wife's death, or so Seregil had been told.
"My clan, the Bokthersa, is one of the oldest and most highly respected. Our fai'thast lies on the western border, close to the Zengati tribal lands."
" 'Fade as'?"
"Fai'thast. It means 'folk lands'; 'home. It's the territory each clan owns." Seregil spelled the word out for him, a comfortingly familiar ritual. They'd done it so often that they scarcely noticed the interruption. Only later did it strike him that of all the words he'd poured out in his native tongue over the past two years, that one had not been among them.
"The western clans always had more dealings with the Zengati— raids out of the mountains, pirates along the coast, that sort of thing," he continued. "But the Zengati are clannish, too, and some tribes are friendlier than others. The Bokthersa and a few other clans traded with some of them over the years; my grandfather, Solun i Meringil, wanted to go further and establish a treaty between our two countries. He passed the dream on to my father, who finally convinced the Iia'sidra to meet with a Zengati delegation to discuss possibilities. The gathering took place the summer I was twenty-two; by Aurenfaie reckoning that made me younger than you are now."
Alec nodded. There was no exact correlation between human and Aurenfaie ages. Some stages of life lasted longer than others, some less. Being only half 'faie himself, he was maturing more rapidly than an Aurenfaie would, yet he would probably live as long.
"Many Aurenfaie were against a treaty," Seregil went on. "For time out of mind the Zengati have raided our shores—taking slaves, burning towns. Every house along the southern coast has a few battle trophies. It's a testament to the influence of our clan that my father got as far with his plan as he did.
"The gathering took place beside a river on the western edge of our fai'thast, and at least half the clans there had come to make sure he failed. For some, it was hatred of the Zengati, but there were others, like the Viresse and Ra'basi, who disliked the prospect of western clans allying with the Zengati. Looking back now, I suppose it was a justifiable concern.
"You recall me saying that Aurenen has no king or queen? Each clan is governed by a khirnari—"
" 'And the khirnari of the eleven principal clans form the Iia'sidra Council, which acts as a meeting place for the making of alliances and the settling of grievances and feuds, " Alec finished, rattling it off like a lesson.
Seregil chuckled; you seldom had to teach him anything twice, especially if it had to do with Aurenen. "My father was the khirnari for Bokthersa, just as my sister Adzriel is now. The khirnari of all the principal clans and many of the lesser ones came together with the Zengati. The tents covered acres, a whole town sprung up like a patch of summer mushrooms." He smiled wistfully, remembering kinder days. "Entire families came, as if it were a festival. The adults went off and growled at each other all day, but for the rest of us, it was fun."
He rose to pour fresh wine, then stood by the hearth, swirling the untasted contents of his cup. The closer he came to the heart of the story, the harder it was to tell.
"I don't suppose I've ever said much about my childhood?" "Not a lot," Alec allowed, and Seregil sensed the lingering resentment behind the bland words. "I know that, like me, you never knew your mother. You once let slip that you have three sisters besides Adzriel. Let's see: Shalar, Mydri, and—who's the youngest?" "Ilina."
"Ilina, yes, and that Adzriel raised you." "Well, she did her best. I was rather wild as a boy." Alec smirked. "I'd be more surprised to hear that you weren't." "Really?" Seregil was grateful or this brief, bantering respite. "Still, it didn't much please my father. In fact, I don't remember much about me that did, except my skill at music and swordplay, and those weren't enough most days. By the time I'm speaking of, I mostly just stayed out of his way.
"This gathering threw us back together again, and at first I did my best to behave. Then I met a young man named Ilar." Just speaking the name made his chest tighten. "Ilar i Sontir. He was a Chyptaulos, one of the eastern clans my father hoped to sway to our side. My father was delighted—at first.
"Ilar was …" The next part came hard. Just speaking the man's name aloud brought him back like a summoned spirit. "He was handsome, impetuous, and always had plenty of time to go hunting or swimming with my friends and me. He was nearly man grown, and we were all terribly flattered by his attention. I was his favorite from the start, and after a few weeks the two of us began to go off on our own whenever we could."
He took a long sip from his cup and saw that his hand was trembling. For years he'd buried these memories, but with a single telling the old feelings surfaced, raw as they'd been that long ago summer.
"I'd had a few flirtations—friends, girl cousins, and the like—but nothing like this. I suppose you could say he seduced me, though as I recall it didn't take much effort on his part."
"You loved him."
"No!" Seregil snapped, as memories of silken lips and callused hands against his skin taunted him. "No, not love. I was passion-blind, though. Adzriel and my friends tried to warn me about him, but by then I was so infatuated I'd have done anything for him. And in the end, I did.
"Ironically, Ilar was the first to recognize and encourage my less noble talents. Even untrained, I had clever hands and a knack for skulking. He'd devise little challenges to test me—innocent at first, then less so. I lived for his praise." He glanced guiltily at Alec. "Rather like you and me, back when we first met. It's one of the things that made me keep you at arm's length for so long; the fear of corrupting you the way he did me."
Alec shook his head. "It was different with us. Go on, finish this and be done with it. What happened?"
Older than his years, Seregil thought again. "Very well, then. One of my father's most vociferous opponents was Nazien i Hari, khirnari of Haman clan. Ilar convinced me that certain papers in Nazien's tent would aid my father's cause, that I alone had the skill to sneak in and 'borrow' them." He grimaced, disgusted at the green fool he'd been. "So I went. Everyone else was off at some ritual that night, but one of Nazien's kinsmen came back and caught me at it. It was dark; he must not have seen that it was a boy he was drawing his dagger against. There was just enough light for me to see the flash of his blade and the angry glint in his eyes. Terrified, I drew my own and struck out. I didn't mean to kill him, but I did." He let out a bitter laugh. "I don't suppose even Ilar expected that when he sent the Haman back."
"He wanted you to be caught?"
"Oh, yes; that's what all his attentiveness had been leading to. The 'faie seldom stoop to murder, Alec, or even to outright violence. It all comes down to atui, our code of honor. Atui and clan are everything—they define the individual, the family." He shook his head sadly. "Ilar and his fellow conspirators—there were several, as it turned out—had only to manipulate me into betraying the atui of my clan to accomplish their end, which was the disruption of the negotiations. Well, they certainly got that! What followed was all very dramatic and tawdry, given my reputation and my all-too-obvious
relationship with Ilar. I was found guilty of complicity in the plot, and of murder. Did I ever tell you what the penalty is for murder among my people?"
"It's an ancient custom called dwai sholo."
"Yes. Punishment is the responsibility of the criminal's clan. The wronged clan claims teth'sag against the family of the guilty person. If that clan breaks atui and does not carry out their duty, the wronged family can declare a feud and any killing that follows is not considered murder until honor is restored.
"Anyway, for dwai sholo, the guilty person is shut up in a tiny cell in the house of their own khirnari and every day they are offered two bowls of food. One bowl is poisoned, the other not. The condemned can choose one or refuse both, day after day. If you survive a year and a day, it's considered a sign from Aura and you're set free. Few manage it."
"But they didn't do that to you."
"No." — the choking heat, the darkness, the words that flayed —
Seregil gripped the cup. "I was exiled instead."
"What about the others?"
"The small cell and two bowls, as far as I know. All except for Ilar. He escaped the night I was caught. And he'd accomplished his purpose. The Haman used the scandal to wreck the negotiations. Everything my family and others had worked decades to accomplish was swept aside in less than a week's time. The whole plot had hinged on duping the son of Korit i Solun into betraying the clan's honor. And you know what?»
His voice was suddenly husky, so husky that he had to take another gulp of wine before he could finish. "The worst of it wasn't the killing or the shame, or even the exile. It was the fact that people I should have trusted had tried to warn me, but I was too vain and headstrong to listen." He looked away, unable to bear Alec's look of sympathy. "So there you have it, my shameful past. Nysander was the only other person I ever told."
"And this happened over forty years ago?"
"By Aurenfaie reckoning, it's still last season's news."
"Has your father ever forgiven you?"
"He died years ago, and no, he never forgave me. Neither did my sisters except for Adzriel—did I mention that Shalar was in love with a Haman? I doubt very many of my clan who've borne the burden of the shame I brought on our name will be in any hurry to welcome me back, either."
Talked out, Seregil knocked back the last of his wine as images from that final day in Viresse harbor flashed unbidden through his mind: his father's furious silence, Adzriel's tears, the scathing jeers and catcalls that had propelled him up the gangplank of a foreign ship. He hadn't wept then and he didn't now, but the crushing sense of remorse was as fresh as ever.
Alec waited quietly, hands clasped on the table in front of him. Stranded in silence by the fire, Seregil suddenly found himself aching for the reassuring touch of those strong, deft fingers.
"So, will you go?" Alec asked again.
"Yes." He'd known the answer since Beka had first told him of the journey. Framing the question he hadn't yet dared to ask, Seregil forced himself across the bit of floor that separated them and extended a hand to Alec. "Are you coming with me? It may not be very pleasant, being the talimenios of an exile. I don't even have a proper name there."
Alec took his outstretched hand, squeezing it almost to the point of pain. "Remember what happened the last time you tried to go off without me?"
Seregil's relieved laugh startled them both. "Remember? I think I've still got some of the bruises!" Tightening his own grip, he pulled Alec out of his chair and onto the bed. "Here, I'll show you."
Seregil's sudden demand for lovemaking surprised Alec less than the wildness of what followed. Anger lurked just beneath his lover's frenzied passion, anger not meant for him, but that still left a scattering of small bruises across his skin to be discovered by tomorrow's sun.
Alec didn't need the heightened senses of the talimenios bond to tell him that Seregil was trying to somehow burn all memory of that hated first lover from his own skin, or that it hadn't worked.
Locked sweaty and breathless in Seregil's arms afterward, Alec listened as the other man's ragged breathing slowed to normal and for the first time felt empty and uneasy instead of sated and safe. A black gulf of silence separated them even as they lay heart against heart. It frightened him, but he didn't pull away.
"What became of Ilar? Was he ever found?" he whispered at last.
"I don't know."
Alec touched Seregil's cheek, expecting to find tears. It was dry. "Once, just after we met, Micum told me that you never forgive betrayal," he said softly. "Later, Nysander told me the same. They both believed it was because of what happened to you in Aurenen. It was him, wasn't it? Ilar?"
Seregil took Alec's hand and pressed the palm to his lips, then moved it to his bare chest, letting him feel the quick, heavy beat of his heart. When he spoke at last, his voice was thin with grief.
"To give someone your love and trust—I hate him for that! For robbing me of innocence too early. Spoiled and silly and willful as I was, I'd never had to hate anyone before. But it taught me things, too: what love and trust and honor really are, and that you can never take them for granted."
"I suppose if we ever met I'd have to thank him for that, at least—" Alec murmured, then froze as Seregil's hand suddenly tightened around his.
"You wouldn't have time, tali, before I cut his throat."
4 NEW JOURNEYS
Seregil found Beka alone by the corral the next morning. "When does this expedition of yours leave for Aurenen?" "Soon." She turned and gave him an appraising look. Damn, she looked like her father. "Does that mean you're coming?"
"Thank the Flame! We're to meet Commander Klia in a little fishing town below the Cirna Canal, by the fifteenth of the month."
"What route is she taking to Aurenen?"
"I don't know. The less information she gives out ahead of time, the less there'll be for Plenimaran spies to pick up."
"If we push, we can be in Ardinlee in three days. How soon can you be ready?"
"Mmmm, I don't know." He looked around the place as if taking stock of some vast holding. "Is a couple of hours soon enough?"
"If that's the best you can do."
Watching her stride briskly off toward the tents, he decided she had a good deal of her mother in her, too.
Alec slipped his black-handled dagger into his boot and settled his sword belt more comfortably against his left hip. "Don't forget this." Seregil took their tool
rolls from a high shelf and tossed Alec's over to him. "With any luck, we'll be needing them."
Alec unrolled the black leather case and checked the slender implements stored in its stitched pockets: lock picks, wires, limewood shims, and a small lightstone mounted on a knurled wooden handle. Seregil had made everything; these weren't the sort of tools you found in the marketplace.
Satisfied, Alec slipped it inside his coat, where it lay against his ribs with a comfortably familiar weight. That left only his bow, some clothes, a bedroll, and a few personal effects to pack. He'd never had much in the way of belongings; as Seregil was fond of saying, the only things of real value were those you could take away with you in a hurry. That suited Alec and made packing a simple matter.
Seregil had finished with his own gear and was looking rather wistfully around the room. "This was a good place."
Coming up behind him, Alec wrapped an arm around his waist and rested his chin on Seregil's shoulder. "A very good place," he agreed. "But if it hadn't been this moving us on, there would have been something else."
"I suppose so. Still, we're spoiled with privacy," Seregil said, pressing back against him with a lewd grin. "Just wait until we're trapped aboard some ship, cheek by jowl with Beka's soldiers. You'll wish we were back here and so will I."
"Hey in there, are you ready yet?" Beka demanded, appearing suddenly in the doorway. Seeing them together, however, she halted uncertainly.
Alec jumped back, too, blushing.
"Yes, we're ready, Captain," Seregil told her, adding under his breath, "What did I tell you?"
"Good." Beka covered her own embarrassment brusquely. "What about all this?" She gestured around the little room. Except for their clothes and gear, the cabin looked much as it had last night. The fire was banked, and clean dishes lay drying on a shelf by the window.
Seregil shrugged and headed for the door. "It'll be of use to someone."
"He's still not wearing a sword?" Beka asked Alec when Seregil was gone.
"Not since Nysander's death."
She nodded sadly. "It's a shame, a great swordsman like that."
"There's no point in arguing with him," Alec said, and Beka guessed from his tone that this was a battle he'd lost with Seregil more than once.
They set off at midmorning, following the road south.
Despite Seregil's misgivings, it felt good to be riding with Micum again. Every so often the two of them would find themselves out ahead of the others, and for a while it was like old times: the two of them off on a mission for Nysander, or pursuing some harebrained quest of their own for the sheer hell of it.
But then the sun would strike silvery glints in his old friend's hair, or he'd catch sight of Micum's crippled leg, stiff in the stirrup, and Seregil's exhilaration evaporated again into a twinge of guilty sadness.
Micum's was not the first generation he'd outlive, but it didn't get any easier with experience. In Skala, among these Tir he loved, only the wizards endured, and even they could be killed.
Now and then he caught Micum watching him with a bemused expression that suggested he was having similar thoughts, but he seemed to accept the situation. It was Seregil who'd quietly drop back to find Alec, like a cold man seeking a fire.
The roads grew drier as they turned west the next day, and the rolling plains were already thick with crocus and yellowstar. Trusting the clear nights, they rode long and slept rough, letting the horses forage as they went.
Except for the number of troops they met, Seregil found it hard to imagine the terrible war that was being waged on land and sea. Talking with Beka's riders soon brought the reality of the situation home to him, however. He recognized only four of Rhylin's ten riders: Syra, Tealah, Tare, and Corporal Nikides, who'd aged into a man since they'd met, as well as acquiring a jagged white scar down his right cheek. The other six were new to the turma, replacements for those who'd fallen in battle.
"Well, Beka, I always knew you'd amount to something," Seregil said as the group sat around the fire their second night on the road. "Right hand to Commander Klia? That's a mark of real favor."
"It gets them out of harm's way for a bit, too," Micum added.
Beka shrugged noncommittally. "We've earned it."
"We've lost a lot of people since you last saw us, my lord," Sergeant Rhylin remarked, stretching the day's stiffness from his
legs. "You recall the two men who were planked? Gilly lost a hand and went home, but Mirn healed up fine; he and Steb are in Braknil's decuria now."
"We lost Jareel at Steerwide Ford a day after we got back," Nikides put in. "And remember Kaylah? She died scouting an enemy camp."
"She had a lover in the turma, didn't she?" asked Alec, and Seregil smiled to himself.
Alec had been more taken with the idea of soldiering than he'd ever let on and had formed quite a bond with Beka's riders in the short time they'd known one another in Rhiminee, and later during the dark days in Plenimar.
Nikides nodded. "Zir. He took it hard, but you have to go on, don't you? He's Mercalle's corporal now."
"Sergeant Mercalle?" Seregil looked up in surprise. Mercalle was an experienced old soldier, one of the sergeants who'd helped train Beka and then requested the honor of serving with her when she was given a command. "I thought you lost her in the first battle of the war?"
"So did we," replied Beka. "She went down under her horse and broke both arms and a leg, along with a few ribs. But she tracked us down again before the snow flew that fall, ready to fight."
"We were lucky to get her back," said Corporal Nikides, "She fought with Phoria herself in their younger days."
"She and Braknil have seen us through some dark days," Beka added. "By the Flame, their lessons have saved us a time or two!"
Never one to waste valuable time, Seregil spent much of the journey drilling Alec and anyone else who cared to listen on the clans of Aurenen: their emblems, customs, and most importantly, their affiliations. Alec took in the information with all his usual quickness.
"Only eleven principal clans?" he'd scoffed when someone else complained at the complexities of Aurenfaie politics. "Compared to dealing with Skalan nobility, that's no worse than your mother's market list."
"Don't be too certain," warned Seregil. "Sometimes those eleven feel more like eleven hundred."
Beka and the others also saw to it that Alec brushed up his swordplay. He was soon bruised but happy to be reclaiming his hard-won skills.
Seregil pointedly ignored the hopeful glances they cast in his direction during these sessions.
They met with columns of soldiers more frequently as they neared the coast and from them learned that Plenimaran ships now controlled much of the Inner Sea's northeastern waters, and that raids on eastern Skalan were increasing. Skala still held crucial control of the isthmus and canal, but the pressure was mounting.
News of the land battles was more encouraging. According to an infantry captain they met just north of Cirna, Skalan troops held the Mycenian coastline as far west as Keston, and had pushed east to the Folcwine River. As Seregil had long ago predicted, however, the Plenimaran Overlord had extended his influence into the northlands and was gradually seizing control of the trade routes there.
"Have they taken Kerry?" Alec asked, thinking of his home village in the Ironheart Mountains.
"Don't know Kerry," the captain replied, "but I've heard rumors that Wolde's gone over to them."
"That's bad," Seregil muttered.
Wolde was an important link in the Gold Road, the caravan route between Skala and the north. If the Plenimarans captured the north's iron, wool, gold, and timber at their source, it wouldn't matter if Skala held the Folcwine; there'd be no more goods coming downriver.
They reached the isthmus on the third day and crossed the echoing chasm of the great Cirna Canal. Following the Queen's Highroad west, they came in sight of the little village of Ardinlee just before sunset.
Micum reined in to take his leave where the road branched and Seregil felt again that gulf of change and distance.
Beka leaned over to hug her father. "Give my love to Mother and the others."
"I will." Turning to Alec and Seregil, he grinned ruefully. "Since I can't come with you, I'll just have to trust you three to keep each other out of trouble down there. I hear the 'faie are persnickety about foreigners."
"I'll keep that in mind," Seregil replied dryly.
With a final wave, Micum turned his horse south and galloped away.
Seregil remained for a moment, watching his old companion disappear into the evening's dusty haze.
Klia was camped at a prosperous estate just south of the village. Riding through a vineyard, they found Sergeant Mercalle on guard at the front door of the house. She saluted Beka smartly as they rode up, then gave Alec a welcoming wink. Despite her injuries she stood as straight at fifty as the young soldiers on duty beside her.
"Well met, my lords," she greeted them as they dismounted. "I haven't seen you since that fancy send-off you gave us back in Rhiminee."
Seregil grinned. "I remember the early part of the evening, but not much later on."
"Ah, yes." She feigned disapproval. "Thanks to you, most of my riders were carrying sore heads the next morning. Tell me, Sir Alec, do you recall the blessing you gave us when we were all pissed as newts?"
"Now that you mention it, I do seem to remember standing on a table, saying something pretentious as I poured wine on people."
"I wish you'd gotten a few more drops of it on me. It might have saved me a few broken bones," Mercalle said, rubbing her left arm. "Of those you splashed, only one's been killed. The rest are all still with us. You're a luckbringer, and no mistake."
Seregil nodded. "I've always thought so."
They found Klia in a library on the first floor, poring over reports and charts with several uniformed aides.
"Tell him we can't wait for his shipment," she was saying when Seregil entered with Alec and Beka. "There'll be dispatch ships every few days. He can send it along with one of them."
Seregil studied her profile as he waited for her to finish. Klia had always looked more the commander than the princess, but war had left its mark on her all the same. Her uniform hung loosely on her slender frame, and faint worry lines bracketed her mouth when she frowned. A new sword scar cut across the tiny faded burn marks that peppered one cheek.
When she looked up at last and smiled, however, he saw that a little of the girl he'd known lived on in her bright blue eyes.
"So you talked them into it, Captain?" she said to Beka. "Well done. We sail the day after tomorrow. Any trouble on the road?"
Beka gave her a crisp salute. "Just a sore ear from traveling with Seregil, Commander."
Klia chuckled. "I don't doubt it. I expect you want to see your sergeants, eh? You're dismissed."
Saluting again, Beka and the aides withdrew.
Klia watched Beka go, then turned to Seregil. "I'm in your debt for wrangling that commission for her. She's saved my life more than once."
"I hear her turma spends more time behind the enemy than they do in front of them."
"That's what comes of growing up under your influence, and her father's." Klia came around the table to clasp hands with them. "I was afraid you wouldn't come."
"Beka made it clear that the queen had gone to some trouble to smooth my way with the Iia'sidra," Seregil replied. "Under the circumstances, it would've been most ungrateful of me to ignore your request."
"And for that I thank you," she replied with a knowing look. Loyal kinsman he might be, but as an Aurenfaie, exile or not, he was not hers to command. "By the Flame, it's good to see you both! I take it you mean to come with us, Alec?"
"If you'll have me."
"I will, and gladly." She waved them to seats near the window and poured wine. "Aside from my respect for your talents, it may prove favorable to have a second 'faie in my entourage."
Seregil noted Alec's quiet flicker of amusement; Klia had never mentioned his 'faie heritage before.
"Who else is going? Is Captain Myrhini with you?" he asked.
"She's Commander Myrhini now, promoted to take my place in the field," Klia replied with poorly concealed regret. "As for an entourage, it will be a small one. We've done our best to keep word of our journey from getting out, since we're still not sure what Plenimar's intentions are regarding Zengat. The last thing we need is them stirring up trouble for Aurenen just when we want the Iia'sidra's full attention.
"Lord Torsin is already there. Urgazhi Turma will be my honor guard and household; Beka will serve as aide-de-camp. I suppose she's told you that There's coming as my field wizard?"
Like Beka, she stole a quick glance at him as she said this; she'd spent enough of her girlhood underfoot at the Oreska House to know of the famous rivalry.
Seregil sighed inwardly. "A good choice. May I ask how you settled on him?"
"Ostensibly, because the more experienced wizards are needed in the field."
"And the real reason?"
Klia picked up an ornate map weight and tapped it absently against her palm. "You don't walk among swordsmen without a sword, but if your blade is too big, they're insulted and mistrust you. If it's too small, they scorn you. The trick is to find the right balance."
"And if you can make a large sword look smaller and less threatening, then so much the better? Nysander always claimed he was remarkable. A year with Magyana will only have enhanced his talents—perhaps even his personality."
Alec shot him a warning look, but Klia smiled.
"He's an odd duck, I admit, but I'll feel safer having him along. We're facing a great deal of opposition, not the least of which is the fact that there are plenty of Aurenfaie who don't want us going anywhere except Viresse."
"You mean that's not where we're going?" Seregil asked, surprised. No Tirfaie had been allowed to land anywhere except the eastern port since Aurenen had closed its borders.
"There's not much choice," Klia told him. "You can practically walk across the Strait of Bal on the decks of enemy ships these days. We're to land at Gedre. Do you know the place?"
"Very well." The name was tinged with bittersweet memories. "So we're to meet the Iia'sidra there?"
Klia's smile intensified. "No, over the mountains, at Sarikali."
"Sarikali?" Alec gaped. "I never thought I'd see Aurenen, much less Sarikali!"
"I could say the same," Seregil murmured, fighting to retain his composure as a wave of conflicting emotions raged through him.
"There is one more thing you ought to know," she warned. "Lord Torsin has opposed including you."
The words took a moment to register. "Why?"
"He believes your presence will complicate negotiations with some of the clans."
Seregil let out a derisive snort. "Of course it will! Which means
the queen must have some very pressing reason for sending me against the advice of her most experienced envoy."
"Yes." Klia turned the map weight over in her hands. "As envoy to Aurenen, Lord Torsin has served my family faithfully for three decades. There's never been any question as to his loyalty or wisdom. However, in all that time, outsiders have never been allowed beyond the city of Viresse, which means he's more familiar with that clan and their allies in the east. It would be—understandable if his long association with certain khirnari might unconsciously predispose him in their favor. The queen and I believe your westerner's point of view will prove a very valuable balance."
"Perhaps," Seregil said doubtfully. "But as an exile, I have no connections, no influence."
"Exile or not, you're still Aurenfaie, still the brother of a khirnari. As for influence—" She gave him a knowing look. "You know better than most in how many directions that can work. You'll certainly be seen as having my ear. I'm betting that some Aurenfaie will see you as a sympathetic conduit. Alec, too, for that matter."
This was familiar ground. "We'll do what we can, of course."
"Besides which," Klia continued earnestly, "there's no one else in all Skala I'd rather have at my back than the pair of you if things get complicated. I'm not asking you to spy on them, but you do have a talent for ferreting out information."
"Why do you think they're letting you come there, after all these years?" asked Alec.
"Self-interest, I suppose. The prospect of Plenimar controlling Mycena and perhaps striking a bargain with Zengat to the west has made at least some of them reexamine their alliegences."
"Has there been more news of the Zengat situation?" asked Seregil.
"Nothing certain, but there are enough rumors flying around to make the Iia'sidra nervous."
"It should. The world's a smaller place than it once was; it's time they realized that. So, what is it that Idrilain wants?»
"Ideally? Wizards, fresh troops, horses, and open trade. The northlands and Viresse are already all but lost to us and it's likely to get worse. At the very least, we need Gedre as an open port. The establishment of an armorers' colony at the outer Ashek iron mines would be even better."
Seregil ran a hand back through his hair. "By the Light, unless things have changed significantly from what I remember, we've got
a hard task ahead of us. The Viresse will oppose anything that threatens their monopoly on Skalan trade, and everyone else will be horrified at the thought of a Skalan colony on Aurenfaie soil."
Flexing her shoulders wearily, Klia returned to the paper-strewn table. "Diplomacy is a lot like horse trading, my friends. You have to set your price high so they can beat you down to what you really want and still believe they got the best of the bargain.
"But I've kept you long enough and Thero is anxious to see you. A room's been made ready for you upstairs. By the way, I took the liberty of asking your manservant in Wheel Street to send down some necessities. Beka said you two had been living rough up there in your hideaway." She took in their plain, mud-spattered clothing with a comic grimace. "I see now she rather understated the situation."
Sarikali. The Heart of the Jewel.
Alec repeated the magical name silently as he and Seregil climbed the stairs. He'd listened carefully to all Klia had said, but that one detail, and Seregil's shocked reaction, had captured his imagination.
They'd spoken of Sarikali only once that Alec could recall. "It's magical ground, Alec, the most sacred of all," Seregil had told him in the depths of a long winter night. "An empty city older than the 'faie themselves; the living heart of Aurenen. Legend says that the sun pierced the heart of the first dragon with a golden spear, and that the eleven drops of blood which fell from its breast as it flew over Aurenen created the 'faie. Some of the stories say that Aura took pity on the dying dragon and placed it in a deep sleep beneath the city until it heals and wakens again."
Alec had all but forgotten the tale, but now a hundred images sprang up before his mind's eye, like the first 'faie from the blood in the legend.
They found Thero at work at a small desk in the first bedchamber at the top of the stairs. Of all of them, the wizard had changed the most. The scruffy black beard was gone, and his curly hair was pulled back in a short queue. His thin face had filled out a bit, and he'd lost his bookish pallor. His customary reserve was still in place, but a hint of warmth in his pale green eyes made his gaunt features somewhat less imposing. He'd even shed his immaculate robes in favor of the simple traveling garb Nysander had always favored.
It suits him, Alec thought. He'd seen glimpses of this side of the man during the dark days of their captivity in Plenimar and was glad that Magyana had found a way to cultivate it. Perhaps the sense of compassion Nysander had always hoped would balance There's great potential was finally emerging.
Seregil was the first to clasp hands with him. The two stood a moment, regarding each other without speaking. The rivalry that divided them for so many years had died with Nysander; what would fill that void remained to be seen.
"You've prospered," Seregil said at last.
"Magyana's a remarkable mentor. And the war—" There shrugged expressively. "Well, it's been a harsh but efficient training ground." Turning to Alec, he smiled. "I ride like a soldier now, if you can imagine that. I've even lost my seasickness."
"That's a lucky thing, crossing the Osiat this time of year."
"Klia said you've brought more information regarding my return?" asked Seregil.
"Yes." There's smile faltered. "The Iia'sidra has laid down certain conditions."
"As you know, the ban of exile has not been lifted," Thero replied with a briskness that undoubtedly masked discomfort. "You're being allowed a special dispensation at the queen's request."
"I understand that." Seregil sat down on the edge of the bed, hands clasped around one up-drawn knee. "What's it to be then? Branding me on the cheek, or just a placard around my neck reading, 'Traitor'?"
"No one's branding him!" Alec exclaimed, alarmed.
"I'm joking, tali. All right, Thero, lay out the terms."
The wizard clearly took no pleasure in his task. "Your name is still forfeit; you'll be known as Seregil of Rhiminee. You're forbidden to wear Aurenfaie clothing or any other clan marks, including the sen'gai."
"Fair enough," said Seregil, but Alec saw a muscle tighten in his jaw. The sen'gai, a traditional Aurenfaie head cloth, was an integral part of Aurenfaie identity. Its color, patterns, and how it was wrapped denoted both clan and status.
"You are banned from all temples, and from participating in any religious ceremony," Thero went on. "You will be accepted as a voice of council on behalf of Skala but have none of the common rights of a 'faie. Finally, you are not allowed outside Sarikali except to accompany the Skalan delegation. You will lodge with them, and
carry no weapons. Violate any of these and teth'sag will be declared against you."
"Is that all? No public flogging?"
Thero leaned forward with a look of genuine concern. "Come now, what did you expect?"
Seregil shook his head. "Nothing. I expect nothing. What does Idrilain think of all this?"
"I'm not certain. These details arrived after I'd left her in Mycena."
"Then you have seen her since she was wounded?" Seregil pressed.
Thero wove a spell in the air before continuing. The change was so subtle that at first Alec couldn't figure out what had happened. An instant later, he realized he could no longer hear sounds from outside the room.
"Between us as Watchers, I can tell you that we need to accomplish the queen's purpose as quickly as possible."
"Idrilain is dying, isn't she?" asked Seregil.
Thero nodded grimly. "It's only a matter of time. Tell me, what's your impression of Phoria?"
"You've seen more of her than I have this past year."
"She's opposed to our course of action."
"How could she be?" asked Alec. "If Klia's right, Skala isn't strong enough to defeat Plenimar."
"Phoria refuses to accept that. Prince Korathan and a number of generals support her view, refusing to admit that magic is as important a weapon as bows or swords. No doubt you've heard about the Plenimaran necromancers?" The wizard's mouth set in a hard line. "I've faced them in the field. The queen is quite correct, but Magyana's convinced that Phoria will abandon the plan as soon as her mother dies. That's why she sent Klia rather than Korathan. He's an honorable man, but loyal to his sister."
"Phoria's been in the middle of things from the start," mused Seregil. "How could she not understand what she's up against?"
"At first the necromancers didn't seem much of a threat. Their numbers have grown, along with their power."
"Just imagine if they had the Helm," Alec said.
A chill seemed to pass over the room as the three men recalled the glimpse they'd had of the power embodied by the Helm of Seriamaius.
"Nysander didn't die in vain," Thero said softly. "But even without the Helm, the necromancers are strong and without mercy. Phoria and her supporters simply haven't seen enough of them to believe yet. I fear it may take a tragedy to sway her."
"Stubbornness can be a dangerous trait in a general."
Thero sighed. "Or a queen."
So, they are coming, and not by way of your city, Khirnari," said Raghar Ashnazai, turning his wine cup idly on the polished surface of the balcony table.
The gaunt Plenimaran's nails were smooth and clean, Ulan i Sathil noted, watching his guest from his place by the balustrade; this was a Tirfaie whose tools were words. Three centuries of trade with such men had taught Ulan to be wary.
"Yes, Lord Torsin left to meet them yesterday," he replied, turning his attention to the harbor spread out below the balcony. Silently he counted the foreign vessels moored there—more than two dozen today in spite of the war. How empty the harbor would be without them.
"If the Bokthersa and their allies have their way, your great marketplace will not be so full of northern traders," the Plenimaran envoy went on, as if reading his thoughts.
He wasn't, of course; Ulan would have sensed any magic and countered it with his own. No, this man's power lay in astuteness and patience, not magic.
"It's true, Lord Raghar," he replied. His old knees ached badly today, but standing allowed him to look down at the Plenimaran, a position worth the discomfort. "It would be a great blow to my clan and our allies if
the present routes of trade were changed. Just as it might be a serious blow to your country if Aurenen joined forces with the Skalans."
"Then our concerns are similar, if not our interests."
Ulan acknowledged the truth of this, glad that he had not underestimated whom he was dealing with; as khirnari of Viresse, he'd dealt with five Tirfaie generations from the Three Lands and beyond. The Ashnazai were one of the oldest and most influential families in Plenimar.
"And yet I am curious," he countered, keeping his voice neutral. "There are rumors suggesting that Plenimar needs no assistance from anyone in their war against the Skalans—something to do with necromancy, I believe?"
"You surprise me, Khirnari. The practice of necromancy was outlawed centuries ago."
Ulan shrugged graciously. "Here in Viresse we take a more pragmatic view of such things. Magic is magic, no? I'm sure your cousin, Vargul Ashnazai, would say the same. Or would have, had he not already given his life in the service of your Overlord's half-brother, the late Duke Mardus."
This time Raghar's surprise was genuine. "You are well informed, Khirnari."
"I think you will find most of the eastern clans are." Ulan smiled, his silver-grey eyes narrowing like an eagle's. "Your country has very long arms; we know better than to underestimate such a neighbor."
"And the Skalans?"
"As allies, they would pose a different sort of threat."
"Far beyond a threat to Viresse's port monopoly, I think. Bokthersa clan's blood ties to the Skalan throne, for instance?"
Ah, yes, very astute indeed. "You have a better grasp of Aurenfaie politics than most, Raghar Ashnazai. Most outsiders think of us as a single, united land ruled by the Iia'sidra in place of a queen or overlord."
"Overlord Estmar understands that the eastern and western clans have different concerns. And that clans such as Bokthersa and Bry'kha are looked on by many as troublemakers, too ready to mix with foreigners."
"The same has been said of the Viresse. But there is a difference. The Bokthersans are fond of foreigners, while we in Viresse…" He paused and looked directly at the Plenimaran for the first time, letting a hint of his power travel along the thread of their gaze. "We merely consider you—useful."
"Then we are of similar minds, Khirnari." Ashnazai smiled coldly through his beard as he pulled a sealed document tube from his sleeve and laid it on the table. "According to my sources, Queen Idrilain is dying, though few outside the royal circle know of it. I do not think she will live long enough for Klia to complete her mission."
Ulan eyed the tube. "I understand Phoria is a worthy successor."
The envoy tapped the tube meaningfully with a ringed finger and smiled again. "So one might think, Khirnari, and yet there are certain rumors suggesting a rift between her and the queen. Rumors that even now my people in Skala are allowing to seep out into certain well-placed ears. Even without this information, there are some Skalans who do not welcome the idea of a barren queen. There are few enough rightful heirs as it is. Just the second sister, Aralain, and her daughter. And Klia, of course."
"That would seem sufficient," remarked Ulan.
"In time of peace, perhaps, but in war? So much death and uncertainty. Let us hope for Skala's sake that their four gods guard these women lovingly, eh?"
"I pray Aura may watch over their lives," Ulan retorted, turning away to hide his revulsion; how easily these Tir turned to the expediency of assassination and outright murder. The brevity of their lives seemed to engender a brutal impatience abhorrent to the Aurenfaie mind.
"I am grateful as always for your information and support," he went on, still gazing out over the harbor. His harbor.
"You honor me with your trust, Khirnari."
Ulan heard the scrape of the chair and the rustle of a cloak. When he turned at last, Ashnazai was gone, but the sealed tube still lay on the table.
Avoiding the chair the Plenimaran had occupied, Ulan eased painfully into the one opposite and stretched his aching legs. At last he opened the tube and shook out its contents: three parchments. One was a Plenimaran affidavit of sorts signed by someone named Urvay. The other two were Skalan court documents apparently having to do with the treasury. Each bore the signatures of Princess Phoria and the late Skalan Vicegerent, Lord Barien. One of these also carried the Queen's Seal.
Ulan read them all carefully, then again. When he'd finished he set them down with a sigh, wishing not for the first time that it was Skala or Mycena lying so close across the Strait of Bal, rather than Plenimar.
That night Ulan sat again on the balcony, this time entertaining three other members of the Iia'sidra. The meal had been cleared away and the wine poured. As was the custom, they sat in silence for a while, watching the waning moon climb the canopy of stars. Two of Ulan's guests were there at his invitation. The third had surprised them all with her unexpected arrival.
A fragrant breeze fluttered the ends of their sen'gai against their faces and lifted Lhaar a Iriel's thin silver hair, revealing the tracery of Khatme clan marks on her wizened neck behind her heavy jeweled earrings.
Her arrival that afternoon was a mixed blessing. Because of her, Raghar Ashnazai's scrolls remained tucked away out of sight in Ulan's study. The fact that the Khatme khirnari would travel so far to meet with him might be interpreted by some as a sign of support, yet who could guess what any of that strange clan was thinking behind their painted eyes and elaborate tattoos?
The others were a different matter. Elos i Orian, khirnari of nearby Golinil, was husband to Ulan's daughter. Malleable, and transparent as water, Elos understood how intertwined the interests of the Golinil were with those of Viresse.
Old Galmyn i Nemius, who'd come east from Lhapnos bearing messages of support from his own clan and the Haman, was another matter. The interests of those two clans were more complex, and more obscure, yet they had both voted against the impending delegation from Skala. What would have happened, Ulan wondered, if the Skalans had not insisted on bringing the Bokthersan exile, Seregil i Korit, with them? No matter, really. It would work to his favor at Sarikali.
"We meet under a propitious moon," Elos i Orian observed cheerfully.
Lhaar a Iriel spared him a cold glance. "The same moon shines on all. As I recall, it was under Aura's Bow that the vote went against you at the Iia'sidra."
"Only that the delegation could come, nothing more," Galmyn i Nemius reminded her tersely. No doubt his thoughts echoed Ulan's: "Went against you," she'd said, not "us." What is the woman doing here?
"Just fifty years ago the Skalans would have been given a flat refusal," Elos observed. "Now we agree to parley with them—and at Sarikali! That most certainly means something."
"Perhaps that the western clans are gaining influence," Ulan said. "Their interests are not necessarily compatible with our own."
"One might say the same of Lhapnos and Viresse," Galmyn i Nemius put in dryly. "Yet here I am."
"Lhapnos stands with the Haman, and the Haman stand against Bokthersa and the other border clans. There's no mystery there," Lhaar a Iriel stated bluntly.
Ulan smiled. "I enjoy plain speech among friends. Perhaps you would explain where Khatme stands?"
"In the mind of Aura, as always. The Khatme have no love for Tirfaie of any sort, but the Skalans honor Aura, under the name of Illior. Although they blaspheme by placing the Lightbearer with other gods, their wizards are descendants of our own Oreska and continue to thrive. It presents us with a great quandary, one which neither the Lightbearer nor the dragons have yet clarified to our priests."
Galmyn i Nemius arched one greying brow. "In other words, you still have a leg on either side of the stile."
The clan marks on Lhaar a Iriel's face seemed to subtly rearrange themselves as she turned to him. "That is not at all what I said, Khirnari."
The Lhapnosan's self-important smile died on his lips. For a long moment the others found it more comfortable to return their attention to the moon.
"Who can we be sure of, then?" asked Elos.
"Besides ourselves and Haman, with due respect to you, Lhaar, I think we may also depend on the Ra'basi," replied Ulan. "The Akhendi remain uncertain, but have more to gain from supporting open borders. A few others must be swayed."
"Indeed," the Lhapnosan murmured. "And who better than you to sway them?"
6 LEAVING HOME, GOING HOME
The following day was filled with final preparations for Klia's voyage. A steady stream of baggage carts and dispatch riders raised clouds of dust along the vineyard road all morning.
Alec went with Seregil and Klia down to the shipyard to inspect the three vessels anchored there. Dressed in plain riding clothes and mounted on scrub horses, they passed unnoticed through the waterfront crowds and onto a long quay where a high-prowed carrack was moored. Sailors swarmed over her like ants on a sweetmeat, wielding ropes and tools.
"This is the Zyria. She's a beauty, isn't she?" Klia said, leading them aboard. "And those two out there are our escorts, the Wolf and the Courser?
"They're huge!" Alec exclaimed.
Over a hundred feet long, each ship was easily twice as large as any he'd been on. Their aft castles rose like houses in the stern. The rudders behind were as high as an inn. Square-rigged with two masts and a bowsprit to carry the red sails, their bulwarks were lined with shields bearing the flame and crescent moon crest of Skala. These shields were bright with new paint and gilt work that did not quite hide the scars of recent battles.
The captain, a tall, white-haired man
named Farren, met them on deck wearing a naval tunic stained with pitch and salt.
"How goes the loading?" Klia asked, looking around with approval.
"Right on schedule, Commander," he replied, consulting a tally board at his belt. "The hold ramp for the horses needs a bit of work, but we'll have her ready for you by midnight."
"Each ship will carry a decuria of cavalry and their horses," Klia explained to Alec. "The soldiers will double as ship's archers if the need arises."
"Looks like you're prepared for the worst," Seregil remarked, peering into a large crate.
"What are those?" asked Alec. Inside were what looked like large pickle crocks sealed with wax.
"Benshal Fire," the captain told him. "As the name implies, it was the Plenimarans who discovered how to make it years ago. It's a nasty mix: black oil, pitch, sulfur, nitre, and the like. Launched from a ballista, it ignites on impact and sticks to whatever it hits. It burns even in water."
"I've seen it," Seregil said. "You have to use sand or vinegar to douse it."
"Or piss," added Farren. "Which is what those barrels under the aft platform are for. Nothing goes to waste in the Skalan navy. But we won't be looking for battle this time out, will we, Commander?"
Klia grinned. "We won't, but I can't vouch for the Plenimarans."
Excitement left a hollow void in Alec's belly as he and Seregil joined the others for a final supper in Skala that night. They were dressed once more as Skalan nobility and Klia arched an appreciative eyebrow. "You two look better than I do."
Seregil made her a courtly bow and sat down beside Thero. "Runcer's shown his usual foresight."
Opening their trunks the night before, they'd found the best of the garments they'd worn in Rhiminee: fine wool and velvet coats, soft linen, gleaming boots, doeskin breeches smooth as a maid's throat. Alec's coats were a bit tight through the shoulders now, but there was no time for tailoring.
"Will you be meeting the 'faie as Princess Klia or Commander Klia when we arrive in Gedre?" asked Alec, seeing that Klia was still in uniform.
"It's gowns and gloves for me once we get there, I'm afraid."
"Any news from Lord Torsin?" asked Beka, noting a stack of dispatches at Klia's elbow.
"Nothing new. Khatme and Lhapnos are as insular as ever, although he thinks he senses a hint of interest among the Haman. Silmai support is still strong. Datsia seems to be turning in our favor."
"What about the Viresse?" asked Thero.
Klia spread her hands. "Ulan i Sathil continues to hint that they and their allies in the east would just as soon trade with Plenimar as Skala."
"With the Plenimaran Overlord openly supporting the resurgence of necromancy?" Seregil shook his head. "They suffered more at the hands of the Plenimarans during the Great War than any other clan."
"The Viresse are pragmatists at heart, I fear." Klia turned to Alec. "How does it feel, knowing we set sail at dawn for the land of your ancestors?"
Alec toyed with a bit of bread. "It's hard to describe, my lady. Growing up, I didn't know I had any 'faie in me at all. It's still hard to comprehend. Besides, my mother was Hazadrielfaie. Any Aurenfaie I meet in the south will be distant relatives at best. I don't even know what clans my people came from."
"Perhaps the rhui'auros could divine something of your lineage," suggested Thero. "Couldn't they, Seregil?"
"It's worth looking into," Seregil replied with no great enthusiasm.
"Who are they?" asked Alec.
Thero shot Seregil a look of pure disbelief. "You never told him of, the rhui'auros?"
"Apparently not. I was only a child when I left, so I hadn't had much to do with them."
Alec tensed, wondering if anyone else noticed the edge of anger in his friend's voice. Here were more secrets.
"By the Light, they're the—the—" Thero waved a hand, at a loss for words and too caught up in his own enthusiasm to notice the cool reception he was getting from the one person among them who might have direct knowledge. "They stand at the very source of magic! Nysander and Magyana both spoke of them with reverence, Alec, a sect of wizard priests who live at Sarikali. The rhui'auros are similar to the oracles of Illior, aren't they, Seregil?"
"Mad, you mean?" Seregil looked down at the food he was not eating. "I'd say that's a fair assessment."
"What if they tell me I'm related to one of the unfriendly clans?" Alec asked, trying to draw Thero's attention.
The wizard paused. "That could create difficulties, I suppose."
"Indeed," mused Klia. "Perhaps you should be circumspect in your inquiries."
"I always am," Alec replied with a smile only a few at the table fully understood. "But how could the rhui'auros tell who my ancestors were?"
"They practice a very special sort of magic," Thero explained. "Only the rhui'auros are allowed to travel the inner roads of the soul."
"Like the truth knowers of the Oreska?"
"The Aurenfaie don't have that magic, exactly," Seregil interjected. "You'd do well to keep that in mind, Thero. The punishment for invading another's thoughts is severe."
"My skills in that direction are not particularly strong. As I was saying, the rhui'auros believe they can trace a person's khi, the soul thread that connects us all to Illior."
"Aura," Seregil corrected.
"Being a full half 'faie, Alec, yours should be strong," said Beka, following the conversation with interest.
"I'm not sure that makes any difference," said Thero. "I'm generations away from my 'faie ancestors, yet my abilities are equal to those of Nysander and the other old ones."
"Yes, but you're one of the few younger ones left who possess such power," Seregil. reminded him.
"If all wizards have some Aurenfaie blood, do they know which clans they're related to?" asked Beka.
"Sometimes," said Thero. "Magyana's father was an Aurenfaie trader who settled in Cirna. My line goes back to the Second Oreska at Ero, with generations of intermarried mixed-bloods. Nysander's teacher, Arkoniel, was from the same line.
