/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Halfblood Chronicles

Elvenborn

Mercedes Lackey

The third Halfblood chronicle continues to unfold a mighty struggle among elves of great power, elves of lesser power, and the former slaves and other foes of the elves, who have a lot of substantial grievances but no power. The elven lord Kyrtian, having escaped a vicious plot to seize everything he owns, now finds that his archaic military skills are needed for the elven lords' fight against their own children. But Kyrtian is properly skeptical of his peers, and as the war escalates, he must continually reevaluate friends as well as foes.

Elvenborn

Book Three

of the

Halfblood Chronicles

Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey

TOR

fantasy

ATOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK NEW YORK

PROLOGUE

V'kel Lyon Lord Kyndreth stood up, and loomed over the Council table and the Councilors seated there. Most of his fellow Elvenlords would not meet his eyes; those that did so shared a congratulatory glance with him. The Council Chamber was not a comfortable place today, and he had en­sured—with a few orders to the slaves who had prepared it— that it would remain so. Cold. Dim. The cushions on the seats pounded flat. And even the refreshments were ill-served—at a uniform temperature that could only be described as "tepid." All to keep everyone here wishing he was elsewhere, and less than pleased with the one—not Lord Kyndreth—who was nominally in charge.

Lord Kyndreth's star was in the ascendant once again, and this time he would see to it that it did not fall a second time.

"How is it," he asked, to empty air, "that a rebellious pack of children and former slaves have managed to hold off our al­legedly well-trained, well-led and well-supplied armies? And have done so for long enough that people are beginning to call this—temper tantrum—the Young Lords' Rebellion?"

"Lord Kyndreth—" ventured V'kel Anster Lord Rechan, scrambling mightily for the upper hand he had—if he had only known it—just lost, "this is, exactly as you say, no more than a temper tantrum. Inconsequential. No more than a handful of es­tates have been lost, our supplies continue to move without more than the occasional ambush, there is no more than a trickle of slaves escaping, and our lives continue as they always have. In balance, the threat—"

"A trickle here, a loss there, the complete inability of our so-called 'invincible' army to bring our own offspring to heel, and you say it's inconsequential?" Lord Kyndreth roared, and had

the satisfaction of seeing his chief opponent wince. "By the An­cestors, you fool, can't you see that a so-called 'trickle' is all that is needed to bleed us to death?" Kyndreth saw with some satisfaction a subtle and unspoken shifting among the other Council members, and watched as power came over to his side. "And what, may I ask, do you propose to do if these so-called 'errant children' of ours decide to ally with the Elvenbane and her wizards and dragons?"

There. It was out in the open, the thing that no one had dared to say, and he watched as a chill passed over all the rest of them. Yes, even Lord Rechan.

"They wouldn't—" someone whispered.

"Don't ever believe that," one of Kyndreth's supporters said, sharply. He took note of the speaker and reminded himself to single that one out for some special favor. "Why shouldn't they?"

"Because—because—because they're Elvenlords!" the first lord spluttered, looking so horrified by the very notion that one would think he'd been accused of fathering halfblooded chil­dren himself.

"And when whatever magic they've discovered ceases to pre­vent our magic from reaching and punishing them?" Lord Kyn­dreth asked. "What then? Do you think, do you really think that they will hesitate for one moment before going over to the half-blood side?"

Silence.

"Now," Kyndreth said, into that silence, changing his voice from challenging to calm, "I have some suggestions. The first of which is one I think none of you will anticipate. I suggest that we continue to allow our loyal offspring to continue their lives as usual. I do not propose interfering with their pleasures. In fact, if anything, I suggest a slightly looser leash for now. And you may well be asking yourself why—"

"Well—yes," replied Lord Rechan, looking gratifyingly puz­zled. "If, as you say, the inroads are slowly bleeding us to death—"

"Firstly, we don't want the brats to know it's bleeding us to death, and rest assured, they must have ears and eyes among us,

and it's probably some of our apparently-loyal children. Sec­ondly, we want to remind our apparently-loyal children just how pleasant life is, when one's sire is pleased with one." He smiled, slightly. "It is easier to catch a fly with a sweetmeat than with vinegar. And meanwhile—" his eyes narrowed. "—I will be a-hunting for a better commander."

And to his immense satisfaction, there was not one single objection.

1

V'kel Aelmarkin er-Lord Tornal smiled down at the slave who rested her pale-tressed head on his knee. She was his current personal favorite, a delicate young human fe­male nestled trustingly against his leg. Her thin, fine-boned face and porcelain complexion pleased him with their flawless symmetry and perfection. She returned his smile shyly, yet with a touch of the coquette, her round, blue eyes reflecting her cal­low, unsophisticated nature. No rebellious thoughts dwelling in that narrow skull—in fact, he would be surprised if she man­aged to conjure up more than one or two thoughts of any kind in an average day! Her pedigree was immaculate, out of a long line of carefully chosen slaves famed for their beauty and deli­cacy to be nothing more complicated than any other ornamental object.

He sighed with contentment, and smoothed the pale gold, silken hair away from her brow with a gentle caress. She was exquisite; lovely, eager to please, pliant, graceful, innocent and incredibly easy to manipulate. Exactly the sort of slave that gave him the most pleasure. He carefully cultivated that inno­cence, and none of his other slaves would dare his wrath by spoiling that naivete. No tales of floggings or more extreme pun­ishments, no harem-stories of his other "favorites" and what had become of them—nothing to hint that he had aspects she had never experienced. So far as she was concerned, he was the gen­tle, loving, ever-kind master that she believed him to be.

He turned his attention back to his most important guest. "There, you see?" he said, gesturing expansively to the hall be­fore them and its raucous occupants. "Did I not promise you would be far more amused here than in dancing attendance on all the dull, hopeful maidens at your father's fete?"

Elvenlord Aelmarkin did not possess enough magic to create a fanciful illusion in his Great Hall, so the luxurious surround­ings here were all quite real; guests at his entertainments would always find themselves in the same opulent room that they had graced at the last entertainment, rather than a new and exotic setting vastly different from their last. He made up for the lack of novel surroundings by the lavishness of his entertaining, which had begun to earn him something of a reputation.

Take this room, for example: fortunately it had been beauti­fully constructed in the first place, and he had only needed to embellish it when it came into his possession. The north and south walls were mostly of glass—northwards lay a natural lake, artfully landscaped, and southwards were the pleasure-gardens. The east and west walls, paneled in wood bleached to silver, held silver-rimmed doors that led to the rest of the manor. The ceiling with its bleached-wood beams from which hung great silver fantasies of lights, crystals, tiny glass sculp­tures and silver filigree, also boasted vast transparent skylights; just now the reflection of the myriad lights made it impossible to see anything of the outside world, but later, when the lights were dimmed, the stars would shine impassively down on the celebrants. The black carpet of the floor was kind to the bare feet of the slaves, but Aelmarkin had selected black carpeting largely because it was easy to clean after one of his entertain­ments and was far more forgiving a surface for a drunken rev­eler to fall on than marble or wood. The east and west walls were hung with silver draperies, and the silver dining-couches were upholstered in black to match the carpet. Between each couch and the next stood an enormous silver censer, from which came sensuous and intoxicating incense-smokes. Silver tables stood before each couch, and the guests provided the only touch of color in the room. The couches themselves each held two occupants, an invited guest and a companion of his (or her) choosing—either a fellow guest or one of Aelmarkin's harem-slaves dressed in silver gossamer and matching silver collar. Picturesque wine-slaves, dressed in abbreviated silver tunics, stood at each couch with their silver pitchers, and more slaves dressed in silver tunics and gossamer skirts or trews

served the guests with plates of dainties. Enough wine had been drank by this time that the guests were starting to raise their voices in less-than-delicate jests, and lose what few inhibitions they had when they arrived here.

V'sher Tennith er-Lord Kalumel raised one long, silver eye­brow sardonically as he surveyed the occupants of the dining couches before and below him. "I must admit," he drawled, "that seeing Varcaleme making a fool of himself is far more en­tertaining than fending off would-be brides and their anxious fathers."

Aelmarkin laughed and continued to caress the platinum tresses of his slave, chosen out of all the possible candidates presented to him, because she most resembled a delicate Elven maiden. He dressed her like an elven girl, too, in flowing gowns of delicate pastel silks with huge, butterfly sleeves and long embroidered trains, ordering her attendants to weave strings of pearls in her silver-blond hair—and to arrange her hair so that it covered the round tips of her ears. So long as one didn't look too deeply into her eyes, the illusion was complete; and he could use his magic to change her blue eyes to Elven-green if he chose. Her name had been "Kindre" until he ordered it changed to the Elven "Synterrathe."

The aforementioned Varcaleme was chasing one of the wine-girls around his couch; the flower-wreath she had bound around his brows had slipped sideways and was obscuring one eye, and the fact that he had drunk most of the wine in her now-empty flask was not aiding his ability to catch her. She had cast one look at her master when she began eluding those clutching hands, to see if he objected to her evasions; he had nodded slightly, and she needed no further encouragement to keep dodging his advances. Varcaleme's couch-companion, one of his personal concubines, a tall, dark-haired wench gowned in brilliant emerald that matched the beryl of her controlling col­lar, seemed relieved that she no longer had to entertain him, and was nibbling on spiced fruit, wearing a bored, but wary, expression.

Now the rest of the guests had taken an interest in the pro­ceedings, calling out encouragement to Varcaleme or the slave,

taking bets on whether or not he would catch her, as she dodged his outstretched hands and outpaced his stumbling feet. Most of Aelmarkin's guests were male, with a scant pair of Elven ladies. One of the ladies, clad in pearly silks that revealed scarcely less than the slaves' costumes, had brought her own couch-companion, a muscle-bound human gladiator; the other Elven lady, swathed from nape to ankle in skin-tight black satin, had come with another of the Elvenlords-—who was not her affianced. Of the remaining twenty guests, half had brought their own concubines, and half had made a selection from the slaves offered to them by Aelmarkin.

All of the Elvenlords present, with the exception of Ael­markin and the lady who had brought her own male concubine, were the sons of ruling Elvenlords—but had not joined the Young Lords' Rebellion. Most of them saw themselves as los­ing far more than they would gain by rebelling, and the rest were cynically hoping for the rebellion to eliminate their fa­thers for them.

