/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: The Norothian cycle

The Sable City

M Mcnally


The Sable City

M. Edward McNally

Chapter One

Everyone in the Islands called the old dwarf Captain Block, though that was not his name.

Even within his own House most assumed that “Block” was a reference to the Captain’s lineage. The Mountain Folk of faraway Noroth were known for their squat statures, broad shoulders, and barrel chests, and Block was typical of his ancestral people in at least that much. It was understandable that many of the slim Islanders believed his name came from the simple fact that compared to themselves, the Captain was virtually a cube.

Most humans had short memories. Some chose to learn from the past. There were still a few within Deskata House who remembered that Block’s name was not a fond jibe owing to his build, but was instead derived from the proud title he had been given two centuries ago. Before there were true Trade Houses in the Islands of Miilark, the First Father of the Deskatas had given the dwarf the name Kaman Kregebanan: The Corner Stone.

One who still knew this was Rhianne Khemina Deskata, Law Daughter of the House, who by the Fifth Month of 1395 was the only acknowledged member left of the First Father’s line. Thus it was that when the young woman concocted a plan by which the House might be saved, she brought it to the Corner Stone and asked the old dwarf for his help.

Rhianne had asked as if she were only making a suggestion, but there was no question that Captain Block would take up the task. He had served the Deskatas since the House was a Hut, as the saying went, and their fortunes had been his own for longer than any human lifetime. Though what Rhianne intended was both desperate and ridiculous, Block would not deny a Deskata. No matter if she were of the Blood, or of the Law.

The only choice the Captain had to make was who he would take with him.

The experienced agents which the House still had in the Miilarkian capital would be busy just holding together what was left. None of them could be spared for a jaunt of many months duration to the Norothian mainland for something that was in all likelihood a fool’s errand. Apart from that, if an active Deskata servitor of great profile disappeared, House Lokendah and their other enemies would surely seek to learn where he or she had gone, and what they were about.

Captain Block was available because he had been semi-retired for decades, overseeing admissions to the Guild affiliated with Deskata House and conducting a bit of the training there himself only when the mood struck him. Dwarves were known the world over for their so-called “Jeweler’s Eyes,” their ability to judge the quality of an ore, metal, or stone at a glance and to see past either shine or grime to the true worth underneath. Block had long since found he possessed something of the same affinity when it came to humans, and even during the Deskatas’ quickening decline they were still producing good Guilders. In the world of Great House rivalry, that counted for much. House Fathers no longer fought honor duels, nor did they conduct resource raids against their neighbors. The great magnates had people for that, and those people were the Guilders.

Rhianne had suggested that Block select a promising Guild apprentice to accompany him on his task, one person only as the departure of a whole band with the renowned Captain would surely be noticed. There was also the matter of money. Rhianne had none to spare, so Block would be going out-of-pocket for this expedition. This pained the old dwarf greatly, despite his having accrued a sizable fortune of his own over the years. While Block would not stand to be called stingy, he did feel that the fewer followers he would be feeding and lodging on his journey, the better.

When the idea of taking an apprentice Guilder was raised, Block had immediately thought of one name and one particular incident. He had then put both aside and spent the next day at the Guild on Silt Cove, talking to instructors and watching some of the apprentices. Only late in the night with the Guild quiet around him and the sultry heat of midsummer finally seeping out of the place, did the Captain take an oil lantern to a teak-paneled room in the middle of the complex. He entered a large chamber full of shelved and filed parchments, the whole place smelling like a great humidor.

Little more than two hundred years ago only the shaman priests of the Islands had known the secrets of scratching squiggly markings on mud tablets. Since then the Miilarkians had taken to the written word as they had to so much else that came brand new to them on an ill-fated ship out of Varanch, with wild abandon and success. The Great Houses could not have become the world’s largest trading entities without generating a lot of paperwork, and the habit had seeped even into the surreptitious Guilds.

For the three years each apprentice was enrolled, or at least until they washed out, quit, or inadvertently died, each was weighed and measured at monthly intervals across all fields of training. Ranked, reshuffled, recorded, remarked. Numbers were tallied and posted in the mess, so it was an easy matter for all to see where they stood at any given time among their classmates. Thus it was known who among them were the chasers and the chased, the flagging and the faded. Those on the way up, and those on the way out. All monthly rankings were meticulously logged and kept in files, and as he explored the records of the last few years, Block saw that name again. Or perhaps he was already looking for it.

Lanai, Matilda. About as common a surname in the Islands as were the deep lanai porches fronting most every house in the city. She was a third-year and a bit old to be one. Compulsory education in the Islands lasted until around fifteen, and those with greater aspirations usually took a year after that to either work or to play, depending on their means. Most were around seventeen before they made application to a Guild, or more likely to another more public form of House-sponsored training. Matilda Lanai had not entered the Guild until she was twenty, which made Block vaguely curious.

Some rummaging brought Block and his glass lantern to a rack of orderly wicker cabinets, wherein were stored the catgut-bound parchment sheets containing notations from Guild entrance interviews. He removed the book covering the year 1392, by the Norothian Calendar, which was also identified by a second number stamped on the leather cover as 204, or the years since the wreck of the Nyystrashima had first brought the outside world to Miilark.

Block sat in a comfortable chair and hung the lantern from a shelf above his head. He flipped through the parchment sheets, old hands and thick fingers still nimble, until finding that belonging to Lanai. Block winced as he saw the compact, square quill marks in which her name was written at the top of her page. The Captain himself had conducted her interview, though he had no inkling of a memory of having done so.

He supposed it was understandable, for he had probably sat thirty-odd interviews that one week in ’04, and approved of maybe ten candidates. Block’s scant notes from the day did not do much to jog his memory. After regular schooling, Lanai had worked in her father’s shop for most of five years, a perfumery on Chrysanthemum Quay. The half page of writing did not say as much, but surely the Lanai family shop was associated with the House Deskata sphere of influence. It would have been noteworthy, not to mention suspicious, for someone affiliated however loosely with another House to apply to this Guild. To be without any association at all was not something most Miilarkians comfortably considered.

That was about the total of Lanai, Matilda’s recorded biography. Her compulsory school numbers were given as good, and there was a note appended from some clerk that her self-reporting had been verified. The single paragraph on the page concluded with three fragmentary sentences in Block’s own hand, at which their writer now noisily sighed.

Not stupid. Smells good. I approve.

“Thorough as ever, old man,” Block growled, then coughed in the still, heavy air.

The Captain had approved, he had written it down right there. There were other aspects to the admissions process, other quarters heard from, and in the thirty-plus years Captain Block had been engaged at the Guild there had been candidates of whom he had not approved (yet not specifically denied) who had gone on to be admitted. The dwarf could not now recall any of those who had lasted the full three years. But there had not been a single applicant on whose short entrance interview sheet the dwarf had written the two words “I approve,” who had not been allowed into the Guild. The jeweler’s eye of Captain Block was respected. If he saw something, others took notice.

He just wished he could remember what the devil it had been with Matilda Lanai. Her father’s perfumery or no, she could not have smelled that good.

Whatever he had seen three years ago, Block reckoned he had seen it or something like it again, high in the summer of the previous year during the incident which had come to mind when taking one and only one apprentice to Noroth was suggested. But Block was not ready to think about that yet. That was just an impression as well, and the orderly mind considered more. He replaced the interview files in their wicker nests and returned to the table in the center of the room. There, after a day spent speaking to the Guild instructors, he had already unrolled the full three-year files of four apprentices. Matilda Lanai was among them, but not on top.

After a glance around the room he knew full well to be empty, the dwarf grunted and climbed onto a strong chair to hang the lantern with the light shining down on the spread parchments. Block settled to a seat on the chair with a huff, and placed his big, knobby fists on the table. He ran his eyes over columns of numbers, figures showing how four individuals stood on a variety of measures among a class now of thirty-seven, which had started three years ago as sixty-five.

Matilda Lanai was not tops at anything. Not one solitary thing. Block told himself he was looking at all four candidates equally, but found he was comparing the other three to her. Second in foot stealth and Third in long-arms. Second again in Iaijutsu, which was high considering only a Sixth in centering. Block had been looking for a First, possibly several, and his disappointment at not seeing one right away faded as he looked more closely and realized that Matilda Lanai, across the board, had no number lower than an Eighth, in locks.

Block’s dark eyes narrowed under his heavy brows. Without really thinking about it, the dwarf pushed the other three files aside on the table and unrolled a more detailed review of Lanai’s monthly rankings over her whole stay at the Guild.

She had been in the upper quarter in most scores from the very first monthly measures, nearly three years ago now when the class was at its full size. But there, gaping like a hole, was a Fifty-ninth in locks. Rank incompetence, and even worse as women tended to be better picklocks than men. Something about patience and delayed gratification. But as he ran a thumb along just that one row of numbers, Block saw thirty-three months of increasing proficiency. Fast at first, a plateau, then slow-but-steady improvement. The old dwarf knew what that meant. He knew that the rising numbers told of late nights after long and exhausting days, when aching muscles cried for rest but instead got only hours of crouching at keyhole-height up in what the apprentices called the Knob Room. Eyes closed or at least unfocused because all that mattered were ears listening for faint scratches and slides, and nimble fingers trying to feel subtle differences through the unforgiving medium of two short pieces of bent, steel wire.

She had got herself up to an Eight. With graduation just three months hence Block might have made a wager that Matilda Lanai, even if she still was not of the First rank in anything, stood a chance of being top five in them all. But of course, she was not going to be here to graduate with her class, for with a short nod Block admitted to himself that the eighth-best picklock among the class of ’07 was his girl. He further acknowledged that he had known it already, for more than a day.

*

The summer of a year ago had been sweltering in the Islands. Miilark was always hot in Fourth Month as the seasonal trade winds and currents come from the south at that time of year, bringing warmth from the distant equatorial shores of Oswamba. But last year had been particularly bad, bad enough so that dock rats seeking noontime shade had infested the dank basement of the Guild. Someone had the inspired idea to move a third-year class training with bows and handguns down there, though that in turn meant a change of venue for a second-year grappling class. The grapplers were moved up to the top floor of an old warehouse joined to defunct apartment buildings as a single complex, together constituting the Guild on Silt Cove.

The top floor of the warehouse was open space and while the pinewood floor was solid, it creaked and groaned in a manner seemingly designed to test an apprentice Guilder’s ability to move silently. The space had sliding cargo doors at the dock and street sides, though the heavy winches at both were long gone. With both sets of doors open a salty cross-breeze off the water was sucked through toward the Ghost Mountain looming above the Miilarkian capital, making it by far the coolest place in the complex on a hot summer’s day. Thus it was to there that the second-years had moved after leaving the basement to the rats and the shooters, and it was also the place to which Captain Block had repaired after eating his customary free lunch in the mess.

The exertions of the apprentices made fair after-supper theatre, for their instructor had paired them off boys-against-girls. That was always a tricky proposition for full-contact wrestling, though in theory they were working mostly on throws. A dozen pairs in cloth leggings and sleeveless tunics lunged, grappled, and chucked each other about the space on thin thrush mats that did not do much to cushion solid impacts. The floor was not the only thing that groaned and squawked.

Matilda Lanai was among them, though at the time Block knew her vaguely by face but not name. Of about typical height for a young Miilarkian woman, she was however paired against a fellow Block recognized and even knew by name as Kuanu, a full-blooded Islander with a creamed-coffee complexion and a mass of black hair to his waist. While of only moderate size for a water buffalo, Kuanu was an excessively large human. Block had known enough Island men of the type to suspect that later in life the big fellow ran the risk of turning astonishingly fat, but at nineteen years of age he was a chiseled mountain of a man. Stolid in nature, but capable of accidental bursts of breathtaking power.

That hot day last Fourth Month, Matilda Lanai had found herself on the business end of just such a burst.

Block’s attention had been elsewhere, but everyone in the room heard Kuanu cry “Tilda!” in sudden alarm. The dwarf turned and saw the big man frozen with one knee on the mat and his arms fully extended, watching wide-eyed as the bare feet of his sparring partner kicked the air. This did nothing to prevent her sailing out head-first through an open cargo door, and dropping out of sight. Four stories up.

Block was on the other side of the room, and well past his sprinting days. As he crossed to the cargo door the dwarf had time to think at least she went out on the water-side, but then he also had time to wonder just how far the timber cart path extended out around the base of the building to hang pier-like over the water. Pretty far, he reckoned.

As everyone converged the one apprentice who had been next to the open doorway gaped, then cheered. She alone had seen Tilda clear the wooden edge of the pier forty feet below by the narrowest of margins. One more inch, as the girl laughingly told the crowd later, and Tilda would have lost nose, nipples, and kneecaps.

In the moment however, the angle kept anyone from seeing Lanai actually go into the water another ten or fifteen feet below the pier, and though she had been in a dive there was always a chance that would just bury her in silt with only her feet sticking out. An apprentice had drowned that way not two years before, and he had only gone in off the dock.

There was a cacophony of questions and answers at the crowded doorway as Block finally arrived and shouldered his way to the front. The pine floor squeaked as a few apprentices turned to run for the stairwells. Then someone shouted “Look!” and pointed, and all eyes turned to see a pair of hands appear on the edge of the timber path. A drowned rat the size of Tilda Lanai hauled herself topside from a quick climb up a pier post.

Her classmates cheered, but the young woman with the sodden mop of black hair plastered to her face and shoulders did not look up. Nor did she flop gasping onto her back, as Block expected. Instead, she paused on all fours for only a moment. Then she was up, and running, along the warehouse and around the corner toward the nearest door giving back inside. She left a trail of wet footprints slapped across the hard wood her nose had missed by a hairsbreadth.

The apprentices blinked after her, then looked around at each other. Their eyes finally settled on Kuanu, who had stood up straight but not yet taken a step closer to the doorway out of which he had pitched his classmate.

“She’s all right?” the big Islander finally stammered at everyone, but one young man with Varanchian-blonde hair answered.

“You are going to find out in about two minutes.”

The apprentices edged away from the cargo door, and no one said anything above a murmur to their nearest fellows. The class instructor blotted his forehead with an embroidered silk handkerchief and shrugged helplessly at Block, relieved at least to not be filling out paperwork explaining the splattering of an apprentice down on the cart path. Block, more curious than anything, only watched with one salt-and-pepper eyebrow high on his ruddy forehead.

They all heard Tilda on the stairs while she was still two floors down, for bare feet or not it sounded like she was riding up them on a horse. Kuanu swallowed and faced the door. It crashed open, and the sodden young woman came in like a storm cloud rolling down the sharp coral slopes of the Ghost Mountain.

Matilda Lanai was of the mixed-stock known in the Islands as “Ship People.” Lighter in complexion than a Full Blood but with features typical of an Islander, with a rounded chin, broad mouth, and flashing eyes of a brown so deep they occasionally looked black. They looked that way now as she skidded to a halt, swiped her clinging hair out of her face and over her shoulder, and locked her narrowed eyes on Kuanu’s wide-open ones. Tilda’s chest heaved and she stood with her feet apart, silent except for her breath and the drops of water pattering the floorboards. She held her hands loose at her sides, arms toned by boundless youth and a hard year of Guild training. She did not ball her hands into fists, as the fingers of a good Guilder were too valuable to risk in a punch. It would be the knife of an elbow or the hammer of a knee if it came to that, as it looked like it probably would.

“Are you all right?” Kuanu peeped in a voice far too small for his frame.

By way of answer, Tilda moved her tongue around her teeth, and spit black silt onto the floor at her feet.

Kuanu looked at the silt, then back at Tilda, then around at his classmates. None of the others met his eyes for very long. They now stood farther away from Kuanu than was Tilda, for the young Guilders-in-training had been drifting away steadily since she appeared, with nary a squeak from the floor.

The big Islander nodded once, twice, then straightened to his full lofty height. He gave Tilda a short bow. Kuanu turned, took two long strides into a dead run, and launched himself out through the open door with a great whoop, arcing majestically out over the pier and falling feet first into the water below.

*

Block played it all over in his mind as he sat in the Guild’s file room, three floors below that from which Tilda Lanai and Kuanu had taken their long plunges more than a year ago, one by accident and one by choice. Kuanu had been fine as well, bobbing to the surface of the Cove and shrieking to all Nine Gods that it stank down there. As Block understood it, all had soon been forgiven between the two apprentices.

But what Kuanu had seen before he made his choice, the old dwarf watching from the side had seen as well as both stared into the dark eyes of one Tilda Lanai. Kuanu had risked his life by leaping, but staying would have been no different. At that moment, in those eyes, the Full Blooded Islander and the Corner Stone of House Deskata had both seen that if the big man stood his ground, at least one of the apprentice Guilders would have left that room dead. Only which one was the question, and Kuanu had decided that he did not want to learn the answer.

His was not one of the final four names Block had considered.

The dwarf had spent two hundred years getting to know the people of Miilark, and they were not a field of study to become ploughed out, to dry up and blow away on the Wind of which they always spoke. Block supposed, by now, that as he had lived in the Islands longer than any man or woman alive, he was himself as Miilarkian as anyone despite having lived several human lifetimes before ever coming to the Islands. Block wore no beard as dwarves did in all other places, for neither did the Miilarkians. Full Bloods grew no facial hair, and the Ship People had taken to shaving theirs off generations ago. Like all Islanders, men and women both, Block wore his hair long to the waist and when going abroad he tied it all back in an intricate braid. Tradition said this was done so that if a Miilarkian drowned, their body could be dragged back from the sea. The touch of the braid would tell them apart from a stranger.

Two hundred years seemed forever to a human, but to a dwarf it was not near so long as that. Yet that was the span of time in which the people of an obscure cluster of scattershot islands in the midst of an ocean many called Interminable had moved beyond a primitive tribal life of feuds and superstition to become the primary carriers of the seaborne trade linking four distant continents. It may have been the most remarkable thing in human history, and while the Corner Stone had seen it all from the beginning, it would have taken him another two centuries to even start to explain just how it had happened.

Around the four shores of the Ocean, one of which Block had been born on and to where he would shortly be returning, the denizens had as little idea. They knew the Miilarkians as a warm and hospitable people, fair traders, and of course they had those wonderful ships. But anyone could build ships. The Islanders were, it was believed by those from elsewhere, just the right people at the right time. If the merchant game came down to the three iron-clad rules of location, location, location, then it was as simple as blind luck that the Miilark Islands lay between four continents. At various times of the year the changes of wind and current shifted the shipping channels, those rivers of the sea, in a manner conducive to traveling in turn to all four distant points, with the Islands as a convenient center. It was as simple, most thought, as that. The Miilarkians were middlemen for all others. That was their gift, and after two hundred years that seemed to be the way it had always been, and the end of it. For the lives of Men are short.

Dwarves live longer, if they are able, and Block had proven able so far. He had been there for all of it, even the early days, and the aches of his evenings and the scars on his body did not let him forget how hard it had all been. He knew that the friendly Miilarkian trader to be found today in any port city worth the name was the end of a long story, not the whole of it. Not even half, to tell the truth.

To an extent, the foreigners were right. Miilarkians as a people were warm, and friendly, and yes, fair in their dealings. But fairness, as any Miilarkian will tell you, cuts both ways. Of course it means that right is returned. Honor and justice, fairness demands it. But equally, it means that a wrong left unanswered is not just disagreeable, or unfortunate. It is immoral. For a Miilarkian, a true Miilarkian, to be fair is to be willing to be ruthless. A balance has no scruples. It is true, or it is worthless.

Captain Block knew that the House he had served for two centuries was in mortal jeopardy, and he knew that the dictates of inflexible honor had played their part in bringing the Deskatas to this place. The brink was before them, like a yawning doorway four stories above nothing but solid ground. House Deskata was the part of the Miilarkian story of which Block had become a part, and if their story ended now he supposed his did as well. A cornerstone with nothing built on it is just a rock in a field.

“I do grow melancholic, in my dotage,” Block muttered to the empty room. The oil in the lamp was almost spent, a small flame only left to flicker.

Block had no choice but to set out on Rhianne Deskata’s sad errand, for a man had to jump at the chance he could live with, no matter the risk or the odds. And now he had made the one choice that he did have. Matilda Lanai, she of the sickening fall and the miraculous, silt-spitting, quaking resurrection. It might be a sign at that. The Island girl wasn’t stupid. She knew how to work. And she had it inside her to be ruthless. Block had seen it plain as day.

Perhaps it was the jeweler’s eye of the hoary race of dwarves, or perhaps it was as simple as one true Miilarkian knowing another. The touch of the braid, that told friend from stranger, at the last.

Chapter Two

Eighth Month is the middle of autumn, and it often brings storms to Miilark as the prevailing Winds blow from the north and northwest. The days are clouded and they reflect a somber time, for as the Islands mark the year according to the Norothian Calendar the month is beholden to the Eighth of the Nine Gods of the Norothian Ennead. Grim Ayon, the Destroyer, is also called the Storm King and the Oath-Breaker among other things, and He is no one’s particular favorite in the Islands.

But Matilda Lanai was not in Miilark. She was standing not by a sea of saltwater, but in the midst of one made of elbow-high grass. And despite wearing riding boots, woolen knee pants under wide cloth trousers, neck shirt, sweater, vest, jerkin, and a night-black half cloak with a hood, she was for the first time in her life, cold. Not extra-blanket-for-the-bed cold, not one-more-cup-of-tea cold, just cold. Tilda was learning that here, far beyond either the sight or smell of the ocean, autumn was a different animal.

It was not, however, the animal foremost in her mind at the moment.

While from horizon to horizon the steppe seemed one vast sea of dirty blonde grass with only sparse copses of scraggly trees doing for islands, it was in fact crisscrossed by ancient hoof-worn paths, numberless and impossible to map in their multitude and complexity. You had to be standing on one and looking straight down it to even know it was there. Tilda presently was, and so was the horse. They were looking at each other.

The horse was not of a kind with the rangy calicoes typical to the Codian province of Orstaf, with their prancing hooves, tossing manes, and a sprightly gait that Tilda’s hindquarters had become sorely familiar with over the last three weeks. Rather, the animal standing athwart the path a stone’s throw in front of her was a towering white charger. The horse looked as though it should have a knight on its back in full armor, despite being at this moment unsaddled and wearing no tack nor harness apart from a single strap of some kind back by its haunches. It stood as still as a boulder, facing Tilda at a quarter turn so that only one baleful eye watched her slow, careful approach. She hoped its focus was on the one spot of bright color in the otherwise cloud-gray and faded-blonde landscape: The bright red apple she held forward in one gloved hand.

“ Bol aloha, ma ut po’tsa gros,” Tilda said in her sweetest voice. She saw the horse’s ears twitch and had the ridiculous thought that the animal probably did not speak the Trade Tongue. She switched to Codian, which had been her main language of study back in school, and her primary mode of communication for the last two months on Noroth.

“Hello there, you big handsome fellow. My, but you’re a pretty critter, aren’t you? How the lady mares must swoon when you prance by, no?”

Careful footfalls had brought Tilda to within a few yards of the horse, which abruptly chuffed out a hard breath from its nostrils before lowering them closer to the packed-dirt ground. Tilda faltered and stopped creeping.

“Prance is the wrong word, I’m sure. You no doubt strut, in only the most masculine fashion.”

Tilda fought the urge to flash a smile, for she knew that if you grinned at monkeys, they took umbrage. She was unsure if the same was true of horses, but was not about to walk all the way back to ask the Captain. She settled on a tight-lipped grin and tried not to blink so much, which of course made her blink more.

“Now, all I want is to give you this juicy apple here, so there is no need for one of us to take a bite out of the other, honim da?”

Thinking that leather gloves had not been the way to go, as she edged nearer Tilda slowly brought her hands together and with small movements of unconscious nimbleness pulled both gloves off, one finger at a time, without dropping the apple. She stuck the gloves in her belt and held the apple further forward, all while still babbling like a brook running with honey.

“You see the short fellow, yonder? A bit wider than the pony he is on? That is my boss, you see. Sort of the head of my herd. He is a very important man, he was on the boat, you know. And anyway I would rather not look like a complete idiot in front of him if it can be helped. So if you could forgo kicking my head off my shoulders, or trampling me into the turf, I would consider it both a favor and a service.”

The horse raised its head, and its nostrils twitched.

“That’s right, everybody loves an apple. Back home they are yellow but these are good, too. A little tart for me, but I am not complaining. Truly.”

Tilda was close enough to be struck by just how big the horse really was. She would need a step ladder or a running start to get on its back, not that she had any intention of doing so. The beast raised its massive head and looked directly at her, though with only one eye as it still held the right side of its body away at a quarter turn. Tilda took a breath and stretched forward, smiling her closed-mouth smile that was more of a wince, and putting the apple right under the horse’s nose.

“Also, I am going to need all of those fingers back.”

The horse craned its neck forward a last bit, and plucked the apple out of Tilda’s hand with the merest flick of a raspy tongue. She exhaled.

“Thank you, Nine Gods. And the Wind and the Sea and the Stars besides.”

The horse crunched the apple, and Tilda risked raising her empty hand to scratch its forelock with her close-cut nails. She leaned to her left, and at last looked down the horse’s right flank which it had thus far held away from her. Her wince became sharper, and her dark brown eyes softened.

“And here I thought I was having a rough trip.”

The single strap back at the haunches was holding a makeshift compress of sorts in place, obviously against a long wound. There were also two holes high on the horse’s ribs, plugged with large wads of blood-soaked cloth. The horse looked to have been washed somewhere before it was bandaged, for there was only a little caked blood trickled into the white hair below each wound.

The apple swallowed, the horse leaned its head heavily against Tilda‘s side. It gave a snort, and she scratched it between the ears.

Tilda turned her head to look back at the main trail she and the Captain had been following, from where they had seen the horse out on a branching path. To Tilda’s surprise the mare and pony were now alone, heads bowed as Block had dismounted and probably wrapped their reins around a dagger he’d jammed into the ground. Given the dwarf’s height and that of the tall grass all around, Tilda had no idea where he had gone after that.

“Captain?” she called, once quietly then again louder, for the horse beside her no longer seemed uneasy. Only exhausted.

“Off your starboard prow,” the gravelly voice of the old dwarf came from the grass ahead and to the right. He had gotten completely around Tilda without her ever noticing, but she had been focused rather intently on willing the big charger not to kill her. She had also totally forgotten how cold she was, but now she wanted to put her gloves back on.

Captain Block appeared on the side path back behind the horse, dressed identically to Tilda in warm, bulky garments and a far shorter half cloak that likewise fell to a triangular point in the front and back, with the unused sleeves hanging for now on the inside. His long salt-and-pepper braid emerged from a hole poked in the back of a knit watch cap, while Tilda’s jet black braid was coiled in the deep hood of her cloak.

“There is a pool a bow-shot back by that single tree,” Block pointed. “The shoddy horse doctoring was done there. Come hence.”

With that, the dwarf was back into the grass with only the top of his black cap visible, moving off like a distant orca whale on the sea.

Tilda patted the horse again and edged around its unwounded side, though she did stop to look over its back more closely at the bandaging on its right haunch. She then hurried after the Captain, slipping her gloves back on along the way. The horse turned to watch her go.

She followed the Captain’s course through the grass to the indicated tree, a tall lone pine inexplicable enough to have been planted here long ago as some sort of marker. Probably marking the watering hole, Tilda surmised, for the low boughs did indeed spread above a shallow pool of clear water in a little damp clearing that stretched only a few paces from side to side.

Block had stopped at the edge of the clearing and he raised a hand for Tilda to do likewise. Both looked around at the ground, Tilda over the dwarf’s broad shoulder. At the pool’s edge were scattered bloodied rags, and nearby was a pile of equipment with a great saddle of rich brown leather most notable.

“Check the packs,” Block said. “Don’t trod the tracks.” He probably had not intended for that to rhyme, for in three months of traveling together Tilda had not once noted any poetical bent to the stooped old dwarf. He moved off to walk the perimeter of the clearing while Tilda made her way over to the equipment pile, mindful of both hoof and foot prints plainly visible on the damp ground.

Tilda had been combing through an awful lot of cast-off debris for the last three days. That was the length of time during which she and the Captain had been on this particular leg of their journey, moving due south from the manor village of a minor Codian noble called the Baron Nyham. The baron was not presently in residence there, as two days before the Miilarkians arrived he had gone south at the head of an armed band of some seven-hundred men. All were bound for the town of the Duke above Nyham with whom, as the local expression went, the baron had serious beef. Something about money, or a perceived insult, or somebody’s sister. The tavern talk had been unclear.

Whatever the cause, the motley assortment of men Nyham had gathered to redress his grievance upon his rightful lord had proven on the march to be an ill-disciplined set. Their route had been easy for the Miilarkians to follow, as while it kept to a typically thin path in the Orstavian grass their passage had trod it into a wider way littered with refuse that someone had thought would be a good idea to bring along when the march began, only to drop miles and even days later. There had been cookware, bedrolls, blankets, spare shoes, extra packs and clothes, and every time Captain Block had spied any of this garbage alongside the trail he had ordered Tilda off her mare to look it over. Block would canter on ahead with both horses, leaving Tilda to jog until she caught up. Every time. This exercise served no purpose that Tilda could divine other than to keep the Captain mildly amused, which was why she had not reported the discovery of one silver coin, a Codian Swan, in the bottom of a pack. The coin was in her pocket and Tilda periodically held it in a closed hand when the Captain was trying her. She liked the weight of it in her fist.

Tilda took a bit more time to inventory the saddle and other left-behinds in the clearing, including the torn half of a very prettily-embroidered horse blanket with a pattern of sparrows in flight along the border. She had finished and was looking at the ground by the time Block made one circuit of the clearing and asked her a question. His earlier words had all been in Codian, but this was in Trade: Shto zinat? What do you know?

“The fresh prints are the charger and one person, a man by the size. They are atop a great mess of tracks from a day or two ago. The reins and rigging are all here, stripped and dropped, and the saddle is for fighting, not riding.”

“Mounted for a lance?”

“Yes. It has ties for saddlebags but there are none here, though there is loose gear that came this far in them. Tack hammer, extra buckles and stirrups. Nothing someone would need once they went to foot. But first he tore up the pretty kit to scrub and bind up the horse. The other half of this blanket is on its haunches now. There are round rust marks like it was worn under barding.”

Tilda glanced over toward the white horse, which had lost interest in her and moved off to stand closer to the mare and pony.

“What else about the footprints?”

Tilda frowned at her Captain, his heavy dwarven features expectant and his thick, dark eyebrows together. She looked down at the nearest clear mark for a moment, then put her own foot down beside it. Her riding boots had a pointed toe to slip easily into and out of stirrups.

“Rounded toes, from a shoe or sandal.” Tilda looked back up at the Captain. “The man who rode the horse here was not the knight to whom it belonged.”

Block gave a soft grunt of grudging approval, which Tilda had learned was the extreme upper limit to his expressions of praise. The nicest thing he had said to Tilda in three months was that she might have a bit of brain in her head. Along with the rocks and shiny bits of ribbon.

“We were wrong,” Block said, throwing Tilda completely.

“ Tizalk?”

Captain Block rumbled a low growl in his cavernous chest and glared off to the south, down the way they had been going these last three days toward the faint smudge of distant mountains on the horizon.

“We thought to overtake the slow marchers well before they reached Duke Gratchik’s town. Before any battle might be fought. But we did not consider that the Duke might hit Nyham first, at the edge of his lands, only half a day distant from here.”

Actually, we thought nothing of the sort, Tilda thought now. She said something different.

“You think a battle has already been fought?”

Block nodded toward the charger. “That wound on the arse is long, from a big blade. Spear or a pole-arm. But the holes on the ribs are high, and the rags jammed in them poke out and up. Arrows shot from distance, on their downward path.”

Tilda felt cold, and not just from the drear air. The man they had come here to find – all the way to Noroth and to Codia and to Orstaf – had marched with Nyham. If there had been a battle, he had been in it.

“Should we not hurry on, Captain?” she said. “I mean, he could…we have to find out what happened.”

“We know what happened,” Block growled. “The baron got whipped. A footman jumped on a knight’s horse and rode it back to here. That beast was not going any further today, and the man would not wait. The fellow went to ground and kept moving. And look here.”

Block turned and stomped to the southwest edge of the clearing no longer minding the marks on the ground, so neither did Tilda as she followed. At the edge of the tall grass Block pointed at a last shoeprint on the soft mossy ground, then out into the grass.

“Broken stalk, bent stalk, another bent further along, in a dead line southwest. Southwest. Not back north, toward Nyham’s lands. Not the direction a fleeing peasant or manor man would have gone to get home.”

Of Nyham’s seven-hundred men, two hundred had been such locals. The other five-hundred, only one of whom Tilda and her Captain were interested in, were recent legionnaires of the Codian Empire. They were deserters from the 34 ^ Foot, hired by the baron to visit vengeance upon his Duke, apparently without success.

“One of the renegades,” Tilda said, and Block nodded.

“I don’t know where the man thinks he is going now, but he is in a hurry to get there. Can’t be more than eight hours ahead.”

“So what?” Tilda said, and Block raised a dark eyebrow touched with gray at her.

“I mean, in that case…I mean it seems to me…”

“Spit it out, girl.”

Tilda took a breath, and realized her heart was pounding. The last three months of her life seemed to be crashing into this moment from behind.

“Captain, we need to be on that battlefield, now. If, if our man is dead, we need to know it. And if he is captured we have to get there before he is hung for desertion, or for bearing arms against the Duke, or whatever. Right now, sir. Lol hique.”

Block was again staring to the southwest, in the direction that the last mark of a legionnaire’s marching sandal pointed.

“Or maybe he escaped the battle. Made a run for it.”

Tilda did not like where that was going. “Then our best chance of learning where he might have run would also be at the battlefield, no? With any captured legionnaires, who themselves may be strung-up before much longer.”

Block did not seem to be listening. He was still staring off across the burry tops of the tall grass as the stalks waved gently in the chill breeze.

“Unless this is our man,” he said.

Behind him, for just a moment, Tilda dropped her jaw and glared disbelief at Block’s wide back. She reined in her face before stammering one question in two languages.

“I’m tizalk…sorry… spahalo what?”

“Five-hundred-to-one odds against it, I know,” Block said, still staring away. “Bit long to wager much. But the pay-off…”

Tilda wanted either to jump up and down, or else kick her esteemed and honorable Captain in his wide hindquarters. She managed to do neither. Just.

“Forgive me, Captain, but I think at the Island Stakes they call that a misag uyak. A Fool’s Bet.”

“Not if the race is rigged.”

Now Tilda could only stare. It was not her place to question the Captain, and even if it had been, she had no idea of what she could possibly say to that.

Block hitched back his black half-cloak, reaching inside to pluck something from a pouch at his belt. He extended an arm and opened his palm. Tilda saw a coppery gleam, and inwardly groaned.

The Empire of the Code minted as its smallest denomination copper pennies modeled on those of the old Kingdom of Tull, now an Imperial province for some hundred-fifty years. Popularly called “thumbs,” each side showed a fist with the thumb extended. Lucky side up, you could see the folded fingers against the palm. Unlucky thumbs-down showed the back of the hand.

Block balanced the coin on his own bent thumb. “Your call?”

“Lucky side to the battlefield.” Tilda said quickly, then muttered under her breath. “Nothing else makes sense.”

She thought of something only after the dwarf flicked the coin up to flip smoothly through the air, a dancing glint of decision. Tilda recalled that the old Tullish coins, like many things from what had once been called the Witch Kingdom, were made in the fashion of a lesson. Given time and circulation from hand to hand, a bit of sliding across bar-tops and bartering tables, and the soft metal started to wear. The first thing to go was the fine detail of the folded fingers, and after that it was impossible to tell one side of the coin from the other.

Good luck wears off, the Tulls had said. Bad luck lasts forever.

Chapter Three

Tilda retrieved the mare and pony from the main path, and frowned when she found that the dagger Block had jammed into the ground to loop the reins had been one of hers. She wiped it well clean before replacing it in a hidden sheath under a saddlebag.

They let the horses get a good drink at the clearing, then Tilda boosted the dwarf to his saddle and swung into her own. She followed behind as Block pointed the snorting pony into the long grass. The white charger stepped back into the clearing behind them but went no further, and looking back over her shoulder at the proud animal standing forlorn under the tree, Tilda felt a pang. She assured herself that even on the lonely paths of southern Orstaf someone would come by before long, and a horse of that quality would never be left behind by anyone whose main concern was not for speed.

The Captain said that as they were after a man on foot who had less than a half-day head start they might overtake him before nightfall. Early the next day at the worst. If the fellow’s trail continued generally southwest they would still be in position to angle back to the battlefield without losing too much time, should it prove necessary.

Tilda said nothing in reply.

As it developed, the Miilarkians could not of course take full advantage of being mounted to close the distance between themselves and their new quarry. The tall steppe grass gave the country of Orstaf a gently rolling appearance, but down at dirt-level it was a different story. Stones cluttered the plains, and there were dry runoff channels from the snowmelt season everywhere, not to mention gopher burrows and snake holes. To ride at speed cross-country would have been to invite a broken ankle for a horse. That was the point of the numberless paths in the first place.

In the second place, tracking a lone man through the stuff proved difficult as it tended to grant passage with only a rustle and some picturesque swaying. Block often gripped his saddle horn as his pony picked its way along, holding himself flat against the horse’s dun flank with his sharp eyes looking level across the top of the grass for a single broken stalk, or even a bent one. Even for the jeweler’s eyes of a dwarf, it was remarkable he spied a sign as often as he did.

Despite that, as the gray disk of the sun traversed the dreary sky above, several were the times Block raised a hand to halt. Tilda dismounted first, shrugging out of the blanket she had draped around her shoulders while riding. She helped the dwarf to the ground despite knowing he could get down himself if he wanted, then held the horses’ reins while her Captain crawled through the brush until finding a damp bit of low ground with a print, a scuff on a rock, or some other sign that Tilda could scarcely see even when he pointed it out to her. She then boosted the dwarf back into the saddle, remounted her mare and rewrapped her blanket, and on they went as the sun crawled away to the west, toward the lush Island home thousands of miles away from this chill and cheerless place.

As hour followed hour of slow pursuit through the long grass, Tilda said not a single word. Block, intent of his observations, either did not notice or did not care. By the time enough hours had passed for the sun to approach the distant horizon, it became obvious their quarry had veered toward a jumbled bunch of low hills looming like a castle above the grass, all topped with dense trees. The wall of mountains to the south was still several days distant, but Tilda knew from the Captain’s maps that the foothills at their feet extended out onto the plains for miles in places, and that a river called the Winding lived up to its name as it snaked its way among them. The small cluster of hills now before them seemed a sentinel from that country, like a cavalry vedette thrown out well ahead of an advancing army.

Block’s gruff voice was no less so after hours of silence.

“Our fellow is heading straight for the hills, and he must be exhausted. It is likely he would rest as soon as he reached cover. Look sharp.”

“I have been,” Tilda said.

The dwarf turned in his saddle just enough to glare back over a shoulder.

“No, actually you have been looking sulky.”

Tilda stared at the ground so as not to glare back at her Captain.

“I have not,” she said in a small voice.

“Of course you have. Your big bottom lip is jutting out to shade your chin. Luck of the flip, girl. Take your complaints to the Ninth God.”

Tilda mumbled something, but when Block snapped “What?” she said something different.

“Were the fingers worn off of the coin you tossed, Captain?”

“What?” Block snapped again. Tilda looked up at him this time, his hard eyes wide under the V of his heavy brows. In theory a Guild apprentice should always have kept her eyes downcast toward a House Man of Block’s station, but the disparity in their height had always made that difficult. Not that it bothered Tilda at the moment.

“I ask if the coin you tossed was worn plain. Did both sides look to be back-handed, thumbs down?”

The Captain blinked, and one end of the hard line of his mouth twitched. Now nearing evening, a dark shadow was already on the cheeks that the old dwarf had shaved this and every morning for hundreds of years.

“I did not look to see,” he said, and Tilda said nothing.

Muddy prints up the bank of a sluggish, shallow stream at the base of the first hillock told even Tilda which way their quarry had gone. The prints were uneven as though the man had stumbled, and Tilda thought that surely he must have been at the end of his rope. A full day and more of flight, on the heels of a battle. She thought that passing from the open fields to the sheltering shade of the trees must certainly have been a relief and a temptation for him and she looked around carefully, almost expecting to find a bundled shape on the ground at the base of each trunk. The horses sensed their riders’ moods and moved as if they had toes to tip on, hoof-falls muffled on the carpet of old needles and leaves. The trees were mostly pines, seeds washed down from the mountains eons ago and caught up in the rocks of the hills. Here and there an ancient oak arose taller among them, like a stately lord above prickly supplicants. Tilda and Block kept their eyes on the ground, but found only signs that their man had kept moving.

They crested one rise, and descending the far side Tilda blinked to discover that in the midst of the encircling hills the trees were regularly spaced, shaggy-barked, and planted in even rows. They bore fruit shaped like pears but with white skins, and the branches hung heavy with them. As the riders passed down and among them, Tilda saw that the orchard was not maintained. A lot of fruit lay on the ground already going to rot and the air had a sickly-sweet smell.

The shadows between the hills and the encroaching gloom of evening shivered Tilda all the more, and made it harder than ever to see any signs of passage. The Miilarkians were obliged to dismount again, and it took several minutes for the Captain to reacquire the trail. Tilda stood by holding the reins, wondering at the silence. In Miilark, dusk brought a cacophony of birdcalls from the trees, settling or waking, like a changing of shop shifts. But here there was nothing. She thought that if they found no one here they would soon have to make camp, and she hoped Block would at least push on a bit farther before doing so.

Block found some askew needles, and as Tilda boosted him back to the pony’s saddle, she spoke just to break the silence.

“Captain, may I speak?”

The gloom made it impossible to read Block’s face even as he turned to look down at her.

“So polite? You must be near mutiny. Say on.”

Tilda sighed and remained standing between the horses. “I am bound, Captain, to follow your orders with no explanation required. If you wish to pursue a single man instead of an army, then that is what we shall do. You need not explain, nor put the decision to rigged chance.”

“I told you,” Block growled. “I did not know then, and still do not know now, whether the coin was worn and the toss moot.”

“And I of course believe you without question.”

“This is without question?”

Tilda moved around her horse, patting the mare’s nose, to mount from the other side. She kept speaking, but now looked away rather than at the dwarf’s dimming silhouette.

“Captain, we landed two months ago on a vast continent peopled by millions. Eight years behind a man who had left even his own name back in the Islands, and whose looks we can only guess at after so much time.”

“I shall know him by his eyes,” Block said more quietly. “They are as green as the emerald pennants of the Great House of Deskata.”

Tilda nodded as she pulled herself into the saddle, for she knew the stories of her own House. Her long black braid swung forward over her shoulder.

“I mean only to say, Captain, that though we came to this place nearly rudderless, as it were, you have since guided us to within a day or two of the man, one among millions, who we seek. It is a most remarkable thing.”

They sat facing each other on the side-by-side horses, and though Tilda could not see Block’s face clearly, she supposed his dwarven eyes could still perceive hers.

“Do you have a point, girl? Or do you just whistle at the Wind?”

Tilda took a breath. “I mean to say that I follow you, Captain Block, as it is my duty. But even were it not, I would follow your whim or hunch with perfect confidence. I have learned to rely on them as I would on the tides.”

Tilda felt immediately awkward, and expected no response from the dwarf other than, perhaps, an order to shut up. Batten her hatch and shove off. She in no way expected what she got.

Block leaned forward and seized the end of the braid lying over Tilda’s shoulder. He jerked her sideways, nearly pulling her off her horse for she as yet had only one foot in a stirrup. Silver flashed before Tilda’s eyes in the fading light, a dagger in the Captain’s hand, and she quailed to the pit of her stomach, feeling what an Island poet had once called “the bird in the rib cage.”

He is going to cut off my hair.

Tilda thought it quicker than the actual words could be formed or needed to be, for she understood as did all Miilarkians who wore the braid that to have it severed was the ultimate sign of shame and rejection. The final formal act of negation preceding banishment from the Islands and their society. It was the last thing that would have been done to the man they were seeking now, on the day he was exiled and put to sea.

But the Captain did not cut, he stabbed, and not at Tilda but above her bent body. Warm fluid that was certainly, sickeningly, blood splashed her back.

Guilders were trained not to scream no matter what happened, not giving away one’s position being critical to much of their work. It was not much of a comfort to Tilda that the sound that came out of her was more of a squeal than a scream, but it was in any case covered by wild whinnies from the mare and pony as both horses bolted.

Something hit the Captain but Tilda did not see it as the pony shot off between trees like a gray arrow, while the mare barreled away down the length of a row. Tilda’s right foot was in a stirrup but not the left, and she nearly toppled off the side before her knee wedged against the saddle. The reins flapped loose but she got a handful of mane, though her scrambling only succeeded in banging her heel against the mare’s belly. That did little to calm the horse down. Tilda pulled against her wedged knee, straining legs and hips, until a fumbling hand found the saddle horn and with a grunt she managed to haul herself up to a closer approximation of the manner in which one typically rode a horse.

The mare broke from the orchard and raced up the grassy lee of a hill, less oppressive and with better light. She began to slow down, whinnying now as a call for her pony, but just as Tilda made a grab for the reins the horse screamed and drove back into a gallop.

She can smell blood, Tilda realized, for she could smell it herself, soaking the dark cloak now clinging to her shoulders. She reached for the collar thinking to pull the garment off over her head and looked back for a moment past the mare’s bouncing tail. Her hand froze as something else broke from the tree line and zipped into the gloaming light of dusk.

Shadows and Tilda’s bouncing vision made it hard to distinguish detail, but what she saw was too much. Something like a mosquito, but the size of a house cat. Pumping wings with red feathers, more like a bird than an insect, though they sprouted out of the creature’s back while four limbs hung under it. It had beady yellow eyes that fastened on Tilda’s, set above a hollow snout like a foot-long stake.

Tilda turned and lay flat on her belly against the mare’s back, hissed “Run!” at the horse’s ears, and held on tight for a life that suddenly seemed desperately dear.

She looked back to see the beastly thing closing the distance, and a second one emerging from the trees behind it.

The mare clambered halfway up the hill before entering more trees, swerving madly as these grew wild and disordered, nearly shaking Tilda off her back. Tilda did not like where this was going and made another reach for the reins, but they were completely loose now, twisted and flapping out by the bridle. She leaned further, one hand clutching the saddle horn, but that only brought the bloody stink of her flapping cloak closer to the mare’s nose. The horse tossed her head as she ran and finally, inevitably, bucked. Already leaning forward, Tilda took to the air.

Flash of memory, too short and specific to be Tilda’s entire life before her eyes, but vivid all the same. Running full-tilt down the length of a platform in the cellar of the Guild house, throwing herself off one end into air thick with the smell of sweat and the mildewed stink of seawater. Block’s voice booming in the damp, subterranean space.

“Roll with the fall! Do you want to hear bone snap like tinder?”

Tilda did not want to hear that, not then and not now. Her outstretched hand hit a branch and she did not lock her arm, only let it slide over roughly even as she kicked both legs backward and up. She was half-way through a turn when her breast and then hip smacked into the thick, unyielding bough, and though her desperate momentum carried her over the top, it still hurt about as much as any physical blow she had ever taken. Her hooked left knee caught, the arm wrapped by reflex, and Tilda hung suspended for a shuddering moment, bruised but unbroken, eyes screwed shut and teeth clenched so as not to bite through her tongue.

The sound of the running mare faded, and was replaced by flapping. Tilda’s eyes snapped wide open.

One of the beasties was on a bee-line right for her, close enough now that she could see the yellow claws on four mammalian legs hanging under it, and the unsettling absence of a face as the thing’s whole head was shaped like a cone, terminating in the sharp, hollow proboscis that pointed right at her.

Tilda’s club, sword, and gun were riding away on the horse. She strained toward a dagger in her boot but seized only the hem of her Guild cloak, caught around the hilt. The thing flew at her like a ponderous bird and there was no more time to think, only to move. Tilda hissed as she rolled her bruised body over the top of the bough, and as the creature hove in she lunged toward it, swinging her damp cloak by the hem like a fisherman casting a net. The inner lining of emerald green flashed, Tilda bagged the creature with an angry whistling through its snout, and her hooked knee came loose as her momentum carried her clean off the tree limb. Not knowing just how far off the ground she was, nor when to begin a tumble, Tilda instead tucked her chin to her chest, wrapped both arms around the struggling thing in her cloak, and shifted so that she hit the ground with the bundle between her right shoulder and the forest floor.

The impact jarred Tilda from head to toes, sending shooting pains around bruised ribs and down both arms. It was much, much worse for the thing in her cloak, which did in fact snap like tinder.

Tilda flopped to her back and lay in a heap, mouth open, eyes shut, cloak soaking through. She let out a ragged breath that tasted like bile in the back of her throat, and concentrated on neither passing out nor retching.

More flapping broke her concentration, but now fear kept her conscious and her last meal, an unfortunate choice of words, stayed down where it was. Darting eyes found the movement that was the second creature hovering among the hanging boughs. Tilda lay perfectly still but the thing was already drifting on beating wings in her direction, sharp snout swinging this way and that until it snapped to point at Tilda on the ground. Red wings beat harder and it came at her fast.

Tilda tried to move but found that she scarcely could, having more or less pinned herself by her twisted cloak. Her feet scrambled across the soft carpet of the forest floor kicking needles everywhere, and both hands scrabbled though she could get them neither to the dagger in her boot nor the one at the small of her back. The thing was already around the nearest tree and diving at her, shaft level as a lance to stab her, all four claws extended to dig in and hold on as it fed.

All training aside Tilda did begin to scream, but it caught in her throat as someone vaulted over her prone struggles to stand facing the diving thing. Captain! Tilda thought at first, but the man was a full-sized human. Muscled calves bound across with cords to the knees, sandal lacings over cloth leggings, landed at what was presently Tilda’s eye-level. The man swung a length of branch like a Miilarkian boy, or girl for that matter, playing stick-ball between the passing carts and wagons on a street of the capital city. He connected for what surely would have been a good hit.

The flapping thing made a flute-like hooting through its snout as it tumbled through the air and bashed off the nearest tree trunk. It fell twitching to the ground and the man made another bound, coming down on it squarely with all his weight on both feet. Feet in the thick-soled, round-toed marching sandals of a Legionnaire of the Empire of All Lands Under the Code. There was a crunch of bone, and the man quickly spread his feet apart as the ruined creature between them began to ooze.

Tilda lay as though paralyzed and the man was stock-still as well, makeshift club before him in a two-handed grip, head tilted as he listened intently. Tilda did not need to be told to hush, and made no sound anyway. Besides the sandals laced up his calves, the fellow wore a rough cloth tunic, belted at the waist and falling skirt-like down to his knees. The rough garment had no sleeves, but he had a blanket wrapped around his broad chest, fashioned like a Doonish serape. His back was still to Tilda and she could not see his face, but his hair was dark as the gloomy shadows and cropped very short, which made sense. Legionnaires cut their hair almost to the scalp, but the men of the 34 ^ had been under arrest and then renegade for a month. Discipline, not to say grooming standards, had certainly been eroding.

“I don’t hear any more of them. No god loves a stirge.”

The man’s voice was startling in the silence. It was deep as befit his physique, and had the flat Beoan accent all legionnaires tended to acquire in time, no matter from what part of the sprawling Empire they originally hailed.

“Loves a what?” Tilda asked from the ground in her smallest voice.

“Stirges.” The man poked his club at the wreckage at his feet. “Blighted, blood-sucking trouble they are. A flock will drain a horse or beeve dry in an hour. Less for a man.”

The man turned to face Tilda, and her eyes flicked to the fat blade of the legionnaire short sword thrust naked through his belt on his left hip.

“Are you all right?” he asked, reaching Tilda in a stride and kneeling close enough for her to perceive his features in the gathering gloom. Her spirits were divided by what she saw.

First, the fellow was quite handsome, which was a good thing in and of itself. Legion regulations tolerated no facial hair but this fellow had a beard and mustache coming in along with the hair on his head, still short but black and thick. It framed rather than hid what were good features. Strong jaw, high cheeks, and a brow that was a bit on the thick side, giving neat dark eyebrows a slightly forward-thrusting look of intensity. His deep-set eyes in the plunging shadows looked to be a murky shade of brown however, which, while not unpleasant, were certainly not emerald green.

But really, odds of 500-to-1 against had been far too long to bet.

“I think I need to burn my cloak,” Tilda said, and indeed the man’s nose wrinkled as he got a whiff of the gore from Tilda’s garment.

“You fell on one?” he asked with a note of amusement, obviously having missed Tilda’s haphazard acrobatics. “Come on, let’s get you on your feet.”

Tilda accepted the offered hand and felt the rough calluses of practice with weapons. Her hands were much the same, though she still had her gloves on. She let the man help her up and gave a shudder and a groan as the bloody mess of the first stirge slid out of her cloak and plopped to the ground. She had almost straightened fully when her long braid swished loose over her shoulder in what was rapidly becoming only moon and starlight. Tilda felt the man’s hand tighten on hers and then suddenly release, and she pitched forward off-balance to fall headlong back to the ground as he danced several steps away. He cast aside his branch, gripped the hilt of his sword, and snarled.

“You are a Miilarkian!”

Tilda, with the wind knocked out of her, groaned neutrally.

“What in the hells are you doing out here? And alone?” The man barked with the voice of command, surely as he would have were he still a soldier of the Legions. Before Tilda could muster enough breath to answer the fellow said, “Or are you alone at all?” He drew his sword cleanly while taking several more steps away to put his back against a tree trunk.

Horses approached at a trot and swiftly appeared, dark shapes that were the Captain on his pony, leading the mare. Both animals hung their heads in a manner distinctly sheepish for horses, but the dwarf’s hood snapped about as his shadowed eyes raked the surroundings. His gaze passed over Tilda with nary a pause, then locked on the legionnaire. Block was out of the saddle quick as thought, advancing on the man and striking a spark from a flint in one hand. The oil-soaked head of a torch bloomed and the Captain thrust it toward the legionnaire’s face. The man scowled and squinted in the sudden light, teeth and sword bared, but Block stared only at his eyes.

Brown.

“Damn your eyes,” the dwarf growled, sounding both angry and suddenly tired. The man only stared back, blinking, and Block shifted the torch so the light fell on Tilda.

“Are you alive?”

Climbing back to her feet, Tilda felt like she had fallen off the Ghost Mountain, bouncing the whole way down.

“Mostly.”

The torch swung back to the gaping legionnaire. He had recognized Tilda for what she was by her braid, but seemed utterly dumbfounded by a likewise braided, beardless dwarf. Tilda could scarcely blame him, for the Captain was one of a kind.

“Soldier,” Block barked. “What was your company of the 34 ^ Legion?”

The staring man answered by rote.

“Second Century.”

That was at least something. Tilda felt a flutter of hope in her chest, which at this point only made her ribs ache worse.

“We seek your commanding Centurion,” Block said, his voice suddenly quiet. “The man called John Lepokahan.”

The word gave Tilda a twinge, for le po ka han was a biting oath in the old language of the Islands. It was also the name that luck, or else some subtle magic inherent to the Captain, had led them to discover that their quarry had assumed when he enrolled in the Codian Legions, six years ago now.

The renegade just went on staring. The mare and her pony had been moving toward Tilda, but they stopped short as if even they were anxious to hear the man’s answer. The crackle of Block’s burning brand was the only sound in a moment that lingered on toward painful.

“Soldier…”

“Lepokahan was not his real name,” the bedraggled deserter of the Legions said softly. “He said it was John Deskata, before he was exiled from Miilark.”

Chapter Four

It was unthinkable to stop and talk at any length in the midst of a stirge infestation, much less to set up camp nearby. Yet with night settled about the forested hills and out on the steppe, blundering far through the darkness was hardly an option.

The ex-legionnaire retrieved a pair of saddlebags from nearby and slung them across his shoulders, then led the way westerly while creeping widely around the infested orchard. Tilda followed close behind his dark silhouette leading both horses from the ground, while Block rode the pony. She made an unvoiced vow to herself that the next time she was in an otherwise healthy orchard left to spoil, with overripe fruit hanging neglected and no sound of birds, she would not just take a moment to wonder why it was so, but just get gone out of there right away.

The trudge through the trees was tricky in the dark, and every misstep and stumble sent a throbbing ache around Tilda’s midsection. But soon it was over. The two-horse column descended one last hillock and emerged again onto the grassy steppe, blonde stalks looking silvery in the waning moonlight. The renegade marched west with a long stride for perhaps a quarter mile, and just as Tilda was deciding to remount her horse, he stopped and about-faced. Though there was not enough light to make out his expression, his posture was now relaxed. He put both hands on his hips, which did keep one close to the sword at his side.

“When stirges come down from the mountains, they hunt in a narrow corridor back to their main nest. They won’t find us out here.”

“Where is Lepokahan?” Block growled in a manner that made the word sound less like an assumed name and more like the oath that it was.

“I told you,” the renegade said. “Gone. Him and a few others cut out two days before the fight with Duke Gratchik. Deserted from the desertion, if you will. But I know where they are going, and I am going after them myself. You, gentle Islanders, are welcome to tag along.”

The dwarf leaned forward in his saddle to add something colorful, but the renegade held up a hand.

“Your further satisfaction will have to wait until morning, Guv. I am plain done-in, and the two of you cannot be much better off. Particularly not your girl, there.”

Tilda turned to look toward the Captain, but stopped halfway and closed her eyes as a stitch flared in her neck. The renegade took the set of saddlebags off his shoulders and started tramping a narrow flat spot in the long grass. Block spoke at Tilda.

“You will stand the first shift, as ward.”

The renegade sighed, stacking his bags as a pillow and unfastening his sword belt.

“The stirges won’t come out here. I promise.”

“She will not be warding against those.”

The man snorted, unwrapped the blanket from around his chest and shook it out.

“I am not going to run off, nor do anything else untoward,” he said, dropping out of moonlit sight as he sprawled on the ground. “If it weren’t for you two galloping about those stirges would have sucked me dry in my sleep. I suppose there’s worse ways to go, but I’ll take life just the same.”

After a last rustle in the grass the renegade settled into silence with a grunt of finality. Block remained glaring at the spot for a time before allowing Tilda to help him off his pony, with a wince he did not see. The Captain settled his own bedroll a short distance away from the renegade and left Tilda to see to the horses.

After doing so Tilda walked her turn at guard more than stood it, bone-tired but knowing that her bruised muscles were going to tighten as soon as she stopped moving. The dwarf’s internal hour glass woke him in the small hours before dawn, and he relieved Tilda to crawl into her own bedroll and drop instantly into a sleep not untroubled by dreams. Dreams of mosquitoes big as oxen.

She awoke with dust motes hovering about the grass stalks in front of her nose, started to stretch, and caught her breath. Tilda had a moment of sheer terror, thinking she was paralyzed, but realized that it was not a matter of being unable to move. It was just that her body really did not want to do so.

Tilda’s knees were nearly touching her chest for in her sleep she had constricted, actually shriveled like fruit gone bad. Her shoulders throbbed, one knee felt wrenched, and worse than either was a band of purple pain that beat across her torso and belly in time with her heart.

Matilda Lanai had loved adventure stories as a girl, the old ones from tribal times that clan elders had once told around campfires and that Islanders still shared in taverns and family rooms. She did not recall any of the bold heroes of those tales waking up to a morning quite like this. She uncoiled slowly and with several shuddering spasms, and crawled out of her bedroll. She got to all fours, took as deep a breath as she could manage, and stood with a motion that from a distance might have looked smooth. Unless one could see the trembling hands and mouth locked in a grimace.

“Did you break a rib?”

The renegade’s voice came from behind Tilda and she spun, which almost made her swoon. She planted her feet to face the man standing a few paces away in the waist-high grass, powerful arms folded before his off-white Legion tunic smeared with reddish rust stains at shoulders and flanks where a steel breastplate would ride and fasten. He was eating what looked for all the world in the narrow sunlight of dawn to be an orange, a thing Tilda had not seen in months.

“I broke nothing,” Tilda said, then snapped her eyes around. The two horses were still asleep where they stood hobbled nearby.

“Where is Captain Block?”

“Block, is it? I can see that. Suits him.”

Tilda knew where Block’s name came from, but she let it pass. “Where is he?”

The man popped a wedge of orange into his mouth and shrugged as he sucked juice from his fingers.

“He’s around.”

“Where?” Tilda demanded. Her hands were loose at her sides. Her buksu and several daggers lay beside her bedroll, though she still had one of the latter in either boot. The renegade rolled his disappointing brown eyes.

“Fine, so much for being polite. He’s having a squat in the grass over yonder. Do you need to wipe for him, or can he manage that himself?”

Tilda could not help but have her eyes follow the bright fruit as the legionnaire tugged loose another section with his teeth, which she saw were nicely white. Not nearly enough of that on this continent.

“Where did you get that?” she asked, and the man nodded toward where he had slept.

“Saddlebags, off the charger. Nibbles for nobles. All sorts of little dainties in there.” He sucked two sticky fingers, and gave a slight scowl. “I take it you two found the horse?”

“Yes.”

“How was he?”

“Well enough.”

The renegade nodded his short-haired head. “That horse saved my life, you know. Got me out of the fight.”

Tilda narrowed her eyes. “I take it the battle did not go well?”