"Speaking of rhui'auros, Seregil, have you thought of visiting them yourself? Perhaps they could discover why you have such trouble with magic. You've got the ability, if only you could master it."
"I've managed well enough without it."
Was it his imagination, Alec wondered, or had Seregil actually gone a bit pale?
7 STRIPED SAILS AND FIRE
By dawn, the Zyria and her escorts were already well out to sea. Much to Alec's disappointment, Beka had sailed aboard the Wolf with Mercalle's decuria. He could see her striding around the deck, red hair shining in the sun. They exchanged shouted greetings, but the distance and rushing sea made conversation difficult.
Thero accompanied Klia on their ship, and although Alec was happy to renew their acquaintance, he soon began to suspect that the wizard had changed less than he'd originally thought. Thero was less abrupt, to be sure, but still a bit distant—a cold fish, as Seregil liked to say. Forced together in close quarters, he and Seregil were soon sparring again, if not quite so bitterly as before.
When Alec remarked on this, Seregil merely shrugged. "What did you expect, for him to somehow turn into Nysander? We are who we are."
They followed the coastline all day, sailing a few miles outside the scattered islands that edged the western shore.
Standing at the rail, Alec scanned the distant sea cliffs and thought of his first journey here aboard the Grampus, when Seregil
lay dying in the hold. The steep land between cliff and mountains showed the first green of spring, and from here it all looked peaceful—except for the red sails like their own that began to appear with greater frequency the further south they traveled.
Alec was at the rail again when they passed the mouth of Rhiminee harbor later that day. Gazing longingly at the distant city, he could make out scores of vessels at anchor on both sides of the moles. Beyond them, atop her towering grey cliffs, the upper city glowed like gold in the slanting afternoon light. The glass domes of the Oreska House and its four towers gave back a burning glare like points of flame, leaving black spots in front of his eyes when he looked away. Blinking, he searched the deck for Seregil and found him leaning against the aft castle wall, arms folded across his chest as he gazed up at the city he'd forsaken. Alec took a hesitant step in his direction, but Seregil walked away.
As Rhiminee slowly slipped from sight behind them, the three ships struck south east across the Osiat with a fresh following wind. A growing air of tension hung over the three vessels as sailors and soldiers alike kept watch for striped Plenimaran sails. As darkness fell, however, conversation grew freer. A waning moon rose above them, spangling the waves with silver.
Seregil and Torsin retired to the bow with Klia to discuss negotiation tactics. Left to their own devices, Alec and Thero paced the deck. They could make out the dark shapes of the escort ships sailing abreast of the Zyria a few hundred feet to either side. It was a calm night, and voices carried easily across the water. Some unseen musician aboard the Courser struck up a tune on a lute.
Braknil and his riders had gathered around the hatchway lantern on the foredeck. Spying Alec and the wizard, the old sergeant waved them over.
"That'll be young Urien strumming away," he said, listening to the distant music.
When the song ended, someone aboard the Wolf answered with the first verse of a popular ballad.
A pretty young maid strolled down the shore, with naught but her
shadow beside her. Over in the bushes hid the farmer's lad and lustfully he eyed her.
One-eyed Steb produced a wooden flute, and his comrades bawled the melody across the water.
Steb's lover, Mini, gave Alec a playful jab with his elbow. "You too good to sing with us tonight? You're the closest thing to a bard here."
Alec made him an exaggerated bow and took up the next verse:
"Oh, come with me, my sweet pretty maid," the farmer's lad
said he. "I'll make you my wife and keep you for life if only you'll lie
Mirn and young Minal hoisted Alec onto a hatch cover and helped lead the interminable randy verses. Thero hung back by the rail, but Alec could see the wizard's lips moving. When the song was done, cheers and catcalls echoed from the other ships.
"Well now, isn't this a hard life?" Sergeant Braknil chuckled, lighting his pipe. "We're like a bunch of nobles off on a pleasure voyage."
"I don't suppose it'll be much harder once we get to Aurenen," a veteran named Ariani agreed. "As honor guard, we're just along for show."
"You've got that right, girl. After a few weeks of standing about on guard duty, we'll be happy enough to get back to the fighting. Still, it's something to be the first to see Aurenen after all these years. Lord Seregil must've told you something of it, Alec?"
"He says it's a green place, warmer than Skala. There was a song he sang—"
Alec couldn't recall the tune, but some of the words had stayed with him. " 'My love is wrapped in a cloak of flowing green, and wears the moon for a crown. And all around has chains of flowing silver. Her mirrors reflect the sky. There's more to it, all very sad."
"Magic is more common there, as well," Thero added with mock severity. "You'd all better mind your manners; the 'pretty young maids' might answer an insult with more than clever words."
A few of the riders exchanged worried looks at this.
"A strange land with strange folk in it," Braknil mused around his pipe stem. "As I hear it, they're handy with their swords and bows, too. But you only have to look at Lord Seregil to see the truth in that. Or did, anyway. And perhaps it's what makes you such a fine archer, eh, Alec?"
"More like having an empty belly if I didn't shoot true."
Someone brought out dice, and Alec joined in a friendly game. The
soldiers were a gregarious lot and even managed to pull Thero into the circle despite his initial reticence. There was much joking about the wisdom of dicing with a wizard, but Thero managed to allay their worries by losing every toss. Eventually people began to wander off to find their beds for the night—some alone, some in pairs.
Alec felt a pang of envy as Steb slipped an arm around Mirn on their way below. Seregil had been distracted by other concerns lately, and the lack of privacy here hadn't helped matters. Stretching out on the hatch cover, he resigned himself to a few more days of abstinence.
To his surprise, Thero joined him. Crossing his arms behind his head, the wizard hummed a few bars of the song, then said, "I've been watching Seregil. He seems apprehensive about returning to Aurenen."
"There are plenty of folks who won't welcome him."
"I felt the same, going back to the Oreska House that day we all returned from Plenimar," Thero said softly. "Nysander saw to it that my name was cleared before he left that last time, but there'll always be doubts in some people's minds as to how much my—" He paused, as if the words were as distasteful as the memory. "How much my affair with Ylinestra had to do with the attack on the Oreska House that night. Even I'll never be certain."
"Better to look forward than back, I guess."
"I suppose so."
They fell silent again, two young men gazing into the infinite mystery of the night sky.
The next few days passed quietly enough. Too quietly, in fact. Bored and at loose ends, Alec found himself missing their lost solitude, just as Seregil had predicted.
Quarters belowdecks were too close for Seregil's taste, the air too pungent with the smell of oil and horses. Curtained alcoves had been hastily knocked together for the passengers of rank, but these afforded little more than the illusion of privacy. Taking advantage of the fair weather, he and Alec claimed a sheltered section of deck beneath the overhang of the forward castle. It was comfortable enough there—for sleeping.
Not one to stand on rank, Klia lolled about with the rest of them, sharing tales of the war.
"I don't suppose you two would consider joining the Horse Guard?" she asked, giving Seregil and Alec a pointed look as they
sat in the shade of the sail with There and Braknil. "Men with your talents are in short supply these days. I could use you."
"I never expected it to last this long," Alec said.
"Something's changed since the new Overlord took over," Klia said, shaking her head. "His father kept the treaties."
"This one's been fed on tales of lost glories," Braknil said around the stem of his pipe.
"By his uncle Mardus, no doubt," Seregil agreed. "Still, it was bound to happen."
"What makes you say that?" asked Thero.
He shrugged. "Peace follows war. War follows peace. Necromancy is suppressed, only to grow in secret, until it bursts like a boil. Some things are eternal, like the pattern of the tides."
"Then you don't think a lasting peace can ever be achieved?"
"It depends on your point of view. This war will end, and maybe there'll be peace through Klia's lifetime, perhaps even that of her children. But wizards and Aurenfaie live long enough to see that sooner or later it all starts again—the same old pull and haul of greed, need, power, and pride."
"It's like a great wheel, always turning, or the changes of the moon," mused Braknil. "No matter what things look like today, change is always coming, for good or ill. When I was a lad, new to the regiment, my old sergeant used to ask us if we'd rather live a short time in peace or a long time in war."
"What did you say?" asked Seregil.
"Well now, as I recall I always wanted more choices than that. Thank the Flame, I think I got 'em. But it's true what you said, though I often forget it. You and these two young fellows will see more turns of that wheel than any of us. Someday when you look in the mirror and see as much grey in your hair as I've got, drink a pint to my dusty bones, won't you?"
"I forget sometimes, too," Klia murmured, and Alec saw her study Seregil's face, and then his own, an indefinable expression in her eyes that was neither sadness nor envy. "I'll do well to keep it in mind once we get to Aurenen, won't I? I understand negotiating with them is something of a challenge."
Seregil laughed softly to himself. "Well, their concept of hurrying will certainly be different than ours."
Alec was pacing the deck their third afternoon out when a lookout suddenly shouted down, "Plenimaran ship to the southeast, Captain!
Seregil was up on the aft castle with Klia and Captain Farren, and Alec hurried up to join them. Everyone was scanning the horizon. Shading his eyes, Alec squinted across the water and found an ominous shape against the late-afternoon glare.
"I see her," Captain Farren said. "She's too far off yet to tell if she's spotted us."
"Is it the Plenimarans?" Thero asked, joining them at the rail.
"Time to earn your keep," Klia told him. "Can you keep them from seeing us?"
Thero thought a moment, then plucked a loose thread from his sleeve and held it up. Alec recognized the trick; he was testing the wind's direction.
Satisfied, Thero raised both hands in the direction of the enemy vessel and chanted in a high, faint voice. Drawing a wand of polished crystal from the folds of his coat, he flung it toward the distant ship. Glittering like an icicle, it spun end over end and disappeared below the grey-green waves. Tendrils of mist immediately curled up where it fell.
Thero snapped his fingers; the wand sprang out of the water and into his hands like a live thing, trailing a thick rope of mist in its wake. Pulled by the wizard's spell, heavy fog spread with supernatural speed into a thick bank that shielded their vessel from sight.
"Unless they have a wizard of their own aboard, they'll think we're just a bit of weather," he said, drying the wand with the edge of his cloak.
"But we can't see them, either," said the captain.
"I can," Thero replied. "I'll keep watch."
The ruse worked. Within half an hour Thero reported that the Plenimaran ship had disappeared over the horizon. He ended the spell and the fog bank fell behind them like a hank of wool torn from a distaff.
The sailors on deck let out a cheer, and Klia gave Thero an approving salute that brought a flush to the young wizard's cheeks.
"That's as nice a bit of magic as I've ever seen," Farren called from the stern.
From across the deck, Alec saw Seregil stroll over to the wizard. He was too far away to hear what passed between them, but Thero was smiling when they parted.
Shouts of landfall woke Alec at dawn the next day.
"Aurenen already?" he said, scrambling from beneath the blankets. Seregil sat up and rubbed his eyes, then rose to join the crowd already gathered at the port rail. They could just make out a distant line of low islands on the western horizon.
"Those are the Ea'malies, the 'Old Turtlebacks, " Seregil said, stifling a yawn.
Klia eyed the close-lying islands distrustfully. "A likely place for an ambush."
"I've sent up extra lookouts," Farren assured her. "We should reach Big Turtle by this afternoon. We'll put in there for fresh water, then it's just another day to Gedre."
This day seemed longer to Alec than all the rest put together. Bows slung ready over their shoulders, he and Seregil took their turn on watch, scanning the surrounding water. In spite of Klia's concerns, however, they reached the outlying islands without incident and set a course toward the largest.
Sitting atop the forecastle with Thero and Seregil, Alec studied the islands for signs of life. But they were arid, little more than domed masses of pale, sun-baked stone scattered over with patches of sparse vegetation.
"I thought you said Aurenen was green," said Thero, clearly less than impressed.
"This isn't Aurenen," Seregil explained. "No one claims them, really, except sailors and smugglers. Gedre is dry, too, as you'll soon see. The winds sweep up from the southwest across the Gathwayd Ocean and drop their rain as they go over the mountains. Across the Asheks the green will hurt your eyes."
"Sarikali," Thero murmured. "What do you remember of it?"
Seregil leaned his arms on the rail. Though his gaze was on the passing islands, Alec could tell that his friend was seeing another place and time.
"It's a strange, beautiful place. I used to hear music there, just coming out of the air. When it was over I couldn't remember the tunes. Sometimes people hear voices, too."
"Ghosts?" asked Alec.
Seregil shrugged. "We call them Bash 'wax, the Ancients. Those who claim to have seen them always describe them as tall, with black hair and eyes, and skin the color of strong tea."
"I've heard there are dragons there, too," said Thero.
"Just fingerlings, mostly, but they're common as lizards. The
larger ones keep to the mountains. A lucky thing, too. They can be dangerous."
"Is it true that they're magical from the start, but that they don't develop speech and intelligence until they're quite large?"
"That's right, which means you're more likely to be killed by one the size of a hound than those bigger than houses. Only a few of the fingerlings survive and they move up into the mountains as they grow. If you do happen to meet one of any size, always treat it with respect."
"Then there's the khtir'bai —" Alec began, but was interrupted by another warning cry from the lookout.
"Enemy vessels off the port bow!"
Jumping to their feet, they spotted two sets of striped sails rounding a point of land no more than a mile ahead. Alec's hands tightened around his bow; the sight of those sails brought back ugly memories.
"Something tells me they knew we were coming," Seregil muttered.
"Are they showing the battle flag?" Farren called up to the lookout.
"No, Captain, but they've got fires lit."
"Run up the battle standards!"
Sleek and fast as lion hounds, the great ships cleared the point and wheeled in their direction. Plumes of black smoke trailed in their wakes.
"Too late for tricks," said Thero, halfway to the castle ladder already.
"At least we outnumber them," said Alec.
Seregil shook his head. "They're bigger, faster, and more heavily armed than our ships. And probably crawling with marines."
"Marines?" Alec's mouth set in a hard line. Dodging through the throng of sailors and soldiers scrambling to their posts, he led the way to the port rail and joined the line of archers already positioned.
Sailors struck the mizzen, slowing the Zyria to allow the other ships to engage the enemy first. As the Wolf sailed past, Alec saw Beka among those hurrying around the deck with weapons and jars of Benshal Fire. Busy shouting orders, she didn't see the luck sign he made in her direction.
The Wolf was the first to attack, striking one of the enemy vessels amidships with canisters of Benshal Fire. Oily smoke billowed up, but the ship held its course and sent a volley of arrows in return as it swept past to bear down on the Zyria.
On Alec's left, Minal shifted nervously. "We're in for it now."
"Archers at the ready!" Klia shouted from the forecastle deck. "Shoot at will!"
Alec chose a man on the foredeck of the enemy vessel, drew the Black Radly's bowstring to his ear, and released the first shaft. Not pausing to see if it struck home, he drew one arrow after another and sent them speeding across the water. Beside him, Seregil and the archers of Urgazhi Turma did the same, each setting their own grim rhythm as the great ship closed in on them.
Enemy shafts were flying around their ears now, thudding into the deck and the wooden shields mounted on the rail. The hissing song of string and shaft was soon joined by the first cries of the wounded.
As the ship loomed ever closer, Alec spotted what appeared to be the bronze heads of some sort of monster mounted below her forecastle rail. The placement seemed too strategic to be mere decoration, but he couldn't imagine what they could be.
He was about to point them out to the others when Seregil let out a startled curse and staggered back, struck in the right shoulder by a blue-fletched Plenimaran arrow.
"How bad?" Alec demanded, pulling him to shelter against the rail.
"Not so bad," Seregil hissed through gritted teeth, yanking the shaft out with surprising ease. The thick leather strap of his quiver and the mail beneath his coat had prevented the head from piercing his shoulder, but the arrow had struck hard enough to drive the metal rings of the mail through the shirt below, leaving a bloody dent in his shoulder mere inches from his throat.
He handed the enemy shaft to Alec with a wry grimace. "Send this back to its owner for me, will you?»
Standing up, Alec nocked the shaft and raised his bow to take aim at the vessel looming over them now. Before he could draw, however, the bronze heads on the Plenimaran's port side suddenly spewed streams of liquid fire. It struck the rigging overhead and fresh screams burst out. A sailor fell to the deck, neck snapped like an oat stalk. Another hung tangled and screaming in the yards, sheathed in flame. Fire crews clambered up with buckets of sand and urine to douse smoking holes in the sails.
Aboard the Plenimaran ship, marines jeered and waved.
"What's that?" cried Alec, ducking down in alarm again.
"Bilairy's Balls!" gasped Seregil, grey eyes wide with astonish-ment. "The Fire. They've learned to pump it, the clever bastards!"
The two ships were nearly parallel now, and Alec felt a jolt go
through the deck boards as the Zyria's aft ballistas launched their loads of canister. One struck the enemy's mast; another exploded near her far rail, engulfing men in a spreading sheet of flame. Alec quickly looked away, but as the huge ship swept past he saw more men burning in her wake. Taking careful aim, he put three out of their misery before the ship carried him out of range. Taking advantage of the momentary lull in battle, he joined the other archers gathering enemy arrows to refill their quivers.
"Down, Alec!" Steb yelled, jerking him sideways just in time to avoid a strip of burning canvas. The headsail was in flames and coming to pieces as it burned. Overhead, sailors worked frantically to cut it free before the mast caught fire, while others on deck slapped flames out with wet sacking. The mingled stinks of oil, piss, and burning flesh settled over the vessel in a pall of stinging smoke.
Coughing, Alec gave the one-eyed soldier a quick nod of thanks. "You know, I believe I'd rather fight on land."
"So would I," Steb agreed.
Aboard the Wolf, Beka and the ship's captain, Yala, were having similar misgivings. The first Plenimaran ship had slipped past too easily and was heading for Klia's vessel. The Courser turned in pursuit, leaving Wolf to block the second man-of-war alone.
Standing atop the aft castle, they watched as the Plenimaran's striped sails filled the sky and heard the sharp groan of her forward catapults. A sack of quicklime struck the forward castle, bursting to engulf a knot of riders in a choking grey cloud; a second struck the mainsail, blinding several sailors and archers perched in the yards.
The screams of the maimed were terrible. Some of the archers positioned in the waist started in their direction, but Beka barked out, "Tell your riders to hold their positions, Sergeant Mercalle. Stand and shoot!"
"Stand and shoot!" Mercalle yelled, pushing men and women back into place.
But the Plenimaran ship was still coming at them bow on, presenting a limited target. The Wolfs ballistas sent jars of fire into her rigging and prow, but she still came on.
"She's got a ramming prow!" someone yelled from the shrouds.
"Hard about!" shouted Captain Yala.
The helmsmen threw themselves against the tiller, and the ship yawed, sending archers tumbling across the deck.
The enemy catapults sang again, and spiked iron balls splintered
the Wolfs forward mast and tore a gaping hole in the headsail. The ship shuddered and slowed, her fallen mast dragging over the side.
The man-of-war swept past, close enough for Beka to see the fierce, grinning faces of the black-clad marines sighting down their arrows. Mercalle's riders howled out their war cries and returned a hail of arrows, aiming skyward to arch their shafts onto the higher deck. The forward ballista crews launched more fire jars, but these missed their mark.
As the crew of the Wolf watched in horrified wonder, bronze lion heads mounted under the Plenimaran vessel's rail vomited streams of liquid fire that streaked the Wolfs torn sails with flames. From belowdecks came the screams of panicked horses and the cries of the wounded.
"By the Four!" Beka gasped. "What the hell was that, Captain?"
Before Yala could answer, a shaft buzzed past Beka's cheek and struck the woman in the eye. Clutching at it, Yala sank to the deck with an agonized groan.
"She's rounding on us, Captain," a lookout warned. "And she's running up fresh canvas!"
"Prepare—" Yala slumped slowly forward, blood flowing down her cheek. "Prepare to repel—"
Trailing smoke from one smoldering sail, the man-of-war closed on them again with a thick volley of arrows. Pinned down in the shelter of the rail shields, the remaining Skalan defenders shot back as best they could. A dozen or more bodies littered the deck, and Beka's heart sank as she counted three green tabards among them. Spotting Mercalle and Zir near the aft castle, Beka raced across the deck to them.
"Yala's dead. Have you seen the mate?"
The sergeant jerked a thumb at the forecastle. "That first load of quicklime got him."
"They're fixing to ram!" the remaining lookout shouted down to them.
"To what?" called Beka in alarm.
Everyone on deck had heard the warning, but there was little that could be done about it now. Marten and Ileah hurried over, supporting Ileah's brother Orineus between them. The young rider's tabard was stained dark around the broken arrow shaft in his chest. Beka could tell by his color that he was dying. Kallien brought up the rear.
The enemy vessel was almost upon them now, aiming straight for the Wolfs waist. Another burst of fiery liquid shot from the bronze heads as she bore down on the doomed carrack.
"Sakor's Eyes, the horses!" gasped Zir, face pale beneath his thick beard.
"Come with me," ordered Beka, starting for the main hatch.
"No time, Captain!" Mercalle warned.
The last thing Beka remembered before the whole world heaved under her feet was the muffled screams of the horses.
Searching the deck for Seregil, Alec caught sight of Thero for the first time since the battle began. Standing calmly on the forecastle deck, he raised his hands palms outward at the oncoming enemy vessel. A bright corona of light flashed around him, obscuring him from sight for a moment. Alec was still blinking when a great shout went up from the crew.
The enemy ship was foundering crazily off course, her fallen sails sagging over her spars and deck. Fires broke out and quickly spread, driving men overboard into the sea. The Courser swooped down to finish her off.
Alec scaled the forecastle ladder and found Thero sitting on a crate surrounded by grinning sailors.
"What did you do?" Alec asked, elbowing his way in to him.
"Turned their ropes to water," Thero said hoarsely, looking quite pleased with himself. "And relieved them of this."
At his feet lay a heavy metal rod nearly six feet in length.
"Their rudder pin!" Farren exclaimed. "Even with their rigging, they wouldn't get far without that."
But their triumph was short-lived. The Wolf was sinking.
Clambering down the ladder again, Alec joined Seregil and Klia at the starboard rail. Ahead of them, the Wolf listed in the shadow of the second man-of-war. The Plenimarans were showering the vessel with arrows and liquid fire. The carrack's sails and masts were in flames, sending a great column of smoke slanting across the water. They could all make out figures falling or leaping into the sea from the tilting deck.
"They've broken her back," Klia gasped.
"Hoist what sails we've got," Farren shouted to the mate. "Prepare the attack!"
The battle call traveled the length of the ship as the Zyria headed for the embattled craft. The Wolf "was going down fast.
"Beka's there," Alec cried, staring helplessly across at the foundering vessel. "Thero, can't you do something?"
"Quiet. He is," said Seregil. "Give him time."
Thero stood a little apart from them, eyes squeezed shut. Sweat poured down the wizard's face as he clenched his hands together in front of him. Then his thin lips curved up in a smile and he let out a small grunt of satisfaction. Without opening his eyes, he chanted softly under his breath and wove a series of symbols on the air.
"Ah, good choice, that," Seregil murmured approvingly.
"What? What is it?" demanded Alec.
Seregil pointed across to the enemy vessel. "Watch. This should be impressive."
An instant later a huge ball of fire erupted from the belly of the Plenimaran ship. Flames far fiercer than those aboard the doomed Wolf burst from every hatch, quickly engulfing everything above the waterline.
"Beautiful!" Seregil crowed, thumping Thero on the back. "You've always had a way with fire. How did you do it?"
The wizard opened his eyes and expelled a pent-up breath. "Her hold was full of Benshal Fire. I merely concentrated on that until it exploded. The rest took care of itself."
Leaving the Courser to her work, the Zyria sailed on for the Wolf. The broken carrack was rolling slowly onto its side, wallowing in the swells. Sheets of oily flame spread out from her smashed hull.
"Come on, come on!" Seregil hissed, hanging over the rail to scan the debris surrounding the wreck. Beside him, Alec did the same, praying to find Beka among the living. All too quickly, dark forms resolved into bodies, some charred beyond recognition, others fighting to stay afloat and crying out for help. A few horses—too few—churned in circles, screaming in panic.
"All boats away," the captain ordered. "Quick now, before the sharks get them."
Seregil and Alec ran for the nearest longboat being lowered over the side. When it smacked own in the water with a jolt, they took the prow seats, searching the waves while the sailors pulled the oars.
"There's someone, over there to the right," Alec called to the oarsmen, pointing the way. The boat leaped forward, closing the distance between them and a struggling Skalan sailor.
They were within ten feet of him when a huge shape broke the surface and dragged the man under. For one awful instant, Alec looked into the doomed man's wild eyes, and the shark's soulless black one. Then they were gone.
"Maker's Mercy!" he gasped, rocking back on his heels.
"Poor old Almin," someone said behind him, and the sailors rowed harder.
Leaving the dead to the sea, they rounded the Wolf's stern and found several people clinging to a broken spar.
"That's Mercalle!" Alec exclaimed.
The sergeant and two of her riders were supporting another between them. Alec recognized the sodden mass of red hair even before they had her all the way into the boat. Beka's face was white as milk except for a gash across her right temple.
"O Dalna, let her be alive," he muttered, feeling for a pulse at her throat.
"She is," Mercalle told him through chattering teeth. "She needs a healer, though, and soon."
The other riders looked only slightly better. Ileah was weeping silently, her face a mask of grief. Sitting close on either side of her in the bottom of the boat, Zir and Marten were chilled but apparently unhurt.
"It's her brother," Zir told him, putting an arm around Ileah. "He was dead before the bastards rammed us. How's the captain?" He looked anxiously at Beka.
Bent over Beka's still form, Seregil did not look up as he replied, "Too soon to tell."
Aboard the Zyria, they carried Beka below to one of the little cabins. Groans and screams came up from the hold, where the wounded sailors had been laid out. The stink of blood and Benshal Fire hung strong on the stale air.
While Alec went in search of the ship's drysian, Seregil stripped off Beka's sodden clothes. He'd done the same when she was a child, but she was a child no more. For once, he was glad of Alec's absence. Surprised at his own embarrassment, he finished as quickly as he could and wrapped her in blankets. It hadn't been only her brief nakedness that was discomforting but the number of battle scars marring her pale freckled body.
That sort of thing had never bothered him before, not even with Alec. Sitting on the floor beside Beka now, though, he rested his head in his hands, fighting down guilt and grief. He'd been the first after Micum to hold Beka in his arms at her birth; he'd carried her on his shoulders, carved toy swords and horses for her, helped teach her to ride and how to fight dirty.
And got her the commission that put her here, unconscious, scarred, and bloody, he thought dismally. Thank the Light I never had any children of my own.
The drysian arrived at last, Alec on his heels with a basin of steaming water.
"She was thrown when the enemy ship rammed hers," he said, watching as the healer set to work.
"Yes, yes, Alec's told me all about it," Lieus said impatiently, sponging blood from the ragged wound. "She took a bad knock, all right. Still, the cut didn't go deep, thank the Maker. She'll wake up in a while with quite a headache, and probably some sickness. There's nothing for it now but to clean her up, keep her warm, and let her sleep. You two clear out; you're just in my way here." He jerked a thumb at Seregil. "I'll see to your shoulder later. Arrow, was it?"
The drysian grunted, then tossed Alec a small jar. "Wash his wound and keep some of this on it until the scab dries. I've seen wounds like that go putrid a week later. You don't want to lose your sword arm, now, do you, my lord?"
On deck, they found Klia busy taking stock of the situation. The Courser had finished with the other Plenimaran vessel and now rode at anchor nearby.
"You heard him," Alec ordered, mimicking the drysian's gruff tone. "Let me see what that arrow did to you."
The cuts from the mail rings were still oozing, and the whole area was dark and swollen. Now that the excitement of the crisis was over, Seregil was surprised at how much it hurt. Alec helped him remove the mail shirt and set about dressing the wound, his touch as sure and gentle as any healer's.
Those same hands were drawing a bow not so long ago, Seregil reflected with another stab of guilt. Alec had never killed a man before they'd met, and probably never would have if he'd been left to his trapping and wandering., Life changes, he mused, and life changes us.
The soft afternoon breeze off the islands carried a sun-warmed mingling of scents he hadn't known for nearly forty years: wild mint and oregano, footcatch cedar, and fragrant powder vine. He'd last visited these islands a few months before his banishment. Looking across the water to Big Turtle, he could almost see his younger self jumping across the rocks, diving fish-naked in the coves with his friends—a silly, self-involved boy who'd had no idea what immensity of pain lay just over the horizon of his short life.
Life changes us all.
Klia climbed on a nearby hatch, still wearing her filthy green battle tabard. Braknil and Mercalle's riders gathered on the deck in front of her as she began to take stock.
"Who do you have left, Sergeant Mercalle?" Seregil heard her ask.
"Five riders and my corporal, Commander," the woman replied, betraying no emotion. Behind her, Zir and the other looked bedraggled and dispirited. Most appeared unhurt, although the lute player, Urien, was cradling a bandaged hand against his chest. "We've lost most of our weapons, though, and the horses."
"Those can be replaced. Riders can't," Klia replied brusquely. "And you, Braknil?"
"No deaths, Commander, but Orandin and Adis were badly burned by those damned fire streams."
Klia sighed. "We'll leave them in Gedre if the khirnari is agreeable."
Spotting Seregil, she waved him over. "What did you make of that?"
"That they were expecting us," he told her.
Klia scowled. "And I thought we'd been so careful."
The information didn't necessarily come from Skala, he thought, but kept the thought to himself for the time being.
"Can we make Gedre without stopping for water?" she asked the captain.
"Yes, Commander. But it will be dark by the time we've run up the new sail. Plenty of time to send landing crews over to fill some casks."
Klia rubbed the back of her neck wearily. "If those ships were waiting to ambush us, then they knew why we were going to the island. They could have ambushers waiting at the spring. I've had enough surprises for one day. I say we push on to Gedre."
No one slept that night, or spoke above a whisper as they sailed on under the dark new moon. Every lantern was extinguished, and Thero stood guard on the rear castle with the captain and Klia, ready to weave whatever magic they needed to evade notice.
The groans of the wounded came up from belowdecks like the voices of ghosts. Alec and Seregil ventured down every hour or so to check on Beka. When she woke at last, she was so ill that she ordered them to go away and leave her in peace.
"That's a good sign," Seregil noted as they made their way up to the bow. "She'll be well enough in a day or two."
Perched on a large coil of rope behind the bowsprit, they settled in to scan the starlit waters ahead for any sign of enemy lights or sails.
"She's lucky she wasn't burned," Alec said as another agonized cry floated up to them over the rush of the water.
Seregil said nothing, his face lost in shadow. At last he pointed up to the dark moon, just visible over the western horizon. "At least the moon's on our side tonight. Most 'faie call the dark moon Ebraha Rabds, the Traitor's Moon. Where we're headed, she's called Astha Noliena."
" 'Lucky black pearl, " Alec translated. "Why's that?" Seregil turned to give him a humorless grin. "Smuggling's a common sideline where I'm from, ever since the Edict closed Gedre as a legal port. Viresse is a long way off from landlocked Bokthersa; much simpler to head up to Gedre for the 'fishing. My uncle, Akaien i Solun, used to bring my sisters and me along with him sometimes. On nights like this we'd sail out in fishing boats with our goods hidden under the nets to meet Skalan trade ships." "I thought you told me he is a swordsmith?" "He is, but as he used to say, 'Bad laws make good rogues. " "So you're not the first nightrunner in your family after all." Seregil smiled. "I suppose not, though smuggling's practically an honorable trade here now. Gedre was a thriving trade port once, but when the Iia'sidra closed the borders she began to die. She's been slowly withering ever since—along with Akhendi—the fai'thast on the other side of the mountains. For centuries the northern trade routes were their life's blood. Klia's mission represents a great hope for them."
And for you, tali, Alec thought, sending up a silent prayer to the Four for their mutual success.
The next morning, Seregil watched the port town of Gedre appear out of the thin mists like a familiar dream just remembered. Her white domes shone in the bright morning light. Beyond them, brown hills patched with green rose like mounting waves to the feet of the jagged Ashek peaks—the Wall of Aurenen, Dragon Home. He was probably the only one aboard who noted the scattering of ruins above the town, like a line of dried foam left in the tide's wake.
A land breeze swept the scent of the place across the water: tender spring sweetgrass, cooking smoke, sun-warmed stone, and temple incense.
Closing his eyes, he recalled other dawns, skimming into this harbor in a little skiff laden with foreign goods. He could almost feel his uncle's big hand on his shoulder, smell the salt and smoke and sweat on the man's skin. It had been Akaien i Solun who'd given him the praise he never seemed to merit in his own father's house. "You 're a good bargainer, Seregil. I never thought you'd talk that merchant up to such a price for my swords" or "Well steered, my boy. You 've learned your stars since our last voyage."
His father was gone, but so was his claim on this land. Reaching up, he touched the lump Corruth's ring made, hanging inside his somber grey surcoat. Only he and Alec knew it was there; the rest of the world saw only the flame and crescent emblem on a heavy silver chain on his breast, signifying his rank among Klia's entourage. For now, it was best that this be all that they see, these strangers who were once his people.
He knew the others were watching him and kept his face to shore, letting the wind cool the stinging behind his eyes as he watched the boats of Gedre put out from shore to welcome them.
Alec's heart beat faster as he watched the little vessels skimming across the waves under their colorful lateen sails to greet the Zyria and her remaining escort.
He leaned over the rail, waving to the half-naked sailors. They wore only a sort of short kilt around their slim hips, regardless of age or gender. Skimming in past the larger ships' prows, they laughed and waved, their long dark hair streaming in the breeze.
Several of Beka's riders let out appreciative whistles.
"By the Light!" murmured Thero, eyes widening as he saluted a lithe, sun-browned girl. She gestured back, and a fragrant purple blossom appeared behind the young wizard's left ear. Other boatmen followed her lead and more flowers materialized to adorn or shower the Skalan visitors.
"Sort of makes you want to reconsider that wizard's vow of celibacy, doesn't it?" asked Alec, giving him a teasing nudge in the ribs.
Thero grinned. "Well, it is strictly voluntary."
"It's a better welcome than we've had anywhere for a long while," said Beka, joining them. Someone had magicked a wreath of blue and white flowers around the brim of her burnished helmet, and more blossoms were tucked into her long red braid. She was still pale beneath her freckles, but no one had been able to convince her to lie low once land came in sight.
Standing nearby, Klia was clearly as excited as any of them. Today she wore a gown and jewels worthy of her royal status. Freed from its usual military braid, her thick chestnut hair fell in waves about her shoulders. Some Aurenfaie admirer had decked her with a girdle and wreath of wild roses.
Alec had put on his best, as well, and the neck of his cloak was
fastened with a heavy silver and sapphire brooch. Klia had smiled when she caught sight of it; it had been a gift from her own hand, an unspoken gesture of gratitude for saving her life.
Looking around, he saw with a sudden twinge of guilt that Seregil was standing alone. He held a single white bloom, absently twirling it by the stem between his long fingers as he watched the boats.
Going to him, Alec stood close enough to touch shoulders and took Seregil's free hand in his beneath the cover of their cloaks. Even after all their months of intimacy, he was still painfully shy about public gestures.
"Don't worry, tali," Seregil whispered. "Gedre holds good memories for me. The khirnari is a friend of my family."
"I'll have to learn who you are all over again," Alec sighed, rubbing his thumb across the back of Seregil's hand, loving the familiar play of bone and tendon beneath the skin. "Do you know the town well?"
Seregil's thin lips softened into a smile as he tucked the white flower behind his ear. "I used to."
The Zyria and the Courser glided into harbor like two storm-battered gulls and dropped anchor at two of the town's remaining quays. Tumbled piles of stones stretching out into the water were all that remained of several others.
Alec studied the crowd at the waterfront in awe. He'd never seen so many Aurenfaie in one place, and from a distance they all looked distressingly alike, even in their varying states of dress. Everyone seemed to have Seregil's dark hair, light eyes, and fine features. They weren't identical, of course, but the similarities threatened to blur into an indistinguishable whirl.
Most wore a simple tunic and breeches and colorful red and yellow sen'gai. Seregil had spent a good deal of the voyage schooling the Skalans on the various combinations, but this was the first time he'd seen the actual headdress. They added a bright, exotic note to the scene.
As he came nearer, however, differences began to emerge: He saw blond and ruddy hair scattered among the crowd, a man with a great wen on his cheek, a child missing a leg, a woman with a hunched shoulder. Still, they were all Aurenfaie, and beautiful in Alec's eyes.
Any of them could be blood kin to me, he thought, and in that moment felt the first true stirrings of understanding. In this foreign
place he saw faces that resembled his own more than any he'd seen in Kerry.
The Zyria docked beside the quay and the crowd fell back" as the Skalan sailors ran out the plank for Klia. Following her with the others, Alec saw a bearded old man in Skalan robes awaiting them with several important-looking 'faie.
"Lord Torsin?" he asked, pointing him out to Seregil. He'd met the envoy's niece several times in Rhiminee; she was a regular in Lord Seregil's circle. Torsin, however, he'd seen only at a distance at a few public assemblies.
"Yes, that's him," said Seregil, shading his eyes. "He looks ill, though. I wonder if Klia knows?"
Alec craned his neck for a closer look at the old man as their two groups converged on the quayside. Torsin's skin was sallow, his eyes sunk deeply beneath his thick white brows. The skin of his face and neck hung in folds, as if he'd recently lost weight. Even so, the man still cut an imposing figure, austere and dignified. The close-cropped hair showing beneath his plain velvet hat was snowy white, his long face creased with solemn furrows that seemed to sag with the weight of his years. As he approached Klia, however, his stern expression gave way to a surprising smile that immediately disposed Alec in the man's favor.
The principal members of the Aurenfaie contingent were easily distinguished by their fine tunics of ceremonial white. Foremost among these were a Gedre man with thick streaks of white in his hair, and a young, fair-haired woman wearing the green-and-brown-striped sen'gai of Akhendi clan. Of the two, she was the more heavily jeweled, denoting higher status. Smooth gems set in heavy gold glowed in the sunlight on her fingers, wrists, and at her throat.
The man was the first to speak. "Be welcome in the fai'thast of my clan, Klia a Idrilain Elesthera Klia Rhiminee," he said, clasping hands with Klia. "I am Riagil i Molan, khirnari of Gedre. Torsin i Xandus has been extolling your virtues to us since his arrival yesterday. I see that, as usual, he speaks without exaggeration."
Removing a thick silver bracelet from each wrist, he presented them to her. Among the 'faie, Alec had learned, one gained honor by being able to make a lavish gift to one's guests as if it were only a trifle.
Smiling, Klia slipped the bracelets onto her wrists. "I thank you for your welcome, Riagil i Molan Uras Mien Gedre, and for your great generosity."
The woman stepped forward next and gave Klia a necklace of
carved carnelians. "I am Amali a Yassara, wife of Rhaish i Arlisandin, khirnari of Akhendi clan. My husband is in Sarikali with the Iia'sidra, so it is my great pleasure to welcome you to Aurenen and to accompany you on your remaining journey."
"So lovely," Klia said, placing the necklace around her neck. "Thank you for your great generosity. Please allow me to present my advisers."
Klia introduced her companions one by one, rattling off the lengthy strings of patronymics or matronymics with practiced ease. Each Skalan was greeted with polite attention until they came to Seregil.
Amali a Yassara's smile disappeared. She gave no direct insult but instead treated Seregil like so much empty air as she stepped quickly past. Seregil pretended not to notice, but Alec saw the way his friend's eyes went hard and blank for a moment, shutting away the pain.
The Gedre khirnari regarded Seregil thoughtfully for a long moment. "You are greatly changed," he said at last. "I would not have known you."
Alec shifted uneasily; this was not the greeting of an old friend.
Seregil bowed, still betraying neither surprise nor disappointment. "I remember you well, and kindly, Khirnari. Allow me to present my talimenios, Alec i Amasa."
The Akhendi still kept her distance, but Riagil clasped Alec's hand between his own with evident delight. "Be welcome, Alec i Amasa! You are the Hazadrielfaie Adzriel a Mia told us of when she returned from Skala."
"Half, my lord. On my mother's side," Alec managed, still rocked by their treatment of Seregil. He hadn't expected anyone to know of him, much less care.
"Then this is a doubly happy day, my friend," Riagil said, patting his shoulder kindly. "You will find Gedre a welcoming clan for ya'shel."
He moved on, greeting the lesser aides and servants. Alec leaned closer to Seregil and whispered, "Ya'shel?"
"The respectful word for 'half-breed. There are others. The Gedre have the most mixed bloods of any clan in Aurenen. See that woman with fair hair? And that fellow there by the boat, with black eyes and dark skin? Ya'shel. They've mixed with Dravnians, Zengati, Skalans—anyone they trade with."
"Word of your arrival has already been sent to Sarikali, Klia a
Idrilain," Riagil announced when the introductions were finished. "Please be my guests tonight, and we will begin the journey tomorrow. The clan house lies in the hills above town, only a short ride."
While the nobles exchanged their greetings, Beka oversaw the unloading of their remaining horses and riders.
Rhylin's decuria had fared better than the others, despite the fighting they'd done. Counting them over, Beka was relieved to see that all were accounted for and none seriously wounded. There were long faces among the survivors of the ill-fated Wolf, however. Less than half of Mercalle's decuria had escaped unscathed.
"Bilairy's Balls, Captain, I haven't understood a word since we got here," Corporal Nikides muttered nervously, eyeing the crowd. "I mean, how would we know whether someone wanted a fight or was offering us tea?"
Before Beka could answer, a deep, amused voice just behind them drawled, "In Aurenen, the brewing of tea does not involve weapons. I am certain you would soon discern the difference."
Turning, she saw that the speaker was a dark-haired man dressed in a plain brown tunic and worn riding leathers. His thick brown hair was tied back beneath a black-and-white-patterned sen'gai. By his stance, Beka guessed him to be a soldier.
He's as handsome as Uncle Seregil, she thought.
The man was taller than Seregil, and perhaps a bit older, too, but had the same wiry build. His face was darkly tanned and wider through the cheekbones, giving it a more angular cast. He met her questioning look with a disarming smile; his eyes, she noted for no good reason, were a particularly clear shade of hazel.
"Greetings, Captain. I am Nyal i Nhekai Beritis Nagil of Ra'basi clan," he said, and something in the lilting timbre of his voice stirred a warm flutter deep in Beka's chest.
"Beka a Kari Thallia Grelanda of Watermead," she replied, extending a hand as if they were in some Rhiminee salon. He took it, his callused palm warm and familiar against her own for the instant the handclasp lasted.
"The Iia'sidra has charged me to act as your interpreter," he explained. "Am I correct in assuming that most of your people do not speak our language?"
"I think Sergeant Mercalle and I know enough between the two of us to get into trouble." She felt a self-conscious grin threatening
and quickly quelled it. "Please give the Iia'sidra my thanks. Is there someone I can speak to about horses and weapons. We ran into some trouble on the way across."
"But of course! It wouldn't do for Princess Klia's escort to enter Sarikali riding double, no?" Giving her a conspiratorial wink, he strode off toward a group of Gedre nearby, speaking rapidly in his own tongue.
Beka watched him for a moment, caught by the way his hips and shoulders moved beneath his loose tunic. Turning back, she caught Mercalle and several riders doing the same.
"Now, there's a long-legged bit of joy!" the sergeant exclaimed appreciatively under her breath.
"Sergeant, see that your people get their gear packed for riding," Beka snapped rather more sharply than she'd intended.
The Ra'basi was as good as his word. Though many of Mercalle's decuria still lacked proper weapons, they set off for the khirnari's house on horses each worth half a year's pay back home.
Klia's famous black stallion had weathered the voyage well and pranced proudly at the head of the procession, shaking its white mane.
"That's a Silmai horse," Nyal noted, riding at Beka's side. "The moon-white mane is their gift from Aura; it occurs nowhere else in Aurenen."
"He's carried her through some fierce battles," Beka told him. "Klia cares as much for that horse as some women do for their husbands."
"That is clear. And you handle an Aurenfaie mount as if you were born to it."
His slight, musical accent sent another odd little shiver through her. "My family has Aurenfaie stock in our herd, back home at Watermead," she explained. "I was riding before I could walk."
"And here you are, in the cavalry."
"Are you a soldier?" She'd seen nothing that looked like a uniform, but Nyal had the air of someone used to command.
"When necessary," he replied. "It is the same with all the men of my clan."
Beka raised an eyebrow. "I didn't see any women among the honor guard. Are they not allowed to be soldiers?"
"Allowed?" Nyal considered this for a moment. "There is no allowance necessary. Most simply choose not to. They have other
gifts." He paused, lowering his voice. "If I may be so bold, I had not expected Skalan soldier women to be so pretty."
Normally Beka would have bristled at such a statement, but the words were said with such earnestness and obvious goodwill that it took the edge off. "Well—thanks." Anxious to change the subject, Beka looked around at the white buildings that lined the streets. They were topped with low domes instead of a pitched roof; the shape reminded her of a bubble clinging to a block of soap. None were more than two stories high and most were unadorned, except for a piece of dark, greenish stone set into the wall by the front door.
"What are those?" she asked.
"Sacred stone from Sarikali, a talisman to protect whoever lives within. Hasn't anyone ever told you that you are pretty?"
Facing him this time, Beka pursed her lips into a stern line. "Only my mother. It's not the sort of thing that matters much to me."
"Forgive me, I meant no offense." Nyal's eyes widened in dismay and the way the slanting light struck the irises made Beka think of pale leaves lying at the bottom of a clear forest pool. "I know your language, but not your ways. Perhaps we can learn from each other?"
"Perhaps," Beka told him, and to her credit, her voice did not betray the undisciplined pounding of her heart.
The Gedre horsemen formed an honor guard for Klia and the Aurenfaie dignitaries as they rode out from the town and up into hills scattered with farms, vineyards, and deep-shaded groves. Drifts of fragrant purple and red flowers grew thickly in the coarse, pale grass along the roadside.
Alec and Seregil rode with Thero and the other aides just behind Lord Torsin. It felt good to have Windrunner under him again after so many days at sea. The glossy Aurenfaie gelding tossed his head, scenting the wind as if he recognized his homeland. Seregil's black mare, Cynril, was doing the same. Both horses drew admiring glances, and Alec, who seldom gave thought to such things, was suddenly glad of the impression they made.
"Who's the Ra'basi, I wonder?" he murmured, nodding toward a man riding beside Beka at the head of the column. What Alec could see of the fellow's face from this angle made him curious to see the rest.
"He's a long way from home," said Seregil, who'd also taken note of the stranger. "Beka seems rather taken with him, don't you think?"
"Not really," Alec replied. The Ra'basi was obviously trying to
make conversation, but her responses came mostly in the form of terse nods.
Seregil chuckled softly. "Wait and see."
In the distance ahead, snow-covered peaks gleamed against the flawless blue of the spring sky. The sight brought Alec an unexpected pang of homesickness; "The Asheks look a lot like the Iron-heart Range around Kerry. I wonder if the Hazadrielfaie felt the same when they first saw Ravensfell Pass?"