Aelmarkin and V'dann Triana Lord Falcion—who, despite being female, was Lord of the Falcion holdings in her own right, and thus (it recently had been ruled) was entitled to the ti­tle of Lord rather than Lady or er-Lord—were the only Elven­lords in the room with their own estates and property. Aelmarkin, however, was hardly a Great Lord—his property was a fraction of the size of any of those with real power; most of his wealth came from the sale of the exquisitely bred and trained concubines who were literally worth their weight in gems. That gave him a certain status, but no real power. As for Triana, her standing had plummeted after her involvement in the debacle of the Second Wizard War, and she was no longer a desirable ally to anyone on the Great Council. She generally kept to herself on her own estate. He suspected that she was biding her time, waiting to see which way the wind blew in the Young Lords' Uprising, before she tried to worm her way back into the good graces of the powerful.

As a party guest, however, she was still of value; an acid wit and a reputation for depravity gave her all the fascination of a captivating serpent, and people enjoyed seeing what she would

say or do next. Any time Aelmarkin invited her to one of his en­tertainments, he knew he would have full participation, and her own parties continued to be extremely popular among the younger sons, those who did not possess great power, and those who did not have a Council seat.

Aelmarkin was by no means as certain as the Great Lords that Triana would remain out of power for the foreseeable future. She was clever, resourceful, and learned from her mistakes. The Wizard Wars and the Rebellion were changing everything; it was always possible that Triana would prove to be a potent ally at some point. It was even possible that she would somehow claw her way to power entirely on her own. The extent of her boldness was demonstrated in her dress tonight; gowned in transparent silks like a concubine, she knew very well that how­ever tempting she might be, there was no one here with suffi­cient power to dare touch her without her consent—and so she taunted them with her very appearance.

Besides, she had no scruples to speak of; he liked that in a woman—provided he didn't have to marry her.

"Have you heard anything more from the Council about your petition?" Triana called to him from across the room with a half smile. Her gladiator offered her a choice tidbit with a servile gesture; she allowed him to feed it to her, nibbling at it with white, sharp teeth. He was new to Aelmarkin, but that was hardly surprising; Triana went through male slaves at an aston­ishing rate.

He concealed a wince; Triana had a vested interest in the out­come of that petition, and it was one quite opposite to his. She would bring up the subject; he'd cherished the notion, when he'd scheduled this entertainment, that it might be a victory cel­ebration. Since it wasn't, he had hoped no one would bring up the subject.

"They denied it," he said, trying to sound as if he didn't care about the outcome, even though his defeat ate at him.

Triana made a little pout of sympathy, and Tennith turned his head to gaze at Aelmarkin with astonishment. "No, really? I should have thought that your cousin had proved himself men­tally unbalanced a hundred times over by now!"

About half of the guests looked puzzled; they didn't know who Aelmarkin's cousin was and he really didn't wish to en­lighten them.

"Really!" chimed in another, sending away a server with a flick of an impatient hand, "Your cousin is quite a piece of work, Aelmarkin. Playing soldier with human slaves as if he was still an infant playing with toys! It's ridiculous! If he was going to have an obsession, it at least ought to be a dignified obsession!"

"Oh, I don't know," purred Triana, running her finger along the arm of her gladiator. "Some of us like to play with soldiers." The slave blushed from the top of his head to well past his waist.

"On what grounds did they deny you?" Tennith asked, and Aelmarkin wondered if he detected a certain malicious enjoy­ment in Tennith's tone. Tennith might not be a lord in his own right, but he outranked Aelmarkin, and he wasn't above flaunt­ing that fact and embarrassing Aelmarkin at the same time.

But Tennith would find out for himself what the Council had said if he simply bothered to ask his father. Aelmarkin's best protection lay in pretending the decision meant very little to him. "They did a very tiresome thing; they had the production records from the estate for the last fifty years brought out, and nothing there shows that cousin Kyrtian is neglecting his estate or his duties. They decided that he isn't unbalanced, merely ec­centric, and that eccentricity is hardly grounds for taking his in­heritance and giving it to the next male heir."

"Next male heir?" Triana asked significantly, with a little frown. "Isn't his mother still alive? Wouldn't she be the appro­priate heir even if he was disinherited on the grounds of insan­ity?" That was Triana's interest; anything that barred another female from inheriting could eventually be used against her.

"His mother is not my sister," Aelmarkin replied. "She's not the next heir of blood-descent, as you so clearly were for clan Falcion. If Kyrtian were removed, the estate would come to me, naturally and legally."

"She's probably the one running things, then," Tennith pointed out. "If she doesn't want to be sent back to live in her

father's household, she has to make it look as if your cousin is competent."

"That may be, but I've no hope of proving it," Aelmarkin growled, wishing that Lady Lydiell had resembled the child at his feet rather than the clever creature she was. He recalled his intended pose, and forced a laugh. "Well, I suppose the Council had to rule the way that they did. Lord Jaspireth told me rather tartly that if fitness to hold title and property was to be judged on the basis of unusual hobbies, half the Council would lose their seats."

"Half?" Tennith laughed. "More like three-quarters! Looked at in that light, it's obvious you are a victim of necessity."

Aelmarkin signaled to his wench to refill his goblet, and sipped at the vintage with deliberation. "Much as I would like to see the lands of my clan administered properly, I suspect they will come to me in time, anyway. Kyrtian shows no sign of mar­rying, which in itself ought to prove his unfitness, and it's en­tirely possible he'll manage to break his neck, or do something equally foolish to himself, as he careens around the countryside."

"Break his neck?" queried the second lady, looking puzzled, as did her escort. "I'm afraid I'm rather lost, Aelmarkin. I don't know anything about your cousin. Who is he? Is he doing something dangerous?"

That triggered laughter among some of the others, who were more familiar with Aelmarkin's cousin than she was. Triana took pity on her—probably because the lady's escort was nei­ther clever nor outstandingly handsome—and explained.

"We've been discussing Kyrtian V'dyll Lord Prastaran," Tri­ana said, giving Aelmarkin's cousin his full name and title. "Surely you've heard something about him?"

The lady shook her head. "Not really," she confessed, then realized that Triana was patronizing her, and put on a cool air as she tried to save the situation. "But I don't pay much attention to the provincials."

Aelmarkin snorted. "He's certainly provincial, I'll grant you that, Lady Brynnire. He never leaves the estate unless he ab­solutely has to. He could get a seat on the Great Council if he only worked at it, but he won't even try! Instead, he spends all

of his time collecting books and studying—of all the nonsensi­cal subjects—military tactics!"

"Military tactics!" Triana erupted in peals of laughter. "Oh, Aelmarkin, even if he is serious and not seriously unbalanced, just who does he think he's going to use military tactics on? Everyone knows the humans and the halfbloods don't have real armies! They don't fight proper battles! And as for the Young Lords—"

She stopped, because it was entirely possible that this was a touchy subject for some of Aelmarkin's other guests. But Tennith, whose father was highly placed in the Great Council and thus was the highest-ranked Elvenlord present, finished her sentence for her.

"The Young Lords are a disorganized pack of rabble," he said loftily. "Once a solution is found that negates their ability to nullify magic, they'll dissolve and come crawling back to their fathers, begging forgiveness. In the meantime, it is impossible to use tactics against someone who doesn't know what the word means."

"Oh, that isn't the best of it," gloated Lord Pratherin. "He not only studies this nonsense, he practices it! Personally, I think he's never gotten over playing in the nursery with toy soldiers; he just does it now on a grander scale." When Brynnire still looked confused, he leaned over the couch in her direction and explained. "He makes up two opposing armies out of slaves, my dear, and personally leads one army into battle against the other, if you can believe it! Not to settle a grievance or for any other reasonable purpose, not even for the entertainment of watching them slaughter each other! No, he does this just to see how strategies work out with living subjects!"

As the others chortled, howled, or simply looked smug, ac­cording to their natures, Lady Brynnire looked startled, then shocked, then amused. "Aelmarkin! If I didn't know you, I'd be tempted to think you were making this up!"

"Sadly, my dear, I am not," Aelmarkin replied, and looked to Tennith, who nodded in confirmation.

"Really!" Brynnire giggled, a little nervously. "Well, eccen­tric is not what I would call him!"

"He takes after his father, dear lady," said Tennith smoothly. "Which might be said to demonstrate that, sadly, madness is in­herited in his family. Surely you recall that poor demented fel­low who vanished several years ago, out hunting some obscure relics of Evelon?"

"Yes!" Brynnire replied, brightening. "Ancestors! You don't mean to tell me that was Kyrtian's father?"

"The same," Aelmarkin told her, with a heavy sigh. "A sad case indeed. And it should have been obvious to the Great Council from that fiasco that the estate should not have been put in the hands of his son."

"I should say not." Lady Brynnire nodded her head, after ex­changing a look with her escort. "At least, I would not have."

"Nor anyone else with any sense." Aelmarkin thought it more than time to change the subject, and signaled for the dancers.

The musicians, who had been playing soothing, quiet back­ground music until this moment, abruptly changed mood and tempo, startling the guests with a thunder of percussion.

The lights dimmed, and a mist arose from the censers, a scented, cool mist that relaxed and yet stimulated the senses, even as it obscured the couches and their occupants. Only the space in the middle of the couches remained clear, lit from some invisible source.

The dancers ran in from all directions, dressed in the merest scraps of animal-hide, paint, beads, and feathers, and meant to represent wild humans. Not that any of Aelmarkin's guests had ever seen wild humans—nor had Aelmarkin himself, for that matter—but that would hardly matter. Most entertainments fea­tured dancers mimicking the graceful and ethereal dances of their masters, or dancers changed to resemble animated flow­ers, birds, or flames. Aelmarkin wanted to startle his guests with something different.

The dance began with astonishing leaps as the performers hurled themselves across the floor with total abandon, their un­bound hair streaming out behind them. Then, as drums pounded, the females hurled themselves at the males, who caught them in various positions, whirled them around, and

flung them on to the next partner. There was frank and un­flinching eroticism in their choreography. Even Aelmarkin, who had seen them practicing, felt his pulse quicken at their raw sensuality.

"Ancestors!" Tennith muttered under his breath, his eyes wide. "What is this?"

"An ancient fertility rite, so I'm told," Aelmarkin said casu­ally. "I thought it might be interesting to watch."

Tennith didn't reply; his eyes were glued to the dancers.

Half combat, and half mating-frenzy, it was sometimes diffi­cult to tell if the dancers intended to couple or kill each other, and the performance built to a pulse-pounding crescendo that ended in a tangle of bodies suggestive of both.