He gave a smirk. “It went wonderfully, for the Duke. Those of us on the idiot baron’s side of the field took all of a thumping.”

Grass parted in the direction the renegade had indicated, and the top of the Captain’s raised hood approached like a black shark fin in the grass. Tilda frowned, thinking of her own filthy, bloody Guild cloak which she had dropped in the grass a good distance away from both the horses and her own bedding.

The dwarf arrived and stood on tip-toes to look at Tilda and the legionnaire over the burry tops of the grass. Finishing his orange, the man tossed the rind toward the horses and moved toward his equipment.

“The gang’s all here,” he said. “Let’s get on the move.”

“We will speak first,” the Captain barked in a tone Tilda could not have denied, but the man was already draping the blanket around his shoulders to cover his Legion tunic.

“I’ll tell my story walking, Cap‘n.” The man slung the plush leather saddlebags across his back. “Do you want to catch your man, or no?”

Tilda waited until Block gave her a curt nod, then tried not to think about her aching body as she rushed around readying for a return to the trail.

*

“How much do you know?” the renegade asked, setting a brisk pace across the plains away from the rising sun. They had intersected a path running close enough to the right direction for both horses to follow the fellow single file at an easy gait. The Captain rode behind him, and Tilda sat high enough on the mare bringing up the rear to still see the fellow walking ahead.

“About what?” Block snapped, still in a growl.

“About the ol’ Three-Four,” the renegade from the 34 ^ Foot Legion said over his shoulder. “About how we wound up down here in the first place.”

“We know that your outfit was put under arrest as a body some months ago. After committing an atrocity in La Trabon.”

The man did not look back, but his voice changed.

“That’s what they’re calling it, eh? An atrocity. Mighty dressed-up word for just burning down a building.”

“For burning down the fabled Round Hall,” Tilda said, speaking unbidden and drawing a look back from the Captain. Though the clearer skies and brighter sun was warming this day more than the last, Tilda’s mood was bad owing to the jolt that the mare’s every step sent through her aching ribs. She continued speaking without permission.

“The ancient home of the Orstavian Kings, a wonder of art and architecture from the time of…”

“Look, I admit, it was a pretty building,” the renegade said. “However, the shaman separatists that holed-up in the place did not give us much choice. It was either smoke them out or else storm in with spear and sword.”

“Immaterial,” Block snapped. “The result was that your whole Legion was put in camp arrest until some five Centuries decided to break Law by walking out. They joined Baron Nyham’s harebrained vendetta, and here you are now. We care for none of this.”

The renegade’s gaze rose somewhere above the horizon ahead, possibly at a cloud.

“You know, I used to think that word was ‘hair-brained,’ like you had hair where your brains should be. I guess, though, that it is ‘hare.’ Brain like a rabbit, though rabbits never seemed that dumb to me. What man wouldn’t live like that, if he could?”

Tilda tilted her head to one side, but Block only scowled.

“What happened to the Lepokahan, for we know that he and his whole command were among the men gone renegade.”

“Oh, we were indeed. Marched out of camp arrest in a cloud of righteous indignity, which lasted only until we agreed to go mercenary for a petty noble’s pettier cause. With only a couple officers and a few bad sergeants, it did not take us long to become a rabble.”

Though the man’s tone remained light, his last words sounded forced and he stopped speaking for several paces afterward. Even the Captain gave him the moment and allowed him to continue only of his own accord.

“Anyway, it was not long before some of the seedier boys started looking around for a sweeter deal, your stalwart Centurion among them. He and a little band hatched a plan to get themselves out of the service altogether, with a bit of a nest egg besides. I was one of the fellows talking about it early on, but when push came to pull came to shove, I decided it was just too rabbit-brained an idea. My comrades, however, chose not to depart without a bit of seed money. Money in the form of some trinkets and baubles I had acquired…let us say here and there, over the years. Some gems and jewelry put aside for my retirement, you understand.”

“They robbed you,” Tilda called. “Then deserted from the desertion.”

The renegade looked back and winked at her.

“Nicely put.”

“When was this?” Block demanded.

“Two days before the battle. Most of four gone now.”

“Why did you not go after them at the time?”

The man sighed. “There are five of them, and one of me. Even had I caught up I didn’t much think they’d be in a mood to just hand me back my stuff. I had no better choice than to stay with what was left of the Three-Four, which I did right up until the Duke’s army smashed our ragtag ensemble. He had a couple of loyal Legions with him by the way. It was not as though we got rolled by household troops. I got out of there by the skin of my teeth, and then I had to start walking in some direction or another.”

The man stopped walking now and turned around. Block and Tilda pulled their horses to a halt and the man looked up at the frowning dwarf.

“I started after the Centurion and his band because I know where they are going, and because it is the only thing left for me to do. Now, Chance has put me here with you, Cap’n. Somebody who wants the same man as I do.”

Tilda knew that it was not the Ninth God, Chance, that had brought them to this place when sense and reason dictated that they should have followed the path of Nyham’s rabble south from the watering hole toward the battle. Instead they were here because of the Captain’s inexplicable intuition. It struck Tilda now that had the two of them gone south, they would have been utterly lost. Surviving prisoners of the 34 ^ Legion may have been able to tell them that the 2nd Century’s commanding Centurion had run-off. But if what this man said was true, no one else would have known to where the double deserters had gone.

Only by following the lone line of footprints had Tilda and her Captain come to meet this particular renegade, who knew what they needed to know. It had been such a near thing as to take Tilda’s breath away, and the stare she now gave her Captain’s broad back had not a little awe in it. The old dwarf claimed to have no truck with sorcery nor witchcraft. He did not even particularly like priests, not even those of Miisina, Our Lady of Coin, who was the adopted goddess of the Islands. But there was something to the Captain at moments that seemed to Tilda to verge on the mystical. Whether it was something innate to the dwarven race or to Captain Block of Miilark in particular, she could not say.

“Where has he gone?”

Block’s voice was quiet as he asked the critical question, and Tilda wondered if the renegade understood as she did that a softening of the Captain’s tone betokened more ill than did a growl or a yell. The man returned the dwarf’s steady look.

“I have been ruminating a bit since last night, and I have decided not to tell you.”

Perhaps it was Tilda’s imagination, but it seemed even her horse caught a breath. The renegade held up a hand.

“I can see where that might…make you want to kill me, but hear me out. First, I know just enough of you people – Miilarkian Guilders I mean, not beardless dwarves – to know that you don’t share your business with outsiders. I know you want the Centurion and I know you are not about to tell me the why nor the wherefore. So why should I alone spill my guts?”

“Good choice of words,” Block said with killing softness.

“That’s the other thing. I tell all, and I am baggage. Not a reason in the world for you to lug me along. Look, Cap‘n, we want the same man. I want my fiscal restitution, which need not effect you at all. I’ll take what’s mine, you do what you feel, and it’s fare-thee-well all around. We can help each other so far as that goes, then go our own ways. Clean and easy, like a midsummer morn.”

Block was glaring so fiercely at the renegade that the man actually spared Tilda a look and gave her what she supposed was his most winning smile.

“Or, I could make you tell me,” Block said, and the renegade sighed.

“Maybe. I’m not gainsaying your manhood, little man, I am just saying that once blades are drawn an awful lot can happen. You two would have to take me down without killing me, and without me giving back a poke that at a minimum slows one of you down on the road ahead. Then it would be a bit of torture, I suppose, but I am guessing you know that is hardly reliable. I’d tell you something, sure, but what if I lied out of sheer, dog-dumb peevishness? You couldn’t safely kill me nor leave me behind without learning if I’d sent you in the right direction. So now you’re saddled with either an ornery prisoner or a man damaged to the point he’s no threat, which would probably mean unable to move under my own power at all.”

The casual manner in which the renegade discussed his own possible maiming and demise struck Tilda as crass, but it did not seem artificial. Block’s face remained blank, his dark eyes hard.

“So that is my pitch, Guilder. We go on as we are, hearty and hale, and run our mutual quarry to ground. Either that or else we turn on each other here and now with a lot of fuss and ruckus, and in the end at least one of us is having a far worse day than we are at this moment. So what say you?”

The Captain stared. “I say we should have had this out in the hills, before you’d had a night to ruminate.”

The man gave a smirk. “Like they say on the Beoshore, the eye looking back sees best.”

To Tilda the silence which followed seemed complete, for while the Orstavian grass moved with a constant rustling swish of blade-on-blade, it was a background noise that she no longer heard unless she listened for it.

The dwarf looked at the man for a long time before giving the merest nod of assent.

“Lead on,” he said, but the smiling renegade first came closer with his hands held out at his sides, away from the short sword at his hip.

“One first matter last,” he said, taking even steps toward Block’s pony. “The other thing I know about Miilarkians is that a man had best hold on to his…hat, let us say, whenever he makes a deal with one of them.”

He approached until the Captain’s pony snorted at him, then stopped and raised his left hand, palm up. He extended his right hand to Block, and Tilda noticed that the man wore some sort of plain cord, thick like a boot lace, double looped and tied around his right wrist. It hardly seemed ornamental, and reminded her more than anything of the bits of string her father would sometimes tie around a finger to remind himself of something he must not forget.

“I have also heard, Good Guilder, that if an Islander shall swear by the honor of his House, then it is an oath to which he must and shall adhere.”

Block looked at the man’s rough and not-very-clean hand with a frown.

“Your point?” he asked, and the renegade’s smirk returned.

“I’ll take your word, Cap‘n, that by the honor of the House which you serve, I need fear no trickery. Nor no knife in the night. I ask only for peace between us, at least until we’ve found the man we are both after. Shake on it.”

Block’s heavy features were set, but he pulled the black kid-leather glove off his right hand and rumbled that by the House of Deskata, it was so. The Captain leaned forward and the two shook, sword-callused hand in sword-callused hand. Then to Tilda’s surprise, the renegade stepped around the pony and came at her with his hand still extended.

“You too, girl. You’re as much a Guilder as this one.”

Tilda glanced at her Captain, but he was still facing forward and was busy wiping his hand on his pony’s neck before replacing his glove. She looked down at the man in front of her, his brown eyes lingering on hers for perhaps the first time since the woods last night. In fact, she knew perfectly well that it was. Tilda pulled off her right glove, repeated the oath, and they shook. Her hand had held a hilt often enough, but was not yet hardened by it. His felt like rough wood.

“Lead on,” Block said again, and this time the renegade gave a little salute, shifted the saddlebags on his shoulders, and stepped smartly back to the head of the line.

“One more thing,” Tilda called.

Block shot her an irritable look, but the renegade turned back around with his eyebrows raised.

“What is your name?”

One side of the man’s mouth twitched and there was a flash of his white teeth. Not a bad-looking fellow even apart from the stubble of beard and hair, still so short that they looked faintly gray in the morning light. His muddy eyes only did not suit him.

“Forgiveness, Milady, wherefore ever are my manners? I am called Dugan. Of Correnca, on Gweiyer. Used to be Legionnaire-Sergeant Dugan, but I expect we can dispense with that. And you would be?”

Matilda Lanai of Miilark pushed back her shoulders, though it still hurt a bit, and most likely gave her lips a little purse without really meaning to do so.

“My name,” she said, “is none of your business.”

And so on they went.

*

Part of Tilda wanted to throw her Guild cloak away, particularly when she got a whiff of it upon opening the saddlebag into which it had been unceremoniously crammed. But the garment was still the best she possessed by a league, sign of both her Guild status and with its inner lining of emerald green, of her affiliation with the proud House of Deskata.

She had also had to pay for it herself as she had left Miilark before her official graduation from the Guild. The daughter of two shopkeepers was not about to take a loss of six-and-twenty silvers.

Thus on the morning after the first full day of travel with Dugan the renegade legionnaire, Tilda Lanai held her nose as she peeled the wadded cloak from her baggage, along with a hefty brick of Beoan soap. She took both to the creek beside which the trio had camped after moving south-by-southwest all day.

Tilda was still sore in her back and shoulders though they no longer ached quite so bad, and late in the night she had gingerly checked the purple band of bruising under her tunic, making sure nothing was broken. Her intact ribs began to throb once more as she beat her cloak against a flat rock and then got to scrubbing on her knees, trying not to see the ichor under her hands, nor the red-tinged foam spiraling away on the lazy water. When she was nearly done, a neatly-folded packet of the Captain’s laundry landed on the bank next to her without fanfare. Tilda gave it an ugly look through a strand of hair that had worked loose from her braid, but not one that Block noticed as he settled on another nearby rock, crossing his short legs and mouthing a pipe he never smoked. Dugan appeared, frowning at the water, and fingering the soiled hem of his own dirty tunic.

“Do not even think about it.” Tilda said to the man. He blinked at her for a moment.

“I was not about to suggest you do mine, ” he said. “Just contemplating doing it myself, then wearing it wet the rest of the day. I have decided against such a course.”

“It has been three days and more since the battle,” Block said, paying no mind to the small talk. “We have seen none of the victorious Duke’s warders nor patrols, but they will be returning to their regular rounds at any time.”

The Captain gave the erstwhile legionnaire a long look.

“They will, no doubt, be on the lookout for any renegades not yet in custody.”

Dugan passed a hand over his close-cropped pate.

“I was contemplating that, as well.”

“Your bald head sticks out like a hammer-banged thumb,” Tilda said, scrubbing again at her cloak. “And I doubt the Captain’s extra pantaloons will fit you.”

She immediately regretted adding that last, for she knew Block was aware that she was carrying among her baggage a good bolt of fine blue cloth she had bartered for a while back on a lark. Tilda had a sudden dread that the Captain would order her to stitch the renegade some new pants. Fortunately, Dugan kept talking.

“Another day on this line and we’ll be near some scattered freeholds. Perhaps we could…barter for some clothing. And a hat.”

“Barter?” Block repeated, with a wry note that made Dugan frown.

“These saddlebags I’m lugging are Exlandic leather, stitched with gold, and the buckles are real silver. If you can’t get a set of peasant garb for them you’re not much of a Miilarkian, merchant or no.”

Block snorted. “Of course dealing a nobleman’s baggage won’t attract any attention. Why don’t you just offer your Legion sword for a wheel of cheese?”

The renegade tapped a sandaled foot. “You have a better idea?”

The dwarf tapped the pipe stem against his teeth. “One mitigation of the heavy burdens of command is the ability to delegate the small matters. Matilda.”

Tilda blew a strand of hair out of her face and looked over warily.

“When we next pass a peasant holding, you will handle this.”

Chapter Five

The Empire of the Code was not perfect, and the Codians were in main wise enough to recognize that it was not. This was not the only difference between the Empire and many of the other realms located on the continent which the Elves had long ago named Noroth.

In Ayzantium and Daul, two countries that had been locked in combat for three decades, in the Danorian lands on the ancient War River, or of course in any of the tumultuous Riven Kingdoms where warfare was endemic, the rapid approach of hooves to a country home brought one response. Doors were bolted, shutters were pulled in, and wary eyes would peek around humble curtains, if there were any. But in the Lands Under the Code, things were different.

Noon of the Twelfth Day of Eighth Month found the Chestinsibranik family of Orstaf where such an hour always did, seated around the luncheon table which today was set in the kitchen owing to the stern breeze outside. The patriarch, familiarly called Oti – “Father” – by everyone present sat at the head of the table in a sturdy wooden chair which his own father had made from poplar wood for Oti’s mother when she was first great with child, a long time ago now. Oti’s fur cap and cloth coat hung over the chair back, and his soiled sleeves were rolled up to the elbows of hard-muscled arms. His wife sat on his right with the baby in her lap, their eldest son and his fuzz of beard on her right. To Oti’s left the elder daughter sat between the younglings, a twinned boy and girl. The pair had to be kept apart to prevent any jostling or poking under the table during the prayers to Kantaf and Shanatar, with a kind word thrown in for the young Emperor in far-off Laketon.

After the prayer, as Mother was occupied with the baby, the hired man rose from the end of the table to serve. He spooned heaps of tuber mash and turkey gravy onto wedges of dark bread baked in the yard oven, already laid in the bottom of wooden bowls. Oti looked around at his flock, at the few but good pieces of metal cookware hanging from pegs on the white-washed daub walls, and out through the open doorway at the square of gray sky above his tidy, well-swept yard and the hillside field of even rows stretching beyond. He smiled within the brushed mass of his dark Orstavian beard.

Here in the Lands Under the Code the rapid tattoo of approaching hooves did not sour a father’s mood of contentment. That was the difference between this place, and too many others.

When the children heard it all looked to Oti, who let them dangle for a few long moments pretending to hear nothing himself. His wife rolled her eyes at him. He finally gave a nod. Chair legs scraped on the thrush-covered stone floor and the subsequent shoving and flailing ended in a tie as the twins reached the doorway at the same time.

“It’s a lady!” the daughter cried in delight, and the boy grumbled for he had been hoping for a Legion scout, or maybe even a knight. Oti and his wife exchanged shrugs, and the husband rose and set about replacing his coat and cap. His wife stood and cradled the baby in one arm while her free hand flitted about his shoulders and beard, flicking away a blade of grass, dabbing an old spot of gravy, smoothing his collar. She stood on her toes and gave him a peck on the nose, as the cheek had not been seen for decades.

All four children had gone out a few steps into the yard, and Oti stepped out among them in time to see a gaily attired rider swerve narrowly around the edge of his fresh-churned field with long black hair bouncing behind her, beaming a wide smile. The young woman wore outlandish dress; black cloth breeks for she did not ride sidesaddle, with an emerald green half-cloak buttoned from waist to throat. Her mass of raven hair was only as much as escaped from beneath a bushka, the traditional turban-like headdress of Orstaf. This lady’s was of a light blue cloth more suitable for a festival than for a windy day on the steppe.

As she neared, waving a gloved hand, Oti saw that she was quite pretty although heavily done-up with her face powdered pale and ruby-red lips that seemed glaring against her white teeth. She rode right into the yard through the open gate of the mud-brick wall and pulled up her prancing, speckled horse just before Oti felt a need to pull his children back toward the house. Still beaming, the woman swung easily out of the saddle but landed with a not quite ladylike grunt. She performed an adequate curtsey, and Oti hurried has cap back off of his head to return a bow.

“Good day, Goodman,” she bubbled, all flashing teeth and batting brown eyes. “Lovely day for riding, is it not?”

She spoke the plain and serviceable Codian tongue with the chirpy cadence of the wellborn, and as it was Oti’s second language after Orstavian he squinted as he tried to keep up with the rapid stream rippling with fluttery hand gestures.

“I am the Lady Haversmythe of Lothdowne, en route to visit relations out past the Ortel Spur, although presently guesting with your most gracious Lord Baron who this morn was good enough to arrange for horse-borne tour of his demesnes for my traveling party. Well, at the conclusion of said tour and after a delightful mid-day sup, we sought further amusement via a most spirited game of chase, during the course of which – would you believe it? – I proved perhaps only too proficient at the contest and so find myself not only having lost my pseudo pursuers, but myself as well, rather altogether!”

She beamed even wider, eyes twinkling. She seemed to be expecting something in return, though Oti was at a loss as to what it could be.

“You need to know the way back to the baron’s village, Milady?” Oti’s wife spoke from the doorway after realizing her husband was stuck.

“Quite.”

Oti cleared his throat and explained. Past two ridges to the west, the wide dug-out road leading due north, only an hour or so on horseback. The lady bobbed her head.

“Oh, many thanks. That sounds simple enough, even for silly old me!”

She bent from the waist so her face was nearly level with that of Oti’s young daughter, still staring wide-eyed at the stranger. The woman held up a coin, a shiny silver swan, and offered it to the girl.

“My lady, there is no need!” Oti began, but the woman shushed him.

“No, no, I quite insist. There is no telling how much consternation you have spared me, not to say embarrassment should the baron’s men have to ride all over hill and dale searching for their wayward guest! Can you imagine? Here you are, my pretty little Miss. Would you be so good as to take this for your father?”

Oti’s daughter had no trouble doing so. In fact, the coin immediately disappeared into her own pocket.

The woman blinked and grinned at the girl before straightening to leave, but paused and gave a wistful sigh as she looked at the fur cap in Oti’s hands. She made a clucking sound.

“My lady?”

“Oh, I do so wish I had brought a bit more coin, for I should so love to have a bit of your rustic garb to take back with me to the Beoshore!”

*

Tilda knelt on the damp bank of a stream, not the same one where she had done wash yesterday but for all other purposes identical. She scrubbed her face free of the powder and rouge more typical of the distant Tullish side of Lake Beo, spat into the water, then sat back on her haunches and went about the deft and automatic motions of returning her hair to its long, intricate braid. The Captain was just up the stream, mounted and idly holding the reins of both horses as they drank. Soon enough the man Dugan emerged from behind an elderberry bush. He was outfitted now in baggy woolen trousers with his sandals and knee-high leggings poking out from underneath frayed cuffs, and a long Orstavian jerkin of strong brown cloth with cord laces from mid chest to throat. Finally, a threadbare and almost shapeless hat of unidentifiable gray-and-white fur, with flaps hanging over the ears, perched on his head. He had his old clothes and the blanket he’d been wearing bundled in his hands, and as Tilda could not see his sword she assumed he had shifted it to his back, The blade was now concealed beneath the thigh-length jerkin.

“What do you think?” he asked. “Do I pass for an Orstavian herdsman?”

“About as much as Matilda does for a noblewoman,” Block grumbled. “Now let us away. We have burned enough daylight doing your shopping.”

We? Tilda thought, but of course did not say out loud. She patted her face dry and hurriedly went about replacing the mare’s baggage which she had removed for their sprightly ride. Expecting no help, much less thanks, she was surprised as Dugan knelt to take up and tie the hanging laces across the horse’s belly, while Tilda arranged the bags behind the saddle. As Block began to canter back toward the west, Dugan stood up across the mare from Tilda and gave her a nod.

“My thanks for your trouble, Miss.”

Tilda blinked at him. His face was set seriously, no jibing at the moment, and even with the homely fur cap on his head it was the first time in a while that he had looked quite so handsome.

“No trouble…and my name is Tilda.”

Dugan’s eyes narrowed. “Your Cap’n called you Matilda.”

“Yes, but…”

A small smirk had begun to play at one side of Dugan’s mouth and Tilda sighed inwardly, marking her misstep.

“…but my friends call me Tilda.”

He nodded, still with his half a grin, and offered Tilda a hand for a pull up into her saddle. She did not accept it but swung up herself despite the fact that it still made her ribs hurt.

*

Over the next few days Dugan took paths veering more southerly than west. As the Girding Mountains drew nearer on the horizon the land rose and the grass of the steppe grew shorter, hardly reaching the man’s knees as he set a brisk pace afoot that the horses followed comfortably. After six days of traveling with the renegade, a full week after the battle from which he had escaped, Tilda realized that this was now the Fifteenth and middle day of Eight Month, and it gave her a start. When she had left the Islands three months ago, “next year” had seemed an awful long time away. But now there were only three and a half months remaining in 1395, and the Miilarkians were still very far from home. If they did not return to the Islands before the New Year’s Assembly of House Lords, the Captain’s mission would have failed. That suddenly did not seem like so long a time distant.

The Fifteenth was also the day that the three travelers reached the river, or rather it was the day that the river came out onto the steppe to reach them. Though it is several hundred miles from where the Winding rises in the marshes around La Trabon until its waters join those of the Runne to the west and south, the course of the river is easily thrice its length. It snakes wildly among the foothills of the Girdings, and in some places stretches great bowing bends out for many miles onto the steppe. The travelers met one such curve at its elbow, for there the Winding flowed almost like a moat enclosing a rocky spur of high ground. A long series of ridges, hills, and plateaus together pointed like a finger due north onto the steppe, perpendicular to the main line of the mountains.

They followed the jag of the river upstream for another day and a half, staying on the east bank though it would not have been much trouble to cross. The channel of the river was scoured-out very wide and it surely would have run booming in the spring with snowmelt pouring down from the mountains. In autumn however there was only a sluggish stream in the middle of the channel, sky-gray water where honking ducks circled and sleek beavers eyed the passersby from their wooden forts. Across the river the lower ground among the hills and ridges was heavily wooded, and more than once small clusters of rooftops and puffing chimneys were sighted. The buildings were all of stone, with tall, peaked roofs and long eaves.

The trio could have crossed at a hundred paces but Dugan said it was a bad idea. He said all the high ground and the villages enclosed by the long bend of the Winding were the domains of the Codian Baron Mediwether de Trellane. The Trellane family had ruled here since long before the Code came to Orstaf. They were the descendants of nobles from Daul, the kingdom beyond the mountains, which had held sway over much of southern Orstaf and the course of the Winding until a century ago. The Trellanes had accepted the Code and thus become Codian nobles, but Dugan said they still ran their barony as they saw fit, and it was widely known that they did not take kindly to “strangers” from the rest of the Empire wandering their lands.

Indeed, the trio more than once saw watch towers on the hills across the river, or had their passage marked by parties of armored horsemen on the west bank.

The party camped one night beside the river, and there was little talking among them as Tilda and Dugan had wordlessly divided the regular evening chores several nights back. The renegade saw to the horses while Tilda started a fire to warm the thinning rations for dinner, and Captain Block did little if anything. The dwarf had become more scowling and taciturn than ever since Dugan had joined them, and he shut down any conversation over the fire with an icy glare.

Tilda’s aches and bruises had receded to the point where she felt up to doing her regular Guild calisthenics upon arising at dawn, which Dugan watched while pretending to do other things. Tilda ignored him and finished her exercises, assuring herself that she performed them only because they warmed her up on the increasingly cold mornings.

After another half-day of travel the Girding Mountains were all the more imposing, forming a gray-and-green wall of jagged peaks across the southern horizon, topped by a permanent white snowline. The true slopes of the mountains were still at least a day away, but a jumble of piney foothills spread out before them. The three travelers reached the spot where the Winding emerged from the hills and began its long northern jag around the Trellanes’ narrow barony, and the Miilarkians stopped their horses to survey the scene. Tilda was surprised to find that while the ocean remained hundreds and hundreds of miles away, the place reminded her a bit of home.

Her parents’ shop on Chrysanthemum Quay sat just above working docks, and most every morning of Tilda’s first twenty years of life had begun with the sounds of stevedores floating up to her second-story window. Men laughing and joking, mocking old friends or singing a dockside ditty. Tilda had learned a number of words from those songs which it had not, strictly speaking, been proper for a young girl to know. They were words she would never repeat with her mother in earshot, but they always made her father giggle.

Here on the bend of the Winding was a different kind of port, but one that was still familiar. There were no deep ocean cutters nor many-masted tall ships of the kind to be seen in Miilark of course, for on the Winding cargoes were carried on shallow-draft barges. Long docks extended from a stone quay on the Trellanes’ side of the bend, just short of a wide, wooden bridge with stout arches built on stone piles in the stream. Two guards stood on the near end of the bridge, while across at the docks several river craft were moored. Brawny men crawled about the boats as they shifted bulk goods with the aid of rope-and-tackle cranes that looked vaguely like gallows. Various cargoes were moved both from the barges to waiting wagons, and back the other way. A good stone road stretched west from the quay past a few stone and timber buildings, one a barracks with an orange and yellow flag hanging limp on a tall pole in the front yard. Only a few miles further down the road Tilda could see the gray shape of what looked to be a sizable town.

The Miilarkians looked over the scene from their horses, while Dugan stood between them.

“That is Trellaneville,” he said, pointing at the town. “The portage road hits the river again just a couple miles further on, cutting across the whole long bend. Saves days moving upstream or down, even while the river is high enough to float the whole way.”

“I am guessing the Trellanes charge to use the portage?” Tilda asked. Dugan smirked.

“Of course. It’s a turnpike. The baron sees coin on everything moving through, either upstream to La Trabon or down to the Runne, Lake Beo, and the rest of the Empire. He kicks some money up to his Earl, thence to the Duke, thence to the Emperor, and so nobody bothers the Trellanes on their own land.”

“Is this where the Lepokahan has come?” Captain Block growled, and Dugan shrugged.

“I doubt it.”

Tilda and the dwarf both looked down at the renegade, who met their glances without concern.

“I said I know where the boys are going, but not exactly what route they are taking there. They left when they did for a reason. With Duke Gratchik calling all his men and the two closest Legions together to put a beating on Nyham, the countryside emptied out. There are a few different mountain passes they could have used to get to Daul.”

“They are going to Daul?” Tilda asked, and the Captain looked over at her from his pony as if she were hopelessly dense.

“You thought renegade legionnaires would stay in the Empire?”

“I did not really think about it,” she said.

“You may want to start thinking at some point, girl.”

Tilda lowered her eyes from Block’s cold glare, and saw Dugan give her a brief look of sympathy before he made it go away.

“Look, the point is, it is too late for us to try and use a regular pass. By now the Legions stationed there will know there were renegades from the 34 ^ with Baron Nyham. They will be on the lookout, specifically, for men exactly like me, trying to get out from Under the Code. Get the picture?”

“We are not both stupid,” Block said, and Tilda pressed her teeth together so hard that it made her jaw hurt.

Dugan looked at the dwarf sourly, and folded his arms. “You know what?” he said. “I was going to explain things for you, but as you are such a clever little man I am sure you will figure it all out along the way.”

With that the renegade legionnaire turned and strode off at his long stride for the near end of the bridge over the river, where the two uniformed soldiers were waiting in chain mail and tall, conical helmets. The Miilarkians looked with some surprise after Dugan before flicking their reins. The two horses moved forward and followed behind the renegade from habit.

The guards wore cloth tabards over their armor, orange with yellow griffin standards emblazoned proudly on the chests. The design matched what must have been the Trellane family banner on the barracks flag beyond the bridge. Both men had long swords on their hips and their shields were of normal footman’s size rather than the tall tower shields of the Legions. Each held a spear which they crossed as Dugan approached. He halted and gave a short bow while the Miilarkians reined up behind him.

“Greetings, travelers,” one of the guards said in Codian, though his accent was not typical of the rest of Orstaf. “Please state your reason for seeking entry to the domains of the Baron Trellane.”

Dugan threw an arm back at the dwarf, and started speaking with a thick Orstavian accent that better matched his present appearance.

“Behold, tsers, the Captain known as Block, of the Miilarkian Islands,” Dugan boomed like a herald. “Esteemed servitor of the mighty Trade House of the Deskatas. This Captain has private words for the ears only of your baron, and must speak in person to his Lordship right away.”

Chapter Six

South of the Trellane barony in Imperial Orstaf, and beyond the southern peaks of the Great Girding Mountains lie the realms of Old Daul, the Kingdom of the River Nan.

From north to south along the western border of Daul with the grim and tangled wilderness known as the Vod Wilds, lie the highland province of Heftiga, the fertile forest valleys of ancient Chengdea, and finally the sultry delta of Nanshea. It is there that the great river empties into the Noroth Channel separating the continent from the hard-scrabble coast of Kandala to the south. There on the Nan’s open mouth is the city the Daulmen have long called Larbonne, though its foundations date from a time long before Daul, or the Empire of the Code, or any other country had its name on a map. Once upon a time that city was Ribin, one of the great Channel ports of the ancient Ettaceans, the very first among the Norothian races of Men to make of themselves a nation.

The Ettaceans were long gone of course, and by the look of things in the city of Larbonne, the Dauls might not be long in following their forebears beyond the veil of history.

The war between Daul and Ayzantium, the River Kingdom’s less-than-neighborly neighbor to the southeast had lasted for nearly three decades, raging or simmering from season to season and year to year. What had been constant was the slow grinding down of Daulic power, from the loss of her knightly host on the Icheroon to the siege and fall of Roseille, Larbonne’s sister port to the east. That had been followed by the Zantish occupation of the Chirabis peninsula between the two ports.

Now in the twenty-eighth year of the war, the Ayzants had come to the last sliver of Daul’s coastline, and invested her last great port. Through spring and summer they had seized the docks and much of the lower city, trapping the remnant of the Daulic garrison in the sprawling castle complex atop three hills. There, towers and curtain walls of beige sandstone rose atop older Ettacean works of gray granite that had stood witness to a multitude of battles, defenses, and occasional massacres, ever since men first decided that this was a good place to live, and other men thought they were right.

Yet all was not well among the invaders either. Governance in Ayzantium rested on a tripartite divide of Royalist Kingsmen, Dragon Cultists, and the Fire Priests of Red Ayon, and the army was likewise a tenuous merger of differing interests and authorities. Further, three decades of war and foreign occupation had dissipated the blood of Ayzantium’s sons, and so a large portion of the host besieging Larbonne was not Zantish at all, but were rather mercenaries drawn in most part from the petty and squabbling Riven Kingdoms. One such unit, chartered from Kanalborg, was an outfit called Rierden’s Axes. It had a paper strength of almost a regiment, though after six months in Larbonne it surely fielded less men than that. Colonel Rierden had not been reporting his losses to his Ayzant masters, in the hope that at the conclusion of the campaign he and his survivors would be overpaid.

Such subterfuge was possible as the Axes had been broken up and parceled out in platoons for months, scattered around gaps in the siege lines in small groups, some of which had not seen an officer of their own above Leftenant rank in weeks. One such band had found itself stationed for the last ten days near the far northern end of the lines, where the Ayzants’ slapdash fortifications anchored on the river before wrapping east around the land-side of the city to reach the water again at the scorched remains of the dockyards to the south. On a flat-topped ridge separated by a sharp and deep ravine from the taller central hills where the defenders hunkered in their beige stone works stood the shell of an old Daulic manor house, into which an Ayzant artillery unit had been trying to emplace a battery for a week. As recently as a season ago the manor had been surrounded by gardens and rows of ornamental spruce that were all gone now, leaving the ground torn and gaping, Such trunks and limbs as were not hauled off by the Ayzants for fuel now formed a spiky log-and-abatis barricade atop the edge of the ravine, facing the castle walls high above.

A squad of sixteen Axes held the salient where the barricade met an old stone wall that ran off in the wrong direction to be of any use to the besiegers. Some Ayzant officer had ordered them not to tear down the wall and shift the stones, though no one knew why. Camp for the axmen was a cluster of tent-halves and lean-tos erected in the hollowed-out bowl where once a surely magnificent tree had grown. The craterous hole was deep and close enough behind the barricade that the occasional plunging arrow or bolt from the Dauls across the way had only killed one man and wounded two over the last ten days. By way of return fire, Rierden’s Axes had shouted a great deal of profanity in Kanalborg Common.

Shortly after dawn on the Seventeenth Day of Eighth Month, narrow sunlight plunged the ravine into shadow even as it made the Daulic wall across and above shine with a warm golden hue. A man with dirt deep under his fingernails and in his bushy black hair crawled out from under a torn tent-half in the bottom of the hole, looking like a sleepy mole groping out of its burrow. He negotiated the small pile of equipment before the shelter, consisting of ring-mail armor with the links sown onto a long leather jerkin crusted with old sweat, a helmet of Ayzant origins with the spike broken off, hobnail boots, a crossbow with a worn stock, and of course a battleaxe. The man stood up slowly to grunt and stretch in a patched, colorless tunic with threadbare sleeves, and faded-blue cloth trousers that threatened to slide to his knees as his suspenders were undone beneath the tunic. He yawned deeply, and probably would have belched if he’d had anything significant to eat or drink lately.

“Axman Zebulon Baj Nif,” said a voice from nearby. “Your appearance is a credit to the military professionalism of Rierden’s glorious Axes. As, I am sure, is your odor.”

Zeb grinned and scratched the scraggly beard on his chin, blinking in the meager sunlight until finding his Leftenant sitting with two of the other boys around a cold fire pit, above which was nevertheless suspended a dented iron coffee pot. They lit no fires at night, and had not seen any coffee in a week at least. Yet the pot still waited hopefully, hanging from a taut rope between two Daulic swords driven into the rocky ground.

“Is there any coffee?” Zeb asked, which someone asked every morning. He was answered as always with groans and curses. The men all spoke Kanalborg Common as that city was the theoretical home of the unit, though their native tongues numbered nearly as many as all the various principalities, theocracies, colonies, and simple warlord strongholds lumped together as The Riven Kingdoms. Zebulon Baj Nif, for one, was a native of the old Danorian colony of Wakminau. Kanalborg Common was something like his fourth or fifth language, though after two years with the Axes he could rend the air with its curse words like a native.

“Permission to unleash a python, my Leftenant?” Zeb asked, scratching now at his groin.

“Denied, due to lack of same,” the blonde Leftenant said dryly. “But you may walk your garter snake up to the top of the pit as you like. And piss out, you Minauan savage.”

“Toward the enemy, to make my Colonel proud.” Zeb saluted before working his suspenders into place and turning to put his boots on.

“You suppose Colonel Rierden’s getting any coffee up at headquarters?” one of the men sitting by the Leftenant asked. His officer looked at him sourly.

“Soldier, is this your very first day in the army?”

Zeb chuckled, and made his way up the side of the great hole sheltering the small camp. Rough steps had been kicked in the dirt wall, but he was still obliged to grab the occasional remnant of tree root poking out of the side to get to the top. Once there, he took a moment to relish a deep breath, freed for a moment by a breeze from the tang of men who had been sleeping in mud for weeks.

The view from the ridge had surely been lovely this time last year, but the siege had left Larbonne splayed like a beaten animal. Cobble-stone streets that had been swept daily once upon a time were now choked with refuse. The faces of homes and shops gaped like toothless mouths with the windows and doors bashed in, and only torn earth remained where trees and hedges had once been tended. A pall of smoke hung over the town this dawn, not just from a multitude of cooking fires and kitchen wagons but from several great conflagrations spread around the place. They were kept burning day and night by the Ayzant Fire Priests in reverence to their incendiary god. From the ridge top, Zeb could see at least five great columns of roiling black smoke, all feeding the pall that flecked the riverside with dark ashes like falling snow.

Stepping up onto the barricade of tree trunks and sharpened branches that lay along the ravine’s rim, Zeb wondered how long it would be before somebody returned to haul all of this wood away to feed hungry Ayon as well, and what exactly the men were supposed to do for shelter after that. With the height of the Daulic citadel across the ravine, only the combination of barricade and camps-in-holes shielded the men stationed here to any extent from long, arcing bowshots. Given the distance an archer could scarcely draw a bead on any one man, but they had not needed to do so when the besiegers had been packed close together. Looking to his left Zeb noted that the barricade extending all the way to the manor house was still empty. There had been a battalion of Ayzant infantry posted along there until a week’s worth of losing as many as a dozen men a day to sniping had convinced their absentee commanders to draw them off to the other side of the ridge. This left no one but the Axes on post, but it was not as though the Dauls were about to clamber down their walls, slide down the far side of the ravine, climb back up this one, and actually attack here.

Such were Zeb’s thoughts as he stepped to the end of a log and started to undo the drawstring of his trousers, looking at the top of the wall across the way with no particular concern. He heard a hiss below his perch and thought – snake? – with more appetite than worry, and leaned out to look down into the blue eyes of a man with a face brown with mud, a tight leather skullcap on his head. He was pointing a gun up at Zeb.

It was a matchlock. The pan flashed and Zeb had just started to throw his arms forward when the charge flared. There was a flash, a bang, and a lead ball the size of a walnut tore into Zeb’s right elbow, passing out the other side.

Bone splintered and blood spattered Zeb in the face but there was a brief moment before it hurt. Stumbling back off the barricade he managed to bawl “Handgunners!” before his heel caught a branch and he went over backwards, left arm wind-milling and right flopping at an unnatural angle. He crashed to his back and as his ruined elbow banged the ground a rushing sound filled Zeb’s ears as though he had a seashell up to each. The blue sky above shimmered in his sight like a blanket strung up to have the dust beaten out of it.

Zeb screamed in no language and cursed in three or four.

It was a point of more chagrin than pride to Zebulon Baj Nif (“Warchild” in his native tongue), that he had received many, many wounds on as many battlefields over his martial career. This was not Zeb’s first encounter with pain so brutal and absolute that his body wanted to eschew consciousness rather than deal with it. But now, as then, a part of Zeb knew that escape from the moment would likely be fatal. Clenching his teeth against more screams, he centered himself until the sky stopped shimmering, drew in and released a long breath that at least took the roaring in his ears away with it, if not the fire in his arm.

He could hear again. Shouts from the Axes in the hole and grunting Daulmen dragging themselves up and over the barricade. Then he saw one, maybe the fellow who had shot him but probably not, as this particular mud-spattered figure in leather jerkin and breeches held a still-charged handgun. It was a crude device, no more than a short pipe on a wooden stock, with a pan requiring the shooter to touch it with a smoldering fuse rather than a mechanical lock with a match and trigger. Strange the detail Zeb noted at present, as the shooter pointed the weapon at him. But only for a moment. The half-dressed man turning much whiter than his dirty undershirt in an expanding pool of his own blood did not look like a threat. The shooter passed by Zeb to level his weapon at someone else down in the hole.

Before the powder in the pan hissed Zeb drew up one leg and kicked the fellow in the knee, or at least pushed against it with the bottom of his foot. It was enough and the man staggered as his gun discharged in a welter of white smoke, the ball passing harmlessly sideways. The fellow growled, baring teeth starkly white against the mud coating his face for concealment in the night. He dropped the gun and pulled a long dirk from his belt. Zeb had the man’s full attention now, and he uttered the first and likely last Daulic phrase that came to mind.

“ Biera ephso vus tatte. Ven otre.”

Beer, if you have it. Wine otherwise.

The fellow raised an eyebrow, but also his blade. Zeb closed his eyes and heard a piercing impact, though he felt nothing. He opened one eye and saw the Daulman stumbling backwards with a crossbow bolt buried in his forehead. The man toppled off the barricade and down into the ravine.

The Axes were there, boiling angrily out of the hole to fall on the Dauls with shouts and hacks. Handguns were fired but there was no time to reload, and dirks fared poorly against the double-headed battleaxes favored by Rierden’s men. There was scuffle and clash during which Zeb laid prostrate and bled, managing to do no more then slowly move his left arm across his chest to grip his right hard above the ruined elbow. Even the slight motion of his arm against the ground sent a new wave of blaring pain over him, swimming the sky and making air hiss out between his teeth like a kettle.

After moments that seemed much longer, Zeb’s leftenant appeared over him. He shouted for a tourniquet, then knelt and clamped both hands around Zeb’s arm.

“It could be worse,” the Leftenant said. Zeb looked at him with the one eye he still had open.

“How do you figure, sir?”

“Well…they could have shot me.”

An Axman, Mollka by name, appeared with a torn strip of tent cloth and set about tying it tight around Zeb’s upper arm just under the shoulder. Despite the Leftenant holding the arm as steady as he could, the grinding of pulverized bone elicited a choking groan and Zeb’s heels scraped against the ground.

“Molly,” Zeb said. “After they cut my arm off, I am going to beat you with it. Soundly, sir.”

Mollka grinned as he worked. “I doubt it not, laddy.”

“Five!” another Axman shouted from nearby. “Not but five of them! What by the Ennead was the point of that?”

“Only five stayed and fought,” the Leftenant said. “Another half-dozen ran off toward the manor.” He exchanged a nod with Mollka, gently released Zeb’s arm and patted his left shoulder. The Leftenant stood up and along with the men looked in the direction of the manor house. Zeb found that by turning his head sideways and looking along the ground between their legs he could just see the place himself.

The once grand stone house of some Larbonnese noble had suffered under the siege almost as much as had the surrounding yard. Glass and shutters were gone but the windows had been covered with canvas to obscure what was being done under the gabled roof from the view of the Daulic works across the ravine. That had been obvious anyway, from the noise. Over the last week since the arrival of an Ayzant artillery battalion on the ridge top, the brawny men had been tearing out interior walls and floors, tossing mortar and refuse out to turn the whole building into a hollow shell. Then three days ago, after dark and with no torchlight, straining mule teams had arrived bearing on two great wagons two long, dark shapes under sailcloth, which were in turn muscled within the house through holes bashed in the back wall. Night before last, the sweating artillerymen had borne heavy chests up the ridge and inside, and finally last night they had come rolling barrel after barrel.

Now with at least a half-dozen Daulmen already inside the building, a stream of swarthy artillerymen could be seen fleeing out the back and away with all haste, red cloth trousers flashing.

“They’re going to fire the powder kegs,” someone said, and the Leftenant sighed.

“This is going to be very loud.”

“Does anyone feel up to carrying me down into the hole?” Zeb asked.

Across the distance came the dull bang of a handgun and the men all flinched, but it was followed only by shouting and the clash of arms, echoing from the hollowed-out cavern of the manor. There was a clear, pained scream.

“The redlegs have all cleared out,” someone said. “Who is it at that?”

“Maybe the Daulies are fighting over who gets to light the fuse.”

Men fingered their axes and crossbows, but no one felt like rushing toward a building that might ignite explosively at any instant. It seemed to have gone quiet over there anyway. A minute passed that seemed much longer.

“Who’s this, then?” someone said.

The men watched a figure exit the manor and approach but from his position Zeb could not see who came, and he was becoming too lightheaded to ask. The voices of his companions were making little sense to him.

“Is that a Destroyer?”

“No, they wear black plate with spikes.”

“That is part of a helmet, right? Not your man’s face?”

“What’s with the birds?”

“Good gods, is that a woman behind him?”

“That’s a Farthest Westerner, else I’m an elf.”

The Leftenant stepped to the front of the band, the others moving aside for him. Zeb saw the subject of speculation arrive, and was himself perplexed.

In addition to too many wounds and more than enough battle, Zeb had seen a great deal of armor over his military career. Leather cuirbolli, plate and chain, banded and splint. Scale and studded. Spiked and hobnailed and bronzed. But he had never seen anything quite like that adorning the man who stepped up to face the Leftenant.

It was beautiful, in its way, and altogether more complicated than seemed strictly necessary. It was composed of angular pieces, light blue to a dark gray and laced together with reddish cord, oversized at the joints to turn aside any thrusting or cutting blade. It covered the fellow almost from head to toe. Decorating the chest, arms, and legs were single rows of stylized images of white birds, little herons or cranes with wings that seemed to flutter as the man strode forward. At his waist were two sheathed swords, black pommels with matching diamond-pattern designs, one sword much longer than the other. On his head was a great helm with long neck guards extending around a banded steel dome, framing a leather half-mask of grinning lips and a pronounced, hooked nose, above which the man’s own dark eyes were set deeply beneath his brow, and at a slight tilt. They flashed about at the Axmen before settling on the Leftenant in their fore. The stranger stopped and undid the cords at one side of his half-mask, dropping it to hang free from his helmet and revealing a full face of olive complexion and indeterminate age, with a hard line of mouth framed by a long, wispy black mustache. He spoke with a thick accent.

“Zay-bu-ron Baj-an-if.”

Zeb would have winced had he not been doing so already. A few of his fellows glanced at him, but at least none of them actually turned around and pointed.

“Pardon me?” the Leftenant asked.

Everyone’s attention was on the swordsman, though the fellow was not alone. Two more people had followed him from the manor and now reached the cluster of men, one a frowning Ayzant in the silver armor of a Kingsman and the spiked helmet of a sergeant, carrying a large mace. The other now drew many stares from the Axmen who had been staring only at each other for weeks.

She was a woman and pretty, though she could have been far more so. She was as Far Western as the swordsman with fine narrow features and eyes at a graceful tilt under thin, jet black brows. But she was garbed rather rudely in a battered, shapeless brown coat from throat to thighs, with patches on the elbows matching those on the knees of worn cloth leggings. She wore gray woolen socks and strapped sandals with wooden soles that clopped even on the bare ground. Finally her hair was just a fright, a tangled mass of inky black, unkempt and unacquainted with a brush.

The swordsman said something in a foreign tongue to her, barked a command really, and she spoke in halting Codian. That language was close enough to Kanalborg Common to be understood by the Axemen.

“Is one of you men called as Zebulon Baj Nif?”

No one, bless their hearts, said anything. Neither did they glance again at Zeb, who for his part continued to bleed quietly.

The Ayzant sergeant started bellowing, in Zantish naturally, which of the group Zeb alone understood as he knew the related Ghendalese dialect. His Leftenant did not turn around to ask Zeb for a translation, but with a sigh Zeb started speaking anyway, from habit.

“He says they have it from Colonel Rierden himself that this is the post of the platoon of Leftenant Kagsfold, under whom is ordered the soldier Zebulon Warchild, who himself has knowledge of both the Zantish and Codian tongues.”

Zeb blinked.

“So, I’ve pretty much just given myself away then, haven’t I?”

Indeed, the woman frowned at him and stepped forward. Zeb liked to think his fellows might have moved to obstruct either the swordsman or the sergeant, but they politely if uncertainly moved aside for the woman. She knelt and looked closely at Zeb’s arm. Her face and neck could have stood a washing, Zeb noticed, though of course so could his.

“You are wounded.” she said.

“That is what they tell me. I am trying not to look at it.”

“It is very bad.”

“Yes. Thanks.”

The woman spoke over her shoulder and the swordsman snapped an answer. The Westerners’ language between themselves was a rush of short vowels, similar in sound to what Zeb had heard a time or two from an excitable half-Zokuan bartender he knew in Bowgan, the only Far Westerner he had ever met. Zoku, the Celestial Empire of Cho Lung, and the islands of Ashinan were the three fabled realms located far, far to the west of Noroth and Kandala, beyond even the Miilark Islands and all the way across the vastness of what was accurately known as the Interminable Ocean.

“Lie still,” the woman said.

“Well, if you insist…” Zeb began, but stopped with a sharp intake of breath as the woman laid one cool hand on his forehead, and jammed the fingers of the other into the shredded remains of his right elbow.

The seashell roar returned, the rising sun blazed and washed out the sky, and a wall of pain allowed not even a peep through it. But it was only for an instant, and then Zeb felt as if all his remaining blood was draining out of his body and sinking into the ground. The pain went with it, but so did his awareness. He felt himself sliding into a void.

“Are you…are you a priestess?” he managed. The last thing Zeb could see, and that but dimly, were the woman’s two narrowed eyes. He heard her voice in the darkness.

“No.”

*

Amatesu had to tug her fingers free as the wounds closed. The man Zebulon Baj Nif’s clear blue eyes rolled to white and his tense body went slack. With him well and truly out, Amatesu took a hold of his right wrist and lifted the arm, bent his elbow, and moved it side-to-side. The joint moved smoothly without grinding, and Amatesu felt a moment of satisfaction before reminding herself that this was the will of the spirits and the gods, not her own. The strength for the healing had in main been Baj Nif’s own, though that had not really been necessary. Amatesu could have drawn power from the land and the wind and the sun, but this way the man would likely be unconscious for several days. That should make things to some degree easier.

Not a bad piece of work, all the same.

The other mercenaries made various murmurs to see their companion’s arm healed, and as Amatesu stood and looked around at them their faces were reverential. Their officer, a thin yellow-haired man, took a step closer.

“Ah…thanks for that, your Holiness.”

Amatesu did not quite get the last word, as the dialect spoken by these men was a bit more stilted and formal than the simple Codian she knew. She got the gist, and nodded in return.

“This is the only of you men who speaks Zantanese?” she asked. At her feet, Baj Nif’s mouth hung open and his chest rose and fell steadily. The officer nodded.

“Zantish, yes, but again thanking you for your services, Ma’am…I don’t think that ol’ Zeb is going to be up to any translating for a while. You are of course welcome to wait…”

“No, we must take him with us.” Amatesu looked toward the Ayzantine sergeant who had led them up here and was now lurking behind Uriako Shikashe. The ronin samurai stood with his arms crossed in their ornate kote sleeves, eyeing the mercenaries. The sergeant had apparently decided his own part in this discussion was over, and was now determined to go overlooked.

“Pardon me,” the blonde officer said. “Not to deny your abilities as a healer, but at the moment Axman Baj Nif does not look up to going, or being taken, much of anywhere. Further, this whole platoon is under orders to maintain our post, as a body.”

Amatesu lowered her eyes and bowed to the officer.

“My apology, sir, but we have the word of your Colonel from himself. We have need of the Zebulon Baj Nif’s…mouth, and so he has been…ordered new.”

She must not have said that quite right, for there were some bemused looks exchanged among the mercenaries. Their murmuring stopped as Uriako-sama spoke. His lordship had a voice which always drew full attention, even though Amatesu was the only one present who understood his words.

“What is this delay?” the samurai asked in their native Ashinese. Amatesu answered in the same language.

“These men do not wish their companion to be taken from here.”

Uriako-sama’s o-yori armor creaked as he looked slowly left and right.

“Of course not, these are soldiers. They will not let one of their own be taken away by strangers.”

Amatesu frowned. “But they are only mercenaries.”

Uriako-sama flicked a sour look at Amatesu, and she lowered her eyes to the ground again.

“Forgiveness, my lord, but their commander sold us this man without scruple.”

Uriako-sama snorted. “I speak not of officers driving men for pay, but of soldiers in the field. They live and fight and die together, and together they will stay.”

Only a few minutes ago in the broken manor house with its false-log cannons, Uriako Shikashe had dispatched a half-dozen Daulmen to the hereafter. He did not seem to judge the dozen men standing around at their ease now as much more of an impediment. With an unvoiced sigh, Amatesu turned to the yellow-headed officer.

“My apology, sir. I should explain more all. The man-axe Baj Nif will be asleep this day, but should be fine by the night. We take him to the headquarters, where there are books in the Codian words that the Ayzants must know. He will have time to be clean and well-fed, and in one day or two, or three, he will be finished and brought back to here.”

“I should have learned that Ayzant talk,” one of the other men muttered. Their officer however was frowning.

“Ma’am, this platoon might not even be in these works three days from now. As their Leftenant, I can in no case permit them to be detailed without a direct order from a regimental officer.”

Amatesu took a humble step forward, though instead of further lowering her gaze, which would have been the done thing at home, she met the man’s eyes with her own. She had learned that was more effective on this side of the Interminable Ocean.

“Please, Left-tenant sir. I understand you, but I have orders of my own. I do promise to you that I myself, in four or five days, a few more at longest, will find where you are and myself bring Zebulon Baj Nif back to that place. This I do promise, by my Holiness.”

The officer said nothing for a moment, but another of his men interjected. “Well if she won’t have me, let her take the oaf.” Others chuckled, and the officer finally nodded.

“I thank you, Left-tenant-san. Is there…does Zebulon Baj Nif have equipments?”

The officer waved at one of his men, who hopped back into the gaping hollow and soon returned with a jerkin of poor armor wrapped around a pack and a crossbow, all tied in a bundle to the haft of a long, double-bladed axe. A few others fetched water and wiped the blood from Baj Nif’s arm, expressing wonder to find only the faintest scarring, seemingly years old, from a wound that had been fresh minutes before.

The man with the equipment offered it to Uriako-sama, who did not uncross his arms nor otherwise acknowledge the fellow. The Ayzant sergeant finally took the gear, muttering to himself.

“I should detail a party to carry Zeb for you,” the officer said. “He is not the lightest log in the bundle.”

“No thank you. We can manage,” Amatesu said. She knelt, hoisted the unconscious man up to a seat and drew his arms forward, twisted the back of her neck to his belly and with a good deal of tottering regained her feet. Zebulon Baj Nif murmured dreamily as Amatesu hooked an arm around his neck and the other around one leg. Most of his fellows only stared agape, but a few bit their knuckles and looked as though they might collapse, laughing.

“I will see you again,” Amatesu said to the officer. Uriako-sama had already turned to march away, and Amatesu hobbled a few steps after him before finding a stride she thought she would be able to manage all the way back down to the docks, though it was going to be a travail. The Ayzant sergeant brought up the rear, still griping under his breath. Behind them, the mercenaries began jeering, blowing kisses and catcalls in their wake.

“What did you say to them?” Uriako-sama asked as they approached the rear side of the ridge.

“Nothing but lies,” Amatesu huffed.

Chapter Seven

It was hours before anything was explained to Tilda.

She and Captain Block had only stared as Dugan announced the dwarf’s identity to the Trellane guards at the bridge, who in turn had looked deeply befuddled. It was not until the Captain drew back his hood and let his braid hang forward over his shoulder that the guards whispered between themselves before one led the three travelers across the bridge and to the cluster of buildings around the flagpole. The guard took Block and Dugan into the barracks to speak with someone of more authority, while Tilda was left outside with the horses. Some men leading a pair of ox-drawn wagons from the docks down the road toward the town eyed her curiously and one whistled, but Tilda ignored them.

After only a few minutes another guard left the barracks, hurried to the adjoining stable for a horse, and galloped down the road toward Trellaneville. A few minutes more and Block and Dugan emerged with an officer of some kind, who bowed politely to the Captain. Block had reversed his Guild cloak so that the satiny green lining flashed in the sun, but his face was set in a scowl and his brow was so furrowed it nearly shaded his dark eyes. While he and Tilda had not exactly been traveling through the Empire incognito, announcing real names and House affiliations to all and sundry was not something Guilders did when they were abroad.

Four more guards trooped out of the barracks and their officer gave them a quick inspection while Block and Dugan crossed the square to where Tilda waited. They started speaking to each other quietly when they were halfway across, and Dugan kept talking as he boosted the dwarf up onto the pony.

“No, you don’t need to make up anything. Just tell the baron your business is only with the King, and he will send us on our way. I’ve thought this through, Cap’n. Trust me.”

“Trust you?” Block growled, his eyes fairly burning into Dugan’s skull. “That is a laugh.”

“Yes, I can see you are amused.”

With Block in his saddle, Dugan nodded at the Trellane men, who marched over. Tilda climbed up on her own horse and Dugan led the two animals onto the road and toward the town. The four guards walked around them in a square formation, which Tilda hoped was meant as some sort of honor guard.

It was not far to the town, which was surrounded by a tall wall with towers and battlements of gray stone surely quarried from the nearby mountains. The portage road passed flush against the wall on one side, with warehouses and inns lining the other. Only about half of them seemed to be doing business at this time of year. The group was passed through an open gate onto the streets of the town after a few words were exchanged between the escorts and the gate guards. The latter drew to attention and saluted Captain Block as the Miilarkian Guilder rode by, his back straight and face frozen in a deep frown. Tilda returned the salutes, as it seemed like somebody should.

Inside the wall, Trellaneville was revealed as an old settlement of obvious affluence. The other villages and small towns Tilda had seen in Orstaf were not unpleasant but they had all shared a certain haphazard look, with low, circular houses usually made out of mud-brick. Most were rather randomly arranged, as though houses had been built on spots where the Orstavians’ ancestors had once erected hide tents in a time when they still lived as roving tribes of Kantan horsemen.

Trellaneville however was a town of ruler-straight streets and stone houses, many with paned glass in the windows of multiple floors. The roofs were all sharply peaked, making Tilda think it must snow heavily here in winter, and each house had narrow side and front yards divided from both their neighbors and the streets by stout wooden fences. The businesses that Tilda saw near the gate were housed in longer single-story buildings, also of stone. Judging by the hanging signs most specialized either in local produce or in finished goods imported from beyond Orstaf.

The group did not linger to window-shop for the escorts led them swiftly through the streets, barking at pedestrians to clear the way. The townspeople did not look any more Orstavian than did their surroundings to Tilda’s eyes. They wore a higher class of dresses, breeches, jackets, and coats that looked tailored rather than homespun, and the material was far more colorful than the practical wear of the steppe. The men mostly had mustaches but not full beards, and the women wore their hair down rather then up in bushkas. Several people stopped and looked curiously at the Islanders for a few moments, but then they were back on their way as if they had little time to gawk.

The group soon reached a modest hill near the center of town upon which another stone wall enclosed a high keep with many towers. The place looked very old, though different colored stones and the brightness of the mortar between them showed where there had been multiple refurbishments. The group was passed through another open gate into the courtyard of the keep, with the inner walls ringed by stables and outbuildings. A great wooden door giving into the citadel proper was open, and two men stood in the doorway.

The fellow on the right looked like a knight despite wearing no armor. He was a big man of middling years dressed simply in cloak and tunic but with tall riding boots and the hilt of a great sword visible over his shoulder. His hair was cut short but he had the long, brown beard of a native Orstavian, and his face was weathered by years out on the steppe, leaving his eyes in a permanent squint. His companion, judging by the shining boots, creased trousers, silk doublet and matching smart jacket, not to mention the silver chain of chunky links hanging from his neck, was none other than the Baron, Mediwether de Trellane. He was of an age with the knight, or perhaps a bit older as he had more gray at the temples of his dark hair. He wore a mustache waxed to points that Tilda supposed was intended to give him a dashing look, though to her it looked a bit silly.

The Captain halted his horse in the middle of the courtyard so Tilda stopped hers as well. Dugan moved quickly to help Block dismount before Tilda was out of her own saddle, then the two of them stayed with the horses while Block strode on to the nobles. Bows were exchanged, and the baron spoke the phrase, “ Bol Aloha,” the traditional greeting of the Trade Tongue.

The dwarf returned the greeting and introduced himself simply as Captain Block of Miilark. Trellane gave his own name and title, and introduced his companion as Sir Yeveny Procost of the Roaring Boar Order, which made Tilda raise an eyebrow until she realized he had not said Roaring Bore. Procost was the Imperial liaison to Trellane’s household guards, and the Baron emphasized Imperial as he said it, though as yet Tilda was unclear why. She did however notice that the knight seemed less interested in the barony’s exotic visitor from the Islands than he was in frowning at Dugan.