Seregil pushed a windblown lock of hair out of his eyes. "Probably."
"Why did those Hazad folks leave Aurenen?" asked Sergeant Rhylin, riding on his left. "Even if this is the dry edge of the place, it's better country than anyplace I've seen north of Wyvern Dug."
"I don't know much about it," Seregil replied. "It happened over two thousand years ago. That's a long time, even for the 'faie."
The Ra'basi stranger appeared out of the press and fell in beside them.
"Forgive me for intruding, but I could not help overhearing," he said in Skalan. "You are interested in the Hazadrielfaie, Seregil i Korit?" He paused, looking abashed. "Seregil of Rhiminee, I meant to say."
"You have me at a disadvantage, Ra'basi," Seregil replied with a sudden coldness that sent a warning shock through Alec. "You know the name taken from me, but I don't know the one you carry."
"Nyal i Nhekai Beritis Nagil Ra'basi, interpreter for Princess Klia's cavalry. Forgive my clumsiness, please. Captain Beka a Kari speaks so highly of you that I wished to meet you."
Seregil bowed slightly in the saddle, but Alec could tell he still had his guard up. "You must have traveled. I hear the accents of many ports as you speak."
"I hear the same in yours," Nyal replied with an engaging smile. "Aura gifted me with an ear for languages and restless feet. Thus, I've spent most of my life as a guide and interpreter. I am most honored that the Iia'sidra considered me worthy of this commission."
Alec watched the handsome newcomer with interest. From what he'd heard, the Ra'basi clan had everything to gain if the borders were reopened, yet they were also closely tied to their northern neighbors, Viresse and Golanil, who opposed any altering of the Edict of Separation. So far, their khirnari, Moriel a Moriel, did not openly support either side.
It was a moment before Alec realized the man was also studying him.
"But you're not a Skalan, are you?" he said. "You have neither
the look nor the accent—ah, yes, I see it now! You are the Hazadrielfaie! What clan are you descended of?"
"I never knew my people, or that I was one of them until quite recently," Alec told him, wondering how often he'd have to give this explanation. "It seems to mean a great deal here, though. Do you know anything of them?"
"Indeed I do," Nyal replied. "My grandmother has told me their story many times. She's a Haman, and they lost many people to the Migration."
Seregil raised an eyebrow. "You're related to the Haman?"
Nyal grinned. "I'm from a wandering family. We're related to half the clans in Aurenen one way or another. It's said to make us more—what's the word—forbearing? Truly, Seregil, even with a Haman grandmother, I bear you no ill will."
"Or I you," Seregil replied rather less than convincingly. "If you'll excuse me?"
Without waiting for reply, he wheeled his horse and rode toward the rear of the column.
"It's a bit overwhelming for him, being here," Alec apologized. "I would like to hear what you know of the Hazad. Tomorrow, perhaps?"
"Tomorrow, then, to pass the time during our long ride." With a juanty salute, Nyal rejoined the line of Skalan riders.
Alec rode back to rejoin Seregil. "What was that all about?" he demanded under his breath.
"He'll bear watching," Seregil muttered.
"Why, because he's part Haman?"
"No, because he overheard what we were talking about from twenty feet away, over the noise of the horses."
Looking back over his shoulder, Alec saw the interpreter chatting with Beka and her sergeants. "He did, didn't he?"
"Yes, he did." He lowered his voice and said softly in Skalan, "Our long holiday is truly over now. It's time to start thinking like…" Lifting his left hand, Seregil briefly crossed his thumb over his ring finger.
A chill ran up Alec's backbone; it was the hand sign for "Watchers." This was the first time since Nysander's death that Seregil had used it.
The clan house Riagil had spoken of turned out to be more like a walled village. White, vine-raddled walls enclosed a sprawling
maze of courtyards, gardens, and houses decorated with painted designs of sea creatures. Flowering trees and plants filled the air with heavy fragrances, underscored by the smell of fresh water close at hand.
"It's beautiful!" Alec exclaimed softly, though that hardly came close to expressing the effect the place had on him. In all his travels, he'd never seen anything so immediately pleasing to the eye.
"A khirnari's home is the central hearth of the fai'thast," Seregil told him, clearly delighted with his reaction. "You should see Bokthersa."
By the Four, I hope we both do someday, Alec thought.
Leaving the escort riders in a large courtyard inside the main gate, Riagil led his guests to a spacious, many-domed house at the center of the compound.
Dismounting, he bowed to Klia. "Welcome to my home, honored lady. Every preparation has been made for your comfort and that of your people."
"You have our deepest thanks," Klia replied.
Riagil and his wife, Yhali, led the Skalan nobles through cool, tiled corridors to a series of rooms overlooking an inner courtyard.
"Look there!" Alec laughed, spying a pair of small brown owls roosting in one of the trees. "They say owls are the messengers of Illior—Aura, that is. Is it the same here?"
"Not messengers, but a favored creature all the same, and a bird of good omen," Riagil replied. "Perhaps because they are the only predatory bird that does not feed on the young of the dragons, Aura's true messengers."
Alec and Seregil were given a small, whitewashed room to themselves at the end of the row of guest chambers. The rough-textured walls were inset with numerous well-blackened lamp niches. The furnishings were elegantly simple, made of pale woods with little ornamentation. The bed, a broad platform surrounded by layers of an airy cloth Seregil called gauze, was a particularly welcome sight after their cramped public quarters at sea. Looking around, Alec felt urges held firmly at bay during the sea crossing making themselves known and regretted they were only spending one night here.
"Our bath chamber is being prepared for you and your women," Yhali told Klia as she and Riagil took their leave. "I'll send a servant to escort you."
Riagil spared Seregil a cool glance. "The men will use the blue chamber. You remember the way, I'm certain?"
Seregil nodded, and this time Alec was certain he saw a flicker of sadness in his friend's grey eyes.
If the khirnari saw it, he gave no sign. "My servants will conduct you to the feast when you have refreshed yourselves. And you, Torsin i Xandus?"
"I will remain here for now," the old man replied. "I'm not acquainted with some of our party, it seems."
' As the khirnari and his lady withdrew, Torsin turned and addressed Alec directly for the first time since his arrival. "I have heard many times how you saved Klia's life, Alec i Amasa. My niece Melessandra also speaks most highly of you. I am honored to make your acquaintance."
"And I yours, honored sir." Alec managed to keep a straight face as he accepted the man's outstretched hand. After a lifetime of complete obscurity, such widespread notoriety was going to take getting used to.
"I will join you momentarily, if you will excuse me? "Torsin said, entering his chamber.
"Come along, you two," Seregil said to Alec and Thero. "I believe you'll enjoy this. I certainly intend to."
Crossing the flower-filled courtyard, they entered a vaulted chamber, the walls of which were painted blue and decorated with more of the whimsical sea creatures Alec had seen on the exterior walls. Sunlight streamed in through several small windows set near the ceiling, the rays dancing off the surface of a small, steaming pool sunk into the floor. Four smiling men of varying ages stepped forward with murmured greetings to help them out of their clothing.
"Leave it to the Aurenfaie to make a guesting custom of bathing," Alec remarked to cover his initial discomfort with such attentions.
"It doesn't do to tell your visitors that they stink," Seregil murmured with a chuckle.
Before Alec had met Seregil, a bath was something undertaken only as an absolute necessity, and then only in the heat of high summer. Daily ablutions struck him not only as absurd but downright unsafe until he'd been won over in Rhiminee by the amenities of heated water and tubs without splinters. Even then, he'd considered Seregil's devotion to such physical comforts to be just another of his friend's forgivable quirks. Later, Seregil had explained that bathing was an integral part of Aurenfaie life and the heart of hospitality.
And now at last, he was going to experience it firsthand—if in a slightly altered version. Separate bathing for men and women was a Skalan custom; Alec wasn't sure how he could have gotten through a communal bath with Klia.
Clay pipes brought heated water into the bath chamber from somewhere outside. The steamy air was redolent with sweet herbs.
Surrendering the last of his clothes to the attendant, Alec followed the others into the bath. After so many days at sea, it was a delicious sensation and he soon relaxed, watching the play of reflected light across the ceiling as the embracing water drew out all the tensions and bruises of their journey.
"By the Light, I've missed this!" Seregil sighed as he stretched lazily, resting his head against the side of the pool.
There's eyes narrowed as he caught sight of the arrow wound on Seregil's shoulder. The skin was still swollen, and an ugly purple bruise had spread darkly across his fair skin, reaching halfway to the small, faded circular scar at the center of his chest.
"I didn't realize it was that bad," he said.
Seregil flexed the shoulder nonchalantly. "It looks worse than it feels."
After a proper soak and scrub, the servants dried them and led them to thick pallets on the floor, where they massaged them from head to toe, kneading aromatic oils into every joint and muscle. Seregil's attendant took special care with his bruised shoulder and was rewarded with a series of appreciative groans.
Alec did his best to relax as skilled hands worked inexorably down his back toward portions of his anatomy he generally considered off-limits to anyone but Seregil. None of the others seemed to have any qualms about it, though, not even There, who lay growling contentedly on the next pallet.
Take what the Lightbringer sends and be thankful, Alec reminded himself, still striving to adopt Seregil's avowed philosophy.
Torsin joined them during the massage, lowering himself slowly into a chair beside them.
"And how are you enjoying our host's hospitality?" he asked, smiling down at Alec and There. "We Skalans may consider ourselves a cultured people, but the 'faie put us quite to shame."
"I hope they offer it everywhere we stay," the wizard mumbled happily.
"Oh, yes," Torsin assured him. "It's considered a great disgrace for host or guest to neglect such niceties."
Alec groaned. "You mean if I don't wash or use the proper tableware I'll cause a scandal?"
"No, but you will bring dishonor on yourself and the princess," Torsin replied. "The laws governing the behavior of our hosts are even stricter. If a guest is harmed, the entire clan carries the dishonor."
Alec tensed; there was no mistaking the veiled reference to Seregil's past.
Seregil rose on one elbow to face the old man. "I know you didn't want me here." His voice was level, controlled, but the knuckles of his clenched fists were white. "I'm as sensitive as you to the complications of my return."
Torsin shook his head. "I'm not certain you are. Riagil was your friend, yet you cannot have misread his reception today." He broke off suddenly and coughed into a linen napkin. The fit went on for several seconds, bringing a sheen of sweat to the old man's brow.
"Forgive me. My lungs aren't what they once were," he managed at last, tucking the napkin into his sleeve. "As I was saying, Riagil could not bring himself to welcome you. Lady Amali will not even speak your name, despite her support of Klia's cause. If our allies cannot bear your presence, what will our opponents make of it? If it were up to me, I would send you back to Skala at once rather than risk jeopardizing the task our queen has set us."
"I'll bear that in mind, my lord," Seregil replied with the same false composure that had worried Alec earlier. Rising from the pallet, he wrapped himself in a clean sheet and left the room without a backward glance.
Swallowing his own anger, Alec followed, leaving Thero to sort things out as best he could. He caught up to Seregil in the garden court and reached to halt him. Seregil shook off his hand and strode on.
Back in their chamber, he tugged on a pair of doeskin breeches and used the sheet to dry his hair. "Come along now, make yourself presentable, my ya'shel," he said, face still obscured.
Alec crossed, the room and grasped his wrist, pulling the cloth away. Seregil glared at him through a tangled mass of hair, cold fury burning in his eyes. Pulling roughly away again, he grabbed a comb and yanked it through his hair hard enough to pull out several strands.
"Give me that before you hurt yourself!" Shoving Seregil down into a chair, Alec took the comb and set to work more gently, working out the knots, then settling into a soothing rhythm as if currying a high-spirited horse. Anger radiated from Seregil like heat, but Alec ignored it, knowing it was not directed at him.
"Do you think Torsin really intended—?"
"It's exactly what he intended," Seregil fumed. "For him to say that, and in front of those attendants—as if I need to be reminded why I have no name in my own country!"
Alec set the comb aside and drew Seregil's damp head back
against his chest, cupping his friend's thin cheeks in his hands. "It doesn't matter. You're here because Idrilain and Adzriel want you here. Give the rest time. You've been nothing but a legend here for forty years. Show them who you've become."
Seregil covered Alec's hands with his own, then stood and drew him close. "Ah, tali," he growled, hugging him. "What would I do without you, eh?"
"That's nothing you ever have to worry about," Alec vowed. "Now, we've got a feast to get through. Play Lord Seregil for all you're worth. Confound them with your charm."
Seregil let out a bitter laugh. "All right, then; Lord Seregil it is, and if that's not enough to win them, then I'm still the talimenios of the famous Hazadrielfaie, aren't I? Like the moon, I'll hang close to you through the night, reflecting your brilliance by virtue of my own dark surface."
"Behave yourself," Alec warned. "I want you in a sweeter temper when we get back here tonight." He brought his mouth to Seregil's to underscore his meaning and was gratified to feel the tight lips soften and open beneath his own.
Illior, patron of thieves and madmen, lend us the guile to survive this evening, he thought.
Torsin was not in evidence when a young woman of the household arrived to guide them to the feast. Thero was, however, and Alec saw that the wizard was out to make an impression; his dark blue robe was embroidered with silver vine work, and the crystal wand he'd used aboard the Zyria was tucked into a belt embossed with gold. Like Alec and Seregil, he also wore the flame and crescent medallion of Klia's household.
The feast was held in a large courtyard near the center of the clan house. Ancient trees overhung the long tables set there, their gnarled trunks and lower branches studded with hundreds of tiny lamps.
Looking over the assembled company, Alec was relieved to see that the Gedre didn't stand on ceremony. People of all ages were already gathered there, laughing and talking. Growing up in the northlands, the 'faie had been creatures of legend for him, magical and awesome. Standing here in the midst of a whole clan of them, Alec felt like he was back at Watermead, sharing a communal meal at day's end.
Spotting Beka at a table near the gate, he cast Seregil a hopeful
look, but their guide was already ushering them toward the khirnari's table beneath the largest tree. Klia and Torsin sat to Riagil's right, Amali a Yassara to his left. Alec was chagrined to find himself furthest from the others, seated between two of Riagil's grandchildren.
All the same, he found the food and etiquette involved in dining considerably less complicated than what he'd encountered at Skalan banquets.
Poached fish, a rich venison stew, and pastries stuffed with cheese, vegetables, and spices were served with baskets of bread shaped into fanciful animals. Platters of roasted vegetables, nuts, and several kinds of olives soon followed. Attentive stewards kept his cup filled with a spicy drink his dining companions called rassos.
No formal entertainment had been arranged; instead, various guests of the feast simply stood up on their benches and started a song or performed some colorful magical trick. As the meal progressed and the rassos flowed, these impromptu exhibitions grew more frequent and more boisterous.
Too far from the others to participate in their conversation, Alec looked with envy toward Beka's table. The riders of Urgazhi Turma were mingling sociably with those of the Aurenfaie honor guard. The interpreter, Nyal, was seated beside Beka, and the two looked to be sharing some joke.
Seregil also seemed to be making the best of things. Amali was still ignoring him, but he'd managed to strike up a conversation with several other 'faie. Catching Alec watching, Seregil gave him an amused wave, as if to say, "Be charming and make the best of things."
Alec turned again to his young dining companions.
"You really knew nothing of your 'faie blood?" asked the boy, Mial, after quizzing him pointedly about his family background. "Don't you have any magic?"
"Well, Seregil did teach me a trick with dogs," Alec said, showing him the left-handed sign. "But that's about it."
"Anyone can do that!" scoffed the girl, Makia, who appeared to be about fourteen.
"It's still magic," said her brother, though Alec had the impression he was merely being polite.
"I always just thought of it as a trick," Alec admitted. "None of the wizards we know seem to think I have any real magic in me."
"They're Tirfaie," Makia scoffed. "Watch this."
Furrowing her brow, she scowled down at her plate. Three olive pits slowly rose into the air and hung unsteadily in front of her face for a moment before clattering back to the table. "And I'm only twenty-two!"
"Twenty-two?" Alec turned to Mial in surprise. "And you?" The young Aurenfaie grinned. "Thirty. How old are you?" "Almost nineteen," Alec replied, suddenly feeling a bit strange. Mial stared at him a moment, then nodded. "It's the same with some of our half-breed cousins; you mature much faster at first. You might want to keep your age to yourself once you get over the mountains, though. The purer clans don't understand ya'shel the way we do here. The last thing your talimenios needs is another scandal."
Alec felt his face go warm. "Thank you. I'll keep that in mind."
"You are to advise Princess Klia on the western clans, I understand?" Amali a Yassara remarked, addressing Seregil directly for the first time.
Seregil looked up from his dessert to find her studying him coolly. "I hope to be of service to both our lands."
"And you do not think their request was in part motivated by the possibility that your presence would elicit strong reactions in certain quarters?"
Klia smiled at Seregil over the rim of her cup; blunt speech was considered a sign of goodwill in Aurenen. After all his years of intrigue in Skala, however, it was going to take some getting used to.
"The thought did occur to me," Seregil replied, adding pointedly, "However, as Lord Torsin opposed my inclusion for the very same reasons, I doubt that was their aim."
"Despite the errors of his youth, I can assure you that Seregil is a man of honor," Klia interjected calmly. He kept his eyes on his dessert dish as she went on.
"I've known him all my life, and he's been invaluable to my mother. No doubt you have heard that it was he and Alec who found the remains of Corruth i Glamien while uncovering a plot against the Skalan throne? I'm sure I don't have to explain to you the effect that discovery has had on relations between our two countries. If not for that, I might not be sitting here with you now, nor would Skalan ships be riding at anchor in this harbor again after all these years."
Riagil saluted her with his cup. "I begin to see why your mother entrusted you with this mission, Klia a Idrilain.
"I do not doubt what you say of him, or disparage his good works," Amali said, apparently content to speak again as if Seregil were not there. "But if he is still 'faie in his heart, then he knows that one cannot change the past."
"Yet may not one's past be forgiven?" Klia countered. When the question went unanswered, she turned to Riagil. "What do you think his reception will be at Sarikali?"
The khirnari gave Seregil a thoughtful look, then replied, "I think that he should keep his friends close by."
A warning or a threat? wondered Seregil, unable to discern the sentiment behind the man's bland words. As the evening wore on, he often looked up to find Riagil watching him with that same enigmatic look—not smiling, but not cold, either.
After the meal people wandered among the tables, sharing wine and conversation.
Seregil was just looking about for Alec when he felt an arm around his waist.
"Torsin was right about her, wasn't he?" Alec muttered, nodding slightly in Amali a Yassara's direction.
"It's atui," Seregil replied with a loose shrug.
"She also fears the effect you'll have on the Iia'sidra," Nyal said behind them.
Seregil rounded on the eavesdropper with poorly concealed annoyance. "It seems to be the prevailing attitude."
"Princess Klia's success means a great deal to the Akhendi," the Ra'basi observed. "I doubt she would judge your past so harshly if it did not pose a threat to her own interests."
"You seem to know much about her."
"As I told you, I am a traveler. One learns much that way." Bowing politely, he wandered off into the crowd.
Seregil watched him go, then exchanged a dark look with Alec. "Remarkable hearing that man has."
The gathering gradually tapered off as restless children disappeared into the shadows beyond the trees and their elders made their farewells to the Skalans. Released from social obligations at last, Alec had retreated to the company of Beka and her riders. When Seregil rose at last to take his leave, however, Riagil stayed him with a gesture.
"Do you remember the moon garden court?" asked the khirnari. "As I recall, it was a favorite haunt of yours."
"Would you care to see it again?"
"Very much, Khirnari," Seregil replied, wondering where this unexpected overture would lead.
They walked in silence through the warren of dwellings to a small courtyard at the far side of the enclosure. Unlike the other gardens, where colored blossoms contrasted vividly against sun-baked walls, this place was made for the meditations of the night. It was filled with every sort of white flower, medicinal herb, and silvery-leafed plant, banked like drifted snow in beds along paths paved with black slate. Even under the waning crescent that rode the stars tonight, the blossoms glowed in the darkness. Overhead, tubular paper kites with calligraphy-covered streamers rustled on wires, breathing their painted prayers on the night breeze.
The two men stood quietly awhile, admiring the perfection of the place.
Presently Riagil let out a long sigh. "I once carried you sleeping to your bed from here. It seems not so long ago."
Seregil winced. "I'd be mortified if any of my Tir companions heard you say that."
"We are not Tir, you and I," Riagil said, his face lost for a moment in shadow. "Yet I see now that you've grown strange among them, older than your years."
"I always was. Perhaps it runs in the family. Look at Adzriel, a khirnari already."
"Your eldest sister is a remarkable woman. Akaien i Solun was glad enough to hand the title to her as soon as she was of age. But be that as it may, the Iia'sidra will still perceive you as a stripling, and the queen as a fool for employing you as an emissary."
"If I've learned anything among the Tir, it's the value of being underestimated."
"Some might interpret that as a lack of honor."
"It's better to lack the semblance of honor but possess it than to possess the semblance and lack the honor."
"What a unique point of view," Riagil murmured, surprising Seregil with a smile. "Still, it has its merits. Adzriel brought favorable news of you from Rhiminee. Seeing you today among your companions, I believe her hopes are justified."
He paused, his face serious again. "You are a sort of two-edged blade, my boy, and as such will I employ you. Gedre has slowly withered since the Edict was imposed, like a vine whose roots are cut. It is the same for Akhendi, who shared in the trade through our
port. Klia must succeed if we are to survive as we are. Trade with the north must be reestablished. Whatever the Iia'sidra decides, let your princess know what Gedre will support her cause."
"She has no doubt of that," Seregil assured him.
"Thank you. I shall sleep more peacefully tonight. Let me leave you with this." Riagil drew a sealed parchment from his belt and handed it to him. "It is from your sister. Welcome home, Seregil i Korit."
Seregil's throat tightened painfully at the sound of his true name. Before he could reply, Riagil tactfully withdrew, leaving him alone with the soft rustle of the kites.
He rubbed a thumb over the tree and dragon imprint in the wax, imagining his father's heavy seal ring on his sister's slender finger. Prying the wax up with a thumbnail, he unfolded the sheet.
Adzriel had tucked a few dried wandril flowers into the letter. Crushing the faded red petals between his fingers, he inhaled their spicy scent as he read.
"Welcome home, dear brother," the letter began, "for so I address you in my heart even if it is forbidden elsewhere. My heart breaks that I cannot yet claim you openly as kin. When we meet, know that it is circumstance that prevents me, not coldness on my part. Instead, I thank you for undertaking this most painful and dangerous task.
"Asking for your inclusion was no sudden inspiration. The first glimmer of it was already in my mind during our all-too-brief reunion that night in Rhiminee. Aura's blessings on Nysander's poor khi that he told me of your true work. Take care for the safety of our kinswoman, and may Aura guard you until we embrace again at Sarikali. I have so much to tell you, Haba. — Adzriel"
The tightness in his throat returned as he reread the precious letter, committing it to memory.
"At Sarikali," he whispered to the kites.
9 INTO AURENEN
The sound of small wings woke Seregil the next morning. Opening his eyes, he saw a chukaree perched on the windowsill, its green plumage shining like Bry'kha enamel work as it preened its stubby tail. He willed it to drop a feather, but it had no gift for him today; with a liquid trill, it fluttered away.
Judging by the brightness of the window, they'd overslept. The distant jangling of harness warned that Beka's riders were already making ready to go.
Yet he lay quiet a moment longer, savoring the feeling of Alec's warm body still wound contentedly around his own, and the comfort of a proper bed. They'd made good use of it, he thought with sleepy satisfaction.
His fragile sense of peace slipped away all too quickly. The coat thrown carelessly over a chair caught his eye like an accusation, bringing with it the memory of Torsin's words and those of Riagil. As the khirnari had so succinctly pointed out, life among the Tir had forced him to grow up far more quickly than the friends he'd left behind. He'd known more of death and violence, intrigue and passion than most 'faie twice his age. How many of the youngsters he'd played with had killed anyone, let alone the uncounted numbers he had in his years as Watcher, thief, and spy?
He stroked the arm draped over his chest, smoothing the fine golden hairs. Most 'faie his age hadn't even left the family hearth yet, much less made such a bond with anyone.
Who am I?
The question, so easy to ignore all those years in Rhiminee, was staring him in the face now.
Sounds of morning activity grew louder outside their window. Sighing regretfully, he ran a finger down the bridge of Alec's nose. "Wake up, tali."
"Morning already?" Alec mumbled blearily.
"There's no fooling you, is there? Come, it's time to move on."
The central courtyard was filled with people and horses. Urgazhi and Akhendi riders were busy loading a string of packhorses; others were gathered around smoking braziers where Gedre cooks were serving a hasty breakfast. Nyal clearly had his hands full, Seregil thought, watching the man with growing dislike.
"It's about time!" Beka called, seeing them. "Klia's looking for you. You'd better grab something to eat with us while you can."
"No one woke us," Seregil muttered, wondering if the slight had been intentional.
Begging fry bread and sausage at the nearest brazier, he and Alec ate as they wandered among the riders, picking up details.
Two of Mercalle's six remaining riders, Ari and Marten, were remaining behind with Corporal Zir to serve as dispatch couriers, carrying messages that would come by ship from Skala. The others would do the same from Sarikali.
Braknil was short a few riders as well; Orandin and Adis had been too badly burned at sea to continue and had remained aboard the Zyria for the return voyage.
The remaining members of Urgazhi Turma seemed out of sorts.
"Did you hear?" Tare grumbled to Alec. "We have to ride blindfolded parts of the way, for hell's sake!"
"It's always been that way for foreigners, even before the Edict," Seregil told him. "Only the Aurenfaie and Dravnian tribesmen who live in the mountains can pass over freely."
"How are we supposed to get over a mountain pass blind?" Nikides muttered.
"I'll just move my patch over to my good eye," Steb offered with a grin.
"He won't let you come to any harm, Corporal," Seregil assured Nikides, pointing to the Akhendi clansman sitting his horse nearby. "It would blemish his honor."
Nikides glowered at his escort. "I'll be sure to beg his pardon when I'm falling to my death."
"He's worried about falling," Alec explained to the Akhendi.
"He can ride double with me," the man offered, patting his horse's rump.
Nikides scowled, needing no interpreter. "I'll manage."
The man shrugged, "He can suit himself, but at least get him to accept this." Pulling a piece of wild gingerroot from a belt pouch, he tossed it to Nikides, who examined it distrustfully. "And tell him my name is Vanos."
"Some get queasy riding blind," Seregil explained. "Chew this if you do. And you might thank Vanos here for the consideration."
"The word is 'chypta'," Alec added helpfully.
Nikides turned rather sheepishly to his escort and held up the root. "Chypta."
"You welkin," Vanos replied with a friendly grin.
"Looks like they'll have lots to talk about," Alec chuckled. "Hope you brought some of that root for me."
Seregil took a piece from a wallet at his belt and presented it to him. "A disgrace to one talimenios is a disgrace to both. It would reflect poorly on me if you showed up covered in puke. And don't worry, most of the time you'll ride with your eyes open."
Riding to the head of the column, they fell in behind Klia and her hosts.
"My friends, we now begin the last leg of your long journey," Riagil announced. "It's a well-traveled route, but there are dangers. First among these are the young dragons, those larger than a lizard but smaller than an ox. Should you meet with one, be still and avert your eyes. Under no circumstances must you hunt or attack them."
"And if they attack first?" Alec whispered, recalling what Seregil had told them aboard the Zyria.
Seregil motioned him to silence.
"The youngest ones, fingerlings we call them, are fragile creatures," Riagil continued. "If you kill one by accident, you must undergo several days purification. To willfully kill one invokes the curse of its brethen, and brings that curse on your clan unless your people see to it that you are punished.
"Any animal that speaks is sacred and must not be harmed or
hunted. These are the khtir'bai, inhabited by the khi of great wizards and rhui'auros."
"If we're not supposed to harm anything, why are you all armed?" Alec asked one of their escort, who carried bows and longswords.
"There are other dangers," he told him. "Rock lions, wolves, sometimes even teth'brimash."
"People cut off from their clan for some dishonor," Seregil explained. "Some of them turn outlaw."
"I'm honored to guide you," Riagil concluded. "You are the first Tir to visit Sarikali in centuries. Aura grant that this be the first of many journeys shared by our people."
The road into the mountains started out broad and level, but as it left the foothills and twisted along the edge of a jagged precipice, Alec began to share Nikides's doubts about riding blind. Looking up, he could see the gleam of snow still clinging to the sides of peaks.
Seregil had other concerns.
"I'd say a bond was forming there, wouldn't you?" he asked under his breath, his expression neutral as he nodded slightly toward Beka and the interpreter.
"He's a handsome man, and a friendly one." Alec rather liked the garrulous Ra'basi, in spite of Seregil's reservations. For Beka's sake, he hoped that his friend's celebrated intuition was off its mark this time. "How old would you say he is?"
Seregil shrugged. "Eighty or so."
"Not so old for her, then," Alec observed.
"By the Light, don't go marrying them off yet!"
"Who said anything about marriage?" Alec teased.
Beka waved and rode over to them. "I've been bragging up your archer's skills all morning, Alec."
"Is this the famous Black Radly?" Nyal asked.
Alec passed the bow to him, and Nyal ran a hand over its long limbs of polished black yew.
"I've never seen a finer one, or such wood. Where does it comes from?"
"A town called Wolde, up in the northlands beyond Mycena." Alec showed him the maker's mark scrimshawed on the ivory arrow plate: a yew tree with the letter R woven into its upper branches.
"Beka tells me you destroyed a dyrmagnos with it. I've heard legends of these monstrous beings! What did it look like?"
"A dried corpse with living eyes," Alec replied, suppressing a shudder of revulsion at the memory. "I only struck the first blow, though. It took more than that to destroy her."
"To harm such a creature at all is a wizard's task," Nyal said, handing the bow back. "Perhaps someday you will tell me of it, but I believe I owe you a tale today. A long ride is a good time for a story, no?"
"A very good time," Alec replied.
"Beka tells me you did not know your mother or her people, so I'll begin at the beginning. Long ago, before the Tir came to the northern lands, a woman named Hazadriel claimed to have been given a vision journey by Aura, the god you call Illior in the north."
Alec smiled as he listened. Nyal sounded just like Seregil, launching into one of his long tales.
"In this vision a sacred dragon showed to her a distant land and told her she would make a new clan there. For many years Hazadriel traveled Aurenen, telling of her vision and calling for followers. Many dismissed her as mad, or chased her off as a troublemaker. But others welcomed her until eventually she and a great army of people sailed from Bry'kha; they were never heard from again and given up as lost until many generations later when Tir traders brought tales of 'faie living in a land of ice far north of their own. It was only then that we learned they had taken the name of their leader, Hazadriel, as their own. Until then, they were simply referred to as the Kalosi, the Lost Ones. You, Alec, are the first to ever come to Aurenen claiming kinship with them."
"Then I can't trace my family to any one Aurenen clan?" Alec said, disappointed.
"What a pity not to have known your own people."
Alec shook his head. "I'm not so sure. According to Seregil, they didn't take much of Aurenfaie hospitality with them."
"It's true," Seregil told him. "The Hazadrielfaie have a reputation for enforcing their own isolation. I had a brush with them once, and almost didn't live to tell about it."
"You never told me that!" Beka exclaimed indignantly.
Nor me, Alec thought in surprise, but held his tongue.
"Well, it was a very brief brush," he admitted, "and not a pleasant one. The first time I traveled to the northlands, before I met Beka's father, I heard an old bard telling tales of what he called the Elder Folk. Alec here grew up hearing those same stories, never suspecting it was his own people they were talking about.
"I hounded the poor fellow for all he knew, along with every other storyteller I met for the next year or so. I suppose that was the beginning of my education as a bard. At any rate, I finally got enough out of the tales to trace them to a place in the Ironheart Mountains called Ravensfell Pass. Hungry for the sight of another 'faie face, I struck off in search of them."
"That's understandable," Nyal threw in, then gave Beka an embarrassed look. "I mean no insult."
Beka gave him a wry look. "None taken."
"I'd been in Skala for over ten years and was terribly homesick," Seregil continued. "To find other 'faie, no matter who they were, became an obsession. Everyone I talked to warned that the Hazadriel-faie killed strangers, but I figured that only applied to Tirfaie.
"It was a long, cold journey and I'd decided to go alone. I started through the pass in late spring, and a week or so later finally came out in a huge valley and saw what looked like a settled fai'thast in the distance. Certain of a warm welcome, I headed for the closest village. Before I'd gotten a mile down the valley, though, I ran into a group of armed horsemen. All I saw at first was that they were wearing sen'gai. I greeted them in Aurenfaie, but they attacked and took me prisoner."
"What happened then?" Beka demanded as soon as he paused.
"They held me in a cellar for two days before I managed to escape."
"That must have been a bitter disappointment," Nyal remarked kindly.
Seregil looked away and sighed. "It was a long time ago."
The column had slowed steadily as they talked, and now came to a complete halt.
"This is the first hidden stretch," Nyal explained. "Captain, will you trust me as your guide?"
Beka agreed just a tad too readily, Alec noted with amusement.
Skalan riders paired off with Aurenfaie, handing over their reins and tying white cloth blindfolds over their eyes.
A pair of Gedre riders approached Alec and Seregil.
"What's this?" asked Seregil as one of the men sidled his horse up next to Seregil's and held out a blindfold.
"All Skalans must ride blind," the man replied.
Alec choked down a hard knot of resentment, almost grateful when his own blindfold hid the scene. How many more little ways would the 'faie find to underline the fact that Seregil was returning as an outsider?
"Ready, Alec i Amasa?" his own guide asked, clasping his shoulder.
"Ready." Alec gripped the saddlebow, feeling off balance already. Renewed grumbling among the Skalans came from all sides, then a brief chorus of surprise as a peculiar sensation came over them, a tingle on the skin. Unable to resist, Alec lifted a corner of the blindfold just enough to peek out from under it, then pulled it hastily back into place as his eye was assaulted by a stinging burst of swirling color that sent a bolt of pain through his head.
"I wouldn't do that, my friend," his guide chuckled. "The magic will hurt your eyes, without the covering."
To make amends to their guests, or perhaps to drown out the complaining, someone began to sing and others quickly joined in, voices echoing among the rocks.
Once I loved a girl so fair, with ten charms woven in her hair. Slim as the tip of the newborn moon, Eyes the color of a mountain sky. For a year I wooed her with my eyes And a year with all my heart. A year with tears unshed, A year with wandering feet, A year with silent songs unsung, A year with sighs replete.
A year until she was the wife of another and my safety was complete.
The play of sun and shadow across Alec's skin told him that the trail twisted sharply and it wasn't long before he dug in his pouch for the root Seregil had given him. It smelled of moist earth, and the pungent juice made his eyes water, but it did settle his stomach.
"I didn't think I'd be sick," he said, spitting out the stringy pith. "It feels like we're riding around in circles."
"That's the magic," said Seregil. "Whole miles of the pass are like this."
"How are you doing?" Alec asked softly, thinking of Seregil's frequent difficulties with magic.
Warm, ginger-scented breath bathed his cheek as Seregil leaned close and confessed, "I'm managing."
The blind ride went on for what seemed like a dark, lurching eternity. They traveled beside rushing water for a time, and at others Alec sensed walls closing in around them. Riagil finally called a halt, and the blindfolds were removed. Alec
rubbed his eyes, blinking in the afternoon brightness. They were in a small meadow bounded on all sides by steep cliffs. Looking back, he saw nothing but the usual terrain.
Seregil was bathing his face at a spring that bubbled up among the rocks a few yards away. Joining him, Alec drank as he studied the stunted bushes and clumps of tiny flowers and grasses clinging in clefts of rock. A few wild mountain sheep clattered among the rocks overhead.
"Would fresh meat be welcome tonight?" Alec asked Riagil, who was standing nearby.
The khirnari shook his head. "We have food enough with us for now. Leave these creatures for someone who needs them. Besides, I think you'd have a hard time making such a shot. They are a good distance off."
"I'd bet a Skalan sester he can shoot that far," Seregil told him.
"An Akhendi mark says he can't," Riagil countered, producing a thick, square coin seemingly out of thin air.
Seregil gave Alec a mischievous wink. "Looks like it's up to you to defend our honor."
"Thanks," Alec muttered. Shading his eyes, he looked up at the sheep again. They were still on the move, at least fifty yards away now, and the breeze was uncertain. Unfortunately, a number of people had heard the challenge and were watching him expectantly. With an inward sigh, he went back to his horse and pulled an arrow from the quiver slung behind his saddle.
Ignoring his audience, he took aim in the general direction of the hindmost sheep and released purposefully high. The shaft glanced off the rocks just over the large ram's head. The creature let out a bleat and sprang away.
"By the Light!" someone gasped.
"You'll make a living for yourself with that bow in Aurenen," Nyal laughed. "Archery's a betting sport here."
Objects of some sort were changing hands around the circle of onlookers.
Several men showed Alec their quivers, where masses of small ornaments strung on thongs hung from bosses set into the sides. Some were carved from stone or wood, others cast in metal or fashioned from animal teeth and bright feathers.
"These are shatta, betting trophies, used only by archers," Nyal explained, plucking one made of bear claws from his own considerable collection and tying it onto Alec's quiver strap. "There, that shot of yours should earn you something. This marks you as a challenger."
"You may not be able to lift that quiver of yours before we head home again, Sir Alec," said Nikides. "If they let us bet for drinks, I'll be laying my luck on you every time."
Alec accepted the praise with a shy grin. His shooting was one of the few things he'd been proud of growing up, though more for the success it had brought him as a hunter.
As he returned to the spring to drink, he felt glad of those skills again. In patches of soft ground around the spring he saw the marks of panther and wolves, together with several larger tracks he didn't recognize.
"Just as well we missed him," Seregil remarked.
Looking where his friend pointed, Alec saw a splayed, three-toed print twice the length of his foot.
"Yes, and of the dangerous size."
Alec placed his hand in the track, noting the deep imprint of talons at the end of each toe. "What happens if we meet one of these while we're blindfolded?" he asked, frowning.
Seregil's impassive shrug was less than reassuring.
The trail grew narrower still from here, barely wide enough in places for a horse to pass. Alec was pondering what it must be like to venture through here in the winter when something landed on the turned-back hood of his cloak. He reached back, expecting to find a clump of dirt. Instead, something slithered elusively beneath his fingertips.
"There's something on me," he hissed, praying to Dalna that whatever it was wasn't poisonous.
"Hold still," Seregil cautioned, dismounting.
Easier said than done, Alec thought as whatever it was scrambled up through his hair. The tickle of tiny claws assured him that it wasn't a serpent. He kicked a foot free of the stirrup, and Seregil stepped in and pulled himself up for a closer view.
"By the Light!" he called out in Aurenfaie, clearly delighted by what he'd found. "First dragon!"
The cry was taken up by the Aurenfaie, and those that could crowded around to see.
"A dragon?" Alec turned his head to see.
"A fingerling. Careful now." Seregil gently disentangled it and placed it in Alec's cupped hands.
The little creature looked like a manuscript illustration come to life. Perfectly proportioned in every respect, it was scarcely five inches long, with batlike wings so delicate he could see the shadow of his fingers through the stretched membranes. Its golden eyes had slitted pupils. Spiky whiskers fringed its narrow jaws'. The only disappointment was the color; from snout to tail, it was mottled brown like a toad.
"You're the luckbringer today," Riagil told him, emerging from the crowd of soldiers with Amali, Klia, and Thero.
"It is a custom we have, going over the pass," Amali told him, smiling. "The first traveler to be touched so by a dragon is the luckbringer, and anyone who touches you before it flies away shares the luck."
Alec felt a bit self-conscious as the others crowded around to touch his leg. The fingerling seemed in no hurry to go. Wrapping its whip-end of tail around his thumb, it poked its bristly head under the edge of his sleeve as if investigating a potential cave. Its soft belly was fever-hot against his palm.
Klia reached up to stroke the dragon's back. "I thought they'd be more colorful."
"The laws don't extend to hawks and foxes," said Seregil. "These little ones take on the color of their surroundings to hide. Even so, only a few survive, which is probably a good thing. Otherwise we'd be hip deep in dragons."
Alec's little passenger rode with him for over an hour, exploring the folds of his cloak, burrowing through his long hair, and resisting all efforts to be passed to anyone else. Suddenly, however, it scrambled around to his left shoulder and bit him on the earlobe.
Alec let out a yelp of pain and it fluttered away, clutching a few strands of his hair in its claws.
Their Aurenfaie escorts found this highly amusing.
"It's off to make itself a golden nest," Vanos declared.
"A kiss to welcome you home, Kalosi!" said another, thumping him on the shoulder.
"It stings like snakebite!" Touching his ear, Alec felt the first signs of swelling and swore.
Vanos produced a glazed vial from a pouch slung from his belt and tapped out a few drops of viscous blue liquid.
"Don't worry, the venom's not much worse than a hornet's at that size," he said, holding out his finger. "This is lissik. It takes away the pain and heals the wound faster."
"It's also pigmented to permanently color the teeth marks, like a tattoo," Seregil said behind him. "Such marks are highly prized."
Alec hesitated, thinking of the ramifications of such an unusual distinguishing mark for someone in his profession.
"Should I?" he asked Seregil in Skalan.
"It would be an insult not to."
Alec gave a slight nod.
"There you are," Vanos said, dabbing lissik on the wound. It was oily and smelled bitter, but it cooled the burning instantly. "That'll be a real beauty mark once it heals."
"Not that he needs one," said another 'faie, giving Alec a friendly wink as he showed him a similar mark at the base of his right thumb.
"Your earlobe looks like a grape," Thero observed. "Odd that the creature took such a dislike to you."
"Actually, a fingerling's bite is considered a sign of Aura's favor," said Nyal. "If that little one survives, it will know Alec and all his descendants."
Other riders showed off their own marks of honor on hands and necks. One named Syli laughed as he proudly displayed three on each hand. "Either I am greatly loved by Aura, or I taste good."
"Known to a dragon, eh?" Beka let out a whistle of admiration. "That could be useful."
"To the dragon, perhaps," Seregil remarked.
They made camp at a way station that stood at the meeting of two trails. It was unlike any structure Alec had seen in Aurenen so far. The squat, round tower was at least eighty feet in diameter and had been built into the uneven rocks that rose around it like a mud swallow's nest. It was topped with a conical roof of thick, dirty felt and entered by a sturdy wooden ramp leading up to a door halfway up the tower. A few dark-eyed children watched their approach from the top of a low stone wall that fronted it. Others could be seen behind them, laughing as they chased black goats and each other up the tower ramp. A woman appeared at the door, then came out accompanied by two men.
"Dravnians?" asked Thero.
"They are, aren't they?" said Alec, who'd recognized them from Seregil's stories. Shorter than the 'faie, and more heavily built, they had black, almond-shaped eyes, bowlegs, and coarse black hair slicked back with grease. Their sheepskin clothing was richly decorated with colorful beading, animal teeth of various types, and painted designs. "I didn't expect to see them this far east."
"They wander the whole Ashek range," Seregil told him. "These mountains are their home; no one knows more about how to survive the snows. This traveler's lodge has stood here for centuries and probably will forever, with the occasional new roof. The 'faie share the use of it with the local tribes."
Though Alec couldn't understand their language, there was no mistaking the welcoming smiles the Dravnians gave Riagil and the others. Tethering their horses in the stone enclosure, they all trooped up the ramp.
The upper floor was a single large room with a smoke hole in the center of the floor. Stone stairs followed the curve of the wall down to the lower room, which doubled as hearth room and byre. More Dravnians were at work down there, mucking out from the winter. One of the younger woman waved up at them, flashing a shy smile.
"That custom you told us about, of having to sleep with their daughters—?" Thero asked nervously, wrinkling his nose at the pungent odors wafting up from below. Seregil grinned. "Only at a home hearth. It's not expected here, though I'm sure they'd be flattered if you offered."
The girl waved again, and Thero retreated quickly, his wizard's celibacy evidently safe for the moment.
The evening passed in relative comfort, though the frequent howls that drifted to them on the night wind made Alec and the others doubly grateful for the tower's thick walls and stout door. The Dravnians, he learned, called this time of year the end of the hungry season.
Though stark by Aurenfaie standards, the tower was warm and the company good. They traded some of their bread for Dravnian cheese and ended up making a communal meal of it. The evening was passed trading tales and news, with Nyal and Seregil interpreting for the Skalans.
After several hours, the Ra'basi excused himself and went outside for a breath of air. A few moments later Seregil did the same, giving Alec the surreptitious signal to follow in a moment. Assuming he was offering a brief moment of privacy, Alec counted to twenty, then slipped out after him.
But Seregil had something else in mind. Just outside the door he
touched Alec's arm and motioned toward two dark figures barely visible up the trail. "Nyal and Amali," he whispered. "She went out a few minutes ago and he followed."
Alec watched the pair disappear around a bend in the trail. "Should we follow them?"
"Too risky; no cover and these rocks echo every sound. We'll just sit here and see how long they're gone."
Walking down the ramp, they sat down on a large flat rock by the enclosure wall. Above them, sudden laughter rang out from the doorway.
They must have found themselves another interpreter, thought Alec. A moment later he heard Urien strike up a soldier's ballad.
Staring out into the darkness, Alec tried without success to gauge his companion's mood. The further they ventured into Aurenen, the more distant Seregil became, as if he were listening ever more closely to some inner voice only he could hear.
"How come you never told me about getting captured by the Hazadrielfaie?" he asked at last.
Seregil laughed softly. "Because it never happened, at least not to me. I heard the story from another exile. The bit about collecting the legends was true, and I was homesick enough to consider making the journey, but the man to whom the tale belongs talked me out of it, just as I did you once, if you recall."
"So you do think Nyal's a spy?"
"He's a listener. And I don't like how quickly he's cozied up to Beka. If you were a spy, what better place to be than at the side of Klia's protector?"
"So you gave him a false story?"
"And now we wait to see if it resurfaces, and where."
Alec sighed. "Will you say anything to Klia?"
Seregil shrugged. "There's nothing to report yet. I'm more worried about Beka just now. If he does turn out to be a spy, it will reflect badly on her."
"All right then, but I still think you're wrong." Hope you 're wrong, he amended silently.
They'd kept watch for perhaps half an hour when they heard the sound of returning footsteps in the darkness. Moving into the deeper shadow below the ramp, they watched as Nyal reappeared supporting Amali with one arm. Their heads were close together in conversation, and neither seemed to notice Alec and Seregil in the shadows.
"Then you'll say nothing?" Alec overheard her whisper to Nyal.
"Of course not, but I must question the wisdom of your silence," he replied, sounding worried.
"It is my wish." Releasing his arm, she walked up the ramp.
Nyal watched her go, then wandered back up the trail alone, apparently lost in thought.
Seregil's hand closed over Alec's. "Well, well," he whispered. "Secrets in the dark. How interesting."
"We still have nothing. The Akhendi support Klia."