By Aelmarkin's orders, the lights dimmed gradually as the dance ended, leaving the room bathed only in star- and moon­light. As he had hoped, the performance had achieved the arousing effect he had intended. His guests had turned their at­tentions to their couch-companions, and as the dancers and ser­vants slipped away, Aelmarkin turned his attention to the censers, increasing the mist rising from them. The slaves al­ready knew to dust more of the intoxicating drugs over the coals therein.

Magic did not come easily to him, and he had to close his eyes in concentration even to perform so minor a conjuration. As he opened his eyes, he realized that he and his little slave were no longer alone. A slim form sat on the end of his couch.

"Well, Triana," he said blandly, concealing his surprise. "Whatever brings you to my side? Forgive me if I doubt that you have erotic intentions."

She made a pouting motion with her lips. "Aelmarkin, I do believe you haven't a romantic particle in you!"

"Neither do you," he countered. "So?"

"I just wondered what it would be worth to you to see your cousin unseated," she said casually, casting her eyes down and tracing a little path on the fabric of the couch with her finger.

"I suppose that would depend on the circumstances," he replied just as casually. "It would do me no good at all if, for in­stance, his estates were ruined in the process. Why do you ask?"

"No real reason. Just that women often have sources of infor­mation that are closed to the men." She gave him an arch smile, but he refused to rise to the bait. The last thing he wanted was to give Triana something she could use to manipulate him!

"Just as men have sources that are closed to women," he countered, with an arch smile of his own. "Especially someone like me. Do recall what my stock-in-trade is, my dear. Concu­bines don't speak to ladies."

She smiled with malicious delight. "If I hadn't made a vow never to marry, I swear, I would propose to you on the spot, Aelmarkin! You and I are two of a kind."

"You and I would kill one another before a year was out," he replied, and touched his finger to the bottom of her chin, draw­ing her to him for a brief, dangerous kiss. "Now, you've left that handsome stud all alone. Better get back to him before he pines away."

"Or falls asleep." She rose with a sinuous grace worthy of any of his dancers. "I'll tell you what; I'll lay a bet with you. I bet that I can find something to discredit him before you do."

"And the stakes?" he asked.

Her smile was so sweetly poisonous that it took his breath away. "Something we both swore never to do. If you lose, you train a male slave for me. And if I lose, I train a female for you. But you can't limit me as to means. Is it a wager?"

The idea of owning a slave trained by Triana made his head swim and his breath come short. Now here were stakes worthy of the play!

"Done," he said immediately. She laughed, and glided away into the mist.

He felt a tentative touch on his wrist, and belatedly returned his attention to his current favorite. He looked down at her, and saw by the furtive color in her cheek, her moist lips, and her shining eyes that the dance—and the sighs and vague shapes moving in the mist around them—had produced the effect he had anticipated on her, as well.

"Lord," the slave breathed, looking up at him coyly from be­neath her long, fluttering lashes, "Do you wish my—further service this evening?"

Though untouched, she was by no means unaware of the du­ties of a concubine, and it was clear from the moist eagerness in her eyes that she was ready to fulfill those duties.

He closed his eyes for a moment, savoring what he was about to do. He had ways of controlling the slaves he trained that went beyond, far beyond, the slave-collar and magic coercion. He had subtle tortures that were far more sophisticated than anything Tennith dreamed of.

"I don't believe so," he said, just as casually as if he were rejecting a not-quite-ripe fruit. Then he looked down at her and frowned. "My dear child—is something troubling you? You seem to be a little—puffy tonight. Or perhaps you have just gained a little weight? Perhaps you should return to your quarters."

The girl put her hand to her mouth, stifling a sob; her eyes brightened further with tears. Quickly as a fluttering bird, she fled into the mist.

He chuckled to himself. He had carefully manipulated her mind for weeks now, and this carefully chosen moment was the beginning of a delightful interlude.

He had made a point of praising her slender figure, of leaving no doubt that he treasured her slimness. Doubting her own mir­ror, certain that she had lost her real beauty, and desperate to gain his regard, she would begin starving herself from this mo­ment. At first he would taunt her by references to plump arms and chubby cheeks, by inquiries if she thought she ought to change her diet. Once she truly began to starve herself, he would switch to the next phase. She would begin refusing food. He, of course, would urge all manner of dainties on her, which she would eat unwillingly, only to purge herself of them at the earliest opportunity.

His lips curved in a slight smile. Watching her torture her­self, all the while certain that he was still as gentle and consid­erate as ever, would be highly amusing. Eventually, she would probably die, of course, but not before he gained a great deal of pleasure from watching her ridiculous sufferings. If he was feeling generous, he might even save her, wiping out her mem­ories of everything up to this moment so that he could sell her

to someone else. In any case, there would be weeks, possibly months, of pleasure ahead.

And further pleasure. Between the two of them, he and Tri-ana would almost certainly find a way to bring his cousin Kyrt-ian down.

He laughed softly; how his fortune had suddenly turned! This might well turn out to be the victory celebration he had hoped for.

His appetite suddenly aroused, he reached for the nearest wine-wench to satisfy his needs of the moment.

Poor Kyrtian. He had no notion even that he had an enemy, much less how formidable that enemy was.

 2

One did not normally see an Elvenlord smudged with dirt, twig-scratched, and rather the worse for several hours of tramping through untamed forest. I wonder how much scandal I would cause if even one of the Great Lords saw me in this state? Kyrtian mused, as he held aside an errant limb of a bush, taking care that it did not rattle, and making cer­tain the human behind him had a firm grip on it before he re­leased it. It was impossible to see the man's expression behind his helm, but the fellow sketched a respectful salute with his free hand. Ah well; knowing my reputation, they would proba­bly not be at all surprised.

Kyrtian V'dyll Lord Prastaran led his skirmishing band of lightly armed humans in person; very few Elvenlords would ever have put themselves in that inferior and vulnerable a posi­tion. Especially now, with humans, halfblooded Wizards and younger Elvenlords all in revolt against the Great Lords, the mere notion of leading a group alone, without the presence of a

fully collar-controlled and loyalty-spelled bodyguard, was something that would never occur to most of them.

Kyrtian cared nothing for their opinions, since little secret was made of the fact that they cared nothing for his. His reputa­tion was as eccentric as his hobby, and that was the way he pre­ferred things. His Grandfather had eschewed politics when the Great Lords disdained his advice; by now, staying out of poli­tics was something of a family tradition, and Kyrtian was quite prepared to continue that tradition.

At this moment, as always when on maneuvers, all of his at­tention was focused on his battle-strategies and his surround­ings, to the exclusion of everything else. His initial battle-plan was so vague that at this point he was rather recklessly making decisions moment by moment. He suspected that his opponent was counting on that, assuming that Kyrtian's well-known cau­tion would also make him inflexible. It was a reasonable as­sumption; Kyrtian just hoped that he could prove that it was an incorrect one. That was the point of this exercise, after all. This was the first time he had ever met an opponent in anything other than a set battle. Where was the right balance of caution and initiative? Nothing in all of his books and studies had dealt with that magic formula.

Sweat trickled down the back of his neck, but a headband under his helm kept it from dripping into his eyes. He felt a brief flash of superiority as he climbed the steep and rock-strewn slope before him with no sense of strain, not even an in­crease in his breathing. How many of the pampered Great Lords would be able to do as much? Certainly he was sweating, but he wasn't in the least tired, and if at last he managed to bring his skirmishers to a fight, he would be as ready for action as any of them.

Senses alert for the least sign of warning, he picked his way one careful step at a time through the sparse underbrush of the forest. His men spread out in his wake, carefully following his example. His sword was out and ready in his left hand; that would give him a little advantage against an opponent, should one suddenly appear before him, but not much. The enemy

fighters lurking somewhere ahead knew him and some had fought hand-to-hand against him before.

The enemy—all that he knew for certain was that they were here in his patch of pristine, old-growth forest, and that their numbers were equal to his. The most logical place to find them, the weathered remains of an ancient fortification, had been empty. He assumed now that they probably planned to set up an ambush for his skirmishers somewhere; they knew he was com­ing, and he doubted that they intended to make a pitched battle of it. In their place, he wouldn't.

His advantage was that he knew these woods as well as his opponents did; he should, since everything for leagues around here belonged to him. He had made a mental tally of all the ob­vious places for an ambush, and he hoped he could approach such places from unexpected angles, and with luck, catch the foemen by surprise.

An ambushed ambushhardly sporting, I suppose. He smiled, knowing the expression was hidden by his helm. Well, first he would have to pull this off. Then he would worry about whether it was "sporting"—assuming he'd won the encounter, of course.

After all, it is the victor who writes the histories, and he is the one who gets to determine what is fair, after the fact.

A movement to one side caught his eye; only one of his men, trying to shoo away an irritating fly with a minimum of obvious movement. They knew better than to slap at insects, lest the sound betray them to the enemy, and he felt sorry for his human fighting-men. For all that he sweated as heavily as any one of them, insects seldom plagued elves, perhaps because elves, not native to this world, did not smell "right" to the pesky bugs.

Kyrtian froze and raised his hand to signal to his men to do likewise, as he thought he caught a murmur of voices up ahead. Holding his breath, he closed his eyes and concentrated on listening.

Perhapsperhaps. He opened his eyes again, and consid­ered their present location, frowning as he did so. He and his fighters were approaching a ridge overlooking one of the lesser-used pathways through the forest. The ridge was an obvious lo-

cation for an ambush placement on the part of his foes, if they assumed he and his men would take that path below. It would be very difficult for his party to creep up upon the enemy un­seen if that was where they were.

He raised his right hand above his head to describe three cir­cles with his index finger. The fighter immediately behind him made the same motion, and in due time, a slightly built, lithe young fellow by the peculiar human name of Horen Gosak moved cautiously and noiselessly into place beside Kyrtian.

They locked eyes, Kyrtian's green ones meeting the human's brown; Kyrtian nodded towards the ridge in the direction of the voices and made the hand signal for ambush. Horen nodded, and leaving his sword and sword-belt behind in Kyrtian's keep­ing lest they catch in the brush, dropped to his hands and knees to snake his way up towards the ridge, moving so low to the ground that he looked like a crawling lizard.

It was always a wonder to Kyrtian how young Horen man­aged to disappear into landscape that was so barren of obvious cover. Sometimes he wondered if the ability was some unique application of the so-called human magics. That was entirely possible, and would have caused far more scandal among the Great Lords than Kyrtian's little eccentricity of leading his fighters in person. Although it was the law that all human slaves be fitted with collars that inhibited their own peculiar magic, no slave on the Prastaran estates had ever worn anything but a dec­orative collar since the Elvenlords came to this world. And no "slave" on the Prastaran estates had ever been a slave in any­thing but name.