Eventually Block and the nobles entered the keep by the great doors, while Tilda and Dugan were first taken to the stables by servants wearing less militant versions of the griffin insignia on their clean tunics. Luggage was unloaded, the horses were seen to, and after a few servants ran off to talk to others, Tilda, Dugan, and all the bags were taken into the keep via a side door, up into a tower where three open rooms waited, and deposited in what were to be their quarters. Tilda had all the baggage placed for now in her own room, as the chamber was large and comfortably furnished. A pair of double doors paned with glass gave onto a balcony.

Dugan was given a room directly across the hall from Tilda. Before she could call him over and demand to know exactly what was going on a series of servants arrived, first bearing wash basins, then thankfully lunch which turned out to be an excellent stew of thinly-sliced potatoes, carrots and some sort of onion, with diced chunks of two kinds of poultry. Chicken and something that was not chicken, but was still good. The empty bowls were taken away shortly thereafter, and after another ten minutes had gone by without more servants appearing, Tilda finally whistled sharply across the hall. Dugan appeared in his doorway, still wearing his hat indoors over his cropped hair, and Tilda motioned him over. He came, but held up a finger before she could speak. He looked around at the walls hung with tapestries, then opened the balcony doors and stepped outside. Tilda joined him and he shut the doors behind her.

“I always assume someone is spying on me whenever I am in a castle,” he said.

“When have you ever been in a castle?” Tilda asked crossly, and Dugan nodded that she had a point.

“What is going on here?” Tilda finally asked after hours of waiting.

Dugan sighed, turned to the south, and pointed beyond the front range of the Girding Mountains. The whole view from the balcony was actually quite lovely, though Tilda was in no mood to enjoy it.

“You see the tall, yellowish peak?” Dugan asked. “With the high faces too sharp for snow to cling on them?”

“What am I, blind?” Tilda asked.

“That is Yagnorak. There used to be a dwarf city inside, but that has been in ruins for centuries. However, it is well known in this part of the country that the Trellane family has been keeping open a secret passage beneath the mountain for generations. A secret passage that leads through to Daul.”

Tilda stared at him. “There is known to be a secret passage?”

Dugan sighed. “That is exactly what your Master said.”

“Captain Block is not my Master,” Tilda said, surprising herself with her own vehemence. It did not help that Dugan smirked at her.

“Right. Anyway, your Captain is now telling the Baron that the House of Deskata has business with the King of Daul, and that he needs to get to the kingdom right away. The fact that he comes knowing about the passage will convince Trellane that he is legit, for who else but the King would have told a Miilarkian about it? Trellane gives us a guide, or whatever, and off we go through the tunnels, arriving in Daul that much closer to our boy, the Centurion.”

Dugan held his hands out from his sides and looked very proud of himself and his scheme. Tilda kept staring at him.

“That is the worst plan I have ever heard. Just awful.”

Dugan lowered his hands. “Block said that, too,” he muttered. Tilda was not finished.

“Seriously. You are starting with at least three premises that would all have to be true for the plan to work, and you don’t know that any of them are. First, there might not even be a secret passage. Second…”

“Matilda, stop. I know it is risky, but the fact is we do not have another option. If there was a better way, don’t you think I would take it? Think about it. Neither Trellane nor any other Codian noble is seriously going to cross a Miilarkian. If something goes wrong here the worst that happens to the two of you is maybe you have to wait a bit longer to kill John Deskata. But I get hung. For desertion and treason and whatever else they want to charge. I’ll thank you not to think I would stick my neck in a noose on a whim. I am not stupid, either.”

Tilda blinked, mostly because of what Dugan had said about she and Block killing John Deskata. It struck her now that of course that was what Dugan would assume, for he had recognized the Miilarkian Guilders for what they were, and Guilders had a certain reputation abroad. In any tavern in any port town on the four continents washed by the Interminable Ocean, whispered stories could be heard about some terrible thing the Guilders had done to someone who had crossed a Miilarkian. Yet somehow, it had always happened in the next town up the coast.

Tilda could have told Dugan that he was wrong, and that these two Guilders were not here to assassinate anyone. She could have told him that their mission was more important than he could fathom, more important than his life, or Captain Block’s, or certainly her own. But there was no reason for Dugan to know any of that, and even if there had been, it was not Tilda’s place to tell him.

She stayed quiet, and Dugan took her silence as acquiescence. He let out a breath, and looked down from the balcony on the surrounding keep and courtyard.

“You saw that knight Procost give me the stink-eye?” he asked. Tilda raised an eyebrow.

“I did, but I did not know it was called the stink-eye.”

Dugan smirked. “Works though, right? That is an Imperial Knight, swearing allegiance to the Code rather than to any one Codian noble. He may be serving here but he is not a servant of the Trellanes, and I doubt he is privy to the family secrets. I hope your Captain is speaking wisely.”

“Captain Block does not speak otherwise,” Tilda said, and Dugan gave her a look.

“Sure he does, Tilda. Everybody gets worried, or angry, and they say things they don’t mean.”

“Not Captain Block.”

Dugan took a last look down on the town, and toward the great yellow mountain looming among the Girdings. He turned to go back to his own room, but said one more thing before opening the balcony doors.

“Well, then he is just wrong.”

Tilda watched Dugan leave, exiting her room for the hall to his own. She stayed out on the balcony for a while.

*

There was still no sign of Captain Block at nightfall, though Tilda and Dugan were brought another meal, this one of pork loins roasted with nuts and then glazed. Tilda agreed with Dugan’s assessment shouted across the hall that while the Dauls had not won a war in centuries, they still knew how to cook a pig.

Tilda occupied the evening hours by oiling blades, and then she cleaned all three of the ackserpi guns Block had brought along from Miilark. There was still no sign of the old dwarf, and the anxious waiting made Tilda tired. She lay down on top of the bed covers in her room, still in trousers and sweater but with her boots off, and despite everything running through her mind she soon drifted off to sleep.

Footsteps on the stairs woke her with the night sky still dark outside, and Tilda was against the wall beside her door with a dagger held behind her back by the time someone knocked. The Captain’s voice growled her name. She opened the door and found Block swaying on his feet, one eye open and one screwed shut, face waxy and a very long day’s worth of dark gray stubble on his cheeks.

“We’re leaving,” Block said, wincing in the low lantern light from the hall. “Get the bags.”

Servants, also looking groggy but at least sober, appeared on the stairs while Block lurched over to pound on Dugan’s door. Tilda dispersed the baggage among them, keeping the long, flat ackserpi case and the Captain’s kitbag for herself. Dugan came over in time to hoist the bedrolls along with his own saddlebags. Everyone followed the Captain down from the tower and back out into the courtyard. Block muttered at the eastern sky, faintly touched now with light over the courtyard wall, and weaved toward a six-horse coach waiting by the open gate. Tilda took a few rapid steps to draw even with him.

“What about our horses?” she asked.

“Sold ’em to the baron,” Block said with a slur. “Would have given them as a gift, but Trell…Trellane wanted to bargain with a Miilarkian.” The Captain chuckled and shook some coins together in a pocket.

Dugan had padded up on the dwarf’s other shoulder. “Have you been drinking this whole time?”

“A’course not. We stopped to eat once.”

Block drifted on under half-sail but Tilda had stopped and stood looking over at the dark stables. Dugan halted beside her and waited for the servants to pass.

“They’ll be fine here,” he said. “Better than fine. Hinterland Codians love their horses. Daulmen even more so.”

Tilda blinked at him and thought of the white warhorse by the tree, washed and bandaged as well as could be managed in the circumstances. Even by a man in a great hurry to be on his way.

“Thank you,” Tilda said. Dugan nodded and turned to go, but hitched a step as she added, “You are a kind man.”

Dugan looked back at Tilda and blinked, a strange expression on his face. She hurried past him and helped Captain Block lurch into the coach from a stool, while the servants secured the baggage in the boot.

The trip back through town was short, and though the driver up top was the only person to accompany them, Block answered none of the questions Tilda and Dugan tried to ask him. The dwarf rode far back in his cushioned seat, eyes closed and mouth open, swearing quietly whenever the coach bumped or jostled.

There was just enough daylight to see mist on the mountain slopes as the coach passed through an open gate in the south town wall without challenge, crossed the portage road, and swung around behind a dark inn that looked to be closed for the season. The driver parked behind a stable in a yard surrounded by a corral fence, and hopped down to help Tilda and Dugan unload. Captain Block took only his kitbag, leaving Tilda and Dugan to split all the baggage they had carried on two horses. Both bent under saddlebags, bedrolls, knapsacks and duffels. The dwarf hardly waited for them before opening a back gate and starting across a dewy meadow to the south, moving on a more-or-less straight line for a homely cottage under pine trees, beyond which the foothills immediately began to rise.

Tilda looked past the hills and up toward the mountains, which from her present position looked like an impenetrable wall. The narrow light of dawn threw sharp black shadows across their stony faces from every crag and overhang, and the forests on their lower slopes were mantled with mist off the river. Whatever form Dugan’s “secret passage” took, she hoped that it went through, and not over.

Block’s stride quickened as he moved around the derelict cottage, and a moment later Tilda lifted her head despite her bowed shoulders. She sniffed the air.

“Nine Gods,” she said. “Is that coffee? Not tea, I mean, but real, black coffee?”

“Doonish,” Dugan said from behind her. She glanced back and he grinned. “What, you think the Road Legions march on love of the Emperor alone? Why do you think we conquered Doon in the first place? Beans, my dear, not just a Channel port.”

Around the back of the cottage a camp was set in a semi-circle amphitheatre of pines. A half-dozen scruffy-looking fellows lazed about in dark leather armor, mostly around a fire pit with frying pans set out on stones. An old smoke-blackened carafe hung on a chain, wafting out the enticing aroma.

“Captain Block,” one of the figures called as he arose, and smoothly gave a bow. He had a light sword on his hip but wore no armor, only heavy clothing, polished boots, and a rich cloak. Though he was a good deal younger than the Baron Trellane whom Tilda had briefly seen yesterday, his face was similar enough that he must have been a near relative. Block squinted at him.

“Banner, was it?”

Banner de Trellane grinned. “Kind of you to remember, sir, for I left the table early to see to your arrangements. Though from what I gather, I could have returned at any point. Had the revelries not so recently concluded, I am sure my Uncle would be here to see you off himself. But I am afraid that as it stands I am the only male member of my family who finds himself ambulatory this morning.”

“Is that coffee?” Block growled.

“Ah, yes. While knowing your intent to leave us with unseemly haste, I yet took the liberty of having a small repast prepared. Enjoy it, if you please, for you’ll not get quite the same for the next several days.”

“Not to naysay your Lordliness, but we manage a’right on the Underway.”

Tilda did not see who spoke until a little man stepped out from behind Banner Trellane. She gave a start, thinking for a moment that she was looking at only the second dwarf that she had ever seen in her life.

But this was no dwarf. While only slightly shorter than the Captain, the figure now grinning at the new arrivals seemed significantly smaller, for in chest and limb he was nearer the proportions of a human than to those of the rough-hewn Mountain Folk. Whereas the Captain was heavy-featured and bronzed by the Island sun, the newcomer had a pallid complexion and an imperishably grizzled look, with a sandy beard roughly trimmed, and wide-open saucers for eyes colored a strange, almost amber hue. His nose was pronounced and nearly bulbous, tending toward a lighter pink shade than the rest of his face. He wore leather armor as did the other men present, though his was under something in the species of a great coat, all unfastened, which would hardly have reached Tilda’s knees but hung right to the small man’s ankles. He wore a metal-studded cap at a jaunty perch high above a wide forehead, revealing that he was mostly bald. His smile seemed half the size of his head, and he flashed it constantly. He was a Gnome, Tilda knew immediately, though she had never seen his like before. For once, though, tales and stories were proving true.

Banner Trellane introduced the gnome as Sergeant Fitzyear Coalmounderan (“Just Fitz, as you please!”), and from that moment on, no one else could slide a word into the conversation edgewise.

Baggage was dropped, fried eggs were heaped onto crisp toast, and wooden cups were filled with sugared coffee. The three new arrivals sat down by the fire, Fitz flittering about them all the while. Before her first few bites and sips Tilda had learned that Fitz’s people hailed from out Ostia way, her hair was ever so pretty now wasn’t it, sure a Dwarf had not trod the Underway in an Elf’s Age, and a dozen other things of greater or lesser importance. Captain Block scowled at the gnome’s prattle and his lowered eyes refused to follow the capering figure, coat swishing around quick feet, but Tilda decided that she liked Fitz very much.

Fitz was in the process of introducing the five men constituting his squadron, or as he phrased it, “Me lovely, stout boyos,” when one of them leaped to his feet and cried, “Hold!” Cups and toast hit the ground as all present turned to find a figure at the edge of the cabin. Booted feet apart, long cloak thrown back from a steel breast plate shining dully in the shadows, and the great brush of a dense brown beard. Procost. The pommel of the large sword sheathed across his back was visible beside a pointed felt hat, and the Knight of the Roaring Boar Order’s dark eyes glowered, directly at Dugan.

Fitz and his men looked around at each other. Tilda looked to her Captain, who was darting his narrow eyes from the knight to the baron’s nephew, as though he suspected a trap or a ruse. Banner Trellane’s surprise certainly seemed genuine to Tilda as the young nobleman rose and sputtered.

“Sir, Sir Procost? What brings, what, what are you doing here?”

Only Dugan did not seem surprised. He had begun to drift backwards after standing and turned innocuously away, but he stopped as he realized the knight’s attention was riveted on him. Fastened as with a heated ingot. The two men’s eyes met and Tilda, standing close to Dugan, heard him sigh.

“Young Master Trellane,” Procost finally said, eyes never moving to the man he addressed. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“What, what…? What?”

“I am conducting rounds in accordance with my position here as Imperial military liaison. I really need not explain beyond that.”

“I…” Banner Trellane took a deep breath. “I understood that my Uncle had an errand for you. Out in some village…”

“It is done,“ Procost said. “Though I decided to ride back early rather than stay over the night.”

Block’s eyes were only slits, and Tilda could tell he was grinding his teeth by the thrust of his fuzzy chin. He had marked Procost’s look at Dugan and clearly did not like what it boded any more than did Tilda. It reminded her of the deadly attention shining in the cold eyes of a Miilarkian jungle adder, the kind that were brought aboard ships in port to clear them of rats.

“Sir Knight,” Block barked, moving forward and advancing on Procost until the man finally looked down at the dwarf.

“Is there something I can do for you?” Block barked. “You know who I am, and that I am here with the permission of your liege.”

“My liege is the Emperor of All Lands Under the Code,” Procost said quietly.

“Well, good on him! Now if you don’t mind, we were just enjoying a spot of breakfast ’neath the charming loom of the mountains. Do you have some sort of problem with that?”

“Of course not.”

“Good!” Block said. “Then unless you’ve come for the coffee, why do you not go on about your way like the good soldier, hmm? My time here is not long, and I’ll thank you to take up no more of it by skulking about in the briars, giving good people a start!”

Procost met the dwarf’s eyes, but Tilda in no way felt Dugan relax next to her.

“Gentleman of the Islands,” the knight said formally. “Nothing could have been further from my intention than to trouble you in the least. All of us here, in the Empire, appreciate the valued service of your great fleets and merchants, and none would have desire to pain you in any way. If my presence has offended, sir, I sincerely apologize. And if you wish me gone, then I go post haste.”

The knight stepped back and bowed deeply to Block, who blinked as though thinking that had been far too easy. The knight straightened and saluted Banner Trellane as a Codian nobleman, removing his felt hat to do so.

Trellane returned the courtesy, as did Fitz and his men. Only Dugan stood unmoving, his head covered by his silly, musty, fur hat. Tilda moved her right hand slowly under her half cloak toward the dagger at the small of her back.

“Commoner,” Procost growled.

“He is with me, knight!” Block shouted.

“He is no Miilarkian.”

Trellane and the others had begun to look at Dugan as if noticing him for the first time. For his part, Dugan only met the knight’s gaze. His demeanor was at peace, and there was no retreat in it.

Block was still shouting.

“It matters not if he be a Miilarkian born, or a Cobra Bay barmaid! He is in my employ, and I am an Islander in good standing in my House…”

“Uncover, foot soldier!” Procost boomed, and instantly Dugan did, tearing the sorry hat from his head and tossing it aside, revealing his close-shorn black hair.

No one said anything for a goodly long time. When Procost finally broke the silence, there was a smile in his voice that did not show on his face.

“You are out of uniform, legionnaire.”

“I am at that.”

“Show me your shoulder.”

“Sir Procost!” Block bawled, now standing directly in front of the knight. The dwarf held one hand up in warding but his other was somewhere under his cloak. Tilda had a fairly good idea what that meant. She also had a finger on either side of a slim dagger pommel, just enough to slip it from its sheath and cast it underhand.

The knight ignored the dwarf. He had eyes only for Dugan, and no more semblance of politeness.

“Show me your insignia, dog! I would know from whence it is you run.”

“Does it matter?” Dugan asked, so quietly Tilda was surprised Procost heard him as the two were still separated by the length of the cottage. But the knight plainly did.

“It does, for if you are a deserter from some local force than you are under arrest.” The knight’s teeth appeared as a white line within his beard. “But if you are renegade from the damnable 34 ^, the burners of the Round Hall at Trabon, then before these witnesses you will meet justice here and now.”

At the mention of the 34 ^ and the Round Hall, everyone but Tilda and Block stared at Dugan. The renegade gave a slight smile.

“That is the Fighting Three-Four to you, tin can.”

Procost’s teeth bared wider and his nostrils flared as he drew his great, strong-bladed broadsword over his shoulder and held it forward with both hands on the long hilt. He began to speak some formal words of challenge, but Dugan rolled his eyes and shook the blanket he still wore as a wrap off his shoulders. He fetched his Legion short sword from under his tunic.

“Nine Gods, spare me the dither!” he called, holding his sword almost absently in his left hand while swinging his right arm to loosen the shoulder. “Will no nobleman ever just die without a lot of pointless talk first?”

“Dugan, sheath your weapon!” Block ordered, giving Tilda one meaningful glance. She edged closer and just a step in front of the renegade. Across the way, Procost’s face was turning crimson.

“Not bloody likely,” Dugan sneered at Block, then he put his sword in his right hand and beckoned at Procost with the blade. The knight shouted.

“Then blood it is!”

Suddenly both men were moving. Fast.

Before Block’s hamstringing dagger was out from under his cloak the knight lunged forward like a bounding charger, one high knee slamming into Block’s head and spinning the dwarf to the ground. Dugan grabbed Tilda’s arm behind her back through her cloak, kicked out one of her feet and shoved her hard to the side. She blundered two hopping steps and failed to fully brace herself with one arm against the back of the cottage. Her forehead hit the wall with a fat, wooden smack.

Tilda’s knees wobbled and she slid to them, then rolled to a crouch and whipped free her throwing dagger as she turned around. She was just in time to see the beginning and end of Dugan and Procost’s very short duel.

The men barreled at each other with their swords held high, both shouting in the manner all Codian soldiers are taught. The cooling campfire was closer to Dugan as they began their charges and at the last moment the renegade veered toward it. He kicked the coffeepot off its braces and sent the carafe bouncing into the running knight’s path.

The top popped as the pot hit the ground and the last hot dregs splashed up onto Procost’s boots. It was hardly enough to slow the big man but the surprise of it made him pull up short. Dugan darted forward and ducked inside the long reach of the great broadsword. That was enough.

The knight was trained to fight mainly on horseback, fully armored and swinging heavy weapons in wide, devastating arcs. Legionnaires fought in a clinch, only their eyes peeking over the rims of tower shields while their fat, ugly swords poked hungrily around the sides, feeling for anything soft and yielding.

The point of Dugan’s sword sparked against Procost’s breastplate. Dugan raised one hand to catch the knight’s arms over his head, then he reversed his own grip with a twist of wrist. The two men strained and the short sword slid down plate mail until it bit. Dugan leaned in with all his weight on his blade, driving it deep into the knight’s thigh through his groin.

Tilda did not bother to throw her dagger, and neither did Block who was back on his feet with a blade of his own in his hand. Procost screamed and fell to the ground, broadsword falling uselessly into the grass at his side, clutching himself. Dugan fell on top of him but quickly pushed off and wrenched his sword free, eliciting more screams. He backed away a step with his blade, hands, trousers, everything now a charnel swath of wetly-shining gore. All around men stood slack-jawed and staring. Banner Trellane lost his legs and fell to all fours. The young nobleman regurgitated coffee and eggs while still unable to take his eyes of the man, a man he knew, lying butchered like a hog.

Dugan knelt and said, “Knight,” until Procost’s wild eyes focused on him.

“You are ruined,” Dugan said quietly. “It is a mortal wound.”

Breaths ending in sobbing gasps issued from the huge, helpless man.

“End it,” he said through clenched teeth.

Dugan stood, cast away his filthy short sword, and took up the knight’s. Procost squirmed uncontrollably and Dugan had to put a foot on his breast plate to pin him still. Dugan raised the blade, Procost shouted that it was the sword of his father, and Dugan brought it down on his head.

Most of the others closed their eyes or looked away, but not Tilda. She sat with her back to the cottage and crossed her arms over her knees, one hand still holding her unused dagger. Dugan left the knight’s sword where it was and slowly bent to pick up his own. All eyes followed him as he walked back to where he had dropped his blanket. He reached for it, and only then seemed to notice his red hands. The only sound was the dying fire, and the dry wheezing of Banner Trellane.

Dugan looked up at Tilda. Sir Procost’s blood was spattered across his face.

“That,” he said, “is the sort of kind man that I am.”

Chapter Eight

Banner de Trellane was too shaken to even try and stop the Miilarkians from leaving. He made some feeble protests that his Uncle the Baron should be informed immediately of Sir Procost’s end, but Captain Block was adamant. Without direct orders to the contrary the gnome Fitzyear could only shrug. His men helped Tilda with the baggage as Dugan was too covered in gore to carry anything without soiling it, and the gnome led the way into the woods and the hills leaving the sorry scene at the cottage behind.

Within half an hour they reached a stream where they paused while Dugan did a more thorough job of washing up. He had to strip off his tunic, soak and wring it, and as he did so Tilda was reminded of cleaning out the stirge remains from her own cloak some days before. She shuddered. She could have gotten Dugan a brick of soap, but it was in a pack now carried by one of Fitz’s men and she did not want to go through the rigmarole of fetching it. Not with a headache already throbbing between her ears from her skull-bounce off the cottage.

Tilda and the others saw the renegade legionnaire’s incriminating tattoo as he worked, a “34 ^ ” done in square black lettering on his upper back between left shoulder and neck, whirled around by Tullish-looking designs of the type prominent on the margins of Imperial coins. Something to remember his time in the Legion by, though the man would never see it without a mirror. Dugan wrapped his blanket around his shoulders and carried the tunic on a stick until it dried. The cold seemed not to trouble him.

The garment had time to dry out for the way was long. For the rest of the morning hours the gnome led the line of marchers on a winding route through the maze of culverts and gullies snaking among the mountain foothills, passing through shaggy copses of pine trees with prickly boughs that made the humans duck while the gnome and dwarf strode on undisturbed. No one spoke a word. Tilda’s headache finally faded but she was footsore and her legs ached by the time a campsite was reached, a semicircle of five small cabins with log walls and roofs of tented canvas. Another half-dozen fellows of Sergeant Fitzyear’s command were there, just beginning to clean some species of wild hill hog for a spit above a kindling fire.

Though Tilda could dress an animal if she had to, at the moment she could not stand to look at the work being done with heavy knives. The group did not stay in any case.

Fitzyear was curt and brief, seemingly to his men’s surprise. Speaking mostly in what Tilda now recognized to be Daulic the gnome directed the men from the cottage to stand down and change places with the six at the cabins. While those who had accompanied the band thus far had been lightly armed with short swords and dirks at their belts, the fellows readying themselves now also brought bows or short spears. One hoisted a great maul across his back, and a pair had fearsome picks. Tilda was not sure if the picks were weapons or tools, but supposed they would do in either case.

There had been familiar calls of greeting among the soldiers but Fitz kept barking unnecessary orders to interrupt conversations between those moving on and those staying here. It was obvious that the gnome intended for the group to leave before the new men were fully informed about the morning’s events, but there were too many of them in pairs, cinching thick leather armor and exchanging baggage, to keep them all from talking. Captain Block had another idea.

“Dugan, you take that pack and the long case. Matilda, biyn jo waha.”

Tilda frowned for a moment but then dropped the baggage she was carrying, which was mostly her personal equipment. She slipped her half cloak off over her head, and as ordered, outfitted herself for war in the manner of a Guilder. The men around stopped talking and watched, first with curiosity, then amusement, and finally with vaguely concerned frowns.

Off came Tilda’s cloth tunic and wool sweater, both rolled up and stuffed into a pack after she first removed a web of leather belting and straps. Over her cloth undershirt remained a leather vest of a shade of brown so dark it looked nearly black. The front of the vest and the lower back were pleated with long, thin, triple-stitched pockets that became armor when specially fashioned lengths of steel were inserted, though Tilda did not have any of those as their great weight had been judged not worth the effort when she and the Captain left Miilark. But the front pockets had another use. From a second pack Tilda produced six sheathed throwing knives, a matched set with the one she always wore at the small of her back. Each had a short handle accommodating only a finger and thumb, with flat, narrow blades honed keen and counterbalanced with a round wooden knob. Three each went into the pockets to the right and left side of the vest’s eye-and-hook clasps, each hanging upside-down and held in place only by snaps Tilda could flick with a thumb.

Next, Tilda wriggled into two wrist-length sleeves of blackened leather joined together by a back strap, which required a good amount of yanking and twisting to don for the leather was hard and stiff. Each sleeve was in two sections joined by cloth at the elbows, else she would not have been able to bend her arms. There was another sheath stitched to the bottom forearm section of each into which Tilda slid a pair of heavy knives. The points reached almost to the inward bend of her elbow joints and the grips long enough for a whole hand ended at a circular metal pommel that rested at the base of either palm. They were typically both to be drawn at once by bringing the hands together, elbows pointing out. The blades were stout and sharp only on one side, reinforced by the flat-edged so that they were hard to break. Two more just like them went into sheathes in her boots.

Tilda undid her belt buckle, raising numerous eyebrows. She withdrew half the belt and threaded it through an additional buckle of a kind, then back around her waist. To this buckle was then attached a sheathed short sword in a light wooden scabbard wrapped with eel skin dyed black, as was the cord grip. The metal cross piece above the grip – the quillons – and the knob of the pommel were painted the same hue, with an obsidian stone set in the latter. The blade which Tilda did not draw at the moment was also painted black, excepting on the keen edge. She let the weapon hang from her right hip for a left-handed draw, despite being right handed.

Another tunic came of Tilda’s packs, this one of much stouter cloth than her traveling gear and heavier by far for within the two-layered knit were thick pads on the shoulders and over her kidneys. Tilda pulled it on, got her braid out of the back of it, then paused and glanced to the Captain. He looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. While Tilda untangled a particular series of straps from the bunch at her feet, Block set down the kit-bag that was the one piece of luggage he generally carried himself. Tilda buckled on a right-handed shoulder holster, while Fitz and the soldiers now stared at Block as he produced, charged, and loaded a short ackserpa. The word meant “barking snake” in the Trade Tongue, but the simpler term was dag or pistol. He tossed the readied weapon to Tilda who caught it, wound the internal spring that would move the spur-like wheel of the lock when triggered, and holstered the gun under her left arm with the ivory grip forward.

It was by this point that the soldiers were exchanging worried glances among themselves. But Tilda was not done.

She got back into her half-cloak and let her long braid hang to her waist beneath it so she could raise the hood without trouble. The voluminous garment hung little different than it had before a small armory had been beneath it, and the triangular cut let Tilda get her hands quickly inside. Across her chest went one more diagonal belt with an open sheath on the back, a modified version of the kind usually holding a quiver of arrows. Instead of a quiver Tilda slid the business end of her buksu into the stiff leather cup at the bottom of the sheath, and stretched to button a strap across its neck just behind her own. This left the long two-handed grip within easy reach, sticking up at an angle behind her left ear.

The buksu was a traditional style of Miilarkian club dating from long before the coming of any outsiders to the Islands. Proper ones were carved from a single piece of golden swamp oak, though Tilda’s was darkened with tar polish. The grip was rounded with the knob at the end carved to look like a human head with a face. Tilda’s wore a smile and was winking. Above the grip the weapon had four narrow sides, which on an old club would be scrimshawed top-to-bottom in intricate images, geometric designs, symbols, and pictograms. The whole club curved just a bit and the four faces met at a flat top in an elongated diamond shape, giving the buksu flat faces for swatting plus long edges and sharp points for more compelling blows. There were some that had been kept within tribes and families for generations, each succeeding one adding to the decorative carving. Tilda had bought hers as an aged and shaped but unadorned piece of wood. The only carving, just the knob and a few inches on one face, was her own.

Almost done now.

She opened the case Dugan would now be carrying, unlocking it with a small key that otherwise rode in a pouch of lock picks in her boot cuff. The slim case was the kind usually meant to keep a composite bow and extra strings dry. It looked old and worn on the outside though it was in fact brand new, purchased by Block the day before they had left the Islands. The inside was done in emerald green silk, fine velvet, and soft felt. Tilda removed a carbine-length ackserpa with a barrel shorter than a yard and a long wooden stock carved like a buksu, for it too had been fashioned in Miilark. The firing mechanism was imported from Zoku and consisted of an intricate steel lock with pins for a rear sight and a round cap over the internal wheel. From a compartment within the gun case Tilda took out several short, tin vials of powder and a mix of both lead and iron balls, placing several into the deep pockets on the inside front of her cloak. She opened one vial to charge the barrel and tapped home an iron ball with the tamping iron otherwise affixed beneath. She left a small bit of powder in the vial to prime the pan when necessary, and corked it. She stood, pulled on her gloves, and slipped the tin inside of one against the back of her left hand. She wound the spring-wheel, stood to attention, and shouldered arms.

Stares from all around. Fitzyear finally broke the silence.

“Yikes, Miss Matilda. Yikes.”

Tilda shrugged at the gnome. “The right tool for the right job.”

With the baggage redistributed the new group marched on. Tilda, Block, and Dugan walked in the middle of the line with Fitz and half of his men in front and the other three behind. Tilda went warily, carbine at rest on the crook of her arm and eyes scanning the surroundings, but she did not really believe this area or moment to be particularly dangerous. That had not been the Captain’s point in ordering Tilda to kit-up. Apart from keeping word of what Dugan had done to Procost from spreading, Tilda also suspected Block may have been sending something of a message to the strange men with whom she was about to spend the next several days, underground in the dark.

Fitz and Block’s efforts had certainly helped the demeanor of the accompanying soldiers, and the last stage of the march was very different than had been the solemn slog from cottage to camp. Hardly anyone had breathed a word on the first leg, but now the scruffy soldiers who had not been present to see Sir Procost’s demise chatted amiably among themselves in Daulic. They even sang a ditty or two which Tilda guessed were bawdy songs by the chuckling that accompanied them.

The gnome was still quiet as he led the way up out of the hills and to a narrow goat trail of a path that wrapped the western flank of an authentic mountain with a distinctive peak high above that certainly must have given the place a name, though none of the newcomers asked what it might be. They rounded about a quarter of the mountain’s great girth on the path and emerged on the southern side in early afternoon at the foot of the even more magnificent peak Tilda had looked upon from the balcony the day before. The mountain was heavily forested on its long, lower slopes, but the crags high above were too sharp and steep for either foliage or snow, revealing stone of a distinctive yellowish hue. The tall peak appeared almost like a sandstone intruder from another country, that had shouldered its way in among gray, granite neighbors.

“Yagnarok,” Fitz said, as the whole group had paused to gaze upwards. The gnome turned to Block. “Do you know the name, cousin?”

“The Yellow Mountain. In the old Dwarf tongue.”

“How did they come up with that?” Tilda mumbled, and small smiles from a couple of the soldiers nearby let her know that at least some of them spoke Codian.

Fitz led the way off the path passing down into the clustering pines over the thick carpet of needles. It was another hour or more until they reached a stony ridge as tall as the trees that extended out from the mountain proper just as if it were the root of a great tree, or even the foot of a stone giant. The impression was heightened by a cleft before the lowering ridge sank fully into the ground, leaving a space between either a branching root, or perhaps a gap between toes.

Three of Fitz’s men put aside their packs and weapons and together began clearing aside brush mounded in the back of the cleft. It did not take long to realize that the majority of it was artificial; wooden frames and squares bound across by leafy fronds that were quickly hauled out of the way to reveal a stout wooden door with heavy iron hinges and a crossbar, set in the angle of the cleft.

“Not the original door, of course,” Fitz said. “That was fashioned by the dwarves, and if it still stood in front of us today we’d not see more than the merest crack.”

The gnome stepped to the door and produced a large iron key from a chain around his neck. He slipped it into a great lock, turned it to the left rather than right, and left it there. He took a step back and two of his men removed the heavy crossbar from its braces. Only then did Fitz turn the key to the right, remove it from the lock and replace it around his neck. While his men hauled open the wooden portal, Fitz addressed the three visitors in a more serious tone than he had used in the morning.

“There is a little speech I give here, so bear with me if you please. Stay close together, and stay on the path. The way we are going has been safe for a hundred years, but if you wander down a side passage or otherwise leave the route there is no telling what you may find. The whole place used to be dwarven, but that does not mean there is any hidden gold. It means that rooms may be trapped and halls may be designed to lead you in lost circles until you die of thirst. Besides all that, there are plenty of creepy-crawlies that call the deep tunnels home. We will be Under most of three days, with safe rooms along the way to spend the two nights already stocked with food and such so we needn’t carry much. If there are any questions ask them now, for once inside it is best if we talk as little as possible.”

Three of Fitz’s men were removing metal lanterns from packs and filling them with oil. Tilda looked to the Captain, who was scowling as if his hangover was still lingering. She supposed he had been told more about this “Underway” by the Baron, but he had certainly shared nothing about it with her. Block of course had no duty to do so according to the traditions of the Guilds, nor was it her place as a lowly apprentice to ask any questions. But Tilda was in a thoroughly foul mood. Her forehead was not throbbing anymore though it was tender to the touch, but she had looked at her reflection in a stream earlier and seen the ugly bruise that looked like some monstrous birthmark. She was not thrilled about it.

“Fitzyear,” Tilda said. “Just what manner of place are you leading us into?”

Block frowned at her, but the gnome only blinked his big, bright eyes.

“Oh. Well, many hundreds of years ago, perhaps a thousand, the dwarves of Garak-Tor established an outpost in this mountain. It grew into a city after they found some pretties worth digging up. They abandoned the place once the veins played-out, I would guess in round numbers something like seven hundred years ago.”

Block snorted and Fitz looked at him, but the dwarf had nothing to add. Tilda knew the Captain was old, old almost beyond human comprehension, and she wondered exactly how long the crusty old dwarf had been around, and how many centuries of history he had seen with his own eyes.

“So we are going through a city?” she asked Fitz.

“Not really. We’ll be keeping down under the main passages most of the way. The south gate where we will exit is a grander path, but this end of the Way is more like a secret bolt-hole for some old Dwarf Laird. Yagnarok was never meant as a route through the mountains, it just sort of turned out that way.”

Tilda had another hundred questions, give or take, but she asked none as Captain Block said her name, only once but very firmly. She closed her mouth and after a last look between the two Miilarkians, the gnome shrugged and turned to face the door.

“Take a look at the sky if you will, for we’ll not be seeing it again soon.”

Fitzyear and two of his men entered first, followed by Block. Tilda centered herself before stepping after the Captain into the dark. While she had never had any particular fear of enclosed spaces, it occurred to her that she had never really had to spend any length of time underground apart from the dank basement of the Guild House in Miilark. Nor did the dark hold any particular fear for Tilda, for as the saying went back home, the moon is for lovers, the stars are for mariners, the black of night is for Guilders. Still, the thought of up to three days spent in the inky blackness underground was disheartening, and Tilda took a deep breath that smelled of pine before following her Captain through the doorway and down a sharp, rough passage with stone ledges smoothed for steps. One of Fitz’s men carried a lantern in the lead as did one of the three fellows who followed Dugan in behind her. The last man stayed above to close but not lock the wooden door. He replaced the camouflage, swept away footprints, and soon there was no outward sign that anyone had passed this way in years.

Chapter Nine

Phinneas Phoarty had been born in a village called Llache-on-Loch-Hwloor. When he told people from any other part of the Codian Empire that fact, they looked at him as though he had a speech impediment. So when asked where he was from Phin had taken to saying, “Thol.” If more specificity was requested, he said he was from a cluster of shacks on a little slip of water high in the Tholish mountains and leagues away from anywhere of which anyone had ever heard.

Not that he was asked very often, as most Codians kept their distance from Circle Wizards.

When Phin was eleven, a man in a baggy robe of a deep gray with a hood and a long hem falling all the way to the ground had come to Llache-on-Loch-Hwloor. He drove a rickety mule wagon with two young children riding in the open back. The boy and girl sniffled and their eyes were red as though they had been crying.

The man was feted by the village elders, though without much enthusiasm. The villagers showed the visitor respect not as someone they were proud to have among them, but as someone who had to be acknowledged, at least in public. Included among the elders was Phinneas’s father, not because of age or any reputation, but because he was the sole regular agent of Imperial authority within the village. Though he made his living as a farmer, Phennigan Phoarty had the duty of confirming in writing any kills of creatures on the Imperial Bounty List in the surrounding area, filling out a printed parchment and affixing his seal to a blob of wax at the bottom. The hunters could then receive payment for these forms at the nearest Imperial bank or mint, none of which were very near at all.

That was why many of Phin’s earliest memories were of strange people bringing even stranger, severed heads to his father’s front door.

The day after the gray man arrived Phin and the other village children of a like age were taken to speak with him one at a time at the dining room table in the mayor’s house, as it was the only house in Llache that had such a room, and such a table. Three or four others went first and Phin grew bored waiting on the porch, while the parents waited in a cluster one house away at what was the far end of the short street. He was not nervous for his parents had not been nervous that morning. His sister Philia, just turned thirteen, waited with Phin and they spent the morning trying to hit a hitching post in front of the public house across the dirt street with thrown pebbles. Philia was ahead nine to four when she was called inside.

She was only gone twenty minutes or so and gave Phin a neutral shrug as she emerged. She went skipping on her way back to their parents, who hugged her. Phin was taken inside to the dining room and he was there for more than two hours.

With his voluminous hood drawn back the gray man did not look nearly so mysterious. He had a sharp black beard just around his mouth with a few gray hairs in it a lighter shade than his robe. He was otherwise bald, despite not being very old. His eyes were dark as charcoal and crinkling crow’s feet at the corners made him look kind. He sat Phin down across the table, and started asking him riddles.

Phin liked riddles, but he had never heard any like those the gray man asked. When you knew the answer to a riddle it sort of snapped into place in your head, but the gray man’s did not. For most of them Phin thought of several answers that could sort of work, and tried to give the one that seemed to fit best. The gray man never told him if he was right or wrong, nor what the real answers were.

After half an hour of this the man started asking Phin for sums. His parents had taught him simple plusses and minuses and Phin answered the early questions easily. But the man kept making the numbers bigger, bigger by far than Phin had ever had to count to before, and instead of just adding or subtracting them he asked Phin to multiply and divide them, after telling him once what multiplication and division were. Phin trudged gamely along, and once he got the hang of it he answered quickly. He was pretty sure he got those right.

The man had a carrying case at the foot of the table and after a while he started to show Phin some drawings, taking them out one at a time. They were done on old yellowed parchment pasted in thin frames, and they were, for lack of a better word to an eleven year old, weird. There were stairs that kept going up from every landing, cubes with sides that seemed to be drawn the wrong way, and silhouettes that looked like different things depending on what part of the drawing Phin looked at. The man asked no questions about them, but after he had shown Phin about two dozen he passed crisp, new parchment and a quill in an inkwell across the table. He asked Phin to draw as many of the images as he could from memory.

Phin drew the shapes that could not exist perfectly, and the next morning he left Llache-on-Loch-Hwloor in the back of the mule wagon with the two children who had arrived in it. They went through five more villages and picked up one more kid. Then they took the long winding road out of the mountains to the port of Claypool, sailed in a ship to the mouth of the River Geni in Tull and took a barge far upstream. They got a horse drawn coach and left the wooded hills along the river for an endless plain with a gray column of stone in the middle of it, which they could see for days before they got there. It was a city on a great hill, called Abverwar, and it was the place where the Empire of All Lands Under the Code trained Wizards for its Circle.

Two of the three children who came with Phin were sent back to their families within the first couple of years. Another made it seven, and Phin saw her die when a spell got away from her. Phin was in Abverwar for one whole decade, and left the place a full Wizard of the Codian Circle.

Phin was far more excited with his first assignment than was warranted, though he had not appreciated that at the time. It was a long journey from Abverwar to the distant Channel coast, and Phin extended the trip by first returning to Thol and the village of Llache on the shore of Loch Hwloor. He saw his family for the first time in ten years and they welcomed him as best they could, but it quickly became awkward. The siblings close to his own age were now young men and women, several with families of their own, and yet to Phin they were just as he remembered. He was a complete stranger to them. The little boy who had left at eleven years of age had returned as a tall, gaunt man with premature white streaks in his sandy brown hair and goatee. His eyes seemed always to squint, and they were sunk far back into his skull. His hands were pale and the long fingers were tattooed with Tullish designs in blue ink around the knuckles. They were never still, but flitted about like white spiders. There was no trace of the Tholish highlands in Phin’s voice, only a rasp that was often a whisper unless it was a snap or a sneer.

Phin had planned to stay a tenday, but he left after four.

The long voyage from Claypool took him south down the western shore of Noroth, past Tull and the coastal edge of the Girding Mountains, then down the golden coast of Doon and finally into the Western Strait, the narrowest part of the Noroth Channel separating that continent from Kandala to the south. Two days oaring up the wide Red River delta brought Phin to the location of his first assignment in the Circle, the place that had promised such excitement months ago. It was the city known to the Codians as Souterm, being the southern terminus of the Imperial Post Road, but it had not been known as such for long. Along with the whole province of Doon, the city had only been Land Under the Code since 1355 N.C., a mere forty years. The history of the city was far longer than that. Indeed it was virtually as long as history itself, for in the obscure time before the Norothian Calendar began the place had been Ettacea, the first human city on Noroth worth a name. Many overlords had held sway there over the subsequent fourteen centuries, and they had given the city almost as many names. For a time it was Esplendez, northern capital of the Agintan Kingdom across the Strait, and for a shorter while it had been the base of the Channel Pirates, who called it Murdertown. But to the locals whose roots were as tangled as the story of the city herself, she was and always had been Ladamia, “The Lady,” and she was not an “it” at all.

By the Nineteenth Day of Eighth Month, 1395, Phin had been in Souterm for five months and he had come to hate the sight of her.

It was not her fault, really. Souterm was as beautiful as billed, preserving in stone and iron an historical legacy unprecedented elsewhere on Noroth. There were still Ettacean works of towering black rock in parts of the city, wide boulevards and ornate fountains of Agintan design in others. Above the western docks with their twisting alleyways and obscure taverns reminiscent of pirate times rose Broadsword Ridge, former home of the Knights of the Albatross Order and still covered with perfectly squared districts of row houses between a great Exlandic-style castle at the south end and the White Cathedral of List on the north. Rich merchant homes lined the bluffs above the Red River and Codian warships bobbed at anchor where the river met the harbor. Great sandstone granaries stood sentinel on the west side of the waterfront, while across the harbor the spindly docks and tree-lined streets of the Pescadero made the place look like the fishing village which it still was despite being enclosed within the great city walls. And though it had long been decrepit, the hulking summer palace of Denando the Great still dominated the eastern skyline. With every dawn its fabled fifty towers dappled the surrounding streets with shadow and sun.

Perhaps the only place in Souterm where daylight did not illuminate some exotic wonder was the one place Phin had found himself each and every morning for five months. The North Gate through which what was now the Imperial Post Road entered the city had been rebuilt at mid century by the last, and worst, Grand Duke of independent Doon.

Duke Persedo’s gate was a monstrous mass of mismatched stone pulled from ancient foundations and streets all around, heaped up into a double wall of frowning battlements surrounding a barren courtyard with menacing arrow slits and murder holes facing both outwards and in. The doors of the inner gate were gone now, opening the space to the city streets where shops and inns awaited travelers, but nothing had been built within the enclosed square. The locals dreaded the place for it was there that Persedo had conducted public executions, including the hanging in 1349 of the beloved matron called “Grandma” Giones. That event had led to riot in the city, the Duke’s own execution shortly thereafter, and indirectly to the Codification of both the city and province within six years.

In the center of the courtyard square was the large circular basin of a defunct Agintan fountain, filled with dirt that sprouted unsightly weeds and the dead stump of what had once been the Hanging Tree. It was hardly an appropriate image to greet visitors to the grand city entering on the Post Road, but it was important to the locals that the area be left as it was, and the Codians had acceded. The customs house and guard barracks were in a tidy timber compound just outside the city wall and beyond the moat. Within the courtyard itself the authority of the Empire of All Lands Under the Code resided in one person only and for the last five months, from midnight until dawn, that person was the newest and lowliest member of the Codian Circle of Wizardry in Souterm. Phinneas Phoarty, originally of Thol.

As the sun illuminated the mismatched black, gray, and beige stones of the courtyard walls it also revealed Phin perched gargoyle-like on the dry basin’s edge, enveloped in the billowing gray robes of an Abverwar Wizard. Beside him was a staff issued from the armory in the Circle compound on Again Island. It was a heavy cedar pole inscribed with sigils from its iron butt-spike to the clear crystal globe that topped it, held between two carved hands. It lay on the ground in the basin next to Phin as whenever he tried to prop it up standing against the edge it threatened to roll to one side or the other, and the globe looked very fragile. Phin had no idea if the thing actually worked but he was sure that the armorer would not be happy if it was returned with a shattered bulb.

Under the Code, or at least under the expansion necessitated by the Codification of Tull in 1249, the Circle of Wizardry had the responsibility for monitoring all non-Church magic within the Empire. That looked a lot easier on parchment than it did in practice. Phin’s part in this monitoring consisted of using a simple scrying dweomer, theoretically boosted by the staff, on all travelers leaving Souterm via the North Gate during his shift. In the event magic was detected Phin was to give a verbal warning and make a note of it in the large, leathery tome he daily hauled here along with the staff. That was it. Just a warning and a note. Monitoring.

What pushed Phin’s duties beyond the realm of the ridiculous and fully into the absurd was the fact that during the course of his assigned shift, from midnight until sunup, the North Gate of Souterm was closed.

Not that egress was impossible. There was a small gap in the great wooden portal that shut up the north end of the tunnel through the outer wall of the Gate, the portal in fact being the raised drawbridge. The gap was sealed with a padlocked iron grill, but in theory someone with a burning desire to vacate the city at a godless hour could shout for the attention of a legionnaire guard patrolling the wall high above, and possibly convince the fellow to go find his sergeant and the key. That fetched, the lock could be undone and passage granted out to the stone landing on which the drawbridge rested when lowered. From there a nimble person could scramble down in the dark to the reedy edge of the brackish moat, and providing they had a good arm they could throw rocks across it to hit the ferryman’s hut on the other side. Once awakened, that goodly old fellow would then pole his raft across the moat, fetch the fare, and deposit the traveler on the north side ready to proceed on foot, as there was no method to get a horse across with the bridge up.

Needless to say there were few such travelers willing to undergo that rigmarole most nights. In fact after five months Phin was still waiting for his first. A few people had entered the city late by that method, but Phin was only responsible for those leaving Souterm, not for those coming in after hours. There was another junior mage, albeit less junior than Phin, who oversaw those entries from a comfortable post on the porch of the Legion barracks across the moat.

After the first night on duty Phin had thought it odd that the one Wizard across the way could not have overseen both entries and exits. After a week it seemed pointless to bother posting even one person here. After five months it seemed sheer lunacy, but also a fair summation of how the Wizard Circle of Souterm did everything.

A wagon rolled into the courtyard from the city streets, drawn slowly by a pair of oxen with what looked to be a father letting his young daughter drive from the board in front of a bed full of kegs. The pretty dark-haired girl pulled the reigns and chirruped the oxen to a snorting halt to wait for the drawbridge to be lowered in a few minutes. The girl noticed Phin on his perch a stone-throw away and beamed at him, clearly pleased with her own abilities as a teamster. His baleful stare from the depths of his hood went unchanged, and she stopped smiling and joined her father in pointedly ignoring the sour-looking Wizard.

Technically Phin’s shift had ended with the sunrise, but his relief had been growing increasingly late each morning. With a sigh for his numb hindquarters Phin uncoiled from his cross-legged perch and shook his long legs out of the folds of his garment carefully before standing up, for stepping on his own robe and sprawling headlong would not have been in accord with the dignity of the Circle. He picked up the staff lying in the weedy basin and set the spike on the cobblestone ground. Phin was tall but the crystal globe was higher than his own head until he inclined it toward the wagon, spoke a few words in the lilting dialect of Old Tullish, and wiggled his fingers purely for effect.

The father and daughter were both looking at him now with their eyebrows identically raised, but of course nothing happened. The beer or ale or whatever was in the kegs was clearly not magically active, and more the pity. Phin did not feel like sitting down again and so he leaned on the staff as though he were a man much older, and stared off into the middle distance at no one and nothing.

Two more fellows arrived early for the Gate opening. Phin’s shadowed eyes narrowed and he would have frowned had remaining expressionless not been a part of the unofficial curriculum at Abverwar. Despite leading a thin brown mule the younger of the two newcomers looked like nothing so much as a knight, being tall and broad of shoulder with a calf-length blue traveling cloak meticulously draped to one side of a shining silver breast plate. The man wore trousers and boots for the road rather than leg greaves, and with his hood thrown back fair hair of middling length shone in the rising sun.

It was the blonde hair that made Phin want to frown, for that and the steel breast plate marked the fellow as the very picture of an Exlander. That province still for some reason called itself The First Kingdom, despite having been Codian for a hundred-seventy-odd years. Longer than Tull, or Thol for that matter. Phin’s native country had in fact been an independent kingdom for another thirty years after Exland’s Codification, but the Thols didn’t go around calling their country The Last Kingdom. That would be idiotic. But try telling it to an Exlander, as the expression went.

Long before the Code arose in Beoshore the kingdoms of Exland and Thol had fought a war or two. Or three. Phin however assured himself that whatever resulting prejudice had been acquired in his youth had been removed from him at Abverwar, where all new prejudices had been painstakingly instilled.

The Exlander and his rat of a mule accompanied a balding man in the same sort of blue calf-length cloak, though the older man’s chest was protected only by a belly paunch, not a breastplate. He walked with a plain staff for pace rather than support, as the years that had taken the hair from his crown and put the salt in an otherwise pepper beard had not yet bent him. Phin saw the sigil of the Bridge stitched in silver on the chest of his blue tunic, and sighed. Builder Priest.

The pair rounded the beer wagon and both gave the father and daughter small bows that were returned with a nod and a wave. Words were exchanged and the girl quite possibly blushed at the handsome knight. It was hard for Phin to tell from his distance, but she certainly tittered. The knight looked around the courtyard and saw Phin leaning on his staff. He tapped the priest on the shoulder. The wizard willed them to stay where they were, but they came over with their pack-bearing mule.

“Greetings, Circle Mage,” the priest said with a raised hand but nothing like the bow he had shown the civilians. He had the swarthy look of the local Doonish living under the warm Channel sun. Phin was as pale as a corpse. Up close the priest’s escort was even more annoyingly handsome, with a clean-shaven, lordly jaw, wide forehead over sky blue eyes, and strong features that looked like a bust of some ancient king done by some fawning sculptor who had left off all the imperfections.

“Father,” Phin muttered, and added “Egg-lander,” toward the Exlander. If either man noticed they let it go. The priest eyed Phin’s staff.

“Thou art charged with monitoring for thaumaturgy, I take it?”

“Thou art knowing it.”

The priest spread his hands, waiting. Phin had no duty to examine a priest, and probably not even the authority. But the dolt wanted a show. Phin stopped leaning on the staff though he remained in a slouch. He dipped the globe, spoke his words, and blinked as a white light flickered within the glass like a trapped firefly.

“Just the shield, I am sure,” the Exlander said, and turned around to show Phin his back. Slung over his shoulder was a great iron mace and on top of that, worn almost like a backpack, was a medium-sized shield with a triangular bottom rim, shining steel that matched his breast plate. At present there was a faint, white nimbus of light in the air around the shield, answering that shining in Phin‘s staff. It also bore the same sigil as the old priest’s tunic, not the ornate standard of a knightly order or family but rather the simple, curved line known as both the Bridge and the Arch. It was the holy symbol of the Imperial Church of Jobe the Builder, First God of the Ennead.

“You’re both priests?” Phin said, not bothering to conceal a sneer.

The younger priest turned back around as the light in the air and in the globe quickly faded. The only sign that he had noticed Phin’s tone was a slight lowering of his blonde eyebrows.

The older priest spoke. “I am Father Luis Corallo, and this is the Brother Kendall Heggenauer, Both of Jobe. As such, I suppose we are beyond the oversight of your Circle.”

Not this morning, Father.

Phin shook his head and waved a beckoning hand. “Afraid my charge is a bit more involved than that.” He turned to Heggenauer. “Acolyte. It is acolyte, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“Hand over the device for inspection.” Phin snapped his long, tattooed fingers a few times. The priests exchanged a look but the young one finally shrugged and went about unfastening the straps securing the shield to his back, though doing so spoiled the artful hang of his traveling cloak. Shame, really.

Phin set the staff back down in the weedy basin and took the proffered shield in both hands. Though made entirely of steel it was very light, which was after-all the point. Phin held it face down to reveal the double set of straps for either use or transport. Under the straps in the upper left corner was an embossed symbol of a shield shape with a stylized, swirling S stamped in the middle.

“This is the standard Shanatarian spell of strength and lightness, correct?” Phin asked, tapping the sigil. “Common to all Empire-issued shields, be they Legion towers, footman’s kites, or in this case…what, a horseman’s shield? You don’t ride that donkey, do you Brother?”

“No, I do not.”

“Because this is a spell worked by the Shieldmaiden’s faithful, correct? Not Jobe the Builder, as you guys don’t know that one, yes? Now, if we were building an outhouse…”

“It is not a…what?”

“A courthouse. If we were building a courthouse, I expect you would put your own spell on that. But not on a shield. Not your bailiwick, as it were.”

“It is not a spell,” Brother Heggenauer finally finished a sentence. Phin blinked as though befuddled, and tapped the symbol again.

“I am pretty sure that it is, acolyte. You see, without this mark your shield would be a lot heavier. Altogether less wieldy.”

“It is a blessing,” Heggenauer clarified. “Not a spell.”

“Well, that’s like saying it is a hen but not a chicken, but I take your point. A blessing then. Very much like a spell, but performed only through the vehicle of godly power. Whereas the power of a spell comes from the caster himself.”

Phin tossed the light shield back, and it clanged against Heggenauer’s breast plate even as he caught it. Almost as though the sound had been a signal, rumbling came from the northern side of the yard as the drawbridge began to ratchet down.

“There’s your door, acolyte. Move along.”

Phin was aware he was looking smug, and he cared not in the least. The big blonde Exlander stared at him with a clenched jaw, while the Father only frowned at them both. At length Heggenauer returned the shield to his back and straightened his mace beneath it while giving Phin a minor stink eye. He took the waiting mule’s bridle and both priests took at step toward the opening gate.

“Good day, Wizard,” the Father said.

“And where do you think you are going?”

Both stopped and turned back, Heggenauer now looking openly annoyed. After five months at the short end of the stick Phin just could not let the moment go.

“Excuse me?”

“I ask to where you are bound, Brother. To where does Jobe bid you two nip off?”

“To Galdeez,” Heggenauer nodded due north. “On the bluffs where the Blue River becomes the Red.”

“Yes, I have seen a map.”

“Thence on to Vod’Adia.” Father Corallo said quietly.

Phin jerked and his mouth fell open without any snide words coming out. The older priest continued.

“Blackstone. The Sable City. It is not on any map, though I trust you know the name?”

“Why are you going there?” Phin managed.

“The Fifth Opening is due in two months,” Corallo said. “It is the intent of Jobe’s House in Galdeez to send a crew into the Wilds to erect a compound within Camp Town. We shall minister to such adventurers braving Vod’Adia as may find our services necessary.”

“So you are not going into Vod’Adia,” Phin said. “Not into the city itself?”

Corallo shook his head once. “No. Though there is no injunction against such a course. Not for Jobians.” The older priest narrowed his eyes and his squint no longer looked friendly. “I do seem to recall that Circle Wizards are barred from even approaching the place, correct? Not even allowed to enter the Wilds at any time close to an Opening.”

“On pain of death,” Heggenauer added. Phin could only nod.

“I expect that would do it,” Corallo said. “Good day, Wizard.”

The wagon with the kegs was rolling toward the now open gate, and the pair of priests turned to follow it with their mule clopping along behind them. Ahead on the wagon the father had taken the reins to manage the narrow tunnel in the wall, and his daughter had scrambled up to perch atop the barrels. She was facing back toward Phin and as the wagon rolled into the shadowed stone passage she unmistakably stuck her tongue out at him.

Chapter Ten

In the end most of the Underway proved anticlimactic.

For the remainder of the first day, or rather until a time Tilda guessed to be after sunset, the column of nine moved through passages that varied from narrow clefts where Block and the men had to turn sideways to squeeze through, to great caverns with walls and ceilings that quickly disappeared from the meager circle of light provided by the lanterns. In the first of these the rock floor was covered with guano and high above the unseen ceiling was a chattering mass of thousands and thousands of bats. Fitz’s men lit foul-smelling torches, one for everyone in the group, and they were not bothered as they crossed the vast space. Boots remained slippery for a long time afterwards.

The other caves all seemed to be empty and after hours of moving through them Tilda stopped thinking about how daunting it was to be underground. Instead she thought about how hungry she was, and how bad her legs hurt. She had not eaten since a few bites of breakfast and though Dugan and Procost’s conclusion to that meal should have spoiled her appetite, Tilda had been walking steadily ever since then. Up and down hills, tunnels, and mounds of bat crap. Her knees and hips ached, the barrel of her carbine scraped the walls and banged against her shoulder, and her forehead had started to throb enough so that whenever Dugan’s sandals scraped the rock floor behind her she had the urge to throw an elbow back at his nose. When Fitz next called a halt Tilda did not notice that it was not the regular time for a short rest and some water. She leaned against the rough rock wall and rubbed her shoulder, then jerked as the gnome swung open a silent door on oiled hinges right beside her.

Like the door at the entrance this one was newer than its surroundings, being of stout wood with iron reinforcements. Beyond it was not another cave, but a room.

The floor was of tight-fitting flagstones and the walls were faced in smooth granite with the only adornment a decorative band all the way around at what would be eye level for a dwarf, cut with sharp, square writing. Fitz closed and locked the door while his three men with lit lanterns dispersed around the room, talking amongst themselves for the first time in hours. The men lit a number of regularly spaced braziers and the room filled with light to reveal stout chests stacked three high along one section of wall. Fitz and his other two men went to these and soon produced pallets and blankets for bedding, along with a variety of food including salted beef, dried vegetables and fruits, all sealed in jars.

The group spent the night in the room warmed by a fire built in a sunken central pit beneath a shaft in the smooth ceiling covered by a metal grill, through which all smoke was drawn off. There was a second door directly across from the first which Fitz also locked from the inside once the party was safely within, and in two corners were short alcoves. From a hole in the first Fitz’s men drew fresh water in buckets at the ends of long ropes from an underground stream. The second alcove was downstream from the first, the entrance covered with a hanging blanket, and the hole in its floor was used as a latrine.

Fitz and his men chatted amiably around the fire as they heated the food and ate, plainly familiar and comfortable with the strange accommodations. Tilda, Block, and Dugan ate in silence, then retired to their bedrolls. Tilda merely followed the Captain’s lead for Block still scowled deeply and scarcely acknowledged anyone around him. She had known the dwarf to overindulge in alcohol a time or two before on this journey, though the resulting hangover had never lasted this long. Either the full day of marching was not conducive to recovery or else, as Tilda suspected, the old Captain was silently furious with Dugan. The renegade had not spoken a word all day either, and likewise remained silent all evening.

Fitzyear did not post any of his men as guards overnight in the locked room, and though it bothered Tilda faintly she slept the sound sleep of exhaustion. If she dreamed she did not remember them when Fitz woke her for breakfast before the march was resumed, out through the second door of the room.

The new door marked a turning point, for beyond it the natural caverns and caves were left behind. While some of the tunnels that the group followed still had rough walls, the floors were all of leveled and polished stone. Most often the passages were bricked, if that was the right architectural word, with large stone blocks that fit together perfectly with no sign of mortar. When they met other passageways Fitz would stop and listen carefully down the crossways before leading the party ahead on what seemed to be a more-or-less straight course. Tilda supposed they moved ever south, though she had no real feel for direction underground.

Some time around mid day the party took a longer pause and bolted a cold meal. Tilda remained standing as it had taken most of the morning for the stiffness to work out of her legs, but at least her headache had not returned. After noon the tunnels changed again as the narrow corridor hit a much wider passage that the gnome took to the right, and as much of her surroundings as Tilda could see in the lantern light thereafter were astonishing.