Seregil frowned. "And the Ra'basi may not."
"I still say you're jumping at shadows."
"What? Alec, wait!" Seregil hissed.
But Alec was already gone, ambling noisily up the trail. Stones crunched and tinkled under his boots. He hummed aloud for good measure.
He found the interpreter sitting on a rock beside the trail, looking up at the stars.
"Who's that?" Alec called out, as if startled to find someone there.
"Alec?" Nyal jumped to his feet.
Guiltily? Alec wondered, unable to make out the man's expression at this distance.
"Oh, there you are!" Alec said lightly, striding up to him. "Did the Dravnians wear you out already? There are stories going untold for lack of you."
Nyal chuckled, his voice deep and rich in the darkness. "They'll go on all night whether we understand them or not. Seregil's throat must be raw by now, left alone with them so long. What are you doing out here all alone?"
"Had to tap the hogshead," Alec said, patting the lacings of his breeches.
Nyal looked blank for a moment, then broke into a broad grin. "Piss, you mean?"
"Yes." Alec turned aside to make good his claim.
Nyal chuckled behind him. "Even when you speak my own tongue, you Skalans are not always easy to understand. Especially the women." He paused. "Beka Cavish is your friend, isn't she?"
"A good friend," Alec replied.
"Has she a man of her own?"
Still facing away, Alec heard the hope in the man's voice and felt an irrational twinge of jealousy.
His own fleeting attraction to Beka in the early days of their
friendship had been no match for her determination to follow a military career. No doubt the difference in their ages had played a larger part in her mind than his, too. Nyal, on the other hand, was man-grown and handsome besides. There was no faulting Beka's choice on that account.
"No, no man of her own." Tugging his breeches closed, Alec turned to find Nyal still smiling at him. The man was either a consummate actor or more guileless than Seregil cared to believe. "Don't tell me you fancy her?"
Nyal spread his hands, and Alec suspected he was blushing. "I admire her very much."
Alec hesitated, knowing Seregil would disapprove of what he was about to do. Stepping-closer to the 'faie, he looked him in the eye and said gravely, "Beka admires you, too. You asked if I'm her friend. I am, and her almost-brother as well. You understand? Good, then as her almost-brother, I'll tell you that I like you, too, though I don't know you well. Are you a man she can trust?"
The Ra'basi squared his shoulders and made him a respectful bow. "I am a man of honor, Alec i Amasa. I would bring no harm to your almost-sister."
Alec stifled an undignified chortle and clapped Nyal on the shoulder. "Then why don't you go and keep her company?"
Grinning, Nyal strode off toward the tower. Alec hoped the man's celebrated hearing wasn't acute enough to hear his own strangled snort of laughter. Another of a more nervous variety escaped as he stopped to think what his fate would likely be if Beka ever learned that he'd appointed himself the defender of her honor. He hoped the talkative Ra'basi had enough discretion to keep his mouth shut about their little chat. He'd just started back when Seregil emerged from the shadows.
"I thought you said it was too risky to sneak up on people out here?" Alec gasped, startled by his sudden appearance.
"Not with all the noise you were making," Seregil retorted curtly.
"Then you heard?"
"Yes, and you're either brilliant or a damn fool!"
"Let's hope it's the former. I don't know what he was up to with Amali, but if he's not really love-struck for Beka, then I am a fool."
"Ah!" Seregil held up an accusing finger. "But he didn't happen to mention the good lady Amali, now did he?"
"He wouldn't, would he? We heard him promise to keep silent about something."
"Clearly a man of honor, your Ra'basi friend," Seregil observed
dryly. "To his credit, I think you're right, at least about his feelings for Beka. Let's go keep an eye on him."
It was clearly Beka who occupied the interpreter's thoughts that night and the following morning, although she continued to greet his attentions with apparent bemusement.
The second day was much the same as the first. The air grew colder, and when the breeze shifted, Alec felt the chill kiss of glacial air on the back of his neck. Just after midday, the pitch of the trail begin to drop. Riding blind, Alec found it hard not to doze off. His chin was slowly sinking on his breast when a sudden warm gust of damp, acrid mist brought him awake.
"What is that?" he asked, wrinkling his nose.
"Dragon breath!" an Aurenfaie exclaimed.
He was already grasping the edge of the blindfold when someone gripped his wrist. Laughter broke out around them.
"A joke, Alec," his escort assured him, sounding like he was sharing in it. "It's just a hot spring. There are lots of them on this side of the mountains, and some smell even worse than this."
Alec smelled the strange odor again just as the hated blindfolds finally came off later that afternoon.
A few miles ahead, an ice field hung in a valley high between two peaks. The pass was wider here, and in places along its sloping sides clouds of white steam boiled from the ground, or wafted off the faces of little pools between the rocks.
Below lay a small tarn, its brilliant blue surface shimmering like a shard of Ylani porcelain beneath a shifting pall of vapor. Deep azure at its center, the waters gradually lightened to a pale turquoise toward the shore, where the rocks were a dull yellow. Rocky ground surrounded it, devoid of vegetation. A line of darker stone ran down the slope to the water's edge and beyond, like a stain.
"One of your 'mirrors of the sky'?" asked Alec.
"Yes," said Seregil. "It's the largest hot spring along this trail, a very sacred spot."
"Why is that?"
Seregil smiled. "That's Arnali's tale to tell. We're in Akhendi fai'thast now."
They made camp upwind of the tarn. It was warm in the little vale; the ground gave off heat they could feel through the soles of their boots. The foul odor was stronger here, too, like eggs gone bad. The yellow coloration Alec had noted earlier turned out to be a crusty rime built up just above the waterline.
"Sulfur," Thero said, taking a pinch between his fingers and igniting it in a puff of orange flame.
Despite the smell, most of the 'faie were already stripping off to bathe in it. Amali a Yassara dipped up a cupful and presented it to Klia.
"Odd sort of spot to call sacred, don't you think?" asked Alec, eyeing the gently roiling water distrustfully. "It can't be poison, though. Everyone's drinking it."
Testing the water, he found it hot as a bath. He scooped up a small amount in one cupped palm and took a sip. It was an effort to swallow; the flat, metallic flavor was not something that invited deep drinking.
"A mineral spring!" Thero noted, wiping his lips—though not discreetly enough to escape Amali's notice.
"You are perhaps wondering why we revere such a place?" she asked, laughing at the wizard's expression. "I will show you in a little while. In the meantime, you all should bathe, especially you, Alec i Amasa. The waters are healing and would do that ear of yours good."
"Is my talimenios welcome, as well?" Alec asked, keeping his tone respectful even as his gut tightened.
Amali colored, but shook her head. "That I cannot grant."
"Then I thank you for the offer." He gave her a slight bow and strolled off to the cluster of tents nearby. Seregil followed.
"You didn't have to do that!"
"Yes, I did. I can't stand them all fussing over me while they slap you down at every opportunity."
Seregil pulled him to a halt. "They aren't doing it to insult me, you damn fool!" he whispered angrily. "I brought this on myself a long time ago. You're here for Klia, not me. Any insult you offer to our hosts reflects on her."
Alec stared at him a moment, hating the resignation that underlay his friend's hard words. "I'll try to keep that in mind," he mumbled, pulling his pack down from the saddle and carrying it into the tent assigned to them. He waited, expecting Seregil to come in. When he didn't, Alec looked out through the tent flaps and saw him back at the water's edge, watching the others swim.
Seregil kept up his air of cordial distance, speaking little but making no effort to retreat from the main company. When Amali invited the Skalans to walk along the shore that evening, he joined in without comment or apology.
She led them up to the outcropping of dark stone. Bulging up from the surrounding stone and skree, it spread like an ink stain to the edge of the lake.
"Look closely," she told them, running her hand over a curving slab.
Examining it, Alec saw nothing out of the ordinary except the peculiar smoothness of the weathering in places.
"It's skin!" Thero exclaimed from the other side of an upthrust slab. "Or at least, it was. And here's the ridge of a spine. By the Light, was this a dragon? It must have been over three hundred feet long, if we're seeing all that there was of it."
"Then it's true what I've read," Klia mused, climbing around to where the crumbling edge of what might have been a wing bone jutted from the ground. "Dragons do turn to stone when they die."
"This one did," Amali replied. "But it is the only one of this size ever found. How they die, just as how they are born, remains a mystery. The little ones appear; the great ones disappear. But this place, called Vhada'nakori, is sacred because of this creature, so drink deeply, sleep well, and attend carefully to your dreams. In a few days, we will be in Sarikali."
Seregil knew the Akhendi woman had not meant to include him in her invitation at the Vhada'nakori; she'd been unfailingly distant since Gedre. Perhaps her ill will accounted for his poor sleep that night.
Curled beside Alec in the tent they shared with Torsin and Thero, he tossed restlessly through a dream of uncommon vividness, even without aid of the waters.
It began like so many of his nightmares had over the past two years. He stood again in his old sitting room at the Cockerel, but this time there were no mutilated corpses, no heads gummed in their own blood on the mantelpiece chattering accusations at him.
Instead, it was as he remembered it from happier days. The cluttered tables, the piles of books, the tools laid out on the workbench beneath the window — everything was just as it should be. Turning
to the corner by the fireplace, however, he found it empty. Alec's narrow cot was gone.
Puzzled, Seregil walked to the door of his bedchamber. Opening it, he found himself instead in his childhood room at Bokthersa. The details here were equally clear and achingly familiar — the cool play of leaf shadow on the wall above his bed, the rack of practice swords near the door, the rich colors of the corner screen in the corner — painted by the mother he'd never known. Toys long since lost or packed away were there, too, as if someone had collected all of his most treasured belongings and laid them out for his return.
The only discordant element were the delicate glass orbs strewn across the bed. He hadn't noticed these when he'd first come in.
He was taken by their beauty. Some were tiny, others the size of his fist, and they gleamed like jewels, multihued and translucent. He didn't recognize them, but in the strange way of dreams, knew that these, too, were his.
As he stood there, smoke suddenly seeped up through the floorboards around him. He could feel heat through the soles of his boots and hear the angry crackle of flames from below.
His first thought was to save the orbs. Try as he might, though, a few always slipped away and he had to stop and pick them up again. Looking around frantically, he knew that he couldn't save everything; the fire was bursting up through the floor in earnest now, licking at the corners of the room.
He knew he should run and warn Adzriel. He longed to save familiar mementos but could not decide what to take, what to sacrifice. And all this time, he was still trying to gather the glistening spheres. Looking down, he saw that some had turned to iron and threatened to smash the more fragile ones. Others were filled with smoke or liquid. Confused and frightened, he stood helpless as smoke boiled up around him, blotting out the light —
Seregil woke drenched in sweat, with his heart trying to hammer its way out of his chest. It was still dark, but he had no intention of sleeping again in this place. Finding his clothes, he slipped out.
The stars were still bright enough to cast faint shadows. Dressing quickly, he climbed up to the dragon stones overlooking the water.
"Aura Lightbearer, send me insight," he whispered, stretching out on his back to wait for dawn.
"Welcome home, Korit's son," a strange little voice replied, close to his ear.
Seregil looked around in surprise. No one was there. Leaning over the edge of the rock, he peered underneath. A pair of shining yellow eyes looked back at him, then tilted as the creature moved its head.
"Are you khtir'bai?" asked Seregil.
The eyes tilted in the other direction. "Yes, child of Aura. Do you know me?"
"Should I, Honored One?" Seregil had encountered only one such being, the khtir'bai of an aunt who'd taken the form of a white bear. This creature was far too small.
"Perhaps," the voice told him. "You have much to do, son of Korit."
"Will I ever be called that again?" Seregil asked as it finally sank in that the khtir'bai had addressed him by his true name.
"We shall see." The eyes blinked and were gone.
Seregil held his breath, listening, but no sound came from under the rock. He lay back again, staring up at the stars as he pondered this new turn of events.
A few minutes later he caught the soft scuff of bare feet on stone. Sitting up, he saw Alec climbing up to join him.
"You should have come sooner. There was a khtir'bai under there, one who knew my name."
Alec's look of disappointment was almost comical. "What did it look like?"
"It was just a voice in the dark, but it welcomed me home."
Alec sat down next to him. "At least someone has. Couldn't you sleep?"
Seregil told Alec all he could recall of his dream: the glass balls, the flames, the childhood memories. Alec listened quietly, gazing out across the mist-covered water.
"You've always claimed to have no magic, but your dreams—!" Alec said when he'd finished. "Remember those visions you had before we found Mardus?"
"Before he found us, you mean? The warnings I didn't understand until it was too late? A lot of good that did us."
"Maybe you're not supposed to do anything about them. Maybe you're just supposed to be ready."
Seregil sighed, thinking again of the khtir'bai's words. You have much to do, son of Korit. "No, this was different. Just a dream. What about you, tali? Any great revelations?"
"I wouldn't call it that. I dreamt about being aboard Mardus's ship with Thero, only when Thero turned around, he was you and you were weeping. Then the ship sailed over a waterfall and into a
tunnel and that was the end of it. I don't think I'd make much of an oracle."
Seregil chuckled softly. "Or a navigator, from the sound of it. Well, they say all answers can be found at Sarikali. Perhaps we'll turn up a few there. How's the ear?"
Alec fingered the swollen skin and winced. "My whole neck hurts. I should have brought the lissik."
"Come on, I know something even better." Rising, Seregil pulled Alec to his feet and led him down to the water's edge. "Get in and give it a good soak."
"No. I already told you—"
"Who's to know?" Seregil challenged with a wink. "Go on now, before I toss you in. The ride ahead of us will be uncomfortable enough. Take what healing you can get."
"Well, did anyone else dream last night?" Klia asked as they stood around the morning fire a few hours later. "I couldn't recall a thing when I woke up, but I never do."
"Neither did I," said Beka, clearly disappointed.
None of the Skalans had anything to report, as it turned out.
"Perhaps the magic doesn't work for Tir? "Alec offered, still pondering his own strange dream.
When Thero emerged at last from the tent, however, he knew he was going to have to reevaluate his theory. The young wizard looked too dark under the eyes to have rested well.
"Bad dreams?" asked Seregil.
Thero gazed out over the pool, looking rather perplexed. "I dreamed of drowning here, with the moon shining in my eyes so brightly it hurt, even through the water. And all the while I could hear someone singing 'home, home, home. »
"You're a wizard," Amali said, overhearing. "Your magic came from Aurenen, so perhaps you are home, in a sense."
"Thank you, lady," Thero said. "That is a more positive interpretation than I was able to come to. It felt very much like a dream of death to me."
"And yet does not water also signify birth among your people?" she asked, strolling away.
Below the Vhada'nakori, the trail grew steeper and the Skalans had to ride most of the morning blindfolded. Chewing doggedly on
a slice of ginger, Alec clung on with thighs and hands; at times it felt as if the horse were about to walk out from under him.
After a few miles of this torture, he swallowed his pride and let an Akhendi named Tael mount in front of him and take the reins. Judging by the muttered epithets he heard on all sides, he wasn't the only one to give in. Even with this help, however, his back and thighs were soon aching again as he clung on behind his guide.
Luckily, his torment was short-lived. Reaching a level patch of ground, the column halted and the hated blindfolds were removed.
Alec blinked, then let out a whistle.
Far below, a rolling green vista dotted with scattered lakes and netted with rivers stretched toward lowlands on the southern horizon.
"So green it hurts your eyes," Thero murmured.
They came down into the foothills through groves of flowering trees so dense it seemed as if they were riding through clouds. Beyond this, a packed-earth road led through the thick forests of Akhendi fai'thast.
Alec's fingertips ached for the pull of a bowstring. Sunlight slanted through the towering trees, illuminating little glades where herds of deer grazed. Flocks of game birds called kutka darted across the trail like startled chickens.
"Doesn't anyone hunt here?" he asked Tael.
The Akhendi shrugged. "Aura is bountiful to those who take only what they need."
The trail met a broader road that led through small, scattered villages. People gathered by the road, staring and waving at the Skalans and calling out to Amali, who was clearly well loved. Men, women, and children alike wore various versions of the familiar tunic and trousers, which some had augmented with colorful openwork shawls or sashes fashioned like fisherman's nets, but elaborate as lace.
"I can't tell the men from the women," said Minal.
"I assure you, rider, those who need to can tell the difference!" Nyal told him, eliciting a round of laughter from his companions.
The dwellings here were similar in design to those at Gedre, but built of wood instead of stone. Many had open-sided sheds nearby, where their owners plied their trades. From what Alec could make
out from the road, woodworking was a common occupation in this part of the country.
Many of the byways that branched off from the main road looked disused and overgrown, he noticed. In the larger villages, many houses stood empty.
Riding up beside Riagil and Amali, he asked, "My lady, this was a trade road once, wasn't it?»
"Yes, one of the busiest. Our marketplaces saw goods from every corner of Aurenen, the Three Lands, and beyond. Our inns were always filled with traders. But now those same traders go downriver to Bry'kha, or overland to Viresse. Many of our people have moved closer to the routes, even gone to other fai'thasts."
She shook her head sadly. "The village I grew up in stands empty now. It is a shameful thing for any 'faie to be forced against her will to leave the place her family lived in for generations out of mind, to walk away from the house of her ancestors. It has brought our clan ill luck.
"It is even more difficult for my husband, both as our khirnari and as one who has lived so long and remembers what the Akhendi once were. I assure you, he will do all in his power to support your lady's mission, as will I."
Alec bowed, wondering again what she and Nyal had been doing together on that dark trail in the mountains.
Anxious as she was to see Sarikali, Beka found herself wishing they could stay longer in Akhendi. This country reminded her of the rolling forests she'd roamed as a girl, and of the peaceful life she'd taken for granted.
They stopped for the night in one of the larger villages, and their arrival created quite a stir, if a quiet one at first. A few at a time, villagers gathered to greet Amali and gawk at the Tirfaie visitors. Before long, the Skalans were surrounded by a silent, staring throng.
"We're as much creatures of legend here as the 'faie are in the northlands," Beka told her riders. "Come on. Give them a smile!"
A small girl was the first to approach. Pulling free of her mother's hand, she marched up to Sergeant Braknil and stared with unabashed curiosity at his grizzled beard. The old veteran returned the stare with amusement, then presented his chin for closer inspection. The girl dug her fingers into it and burst out giggling. At this, other
children came forward, touching beards, clothing, and weapon hilts with delighted wonder. The adults followed, and anyone who spoke both languages soon had their hands full translating questions back and forth.
Beka's hair and freckles were the focus of especially intent curiosity. Pulling her braid loose, she shook out her hair and sat grinning as children and. adults gently lifted the strands to see the coppery play of sunlight through them. Looking up, she saw Nyal watching her over the heads of the others, his leaf-and-water eyes tilted up at the corners with silent amusement. He winked and she looked quickly away as her cheeks went warm. Turning, she found herself face-to-face with the little girl who'd walked so boldly up to Braknil, who was now accompanied by a young man about Alec's age.
The child pointed to Beka and said something about "making."
Beka shook her head, showing that she didn't understand.
The young man held out his hand, showing her a bundle of colorful leather thongs. He covered them with his other hand, rubbed his palms together, then presented her with an intricately braided bracelet with loose strands at each end for tying.
"Chypta," she said, delighted. She'd watched Seregil do this sort of sleight of hand most of her life.
He gestured that he was not finished. Taking it back from her, he held it by one end and pulled it slowly through the fingers of his other hand. When he was done, a small wooden frog dangled from the middle of the weave.
The little girl tied it around Beka's left wrist, then touched a hand to her scabbard and the bruise on her forehead, talking excitedly.
"It's a charm to help wounds heal," explained Seregil, who'd wandered over with Alec. "She says she's never seen a woman soldier before, but she can tell you are very brave and so probably get hurt a lot. She's not old enough to make charms herself yet, so her cousin here obliged, but the gift was her idea."
"Chypta!" Beka said again, touched by the gift. "Hold on a minute, I want to give her something, too. Damn, what have I got with me?"
Rummaging in her pouch, she found a sack of fancy gaming stones she'd bought in Mycena, jasper lozenges inlaid with silver. "For you," she said in Aurenfaie, placing one in the child's hand.
The little girl clasped the piece in her fist and gave Beka a kiss on the cheek.
"And thank you." Beka looked up at the cousin, doubtful that he'd be impressed by such a reward.
He leaned down and touched a finger to his cheek. Beka took the hint and gave him a kiss. Laughing, he led the little girl away.
"Did you see that performance?" Beka asked Seregil, admiring the bracelet. "It reminds me of tricks you used to do for us after supper."
"What you just saw was magic, not sleight of hand. So is the charm, though not a very powerful sort. The Akhendi are known for their skill with charm making and weaving."
"I thought it was just a trinket! I should have made her a better gift."
Seregil grinned. "You saw her face. She'll be showing that bakshi stone to her great-grandchildren, a gift from a sword-carrying Tirfaie woman with hair the color of—let's see, what would the proper poetic simile be? Ah, yes, bloody copper!"
Beka grimaced comically. "I hope she comes up with something better than that."
Just then a young woman touched Alec on the sleeve and performed a similar trick, producing a bracelet with three red beads worked into it. He thanked her, asked some questions, then laughed and pointed to Seregil.
"What was that all about?" asked Beka.
"It's a love charm," Seregil explained. "He told her that he doesn't really need one of those."
The girl gave some teasing answer, arching a brow coyly in Seregil's direction, then passed the bracelet through her hand again. The beads disappeared, replaced by a dangling wooden bird carved from pale wood.
"That's more like it," Alec said. "This one warns if someone's having evil thoughts about me."
"Perhaps I should get one of those before I face the Iia'sidra again," Seregil murmured.
"What's this?" Beka asked, noticing what appeared to be a polished cherry pit hanging from a beaded thread in Seregil's hair.
"It's supposed to keep lies from my dreams."
Alec exchanged an odd look with his friend, and Beka felt a twinge of envy. There were secrets between these two she knew she'd never share, just as there were between Seregil and her father. Not for the first time, she wished regretfully that Nysander had lived long enough to induct her as a Watcher, too.
Meanwhile, her riders had gotten into the spirit of things. With
Nyal's help, gifts and questions were still being exchanged and everyone was sporting a charm or two. Nikides was flirting with several women at once, and Braknil was playing grandfather to a circle of children, shaking his beard and pulling coppers from their ears.
"It won't all be this easy, will it?" Beka said, watching one of the village elders present Klia with a necklace.
Seregil sighed. "No, it won't."
10 THE HEART OF THE JEWEL
Lady Amali seems to have taken quite a liking to Klia," Alec observed, watching the two women laughing over some shared exchange as they set out again the next morning.
"I've noticed that," Seregil replied quietly. He glanced around quickly, no doubt making certain that Nyal was safely out of earshot. "They're of an age to be friends. She's much younger than her husband. She's his third wife, according to our Ra'basi friend."
"So you find him useful after all?"
"I find everyone useful," Seregil said with a sly grin. "That doesn't mean I trust them. I haven't seen him sneak off with her again, though. Have you?"
"No, and I've been watching. She's civil to him, but they seldom speak."
"We'll have to keep an eye on them in Sarikali, see if they seek each other out. The young wife of an aging husband, and Nyal such a handsome, entertaining fellow—it could be interesting."
Reaching a broad, swift river, they followed it south through ever deepening forest for the rest of the day. Villages grew scarcer, and game more plentiful—and at times peculiar.
Herds of black deer no bigger than dogs were common in marshy bends of the river, where they grazed on mallow shoots and water lilies torn from the mud.
There were bears as well, the first Alec had seen since leaving his mountain homeland. But these were brown rather than black, and bore the white crescent of Aura across their breasts. Strangest and most pleasing of all, however, were the little grey tree-dwellers called pories. The first of them appeared just after midday, but soon they seemed to be everywhere, common as squirrels.
About the size of a newborn child, the pories had flat, catlike faces large, mobile ears, and long, black-ringed tails that gyrated wildly behind them as they leapt among the branches with clever, grasping paws.
A few miles later, the pories disappeared as abruptly as they'd come. Midafternoon shadows were weaving themselves beneath the trees when the travelers reached a wide fork in the river. As if sundered by the parting of the waters, the forest opened up to either side, affording a clear view across a broad, rolling valley beyond.
"Welcome to Sarikali," Seregil said, and something in his voice made Alec turn to look at him.
A blend of fierce pride and reverence seemed to transform the man for an instant, making the Skalan coat he wore look as ill suited as mummer's garb.
Alec saw the same expression mirrored in other Aurenfaie faces, as if their very souls shone in their eyes. Exile or not, Seregil was among his own. Ever the wanderer, Alec envied him a little.
"Welcome, my friends!" cried Riagil. "Welcome to Sarikali!"
"I thought there was a city," Beka said, shading her eyes.
Alec did the same, wondering if some magic like that guarding the high passes in the mountains was at work. There were no signs of habitation that he could see within the embrace of the two rivers.
Seregil grinned. "What's the matter, don't you see it?"
A broad stone bridge arched across the narrower of the two branches, allowing riders to cross four abreast.
The steel helmets of Urgazhi Turma shone like chased silver in the slanting afternoon light, and steel and chain mail glinted beneath their embroidered tabards. Riding at their head, Klia was resplendent in wine-dark velvet and heavy jeweled ornaments. Polished rubies glowed in the large golden brooches that pinned her riding
mantle at the shoulders and in the golden girdle of her gown. She also wore all the Aurenfaie gift jewelry she'd received, even the humble warding charms. Though she'd put aside armor for the occasion, her sword hung at her side in a burnished scabbard worked with gold.
Once across the river, Riagil led them toward a dark, rambling hillock several miles off. There was something odd about the shape of it, thought Alec. As they drew nearer, it looked stranger still.
"That's Sarikali, isn't it?" he said, pointing ahead. "But it's a ruins."
"Not exactly," said Seregil.
The city's dark tiered buildings and thick towers appeared to draw themselves out of the ground. Masses of ivy and creepers growing thickly up the stonework reinforced the illusion that the place had not been built by hands but erupted from the earth. Like a great stone in the river of time, Sarakali stood steadfast and immutable.
The closer Seregil came to Sarikali, the more the long years in Skala seemed to fade away. The one dark memory he had of the city, ugly as it was, could not efface the joy he'd always associated with this place.
Most of his visits had been in festival times, when the clans gathered to populate its streets and chambers. Banners and strings of kites festooned the streets of every tupa, the section of the city each clan traditionally used when visiting. In the open-air marketplaces one could find goods from every corner of Aurenen and beyond. Outside the city, colorful pavilions would sprinkle the level ground like great summer flowers; bright flags and painted poles marked out racetracks and archery lists. The air would be filled with magic and music and the smells of exotic foods to be tracked down and sampled.
Today the only signs of habitation were a few flocks of sheep and cattle grazing on the plain.
"You'd think the Iia'sidra would come out to meet the princess," Thero remarked disapprovingly in Skalan.
"I was just thinking the same." Alec eyed the place dubiously.
"That would give status," said Seregil. "They retain it by having her come to them. It's all part of the game."
Their Aurenfaie escort dropped back when they reached the city's edge, and Urgazhi Turma formed up into two mounted ranks, flanking Klia.
Turning to Riagil and Amali, Klia bowed in the saddle. "Thank you both for your hospitality and guidance."
Amali nudged her mount forward and clasped hands with Klia. "I wish you success. The blessings of Aura be with you!"
She and Riagil rode off, disappearing from sight with their respective riders among the dark buildings.
"Well, then," Klia said, squaring her shoulders. "It's up to us to make an entrance, my friends. Let's show them the queen's best. Seregil, you're my guide from here."
No curtain walls shielded the city; it had no gates, no guards. Instead, open ways paved with springy turf cut into the jumbled mass of the place like rambling fissures weathered through a mountain by a thousand years of rain. Its street were empty, the arched windows of it towers blank as dead eyes.
"I didn't expect it to be so empty," Alec whispered as they continued along a broad, winding concourse.
"It's different when the clans gather for the festivals," Seregil told him. "By the Light, I'd forgotten how beautiful it is!"
Beautiful? Alec thought. Eerie was more like it, and a little oppressive.
Evidently he was not the only one to feel it. Behind him, he could hear the Urgazhi plying Nyal with questions, and the steady murmur of the interpreter's replies.
Smooth walls of dark green stone etched with bands of complex designs rose on all sides. There were no recognizable figures; no carved animals, gods, or people. Instead, the intricate patterns seemed to fold and knot themselves into greater interconnected patterns that drew the eye to a single central point or away along lines of rhythmically repeated shapes and symbols.
The turf gave beneath their horses' hooves, sending up the scent of crushed herbs and deadening the sound of their passing. The deeper they rode into the city, the more muted sounds became, underscoring the strangeness of the place. The wind brought the occasional distant crowing of a cock or the sound of voices, but just as quickly whipped them away.
Alec gradually became aware of an unsettling sensation creeping
over him, a sort of tingling on his skin and the hint of a headache between his eyes.
"I've come over all strange," said Beka, feeling it, too.
"It's magic," Thero said in an awed voice. "It feels like it's seeping from the very ground!"
"Don't worry; you'll get used to it soon," Seregil assured them.
As they rounded a corner, Alec saw a lone robed figure watching them gravely from the lower window of a tower. Beneath the red-and-black sen'gai and facial tattoos that marked him as a Khatme, the man's expression was aloof and unwelcoming. Alec uneasily recalled a favorite saying his father had had: How you come into a place is how you go out.
Seregil's initial joy at seeing Sarikali did not entirely cloud his perception. Clearly the isolationists still held the upper hand. Nonetheless, his pulse quickened as he felt the quicksilver play of exotic energies across his skin. Childhood habit made him peer into the shadows, hoping for a fleeting glimpse of the fabled Bash'wai.
Rounding a familiar corner, they came into the open again, at the center of the city, and the breath caught in Seregil's throat.
Here lay the Vhaddsoori, a clear pool several hundred yards wide and so deep that its waters remained black at high noon. The magic was said to radiate from this spot, the most sacred ground in Aurenen. Here, at the heart of the Heart, oaths were given, alliances forged, wizardry powers tested. A pledge sealed with a cup of the pool's clear water was inviolable.
The pool was ringed by one hundred and twenty-one weathered stone statues that stood a hundred yards or so back from the water's edge. Neither the reddish-brown stone nor the carving style was to be found anywhere else in the city, or in Aurenen beyond. Thirty feet tall, and vaguely man-shaped, the statues were said to be a relic of some people older than the Bash'wai. They towered and tilted now above the crowd gathered outside the circle. Expectant faces and sen'gai of every description formed a colorful mosaic against the muted backdrop of dark stone.
"That's him," he heard someone whisper loudly, and guessed they were talking of him.
The crowd parted quietly as he led Klia and the others to the edge of the stone circle. Inside, he saw the eleven white-clad members of the Iia'sidra waiting for them at the water's edge, flanking the Cup of Aura on its low stone pedestal. Its long, crescent-shaped bowl,
carved from milky alabaster and set on a tall silver base, glowed softly in the late-afternoon sunlight.
With a sudden sharp pang, he recalled his father bringing him here as a small child; it was one of the few positive memories he had of the man. Legends differed as to the Cup's origins, Korit had explained. Some said it was the gift of Aura's dragon to the first Eleven; others claimed that the first wandering band of 'faie to discover the city had found the Cup on its pillar already. Whatever the case, it had been here time out of mind, unmarred by centuries of use and weather, a symbol of Aura's connection to the 'faie, and of their connection to one another.
A connection I was cut away from like a diseased branch from a tree, Seregil thought bitterly, focusing at last on the faces of the Iia'sidra. Nine of this Eleven had spared his life, but they had also sealed his humiliation.
His father had been khirnari then, and ready enough to see atui served by his only son's execution. Adzriel stood in his place now, though Seregil could not meet her eye yet. The other new member of the council was the khirnari of Golinil, Elos i Orian. Ulan i Sathil stood nearby, dignified and staid, his lined, angular face betraying nothing.
Beside Adzriel stood Rhaish i Arlisandin of Akhendi. His long hair was whiter than Seregil recalled, his face more deeply lined. Here was one dependable ally, at least, if not a powerful one.
With an effort, Seregil forced himself to look back at his sister, who stood closest to the Cup. She saw him but looked quickly away. — know that it is circumstance that prevents me, not coldness on my part. As he stood here, outside the circle, the assurance she'd sent him could not fill the void in his chest. Fighting down the choking sensation that suddenly gripped him, he hastily looked away.
At Klia's signal, Seregil and the others dismounted. Unbuckling her sword belt, Klia passed it to Beka and strode into the stone circle with the assurance of a general. Seregil followed a few paces behind with Thero and Torsin.
The magic of Sarikali was strongest here. Beside him, Seregil saw Thero's pale eyes widen slightly as palpable waves of it enfolded them. Klia must have felt it as well, but did not hesitate or break her stride. Halting before the Iia'sidra, she spread her hands, palms up, and said in perfectly accented Aurenfaie, "I come to you in the name of great Aura the Lightbearer, revealed to us as Illior, and on behalf of my mother, Idrilain the Second of Skala."
Ancient Brythir i Nien of Silmai stepped forward, thin and dry as
a dead willow branch. As the eldest member of the Iia'sidra, he spoke for all.
"Be welcome, Klia a Idrilain Elesthera Corruthesthera Rhiminee, Princess of Skala and descendent of Corruth i Glamien of Bokthersa," he replied, lifting a heavy necklace of gold and turquoise from his own neck and placing it around hers. "May the wisdom of the Lightbearer guide us in our endeavors."
Klia returned the gesture, giving him her girdle of golden plaques enameled with the Dragon of Illior. "May the Light shine in us."
Adzriel took up the Cup of Aura and filled it at the water's edge. Graceful in her white tunic and jewels, she raised it toward the sky, then presented it first to Klia, then Lord Torsin, Thero, and finally, to Seregil.
Seregil's fingers brushed his sister's as he accepted the Cup and raised it to his lips. The water was as cold and sweet on his tongue as he'd remembered. As he drank, however, his eyes met those of Nazien i Hari of Haman, grandfather of the man he'd killed. There was no welcome for him here.
Alec sat on his horse and listened as Nyal quietly named the various khirnari; all eleven wore white clothing and sen'gai for the ceremony, making it impossible to distinguish one clan from another.
There was one face Alec knew without being told, however. He'd met Adzriel once, just before the war, and watched with a thrill of excitement as she offered her brother the moon-shaped cup. What must they be feeling, he wondered, being so close at last, yet having to maintain such reserve?
Others were not so careful to guard their expressions. Several people exchanged dark glances as Seregil drank; a few others smiled. Among the latter was the first truly ancient Aurenfaie Alec had seen. The old man was thin to the point of gauntness, his eyes deeply sunk beneath sagging lids, and he moved with the caution born of frailty.
"That's Brythir i Nien of Silmai," Nyal told him. "He is four hundred and seventy if he's a day, an uncommon age even for us."
Still wrestling with the ramifications of his own heritage, Alec found the prospect of such a life span vaguely alarming.
Turning his attention to the nearest bystanders, he noted the sen'gai of several principal clans, as well as a scattering of minor ones. Though many wore tunics, others wore robes and long, flowing coats. The sen'gai were also diverse in style. Some were simple
strips of loose-woven cloth; others were fashioned of silk and edged with small tassels or metal ornaments. Each clan had its own manner of wrapping them, as well, some simple and close to the head, others piled into elaborate shapes.
He was most pleased to discover a small group wearing the modest dark green of Bokthersa. One of them, a young man with an incongruous streak of white in his hair, suddenly looked his way, as if he'd sensed Alec's gaze. He regarded Alec with friendly interest for a moment, then turned to whisper to an older couple. The man had a long, homely face. The woman was dark-eyed, with a thin, severe mouth that tilted into a warm smile as she looked Alec's way. She had facial tattoos, as well, though nothing as elaborate as those of the Khatme; just two horizontal lines beneath each eye. She nodded a greeting. Alec returned it, then looked away, suddenly self-conscious. It seemed they'd already guessed who he was.
"That woman who just greeted you is Seregil's third sister," Nyal murmured.
"Mydri a Illia?" asked Alec, surprised. This woman bore little resemblance to Adzriel or Seregil. "What do those marks on her face mean?"
"She has the healer's gift."
"What about the other people. So you know them?"
"I don't recognize the younger man, but I believe the elder is Adzriel's new husband, Saaban i Irais."
"Husband?" Alec looked at the Bokthersans again, then back at Nyal.
Nyal arched an eyebrow at him in surprise. "You did not know of this?"
"I don't think Seregil knows," said Alec. He hesitated a moment, then asked, "Are there any Chyptaulos here?"
"Oh, no. Because of liar's escape, theth'sag has never been settled between them and the Bokthersans; the bad blood between the two clans is still very bitter. For the Chyptaulos to come here would also be seen as insulting Klia's lineage."
"Lord Torsin said Seregil's presence may have the same effect."
"Perhaps," replied Nyal, "but Seregil has the more powerful allies."
When the ceremony of greeting was over, the khirnari dispersed, disappearing with their kin down one of the many streets that fanned out into the city.
Adzriel accompanied Klia from the circle. As soon as they were outside the stones, however, she and Mydri embraced Seregil, clutching the back of his coat with both hands as if fearing he'd be
spirited away. Seregil returned the embrace, his face hidden for a moment in their dark hair. The other Bokthersans joined them, and for a moment he was lost from sight in the happy, chattering group. Saaban was introduced, and Alec watched as a look of amazement came over his friend's face, followed at once by a grin of delight. It appeared that Seregil approved of the match.
Klia caught Alec's eye and grinned. Beka and Thero were trying not to be too obvious as they strained for their first glimpse of Seregil's family.
"To see you here again!" said Adzriel, holding her brother at arm's length. "And you, too, Alec tali." Extending a hand, she drew him close and kissed him soundly on both cheeks. "Welcome to Aurenen at last!
"But I'm forgetting my duty," she exclaimed, hastily wiping at her eyes. "Princess Klia, allow me to present the rest of the Bokthersan delegation. My sister, Mydri a Illia. My husband, Saaban i Irais. And this is Kheeta i Branin, a great friend of Seregil's youth who has kindly offered to serve as your equerry in Sarikali."
This last was the young man who had stared so openly at Alec during the ceremony. A great friend, indeed, it seemed. Seregil grabbed the younger man in a rough hug, grinning like a fool.
"Kheeta i Branin, is it?" he laughed. "I seem to remember getting into trouble with you a time or two."
"Two? You were the cause of half the beatings I ever received," Kheeta chuckled, hugging Seregil again.
Was this fellow one of the "youthful flirtations" Seregil had spoken of? Alec wondered.
"You'd better close your mouth before something flies into it," Beka whispered, poking him in the ribs.
Ducking his head self-consciously, Alec prayed that his thoughts hadn't been quite so obvious to anyone else.
Releasing Seregil, Kheeta gave Klia a respectful bow. "Honored kinswoman, quarters have been prepared for you in Bokthersa tupa. Whatever you need there, just ask me."
"Your house stands next to my own," Adzriel told her. "Will you dine with us tonight?"
"I'd like nothing better," replied Klia. "I can't tell you what a comfort it is to know that there is at least one khirnari of the Iia'sidra in whom I can place my complete trust."
"And here's another!" Mydri said as Amali a Yassara joined them, walking arm in arm with a white-garbed khirnari.
By the Four! thought Alec. He'd known that Amali's husband was older than she, but this man could have been her grandfather. His face was deeply lined around the eyes and mouth, and the scant hair showing beneath his white sen'gai was the color of iron. If his wife's proud smile and glowing eyes were anything to go by, however, age was no barrier to affection.
"Klia i Idrilain, this is my husband, Rhaish i Arlisandin, khirnari of Akhendi clan," Amali said, positively beaming.
Yet another round of introductions ensued, and Alec soon found himself clasping hands with the man.
"Ah, the young Hazadrielfaie himself!" Rhaish exclaimed. "Surely it is a sign from the Lightbearer that your princess comes to us with such a companion!" Without releasing Alec's hand, he raised his other to touch the dragon bite on Alec's ear. "Yes, Aura has marked you for all to see."
"You're embarrassing poor Alec, my love!" Amali said, patting her husband's arm as if he were her grandfather after all.
"I'm grateful to be here, whatever the reason," Alec replied.
The conversation mercifully turned to other things and Alec retreated back among the Urgazhi. Nyal was there, too, but had not come forward to greet the Akhendi. Instead, he watched from a distance, his face somber as he followed Amali with his eyes.
"My wife speaks most affectionately of you, dear lady," Rhaish was saying to Klia. "It is a great event, having Skalans on Aurenfaie soil after so long an absence. Pray Aura we may see more of your people here in the future."
"You and your family must feast with us tonight, Khirnari," Adzriel offered. "Both in thanks for your kind escort of my kinswoman and her people, and because Klia can have no better ally than you."
"The hospitality of Bokthersa is always an honor, my dear," Rhaish replied. "We will leave you now to settle your guests in. Until tonight, my friends."
Leaving Seregil to his family, Alec rode beside Beka.
"What do you think of it all so far?" he asked in Skalan.
She shook her head. "I can still hardly believe we're really here. I expect any minute for one of those dark-skinned ghosts of Seregil's to pop into sight."
Rounding a corner, Alec glanced up and saw someone watching
them, but it wasn't Bash'wai spirits. Several white-clad khirnari stood on a balcony high above the street. He couldn't see faces clearly at this angle, but he had the uneasy feeling that they were not smiling.
"The Skalan queen sends a child led by children!" Ruen i Uri of Datsia declared as he stood with Ulan i Sathil and Nazien i Hari, watching the Skalans ride past.
Ulan i Sathil allowed himself the hint of a smile. Ruen had supported this parley with Skala; the introduction of a little doubt suited his purposes nicely.
"You must not be deceived by their apparent youth," he warned. "The celadon fly hatches, mates, and dies in a day, but in the narrow space of that same day, it breeds hundreds of its kind, and its sting can kill a horse. So it is with the short-lived Tir."
"Look at him!" Nazien i Hari muttered, glaring down at the hated Exile riding freely through the streets. "Queen's kin or not, it's an affront to bring my grandson's murderer here. Can the Tir be such fools?"
"It's an affront to all Aurenen," Ulan agreed, never letting on that he had voted in favor of Seregil's temporary return.
Rhaish i Arlisandin slipped an arm about his young wife's waist and kissed her as they walked slowly toward Akhendi tupa.
"Your journey has agreed with you, talia. Tell me your impressions of Klia and her people."
Amali toyed with the amber amulet lying against his chest. "The Skalan princess is intelligent, forthright, and honest. Torsin i Xandus you know. As for the others?" She sighed. "As you saw, poor Alec is a child playing at being a man. Ya'shel or not, he is so innocent, so open, that I fear for him. Thank Aura he is of no real importance. But the wizard—he's a strange, deep fellow. We must not underestimate him, in spite of his youth. He will not show his true powers."
"And the Exile?"
Amali frowned. "He's not what I expected. Under that respectful manner lies a proud, angry heart. He's grown too wise for his years among the Tir, and from what my men picked up among the Skalans, there's more to him than meets the eye. It's fortunate that his goals are the same as our own, but I don't trust him. What does
the Iia'sidra say of him? Will his presence here present an obstacle?"
"It's too soon to say." Rhaish walked on a moment in silence, then asked blandly, "And what of young Nyal i Nhekai? Such a long ride must have given you opportunity to renew your acquaintance."
Amali colored. "We spoke, of course. It seems he's quite taken with Klia's red-haired captain."
"Is that jealousy, talia?" he teased..
"How can you ask such a thing?"
"Forgive me." He pulled her closer. "Besotted with a Tirfaie, you say? How extraordinary! That could prove useful."
"Perhaps. I think our hope is well placed in Klia, if she can impress the Iia'sidra as she has me. She must!" Amali sighed, pressing a hand to the slight swell of her belly where their first child was growing. "By Aura, so much depends on her success. May the Lightbearer's favor lie with us."
"Indeed," he murmured, smiling sadly at the strong faith of youth. Too often it was the god's will that men make their own favor in the world.
11 SETTLING IN
Alec's heart sank a little when Adzriel pointed out their guest house. Tall, narrow, and topped with some sort of small, open-sided structure, the house loomed ominously against the late-afternoon sky.
Inside, he found little to alter his opinion. Though well appointed and staffed by smiling Bokthersans, the place had a shadowed, oppressive feel—not at all like the airy comfort of Gedre.
What in the world makes them think this place is beautiful? he wondered again, but kept his opinions to himself as Kheeta guided them through the house. The warren of dimly lit rooms were stacked at odd levels and connected by narrow corridors and galleries that seemed to all slant to some disconcerting degree. Interior rooms had no windows, while the outer ones opened onto broad balconies, many without the privacy of draperies or screens.
"Your Bash'wai had an interesting concept of architecture," Alec grumbled to Seregil, stumbling over an unexpected rise in a passageway.
The interior walls were crafted of the same patterned stone as the outer ones. Accustomed to the rich murals and statuary of Skala, it struck Alec as odd that a people would leave no pictorial record of their daily life.
A large reception hall took up much of the ground floor. Smaller rooms behind it were appointed for private use. At the back lay several bathing chambers and an enormous kitchen that overlooked a walled stable yard. This was flanked on the right by the stables, and to the left by a low stone building that would serve as a barracks for Beka's turma. A back gate let out onto an alley between this house and Adzriel's.
Klia, Torsin, and Thero had rooms on the second floor. Alec and Seregil had a large room to themselves on the third. Cavernous despite the colorful Aurenfaie furnishings, its high ceiling was lost in shadow.
Alec discovered a narrow staircase at the end of the hallway and followed it up to a flat roof and the octagonal stone pavilion that stood there.
Arched openings on each of its eight walls afforded pleasant views of the valley. Inside, smooth blocks of black stone served as benches and tables. Standing there alone, he could easily imagine the house's original inhabitants sitting around him, enjoying the cool of the evening. For an instant he could almost hear the lost echo of voices and footsteps, the rise and fall of music played on unknown instruments.
The scuff of leather against stone startled him and he jerked around to find Seregil grinning at him from the doorway.
"Dreaming with your eyes open?" he asked, crossing to the window that overlooked Adzriel's house.
"I guess so. What's this thing called?"
"It feels haunted."
Seregil draped an arm around Alec's shoulders. "And so it is, but there's nothing to fear. Sarikali is a city dreaming, and sometimes she talks in her sleep. If you listen long enough, sometimes you can hear her." Turning Alec slightly, he pointed across to a small balcony near the top of his sister's house. "See that window up there, to the right? That was my room. I used to sit there for hours at a time, just listening."
Alec pictured the restless grey-eyed boy Seregil must have been, chin propped on one hand as he listened for alien music seeping from the night air. "Is that when you heard them?"
Seregil's arm tightened around his shoulders. "Yes," he murmured, and for one brief moment his face looked as wistful as that lost child's. Before Alec could do more than register the emotion, however, Seregil was his old bantering self again. "I came to tell
you that the baths are prepared. Come down as soon as you're ready."
And with that he was gone.