Humans make very poor slaves; Grandfather tried to tell his arrogant compatriots that, and they wouldn't listen, and now they're paying the price for ignoring such sage advice. The first Lord Prastaran had retired to the estate he'd been allotted, pro­ceeding there to put his own theories to. work in regard to the aboriginal inhabitants of the place. Before he drowned in a flash flood—while nearly twenty of his devoted "slaves" also drowned in frantic attempts to save him—he had formed the loose confederation of primitives that had been living on the property into a thriving and prosperous community that not

only accepted him as their overlord, but were absolutely de­voted to his welfare.

Kyrtian's father had inherited that community, and had cher­ished and fostered it, recognizing it for the valuable resource that it was! Now it was Kyrtian's to guide and guard, for in guarding the humans under his protection, he was all too aware that he was guarding his own prosperity.

His wandering thoughts were abruptly recalled by Horen's return, as the young man wriggled into cover beside him. With the aid of twigs, pebbles, and a few hand-signals, Horen swiftly laid out the disposition of the enemy forces ahead.

Kyrtian studied the arrangement for several moments, grind­ing his teeth a little in frustration. As usual, the enemy com­mander showed brilliant skill. It was an appallingly superior disposition. Obviously one couldn't approach them from the front or the rear, so what did that leave him?

We could retreat, but that would leave them in possession of the woods, and they would win this without a fight. That was unacceptable. Is there enough room on the top of this ridge to flank them?

He didn't want to divide his force if he could help it, and he'd have to if he wanted to use a classic pincer maneuver. That wouldn't be a good idea anyway; one that the ground didn't en­courage. He'd have to send his men to fight against both ends of the enemy ambush-line in a way that would only allow one or two fighters to close in at a time; that would put them at an im­mediate disadvantage.

Finally Kyrtian decided on something truly unorthodox; waiting until the enemy commander was frustrated enough to come looking for him. Short exploration by Horen produced the place where any opposing force was most likely to descend from the ridge. After careful deliberation, he set up an ambush of his own.

Of course, the weakness of this plan was that the opposition might not decide to come down on this side of the ridge. That would leave him, in his turn, waiting to spring an empty trap. Still, the occasional murmur of voices through the hush of the forest told him that his opponents were getting tired of waiting.

Probably they had been in place ever since his own force had entered the woods. Horen went out again to spy, so that Kyrt-ian's troops would at least know if the foe moved off in some other direction. Kyrtian settled into his own position and held off boredom by making an informal bird-count based on the calls he heard.

Time crawled past, but his patience was finally rewarded. Horen slithered back to take up his weapons. Kyrtian pumped his fist in the air once, and heard a faint rustle of leaves as his men caught the signal, relaying it down the line, and readying themselves for action.

He had chosen his own place perfectly. Another faint rustle of leaves and the occasional snapping of a twig warned that the enemy was on the move, and shortly after, the men ap­peared filing cautiously down the slope below them, flitting from bits of cover to their next position. Kyrtian waited until he was certain that all of the enemy skirmishers were immedi­ately below their own position, his nerves so taut that his skin tingled, muscles were afire, his pulse pounding in his temples and his ears.

Wait for it—

If he sprang the ambush too soon, his own men would be sur­rounded. He didn't know exactly how many men the enemy had, so he couldn't count heads....

Wait for it

He didn't dare permit his force to be outflanked.

Now!

His throat cracked with a yell as he broke out of cover and charged, his men streaming down the slope behind him. The startled skirmishers whirled to face them.

Kyrtian skidded to a halt on the slope as he nearly ran into a fighter who was considerably taller than he. In that moment, as was always true for him once the fighting started, everything narrowed to this single opponent. Their swords clashed to­gether, his opponent countered with a clever parry that sent him leaping away lest the fighter try to grapple with him. Next the man tried to circle him, but that was the last thing that Kyrtian was going to allow—at the moment he had the slight advantage

of being uphill, and that was the only advantage he really had over this bulkier opponent.

Kyrtian retreated as fast as the other advanced; nothing was going to force him to turn if he could help it. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was dimly aware of shouts, the clashing of metal, and all the din of battle, but he was too seasoned to ever be distracted from his own line of combat. Giving up on the ploy of forcing Kyrtian off higher ground, the fellow swung low, hard and wide, scything at Kyrtian's legs; Kyrtian used the opportunity to slash at the man's sword-hand as he himself skipped backwards.

He really hadn't expected the luck of a full strike, but his op­ponent had evidently anticipated a blow to the head rather than the hand. The fighter ducked to one side and didn't get his hilt up in time to deflect Kyrtian's blow.

The blade passed through the other's wrist, leaving behind a glowing line. The fighter cursed, transferring the sword to his left hand, tucking the "disabled" hand into his belt at the small of his back, as per the rules of combat. If he hadn't, he'd get a warning after the battle was over—and the second time he re­fused to accept a blow, the marked area or limb would truly go completely numb and useless until Kyrtian removed the magic that rendered it so.

He was by no means as good a fighter with his weak hand as Kyrtian was. A clumsy attempt at an overhand blow left his armpit unprotected, and the Elvenlord executed a fatal thrust. The blade vanished up to the hilt with no resistance, and the man jerked in reaction to the all-over tingle that the "death-wound" gave him as the sign that he was "dead."

Now the fighter glowed the color of new leaves all over; with a good-natured curse, he saluted Kyrtian, sheathed his blade, and removed his helm, joining five of his fellow "dead men" on the sidelines. All of them were glowing the same yellow-green, which meant they were all out of the enemy forces. Kyrtian made the mistake of allowing himself a brief pause to gloat without looking behind him.

A moment after that, a sudden electric jolt told Kyrtian that

he had been taken from behind. Ruefully looking down at him­self, he saw that he, too, was glowing.

"Galkasht!" he cursed, in the Old Tongue, and heard Sargeant Gel's familiar laugh in answer. He sheathed his own sword in disgust, pulled off his helm, and went to join the other dead.

Gel did not get a chance to enjoy his victory for long; Horen rose out of a bush behind him and caught him across the neck as he turned. Gel swore even more colorfully than Kyrtian had, while his own men jeered and catcalled from the side­lines.

"Who is it has never been hit from behind?" called one, in feigned innocence.

"You owe me beer for the next moon, Sargeant," one of the others heartlessly reminded him. "And you owe Horen three night-watches."

"Don't remind me." The human pulled off his helm and threw it to the ground, glaring at them—but they knew they were safe. The "dead" could say anything they liked as long as the battle was on. That was another one of the rules, meant to be sure that no one turned mock-combat into a real fight.

"Temper, temper," scolded a third, as Horen vanished to seek a new opponent. "A true warrior never fights with anger."

"I'm not fighting," Gel pointed out sourly, his jaw clenched tight.

Gel picked up his helm after another scorching glare and stamped his way down the hill to the sidelines. Kyrtian hid his own grin, and gave Gel a commiserating slap on the shoulder.

"Too bad, old man," he said, with what he hoped was a good counterfeit of sympathy. "That's combat-luck for you."

'That's carelessness, you mean," Gel growled, as he ruffled his sweaty, grizzled brown hair to dry it. "Don't coddle me, Kyrtian; I got you when you stopped to gloat, then I was served the same dish. What's more, you ambushed me when I lost pa­tience. You're going to win this one. I underestimated you."

Since at this point, those who glowed yellow-green outnum­bered those who glowed red-orange by three to one, that was

fairly obvious, so Kyrtian held his tongue and tried assume a modest expression.

"I think we can count this experiment a success," he said in­stead. "I wasn't sure we'd be able to make the transition from arena-fighting and set-battles, but it's obvious this mode is go­ing to work."

"I'd keep it at the skirmish-level for a while," Gel cautioned.

"I intend to," Kyrtian assured him, as more of the "dead" on the sidelines cheered the surviving fighters on or showered them with abuse. "At least until everyone's gotten a fair amount of practice at this. I don't want people stumbling around break­ing ankles in rabbit-holes or running into an alicorn and getting skewered. We're out here to fight, not get hurt." He loosened his throat-guard and yanked it off.

Gel barked a laugh at that, and Kyrtian had to grin. 'That's as true as it sounds absurd," Gel chuckled. "And it's true you'd have less luck getting people to volunteer to fight for us if too many of the boys started coming back with broken bones, or worse." He stuck his thumb in his sword-belt and watched the fighters with pardonable pride. "I'll tell you what, though—I'd pit these lads against any of the professional fighters I've seen when it comes to combat rather than gladiatorial games. They'd win."

"That's rather the point, though I hope it doesn't come to that. There'll be far less blood shed if they go up against con­scripts." Kyrtian watched as the last of his men surrounded the last of Gel's and demanded their surrender. "The Elvenlords can compel men to fight, but they can't compel them to fight well. Speaking of volunteers—the field-folk are going to need another holiday before too long."

"We'd better think about organizing a melee, then," Gel sighed. He hated setting up melees, as they were a great deal of work, and as in real battles, most of the people who took part in them had no idea how to actually fight. A good per­centage got muddled and did the opposite of what they'd been ordered, and when they got muddled, they generally confused those who were trying to obey the orders correctly. Still, everyone on the estate enjoyed the mock-wars and were happy

to volunteer for them; there was great excitement in battle when there was no chance of dying and little chance of getting hurt. A war-day meant a general holiday with feasting and mu­sic, and dancing for those who were "killed" before they were completely exhausted.

Not that anyone got killed deliberately just so he could go dancing, since those who were too exhausted to dance were pampered and treated like heroes regardless of which side won.

Ever since the first time that Kyrtian and his right-hand man had expanded their war-games to include the general popula­tion of the estate, the exercise had proven so popular that hu­mans and elves alike had come to expect and anticipate a war-day every two or three moons or so. Kyrtian just couldn't bring himself to disappoint them—and the one time he'd tried to hold a feast without a war, there had been such protest that he'd never dared do it again.

"I don't suppose it could be a woods-battle, could it?" he asked wistfully. "Or—oh, what about a siege?"

"With the manor as the target? No, better yet, the Dowager-House; no one's used it in decades, and it's been years since it was cleaned and aired out. It'll give your Lady-Mother an ex­cuse to get it set to rights in case we need it for something. An­cestors know what, but we might." Gel mulled that over as his men declined to surrender, electing to fight to the last one standing. "That could be done—if you could manage mock-arrows and mock-stones; perhaps mock-boiling-oil."