She was on an underground highway, Tilda quickly realized, a subterranean street that surely had been heavily trafficked in the distant past. The passage was as wide as a boulevard in the Miilarkian capital and lined with round columns under a high, arched ceiling even taller than the route was wide. Ancient plaster on the walls had long since decayed, exposing rough stone and leaving inches of powder on the floor which came up in little clouds as the group passed. Fitz distributed scarves to tie around mouths and noses and the group pressed on, and Tilda noticed that the soldiers now moved more warily and with their weapons in hand. The men with the lanterns often narrowed the beams to shine around columns, or played the light over the dusty ground whenever tracks were seen. Most of the tracks were left by small animals, maybe lizards or rats, but some were much larger. Tilda did not recognize those by the quick glances she took in passing.

Their boulevard met several others along the way. Each intersection was wide and round, with circular stone stairways ascending into the ceiling through open shafts. At the base of some of the shafts rotted timber squares were still connected to massive chains that lay broken now, but had once hung from huge winches strong enough to hoist whole wagons up to the level above. Tilda could only guess as to what had been up there, for each of the stairways was choked with rubble below the level of the ceiling. There were piles of shattered stones and broken bricks, many blackened all over as if they had been through a great conflagration. Tilda was curious enough that she would have asked Fitz about it whether Captain Block liked it or not, but like his men the gnome was wary and careful on this part of the journey. His big amber eyes scanned the darkness all around above the scarf bound over his bulbous nose, and he carried a hand-axe balanced for hurling at his side. Tilda left Fitzyear alone, and carried her gun in the crook of an arm rather than on her shoulder.

After hours and miles on the boulevard Tilda knew from her sore calves that the way had been gradually ascending all along. It turned even more sharply up as the group seemed to reach an end point, becoming a long ramp. The party had moved mostly down the middle of the underground road but Fitz now moved toward the right side of the passage where there was a narrow space between the edge of the ascending ramp and the wall. The stone dust was even thicker here, gray and black as it was mixed with ash, and as the group moved single file next to the ramp the soldier immediately behind Tilda must have noticed her peering ahead toward the top. He narrowed the shutter of his lantern to make a beam shine in that direction.

Tilda did not gasp, but she did stop walking for a moment. Far up the ramp where it passed through a gap in the ceiling the way was again choked with rubble, but some of it was largely intact. Plainly visible lying on its side was a fallen, square tower of smoke-stained white marble veined with black stone. Though cracked and broken the tower was in a sense still holding together, and Tilda could discern at least seven stories’ worth of narrow, arched windows. The tower must have been at least that tall when it stood. Tilda exchanged a wide-eyed glance with the soldier behind her, who nodded soberly.

As the road rose the space beside it became a narrow stone canyon between ramp and wall that came to a dead end several hundred yards in. At the head of the group Fitz patted his hands all along the wall while another of his men held his lantern aloft so the gnome could see, but nothing seemed to be happening.

“There is one intact Dwarf Door, just here,” Fitz whispered, his voice carrying easily down the line off the echoing stone. “Thought I left it open a crack…”

Without a word Block pushed past Dugan and two of Fitz’s men to stand beside the gnome. The dwarf reached out a hand and Tilda could not see just what he did, but there was an audible scrape and a vertical line appeared on the wall in the lantern light.

“Right,” Fitz said. “There it is. My thanks, Cousin.”

A soldier pushed one side of the wall while the gnome scrabbled at the line, and with another sharp scrape a section of brick moved silently around a pivot. Fitz stepped through and waved the others ahead, then pushed the swinging stone until it again appeared as unbroken wall behind them.

They had entered a small room at the foot of a plain stone stairway, which Fitz wormed around the others to lead the way up, and up, and up. The lanterns were awkward and useless in the tight space and were rapidly extinguished. The group went on one at a time in the dark with their hands and feet on the stairs wrapping around a long shaft. The way was at least not dusty here, and everyone lowered the scarves from their faces as all were soon huffing their way upwards. The stairs spiraled on. Tilda started counting after a while, maybe halfway along, and it was another hundred-and-fourteen steps to the top.

The top was a landing with a square chamber around the circular shaft, and Tilda blinked in surprise upon reaching it for while the lanterns had not been relit there was natural light shining in through wide double doors Fitz had already opened. Before Tilda stepped through the doors to clear room on the landing, she saw that the walls of the chamber and an arched hallway leaving it were all alike covered by bas-relief carvings. She only got a glance at the bearded face of an old dwarf carved as large as a real dwarf would stand, cut into the hard stone with as fine detail as she had ever seen on a painting.

The room Tilda entered was much like that in which the group had spent the last night. Same size, same fire pit in the center, and again with writing in a band around the walls. In place of a second door in the opposite wall were three windows. They were narrow but they reached from the floor to the ceiling and they were lit by the first sunlight Tilda had seen in almost two days. She walked directly to them and this time she did gasp, for each was a perfect pane of clear glass without so much as a whorl or blemish within it. They gave Tilda one of the more remarkable views she had ever seen in her life.

All she could compare it to was the view of the Miilarkian capital from the top of the Ghost Mountain, which Tilda had climbed without equipment to culminate the second year of her Guild training. These windows gave a view at a similar elevation, but not of an urban cityscape. Instead Tilda stared out at rugged mountainsides from deep among them, jagged crags throwing shadows from right-to-left as the sun set, giving the cloudless sky that was half the view a deep burgundy hue. Right in front of Tilda, just inches from her toes, the whole world seemed to fall away into a deep valley of darkening pine forest. Straight across the valley and looking as though it was close enough to touch was another great mountain with a white snow line almost at Tilda’s eye-level. Ancient glaciers nestled in purple shadow among the gleaming peaks.

“Almost worth the stairs, isn’t it?” Fitzyear said beside her. Tilda had not noticed the gnome step up to the window next to hers, and when she turned she saw Block was likewise standing at the third.

“It is beautiful,” Tilda said, turning quickly back to the view before it was lost to the expiring daylight. The rapidly changing shadows were fascinating, but when Fitz stepped away Tilda noticed that several of his men were waiting their own turns, though certainly they had seen this view before. She doubted that even repeated viewings would spoil the effect and she too stepped aside, smiling briefly at the nearest soldier who took her place.

Only Dugan was not looking, having settled to a seat on a chest. He was rubbing at his sandaled feet as Tilda stopped in front of him. They had not exchanged a word since before he had gutted Sir Procost, and banged Tilda’s forehead off the back of a cottage. Dugan looked up at her and narrowed his eyes in the fading light of dusk.

“How is your head?” he asked, his voice rough after two days of not speaking a solitary word.

“As it looks,” Tilda said. She leaned toward him.

“You did not have to kill the knight,“ she whispered. “We could have incapacitated him.”

Dugan looked at her evenly. “You think he was trying to incapacitate me?“

Tilda turned away, knowing that this was neither the time nor the place for a discussion of how civilized people behaved.

Fitzyear was across the room tapping the sides of several large clay jugs big as amphora, for there was no access to a running stream this high up. The containers had certainly not been brought up the stairs, which made Tilda hope that the party was not going to have to climb back down through the dark in the morning. The gnome’s men were still gathered at the windows, and after looking around for a moment Tilda saw Captain Block standing back in one shadowy corner, all but invisible in his black Guild cloak. The dwarf was glaring pure murder at Dugan.

Despite her exhaustion, Tilda did not sleep well that night.

*

Block was a strange dwarf and he knew it. The absence of a beard alone would have made another of his kind stare in surprise, but that was only the most obvious difference between himself and what might be expected. Somewhat less obvious was the fact that he positively loathed being underground. When he was still a young dwarf of only fifty years and change, Block had left the great halls of Garak-Tor for the world of Men, and he had never gone back. That had been more than three and a half centuries ago.

There had been no banishment and no exile, nothing comparable to the drama that had attended the departure of the le po ka han, John Deskata, from his home in Miilark. Block had simply taken a job guarding a trade caravan bound for a human settlement, an above-ground town younger than the boots he had worn. It had turned out to be a place with an energy and newness Block had never felt in the stodgy old dwarf-hewn halls of Garak-Tor where the patrician faces of ancestors stared down from every wall. When his caravan left Block had stayed behind with a dwarven merchant setting up shop. He had meant to stay only one year until the caravan came back, and to see what it was to have the seasons change around him before he went home. The seasons had been changing around Block ever since and he had not grown tired of them yet.

He no longer thought about the underground world of his youth for now his was the larger world of sun and sky, the moon and the heavens bejeweled with stars. The humans had long since proven good company, though Block had kept everyone at a certain distance after watching the first generation of friends he had made above ground grow old and die. After decades had grown to centuries the dwarf had even found a place he considered home, in the sultry Islands of Miilark. When he grew into an age when he began to consider where he would leave his bones to lie, the halls of Garak-Tor never entered Block’s mind. He would dwell among the Miilarkians even in death, as he had chosen to do in life.

Now that Block found himself on what the gnome Fitzyear flippantly called the Underway, in a stonily silent world of a kind he had not known in centuries, the old dwarf’s thoughts were not troubled by nostalgia. They were troubled by thoughts of death. It was hardly surprising given what Block still knew from his youth about the place where he now was, and of what it had once been.

Fitzyear had told Matilda that he believed the dwarf tunnels here, the city of Yagnarok, had been abandoned some seven-hundred years ago when the ore veins played out. Block had no idea where the gnome had come by that theory, but it was correct only in its timeframe. In the year 702 NC, Yagnarok had been destroyed, and the Baltazarian clans massacred almost to the last man, woman, and child. Only a handful of survivors escaped to bring word back to Garak-Tor, where it was generally agreed that they’d had it coming.

The dwarves knew this, though in seven centuries they had never spoken a word of the story to outsiders. No people would be keen to spread the knowledge that others of their own lineage, no matter how far separated, had participated in the murder of a Great Dragon. Not even after those responsible had paid the price.

On the second night on the Underway after Tilda, Dugan, Fitz and his men had all been soundly sleeping in the safe room for hours, Block sat up among his bedding and looked in the dark toward the locked door. He sat for a time before slowly rising, moving his old joints and bones slowly, quiet as any Miilarkian born or Guilder trained. He padded to the door in thick wool socks, undid the lock, and slipped out to the room at the top of the long stairway, carved all around in extraordinarily detailed images done long ago by hands very much like his own.

With the door to the safe room silently closed behind him the last starlight from the windows within disappeared, leaving Block in profound and total darkness. He stood still with his eyes wide open until able to faintly discern what he had noticed passing through the room earlier. There was a faint blue glow from the arched hallway leaving the chamber.

Block moved in that direction between the tall bas-relief images of dwarves kitted out for war that lined both walls. The hall ended in a T-intersection but Block halted directly before the opposite wall where a final stone portrait of a wizened, bearded face far larger than life-size stared back at him. The faint glow, which human eyes surely would fail to notice, came from a square line all around the image. As he had done at the dwarf door leading to the stairs, Block put his fingertips in the vertical crack on the right side and moved them slowly down until it felt right to stop. He pushed with his left hand and the carved panel pivoted sideways. Soft blue light spilled in from another landing giving to yet another stone staircase. This one was straight rather than spiral and it led back down, though Block hoped it was nowhere near as long.

He did not expect it to be, for even three-and-a-half centuries after leaving Garak-Tor he still remembered the architecture of his first home. He knew that the fire pits Fitz and the others had used in both safe rooms were intended not for cooking, but for the burning of offerings. The shafts above streams were not lavatories, but rather the means to give the burnt ashes of the offerings to the spirits deep beneath the mountains. Anything else was sacrilege, but Block had felt no need to say so to the gnome and his men. Not in this place, not in Yagnarok, where surely nothing could add to what was already accursed.

As he had expected the straight stair led down only half a hundred steps. Block paused halfway down after hearing a single drop of water from ahead, and frowned. The light at the base of the stairs was brighter, illuminating a great chamber with smooth, unadorned walls and a ceiling that formed a perfect hemisphere high above the flat floor. As he entered Block saw cracks in many places with crumbling, damp stone around most of them. Pools of water stood on the no longer perfect floor, most of them under a line of stalactites that stretched above the only thing in the room that was not stone gray in color. In the center of the space stood a ten-foot high, four-sided pyramid of white marble, from which the glow seemed to emanate.

Block looked around at the water and the cracks. He had been in the tombs of great dwarfs far older than this one back in Garak-Tor, but he had never before seen the least sign of wear or damage. Those places of course had been meticulously maintained by the descendents of those buried there. There were no living Baltazarians of Yagnarok, and this tomb was going to come down in time. Block judged it would not be coming down tonight, and so he entered.

He walked slowly around the pools, so shallow and still that they seemed but a film on the hexagonal flagstones. He approached the central pyramid upon which three lines of writing in the old dwarven script were cut deeply, plain characters carved with great care. The first, at the top, was a name. Baltazar II. The two at the bottom were a linked couplet which Block had read before, long ago, in similar places.

As I was once, so now are thee.

As I am now, so shall thee be.

Baltazar II was the son of Yagnarok’s founder, and the father of the monster who had brought the Yellow Mountain to its tragic end. Block stared at the name and something very old and deep and dwarven gave him an urge to spit on it. Before he had decided one way or another, a woman’s voice behind him shouted “Move!” in Miilarkian.

Block did so, not as spryly as he would have a century before, but just enough. He threw himself sideways to the hard floor and rolled through a puddle that tasted dirty and bitter. Before the taste had even registered a stalactite sharp as a spear and almost as tall as Block crashed to the floor on the spot he had just vacated.

“Captain!” Tilda yelped, bounding down the last few stairs and running into the chamber with her hair loose and the long gun in her hands. The crash of the stalactite echoed off the walls and almost seemed to hum from the smooth ceiling. Still prone, Block stared at the stalactite lying on its side and with the point broken.

“That thing almost spitted you like a…”

Tilda slid to a halt in her socks and her eyes, which were already huge, widened further as two thick, fat tentacles with a texture like rotted fruit emerged from the fat end of the fallen stalactite. Tilda swore and raised her gun to a shoulder, but the tentacles moved slowly and did not extend very far. They touched the floor with a sucking sound then bunched up as they dragged the stalactite away, maybe an inch at each pull.

“Don’t bother with that one,” Block said. “Aim up.”

Tilda snapped her eyes and gun to the ceiling above, where another score or so of stalactites hung, motionless and silent. Block rose with a grunt and moved out from beneath them while keeping his eyes riveted on them, but seeing no sign they were anything but natural.

The one on the ground moved another inch, scraping loudly. Tilda swung the gun toward it, then back to the ceiling, then back to the one on the ground. Back to the ceiling. Her loose hair swung across her face and she shook it back.

“What in the Names of the Nine Gods is that?” she asked in a voice that only sounded slightly hysterical.

“Piercer,” Block said, backing away for the stairs while keeping his eyes high. “Sort of a cross between a slug and a hermit crab. They burrow into rocks on high ledges, or stalactites, as their spit dissolves stone. Reckon you can tell how they hunt. And probably figure out how they feed.”

Tilda fell into stride with Block, and both backed to the stairs through the puddles, leaving wet footprints and dampening their socks though that bothered neither of them at the present moment. The piercer on the ground went on making its laborious way back toward the wall. At the base of the stairs beneath an empty ceiling, Block turned to Tilda.

“You followed me?”

Tilda still kept the gun on her shoulder pointing back into the room, and only glanced for a moment down at her Captain. He saw a not wholly unfamiliar flash in her dark eyes.

“Follow you? No, of course not. I wandered off alone into the dark, beasty-filled, godless ruins. Off the path where I was specifically warned not to go, because I am addled. Because I am soft in the brain. Captain.”

Dugan’s voice calling both their names boomed from the room above them, echoing down the stairs. Tilda jerked and nearly cracked off a shot. The crash had plainly woken everyone above and Block cupped his hands to his mouth to shout back.

“Stay where you are! We are returning!”

“Piercers,” Tilda muttered over her gun. “Stirges. I hate this stupid continent.”

“Matilda,” Block said quietly and put a hand on her elbow. His scant avoidance of impalement had almost been enough to make him crack a smile, but his customary frown and scowl returned as Tilda met his eyes uncertainly. He spoke rapidly, close to a whisper.

“This situation with Dugan is intolerable. He could have been gutted by the knight Procost rather than the other way around. Any one of us could die at any instant. If it were him to go, then you and I would be left with no idea of where to seek John Deskata.”

Tilda’s eyes kept flicking back to the crawling piercer, until Block finished.

“When we are out of this place and the three of us are next alone, you watch me for a signal.”

“A signal?”

“A signal.”

With that, Block turned and mounted the stairs. It was a moment before Tilda followed, then both hurried back to the safe room with their cold and wet feet slapping against the ancient stones.

Chapter Eleven

Fitzyear Coalmounderan was cross with the two Miilarkians for having wandered off, but it did no good to return the dwarf’s perpetual scowl and the girl Matilda was too pretty to stay mad at for very long. The gnome grumbled as everyone settled back into bedrolls but in the morning he said nothing more about it.

The second safe room was bathed in sunlight with the dawn and the spirits of Fitz’s men were high. It was not much farther to the Daulic side of the mountains where most of them were from. After a quick breakfast the group headed down the hallway toward the concealed door the dwarf had uncovered, which Fitz had closed after Block and Tilda‘s return. The gnome had of course noticed the door a long time ago but had never felt the urge to explore what might lie beyond. That was the reason why the Trellanes and the Dauls typically employed gnomes as guides on this subterranean connection. Dwarves, the Mountain Folk, lived their long lives almost completely underground, and had little sensible fear of the things in the world’s secret places. Gnomes, the Hill Folk, lived above ground as much as they did beneath it, and as a people they tended to have more appreciation for the sun and the sky. Gnomes went below ground so that they could come up again, and that was enough.

Fitz led the way past the hidden door and down the passageway to the right. For the next several hours the group traveled in their accustomed silence through what had once been heavily inhabited tunnels back when Yagnarok was a thriving city. The passages were all wide and evenly floored, connecting what had been large storage chambers and bunkrooms which now held only refuse as all potential valuables had long since been cleaned out, or else rotted away. Several shorter stairs connected descending levels so that by the time the group drew near the southern exit they were almost back to the same elevation as the wide thoroughfare they had taken for most of the second day, though not quite.

Their point of egress was not the actual aperture which had led into Yagnarok in its heyday. The ancient doors of the grand entranceway were presently buried under yards of dirt and yellow rock, the legacy of a long-ago landslide on the Yellow Mountain’s southern face. The present exit was located above the old one and had probably been part of the defenses as it would have given access to a walkway above the old gate. Fitz led the way through large storage rooms where siege engines once waited to be wheeled outside, but abruptly stopped and held up a hand. His men stopped instantly behind him, and after more than two days of similar such halts the travelers did as well. They remained silent save for the dwarf Block, who grumbled.

“Damn it, little man, we are nearly there. I can feel fresh air on my face.”

“That’s the problem,” Fitz whispered. “The door ahead is meant to be closed.”

He directed his men to hold their position which they did, setting down the lanterns and fingering their weapons. Fitz crept on alone into darkness and was gone for several minutes.

*

Tilda could now feel the motion of the air on her face as well, and faintly smell pines. There was no light from up ahead that she could see, and only the flickering lanterns with the wicks turned low played upon the nervous faces around her.

Tilda knelt with her gun on a knee and looked at the soldier standing next to her with his pick held ready. He was a young man Tilda thought spoke a bit of Codian, so she whispered a question.

“What is supposed to be up ahead?”

The man glanced at his fellows but answered her in a whisper.

“The Dauls do not hide this entrance as do the Trellanes. There is a little fort, maybe twenty men, high on the mountainside. There is a door that gives right into the yard and it is always kept closed and locked, as the men are close enough to hear knocking.”

“Why would it be open?”

Instead of an answer, Captain Block said Tilda’s name in a tone that meant shut up. She did. The gnome Fitz whistled lowly from up ahead, just announcing his presence before stepping back into the lantern light so that no one chucked anything at his head.

He spoke quietly in Daulish to his men. Tilda saw their eyes widen and brows knit. The gnome then turned to Block and spoke in Codian.

“We have a problem. The fort is sacked. The only men I can see are dead.”

A soldier asked a question to which Fitz shrugged and answered in Daulish before repeating himself in Codian.

“There are three bodies in the last room, probably ran in here but got no further. The door is wide open. I didn’t see any men outside but there is equipment all over the place. Bows and shields, everything ransacked. The barracks is a smoldering wreck. My guess is most of the garrison was inside when it was fired. Anyone who got away, gods help them, are long gone.”

“What killed the three in the last room?” Block asked. Fitz sighed and pushed back his cap to mop his brow with a dirty hand that left smudges.

“They are bashed up rather stringently. Pulpy, almost.”

“ Ogru,” one of Fitz’s men said, but Dugan shook his head.

“There are no ogres in these mountains. Probably bugbears.”

All the men seemed to understand his last word, and nodded grimly. Tilda wanted to ask what in the hells was a bugbear, despite being certain that she was not going to like the answer. Block continued before she could ask.

“If they are gone, they are gone, and if the barracks have burned out it was a while ago. Lead on, Coalmounderan.”

Fitz closed one eye and raised the eyebrow of the other.

“Begging your pardon, Cap’n, but I’ve orders to head straight back should any trouble crop up on the Way.”

Block sneered. “We are what? A few hundred yards from the exit? Do you really think I am going to turn around and march back three days, only to be on the wrong side of the mountains again?”

Fitz sighed through his large nose. “No, I don’t. But I am saying that not one of my boys is setting another foot forward. Were you wise, neither would you.” The gnome pointed a stubby finger almost into the dwarf’s broad chest. “With the fort sacked you are still a day from anywhere. The Dauls would have given you escort, but with them run-off at best, and bugbears in the hills, how far do you three expect to get?”

Block glared, and when he spoke it was to Tilda.

“Gather our baggage. Separate just what we three can carry.”

Tilda stared, and such of Fitz’s men who lugged some of the Miilarkians’ possessions started setting down bags and packs next to her.

“Captain,” Tilda said. “We can’t carry more than a…”

Block silenced her with a look. Tilda snapped her mouth shut and settled to a seat on the floor, undoing the drawstrings on the nearest duffel. She knew the way ahead was going to be dangerous, but that was a given. But she also knew they were about to abandon quite a bit of money, not just Block’s but hers, and that made her want to tell the dwarf what she thought of him at the moment. Tilda breathed through her nose as she sorted the necessary from the wanted, and tried not to keep a running total in silver in her head.

Fitz and Block glared at each other all the while, the gnome shaking his head. The soldiers shifted nervously and kept glancing up the hall. Dugan emptied the bags that were going to be easiest to carry, those strapped as backpacks and pouches that could hang from belts and shoulders, and adroitly repacked the things Tilda separated to bring along. Flint and steel, canteens and wineskins, socks and undergarments. A small lantern and fuel. Weapons and ammunition. They had barely any food, and a full change of clothes was suddenly an impractical luxury. Tilda left at least two bags full of souvenirs she had gotten in Tull, the Beoshore, and Orstaf. Small things bought, bartered, or otherwise acquired. The riding boots were just too good to leave, and Tilda stuffed them full of small bundled items, tied the laces together, and slung them around her neck before standing and awkwardly wrestling on a backpack over her buksu club. She had to keep her hands free for the long gun as the emptied case was staying here.

She helped Dugan hang a backpack on either shoulder and tied them together in the middle to give him the appearance of a turtle. Captain Block cut a long strap from a spare pack and fastened it to his kit bag to sling it over a shoulder. He looked around at all that remained on the floor.

“Take what you want as a tip,” he said to Fitz. “For services rendered, such as they were.”

Fitz sighed. “There is a road, or at least a cut, running due south out of the fort. One day on that and you’ll overlook the Cross-Heftiga High Road. Left to Mont Royal, the right bends down into Chengdea via the Sibyl River.”

There did not look to be any more formal parting forthcoming, as Block strode away without another word. Tilda and Dugan moved to follow but as she passed the gnome he said one more thing.

“Miss Matilda.”

“What?” she snapped, sounding angry in her own ears.

“Don’t go out there.”

Tilda stopped and looked back. The little gnome‘s grin was nowhere to be seen and his amber eyes were solemn in the low lantern light.

“It isn’t up to me,” Tilda said, and she left.

The bodies in the last room were as bad as Fitz had said. They had been soldiers and lay in a heap surrounded by dented shields and broken helmets. Their chain mail coats had acted almost like strainers.

Block edged outside first through the open door into a short tunnel with a bend that kept sunlight from shining in directly, which was fine with Tilda as there was nothing she wanted to see better. She stood next to Dugan as the dwarf slipped around the corner, and whispered to him.

“What is a bugbear?”

“Biggest breed of a goblin.”

Tilda glanced at him. “I thought that was a hobgoblin.”

“No, bugbears are even bigger. Maybe eight feet, at the shoulder. Covered in hair, like a bear. But they climb like bugs.” Dugan glanced briefly at the bodies. “They favor big bardiche axes. Or mauls.”

Block whistled from up ahead and Tilda and Dugan stepped into the tunnel. The walls and low ceiling were of loose stone braced with timbers, not the smooth stone construction of the rest of the Underway nearby. This bit had been excavated long after the dwarves were gone.

Around the corner the tunnel opening was behind a large boulder, concealing it from view from the mountainside and hills in the area. Tilda emerged from behind the great stone to find herself in a dirt yard surrounded by a tall palisade wall of sharpened tree trunks, forming a square that met the mountain to either side at sharp, scooped-out cliff faces. This whole section of the Yellow Mountain seemed to have slumped some distance down the slope long ago. A smoking pile of wreckage was all that remained of one long wooden building within the palisade, while another that looked to have been a stable was simply collapsed in a heap against the mountainside. All around the yard lay refuse; broken weapons and furniture, blowing parchments, shredded blankets, a few gleams that might have been coins. There was a wagon turned on its side and a broken flagpole with a purple emblem trampled into the dirt. Straight across from the tunnel entrance was a gap in the palisade where the gate had been. Tilda did not see any doors, but she did not know if that meant they had been battered in, or wrenched off.

She and Dugan spread out a bit, both looking back up the mountain behind them. The way was steep. Tilda thought she could probably negotiate it but doubted something bigger than a hobgoblin could, no matter how bug-like were its climbing abilities. Block had crossed to the palisades and mounted a narrow walkway on the inside. He stared at the surrounding country all around in a number of directions for several minutes before coming back down, and approaching the others in the middle of the yard. The Captain met Tilda’s eye and pointed one finger at the ground. He crooked it and rolled his wrist in a circle. Take the weapon.

“I doubt it is worth looking for food,” Dugan said. “That’s probably what the bugbears were after.”

Block hurled himself into Dugan’s lower legs, grabbing a sandal strap in either hand and twisting. The man twirled and pitched headlong, crying out as Block straightened and actually hoisted him airborne before darting away. Dugan landed on his tied backpacks with a grunt and lay there, more turtle-like than ever. Block pulled a pistol from his kitbag but held it at his side, left-handed. With his right he pointed a dagger at Dugan’s face.

Dugan blinked at the dwarf and sighed, then looked down at his own hip to where he had shifted his short sword to hang from a cord. The cord was cut, and Tilda was standing several paces away with the heavy imperial gladius in her hand. Dugan looked back at Block.

“Seriously. You want to do this right now?”

“Tell me where John Deskata has gone,” Block said softly. “Or Tilda repacks the luggage for two.”

Dugan lay back atop the packs, almost comfortably. He started to say something but abruptly stopped and shouted, “Cover!” He twisted sideways and started struggling loose from the packs.

“Don’t be an ass,” Block said, but then noticed at the same moment as Tilda that there was a shadow around Dugan, rapidly becoming bigger.

Tilda snapped her eyes up in time to see a boulder plunging down from high above, with more following. The first, half the size of a man, crushed a backpack Dugan had only just gotten loose from, missing him by inches and sending a sharp, echoing bang off the mountainside. The rocks behind it came like hail.

Tilda ran for the nearest shelter, the tunnel back into the Underway. Crashing rocks echoed behind her like cannon blasts, and a horn was blowing. She reached the bend in the short tunnel and turned to find the door closed. Fitz and his boys had shut it up behind them before leaving, but they could not have gone very far yet. Before she could start hammering on the door to bring them back, Dugan barreled into the tunnel behind Tilda and slammed her against the rock wall even harder than he had bashed her off the cottage before gutting Procost. She at least took this blow on her shoulder and hip rather than with her forehead, though she crumpled to the ground all the same. Dugan snatched his sword out of her numb hand as Tilda blinked up at him, and the blade. His eyes were as cold as they had been facing the knight.

“I’m sorry?” she tried.

“Me too,” Dugan said.

*

When the stone rain began to fall the closest cover to Block had been the smoldering barracks, which he ran behind. He looked back around the edge in time to see Dugan follow Tilda into the tunnel. He had fully expected Fitzyear to seal the door behind them and doubted the gnome would be brought back by any amount of pounding. Fitz was worried for his own men, which was a feeling not totally alien to Block.

High up the mountainside a horn sounded and guttural voices hooted and roared, almost barking. From a ledge or shelf far up there multiple pairs of hairy arms threw another volley of stones ranging in size from melons to barrels, most of which arced at Block’s shelter as they could not get at the tunnel opening directly below. Block put his back to the wall and looked at the open gate in the palisade as the rocks started crashing into the wrecked barracks, knocking down what remained of beams and scattering ashes and embers.

Tilda was likely dead already, as she would have been for sure had his and Dugan’s roles been reversed. Block could at least get out of here himself, and live to fight another day. The old dwarf growled and bolted out from behind the wreckage, turning away from the gate and heading back for the tunnel entrance. His own choice surprised him a bit.

He yanked a pistol from his kit bag and fired it up the mountainside on the run, knowing he was not going to hit anything but hoping to make the bugbears cautious, if they were capable of it. The hooting redoubled and more stones were hurled. Block dropped the pistol back into the bag, drew the other and fired it as well, which was a shame as at just that moment Dugan sprinted out of the tunnel entrance, sword in hand.

The man saw Block coming and angled away, meaning to move around him for the gate. There was no way the dwarf was going to run down the sprinting human, so Block skidded to a halt and spun, racing straight back to get to the gate first. Stones crashed all around both of them. Block and Dugan closed on the gate at the same time from different angles. Up the slope the bugbears howled, for the gate was too far away for them to pitch stones with any accuracy.

“Block!” the renegade huffed. Block slid a dagger from a sleeve and threw it at the man’s head. Dugan narrowly batted it away with his sword but the dwarf had another in each hand as they came together. Dugan tried to twist sideways but Block lashed out and cut him shallowly across a hip. Dugan swore and swung a blow the dwarf ducked under. Still half back-peddling, Dugan’s back hit a palisade post and he barely kept his feet. Block lunged a blow that would have nailed the man’s spine to the log through his belly had Dugan not proven exceptionally fast for a man his size. He threw himself sideways with another parting counterblow Block barely parried with his second dagger, as the first buried almost to the hilt into the wood.

Dugan rolled and came up swinging a blow that would have cut Block in half had the dwarf chased him right away, but leaving one dagger stuck in the wall he paused to draw a fourth from a boot. He threw it high as he charged but rather than bat at it Dugan only ducked and leveled his sword, forcing Block to switch his grip on the dagger he still held and bring it down against the sword blade, pushing both weapons to the side as he slammed into Dugan’s chest.

They fell to the ground, weapons locked. Dugan reached for Block’s throat with his free hand while the dwarf went for his eyes. Before either got a grip or a gouge, Tilda Lanai ran past the struggling tangle.

“They are climbing down the mountain!” she shouted in passing as she ran out through the gate.

Block blinked after her, then down into the furious eyes of the man under him.

“You didn’t kill her?”

“Does it look like I did, you mad little bastard?”

A smaller stone, only the size of a grapefruit, hit in the yard and bounced past them. Block looked over his shoulder and saw several great dark shapes scrambling down the sheer mountainside while those remaining above tried to skip smaller rocks toward the gate like they were throwing stones across a pond.

“Am I the only one running?” Tilda called from outside the fort. Block looked down at Dugan.

“Truce.”

“Get the hell off of me!”

A stone bounced by, narrowly missing Block’s head. The dwarf growled and stood to run, pushing off with a foot on Dugan’s sternum. The man likewise growled and scrambled to his feet.

A narrow but deep chasm Block had seen from the top of the palisade surrounded the place for the long-ago landslide here had cracked open the ground. When the Dauls had constructed their fort much later they had made the gate as a drawbridge, raised and lowered with rope winches Block had also seen above, all ruined now. The gate door was however left in its down position as a bridge. Tilda was already across it, pointing her long gun back at the mountainside where the bugbears descended back out of range.

“Careful,” she said. “The bridge wobbles.”

In fact it did more than wobble as Block ran onto it, with Dugan directly behind him. When the bugbears had bashed the winches and cut the ropes, the bridge had fallen hard, breaking the spikes that were meant to secure the far end. It had also knocked the round beam around which the bottom end rotated out of its metal braces. When Tilda had run lightly across it, the bridge had shuddered. When Block planted one foot on it at a huffing sprint, the near end of the unsecured wooden platform slid under the bulky dwarf’s weight, and he stumbled sideways. When Dugan hit it a step behind him the whole surface shifted sharply forward.

It was a near thing. The man fell forward and landed spread-eagle in the center of the short span. The dwarf, with a lower center of gravity, kept his feet. That made him stumble two steps forward, and just a bit sideways. One foot hit the very edge of the bridge, half-on and half not.

*

The Corner Stone of the House that Tilda Lanai served wheeled, spun his arms, and for a frozen moment she thought surely Block would catch himself, right the ship, and run across the bridge to stand beside her. But it was not to be.

Seeing Block’s predicament, Dugan scrambled sideways and threw out an arm, straining for the edge of the dwarf’s Guild cloak or even the end of his braid. Block tottered for a long moment. Then he fell. Dugan’s hand closed on nothing and his chin banged against the bridge. Just that fast, Captain Block was gone.

Dugan scrambled to the edge on hands and knees and looked down into the darkness untouched by the sun high above in the clear sky. He looked up at Tilda but she did not meet his eyes, only stared at the last place Block had stood. Dugan scuttled the rest of the way across on all fours, and stood up beside her.

“Tilda,” he said.

“What?” she asked numbly. He had no answer.

Inside the palisade one nimble bugbear had already reached the ground. It loped across the yard straight at the open gateway with its fellows whooping high above it, dark shadows cavorting against the yellow stone of the mountainside. Tilda looked across at it coming for a few moments, and when it was nearing the gate she raised her gun. The thick hair and hide of a full-grown bugbear might have been proof against a lead ball, but Tilda shot it in its gaping, fang-rimmed mouth. It fell in a heap.

“Tilda,” Dugan said again.

“Yes,” she said. She put a heel against the near edge of the fateful bridge and threw her weight at it, but it moved only slightly. Without a word Dugan crouched and put his hands on the edge, and shoved hard in time with her next lunge. The bridge did not move far, but in its present state it did not have to. A corner of the far end slipped off the rocky edge and the whole thing turned before plunging down, crashing and splintering for long, long moments.

High above on the mountainside, the shadows of the bugbears were still as they stood silently watching. The rest that had started to climb were nearly down into the yard. Tilda looked across at them. She set her gun down on its stock and dug a ball out of a pocket. She started to reload.

“Tilda,” Dugan said for the third time.

“I know,” Tilda said, though she was not sure what she meant. When her gun was reloaded, she turned and walked away into the woods.

Chapter Twelve

It had been so long since Zebulon Baj Nif had slept in a bed that when he awoke he had no more idea of what he was lying on than of where he was.

Something lumpy but soft, yielding in some places but firm in others. Zeb hoped faintly for a woman before realizing it was only a mattress, irregularly filled.

He opened his eyes one at a time, and blinked in the faintest light. There was a curving wooden wall on one side and a coiled hammock hanging above him, though he was on a bunk. Zeb became aware that his whole world was gently rocking. Hospital wagon, he thought. But no. The constant sound in his ears was not the creak of wooden wheels or the whine of an axel needing grease. It was the slap of waves on a hull. The roll of the sea.

“ Fatch ipi thrajipi,” Zeb muttered in Minauan, a phrase it would not do to translate. His voice cracked and rasped dryly.

Wood scraped wood, and Zeb craned his neck sideways. On the other side of the narrow room beneath a high porthole, a figure stood but remained indistinct in the meager light. Two steps brought it bunk-side and Zeb narrowed his eyes as it, she, knelt.

“Drink,” a vaguely familiar voice said, female and accented. A tin cup touched Zeb’s lips and he pushed himself up to his elbows to gulp the metallic-tasting water. When the swallow of water was gone, the figure withdrew and rummaged around somewhere. Sparks were struck, a candle flickered to life, and the Far Western woman with the long, black, unkempt hair stood on her tippy-toes in the center of the room to pass the flame to a lantern swinging from the ceiling.

Memory trickled back to Zeb more than it flooded. He raised his right arm and stared at the inside of his right elbow. Not a scratch. When he moved it though he saw the scarring to either side of the joint, faint white spider webs on his tan skin. The movement was painless.

“It is well?” the woman asked in Codian, returning to kneel beside the bunk and grasping Zeb’s wrist without asking. She manipulated the arm some more, bending the joint and moving it side to side. Zeb could not have stopped her had he wanted to, as he presently felt about as powerful as a sickly kitten. The woman peered at his elbow as would a carpenter who had just blown the sawdust off a fresh piece of work.

“Who are you?” Zeb asked, mouth no longer dry but his voice still rough. The woman blinked at him.

“You do not remember?”

“I do,” Zeb said. “But I never got a name.”

The woman let his wrist go, and Zeb’s arm flopped limply back to the mattress. She stood, wearing her trousers with the patched knees and a long shirt with a rough, thigh-length hem, likewise beige and equally shapeless. She bowed from the waist.

“I am called as Amatesu.”

“And you still say you’re not a priestess?” Zeb croaked.

Amatesu straightened and looked thoughtful, giving her small mouth a pretty purse.

“I am not a cleric in the way of Noroth,” she said. “Not dedicated to a single god of your Ennead. I am shukenja. I am…a talker. With the spirit world.”

Zeb had no idea what that meant, though if the arm which he had thought was sure to be an amputation job was healed, he was fine with whatever Amatesu wanted to call herself.

“But you did fix my wing here, right?”

Amatesu blinked. “Wing?”

“Arm, I mean. It is just a…manner of speaking.”

“You do not have wings.”

“No, I know that…” Zeb sighed and with a grunt he managed to sit up slowly and turn sideways on the bunk, shaking bare feet out from under a coarse blanket and placing them on the deck flooring. He extended his right hand.

“I am just trying to say thank you, is all.”

Amatesu took Zeb’s hand and give it one quick shake. Her hand was small but her grip strong, and Zeb had an uncomfortable memory of her fingers inside his right elbow. Another sensation distracted him however as his bottom shifted against the mattress under the blanket.

“Am I naked?”

Amatesu nodded. She released his hand and pointed to the end of the bunk.

“There are some clothes in the…box. Locker. They are gathered from the sailors.” Amatesu wrinkled her nose. “Yours from before were…not good. I had to burn them.”

Zeb was not quite there yet. “Sorry. Who exactly took my clothes off?”

“I exactly did.”

“And…” Zeb sniffed the air and faintly smelled lavender. “Have I been…bathed?”

“Yes.”

Zeb was nonplussed, but Amatesu’s face was utterly impassive.

“Okay then,” he finally said. “Well, if you ever need the favor returned…”

Amatesu blinked, and for just a second Zeb thought she almost smiled. Almost. But she was quickly back to business, nodding at the porthole.

“I suspect you have many questions. I shall let you dress, and you may find me on the…” she waved a hand at the ceiling. “Top floor.”

“Deck.”

“Deck. Thank you.”

With a final brief bow Amatesu turned to leave the room, stepping smoothly into her clunking wooden sandals without a break of stride.

The clothes in the locker were freshly cleaned, dark trousers with cuffs a bit too long, and an off-white billowy shirt that was too tight through the chest. Zeb could not comfortably close the eyehooks higher than his breastbone, and felt ridiculous with a plunging neckline.

His boots, armor, and helmet were wedged under a stool bolted to the floor, and as he pulled them out, Zeb blinked in surprise. Boots polished and re-soled, ring-mail links cleaned, oiled, and sown onto a new leather jerkin well padded across the shoulders where his old one had long since worn out. Even the Ayzant helmet with the nubby point of a broken spike had a fresh linen lining and new cords attaching the leather neck guards to the steel cap.

There was however no sign of Zeb’s axe, dirk, crossbow or quarrels.

Zeb slid the ring-mail on, mostly to address his neckline issues, and was surprised to find that it fit perfectly. He had a strange feeling that his unconscious body had recently been a tailor’s mannequin.

Or perhaps not so recently. Standing tall to peer out through the porthole, Zeb saw only blue sky and water, no coast. Apart from that, moving around had started his stomach to rumbling for he was famished. He blew out the lantern and stepped out of the cabin through a door that did not fit very well in its jamb.

He was in the middle of a passageway, stairs and daylight at one end but the rest lost in darkness. He walked for the light with both arms extended to trail along the walls and the additional cabin doors, though the rocking of the ship was quite modest. A big vessel, then.

Halfway to the light, Zeb stopped. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and though it was warm, he shivered. He turned and stared down the passage behind him but saw only darkness, and heard only the creaking of the ship. He went on, looking back every few steps, and mounted the worn wooden stairs as fast as still wobbly legs would take him.

Topside was sunny and canvas sails flapped overhead on two masts, one front and one back, or fore and aft if Zeb had the lingo correct. He emerged on the forecastle and a few sailors loitering about looked over at him, none seeming to be surprised. They were in main swarthy men with skins baked by the sun of what Zeb at least hoped was still the Norothian Channel.

Amatesu was approaching from above-deck cabins to the aft, but before she reached him Zeb headed for the starboard gunwales, the opposite side from his porthole below. He was relieved to see a dark line of coast on the northern horizon, though it was far away. Too far to swim, for sure. They were sailing west. Amatesu arrived with a deep wooden bowl, steam floating up and carrying the smell of clams. She handed it over with a spoon and Zeb had bolted half of the thin chowder before mumbling thanks. Amatesu waited, looking toward the coast with her lank hair blowing wildly about her face.

“How far are we out of Larbonne?” he finally asked.

“Four days.”

Zeb blinked and swallowed a spoonful without chewing.

“Today is…the Twenty-second Day of Eighth Month?”

Amatesu frowned. “I do not know your calendar well, but that sounds right.”

“And I’ve been down all this time?”

“For four days. You needed rest.”

Zeb nodded, thoughtful. Hungry as he was he was not actually starving, but he was too embarrassed to go any further into detail on just how Amatesu had handled his care and feeding for all that time.

When the bowl was empty a nearby sailor stepped over and held a hand out. Zeb gave him the bowl and said “ Bekhem,” in Zantish. The man answered “ Na darin,” which sounded like the Channelspeak that was a blend of about a dozen coastal languages. The fellow took the bowl back aft, where Zeb now noticed the Far Western swordsman he had last seen four days ago, standing by the open hatch to the galley with his arms crossed over his ornate breastplate. His two swords were still at his belt though the man did not wear arm or leg greaves at present, nor his helmet. He was bald apart from a long, tight topknot, and was looking in Zeb and Amatesu’s direction with an impassive face. Zeb sighed.

“Okay. So I remember the two of you came looking for me by name, with the platoon. And I guess the boys let you take me after I passed out.”

“We, I lied to them,” Amatesu said, though it did not sound much like an apology. “They were told we would bring you back to them in a day or so.”

“Uh-huh. And I am here because I can speak Codian and Zantish?”

Amatesu nodded. “I speak Codian, as poorly as you can tell. But our employer speaks only Zantish.”

“Our?”

“Mine and his…the lordship Uriako Shikashe.” Amatesu indicated the swordsman across the deck with a polite and somehow formal roll of her wrist, then met Zeb’s eyes levelly. “And now of yours, as well.”

Zeb sighed through his nose. He had gotten his fill of working for Ayzants back in Larbonne.

“And, pray tell, just who and where is this employer?”

“The Madame Nesha-tari Hrilamae. She does not like the sea, and so remains below the decks.”

Remembering his shiver down there, Zeb almost had another one. But that was well down his list of problems at the moment.

“So where are we going?”

Amatesu nodded toward the prow and the west. “We shall make land in the Codian city of Souterm in a handful of days.”

“And what is the job?”

Amatesu did not answer that, but only looked out over the water.

“I am not sure I should say. That should be for the Madame.” She looked back at Zeb. “But your part will be just that of…how is it called, when one talks two languages between two who do not?”

“Translator.”

“You will be the translator. The job is for Uriako-sama and for myself.”

Now Zeb looked out to sea, which made sense as that was just where he felt himself to be.

“Okay, then.”

“I am right in thinking ‘Oh, Kay’ means yes?”

“It does,” Zeb said. “Or come to think of it, it is more like saying fine. As in, I feel okay, or I am okay with the plan.”

“Okay,” Amatesu said and nodded.

There was more Zeb would have asked but Amatesu waited only a moment before she turned away and walked across the wide, swaying deck to where Uriako Shikashe watched and waited.

*

Amatesu stopped and bowed formally to Uriako-sama who scarcely nodded in return, arms still crossed and eyes narrowed at Zebulon Baj Nif.

“What does he say?” Shikashe asked in formal Ashinese.

“He asks where we go, and what we are to do there. He does not, however, inquire as to payment.”

Shikashe’s dark eyes flashed toward Amatesu and one finely-plucked eyebrow arched.

“What do you take this to mean?”

Uriako Shikashe and Amatesu had known each other for decades and journeyed together for years. While their backgrounds were very different they had come to find that in many things what each of them knew or did not know was complementary. Shikashe knew how men behaved while they were together at war. Amatesu knew other things.

“It means that as soon as we make landfall and the opportunity arises, Zebulon Baj Nif intends to run.”

Shikashe smiled very slightly at one side of his mouth.

“That will not be a problem, by then.”

“No,” Amatesu agreed. “By then, Madame Nesha-tari shall have made herself known. After that, the man will not go anywhere.”

Amatesu glanced at the deck beneath her feet and made a small gesture with one hand, two fingers bent under her thumb and two extended. It was not a gesture typical of any shukenja school, but from a far more ancient peasant tradition. It was meant to ward away evil.

Chapter Thirteen

The bugbears did no more cavorting. Those that had climbed down into the palisade gathered around the dead one Tilda had shot in the mouth, roared at the sky and beat their great fists against their broad chests. When they climbed back up the same way they had come down two carried the dead one between them. Tilda watched from the pine woods across the chasm and would not have thought such an ascent possible until noticing that the bugbears used their large, hairy feet just like a second pair of hands.

The sun went down a few hours later and the night was illuminated by the panoply of stars and a waxing moon. The sky had looked too crowded to Tilda ever since she had left the great capital city of Miilark. She left the trees and stared down into the dark chasm. Dugan watched her from nearby. She turned and moved toward him, leaned her gun against a tree and removed her pack. She left her cloak, several daggers, and her club, though she shifted her sword to her back. She put a candle in her boot.

“There is no point, Tilda,” Dugan said. She didn’t look at him but moved back to the chasm’s edge and lowered her legs over the side, boot-tips probing for purchase.

The climb in the dark was bad, but not the worst Tilda had made. She had ascended the Ghost Mountain as part of her Guild training and the coral edges of that familiar peak were like knives in places. She had finished that climb with bleeding hands and feet for her gloves and boots had been shredded. Here, there were loose stones and soft-packed dirt she had to avoid, but the fact that doing so required her full attention and left her no room to think was actually a relief.

Centuries of rain and snowmelt had made the bottom of the crevasse concave rather than sharp, and Block’s body was easy to find once the candle was lit, lying beside the shattered wreckage of the drawbridge. It was bad.

The captain’s kitbag was nearby, the thing Tilda had to have. She opened it and found both pistols were broken, but she left them and the loose parts inside as they might be repairable. The map cases, the coin purses, and most importantly the money belt of Miilarkian banknotes were fine. There was an empty silver wine-flask, dented now, with an embossed gold seal of a Miilarkian ship on either side. Tilda looked at the flask, and toward the body, but ultimately dropped it back into the bag, closed the clasp and slung the strap across her back.

Miilarkians did not bury their dead in the ground, their final rest was at sea. There was a particular two-day long route out from the capital city taken by white funerary barges twice every tenday, past a holy islet where white albatrosses roosted and ashes were scattered on the waters. Tilda had no idea what dwarves did with their dead, but to her Captain Block was as much an Islander as was she. Yet she could not reduce the body to ash, and merely setting a fire that would burn out was unbelievably morbid.

She did the only thing she could think to do, drawing her sword and jamming it into the ground at the Captain’s feet. She went into a coin purse in the kitbag, holding the candle close. She found one of the few gold coins, a bright Codian Sovereign with the Book-from-the-Water design of the Code from the Lake on one side and the young Emperor Albert in profile on the reverse. She closed her hand around the coin, shut her eyes, and spoke in Miilarkian.

“Gracious Miisina, Our Lady of Coin. This I ask. When the snows of the mountains melt and this passage runs in stream, let its waters to river fly, thence to Channel, thence to the great Ocean you have made Ours. Let the soul of this good Islander be borne by the Wind, to its home. This I ask. For this I pay.”

Tilda knelt and placed the coin on the ground. She set a water-smoothed stone atop it. She stood, wondering why she could not cry. She wanted to, but knew the Captain would have shaken his head and growled. Probably told her she was an idiot. There was work to be done, still.

She sniffled. Once. Tilda rubbed her nose on a sleeve and blew out the candle. She turned to make the climb back up.

Dugan was waiting when she neared the top, though the night was surely past its mid-watch by then. He extended an arm when she drew near and after a moment of hesitation she clasped hands and let him pull her up the last few feet. Tilda stood with her aching back bent and her scraped hands on her knees, breathing heavily but not panting.

“Thought you’d be gone,” she said between breaths. Just as on the night they had met, Dugan was mostly a silhouette in the darkness.

“And what would you have done then?”

“Chased you down.”

Tilda straightened, and faced Dugan in the starlight. “Where is he?”

Dugan’s head tilted. “John Deskata, you mean?”

“Good guess.”

He did not answer right away, and then suddenly he did.

*

Once upon a time, before years were even numbered, the first human civilization on the continent of Noroth built a great city they called Vod’Adia. They were known as the Ettaceans, and in their language Vod’Adia meant “Black Stone.” Though none could say in truth what had happened there, for a thousand years the name was a byword in many human tongues for pride, hubris, and calamity. For that same thousand years the site of the city itself was unknown, though it was believed by scholarly types to have been somewhere in the hobgoblin and bullywug infested wasteland still called the Vod Wilds. In the year 999 of the Norothian Calendar, Kanderamath, the Second Witch King of Tull, disappeared in that wilderness searching for the fabled place.

Ninety-nine years later in 1098, the Wilds were overrun by creatures that drove the hobgoblins and bullywugs before them, and themselves spilled out both west into Agintan Doon and east into Chengdea, Nanshea, and other realms that would soon unite for their own defense as the Kingdom of Daul. That union was necessary for survival, for the creatures pouring out of the Wilds knew neither pain nor fatigue, but only hunger. They were the Undead, and the thirty years it took for humans, hobgoblins and bullywugs to exterminate them, sometimes even by fighting side-by-side, were remembered as the Dead War.

Priests, magi, and shamans divined and discovered what had happened. Kanderamath had discovered Vod’Adia in 999, and worked powerful spells that had allowed him for a brief time to enter the city that had been magically sealed for a millennium. The Witch King had never emerged from Blackstone, but somehow his spells had kept working. When ninety-nine years had passed the Closed city had once again Opened, for a time. Just long enough for the occupants of the place, the unholy animate remains of what had once been a thriving population, to pour out into the world they had left long ago and afflict it until bodily destroyed.

Given this understanding, the approach of the year 1197 was viewed with great trepidation in the Vod Wilds and the lands bordering them. The seven decades since the end of the Dead War had seen a budding rivalry develop between Agintan Doon and the young Kingdom of Daul, and hobgoblin and bullywug tribes again skulked in the Wilds, preying on settlements pushed too close to the ragged border of civilization and wasteland.

But in a moment of uncommon clarity humans and nonhumans put aside their differences. The hobs and wugs first made common cause, uniting the tribes under a council called the Shugak. Doon and Daul signed an instrument of (temporary) alliance, and each gathered an army on their wilderness border. To their surprise the young princes and old generals leading the armies were greeted by representatives of the Shugak under flags of truce. The hobgoblins did most of the talking, as the speech of the frogmen hardly seemed like language to most humans. Despite difficulties, negotiations were begun.

As the First Day of Tenth Month, 1197, drew near, the date which all manner of wizards and witch doctors had identified as The Day, a particular valley deep in the heart of the Wilds was ringed by the forces of two human nations, along with the plentiful war-bands of the united Shugak. The humans present were awed for no human eye had looked upon the valley in centuries, and returned to tell of it. The valley was steep enough to be a rift or a wide canyon, with sheer walls of black basalt. The only practicable route in was at the northern end, through a formidable military work of ancient Ettacean construction, with multiple tiers and a switchback road. The northern half of the valley floor was a blasted ruin of foundations and chimneys, fallen walls and broken roads. The southern half was at all times obscured by a whirling mass of dark fog or clouds, as high as the valley walls but no higher, in which the glimpse of a tall tower or a sprawling palace could, perhaps, have been only the trick of an eye.

When dawn broke on First Day, tens of thousands of narrowed eyes (along with the unblinking cupola eyes of the bullywugs) watched as the first rays of sun to strike the impenetrable fogbank made the whole mass shimmer from top to bottom, slowly turning a lighter shade of gray as it began to thin. The fog did not disappear, but it dissipated to a degree that the shapes of black towers, streets, palaces, and walls within were seen to be no trick at all.

For only the third time since the cataclysm, the single set of enormous doors in the outermost city wall of ancient Blackstone, the Sable City, swung silently Open.

And nothing happened.

The arrayed forces stood at arms for the whole day, slings and bows at hand, crossbows cocked, catapults wound, bombards charged with powder. But no mass of zombies shuffled forth, no horde of ghouls scuttled out on long, yellow nails. Not even a solitary wraith drifted out from the wide-open doors. Men, hobs, and wugs exchanged glances and shrugs, but stayed in the lines.

When night and the next day brought no change the lords and leaders met to discuss what to do. Some thought the armies should charge in, or at least send units to scout. Others said that if one Witch King going where no man should have had started all the trouble, best to let no one enter ever again. If the seers and spell-casters were right Vod’Adia would stay Open for one month, and no more. Many were willing to let it Close again for another century without incident, if that was the will of the gods.

The talk went on for a week without decision, or rather without formal decision. But all along the line small groups and parties started to make choices for themselves.

It was the humans mostly, for hobs and wugs are more sensible about certain things. Small bands of men began to slip past the posted guards, or sometimes they were made up of the guards themselves. In sixes and sevens and eights they snuck down from the switchback fortifications and crept across the valley floor, mostly after dark, though when they were seen by day cheering went up from the rim of the valley above. These bold or stupid souls penetrated the veil and thus became the first to pass through Vod’Adia’s gates, going in, in centuries.

They did not all come back out, but those that did brought wonders both to tell and to show. The ancient city, they said, was no kind of a ruin. Houses and shops, taverns and eateries all stood as though the people had just stepped into the next room. Twelve centuries before Vod’Adia had been the centerpiece of the flourishing Ettacean Empire, and the place still looked it. Painted porcelain plates and silver utensils still lay on cherry-wood tables, embroidered gowns of Chirabin silk hung in wardrobes. Where streets met at intersections their names in a long dead alphabet were inscribed on golden plates fastened to buildings. There were silver coins with strange faces, fluted glass vessels, clay jugs with blue bees painted on them. Small statues solemn as idols, rich robes dyed deep purple, clay tablets inscribed with those mysterious letters. Piles of it. Heaps. A whole city’s-worth. Those who went in and came out could prove it, for they brought sacks of the stuff.

Not all who went in of course did come out. Some parties may have turned on each other after a particularly rich find, but in other cases the stories that came out of Vod’Adia were not of riches, but of fell creatures prowling after dark, or even in the eternal twilight of the daytime within the black walls. Monsters, pale men said. Devils. Demons.

Some did not return at all and others were brought out gravely wounded, but that made less of an impression than did the jewelry draping their fellows, the chests of coins and sacks of silver. For the next three weeks the pace of entries accelerated, for many even risked climbing down the cliff walls to get at the place. Nobles, officers, and tribal chieftains led or sent bands into Vod’Adia in their own names, but these were still outnumbered by the common soldiers who broke ranks to go in on their own. As Tenth Month came to an end the camp of the armies had become something resembling a caravan park freighted down with the most unimaginable luxuries. By the last day of the month all those who were to make it out of Vod’Adia had done so, and as the sun went down and the whirling fog thickened, the echo of the city’s Closing doors boomed across the valley and was answered with cheers, from the living. There was a tremendous amount of money to be counted, and no one thought to count the dead.

The armies went home and the riches even the common foot soldiers carried with them were sufficient to skew the national economies of Doon and Daul for decades. The stories swept the continent, crossed the Channel and covered Kandala as well. Had it been a century later Miilarkian vessels would have carried the tales to every corner of the world in a flash. As it was, word only got there more slowly. But as the Norothian Calendar counted up to 1296, there was scarcely a place under the sun where someone was not thinking of the Sable City, and dreaming of what might still lie within.

The Shugak knew this as well as anyone. Though hobgoblins and bullywugs are nothing alike, they are lumped together along with gnolls and orcs as the so-called “Magdetchoi” races and they are viewed with disdain if not outright hatred by most humans. The Magdetchoi are believed to be capable of little more organizational complexity than is required to launch a bandit raid on settled lands, but during the decade of the 1290’s the Shugak Council gave the lie to that prejudice.

Word went out from the Wilds years before the Fourth Opening was due that no foreign armies would be permitted to enter the broken hills, tangled forests, and dense swamplands the hobs and wugs called home. Not this time around. However, for a modest fee independent operators of Men, Folk, or whatever would be licensed in parties of up to ten souls, then guided to Vod’Adia through the treacherous Wilds from either of two locations, the river ports of Galdeez in the Grand Duchy of Doon (which had thrown off Agintan rule in the last century), or Old Chengdea on the Daulic side. Licensing offices were shortly to be opened in both cities, manned by intermediaries paid by the Shugak.

A license could be purchased to enter Vod’Adia for a price determined by how soon after the Opening the party wanted in, and for what tax rate would be levied on anything they brought out. In addition, merchant licenses were to be made available. The last time the city had Opened the army camps had become trading centers where fabulous items were bartered, fortunes were gambled, and a good bottle of wine might fetch a sufficient price to buy a vineyard. The Shugak had learned from this, and in preparation for the Fourth Opening they had already constructed an empty village at the valley’s northern end, rude but sufficient, with inn and store space available for rent. The place was called Camp Town from the start.

Doon and Daul were to receive a piece of the profits in exchange for cooperation, and for not invading. Negotiations resulted in both countries also receiving a certain number of low-tax Royal Licenses to issue themselves, both for adventuring and for trade.

Outside of the Wilds most thought the Shugak’s plan was ridiculous and unworkable. The types of formidable men and women who might be inclined to try their fates within the Sable City were hardly of the kind to queue-up to do so, and to fork over money for the privilege. Apart from that, who were the Shugak to levy terms on human kingdoms? Yet when the offices in Galdeez and Chengdea were opened one year before the Opening, business was brisk from the start. Among those first securing licenses for themselves were Doonish and Daulish nobles, whose honor seemed not to have been offended. Over the course of the next year they were joined by many more people from up and down the Channel, then from the length and breadth of Noroth and Kandala, then from across the seas and oceans. There were Ayzant Dragon Cultists and Martan bowmen, Agintan duelists and Illygard infantry. Dwarves with war-hammers and Halflings with innocent grins and multiple pistols. Oswamban mystics, Karkan wizards. Ashinese samurai and monks from Cho Lung. Some came as ten-person bands who had adventured together for years, others arrived alone and bought only passage to Camp Town where they would band together with others like, or utterly unlike, themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, the great merchant Houses of Miilark did not snap up every merchant license. Though they did make a good try of it.

When the first sun of First Day, Tenth Month, 1296, shone on the valley of Vod’Adia, there was an entirely different sort of army assembled on the north end of the valley floor in the rickety buildings and muddy streets of Camp Town. Many of the high Shugak counselors were absent, for it had occurred to some that if the veil for some reason did not become permeable as was expected, there was going to be trouble.

But the fog did thin, the gates did Open, and for the next month entrances went off like intricate, gnome-fashioned clockwork. Once again fortunes were made and lives were lost, and as always, the fabulous success of the few outweighed the fate of the many who failed. Vod’Adia Closed on its mystical schedule, and Camp Town and the ancient valley in the wilderness emptied out for another century.

Until 1395 of the Norothian Calendar. This year.

*

Tilda stared at Dugan in the starlight. “Vod’Adia?” she repeated, and Dugan’s silhouette nodded once.

“Vod’Adia?” she said again. Her brain was stuck on the idea.