Alec lingered a bit, listening, but heard only the familiar bustle of his fellow travelers settling in.
Beka declined a room in the main house in favor of a small side room in the barracks.
"I haven't seen a decent fortification since we got here," Mercalle grumbled, looking the place over.
"Makes you wonder what happened to those Bash'wai folks," Braknil observed. "Anyone could ride in and take the place."
"I'm no happier about it than you are, but it can't be helped," said Beka. "Get watch fires started, give the place a thorough inspection, and set guards at all entrances. We'll rotate everyone between guard duty here, escort detail for Klia, and free time. That ought to keep them from getting bored too quickly."
"I'll keep those off duty to standard city drill," said Mercalle. "No less than three in a group, old hands watching out for the new ones, and keep them close to home for the first few days until we see how warm our welcome really is. Judging by some of the Aurenfaie I saw today, there's likely to be a bit of chest thumping."
"Well said, Sergeant. Pass the word, all of you; if there is any trouble with the 'faie, Commander Klia doesn't want steel drawn unless life is about to be lost. Is that clear?"
"As spring rain, Captain," Sergeant Rhylin assured her. "It's better politics to take a punch than to give one."
Beka sighed. "Let's hope it never comes to that. We've got enough enemies back over the sea."
Entering the long main room of the barracks, she found Nyal stowing his modest pack next to one of the pallets.
"You're bunking in with us, then?" she asked, feeling another odd little flutter below her breastbone.
"Shouldn't I?" he asked, reaching uncertainly for his pack again.
From the corner of her eye she saw Kallas and Steb exchange knowing grins. "We still need you, of course," she replied tersely. "I'll have to consider how to assign you, now that we'll be splitting into details. Perhaps Lady Adzriel can find me another interpreter or two. We can't expect you to be everywhere at once, can we?"
"I shall do my best to be, nonetheless, Captain," he replied with a
wink. But his Smile faltered as he added, "I think it might be best if I don't attend the feast tonight, though. You and your people will be well looked after by the Bokthersans."
"Why not?" asked Beka, surprised. "You're living here in Adzriel's tupa. I'm sure she'd welcome you in her house."
The Ra'basi hesitated. "May we speak privately?"
Beka ushered him into her side room and closed the door. "What's the problem?"
"It is not the Bokthersans who would not welcome me, Captain, but the Akhendi. More specifically, their khirnari, Rhaish i Arlisandin. You see, Amali a Yassara and I were lovers for a time, before she married him."
The news sank in like a kick in the gut. What's the matter with me? I barely know the man! Beka thought, struggling to remain dispassionate. Instead, she suddenly recalled with merciless clarity how Nyal had kept his distance from Amali during the journey from Gedre when he had been so friendly with everyone else, and how he had faded into the background when her husband appeared at the Vhadasoori.
"Are you still in love with her?" She wished the words back as soon as she spoke them.
Nyal looked away with a sad, shy smile. "I regret the choice she made, and will always consider myself her friend."
Yes, then. Beka folded her arms and sighed. "It must have been uncomfortable—being thrown together again this way."
Nyal shrugged. "She and I—it was a long time ago, and most agreed that she made a wise choice. Still, her husband is jealous, the way old men are. It's best that I stay in tonight."
"Very well." On impulse, she laid a hand on his arm as he turned to go. "And thank you for telling me this."
"Oh, I think it would have been necessary sooner or later to say something," he murmured, and was gone.
Sakor's Flame, woman, are you losing your mind? Beka berated herself silently, pacing the tiny room. You barely know the man and you 're mooning over him like a jealous kitchen maid. Once this mission is over you'll never see him again.
Ah, but those eyes, and that voice! her mutinous heart replied.
He's a Ra'basi, for all his traveling, she countered. By all reports that clan was expected to support Viresse. And Seregil obviously distrusted Nyal, though he hadn't come out and said so.
"Too many months without a man," Beka growled aloud. That
was easy enough to remedy, and without all the bother of falling in love. Love, she'd learned through harsh experience, was a luxury she could not afford.
Freshly bathed and brushed, Alec and Seregil headed downstairs to meet the others in the main hall.
Reaching the landing at the second floor, however, Seregil paused. "I'd feel better if we were down here, closer to Klia," he noted, walking the length of the crooked corridor where the other guest rooms lay. At the far end was another stairway, with a window overlooking the rear yard. "This goes down to the kitchen, as I recall," said Seregil, following it down.
Wending their way past baskets of vegetables, they greeted the cooks and were directed down a passageway to the main hall at the front of the house. Klia, Kheeta, and Thero were there already, sitting next to a cheerful blaze on the hearth.
"It's too bad, having Akhendi there his first night with—" Thero was saying to Kheeta, but broke off when he caught sight of them.
"Hospitality must be served," Kheeta murmured tactfully, giving Seregil a knowing look that sent a niggling little jolt through Alec's gut. The two men may not have seen each other for forty years, but an undeniable rapport remained between them.
"Of course," Seregil agreed, brushing the matter aside. "Waiting for Lord Torsin, are we?"
And changing the subject as quickly as ever, too, thought Alec.
"He should be down in a moment," Klia said. The sound of cheers echoing down the back corridor just then.
"Ah, yes, and Captain Beka, too," Klia added with a knowing wink.
A moment later Beka strode in dressed in a brown velvet gown. Her unbound hair had been brushed until it shone and she even had on golden earrings and a necklace. It suited her, but if her expression was anything to go by, she didn't agree. Sergeant Mercalle came in just behind her, grinning broadly at her captain's unease.
"No wonder your riders were cheering," Kheeta exclaimed. "For a moment there I scarcely recognized you."
"Adzriel sent word that I was included among the guests," Beka explained, blushing as she flicked an imaginary bit of lint from her skirts. She looked up in time to catch Alec and Thero staring and bristled. "What are you gawking at? You've seen me in a dress before."
Alec exchanged a sheepish glance with the wizard. "Yes, but not for a long time."
"You look very—pretty," Thero hazarded, and got a dark look for his trouble.
"Indeed you do, Captain," chuckled Klia. "An officer on the rise has to know how to carry herself in the salon as well as in the field. Isn't that right, Sergeant?"
Mercalle came to attention. "It is, my lady, though this war hasn't given the younger officers much opportunity for anything except fighting."
Torsin came down the main stair and gave Beka an approving nod. "You do your princess and your country honor, Captain."
"Thank you, my lord," Beka replied, softening a bit.
Adzriel had included Klia's entire entourage in her invitation, and everyone was in high spirits as they walked over, even Seregil.
"It's about time I brought you to meet my family," he said, grinning crookedly as he slipped an arm around Alec and Beka.
Adzriel greeted them, flanked by her husband and sister. "Welcome, welcome at last, and Aura's light shine on you," she cried, clasping hands with each in turn as they entered. Seregil and Alec were soundly kissed on both cheeks. The word «brother» was not spoken but seemed to hover on the air like a Bash'wai spirit.
"The Akhendi and Gedre are here already," Mydri told them as they walked through several elegant chambers to a large courtyard beyond. "Amali is very taken with you, Klia. She's talked of nothing else since she got here."
This house was larger, but seemed to Alec to be more welcoming, as if centuries of habitation by this family had imbued the harsh stone with something of their own warmth.
Low, two-person couches for the highest ranking guests had been set out on a broad stone platform above an overgrown garden, positioned so that the members of the dinner party could watch the moon rise over the towers of Sarikali. Alec counted twenty-three people wearing the colors of Bokthersa, and half again as many Akhendi and Gedre. The riders who'd accompanied Klia over the pass were seated at long tables in the garden among banks of fragrant, funnel-shaped white flowers. They called out happily to the Urgazhi, making space for them among their ranks.
Amali was already stretched prettily beside her husband. She had not warmed to Seregil during the long ride, and showed no signs of thawing now. Alec was glad to be seated several couches away from her, near Adzriel and the Gedre khirnari.
Sitting down next to Seregil, however, he studied the Akhendi khirnari with interest. Rhaish i Arlisandin sat with one arm clasped
loosely around his wife, clearly pleased to be with her after a long absence. Looking up at Alec, he smiled. "Amali tells me you were the luckbringer of the journey?"
"What? Oh, this." Alec raised a hand to the dragon bite on his ear. "Yes, my lord. It was a bit of a surprise."
Rhaish arched an eyebrow at Seregil. "I would have thought you'd have told him all about such things."
Alec was close enough to feel Seregil tense, though he doubted anyone else noticed. "I've been very remiss, but I've always found it painful to—remember."
Rhaish raised a hand in what appeared to be some benediction. "May your time here be one of healing," he offered kindly.
"Thank you, Khirnari."
"You must sit with me as a most honored guest, Beka a Kari," Mydri invited, patting the empty place beside her. "Your family took our—took Seregil in. The Cavish clan will always be welcome at the hearths of Bokthersa."
"I hope we can offer your people the same hospitality one day," Beka returned. "Seregil has been a great friend to us, and saved my father's life many times."
"Usually because I'd gotten him into trouble in the first place," Seregil added, drawing laughter from many of the other guests.
Servants brought in trays of food and wine as Adzriel made introductions. Alec quickly lost track of the names but noted with interest the various Bokthersans. Many were referred to as cousins; such terms often indicated ties of affection rather than blood. One of these people turned out to be Kheeta's mother, a dark-eyed woman who reminded Alec of Kari Cavish.
She shook a finger sternly at Seregil. "You broke our hearts, Haba, but only because we loved you so." The stern look gave way to a tearful smile as she embraced him. "It is so very good to see you in this house again. Come to the kitchen anytime and I'll bake spice cakes for you."
"I'll make you keep that promise, Aunt Malli," Seregil replied huskily, kissing the backs of her hands.
Alec knew he was seeing glimpses of a history he did not share. As the old familiar ache threatened to close around his heart, however, he felt long fingers close over his own. For once, Seregil understood and offered silent apology.
The meal began informally with several courses of finger foods: morsels of spiced meat or cheese wrapped in pastry, olives, fruit, fanciful nosegays of edible greens and flowers.
"Turab, a Bokthersan specialty," a server murmured, filling Alec's cup with a frothy reddish ale.
Seregil clinked his cup against Alec's, murmuring, "My tali."
Meeting his friend's gaze over the rim of his cup, Alec saw an odd mix of joy and sadness there.
"I'd like to hear of this war from you, Captain," said Adzriel's husband, Saaban i Irais, as a course of meats was served. "And from you, as well, Klia a Idrilain, if it is not too upsetting to speak of it. There are many Bokthersans who will join your ranks if the Iia'sidra allows." Judging by the worried frown that crossed Adzriel's face, Alec guessed that Saaban might be one of them.
"The more I see of your people, the more I wonder why they would risk themselves in a foreign conflict," Beka replied.
"Not all would, or will," he conceded. "But there are those who would rather meet the Plenimarans now than fight them and the Zengati on our own soil later."
"We can use all the help we can get," said Klia. "For now, however, let's keep the darkness away and speak of happier things."
As the evening progressed and the turab flowed, conversation turned to reminiscences of Seregil's childhood exploits. Kheeta i Branin figured in a good many of these tales, and Alec was surprised to learn that the man was actually a few years older than Seregil. Seregil had moved to Kheeta's couch to share some story, and Alec studied the pair and those around them, trying yet again to get his mind around the long 'faie life span that he himself shared. Adzriel and her husband, he knew, were in their twelfth decade, a youthful prime among the Aurenfaie. The oldest guest, a Gedre named Corim, was in his third century and looked no older than Micum Cavish, at least at first glance.
It s the eyes, Alec thought. There was a stillness in the eyes of the older 'faire, as if the knowledge and wisdom of their long lives left its mark there—one that Kheeta did not yet show. Seregil, though—he had old eyes in a young face, as if he'd seen too much too soon.
And so he has, just in the time I've known him, Alec reflected. By the time they'd met, Seregil had already lived a human lifetime and seen a human generation age and die. He'd made a name for himself while the friends of his youth were still finishing out their long childhoods. Seeing him here, among his own kind, Alec realized for the first time just how young his friend actually was. What did his own people see when they looked at Seregil?
Or at me?
Seregil threw his head back, laughing, and for a moment he looked as innocent as Kheeta. It was good to see him like that, but Alec couldn't keep away the darker thought that this was how he might have been if he'd never gone to Skala.
"You're as solemn as Aura's owl, and as quiet," Mydri observed, sitting down next to him and taking his hand.
"I'm still trying to believe I'm really here," Alec replied.
"So am I," she said, and another of those unexpectedly warm smiles softened her stern features.
"Can the ban of exile ever be lifted?" Alec asked, keeping his voice low.
Mydri sighed. "It happens, especially with one so young. Still, it would take a petition from the Haman khirnari to begin the debate, and that doesn't seem very likely. The Haman are an honorable people, but they are proud in a way that breeds bitterness. Old Nazien is no exception. He still grieves at the loss of his grandson and resents Seregil's return."
"By the Light, you're a grim pair," Seregil called over, and Alec realized that he was drunk, a rarity for Seregil.
"Are we?" Mydri shot back, a gleam of challenge in her eyes. "Tell me, Alec, does Seregil still have his fine singing voice?"
"As fine as any bard's," Alec told her, giving Seregil a teasing wink.
"Sing for us, tali!" Adzriel urged, overhearing. At her signal, a servant came forward with something large and flat wrapped in patterned silk and placed it in Seregil's hands.
He unwrapped it with a knowing smile. It was a harp, its dark wood polished with use.
"We kept it for you, all these years," Mydri told him as he settled it against his chest and ran his fingers across the strings.
He plucked out a simple tune that drew tearful smiles from his sisters, then moved on to a complex tune, fingers flying across the strings as melody followed melody. Even drunk and out of practice, he played beautifully.
After a moment he paused, then began the exile's lament he'd sung the first time he'd spoken to Alec of Aurenen.
My love is wrapped in a cloak of flowing green
and wears the moon for a crown. And all around has chains of flowing silver.
Her mirrors reflect the sky. O, to roam your flowing cloak of green
under the light of the ever-crowning moon.
Will I ever drink of your chains of flowing silver and drift once more across your mirrors of the sky?
"A bard's voice, indeed," said Saaban, dabbing at his eyes with the edge of his sleeve. "With such power to move the emotions, I hope you know happier tunes."
"A few," Seregil said. "Alec, give us the harmony on 'Fair Rises My Lover. »
The Skalan song was warmly received, and more instruments appeared as if on cue.
"Where's Urien?" Seregil demanded, squinting out into the garden at the soldiers. "Someone give that boy a lute!"
This broke through the Urgazhi's reticence. The young rider's friends all but carried the blushing musician forward, demanding favorite ballads as if they were at a crossroads tavern.
"For the pride of the decuria, rider!" Mercalle ordered with mock severity.
Urien accepted an Aurenfaie lute and smoothed an admiring hand over its round back.
"For the pride of the turma," he said, striking a chord. "This is from before my time with the Urgazhi."
Ghost wolves they call us, and Ghost Wolves we are. Drawn to the enemy by a plague star Fighting and burning, deep in their lines Our Captain was fearless, we followed behind.
Death and dark magic, demons she faced, Under the black sun, in that dread lonely place. The black shields of Plenimar, rank upon rank Until their Duke Mardus, in his blood sank.
Alec watched in dismay as Seregil's smile froze and Thero went pale. One of several ballads that extolled the Urgazhi's early exploits, this one spoke of Nysander's death. Fortunately, Beka caught on at once.
"Enough, enough!" she begged, masking her concern with a comic grimace. "By the Four, Urien, of all the grim, threadbare ballads to choose! Give us 'Illior's Face Upon the Waters' to honor our good hosts."
The chagrined rider nodded and commenced the tune, playing each flourish flawlessly. Seregil moved to sit by Alec again.
"You looked as. if you'd seen a ghost. Are you all right?" he whispered, as if the previous song had not affected him.
The song ended and Kheeta held a harp out to Klia.
"What about you, my lady?»
"Oh, no! I have the voice of a crow. Thero, didn't I hear you sing a passable ballad after our victory at Two Horse Crossing?"
"I'd had a bit more to drink then, my lady," the wizard replied, thin cheeks coloring as all eyes turned his way.
"Don't be shy!" Sergeant Braknil called out. "We heard you sing sober aboard the Zyria."
"All the same, perhaps our hosts would prefer a small demonstration of Third Oreska magic? " Thero countered.
"Very well," laughed Mydri.
Thero produced a pouch of fine white sand and sprinkled it in a circle on the ground in front of the couches. Using his crystal wand, he wove a series of glowing sigils over it. Instead of the tidy configurations he usually produced, however, they swelled and bulged, then exploded with enough force to scatter the sand and knock wine cups in all directions. Thero dropped the wand with a startled yelp and stuck his fingers in his mouth.
Alec stifled a laugh; the normally reserved wizard looked like a cat that had just slipped on a patch of ice, chagrined and determined to regain his dignity before anyone noticed. Seregil shook with silent laughter beside him.
"My apologies!" Thero exclaimed in dismay. "I–I can't imagine what happened."
"The fault is mine. I should have warned you," Adzriel assured him, clearly fighting down a smile of her own. "Magic must be performed with great care here. The power of Sarikali feeds into our own, making magic sometimes unpredictable. All the more so in your case, evidently."
"So I see." Thero retrieved his wand and tucked it in his belt. After a moment's thought, he sprinkled more sand and tried the spell again, drawing the sigils with his fingers this time. The patterns hung in the air a few inches above the ground, then coalesced into a flat disk of silvery light as big around as a serving platter. He added another sigil, and the smooth surface took on a mottled array of sun-washed colors, then resolved itself into a miniature city set high above a miniature harbor.
"How wonderful!" exclaimed Amali, leaning forward to admire his creation. "What place is it?"
"Rhiminee, my lady," he replied.
"That sprawling black-and-grey monstrosity is the queen's Palace, my home," Klia remarked dryly. "While this lovely white structure over here, the one with the sparkling dome and towers, is the Oreska House."
"I visited it during my time in Rhiminee," said Adzriel. "As I recall, the wizards of Skala were originally scattered around your land, some solitary, others serving various noble houses."
"Yes, my lady; what we called the Second Oreska. After the old capital, Ero, was destroyed, Queen Tamir founded Rhiminee and forged an alliance with the greatest wizards of her day, the Third Oreska. They helped build her city and other wonders; in return she gifted them with her patronage and the land for the Oreska House."
"Then it is true that those among you with magic are kept apart from others?" an Akhendi asked.
"No, not at all," Thero replied. "It's just that we are so different by virtue of that magic and its effect on us—life spans comparable to your own, and the barrenness that is its price—that it was good to have a haven, a place where we could live and share our learning among ourselves. Wizards are not required to live there, but many choose to. I spent most of my life there, in the tower of my master, Nysander i Azusthra. Wizards are highly honored in Skala, I assure you."
"Yet do you not find it sad, to be cut off from the natural flow of life among your own kind?" the same Akhendi asked.
Thero considered this and shrugged. "No, not really. I've never known any other life."
"Rhaish and I visited your city as boys," Riagil i Molan told Klia. "We went to attend the wedding of Corruth i Glamien to your ancestress, Idrilain the First. We were taken to visit this Oreska House of yours. Rhaish, do you recall that wizard who did tricks for us?"
"Oriena, I think her name was," the Akhendi khirnari replied. "It was a beautiful place, with gardens where it was always springtime, and a great mosaic on the floor showing Aura's dragon. The queen's Palace was much darker, with thick walls like a fortress."
"Which only goes to prove that my ancestor, Queen Tamir, should have included more wizards among her builders," Klia said, smiling.
"I should like to see this Third Oreska," said Amali.
"With pleasure, my lady, though it is a less happy place now than it once was." Thero uttered a quick command, and the city's image was replaced with a view of the Oreska gardens. A few robed
figures were visible there, but the place looked strangely deserted. The scene shifted, and Alec recognized the view of the central atrium from the balcony by Nysander's tower door. Sections of the dragon mosaic still showed the damage caused by the attack of Mardus and his necromancers. Here, too, there were fewer people than Alec remembered from his time there,
"This is how it looks now?" Seregil asked softly.
"Yes." Thero changed the image again, showing them Seregil's Wheel Street villa.
"My Skalan home," Seregil said with a hint of irony.
What would they see if Thero conjured up their true home? Alec wondered. Was the blackened cellar hole still there, or had some new establishment been built over the ruins?
"I know a similar magic," said Saaban. A servant brought him a large silver basin mounted on a tripod. Filling it with water, he blew gently across it. Ripples ridged the surface for an instant, then cleared, leaving in their wake a view of green forests below snowcapped peaks. On a hill overlooking a broad lake lay a white sprawl of interconnected stone buildings similar to the khirnari's house at Gedre, but much larger and more elaborate. A town spread down the hill from it to the water's edge. At the forest's edge, a pillared temple stood in a grove of white birches, its domed roof gleaming in the brilliant sunlight that bathed the scene.
"Bokthersa!" breathed Seregil. "I've forgotten so much."
The image faded and more turab was poured. Seregil drank deeply.
"We saw a bit of Akhendi magic as we passed through your fai'thast, Khirnari," Klia told Rhaish i Arlisandin, holding up her left wrist to show him the carved leaf hanging there.
"They're periapts, aren't they?" asked Thero, who wore a similar one.
"Very good," the khirnari said, acknowledging him with a nod. "It is the knots as much as the amulet itself that hold the magic. Either by itself does not work."
"I'd like to learn how they're made, if that's allowed. We have nothing quite like them in Skala."
"But of course! It's quite a common skill among my folk, though some are better at it than others." Rhaish turned to his wife. "Talia, you have a way with such things. Have you the makings with you?"
"I'm never without them." Amali moved to sit next to the wizard and produced a hank of thin leather laces from a purse at her belt. "It's simply a matter of knowing the patterns," she explained. With
one smooth gesture, she pulled the laces through her hand and produced a short band of intricate weave, far more complex than any the Skalans had seen so far. "The second pass sets the amulet, according to the needs of the intended wearer." She took out a small pouch and spilled a collection of little wooden carvings onto her lap. She gazed at Thero a moment, then chose a simple, tapered plaque carved with an eye symbol. "For wisdom," she told him, setting the charm into the weave and tying it around his wrist.
"One can never have enough of that," laughed Klia.
Amali quickly created another and presented it to her, this one with a bird charm very similar to ones Alec and Torsin wore. "It's just a simple binding spell. It warns if someone is ill-wishing you."
"I've found those to be of use many times," Torsin remarked, showing her his. "I only wish the Oreska wizards had the knack for them."
"Can you tell me what these are?" asked Klia, showing her the carved leaf charm and another made from an acorn strung on a few twisted strands. "I couldn't understand a word of what the woman who made them said."
Amali examined them and smiled. "These are more trinkets or luck pieces than charms, but given with a loving heart. The leaf is for good health; the acorn symbolizes a fertile womb."
"I'll take the health, but I'd best save this other for later." Klia untied the acorn charm and tucked it away.
"And you say this magic is possessed only by Akhendi?" asked Thero, examining a charm on his own wrist with interest.
"Others can sometimes learn a few tricks, but it's our clan's gift— magic using knots, weaving, or bindings." Amali handed him a few laces. "Care to try?"
"But how?" he asked.
"Just think of someone here and will the laces to weave for them."
After several unsuccessful tries, Thero managed to knot two strands into an uneven tangle.
Rhaish chuckled. "Well, perhaps with practice. Allow me to show you something rather more sophisticated."
He walked down into the garden and returned with a handful of flowering vines. Taking a gold ring from his finger, he threaded some of the vine through it, then pressed both between his hands. The vine turned to geld before their eyes, each delicate blossom and leaf gleaming like fine jeweler's work. Rhaish wove it into a wreath and presented it to Klia.
"It's lovely!" she exclaimed, placing it on her head. "How wonderful it must be, to create such beauty with such ease."
"Ah, but nothing is ever as easy as it seems. The real magic is in hiding the effort."
The conversation rambled on over the wine, as if they'd all gathered for an evening of simple pleasure. Presently, however, Klia gently brought them back to business.
"Honored friends, Lord Torsin i Xandus had describe to me his impressions of the Iia'sidra's stand regarding our arrival. I would be most interested to hear your thoughts."
Adzriel tapped a long finger against her chin as she considered the question, and Alec was again struck by the strong resemblance she bore to her brother.
"It's too soon to tell," she replied. "While you may be certain of the support of Bokthersa and Akhendi, or the opposition of Viresse, there are still many who remain undecided. Your goal is to gain aide for your embattled country. Yet what you ask requires us to violate the Edict of Separation, thus embroiling you unwittingly in a debate that has been festering here for years."
"It doesn't have to," Klia countered. "One more open port— that's all we're asking for."
"One port or a dozen; it's all the same," said Riagil. "The Khatme and their supporters want to bar all foreigners from Aurenen soil. Then you have the Viresse; Ulan i Sathil will oppose any change that challenges his monopoly on northern shipping."
"And those who have come to rely on his good favor to market their own wares are being cowed with subtleties not to oppose him," the Akhendi khirnari added, his face darkening with anger. "Whatever you do, never underestimate Ulan i Sathil."
"I remember him well, from the negotiations with the Zengati," said Seregil. "He could charm the stones from the earth, but behind that silky manner lurks the will and the patience of a dragon."
"I've come up against that will many times over the years," Torsin said with a rueful chuckle.
"Who are his surest allies?" asked Thero.
Adzriel shrugged expressively. "Golinil and Lhapnos, without question. Golinil because of blood ties."
"And Lhapnos because they stand to lose valuable trade routes if Gedre opens and northern goods no longer must be shipped down Lhapnos's great river and up the coast to Viresse instead of the short way over our mountains," Rhaish i Arlisandin added.
"That is true, but I still say it is the Edict itself which creates the greatest opposition," said Mydri.
"But that came about because of the murder of Lord Corruth,
didn't it?" asked Alec. "Seregil and I proved who killed him. Hasn't honor—atui—been served?"
She shook her head sadly. "That was not the reason for the Edict, only the catalyst. From the time of the first contact between the Tir and the Aurenfaie, many of our race have resisted mingling with Tir of any sort. For some it is a matter of atui. Others, like the Khatme, claim it is the will of Aura. What it comes down to, however, is the simple drive to preserve our kind."
"Against the making of ya'shel like me, you mean?" said Alec.
"Yes, Alec i Amasa. As much as you resemble the 'faie, the years run differently in your blood—it shows already in the fact that you are almost man-grown at nineteen. That will slow as you get older, but look at Seregil, and Kheeta; three times your age, but not so far ahead. You are neither Aurenfaie nor Tirfaie, but a mingling of both. There are those who feel that more is lost than gained by such a breeding.
"But I think it's the Skalan wizards who concern them most of all," she went on, looking at Thero. "The wizards of Skala call themselves the Third Oreska. The First Oreska is my own race. The mingling of blood gave your people magic, but it also changed that magic over the years. The barrenness of your kind is only part of that change. You can move objects, even people, over great distances, some of you, and read thoughts, a practice strictly forbidden here. You have lost the power of healing, as well." Mydri touched the marks on her cheeks. "This is left to priests of other gods."
"The drysians," Seregil said.
"Yes, the drysians. The only vestiges of that gift seem to exist among the Plenimarans, who took the gift of Aura and mingled it with the black cults of Seriamaius to create necromancy, the perversion of healing."
"This was all being debated generations ago," Adzriel explained. "Corruth's disappearance was only the final puff of wind that caused the smoldering tinder to ignite. Our people still trade with lands to the south and west of Aurenen. The reason they were not included in the ban is that there is no magic among the ya'shel bred of their kind."
Thero blinked in surprise. "No magic?"
"None that they did not already possess," Saaban amended. "Thus, the existence of the Third Oreska itself remains an impediment in the minds of some, no matter how persuasive your argument. But to answer your original question, those who stand now against you are Viresse, Golinil, Lhapnos, and Khatme, four of the Eleven already."
"What about Ra'basi?" asked Alec, thinking of Nyal. "They border Viresse to the south, don't they?"
"Moriel a Moriel has not stated her clan's position openly, nor have the Haman, for whom the opening of Gedre would almost certainly work to advantage. They have withheld support out of loyalty to their allies in Lhapnos."
"And to spite Bokthersa," Seregil said quietly.
Saaban nodded. "That, as well. Ill will still clouds their judgment. The Silmai, Datsia, and Bry'kha are also elusive; as far west as they are, with trade to the west and south and blood ties mostly among themselves, they have little to gain or lose."
"Who among those three has the most influence?" asked Klia.
"Brythir i Nien of Silmai is the Elder of the Iia'sidra, greatly respected by all," said Mydri, and others nodded agreement around the circle.
"Then perhaps Aura is smiling on our endeavors, after all," said Klia. "We dine with him tomorrow."
The gathering moved indoors as the night air cooled. Alec overheard Thero, Mydri, and Saaban comparing spells and would have joined them, but found himself cornered by a succession of well-intentioned Bokthersans. Across the room, Seregil was just visible in a small crowd of well-wishers.
On his own for the moment, Alec soon gave up trying to keep track of the intricate family connections each new acquaintance listed off to him.
"If the ban of exile is ever lifted, you can be initiated into our clan as his talimenios, you know," a woman informed him in the course of one such conversation.
"That would be a great honor. I was also hoping to trace who my mother's people were."
The faces around him grew solemn. "Not to know your family line, that is a great tragedy," the woman said, patting his hand kindly.
"How long have you been talimenios?" asked Kheeta, coming over to join them.
"Two years," Alec told him, watching for a reaction.
But Kheeta merely nodded approvingly as he looked across at Seregil. "It's good to see him happy at last."
"Where are Seregil's other sisters?"
Kheeta made a sour face. "Adzriel brought only Bokthersans who accept Seregil's return. Don't be misled by what you see here.
There are a great many who don't. Shalar and Ilina count themselves among that group. I suppose it's understandable with Shalar; she was in love with a Haman and the match was forbidden after— well, the trouble. As for Ilina, she and Seregil were closest in age, but they never got on."
More discord; no wonder Seregil never spoke of his past.
"What about Saaban? Seregil didn't know that he'd married Adzriel, but he seems quite happy with her choice."
"They knew one another before Seregil was sent away. Saaban and Adzriel have been friends for years. He's a man of great honor and intelligence, as well as possessing a keen gift for magic."
"He's a wizard, you mean?"
"As I understand your use of the word, yes. Quite a good one."
Alec was just beginning to mull over the possibilities this new insight presented when they were interrupted again and he was drawn away to answer the same few questions over and over: No, he had no memory of the Hazadrielfaie; yes, Seregil was a great man in Skala; yes, he was happy to be in Aurenen; no, he'd never seen any place like Sarikali. He was scanning the room for escape routes when he felt a hand on his arm.
"Come with me. There's something I need to do and I need your help," Seregil whispered, guiding him through a doorway and up a back staircase.
"Where are we going?"
Seregil smelled strongly of turab, but his steps were steadier than Alec would have expected. They climbed three sets of stairs, pausing on each level to inspect a room or two. Seregil could usually be counted on to hold forth at length, telling him more than anyone needed to know about the history of a place or thing. Tonight, however, he said nothing, just stopped to touch an object here and there, reacquainting himself with the place.
Alec had a talent for silence. Hands clasped behind his back, he followed Seregil down a winding third-floor corridor. Plain wooden doors opened off the passage at irregular intervals, each one no different from the last as far as he could tell. A small village could easily have put up in the place, or an entire clan.
Seregil halted in front of a door next to a sharp turning of the passage. He knocked, then lifted the latch and slipped into the darkened room.
It had been a long time since they'd burgled a house, but Alec automatically took stock of the place: no light, no smell of hearth or
candle smoke, no coverlet on the bed. The room was a safe one, not in use.
Alec heard the creak of hinges, then saw Seregil's lean form framed against an arch of night sky across the room. Drunk or not, he could move silently when he chose.
The arch let onto a small balcony overlooking the guest house.
"That's our room," Seregil told him, pointing out a window there.
"And this room was yours."
"Ah, yes. I told you, didn't I?" Seregil leaned on the stone parapet, face inscrutable in the moonlight.
"This is where you sat listening to the city dream," Alec murmured.
"I did considerable dreaming of my own. Wait here." Seregil went back inside and returned with a dusty feather tick from the bed. Wadding it against the wall, he sat down and reached for Alec, pulling him down between his legs with his back to Seregil's chest.
"There." He nuzzled Alec's cheek, holding him close. "Here's one dream come to pass, anyway. Aura knows, nothing else has turned out the way I thought it would."
Alec leaned back against him, enjoying their shared heat. "What else did you dream about, sitting here?"
"That I'd leave Bokthersa and travel."
Alec felt rather than heard Seregil's ironic chuckle. "I suppose so. I'd live among foreign people, immerse myself in their ways for years and years, but always return here, and to Bokthersa."
"What would you do on your travels?"
"Just—search. For places no Aurenfaie had seen, for people I'd never meet by remaining at home. My uncle always said there's a reason for every gift. My skills with languages and fighting—he guessed that all added up to someone who was meant to wander. Looking back now, I suppose deep down I was hoping I'd find a place where I was something more than my father's greatest disappointment."
Alec considered this in silence for a moment. "It's difficult for you, isn't it? Being here, the way things are."
How could a single quiet word convey such pain, such longing?
"What else did you wish for, sitting here?" Alec asked quickly, knowing there was nothing he could do to assuage that wound; better just to move on.
A hand slid slowly under his jaw, cupping his cheek as lips
brushed his cheek. The touch spread a tingle of anticipation down his whole right side.
"This, tali. You," Seregil said, breath warm on his skin. "I couldn't see your face back then, but it was you I dreamed of. I've had so many lovers—dozens, hundreds maybe. But not one of them—" He broke off. "I can't explain it. I think some part of me recognized you that first night we met, battered and filthy as you were."
"In that distant foreign land." Alec turned to meet the next kiss with one of his own. How long before someone missed them and came looking?
But Seregil only pulled him closer, cradling him without any of the usual playful groping that preceded their lovemaking. They sat like that for some time, until Alec finally realized that this was what Seregil had come here for.
They fell silent again, and Alec felt himself slipping into a doze. He snapped awake again when Seregil shifted his legs.
"Well, I suppose we should go back down," Seregil said.
Alec rose awkwardly, still sleep dazed. The night air felt cold against his right side where he'd lain against him. The sudden loss of physical contact left him disoriented and a little melancholy, as if he'd absorbed Seregil's sorrow through his skin.
Seregil was looking at the guest house again. "Thank you, tali. Now when I look over here from there, I can remember this as more than just a place that isn't mine anymore."
They replaced the tick and were almost out the door when Seregil paused and turned back, muttering something to himself.
"What is it?" asked Alec.
Instead of answering, Seregil pulled the bedstead to one side and disappeared behind it.
Alec heard the scrape of stone against stone, followed by a triumphant cackle. Seregil popped into view again, holding up a grappling hook and rope.
"Where did that come from?" Alec asked, amused by his friend's obvious delight.
"Come see for yourself."
Alec climbed onto the dusty bed and peered over the edge. Seregil had pried up one of the polished stone floor tiles, revealing a dark space underneath.
"Did you make that hole?"
"No, and I wasn't the first to use it, either. The grapple was mine,
a later addition, and this." He lifted out a clear quartz crystal as long as his palm. "I found the loose tile by accident. These other things were already here. Treasures." A pretty box of Aurenfaie inlay work followed the crystal, and inside Alec found a child's necklace of red and blue beads and a falcon's skull. Seregil placed a painted wooden dragon with gilded wings beside it, then a small portrait of an Aurenfaie couple painted on ivory. Finally, with great care, he lifted out a fragile wooden doll. Its large black eyes and full-lipped mouth were painted on, but the hair was real—long, tightly curled ringlets of shining black.
"By the Four!" Alec touched a finger reverently to the hair. "Do you think this is Bash'wai?"
Still kneeling behind the bed, Seregil touched each object with obvious affection and nodded. "The doll is, and perhaps the necklace."
"And you never told anyone?"
"Just you." Seregil carefully replaced everything except the grapple. "It wouldn't have been special if anyone else had known."
Standing, he tilted Alec a crooked grin. "And you know how good I am at keeping secrets."
Alec uncoiled the grapple rope. It was still supple, and knotted every few feet for climbing. "It's too short to reach the ground."
"I'm disappointed in you, tali," Seregil chided, carrying it out to the balcony. With one easy toss, he threw the hook up and secured it on the edge of the roof above. Giving Alec a parting wink, he shimmied up and out of sight.
Knowing that he'd just been issued a challenge, Alec followed and found Seregil waiting for him in the large colos there.
"I used to sneak out of my room this way, then use the back stairs over there to get out of the house. Or Kheeta and I would meet up here and trade sweets we'd nicked from the kitchen. Later on it was beer, or turab. Actually, it's a wonder I didn't break my neck one of those nights on the way back down." He looked around a moment, then laughed outright. "One time six of us were up here, pissed as newts, when our lookout heard my father on his way up. We all went down the rope that night and hid out in my room until dawn."
Alec smiled but couldn't quite suppress another jealous pang, especially at the mention of Kheeta. Tagging along after his nomadic father most of his life, Alec hadn't had a real home or many friends. Thoughts of the rhui'auros flashed to mind, and he silently vowed that before this journey was over, he was going to learn whatever he could of his own missing past.
Seregil must have sensed this roil of emotion, for suddenly he was close beside Alec again, pressing a turab-scented kiss to his. lips. "It's one of the few memories I have now that doesn't hurt," he offered.
"Shall we go down the same way we came up?" Alec asked, passing it off lightly.
"Why not? We're practically sober."
Back on the balcony, Seregil gave the rope a neat flick that unseated the hook. Coiling it up again, he returned the grapple to its hiding place with the other toys.
"Leaving it for the next child who discovers your secret cache?" Alec asked.
"It seems only right." Seregil set the tile back in place and pushed the leg of the bed over it. "It's good to know something around here hasn't changed."
Alec pondered the toys hidden in the dark as they returned to the gathering. Somehow, they seemed to fit into the strange, complex mosaic of Seregil's life, a tiny model of the treasure-strewn and equally hidden rooms they'd shared at the Cockerel, or the unexpected bits of his own past that Seregil doled out like precious relics.
Or perhaps precious wasn't the right term.
It's one of the few memories I have now that doesn't hurt.
You never told anyone?
How many times had someone looked at him in surprise when he'd mentioned something Seregil had shared with him? He told you about that?
Humbled by this realization, he steered Seregil back to Kheeta and went off to find Beka.
12 THE GREAT GAME BEGINS
The first round of negotiations began the next morning, and from the outset Seregil could see that it was going to be a laborious process.
The Iia'sidra met in a stone pavilion overlooking the great pool at the center of the city. The original builder's purpose for the broad, octagonal building was not known; inside, it was one huge, two-story chamber with a sweeping stone gallery. A temple, perhaps, although no one knew what gods the Bash'wai had worshiped. The eleven principal khirnari were already seated in open booths arranged around the hall's central circle. The khirnari and their chief advisers sat in front; scribes, kin, and servants of various sorts were allotted seats behind them. Outside the circle and in the gallery above, members of the numerous minor clans had their own hierarchy. They might not vote in the Iia'sidra, but they did have a voice.
Seated with Alec just behind Klia in the Skalan booth, Seregil gazed around the vaulted chamber, studying faces. He'd wondered how he would feel, attending the Iia'sidra for the first time as an adult. As he caught sight of Adzriel and her small entourage he decided the experience was not an altogether pleasant one. Saaban, who also acted as adviser, sat at Adzriel's right, Mydri
on her left. Seregil would have held a rightful place there, too. Instead, he sat on the opposite side of the council circle, wearing the clothes and speaking the words of strangers. Better not to dwell on that, he told himself sternly. He'd put himself here; now there was work to be done, honorable work for an honorable cause.
Klia had once again displayed a considerable talent for appearances. Today she'd ridden to the council hall in full dress uniform, with two decuria for escort. Torsin and Thero flanked her like some living tableau of aged wisdom and youthful intellect. Anyone expecting a supplicant from a dying nation was in for quite a surprise.
When everyone had settled, a woman stepped forward and struck a hollow silver staff against the floor. Its solemn chime reverberated around the stone chamber, commanding silence.
"Let no person forget that we stand in Sarikali, the living heart of Aurenen," she announced. "Stand in Aura's sight and speak the truth."
She struck the chime again and withdrew to a small platform. Brythir i Nien rose first to speak.
"Brothers and sisters of the Iia'sidra, and all people of Aura in this place," he began. "Klia a Idrilain, Princess of Skala, seeks audience today. Are there any who object to her presence, or that of her ministers?"
There was a weighty pause; then the khirnari of Haman, Lhapnos, and Golinil rose as one.
"We object to the presence of the exile, Seregil of Rhiminee," stated Galmyn i Nemius.
Alec and Thero both shot Seregil worried glances, but he'd expected as much.
"Your objections are noted," Brythir i Nien told the dissenters. "Any others? Very well, then. Klia a Idrilain, you may speak."
Klia rose and made the assembly a dignified bow. "Honored Khirnari and people of Aurenen, I come before you today as a representative of my mother, Queen Idrilain. From her I bear greetings and a proposition.
"As you know, Plenimar is once more making war against Skala and our ally, Mycena. From your own agents we also know that they have courted the favor of your own enemy, Zengat. Aurenen has fought with us against Plenimar before. I stand before you today as a warrior who has faced this aggressor in the field, and they are as mighty now as in the days of the Great War.
"Already our trade routes with the northlands have been cut off. Mycena will almost surely fall. We Skalans are great warriors, yet
without allies or supplies, how long can we stand come winter? If Plenimar lays claim to the Three Lands and their territories, how long will it be before their fleets and those of the Zengati pirates mass along your coast?
"Our two races stood against Plenimar through the dark days of the Great War. For many years we mixed our blood and called each other kin. In the face of this new crisis, Queen Idrilain proposes a renewed alliance between our two lands for our mutual defense and benefit."
Galmyn i Nemius of Lhapnos was the first to respond. "You speak of supplies, Klia a Idrilain. You already have these from us, do you not? Aurenfaie goods are still carried north from Viresse by Tirfaie ships."
"But few of them are Skalan ships these days," she replied. "Few of our vessels can reach Viresse, and fewer still return. Plenimaran ships lurk behind every island. They attack without provocation, pillage the cargoes, kill the crew, and send the ships to the bottom of the Osiat Sea. Then they sail back to trade at your port. And their reach is growing. My own ship was attacked no more than a day's voyage from Gedre."
"What would you have of us, then?" asked the Khatme, Lhaar a Iriel.
Klia motioned to Lord Torsin. "The list, please."
The envoy stepped forward and unrolled a parchment. Clearing his throat, he read: "Queen Idrilain asks first that the Iia'sidra Council grant Skala a second open port, Gedre, and leave to mass ships there and in the Ea'malie Islands for no longer than the duration of the present conflict. In return, she pledges increased payments for Aurenfaie horses, grain, and weapons.
"In addition, the queen proposes a military alliance for the mutual benefit and defense of our two lands. She asks that you commit to a levy of Aurenfaie warships, soldiers, and wizards, with her pledge in kind to provide the same in the event that Aurenen is attacked."
"A hollow pledge, from a land that cannot even defend itself," observed a Haman. Torsin pressed on as if he hadn't heard.
"Finally, she earnestly desires to reestablish the accord that once existed between our two peoples. In this dark time, she prays that the Iia'sidra will honor the call of blood to blood and once again treat Skala as her friend and ally."
Nazien i Hari was on his feet before Torsin finished rolling up his scroll. "Are the memories of the Tir so short, Torsin i Xandus?" he
demanded. "Has your queen forgotten what sundered our peoples in the first place? I am not the only one present today who is old enough to recall the outcry of your people against Corruth i Glamien when he married the first Idrilain, or how he disappeared immediately after her death—murdered by Skalans. Adzriel a Illia, how can you support those who ask us to embrace the murderers of your own kinsman?"
"Are the Skalans a single clan, that the action of one member brings shame to all?" Adzriel replied. "The Exile, once my brother, stands among us now in part due to his role in solving the mystery of Corruth's disappearance. Thanks to his efforts, the bones of my kinsman lie in Bokthersa at last, and the clan of those who killed him has suffered disgrace and punishment. Atui had been served."
"Ah, yes!" sneered Nazien. "And what an advantageous discovery that was. It occurs to me that we have only the word of his murderers that the bundle of charred bones we saw was that of Corruth. What proof has been offered?"
"Proof enough for his kinswoman, the queen," Klia retorted. "Proof enough for me, who saw the body before it was burned. And proof remains. Seregil, if you would?"
Steeling himself, Seregil rose and faced Nazien. "Khirnari, did you know Corruth i Glamien well?"
"I did," Nazien snapped, then added pointedly, "in the days long before discord sundered the bonds of friendship between Haman and Bokthersa."
Thanks so much for bringing that up here, Seregil thought. But strike a bruise often enough and it goes numb.
"Then you would recognize this, Khirnari." He pulled out the ring and carried it slowly around the circle for inspection.
Nazien's face darkened with suspicion as it came round to him. "This was Corruth's," he grudgingly acknowledged.
"I removed this and the consort's seal ring from the hand of his intact corpse before it was burned," Seregil told him, looking the man squarely in the eye. "As Princess Klia has stated, she herself saw the body." When all had seen and acknowledged the ring, he returned to his seat.
"The murder of Corruth is the concern of Bokthersa and the Skalan queen, not of this assembly," Elos i Orian of Golinil argued impatiently. "What Princess Klia has just proposed challenges the Edict of Separation. For more than two centuries we have lived peacefully within our own borders, trading with whom we choose without allowing foreigners and barbarians to roam our soil."
"Trading with whom Viresse chooses, you should say!" Rhaish i Arlisandin burst out angrily, prompting a groundswell murmur of agreement from many of the minor clans sitting in the outer circle. "It's all well and good for you eastern clans—you do not have to cart your goods past the ports you once used, and you profit from those who must. When is the last time the markets of Akhendi or Ptalos saw Tirfaie goods and gold? Not since your Edict of Separation closed its hold about our throats!"
"Perhaps Viresse would prefer to see Skala fall?" Iriel a Kasrai of Bry'kha suggested. "After all, it has always been a shorter voyage to Benshal than to Rhiminee!"
Ulan i Sathil remained conspicuously silent as the others of the council warmed to the familiar fight; evidently the khirnari of the Viresse knew when to let others fight his battles for him.
"There's your strongest adversary," Seregil told Klia, letting the surrounding uproar cover his words.
Klia glanced in Ulan's direction and smiled. "Yes, I can see that. I want to know this man better."
Silmai was the wealthiest of the western clans, and Brythir i Nien had spared nothing in the name of hospitality. Tense as he was from the day's business and the prospect of the evening still ahead, Seregil felt something loosen a little in his chest as he and the others entered the rooftop garden Brythir i Nien had prepared for them.