Kyrtian stared at him, aghast at the picture that conjured up. "Ancestors! You're certainly bloody-minded!"

"If you want a siege, you might as well do it right," Gel ar­gued. "That means that the besiegers will use bows, and the be­sieged will pelt them with whatever they can from the walls. Now, can you produce the proper material, or can't you?"

"I probably can," Kyrtian admitted. "But you do realize what this will mean, don't you?"

"Huge casualties early on, which means the battle won't run long, which means we'll get to the feasting sooner." Gel grinned. "Which means less work for me and more for your obliging Lady-Mother in arranging the entertainment."

"And probably a population increase in nine months unless I make sure to dose every particle of food on the estate against conceptions," Kyrtian sighed. "Which means more work for me, both in concocting the new magic-weapons, and in seeing to it that we don't get that flood of new births. You know what happens when the women get to be in on the combat! Why it is that mock-fighting gets them so stimulated—" He shook his head. "Sometimes I think that you humans are so different from us that I'll never understand you. Still—"

"A siege would be fun," Gel said, persuasively, as his men dropped, one by one, beneath the swords of Kyrtian's fighters. "We've never done a siege before with live fighters. Things that work on the sand-table with models don't always work with living people."

The temptation was too great to resist. "All right," he de­cided. "Start planning and working toward it. I'll research the magic needed. If it doesn't look as if we can pull it off in a months' time, we'll have the usual field-melee instead."

"Done!" Gel crowed, and slapped him on the shoulder, just as the last of his men fell. At that point, Kyrtian's remaining fighters rushed up, cheering, and there was no point in trying to talk until the victory celebration was over.

3

As was usual, the two groups of combatants trudged out of the forest together as a single fraternal mass with no sense of marching order. The forest could well have been devoid of life at this point; birds and beasts were probably frightened into immobility by the laughter and talking. At any rate, Kyrtian couldn't spot so much as a rabbit or a sparrow as they followed the faint track of an old road beneath the trees. The sun was just setting, and a thick, golden light poured

through the branches, gilding the edges of the leaves and touch­ing the clouds. Tired, but cheerful, friends and comrades traded congratulations, boasts, and outright lies as Kyrtian and Gel brought up the rear. Kyrtian never permitted anyone to carry his armor for him; like his men, he bore his own equipment, at least as far as their transportation. There were wagons and a carriage waiting just outside the woods to carry them all back to the manor, since it would have taken them hours to return on foot; Kyrtian was very glad to be able to toss his helm to his driver and allow his body-servant to take the heavy armor off before he climbed into the cushioned comfort of the carriage. As a to­ken of his privileged rank, Gel shared both the attentions of the servant and the carriage; the men helped each other and made do with the cushioning effect of a thick layer of hay in their wagons. "Ah, the benefits of rank," Gel sighed as he sat back in the carriage opposite Kyrtian. Kyrtian grinned.

As soon as Gel got himself seated, the driver turned the horses and sent the carriage on its way while the wagons were still being loaded with men and armor. "Ancestors!" Kyrtian exclaimed, as the servant handed him a flask of cool, sweet wa­ter. "I've been looking forward to this all afternoon!" He took a long draught, timing his drink with the jolting of the carriage so he didn't break his teeth on the neck of the flask, before hand­ing it to Gel.

"You'd think we'd get tired of this nonsense," Gel responded, leaning back into the soft, dark brown velvet cushions after he'd corked the flask and handed it back to young Lynder, Kyrt-ian's body-servant. "Your dear mother keeps saying we're too old to play at being soldiers, and sometimes I wonder if she's right, at least about me. Every time we come back from one of these games, I ask myself if it isn't time to stop."

"You only think that as long as it takes for you to get your wind back." The young Elvenlord grinned at his companions, and Lynder chuckled. "And mother has a different set of priori­ties from you and me. What do you expect her to say? She's not just a female, she's a lady, and if she had her way we'd all be drifting around the estate in clouds of tranquil music, perfume, and refinement. If it were up to her, you'd be cultivating roses,

and I'd be cultivating illusions and courting some fragile little lily of a maiden." He accepted the flask back and took another drink. "Not that you need to apologize for having a knack with roses—but I don't think you'd want to spend your life among the flowers."

Gel rolled his eyes. "Gods forbid!" he exclaimed. "I'd die of boredom in half a day! Roses are all right for a hobby, but not as a life's work!"

"I'd prefer tending roses to being forced to spend my time cultivating a highborn maiden." Kyrtian laughed, the sound in­terrupted oddly by the jouncing of the carriage. "At least you don't have to make conversation with a flower, even if you do have to be careful of the thorns. It's easier to avoid thorns than try to keep a strange woman from seeing things she shouldn't."

He tried to keep his tone light, but his laughter sounded a bit strained in his own ears. The subject of wives and heirs had been much on his mother's mind and tongue lately; hardly a day passed without her alluding to it at least once. It was a sub­ject he was not easy with. He enjoyed his life the way it was, and had no real wish to bring a stranger into his home. "Ances­tors! I'd have to set up an entirely separate part of the estate to keep her properly secluded, and that would be as much of a bore as courting her would be! I swear, if it weren't forbidden I'd wed a stout-hearted human wench from right here."

Gel made a sour face. "At the least, we'd need the Dowager-House set to rights just to confine the girl in, and somehow keep her mewed up there indefinitely. If Tenebrinth, Selazian and Pelenal had daughters—things would be a great deal easier on all of us. You'd think one of your clients would have the good sense to take care of that little problem for us!"

Kyrtian replied with complete seriousness. "I wish they had. Nothing would have pleased me better to take one of them into my family line; they're all fine gentlemen. As it is—well, some­day soon I suppose I'll have to please Mother and go looking amongst someone else's underlings for a wife. Eventually I'll find a maiden who's of sufficiently low rank to be too overawed to notice my eccentricities."

"She'll have to overlook more than that," Gel warned him,

"Or you'll have her running back to her Papa with stories of how you can't keep your slaves properly under your thumb."

Kyrtian felt compelled to give his mother's counters to those arguments, which were the same that he himself had raised. "Elven maidens in most households are kept close-confined, Mother says. And a maiden of low rank should be dazzled by her new surroundings and too much in awe of Mother ever to question things. We think that as long as her servants obeyed her, she'd never know we do things differently here." He com­pressed his brows in a little frown. "I'd have to make sure that she was never allowed to abuse them, though ... and that could take some management."

Gel looked dubious, but only said, "If you'd just leave the wife-hunting up to your Mother, you can be sure she won't choose someone we'll have to worry about. She has entry to all the bowers, and if she can't find someone sympathetic to our ways, she can at least find someone who is too timid to speak up about anything, too stupid to care, or has been too closely sheltered to know what is and is not usual."

"I suppose that's the only real solution," Kyrtian sighed, and winced at the thought of a mouse, a dolt, or a frail flower as a wife. What a disgusting situation, he thought, frowning. And I'm going to have to do something about it fairly soon. Mother isn 't going to allow me to put it off much longer.

Gel snorted at his rueful expression, as a particularly hard bounce sent them all in the air for a brief moment. "Don't mope," he replied sternly, then added, with a crude chuckle, "At least you aren't going to be saddled with a wife who has the hips of a cow, the manners of a pig, and the face of a horse. You Elves are never less than handsome, so you won't have to wish for a bag to put over her head when you do your duty to present the estate with an heir."

Kyrtian flushed, feeling the tips of his ears burn. Gel had been his teacher, companion, and friend for as long as he could remember, but the human could be amazingly coarse, some­times. How on earth could he explain that what made him dread matrimony was the fear that he'd find himself bound for cen­turies to a dull, insipid idiot? How could he possibly get up

enough interest in a maiden like that to do his duty by the estate and the clan? Gel would only laugh, and tell him that it wasn't what was between a girl's ears that mattered—

If I could find someone like Mother, he thought wistfully, I'd wed her no matter what her rank was. Did Father ever really know how lucky he was to find a maiden with wit, courage, sense, and intelligence? What are rank and magic worth, com­pared with qualities like that?

"We'll have to tell Milady about the new scheme for a siege," Gel said cheerfully, interrupting his thoughts. "She'll probably want to have a hand in it herself this time—and I think you ought to give her a bit of a command. Maybe then she'll stop teasing us about our pastime."

"You know, you could be right." Kyrtian braced himself as the carriage hit a series of ruts that threatened to bounce them all against the ceiling, rattling his very teeth. This was the worst part of the road; in a moment, everything would suddenly smooth out as they reached the paved section. "Maybe if she gets a taste of this, she'll realize just how challenging it is."

My only other choice would be to tell her the truththat it isn 't a game, that Gel and I are training the humans to defend the estate if—or whencombat comes here. I don't want to do that; I don't know that danger is coming, I just feel it in my bones. Their estate was relatively isolated, and he and his mother certainly were not in the first social circles, but still. .. first had come the Elvenbane, that weird wizard-girl who had, by all repute, single-handedly engineered an uprising of totally unsuspected halfbloods. Not that he expected any trouble from the halfbloods—his people were perfectly free to join the Wiz­ards any time they wanted to, and none of them did. Still, to have a dreaded legend come to life and take down the most powerful Elvenlord on the Council, and do it with the aid of Lord Dyran's own son, who she somehow subverted—well, it had all of the Elvenlords looking for more halfbloods-in-disguise in their midst.

And when the Great Lords were looking for one thing, they might find something else they didn't care for.

Then had come a second rebellion, this time of the Elven-

lords' own disregarded second and third offspring, the "spares," which apparently involved a new sort of magic that disrupted even the most powerful Elven magic. That war was not going well for the Great Lords. It wasn't so much that they'd lost a great deal of territory, for the relatively small number of Young Lords who had revolted had only taken a few estates; the prob­lem was that they'd taken and held them, and continued to hold, and although Kyrtian didn't know this for certain, he sus­pected they were making themselves felt. They were a thorn, not in the side, but in the foot, and one which was felt with every step the Great Lords took. That made them edgy; always a dangerous thing. Kyrtian didn't like the idea of having an edgy, inquisitive Great Lord nosing around anywhere near his estate. Or his people.

And if anything happened because there was an inquisitive Great Lord sniffing around—well, he wanted to be ready for it.