“I take it you’ve heard of the place?”

Tilda waved an arm north.

“It is all anyone is talking about in every tavern from here to the Cold Seas! Of course I know the stories…that was the brilliant plan? The reason Deskata and his men deserted the Legion? To go get killed in Blackstone?”

“There is a bit more to it than that,” Dugan said, taking a step forward and holding out a hand with a small bundle wrapped in a cloth napkin. “Here. This is the last of the food. Few bites of salt pork and cheese, no more.”

“I am not hungry,” Tilda said.

“You should eat something.”

Tilda did so, almost mechanically, still gaping at Dugan between the few bites of dry food. She could hardly keep the fact that she had just said goodbye to Captain Block of Miilark for the last time in her head, as it was bouncing around with dozens of questions.

“Don’t you have to buy a license to go into that place? An obscenely expensive license?”

Dugan snorted. “You remember I told you John and the boys stole some gems and jewelry off me?”

Tilda started. “How much were they worth?”

“Enough,” Dugan said. “I don’t have any family, and a legionnaire lives without a lot of expenses. The stuff they took amounts to all I have earned or acquired in my whole life.”

“You must have done pretty well.”

“I managed.”

Tilda slowly shook her head. Dugan was still here, and she doubted it was out of any concern for her personally. She had thought he was going to kill her just a few hours back, stab her where she lay before the locked door back into the Underway. Tilda had actually been more stunned by the fact that Dugan had run off without killing her than she had been by getting bashed off a wall, yet again. Dugan could not have gotten out of Orstaf through Trellane’s secret passages without Captain Block dealing with the Baron, but Block was gone. Irreparably. And it did not matter in Daul that Dugan was a renegade Codian legionnaire, here he could go where he would. Yet he had waited hours for Tilda to climb down the chasm, and back up again.

Tilda tightened her hands on Block’s kitbag, thinking of the money within.

“You think you will have to buy entrance into Vod’Adia yourself. To catch Deskata there.”

“That would be pointless,” he said. “If he and the boys get to Chengdea and buy a license, my money is gone. I don’t know what route they will take to that place, but that is where they have to go. I have to be there before they arrive. Cutting under the mountains should have saved me enough days to do so, if I travel fast from here on out.”

“Then why are you still standing here?”

“Because there are still five of them as far as I know, and they are not going to want to see me.” Dugan’s head bowed as he lowered his eyes to the ground. “Three against five was better odds, but two is a minimum. Especially if one of those is a Miilarkian Guilder.”

That raised the issue of which Tilda had been aware since realizing that Dugan believed the Guilders had come to kill John Deskata. If Block had decided how to deal with that problem when it inevitably came to a head, the Captain had never said a word to her. Dugan had been miscounting his odds from the start, and now Tilda was going to have to deal with it alone.

“Now,” Dugan said. “This all presupposes that you still mean to go after Deskata yourself. Without…him, to order you around.”

Tilda’s nostrils flared and her head jerked slightly.

“Do you think I would stop now, with the Captain lying dead in a hole? That I would dishonor him like that? He chose me to be here, and here I am, still.”

Dugan shrugged. “How the hell do I know how you people operate?”

Tilda glared. “I am going on.”

“Good. More the merrier.”

Dugan retrieved two packs from the trees. Tilda could tell by how they hung from his arms that he had re-packed as much of their increasingly scant equipment as had made it out of the palisade. He dropped the lighter one beside the leaning gun, club, daggers, and cloak which remained where Tilda had left them before her climb. He shouldered the heavier pack to his back.

“We should walk and not stop before daybreak. The bugbears might come back here with the dawn.”

Tilda replaced her weapons and pulled her cloak back on, put her buksu in its back sheath and the long gun over a shoulder. Dugan began to lead the way but she stopped him.

“There is one last thing.”

Dugan looked over his shoulder in the dark.

“You slammed me into a rock wall.”

Dugan turned around. “Yes, but you stole my sword first.”

“Back in Trellane’s lands, you bashed my head off a cottage.”

Dugan sighed. “And I apologized for that.”

Tilda kept staring at Dugan in the dark until he shifted his bulky backpack.

“What?” he finally asked irritably. “You want another apology? Fine. I deeply regret all injury, bodily or emotional, that may have resulted from…”

“You did not tell Captain Block about Vod’Adia,” Tilda interrupted. “You know that if he didn’t think he needed you anymore, he may just as soon have cut your throat. Or told me to do it.”

Dugan was quiet, and Tilda took a step closer to him so that even in the faint light they could almost see each other’s eyes.

“I can use your help,” Tilda said. “But I do not need it. If you ever lay hands on me again, I will kill you.”

Dugan remained silent for a few moments before speaking.

“Do you feel better now?”

“No, I don’t.”

Tilda moved her tired legs south, leading the way into the darkness under the trees.

Chapter Fourteen

It took the slow Channel barge three more days to pass the treacherous shoals and bars off the swampy coast of the Vod Wilds before the sails were trimmed and the craft angled back toward land to enter the busy delta of the Red River. Two more days of hard work at the oars for the crew brought the vessel laboriously up the Red, until the famous riverine harbor of what was now the Codian city of Souterm came into view.

Zeb spent most of those days on the deck, staying close to the galley for he was still hungry at all hours. He cobbled together enough of the pidgin tongue known as Channelspeak to strike up a friendly banter with the ship’s cook, and the old Thuban fellow was a good enough sort to toss Zeb a wayward biscuit or briny pickle now and again.

The Far Westerners were generally topside as well. Amatesu stayed close to Zeb, plainly keeping an eye on him, but the woman’s quiet presence bothered him not at all. Zeb had always liked to talk and the shukenja had an interest in improving her spoken Codian. While she told Zeb very little about her native Ashinan, she provided an audience as he prattled on about Wakminau, the Riven Kingdoms, the Norothian Channel, or whatever else came to his mind.

The swordsman Uriako Shikashe was around but he tended to keep himself aloof from Zeb as much as he did the ship’s crew, preferring to spend his time alone and gazing out grimly from the gunwales. The man always wore his ornate, skirted breastplate and both of his swords as though concerned a marlin might leap onto the deck at any moment and have at him. As for the Madame Nesha-tari Hrilamae, she remained as mysterious as ever. There had been no sequel to the odd feeling that had raised Zeb’s hackles the first time he stepped out of his cabin, and he still had yet to see the woman Amatesu called his new employer. The shukenja took a bit of poor-quality vegetables down her way at meal times, inspiring Zeb to formulate a theory that his unseen employer was actually a bunny rabbit.

The slow passage to the port gave Zeb long hours to watch the riverbanks roll by, though the sight was not encouraging. The left bank of the Red was in theory Codian Doon while the right was the Vod Wilds, but there was no “west” or “east” bank for near the coast the river twisted through a tangled morass of bayou, mangrove, and saw-grass buzzing with toads and bugs Zeb could hear even from the deck. The geography was part of the reason pirates had successfully held the city now called Souterm for so long back when the place was known as Murdertown, despite having all the naval powers of the Channel against them.

In short, it was not going to be a good place to dive overboard and swim for freedom.

Zeb still meant to bolt, and he knew how to run. Most men who came of age in the Riven Kingdoms were press-ganged into armies with some regularity, and before a battle that looked to be particularly thorny whole battalions could melt away into the woods. The King of Antersau had once joked that the hawk on his banners should be replaced with a more representative local bird, the Flying Deserter. From the Drannian Highlands to the Lower Ghendea, peasants fortunate enough to actually harvest a field always whistled sharply before sticking pitchforks into haystacks. A Riven Man did not live long if he did not learn when to beat feet at a young age.

Amatesu would not say where they were going, but Zeb had a good idea. An Ashinese warrior who looked like grim death itself, a shukenja with magic powerful enough to repair a ruined arm, and a mysterious Ayzant woman, or possibly bunny, with the royal-sounding name of Nesha-tari Hrilamae. Sailing to Souterm just down river and road from Galdeez, little more than a month before the Fifth Opening of Vod’Adia. The three strangers Zeb now found himself with, one of whom he had yet to even see, were not going to Doon for the coffee.

For the months of siege Zeb had spent in Larbonne, the Ayzant army had been reduced by more than just disease and the resistance of the Dauls. Larbonne was just a couple of weeks downriver from Chengdea, which along with Codian Galdeez were the two border towns through which the hobgoblins and bullywugs of the Vod Wilds allowed entrance into their lands once in a century to those wishing to brave the Sable City. More than a few of the besiegers had slipped out of the lines to try their luck further north, enough so that Ayzant officers regularly spread the bloody stories of what the Daulic forces in Chengdea were doing to any small groups of armed men coming their way from the south. More than a few times mangled bodies in ring mail armor “found on the roads,” were brought back to the lines for display.

With the port of Larbonne closed by the siege for much of the year, adventurers bound for Vod’Adia from abroad had been forced most often to take the route through Codian Souterm and Galdeez, and Zeb had no doubt he was with three of them now. For the moment. But he’d be damned if he was going anywhere near a magic city full of the unholy hosts of the netherworld. He would probably be damned anyway in due time, but not while he could still run like hell was at his heels.

Zeb prattled on to Amatesu but his mind was on Souterm long before the city came into sight. It was there that he intended to make his disappearance, the very first time the opportunity arose.

Around midday of the 27 ^ of Eighth Month the crewman watching for sandbars from the foremast first gave the shout that Souterm was nigh, and a huzzah echoed from the men sweating at the oars. Zeb and Amatesu moved from the slim shade beside the galley to the fore deck, and as the barge cleared the last torturous bend of the river they watched the city of Souterm appear before them.

The place was as grand as Zeb had every reason to expect. Though he had never been this far Down Channel before, Souterm was the sort of place preceded by its reputation. The oldest human city on Noroth had a history as complicated and convoluted as that of whole peoples and nations, and Zeb was faintly surprised by the number of landmarks he knew by his very first sight of them. There were the ancient Ettacean works of black stone, including the featureless stone cylinder standing like an iron rod on the stony spur of an island jutting into the wide harbor. That was now the Wizard Tower within the Circle Compound on Again Island, though no one had set foot within the tower itself for centuries. There were the spindly piers and twisting alleys of the lower west bank that dated from pirate times, backed by the even row houses of Broadsword Ridge between the hulking Castle of the Exlanders and the intricate White Cathedral of List, defining the part of the city seized by crusading knights from the Order of the Albatross. On the east bank of the wide river was a leafy green district of what seemed to be an entirely separate village below the massive and many-turreted palace of Denando the Great, the Agintan King who had extended his kingdom to this side of the Channel for a time.

Zeb pointed these sights and others out to Amatesu, and told her briefly a bit of what he knew about them. The woman nodded and looked interested, though she may have been humoring Zeb. He knew that the oldest and most storied town on Noroth was still far younger than those ancient cities of the Farthest West, but the shukenja was nice enough not to say so.

The men at the oars had struck up a cadence as they pulled into the wide harbor and the man in the foremast crow’s nest called down corrections so the barge’s course did not cross with any of the other numerous vessels plying the red-brown waters, everything from tall ships flying Miilarkian House pennons to little fishing craft from the east bank Pescadero. The barge moved for the west side of the harbor intent on a square fortress rising on a spur of natural rock, moss-covered and with the upper battlements retrofitted to sprout a number of stubby cannon barrels. The place flew a wide flag bearing the Codian emblem of an open brown chevron on a blue field representing the Book-from-the-Water, or the Code of Lake Beo. Zeb supposed that the old gray fort did as a customs house. He wondered how the band to which he was for the moment attached intended to clear Imperial customs, then noticed that the oarsmen had stopped singing.

He looked around. Uriako Shikashe stood nearby kitted out in his full-on regalia, and along with Amatesu both were looking back across the deck to the entrance to the aft cabins. So were the men at the oarlocks bolted to the gunwales. High above them the man in the crow’s nest had ceased barking. For the moment the barge was drifting under light sail.

Nesha-tari Hrilamae stood in the hatchway. Zeb supposed it was her, as she was the one person on this boat he had yet to see, though in truth he could still not see her very well even now.

The woman with the noble Zantish appellation “Hri-,” meaning “daughter of,” on her surname was ensconced in a voluminous cloak of sandy beige that looked golden under the warm noonday sun, topped by a peaked hood deep enough to shadow her face. There really could have been about anything within the bulky garment, but as she strode across the deck there was a roll to Madame Nesha-tari’s hips and the smart clacking of boot heels that could not have been mistaken for anything other than female. She moved with what a man from Wakminau would call the marsik ik tsoo-tsoo, which loosely translated into Codian as a fetching hitch in her giddy-up.

Amatesu bowed as the woman reached the prow, while Shikashe only gave a nod. Zeb did not manage either, he only stood and blinked.

“ Canharati,” Nesha-tari said to Zeb, her voice at once clipped, yet with a husky sort of inflection that lingered. It took Zeb a moment to put aside Codian, and Minauan Danoric, and to finally find the part of his brain where he left his Zantish lying around. Canharati meant good afternoon.

“ Canharati, Mahadaci,” Zeb managed, and performed what was probably the deepest bow of his life, not so much from respect as from the fact he was trying to get a peek up into the shadows of Nesha-tari’s deep hood. He got no more than a glance of chin and though it had never really struck him before, a chin could actually be rather lovely.

“You are the translator, Zebulon Baj Nif?” she asked in Zantish, and Zeb rose and bobbed his head in a nod that probably went on too long.

“I am, Madame. At your service. Totally. Um. That is…”

Zeb had taken Nesha-tari to be about Amatesu’s height as she crossed the deck, several inches shorter than himself. He was surprised as he rose to find she was actually just about his own height. She brought her long-fingered hands together in soft gloves, also beige, and from one wide cloak sleeve she withdrew a stiff leather envelope wrapped in ribbon and embossed with the Ayzant Royal seal of a crown with red dragon wings. Zeb saw a supple wrist, smoothly tanned but lighter in complexion than was typical for a Zant.

“These are our papers,” Nesha-tari said, holding out the envelope. Zeb wiped his hand on his shirt before accepting the packet, as his palms had started sweating at some point.

“They state our reason for traveling to the Empire as the diplomatic business of the Ayzant Throne. You should not be asked to explain anything beyond that to the customs functionaries.”

Zeb was having a bit of trouble concentrating, for a curled lock of dark red hair had slipped from the edge of Nesha-tari’s hood to rest pendant-like just above the swell of her breasts, notable at the moment as the stiff harbor breeze from the fore was pushing her voluminous cloak back against her frame. Zeb was a big fan of that breeze. Nesha-tari’s cloak was belted at her slim waist and had an eye-and-hook clasp at the throat, but the lower length was moving back to reveal that her brown leather boots were knee high, and had pointed toes in the Zantish style. She wore them with short trousers, baggy and with the calf-length cuffs bunched up at her boot tops. She said something else that Zeb totally missed.

“ Paerdohna?” he asked, which was more Ghendalese than Zantish, though Nesha-tari seemed to get the gist of it. She looked at Zeb evenly as the breeze, of which he was growing increasingly fond, caught just enough of the edge of her hood to move it slightly back. Warm sunlight touched a high cheekbone and played at the turned corner of a full mouth. It glinted beneath an arched eyebrow in the bluest eye Zeb had ever seen.

“Repeat this to the Westerners,” Nesha-tari said, speaking clearly as though she were addressing a young child or a very slow grown-up. “We will be examined at customs by a Circle Wizard, for the Codians monitor all magic brought within their Empire.”

Zeb switched to the Codian language and repeated the Zantish woman’s words for Amatesu, who relayed them quickly into Ashinese for Shikashe. The swordsman frowned deeply and answered the shukenja with a flurry of words, one hand on the hilt of the longer of his two swords. Amatesu nodded and spoke to Zeb, who translated for Nesha-tari.

“Uriako Shikashe-sama says that the katana known as the Breath of Winter and the…what was the second thing? Wakizashi. Wow, that’s a mouthful. The wakizashi known as the Knife of Ice are carried as a sacred trust and shall not be relinquished unto any official…”

Nesha-tari snapped her fingers several times, which Zeb took as a signal to stop speaking.

“Tell them that as long as they remain close to me no magic shall be detected about their persons.”

Zeb did so, not even wondering how exactly that was going to work for he was becoming increasingly lost in the blue depths of Nesha-tari’s left eye, ringed as it was by heavy lashes that gave the sapphire a languid coolness, very striking against the tumbling, dark red curls beside her unblemished face.

She said something else, as did Amatesu, and Zeb responded to neither as he only stood and stared, swaying gently with the motion of the vessel.

Nesha-tari turned on a boot heel and headed back for the passage below decks. Zeb had one glimpse only of her full face, of flashing eyes and a fine nose in profile with a slight upturn that was positively adorable. Then she was gone, striding away across the deck. Zeb hated to see her leave, though as the oldest joke in any language went, it was a pleasure to watch her go.

Zeb sighed, hardly realizing that he did it very loudly. Nor did he notice as the man in the crow’s nest resumed barking from above, and the surrounding men went back to pulling at their oars.

Behind Zeb’s back, Amatesu and Shikashe exchanged a sideways glance, and a single nod.

The barge moved to the docks below the old square fort, and a gangway was thrown across. Nesha-tari reappeared on deck and Uriako Shikashe, resplendent in full armor and helm, led the way onto land with the Zantish woman right behind him. Zeb and Amatesu hoisted the group’s rather scant baggage and followed the pair up a wooden stairway to street level where two Codian legionnaires in gleaming breast plates and helms, tower shields and spears, stood to either side of an open hallway giving into the fort. The legionnaires rapped the butts of their spears as the foursome passed by and one spoke a polite greeting, which Zeb returned purely by rote as he followed Nesha-tari’s mesmerizing stride into the cool hall.

The hall opened into a pleasant courtyard with two levels of arched walkways on the four sides keeping the open interior in cool shade. Great ferns grew in enormous clay pots on the balcony level, and their overhanging fronds dappled sunlight on the flagstone floor below. The place smelled like clean stone swept with straw brooms, and a working fountain in the center filled it with the burbling patter of water.

A line of stout tables stood beneath the balconies across the way, manned by clerks with rope lines before them, not busy at present as most ship captains timed their arrival off the river for early morning. Zeb wondered faintly why their barge had put in at midday, almost as though the captain was in a hurry to off-load his passengers. Shikashe strode to the end of the shortest line and his armored sleeves creaked as he crossed his arms to wait, drawing a nervous glance from the small fellow in line ahead of him.

Nesha-tari’s words about a magical examination by Circle Wizards, spoken half an hour ago, finally registered with Zeb and he looked around until noticing a figure in gray robes on the balcony above, a young woman holding a gnarled staff topped by a clear crystal globe. Her lips were moving, and the pale fingers of one extended hand wiggled in the air. Standing directly in front of Zeb, Nesha-tari’s hood only tilted slightly to one side, and she never took her eyes off of Shikashe’s back. The Circle Wizard above looked bored and rested the staff against her shoulder. She met Zeb’s eyes for a moment with no particular enthusiasm, and drifted away from the edge of the balcony.

When it was their turn at the table Nesha-tari turned back to Zeb and beckoned him forward. He squeezed past her and Shikashe, passing close enough to the woman that he thought he got a whiff of some exotic perfume, something that made him think of a lone, succulent bloom growing in a high desert, which made no sense as Zeb had never been in a desert before. He handed over their papers to a polite clerk who thankfully did not try and make any small talk, which was good as Zeb was not sure he was up to it at the moment. After a cursory glance at the official Ayzant seal and documents, and some scribbling in a ledger, the foursome was welcomed to the Empire of the Code. They were waved past the tables and down another short hall which took them out onto a stone platform fronted with short stairs, giving onto the streets of Imperial Souterm.

There was an intersection immediately before the old fort, with a wide street extending due west in front of them to where the ground started to rise up Broadsword Ridge, while the even wider and busier thoroughfare of the waterfront ran off right and left. The center of the brick intersection was an open-air market with a hundred stalls selling as many types of food, busy now at the luncheon hour and with the hawkers noisily extolling their wares. The melange of smells was almost overpowering and Nesha-tari gave a single, stifled sneeze Zeb found charming. It also kept him from noticing a cluster of small figures sidling up on one side, until Uriako Shikashe took a menacing step toward them with his hand on the hilt of the longer of his two swords.

“ Bakemo,” the Far Westerner snarled, but Zeb knew the creatures as goblins.

There were five of them, half the size of grown humans but with outsized arms and bowed legs that looked spindly, apart from knobby knees and elbows. Their skins were more like rubbery hides and this group ranged in color from puce green to brownish orange. Their heads were oddly shaped, appearing wider than they were long, with bristly hair, wide noses, and oblong mouths filled with tiny white saw teeth. Eyes were large and colored pink to reddish-purple, and their long ears jutted from the sides of their heads like shriveled bat wings. They were dressed in tattered knee britches held up with suspenders, some with patched shirts. The bare chests of the others looked emaciated, with each rib standing out plainly.

The five recoiled in a group as Shikashe stepped forward and their large, bare feet slapped on the flagstone portico. Though their sudden appearance had startled Zeb he spoke quickly to Amatesu, telling her that the smallest of the Magdetchoi races were not on the Imperial Bounty List, and that they enjoyed a measure of freedom in Souterm. The shukenja passed Zeb’s words to Shikashe, but the swordsman just kept glaring at the little creatures whose innocent smiles only exposed their rows of sharp teeth.

“What do they want, Baj Nif?” Nesha-tari asked in Zantish. He liked the sound of his name in her mouth and it took him a moment to ask the goblins, in Codian. An orange one in front answered him in a sniveling tone and Amatesu translated quietly for Shikashe while Zeb did the same for Nesha-tari.

“They are porters, just want to carry our bags. I think they work for that inn straight across, with the two-headed dog on the sign.”

“Tell them I have my own porters,” Nesha-tari said, already turning away from the little creatures until another of them spoke, a green one in the back of the pack wearing a sort of bowler hat that matched its jacket. There was no simpering in its posture, and its eyes shone like burnished bronze. Its language was a sibilant tongue of hissing consonants and guttural vowels Zeb had never heard before, which was saying something. Nesha-tari stared at the creature for a moment, then answered it in the same manner.

“Very well,” she said, returning to Zantish for Zeb’s benefit and abruptly taking a step past Shikashe toward the goblins. “Go to the inn, and I will meet you there later.”

“What?” Zeb asked, while Shikashe looked at Nesha-tari with a raised eyebrow and started barking at Amatesu. Four of the goblins started to slink forward, still glancing nervously at Shikashe, who raised his voice until they recoiled back again. The last goblin with the bronze eyes nodded once at Nesha-tari and tipped its hat. It turned to walk off and Shikashe stomped a foot and shouted as Nesha-tari moved to follow, actually stepping in front of her to block her path.

Nesha-tari snarled at the Westerner but spun on Zeb and shouted herself.

“Nine Gods, you are the most tedious trio of…Tell the Westerners that they are in my service and shall do as they are told, without commentary in return. Go to the inn and take rooms, I will meet you all there later. Is that clear enough?”

Nesha-tari’s hood had ridden back when she turned, and Zeb was staring dreamily into her eyes. She raised a gloved hand and snapped her fingers in his face.

“Huh? Oh, right. The inn. You say you’re coming back? I mean, if you need…”

Nesha-tari snarled again before turning away and storming off, following the little goblin which had turned back at the base of the stairs to wait on her. Its skin was the color of jade and it had a golden stud in one wide nostril. It grinned broadly up at Zeb, Amatesu, and Shikashe, all of whom were talking over each other now, and gave the three of them a wink of one big, bronze-colored eye before leading Nesha-tari away across the noisy market. For some reason he could not explain, Zeb feared that he might be seeing the woman who he had seen for the first time barely an hour ago, for the last.

Chapter Fifteen

The bronze-eyed goblin had given Nesha-tari his name as “Edgewise” and though she was hardly in a laughing mood there was a comical aspect to the little creature’s progress through the city that made her raise an eyebrow a few times. Edgewise moved with a swinging, bowlegged stride, planting his large feet out in the opposite of a pigeon-toed walk. Whenever he crossed paths with any male human the goblin raised both bandy arms high over his head until the backs of his hands almost touched, wiggled his long green fingers and made a sort of apologetic hooting noise. When passing by a woman, the goblin plucked his hat off his head and doffed it before dropping it smoothly back into place.

He led Nesha-tari north for two long blocks passing shops and inns on the left hand side, while to the right between the street and the water was a brick-walled enclosure surrounding rows and rows of enormous, bee-hive shaped granaries. Despite his awkward stride the goblin covered ground rapidly, and Nesha-tari had to hurry to keep up in her cumbersome cloak and uncomfortable leather boots, both a sandy shade of tan as were all her clothes. They had blended into the desert landscape to which she was accustomed, but seemed to stand out here.

Edgewise took a street to the left and led her into a neighborhood of long, apartment-style timber buildings with orange terracotta shingles on the peaked roofs. Wide stoops fronted each and all were occupied by lounging people at the noon hour, who Nesha-tari supposed were native Soutermese or Doonish, though with their dark hair and complexions they looked little different than Zants. Except that many of these people were smiling. None seemed to look askance at the passing goblin, though a few children playing in the street stopped their game with a ball and imitated Edgewise’s walk to laughter from some of their parents on the stoops, and shushes from others.

Nesha-tari drew longer looks from the men, but as she was still maintaining her dampening spell she noticed their interest without feeling it as an annoyance. She had discovered back in Ayzantu City that the slight effort of keeping an aura of non-detection in place around her was enough to blunt her awareness of the attention she received. That was about all that kept the native of the Hakalya, the vast desert Desolation of central Ayzantium, able to function in the teeming, stinking world of Men. It was not a world for which Nesha-tari Hrilamae had been born.

The street ahead began to rise for a long ridge ran along the western side of Souterm, anchored on its southern end by a looming castle of gray stone and on the north by a tall white cathedral to some Ennead God or another, with ordered blocks of buildings in between. Edgewise took a street to the right before the one they were on mounted the ridge proper, and continued north on the plank sidewalks on the right-hand side. The left side, at the foot of the ridge, had stone walks and gutters above the cobbled street, and the brick buildings there had a sort of uniformity not matched by the various materials and styles of those Edgewise and Nesha-tari had been passing. It was the sort of detail Nesha-tari had never noticed before in a city, though she had of course never been in one until a couple of months ago. She wondered if there was a reason for it and considered calling out to Edgewise now several strides ahead of her. When she looked at the goblin she almost failed to recognize him.

This street was lined with quiet houses shut-up tight while their owners were out at midday, and as the block was empty Edgewise was no longer gamboling. The goblin strode ahead on straight legs and feet, hands thrust into jacket pockets, and with a stream of pipe smoke drifting back over one shoulder, which Nesha-tari could smell as a sweet and woody tang. For some reason the change in the goblin’s whole aspect startled her. Nesha-tari remembered where she was, and where she was going, and she did not enjoy the rest of the walk.

Nesha-tari had doubted from the first whether she, of all her Master’s servants, was best suited for the task she had been given. She did not doubt her own ability to ultimately accomplish it, but the fact that it meant leaving the Desolation for this noisome world was a constant trial. Though she had managed to control herself so far, Nesha-tari was learning that her power to control others, what her Mother had with a toothy grin called her Charm, operated whether she wanted it to or not. Thus far it had been more of an inconvenience than anything else.

Nesha-tari had hired the Far Westerners to accompany her before leaving Ayzantu City, and they had already proven to have been a good choice. As a woman Amatesu was outside of Nesha-tari’s influence, and the strength she had immediately sensed in Uriako Shikashe had allowed the samurai to maintain his own self-control. His will was as rock. The only problem was that the Westerners’ lack of spoken Zantish necessitated the presence of a translator. The first man had been a local merchant also hired in Ayzantu and he had not been up to snuff, though admittedly Nesha-tari had erred by not remaining sequestered in her cabin aboard ship from the Ayzantine capital to besieged Larbonne. Her presence on the decks of the first ship had in time worked perniciously on both the weak-willed merchant and the crew. That had led to a bloody fight among the men, and caused the delay in Larbonne to find new transportation, and the new translator. Nesha-tari had every intention of keeping away from the man Zebulon Baj Nif as much as possible, for it would surely be even harder to find someone speaking both Zantish and Codian hereafter.

That of course assumed that Nesha-tari would still be alive to continue on her task in another few hours, which to her mind was far from certain. While she was confident she could fulfill her Master’s purpose if she could get to where she had to go, the fact that her only viable route there led through Codian Souterm was patently ridiculous. Not because of the Codians themselves, for their bureaucracy was easily defeated by official paperwork, and if the girl Wizard at customs was a fair example then the Circle was every bit as feeble as Nesha-tari had been led to believe. Again, the world of humanity was an inconvenience, but not really a problem.

The Codians, however, were merely the newest bunch of humans to claim dominion over the city now known as Souterm, which the locals still called The Lady. There was something much older here, someone to whom the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires was only of passing interest. She was mistress of a realm marked on no map, but it was a realm which Nesha-tari could not pass through without permission.

Providing of course that the Lady did not simply kill one such as Nesha-tari Hrilamae, daughter of the Lamia, just on principle.

Edgewise walked most of the length of the ridge north and only capered at the intersections. They went on until they were almost directly below the white cathedral at the end, with its flying buttresses and spires filling the sunny sky above. Ahead of them loomed a great wall of giant black stones interlocked like bricks, running across the street and right up a steep side of the ridge. The old work gave the appearance of having thrust up from the ground in the middle of the neighborhood, though surely it had been here long before and the houses only built much later, flush against it. Edgewise took the last left before a cul-de-sac in front of the old wall, turning onto a lane that was as much a staircase as a street, multiple terraces several strides across that climbed the ridge. The goblin mounted several until reaching a fenced gate across the narrow alleyway between two tall houses in the shadows of the angling black wall. Nesha-tari caught up to Edgewise as he stopped to fish out one particular key on a ring holding many.

“How far are we going?” Nesha-tari asked, not winded but apprehensive.

“Until we get there,” Edgewise snapped without looking at her, as though that had been a stupid question.

The goblin opened a large iron padlock and swung the gate open. He gestured Nesha-tari into the narrow alley, and after a look at him she went. He stepped in behind her and pulled the gate shut, and in the deep shadows Nesha-tari’s blue eyes and Edgewise’s bronze ones both flared.

She could see perfectly now despite the shadows. The alley was uncluttered but so narrow that Edgewise could not easily squeeze around her. Nesha-tari went forward as there was no other choice, stopping only as she heard the big padlock snapping shut on the other side of the gate, though Edgewise was still right behind her. Nesha-tari went on. The houses to either side had fronted narrowly on the street, but both were very deep so that the alley between was almost a canyon, ending at the towering black wall after short lengths of tall fences enclosed the back yards.

The moment Nesha-tari drew even with the fences an explosion of snarling barks came from behind the one on her right. She hissed and flattened herself against the left fence, eyes flaring but seeing only the outlines of a hulking shape through the slats. Edgewise chuckled, rapped his knobby knuckles on the fence, and almost cooed in soft-spoken Codian. The barking changed to pants and whines, and the goblin grinned at Nesha-tari.

“I hate dogs,” she said.

“That,” the goblin said, “is not a dog.”

Edgewise stepped into the lead as Nesha-tari remained flattened against the fence. She sidestepped after him, still pressing back hard enough that splinters snagged her cloak. The unseen shape behind the fence growled, but it did not bark again.

The goblin rounded a corner, for while the right-side fence was built flush to the stone wall, that on the left turned in at a post and left a gap. Both Edgewise and Nesha-tari had to turn their shoulders sideways to step along, hands on the smooth stones and hips squeezing around posts. The goblin trailed the pads of his fingers along until halting halfway down, and held his hand sideways as though the tips were in the faintest crack. He turned to look back and up at Nesha-tari, one pointing earlobe twitching as it brushed the fence.

“Be right back,” he said, then turned and followed his hand into the crack that was not wide enough for a playing card. Edgewise.

Nesha-tari blinked at the space where the goblin had been, but in another moment there was a startling creak from the wall right in front of her. The dog, or whatever, started to bark again from the next yard, booming yaps that covered the grinding sound of stone moving against stone as a block as tall and wide as a doorway rumbled down right in front of Nesha-tari’s nose, and into the ground at her feet.

Edgewise doffed his hat in the doorway and waved Nesha-tari inside with a flourish.

It took her a moment to proceed. As much as a squeeze as the alley and fences had been, there was still open sky high above Nesha-tari’s head. Edgewise was beckoning her forward into a low-ceilinged tunnel, the interior the same black stone as the rest of the wall. She looked at the goblin’s eyes, and the glowing bronze pupils by which she had recognized him for what he was, just as he had known her by her blue ones. Nesha-tari balled her fists and stepped in past the goblin.

Edgewise knelt and spread his hands flat atop the section of wall that had slid into the ground, a great block as thick as it was wide. He lifted his hands, not gripping, but the block rose with them and continued to do so even when he took his hands away. The gap closed with a sound Nesha-tari imagined like a shutting tomb, and she shivered. With all natural light cut off she could see absolutely nothing until her blue eyes flared a bit brighter, and then she could. Edgewise was still grinning at her.

“Allow me a guess. You hate enclosed spaces as well.”

Nesha-tari did not answer. The goblin chuckled and stepped past her, wide feet slapping the smooth stone floor.

She followed him with her hands balled at her sides and ducking for the low ceiling. She could hear her own heartbeat loud in her ears. A tunnel wound deeper into the ground at a slope, soon changing from black blocks to a natural stone cleft with a rough floor and a higher, though not nearly high enough, ceiling. A minute or two seemed much longer before light from ahead began to thin the pitch darkness. Edgewise stepped out of the tunnel into a larger, dimly-lit space with a sandy floor. Nesha-tari almost sprang out of the cramped hall behind him, and regretted it immediately.

Her dampening spell which she was presently maintaining with no more thought than it took to breathe crashed in on her like a wind storm striking from every direction. Nesha-tari’s feet flew out from under her and she gasped, spinning wildly in the air a time or two before she landed shuddering on the sandy floor, on all fours.

“Did you have a spell raised?” Edgewise demanded, voice sounding alarmed for the first time. “You can’t come in here with that!”

The goblin squatted in front of her, bronze eyes gleaming. Nesha-tari snarled.

“You might have told me that!”

“I did not think it necessary to say. Would you be allowed in the presence of your Blue Master with an active incantation?”

“Of course not, but how was I to know we were close?”

“Oh, we are that,” Edgewise said, straightening and stepping aside. “Close indeed.”

Nesha-tari had her breath back but she gasped again as she took in their surroundings. They had entered a great cavern, rough rock rising to a dome high above the sandy ground over an area larger than several city blocks, which was an easy judgment to make as there were several city blocks within the cavern. Two compass-straight boulevards lined by rows of stone buildings rising two, three, and even four stories in the air met at a square around a massive, ziggurat-like pyramid, so tall that the rough ceiling actually pressed on the top tier as though it were a central pillar. The buildings all around the pyramid gaped hollow and empty with thick sand visible in the interiors, but the two wide boulevards were swept clean to reveal the brick surfaces. Both were lined by flickering torches on regularly spaced staffs, lighting the paths to the pyramid.

“Welcome,” Edgewise said, “to what was once the ancient city of Ettacea.”

Still on all fours, Nesha-tari stared at him, but she could think of nothing to say. Edgewise extended a hand and after a moment she took it and got to her feet.

The goblin led her down the ancient street between the torches. Nesha-tari saw no one else about, and though her spell was now ended she sensed no attention on her either. Certainly not that of a human male.

Great stairways extended out on ramps from the central pyramid which may have been constructed of the same beige sandstone as the surrounding buildings, though it was faced with panels of veined marble. Edgewise and Nesha-tari took the long stairs facing them up to the first ziggurat tier, where a circular doorway big enough to drive a wagon through awaited. The entrance was rimmed in bronze, casting back the torchlight from below, but the space within was a total darkness not even Nesha-tari’s eyes could penetrate. Edgewise took his hat off as he stopped before the portal, and held out his hand again.

“Is my cousin prepared to meet my mistress?”

Nesha-tari stared into the blackness darker than any she had ever known since her Master, Akroya, had given her eyes that were as blue as his, a very long time ago now. The thought of the Great Blue Dragon brought to mind thoughts of the petty misdeeds for which Nesha-tari had seen Akroya maim or even eviscerate others among His servants. Nesha-tari was more favored than any of those others had been, but she had no expectation of mercy if she displeased the Dragon in a major way. She nodded, the movement feeling awkward and jerky, and took the goblin Edgewise’s rubbery hand. They stepped into the darkness together.

It was like passing through a veil, or a wisp of cobweb. One step and Nesha-tari was again on a sandy bit of floor, and a soft light without source dazzled her eyes.

Before her were treasures beyond comprehension; coins and gems and objects carpeting the floor, mounded into piles, spilling from chests. The wealth of kingdoms and empires spread out to the inner walls of the ziggurat, which were themselves hung with embroidered tapestries and rich curtains of purple and gold. Yet none of it made any impression on Nesha-tari, for her attention was fully transfixed by the being in front of her, for She was Ladamia, The Lady, The Great Bronze Dragon, and she was beyond magnificent.

She was massive, nearly as large as Akroya though where the Azure One’s scales shimmered like a sunny sky, the Lady was everywhere a burnished shade of bronze, deepening to a warm brown along her great flanks and powerful limbs. Those limbs ended in grim claws like swords, presently sunken into the treasure carpeting the floor beneath her. She lay supinely, seeming to fill the vast chamber with her very self, tail coiled along the edges of the room and great wings folded back against her flanks of overlapping scales, each larger than a man’s shield. On her back along her spine emerged a double row of spikes, also folded down, that ran up the length of her long, graceful neck which described a vast over-reaching arc, like a bridge up to the heavens. Then there was her head, suspended in the air over Nesha-tari like the face of a god.

The Lady was crowned by a pair of horns with flared bony plates extending back from them, giving the joint of head and neck an armored appearance. She had a long, broad, reptilian snout that nonetheless gleamed as though polished, and her teeth were a white fence of swords. Though reclining in rest the Lady’s very stillness spoke of power, as though at any moment she chose she could languidly reach out a limb and throw down the stone walls around her. A flick of her tail could slice the great spade-shaped tip through the solid black bedrock beneath the city of Souterm, which the locals still called by her name.

Yet for all that, her gleaming eyes were gentle. Though Nesha-tari willingly served the Great Blue Dragon, his attention was always piercing. No one came under Akroya’s blue gaze without falling to their knees. But in the eyes of the Great Bronze Dragon there was a warmth. Almost, strangely, an inexplicable feeling of home. A home of a kind different than any Nesha-tari had ever known.

“Great Mistress,” Edgewise said, releasing Nesha-tari’s hand. “May I present my cousin, a servant of your Blue cousin in the east.”

The Lady’s voice came to Nesha-tari then. The Dragon’s mouth did not move but her words filled the room.

“Nesha-tari Hrilamae,” the voice said, conveying a sense of faint distaste that was something other than audible. “One such as you should not be.”

Though it was not said nor otherwise conveyed with malice, Nesha-tari’s heart lurched and she choked out a sob. She thought she might fall to her knees after all, but the Lady’s bodiless voice continued.

“Stand up straight, girl. I do not condemn you for what you are.” The great serpentine neck eased back and the Lady’s head lowered to regard Nesha-tari on a more even level. The great unblinking bronze eyes looked into hers with a depth of expression impenetrable to a human, or half-human, mind.

“You are protected by my Pact-given word, child,” the Lady’s voice said from everywhere. “Even were you not, I do not choose to kill indiscriminately. No matter your dark origins, you are what you do. Not just what you are born.”

Nesha-tari stammered. “I…I have not always done well.”

“No,” the Lady agreed, sending a wave of disapproval rolling over Nesha-tari that brought her close to nausea. The bronze eyes before her seemed to darken momentarily.

“You have the blood of innocents on you, it is true. But many of us do.”

Tears she was scarcely aware of coursed down Nesha-tari’s face, her real face. She felt an urge she never had before Akroya, whose presence demanded only supplication. But the Blue was a very different sort of dragon than was the Bronze, of the Sky and not of the Earth. Before the Lady, Nesha-tari wanted only to ask forgiveness for her failings, and perhaps for her very existence.

“But it is not mine to give,” the massive head before her said before anything was asked. “Now, you will speak to me of why my Blue cousin in the east has sent you into my domains, for I know you have not come for your own reasons.”

Nesha-tari had been instructed on precisely what to say to the Lady, beginning with a long, memorized litany of formal salutations from the King of the Sky. None of it was in her head at the moment and Nesha-tari spoke only truth, and that simply.

“Lady, I am bound for Vod’Adia, and must pass through your domain to reach it. Once there, I must kill a man who seeks to enter the Sable City.”

*

Zeb and the Westerners were awakened sometime before dawn by soft knocking on the door of the long bunkroom they had taken in the dockside inn. Zeb answered the door in his skivvies and was told by the night deskman that Nesha-tari Hrilamae was waiting for them outside. The fellow looked disappointed that Zeb did not tip him, but of course the Minauan did not have a coin to his name. Zeb perhaps could have used that fact to justify, at least to himself, what he was still doing here. Lunch, then dinner, then a good night’s sleep had been his self-justification yesterday. Now with Nesha-tari again close by, Zeb forgot for the moment that he needed a reason to stay.

Amatesu helped Shikashe back into the myriad straps and ties of his complicated armor, a process that took even longer than it had to remove the whole works the night before. The three then made their way downstairs through the dark inn and found their hooded employer waiting out on the street where a drizzle rippled puddles on the cobblestones. Nesha-tari had a goblin with her and the little cherry-colored creature had a wheelbarrow, but it left as soon as the others appeared. Their baggage went in the barrow under an oiled tarp, and Zeb did not have to be told he would be the one to wheel it.

Nesha-tari said nothing but led her band north up the waterfront, walking ahead with Shikashe just behind her, Amatesu staying close to Zeb and the barrow. Zeb watched Nesha-tari walk, and his thoughts were simple.

He noticed their surroundings only dully as the group passed by tall granaries, then a sheltered cove of the harbor where Codian warships sat at anchor. They turned east at the head of the cove, passing in front of a blocky, ancient fortress of black stone, renovated and flying the Codian flag from four towers. Beyond the fort a grand boulevard ran north, so wide that a series of miniature parks with low stone walls filled the center lanes, trimmed grass and shady trees from which birds were just beginning to sing. Nesha-tari turned up the boulevard and walked up the right-hand side of the street in front of gaily painted row houses with flower boxes under tall windows, plated with high-quality glass.

The rain picked up, dripping onto Zeb’s nose from the edge of his helmet. Amatesu lifted the cloth covering in the barrow and put her patched, high-collared jacket beneath it with the bags, leaving her in a long shirt of coarse cloth. The shukenja then managed to distract Zeb from ogling Nesha-tari as she turned her face up to the rain, which arched her back a bit, and ran her hands back through her long, black hair, ringing out strands and actually cleaning it for the first time in what must have been ages. She did so while stepping nimbly among the cobbles more smoothly than Zeb was managing with the wood-wheeled barrow.

“Amatesu, may I ask you something?”

Amatesu glanced at Zeb, and the slight, unconscious smile that had begun to play at the corners of her mouth disappeared, returning her face to its typical look of solemnity. She wrung her hair a final time and let it plaster loosely against her face and over one shoulder.

“A unseemly concern with one’s appearance is…unseemly. I bathe to be clean, and to be healthy, but not so that I might be…”

“Pretty?” Zeb asked. Amatesu kept looking forward.

“As you wish,” Zeb said. “But whether you are pretty or not is not really up to you. I mean, I suppose we could get you a long wax nose. Maybe with some warts.”

Amatesu quickened her pace to move a few steps ahead of the barrow, but she did not go so fast that Zeb failed to catch the brief return of her smile.

The blocks the group passed as they moved up the grand boulevard alternated between quite nice houses and prosperous cafes and stores. Many structures had flat roofs with long stone gutters expelling spouts of water over the flagstone sidewalks and out onto the brick street, splashing quite a bit. The group moved more to the center of the road, passing along the tiny parks with their knee-high walls. Zeb saw that several had cisterns, open basins of clean water, and all had wooden benches under the old trees.

“This is a nice town,” he said, but Amatesu still walked on ahead of him and did not comment.

Zeb’s gaze had returned to Nesha-tari’s aft by the time the group drew near the city wall, where stables and inns lined a roundabout in front of a tall, ugly gatehouse of mismatched stones. It was nearly dawn now with the sky a lightening shade of gray, but while a few loaded wagons stood waiting the teamsters remained sheltered on porches as the rain grew stronger. Nesha-tari slowed her stride and looked around as she walked, allowing Zeb and the Westerners to catch up. More than a few of the fellows loitering on the porches stared at Nesha-tari, and Zeb was surprised to feel a twinge of antipathy toward them.

As Nesha-tari walked for the gatehouse through which a wide stone corridor without a gate gave into a courtyard, one figure left a porch. A bandy-legged goblin with large, jade-green feet emerging from beneath a battered raincoat approached Nesha-tari, wearing a wide-brimmed hat pressed down on its head hard enough that its ears jutted out sideways. Shikashe gave the creature a glare but as it looked up Zeb recognized it by its bronze-colored eyes as the same one Nesha-tari had followed away yesterday. It met her before the tunnel through the gatehouse and handed over a slim leather packet, then looked at the Far Westerners and Zeb in turn. Its rubbery lips split in a grin, giving its face an oddly knowing expression.

“Good luck,” the goblin said in Codian. “You’ll be needing it.”

Nesha-tari stowed the satchel and passed into the dark tunnel through the gatehouse, Shikashe and Amatesu now close behind her with Zeb and the wheelbarrow bringing up the rear. They were out of the rain for several paces and Zeb could have used a stop to dry his face, as he could not let go of either arm of the barrow without upsetting it. But Nesha-tari was again moving rapidly, already stepping out of the tunnel through dripping water with the others close behind.

They stepped out into an open courtyard enclosed by the ugly walls, with a second exit gate still shut up across the way. The only adornment in the unpleasant place was an old basin in the center with weeds growing around a dead tree stump. Nesha-tari was still walking but Zeb stopped as a voice spoke behind him. He looked back, thinking maybe the goblin was following them and had called out. The speaker was not a goblin, nor was he speaking in Codian.

A tall man stood bundled in gray robes, leaning against the gatehouse wall beside the tunnel the others had just exited, sheltered from the rain by a stone overhang. His hood was raised and he held a heavy wooden staff tilted forward, with a clear glass globe on the top. His free hand was extended, and his long, pale fingers wiggled in the air as he finished his utterance.

The globe flared with a white light that dazzled Zeb’s eyes and the start it gave him sent him stumbling forward, overturning the barrow. He managed, somehow or another, to actually leverage himself over the top of it in a flailing summersault that deposited him hard on his back among spilling luggage.

The samurai Uriako Shikashe had a much more fluid reaction. He vaulted over Zeb and the barrow while drawing the longer of his two swords, its blade flashing bright white as though reflecting the light from the mage’s staff. Shikashe took the glass globe off its hardwood mount with a two-handed stroke and no more effort than it would have taken to cut the head off a flower. The still-shining sphere flipped through the air and Shikashe’s backstroke was returning for the mage’s head when both Amatesu and Nesha-tari shouted at him.

Shikashe altered his swing, drawing back the blade even as he lunged forward with outstretched arms, clubbing the mage across the face with both gauntleted hands on the hilt of his sword. The man spun like a top and collapsed in a heap just as the tumbling globe struck the ground and shattered, the white light extinguishing as if it had only been a flash of lightning.

“That is going to be a problem,” Zeb said from among the spilled baggage.

Rain struck the naked blade of Uriako Shikashe’s sword, and fell to the pavement as drops of ice.

Chapter Sixteen

It all happened so fast that Phin’s life had not even had time to flash in front of his eyes. He was still a toddler playing on the shore of Loch Hwloor with his sisters, when his head exploded and he saw only cobblestones rushing up to greet him. He wondered for a moment if his head was still attached to the rest of him or if it was tumbling through the air on its own. Then there was a meaty sound of impact and he wondered no more for a goodly while.

Phin awoke in agony, little pleased to find that he still seemed to be alive. His jaw and head throbbed and his body was curled up with weights pressing him down. He tried to move his limbs more to see if they were still there than with any thought of rising.

Muffled voices were faintly audible and the whole world shook jarringly, knocking Phin’s shoulder and aching head against hard wood. A particularly rough blow made him groan and he realized there was a leather strap across his mouth, and rough cloth against his face. Phin was reasonably sure he had not in fact been decapitated, but the sense that his head was in a burlap sack was not reassuring.

The bumping became worse for a few moments before it thankfully stopped. There was a babble of voices and the weights started to come off of Phin bit by bit. He found at least he could breath better but then lost the ability as hands seized his shoulders and hauled him up. He fell forward in darkness with his head swimming, then crashed to damp ground. Not a stone street, but what felt like short, wet grass. His hands were bound tightly in front of him.

“Phinneas Phoarty,” a voice said. “Give us a groan if you have your wits about you.”

Phin was on all fours with a leather strap in his mouth and a burlap sack that smelled faintly of cheese over his head. It took little effort to produce the requested sound.

“He is conscious,” the voice said. There was something vaguely familiar about it but Phin’s present circumstances were not conducive to concentration. Other voices spoke but Phin could not follow the words as they were not in Codian, Tholish, nor of course in the Old Tullish language of instruction at Abverwar. Someone put a hand on Phin’s shoulder and he flinched.

“Phinneas,” the first voice said. “I am going to uncover your face. It is very important that you make no move that could be mistaken for the beginning of a spell. Understand?”

With his head throbbing Phin doubted he could manage a spell even if he wanted to do so. Besides that all he had memorized were some low-grade scrying dweomers. He nodded his head and the sack was removed with a shake and a jerk.

Phin blinked in gray light, the sky above a jumble of dark clouds that looked ready to resume raining at any time. He was in a grassy field beside the raised surface of the Imperial Post Road, somewhere in the countryside by the look of it. He was next to a cart or wheelbarrow out of which he had obviously just been hauled, and a goblin stood in front of him with its needle-teeth bared in a grin. Phin looked into the creature’s gleaming bronze eyes and recognized it as the same one that he had paid a couple coppers to carry his bags and row him across the harbor to the Circle Wizard compound on Again Island, on the day more than five months ago when he had first arrived in Souterm.

“Th-Thideways?” Phin managed against the strap across his mouth.

“Edgewise,” the goblin muttered, tossing aside the sack it had pulled from Phin’s head. It pushed the knobby pads of two long fingers against the side of Phin’s skull and he recoiled, more from the rubbery texture than from pain.

“It is not so bad,” Edgewise said to someone behind Phin. “Just a bruised jaw and a goose egg on the temple. He’ll be fine.”

“Shall I tend his wounds?” a female voice asked from behind Phin, speaking Codian with an accent he could not place. He made no move to turn around. There had been four people in the courtyard when Phin had activated the staff and for all he knew they were all standing back there, including the big fellow with the shining white sword. Phin maintained a baleful stare at the goblin as it shook its head.

“Not necessary,” it answered the woman, kneeling in the wet grass so that its eyes were on a level with Phin’s. It smiled even wider, showing more and more teeth.

“Mr. Phoarty,” Edgewise said in something closer to the simpering tone it had used months ago. “Please accept my sincerest apologies for your rough treatment, and for your removal from Souterm.”

Phin sputtered into his gag and heard a quick snikt! behind him, like a sword coming smoothly out of its scabbard. He had a pretty good idea of just what sword and scabbard had produced the sound, and he felt a chill. He also shut up.

“For the love of…” Edgewise’s bronze eyes flicked up over Phin’s shoulder. “Can you not put a leash on him or something?”

“Don’t look at me,” another voice said behind Phin, this one belonging to a man with a flatter accent, vaguely Exlandic. “I can’t even talk to him. Just to her.”

This started a flurry of conversation, at least three voices in as many languages. Phin waited as he had no other options until at last the goblin waved for silence and pasted the leer back on its rubbery face.

“As I was saying, I am sorry. My…friend, here, thought that you were attacking us. He only acted to defend himself against what he thought was a threat.”

Phin had not even seen a goblin with the four people who had walked past him in the rain, to whom it now seemed he probably should have called out before he had activated the magic of the scrying staff. Phin had not done so only because he had spent a thoroughly miserable night at his station getting soaked to the bone and he did not feel like blathering with any travelers if he could just wave them through. He had in no way expected the staff to blaze into life like a star. That had startled Phin as badly as it had the people in front of him. Not that he had tried to cut off anybody’s head over it.

Phin continued to glare at Edgewise mostly because there was nothing else he could do. The goblin seemed to take it as an act of hostility.

“Look, I’ve no quarrel with the Circle Wizards and this was all just an accident. I should not even have come out here but I heard the commotion and did not want it to turn into anything worse. Understand?”

Phin made an affirmative noise against the gag. He had no idea what the goblin was talking about but he did not want to seem stupid.

“Excellent,” Edgewise said, and reached behind Phin’s bowed head to undo the leather cord holding the gag. Phin spat the chewed strap on the ground in front of him and when he opened his mouth fully his jaw throbbed even worse. Two teeth felt loose when he pressed his tongue against them, but at least they were all there.

“Where have you taken me?” Phin said thickly.

By way of answer Edgewise stood and took a step to one side. Down the road behind the goblin Phin could see the great bulk of Souterm looming in the middle distance, a dense multi-colored sprawl in the gray and green world.

“We are just a few miles north,” Edgewise said. “You were only out a couple of hours.”

Phin wanted to feel the side of his head for the view out of his left eye seemed substantially occluded and that side of his face ached. His bound hands made that impossible and as he glanced down at the bindings, Phin blinked. His hands were tied at the wrists with a leather thong, palms flat against each other and with each finger bound in turn to its mate with twine. Even the thumbs. It was quite impossible to make any sort of hand gesture for even the simplest spell.

“It will be easy enough for you to get back to town,” Edgewise said, extending an arm in a soaked rain coat back toward the city. “I am sure many wagons will be back on the road before long, should you not feel up to walking.”

Phin turned his eyes back on Edgewise and something else instilled at Abverwar churned in his empty stomach.

“Why that is a right hospitable thought, you filthy Magdetchoi foulspawn!” he shouted. “When my Circle comes for you, I shall have them go half-easy on your green hide!”

The goblin’s rubbery brow bunched in a scowl and its metallic eyes hardened.

“Wizard, do not be a fool. I am the only thing keeping you alive.”

“I will mention that at your trial,” Phin sneered. His heart was racing but his voice was level, and his bruised face had returned to its stony cast of superiority.

“Goblins have no right to trial in the Empire,” Edgewise said coldly.

Phin snorted. “What was that? Are you actually fishing for sympathy from me? After assaulting me, kidnapping me, and destroying Circle property? I am supposed to feel bad about your poor, downtrodden people?” Phin’s voice had no accent from Thol left in it but his hard laugh still boomed with an echo of the high mountain country.

Edgewise’s lips curled back in a snarl.

“Sir, if I might?” a different voice said from behind Phin. Footsteps approached on the wet grass and a man came into view, not the swordsman who had attacked Phin but the other one who had been pushing the handcart. He was a rough-looking character, stoutly built and wearing a battered black jerkin with rings of mail stitched to it, a scratched helmet, and rough trousers jammed into heavy boots. He squatted and took Phin by the shoulders, helping him to a seat against a cartwheel with his bound hands in his lap. The fellow grinned in a manner Phin assumed was supposed to be friendly but the rough beard and damp sprig of coal-black hair poking from under his helmet gave his face a roguish, almost wolfish quality.

“Mr. Wizard,” the fellow said, kneeling on his haunches in front of Phin with forearms on knees. His Codian still sounded vaguely Exlandic to Phin‘s ear though the fellow looked nothing like an Exlander.

“This was all a misunderstanding, but we didn’t mean anything by it. Come now, sir. The fault was all on our side and you need never see any of us ever again. Mr. Edgewise isn’t really with us, he just happened to get caught up in events and in truth he has been more worried for you than anyone.”

“Is it from you that he is keeping me alive?” Phin demanded, sounding stronger than he felt as the man before him had a rather nasty-looking double-headed axe slung across his broad back.

The man smiled, still less than comforting. “We are not going to kill you, sir, or we would have done it while you were napping. It just happens that Mr. Edgewise is from your city, and he wants to be sure there is no trouble with you and yours. He is sorry about this, we all are, and there’s no reason in the world for it to be any more unpleasant than it already has been. What say you?”

“Unbind me.”

“Aye, I will. Then we can all go on our separate ways, not another harsh thought between us, eh? So long as we’ve your word that the whole matter ends here.”

“Unbind me.”

The man glanced away toward the others still standing behind the cart. There was some talk between two people – a gruff-voiced man and a soft-spoken woman – in a foreign tongue. When it concluded the man in front of Phin produced a knife from a boot and carefully cut free each of Phin’s fingers, and then his wrists. It took a little doing as the man’s knife was dull and the blade notched.

“Please do not do anything sudden, sir,” the man said as he finished. “Our friend with the big pig-sticker is a jumpy sort, as I’m sure you’ve discerned.”

The man put his knife away, stood and took a step back. Phin moved slowly with his back feeling as sore as his head. He pulled himself to his feet beside the handcart.

He looked across the cart and met the gaze of the grandly-armored warrior who had nearly taken his head off at the shoulders. The man, plainly a Far Westerner, glared back at him coldly and still held his fearsome blade naked at his side. He spoke sharply.

“Sir,” said a woman next to the warrior, another Far Westerner but altogether less grand in a shapeless coat and with her long hair so plastered down by the rain she looked drowned.

“Please do not meet his lordship’s eyes directly, for it is an insult.”

Phin glanced away from both of them and saw that the goblin Edgewise now stood beside the last of the four people Phin had seen in the courtyard, a figure cloaked and hooded in a voluminous garment not so very different than Phin’s own robes, though of a beige cloth the weather had dampened to a light brown. Lighter gloves and boots poked out from the wide sleeves and low hem. Thus garbed the figure was shapeless, but for some reason Phin had the idea that there was a woman somewhere in there. He stared for a few moments before the man in ring-mail cleared his throat.

“So what say you, Mr. Wizard? Shall we all away then, each to their own?”

“I am already missing from my duties,” Phin said. “And I seem to recall that my staff has been destroyed. That will not be overlooked by my superiors.”

It was an odd thing for Phin to say given that it was in his best interest to get away from this odd bunch as soon as possible. But a thought had abruptly occurred to him, a thought almost as startling as the rest of this strange morning.

The ring-mailed man and the goblin exchanged a look. “That could be a problem,” Edgewise acknowledged. “Some sort of a cover story…”

“Would be easily detected by my Circle,” Phin interrupted. “No. If I return like this my superiors will know that something requiring inquiry has occurred. There is nothing they enjoy so much as an investigation.”

“If you return?” the ring-mail man asked.

Phin spoke at the goblin as Edgewise seemed to hold some position with the others. It also gave him the opportunity to glance frequently at the woman standing next to the creature. She must be a petite little thing in there…

“You are all bound for Vod’Adia,” Phin said to Edgewise. The goblin blanched.

“Gods no, not me! This bunch, well…their affairs are their own.”

Phin looked at the cloaked woman with her face obscured by her deep hood, and at the Far Westerners. None of them offered anything in return so he turned back to the fellow in the ring-mail, who looked puzzled. Phin addressed him.

“Foreign warriors and what all, heading north toward Galdeez and the entrance to the Vod Wilds. In the last few months I have seen many groups as odd as this one passing through Souterm and they were all bound, every one of them, for the Sable City.”

The ring-mailed man looked over at the others, and the goblin chuckled.

“Considering a bit of desertion from the Circle, are you boy?”

Phin had not conceived of it precisely that way, and yet there it was. All the nights and mornings he had spent staring at courtyard walls waiting for the drawbridge to open to a view of the road north, which he now found himself standing beside, already miles from Souterm. Phin did not doubt that had he been left to his own devices he would have continued to do nothing but look north each morning, for the next month or year or decade, wanting to leave but not taking one step. But now the first step had been taken for him.

“My life in Souterm, and in the Circle, is not quite what I had hoped,” Phin said quietly. The goblin snorted through its wide nostrils.

“Best grow accustomed to disappointment, Phoarty. It is the stuff of life.”

“What are we talking about?” the man in ring-mail asked no one in particular.

“I am talking about leaving the Circle,” Phin said, and he felt his heart rise as he said it out loud. The man blinked at him.

“That doesn’t sound like something a pack of magi lets you do.”

“It happens,” Phin said truthfully. “Particularly among young Wizards of my station. The Circle does not even bother to look for them very hard for retaining a Wizard who does not want to be there is not worth the effort. But…” Phin looked around to include everyone. “Just so you all know. It is easier for them to find a corpse than a live Wizard who does not want to be found. If I disappear, I am only a deserter who has run off. But if I am a member in good standing who turns up murdered, the Circle’s wrath will be great.”

“So we’ve been told,” the axe-man glanced at Edgewise. The goblin spoke to Phin.

“If you want to leave, no one here is going to stop you.”

“I have no money,” Phin said. In fact all he had in the world was presently the clothes on his back, a traveling spell book in an inner pocket of his robes, and a tin coffee cup tied to his belt. “I will need coin to get to Galdeez and from thence to the Sable City, and in truth company on the road seems advisable. But I do not care to join whatever enterprise it is that you are all about. Once I reach the camps outside Vod’Adia I will be able to sell my services to a party of adventurers, for I am after-all a trained Circle Wizard.”