Flowering plants and trees in huge carved urns were thickly banked around three sides of the roofline, screening the rest of the city from view except for the broad avenue below, which had been cordoned off for displays of horsemanship. Bright silk banners and prayer kites rustled softly in the evening breeze overhead. In water-bowls decorated with sea creatures, tiny silver ships carried candles and smoking cones of incense on their decks. The sen'gai of the Datsians and Bry'khans who'd already arrived added to the illusion that they'd all been transported to Silmai itself.
"I thought the Haman were to be here?" Alec whispered, scanning the crowd warily.
"Not here yet. Or perhaps my presence scared them off?" "Nazien i Hari doesn't strike me as someone easily frightened." Dressed in a sen'gai and flowing festival robe of Silmai turquoise, Brythir i Nien leaned on the arm of a dark-eyed young woman as he welcomed Klia and her party.
"You honor our household with your presence," he said as he gently urged a little girl in a colorful embroidered tunic forward. The child bowed and presented Klia with a pair of heavy gold and turquoise bracelets. Watching her place them on her wrists with the Gedre bracelets and Akhendi charms, Seregil wondered if such gifts didn't eventually burden the arms. It was unlikely he'd ever find out for himself.
"I'm told that you have an uncommonly fine appreciation of horses," Brythir went on, giving Klia a knowing smile. "You ride a Silmai black, I understand?"
"The finest mount I've ever owned, Khirnari," she replied. "He's carried me through many a battle between here and Mycena."
"How I should like to show you the great horselands of my fai'thast. Our herds cover the hills."
"If my time here in Sarikali is productive, perhaps you shall," Klia replied with a subtle smile.
The old man recognized the unspoken implication. Offering her his frail arm, he gave her a mischievous wink that belied his years as he led her into the garden. "I believe tonight's entertainment will be very much to your liking, my dear."
"I understand Nazien i Hari will be joining us," said Klia. "Is he an ally of yours?"
The old man patted her hand as if she were one of his granddaughters. "We are friends, he and I, and I hope to make him one of yours. This Edict has worn sorely on me over the years, much as I loved Corruth i Glamien. He was a nephew of mine, you know. No, we Silmai are travelers, sailors, the best traders in Aurenen. We don't like being told where we may go and where we may not. How I miss lovely Rhiminee atop her high cliffs!"
"Your garden makes me long for the western coast," Seregil remarked as he and the others trailed along beside them. "I almost expect to see the green Zengati Sea shining beyond the rooftops."
Brythir clasped Seregil's arm for a moment with one frail hand. "Life is long, child of Aura. Perhaps one day you will see it again."
Surprised, Seregil bowed to the old man before moving on into the garden.
"That's encouraging!" Alec whispered.
"Or politic," Seregil muttered back.
His reception was somewhat cooler among the other guests. Datsia, Bry'kha, Ptalos, Ameni, Koramia—these clans had all supported his father's efforts with the Zengat, and thereby lost the most
through Seregil's crime. He approached them with cautious civility and was greeted with the same by most, if only for the sake of Brythir's hospitality, or perhaps their interest in Alec.
If the weight of being a novelty was wearing on his companion, Alec gave no sign. Despite their long absence from the salons of Rhiminee, the lessons Alec had learned there still served him well. Modest, quiet, quick to smile, he moved among the guests as easily as water among stones. Trailing in his wake, Seregil watched with a mix of pride and amusement as various guests clasped Alec's hand a moment too long, or let their gaze wander a little too freely.
Stepping back, Seregil imagined seeing his friend, his talimenios, through their eyes: a slender, golden-haired young ya'shel utterly unconscious of his own appeal. It wasn't just his looks that struck people, either. Alec had a gift for listening to people, a way of focusing on whomever he was conversing with that made them feel like they were the most interesting person in the room. It didn't matter if that person was a tavern slopper or a lord, Alec had the touch.
Pride gave way to a wave of sensual hunger, reminding him that they hadn't done much more than fall asleep together since Gedre, and that it had been lean times for almost two weeks before that. Alec looked his way just then and smiled. Seregil hid his own grin behind the rim of a wine cup, suddenly glad of his full-skirted Skalan coat. Talimenios could be a tricky thing in public.
The tenor of the gathering changed subtly with the arrival of the Haman. Keeping to the background, Seregil watched as Klia greeted Nazien i Hari and his entourage. Surprisingly, the man greeted her cordially, clasping her hands and presenting her with a ring from his own finger. She did the same, and the two fell into conversation as Brythir looked on benevolently.
"What do you think of that?" Alec exclaimed softly, coming up behind him.
"Interesting. Perhaps even encouraging. After all, it's me the Haman hate, not Skala. Why don't you wander over for a listen?"
"Ah, there you are!" Klia smiled as Alec joined her. "Khirnari, I don't think you've met my aide, Alec i Amasa?»
"How do you do, honored sir?" Alec said with a bow.
"I have heard of him," Nazien replied, suddenly cool. Clearly, the man knew who he was and detested him on principle. With a single, subtle glance, the Haman dismissed him as thoroughly as if he'd
ceased to exist. More amazing still, Klia seemed not to have noticed the slight.
Alec stepped back a pace, feeling as if the breath had suddenly been sucked from his lungs. It was his Watcher training that kept him there with Klia, listening, when every instinct counseled a hasty retreat.
So he hovered, studying the faces of the Haman beneath their yellow-and-black sen'gai as he pretended to listen to a nearby conversation. There were twelve Haman with Nazien—six men, six women, most of them close kin with the same dark, sharp eyes as their khirnari. Most chose to consider Alec invisible, though one, a broad-shouldered man with a dragon bite on his chin, spared Alec a challenging glare.
Alec was about to go when Nazien mentioned something about the Edict.
"It is a complex matter," the khirnari was saying to Klia. "You must understand, there was a great deal more to it than Corruth's disappearance. The exodus of the Hazadrielfaie centuries before was still fresh in the minds of our people—the terrible loss."
Alec inched closer; this was in line with what Adzriel had told them the night before.
"Then, as trade grew with the Three Lands, we watched as more 'faie disappeared to northern lands, mingling their blood with the Tir," Nazien continued. "Many of our clan mingled with yours, losing their ties with their own kind."
"Then you feel a 'faie belongs in Aurenen and nowhere else?" asked Klia.
"It is a common sentiment," Nazien replied. "Perhaps it is difficult for a Tirfaie to understand, as you find those like yourselves wherever you travel. We are a race apart, unique to this land. We are long-lived, it is true, but we are also, in Aura's great wisdom, slow to breed. I do not say that our lives are more sacred to us than those of the Tir are to you, but our attitude toward such things as war and murder is one of greater horror. I think you will be hard-pressed to convince any khirnari to send their people off to die in your war."
"And yet if you would only allow those who wish to go," Klia countered. "You must not underestimate our own love of life. Every day I am here more of my people die for want of the help you could so easily give. It is not honor we fight for, but our very lives."
"Be that as it may—"
They were interrupted by a call to the banquet. The light was failing
quickly now, and torches were lit around the garden and in the street below. Klia and Nazien went to join their host. Alec moved off, looking for Seregil.
"Well?" asked Seregil as they took their seats on a couch near Klia's.
Alec shrugged, still smarting from the Haman's treatment. "Just more politics."
The entertainment began with the feast. A horn sounded and a dozen riders on Silmai blacks appeared from around the corner of a distant building. The horses' harnesses and girth straps were hung with tinkling gold and turquoise ornaments, and their streaming white manes and tails shone like combed milkweed silk.
The riders, men and women both, were equally exotic. Their long hair was bound tightly back into a club at the back of their necks, and each wore a silver crescent of Aura on their brow. The men wore short kilts dyed the turquoise blue of their clan and tightly belted with gold. The women wore tunics of similar design.
"They're ya'shel, too, aren't they?" Alec asked, pointing out several riders with golden-tan skin and curling black hair.
"Yes. Some Zengati blood, I'd say," Seregil told him.
Riding bareback at breakneck speeds, the performers leaped from one mount to another and rode standing on their horses' backs, their oiled limbs shining in the firelight. As one, they clapped their hands, and swirling masses of colored lights unfurled from their fingertips like banners, then were woven into patterns by the intricate drills they executed. The Skalans clapped and cheered. Standing guard behind Klia, Beka's riders cheered the loudest of all.
When the performers had finished and retired, a single rider took the field. Dressed like the others, he cantered out and saluted his audience, gripping his mount's sides with long, lean-muscled legs. His skin was a golden tan, his hair a cascade of long black curls.
"My youngest grandson, Taanil i Khormai," Brythir announced, beaming at Klia.
"And the banquet's main course, I suspect," murmured Seregil, nudging Alec with his elbow.
As Taanil set off on his first circuit of the grassy riding area, the khirnari leaned closer to Klia. "The skills of my grandson are not limited to riding. He is a fearless sailor, and a student of languages. He speaks your tongue quite flawlessly, I'm told. He would welcome the opportunity to converse with you."
I'll bet, thought Seregil, grinning behind his wine cup.
Coming down the field at a gallop, Taanil gripped his mount's girth strap and vaulted from side to side over its back, then went into a handstand, his lean body straight as a spear. The sight drew more than a few admiring sounds from the Skalan contingent.
The young Silmai joined Klia on her couch after his ride and charmed them all with his tales of sea trade and horsemanship.
When he left to perform again, Klia leaned over to Seregil and whispered. "Am I being courted?"
Seregil gave her a wink. "There's more than one way to forge an alliance. Marrying off a youngest grandson is a small price to pay for a new trade ally, wouldn't you say?"
"Are you saying I'm being offered second-rate goods?"
Seregil raised an eyebrow. "I certainly wouldn't call Taanil second rate. What I meant is that they wouldn't be losing a potential khirnari if he left."
Klia chuckled at this. "I don't think they have much to worry about on that score, but I suppose I can bear his company while we're here." She winked. "After all, we do need the horses."
Alec woke the following morning to find Seregil standing over him, dressed from head to foot in black: black leather breeches, black boots, long black velvet coat slashed with black silk. Above his gold badge of office, Corruth's ruby ring glowed on its silver chain. The overall effect was rather sinister. Seregil looked grim and tired.
"You were restless last night," Alec complained, yawning.
"I had that dream again, the one I had in the mountains."
"About going home?"
"If that's what it is." He sat down on the edge of the bed and laced his fingers together around one up-drawn knee.
Alec reached up to touch the Akhendi charm still braided into Seregil's hair. "It must be a true one, with this to guard your dreams."
Seregil gave a noncommittal shrug. "I think you'll be of more use behind the scenes today."
Changing the subject again, are you? Alec thought resignedly. Giving up for now, he settled back against the bolsters. "Where should I start?"
"You should learn your way around the city. I've asked Kheeta to guide you until you
get used to the place. It's too easy to get lost when it's empty like this."
"How very tactful of you, Lord Seregil." Alec's sense of direction had a disconcerting way of deserting him in cities.
"Familiarize yourself with the area, make friends, keep your ears open." Leaning over, he ruffled Alec's already disheveled hair. "Look as simple and harmless as you can, even around our supporters. Sooner or later someone will let slip some interesting bit of information."
Alec affected a look of wide-eyed innocence and Seregil laughed.
"Perfect! And to think you used to say I'd never make an actor of you."
"What about that?" Alec said, pointing at the ring.
Glancing down in surprise, Seregil dropped it inside the neck of his coat, then headed for the door.
"Idrilain wouldn't have given it to you if she didn't think you were worthy of wearing it," Alec called after him.
Seregil gave him a last, thoughtful look and shook his head. "Good hunting, tali. Kheeta's waiting."
Alec lay back, thinking about the ring and wondering whose approval Seregil awaited. The Iia'sidra's? Adzriel's? The Haman's?
"Oh, well," he muttered, rolling out of bed. "At least I've got something to do today."
He washed with cold water from the pitcher and dressed for riding. He left his sword belt hanging with Seregil's over the bedpost. Most of the Aurenfaie he'd seen went unarmed except for belt knives. In the event of trouble, he always had the slender dagger in his boot. Their tool rolls were still hidden away for now, as well. According to Seregil, there were few locks in Sarikali, and most of those were magical in nature. That fact aside, it certainly wouldn't do for erstwhile diplomats to be caught carrying such a fine collection of lock picks.
Instead, he slung his bow and quiver over his shoulder and headed down in search of breakfast.
A cook gave him a pocket breakfast and news that Klia and the others had already left for the Iia'sidra. In the stable yard, he found Windrunner saddled next to another Aurenfaie mount. "Feels like rain today, I'd say," Rhylin observed, on duty there.
Alec studied the hazy sky and nodded. The breeze had dropped and the clouds were already darkening ominously. "Have you seen Kheeta?"
"He went back to his room for something. He asked that you wait here."
The sound of voices drew Alec into the stable, where he found one of Mercalle's dispatch riders and her Akhendi guides trying to argue about liniments in two broken languages.
"Heading north?" he asked Ileah.
She patted the large pouch slung over her shoulder. "Maybe I can come by a few fancy dragon marks like yours along the way. Any letters you want carried to Rhiminee?"
"Not today. How long do you reckon it takes to get a message back through?"
"Less time than it took us to get here. We'll push harder over the unguarded sections of the pass, and we'll have fresh horses all along the way, compliments of our Akhendi friends."
"Good morning, Alec i Amasa!" said Kheeta, the fringed ends of his green sen'gai flying about his shoulders as he hurried in. "I'm to show you around, I'm told."
"Let us know if you find any decent taverns in this ghost city," Ileah implored.
"I wouldn't mind finding something like that myself," Alec admitted. "Where do we start, Kheeta?"
The Bokthersan grinned. "Why, at the Vhadasoori, of course."
Cloud shadows scudded across their path as they set off along the turf-muted avenue leading back to the center of the city.
It felt less deserted today. Riders galloped past, and there were people in the streets. Marketplaces had been set up at crossroads, with goods being sold on blankets or out of the backs of carts. Most of the people Alec saw looked like servants and attendants. Clearly, it took a sizable population behind the scenes to maintain the banquets and bathhouses that helped court alliances.
"It's difficult to believe a city like this just stands empty most of the time," Alec remarked.
"Not quite empty," said Kheeta. "There are the Bash'wai, and the rhui'auros. But as you say, Sarikali belongs mostly to itself and its ghosts. We are merely occasional lodgers, coming here for festivals, or to settle clan disputes on neutral ground."
He pointed to a stag's skull set on a post beside the street. It was painted red, with silvered horns. "See that. It's a boundary marker for Bokthersa tupa. And that white hand with the black symbol on the palm painted on the wall across the street marks the tupa of Akhendi."
"Are people very territorial here?" Given the chances that he'd be nightrunning here sooner or later, it was a good idea to know the local customs.
"It depends on who is involved, I suppose. Violence is forbidden, but trespassers can be made to feel quite unwelcome. I stay clear of Haman tupa and you and your companions will do well to do the same, especially when you're alone. The Khatme aren't much for visitors, either."
At the Vhadasoori they left their horses outside the circle of stones and entered on foot. Alec paused beside one of the monolithic figures, pressing a palm to its rough surface. He half expected to feel some magical vibration, but the stone was silent beneath the cool morning dew.
"You did not have a proper welcome the other day," Kheeta said, going to the moon-shaped chalice that still stood on its pillar. "All who come to Sarikali drink from the Cup of Aura."
"Is it left here all the time?" Alec asked, surprised.
"Of course." Kheeta dipped up water from the pool and presented it to him.
Alec took it in both hands. The narrow alabaster bowl was perfectly smooth, its silver base untarnished.
"Is it magical?" he asked.
The Bokthersan shrugged. "Everything is magical in some way, even if we cannot perceive it."
He drank deeply, then handed it back to Kheeta. "Don't you have any thieves here in Aurenen?»
"In Aurenen? Of course. But not here."
A city without locks and without footpads and thieves? Alec thought skeptically. That would be magic indeed.
They spent the rest of the morning exploring. There were hundreds of tupas, counting those of the lesser clans, so Alec concentrated on those of the Eleven for the moment. Kheeta was a talkative guide, pointing out clan marker and points of interest. One hulking dark structure looked very much like another until he named it as a temple or meeting place.
Alec found himself studying his companion as well. "Does Seregil seem much changed to you?" he asked at last.
Kheeta sighed. "Yes, especially when he's dealing with the Iia'sidra or your princess. Then again, when he looks at you, or makes a joke, I see the same old haba."
"I heard Adzriel call him that," Alec said, pouncing on the unfamiliar word. "Is it like 'tali'?"
Kheeta chuckled. "No, haba are small black—" He paused, searching for the Skalan word. "Squirrels? Yes, squirrels, that live in the western forests. They're everywhere in Bokthersa, feisty little creatures that can chew their way into the tightest bale, or will steal the bread from your hand when you're not looking. Seregil could climb like a haba, and fight like one when pushed to it. He was always trying to prove himself, that one."
"To his father?"
"You've heard about that, have you?"
"A bit." Alec tried not to sound too eager. This wasn't the sort of information he'd been sent to gather, but he wasn't about to let the opportunity pass.
"Well, you've met Mydri, so you can see the difference. Seregil and Adzriel were the only ones of the four who took after their mother. Perhaps things might have been different for Seregil if she'd lived." Kheeta paused, frowning at some unpleasant memory. "There are those in the family who say it was Korit's guilt that kept father and son at odds."
"Guilt? For what?"
"For Illia's death in childbirth. Most Aurenfaie women bear only one or two children, but Korit i Solun wanted a son to carry his name. Illia obliged him out of love, having daughter after daughter until she was past her prime. The last birthing was too much for her, or at least that's how I've heard it.
"The raising of Seregil fell to Adzriel, and a good thing, too. What finally happened with that bastard Ilar—" Kheeta spat vehemently over his horse's flank. "Well, there are those who laid the blame as much on his father as on Seregil. I tried to tell Seregil as much last night, but he won't listen."
"I know what you mean. It's best to leave certain subjects alone."
"And yet he became a great hero in Skala." Kheeta's admiration and affection for Seregil was evident. "And you, as well, from what I hear?"
"We got through some bad times with whole skins," Alec replied vaguely, not in the mood to extol their exploits like some bard's tale.
He was spared the trouble. As they came around a corner, they saw a woman dressed in a red robe and bulbous black hat standing in the shadowed doorway of a temple, apparently in the midst of an animated conversation with someone inside. As they drew closer, Alec could make out complicated patterns of black lines covering the woman's hands.
"What clan is she?"
"No clan. That's a rhui'auros. They give up their clan when they enter the Nha'mahat" Kheeta told him, making a sign of some sort in her direction.
Before Alec could ask what a nha'mahat was he came abreast of the rhui'auros and saw that she was talking to empty air.
"Bash'wai," Kheeta said, noting Alec's surprise.
A chill ran up Alec's spine as he looked back at the empty doorway. "The rhui'auros can see them?"
"Some do. Or claim to. They have some strange ways, and what they say is not always what they mean."
"No, but they are often—obscure."
"I'll keep that in mind when we visit them. Seregil hasn't had a free moment since we—"
Kheeta stared at him. "Seregil spoke of going there?"
Alec thought back to that odd, tense conversation back in Ardinlee. Seregil hadn't spoken of the rhui'auros since.
"You mustn't ever ask him to go there," Kheeta warned.
"If he's not told you, then it's not for me to say."
"Kheeta, please," Alec urged. "Most of what I know about Seregil I've learned from other people. He gives away so little about himself, even now."
"I shouldn't have spoken. It's for him to tell you that tale, or not."
Being close-mouthed and stubborn must be a Bokthersan trait, Alec thought, as they rode on in silence.
"Come," Kheeta said at last, relenting a bit. "I can show you where to find them for yourself."
Leaving the more populated tupas behind, they rode to a quarter at the southern edge of the city. The buildings here were overgrown and crumbling, the streets choked in places with tall grass and wild-
flowers. Weeds had claimed the courtyards. For all its strangeness, however, it appeared to be a popular destination; people strolled the ruined streets in pairs and small groups. Dragonlings, the first Alec had seen since they'd left the mountains, were as plentiful as grasshoppers, basking on the tops of walls like lizards or fluttering among the flowering vines with the sparrows and hummingbirds.
This place felt different, as well, the magic stronger and more unsettling.
"This is called the Haunted City," Kheeta explained. "It's believed that the veil between ourselves and the Bash'wai is thinnest here. The Nha'mahat lies just outside the city."
They rode past the last of the crumbling houses and out into the open. On a rise just ahead stood the most bizarre-looking structure Alec had seen here yet. It was a huge tower of sorts, built in a series of square tiers that diminished in size as they went up. It was topped with a large colos and Alec could see people moving in the archways there. Although different in design from anything he had seen in Sarikali, it was made of the same dark stone and had the same grown-from-the-earth look. Behind it, the white vapor of a hot spring billowed up, roiling on the slight breeze.
"The Nha'mahat," Kheeta said, dismounting well away from the building. "We'll go on foot. Be careful not to step on the little dragons. They're thick here."
Alec kept a nervous eye on the ground as he followed.
The ground level was bordered by a covered arcade. Prayer kites hung from the pillars, some new, some faded and tattered.
Entering, Alec saw that the walkways were lined with trays of food: fruit, boiled grains dyed yellow and red, and milk. Fingerlings seemed to be the main beneficiary of this bounty; masses of the little creatures vied for a meal under the watchful eye of several robed rhui'auros.
Strolling around to the back of the building, Alec saw that the ground fell away sharply. The vapor he'd seen issued from the dark mouth of a grotto beneath the tower. Steam belched from it like smoke from a forge. More rose in wisps from the stream that flowed down among the stones below.
Something happened to him here, Alec thought, suddenly picturing a much younger Seregil being dragged into the darkness below.
"Would you like to go in?" asked Kheeta, leading him back toward a doorway.
A gust of cold wind whipped across the open plain, carrying the first spattering of rain. Alec shivered. "No. Not yet."
If Kheeta sensed his sudden discomfort, he choose not to pry. "Suit yourself," he said amiably. "Since we have to go back through the Haunted City, how do you like ghost stories?"
The gash Beka had gotten during the sea battle was healing, but she still suffered from sudden headaches. The brewing storm had brought on another, and by midmorning its effects must have shown, for Klia sent her home with strict orders to rest.
Returning to the barracks alone, she retreated to her room and exchanged her uniform for a light shirt and tunic. Stretched out on the bed, she settled one arm over her eyes and lay listening to the soft clatter of gaming stones in the next room. She was drifting on the edge of sleep when she caught Nyal's voice outside. She hadn't exactly been avoiding him these past few days, she just hadn't had time to deal with the silly flux of emotions he provoked in her. The approach of booted feet warned that there was no avoiding it now except to plead illness. Not wanting to be caught at a disadvantage, she sat up quickly on the narrow bed, then choked down the wave of nausea the sudden move cost her.
"It's Nyal," Urien announced, peeking in around the door. "He's brought you something for your head."
"Did he?" How in Bilairy's name had he known she was ill?
To her horror, he entered carrying a little nosegay of flowers. What were the others going to make of that?
"I heard you were feeling unwell," he said. Instead of the flowers, however, he held out a flask. "I've picked up a fair bit of herb lore in my travels. This decoction works well for pains in the head."
"And those? " Beka asked with a wry grin, pointing to the flowers.
He passed her those as well, as if they'd been an afterthought. "I don't know all their names in Skalan. I thought you might wish to know what was in it."
Beka bent over the flowers, hoping he wouldn't notice her guilty blush. Bringing you flowers, was he? And why are you so damned disappointed? "I recognize a few of them. The little white ones are feverfew, and these branch tips are from a willow." She pinched a thick, dark green leaf, then took a nibble. "And this is mountain cress. I haven't seen these others before."
Nyal knelt in front of her and pushed her hair back to inspect the scabbed cut on her brow. "This is healing well."
"The Cavishes are a hardheaded bunch," Beka told him, pulling back from the light brush of his fingers against her face. Opening the
flask, she took a swig and grimaced. There was honey in the mix, but not enough to mask the underlying bitterness.
"I didn't see any wormwood in that bouquet of yours," she sputtered.
He laughed. "That's the little pink blossom we call 'mouse ears. " He poured a cup of water and handed it to her. "My mother used to hold my nose when she dosed me. I'll sit with you a moment until we see if it's going to do its work."
An awkward silence ensued. Beka wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep, but not with him sitting there. The little room was stuffy; she could feel sweat trickling down her chest and back and regretted putting on the tunic.
After a few moments, however, she realized that the throbbing behind her eyes was nearly gone.
"That's quite a brew!" she said, sniffing the flask again. "I wouldn't mind keeping some of this on hand for the others. Sergeant Braknil does most of our healing for us in the field when there isn't a drysian handy."
"I'll see he gets the recipe." Nyal rose to go, then paused, eyeing her critically. "The air is so still today, perhaps a walk would do you good. I could show you some more of the city before the rain comes. There's so much you haven't seen yet."
It would have been a simple matter to plead illness. Instead, she smoothed her hair back and followed him out, telling herself that as the head of Klia's bodyguard, it was her duty to learn the lay of the land. In case of trouble.
They set off on foot as thunder wandered ever closer across the valley. Nyal headed south, pointing out tupas of various lesser clans as they went. He seemed to know a bit about all of them and shared a few amusing stories along the way. As they passed the outskirts of Akhendi tupa, she was tempted to ask more about the khirnari's wife but resisted the urge.
Most of the city was uninhabited, and the further they got from the center of it, the more overgrown the streets became. The grass grew longer here, and mud swallows had built nests in the corners of open windows.
One place looked very much like another to Beka, but Nyal seemed to have a particular destination in mind. This turned out to be a deserted neighborhood in the southern part of the city, one more silent and peculiar than any she'd seen so far.
"Here's a place I think you'll enjoy," he announced at last, leading her into a broad thoroughfare where scrubby bushes were taking back the open spaces.
She glanced around nervously. "I thought I'd gotten used to the feel of Sarikali, but this is different. Stronger."
"We call it the Haunted City," Nyal replied. "The magic works differently here. Can you feel it?"
"I feel something." Whether it was the magic of the place, the impending storm, or the way his arm occasionally brushed hers as they walked, she suddenly felt hot and restless. Pausing, she pulled the tunic off over her head, caring little that the loose linen shirt underneath was stained with sweat and metal tarnish. Tugging it free of her breeches, she undid the neck lacings to let the quickening breeze cool her skin. Like most of her female riders, she didn't bother with binding her breasts when not in the field. Glancing his way, she saw an enigmatic smile on his lips and knew that she had his attention. Alone with him here, she had to admit at last that she liked it.
"This is a very special place," he continued. "The Bash'wai who lived here simply walked away one day, leaving everything they owned behind."
They entered one of the houses and passed through an empty gallery to a fountain court. A stone table near the leaf-choked basin was set for six, complete with cups and cracked plates of fine red porcelain. A tarnished silver pitcher stood in the center, its interior still stained with the wine that had dried away countless years before. Beyond the courtyard lay a bedchamber. The furnishings were rotted with age, but a carved wooden tray on a chest still held a collection of gold jewelry, as if the woman who'd owned them had just taken them off before her bath.
"Why haven't thieves carried all this away?" Beka asked, picking up a brooch.
"No one dares rob the dead. One of my aunts loves to tell the story of a woman who found a ring here that was so beautiful she couldn't resist taking it. Her clan went home soon after and almost immediately she began to suffer nightmares. They became so powerful and terrifying that at last she threw the ring into a river. When she returned to Sarikali the following year, that ring was lying exactly where she'd found it."
Returning the brooch to the tray, Beka gave him a look of mock disapproval. "I think you brought me here to scare me, Ra'basi."
Nyal took her hand in his, stroking it with long fingers. "And why should I attempt such a thing with a brave Skalan captain?"
His touch sent a sensuous tingle up her arm, stronger than before.
"To test my bravery, perhaps?" she teased. "Or to create the opportunity to offer comfort?"
Looking into those clear hazel eyes, she felt another jolt of sensual anticipation; there was no mistaking the passion kindling there, or the open affection. It would be so easy to close the distance between her lips and his, she thought, as if gauging an arrow's flight. Without further thought, she kissed him.
She'd wanted this—wanted him—from the instant she'd laid eyes on him at Gedre. Now she let her hands roam, greedily exploring the hard, responsive body pressed to hers. His mouth was as sweet as she'd imagined, and when he pulled her close she buried her fingers in his hair, nipping his lower lip.
His hands slipped beneath the hem of her shirt, encircling her bare waist above her sword belt, working their way slowly higher.
"Lovely one, beautiful Tir," he murmured against her ear.
"Don't." She tensed and took a step back. Other lovers had used such blandishments and she'd let them pass; from Nyal they were unbearable.
"What is it?" he asked, concerned by the sudden shift. "Are you a virgin, or do you distrust me?"
Beka laughed in spite of the hot, resentful ache in her belly—or perhaps because of it. "I'm no virgin. But I'm not beautiful either, and don't need to fancy myself so. I'd rather we just be honest with each other, if it's all the same to you."
He stared at her in amazement. "Anyone who claims you are not beautiful is a fool. The first time I looked into your eyes I saw it, yet you have been denying it since we met."
He took her hand again. "I apologize for the clumsiness of my persistence, but I swear I will continue to say so until you believe me. You're unlike any woman I've ever met."
Trapped between doubt and arousal, Beka froze, unable to reply.
Misreading her hesitation, he brought her hand to his lips. "At least allow me to call you 'friend. I promised your almost-brother I would never bring dishonor on you. I keep my word."
Perhaps he'd meant the gesture to be a chaste one; the warmth of his lips on her palm sent a wave of raw desire spiraling through her. Suddenly the light brush of her shirt against her skin was too much to bear. Freeing one hand, she pulled the shirt off, letting it drop to the dusty floor at her feet. Nyal's lips parted in a sigh as he traced the scars on her arms, chest, and side. "A true warrior."
"All my wounds are in the front," Beka managed, trying to sound flippant but shivering at the hot-and-cold touch of his fingers across her skin. By the time he reached her shoulders and breasts she was trembling.
"I like your spots," he murmured, bending to kiss her shoulder.
"Freckles," she corrected breathlessly, tugging up his tunic.
"Ah, yes. Freckles." He paused long enough to help her with his clothes, then pulled her close again. "So exotic."
That's a first, she thought, too far gone in the feel of his body warm against hers to care. His fingers traced burning patterns across her skin wherever he touched her, the sensation unlike anything she'd ever felt. Pulling back a little, she asked in wonder, "Are you using magic on me, Ra'basi?"
The hazel eyes widened, then tilted up at the corners as he laughed. The rich vibration of it against her chest and belly was a new and unprecedented pleasure.
"Magic?" he exclaimed, shaking his head. "By the Light, what sort of dolts have you let make love to you?"
Beka's laughter echoed around the ruined room as she pulled him closer. "Educate me!"
Nyal's expert tutelage lasted well over an hour, Beka guessed, seeing how the shadows had crept closer to where they lay. When it was over she was a good deal wiser, and happier than she'd been in recent memory.
The bed had proved too rickety, so they'd made do with a pallet of clothing on the floor. Unsnarling her breeches from the tangled mass, she reluctantly pulled them on, then leaned down to give her new lover a lingering kiss. Outside, thunder rumbled heavily in the distance.
Nyal's flushed face reflected her own elation. "Beautiful Tir," he said, gazing up at her.
"Beautiful Aurenfaie," she replied in his own language, no longer contesting his opinion.
"I did not think you would have me. Do all Tir hold back so?"
Beka considered this. "I have duties. What my heart and body want aren't what my head thinks I should do. And—"
"And?" he asked when she looked away.
"And I'm a little afraid of what you make me feel, afraid because I know it won't last. I lost someone, too. He died. Was killed." Beka closed her eyes against sorrow long denied. "He was a warrior, an officer in my regiment. I didn't have long with him, but we cared a great deal for each other. The pain I felt when he died was …" She stopped again, searching for words that wouldn't sound too cold but not finding them. "It was a
distraction. I can't allow that sort of thing, not when I have people depending on me to lead them."
Nyal stroked her face until she opened her eyes again. "I won't hurt you, Beka Cavish, or cause you any distraction if it's in my power to avoid it. What we do—" He grinned, waving a hand around at the disordered room. "We are two friends sharing a gift of Aura. There's no pain from that. Whether you're here or in Skala, we are friends."
"Friends," Beka agreed, even as the little voice from her heart taunted, Too late, too late!
"It's early yet," she said, rising. "Show me more of your city. Seems I have an unquenchable appetite for wonders today."
Nyal sprawled limply and let out a comic groan. "Warrior women!"
They were nearly dressed when something he'd said earlier suddenly struck her. Turning to Nyal, she raised an eyebrow and demanded, "When exactly did you and my 'almost-brother' discuss what to do with me?"
Beka's sudden appearance in the doorway of one of the ruined houses startled Kheeta as much as it did Alec.
"Aura's Fingers!" the Bokthersan laughed, reining in. "That's the first red-haired Bash'wai I've ever seen."
Beka froze for a moment, face reddening behind her freckles. An instant later Nyal stepped from the shadows behind her.
"Well, well, Captain," Alec said in Skalan, grinning mercilessly as he took in their disheveled hair and dust-streaked clothing. "Out reconnoitering?"
"I'm off duty," she retorted, and something in the look she gave him warned against further teasing.
"Have you shown her the House of Pillars yet?" Kheeta asked, apparently oblivious to the situation, or why his innocent question should draw such a loud and poorly suppressed snort of laughter from Alec.
"We were just heading there," Nyal replied, fighting to keep a straight face. "Why don't you come along with us?"
"Yes, do come!" Beka said, walking up to Alec and grasping his stirrup. In a low voice, she added, "You can keep a closer eye on me that way, Almost-Brother."
Alec winced. Damn you, Nyal!
The house in question lay several streets away. Thunder cracked
again, much closer now, and a sudden gust of wind blew their hair into their eyes.
"There it is," Kheeta said, pointing out a sprawling, open-sided structure through the gloom. Just then the skies opened up in earnest. Lightning bleached the air white for an instant, then darkness closed down around them with a deafening roll of thunder. Gripping the reins of their nervous mounts, Alec and Kheeta dashed toward shelter through the pelting rain with Beka and Nyal close behind.
The House of Pillars was a pavillion with a flat, tiled roof set on ranks of tall, evenly spaced black columns. Shreds of faded cloth hung here and there, suggesting that walls of a sort had been created by hanging tapestries between the columns.
"Looks like we'll be here awhile," said Beka, raising her voice to be heard over the downpour.
A damp wind swept through the outer columns, and they retreated farther to avoid the soaking rain that blew in with it. Alec reached inside his coat for the lightstone in his tool roll, then remembered he'd left both back at his room. Kheeta and Nyal flicked their fingers, and small globes of light snapped into being at their tips.
"What was this place?" asked Alec, speaking Skalan for Beka's benefit.
"A summer retreat," said Nyal. "It gets terribly hot here in summer. The roof makes shade and there are bathing pools further in."
Occasional flashes from outside threw bars of light and shadow across their path as they walked deeper into the forest of pillars.
Alec had assumed they had the place to themselves, but soon heard the sound of water splashing and the echo of voices from somewhere ahead of them.
Emerging into a large chamber, they came to a large round bathing pool fed by underground springs. Channels fanned out from it to smaller pools and what appeared to have been water gardens or fish pools.
A few dozen people were swimming naked in the large pool. Others sat nearby playing some kind of game by the light of hovering light orbs. Alec noted with a twinge of unease that most of those who were dressed wore the sen'gai of Haman or Lhapnos. Judging by their age and clothes, they were young retainers of those delegations, taking their ease while their elders attended the council.
Nyal approached them with his usual openness, but Kheeta hung back warily.
"Nyal i Nhekai!" called a Lhapnosan youth. "It's been too long since I've seen you, my friend. Come join us."
His welcoming smile died, however, at sight of Alec and the others. Getting to his feet, the Lhapnosan let one hand rest near the hilt of the knife in his belt. Several of his companions did the same.
"But I forgot," he said, eyes narrowing. "You're not keeping the best company these days."
"He certainly isn't," one of the swimmers remarked, climbing from the pool. He strode up to them, his face set in a disdainful frown.
Alec tensed, recognizing him by the dragon bite on his chin. This was no servant. He'd been with the Haman khirnari last night at the Silmai banquet.
The Haman stood a moment, eyeing them with distaste. "A Bokthersan, a Tirfaie." His gaze came to rest on Alec. "And the Exile's garshil ke 'menios."
Alec understood only half the phrase—garshil meant "mongrel" — but that and the Haman's tone left no doubt that it was a calculated insult.
"This is Emiel i Moranthi of Haman, the khirnari's nephew," Nyal warned in Skalan.
"I know who he is," said Alec, keeping his tone neutral, as if he hadn't understood the insult.
Kheeta had no such reservations. "You should choose your words more carefully, Emiel i Moranthi!" he snarled, stepping closer.
Alec laid a hand on his arm, then said in Aurenfaie, "He can use what words he likes. It's of no concern to me."
His antagonist's eyes narrowed; none of the Haman had bothered chatting with him the night before and no doubt assumed he did not speak their language.
"What's going on?" Beka muttered, sensing trouble.
"Just a few insults between clans," Alec said evenly. "Best to walk away."
"Yes," Nyal agreed, no longer smiling as he urged the glowering Kheeta back the way they'd come. But Beka was still eyeing the naked man.
"It was nothing," Alec repeated firmly, snagging her by the sleeve and following.
"What's the matter, too frightened to join us?" Emiel jeered.
It was Alec who wheeled around and, against all better judgment, strode back to face him. With the same bravado he'd once used staring down back-alley toughs, he crossed his arms and cocked his head to one side, slowly scanning Emiel from head to foot until his would-be adversary shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny.
"No," Alec replied at last, raising his voice for all to hear. "I see nothing here that frightens me."
He sensed the attack coming and jumped back as Emiel lunged for him. The Hainan's companions caught at him, dragging him back. Alec felt hands on his arms, too, but shook them off, needing no restraint. Somewhere behind him, Beka was cursing pungently in two languages as Kheeta restrained her.
"Remember where you are, all of you," Nyal warned, shouldering in between them.
Emiel hissed softly between clenched teeth, but fell back. "Thank you, my friend," he sneered, though his gaze never left Alec. "Thank you for not letting me soil my hands with this little garshil ke'menios."
With that, he sauntered back toward the pool.
"Come away," Nyal urged.
The skin between his shoulder blades prickled and he tensed, expecting any moment for the Haman to change their minds and renew the fight. Aside from a few jeers and muttered insults, however, the defenders of the pool let them go in peace.
"What was that he called you?" Beka asked again as soon as they were out of earshot.
"Nothing that matters."
"Oh, I can see that! What did he say?" Beka demanded.
"I didn't get all of it."
"He called you a mongrel boy whore," Kheeta growled.
Alec could feel his face burning and was glad of the shadows.
"I've been called worse," he lied. "Let it go, Beka. The last thing Klia needs is the head of her bodyguard getting into a brawl."
"Bilairy's Balls! That filthy son of a—"
"Please, Beka, you mustn't say such things aloud. Not here," said Nyal. "Emiel's behavior is understandable. Seregil murdered his kinsman, and by our reckoning, Alec is kin to Seregil. Surely it's not so different among your own people?"
"Back home you can knock somebody's teeth in without starting a war," she snapped.
Nyal shook his head. "What a place this Skala must be."
Alec caught a hint of motion out of the corner of his eye just then and slowed, peering into the darkness between the pillars. Perhaps the Haman hadn't been put off so easily after all. He caught a hint of an unfamiliar scent, heavy with musk and spice. Then it was gone.
"What is it?" Beka asked softly.
"Nothing," he said, though instinct warned otherwise.
Outside, it was raining harder than ever. Curtains of mist anchored the clouds to the rooftops.
"Perhaps you should ride back with us," Kheeta suggested.
"I suppose so," Beka agreed. Accepting the Bokthersan's outstretched hand, she swung easily up behind him.
Alec kicked a stirrup free for Nyal. The Ra'basi reached to accept a hand up, then stopped to examine the Akhendi charm dangling from Alec's wrist. The little bird carving had turned black.
"What happened to it?" Alec asked, peering at it in surprise. A tiny crack he hadn't noticed before marred the tip of one wing.
"It's a warning charm. Emiel ill-wished you," Nyal explained.
"A waste of good magic, if you ask me," Kheeta muttered. "It takes no magic to read the heart of a Haman."
Alec pulled out his dagger, intending to cut the charm free and toss it into the bushes.
"Don't," Nyal said, staying his hand. "It can be restored so long as you don't destroy the knots."
"I don't want Seregil seeing this. He'll know something happened and I hate lying to him."
"Give it to me, then," the Ra'basi offered. "I'll get one of the Akhendi to fix it for you."
Alec plucked the lacings free and handed it to him. "I want your word, all of you, that Seregil won't hear about this. He has enough to worry about."
"Are you sure that's wise, Alec?" asked Kheeta. "He's not a child."
"No, but he does have a temper. The Haman insulted me to get at him. I'm not going to play their game for them."
"I'm not so sure," Beka said, more concerned than angry now. "You keep your distance from them, especially if you're alone. That was more than bluff and bluster just now."
"Don't worry," Alec said, forcing a grin. "If there's one thing I've learned from Seregil, it's how to avoid people."
Thero envied Beka the headache that had released her from the day's duties. As negotiations rambled on, the wizard grew increasingly restless. Most of the day's speeches were hollow posturing, currying favor with one side or the other. Stories and grievances from centuries past were trotted out and argued. Apparently there was no shame in napping during these interludes; a number of onlookers up in the gallery were snoring audibly.
Thunderstorms descended on the city soon after midday, throwing the Iia'sidra chamber into lamp-lit gloom. Cold winds swept in through the windows, carrying rain and leaves. At times thunder drowned the voice of the speaker on the floor.
Chin on hand, Thero watched the lightning illuminate rippling sheets of rain lashing down outside. It brought back memories of his apprentice days in Nysander's tower. Sitting at the window of his chamber on summer afternoons, he'd watched the barbed white bolts spike down over the harbor and dreamed of capturing that power, channeling it through his hands. To control something that could destroy you in an instant—the thought had made his pulse race. One day he'd blurted out his idea to Nysander, asking if it could be done.
The older wizard had merely given him a look of kindly forbearance and asked, "If you could control it, dear boy, would it be as beautiful?"
The response had seemed nonsensical to him at the time, he thought sadly.
An especially long, bright flash lit the Iia'sidra just then, transforming the window he'd been staring at into an oblong of weird blue-white brilliance. Thero saw the black outline of a woman framed there, as if in a doorway.
The window went dark again, and a clap of thunder shook the building, driving in a fresh gust of wind. The figure had been no fleeting vision, however. A young rhui'auros stood there, resting one hand lightly against the stone frame as she stared across the chamber at him. Her lips moved and he heard a voice whisper in his mind, Come to us afterward, my brother. It is time.
Before Thero could even nod, she had faded away in a blur of color.
Thankfully, the council adjourned early that day. Thero doubted he could have told anyone what had been said. Following Klia and the others out into the storm, he found the woman waiting for him by his horse. She was very young, with grey-green eyes that seemed overly large beneath her ridiculous hat. Her soaked robe clung to her thin frame like a wrinkled second skin, and the wind had whipped her wet hair into lank strands against her cheeks. She should have been shivering, but she wasn't.
Klia gave her a surprised glance.
"With your permission, my lady, I would like to visit the rhui'auros," he explained.
"In this weather?" Klia asked, then shrugged. "Take care. I'll need you first thing tomorrow."
Thero's strange companion did not speak as they set out, nor would she accept his cloak or an offer to ride. He was soon glad to have a guide. In this weather, one broad, deserted street looked no different from another.
Reaching the Nha'mahat at last, the girl motioned for him to dismount, then led him by the hand along a well-worn path to the cave beneath the tower. Clouds of vapor issued from the low opening, crawling low across the ground to disappear in wisps on the wind. Mineral secretions coated the rock here, white and yellows shot through with wavering bands of black. Untold pairs of feet had worn a smooth path inside.
A sudden rush of wonder brought a lump to Thero's throat as he followed it into the large natural chamber beyond. If Nysander had been correct, this was the very womb of mysteries, the source of the magic that had come to his own people through the blood of Aurenen.
The place was humid and primitive, its rough walls unaltered except for a few scattered lamps and a broad staircase that curved like a ram's horn at the center of the room, its even stonework out of place in such a setting. Light shone down from some upper room, and Thero smelled the sweet reek of incense as they passed. Down here there was nothing of ritual or decoration. Steam curled up from a network of fissures and small pools in the floor. Rhui'auros and 'faie moved among the shadows, quiet as ghosts.
The girl gave him no time to get his bearings but continued down one of several passageways that branched off from the main chamber. There were no lamps here and she did not strike a light. The darkness posed no problem for Thero, either; when his eyes failed other senses took over, showing him his surroundings in muted shapes of black and grey. Was this a test, he wondered, or did she simply assume that, sharing a similar magic, Tir wizards could see in the dark?
Sweltering air closed in around them as they went on, and Thero was aware of the downward slant of the tunnel floor beneath his feet. Small, hive-shaped structures stood here and there along the way, large enough to hold a person or two. Brushing his fingers across one as he passed, he felt thick, sodden wool. Leather flaps covered a small door and an opening at its top.
"Dhima, for meditation," she told him, speaking at last. "You may use them whenever you like."
Evidently this was not the point of the current expedition. The passage took a sharp jog to the right and the air grew cooler, the way more steep and narrow. There were no dhima here.
In places they had to duck their heads as the overhanging stone dipped low. In others, they grasped thick ropes strung through metal eyelets driven into the stone, lowering themselves over short drops. He lost track of time in the darkness, but the feeling of magical energy grew stronger with every step.
At last they reached level ground again, and Thero heard a sound like wind in branches. After a few yards the tunnel curved again, and suddenly he was blinking in the relative brightness of clear moonlight. Looking around in surprise, he saw that they were standing at the edge of a forest clearing under a clear night sky. The
ground sloped gently to the edge of a glassy black pool. The crescent moon's reflection floated motionless on its still surface, undisturbed by any ripple.
The light grew brighter as he stood there. Looking around, he could find no sign of his guide, but the pool was now surrounded by a great throng. Those he could make out wore the robes and hats of the rhui'auros. He knew by the lifting of the hair on his arms that at least some of them were spirits, though one looked as solid as another, even the ones with the curling black hair and dark skin of Bash'wai. Beyond them, in the thick, night-black forest, something moved—many creatures, and large ones.
"Welcome, Thero son of Nysander, wizard of the Third Oreska," a deep voice rumbled from the darkness. "Do you know where you are?"
Caught off guard by the misnomer, it took Thero a moment to grasp the question. As soon as he did, however, he knew the answer.
"The Vhadasoori pool, Honored One," he replied in an awed whisper. How he knew it was a mystery—there was no sign of the statues, much less the city itself, but the magic that radiated from the black water was unmistakable.
"You see with the eyes of a rhui'auros, Nysander's son."