"Maybe she'll want to take up the sword for herself," Gel suggested, with a sly twinkle. "You know she'd be good at it. I think if she ever got a feel for righting, she'd be as addicted to it as we are."

"Oh, there's a thought!" Kyrtian laughed wickedly. "I could make her my second-in-command. Then what would you do?"

"Go on my knees and submit," Gel admitted. "And bow to the inevitable. I've seen her move and I've seen her at the hunt— she's got better reactions than you do. Ancestors! Put a bow in her hands, and I'll surrender on the spot rather than face her!"

The carriage jolted one last time, as the wheels bounced up onto the pavement, then Kyrtian and Gel settled back with iden­tical sighs of relief as rough ride gave way to smooth rolling that was as comfortable as sailing on a smooth lake.

"I trust you've taken care of things for the men as usual?" Kyrtian asked Lynder. The young human had only been Kyrt-ian's body-servant for two months, but he'd been meticulously trained by Kyrtian's previous man, and the Elvenlord was con­fident he could handle his new responsibilities as invisibly as his predecessor.

The man looked a little anxious. "The bathhouse is cleared and ready, dinner's been held, there's to be music and late-leave

for the other servants to join the entertainment—" He hesitated, and glanced pleadingly at Gel, clearly wondering if he'd missed something.

"Exactly right, Lynder," Kyrtian said soothingly, to take the look of anxiety out of his eyes. Lynder had probably missed one or two details, but the other servants would see to it that everything went smoothly anyway. After years of these mock-battles, everyone knew what was expected afterwards. The house-and field-servants were expected to reschedule their own baths so that the returning fighters could have the place to themselves. Dinner had been held back so that it would reach the tables hot and fresh as they came out of the bathhouse—and it wouldn't be the usual bread and stew, but something a little fancier. Roast meat or chicken, usually, a choice of side-dishes, and something in the way of a sweet. There would be a little ex­tra beer—not enough to cause problems, but a glass or two more than usual for everyone. Some of the household musi­cians would come down after dinner, and there would be some lively music and dancing, and if beds had two occupants or none in them tonight instead of one, no one would be taken to task. Tomorrow would be a quarter-holiday, work and drill to start a bit later in the morning than usual so that the men could sleep in a bit. All in all, the men would feel themselves well re­warded for their hard work today.

And we need to begin planning the next holiday by tomorrow at the latest, Kyrtian reminded himself. He didn't like to make the intervals between holidays too long; he didn't want the house-and field-servants to start feeling aggrieved at the special treatment the fighters received.

The carriage slowed and came to a stop; in the dusty gold light that was swiftly fading, a servant in emerald-green tunic and trews opened the door, and Kyrtian got out, followed by Gel and Lynder. Round, blue-white lights hanging in clusters of four from bronze posts already blazed on either side of the white stone staircase that led to the front portals of the manor. More green-liveried servants took possession of the armor and arms as Kyrtian looked about. Gel saluted and stalked off to­wards the barracks in that tireless, ageless stride that Kyrtian

could never imitate, with the final rays of the setting sun illumi­nating him like some god-touched hero of human history.

Kyrtian ran up the alabaster steps of the manor with Lynder close behind, deep shadows now giving way to blue dusk. At the top of the stairs, double doors of cast bronze would have swung open at the merest touch of his magic, but he ignored them entirely, intending to take the inconspicuous doorkeeper's entry at the side. The green-clad doorkeeper had expected just that, and was holding open the smaller portal for him, bowing slightly as he passed through.

"Beker!" Kyrtian greeted him. "Is your wife better?"

The human's long face brightened at the question. "Oh, much better, Lord Kyrtian! We cannot thank you enough—"

"You'll thank me by not letting things get to such a pass before you say something," Kyrtian replied, with just enough of a stern tone to his voice that the doorkeeper would know he was serious. "Don't keep going back to the 'pothecary; when the simple cure doesn't work, go to Lord Selazian. That's why I keep him as a re­tainer, Beker; make the lazy lout work for his living!"

"Yes. Lord Kyrtian," the doorkeeper whispered, bowing fur­ther. "I will, my lord."

"Carry on, Beker," Kyrtian replied, and moved on, leaving the doorkeeper to shut things up behind him.

"Lynder, remind Lord Tenebrinth to have a talk with the apothecary, will you?" Kyrtian said in a quiet aside as they strode down the middle of the entrance hall. A thick, pale-grey carpet beneath their feet muffled all sound of footfalls, and al­though the alabaster ceiling and grey-veined marble walls were not imposing, Kyrtian thought they had a great deal of dignity about them. "I can't have my people getting sick and relying on that—that herb-shaman for everything! I wouldn't have had him at all, if you humans hadn't insisted on him."

"Lord Kyrtian—it is frightening for some of us to ask a Lord for anything, much less ask him to treat us for our ailments," Lynder replied with hesitation. "You forget sometimes that al­though many of us have been born and raised in your service, many more come from outside the boundary of your estate, and things are very different in the greater world."

"Well, that's why I want you to remind Lord Tenebrinth to talk to the apothecary. I suspect the man might be encouraging those fears, and if that's true, I want it stopped." Kyrtian frowned. "Ancestors! The last thing we need is to get a plague started because a man who thinks rattling bones and brewing teas can cure everything won't give up trying till his patients are dead!"

"With your permission, Lord Kyrtian, I'll ask Sergeant Gel to have a word with him first." Kyrtian saw out of the corner of his eye that Lynder was smiling a little. "The Sergeant can be very persuasive."

Kyrtian nodded, as they turned down a side corridor to the family-quarters. "I trust your judgment, Lynder. But do feel free to bring Tenebrinth in on it; he is my Seneschal, after all."

Lynder moved ahead to smoothly open a door on the right-hand side of the corridor before Kyrtian could touch it himself. "Yes, Lord Kyrtian," he replied, and as Kyrtian stepped through the door into his private quarters, he was engulfed by servants.

In other households, they would have been called "slaves," and it was true that Kyrtian was their titular owner—but if any one of them wanted to leave, he would have only to pe­tition the Elvenlord and permission would be instantly granted. Somehow, some way, Kyrtian would find a way to smuggle the human out to the territories held by the Wizards or the free humans. Not that anyone would ever ask for that permission—the world open to free humans was hostile and uncomfortable, and entirely too dangerous to be much of a temptation.

As had been the case with Kyrtian's father and grandfather, Kyrtian and his mother were respected, admired, even beloved, not only by the humans of the estate, but by the few Elven re­tainers who called them their liege-lords. There were three who were of the most importance; the aforementioned Tenebrinth whose position as Seneschal predated Kyrtian's birth, Selazian the Physician who had been studying the diseases of humans as well as Elves for literally centuries—and Lord Pelenal, Kyrt-

ian's Agent, who handled all the affairs of the estate that needed to be conducted outside the walls of the estate.

Kyrtian and his mother were as dependent on Pelenal's good will as he was on theirs, but he had never given them even a moment of unease. Pelenal bought new slaves, negotiated con­tracts, and haggled to get the best prices for the foodstuffs pro­duced by this most fertile of estates. Pelenal was one of those most despised of creatures, an Elvenlord with so little magic he might just as well have had none at all. Despite the fact that there could not possibly have been a better Agent in all of the estates, Pelenal would never have attained that position of power in the service of anyone other than Kyrtian's family. He knew that; saw Elves with more magic than he groveling for crumbs at the tables of greater Elvenlords, and demonstrated his gratitude in the most tangible of terms on a regular basis.

That was just as well, because where real power, the political power of the Council of the Great Lords was concerned, Kyrt­ian had none. His only power was economic, and that was in no small part due to Pelenal's clever management.

Still, that power could be formidable.

As servants swarmed over him, stripping him to the skin as they propelled him towards the bathing room, he allowed him­self the luxury of feeling just a little smug. Political power came and went—even magic power could fade with time, or be lost to further generations—but economic power was a much more dependable, if underrated force. His grandfather had un­derstood that, even if his father hadn't—but his father had the services of Tenebrinth to ensure that the estate's prosperity con­tinued. Pelenal had simply built on that foundation.

The bathing-room, of green-veined marble with shining sil­ver fixtures, featured a sunken tub longer than Kyrtian was tall, and deep enough for him to sink in up to his chin. Just now it was so full of steam it was difficult to see across it. Kyrtian stepped into the tub carefully. When father vanished, things could have been very bad, if mother hadn't had the good sense to ask Tenebrinth if he knew someone he could trust to become our outside Agent. Kyrtian eased himself down into the hot,

juniper-scented water of his bath, thinking as he did so that his Mother was almost as remarkable in her way as his Grandfather had been. The more he learned about running this estate, the more amazing it was to him that nothing had gone wrong. Thanks to Tenebrinth and Pelenal, who studied the demands of the other estates and the resources of their own with the fierce dedication of a warrior for his craft, Kyrtian's estate was so prosperous that even his worst enemies would never dream of forcing a confrontation with him.

He closed his eyes and fragrant steam rose up and filled the room further with scented fog. No one Lord would ever dare challenge me, he thought contentedly. And probably not two or three together. Not that they 're likely to, since I don't meddle in politics, but they still wouldn't dare. Not when these lands feed and clothe a third of them. Not when the fruits of our labors are served up on their tables, when our wines are the choicest, our silks the fairest.

Granted, an Elvenlord with powerful magic could transform water and ashes into the finest wine and choicest meals—but it was still water and ashes, and wouldn't nourish any better. It took a great deal of magic to create such illusions, magic which could be put to better use. Illusory gold had no commercial worth—but the gold in Kyrtian's treasury was real enough.

No, no one is ever going to try any political games with us, he told himself, as the heat of the bath warmed and soothed all of his tired, strained muscles. They wouldn't dare. Pelenal wouldn 't sell to them, and then where would they be ? Half the stuff that goes to feed their slaves comes from here; most of them don't bother growing grain anymore, or raising sheep for wool and flax for linen.

As often as he asked Tenebrinth if there was anything the Seneschal wanted as a reward for all his good service, Tene­brinth had never asked for anything but the most trivial of fa­vors. Lord Tenebrinth often seemed to Kyrtian the most contented of beings; he had a wife who adored him, and the freedom to manage the estate as he saw fit. Tenebrinth's chief pleasure outside of his family came from trying out little theo-

ries of management. Over the decades, he had weeded out all the ones that didn't work at all, or didn't work well, and now he was in the process of fine-tuning and balancing everything. The one thing that Tenebrinth would have wanted that Kyrtian couldn't give him was a child.