The goblin continued to regard Phin with its bronze eyes narrowed and its smile that was close to a leer. It was obvious Phin had thoroughly misjudged the little creature at their first meeting and he wondered what Edgewise had thought of him in return. Phin decided it had quite probably not been very much.

“Wait where you are,” Edgewise said, then tugged at the sleeve of the hooded woman standing next to him. The two moved off a slight distance and spoke together. After a last hard look at Phin the warrior in the exotic armor sheathed his sword and walked over to the conference, his female companion going with him. Phin was left alone with the man in ring-mail who was still watching him curiously.

“Might I ask you something, Mr. Wizard?”

Phin looked at him steadily. “My name is Phinneas Phoarty. What is yours?”

The man’s smile curled at one side. “If you’ll forgive me, sir, I believe I will wait to see how this all shakes out. Before we become friendly.”

Phin leaned against the cart and tried to look more relaxed than he felt. “It will ‘shake out’ just as I have said. The goblin knows this is the safest way to proceed if he wishes to continue living in Souterm unmolested by my Circle.”

“Well that’s just it, isn’t it? Your Circle. I don’t know much about such things, but as I understand it there are years of training and what-not before a mage, or Wizard if that’s your preferred term, can enter into some magical Order.”

“That is true,” Phin said, wondering again where this man was from. His rough armor looked Zantish but he was just tan rather than actually swarthy, and ‘mage’ was not a common term in the Codian Empire.

“Then why do you want to leave your Circle now, after however many years in training?”

Phin looked south down the Imperial Post Road, back towards the great city looming to the south above which shafts of sun were cutting through the clouds. He could not distinguish the pinnacle of one particular tower on Again Island, but he knew it was there. He sighed.

“Because getting smashed in the head and kidnapped is the most interesting thing that has happened to me in the last ten years.”

The goblin and the shrouded woman spoke at length. Phin only caught a few words and understood none of them, but several times the woman shook a finger in the goblin’s face. Finally Edgewise marched over with a deep scowl.

“They will take you as far as the Camp Town outside of Vod’Adia,” he said. “Feed you on the road, pay the Shugak for your passage there, but that is all. Once in Camp Town you are on your own.”

“I will handle that when the time comes,” Phin said loftily, though he had no idea what he would do out in the middle of a hobgoblin, bullywug, and adventurer-infested wilderness.

“First things first, you must lose those robes. You there, axe-boy. See if you have anything less conspicuous that will fit Mr. Phoarty. A cloak or a coat or something.”

The man nodded at the goblin but before turning to the luggage in the cart he yanked off his right gauntlet and extended the hand at Phin.

“Zebulon Baj Nif, at your service. Looks like we’ll be hoofing together the next few weeks. Welcome aboard.”

Phin accepted the offered hand and Zebulon pumped it warmly, though there was still a sort of laughing look in his blue eyes. Behind him the Far Western swordsman was shaking his helmeted head and looking on with an expression of cold disgust that required no translation.

Chapter Seventeen

The two and a half weeks following the death of Captain Block were a blur for Tilda.

From the chasm and the sacked fort, two wagon wheel ruts led due south through pinewoods and hills. She and Dugan stumbled down the ruts through the dark until morning brought an overcast sky and a cold, lingering mist. Exhausted and hungry, Tilda kept stumbling even in the daylight until Dugan finally called a halt whereupon she lay on the ground with her head on a pack and slept. He woke her in the middle afternoon and they kept walking without a bite to eat and hardly a word between them.

They left the hills the next day, emerging onto steppe that looked much the same as had Orstaf save that the grass on the south side of the mountains was not so long for the great peaks held most of the rain to the north. The highlands on the Daulic side were the province of Heftiga, home to tall, sandy-haired people of Leutian descent rather than the Kantan Orstavians. Yet the first village Tilda and Dugan reached in Daul had the same ad hoc look as had those across the mountains.

They ate too much at an inn, bought provisions for the road and replaced lost bedrolls and blankets at a sundry store. The small village was on a stream feeding into the Sibyl River. It had two stables and Tilda crossed the dirt road between them repeatedly, bartering them against each other until settling an excellent price for two horses, one from each stable. She did not bother to name the new mounts.

Heftiga stretched all along the northern border of Daul, but the steppe did not extend far from north to south. After only a few days in the saddle and nights spent under the sky, the yellow steppe plunged down to deeply green grasslands cut by the Sibyl and the other tributaries of the great River Nan, upon which the Kingdom of Daul had arisen. Dugan had taken to studying Block’s maps in the evenings and he informed Tilda that he had decided on a route straight overland to the provincial capital of Chengdea, rather than a wider one down the Sibyl or over to the Black. He had reasons but Tilda did not really listen to them. She did not listen to much and during the days she looked most often into the green middle distance, staring at nothing.

Tilda was surprised by how much Block’s death had affected her. She felt as though she had left something with the Captain at the bottom of the chasm, something more than a sword and a single piece of gold. The strangest thing about it was that she and the dwarf had never been close. Three years ago it had been Captain Block who had conducted Tilda’s final interview before she was permitted to join the Guild, but since then she had only seen the dwarf around the place a handful of times, watching an exercise and barking at the struggles of the apprentices. He had barked at Tilda on occasion but not by name, and in fact not in any way that implied he had the faintest memory of her interview. That had probably been for the best for all Tilda could remember of it herself was that she had been a stammering idiot, intimidated to the point of being struck dumb by speaking to the legendary Kaman Kregebanan of Deskata House.

For legend Block was, and the Corner Stone from the beginning. The dwarf had been on the boat, the Nyystrishima, shipwrecked in Miilark more than two centuries ago when the Islands were wild and the tribes half-savage. Everything that Miilark now was, everything that made up Tilda’s whole world, Block had been there to see from the beginning. And now he was gone.

There would be no House Deskata without Captain Block, and without the Deskatas the House Lords may never have brought peace to the clans and factions, united the Miilarkians, and led them out into the wider world. Tilda supposed every House said that of their own founders but in the Deskatas’ case it happened to be true. They had been one of the first chieftain lines to put aside the old tribal blood feuds and ageless vendettas that had kept the Islanders divided for centuries, and they had begun to do so by accepting as one of their own a foreigner. And a dwarven foreigner at that.

The blood in Tilda’s veins, her branch of the Lanais, had been affiliated with the Deskatas for more than a hundred years, through her father and his mother and her father. Block had served the House in person for a century longer than that. The dwarf’s name was legend, and had been long before Tilda was even born.

And now he was gone.

The Deskatas were in crisis, perhaps the worst they had known since before the boat. The one man Rhianne Deskata had chosen to send forth seeking their salvation had of course been the Kaman Kregebanan, who else could it possibly have been? The only surprise was that the one apprentice Guilder he had chosen to accompany him was very much a nobody. Some girl named Tilda Lanai from Chrysanthemum Quay whose family had been affiliated with Deskata House for three generations…three generations of shopkeepers.

No one at the Guild nor in Miilark for that matter had known just where Block and Tilda were going, and what they hoped to accomplish. But even had everyone in the Islands known about it, none could have been more surprised than was Tilda herself. And now she was never even going to get to ask the dwarf why he had chosen her when surely he could have taken anyone in the Deskatas’ service that he had wished. She could never ask, because he was gone.

Dugan led the way as they rode, but Tilda knew she was more alone than she had ever been in her life. She felt a cold numbness more than a warm grief, and while she recognized that her sorrow was as much for herself as it was for Block, that only made her feel a bit guilty, and even worse.

The grassland near the river was dotted with walled towns and stone villages, but Dugan’s route of travel led them around most of them down back roads or at times across the countryside. His intent was to reach Chengdea with all speed and to that end he avoided all contact with the local Dauls that might slow them down, even for a regular meal at an inn. Yet even as they moved across the river country and despite Tilda’s pensive mood, the present condition of the Nan River Kingdom made itself known in the furtive looks of travelers on the roads, who put hands on weapons while the strangers rode past.

Tilda was aware that Daul was at war with Ayzantium, for they had been so longer than she had been alive. As waterborne trade was the business of Miilark, Tilda knew further that the Ayzants had captured one of Daul’s Channel ports early on, and had held the other one under siege for most of this year. Most of southern Daul was under foreign occupation, or else in the hottest midst of the war. Little wonder that even in the far north of the country the locals wore a troubled look and such Royal soldiers as Tilda and Dugan saw were staying close to the towns. There were not many such soldiers, and they were a mix of old men in faded uniforms and young boys whose helmets were too big.

Tilda and Dugan were technically in the province of Chengdea as soon as they left the steppe lands, though the ancient boundaries between the constituent parts of the Nan River Kingdom were lost in the roll of years. The countryside began to change before they had ferried across a wider length of the bending Sibyl, for dense forest stretched west and north back towards a spur of the mountains. As they moved further into Chengdea toward the ruling Duke’s city of the same name, the towns and villages they passed along the edge of forest and prairie had a different demeanor. This country had been an obscure Ettacean colony long ago, and the style of the houses and buildings was somehow primitive even now. The walls were thick and the domed roofs low, while the lumber trimming second stories was gray as though petrified, and shellacked with some sort of glaze. Most chimneys were made not of brick, but of stacked irregular stones with blackened daub in the crevices. Yet for that they had a homey sort of look that could only come from generations of continuous occupation and care. The language of the villages was all Daulic, though faces and complexions were a living legacy of peoples and realms that had passed out of history long ago.

More importantly for Tilda and Dugan, the Chengdean soldiery was sharp. The riders were stopped several times by patrols, mainly of footmen with pikes and crossbows. No papers nor passes were requested but the travelers were not allowed to proceed until Tilda, speaking the Trade Tongue, had assured the man in charge that she was a Miilarkian bound for the city of Chengdea on business. She finally asked Dugan why she was being stopped so often and was informed that Zants did not look so very different than mixed-blood Islanders, with black hair and dark skin being typical of both. Tilda traveled with her hood down so that her braid showed after that.

After seventeen days, making the date Eighth Day of Ninth Month, the city of Chengdea came into view while it was still a long ways off, rising on modest hills above the east bank of another tributary of the Nan, the Black River which the old Dauls called the Nwarre. The hills and town climbed from south to north, with the land-side gates and river docks all located at the south end. On the north a sprawling castle complex stood on the highest hills, flying the Duke‘s banner of a golden flower on a green field. Dugan led the way toward the south side along paved roads crisscrossing churned fields of black earth, all lying fallow this late in the season. The city and hills was entirely ringed by massive walls, and as Dugan and Tilda approached a towering gatehouse they saw that while the great doors were open there was a crowd of people being kept outside.

They were refugees from downriver, where the siege continued in Larbonne and the Ayzant army was sending foraging parties out further into the countryside every day. Some had stout wagons and tents filled nearby fields, but some were wholly destitute. Entire families with sunken cheeks and split shoes huddled in clusters by the sides of the roads. Chengdean soldiers and robed clerics moved among them, distributing food and giving what aid they could, yet the sight was still shocking to Tilda.

Dugan seemed not to notice. He rode straight for the gate swerving around people standing listless in the road, and dismounted before a line of soldiers who barred his path.

It was a simple matter for Tilda and Dugan to gain entrance into the city once Tilda had shown the guards that they had plenty of money.

They had to walk their horses down the cobbled streets for the reason people were stuck outside the walls was that the city was already full to bursting. Some of Chengdea still retained the old Ettacean character of narrow lanes and twisting alleys, but even the wide boulevards of later Daulic renovations were congested with people who might be able to afford a bed for a night somewhere but not a room during the day. They overflowed the common rooms of inns and eateries, sat about on curbs, leaned against walls, or just walked the streets like they were looking for something they had little hope of finding. Dugan pushed past farmers and merchants and artisans like he knew where he was going, offering none of them more than a mumbled pardon.

Tilda had not been quite so lost in thought during the journey that she had failed to notice every step nearer Chengdea had made Dugan more single-minded about getting there ahead of John Deskata and his band. Every day of riding had started a little earlier than the last, and ended later after dark. By the time they reached the city Dugan even looked different, with his beard now a belligerent bristle and dark bags under his eyes as though he had not been sleeping much over the short nights. Tilda had not felt like talking and so the man’s silence had been all right with her, though hours had gone by on the road during which he had not looked back over his shoulder one time, making Tilda think that he had forgotten she was there at all. And that might be all right, too.

Dugan was heading for the waterfront, somewhere along which the Shugak would be taking passengers across the river and into the swamps and backwaters of the Vod Wilds, and thence to the Sable City. Tilda knew Dugan meant to intercept Deskata and the others here, and as he had said, get back what they had taken from him. She had no doubt he was expecting a fight, even at the bad odds of two against five. What troubled Tilda as they approached the shops and warehouses of the riverside was that it might well turn out to be one against six.

Dugan called out to three burly figures in breast plates and conical helms, longbows and great swords on their backs as they sashayed along a sidewalk. He asked in Codian where the Shugak were doing business. The three long-bearded warriors looked at Dugan and Tilda skeptically, but directed them to a particular dock two blocks further north. They said you could not miss it.

The area of the docks was as crowded as the rest of the city, with warehouses operating as flophouses and people lingering about everywhere with dull eyes and worried brows. When Tilda followed Dugan around the indicated corner however, she saw that no one was loitering on a half block lined with boarded-up buildings, ending at one of the oddest constructions she had ever seen.

It was a three-story tower that looked something like a tree, individual trunks of white and gray swamp oaks bound together in a circle to make one great, false trunk. Instead of branches arms like cargo cranes emerged from the top and splayed out in every direction, some reaching clear to the ground while others contacted neighboring buildings. Flying buttresses designed by the maddest of Magdetchoi architects, if there was any design at all.

“That is distinctive,” Dugan said. He held his horse’s reins out toward Tilda and dropped them as he resumed walking with his long stride, saying only “Wait here.”

Tilda grabbed the reins before the horse got any ideas. “Where are you going?” she called after Dugan, and he answered without turning around.

“I need to talk to someone. Make sure our boys have not been here yet.”

There was a gap in the front of the tree-trunk tower and torchlight flickering from within. While Dugan strode straight at it Tilda looked more carefully at the odd construction and saw with a start that things were looking back at her. Among the crazy crane arms draped with netting instead of foliage there were plank platforms and small cupolas. Many of them were occupied by forest-green creatures, smaller than dwarves, that blended with the netting so well details were hard to perceive. Tilda saw spherical bodies, big yellow-white eyes, and here and there the dull metal glint of an arrow head or a short blade.

Tilda looked back down at the street and saw that Dugan had stopped short of the tower, not looking up at it but rather sideways at one of the buildings on the empty half block, one of only two storefronts with an open door. He turned and crossed to a window, then stood staring.

There was no sign of any hostility from the things in the tree, so Tilda slowly led both horses forward and over to Dugan, glancing up at the little creatures all the way. She supposed they must be bullywugs, the small, amphibious Magdetchoi race that along with hobgoblin tribes constituted the “Shugak” of the Vod Wilds. Moving closer she could see they did indeed look like frogs, with spindly arms and bent legs on round bodies with no necks joining torsos to heads. They had wide mouths and their bright eyes were top-mounted, with slit pupils that followed Tilda as she stepped uncertainly over toward Dugan. They had knives and bows, but none held at the ready. Rather, their weapons were sheathed and hung from the straps and harnesses that were all they wore for clothing. One raised a webbed hand and waved, and Tilda dully waved back.

She hurried the last few steps over to Dugan, pulling the horses along. He stood staring into a window covered with an intricate cross-hatch of narrow wooden slats so that the objects on shelves within could be seen but not touched. The display window was full of jewelry, and Tilda had a bad feeling.

“Yours?” Tilda said, though she really did not have to ask. Dugan just went on staring at a amethyst pendant on a fine silver chain.

When he spoke, he said only one word. It was a Codian expletive generally not put down in the more decent sorts of writing.

*

Dugan did most of the talking inside, as the Chengdean counterman spoke serviceable Codian. The shop was one of two fences on the block in which the Shugak employed humans who bought up jewelry, weapons, supplies, and anything else from groups desperate to raise enough cash to pay the bullywugs for transport into the Wilds and to buy permits to enter Vod’Adia itself. Business looked to have been good for the shop was stocked to the rafters with all manner of items, and the counterman was richly decked out in an embroidered waistcoat with the frills of a silk shirt at collar and wrists. He had at least one ring on every finger, a gold tooth, and his dark, longish hair was slicked back with something that smelled faintly of musk. Two hulking hobgoblins framed the front door, large creatures built similar to bugbears though a bit smaller and with shorter limbs. Rather than fur they had rubbery-looking hides of mottled oranges and reds, and the two in the store wore splint mail and helmets with curving animal horns on the sides. They narrowed their small, piggy eyes at Dugan and Tilda and fingered the morning stars resting on their broad shoulders.

The counterman remembered the group who had sold the necklace in the window well enough, though only one of the fellows had come inside while the other four waited on the street. All five had worn the steel-and-chain armor of Codian legionnaires, though the plumes had been taken off of their helmets and those with tower shields carried them with cloths draped over the bosses and devices. They exchanged the necklace and two matching silver bracelets which the man produced from under the counter, for forty-two pieces of gold and six silvers. Passage for five into the Wilds via Shugak raft was going for about thirty gold, as of three days ago.

“The man who came into the store,” Tilda asked. “Did you notice if he had green eyes?”

The counterman grinned. “Indeed I did, rather striking they were. They matched a great emerald in a ring he was wearing. Made him an offer on the ring, a good one, but he refused to part with it. Said it had sentimental value.”

When John Deskata had been born, his eyes had been as green as the emerald pennons of Deskata House. People had said it was a good omen.

“What about a permit for Vod’Adia?” Dugan asked. “Did they buy one here?”

The counterman shook his head. “I don’t sell those, nor arrange transport. The wugs on the docks handle the rafts but if you want to buy a license, as they call it, you have to deal with the hobs in that ‘tree’ out there.” The man sighed and looked out his front window at the ramshackle construction. “When that thing goes, I hope to hell it falls the other bloody way.”

“Is that where the men went?” Tilda asked.

“Not that I saw, and I doubt they could afford a license here. They are selling at around fifty gold a head, and there is no way that bunch had a quarter-thousand gold among them.”

“But they were buying passage to Vod’Adia,” Dugan said, not really as a question.

“To the Camp Town around it, at any rate. Lots of sell-swords do that and hope to merge or hire-on with other likeminded sorts once they are there. A group of five, they might have to split up before entering. Now, if your man had been willing to sell me that ring of his…”

The counterman sighed and looked wistfully at his bejeweled fingers.

Tilda followed Dugan back outside, passing between the hobgoblins that gave them another glare. The horses waited at a hitching post but Dugan walked past them before he stopped. For the first time he did not seem to know what to do with himself, and he plopped to a seat on the curb.

Tilda stood behind him. “Apart from the necklace and bracelets, how much more of your belongings do the legionnaires still have?”

Dugan sighed. “The necklace was the main piece, the rest is mostly trinkets. Loose stones and some earrings. Probably not another twenty gold, all told. Considering the time the sons of bitches made getting here, they may have hawked those already for river passage. They did not beat us here on foot, that is for certain.”

Dugan’s shoulders were hunched. Tilda looked at his back and took advantage of his mood to allow herself a moment to think. This might not be all bad, for her. If Dugan was unwilling to go on after Deskata and company now that his money was lost, and if she could go ahead and find them herself, the eventual confrontation would be far simpler. Of course that meant Tilda would be going alone into the Wilds and the hazards of Camp Town, but she resolved not to think about that for the moment. Right now the issue was Dugan.

Tilda had taken to wearing Captain Block’s kitbag by the strap over a shoulder on her right side, as she did not have a sword there anymore. She slid the bag to her belly and opened the top, and nimble fingers rifled through the contents. She counted out enough Miilarkian bank notes to trade for at least sixty gold pieces, which was almost a third of those remaining. The notes made a sizable sheaf she bound around with a length of twine. She stepped around Dugan into the street and dropped the pile at his feet. He stared at it before looking up at her.

“That is enough to cover your loss,” Tilda said. “Consider it payment for getting…me…this far.”

Dugan looked back at the pile, then narrowed his eyes at Tilda.

“How do you know the ring isn’t mine, too?” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the store. “The one the man would have paid at least two-fifty for?”

“That was a House Ring,” Tilda said. “The emerald is worn by every blood Deskata. It was not yours and it is worth a great deal more than a quarter-thousand gold. It belongs to the man wearing it.”

“Well, what if he lost it to me in a dice game some while back? John was a terrible sort for the gambling. His third favorite vice after whiskey and whores.”

Tilda shrugged. “Then the Ninth God used you ill, and it’s not my problem.”

Tilda stepped back to the horses, feeling a tremulous emptiness in her stomach. She was really going to do this, go on alone through swamp and murk toward the most deadly place on the continent of Noroth, and a shabby town presently populated by the most dangerous people in the world. John Deskata and his men would be five needles not in a haystack, but in a stack of needles. Yet the only other option would be to go home, alone, having failed. To tell Rhianne Deskata that the Corner Stone of the House was dead, and with him their last hope.

“I am selling the horses,” Tilda said, relieved that her voice did not quaver despite her feelings. “You can take your packs and bedding as you wish, but the rest is mine.”

“Wait,” Dugan said, as Tilda began to unfasten the saddle bags from the tired horse the man had been riding. She stopped and looked back. Dugan still sat on the curb with the stack of notes between his feet, scowling at her.

“You are going on? Alone? What’s the point, girl? Say you get to Camp Town even before Vod’Adia Opens, and you actually find the boys. Before some cash-strapped adventurer cuts your throat for pocket money, I mean. John is not going to be any happier to see a Miilarkian than he would have been to see me. And believe me, even without his four fellows…the man is a worthless piece of excrement in a lot of ways, but he is good at what he does with a blade. You couldn’t take him by himself, let alone outnumbered.”

Taking him was never the point, but Tilda bristled at more than that.

“I am a Miilarkian Guilder,” she said, and Dugan threw back his head and laughed. Some of the bullywugs in the weird structure at the end of the block croaked in return.

“You’re a child,” he said. “Now Cap’n Block, that crusty old pirate, he might have had a shot. But John will cut you up for bait, and no fooling.”

Tilda thrust out her jaw and planted her hands on her hips.

“Do you think I am daft? Skill with a blade counts for little if someone you don’t see puts a slug in the back of your head.”

Dugan snorted. “Ah, the honor of the Islanders.”

“It has gotten us this far,” Tilda said, trepidation for her future washing away on a hot spurt of anger. Something dark had been simmering in Tilda’s silence since she had climbed out of the chasm in which Captain Block lay. She could taste it now in the back of her throat like bile, but had nowhere to go with it.

Tilda turned to the horses, and undid the last buckle holding Dugan’s saddle bags. He stood and she heaved the bags at him harder than was necessary, but he caught them easily and draped them familiarly over one shoulder. He held the bound bank notes in one hand and ran a thumb hard with calluses over the edge, counting.

“There is enough here for one ticket to Vod’Adia,” he said, almost but not quite like he was not even talking to Tilda. “And for a license to enter the city, besides. Still with five or ten gold left over. Probably ought to buy a helmet if I‘m going in there…”

“I do not want you to come with me,” Tilda said slowly, enunciating every word so there was no lack of clarity though she knew she was saying them for herself as much as for Dugan.

“I am not talking about you anymore,” Dugan said, holding his money in one open hand to feel the weight of it. Tilda had noticed at an early age that cash always felt heavier than just the paper and ink of which it was made.

“You will do what you want, or what you feel you must,” Dugan said. “As for me…it looks as though I am a man without a country now. A soldier without an army.” He met Tilda’s eyes, and winked. “Seems like Vod’Adia is the place to be for a man like that, in this season.”

He stuffed the notes into a trouser pocket.

“Today is Eighth of Ninth. Blackstone is due to Open in three weeks and I imagine it takes most of that to raft there. If you want your shot at John, I would suggest you take the next boat out. I’ll see you on it, most likely. Otherwise, fare thee well, my Island girl.”

With that Dugan stood to attention and struck his chest with a balled fist, in the manner of a legionnaire’s salute. He turned on his heel and marched for the gap in the front of the tree-like tower. Some of the bullywugs in the branches were still croaking, and Dugan snapped “Ribbit!” as he passed beneath them. They fell into a sulky silence.

Tilda watched Dugan step into the bound-log tower and heard him boom a hearty “Good evening, Gentlemen. Hobgoblins.” She turned away to the horses and snatched their reins free of the hitching post. She stood there in the street for a moment with the tired horses looking at her. The counterman from the store was leaning in his doorway, smoking a pipe and watching her with no particular expression on his face.

Tilda spoke one word under her breath, a Miilarkian expletive generally not put down in the more decent sorts of writing. She turned and jerked on the horses’ reins, leading them toward the docks beyond the tower.

Chapter Eighteen

Duke Cyril II, lord of the city and province of Chengdea, had a headache. It had been with him off-and-on for months, ever since word had come up the river that the Ayzant forces had broken out of the Larbonne waterfront and set siege to the remaining Daulic defenders in the old citadel.

Sometimes if the Duke slept well the headache would be gone in the morning. But it would ooze back into his skull over the course of the long days spent in his throne room. The room had changed now to the point that it was in no condition to receive visitors nor to host any banquet or ceremony. The twin thrones of mahogany inlaid with silver and upholstered with silk still sat on their dais, though Cyril hardly ever sat in his and his wife’s had been empty for twelve years now apart from the jeweled circlet sitting untouched on the pillow, which the Duchess’s staff still dusted and fluffed every day.

The throne room was vast and church-like with stone columns running down a central aisle and wide windows of stained glass high in the tall walls, facing due east and west to dapple the parquet floor with pink light at dawn and somber purple in the evenings. Beneath the windows the paneled walls were covered with adornments, primarily the Chengdean banners of a gold flower on a green field. The blossoms were a species of lotus with four curving petals native to the banks of the Black River, and thus commonly called the Black Lotus despite being a deep yellow bordering on orange. The ancient Ettacean name for the flower was the chengde, and it had given this place a name nearly fourteen centuries ago.

Between the banners, murals and torch brackets were dozens of decorations of a classic Daulic type; embossed shields mounted over crossed swords. The shields displayed the heraldry of prominent provincial nobles with the family names etched in flowing script on fired clay tablets mounted beneath them. The tablets and even a few of the names such as Gaehei, Vracchi, and Chirobbi hearkened back to ancient times when Chengdea was the twelfth and last province of the Ettacean Empire. A mixture of modified Ettasi names and old Leutian families such as Dolmonum, Towsan, and Orbachauer had become part of this land’s history during the long centuries when Chengdea had survived as an independent successor-state to the fallen empire, ruled by Dukes who still modeled their authority on the defunct Imperial writ.

Most of the shields and the family names were newer and purely Daulic, for the Nan River Kingdom had held sway here for some three-hundred years since its knights had poured into the Duchy to battle the unholy monstrosities that had scuttled out of Vod’Adia and the Wilds at the Second Opening. The Duchy was saved but at the price of independence, for the knights had not gone home after the last wight was hewn asunder, the last shadowy wraith banished. As the shields told, the descendents of men who had been but squires and knights in the Dead War were barons and earls of Daulic Chengdea to this day.

There were two shields above the thrones, that above the circlet in the empty chair was the ancient sigil of the Halvalons of eastern Daul. Cyril’s wife had detested her family banner for while from a distance it just looked like a white dove flanked by two sets of three wheat sheaves, once you got close you could see that the dove was holding an eyeball in its beak, hanging by a red nerve. Duchess Jasmine Halvalon Perforce had been a women of refinement whose sense of decorum did not embrace severed body parts on banners, and especially not on tableware.

The last shield, mounted above the ducal throne, was such a simple design as to have been an afterthought, consisting only of a diagonal gold band on a green background. The design, and Cyril’s family name of Perforce, had only been in existence since the ongoing Ayzant war began with the catastrophic battle of the Icheroon. There on an insignificant stream in the bad borderlands between the Kingdom of Daul and Ayzantium the cream of Daulic chivalry had ridden their heavy horses downhill into sucking marshes that must have looked dry from above. They had been butchered by Zantish peasants with scythes and threshing flails. A line of Dukes who had ruled Chengdea for a century was ended there, as were many much older Daulic families. In the chaos that followed thrones and fiefdoms across the provinces changed hands until seized by someone strong enough to hold onto them. In Chengdea the last man standing had been a minor knight whose lineage dated from Daul’s occupation of the Winding River lands, across the Girdings in Orstaf. Sir Cyril Balabushevych had been crowned Duke Cyril I in this very throne room, with a horse saber in one hand and the dead Duke’s widow in the other. The new Duke had lost the old Kantan mouthful in favor of Perforce, which was both Daulic and indicative of the manner in which his line had come to power.

The younger Cyril had been there as well, barely more than a boy at the time. He had held a blunderbuss on the sweating Jobian priest who conducted the dual wedding ceremony and coronation. As he now remembered it, Cyril had also had a splitting headache on that day.

Within five years the boy had gone from the bastard son of a minor knight who’d had to rent horses for jousts to being crowned himself as Duke Cyril II of Chengdea, for his father’s reign was short. It had ended with a drunken fall down five flights of circular tower stairs. The man who had killed something like fourteen or fifteen rival claimants for the Ducal throne in single combat had met his end after tripping over a cat.

To the equal surprise of Cyril II and the Chengdeanese, the young man had proven up to the task of ruling the Duchy, even as the war with Ayzantium slashed bleeding hunks out of the Kingdom’s southern, coastal flank. Chengdea met all royal demands for manpower and supply from the new King of Daul, Hughes III, who had also come to the throne as a youngster after the old king’s death on the Icheroon. Perhaps because of their likeness in age the young King seemed to trust his young Duke from the beginning, and the two had begun and maintained a warm correspondence between Chengdea and the royal capital of Bouree, or else with Hughes’s headquarters in the field. For Cyril the richest reward of the relationship had been his introduction at the King’s behest to Jasmine Halvalon, the beautiful golden-haired daughter of a powerful but under-titled baronial family in the east.

The demands the war put on Chengdea were severe but not crippling, and Cyril maintained enough forces at home to keep a lid on Magdetchoi raids from the Vod Wilds across the river. With Jasmine’s invaluable assistance he was careful to spread the burdens in men and material among his barons and earls as best he could, and willing to dip directly into the Ducal treasury when necessary to pay his own people for what the King could otherwise take from them by right. The revolts and unrest that had flared up in other provinces had not been felt on the Black River, and noblemen with lineages as long as the history of the province had grudgingly warmed to the upstart Duke. His refined wife was invaluable there, as well. Sad to say, after Jasmine’s illness and untimely passing a dozen years ago, the hearts of the common men and women of Chengdea had further opened to the widowed Duke.

That was all before the Ayzants had set siege to Larbonne, closing the Black River to the trade that was the lifeblood of the Duchy. Cyril’s already strained treasury lurched into the red, and that was actually the least of his problems. Of more concern was that with the fall of Larbonne, which all signs said could not be far off, the Ayzants would have an open path north on rivers and roads directly into Chengdea, and the King had as yet given no sign that he apprehended the threat. Hughes had his army in Chevagia, north of Roseille, Larbonne’s sister port to the east which the Ayzants had occupied for decades since early in the war. Roseille could scarcely even be considered a Daulic city any longer, yet there was Hughes perched above it with his massive army like a row of ducklings peering over the lip of a high nest, unwilling to hazard the jump to the water.

Or so it was said in the Ducal throne room of Chengdea, not by Cyril but by any number of his nobles whom he had gathered there to plan the defense of the Duchy. While the walls still bore their rich adornments, the floor had been cleared of carpets replaced with reed mats. Some of the carved benches and chairs remained but they were pushed back against the walls for instead of a grand banquet board smaller tables suitable for maps and stacked ledgers filled the floor. Around these, all day every day, stalked those knights and barons who were not serving this year with the King’s army. Most had already done at least one tour with the King and those men spoke among themselves of Hughes’s unwillingness to move his army anywhere that might leave his capital of Bouree exposed, no matter the result for Larbonne, Chengdea, and the rest of “his” Kingdom.

Every day as the word from downriver grew worse the awareness grew among the noblemen of Chengdea that they were going to be on their own. Many a goblet of wine was emptied and many a bold oath was sworn. Men proclaimed that the Duchy would be stoutly defended from the southern baronies to this very throne room, if need be. Given the size of the mercenary-swollen Ayzant army in Larbonne, most thought it probably would.

Such plans as were generated concentrated mostly on slowing the Ayzants in the south so that winter might close the roads to marching armies. Spring might bring relief from Hughes. Or it might not. But no one in Chengdea countenanced supplication to the bloody crown of Ayzantium.

Though he said no such word, Cyril thought spring would be too late. The Shugak of the Vod Wilds were quiet now, running their operations around Vod’Adia, but with the Opening and Closing of that fell place the hobgoblins and bullywugs might well take advantage of Chengdean concentration in the south to raid across the river anywhere else they liked. Good guardsmen on the banks of the Black were necessary to keep the Magdetchoi in check, and Cyril knew that the northern barons loudly proclaiming their dedication to the greater cause of the Duchy would feel far different when their own people were menaced from another quarter, back in their own lands.

As for those nobles, fewer by the day, who still had confidence that the King would come to their defense…Cyril did not disabuse them of that notion. He let their fellows do it for him. Cyril had begun to lose his own faith in Hughes several years back when the King’s personal correspondence had begun to grow strident, paranoid, and increasingly divorced from reality. Hughes had spent most of last year assuring Cyril that his position in Chevagia would keep the Ayzants from moving troops out of Roseille and the Chirabis for an attack in the west, on Larbonne. Cyril had received few letters from Hughes since that attack had happened. In fact, the only direct orders he had received in the last six months had been brought to Cyril in person by a High Lord Knight of the King’s own household, who had insisted on dispatching a Chengdean force on an ill-conceived reconnaissance south to the siege lines, sending a group that had been at once too large to avoid detection, and too small to engage in serious battle. They had been lost almost to a man, and at a personal cost to Cyril that had been far too high to pay. Hughes’s man had slunk back to Chevagia, and Cyril never received as much as a word of condolence.

That had been three months ago, and it had been something of a tipping point for the Duke, moving him decidedly toward something he had been considering for a few years but only ever spoken of with one other person. On the dark night that the body of Sir Lucas Towsan had returned home to Chengdea in a wagon, the Duke had spoken of his thoughts to a third person, Lucas‘s father. A few more knew of it by now though nothing had yet been done about it, apart from Cyril allowing his nobles to come to the realization in their own time that they, the Chengdeanese, were very much alone.

As evening approached on the Eighth Day of Ninth Month and the nobles began to discuss dinner as much as the defense of the Duchy a servant handed the Duke a folded note, one name and a few words scribbled on embossed castle stationary. Cyril excused himself, clapped a somber baron on the shoulder, and made to leave the chamber. Everyone stood to attention and the Duke gave all a nod, but he met the eyes of one thin old knight in particular and beckoned for the man to join him.

Knight-Baron Gideon Towsan, head of Cyril’s Household Guard, was a foot taller than his Duke and some fifteen years older. Despite having the close-cropped gray hair and tidy triangular beard suitable for the generation of Daulmen leaving their fifties, it was Towsan who had to shorten his long stride to walk beside his Duke, as Cyril was of a broad and slightly bow-legged build that marked his Kantan ancestry by way of Orstaf. The Duke’s brown hair was worn short as well, but he had gamely followed the present Daulic style by wearing a flared moustache and allowing his beard to grow long, but only from his chin, and binding it with silver wire.

“Pagette,” Cyril said a name as the two men marched down the long hall to the portal connecting the throne room to the upper courtyard of Chengdea’s castle, high on the northern-most hills of the city.

“He has found another…possibility?” Towsan asked carefully. The two nobles passed by uniformed spearman at the wide door who briskly saluted their Duke and commander. Cyril nodded to both the guards and the question. Towsan eyed the men to make sure their chain mail was immaculate, their gold and green tabards bright and without wrinkle.

Cyril and Towsan crossed the grass of the open courtyard passing under trees and around a great central dais mounting an enormous bell as old as the realm, the bronze so green it looked like jade. A mallet hung from the crossbar as a striker though the bell was so old the castle staff thought the thing might shatter if it was ever struck.

“Adventurers,” Cyril muttered. “Dunderheads bound for disaster in Vod’Adia. I cannot believe I have countenanced this plan.”

Safely beneath his own brush of moustache, Towsan smiled faintly. The present incarnation of this stage of the plan had not been conceived by Cyril, but rather by the one person the Duke had never been able to deny. Not since her mother had died.

The thought of death took all traces of a smile from Towsan’s face. His wound was too fresh.

The south side of the high courtyard gave down a ramp into another, and the citadel wall separating the two was thick enough that rooms were housed within it. A guard standing at attention next to a plain door saluted smartly. Cyril thanked and dismissed him, and opened the door himself.

The room was used for extra storage, with rolled carpets wedged next to a stack of ale kegs and a rack of spears. A lantern hung from the ceiling and Pagette was examining the ends of the carpet rolls in its light when the Duke and Towsan strode in.

Pagette turned and made a flouncey bow, ruffling the frilled cuffs of a silk shirt worn under an embroidered waistcoat. His hair was slicked down with some sort of pomade Cyril and Towsan could smell in the small room. He referred to the Duke and Knight-Baron properly in impeccable High Daulic as Your Grace and Your Lordship, Sir.

“What are they this time?” Cyril rumbled without preamble. “Green Hill musketmen? Tarthan priests of the Sword Maiden?”

Pagette beamed, his gold tooth catching the light along with the trove of rings glittering his fingers.

“A Miilarkian,” he said. “A young and rather pretty one at that.”

Cyril raised a brown eyebrow and Towsan frowned.

“An Islander?” said Cyril.

“A woman?” said Towsan.

“Yes, and yes. She has a Codian sell-sword with her, but otherwise travels alone.”

“Wait,” Cyril held up a hand. “She is a merchant of some kind? Traveling alone?”

“I do not believe so, your Grace, as she has no goods with her.”

“Pagette,” Towsan said. “She did not happen to be wearing a night-black cloak of a triangular cut, did she?”

“Ah, no your Lordship, sir. Though she did have something like that rolled up behind her saddle.”

“A Guilder?” Duke Cyril nearly sputtered, then raised his eyes toward the beams of the ceiling as though imploring help from the heavens beyond them.

“Good night, Pagette,” he said sourly, “Better luck the morrow. For the record, I am not particularly interested in thieves and assassins.”

Pagette looked modestly offended. “Pardon, your Grace, but strictly speaking the Guilders of Miilark are neither of those two things. Not precisely.”

“Bloody well close enough,” Towsan growled.

“My lords,” Pagette said, then snapped his mouth shut as the note of exasperation that had crept into his voice had been obvious even to him. “Forgive me, your Grace, and your Lordship, Sir. But might I perhaps speak plainly?”

“Please,” Cyril said, causing Towsan to glance at him. The Duke, perhaps because of his unorthodox upbringing, did have a tendency to treat in too familiar a fashion with commoners. The Duchess Jasmine had never been able to fully cure him of the habit.

Pagette held out his bejeweled hands. “Your Grace, owing to the siege of Larbonne there are not so many Vod’Adia-bound adventurers moving through your domains this season, and none of those who do come this way are paladins, or cavaliers, or people, in all honesty, of reputable circumstance. The better classes are going through Souterm and the Codian Empire. Those we get here are Kantans and Rivenmen moving overland, and a variety of ne’er-do-wells who either slipped around the siege or else were allowed through by the Ayzants as they look like trouble. The pickings, your Grace, are slim.”

Cyril was frowning, and Towsan knew why. Despite the rough nature of the heavily armed men and women who had come through Chengdea in the last few months, there were many among them who might have been convinced to hire on in the Duchy’s service, at least for a season, to bolster the defenses. If there had been any money left in the treasury, that is.

Pagette continued.

“My liege, time is not our friend. Vod’Adia will be Open in a few weeks, and Closed only a month after that. The adventurers, loaded with treasure or not, do not linger in the Wilds and the Shugak close the road behind them for the next ninety-nine years. In little more than two months there will be no route through the wilderness. Larbonne is already lost to us.” The man turned to look at Towsan. “If your Lordship, Sir, is still decided and resolute, you have to go now .”

“But with an Island Guilder?” Cyril said, though it was a question now and not a denial.

“Just so,” Pagette nodded. “As I say, she is a young woman and in truth not so formidable in appearance, but the reputation of her people proceeds her. If you two noble men are, forgive me, intimidated by the name of Miilark, may not the same be expected from the Shugak, and even from the rough crowd of Camp Town? There is no percentage in meddling with an Islander, for the Islanders never forget. Is there anyone in the world who has not heard this said?”

Cyril was quiet, thoughtful. Towsan spoke to Pagette.

“Does this young Guilderess mean to enter Blackstone? What is her goal?”

“I cannot say, sir, though I do not think Vod’Adia is her objective. Her sell-sword did purchase a one-man license on the docks with Island bank notes, and the pair of them booked passage on the next wug raft to put-out, probably in a few days.”

“Why else would she be going to Camp Town if she is not a merchant?”

Pagette shrugged, but the Duke had seen something. His dark eyes narrowed at the gaudy trader.

“You may not know, Pagette, but you have suspicions. You have that sort of a brain.”

The man lifted a hand as though to run it over his head, but remembering his slick pomade he only feathered his fingers above his hair.

“Well. I did hear a bit of talk between her and her man. There was something of an implication that she, well, does mean to…do a certain amount of harm to some fellow traveling ahead of her.”

Towsan snorted. “But Guilders are not assassins? Not precisely?”

Pagette sighed. “Yes. Well. Your Lordship, Sir, I must say again, what does it matter to us if she is? Have I misapprehended your purpose in seeking to travel in the manner intended? As I understood it your only wish is for security from here to Camp Town. Once there you can avail yourself of the hospitality of the Jobian priests, and your need for an escort is ended. If this Miilarkian wishes to go kill some fellow, or even to try the Sable City, what of it? Your need for her ends before either is an issue.”

“You are sure the Codian Priests have a temple at Camp Town this year?” Cyril asked, for it was a point to which he often returned.

“Absolutely your Grace, I have confirmed it time and again with the Shugak. They have raised an entire pyramid, of wood of course and not stone, and are operating it as a sort of hospice.” Pagette turned to Towsan. “It will be the most distinctive structure in Camp Town, I expect, for the Jobians put up a far better class of building than the Shugak, gods know. Not the sort of thing every breeze threatens to topple.”

Cyril was quiet for a time and Towsan gave his Duke the silence to think. Pagette waited on tenterhooks, not bothering to conceal his eagerness. The man was a native Chengdean and while no more of his Duke’s plan had been explained to him than was absolutely necessary, he did possess the sort of brain that would have figured it all out by now. Pagette surely understood that the fate of the Duchy could well be in the balance, though Towsan suspected that the light in his eyes had still more to do with the substantial payment he had been promised than with any sense of local patriotism.

Cyril finally sighed. “Where is this pretty assassin now?”

“The Stars and Stones on the docks,” Pagette said. “She and her man took two rooms as it is the only inn not stuffed to the rafters with refugees. Not at the pretty penny the owner is still charging.”

“That innkeeper has no soul,” Towsan muttered. Pagette shrugged.

“But he has stacks and stacks of silver. Many are the men who will make that trade.”

“Arrange a meeting, Pagette,” Cyril said. “Let us say, in three hours.”

The man bowed deeply, still smiling, and was quickly out the door and gone. Cyril made no move to leave the room right away so Towsan waited beside him.

“I should bring Claudja,” the Duke said. “She has a good eye for people.”

“She always did, your Grace.”

Cyril looked at his oldest vassal and opened his mouth as though to apologize, which would have been a mortification for Towsan. Instead the Duke only reached out and squeezed the knight’s narrow shoulder with a strong hand. Towsan lowered his eyes.

Cyril looked out the open door at the sky above the courtyard walls, somber blues and purples starting to play across the undersides of clouds.

“Sunset,” Cyril said. “I know where she will be. Would you like to come, Gideon?”

“Not tonight, your Grace.”

Cyril nodded, and clapped Towsan’s shoulder. The Duke turned and left, and after a moment the old knight reached up to the hanging lantern and flicked open the tiny door. He licked a thumb and finger and snuffed out the light, then stood alone in the darkening room until his face was set and expressionless, before striding out himself.

Cyril went back into the main citadel but moved widely around the throne room through side passages typically only used by servants. He passed several of the familiar household staff who stepped aside and nodded rather than bowed. The Duke had never been comfortable with a great deal of formality when no one else was around.

He wound through a closed kitchen and at one point had to take a staircase up to the ducal apartments, and then another one back down. He was bound for a detached courtyard on the same level as the main upper yard, but which was accessible only from above.

As Cyril stepped back outside he was chilled by a northern breeze he had not felt in the enclosed courtyard within the citadel. This yard was far smaller, just a wide L-shaped walkway jutting from the northeast corner above a sheer cliff, which made defensive works redundant. Instead there was only a low stone wall enclosing an area of paving stones interrupted by regular squares of bare dirt, a few sprouting saplings but most of which were beds that would wait until spring before flowering.

The view was among the best in the castle above the city, for none of Chengdea itself could actually be seen. From here the citadel seemed to float in the sky high above checkerboard farm fields stretching east and the Black River flowing in from the north, with the tangled murk of the Vod Wilds to the west safely across the wide water. The spot was particularly beautiful at sunset but Cyril scarcely noticed the gorgeous sky, for his daughter was sitting on a stone bench and to him she was the most beautiful thing in the world. He had a case to make.

Claudja Perforce, Duchess of Chengdea, had inherited her mother’s looks along with her title. Her features were fine, actually exquisite, with a delicate nose and mouth that only seemed a trifle small for the largeness of her steel gray eyes. She had Jasmine’s pale skin, wholly without blemish, but from Cyril and the Balabushevych’s once of Orstaf she had dark, slashing eyebrows and a mass of brown hair tumbling about narrow shoulders for her frame was slight. She was dressed as she had been for three months all in the black of mourning, plain dress, coat, and a scarf. She sat on the edge of the bench with her spine as straight as a ramrod, and before her was a square gap in the pavement from which no flowers would ever grow again, for it was the grassy mound of a grave. The name on the stone marker said only Sir Lucas but it was inscribed beneath the carved coat of arms of the Towsan family. The Knight-Baron’s holdings were on Chengdea’s eastern edge, and it was there that the Towsans had rested for five hundred years. It was there that someday Sir Gideon’s bones would lie, and later those of his elder two sons. But the old knight had acceded to the Duchess Claudja’s gentle wish that the youngest of the family would lie here, on the spot where Lucas had proposed marriage, and Claudja had accepted.

Seeing her, Claudja’s father felt like an intruder. Her small size did not add to Cyril’s grudging awareness that his only child was a young woman now of twenty-four years, and that the things weighing on her were grown-up matters. Not the kinds of things that a father’s hug could ever banish. He could still tell her now that everything would be fine but since Jasmine’s death neither of them could believe that as they might have, once. Now with Lucas gone, the fine young man who Claudja had looked at from the beginning in the same way Jasmine had come to look at Cyril in time, the father feared that their daughter might never come to feel that way again.

Claudja had heard the door and she turned to look up at her father. The light of dusk was gentle on her face. She smiled faintly with her mouth but not her eyes, and there was no joy in it. Cyril walked toward her slowly, setting his heavy feet softly for every scuff seemed an interruption of his daughter’s private grief. Claudja rose and with a last look back turned away from the cold headstone. She met Cyril halfway and her dry eyes narrowed as she looked at his face.

“Some news?” she asked.

“Pagette,” Cyril said, and found he had to clear his throat.

Claudja lifted her chin, for her father was much taller.

“Has he found someone?” she snapped, suddenly all business.

“Perhaps,” Cyril said without enthusiasm. “There is a Miilarkian taking passage shortly. A young woman Guilder.”

“ Wahine Guild awarhe?” Claudja said, for she spoke the Trade Tongue with full fluency as befitted the female head of a noble Daulic household. Cyril’s command of that language was spotty, though he had gotten her drift.

“That is what Pagette thinks.”

Claudja looked somewhere into the breeze and she blinked once or twice though her gaze remained steely. Her mother had looked just the same when she was thinking, and it had never taken either of them very long to get where their mind was going.

“That’s perfect,” Claudja said. “When may I meet her?”

“We may head down into the city at any time.”

Claudja nodded crisply and turned for the stairs back up to the apartments. Cyril looked and then called after her, and she turned.

“Claudja, I…I still do not like this plan. There are other ways to reach the Codians. There are others who could be sent.”

Cyril’s daughter looked over her shoulder at him, then turned and marched back. In the dying light there was a sudden coldness in her eyes that Cyril had never seen in her mother’s, though he recognized it all the same. He had seen it often enough in the hard gaze of his own father, the first Duke of Chengdea, Perforce.

“There is no time to establish relations and exchange ambassadors,” Claudja said. “The Codians must know that we are serious, and they must know it immediately.” She lifted her chin again. “So long as I am Duchess of Chengdea no more of our men shall die for the incompetence of that man.”

The vehemence with which Claudja spoke the last two words as always gave Cyril a start, for since Lucas Towsan had died following the orders of Hughes III, King of Daul, Claudja had referred to their rightful liege in no other way.

Cyril nodded. Claudja turned away only a moment before her look would have amounted to staring her father down, then strode deliberately back inside. It was another moment before Cyril followed.

Chapter Nineteen

After speaking through a human translator to a fat bullywug on the docks Tilda bought a pass to board whatever craft into the Wilds was next available, paying an extra ten silvers for the privilege. In return she was given a short, flute-like stick with irregularly cut air holes and told to come back at first light though there well might be nothing available for a day or two. Or three. Half a tenday, tops. The additional delay was well down Tilda’s list of concerns. She secured the flute in the belt with her money and took the horses back into the city to the first heavily trafficked corner. In half an hour Tilda had sold both at a profit that covered the pass though she had to take payment in Daulic coins that were much more cumbersome than Miilarkian notes.

The only inn Tilda had seen in the city not full to overflowing was the Stars and Stones adjacent to the Shugak dock, and when she entered the common room she divined why. There were not many people at the tables or the bar but those present consisted of a bewildering array of adventuring types, all armed to the teeth and many still wearing dented breast plates and chain sleeves even as they ate dinner. There was a tall woman so pale she was almost albino, all in dark blue leather and with a mace set atop her table next to a gloved hand lazily swishing a glass of wine. In one corner was a pair of dark Oswambans, a twin brother and sister, wearing warm woolen clothes but with lion skins over their shoulders and matching spears with long steel tips bound around with bright feathers leaning against the wall. The furnishings and appointments of the inn were all of the highest quality and the place was obviously catering only to those who could afford to pay more than any commoner or refugee.

Dugan was at the bar talking to the only two women in the place who did not look like they were bound for Vod’Adia. Not unless prostitutes were assailing the Sable City this year.

Tilda went to the far end of the bar and dealt with the grinning barkeep. A single room and an evening meal were one and one-half silver pieces, several times what would have been fair. Tilda got a small measure of vengeance by paying in thirty coppers, ridding her of most of her least valuable Daulic coins.

Tilda stowed her gear and locked her room upstairs, and after some consideration she returned to the common room in her Guild cloak over her vest and daggers and with her buksu club still slung across her back. Her meal was waiting on the end of the bar, catfish and mead. Dugan was alone now for his companions had moved to a trio of well-heeled young noblemen who had come in, slumming. He shrugged at Tilda and she ignored him, taking her board and glass to a corner table beside the fireplace. The fish was good, basted with a creamy sauce tasting only faintly of leeks, but the mead was not sweet enough to Tilda’s palette.

A familiar man entered the room, not from the door to the street but from a side hall past the kitchen. It was the counterman from the jewelry store though he now wore a long, plain coat and a wide-brimmed hat. He nodded to Dugan at the bar but walked across the room to Tilda’s table, Dugan looking after him with an eyebrow raised over a tankard of ale.

“A bol aloha,” the man said in the Trade Tongue, flashing his gold tooth and producing his hands from his pockets for a little gesture, still a welter of shining rings. He switched to Codian. “We did not exchange names, though mine is Pagette.”

Tilda looked at him and said nothing. His smile faltered.

“All right then, Miss. If you might have a moment, I hoped you could spare it for a brief talk with…a certain important party. A man who has much to say to you, which I am sure you will find of interest.”

Tilda made no move though her right wrist was resting on the edge of the table, just on the knob of the dagger sheathed in her sleeve. If she pressed down while pulling her arm back she could tug the blade free and catch the pommel before it fell. Something about Pagette bugged Tilda but she spoke to him.

“You are going to have to be far more specific than that.”

“Oh. Well. Allow me to say there is a nobleman, in this very inn just down that hall there, who wishes to render you a proposition that if accepted will be to your considerable financial advantage.”

Tilda cut her eyes briefly toward the prostitutes snuggling the boisterous young nobles at the bar.

“Mr. Pagette. If you are saying what I believe you to be, you had best walk out of this room right now.”

The man looked in that direction and his eyes widened.

“Oh, gods Miss, no, I mean I would never…” he sighed and waved both hands apologetically, then started over.

“A high noble of this city wishes an escort…a guardian, for two people traveling to the Camp Town at Vod’Adia. As you are going there already if you are but willing to look after these others along the way, they can pay you handsomely. And if you are so willing you can all go on your way at first light, with no more delay. They have an arrangement with the Shugak.”

Tilda continued to regard the man coolly, then she stood up so fast that he took a jerky step back. She drained the last of her mead, which was a mistake. While Tilda thought she was doing rather well so far, the large swallow forced her immediately to stifle a belch, producing a squeak between her pressed lips that was in no way impressive. Nor ladylike. Pagette had the good grace to ignore it completely. He took a step to the side and gestured back toward the hall from which he had entered.

“You first,” Tilda said, and after a moment’s thought she took her buksu from her back and held the club loosely at her right side. Dugan had been watching from the bar and now he stood up as well.

Pagette nodded and walked back for the hall, passing Dugan on the way. The former legionnaire looked at Tilda but she did not meet his eyes as she honestly had no idea what she wanted him to do. She walked past without giving Dugan any sign, but he followed her. Tilda was slightly disappointed in herself that his presence made her feel a bit better.

The hall was short and lit only by the light from the common room. Pagette knocked on and opened a door halfway along, out of which spilled flickering fire light. He motioned for Tilda to enter, and she waved him in first with her club.

The room was a study of a sort, or perhaps the inn owner’s office. Rugs on the floor and whitewashed walls, bookshelves full of scroll tubes and plush chairs beside a brick fireplace. There was a desk that had been shifted to the center of the room as a table and dining room chairs had been brought in and set two on a side.

The two chairs across the desk were occupied by a middle-aged man with a barrel chest and a lovely young woman the size of a girl. The man stood as Tilda entered. The pair did not look much alike in the face, but the brown shade of their hair in the firelight was identical and made Tilda think they must be father and daughter. A second man stood behind them, a gaunt old fellow with his arms crossed and the pommel of a sword visible on his left hip as his cloak was drawn back on that side. All three wore plain garments; cloaks, tunics, and trousers of only moderate material yet much cleaner than would have been clothes which someone actually wore every day.

Pagette had stepped in to one side and he spoke formally.

“Miss, may I present his Grace, the Duke Cyril II of Chengdea, city and province.”

Tilda blinked but tried to give no more sign of surprise than that.

“ Bol aloha, Miss…?” the Duke said.

“Matilda Lanai.”

The Duke’s daughter raised an eyebrow as though recognizing that Tilda’s last name simply meant “porch,” in Miilarkian. She probably thought Tilda was giving a fake name, but sadly, no.

The Duke asked Pagette to watch the door, and Dugan let the man squeeze by him back out into the hall. When he shut the door Dugan shot the bolt without asking. The older man was giving the buksu in Tilda’s hand a hard look, and after thinking a moment she slowly held it back to Dugan. He took it, dropped the head in the leather cup of the sheath on Tilda’s back, and snapped the strap across its neck between her shoulders. The old man did not relax appreciably.

The Duke gestured at a chair and retook his own after Tilda sat down, perching on the edge of her seat. There was another chair beside her but Dugan remained standing behind Tilda and crossed his arms, making himself the mirror image of the old knightly-looking fellow behind the two nobles. There was a wine bottle and glasses on a silver tray atop the desk but when Cyril held a hand out towards them Tilda shook her head once. She waited until he began to speak, then interrupted.

“Pagette says you want someone escorted to Camp Town, your Grace. Who would that be?”

Cyril frowned and squinted, concentrating to follow Tilda’s words in the Trade Tongue. His daughter spoke it fluently.

“Are all the women of Miilark so swiftly to business? Not a word of polite small talk?”

Tilda looked at her. “I have had a long day. Forgiveness…your Grace?”

The Duchess nodded. She gave her name as Claudja, and was quickly to business herself.

“It is I who must go to Camp Town, in the company of this knight, his Lordship Sir Gideon Towsan. Commander of my father’s guard.”

Towsan gave no sign he had been mentioned. He and Dugan were busy sizing each other up.

“So go,” Tilda said. “What do you need me for?”

The young Duchess was about Tilda’s own age or perhaps just older. She gave a slight smirk.

“Owing to circumstances with which you need not be concerned, Sir Towsan and I shall not travel openly with guards, but in a clandestine fashion I am sure a woman taught in the Guildhalls of the Islands can appreciate. If we are attached to another group, even to a small one, we will attract still less notice.”

Tilda glanced at the knight. “He might pass for an old soldier if he scuffs himself up a bit. But you, your Grace, do not look like an adventurer bound for Vod’Adia.”

Claudja raised a dark eyebrow. “The same might be said of you, Matilda Lanai, without the cloak and weapons. But some adventurers do take servants with them as far as the Camp Town, and I can pass myself as one of those. Scuffed up a bit.”

Scuffed up a lot, Tilda thought, for the Duchess had the looks of a porcelain doll from the Celestial Empire of Cho Lung in the Farthest West. Tilda looked back to the Duke, still squinting to follow the conversation, but he seemed content to let his daughter speak for herself. Tilda crossed her arms and leaned back a bit, buksu clunking against the back of her chair.

“Just how much trouble are you expecting between here and Camp Town?”

“None,” Claudja said. “Though only fools and drunkards discount trouble altogether. Your simple presence, Miss Lanai, and the reputation of those of your ilk should in all likelihood be of more importance than actual protection. In return, there is a reserved Shugak craft that may be underway as early as the morning. No need to wait for another to return from a run. And, of course, you will be fairly compensated.”

“How fairly?” Tilda asked from force of habit, for gaining a day or more would by itself probably be worth what did not sound to be much of a task.

The Duchess narrowed her gray eyes slightly and the small smirk that had flashed a moment ago crept back to the right corner of her mouth. Tilda did not know who typically conducted the business of buying and selling within a noble Daulic household, but she had the sense that Claudja Perforce did so in hers.

“You have already bought passage with the Shugak, I am sure,” Claudja said. “That will be unnecessary now, and we will of course return to you the difference.”

“Obliged, your Grace. But making good a loss is different than making a fair profit.”

“What would you consider fair, for riding a raft to a place you were going already?”

“Oh, your Grace, these realms and environs are wholly your own. You should be the one to propose a fair price. From which point, we may begin.”

Tilda was aware she was beginning to smile as well, just as she had hawking the horses on the city streets earlier today. The three men in the room were now looking between the two women uncertainly.

“Shall we open the wine?” Claudja offered.

“Let’s do.”

*

It took half an hour but Tilda and the Duchess eventually settled on forty-four gold pieces, which just about put Tilda up for the day even after her payment to Dugan. She took half in advance and as the old knight Sir Towsan produced Miilarkian notes from a bank in Bouree to give payment, Tilda was able to change much of her coinage for more easily managed paper. Pagette and the nobles left the inn from a back door at the end of the hall while Tilda and Dugan returned to the common room where a few customers still lingered.

“What in the world was all that about?” Dugan asked. “I caught no words apart from duke this and duchess that. Jobe, and Vod’Adia.”

Tilda stopped walking. For a moment she had plain forgotten that she and Dugan were not actually traveling together anymore. She bit her lip, stopped biting it, and turned around to face him.

“That girl and the old knight want a traveling companion as far as Camp Town, and to a Jobian temple there. They just hired me.”

Dugan looked unconvinced. “Just you, eh? Could have sworn a thumb was jerked at me a time or two.”

“The Duchess asked what the smell in the room was.”

Dugan cracked a smile, something he had not done much since the far side of the Girdings, before the knight Procost, and Block. His beard had come in now which was a look Tilda had never found particularly attractive growing up in Miilark where all the local men were clean-shaven. Dugan’s did not look so bad however, and he was still handsome when he smiled. Not that one glass of bitter mead and two of wine was enough to allow his looks to influence Tilda. Not quite.

“So when you show up alone to meet them,” Dugan said. “They are not going to wonder where I am?”

Tilda did not answer, so Dugan went on.

“The two of us have worked well enough together, Tilda. We have gotten this far.”

“We did not all get this far.”

Dugan’s mouth lost its trace of mirth. “Believe it or not, I am sorry for that. Truly. But I mean you and me, Tilda. All the way through Daul, and we just handled that meeting well enough.”