The girl who had been his guide stepped from the crowd and offered him a cup fashioned from a hollow tusk. It was as long as his forearm and wrapped in an intricate binding of leather thongs that formed handles on either side. Grasping these, Thero closed his eyes and drank deeply. Beneath his fingers, the cup vibrated with the touch of a thousand hands.
When he looked up again, he and the girl were alone in the clearing. Her face no longer looked so young, and her eyes were flat disks of gold.
"We are the First Oreska," she told him. "We are your forebears, your history, Wizard. In you we see our future, as you perceive your past in us. The dance goes on, and your kind will be made whole."
"I don't understand," he said.
"It is the will of Aura, Thero son of Nysander son of Arkoniel son of Iya daughter of Agazhar, of the line of Aura."
Gentle, unseen hands loosened the fastenings of Thero's garments and they fell away, shoes and all. A will other than his own guided him to the water's edge, and on, until he was up to his neck in the pool. The water was winter cold, so cold it robbed the breath from his lungs and burned his skin like fire. Turning back toward
shore, he was surprised to see himself still standing there beside the woman. Then he was dragged under.
The water closed over him, filling his eyes and nose and mouth, and then his lungs, yet he felt no discomfort, no panic. Lost in the formless dark, he floated, waiting. And remembering. The night they'd slept by the dragon pool in Akhendi he'd dreamed of this place and of drowning. The dream itself had raveled to mere fragments since then, yet it resonated with the same surety he'd felt when he'd named this place as the Vhadasoori.
"What is the purpose of magic, Thero son of Nysander?" the deep voice asked.
"To serve, to know—" Thero was unsure whether he spoke aloud or only thought the words; it made no difference, for the other heard him.
"No, little brother, you are wrong. What is the purpose of magic, son of Nysander?"
"No, little brother. What is the purpose of magic, son of Nysander?"
The darkness pushed in on him. He felt the pressure of it in his lungs, smothering him. The first cold stab of fear hit him then, but he forced himself to remain still. "I don't know," he replied, humbled.
"You do, son of Nysander."
Son of Nysander. Sparks danced in front of his sightless eyes, but Thero held on to the image of his first mentor, the plain, good-humored man he'd too often underestimated. He recalled with shame his own arrogance and how it had blinded him to Nysander's wisdom until it was too late to honor it. He recalled the bitterness he'd felt when Nysander kept him from spells his skill could master but his empty heart could not wisely employ. For an instant he heard his old teacher's voice, patiently explaining, "The purpose of magic is not to replace human endeavor but to aid it." How many times had he said that over the years? How many times had Thero ignored the importance of the words?
The crescent moon wavered into view in front of him, dancing gently over the water's surface far above. Still mired in darkness, Thero felt the power of it breaking in on him, and his mouth stretched wide with joy.
Like a cork buoy suddenly released, he shot to the surface, shattering the moon's reflection.
"Balance!" he shouted up at it.
"Yes," the voice said approvingly. "Nysander understood better
than any Tir the role of Aura's gifts. We waited for him to come to us, but it was not to be. The task falls to you."
What task? Thero wondered with a thrill of excitement.
"Balance was lost long ago between your people and our own, between the Tir and the Light. Light balances darkness. Silence balances sound. Death balances life. The Aurenfaie preserve the old ways; your kind, left to dance alone for a time, have forged the new."
Thero reached a tentative foot down and found solid ground in easy reach. Wading from the pool, he walked to the lone figure awaiting him, an ancient Bash'wai woman. Her face and skin were black in the moonlight, her hair silver.
Thero fell to his knees in front of her. "Is that why Klia was allowed to come here, and at this time? Did you make this happen?"
"Make?" She chuckled, and her voice was deep, too large for such a frail frame. She stroked his head like a child's. "No, little brother, we only dance the dance with whatever steps we can manage."
Confused, Thero pressed a hand over his eyes, then looked up again. "You said the wizards of Skala would be made whole. What does that mean?"
But the Bash'wai was gone. In her place sat a large dragonling with golden eyes. Before Thero could do more than register its presence, it darted forward between his bare thighs and bit him on the scrotum. Leaping up with a panicked shout, he felt his head connect with something hard and the moon spun away like a dropped ring.
When Thero came to again, he was sprawled facedown and fully clothed just inside the mouth of a tunnel leading off from the main cavern beneath the Nha'mahat.
A vision! he thought in dazed wonder. He shifted to stand up, then pressed flat again, squeezing his eyes shut as fiery talons of pain tightened around his balls. The memory of Alec's bitten earlobe, swelled three times its normal size, presented itself ungraciously, and he let out a groan.
The sound of movement against stone made him open his eyes again. Through a haze of pain, he saw a seated figure uncoil itself from the nearby shadows and resolve into his young guide.
"Lissik." She held a flask down for him to see before disappearing behind him.
A mark of honor, they call these bites! he thought helplessly as
she went about her ministrations. If I survive long enough to heal, how am I ever going to show it off?
People came and went around him. If the sight of a Skalan wizard cackling hysterically on the ground with his robe tucked up around his waist struck any of them as odd, none were so ungracious as to say so in his hearing.
Where's Thero?" Alec wondered aloud as they set off for a banquet in Bry'kha tupa that evening. "Gone to visit the rhui'auros," Klia told him. "I'd expected him back by now."
The rain had slacked off to a warm, sullen drizzle. Everyone rode with hoods pulled up, in little clumps behind Klia and Torsin. Alec and Seregil brought up the rear, the closest semblance of privacy they'd had all day. Seizing the opportunity, Alec confided his encounter with Beka and Nyal in the Haunted City.
Seregil took the news more calmly than he'd expected. "According to Thero, Queen Idrilain herself encourages such unions as part of the mission," he said quietly.
Alec glanced around at their Urgazhi escort. "What? Marrying her soldiers off to Aurenfaie?"
Seregil smirked. "I don't think marriage is a priority, but one of the goals of our current mission is to get a healthy infusion of Aurenfaie blood to renew that stock."
"Yes, but—! You mean she hoped Beka and her female riders would come home pregnant?" Alec exclaimed. "I thought they got drummed out for that?"
"The rules have been relaxed for the time being. No one is talking openly about it, but
Thero heard rumors that a bounty has even been offered. I suppose the men are free to bring home any Aurenfaie bride who'll have them, too."
"Bilairy's Balls, Seregil, that's coldhearted, turning the best turma in Skala into breeding stock!"
"When it comes to the survival of a nation, there's not much that's considered beyond the pale. It's not even that unusual. Remember my sojourn among the Dravnians? I kept up my duties as guest, so to speak. Who knows how many of my own offspring are toddling around somewhere up in the Asheks as we speak?"
Alec raised an eyebrow at this. "You're joking."
"I'm not. As for our current situation, it's all for the greater glory of Skala, which makes it honorable enough. How patriotic are you feeling these days?"
Alec ignored the jibe, but found himself watching the Urgazhi more closely during the banquet that followed.
Seregil was eating breakfast with Klia and Torsin in the hall early the next morning when Thero came shuffling in. His face was grey and he held himself as if his insides were made of glass and poorly packed.
"By the Light!" Torsin exclaimed. "My dear Thero, shall I send for a healer?"
"I'm fine, my lord, just a bit under the weather," Thero replied, coming to a halt behind an empty chair and grasping the back of it.
"You're not fine," Klia retorted, turning to look at him.
"It could be river fever," Seregil offered, suspecting it was no such thing. "I'll send for Mydri."
"No!" Thero said quickly. "No, that's not necessary. It's just a slight distemper. It will pass."
"Nonsense. Take him back to his room, Seregil," Klia ordered.
Thero's skin felt hot and clammy, and he leaned heavily on Seregil's arm as he limped back upstairs. Reaching his room, he laid down but refused to undress.
Seregil stood over him, frowning. "So, what happened?"
Thero closed his eyes and ran a hand over his unshaven cheek. "A dragon bit me."
"Bilairy's Balls, Thero! Where in Sarikali did you find one big enough to make you this sick?"
The wizard managed a sickly smile. "Where do you think?"
"Ah, of course. You'd better let me have a look."
"I've used lissik on it already."
"Lissik won't do for large bites. Come on now, where is it? Arm? Leg?"
With a sigh, Thero pulled up the front of his robe.
Seregil's eyes widened. "You said Alec's ear looked like a grape when he got bitten by that little one. This looks more like—"
"I know what it looks like!" Thero snarled, covering himself.
"This needs attention. I'll get something from Mydri. No one has to know the details."
"Thank you," Thero rasped, staring up at the ceiling.
Seregil shook his head. "You know, I've never heard of anyone getting bitten on the—"
"It was an accident. Just go!" Thero pleaded.
An accident? Seregil thought, hurrying next door. Not if the rhui'auros had anything to do with it.
To his considerable relief, Mydri asked few questions. He described the injury in general terms, and she mixed several infusions and a bowl of poultice. Eyeing the latter, Seregil hoped Thero was up to treating himself.
16 AN EVENING'S ENTERTAINMENT
Thero kept to his bed through the next day. Having been bitten himself, Alec couldn't share Seregil's amused attitude and was happy enough to keep Thero's secret. He was thankful when Klia decided that he was of more use wandering at large than at the Iia'sidra. Aurenfaie deliberation was conducted at a glacial pace, every issue seemingly tied to centuries of history and precedent. Except for occasional visits to stay abreast of developments, he found other ways to occupy himself.
As a result, he saw little of Seregil during the day, and the evenings were taken up by a seemingly endless number of banquets with clans major and minor, each fraught with unspoken undercurrents of influence and will.
When they finally did reach their room again, sometimes only a few hours before dawn, Seregil either fell asleep immediately or disappeared up to the colos to pace in the dark. Alec had seen enough already to know the rejection Seregil faced each day. In public, all but a few avowed friends kept their distance. Members of the Haman clan made no secret of their animosity. As always, however, Seregil preferred to battle his demons alone. Alec's love might be welcome; his concern was not. Adzriel noted her brother's withdrawal
one night during a visit with Klia, and Alec's muted pain. Putting an arm about his shoulders, she hugged him and whispered, "The bond is there, tali. For now, let it be enough. When he's ready he will come to you."
Alec had no choice but to heed her advice. Fortunately, he had work of his own to do. As he became more familiar with his surroundings, he went more often alone and soon formed a few alliances of his own—and among the class he'd always been most at home with.
While the Iia'sidra and influential clan members spent their days in solemn debate, the lesser members of the various households frequented the city's makeshift taverns and gaming houses. Alec's bow was as good as a letter of introduction in such company. Unlike Seregil, most Aurenfaie were consummate archers and loved to argue makes and weights as much as any northland hunter. Some favored longbows; others carried gracefully reflexed masterpieces of wood and horn. But none had seen anything quite like his Black Radly, and curiosity almost always led to friendly shooting contests.
Alec had fashioned a few shatta from Skalan coins, and these were much sought after, but he generally won more than he lost and he soon had a respectable collection dangling from his quiver strap.
Such pastimes bore other fruit, giving him access to that most useful of resources, the careless chatter servants exchange out of their masters' hearing. Gossip was gold to any spy, and Alec quietly took note. In this way, he learned that the Khatme khirnari, Lhaar a Iriel, had taken an interest in Klia's occasional evening rides with the young Silmai horseman, Taanil i Khormai. Alec even managed to sow a few rumors about that himself, though the truth was that Klia found the man something of a bore.
Alec also picked up reliable rumors that the khirnari of several key minor clans supposedly aligned with friendly Datsia had been seen visiting Ra'basi tupa under cover of night.
Perhaps his most important discovery, however, was that the khirnari of Lhapnos had quarreled with his supposed ally, Nazien i Hari, over support for Skala, and that several of the Haman's own people had taken the Lhapnosan's side. Principal among the dissenters was Alec's nemesis, Emiel i Moranthi.
"This is a new development," Lord Torsin remarked as Alec made his nightly report to Klia.
The princess gave Alec a wink. "You see, my lord? I told you he'd earn his keep."
Their tenth night in Sarikali brought a welcome respite. For the first time since their arrival they had no outside obligations, and Klia sent word for the evening meal to be a simple, communal affair in the main hall.
Alec was in the stable yard passing the time with some of Braknil's men when Seregil returned from the Iia'sidra alone.
"Had a good day, did you, my lord?" Minal called out.
"Not especially," Seregil snapped, not slowing as he disappeared into the house.
With an inward sigh, Alec followed him up to their chamber.
"Aura's Fingers, I was never meant to be a diplomat!" Seregil burst out as soon as they were alone. A button flew across the room as he yanked off his coat. He flung it into a corner and the sweat-soaked shirt beneath quickly followed. Grabbing the ewer from the wash-stand, he stalked out onto the balcony and emptied it over his head.
"You might have been a bit more pleasant to poor Minal," Alec chided, leaning against the doorframe. "He thinks a lot of you, you know."
Ignoring him, Seregil slicked the water from his eyes and pushed past him into the room. "No matter what Klia or Torsin says, someone manages to twist it around into a threat. 'We need iron. 'Oh, no, you want to colonize the Asheks! 'Let us use a northern port. 'You would steal Ra'basi's trade routes?
"Ulan i Sathil is the worst, though he seldom speaks. Oh, no! He just sits there, smiling as if he agrees with everything we say. Then, with a single well-chosen comment, he throws everyone into an uproar again and sits back to watch the fun. Later, you see him gathering the uncertain ones around him, whispering and wagging his finger. Bilairy's Balls, the man's smooth. I wish to hell he was on our side."
"What can you do?"
Seregil snorted. "If it were up to me, I'd challenge the whole damn lot of them to a horse race and settle the matter! It's been done before, you know. What are you laughing at?"
"You. You're raving. And dripping." Alec tossed him a cloth from the washstand.
Seregil gave him an apologetic grin as he toweled off. "And how did you do today? Anything new?"
"No. It seems I've gleaned all I can among the friendlier folk, and
I still haven't found a way to wiggle in among the Haman or Khatme." He decided not to share how often his presence had drawn challenging stares and whispers of «garshil» in certain quarters. "In Rhiminee, all I had to do was change clothes and blend into the crowd. Here they mark me as outlander and guard their words. I think it's time I did a little nightrunning."
"I've broached the subject to Klia but she says to wait, honorable woman that she is. Be patient, tali."
"You counseling patience? That's a first!"
"Only because I don't see any other choice just now," Seregil admitted. "At least we have a night off. However shall we pass the time?"
Most of the others were already seated by the time they came downstairs for supper. Long tables had been set up, Skalan style, in the main hall, and Beka waved them over to seats at the end of Klia's table.
"I wondered where she'd gotten off to all day," Seregil muttered, seeing Nyal at her side.
"Behave yourself," Alec warned.
"You can thank your captain for the fine desserts and cheese we're having tonight," Nyal announced as they sat down.
"Me?" Beka laughed. "He got word yesterday of a trader's caravan coming in from Datsia. We met it outside the city and haggled the best pickings out of them before anyone else was the wiser. You've never tasted such honey, Alec!"
"I thought you looked like you'd found something sweet," Seregil remarked blandly.
Alec used Thero's fortuitous arrival to mask the kick he dealt him under the table.
Klia stood and raised her wine cup, as if they were all comrades in a plain soldier's mess. "We've no priests among us, so I'll do the honors. By Sakor's Flame and Illior's Light. May they smile on our endeavors here." Turning, she sprinkled a few drops on the floor as a libation, then took a long drink. The others did the same.
"What's the word at the Iia'sidra, Commander?" Zir called from the next table. "Should we keep our packs tight, or settle in?"
Klia grimaced. "Given our reception so far, Corporal, I'd say you might as well get comfortable. Time seems to mean a great deal less to the 'faie than to us." She paused, saluting Seregil and Alec with her cup. "Present company excepted, of course."
Seregil returned the salute with an ironic chuckle. "If I ever had any Aurenfaie patience, I've long since lost it."
The windows and doors had been thrown open to let in the soft breeze; evening birdsong provided the meal's music as the shadows crept slowly across the floor. The only discordant notes were Torsin's occasional fits of coughing.
"He's getting worse," Thero murmured, watching the envoy dab at his lips with a stained napkin. "He won't admit it, of course— claims it's the climate here."
"Could it be that fever you had?" Beka asked.
Thero looked blank for an instant, then shook his head. "No, not that. I can see a darkness hovering about his chest."
"Will he survive the negotiations?" asked Alec, gazing over at the old man with concern.
"By the Light, the last thing we need is him dying in the midst of all this," muttered Seregil.
"Why wouldn't he let his niece come in his place?" Beka whispered. "Lady Melessandra knows as much of the 'faie as he does."
"This is the crowning achievement of a long and distinguished career," Seregil replied. "I suppose he couldn't bear not to see it through to its conclusion."
As the meal ended Klia wandered down to their end of the table. "We've been given the luxury of doing nothing tonight, my friends. Kheeta i Branin says the colos offers a pleasant view of the sunset. Anyone care to join us?"
"We'll make an Aurenfaie of you yet, my lady," Seregil said, rising to accompany her.
"Good. You and Alec can be our minstrels for the evening."
"If you will excuse me, my lady, I must retire early," Torsin said, still seated.
Klia laid a hand on the old man's shoulder. "Of course. Rest well, my friend."
Servants carried wine, cakes, and cushions up to the colos. Seregil made a quick detour to their room for his harp. By the time he joined the others, they'd settled in to enjoy the cool of the evening. The lingering green glow of sunset was fading quickly on the western horizon. To the east, a ruddy full moon was already rising over the city.
He and Alec were laughingly given the place of honor across from Klia. Beka and Nyal sprawled on the floor near the door, their backs to the wall.
A sudden lump rose in Seregil's throat as he struck the first notes
of "Softly Across the Water"; from where he sat he could see the colos on Adzriel's house, where he'd played for his family on so many evenings like this. Before he could halt or falter, Alec took up the melody, catching his eye with a small, questioning lift of an eyebrow. Fighting off the unexpected rush of sadness, Seregil focused all his attention on the intricate fingering of the song and came in with harmony on the refrain with the others, letting their voices cover any lingering unsteadiness in his own.
It still amused Alec to find himself consorting with royalty. Not so long ago he'd thought it a treat to sit next to a smoking hearth in some filthy tavern, back in the days when the 'faie were still, creatures of legend rather than his own kin.
Seregil cheered up as the evening wore on, and the two of them acquitted themselves admirably as minstrels. When their throats went dry, Thero took over with a pretty collection of illusions he'd picked up in his travels with Magyana.
"The wine's run low," Kheeta announced at last.
"I'll lend a hand," Alec offered, wishing his bladder felt as light as his head. He and Kheeta gathered the empty jugs and made their way downstairs toward the servant's stair at the end of the second-floor corridor. This took them past Torsin's chamber, and Alec saw that the door was slightly ajar. The room beyond was dark. Poor old fellow, he thought, gently pulling the latch shut. He must have been sicker than he let on to retire this early.
"She's a great lady, your princess," Kheeta observed warmly as they headed down to the kitchen. He'd had his share of the wine and was slurring his words a little. "It's sad…"
"That the 'faie blood has run so thin in her," the Bokthersan replied with a sigh. "You don't understand yet how fortunate you are, being ya'shel. Just you wait a few hundred years."
The cooks had propped the kitchen door open to catch the breeze from the yard. Passing it, Alec caught sight of a cloaked figure hurrying out the postern gate. Something in the sloped set of the man's shoulders made him pause; a familiar, muffled cough made him thrust the still empty wine jugs into his companion's arms and follow.
"Where are you going?" Kheeta called after him.
"I need some air." Alec sprinted across the yard before the other man could question him.
The guards by the watch fire took no more notice of him than they had of Torsin. Why worry about one of their own going out when it was folk creeping in they were set to guard against? Outside the gate Alec paused, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. A cough nearby guided him to the left.
He'd acted on pure instinct until now, but suddenly he felt rather foolish ghosting along after Klia's most trusted adviser as if he were a Plenimaran spy. What was he going to tell her when he got back, or say to Torsin if the old man caught him tailing along behind him? As if in answer, a large owl—the first he'd seen since they'd left Akhendi—glided past, flying in the same direction Torsin had gone.
I can claim I had an omen, he thought.
Ill or not, Torsin moved as if he had a purpose more serious than taking the night air. The taverns were busier than ever, and music seemed to come from all directions. Aurenfaie were out in pairs and groups, enjoying the night. He stopped now and then to exchange a greeting with some person he knew but didn't linger to chat.
Leaving Bokthersa tupa, he led Alec down a succession of streets that took them past boundary markers of Akhendi and Haman. When he slowed at last, Alec's heart sank. This street was marked with the moon symbol of Khatme. Thankfully, there were fewer folk abroad here, but Alec was careful to keep to the shadows of doorways and alleys. He wasn't nightrunning, he told himself, hoping he never had to justify that to anyone else. He was just keeping an eye on an ailing old man.
Torsin stopped at an imposing house Alec guessed rightly to be the house of Lhaar a Iriel. A brief slice of candle glow from inside illuminated the old man's face as he entered, and Alec was close enough to read what looked like resignation on Torsin's haggard features.
There were no obvious ways into the house, even for Alec. The well-guarded villas of Rhiminee possessed a comforting symmetry of design by comparison. There might be walls to climb, dogs to avoid or charm his way past, but you could almost always find some aperture to wiggle through if you knew your business. Here there were only barred doors and windows out of reach.
He was further stymied by the fact that this building, whatever it was, abutted several others, all of which presented equally blank faces. He was about to give up when he caught the sound of several voices somewhere overhead.
Looking up, he made out the dark jut of a balcony. The voices
were too soft for him to catch the gist of the conversation, but the erratic punctuation of Torsin's coughing left no doubt in Alec's mind that he'd found his man again.
There were at least two others with him, a man and a woman— Lhaar a Iriel herself, perhaps.
The conference did not last long. The unseen conspirators soon disappeared back into the house. Alec waited a few minutes to see if they'd return, then headed back to the front of the building to wait.
Torsin emerged a few minutes later, but not alone. A man walked with him for several minutes before turning in the opposite direction.
Alec was still trying to decide which one to follow when a familiar shape emerged from the shadows beside him.
"You take Torsin; I'll follow this other fellow. Watch out for Khatme along the way. You won't be welcome here." With that, Seregil disappeared as quickly as he'd come.
Torsin led Alec straight back to their own door, the front one this time. After exchanging a few words with the sentries, he went inside.
Looking up at the colos, Alec saw lights still burning there. Not knowing what excuses had been made for his absence or Seregil's, he went in through the stable yard and up the back stair. Halfway up, he heard Klia's voice, and Torsin's.
"I thought you'd turned in already," Klia said.
"A short walk in the night air helps me sleep," Torsin replied. No mention of where he'd been.
Alec waited until he heard two doors close, then continued on to his chamber and settled in to wait for Seregil so they could get their stories straight. That seemed a safe enough plan, far more attractive than being the one to tell Klia that her trusted minister has just been consorting with their opposition behind her back.
Seregil's man was not wearing a sen'gai, but he guessed from the cut of his tunic that he was from one of the eastern clans. He was soon proven right. The man led him to the house of Ulan i Sathil.
Lurking in a nearby doorway, Seregil pondered the possible connections. Intractable Khatme and worldly Viresse; the two clans were divided as much by their ideology as they were by the spur of mountains that lay between their ancestral lands. The only uniting factor he knew of was their opposition to the Skalan treaty.
The greater question was whether Torsin knew of the connection.
He returned to the guest house to find the colos dark, the music stilled. Entering by the back gate, he found Korandor and Nikides on guard duty.
"Has anyone else come or gone this way tonight, Corporal?" he asked.
"Just Lord Torsin, my lord," Nikides replied. "He left a while back and we haven't seen him since."
"I thought he'd turned in for the night."
"Couldn't sleep, he said. Now, I say night air's the worst thing for weak lungs, but there's no telling these nobles anything—begging your pardon, my lord."
Seregil gave the man a knowing wink and continued on as if he'd just been out on a constitutional of his own.
He found Alec pacing impatiently in their room, every lamp blazing. Shadows still clung in the corners, resisting his superstitious efforts to banish them.
"Seems they can't carry on without us." Seregil grinned, pointing up toward the abandoned colos.
"Klia came down about half an hour ago," Alec told him, coming to a rest in the center of the room. "What did they say when I didn't come back?"
"Kheeta had some story about you feeling your wine, but he slipped me the nod. What happened?"
Alec shrugged. "Luck in the shadows, if you can call it that. I just happened to be there when Torsin left. He came straight back here from Khatme tupa after I saw you. Klia met him in the passage as he came up."
"Did she know where he'd been?"
"I couldn't tell. What about your man?"
"Care to guess?"
"Smart boy. Too bad we don't know what was said either place."
"Then you didn't learn anything, either." Alec sank into a chair by the hearth. "What do you suppose Torsin was up to?"
"The queen's business, I hope," Seregil replied doubtfully, sprawling in the chair opposite.
"Do we tell Klia?"
Seregil closed his eyes and massaged the lids. "That's the real question, isn't it? I doubt that spying on our own people was quite what she had in mind when she invited us along.". "Maybe not, but she did say she was worried that he might be too sympathetic to Viresse. This proves it."
"It proves nothing, except that he and someone with connections to Ulan i Sathil met at the house of Lhaar a Iriel."
"So, what do we do?»
Seregil shrugged. "Bide our time a little longer, and keep our eyes open."
17 ALEC KEEPS BUSY
Bide our time. To Alec, it seemed all they'd done since they arrived was wait, held impotent by the strictures of diplomacy and the plodding pace of Aurenfaie debate. The last thing he felt like doing was biding his time now that something interesting had finally happened.
He rose early the next morning and took himself out for a dawn ride around the city walls. The distant hills floated like islands above the thick mist rising from the rivers. The bleat of sheep and goats came from closer by. Reaching the Nha'mahat, he stopped to exchange greetings with a rhui'auros who was setting out fresh offerings for the dragons. At this hour the little creatures fluttered in swarms thick as spring swallows, circling the tower. Others scrabbled over the bowls in the arcade. Several lit on Alec and he froze, not relishing the thought of another painful bite, no matter how auspicious the marks might be.
Riding back through the Haunted City he passed the House of Pillars and was surprised to see Nyal's horse, a black gelding with three white stockings, grazing there next to a sturdy white palfrey. Alec had an
eye for horses and recognized this little mare as the mount Lady Amali had ridden over the mountains from Gedre.
If it hadn't been for Beka, he might have ridden on. Instead, he tethered Windrunner out of sight and hurried inside.
Voices echoed from several directions, and he set off following those that sounded most promising to the pools at the center of the sprawling place. At last, he found his way to a small, weed-grown court some distance further on, where the comforting rise and fall of a man's voice sounded a counterpoint to a woman's soft weeping. Creeping closer, Alec slipped behind a tattered tapestry that still hung near the courtyard's edge and peered out through a hole.
Amali sat on the edge of an empty fountain, her face in her hands. Nyal stood over her, stroking her hair gently.
"Forgive me," Amali said through her fingers. "But who else could I turn to? Who else would understand?"
Nyal drew her close, and for an instant Alec scarcely recognized him. The Ra'basi's handsome face was suffused with an anger Alec had never seen in him before. When he spoke again, his voice was almost too low to hear. Alec could make out only the words "hurt you."
Amali raised her tear-stained face and clasped his hands beseechingly. "No! No, you must never think such a thing! He's in such distress at times I hardly know him. Word came that another village near the Khatme border has been abandoned. It's as if Akhendi is dying, too!"
Nyal murmured something and she shook her head again. "He cannot. The people would not hear of it. He won't abandon them!"
Nyal pulled away and walked off a few steps, clearly agitated. "Then what is it you want of me?"
"I don't know!" She reached out to him. "Only—I needed to know you are still my friend, someone I can open my heart to. I'm so alone there!"
"It's where you chose to be," Nyal retorted bitterly, then relented as she dissolved into tears again.
"I am your friend, your dear friend," he assured her, gathering her close and rocking her gently. "You can always come to me, talia. Always. Just give me this much: Do you ever regret your decision? Even just a little?"
"You mustn't ask me that," she sobbed, clinging to him. "Never, never, never! Rhaish is my life. If only I could make him well."
Amali could not see the despair that filled Nyal's eyes at her words, but Alec could. Ashamed of his eavesdropping, he waited until the pair had gone, then set off for home.
Seregil and the others had left for the Iia'sidra by the time Alec arrived. He checked at their room, in case Seregil had left any last-minute instructions, but found nothing. On his way down to the kitchen for breakfast, however, he found himself pausing outside Torsin's door, his heart beating just a little too fast. It seemed to be his day for opportunities; the door was ajar again.
The envoy's strange behavior the previous night was too much to ignore, given Seregil's concerns about the man's loyalties. And this—the open door was just too tempting to pass unexplored.
With a last guilty glance around and a quick prayer to Illior, he slipped inside and closed the door.
Torsin's room was a large one, with an alcove at the far side. A desk stood beneath a window there, dispatch box, writing materials, and a few sealed parchments arranged neatly on its polished top. The room was furnished with the usual accoutrements: gauze-hung bed, a washstand, clothes chests, all made in the simple Aurenfaie style— pale woods and clean, sweeping lines accented with darker inlay.
Feeling guiltier by the moment, he worked quickly, examining the desk and its contents, the clothes chests, and the walls behind the hangings, but found nothing of note. Everything was meticulous, orderly.
Picking up a daybook from a stand by the bed, he found a terse but detailed record of each day's developments written in Torsin's precise script. The first entry was dated three months earlier. As he moved to put it back it fell open to more recent entries, one dating a week or so before Klia's arrival in Gedre. The handwriting was still recognizable, but the letters were not as clearly formed, and words occasionally strayed from the careful lines or were marred by blots and smudges.
That's his illness doing that. Alec paged back through the book, trying to gauge how long Torsin had been failing, but was interrupted by the sound of brisk footsteps from the corridor.
Aurenfaie beds were low-slung affairs, yet he managed to wedge himself out of sight under it without too much trouble. It wasn't until he was hidden that he realized he was still clutching the book.
The latch lifted and he held his breath, watching from beneath the edge of the coverlet as the door swung open and a pair of boot-clad feet—a woman's, by the size—strode across the room to the desk. It was Mercalle; he recognized her limp. He heard the small squeak of the dispatch box's lid and the unmistakable rustle of parchments.
Turning his head, he looked out under the other side of the bed and could see the bottom of a dispatch pouch hanging against her thigh.
Seems I'm the only spy here, after all, he thought, letting out a pent-up breath when she'd gone out. She'd simply come to collect the day's dispatches.
He remained where he was a moment, and opened the daybook again. The first sign of weakness in Torsin's handwriting appeared several weeks before Klia's arrival. Pondering this, he turned to the latest entry, a summary of the previous day's debate.
U.S. remains subtle, letting the L. raise opposition —
Alec allowed himself a wry smirk. What had he expected? "Met with the Viresse. Plotted against the princess"?
His current position afforded him a different perspective on the room. From here, he could see the careful polish on the row of shoes lined up next to a clothes chest, and the crisply folded pleats in the hem of a robe hanging on the wall.
One glance into a person's private rooms will tell you more about him than an hour's conversation, Seregil had once told him. Alec had found the statement amusing at the time, considering the source; any space Seregil inhabited was soon in complete disarray. Torsin's room, on the other hand, shouted order. Everything was in its place, with nothing extraneous in evidence.
As he slid out from under the bed he noticed a flash of red in the ashes on the hearth, just beneath the metal bars of the grate. If he'd been standing, he'd have missed it.
Crawling over, he saw it was the half-charred remains of a small silk tassel, dark red with a few blue threads mixed in. He doubted Torsin owned a garment with such embellishments, but they were common enough on Aurenfaie clothing, edging cloaks and tunics.
He gingerly plucked it out, heart racing again. It was the right size and colors to have come from the edge of a Viresse head cloth. Someone had meant to destroy it, but it had fallen through the grate before the fire had completely consumed it.
No chance of it being missed, then, he reasoned, tucking it into the wallet at his belt.
He spent the rest of the morning loitering about the edges of Khatme tupa in hopes of striking up a profitable conversation.
Skilled as he usually was at such ploys, he had no luck here. Unwelcoming stares and whispers of "garshil" warned him off whenever he ventured too deeply into the area.
Perhaps I used up all my luck this morning, he thought, frustrated.
The few outlying streets he did manage to explore had none of the usual gathering spots. Unfriendly tattooed faces peered at him from windows and balconies, then disappeared from view. No one, it seemed, had time to drink or game here. Or perhaps, insular as they were, their taverns were located deeper in the tupa, far from prying impure eyes.
As midday approached he gave up and started for home. It took only a few turnings, however, to realize that he had once again gotten himself lost.
"Illior's Fingers!" he muttered, scowling as he scanned the anonymous walls and doorways.
"Blaspheming won't get you free, half-breed. You must use the Lightbearer's true name here."
A Khatme woman stepped into view a few yards away, her tattooed face impassive beneath her bulging red-and-black sen'gai. She wore none of the usual heavy jewelry Alec associated with the clan, but her tunic was stitched with rows of silver, pomegranate-shaped beads.
"I meant no disrespect," Alec replied. "And you can spare yourself the effort of magic; I get lost on my own without any help."
"I've been watching you all morning, half-breed. What is it you want here?"
"I was just curious."
"You're lying, half-breed."
Do the Khatme read thoughts after all, or do I just look as guilty as I feel? Putting on the bravest face he could, he replied. "My apologies, Khatme. It's a practice we Tir have when what we are doing is none of another person's business."
"There's an etiquette to duplicity, then? How interesting."
Alec thought he saw a hint of a smile shift the black tracery covering one cheek. "You say you've been watching me, yet I haven't seen you," he countered. "Were you spying on me?"
"Were you spying on Lord Torsin when he came here at our khirnari's request last night, half-breed?"
There was no use dissembling. "That doesn't concern you. And my name is Alec i Amasa, not half-breed."
"I know. Retrace your steps." Before he could respond, she was gone, disappearing like smoke on the air.
"Retrace my steps?" Alec grumbled. "What else have I been doing?"
This time, however, it worked and he found himself back in familiar territory, near the Iia'sidra chamber. Having nothing better to do, he went in and settled in an inconspicuous corner, watching faces. He watched Torsin's most closely of all.
He managed to catch Seregil's attention when the council adjourned for the midday meal. Motioning him outside, Alec walked him quickly into an empty side street.
"Find out anything in Khatme tupa?" Seregil asked hopefully.
"Well, no. Not there." Steeling himself, Alec plunged into a hurried account of his findings in Torsin's room, what he'd seen between Nyal and Amali momentarily forgotten.
Seregil stared a him incredulously, then whispered, "You burgled Torsin's room? Bilairy's Balls, didn't I tell you to wait?"
"Yes, and if I'd listened to you we wouldn't have this, would we?" Alec showed him the Viresse tassel. "What's the matter with you? A member of Klia's own delegation sneaks out to talk to the enemy and you say wait? Back in Rhiminee you'd have been in there last night yourself!"
Seregil glared at him a moment, then shook his head. "It's not the same here. This isn't the Plenimarans we're dealing with. The Aurenfaie are Skala's allies in spirit if not in actual fact. It's not as if they're likely to be plotting her assassination. And Torsin?"
"But this could be the proof Klia was looking for, about his divided loyalty."
"I've been thinking about that. It's not sympathy that would make Torsin court Ulan's favor. He's worried that we could lose all by offending the Viresse: not get Gedre, and lose our port in Viresse in the bargain. Still, if he did go behind her back to do it—?"
"How did he seem at the Iia'sidra?"
"Any guilty glances or secret nods exchanged, you mean?" Seregil asked with a crooked grin. "None that I saw. The one possibility we haven't considered is that he was acting on Klia's behalf, and that it's the rest of us who aren't supposed to know."
"Well, that brings us right back to my original question. What do we do?"
Seregil shrugged. "We're Watchers. We'll watch."
"Speaking of watching people, I saw Nyal and Amali together again early this morning."
"Oh?" This clearly piqued Seregil's interest. "What were they up to?"
"She was upset about her husband and it was Nyal she turned to."
"They were lovers once. Clearly there's still a bond there," said Seregil. "What was it she was upset about?"
"I didn't hear everything, but it sounded like this debate is taking a toll on Rhaish."
Seregil frowned. "That's not good. We need him strong. Do you think Amali and Nyal are still secretly lovers?"
Alec thought back over the morning's scene: Amali clinging to the tall Ra'basi, the anger he'd seen in the man's face at the mere hint of abuse. "I don't know."
"I think it's time we found out, and not just for Klia's sake. Let's see if Adzriel knows more than she's been letting on."
They found Adzriel sitting with Saaban in her colos.
"Nyal and Amali?" Saaban chuckled when Seregil broached the subject. "Have you two been gossiping in the taverns?"
"Not exactly," Seregil hedged. "I've heard a few rumors, and Nyal's been showing a lot of attention to Beka Cavish; if he's leading her on, I mean to take steps."
"They were lovers before her marriage to Rhaish i Arlisandin," Adzriel said. "A sad story, the stuff of ballads."
Adzriel shrugged. "She chose duty over love, I suppose, marrying the khirnari of her clan rather than an outsider. But I know she's grown to love Rhaish dearly; it's Nyal who carries the pain of that decision. He strikes me as the sort of man who does not stop loving even when his love is turned away. Perhaps Beka can heal his heart."
"Just so long as he doesn't break hers in the process. Rhaish is getting long in years. Is he well?"
"I've been wondering that myself. He doesn't seem himself; the strain of the negotiations, no doubt."
"He's known more than his share of sorrows, too," said Saaban. "He's seen two wives die, one barren, one in childbed, along with the child. Now Amali carries their first child. That's bad enough by itself, but to be khirnari and watch your people suffer as his do—I can only imagine how much this business weighs on his mind. I suspect Amali wanted nothing more from Nyal than a shoulder to cry on."
"Try as I may to dislike the man, I hear nothing but good spoken of him," Seregil muttered as they walked back to their room.
"The Akhendi khirnari?" asked Alec.
"No, Nyal. Caring for the lover who threw you over shows more character than I have."
Alec allowed himself a smug grin. "See? I knew you were wrong about him."
Amali huddled in darkness by the bedchamber window, fighting back tears as Rhaish thrashed again in his sleep. He would not tell her what his dreams were, though they grew worse every night, making him sweat and groan. If she woke him he would cry out, glaring at her with mad, sightless eyes.
Amali a Yassara was no stranger to fear; she'd seen her family skirt starvation, driven by it out of the lands they knew to live like beggars in the streets of successive towns and cities across Akhendi. She'd let Nyal heal her fears for a time, but he wanted to take her away, to wander like a teth'brimash again. It was Rhaish who'd saved her, lifted her up and made her proud again to wear the sen'gai of her people. Her parents and brothers ate at the khirnari's table now, and she carried the khirnari's son under her heart. Before the Skalans had come, bearing hope, she had felt safe. Now her husband shouted madness in his sleep.
With a guilty shudder, she felt in the pocket of her nightdress for the warding charm Nyal had given her to mend. It wasn't his, but it was a link to him, an excuse to meet again when she'd finished with it. Her fingers stroked the crude knots of the wristband: a child's work, but effective. Nyal's fingers had brushed her palm as he'd given it to her when they first arrived at the House of Pillars. She let herself savor the memory of that touch, and those that followed; his fingers on her hair, his arms around her, shielding her for a little while from all her fears and worries. It wasn't the Ra'basi she ached for now, but the sense of peace he'd always been able to give her— just never for long enough.
She pushed the charm back into her pocket, her talisman to summon that comfort again if she needed it. Drying her tears, she found a soft cloth and went to wipe her beloved's brow.
Cool mountain air against her face. Jagged peaks against a flawless sky. One more pass to traverse and she'd be on the high plains beyond. She closed her eyes for a moment, savoring the mingled scents of wet stone, wild thyme, and the sweat steaming from her horse's withers.
Freedom. Nothing ahead of her but endless days of exploration —
Magyana jerked out of her doze as the quill slipped from her fingers. Her mouth was dry. The stale, overheated air inside the queen's tent made her head ache. The dream had been so clear—for just an instant a flash of resentment overwhelmed her. Inever asked for this!
Retrieving the fallen pen, Magyana trimmed it and settled resignedly back in her chair. Freedom was an illusion she'd been able to maintain too well for too many years. The gifts that raised a wizard to the highest levels of the Oreska came with a price— different for each, according to their talents.
The bill for her wandering years had come due, and here she sat, unable to do more than watch over the best of queens as Idrilain fought death, her final adversary.
Being Idrilain, she had managed to rally, at least for a time. Klia's departure for Aurenen had somehow buoyed her. In the month since,
she clung doggedly to life, even putting on a little flesh as the infection in her lungs receded. Most days she hovered in a murky half-sleep, surfacing now and then into lucid conversation, catching up with a few questions on the progress of the war and Klia's mission, though of the latter there was still cruelly little to report. Neither strong enough nor willing to make the long journey back to Rhiminee, Idrilain was content to remain in what was now essentially Phoria's camp. As Queen's Wizard, Magyana remained with her, trapped in this stuffy tent, surrounded by medicine vessels and the heavy smell of illness and an old woman dying—
Magyana pushed away the guilty thoughts. Yet tied she was, by love, oath, and honor, until Idrilain saw fit to release her, or was released herself.
Leaving the queen to sleep, Magyana carried her chair and writing materials outside. Late-afternoon light bathed the sprawling encampment in a deceptively gentle light. Dipping her pen in the inkpot, she began again.
"My dear Thero, yesterday the Plenimarans drove a line of Mycenian troops back to within a few miles of where I sit. In Skala more towns have been burned along the eastern coast. Stories of a darker sort come in from all quarters—half a regiment of White Hawk archers stricken in one night, overwhelmed by evil vapors; dead men rising to strangle their own comrades; a dyrmagnos summoning ghostly terrors and fountains of fire in broad daylight. Some are mere soldiers' tales, but a few have been verified. Our colleague, Elutheus, himself witnessed a necromancer calling down lightning at Gresher's Ford.
"Even Phoria cannot discount such reports, but she stubbornly maintains that such attacks are so isolated as to be of little concern. In the short term, she may be right. With the destruction of the Helm, the Overlord's necromancers cannot command enough power to overwhelm us with mere magic, but the threat of it among our soldiers, fed by rumor and report, does great harm nonetheless.
"The news is not all bad, however. To Phoria's credit, she is a decisive leader, if not a diplomatic one, and the generals trust her. Over the past week she has organized significant strikes against enemy forces to the east, and has had several victories. Tell Klia that her friend, Commander Myrhini, captured fifty enemy horses. A great coup indeed, as many cavalry soldiers are afoot for lack of mounts to replace those killed in battle. Others are making do with whatever horses they can commandeer about the countryside, a situation that is not endearing them to the locals.
"The third of Klia's dispatches reached us here yesterday. Phoria said little, but her impatience is clear. Surely some small concession can be coaxed from the Iia'sidra? Otherwise, I fear she will recall you. With every new death of an able commander reported, Klia's presence on the field is more greatly missed."
Magyana paused, considering information she dared not entrust to writing, even in such a message as this. Like the fact that she, eldest of the remaining Oreska wizards, dared not openly translocate this parchment to her protege lest Phoria hear of it. The Princess Royal made no secret of her distrust of wizards in general, and her mother's adviser in particular. Magyana had already been summoned once to explain her actions, and for nothing more than performing a scry at General Armeneus's request. In the weeks since Phoria had taken over as War Commander, a subtle shift had occurred. Watchful eyes and ears were at work for her in every quarter, including those of that handsome snake, Captain Traneus.
Klia has enough to occupy her mind, thought Magyana, obscuring the letter with a spell only Thero could unravel. She would put it in the hands of the dispatch rider herself later. Let Traneus make of that what he would.
19 ANOTHER EVENING'S ENTERTAINMENT
The dream was less coherent this time, but more vivid. The burning room was still his old chamber in Bokthersa, yet here were the heads of Thryis and the others glaring at him from the mantelpiece. There was no chance this time to choose what things to save, what to abandon. Fire raced up the hangings of the bed, the draperies, up his legs, but its touch was deadly cold.
The smoke boiling up through the floorboards thickened the band of sunlight spilling into the little chamber, blinding him with its bright glare. His throat was full, his hands useless.
Across the room, just visible through the smoke, a lean figure moved closer.
"No!" he thought. "Not here. Never here."
liar's presence made no more sense than that of the glass spheres he clutched so desperately in both hands. The flames cleared before Ilar as he approached, his smile warm and welcoming.
So handsome. So graceful.
Seregil had forgotten how the man moved, light and easy as a lynx. Almost close enough to touch now.
Seregil felt the cold flames eating into him, felt smooth glass slipping through his fingers.
Ilar reached for him. No, he was offering him something, a bloody sword.
"No!" Seregil shouted, clutching frantically at the glass orbs. "No, I don't want it!"
Seregil started up in bed, drenched in sweat and amazed to find Alec still asleep beside him. Hadn't he been shouting?
Shout? he thought in sudden alarm. He couldn't even get his breath. The cold smoke from the dream still filled his lungs, making even the slight weight of Alec's arm across his chest a stifling burden. He was choking, suffocating.
He slid out of bed as carefully as his rising panic allowed, still irrationally concerned about waking Alec. Snatching up discarded clothing, he blundered out into the dimly lit corridor.
Breath came easier once he was in motion. But when he paused to drag on his breeches and boots, the smothering sensation overwhelmed him again. He hurried on, pulling on the surcoat—Alec's, it turned out—as he went.
He was practically running now, past the second landing and on down the broader staircase that led to the hall.
What am I doing?
He slowed, and as if in answer, the breath locked tight in his chest. So he blundered on, praying he didn't meet anyone in his current state.
Raw instinct guided him down a side passage and out through the kitchen to the stable court. The moon was down, the shadows thick. A murmur of voices and a faint glow of firelight near the gate marked where the sentries stood, just outside the gate. Scaling the back wall unseen was a simple feat for the man once know as—
– the Rhiminee Cat.
The soft turf of the street muffled the sound of his boots as he jumped down from the top of the wall and loped away, the unfastened coat flapping loosely around his bare sides.
For a while the feel of his heart and breath and the long legs carrying him along were enough to fend off thought. Gradually, however, he grew calmer, and the panicked dash slowed to a walking meditation.
The confusion of the Cockerel with his childhood room—a homecoming of sorts? he wondered, beginning to pick away at the dream that had precipitated this headlong nocturnal perambulation.
But the rest: glass orbs, fire, smoke, Ilar. Try as he might, the dream's import still eluded him.
But then again, the images spoke of the past he'd mourned and here he was, alone under the stars, as he'd so often dreamed of being during the lonely years in Skala.
Alone with his own thoughts.
Introspection had never been a favorite pastime. In fact, he was quite skilled at avoiding it. "Take what the Lightbearer sends and be thankful." How many times had he quoted that, his creed, his catalyst, his bulwark against self-revelation?
The Lightbearer sent dreams—and madness. His thin mouth tilted into a humorless smirk: better not to dwell too long on that. Nonetheless, this dream had driven him out alone for the first time since their arrival in Sarikali. Goose flesh prickled his skin, and he fastened the coat, noting absently that it was a little loose in the shoulders for him.