And if I could, I would. I think we pay for our long lives in our lack of children. It was sad, really, for if there was ever an Elven lady born to be a mother, it was Tenebrinth's wife, Lady Seryana.

And of course, it would be so much easier on all of us if they just had a daughter. It wouldn't have mattered how young the girl was; Kyrtian would be more than willing to wait for her to grow up. After all, he had all the time in the world before him; Elves did age and die eventually, but "eventually" was several centuries away.

Maybe what he ought to do would be to investigate those ru­mors that some Elvenlords had discovered ways to enhance their fertility with magic. If that were true, and he could find a way to purchase the services of such a magician—

That would solve everyone's problem, wouldn't it?

It was an easy solution on the surface, but like deep water, such a "solution" could cover more than was immediately ap­parent.

The favor might cost more than I'm willing to give. What if the mage wanted slaves? How could I send off any of my peo­ple into real slavery? What if he wanted some of my fighters? What if he wanted Gel?

Even if that difficulty never came up, there was the imagi­nary girl to consider. She might not like me. She might like me, but not enough. She might fall in love with someone elseeven Pelenal. He winced away from the idea of forcing a maiden to wed because she'd been betrothed to him in her cradle. How could any good come out of such a bad bargain?

Gel is right. I should leave it up to mother, he decided, with a slight sinking of his heart and a contradictory feeling of relief. I'll tell her so at dinner. That should make her so happy she'll let us besiege her very bower if we want!

4

As Lynder replenished the goblet of cool water at Kyrtian's right hand, the young lord soaked until the aches in his tired, sore muscles eased. He'd have remained in the bath until he was in danger of falling asleep, if not for two factors. His stomach complained that it hadn't gotten anything but wa­ter for some time, and he knew his mother was waiting for him to have dinner with her and out of politeness would not touch a morsel until he appeared. Servants sent off for a platter of finger-foods would have taken care of the hunger, but he was not going to be rude to his mother!

It isn 't wise to be rude to one's mother. She knows everything about your childhood that is potentially embarrassing.

Reluctantly, he stepped up out of the water, dripping onto the marble floor, and waved off another attentive servant, taking the soft, snowy towel the lad held out to him. Wrapping the towel around himself, he returned to his bedroom to find clothing laid out over a stand and waiting for him to don. This clothing had been selected by Lynder to complement whatever his mother was wearing for dinner. It was a small gesture, but one that his mother appreciated, and it only cost a little extra attention on the part of the servants; such attention was no burden to them, for she was as beloved to her staff as she was to her son.

To his relief, the waiting clothing was casual, a comfortable tunic and trews of heavy amber silk with a simple geometric design in bronze beadwork trimming the collar and belt. That meant his mother was in a casual mood; in fact, with any luck, she had arranged to dine on the balcony outside the lesser dining-room, where they could watch their human dependents dancing and listen to their music.

He knew, because she had told him, that other Elvenlords

generally chose to dine amid self-created, fantastic settings built of illusion, a simpler version of the illusions he'd seen at the few Elven gatherings and fetes he had attended. He had never been able to fathom why they would wish to do such a thing. How boring must it be, surrounded by something so ut­terly controlled, in which one knew to the moment exactly what would happen? He preferred real weather, real sunsets, and the spontaneity of live performers. But then, he'd never cared much for even the most elaborate of illusions, far preferring the beau­ties of the real world to gossamer fantasies. Even his suite held a but single illusion, to bring the outdoors that he loved inside regardless of weather or season. He had created an ethereal for­est glade and waterfall, illuminated in a perpetual twilight, in the corner of his sitting room. This illusion opened his suite and made the room seem to extend far beyond the actual walls. He could easily have had a real waterfall put in, but that would have made the sitting room rather more humid than he liked. The three rooms of his suite—sitting room, study, and bedroom—were oth­erwise all as they had been built: grey carpet, white walls and ceiling, simple, unornamented furnishings with frames of pale birch-wood and fat cushions in grey-blue, grey-green, and slate-grey. Sourceless, gentle light bathed the rooms, but could be extinguished with a single command—magic, yes, but hardly illusion.

He donned the soft, comfortable silk garments, slipped on a pair of buttery leather indoor boots and belted the tunic with a matching sash. After a quick glance at himself in a mirror to en­sure that he had not forgotten anything, he set out for the dining-chambers, leaving the servants to clean up behind him. The same sourceless light as brightened his rooms illuminated the hallways whose only ornaments were small tables placed at intervals against the wall. He noted with approval that now that it was summer, someone had replaced the statues that had stood on each table with arrangements of flowers which gently scented the air without being cloying. So much better than all the incense and heavy perfumes he'd encountered in the few other manors he'd occasionally visited! His mother made life here into an art form, something that appeared effortless and

was anything but. It required a small army of their faithful ser­vants, working in careful harmony, to achieve the "simple" ef­fects that others created with illusions.

As he approached the dining chambers, the light subtly changed, growing warmer in tone, and the flower arrangements here were no longer made up of blooms of white and pale pas­tels, but of richer colors. This was clearly the work of his mother's hand and mind. The impression now created was that of cheer and welcome, and he noted proudly that once again, it was accomplished without the use of a single illusion.

Lynder waited patiently outside the door of the lesser dining-chamber, confirming Kyrtian's guess that he and his mother would be dining without the company of any of the other Elves of the estate. Lynder opened the bronze-edged door for him, and he passed through with a nod of thanks. Subdued lighting and an empty table greeted him, and the open casement door to the balcony beyond beckoned him onward.

Out on the alabaster balcony, a pair of bronze lamps gave just enough light to be useful without being obtrusive. A servant with a cart laden with covered dishes waited beside a small table flanked by two chairs. His mother rose from the furthest of these as he stepped onto the balcony, and held out her hand to him with a welcoming smile.

V'dyll Lydiell Lady Prastaran was not the most beautiful of Elven women; her green eyes were a touch too shrewd, her cheekbones too sharply defined, her mouth at once too gener­ous and too sardonic, her winglike eyebrows too inclined to arc upwards in wry amusement. Her figure was too slight to be called "generous," and too muscular to be called "delicate"; in fact, she was a notable dancer and athlete. And she was too tall for the current fashion, with fully as much height as her son. Tonight her moon-pale hair was caught at the back of her head in a single, practical knot, only relieved by three strands of bronze, moonstone and amber beads threaded onto slender locks of hair behind her left ear. Her clothing was virtually identical to her son's, except that she wore a divided skirt in­stead of trews. She followed no fashions, and set none; she was

a law unto herself, and as such, fit the Prastaran estate and clan perfectly.

Kyrtian took her hand, dropped a filial kiss on it, and assisted her back into her seat before taking his own. He sniffed appre­ciatively at the savory scents arising from the first dish as the servant uncovered a thick soup and offered it for their approval.

Lydiell took the ladle herself, and measured out two porce­lain bowls full. "I've already quizzed Lynder, so I know that you beat Gel," she said with amusement. "And I also know that he managed to kill you in the process of beating him. A rather dubious victory, don't you think?"

"I suppose it would depend on whether you were the captain who was killed or the general who sent him," Kyrtian pointed out. "My imaginary superior would have no reason to be un­happy about the outcome of our battle."

Lydiell made a little grimace of distaste. "Your not-so-imaginary relations would either be very grieved or very pleased if your demise had been genuine," she countered. "Your obnoxious cousin Aelmarkin in particular—"

Kyrtian knew what was coming, and this time decided to pre­empt the little speech about his duty to the legacy left to him by his father. "My obnoxious cousin in particular is going to be very wnhappy as soon as you finish the project I'd like you to undertake, Lady-Mother," he interrupted, tapping her hand playfully with his index finger. "I want you to go hunt me out a couple of suitable females so I can make a selection for a bride. I'd likely only bungle the job; you, however, will manage it brilliantly."

Lydiell stared at him with her mouth slightly open, her eyes wide and her eyebrows arched as high as they would go. "Are you serious?" she demanded. "Are you really ready to wed?"

She didn't say "at last" but she didn't have to.

He shrugged. "As ready as I am ever likely to be, and with all the unrest about, it would probably be better to get it over with before it becomes impossible for you to travel around to find me someone."

Lydiell's expression assumed a faint cast of guilt. "I swore to

your father I would never pressure you into marrying someone for whom you had no affection," she began. "And—"

"And you aren't going to now," he replied firmly. "I've just gotten over the expectation that the perfect woman will some­how drop out of the sky on gossamer wings, emerge nixielike from the river, or materialize spirit-wise out of the forest, and make me fall into passionate love with her. A girl who won't become a risk for us is far more important, and you're the best judge of that. So far as my own needs are concerned, someone I can tolerate over breakfast will do nicely. If we have some things in common so that we don't baffle or bore each other, better still." He put his hand over his mother's as it rested on the table, and he felt it tremble. "To my mind, it is far more impor­tant that she feel love and affection for you, my lady."

"If you found a wife whom you loved but who didn't care for me, I could always retire to the Dowager-House," she began bravely, but he shook his head.

"I know Grandmother loved the Dowager-House and retired there because she found too many memories in these halls, but that won't be the case for you. I couldn't care for anyone who drove you out of your own home, so I rely on you to find me someone sensible. I will be happy with safety, sense, and intel­ligence, in that order. Now," he continued, seeing the light in her eyes and deciding to take advantage of the situation, "Gel and I want to stage another holiday-battle, and we thought we'd have a siege of the Dowager-House instead of the usual woods-battle or field-melee. Do you think we could arrange that?"

As surely as if he had the human magic for reading thoughts, he knew she was engrossed in running over the various matri­monial possibilities in her mind, and that the moment he had said Gel's name, she dismissed the rest of the sentence as irrel­evant to the all-important task of matchmaking. "Oh, certainly," she said absently, allowing the servant to take away her soup and serve her a portion of baked eel, a dish she normally never touched. She ate it, too, taking dainty but rapid bites, all of her thoughts occupied with more important things than food.

He grinned to himself, and devoured his own portion without further comment, congratulating himself on his clever maneu-

ver. He'd gotten her approval of the siege—which she would belatedly remember, some time late tonight as she went over the dinner conversation in her mind. By that time it would be too late to retract the approval. And it hadn't cost him anything other than something he'd already made up his mind to do. Sat­isfaction gave him a hearty appetite, and he enjoyed every bite of his dinner.