“I thought you and Sir Towsan were going to stare each other dead. You really don’t like knights very much, do you?”

Dugan glanced at the floor, no doubt thinking for a moment of Sir Procost of the Roaring Boar Order, as was Tilda.

“I do not much care for nobles,” Dugan admitted. “Call it a hazard of being a foot soldier.”

Tilda’s eyes were narrow. “Do you still mean to catch John Deskata and the others in Camp Town? Even though your money is not an issue?”

Instead of answering Dugan rolled back the right sleeve of his rough Orstavian tunic, where he still had a plain bit of cord looped around his wrist like a bracelet. He had now run the cord through an air hole of a short flute identical to the one Tilda had been given as a receipt for her passage with the Shugak. He shook it briskly, and from inside the hollow stick he produced a string of beads on a wire hook, multi-colored and of different substances, with tiny runes inscribed.

“This is what a license to enter Vod’Adia looks like, in case you were wondering,” Dugan said. “I could not go in alone with just this, but if I join with a party of adventurers it gets fastened to some other Shugak stick. That is what the man in the tree-tower says, anyway.”

“What did you pay for it?”

“Fifty-three. I know, you would have done better. This one is only valid starting eight days after Vod’Adia Opens, though I am told I can pay for an ‘upgrade’ in Camp Town to use it sooner. I reckon they tie an extra bead on to it if I join a party entering the city before that.”

Dugan looked at Tilda evenly in the eyes.

“What I am telling you, Tilda, is that I have other plans. I am going into Vod‘Adia. I don’t give a good damn about John and the others either way. Not anymore. They stole from me, but you have now made that good.” Dugan shrugged. “As it turns out, I’ve blown the whole stack already, so it really matters little at this point.”

“So you do not mean to even look for them?” Tilda pressed. Dugan sighed.

“Not for myself. But if you want support when you go looking…you can have it.”

Tilda’s eyes were down to slits.

“Why?”

“Because I feel like I owe you something. I feel like I owe Block something.”

Tilda studied Dugan’s face just as she did when she was haggling with someone, looking for any tic or tell to let her know if she was north or south of what would be the final price. She believed Dugan but she was self-aware enough to know that she wanted to believe him.

“We meet the others at first light,” she said. “On the Shugak dock.”

Dugan nodded. “And once we get to Camp Town?”

Tilda let out a breath through her nose. “What is the expression in Tull? We will burn that bridge when we come to it?”

Dugan smiled. “That, is not that expression.”

Tilda looked at the short flute still in Dugan’s hand, just like the one she had bought as proof of payment for passage on a Shugak raft.

“We should not need these now, should we?” she said.

“I don’t suppose we will.”

“May I?”

Tilda held out a hand, and with a shrug Dugan unthreaded the carved whistle and dropped it into her palm. She dug her own out of a cloak pocket, looked around at the inn patrons at tables and the bar, and held both aloft.

“Has anyone not yet purchased a raft pass from the Shugak?” Tilda called, trying the room first in the Trade Tongue. Several people looked over, and Dugan chuckled.

“You are a credit to the Islands.”

“Leave no coin behind,” said Tilda. She slapped a smile on her face and bounded into a smooth stride for the table of the Oswamban twins, who had looked up at the first sound of the Trade Tongue.

*

Pagette walked beneath the spreading arms of the Shugak-built tower well after midnight, sighing at its weird silhouette against the starry sky. He had watched the bullywugs and hobgoblins raising the place three months ago, an abysmal process during which the whole mess had fallen over at least twice and rolling brawls had frequently broken out among the construction crew.

Behind the tower a tall pier normally used for large river vessels extended empty out over the water. Pagette took a trail down the bank through clumps of reeds and slick rocks to the end of a floating dock bound to the bank with ropes twisted together from the vines of the Vod Wilds. When he put one foot on it the whole structure seemed to move, and Pagette took his bejeweled hands out of his pockets for balance. The boards were narrow for it made little difference to the amphibious bullywugs who operated the rafts that would moor here whether they fell into the water or not. Pagette was getting a belly in his middle years but the nimbleness of his misspent youth was not totally lost. He made it to the end of the dock still dry.

A single bullywug stood waiting on the end, a very small one hardly as high as the man’s waist. Its dark hide looked blue-black in the night, and Pagette mostly saw the creature by the faint phosphorescent glow of its yellow, cupola eyes. Size was not a reliable determinant of age among the frogmen, and this little one did not seem young.

“Greetings,” Pagette said in Daulic as he stopped and steadied himself on the bobbing boards. The wug chirped neutrally. So much for small talk.

From a jacket pocket Pagette produced a missive he had just written in Zantish in his shop, then sealed in a water-tight tube made of tin, the two ends of which screwed together in the middle. He held it out toward the wug.

“You know where to find him?” Pagette asked before handing it over. The wug made a rumble from low in its belly, then a flute-like whistle that billowed out fleshy pouches where its throat would be if it had a neck. Together the two sounds meant that the wug was not an idiot.

Pagette gave it the scroll tube and the wug deftly used its webbed hands and long fingers ending in round suction pads to place it into a small pouch bound across its torso. The wug wrapped a long trailing strap many times around the pouch, then cinched the harness tight.

“Swim swiftly,” Pagette said, and the wugs glowing eyes turned on him. It made a series of croaks, ribbits, and slaps of its hands that roughly translated as, What in the green hell would you know about fast swimming, pink thing? Mind your business.

With that, the wug slipped off the dock and into the dark water with hardly a ripple, leaving Pagette alone.

He made his way back to land, then up the path to street and pier level. Rather than returning immediately to his shop Pagette stepped out on the pier some little distance, went to the railing, and fished his pipe and a clever little steel-and-wheel lighter from his coat pockets. He smoked, looking up the river to the north, and his eyes eventually drifted to the right, up to the sharp shapes of the Ducal castle high on the hills.

“Apologies, your Graces,” Pagette said around the stem of his pipe. “The money was just too good. And I, less so.”

Chapter Twenty

After more than two weeks walking the long road from Souterm to Galdeez, Phin Phoarty felt better than he had in years.

The first week, admittedly, had been rough. Phin had awakened every morning with his feet, knees, and hips aching. It took until the noon stop for a quick meal before all the soreness worked through then in the afternoon his legs started to feel tremulous, like a new-born bird’s. The discomfort was exacerbated by sleeping on the ground out of doors, which was something Phin had never done in his life.

The Imperial Post Road crossed the whole of the Empire from Souterm north through Doon and over the Girding Mountains at the Rhuunish Gap, then through Tull, the western Beoshore, and across the ancient, defunct lands of Gyle and Telina to a port on the Cold Sea called, with typical Codian efficiency but a lack of originality, Norterm. The northern terminus of the Imperial Post Road. All along the Road’s great length tidy “King’s Inns” were erected a good day’s march apart, or half that by coach or horse. The five travelers stopped at one each night but only the woman with the lovely Zantish name of Nesha-tari took a room. Phin, Zebulon, Amatesu and Uriako Shikashe camped for a copper piece in fenced fields across from the inns, which at least all had wells and fire pits. The Far Westerners had two small pup tents but Phin shared a third with Zeb despite the fact that the Minauan man had a tendency to roll over in his sleep and elbow Phin in the throat, or even more alarmingly, to nuzzle the back of Phin’s neck with his nose.

Nocturnal groping aside, Zebulon was a decent traveling companion full of soldier’s stories and old minstrel tales he related on the march while pushing the baggage cart, never asking Phin to take a turn. In the second week Phin was feeling stronger and offered to take some turns at the barrow on his own. After a tenday of exercise in the clean air Phin started to feel good. He now wore wool trousers and a Doonish shirt and cape the Far Western woman Amatesu had bought at an inn after saying flatly that altering any of Zebulon’s clothes to fit Phin’s long frame was beyond her abilities. As Phin walked along in the easy peasant garb he began to remember that he was still a young man, a fact that he had forgotten over his ten years at Abverwar. He started to lose his stoop and recalled that he was a tall man as well, and that he did not need always to lean on a staff, glaring at people.

Phin glared at no one now, but he had taken to staring at Nesha-tari who always walked out ahead of the group with Uriako Shikashe closest to her, Zeb and Phin trailed behind with the barrow, and Amatesu walked either with them or with the samurai, depending on how off-color a tavern tale Zeb happened to be telling at any given time. The Far Western woman was friendly enough, the samurai was an aloof ox, but the woman Nesha-tari was a complete mystery. She kept her distance and her own counsel, and when Phin asked Zebulon anything about her she seemed to be the one topic Zeb was not happy to discourse upon at great length. The few times Phin pressed him a little Zeb became a bit surly, and the wizard suspected the Minauan was carrying a torch for her, which was ridiculous. Phin had yet to see any more of the woman than an alabaster wrist between glove and sleeve or a lock of shining blonde hair blown back from under her hood, but he could tell that she was a woman of standing, and quality. Far above the reach of the bawdy axe-man from Wakminau in the Riven Kingdoms.

As the party drew closer to Red Galdeez and even as Phin felt as physically good as he ever had, the fact that he had still hardly had a look at Nesha-tari began to trouble him. He hoped she was not in some way scarred or misshapen, for that would just be tragic, but he did not think that could be the case. Though she went about covered there was nothing retiring or timid about the way she walked, with a stride that was at once graceful and with great purpose. After Galdeez when they traveled on Shugak roads through the Red Hills on the Vod Wild side of the river, surely then the whole group would have to march closer together. And as there were not going to be any inns in the Wilds they would all be camping in the evenings. Phin started to daydream about it even before Galdeez was in sight.

Phin rose early in the mornings to meditate on his spells, which he could then cast with a word and a gesture at any time during the day. Since leaving Souterm he had taken to preparing only the one bit of magic that seemed likely to have any utility if there was some trouble on the road, the spell of Sleep. Phin’s meditation was deep as he was away in a part of his own mind that was a realm of symbol and signs, but it was generally quite brief as Sleep was not a complicated spell. Each morning it began to take longer however, and Phin was alarmed to find that even in the mental place that allowed him to wield magic the idea of Nesha-tari was somehow still present. Nothing quite like that had ever happened to Phin before, and it made him think something very strange was going on in his head.

If Phin had lived a different life he might have thought he was falling in love for the first time. But Phin had lived his own life, and he knew magic when he smelled it.

The last night before they were to reach Galdeez, Phin waited until Zebulon was asleep and then slowly slipped out of the tent. Amatesu’s cooking fire in the pit had gone to ash, and the night was chilly. Phin stirred the embers until little yellow glimmers winked from the blackened wood, wrapped his bedding blanket around his shoulders and sat cross-legged before the pit staring into the embers until his eyes lost focus and his breathing stilled. In half an hour he blinked, and could see that the last sparks had faded out. He had memorized one Sleep spell, and a stronger than usual version of the divination spell referred to in the verbal shorthand of Abverwar as Know History.

Phin crept away from the camp before putting on his soft boots and walking across the Post Road for the nearby King’s Inn. He wondered absently why the places were called that for there were no Kings in the Codian Empire, and resolved to ask Zebulon tomorrow if he thought of it. That was the trivial sort of information Zeb seemed to have in abundance.

It was late and the inn kitchen was closed, the common room empty. A man appeared behind a desk from a curtained doorway as Phin’s entry jingled a chime above the front door. The clerk was a young Doonish local in a clean tunic of light blue cloth, the breast embroidered with a simplified version of the Codian Book-from-the-Water design as an upright rectangle in a circle. Phin told the fellow he was a member of the Madame Nesha-tari’s party, and needed her room number. The desk clerk did not know the name but recognized Phin’s description of the woman’s hooded ensemble. He was still loathe to give Phin a room number though he did offer to summon her. Phin said it would keep until morning, and turned to go. He turned around again as the man was passing back through the curtained doorway, muttered a few words and raised his hand to his mouth to blow a bit of fine powder from his fingers.

The man stopped in the doorway and swayed. Phin stepped around the desk and caught the fellow under the armpits as he began to crumple to the floor, totally limp. Phin dragged him through the curtain into a small office, and hoisted the fellow onto a cot at the far wall. He blew out the lamp on a table.

Phin returned to the desk, flipped open a ledger by an inkwell to the last marked page and ran his finger down the column of signatures. Madame Nesha-tari’s was there without her title, as was the room number.

Phin turned to a corkboard on the wall behind the desk on which was drawn a diagram of the one-story inn, two wings lined with rooms running off the central kitchen and commons, with the stables in an outbuilding. Each room on the diagram was numbered and a key hung from a peg in each one that was not presently occupied. The peg for Nesha-tari’s key was empty, and the board told Phin that she had taken the corner room at the north end of the inn, round the back. He looked down the hall toward that wing but walked out the front door and around the building.

There was no light in Nesha-tari’s two corner windows, high on the walls so that even with his height Phin would have to get on tiptoes just to raise his eyes level with their bottom edges. All the windows of the inn were on hinged casements of dark wood enclosing a diamond-shaped metal mesh around tiny panes of glass. Nesha-tari’s side window was shut tight, but that in the back wall was open just a crack so that a lace curtain behind it shifted whitely in the moonlight. Phin stood underneath the window and gathered his thoughts, though he could feel his heart hammering in his chest.

He would have to touch her to cast Know History, and actually Phin had little reason to think the spell would work. It was generally used for inanimate objects that could be handled, and by concentrating hard a wizard could come to know something of their origins, their age, and in the case of something like a weapon, just to what use it had been put. Phin had never cast the spell on a person before, and was unsure if it could tell him what he suspected: That the Madame Nesha-tari was some sort of witch, and that she had put an enchantment on him.

But he wanted to touch her. Really, really bad. The thought of setting a hand gently upon her, perhaps on a creamy shoulder, was making Phin’s heart beat so hard he began to fear it would wake her as he boosted himself into her room.

Phin’s palms were moist and he wiped them on his shirt before reaching up and pulling the back casement out just a bit further into the night air, wincing as the hinges whined ever so softly. He put his fingers on the window ledge and stood with his nose almost touching the white-washed timber wall, rising slowly on his toes until he could peek between his fingers.

It was pitch black in the room but as he squinted Phin thought he could just see two dim spots of blue light, almost like eyes looking back at him.

Then the flat end of a Far Western weapon called a tonfa cracked across the back of Phin’s skull, and he saw no more.

*

Uriako Shikashe’s voice awoke Zeb while the canvas sides of his tent were still dark. Zeb was splayed on his back more comfortably than was usual in the tent he shared with Phin Phoarty, and after a moment he realized it was because he was alone. Amatesu was talking to Shikashe now, outside. Zeb rolled over and started to snuggle deeper under his blanket, but had the thought that Nesha-tari might have woken the others up early. She might actually be standing outside right now. Zeb slithered out of his bedding and the tent, stumbled up to his feet and looked around.

Still dark night, and no Nesha-tari. Shikashe stood nearby and frowned at Zeb with his arms crossed and his long black topknot all unbound so that his hair fell around his shoulders. As the samurai slept only in a long shirt of embroidered silk he had at moment a slightly womanly appearance, apart from the mustache. Not that Zeb was going to tell him so.

Amatesu had rekindled the fire and was kneeling on the far side. Zeb stepped over to see what she was about, and blinked in surprise for Phin was lying on the ground before her as though dead. Amatesu had turned his limp head sideways by the chin, and was gently probing his brown hair with her fingers. When she pulled them back they were red and wet in the firelight.

“What the hells happened?” Zeb shouted, snapping fully awake and scampering over to kneel next to Amatesu.

“I struck him in the head,” the woman said with a frown. “Too hard, I think.”

Zeb stared at her. “You did what?”

Amatesu did not answer but worked her fingers into Phin’s hair at the back of his skull. She closed her eyes and lifted her chin, then released a long, soft breath. She looked just like she had when Zeb had first met her, when the shukenja had jammed her fingers into the ruins of his elbow and withdrawn them with the joint repaired.

Phin stirred, then jerked and blinked his eyes. Amatesu stood up and wiped her bloody fingers together, looking around the campsite for the water bucket.

“What…” Phin looked up at Zeb and stammered. “Where am I…what?”

“Amatesu hit you in the head.” Zeb turned to the shukenja as she crossed to the bucket. “Amatesu, why did you hit Phin in the head?” The fellow wasn’t a bad sort really, Zeb had come to think. Phoarty had a nose-in-the-air snootiness about him that Zeb supposed was typical for a mage, but he had been loosening up for the last week or so.

“He was trying to break into the Madame Nesha-tari’s bed chamber,” Amatesu said, dunking a cloth in the bucket.

Zeb’s eyes widened and he stood up. Phin had rolled to all fours and was starting to rise groggily, but Zeb put a foot on his ribs and knocked him back to his side.

“You were doing what?” Zeb hissed down at him.

“Zebulon!” Amatesu snapped, in the exact tone of voice that the matrons had used at him when he was a boy in the Baj Nif Drom. But he didn’t hear her. Zeb’s hands were balled in fists at his sides and they were shaking.

“Get up!” he barked at Phoarty and Phin did so rapidly, lunging at Zeb from his knees until Amatesu snagged the mage’s collar and dragged him back. Zeb took a step forward raising a fist, but Shikashe snaked an arm that felt like a tree limb with muscles around Zeb’s neck and squeezed. Zeb actually felt his eyeballs bugging out as he grabbed Shikashe’s arm.

“Both of you, stop it!” Amatesu ordered, still holding Phin’s collar while the red-faced mage clawed in the air toward Zeb.

“I will blast you to Hades!” he sputtered furiously, and Zeb answered with an equally enraged though less comprehensible gasp and wheeze.

Amatesu met Shikashe’s eyes and nodded, then she jerked Phin back to put her own arm around his neck. Zeb could not really see it as his vision was starting to swim. The Far Westerners throttled the Wizard and the Minauan until both were going limp, their faces almost purple, then each let their patient go. Zeb and Phin collapsed to all fours and almost knocked their heads together, gasping for breath. The fury had drained out of both of them.

“Enough?” Amatesu asked. Phin nodded and Zeb tapped the ground like he was surrendering a wrestling match. When the two men were breathing more normally they looked up at each other from inches away.

“She’s a witch,” Phin croaked.

“Who…who is a witch?” Zeb panted.

“Nesh…Nesha-tari.”

“Nesha-tari is not a witch.” Amatesu said calmly.

She still stood behind Phin, so he flopped to his back while gulping air to look the shukenja in the eye.

“She is. She has put a spell on me.” He raised a trembling hand and pointed at Zeb. “On him, too.”

Zeb groaned and thumped to his side. His throat felt as though it was the diameter of a straw of wheat. Shikashe had ambled back to his tent and was pulling on trousers, paying no particular attention to the others as though this was a typical morning.

“It is not a spell, as such,” Amatesu said. Her brow furrowed and lips pursed as she thought. “It is something we think is…part of what Madame Nesha-tari is. Zebulon, how do you say, when an aspect is just a part of a thing? As flight to a bird or a bite to a snake?”

“Natural?” Zeb wheezed, and Amatesu nodded.

“Yes. The manner in which men are attracted to Nesha-tari Hrilamae may be a form of magic, but it is not a spell she has cast. It is natural to her.”

Zeb managed to push himself up to his elbows. “Look…if you’re saying she is…hot as a just-fired pistol…then I agree.”

Amatesu turned to Phin, who almost had his breathing back to normal though he was rubbing his neck.

“Phinneas?”

“Uh-huh?”

“Please describe the Madame Nesha-tari.”

Phin looked at her, then over to Zeb. He shrugged.

“I haven’t seen much of her, truth be told. She is tiny, I mean small built. Alabaster skin. Long blonde hair, like a princess of Exland. In a story.”

Zeb stared at him, then turned to Amatesu.

“I think you broke his brain.”

“Zebulon?” Amatesu asked.

“Nesha-tari is tall,” Zeb said. “Almost my height. She’s not pale, her complexion is more like a coffee with a lot of milk. She has blue eyes, bluest you ever saw, and a gorgeous, magnificent…” Zeb sat up and raised his hands beside his head. “Mane of rich, red hair, with a curl. Like a native of Phohnassa.”

Phin got to his elbows and looked at Zeb. “Strawberry blonde?”

“No. Wine-dark. Kind of hair you want to bury your nose in. For a week.”

The two men looked at each other, profoundly confused. They turned back to Amatesu who held up a hand with a thumb and finger slightly apart.

“The Madame Nesha-tari is about this much taller than I. Her hair falls just to her shoulders. It is light brown. Her skin is darker, though a bit lighter than is typical for a Zantish person, I think. She does have blue eyes, though.”

Zeb and Phin’s breathing had returned to normal, but now neither had anything to say. They just kept staring at Amatesu.

“Men see Nesha-tari as they would,” the shukenja explained. “Not as she is.”

“Just men?” Phin asked, and Amatesu nodded.

“I think it is so.”

Zeb looked across the fire to where Shikashe had settled on a camp stool, watching the others with his hands on his knees.

“Does she look like a Far Western girl to him?” Zeb asked Amatesu but the samurai answered for himself, speaking a single word that sounded like a name. “ Matsuko.”

Amatesu dropped her gaze to the ground and Zeb thought for a moment she looked pained. She spoke in a very quiet voice.

“For his Lordship Uriako Shikashe-sama, the Madame Nesha-tari appears much like his wife, Uriako Matsuko-sana.”

Zeb looked back across the fire at Shikashe. “You are married?”

Amatesu had not looked up yet, and her voice became even quieter.

“His Lordship’s wife was slain long ago in Korusbo, along with their children. Their loss pains him greatly, and it is why he has come to this place. Far from the memory of them.”

Zeb blinked and looked back at Shikashe, whose face was as always impassive though he now stared into the fire rather than looking at any of the others.

“Condolences,” Zeb said. “I am sorry.”

“Wait a minute,” Phin pushed himself to a seat on the grass and raised a hand. He spoke to Amatesu slowly in a manner Zeb had found condescending, though just at present he was unsure how much anything he thought or felt lately was a byproduct of Nesha-tari’s weird juju.

“What, exactly, do you think that Nesha-tari is?”

The shukenja finally raised her eyes from between her feet.

“I do not know. I am not yet familiar with the many creatures of this land.”

“Creatures?” Zeb asked.

“Yes.” Amatesu looked at him steadily. “Whatever she is, the Madame Nesha-tari is not human. Not altogether.”

“And the reason,” Phin glanced at Zeb. “The reason we were at each other’s throats a minute ago…You think that is part of whatever magic Nesha-tari possesses as well?”

Amatesu nodded. “This is not the first time on our journey that men near to the Madame Nesha-tari have come to fight. Though this time Uriako-sama and myself saw it early enough to intervene.”

Zeb winced. “This time?” Amatesu nodded.

“We needed your services as the translator who had begun with us in Ayzantu City was killed by a sailor aboard our first ship.”

Zeb and Phin exchanged another long look. There had been a moment there, Zeb thought, where if he had been able to get a fist on Phin he might not have stopped hitting him.

Amatesu allowed the two men a long silence before speaking.

“It is our hope now that you two have an awareness, that the effect of Nesha-tari’s presence may not be so strong.” She frowned. “Though it does seem to be growing stronger, of lately.”

Phin looked off toward the inn, but Zeb looked between the two Far Westerners.

“Why are the two of you even with that…woman? And why hasn’t Shikashe tried to kill me yet?”

“Uriako-sama is a man of formidable will. As to your first question…” Amatesu gave a shrug, which Zeb thought may have been a gesture she picked up from him.

“We two have found ourselves in many situations most strange since leaving Korusbo, and the West. This is not, for us, much more different.”

Zeb looked at the shukenja, and shook his head faintly.

“I think you should start telling me stories while we are on the march.”

Amatesu gave no answer, other than to lower her gaze back to the ground.

*

Nesha-tari watched the conversation from across the road. She did not understand the words in Codian but could hear them all plainly as her Hunger had by this time intensified all her senses. She had awakened as a man approached her room from around the side of the inn, and recognized Phinneas Phoarty by his scent when he was beneath the window. She had stood in the darkness, and without making any conscious decision she had fully intended to kill him as soon as he stuck his head into her room.

She was relieved that Amatesu’s arrival had kept her from doing so, not for any reasons of morality nor even because it would likely have complicated her continued travels with the Westerners and Zebulon Baj Nif. As Hungry as she now was, Nesha-tari could feel her power coursing within her. Her heightened senses were the least of it. Nesha-tari felt immensely strong and did not doubt that if she wished too, or would let herself, she could bound across the road and slaughter everything in the camp field, apart perhaps from the Westerners. They might put up a scrap. The energy Nesha-tari could feel from the pads of her feet to the tips of her hair was exhilarating, delightful, and would have been wholly intoxicating were it not accompanied by the agonizing knot of the Hunger in her stomach, like she had swallowed a burning brand.

If she Fed now the pain would be relieved, but with it would go the power. Nesha-tari was little more than two weeks from the Camp Town at Vod’Adia, and from the man she was sent there to kill. He was also an individual of great strength, and Nesha-tari did not doubt that it would take all of hers to best him.

The conversation broke up and the Westerners returned to their tents for there were still two hours left of darkness. Phoarty and Baj Nif remained talking by the fire and Nesha-tari heard them speak her name more than once. She realized she was creeping closer only when her bare foot touched the crushed stone of the road’s shoulder, and she made herself stop. She shuddered in her robe beneath her cloak even though the touch of the soft fabric was grating against her skin. She stalked back toward the inn.

A little more than two weeks, and her Hunger would be assuaged either by Feeding or by the final relief of her own death. Nesha-tari thought she could probably make it that long.

Probably.

Chapter Twenty-One

Tilda awoke well before dawn in her room in the Stars and Stones, and a good idea got her quickly out of bed.

Before going to sleep Tilda had taken some time to pare down her luggage to the few things she could easily carry on foot into the Vod Wilds. She had one backpack with some extra clothing and the blankets of her bedroll tied to the bottom, four wineskins now filled with water hanging on the sides. She had emptied Captain Block’s kitbag for it was still awkward to manage even with the makeshift strap, and took a page from Dugan’s book by repacking the maps, money, the silver flask with the embossed sailing ship, and a few small trinkets of her own into a pair of small saddle bags she could comfortably sling over a shoulder. Some of the items thus kept would probably not be of much utility but they were relatively light. Some, particularly the maps, had been expensive.

Beside her heaviest shirt, tunic, and trousers, Tilda would wear her vest with her seven throwing knives, one always at the small of her back, her stiff leather sleeves with the pair of heavy blades in the forearm sheathes, and her black Guild cloak with the emerald green lining now fastened within for additional warmth. Two more heavy knives would be in her walking boots, though after bitter consideration she decided not to bother carrying the riding boots any longer as she did not think there was any place within the Vod Wilds she was likely to come across a horse. Hobgoblins ate horses, as Tilda understood it. She had no sword now for she had left hers with Block though she did still have the light wooden scabbard, wrapped in eel skin. She decided to move her buksu club to her hip by fastening the leather cup to hold its head to the bottom of the empty scabbard, and binding the snapping strap to hold its neck against the top.

That left only the long ackserpa gun, for Block’s pistols were ruined. Tilda had plenty of iron and stone balls for the weapon but found she had hardly enough powder to fire ten of them. Block’s powder horn had been one of the things lost while fleeing from the bugbears. That seemed to make the long weapon hardly worth carrying, though Tilda thought she might be able to get more powder once she reached Camp Town. She suspected that anything sold there would be at a daunting price.

When she woke up early, Tilda had a better idea. She washed at a basin of cold water and dressed, then hurried down to the common room well before dawn. The place was dark and quiet and the front door was locked on the inside. Tilda went out, knelt to retrieve her thieves’ tools from the pocket stitched in the cuff of her right boot, and picked the lock shut behind her.

As she turned to head across the street toward the Shugak dock Tilda jerked to a halt in the moonlight when her breath puffed white in the air before her face. In twenty three years in tropical Miilark, Tilda had never once seen her breath. Winter was coming, and not an Island Winter. Tilda stood in the street for a minute just watching the white puffs of her own exhalations with wide, wondering eyes. She reckoned it would be the last childlike moment she was able to indulge in for a while.

Tilda had worked in her father’s perfumery on Chysanthemum Quay for many a year and she knew all-too-well that even in a shop that closed long after dark, some poor employee would have to be there well before daybreak. The shop across from Pagette’s jewelry concern was closed tight behind shuttered windows, but there was light shining out of the peephole in the front door. Tilda rapped the door soundly with a gloved hand and stepped far enough back to be visible in the silvery night. She drew back her hood, put on her most coquettish smile, and cocked out a hip.

The light was blocked by someone looking through the peephole and after a moment the door was pulled open even faster than Tilda hoped, though not by a man. A Miilarkian woman of middle years, a full-blooded Islander by the look of her, stood in the doorway in a long dress and heavy sweater, iron-gray in the long black braid hanging to her waist. She and Tilda stared at each other a moment before both said “ Bol aloha! ” simultaneously, and laughed.

“Please come in out of the cold, sister of the Islands,” the woman said, and Tilda quickly obliged. The door was closed and locked behind her.

The shop floor was full of weapon racks and suits of armor hung from the walls, but Tilda did no more than glance around at them before she turned to face her host. Her countrywoman introduced herself as Lolanhi Kauhine, and Tilda gave her own name.

There was a certain polite protocol between Miilarkians meeting abroad which was generally made much easier when both parties were merchants, and openly displaying their House colors. Guilders made no such display of course, and Lolanhi was wearing only a plain cloth dress and a woolen sweater of a cable knit. Tilda did the polite thing and made the first move, shaking out her Guild cloak and resettling it on her shoulders as though she had come in out of a rain. The movement exposed a flash of he inner lining for just a moment, and Lolanhi smiled faintly.

“You must have an acquaintance in the House of Deskata,” Lolanhi said, as any implication that the numerous Miilarkian Guilds were actually constituent parts of the great, noble Houses would have been rude.

“I know some people of that House,” Tilda acknowledged.

Lolanhi moved behind a counter where she had been working by candlelight in an open ledger. She took a shawl off a peg and tossed it around her shoulders. The garment was of a style common among Island women of her generation; Tilda’s mother had several. Lolanhi’s was of green cloth but of a dark, olive shade. Like a peridot stone.

“When I was last at home,” Tilda said, “I knew of no ill will between the Deskatas and the fine House of Beyasha.”

Lolanhi smiled. “Nor did I. How may I be of service, Matilda Lanai?”

The Duchess Claudja had not been far wrong, for many of the women of Miilark were swiftly to business, without much small talk. There was always time for that later, after a deal was done.

Tilda slung the long ackserpa gun off her shoulder and held it out lengthwise in both hands. Lolanhi raised an eyebrow, noting the quality of the weapon. Tilda set the gun down on the counter and Lolanhi leaned over it, making a clucking sound of approval.

“This is quite lovely,” she said. “Pepeekeo amp; Fenster, and one of their better models. Does it shoot true?”

“It does,” Tilda said, for the one time she had fired the gun in anger she had hit exactly what she was aiming at. In the mouth. “Sadly, I am nearly out of powder.“

Lolanhi looked up and gave a small, apologetic smile.

“Sad am I as well, for we can get but little of that this far Down Channel, west of Larbonne. The Ayzants buy up everything for their siege. What we do have is very, very dear.”

“I feared it might be at that,” Tilda said, and she finally took a look around the shop. Her eyes settled on a wall of short bows, both strung and unstrung.

“I am more interested in trade.”

*

Lolanhi could have bartered much harder for her shop was doing very well buying up excess weapons and armor from adventurers needing to raise hard cash for the Shugak. But Tilda got the sense the older woman felt a bit bad for her for some reason. In the end Tilda gave up the long gun, Block’s broken pistols, and her riding boots. She got back two capped quivers each holding thirty yellow-fletched arrows, and a short Kantan horse bow along with a pair of archers gloves, the left with a stiff pad to the inner bend of her elbow and the shorter right glove with a draw-hook sewn into a finger. The re-curved bow was of the same sort of composite design that the Miilarkians had stolen and been manufacturing in the Islands for decades, though this one was authentic. Plain but sturdy. The string hummed like an instrument when Tilda plucked it.

Lolanhi threw in a heavily-padded but battered leather jerkin, which Tilda judged would fit Dugan. The trade done, Lolanhi heated some tea on a brazier of coals, and the two women talked a bit while they sipped. Lolanhi asked gentle questions and when it became obvious Tilda had heard no word from the Islands in months, she broke the bad news to her. Tilda paled and the tea cup almost slipped from her hand.

She was sitting out on the cold stone of the curb a half hour later when light began to touch the eastern sky. Dugan came strolling along from the direction of the Stars and Stones, saw Tilda and crossed the street to her. Tilda gave no sign she noticed him, even as he stood right in front of her. He poked the folded leather jerkin on the curb next to her with the flat toe of his marching sandal, strapped on over heavy wool socks.

“That looks too big for you,” he said.

“It is yours.”

Dugan knelt and picked the armor up, holding it out at arms’ length. The thick hide of the old jerkin was scored and hacked all over, so much so that it seemed likely to have been stripped off a dead man at some point. Possibly more than once.

“Thank you,” Dugan managed, but not by much. He set down his saddlebags and pulled the armor on, drawing up the laces that ran from the hem below his groin up to his throat. It fit well enough across his back and shoulders.

“You got this in there?” Dugan nodded his chin at Lolanhi’s door, which the woman had opened a few minutes ago while sending a long, sad look Tilda’s way. Pagette had opened up across the street about the same time, but the man gave no sign that he recognized nor even noticed Tilda.

“Yes.”

“They have any helmets?”

“Yes.”

Dugan waited a moment.

“Are you angry at me about something?”

“No.”

Dugan waited, then shrugged. He went into the store.

Tilda kept staring off at nothing, cold to the bone but hardly feeling it. She had no idea what she should do now and was suddenly too tired to even think about it.

After a time two more people appeared at the end of the block and it took Tilda a moment to recognize them as the Duchess Claudja Perforce and the Knight Sir Towsan. The knight was now clean-shaven, making his face look more emaciated than simply gaunt beneath a heavy leather skullcap. He wore a long coat of chain mail with steel greaves over knee-high boots and sleeves of the same kind, articulated at his elbows. All his armor was dirty, though not rusted nor scratched. His sword was on his hip and he carried a shield strapped to his left arm, round wood with an iron boss and a hoop around the rim. The shield was unmarked by any device or heraldry.

The Duchess did look like a serving girl, or perhaps even a young boy, in rough trousers, bulky sweater with a turtle’s neck, and a knee-length coat. A peaked leather cap rode at a somewhat jaunty angle atop brown locks that had been harshly shorn off, giving even her pretty face its present boyish look. The thought of the loss of so much lovely hair gave Tilda a sympathetic pang.

The pair carried backpacks and both had darkened their faces with dirt. When the Duchess was near enough Tilda almost smiled, for the dirt was evenly applied on both sides of the noblewoman‘s face.

Dugan had ambled out of Lolanhi’s shop wearing a metal helm with a short, conical crown and hanging cheek guards. It was a common helmet of Daulic foot soldiers and not altogether different than those worn by Codian legionnaires. Tilda stood up and Dugan stepped off the curb beside her.

“I officially have no money. Again.” he said, but Tilda made no response as the nobles arrived. Everyone looked at each other and tried not to bow from habit.

“Your Grace,” Tilda finally said quietly, speaking in Codian as that was the last language she had just been speaking with Dugan. The Duchess responded effortlessly in the same.

“That should probably be the last time you say that,” she said of her title, and Tilda nodded.

“Something you would prefer?”

“How about ‘Timmy’?” Dugan offered. He got back a cold look that told Tilda all she needed to know about the Duchess’s feelings concerning her present appearance.

“Claudja will do. And Gideon.”

Sir Towsan nodded though he did not look very pleased to be handing his first name over to the use of commoners.

“This one is Dugan,” Tilda said, and Claudja raised a fine eyebrow at him.

“A Gweiyerman?”

Dugan smirked, “Right you are, Claudja. In Correnca was I borned and breaded.”

Towsan said something in Daulic, not exactly hostile but neither pleased. Claudja nodded.

“Yes, we should. The Shugak raft awaits us below the pier.”

Towsan started for the dockside and Claudja followed a step behind, shifting the pack on her back. Tilda expected the Duchess had never carried anything on her back in her life, and quite probably but little in her hands. Dugan took a step after them, then turned and looked back as Tilda had not moved yet.

“You coming?”

Tilda said nothing. John Deskata was ahead of her, somewhere. Either in Camp Town or on his own way there. She and Block had come thousands of miles to find him and for just a moment, Tilda almost felt glad that Block was not alive to know that finding the man no longer mattered, for home had not waited on them. They were too late. They had failed. And it would cost the House of Deskata everything.

“Tilda?” Dugan said, and she looked at him. “Do you still want to do this?”

Tilda shifted the straps of her own pack on her shoulders. She was so used to them now that she hardly felt them.

“What I want has nothing to do with it,” Tilda said, and walked past the man after Claudja and Towsan.

*

The Shugak raft was not an impressive craft to a Miilarkian eye. It consisted of two large squares of timber several strides across, rough planks laid across logs all bound together with ropes twisted from vines. An awful lot of loose ends trailed in the water. The two sections were generally tied together to form a rectangular raft, but they could be detached to maneuver in tight channels. The one in the rear had a mound of provision crates and kegs of potable water in the center under tarps, for two weeks of feeding had been part of the ticket price.

The front raft had a sheet of ash-covered iron sitting atop stones in the middle, which seemed like a terrible idea for cooking. It also had the one piece of furniture on either raft, an old lounge piled in thrush mats with only tufts of the original upholstery surviving. The legs were nailed down at the front end of the raft, making the seat a sort of captain’s chair. There was a pink, ladies’ parasol nailed to an arm, which the captain opened every time he sat there though it was too small to offer much shade.

The captain, and the six or seven members of his crew, were bullywugs. The captain introduced himself to his passengers with a gravelly croak and a lip-smacking blow that puffed out his throat, producing a sound like “Gghhoooorrr! Plalp!” Claudja said its name was Gorpal. The bullywug was fat to the point of being spherical though colored a rather lovely shade of sapphire blue on limbs and back, lightening to a somewhat sickly greenish pallor on the belly and face, which had no discernible neck between them. The bottom half of Gorpal’s head was all wide, frog-like mouth, just a bumpy ridge for a nose, and the cupolas atop his head had long, black, vertical slits for pupils in otherwise milky-yellow eyes. It was hard to tell when the bullywug blinked, for both its sets of eyelids were transparent.

The exact number of wugs constituting Gorpal’s crew was hard to count, for at least half of them were splashing in the water around the rafts at any given moment. On the first stage of the trip, crossing the Black River, all the wugs except Gorpal swam alongside kicking their legs wildly and pulling or pushing through the current while the big rafts swung in majestic circles. All four human passengers sat on the second raft with their backs to the food crates, turning green themselves. Gorpal sprawled in his chair under his pink parasol and croaked commands at a high, wind-piercing pitch, slapping splayed feet against the plank deck.

Once across the river the craft passed onto a swampy backwater region of the Wilds, sluggish bayous and dismal swamps. The raft moved at a less sedate pace than Tilda might have feared for at all times, even on most nights, Gorpal’s crew kept them moving either by paddling in the water or else pushing along from the deck with long poles sharpened at the ends like pikes. Though somewhat jungle-like the shadowy environs bore little resemblance to Miilark, and Tilda did not find them pleasant. The trees were all warped as though twisted in agony, covered in creeping vines that seemed to be trying to strangle them. Saw-grass in damp fields shifted in the breeze and made an unsettling sound like shears through stiff parchment, though it was often drowned out by weird bird calls that somehow sounded accusatory. The raft was often close to the tall banks, and on the first day when Dugan snagged a mottled gray and purple fruit shaped something like a plum from an overhanging bough, Gorpal rushed him with croaks of alarm and a flurry of slapping feet. The wug snatched away the fruit and with a series of pantomimes conveyed the impression that everything, everything in the Vod Wilds was poisonous to humans. Then Gorpal ate the fruit.

The wugs actually ate all day, plucking passing fruit or sometimes floating on their backs to devour fish, as it seemed they had some sort of teeth or something else they could chew with far back in their mouths. Most often however they spit out pink tongues several feet in the air anytime a dragonfly or other drowsy insect buzzed by in the chilly air. The first time it happened it startled Tilda so bad she almost produced a dagger, but she became accustomed to the wet snaps and pops in time as they were as constant as the lap of water against the log rafts.

For the first few days the four travelers spoke hardly a word among themselves except for Claudja and Towsan, who talked to each other in Daulic. They all ate together twice daily for in the middle morning and late afternoon the wugs managed to cook the excess fish tossed onto the raft during the day without setting the deck on fire. Hard cheese and harder rolls occasionally appeared from the crates, but the only fruit or vegetables made available were shrunken grapes soaked in wine, which only Dugan could stomach. While eating, Tilda and Claudja would pass a few words in either Codian or the Trade Tongue, but neither said much.

After almost a week on the backwaters, the Duchess seemed to have had enough of it, or else she was becoming bored only talking to Towsan. The old knight had cleared a sheltered slot between crates and under a tarp for the Duchess’s bedroll, while the others slept in theirs against the outside of the provision boxes. One early morning Claudja emerged from her shelter, carefully stepped over Towsan who was still asleep lengthwise across the entrance, and sat down cross-legged next to Tilda who was already seated likewise on the raft’s back edge. The vessel was too primitive for Tilda to really consider this end of it as a stern.

The morning was crisp as they all were now, but the sky was turning blue where it could be seen through the interlocked branches above. Claudja drew in a long breath.

“Another fair and fine day in the green hell,” she said in Codian. Tilda gave a small smile, and from somewhere came a cooing sort of whistle she had been hearing for days.

“Do you know what kind of bird is making that sound?” she asked.

“That? That is not a bird, it is a thief otter. Chatty little brigands.”

“Thief otter?”

Claudja nodded. “I am surprised you did not see any on the Chengdea docks, the little miscreants are everywhere. They snatch up any food not under lock and key, and use anything else they can drag off to build up their hutches on the riverside. Terrible robbers and burglars. No offense.”

Tilda glanced at the Duchess but Claudja maintained a straight face. She took up a leafless twig that had fallen to the deck and trailed it in the water.

“Matilda,” she said after watching the ripples for a while. “Are you all well?”

Tilda raised an eyebrow at her and Claudja met her gaze with her own eyes soft, looking genuinely concerned.

“I only ask because on the night we met at the inn, you seemed in far better spirit.” Claudja looked back at the trailing twig. “I know you are bound for a place of great danger, on what I assume is an important task. I understand if you wish to be left alone to think on your own concerns. I merely thought I should offer a word, or an ear, if you want either.”

Tilda sighed and shook her head faintly. “No, it is not even that, it is just…I had some bad news from home before leaving Chengdea.”

Tilda was not sure why she said anything, but she had felt very alone for a long time now.

“News from Miilark?”

“Yes.”

“Not…family, I hope.”

“No, nothing like that,” Tilda said, then realized she was unsure if Claudja had meant her actual blood kin, or had just very adroitly asked Tilda about her House.

“Politics,” Tilda said.

Duchess Claudja Perforce of Chengdea blinked, pointedly batting the long lashes of her gray eyes.

“Really? Is politics sometimes troubling? You don’t say.”

Tilda actually laughed a little, and Claudja smiled at her. Both turned back to the water and watched the banks slide by a while longer.

“Is it…” Claudja said carefully. “Is it something you would like to talk about?”

“It is not something that I should.”

“Fair enough.”

Tilda looked at her. “Do you want to talk about why you are going to Camp Town like this?”

Claudja smiled back at her, but shook her head once. “That is not something I can talk about. Not with anyone. Sorry.”

“Fair enough.”

Somewhere ahead on the raft, a wug tongue-snapped what must have been a large bug out of the air, for some of its fellows hooted approval. Claudja gave a little shiver.

“Gods, that is disconcerting. Surely there must be something we can talk about.”

The Duchess turned and looked back toward the crates, around one of which Dugan’s feet in dirty socks were visible sticking out from the blankets of his bedroll. Claudja turned back around to look out over the water.

“Your man…Dugan,” she said slowly. “He is not an altogether unpleasant-looking fellow. I imagine he could be somewhat presentable, cleaned up a bit.”

Tilda snorted, louder than she had meant to.

“I don’t think he does clean up. That is about as good as it gets.”

Claudja looked at Tilda sideways.

“He is a trifle afraid of you, you know.”

Tilda felt her nose twitch. “Well, that would be because I promised to kill him if he ever touched me again.”

Claudja raised both eyebrows.

“It wasn’t like that,” Tilda said. “It was…complicated.”

Claudja waited for more, but when Tilda said nothing else for a while she shrugged and turned back to the water.

“Well. We have another week on this…floating dance floor, and days overland after that. And I did not think it would look right to bring along a book. Should you become bored enough to delve into complexities, Matilda, I imagine I will be somewhere close at hand.”

Tilda thought for a moment, and finally gave a little sigh before she spoke.

“My friends,” she said, “just call me Tilda.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

Tilda and Claudja spent the next three days chatting, until the passenger manifest of their crude raft more than doubled. There were innumerable ways through the Vod Wilds’ streams and marshes, and only twice did the group even sight another bullywug raft, moving empty back to the east both times. That changed on their eleventh day on the water.

The night before had been stormy and miserable, obliging Gorpal to tie up against a bank as the water rose rapidly and ran hard. The wugs went inland and sheltered among the trees but the four humans huddled shivering on the bank in a closer knot than their disparate social statuses would have permitted under any other circumstances.

The wugs came out of the trees in the clear morning and got back underway. Gorpal directed their progress closely all day, taking advantage of swift-running streams to cut his transit time. Tilda and the others had been unable to sleep as they had all gotten soaked to the bone on the bank, but at least the wugs had let them stow bedding and extra clothes in the water-tight crates that had been emptied of food so far. The humans slept soundly and more-or-less dryly, until shouts woke them up in the afternoon.

Six sodden men were trapped on a marshy islet in the middle of the stream, with no sign of the raft that had gotten them that far, nor of the bullywugs who had been manning it. Gorpal had his wugs pole to a stop on the opposite bank, and listened while a man shouted over to him in Daulic.

Tilda stood next to Claudja, who translated into the Trade Tongue.

“Their raft broke apart in the storm, and their wugs swam off. They say they can pay.”

Looking across at the men, Tilda doubted that. The six fellows were even rougher-looking than their circumstances warranted. Hard, unshaven men who seemed to have only saved swords and a few pieces of armor from their wreck, no packs nor supplies. At length their leader held up a pouch and shook it at Gorpal. It was too far across the stream to hear coins jingling together, but the weight looked right.

Two of the men blew shrilly through the same sort of stick-whistle that Tilda and Dugan had bought, and she had later resold, as passes for bullywug rafts. She was surprised that the sound produced sounded quite similar to the bullywugs’ weird hoots.

Gorpal and his wugs croaked together in a circle for a few minutes, then shrugged and began to pole toward the islet. Gorpal splayed on his sopping lounge chair and opened the dripping parasol that had somehow survived the storm.

Towsan was not pleased. The knight shouted at the wug captain who only waved a dismissive, webbed hand. Claudja put a hand on Towsan’s arm and the two spoke at length, the knight obviously wanting no part of the ruffians while the Duchess’s words sounded more sympathetic.

Tilda looked at Dugan who was frowning at the six Daulmen with his arms crossed. She started to ask him a question in the Trade Tongue before remembering to switch to Codian.

“What do you think?”

“I’m with the knight. I don’t like the looks of this bunch.”

“They look like you,” Tilda said.

“Exactly.”

The wugs poled to a stop while still several yards off the islet and Gorpal hopped to the edge of the raft. The wug slapped its blue hands together and held them up to make a catch. It croaked expectantly.

The lead man had hard gray eyes and a brown beard made patchy by scars on his face. He glared at the wug but ultimately shook roughly half the coins out of the pouch and into his hand, more silver than copper but no flash of electrum or gold. He shoved the loose coins in the pocket of a cloak with a shredded hem, worn over a stout breast plate of scale mail and chain. He knotted the pouch and tossed it at Gorpal. The wug caught it and felt the weight in its open palm. Gorpal’s cupola eyes drifted over the six men, some of which had filthy cloth bandages and slings around their heads and arms.

Their leader shouted at Gorpal in Daulic, as did Towsan. The man started shouting at the knight, who shouted back, but Claudja again put a hand on Towsan’s arm and spoke softly.

The bullywug did not seem to listen to either of the men, but came to its own decision. Gorpal waved a hand, and the wugs poled closer to the islet.

*

With the six new men aboard, the next night and day on the rafts was a good deal more tense than those previous.

Towsan talked the Duchess into her shelter among the boxes, and there she largely stayed. Tilda and Dugan kept exclusively to the rear raft as well while the six rough men stayed on the one in front, huddling together in the middle except when Gorpal’s wugs cooked the large number of fish they now pitched out of the water for meals. The old knight and the leader of this new band of Daulmen, if that was what they all were, glared at each other all day long.

Dugan tried to talk to any of the new fellows in Codian but none of them gave any sign of understanding him, nor of any particular interest in being sociable. Dugan suggested Tilda keep away from them altogether, and she agreed. She was definitely garnering some looks from the ruffians, but not of a kind that could be called friendly.

The six men had all collapsed in sleep on the first night, but on the next they rotated watches. One man stayed awake while the others lay down around the warm coals on the cooking surface, for they had no blankets. Claudja emerged from her shelter well after nightfall and lit a candle, which she kept behind the crates out of view from the front raft. She spoke to Towsan, who had been standing at icy attention all day. The knight’s tone was hard, but his voice exhausted. Claudja was firm, and finally the old knight walked stiffly to his bedding.

Claudja looked from Tilda to Dugan, and spoke in Codian.

“I assume you two are willing to take shifts at watch during the night?”

“Of course,” Tilda said.

“We will, but the fellows won’t try anything until we land,” Dugan said. Claudja looked at him.

“Do you think they have recognized me? Or Gideon?”

Dugan shrugged. “I doubt it, but it doesn’t matter. They are desperate. I know the look.”

“They will attack us?” Tilda asked, and Dugan nodded with complete confidence.

“You are a Miilarkian, and they will figure you have money. Maybe enough to replace everything they’ve lost.”

“But I am a Miilarkian!”

Dugan gave a sour smile. “You are also outnumbered, and way out in the Wilds. This is not the sort of place where international incidents have any meaning.”

Tilda glared across the rafts at the slumbering men, and the one fellow who was awake and stirring the coals. His face was orange and ugly in the flickering light.

“I will take the first shift,” she said. “I am not tired.”

Claudja squeezed her arm. “Wake me when you are. Dugan, I will wake you before dawn. We will let Gideon sleep through if he is able.”

“Tell him what to expect when we land,” Dugan said. “Should be the day after tomorrow.”

With that, Dugan felt his way out of the candle light and over to his own bedroll. Claudja looked at Tilda over the flickering flame, and Tilda felt she had to say something.

“I am sorry.”

Claudja lifted an eyebrow.

“I am supposed to be protecting you,” Tilda said. “If Dugan is right, I am the one putting you in more danger.”

Claudja gave Tilda’s arm another squeeze. “We are in it together, Tilda.”

The Duchess blew out the candle and moved back into her shelter. Tilda sat facing the front raft with her back to a crate, not even leaving a silhouette against the dark sky. Several bullywugs slept at the edges where the two rafts met while Gorpal and a few others were still awake, pushing away from the banks whenever the current of the stream drew the rafts near it, moving on toward their destination even in the dark.

Tilda watched the men change their watch twice, looking over each of them closely and wondering if she could kill them if she must. She did not doubt they could kill her. She woke Claudja very late only after feeling herself begin to drift off, and neither said a word before Tilda settled down to several hours of terrible dreams.

*

No one roused Tilda in the morning. She came awake slowly at first until memory of where she was made her sit up swiftly and scramble to her feet.

Claudja and Towsan were sitting at the rear end of the raft with their backs to her, which was strange. Tilda turned around. Three bullywugs were poling along while a few others still slept. Dugan was relaxing on top of one crate with his back to another, comfortable and calm.

No one else was on board. There was a pile of armor and swords on the front raft, along with some boots. There was blood all over the planks.

“What…?” Tilda gasped. Dugan looked over and nodded at her.

“The man on watch fell asleep. The wugs cut their throats and rolled them overboard.”

Tilda stared at him.

“When?”

Dugan shrugged. “Don’t know. The Duchess let me sleep through.”

Claudja had stood and walked over. She had tired bags under her eyes but her features were set and calm.

“You…you saw it?” Tilda asked, and Claudja nodded.

“Six of the wugs crept up on them together. In unison. It was quick.”

Tilda looked around at the wugs. They had been on the raft for more than a tenday and in that time Tilda had come to regard the creatures as harmless, and almost comical. Alien, certainly, but in no way threatening.

“Why would they do that?” Tilda asked. Claudja answered in a low voice.

“They are Magdetchoi, Tilda. Monsters.”

Dugan chuckled, and it was not a pleasant sound.

“Not like us humans, right?”

Tilda looked back at the front raft. It was amazing how much blood had come out of six men and she almost felt sick.

“How exactly do we know they are not going to do the same to us? Why haven’t they already?”

“Because,” said the Duchess of Chengdea. “They do know who I am.”

Claudja went back over to Towsan and Tilda tried not to let her gaze drift back to the stained red planks of the raft ahead. Dugan was still looking at her.

“I know what you are thinking,” he said, and Tilda turned to him. “You are wondering why, if the wugs were going to do the fellows all along, why they waited for a watchman to doze on the second night. Nobody kept a watch the night before.”

“I was not thinking that,” Tilda said, and blinked. “But I am now.”

Dugan gave a smile that was no more pleasant than his dark chuckle, and sent a meaningful glance toward the Duchess before turning back to Tilda.

“And you wonder why I don’t trust nobles.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

The river which emptied into the Norothian Channel at Souterm was called the Red at its delta, but where it arose in the Girding Mountains far to the north it was known as the Blue. The name changed where the river cut through a ridge of chalky hills that stained its waters. The hills were also called the Red and they stabbed knife-like deep into the Vod Wilds on an east-west line, rising above the tangled masses of life that thrived there. The section of the Red Hills west of the river on the Codian side was much smaller, hardly amounting to a knob on the end of the blade’s hilt. It was on this knob that the Codian town of Galdeez had been, or rather was still in the process of being, built.

There had been a town on those hills for centuries but it had long been a sleepy place far upriver from the thriving city now known as Souterm, a place to where the products of rural farms were gathered to ship downstream. With the Codification of Doon forty years ago and the extension of the Imperial Post Road the town was now a booming place, with new shops and homes springing up on the hills so swiftly that several proposed sites for city walls had been consecutively overrun. The wall was not a priority for despite the proximity of the Vod Wilds, Magdetchoi raids here were few as the river cut through the hills in a sharp, deep channel that was almost a canyon.

The spot where the Imperial authorities had allowed the Shugak to erect a ferry dock and a cluster of hide tents in which they did the business of selling passes and licenses was below the hills and to the south. Nesha-tari’s band did not have to enter Red Galdeez at all, much to their leader’s relief. At her direction Zebulon Baj Nif handled the transaction for passes with the hulking hobgoblins, while Phoarty and Amatesu went ahead into town only to buy provisions for what would be around two additional weeks on the rough Shugak road.

There were no swamps nor bayous in this region of the Vod Wilds, only the hills across which hobgoblins had hacked out a trace road through the wilderness. The trace was so bad that even the baggage cart was problematic, for the obstinate straight-line route dropped and climbed hills without an awful lot of forethought. The group was obliged to spread the baggage in heavy packs among them. Zeb got the worst of it as the Minauan now carried his crossbow, a massive weapon with a heavy hand crank for reloading. The bolts it shot were the size of long tent stakes, making even the ammunition a burden.

Despite the ruggedness of their way the group made decent time as Nesha-tari set a brisk place, continuing to march out in front. When they camped at night she went well out into the thick forests at the base of the hills to sleep on her own, typically high in a tree. Shugak hobgoblins selling water for wine prices along the way warned against straying from the path, but not even Uriako Shikashe made much of a fuss when she went out by herself. The samurai seemed to recognize that in her present state Nesha-tari Hrilamae was likely the most dangerous thing in the darkness of the Wilds.

Zeb and Phin made the journey mostly in silence for even with Nesha-tari keeping her distance, and knowing what they now did about her, both could still feel the tug of her presence. They tried to look at their feet while walking, but several times one or the other took a spill as their gaze drifted up and settled dreamily on the flitting beige figure far ahead on the rough trace. The other would help the fallen one up, and the two would exchange a long look and shake their heads.

Phin had worries about Camp Town. Once there he was set to separate from the rest of the group, and to leave Nesha-tari. Thinking about it made his palms clammy, and his breathing quickened until he felt lightheaded. Abverwar had given the wizard a disciplined mind, but the woman (if that was the right word) had invaded it. Phin’s morning meditations were becoming ever longer by the day, for it was an effort for him to muster the concentration necessary to memorize his spells. Only the hard, physical effort of the march on the Shugak trace gave Phin any relief, for he collapsed so exhausted at the end of each day that his sleep was as deep as the dead. So deep that not even the dreams roused him from it, though there were a lot of dreams. They were all about the same thing.

Phin was starting to think he might have to ask Amatesu to club him unconscious again before he would be able to let Nesha-tari walk out of his life.

*

After nine days the trace road left the Red Hills, or rather the hills sank into marshy ground while the trace continued straight across it. This was only possible because suddenly, for miles, a wide causeway ran above the fens to either side, lying on a true line due east. The causeway was surely not the work of the hobgoblins for in places the grass growing over it had been so trampled by adventurers over the last months that the dirt had given way, revealing a stone road made up of many different types of rocks all fitted together as smoothly as the finest city street. None who noticed it in passing thought it could have been the work of anyone other than the ancient Ettaceans, the Builders of Vod’Adia toward which the road led.

A day later the causeway ended at a new line of hills, and only the rude trace road marked the route again. This range in the midst of the Wilds was if anything worse than the Red Hills, with steeper sides and sharper peaks giving little purchase for plants and thus a greater air of desolation. For more long days the path rose and fell though in at least three places there were signs that a higher road had once existed here, for a rubble of ingeniously cut stones that had once been the supports of bridges cluttered the bottoms of deep gulches through which the trace ran.

After thirteen days all told, bringing the date to the 25th of Ninth Month, the trace mounted the side of a ridge at a ludicrous angle, not quite necessitating the use of hands to get up it but not shy of that by many degrees. Zeb’s lungs were heaving by the time he reached the top, the last to do so, and he splayed on the ground next to Phin who was already flat on his back before a dense line of tall pines.

“Gods, this sucks,” Zeb gasped.

“I hate the Ettaceans,” Phin said at the cloudy sky above. It looked like rain was not far off.

Amatesu emerged from the tree line and frowned at the two prone men. Zeb looked up at her accusingly.

“You’re not even breathing hard, are you?”

“Gentlemen,” Amatesu said, actually without sarcasm. “We are here.”

Despite their exhaustion, and everything else, Zeb and Phin got back to their feet. They followed Amatesu through the trees packed together so tightly it almost seemed like evening down among them, until finally stepping back out into daylight shining on a different world.

They stood on the western edge of a deep valley ringed by walls of black stone steep as cliffs. They were closer to the northern end and down on the valley floor far below them was a town of ramshackle wood and stone, mud streets shining wetly and black smoke from innumerable fires drifting up to mingle with skirls of fog drifting about below them like clouds beneath their feet.

“ That is fabled Vod’Adia?” Phin sputtered.

“I think that is Camp Town,” Zeb said, and he pointed to the south.

Phin swung his gaze over the grassy floor of the middle valley and noticed that the southern half was not just obscured by thicker fog, as he had thought at a glance. The fog was not just a bank, but rather a solid, stationary mass filling the valley to its walls and stretching from the floor to a level with the top. The mass was a dark gray on the bottom that became lighter as it rose, and while whitish skirls were pulled off the top by a breeze the whole never lost in size, almost as though more fog was constantly being generated from the ground.

As Phin stared he saw that the thick mass was still slightly permeable quite a ways down, and his eyes tried to make peace with the fact that the whole was slowly turning, whirling, revolving, in various directions contrary to the wind. He began to perceive shapes beyond the veil. There were tall, spindly towers and heaping masses of black fortifications and citadels. Phin could only make out their highest points as the ground level was wholly lost in the gray darkness.

“Oh,” Phin said. “That is a bit more impressive.”

There was a shrill whistle from the left. Uriako Shikashe had made it for Nesha-tari was striding away along the lip of the valley, heading for what Phin now saw was a massive construction at the north end beyond Camp Town, a series of seven switch-back roads descending to the valley floor with towers built above the turnabouts. Phin had not noticed the structure at first only because it was made of the same black stone as the cliffs, and blended in perfectly. Shikashe and the others followed the woman’s lead and despite having her beige figure in sight up ahead, Phin managed to frequently glance back down into the valley as they passed along high above Camp Town. That place looked no more pleasant as it came into better view, with wet streets boiling with tiny figures looking like ants from the distance, and buildings that were all a jumbled warren of raw lumber and sagging roofs. The only structure that was distinct was a square pyramid fenced off on a block of its own, which despite being made of wood had the same symmetrical look of the stone temples of Jobe present in the great cities of the Codian Empire.