Seregil had been with him or others day and night without cease since their arrival, making it a simple matter to fill every waking moment with the business at hand—so many concerns, so much to do. So very easy to stave off the thoughts brewing since he'd set foot in Gedre—hell, since Beka had told him about this mission in the first place.
Alone here in the haunted stillness of a Sarikali night, he was stripped of his defenses.
With hallucinatory clarity, he felt the hardness of a long-gone dagger's hilt clenched in his right fist, felt again for the first time the jar and give as the blade sank into the outraged Haman's—
You knew him. He had a name. His father's voice now, filled with disgust.
Dhymir i Tilmani Nazien
– into Dhymir i Tilmani Nazien's chest all those nights and years and deaths ago. There was an obscene simplicity to that sensation. How was it that it took less effort, less strength, to stab the life from a person than to carve one's mark in a tavern tabletop?
With that thought came the old unanswerable question: What had made him draw steel against another when he could just as easily
have run away? With a single stroke he'd taken a life and changed the entire course of his own. One stroke.
It had been almost nine years before he killed again, this time to protect himself and the Mycenian thief who'd taught him the first rudiments of the nightrunner's trade in the dark stews and filthy streets of Keston. That killing had been fraught with no such doubts. His teacher had been pleased, said she could make a first-class snuffer of him, but even under her questionable tutelage he had never killed unless driven to it.
Later still, when he'd killed a clumsy ambusher to protect a young, recently met companion named Micum Cavish, his new friend had assumed it was Seregil's first time and made him lick a little of the blood from the blade, an old soldier's custom.
"Drink the blood of your first kill and the ghosts of that and any other can't haunt you," Micum had promised, so earnest, so well intentioned. Seregil had never had the heart to confess that it was already far too late, or that only one death had ever haunted him, one that galled enough to pay off all the others.
A glint of light ahead as he rounded a corner broke in on his thoughts. He'd been striding along without thought of direction, or so he'd imagined. A grim smile tugged at the corner of his mouth when he realized that his wandering feet had taken him deep into Haman tupa.
The light came from a large, brazier, and in the compass of its flickering glow he saw the men gathered around it. They were young, and drinking. Even at a distance, he recognized a few of them from the council chamber, including several of Nazien's kin.
If he turned now, they'd never know he'd been there.
But he didn't turn, or even slow.
Take what the Lightbearer sends —
With a perverse shiver of excitement, he squared his shoulders, smoothed his hair back, and strolled on, passing close enough for the firelight to strike the side of his face. He said nothing, gave no greeting or provocation, but he could not suppress a small, giddy smile as a half dozen pairs of eyes widened, then tracked him with instant recognition and hatred. The tightness in Seregil's chest returned as he felt the burn of their gaze between his shoulder blades.
The inevitable attack was swift, but strangely quiet. There was the expected rush of feet, then hands grasped at him out of the darkness. They slung him against a wall, then threw him to the ground. Seregil raised his arms instinctively to cover his face but made no other move to protect himself. Boots and fists found him again,
striking from all directions, finding his belly and groin and the still tender arrow bruise on his shoulder. He was picked up, shoved from one man to another, pummeled, spat on, flung down, and kicked some more. The darkness in front of his eyes lit up momentarily in a burst of white sparks as a foot connected with the back of his head.
It might have gone on for minutes or hours. The pain was crude, erratic, exquisite.
"Guest slayer!" they hissed as they struck. "Exile!" "Nameless!"
Strange how sweet such epithets sounded when flavored with the dry lilt of Haman, he thought, floating dreamily near unconsciousness. He'd have thanked them if he could have drawn breath to speak, but they were intent on preventing that.
Where are your knives?
The beating stopped as abruptly as it had begun, though he knew without uncurling to look around that they were still standing over him. A muttered order was given, but he couldn't make out the words over the ringing in his ears.
Then a hot, stinging stream of liquid struck him in the face. Another fell across his splayed legs and a third hit his chest.
Ah, he thought, blinking piss from his eyes. Nice touch, that.
Giving him a few last disdainful kicks, they left him, tipping over the brazier as they went as if to deny him the comfort of its warmth. They could just as easily have emptied it onto him.
Noble Haman. Merciful brothers.
A low chuckle scraped out of his chest like a twist of rusty wire. Oh, it hurt to laugh—he had a few cracked ribs to remember the night by—but once he got started he couldn't stop. The breathless gasps grew to undignified giggles, then bloomed into raw, full-throated cackles that racked fresh pain through his sides and head. The sound would probably draw the Haman back, but he was too far gone to care. Red spots swirled in front of his eyes, and he had the strangest sensation that if he didn't stop laughing soon, his unmarked face would come loose from his head like an ill-fitted mask.
Eventually the whoops lessened to hiccups and snorts, then dwindled to whimpers. He felt amazingly light, cleansed even, though his dry mouth tasted bitterly of piss. Crawling a few feet to safer ground, he sprawled on the dew-laden grass, licking moisture from the blades beneath his lips. There was just enough moisture to torment him. Giving up, he staggered to his feet.
"That's all right," he mumbled to no one in particular. "Time to go home now."
Something twisted painfully in his chest as he whispered the word again.
Seregil wasn't sure afterwards just how he got back to the guest house, but when he came to he was curled up in a back corner of the bath chamber, dawn light streaming in softly around him through the open windows. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move. It hurt to have his eyes open, so he closed them.
Hurried footsteps brought him around.
"How did he get there?"
"I don't know." That was Olmis, one of the servants. "I found him when I arrived to heat the water."
"Didn't anyone see?"
"I asked the guards. No one heard anything."
Seregil cracked an eyelid and saw Alec kneeling beside him. He looked furious.
"Seregil, what happened to you?" he asked, then recoiled, nose wrinkling in disgust at the rank odor emanating from Seregil's damp clothing. "Bilairy's Guts, you stink!"
"I went for a walk." Fire erupted in Seregil's side as he spoke, turning the words to gaps.
"Last night, you mean?"
"Yes. Just had to—walk off a bad dream." The ghost of a chuckle slipped out before he could stop it. More pain.
Alec stared at him, then motioned for Olmis to help strip off the filthy clothing. Both let out startled exclamations as they opened his coat. Seregil could guess what he must look like by now.
"Who did this to you?" Alec demanded.
Seregil considered the question, then sighed. "I fell in the dark."
"Down a privy, by the smell of him," muttered Olmis, wrestling off his breeches.
Alec knew he was lying, of course. Seregil could tell by the hard set of his lover's mouth as he helped Olmis lift him into a warm bath and wash away what they could of the night's debacle.
They probably tried to be gentle with him, but Seregil hurt too much to appreciate the effort. He didn't feel light anymore. The night's euphoric spell was broken; this pain was dull, nauseating,
and constant—no brilliant flashes or crests. Closing his eyes, he endured the bath, endured being lifted out and swathed in a soft blanket. He let himself drift off, away from the massive throbbing in his head.
"I should fetch Mydri," Olmis was saying, his voice already faint in Seregil's ears.
"I don't want anyone else seeing him like this. Not his sisters, especially not the princess. This never happened," Alec told him.
Well done, tali, Seregil thought. Idon't want to have to explain it, either, because I can't.
Seregil awoke propped up in a soft bed. Squinting up in confusion, he made out the play of firelight on rippling gauze hangings overhead.
"You slept all day."
Moving only his eyes, Seregil found Alec in a chair close beside their bed, a book open across his lap.
"Where—?" he rasped.
"So you fell, did you?"
Snapping the book shut, Alec leaned forward to place a cup of water to Seregil's lips, then one containing a milky sweet concoction that Seregil fervently hoped was either a painkiller or swift poison. He had to lift his head slightly to drink, and when he did, hot wires of pain drew taut in his neck and throat. He swallowed as quickly as he could and sank back, praying he didn't vomit it back up. That would involve far too much movement.
"I told everyone you came down with a fever in the night." This time there was no mistaking Alec's tightly reined anger.
Something fell into place in Seregil's addled brain. "I wasn't out spying without you." He longed for some of the previous night's hysteria to buoy him, but it was long gone, leaving him flat and depressed.
"What, then?" Alec demanded, pulling back the blankets. "Who did this to you, and why?"
Glancing down, Seregil saw that his ribs were expertly bandaged, the bands just tight enough to ease the pain and help the cracked bones to knit. The rest of his naked body was covered with a truly impressive array of bruises of varying sizes and shapes. The acrid stink of urine had been replaced by the cloying aroma of some herbal salve. He could see the greasy sheen of it on his skin.
"Nyal bound you up," Alec informed him, replacing the bedclothes with hands far more gentle than his tone. "I waited until the others left for the day, then brought him up. No one else knows about this yet, except Olmis. I told them both to keep quiet. Now, who did this?"
"I don't know. It was dark." Seregil closed his eyes. It wasn't too great a lie, really; he'd known only one of them by name, the khirnari's nephew Emiel i Moranthi, and Kheeta had hinted at bad blood between him and Alec, though he'd refused to elaborate.
If it's vengeance you 're after, tali, don't bother. The scales are still too heavily laden in the Hamans' favor.
Once his eyes were closed, he found it hard to open them again. The milky liquid evidently was a painkiller and he welcomed its dulling influence.
After a moment he heard Alec sigh. "The next time you feel the need to go out for a 'fall, you tell me, understand?»
"I'll try," Seregil whispered, surprised by the sudden sting of tears behind his eyelids.
Warm lips brushed his forehead. "And next time, wear your own damn clothes."
At Alec's insistence, Seregil's «fever» lasted through the following day.
"I'll go keep an eye on Torsin and the Viresse," Alec told him, ordering Seregil not to stir from bed. "If anything of interest actually happens, I'll bring you every detail."
Truth was, Seregil was in no condition to argue the point. A short trip to the chamber pot had been an exercise in pain in more ways than he wanted to think about, though he'd managed it by himself. He was pissing blood, and thanked any gods still listening that Alec wasn't nursemaid enough to check. He'd have to speak to the slop boy, tell him to keep his mouth shut. Hell, he'd pay him if he had to. He'd survived worse treatment and there was no sense in worrying Alec any more than he was already.
Left alone for the day, Seregil lapsed back into sleep for a time, only to awaken in a panicky sweat to find Ilar bending over him. He braced to roll away, only to hit a solid wall of pain.
He fell back with a strangled moan and found himself looking up instead at Nyal. From the look on the Ra'basi's face, his waking expression hadn't been a welcoming one.
"I came to check your dressings."
"Thought you were—someone else," Seregil croaked, fighting down the hot nausea welling at the back of his throat.
"You're safe, my friend," Nyal assured him, not understanding. "Here, drink some more of this."
Seregil sipped gratefully at the milky draught. "What is it?"
"Crushed Carian poppy seed, chamomile, and boneset leaf boiled in goat's milk and honey. It should ease your pain."
"It does. Thanks."
Seregil could feel the effects already, just blunting the edges. He stared up at the ceiling while the Ra'basi gently checked the bindings around his chest, asking himself what the hell he had been thinking, handing himself over to the Haman like that. Mortification wrenched at his heart as he thought of what would be made of his absence from the Iia'sidra chamber. His attackers would have better sense than to brag about committing violence on sacred ground, but rumors might already be leaking out along the fretted network of gossip that underlay any large gathering. That aside, he'd virtually abandoned his responsibilities and left the burden on Alec.
"Madness," he hissed.
"Indeed. Alec is still very angry with you, and rightly so. I never took you for a stupid man."
Seregil managed a weak chuckle. "You just don't know me well enough."
Nyal frowned down at him, suddenly devoid of sympathy. "If that little night encounter had happened so much as a pace outside the boundaries of Sarikali, your talimenios might be mourning you right now."
Ashamed, Seregil looked away.
"What, no laughter at that? Good." Nyal produced a steaming sponge from somewhere below Seregil's line of vision and set about cleaning him.
"I didn't know you were a healer," Seregil said when he trusted himself to speak again.
"I'm not, really, but one picks up all sorts of skills, traveling."
Seregil studied the other man's profile. "We do, don't we?"
Nyal glanced up from his task. "That sounded almost friendly, Bokthersa."
"You'll get into trouble calling me that."
Nyal gestured sloppily with the sponge. "Who's to overhear?"
Seregil acknowledged the barb with a grin of his own. "You're a
nosy bastard, and an easterner. Not to mention the fact that you're the lover of a young woman who's the closest thing to a daughter I'll ever have. The combination makes me nervous."
"So I've noticed." Nyal gently turned Seregil over to spread fresh salve on his back. "A spy, am I?"
"Perhaps, or maybe just a balance to my presence."
Nyal eased him back down, and Seregil looked him in the eye. Incredible eyes, really, clear and seemingly guileless. Strange that he hadn't noticed them before. No wonder Beka—
He was wandering, he realized. "So are you?»
"A balancing factor?"
Nyal shrugged. "I answer to my khirnari, like anyone else. What I've told her is that what your princess says in private is no different than what she says to the Iia'sidra."
"And Amali a Yassara?" Aura's Fingers, had he said that aloud? Nyal's potion must be having more of an effect than he'd thought.
The Ra'basi merely smiled. "You're an observant man. Amali and I were once lovers, but she chose to accept the hand of Rhaish i Arlisandin. But I still care for her and speak with her when I safely can."
"Rhaish i Arlisandin loves his wife very much; it would be unworthy of me to be the cause of discord between them."
"Ah, I see." Seregil would have tapped the side of his nose knowingly if he could have raised his hand that far.
"There's nothing dishonorable between Amali and me, I give you that on my honor. Now come, you must get up and move before your muscles stiffen any more. I expect it will hurt."
Getting out of bed proved to be the worst of it. With Nyal's assistance and considerable cursing, Seregil managed to slip on a loose robe and stagger woozily around the room several times. On one pass he caught sight of himself in the mirror and cringed—eyes too large, skin too pale, expression too nakedly helpless to be the infamous Rhiminee Cat, No, here was the frightened, shame-laden young exile come home again.
"I can walk by myself," he growled, and pulled away from Nyal only to find that he couldn't, not by a long shot.
Nyal caught him as he staggered. "That's enough for now. Come, you can do with some fresh air."
Seregil surrendered himself back into the man's capable hands
and was soon settled more or less comfortably in a sunny back corner of the balcony. Nyal was just tucking a blanket around him when a brisk knock sounded at the door.
Nyal went to answer it, but it was Mydri who returned. Seregil hastily checked the neck of his robe, hoping no telltale marks showed. It was a futile effort.
"A fever, is it?" she said, glowering down at him. "What were you thinking, Seregil?"
"What did Alec tell you?"
"He didn't have to tell me anything. I could see it in his face. You should tell that boy not to bother lying; he's got no skill for it."
He does when he wants to, Seregil thought. "If you're here to scold me—"
"Scold you?" Mydri's eyebrows arched higher, the way they always had when she was truly angry. "You're not a child anymore, or so I'm told. Do you have any idea what it would do to the negotiations if word got out that a member of Klia's delegation had been attacked by a Haman? Nazien is already expressing admiration for Klia—"
" Who said anything about the Haman? ?
Her hand moved so fast it took him a second to register that he'd been slapped, and hard enough to make his eyes water and his ears ring. Then she was bending over him again, poking him painfully in the chest with one finger.
"Don't compound your stupidity with a lie, little brother! Did you think such a hollow act would make anything right? Did you think at all, or just hare off blindly like you always did? Have you changed so little?"
The words hurt far more than the blow. He probably hadn't changed all that much, though he knew better than to say so just now.
"Does anyone else know?" he asked dully.
"Officially? No one. Who would strut around bragging of breaking Aura's sacred peace? But there have been whispers. You must be at the Iia'sidra tomorrow, and you'd damn well better look like you've been ill!"
"That shouldn't be a problem."
For a moment he thought she was going to hit him again. Sparing him a last disgusted glare, she swept out. He braced to hear the door slam in her wake, but she refrained. Mustn't give the servants anything to talk about.
He pressed his head back against the cushions and closed his eyes, concentrating on the sounds of the birds and breeze and people passing by along the street below. The brash of cool fingers against his cheek a moment later startled him badly. He thought Nyal had gone when his sister had arrived, but here he was again, studying him with unwelcome concern.
"Are people so eager to hit you back in Skala?" the man asked, examining whatever new mark Mydri had left.
Seregil should have been angry at the intrusion, but suddenly he was too tired, too sick.
"Now and then," he replied, closing his eyes again. "But there it's usually strangers."
20 THE PASSING OF IDRILAIN
Midnight was long past by the time Korathan reached Phoria's camp. He'd outdistanced his escort some miles back, pressing on alone in the vain hope of catching his mother's dying words.
The pickets recognized his shouted greeting and cleared out of the road without challenge. Thundering into camp, he reined in at the tent showing his mother's banner, scattering a crowd of servants and officers gathered there.
Inside, the heavy odor of death assailed him.
Tonight only Phoria and a wizened drysian attended the queen. His sister's back was to him as he entered, but the drysian's solemn face told him that his mother was already dead.
"You're too late," Phoria informed him tersely.
From the state of her uniform, he guessed she'd been called in off the battlefield, too. Her cheeks were dry, her face composed, but Korathan sensed a terrible anger just held in cheek.
"Your messenger was delayed by an ambush," he replied, throwing off his cloak. Joining her beside the narrow field bed, he looked down at the wasted corpse that had been their mother.
The drysian had already begun the final ministrations for the pyre. Idrilain was dressed in her scarred field armor beneath the lavish burial cloak. That would please her, he thought, wondering if these considerations were Phoria's doing or the servants'. The strap of her war helm was cinched tight to hold her jaw shut, and her dimmed eyes were pressed open for the soul's journey. Her ravaged face had regained a certain dignity in death, but he saw traces of blood and dried spittle crusting her colorless lips.
"She died hard?" he asked.
"She fought it to the end," replied the drysian, close to tears.
"Astellus carry you soft, and Sakor light your way home, my Mother," he murmured hoarsely, covering Idrilain's cold hands with his own. "Did she speak much before she went?"
"She had little breath for talking," Phoria told him, turning abruptly and stalking out. "All she said was, 'Klia must not fail. »
Korathan shook his head, knowing better than anyone the pain Phoria's anger hid. He'd watched for years in silence as the gulf between queen and heir had widened while Idrilain and Klia drew ever closer. Loyal to both, he had been able to comfort neither. Phoria had never spoken of what caused the final rift between herself and their mother, not even to him.
Whatever it was, you are queen now, my sister, my twin.
Leaving the drysian to complete his task, Korathan walked slowly to Phoria's tent. As he approached, he heard her voice raised sharply. A moment later Magyana emerged hastily from the doorway.
Seeing Korathan, she gave him a respectful bow, murmuring, "My sympathies, dear Prince. Your mother will be sorely missed."
Korathan nodded and continued in.
He found Phoria sitting at her campaign table, greying hair loose about her shoulders. Her soiled tunic and mail lay in a heap beside her chair. Without looking up from the map before her, she said tonelessly, "I'm appointing you as my vicegerent, Kor. I want you in Rhiminee. The situation here is too dire for me to leave the field, so we'll hold the coronation tomorrow as soon as you round up the necessary priests. My field wizard will officiate."
"Organeus?" Korathan took a seat across from her. "It's customary for the former queen's wizard to officiate. That would be—"
"Magyana. Yes, I know." Phoria looked up at last, pale eyes flashing dangerously. "But only because Nysander died. Who was she before that but a wanderer who spent more time in foreign lands than in her own? And what did she do while she served Mother except convince her to become dependent on foreigners?"
"The mission to Aurenen, you mean?"
Phoria let out an inelegant snort. "The queen's not cold an hour and Magyana is in here badgering me for a pledge to continue with Idrilain's plan! Nysander would have been no different, I suppose. Meddlers all, these old wizards. They've forgotten their place."
"What did you tell her?" Korathan asked quickly, hoping to circumvent another tirade.
"I informed her that as queen I do not answer to wizards, and that she would be informed of my decisions when I saw fit."
Korathan hesitated, choosing his words with care. One had to, when Phoria was like this. "Do you mean to abandon the negotiations? The way things have gone these past months, Aurenfaie aid might be of value."
Phoria rose and paced the length of the tent. "It's a sign of weakness, Kor. I dare say the surrender of the Mycenian troops along the northwestern border—"
"They surrendered?" Korathan groaned. Never in the history of the Three Lands had Mycena failed to stand with Skala against the incursions of Plenimar.
"Yesterday. Laid down their weapons in return for parole. No doubt they've heard that the Skalan queen sent her youngest daughter begging to the 'faie and it took the last of the heart out of them, exactly as I predicted it would. Southern Mycena is still with us, but it's only a matter of time until they turn coat, too. And of course, the Plenimarans know. I've had reports of raids on the western coast of Skala as far north as Ylani."
Korathan rested his face in his hands a moment as the enormity of the situation rolled over him. "I've been pushed back nearly ten miles in the past six days." The force we met above Haverford had necromancers in the front line. Powerful ones, Phoria, not the hedgerow conjurers you've met with back here. They killed an entire turma's horses beneath them as they charged, then sent the corpses galloping back among our ranks. It was a rout. I think—"
"What? That Mother was right?" Phoria rounded on him. "That we need the Aurenfaie and their magic to survive this war? I'll tell you what we need: Aurenfaie horses, Aurenfaie steel, and the Aurenfaie port of Gedre if we're to defend Rhiminee and the southern islands. But still the Iia'sidra debates!"
Korathan watched with wary fascination as his twin paced, left hand clenched over the pommel of her sword so tightly that the knuckles showed white.
Her old campaigning sword, he noted. She'd put aside the sword
of Gherilain for now so that she could be formally invested with it at her crowning, with all the power and authority it represented. He'd known all his life that this moment would come, that his sister would be queen. Watching her now, why did he suddenly feel as if the ground had given way under him?
"Have you sent word to Klia?" he asked at last.
Phoria shook her head. "Not just yet. I'm expecting fresh dispatches by tomorrow. We'll wait to see which way the wind's blowing down there. Strength, Kor. We must preserve a position of strength at all costs."
"Any news you get by dispatch, even if it comes tomorrow, will be at least a week old. Besides, Klia is sure to put the best light on things, especially once word reaches her that you've taken the throne."
Phoria gave him a strange, tight smile that narrowed her pale eyes like a cat's. Going to a table at the side of the tent, she unlocked an iron box and took out a sheaf of small parchments. "Klia and Torsin are not my only sources of information at Sarikali."
"Ah, yes, your spies in the ranks. What do they say? Will the Iia'sidra give us what we ask?"
Phoria's mouth set in a harsh, unyielding line. "One way or another, we shall have what we need. I want you in Rhiminee, my brother."
Going to him, she took one of his large hands in hers and tugged a ring from his finger, the one set with a large black stone carved with a dragon swallowing its own tail. Smiling, she slipped it on the forefinger of her left hand. "Be ready, Kor. When this dragon comes back to you, it's time to go after another."
It won't take much acting to play the recovering invalid, will it?" Alec said as he helped Seregil dress the third morning after the beating. His friend's body showed a shocking array of purple and green bruises where it wasn't bandaged, and he still wasn't eating much except broth and Nyal's infusions.
"The act will be to convince them that I am recovered." Seregil let out a strangled groan as he eased his arms into the sleeves of his coat. "Or to convince myself."
Seregil still refused to divulge what had really happened to him that night. The fact that he seemed in better spirits since the attack bothered Alec almost as much as his friend's stubborn silence on the matter.
No sooner do I rake a few old secrets out of him than he goes and takes on a load of new ones.
"I'll come with you today," he said. "It's almost gotten interesting. The khirnari of Silmai has been taking Klia's part openly, and she's convinced the Ra'basi are about to tumble our way. You missed the banquet with them last night; most cordial, and the Viresse noticeably absent. Do you think Nyal had a hand in that?"
"He claims not to have been asked his
opinion. It could be that Ra'basi is getting tired of being under Viresse's sway." Seregil limped to the small mirror over the washstand. Evidently satisfied with what he saw there, he stretched his arms tentatively and let out another pained gasp. "Oh, yes, I'm much better!" he muttered, grimacing at his white-faced reflection. "Help me downstairs, will you? I think I can manage after that."
The others were at breakfast in the hall. Klia sat poring over a stack of new dispatches.
"Feeling better?" she asked, glancing up.
"Much," Seregil lied. He eased into a chair next to Thero and accepted a cup of tea he had no intention of drinking. The wizard was frowning over a letter.
"From Magyana?" he asked.
"Yes." Thero passed it to him and Seregil skimmed the contents, holding it so Alec could see, too.
" 'The third of Klia's dispatches reached us here yesterday. Phoria said little, but her impatience is clear, " Alec read aloud. " 'Surely some small concession can be coaxed from the Iia'sidra? otherwise, I fear she will recall you— »
"Yes, we've already seen that," Torsin told him. "A small concession, she asks for. What else have we been laboring for all these weeks?"
Seregil saw the quick glance Alec shot the envoy and knew he was recalling the man's night visit to Khatme tupa.
"I get hints of the same threat from my honored sister," Klia growled, tossing aside the letter she'd been reading. "Let her come down and see what I'm up against. It's like trying to argue with trees!" She turned to Seregil with a grimace of frustration. "Tell me, my adviser, how to make your people hurry! Time's running short."
Seregil sighed. "Let Alec and I do what we're best at, my lady."
Klia shook her head. "Not yet. The risks are too great. There must be another way."
Seregil stared into the depths of his cup, wishing his head was clear enough to think of one.
The ride to the council chamber was a tense affair. Ignoring Seregil's muttered warnings, Alec helped him mount and dismount, claiming he looked faint. By the time Seregil was finally seated in
his place just behind Klia, he was pale and sweating, but seemed to recover a little once he'd gotten his wind back.
Alec scanned the faces around the circle. Reaching the Haman contingent, he stopped, a sudden knot of tension tightening his belly. Emiel i Moranthi was grinning openly at Seregil. Catching Alec's eye, he gave him a slight, sardonic nod.
"It was him, wasn't it?" Alec grated under his breath.
Seregil merely glanced at him as if he didn't know what Alec was talking about, then motioned him to silence.
Alec looked back at Emiel, thinking, Just let me and a few friends catch you in a dark street some night soon. Or just me alone, come to that. He hoped the thought showed on his face, whatever the cost.
Seregil saw the Haman's appraising leer, but steadfastly ignored him. It was easier to carry on with the pretense that he had recognized no one in the darkness that night.
And just who are you trying to fool?
He pushed the thought aside with practiced ease. There were more important things to be dealt with right now.
Alec had been correct about a shift in the Ra'basi's stance. Moriel a Moriel took it upon herself to contest a point being put forth by Elos of Golinil about certain Skalan shipping practices. Whether it represented full support remained to be seen.
Satisfied that Seregil was back on his feet, Alec returned to his ramblings through the city the next day. At Klia's request, he commandeered Nyal and set out to ingratiate himself among the Ra'basi in the hope of gleaning both goodwill and useful information.
It proved an easy task. Alec soon found himself welcome at a makeshift tavern, known for its ready supply of strong beer and spiced eggs. Not only was it a popular meeting, place for people of various clans, but Artis, the brewer who ran the place during the day, was a servant of one of the Ra'basi khirnari's closest advisers. He'd set up shop on the street level of a deserted house, serving his customers through an open window that overlooked a walled garden. Archery, dice, and wrestling were the sports of choice to pass the time.
The beer proved passable, the eggs inedible, and the results of Alec's spying meager. After three days of loitering and drinking, he'd added nearly a dozen shatta to his collection, lost his second-best
dagger to a Datsian woman who outwrestled him, and learned only that the khirnari of Ra'basi had some sort of falling out with the Viresse a week before, though no one seemed to know the details.
Lounging there with Nyal and Kheeta after a shooting match, Alec decided that he'd probably learned everything there was to be learned among the Ra'basi. He was about to leave when he overheard Artis launch into a tirade against the Khatme. Evidently he'd had a run-in with a member of that clan the night before over a keg of beer he'd sold. Still smarting from his own failure among that strange clan, Alec sauntered over to hear more.
"Arrogant bunch of stargazers, that's what I say," Artis fumed as he served beer from his window perch. "Think they're closer to Aura than the rest of us."
"They don't take to outsiders much, I've found," Alec ventured. "Or ya'shel, for that matter."
"They've always been a strange, standoffish bunch," the brewer muttered.
"What do you know of the Khatme?" a Golinil woman scoffed.
"As much as you do," he drawled, passing out cups of murky new beer. "They keep to themselves and they serve themselves, for all their talk of Aura."
"I hear they make fine wizards," Alec put in.
"Wizards, seers, rhui'auros," the brewer allowed grudgingly. "But magic is a gift meant to serve and that's something the Khatme don't do willingly. Instead, they stay up in their eagles' nest of a fai'thast, dreaming their strange dreams and handing down proclamations."
"You know, in all the time I've been here, I haven't seen much magic used. Where I come from, folks imagine the 'faie throwing it around left and right."
Several of Alec's companions snickered.
"Look around, Skalan," Artis said. "Do you see any need for magic? Should we fly through the air instead of using our own feet? Or knock birds out of the sky instead of learning archery?"
"This beer of yours could use a bit of magicking," a boy laughed.
Artis gave him a hard look, then wove a brief sigil over their cups. The beer foamed slightly, giving off a strong, malty odor.
"Taste that, then," he challenged.
The contents of Alec's cup were certainly clearer than before. Impressed, he took a drink, but immediately spat it out.
"It tastes like swamp water!" he sputtered.
"Of course," Artis declared, laughing now. "Beer has its own magic. It doesn't need any help, as any brewer knows."
"And so knowing, takes it too much for granted," said a new voice.
A grey, wizened little rhui'auros stepped from the shadows of a cul-de-sac next to the building.
Kheeta and the others raised their let) hands and gave the man a respectful nod. In turn, he raised a tattooed hand in blessing.
"Welcome, Honored One," said Artis, coming out to offer him beer and food.
The others made room for the old man and he sat down, wolfing down the eggs and bread as if he hadn't eaten in days and dribbling his beer down the front of his already none-too-clean robes.
When he'd finished he looked up and pointed to Alec. "Our little brother asks about magic and you scoff, children of Aura?" Shaking his head, he picked up a bow lying near his feet and placed it in Alec's hands. "Tell me, what do you feel?"
Alec rubbed his palm over the smooth limbs. "Wood, sinew—" he began, then gasped as the rhui'auros touched a finger firmly to the center of his forehead.
A cool sensation swept the skin between his eyes, like the kiss of a mountain breeze. As it spread deeper, the bow seemed to subtly vibrate in his hands, reminding him of the time he'd touched a drysian's staff and felt the surge of power through the wood.
"I feel—I don't know. It's like holding a living thing."
"It is Shariel a Malai's magic you feel, her khi," the rhui'auros replied, pointing to the Ptalos woman who owned the bow. He motioned for Kheeta to give Alec the knife from his belt.
Gripping it, Alec felt similar sensations from the metal. "Yes, it's there, too."
"Our khi suffuses us the way oil soaks a wick," the rhui'auros explained. "Everything we touch takes on a bit of it, and from it comes all our gifts. Shariel a Malai, take up Alec i Amasa's bow."
She obeyed, eyes widening in surprise as the man touched her brow. "By the Light, the khi is strong as a storm wind in it!"
"You shoot well, do you not?" the rhui'auros asked, noting the collection of shatta on Alec's quiver.
"Yes, Honored One."
"Better than most?"
"Perhaps. It's just something I'm good at."
"Good enough to strike a dyrmagnos?"
"He fought a dyrmagnos?" someone whispered.
"It was a good shot," Alec admitted, recalling the strange, dreamlike calm that had come over him when he took aim at his hated tormentor. His bow had trembled strangely in his hands as he'd let fly, but he'd always put those sensations, indeed even his success, down to the spells Nysander had woven around it.
"Little brother, when will you visit me?" the rhui'auros chided. "Your friend Thero comes to the Nha'mahat often now, yet for you I wait and wait."
"I'm sorry, Honored One. I–I didn't realize I was expected," Alec stammered, taken aback by this revelation about Thero. The wizard had never mentioned it. "I've been wanting to, but—"
"You must bring Seregil i Korit, as well. Tell him to come tonight."
"The Exile no longer bears that name," an Akhendi reminded him.
"Doesn't he?" the rhui'auros asked, turning to go. "How forgetful of me. Come tonight, Alec i Amasa. There is so much you must tell me."
Tell you? thought Alec, but before he could question the man further the rhui'auros blurred before his eyes, disappearing like a design of colored sand in a strong wind.
"Well, at least you can't complain of not seeing magic," said Artis. "Now what's this about you killing a dyrmagnos?"
Alec's first thought was to find Seregil and tell him about the rhui'auros's strange summons, but his drinking companions wouldn't let him go without hearing the tale of the battle against Irtuk Beshar and Mardus. Struck by a sudden inspiration, he played heavily on Seregil's role in the fight, reasoning that stories of the "Exile's" heroism could only do Seregil good in reclaiming his place among his people. As he recounted his own part that day, however, the rhui'auros's words kept coming back to him, making him wonder if there actually had been more than experience guiding his hand that day.
Afternoon sunshine lit the eastern half of the Iia'sidra chamber and threw the other half into near darkness. When Alec slipped in, a member of the Khatme delegation was pacing the open floor at the center of the room, haranguing the assembly with an extensive list of the historic depredations of outlanders.
Many in the audience were nodding approval. Just visible behind Klia, Thero appeared angry, Seregil bored and tired. Braknil and his honor guard loomed behind them, faces duty-blank. Wending his way through the minor clans, Alec took a seat beside Seregil.
"Ah, you've come at the most interesting part," his friend murmured, stifling a yawn.
"How much longer will you be?"
"Not long. Everyone's out of sorts today; I think most of them are ready for a jug of rassos. I know I am."
Torsin turned and shot them a pointed look. Seregil covered a smirk with his hand and sank a bit lower in his chair. With his other, he signed for Alec to stay.
The Khatme finished at last, and Klia stood to reply. Alec couldn't see her face, but from the set of her shoulders he guessed she'd had enough, too.
"Honored Khatme, you speak well and clearly of Aurenen's concerns, " she began. "You speak of raiders, and those who have betrayed the laws of hospitality, yet in all these tales, I hear no mention of Skala. I don't doubt that you have good reason to fear some foreigners, but why should you fear us? Skala has never attacked Aurenen. Instead, we have traded in good faith, traveled your land in good faith, and respected the Edict of Separation in good faith, although we believe it is unjust. Many here do not hesitate to remind me of the murder of Corruth; is that because it is the only transgression you can throw up at us?"
"You demand access to our northern coast, our port, our iron mines," a Haman declared. "If we let you bring miners and smiths to make settlements, how then can we expect them to leave when your need is gone?"
"Why do you think they will not?" Klia countered. "I have seen Gedre. I have ridden through the cold, barren mountains where the mines are. With all due respect, perhaps you ought to visit my land. Perhaps then you would understand that we have no desire for yours, only the iron to fight our war and save our own."
This response gained her a ripple of applause and a few poorly muffled laughs among her supporters. But Klia remained stern.
"I have listened to Ilbis i Tarien of Khatme recite the history of your people. Nowhere in that history did I hear of Skala acting as aggressor toward your land, or any other. Like you, we understand what it is to have enough. Through husbandry and trade and the blessings of the Four, we have never needed to take what was not freely offered. The same can be said of the Mycenians, who even now sway, driven to their knees by the onslaught of Plenimar. We fight to repel the aggressor, not to conquer. The previous Overlord of Plenimar was content within his own borders for many years. It is his son who has renewed the old conflict. Must I, youngest daughter
of a Tirfaie queen, remind the Aurenfaie of their heroic role in the first Great War when we fought as one?
"My throat grows sore from giving the same assurances day after day. If you will not allow us to mine, then sell us your iron and let our ships come to Gedre to get it."
"And so it goes," Seregil muttered. "The war could be lost before we can get beyond whether or not Klia is personally responsible for Corruth's murder."
"Are there any plans for tonight?" Alec asked, glancing nervously in Torsin's direction.
"We're to dine in Khaladi tupa. I'm actually looking forward to this one. Their dancers are exceptional."
Alec settled back with an inward sigh. The shadows crept a few more inches across the floor as Rhaish i Arlisandin and Galmyn i Nemius of Lhapnos launched into a verbal battle over some river that divided their lands. The argument ended when the Akhendi stalked from the chamber in a rage. The outburst signaled the end of the day's debate.
"What did that have to do with Skala?" Alec complained as the assembly broke up.
"Balance of trade, as usual," Torsin told him. "At the moment Akhendi must depend on Lhapnos's goodwill to float goods down to port. If and when Gedre opens, then Akhendi will gain the advantage. That is only one of several reasons why Lhapnos opposes Klia's request."
"Maddening!" Klia muttered under her breath. "Whatever they decide in the end, it will have more to do with their troubles than ours. If we were dealing with a single ruler, things would be different."
Their host of the evening swept down on her, and Klia allowed herself to be led aside for a private conversation.
Seregil gave Alec a questioning look. "You've been waiting to tell me something, I think?"
The walk back to their lodgings seemed a long one. When they were finally alone in their room, Alec closed the door and leaned back against it.
"I met a rhui'auros today."
Seregil's expression did not change, but Alec detected a sudden tightness at the corners of his friend's mouth.
"He asked that we come to the Nha'mahat tonight. Both of us."
Still Seregil said nothing.
"Kheeta hinted that you have—bad feelings about them?"
"Bad feelings?" Seregil raised an eyebrow as if considering Alec's choice of words. "Yes, you could say that."
"But why? The one I met seemed kind enough, if a little eccentric."
Seregil folded his arms. Was it Alec's imagination, or was he trembling slightly?
"During my trial—" Seregil began, speaking so softly that Alec had to strain to hear. "A rhui'auros came, saying I was to be brought here, to Sarikali. No one knew what to think. I'd already confessed everything«/emphasis·"
He faltered, and the hint of a dark memory traveled to Alec across the talimenios bond; his vision darkened as a burning stab of panic constricted his chest.
"They tortured you?" Memories of his own experiences added to the leaden weight settling in the pit of his stomach.
"Not in the way you mean." Going to a clothes chest, Seregil threw back the lid and rummaged in its depths. "It was a long time ago. It doesn't matter."
But Alec could still feel the sour tang of panic clinging to his companion. Going to him, he laid a hand on Seregil's shoulder. The man sagged a little under the light touch.
"I just don't understand what they want with me now."
"If you'd rather not go, I could make some excuse."
Seregil managed a lopsided grimace. "I don't think that would be wise. No, we'll go. Together. It's time you did, tali."
Alec was silent a moment. "Do you think they can tell me about my mother?" The words came hard. "I–I need to know who I am."
"Take what the Lightbearer sends, Alec."
"What do you mean?"
The strange, guarded look came into Seregil's eyes again. "You'll see."
22 DREAMS AND VISIONS
The minor clans had no official voice in the Iia'sidra, but they were not without influence. The Khaladi were among the most respected and fiercely independent; Klia considered them an important potential ally.
At Sarikali they occupied a small section in the eastern part of the city. The khirnari, Mallia a Tama, met them at the head of what appeared to be her entire clan and led them on foot to the open land beyond the city's edge. Her blue-and-yellow sen'gai was made of twisted bands of silk intertwined with red cord, and she wore a voluminous silk coat over her tight-fitting tunic.»
The Khaladi were taller and more muscular than most of the 'faie Alec had met, and many had bands of intricate tattoos encircling their wrists and ankles. They smiled readily and treated their guests with a mix of respect and warm familiarity that quickly put him at ease.
On a flat expanse of ground just beyond the city's edge, a circular area a few hundred yards in diameter had been covered with huge, multicolored carpets and ringed with bonfires. Instead of the usual dining couches, low tables and piles of bolsters were arranged around the perimeter. Mallia a Tama and her family served Klia's party themselves, washing their guests' hands over basins to
symbolize the customary bath and offering them wine and dried fruits dipped in honey. Musicians arrived carrying pipes and long-necked stringed instruments unlike any Alec had seen. Instead of plucking or strumming the latter, the players sawed at the strings with a short bow, producing a sound at once mournful and sweet.
As the sun sank and the feast progressed, it was not difficult for Alec to imagine himself transported to their mountain fai'thast. Under different circumstances, he would have been content to spend the entire night in such company.
Instead, he kept a watchful eye on Seregil, who often fell silent and glanced frequently at the progress of the moon.
Do you dread the night's destination so much? Alec wondered with a twinge of guilt at his own anticipation.
As the banquet neared its end, thirty or more Khaladi rose and shed their tunics, stripping down to short, tight-fitting leather breeches. Their lightly oiled skin shone like satin in the firelight.
"Now we'll see something!" Seregil exclaimed under his breath, looking happy for the first time that night.
"We are great dancers, the best in all Aurenen," the khirnari was telling Klia. "For in the dance we celebrate the circles of unity that make our world—the unity between our people and Aura, the unity of sky and earth, the unity that binds us one to another. You might feel the magic of it, but do not be alarmed. It is only the sharing of khi that unites the dancers with those who watch them."
The musicians struck up a dark, skirling melody as the performers took their places. Working in pairs, they slowly lifted and balanced each other with sinuous grace. Without the least hint of strain or tremor, their bodies twined into configurations at once disciplined and erotic, arching, folding, curving as they rose and fell.
Rapt, Alec felt the flow of khi the khirnari had spoken of; differing energies of each successive dance enfolded him, drawing him in although he never stirred from where he sat.
Some dances featured a single gender or male and female couples, but most involved all the varying groups at once. One of the most moving was a performance by pairs of children.
Klia sat motionless, one hand pressed unconsciously to her lips. Pure wonder showed on Thero's thin features, softening them to something approaching beauty. Beyond them, Alec could see Beka among the honor guard, the hint of tears glistening in her eyes. Nyal stood beside her, not quite touching as he watched her watch the dance.
One pair of men held Alec's attention for dance after dance. It
was not simply their skill that moved him but the way they seemed to hold each other with their gaze, trusting, anticipating, working in perfect unison. His throat tightened as he watched them during one particularly sensual dance; he knew without being told that they were talimenios and that they had lived this dance, this mingling of souls, together most of their lives.
He felt Seregil's hand cover his own. Without the least embarrassment, Alec turned his hand, weaving their fingers together and letting the dance speak for him.
As the moon rose higher, however, Alec found himself increasingly distracted by the thought of the rhui'auros's summons.
Ever since Thero had first mentioned the rhui'auros and their abilities back in Ardinlee, he'd wondered what it would be like to have that missing piece added to the small mosaic of his life. Wandering with his father, knowing no kin, claiming no town as their own, he'd never questioned his father's silence. Only when he'd gone to Watermead and been embraced by Micum Cavish's family had he realized what he'd lacked. Even his formal name reflected that: plain Alec i Amasa of Kerry. Where there should be additional names to link him with his own history, there were only blanks. By the time he'd been old enough to ask such questions his father was dead, all the answers reduced to ash plowed into a stranger's field.
Perhaps tonight he would learn his own truth.
He and Seregil saw Klia home, then turned their horses for the Nha'mahat.
The Haunted City was deserted tonight, and Alec found himself starting at shadows, certain he saw movement in the empty windows or heard the whisper of voices in the sighing of the breeze.
"What do you think will happen?" he asked at last, unable to bear the silence any longer.
"I wish I could tell you, tali," Seregil replied. "My experience wasn't the ordinary sort. I believe it's like the Temple of Illior; people come for visions, dreams—the rhui'auros are said to be strange guides."
I remember that house, that street, Seregil thought, amazed at the power of memory.
He'd avoided this section of the city since their arrival, but he'd come here often as a child. Inthose days the nha'mahat had been an enticingly mysterious place only adults were allowed to enter, and the rhui'auros just eccentric folk who might offer sweets, stories, or a colorful spell or two if you loitered long enough between the arches of the arcade. That perception had been shattered along with his childhood when he'd finally entered the tower.
The fragmented memories of what followed had haunted the farthest reaches of his dreams ever since, like hungry wolves hovering just outside the safe circle of a campfire's glow.
The black cavern.
The stifling heat inside the tiny dhima.
The probing magicks stripping him, turning him inside out, flaying him with every doubt, vanity, and banality of his adolescent self as the rhui'auros sought the truth behind the killing of the unfortunate Haman.
Alec rode beside him cloaked in that special silence of his, happy, full of anticipation. Some part of Seregil longed to warn him, tell him—
He gripped the reins so tightly that his knuckles ached. No, never speak of that night, not even to you. Tonight I enter the tower a free man, of my own will.
At the command of a rhui'auros, an inner voice reminded him, whispering from among the gaunt wolves of memory.
Reaching the Nha'mahat at last, they dismounted and led their horses to the main door. A woman emerged from the darkened arcade and took the reins for them.
Still Alec said nothing. No questions. No probing looks.
Bless you, tali.
A rhui'auros answered their knock. The silver mask covering his face was like those worn at the Temple of Illior: smooth, serene, featureless.
"Welcome," a deep male voice greeted them from behind it.
The tattoo on his palm was similar to those of the priests of Illior. And why not? It was the Aurenfaie who'd taught the ways of Aura to the Tir. For the first time since his arrival, it struck him how deeply intertwined the Skalans and 'faie still were, whether they realized it or not. There had been years enough for the Tir to forget, perhaps, but his own people? Not likely. Why then did some of the clans fear reclaiming the old ties?
The man gave them masks and led them into a meditation chamber, a low, windowless room lit by niche lamps. At least a dozen people lay naked on pallets there, their dreaming faces hidden by silver masks. The damp air was heavy with thick clouds of fragrant smoke from a brazier near the center of the room. Just beyond it, a
broad, circular stairway spiraled down out of sight. Wisps of steam curled up from the cavern below.
"Wait here," their guide told Seregil, pointing to an empty pallet against the far wall. "Someone will come for you. Elesarit waits upstairs for Alec i Amasa."
Alec brushed the back of Seregil's hand with his own, then followed the man up a narrow staircase at the back of the chamber.
Seregil walked across to his assigned pallet. This took him past the round stairway, and his chest tightened. He knew where it led.
Alec resisted a look back at Seregil. When the rhui'auros had told him to bring Seregil, he'd assumed they would make their visit together.
They climbed three flights of stairs in silence, meeting no one in the dark corridors. On the third floor they followed a short hallway to a small chamber. A clay lamp flickered in one corner, and by its wavering light Alec saw that the room was empty except for an ornate metal brazier by the far wall. Not knowing what was expected of him, he turned to ask his guide, but he was already gone.
Strange folk, indeed, he thought, yet they held the key that could unlock his past. Too excited to sit still, Alec paced the little chamber, listening anxiously for the sound of approaching footsteps.
They came at last. The rhui'auros who entered wore no mask, and Alec recognized him as the old man he'd met at the tavern. Striding over to Alec, he dropped the leather sack he carried and clasped hands warmly.
"So you have come at last, little brother. Seeking your past, I think?"