The group rounded the head of the valley in an hour and reached the gatehouse entrance to the descending switchback roads just as rain began to fall. Hobgoblins sat station on the battlements above, but none barked a challenge as Nesha-tari led the way beneath them with the others now in a bunch several paces behind her.

The stone roads descended consecutively at an easy grade and they were wide enough for wagon traffic in both directions, though of course there was none. Nesha-tari’s party was the only one descending at the moment. At each turnabout they passed through towers cut with arrow slits and murder holes that would have commanded the passage fully if they were manned, but the Shugak did not appear to have bothered posting guards in most of them. As the group was alone Uriako Shikashe suddenly began to speak at a length that was rare for him as he looked around. He said more words in his native Ashinese than Phin had heard from him in a month, and Amatesu translated into Codian.

“His lordship Uriako-sama says that while this is a truly formidable work, the valley is a foolish place to build a city. An invading army could simply seize the rim and seal the whole as a cork does a bottle.”

Zeb for once had nothing to say as he was looking warily into Camp Town from the roads. Phin answered.

“You can tell his lordship that when the ancient Ettaceans made this place they had the only army on Noroth. They were the first nation of Men to arise here.”

Amatesu looked back at him. “Some fifteen hundred years ago?”

“In round numbers.”

The woman from the Farthest West shook her rain-matted head.

“Such a young land.”

Halfway down the roads the sounds of Camp Town became raucous, sounding like a city at festival time. Voices babbled in innumerable languages, some with mirth and some with anger, while song and music poured out of rough taverns and inns. Street hawkers shouted their wares, and drunks brayed to the heavens. Somewhere, steel rang on steel.

The party reached the valley floor and found the square beyond the gatehouse was a pit of churned mud, with no walkways along the rutted streets running off in irregular directions. While the people milling about were of a thousand different kinds all were alike covered in mud to the knees and armed to the teeth with blades, bows, and even guns. Nesha-tari marched to the middle of the square, where she stopped. She rummaged within her robes while Phin stared at her back, then turned and tossed a pouch to Zeb. Phin saw just a bit of her face, the pale skin and a flip of blonde hair, before she bent her graceful neck to lower her hood. The pouch hit Zeb in the chest before the Minaun noticed it and picked it up. Nesha-tari spoke to him and while Phin had never thought Zantish to be a particularly pleasant-sounding language, it was melodic honey from Nesha-tari’s mouth.

“This is for you,” Zeb said absently, holding the pouch out to Phin while not taking his eyes off of Nesha-tari, who had turned back around. “Some silver for an inn room. Goodbye and good luck.”

Nesha-tari walked away toward the widest street leaving the intersection, heading more or less south. Zeb dropped the pouch at Phin’s feet and hurried after her without another word, now walking beside Shikashe. Phin took a step after them, but Amatesu grabbed his arm.

“Phinneas,” she said, and repeated it until he looked at her.

“What?”

“We are here,” Amatesu said. “This is where we part.”

“But…I mean I can, I can still be of use to her…”

Amatesu reached up and grabbed Phin’s chin, turning his head to look down at her and locking his eyes on her own.

“Phinneas, listen to me. You do not want to go with her. What you feel now is not yourself.”

“I know what I want,” Phin said and tried to pull away from the shukenja, but she held onto him like a bear trap.

“No, you do not.”

Phin glared at Amatesu and felt blood pounding through his temples. He slipped the fingers of his left hand into a trouser pocket in which he had a small pouch of his own, loosely bound with string and filled along the way with chalky dust from the surface of the Post Road. He slipped two fingers through the string into the dust.

“Woman, release me,” he hissed.

“Phinneas, you must concentrate. Think.”

Phin did not think. He slipped his fingers out from the pouch in his pocket and raised his hand toward his mouth, muttering an incantation in old Tullish. It was a poor move on a number of counts, the main one being that Sleep, as taught at Abverwar, was an ambush spell. It rarely worked when the target saw it coming.

Amatesu saw it coming, of course. As she already had a hand on Phin’s chin she shoved it up so that his jaw clacked hard into his skull and his head jerked back, then she kicked his feet out from under him. Phin hit the mud on his back with a splat. Amatesu stomped on his left wrist and the hand with the dusty fingers sank into the slop.

“I forgive you for that,” Amatesu said. “But do not do it again.”

Phin wheezed in the mud for Amatesu’s blow, while not very forceful, would not have needed to be from that angle to snap his neck. He glared up at her as she backed away a step, kicking the coin pouch so that it landed on his chest while sending a spatter of mud up his face.

“Fight it, Phinneas,” she said. “It should fade soon enough. Do not follow.”

She backed away further before turning and disappearing among the people on the southern street, none of whom had watched their exchange with more than a passing interest.

Phin scrambled to his feet when Amatesu was gone and had just enough presence of mind to hold onto the coins. He could not go straight after her for there was no telling if the shukenja woman would lurk in ambush for him so he stumbled to the right, thinking to cut over a block and race ahead to intercept Nesha-tari. There was not a handy street that way so he veered back to the left. A few people stopped to look at him, at his wild eyes and grimacing snarl.

Something about their expressions struck Phin, and it occurred to the Circle Wizard that he must look like a crazy person. He was acting like a crazy person. This was crazy.

Phin stopped, and blinked. His breathing was rapid but it started to slow, and the pounding in his ears lessened. He looked in the direction Nesha-tari had gone and took another step after her, but only one. He stopped himself. The desire ran out of his body, and was replaced by something far more sensible. Fear.

Phin shivered where he stood, and let out a long breath. When he thought of Nesha-tari now, with a growing distance between them, it was with a tremble of revulsion. Inherent or intentional, power like hers must be meant for a purpose, and a man driven to her would surely come to no good end. Neither did moths to flames, nor a fly to a pitcher plant.

“Good luck, Zeb,” Phin said, and he shivered again, though this time it was only because of the mud running down his back.

*

As Nesha-tari walked down the middle of the muddy street men stopped talking all around her and stared until she had passed. She had three separate spells active and together they were enough that the effort required to maintain them blunted the weight of the men’s attention. But she knew they were there. She could smell the blood moving in their veins, the big ones through their necks, just under the thin skin that a scratch could open to a welter.

Just days, she thought. Only hours. She would Feed, and soon. She had to.

Nesha-tari crossed the full length of Camp Town from north to south. At the southern end the town ended sharply at a tall palisade wall that stretched the breadth of the valley, great logs sharpened on the top with plank walkways behind them, scaffold towers rising above. Wugs and hobgoblins warded the wall heavily for beyond it was nothing but an open field of thick, short grass stretching almost a mile to the mass of gray fog at the valley’s far end, hanging over everything.

A road of ancient black stones bisected the field and connected the fog to the single gate in the Camp Town palisade. The yard around the gate was further strengthened with earthworks, for two centuries ago it had been a fortress thrown up by Shugak and humans together, by the forces gathered here to do battle should the Third Opening of Vod’Adia have unleashed a new wave of undead horrors into the world. That had not of course happened, and now the Shugak operated the earthen fort as a gate complex through which parties of adventurers would be allowed to pass down the road to Vod’Adia, in accordance with the terms of the licenses they had bought. It was also where the Shugak would halt all adventurers who managed to return, and levy a final tax on everything brought out of the Sable City.

For now, three days before the Opening, the yard within the dirt-and-timber fort was still a marketplace with adventurers queued up on plank flooring before tables at which late licenses were being sold. Nesha-tari strode in and wound among them, close enough that men shivered as she brushed by. Nesha-tari clenched her hands into white-knuckled fists in her gloves. She passed through the lines and then by a slate board marked in chalk with indecipherable bullywug signs, where great numbers of the frogmen chirped excitedly and placed bets on groups of adventures. They wagered mostly on how many of them would die in Vod’Adia.

Beyond the bookmakers a quarter of the yard was enclosed by a second palisade, setting aside ground where a series of low stone buildings built more stoutly than anything else in Camp Town emerged halfway from the ground, stairs descending into each. These would be both Shugak barracks, and warehouses for goods. While none of the Magdetchoi Nesha-tari had seen thus far had made any move to interfere with her, a rank of massive hobgoblins in ornate bronze breast plates barred the entrance to the secondary compound. Two crossed their halberds as she approached, and she stopped before them.

“Kerek,” she hissed, and the animals narrowed their watery pink eyes at her under the low brows of heavy iron helms. Magdetchoi were not effected by Nesha-tari’s peculiarities, no more than she wanted to eat one of them. The hobgoblins saw her as she was, and they were not too impressed.

“Kerek!” she shouted as a demand. She knew the right name, at any rate.

The hobgoblins growled among themselves and one slouched off into the compound while the others continued to glare at her, and those who now joined her. Nesha-tari was aware of Shikashe and Zebulon behind her, and more dimly of Amatesu.

“The three of you will wait here,” she said in Zantish over her shoulder without looking back. “I will not be long.”

There was no response, and Nesha-tari clenched her teeth.

“Baj Nif, you slack-jawed moron. Tell the others.”

Baj Nif started speaking thickly in Codian, his voice just sounding stupid. Nesha-tari fought the urge to turn around and punch him in the face.

The hobgoblin returned and beckoned Nesha-tari forward with a heavy gauntlet, pointing her toward a sloping hut built in the nearest corner of the palisades. Nesha-tari strode for the hut where an emaciated jet-black bullywug with purple spots stood in the crooked doorway under twisting animal horns mounted to the beam. Acrid smoke wafted out of the hut around it, and beads, feathers, and trinkets hung from bands around its chest and arms.

Kerek was the sort of Magdetchoi mage most humans called a Witch Doctor. His importance to Nesha-tari was displayed in his cupola eyes, which were as solidly lightless as two massive black pearls.

The bullywug croaked, but Nesha-tari understood the words as if they had been spoken in Low Drak. Her raised spell of magic detection gave her a tickling twinge.

“I greet my sister of the Blue,” Kerek said.

“I greet my brother of the Black.”

Nesha-tari’s relationship to Kerek was far different than hers had been to Edgewise. The goblin had been the chosen servant of the Bronze Lady, a Great Dragon of the Land, who thus was due a grudging respect. Akroya and Danavod were both Great Dragons of the Sky, and the Azure One had been the greatest among those since the death of Ged-azi the Red. Black Danavod was least among the three Great Sky Dragons yet living, for the Winter Wyrm had perished in the years before men even numbered them.

“How may I serve you?” Kerek asked with a humble bow.

“There is a high priest of the Ayzantine faith of Ayon bound for this place, if he is not here already. You will search him out and inform me when he is discovered.”

Kerek swayed among the stinking smoke, the puffs breaking up in the air as the rain began to fall more strongly.

“And then?”

“Then I will kill him.”

Clear membranes passed over the bullywugs black eyes, and a webbed hand fingered some beads.

“A high priest of the Burning Man’s faith would be a very formidable being.”

“As am I.”

The little creature looked at her longer, rain pattering its hide. Drops fell from Nesha-tari’s hood as well, and while she loathed being wet she gave no sign. Finally, the wug shrugged.

“As you wish, sister.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

There was no water route all the way to Vod’Adia. The bullywugs took their passengers as far as they could and put them ashore at a landing in heavy woods with tall barren hills stretching away to the west. The group followed a rough trace road for what should have been the final three or four days of their journey, but halfway along the clouds rumbled and it started to rain without let up for almost a week. The trek through the hills became a perilous slog, bad enough that Tilda, Dugan, Claudja and Towsan roped themselves together on the steep trails. It took them eight days all told to traverse the route and they did not step up to the edge of the valley of Vod’Adia until noon of the Thirtieth and last day of Ninth Month. It was less then twenty-four hours before the hidden city filling the valley’s southern end was due to Open for the fifth time in four centuries.

Tilda and Dugan stood side by side at the valley‘s edge, gazing at the lugubrious turning of the gray veil.

“We better find the boys in a hurry,” Dugan said. “Unless you want to chase them into that.”

“Not so much,” Tilda said.

The Duchess spotted the pyramidal temple of Jobe within Camp Town and shook off the days of soaking misery to almost start running north around the valley’s rim until Towsan finally shouted for her to slow, as there was no way for the others to match her pace while carrying full packs. Claudja did slow down but Tilda could see from the flush on her face and the shine in her steely eyes that the Duchess was more than anxious to hurry on, now that she was this close to her goal.

Tilda was far less enthused about her own arrival above Vod’Adia.

The group made their way along the valley and then down through seven switchback roads in a massive work of black granite, finally reaching the streets of Camp Town with evening settling over the place. Towsan now set the pace with Claudja right behind him, as the streets were full of people beginning to realize that tomorrow would likely begin the decisive days of their lives. Some were quiet and pensive, but many more were drunk and boisterous.

They made their way toward the temple visible above rooftops in the northwestern quadrant of the Camp Town, moving across logs and boards, shutters and doors, all thrown down in the streets for they were an utter disaster after all the rain. Some intersections were wholly impassable. The many people on the streets were adventuring types ranging from cloaked halflings to fully-armored knights. They should have been a wonder to Tilda but she could not summon much interest to see them. She only studied everyone she passed for a man with bright green eyes, or for anyone wearing a bit of Codian Legion gear or carrying a fat, stabbing short sword on his hip.

The temple of Jobe was on a square block of its own, surrounded by a tall plank fence. Looking through the slats as she walked Tilda could see a compound of outbuildings around the great central temple, grassy yards and whitewashed walls. There were benches scattered around where some people sat at rest, and clean-cut men and women in handsome, light blue tunics moved purposefully about. It looked far nicer than the world outside the fence.

Towsan led the way to a gate midway along the north side of the fence, where a small footbridge crossed a ditch overflowing with muddy water. Two heavily armored men guarded the end with heavy war hammers held at parade rest. Tilda thought she should say something to Claudja before they went any further, but at the sight of the men the Duchess ran forward and narrowly avoided spilling herself into the mud as she slid to a halt in front of them. She managed to turn her slide and near sprawl into something approximating a curtsy.

The plate-armored acolytes had been eyeing a wild celebration in progress at an inn across the street, and were taken off guard for a moment before one offered the Builder’ blessing. The Duchess correctly returned their words as the others huffed up behind her.

“I need to speak to the head of this temple, forthwith,” Claudja said, and the young men looked uncertainly at the rather disheveled, dirty, and damp young woman before them. Towsan stepped up beside her and spoke stilted but serviceable Codian for the first time in Tilda’s hearing. His tone was unmistakably that of a noble born.

“I am Sir Gideon Towsan, Knight-Baron of Chengdea, Captain of the Hearth Order in service of the River Kingdom of Daul. This lady is in my charge, and forsooth needs must speak to the master of this Builder’s House.”

The acolytes straightened, and gave short bows.

“Of course, Sir. Please follow me.”

One stepped aside, and the other led Claudja and Towsan over the short bridge. Tilda and Dugan followed closely behind the nobles and were not called to halt.

The acolyte led the way to a sort of pavilion, a wooden floor raised a step off the ground with a canvas roof on a wooden frame. A table and chairs sat under the shelter, made of wood that looked recently hewn and still smelled of dried varnish. The acolyte lit a lamp on the table before speaking.

“If you will wait here, I shall see if Father Corallo is available. Feel free to ask anyone about should you require anything.”

The acolyte headed for the tall doorway of the pyramid from which a low sound of rhythmic chanting could be heard.

Towsan, Tilda, and Dugan set down their packs and the latter two fell into chairs. Towsan remained standing as was the Duchess, looking all around the compound at people under similar pavilions or else sitting out in front of outbuildings with wide windows under cloth canopies. The people were a variety of adventurers who must have come to some harm in Camp Town, as many had bandaged wounds and were only lightly armed and equipped, if at all.

“Some sort of hospital,” Claudja said to herself, but Dugan answered.

“The Jobians of the Empire have a vow of charity.”

The Duchess nodded. “They do as well in Chengdea.” She seemed to remember for the first time that Tilda and Dugan were still here, and looked at both of them.

“I am sorry. I am where you promised to deliver me, and you are owed the second half of your payment. Twenty-two gold worth of bank notes, correct?”

Claudja removed a long leather wallet from a deep pocket inside her rough coat. Tilda surprised herself by raising a hand, and even more with the words that came out of her mouth.

“Keep it, your Grace.”

Claudja blinked at her, then furrowed her brow. “Who are you, and what have you done with the Miilarkian girl?”

Tilda smiled for a moment, but shook her head. “Claudja, I did absolutely nothing to help you get here. What you have paid already is more than fair, and if anyone did any protecting on the way, it was you more than it was us.”

The Duchess looked at Tilda for a long time.

“I appreciated the company, Tilda. And the friendship.”

“So did I. You need not pay me for those, either.”

Claudja put the wallet back in her coat, then impulsively stepped around the table and wrapped her arms around Tilda. Tilda was surprised but hugged the Duchess warmly and patted her on the back. Though Claudja was slightly older than Tilda she was about the size of Tilda’s fourteen year old sister, Kiselda. Actually, Kissy had turned fifteen since Tilda had left Miilark months back without her big sister there for her birthday. The combination of a wave of homesickness and simple human contact brought a catch to Tilda’s throat and may have made her eyes well up had they not suddenly widened at the approach of another of Jobe’s faithful.

The acolyte who had gone inside the temple emerged and headed back for the gate, but another who came out with him turned and approached the pavilion. He was just about the most handsome man Tilda had ever seen in her life.

His light blue tunic stitched with Jobe’s Arch fit snuggly over a strong frame, and he stepped smartly in dark trousers and polished boots. He was blonde, his hair a trifle long, but cleanly shaven and with a complexion that would have been light but for days spent at work in the out-of-doors. His features were very good with a strong jaw and wide, deeply blue eyes. The cast of his features may normally have looked a bit proud, but that effect was presently spoiled by a pink tinge of newly-peeled sunburn on his nose which Tilda had to admit was adorable. She tapped Claudja briskly on the shoulder until the Duchess let her go and turned around.

The man bowed fluidly from the waist and arose with a brilliant white smile.

“I am Brother Kendall Heggenauer of Jobe, and it is my honor to serve as adjunct to our temple master, Father Corallo. Your lordship Sir Towsan, the Father will see you now.”

Towsan stepped forward, as did Claudja, and Tilda thought Brother Heggenauer’s smile turned up a bit more at one side as he turned to the striking young Duchess.

“My lady if it is not rude to ask, might I have your name to announce to the Father?”

It took Claudia a moment to speak, but when she did her voice was level.

“Claudja Perforce.”

Heggenauer started to bow again but stopped and looked up at Claudja, then to Towsan, then back.

“Claudja Perforce, of Chengdea?” he said. “The Duchess Claudja of Chengdea?”

Claudja looked genuinely surprised, and very pretty even in her rough garb.

“Your knowledge of a foreign court is most impressive, Brother Heggenauer.”

“I am from Exland,” Heggenauer said, though it was the first time Tilda had heard that statement made where it did not sound like bragging. “The courtly life is a peril of my tribe.”

Claudja tilted her head fetchingly. “Heggenauer. Would that be of the Konigsburg Heggenauers?”

Heggenauer’s brilliant smile became more so.

“ Touche, as you say in Daul, your Grace.”

The two of them grinned at each other like they were at a dinner party somewhere until Towsan cleared his throat. Brother Heggenauer excused himself and turned to lead the way to the temple.

“Brother,” Dugan said before the trio walked off, and Tilda had a moment of mortification that given Dugan’s feelings for the nobility, particularly its knightly members, he was about to say something awful.

“Is there a priest here who oversees those who avail themselves of the Builder’s charity? Maybe someone who could help us find a few fellows?”

Heggenauer looked over Dugan who with his beard, helmet, and cracked leather armor looked like the worst sort of thug. He glanced at Tilda as well and raised an eyebrow as he recognized the style of the half-cloak on her shoulders, which Tilda felt the urge to smooth even as she stood up a bit straighter.

“Sister Paveline,” Heggenauer said. “Though she is with a patient right now.”

“A patient?” Tilda asked, mostly because the opportunity was there.

“Bar fights,” Heggenauer said. “They are the most popular local sport hereabouts.”

Tilda and Claudja both laughed though it had not really been all that funny.

“I shall send her word you are here, if you would care to wait. It should not be long.”

Tilda nodded and Heggenauer led Towsan and Claudja away. The Duchess looked back over her shoulder a final time and she and Tilda raised their eyebrows and nodded at each other, which made both smile.

“The answer is no, by the way,” Dugan said once the others were gone.

“What’s that?”

“If you are wondering whether the Jobians of the Empire have a vow of celibacy.”

Tilda looked at Dugan sideways. “You should have made a pass at him, then.”

Dugan snorted. “I’ll get in line.”

Once Claudja and the others had disappeared into the temple, Tilda leaned against the table and crossed her arms. The sounds of the Camp Town’s streets roiled on beyond the fenced yard.

“It was a good idea to ask here, after John Deskata and the others,” she said. “They are Codians, and likely strapped for cash.”

Dugan put his feet up on the table and leaned back in his chair.

“Sounds like we’ve reached that bridge you want to burn.”

Tilda turned around to look at him.

“I studied every man we passed on the way here, and it struck me. I would not know John Deskata by sight, nor any of his men. And there is no way to know now if they are still outfitted as Legion men.”

“I’d be surprised if they were,” Dugan nodded.

Tilda took in and let out a slow breath.

“I still need your help.”

Dugan smirked. He had taken to wearing the string of beads that was his pass to enter Vod’Adia around his neck on the cord he had moved from his wrist, and he now patted the charm through his shirt.

“You have me for eight days, Tilda. Unless a party of adventurers makes me a better offer.”

Tilda looked at Dugan levelly and told him the decision she had made a few days ago.

“Once we have found them, I want you to leave, Dugan. Just go on your way and leave the rest to me.”

“You on your own?”

“That is all I need,” Tilda said, almost like she believed it.

Dugan ran a thumb over the beaded trinket through his shirt, regarding Tilda with an expression of deep thought. His shoulders shrugged before he nodded, and he said, “As you wish.”

Some ten minutes later Claudja and Towsan came out of the temple, following Brother Heggenauer who was now outfitted for Camp Town’s streets in plate armor and helmet, carrying a large mace and a shield bearing Jobe’s holy symbol. The Duchess waved to Tilda though she looked completely serious now, and determined, and the trio left by the compound’s southern gate.

It was another twenty minutes before Sister Paveline showed up.

*

As the last night before the Opening of Vod’Adia neared its second watch, the celebrations in the streets and inns became more desperately boisterous. Some men fought in taverns as though they wanted to receive crippling wounds. A brawl cleared out the ground floor of a place called the Dead Possum and kept a former Circle Wizard awake in a bunkroom above.

Phinneas Phoarty gave up on sleep and sat on the edge of his bunk, one of the six in this room, which adjoined another. Both had been paid for by the adventuring party which Phin had been a part of for some forty hours.

From the bunk Phin could see out of a window facing south which was really just an irregular square cut in a log wall daubed with mud, no shutters nor of course glass. When the breeze parted the canvas curtains Phin could dimly see across the valley to the towering wall of unnatural fog filling the southern end. The fog looked faintly orange as it reflected the light of the innumerable fires, lamps, and torches burning in Camp Town, giving it a hellish cast. Phin shivered at the thought that the place would be Open in only a few hours, and the dread in his stomach was only worsened by the fact that he had no idea when he would be going in himself. Though he would be going in.

The party of adventurers which Phin had joined was nearly as strange as that with which he had come to Camp Town. They had hired him in expectation of entering the Sable City and they had paid for his license which was then attached to their own; nine strings of beads and tiny totems with one blank length of finger bone, all attached by hooks to a short, carved baton. The leader of the band was named Horayachus. He was a tall, swarthy man with a scarred face who had yet to speak a word in Phin’s hearing. Horayachus had the license, and while the man called the “Sarge” had told Phin it was good for entry into Vod’Adia anytime after the Opening, there was plainly something else supposed to happen first, something for which everyone was waiting.

Phin had not been told what that was, nor much of anything really. He had spent his first days in Camp Town after Nesha-tari’s departure allowed him to think clearly loitering in inns that were operating as hiring halls, where adventurers not yet attached to a full party sized each other up and talked things through. Phin had billed himself as a freelance mage and obliquely implied he had Imperial training, but as the majority of parties in Camp Town were already arranged, his pickings were slim. Most of the groups Phin talked to seemed hopelessly inept and displayed only a tenuous appreciation for the dangers of the Sable City. The people who did seem to know what they were doing gave Phin but short shrift, and after two days he was starting to realize that being choosy was not a real option for him.

That was when the five legionnaires had approached him. Someone had told them Phin might be a Circle Wizard and at first he had thought they were going to arrest him, clap him in irons and ship him back to Souterm. That might not have been the worst fate possible. But the legionnaires had only wanted to know if Phin could read the incantation script of Tull, and in order for him to prove it their sergeant produced a large tome bound in dark leather that smelled faintly of smoke, with a broken metal latch. The Sarge flipped it open and Phin saw that it was a sort of work with which he was familiar; a commentary in Old Tullish on an even older document, with yellowed parchment sheets bound among the more recent pages. Phin did not recognize the language on the old sheets though they were scribbled in the Kantan alphabet, but he read aloud a few lines of the old Tullish. Something about a “second nodal space” and “transcendental migration.”

The Sarge flipped shut the heavy book, and Phin was hired. Phin accepted the offer as while he was sure this bunch of Legion men were deserters of some kind, he supposed that description now applied to him as well.

He met the rest of the party at the Dead Possum, though as there were five of them already Phin was not exactly sure who was going into Vod’Adia and who was not. As Phin understood it parties of ten were the maximum allowed by the Shugak. The five people at the inn were a daunting bunch, led by the taciturn Horayachus along with three likewise dark men and one woman, all equipped with full suits of black plate mail bordered in fiery red, and huge two-handed swords. None of them said much of anything to Phin, nor to the five legionnaires for that matter, and among themselves they spoke only Zantish. Phin recognized the language from having heard it between Nesha-tari and Zebulon, but he did not understand a word.

Horayachus and his minions stayed sequestered in the adjoining bunkroom most days, only emerging to fetch food. The legionnaires were out more often with only one or two of them keeping to the inn. Phin knew his fellow Codians by name by now, though not very much about them. Most were Beoan or Tullish, except for the Sarge who was from Gweiyer, and according to the marks on their tower shields all had come from the 34 ^ Foot.

The Sarge and Rickard were still in their bunks as the noise from downstairs started to build again in the Dead Possum’s bar. Both grumbled and swore as they turned over. Phin gazed past them out the window, wiping damp palms on his blanket and trying to calculate just how in the hells he had wound up here. He wondered vaguely how Zeb, Amatesu, and the others were doing.

Heavy footsteps pounded up the stairs from below and there was a now familiar jingle of legionnaire armor in the hall. Rickard and the Sarge were sitting on the edges of their bunks by the time their fellow man Ty pushed open the door and stuck his plume-helmeted head into the room.

“Sarge, you’ll never guess who just walked in downstairs.”

In the light from the hall the Sarge’s bearded face split into a grin. His beard was not Legionnaire regulation and neither was the enormous emerald ring he always wore, the gemstone matching his distinctive green eyes. He was a convivial sort of fellow but there was something ugly and dangerous about his smile at this moment.

He hammered on the adjoining wall with a fist, then he and Rickard rose and hurried into their own clothes and armor. The door between the bunkrooms opened and one of Horayachus’s grim minions filled the doorway.

“Tell your boss his girl is here,” the Sarge said, hopping as he pulled on a boot.

The minion had no eyebrows as his entire head was shaved clean. The skin where eyebrows would have been lifted, and he shut the door.

The Sarge and Rickard were strapping on breast plates. Ty stood in the doorway fingering the pommel of the heavy short sword on his hip and glancing back toward the stairs.

“What is going on?” Phin finally decided to ask.

“Nothing you need be concerned about, Wizard.” The Sarge belted his own sword around his waist. “Though it looks as if we may be getting into Vod’Adia on time after all.”

Ty chuckled and clashed a gauntleted hand against his tower shield. Soft chanting began in the next bunkroom, and red light played across the floorboards from the crack under the door.

*

Nesha-tari’s people had been given space in a Shugak barracks, but she spent her days and nights up in a watch tower out of which a stern blue glare had cleared the hobgoblin guards. By the last night before the Opening of Vod’Adia she was lying on her side and curled into a ball next to the trapdoor leading below, knees to her chest and eyes screwed shut. Every inhalation brought the stench of humanity into her nostrils and made her shudder as her stomach growled.

She heard the slap of bullywug feet approaching at a hop on the ground below, and recognized Kerek by his jingling adornments. Nesha-tari’s eyes snapped open like two blue lamps in the night. She scrambled to the edge of the tower to look down.

“You found him?” she hissed, but Kerek heard her plainly.

“He has finally activated a spell. A call unto his god. Your people are getting ready.”

Nesha-tari was ready. She put a hand on the railing and pounced over it, landing on the ground four stories below on her toes and fingertips.

*

Tilda and Dugan stood up as a middle-aged Jobian woman approached in a long blue dress and a leather apron. The Builder’s device was stitched on the apron and her hair was wrapped in cloth in the style of an Orstavian bushka. She was of a matronly demeanor, and smiled warmly.

“The Builder’s blessing be upon you. I am Sister Paveline. I am told you seek some folk who may have sought our aid?”

“Yes, Sister,” Dugan answered and Tilda allowed him to speak, figuring he was more familiar with Codian priests and their customs.

“It would have been as many as five men, but maybe less. All Codians, Beoan or Gwethellen, from their twenties to one balding fellow about forty. They may have seemed like Legion men in their manners, though they were probably not in uniform.”

Sister Paveline raised a brown eyebrow with a grey streak.

“Veterans?”

“Ah, no Ma’am. They are renegade.”

The priestess frowned sharply.

“Their leader would have had green eyes, Sister,” Tilda said. “Very striking.”

Sister Paveline looked surprised, but she shook her head.

“I am sorry, but the only men we have seen here who looked like legionnaires, were actual legionnaires. There was a green-eyed fellow and two others, but they were in full uniform. Nor did they seek our aid, nor succor.”

“Wait,” Dugan held up a hand. “The Empire has soldiers stationed here?”

“I did not think so, but these men were on a mission.” Paveline looked between Dugan and Tilda. “The two of you arrived here with the pair from Daul, yes?”

“Yes,” Tilda said. “Why?”

“Well, the Legion men were here specifically to greet anyone from Daul seeking refuge in the Empire. Given the cost and danger of traversing the Wilds we hardly expected anyone like that to show up here, and no one had. Until tonight.”

Tilda stared, and a bead of cold sweat trickled down her spine to the small of her back under her layered clothing and armor. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. She did not know quite what it was, but she was sure of it.

“Where did Claudja and Towsan go?” she asked.

“Those are your friends from Daul? I understand Brother Heggenauer was taking them to meet the legionnaires at their inn, south of here.”

“What inn?” Dugan asked calmly. Sister Paveline winced.

“It is called the Dead Possum. Five blocks down at an intersection with a willow tree in the center. You can’t miss it as the sign is very…graphic.”

Tilda was still for one second. Then she dropped her pack and saddlebags and was running flat out.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Heggenauer, the Duchess Claudja, and her knight protector Sir Towsan were led through the Dead Possum’s bawdy common room by two legionnaires while the third had gone upstairs to fetch his commanding officer. Heggenauer felt a pang for the debauchery on display was hardly suitable for a woman of the Duchess’s high station, but on being informed by Father Corallo that there were Codian Legionnaires in Camp Town awaiting the arrival of anyone from Daul, the Duchess had insisted on being taken to them immediately rather than having them summoned to the Builder’s House. Sir Towsan had not been pleased, but the noblewoman who no amount of rude outfitting could make look common had been adamant.

They were led down a hall away from the noise and smell and ushered into a narrow room where the light from a lantern illuminated towers of spent ale kegs lining the walls. Towsan looked about dubiously and turned to eye the legionnaires with his arms folded across his chest.

“Sorry ’bout this,” one of them said. “The Sarge will find a better place for a talk.”

Heggenauer looked between the two soldiers. Their armor and weapons were spotless but the clothes underneath deeply soiled. Their chinstraps crossed faces badly needing shaves, and one of their helmets was not even Legion issue. Heggenauer looked at that man’s tower shield, noting the identifying numerals under the Book-from-the-Water standard.

“Where is the 34 ^ Foot now stationed, soldier?”

“Orstaf, sir.”

“You are a long way from there.”

“Detached special duty, sir.”

The man’s answers were smartly given but Heggenauer still did not like his looks. Before he could ask anything else boots clopped in the hall and the door was opened by another bearded Legion man wearing the plain helmet of a sergeant-of-the-line, and boots instead of marching sandals. He carried no tower shield and looked over all those in the room with shining green eyes, smiling broadly and snapping a salute.

“Good evening, or very early morning,” he chirped in the cadence of a native Gweiyerman. “Sorry about the digs…”

The Duchess squeezed around Heggenauer and Towsan.

“We were told there is a Codian official here awaiting us,” she said, then gave the sergeant a haughty looking-over. “Would you be him?”

“Indeed no, your Highness. He awaits just across the rear yard. Fetching wine and what not to the empty stable there. It is clean, and altogether nicer. Won’t you step this way?”

The sergeant backed into the hall and stepped to the right. The Duchess and her knight exchanged a look before the old man led the way with her close behind. Heggenauer moved to follow them but when Claudja was through the doorway the two legionnaires still in the room leaned their shields across it.

“We have it from here, Brother,” one said. “Best go back to your temple.”

“Legion business, sir,” said the other. “No need for you to be involved.”

“Involved in what?” Heggenauer demanded.

The Duchess shrieked, and Heggenauer snatched up his mace by its wrist cord even faster than the Legion men drew their swords.

*

Zeb ran awkwardly and with his helmet bouncing on his head for they had left the Shugak palisade so fast he had not had time to cinch-up his armor. He had barely gotten his boots on.

Amatesu noticed him struggling and dropped back, leaving Shikashe a quarter block ahead and Nesha-tari out in front even farther. The shukenja ran alongside Zeb and managed to pull the straps of his ring mail jerkin tight on the fly. He handed her his crossbow and buckled his chin strap, crashed to the ground and rolled once, but stumbled up and kept running.

Amatesu handed the crossbow back and before she sprinted ahead Zeb managed to shout between gasps.

“Will you tell me where we are going now?”

Amatesu looked back at him.

“We are going to kill a priest.”

Zeb hitched a step and Amatesu began to pull away.

“What? Wait! Why?”

“He is not a nice priest,” Amatesu called over her shoulder.

They ran for several blocks, managing the crowd as all the men in the street seemed to have stopped what they were doing when Nesha-tari ran by. They were standing still and staring silently in the direction she had gone even as Amatesu and Zeb passed them.

They reached an intersection, Zeb trundling up last as Shikashe, Nesha-tari, and Amatesu stood in a row under a willow tree, facing an inn. There was a colorful but revolting sign painted on the front of an opossum squashed flat by a wagon wheel.

Zeb put the head of his crossbow on the ground and wriggled a foot into the stirrup. He had already cranked it but now placed a bolt in the groove atop the shaft. He stood up straight and began to gasp a question, but stopped as Nesha-tari threw her cloak back off of her shoulders.

She was magnificent. Zeb was well aware that she was some sort of dangerous monster, but in that moment he could not have cared any less. Her body in loose trousers and shirt was plainly ridiculous, both supple and strong. Her face was sharp and beautiful in a corona of tumbling red hair, and her blue eyes blazed.

Nesha-tari pulled her gloves off with her perfect white teeth on the leather fingers and it was the most fascinating process Zeb had ever seen. She said something Zeb did not hear, and when she turned her eyes on him he nearly swooned. Then she snarled and slapped the vacant look off his face.

Zeb yelled and grabbed his nose, which was bleeding across the bridge.

“You split open my nose!” Zeb said accusingly, and as the sharp sting of it cleared his head for a moment he understood Nesha-tari as she repeated herself with a growl.

“Tell Shikashe he is with me, through the front door. You and Amatesu go ‘round the back. Kill anyone coming out who looks like a Zant.”

Zeb translated into Codian automatically and Amatesu did so into Ashinese even as he spoke. On the last few words Amatesu stopped speaking and gave Nesha-tari an alarmed look, but the woman was already rolling like a storm for the Dead Possum’s porch and the open front door. Uriako Shikashe strode at her side and drew both of his swords.

Amatesu ran for an alley on the right side of the inn and as his head was still clearer than it had been in a good long time, Zeb hesitated before following her. Killing priests could not possibly be good luck, and none of this had anything to do with him. He should be in the lines at Larbonne with his mates, or better-yet home in Wakminau sniffing around a barroom for a mate of a different sort. There was a place high on the bluffs with a glorious cherry wine, half bitter and half sweet, that would have tasted like the most wonderful thing in the world right now. And really, he did not owe any of the people here a thing. He had been kidnapped and enchanted and Nesha-tari had just cut his nose open, and it stung like hell.

In short, a man of the Riven Kingdoms had to know when to run if he was to live for long.

Amatesu disappeared into the dark alley. Zeb knew the shukenja was formidable but she looked very small and alone in that moment.

Zeb spit out blood that was trickling into his mouth and cursed himself. He hoisted his crossbow and ran into the alley.

It was pitch black and he could not see Amatesu. What he did see was light from an enclosed yard behind the inn, and as he stumbled toward it over mounded refuse and through foul puddles he heard the unmistakable clash of arms.

Zeb leaned around the corner to look into the yard and tried to make sense of what he saw. There was a tall old man laying about with a long sword while two Codian legionnaires crouched behind their tower shields trying to maneuver behind him, both darting forward in turn to poke at him with their short gladius swords. As they shuffled, swung, and parried, a third legionnaire tumbled out of the inn’s backdoor followed closely by a blonde fellow with mace and shield, fighting him.

Before Zeb could determine if this was something he was supposed to be concerned with, or which side of the fight he might be on, a man cursed from the darkness away from the door. Zeb turned and saw another man in a Legion breastplate struggling with a little slip of a girl. The bearded fellow reared back an arm and just smashed her across the face, leveling her to the ground and making Zeb’s mind up for him.

“Drop your weapons!” Zeb bawled in Codian, stepping into the yard and raising his crossbow to look down the bolt right at the bearded man’s forehead. The girl was a motionless heap at his feet.

No one dropped anything but the bearded man in the helmet of a Legion Sergeant at least made no move toward the sword on his hip.

“Who the hells are you?” he demanded, his green eyes boring into Zeb‘s.

Before Zeb could come up with a witty answer the doors of a low building backing the yard burst open and out rushed four bulky figures in heavy plate and round helmets with only eye slits, wielding enormous swords. One rushed at Zeb and he swung his bow while triggering it, but he split the difference and the bolt zipped between the sergeant and the figure clanking toward him.

Zeb dropped his crossbow and whipped his axe from his back, but the man came on too fast. Zeb never would have raised his weapon in time to ward off an overhand blow coming for his head, but Amatesu darted out of the shadows and threw herself into the charging man’s legs. Iron greaves bashed the shukenja’s shoulder and side but she twisted the man off balance, sending him stumbling toward Zeb who rolled his hips and spun on the balls of his feet while swinging his axe sideways in both hands, connecting blade to helmet with an impact that shook his arms. The man’s helmet was thick and well made and did not split, but its wearer did sprawl stunned to the ground.

The sergeant was on Zeb in an instant, stabbing for his back but just scraping his blade on ring mail as Zeb stumbled sideways from the force of his own axe blow. The sergeant tried to get inside Zeb’s reach but the Minaun spread his hands wide on the shaft of his axe while moving backwards, not able to attack but warding off two more stabs. Amatesu was on her feet behind the sergeant, but rather busy with another black-armored man and his great sword. The shukenja had slipped a weapon of some kind out of her sleeve, a block of wood as long as her forearm with one iron-shod side and an odd sort of crank handle at the end. She sidestepped sword blows and darted in to deliver strikes with the thing, but her club only rang off her opponent’s plate mail.

The green-eyed sergeant drove Zeb back and threw a swipe at his face that Zeb only avoided by leaning back so far he had to scramble away to recover. The sergeant took advantage to break away and run across the yard for the old man, whose back was to them as he fought another legionnaire. Zeb had no idea what the fellow’s name was so shouted only, “Old man! Behind you!” as a warning. Before he could move to anyone’s assistance firelight bloomed behind him and Zeb turned to find the first man he had knocked down back on his feet. Flames were dancing along the long blade of his great sword, and Zeb abruptly knew what he was fighting.

“Oh, gods! You’re a Destroyer?” Zeb asked, for the fearsome warriors of the fiery god Ayon had a presence in Larbonne. The man’s helmet was dented and turned sideways on his face, but he tore it off to reveal that he was not a he at all.

“And you are the destroyed,” the bald woman growled, and lunged.

Zeb knocked the first blow of the flaming sword aside with the head of his axe, but he could feel the heat of it washing over him. The swords of the other Destroyers were blooming into flames around the yard, casting hellish, struggling shadows on the walls. A legionnaire’s helmet came sailing out of the back door of the Dead Possum and struck the ground with such a heavy sound that Zeb knew there was still a head in it. Uriako Shikashe came out behind it, saw Amatesu fighting a Destroyer, and charged at the nearest man in the same black armor.

Zeb’s opponent made a thrust that came close enough to his side to leave his jerkin smoking. He could feel the warming rings of his mail like ingots through leather gloves. He swept for her legs but she hopped over the blow and then the two of them were spinning almost like a dance, neither quite able to land a blow with what were rather inelegant weapons, better suited for hacking than for parry and thrust. But sweat was running into Zeb’s eyes while the woman’s smirking face was cool and calm. She had him and she knew it, right up until blue light cracked across the yard and a bolt of lightning sent her flying into a wall.

Nesha-tari was framed in the back doorway of the inn, her hair standing out on end and her indescribable face illuminated by blue lightning humming between her raised hands. Her eyes raked the yard and she threw out another lash of crackling blue fire that spun a legionnaire to the ground and staggered a Destroyer, allowing Shikashe to lock the longer of his two swords high against the man’s flaming weapon. The samurai stabbed his shorter sword deep into the Destroyer’s chest through his armpit.

The light faded but Nesha-tari advanced into the yard like an angel of death and the remaining Destroyers and legionnaires drew back from her. Shikashe and Amatesu were on their feet but the blonde fellow was kneeling by the sprawled old man. Zeb took the moment to race to his crossbow and work the crank after spilling out bolts to the ground next to it.

“Horayachus!” Nesha-tari roared, and for an answer a jet of flames erupted at her from the building out of which the Destroyers had come. Nesha-tari brought both hands up in front of her, palms out, and the flames scattered in the air before her as though they had hit a solid stone wall. She rocked back and staggered to the ground.

There was a man at an open window, tall and bald and armored as were the Destroyers in a black breast plate with red trim, but with bare arms tattooed wrist-to-shoulder with licking flames.

“Who are you to come against me, Dragon Eyes?” he shouted in Zantish. Zeb had reloaded but before he raised his crossbow Nesha-tari snarled on the ground and threw more blue lightning from her hands, not a great bolt but buzzing tendrils that sizzled all along the wall and through the open window. Ayon’s priest screamed.

The two Destroyers still on their feet charged Nesha-tari. Shikashe intercepted one with a flurry of blows, Zeb shot at the other and hit him in the side. The black breastplate stopped Zeb’s bolt but not before the head had gone several inches into the Destroyer’s ribs. He turned his charge with a growl and lurched toward Zeb, who dropped the bow and readied his axe.

Nesha-tari was back on her feet but she gave a sharp hiss as the air started to leave the yard as though a wind was blowing from the ground to the sky. There was an eerie silence for what must only have been an instant, then high in the air over Nesha-tari’s head and above the roofs of the surrounding buildings, a spinning disk of flames appeared. With a whoosh the disk expanded into a ring, then a great column of fire descended to the ground as a pillar.

Nesha-tari was enveloped, screaming. The impact sent a wave of heat through the yard, hurling bodies and bursting the walls into flames.

Zeb was farthest away from it but even he was knocked off his feet and thrown back into the alley. His throat burned as he gasped for breath, drawing in air hotter than any desert. He tried to get up and a hand grabbed his ankle, hauling him back into the yard and tossing him across the blackened ground. The Destroyer with the bolt sticking out of his breastplate put a boot on Zeb’s chest and raised his flaming sword to stab down, but staggered forward as Amatesu’s thrown club clanged off his helmet. The stabbing sword just missed Zeb’s head, and as the Destroyer’s chest loomed above him he grabbed the feathered end of his bolt with both hands and twisted.

The man screamed and hammered a gauntlet against Zeb’s helmet, but the Minauan was not about to let go. The Destroyer lurched, dragging Zeb across the ground, and got both iron hands around Zeb’s neck.

Zeb tried to drive the bolt in further but his vision dimmed as he was throttled. The man choking him shuddered as though under impacts, but the Destroyer was as obstinate as the man from the Rivens. Before Zeb’s world went to black the last thing he thought he saw, and that but dimly, was the impossible sight of Nesha-tari Hrilamae tottering to her feet in the blasted yard, her body smoking all over.

*

Phinneas Phoarty heard nothing over the noise of the inn’s common room until a single boom as of thunder shuddered the inn walls. Some of the noise faded away downstairs, and after a second blast sounded close by, the inn fell silent altogether.

Phin left the bunkroom and stood on the open walkway overlooking the common area. The place was still full, but silent as everyone there was looking toward the rear wall.

Then the back of the inn exploded, flames blazing in through the windows and splintered wood spraying the crowd.

Phin was almost thrown over the railing but he caught himself and stayed on the walkway. He was shaken to the floor as the whole building trembled. The bunkrooms were on the side of the inn, but black smoke poured into the common room from the back, driving out the occupants who were yelling, crying, and many bleeding. Overhead the main ceiling beam cracked as the back wall started to sag.

Phin scrambled back into the room and grabbed his pack from under his bunk. He snatched someone’s extra dagger off a table and ran halfway back to the door before turning back to the Sarge’s bunk. He yanked off the lumpy mattress and lifted the heavy leather bag hidden under it to his shoulder, the bag in which the Sarge carried the book from which he’d had Phin read.

Halfway down the stairs Phin ran into the Sarge coming up, though the man was almost unrecognizable with his face and armor covered in black ash. Phin shook the bag at him.

“You got it?” the Sarge said.

“I do.”

“Then go! Out the front!”

Three legionnaires waited anxiously in what was now an empty common room, with the front doors and windows all bashed out as the occupants had fled by every available aperture. The legionnaires all looked as bad or worse than the Sarge, with two of them glassy eyed and leaning on each other to keep their feet. The Sarge started to bark for them to go as he and Phin picked their way among fallen tables and chairs, but he was interrupted by a shout from behind.

Horayachus lurched out of the black smoke boiling from the back hall and the kitchens, carrying a limp figure in his arms.

“I will be damned,” the Sarge muttered, hardly audible over the crackle of the fire spreading up the rear walls to the second floor.

Horayachus pitched his burden into Ty’s arms, the legionnaire dropping his tower shield to catch her. Phin saw that she was a woman when her head lolled into view, for she was very pretty despite the blood pouring from a nose that looked broken. The Zant’s teeth were clenched and his breast plate was pocked with smoking rents like the steel had melted.

“You have the book?” he barked at the Sarge, who nodded. Horayachus reached under his armor and withdrew a carved Shugak baton with ten licenses to enter the Sable City jingling from it.

“If it works, take this woman alive and unharmed to Ayzantu City. To the Great Temple of Ayon there.”

“Are you out of your bald skull?” the Sarge demanded. He was seized by the collar with a burnt hand.

“Do this, and the priests will give you all the gold you can carry,” Horayachus hissed. “Fail, and the Burning Man’s wrath will find you. All of you.”

With that, he released the Sarge’s collar and staggered back to the middle of the room to face the smoke. “Go!” he barked over his shoulder.

None of the legionnaires moved.

“She is coming,” Horayachus added, raising his arms and beginning to chant.

The Sarge snatched up the extra tower shield and was first out the front door. The others were right behind him, with Phin in the rear.

Outside, hobgoblins had forced back the buzzing crowd and were keeping them away from the front of the inn with raised morning stars and pole arms, though many in the crowd were now shouting for their possessions left behind. Bullywugs had formed a line for a bucket brigade but as of yet they had no buckets.

The Sarge stopped in the empty area before the tall willow tree, green eyes looking all around.

“Which way Sarge?” Ty asked, now with the motionless woman slung over his shoulder like a dead thing.

The Sarge pointed south but there was a ruckus on the far side of the crowd as a man burst through the ring between two hobgoblins. He wore cracked leather armor and had dark hair and a beard, both short but unkempt. A legionnaire short sword was in his hands. The hobgoblins turned and growled at him, but he did not approach the inn. He strode straight for the legionnaires, who stared wide-eyed.

“Now,” said the Sarge. “Now I have seen everything.”

The man stopped only yards from the Sarge, glaring at him.

“Sergeant Dugan,” the stranger said.

The Sarge smiled.

“Centurion Deskata.”

For a moment Phin thought they were going to shake hands, but Deskata made a lunge and the Sarge swung Ty’s tower shield. The Sarge fended off a series of ringing blows while drawing his own sword, then thrust it around the shield. Deskata danced away.

“Don’t just stand there, boys!” the Sarge shouted. “Say hello to your commanding officer!”

Ty dumped the woman off his shoulders and she hit the ground so hard Phin went to her side. The three legionnaires drew swords but Deskata barked, “Stand down, soldiers!” with such authority that Ty and Rickard actually hesitated. Gery blundered forward. Deskata sidestepped him easily and cut his throat as he stumbled by, sending a crimson jet into the air and getting a roar from the surrounding crowd.

Sergeant Dugan and the two others moved to surround him.

*

Nesha-tari had no defensive spell raised when Horayachus’s flame strike crashed all around her, and she dropped to the ground as her clothes burst into flames. She lay quaking for a moment before opening her eyes. Her innate magical resistance had saved her, but it had also pushed her fully through the Change.

Nesha-tari arose, the last ashy bits of clothing falling off her tawny fur, leaving it smoldering but unburned. She smelled the spoor trail lingering in the air where Horayachus had gone, and bounded after him on all fours. Others were still fighting in the yard, but they did not matter.

Her claws tore gouges in the plank floor of a smoke-filled hall as Nesha-tari ran. She emerged hacking into a large inn room full of overturned furniture. Horayachus stood across the room with lips moving and grimacing face turned aloft, tattooed arms spread wide. Nesha-tari sprang forward but a sheet of flame erupted from the floor in front of her. She skidded to a halt, claws digging in.

She paced along the flames that stood as a burning wall, blue eyes locked on Horayachus’s through them.

“Why does Blue Akroya send you against me, woman?” Ayon’s priest shouted over the crackling flames. The fire was climbing all the walls now, spreading smoke through the air and vapor along the floor.

“I did not ask,” Nesha-tari growled, though she doubted the man could understand her voice as it was the roar of a lioness.

Horayachus resumed a low chanting and raised his arms. Nesha-tari crouched to run for she had no means at present of casting a spell of her own to interrupt or counter the Fire Priest’s. A beam fell from the ceiling athwart the wall of fire and she sprang quick as thought through the momentary gap.

The High Priest of Ayon screamed and threw his arms forward. Nesha-tari swiped them away with enough force to shred the tattooed flesh to the bone and yank both out of their sockets. She turned her massive head and her jaws closed on Horayachus’s throat. The taste of the only thing that assuaged the Hunger filled her mouth.

Nesha-tari Hrilamae, daughter of the Lamia, drank deeply.

*

Tilda thought she might have kept up with Dugan over open ground, but the man’s build was far better suited than was hers to plowing through a crowd. She fell behind as they ran the five blocks to the Dead Possum, stumbling when jostled and having to fight her way through the crush.

She saw the top of the willow tree over an even thicker crowd as she approached the intersection, and people gathered around a burning inn on a corner. Tilda had no doubt this was the place she was looking for and she wormed into the press, elbowing her way and crawling when she stumbled to the ground. People roared like they were watching a sporting match, and steel clanged on steel over their cries.

Tilda slithered into the open between the spread legs of a large hobgoblin. Dugan almost stomped on her head as he spun past, driven by a legionnaire leading with a tower shield and throwing wild stabs over the top.

“Dugan!” she shouted, scrambling up, and to her right someone yelled, “What?” Tilda looked that way and saw what had to be John Deskata, for his eyes blazed like twin emeralds though apart from them his bearded face was plain, and presently marred by an angry sneer. He was balding. Another legionnaire was struggling to rise but the green-eyed man snatched away the injured one’s sword so that he held one in either hand. The fire consuming the inn glinted in the massive green ring on his finger. He yelled and ran at Dugan.

Tilda shouted the name of the head of her House, but he did not slow. She scrambled up and ran after him. Before he had closed the distance Dugan let the legionnaire with the tower shield back him against the tree, then launched his shoulder so hard into the shield that it banged back into the man’s face and sent him down. The crowd cheered.

Dugan saw the man with two swords charging, watched him come, and at the last moment put a toe under the tower shield at his feet and flipped it upright. Dugan slipped to the side as the charging man plowed into the chest-high shield, and crashed into the tree trunk with a double bang. Dugan raised a sword as Tilda’s quarry slid to the ground. Tilda tackled him.

Hitting the stout renegade in his heavy leather armor, which she had given him as a gift come to think of it, felt little different than tackling the tree would have. Dugan woofed and stumbled but Tilda’s shoulder rebounded off his flank and she went sliding on her back over rough tree roots.

Tilda kick-jumped to her feet and freed her buksu club from her hip, turned toward Dugan and threw out a hand. She shouted for him to stop but he yelled “Duck!” and Tilda did so automatically, as the word was in Miilarkian. She had no time to wonder where Dugan had picked it up for John Deskata had just tried to cut her head off from behind, burying a short sword in the tree trunk. Dugan rushed him and the two twirled away exchanging snarls and avoiding stabs. Tilda yelled at them both, in Codian and Miilarkian, shouting the names Dugan and Deskata, but they ignored her. She raised her club and tried to get into position behind Dugan, hoping that if she knocked him cold John Deskata might realize she was on his side, which she supposed she had to be. The two men were turning too fast, Tilda got too close, and Deskata lashed out at her. She had to parry his sword off the side of her club before she took it in the throat, and Dugan took advantage to swipe at his enemy’s weapon hand. The man howled and his sword flipped away in the air, along with two fingers. One still wore the great emerald ring of the House of Deskata.

“Tilda!” Dugan shouted in her face, and she clubbed him across the temple. His brown eyes fluttered and he fell to a knee. Tilda cracked him over the back of the head.

Dugan went face down and lay still. The other man was on his back, cursing the gods and clutching his ruined hand to his chest while blood spattered his legionnaire breast plate. Tilda took a step toward him, turning pale herself, and swooned.

Not the blood, she thought, I am not so delicate as that. But her club fell from her hand and she stumbled to the side, blinking slowly as her eyelids felt heavier than her head.

She was on one knee, looking across the clearing where in front of the crowd lay the Duchess of Chengdea, flat on the ground like a dead thing. A tall man stood over her, premature streaks of gray in his brown moustache and chin beard. His eyes were locked on Tilda’s and a bit of powder or dust was falling from the fingers of his outstretched hand. The world went soft and dark, and Tilda toppled to the ground as if it were the feather bed she had shared with her sisters growing up, in the attic room of her father's house on Chrysanthemum Quay.

The Dead Possum inn gave up the ghost. The roof crashed in and flames climbed high into the night sky. A blast of fire and heat shook the willow tree and forced the crowd further back, but it did not interrupt their cheers.

Chapter Twenty-Six

At the moment of dawn in the valley of Blackstone the rays of the rising sun crept over the eastern edge of the valley wall and touched the top of the moving mist enveloping the city. The whiter fog at the top seemed to tremble, and its color ran down into the darker clouds until the whole was a paler shade of pearly grey. The whorls and eddies in the whole mass slowed and stopped, and though they were still obscured by shadow the streets and buildings of ancient Vod’Adia, the Sable City of the vanished Ettaceans, stood out in the cool morning air as though they were present in a way they had not been a minute before.

A great wall of house-sized blocks of black basalt was now visible around the city, and from a gatehouse big as a castle came a loud ratcheting and the grinding of gears. The iron door rumbled down to bridge a chasm still unseen in the mist, on a straight line with the road running across the green field from Camp Town. It struck the ground with a gong that shook the whole valley, echoing off the stone walls and cliffs for what seemed like minutes.

Even before the echoes died out, the Shugak had opened their own palisade gate, and the first party of ten adventurers was moving down the road. For the first time in ninety-nine years, Vod’Adia was Open.

*

Tilda dreamed of Miilark, specifically of a white sand beach a few miles up the coast from the capital. The surf played gently at the edge of the land for offshore breakers and standing rocks broke the fury of the Interminable Ocean. Sharp green hills rose behind the strip of sand, mantled by tall palms and date trees full of colorful birds. The birds called to each other with whistles and trills as complex as language, making them sound like they were talking about pleasant things, of no great importance.

Tilda stood alone in the edge of the water, calves lapped by caressing waves and sand squishing delectably between her toes. She shaded her eyes from the gentle sun and watched the long line of Deskata House ships move out from the harbor mouth to the south under full sails, with long, emerald-green pennons snapping smartly from atop the masts.

The Wind changed, and the sky turned. The water began to rise and grow cold. Thunder rumbled to the north, from whence in this season the storms came. Tilda tried to move but the sand was now up to her knees. The sea frothed with chop and far from shore the Deskata ships were thrown against each other. Snapping masts and spars sounded like cannon fire. Tilda tried to shout but the water was rising faster than the sand. Saltwater poured into her open mouth as she was shaken by the angry sea. She turned her face up to the sky and with just her eyes above the water, she saw the last green pennons sinking below the waves.

Someone said her name and Tilda woke with a start. There was a hand on her shoulder and she grabbed the arm as though to save herself from drowning. She gasped in a deep breath and opened her eyes to see Dugan right in front of her, his face more grim than concerned.

“Easy,” he said. “It was a dream.”

Tilda had a moment of hope that he meant everything that had happened last night had been a dream. She was lying sideways on a hard wooden bench and for an instant thought maybe she had dozed under the pavilion in the Jobian compound. But no. She was indoors, in the ramshackle common room of an inn judging by the tables and stools scattered about. The sharp sunlight of early morning was shining in the open door and windows. It had all been real, the legionnaires and the severed fingers, one with a green ring still on it, flipping through the air. The wizard, and the Duchess of Chengdea sprawled on the ground.

“Where is Claudja?” Tilda asked, letting go of Dugan’s arm and turning sideways on the hard bench. She pushed herself up to a seat and her back was flat against the wall. She could not remember what had happened to her bow or her pack.

“She is fine,” Dugan said. “The Jobians took her back to their temple.”

Tilda had shaken off her pack before she and Dugan ran out of the compound, she remembered that now. She looked around and saw her bow, a full quiver of arrows, and her buksu lying on the nearest table.

“She was hurt,” Tilda said, for she had seen blood on the Duchess’s pale face.

“They can patch her up. That’s what clerics do. Tilda, you and I need to talk.”

Tilda pushed herself to her feet and Dugan moved back a step to give her room, hesitating to offer a hand. He had a purple bruise over his left eye where Tilda had clubbed him. The large room was empty with most of the stools upside-down on the tables and the plank bar, though the filthy floor had not been swept. Voices were speaking outside, some human and others with the guttural growls of hobgoblins. None of them sounded happy.

“Where…how did we get here?” Tilda asked as she stepped forward to gather up her things, despite a heavy feeling in her legs. An echo of a dream. Something on a beach.

“The same Jobians,” Dugan said. “They dragged us in here to get us out of the street, but we are not hurt bad enough to need a temple. Except maybe for that guy.”

Dugan jerked a thumb toward the bar lining the back wall and Tilda started, for at a glance she had failed to notice the man sitting atop it among the inverted stools. He was a scruffy fellow with dirt caked in his bushy black hair, wearing a jerkin of ring mail so scratched up it was equal parts dull gray metal and flaking black paint. Though he was broad across the shoulders he looked to have lost a fight with someone much bigger. There were streaks of dried blood down both sides of his nose and a band of black and purple bruises that looked like an ugly kerchief around his neck. His blue eyes presently had the most hang-dog look Tilda had ever seen in her life not on the face of an actual dog, but he gamely raised a glass mug of beer in greeting and tried to smile. He managed only a pained wince and gave a choked, plaintive squeak.

“Who is that?” Tilda asked Dugan.

“I don’t know, Zebulon something. There were some other people here earlier. Matilda, stop. Listen to me.”

Tilda had slung her bow and taken an uneven step toward the front door with her buksu in her hand, but Dugan’s tone turned her around. His eyes bore into hers.

“You stopped me from killing that legionnaire.” Dugan nodded at her club. “I’ve got two welts on my head, your size.”

Tilda felt her stomach drop, as though off a ledge. “Where is he?”

“Why did you do that?”

“Where is he?”

“He got away. Tilda, talk to me. Did you or did you not come here to kill John Deskata?”

Tilda turned to face Dugan. When he was alive, Captain Block had been adamant that they speak no word of their mission to anyone on Noroth, and that had gone double once Dugan had joined them. Tilda had adhered to the dwarf’s precedent for more than a month now since his death, but she was thoroughly fed up with the whole mess.

“No. I did not come here to kill anybody.”