Down below the balcony, the lawn stretched out in a plush, velvety slope for some distance before it flattened out and be­came the village green shared by all of the human servants who had earned cottages in the manor-village. Surrounded by lanterns suspended from stands plunged into the turf, it was brilliantly and festively illuminated. The green served as fair­grounds, dance-floor, and feast-table in fine weather, and it served the latter two purposes tonight. The warriors, victorious and defeated both, celebrated at long wooden tables that had been carried out from their barracks. Other servants and field-workers, their dinners long over, slowly came by groups of two and three to join the fun. Festive torches burned brightly at ei­ther end of each table, and a little band of musicians had set up at the far end and played raucous dancing-tunes that were un­like anything ever heard at an Elven celebration. Kyrtian rather liked human music, himself, and he knew his mother was amused by it—but to compare human to Elven music would be like comparing a noisy forest stream to an illuminated water-sculpture. They were both made of moving water, but with that all resemblance ended.

Gel and a dozen others had already finished their dinner and found themselves partners, and were dancing with great enthu­siasm and abandon, if not skill. From the rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes of the girls, none of the partners were inclined to complain if their toes got trodden on, occasionally. Kyrtian fin­ished his meal in silence, and settled back in his chair with a glass of wine, watching the swirl and chaos of the ever-increasing crowd of dancers.

"About your obnoxious cousin—" Lydiell murmured unex­pectedly, startling him.

"What about him?" Kyrtian replied, glancing at her. "He

doesn't want to visit again, does he? I thought we'd managed to cure him of that after the last time."

Lydiell winced. "It almost cured me of wanting to stay here," she said, shuddering. "If I'd had to sit through one more eve­ning of youJroning in that flat voice—! You'd have made erotic poetry unbearably dull with that voice!"

Kyrtian grinned. "I thought the monotone went with the sub­ject matter. You can thank Gel for that, by the way. I had no idea he knew so much about the tactical importance of camp supply and sanitation; by the time he was done filling my head with the information, I could have written a monograph on the subject."

"Remind me to have him served a nice dish of live scorpi­ons," she said, with a touch of exasperation. "He might have taken care to recall that I was going to have to endure that eve­ning too! But, to go back to the subject—no, your cousin Ael-markin has no intention of visiting. Evidently, however, he does want to make up for trying to disinherit you."

"Oh, really?" Kyrtian felt his eyebrows rising in an imitation of his mother's most sardonic expression. "How fraternal of him. What, exactly, does he want?"

Lydiell's face gave no hint of her feelings. "He wants you to visit. He's invited you to a—a gathering, of sorts. Lord Marthien and Lord Wyvarna are settling their dispute at his estate."

Kyrtian was unpleasantly surprised. "Two Great Lords are settling a feud and Aelmarkin wants me there? Whatever for?"

Lydiell shook her head. "I don't know," she replied, sound­ing honestly perplexed. "Perhaps he has decided he should change his behavior, in the hope you'll forget his petition. Or forgive it, at least."

Kyrtian made a sour face. "Perhaps he just wants to show the Great Lords that I'm as crazed as my father. After all, I have the same obsession with the past that father did. He's probably hoping I'll start droning about Evelon history, or asking if any of them have ancient books in their libraries that I could have copied."

"Darthenian wasn't crazed," Lydiell said softly. "And neither are you. It isn't madness to be concerned about the past—it's madness to try and pretend it never happened. Look at the situ-

ation the Great Lords have created—at war with their own sons! If they had remembered the past, and the feuds that sent us fleeing Evelon in the first place, they might have avoided this tragedy."

"I sometimes wonder if it isn't a little mad to pursue the past so relentlessly," Kyrtian replied, his mood suddenly shadowed. "Why else would father have disappeared?"

Lydiell's cheeks flushed delicately with anger, but she did not give rein to it. "Why else?" she asked, and answered the question herself, forcefully. "A combination of dedication and bad luck—or, perhaps, the acquisition of a ruthless enemy. I don't know what Darthenian was hunting when he vanished, my love, for he kept it a secret even from me, but I do know that it was important and potentially very powerful. That made the secret a dangerous one, and that was why he kept it from me. It is possible that he met with an accident. It is also possible that someone besides me took him seriously—and wished to learn what he knew, or prevent him from discovering anything that might have given him an edge in the endless jostling for power."

"Are you suggesting that he was—murdered?" Kyrtian asked slowly. It was something that had never occurred to him.

Lydiell sighed. "I don't know. It is possible—but I cannot even guess at how likely it is. I have never seen or heard any­thing to allow me to dismiss the idea, or that confirmed it." Her expression was haunted by that very uncertainty. "Nevertheless, let others remember him as an unstable dabbler for delving into the oldest of our records—I know better, and so should you."

Kyrtian immediately felt ashamed, and bent his head in mute apology. "And I should not allow the views of V'kel Aelmarkin er-Lord Tornal to shade my opinion of even so trivial a question as wine selection, much less anything important." He frowned. "I've half a mind to turn his invitation down. It's come too quickly on the Council's decision, and Aelmarkin is nothing if not persistent. He surely has something planned as an attempt to embarrass me."

But Lydiell shook her head. "That, you mustn't do. He has more political power than you, and he could make things diffi-

cult if you offend him. Do you really want to waste your time countering his petty nastiness with the Council, when you could avoid having to do so by attending his gathering?"

Kyrtian sighed, knowing with resignation that he was going to have to go and play the fool to keep Aelmarkin happy. "Not really. When is this farce scheduled?"

"In three days," Lydiell told him, and patted his hand comfort­ingly. "Cheer up," she offered. "It's only for an afternoon. How hard can it be to maintain your composure for an afternoon?"

How hard can it be to maintain my composure for an after­noon? Kyrtian asked himself savagely, as he glared down at the sands of the arena to avoid meeting any more contemptuous or amused glances. Harder than getting the better of Gel in a sword-bout, that's how!

From the moment he'd stepped out of the Portal into Ael-markin's manor, he'd realized two things. The first: Lydiell had been absolutely right; if he hadn't shown his face—and his sanity—at this function, Aelmarkin would have been able to say whatever he liked and be believed. The second: it was going to stress his patience and his acting ability to the limit to put up with the attitude of every other guest that Aelmarkin had in­vited. He had never felt so utterly out-of-place in his life. Why, he had more in common with the humans of his estate than he did these strange creatures of his own race!

A great many of them were approximately his age—much younger than Aelmarkin—the idle offspring of Great Lords who didn't care to attend this particular challenge-fight them­selves, but wanted to send representatives. Of course this meant that he was surrounded by those with little to do except chatter about others of their set, current fads, useless pastimes, and new fashions. The people of their social set were people he didn't know anything about, and the pursuits they found so important—well, he couldn't imagine why anyone would waste time on such things. But in their eyes, he was clearly impossi­bly backward, out-of-step, and provincial.

None of them knew anything about any of the subjects he cared about, which made him sound both a bore and a boor.

And after he'd shown a flicker of startlement at statements he considered outrageous, they probably put him down as callow and a prig.

Well, by their standards, I am a prig. I don't consider an af­ternoon spent in having my jaded appetites aroused by poor hu­man girls who only exist to serve as my concubines to be particularly amusing.

After the first hour, they snubbed him openly, and with un­veiled contempt.

This, strangely enough, made him very uncomfortable. He hadn't expected them to make him feel that way. He could try to tell himself that these people didn't matter, that all he had to do was remain polite and comport himself like a gentleman and nothing they reported back to their fathers would do any harm—but that didn't make the sneers and the sniggering any easier to bear. He didn't like them, but they were many and he was one; it was all too easy to feel the hurt of the scorned out­sider. He truly hadn't anticipated that sort of reaction from him­self, and he wished there was a way he could gracefully extricate himself and go home.

As he stared fixedly down at the wooden-walled arena below him, he heard whispers behind him, and snickering, and felt the back of his neck grow hot. He was just glad that Gel was here with him, in the role of bodyguard; somehow it was easier to stay composed with Gel's stone-faced example to copy.

I'm on their choice of ground; the best I can hope to do is get out of this without making any major blunders. Mother couldn 't possibly have known how slippery this situation could become. He was acutely aware that they had far more experience than he at the maneuvering of intrigue and politics. He felt horribly young, shallow, and naive; these people had drunk machination with their first milk, and he had no idea how to deal with situa­tions they wouldn't even hesitate over.

Kyrtian had taken a seat in the first row to avoid meeting their eyes any longer, but they continued to speak to each other in voices pitched for him to overhear, taunting him to respond.

"Who, exactly, is this fellow?" asked an arrogant young male a little to Kyrtian's left.

"My cousin Kyrtian," Aelmarkin said lightly. "Son of the late Lord Darthenian, my uncle."

"Lord Darthenian..." someone murmured behind him. "That name sounds familiar. Don't I know it from some old story or other?"

"Try coupling the name with daft," drawled another, sound­ing so smug that it was all Kyrtian could do to keep from stand­ing up and going for the fellow's throat. "Daft Darthenian, pot-hunter, excavator of things better left buried, and pursuer of useless old manuscripts. Missing in pursuit of same, and pre­sumed dead, oh, decades ago."

"Now, Ferahine, there's nothing wrong with having a hobby," replied Aelmarkin, in a tone so tolerant that Kyrtian clenched his hands on the armrests of his chair to keep himself in his seat. "Isn't insect-collecting as silly? I've seen you send slaves out bobbing about in fields and forests with a net and a bottle—and all those boxes of dead beetles are just as useless as unreadable manuscripts!"

"Point taken. Still, hobbies are all very well, Aelmarkin," said the drawler, "But no gentleman and no sane fellow goes off himself to dig up nasty old discards in parts unknown, now, does he? I certainly don't go rambling through briars with nets and bottles! That's what slaves are for! And he went out alone, too! Why, that was simply insane, if you ask me."

Kyrtian gritted his teeth. He knew he was meant to overhear all of this. He knew they were trying to provoke him. And they were only saying in his hearing what they told each other—and what their elders said. If he just kept his temper, he would learn a great deal. If they thought he was too dull to understand—or too cowardly to respond—what possible harm could it do?

Still, it was the hardest thing he had ever done, to sit there and let strangers abuse the memory of his own father, without challenging them.

"Alone!" exclaimed the first speaker. "Why didn't he take slaves, if he wouldn't send them to do his hunting for him? Ael­markin, admit it, he must have been deranged!"

There was an audible rustle of fabric, marking Aelmarkin's careless shrug. "He was always secretive about these hunts of

his, and never more so than on the last one. He was hunting the site of the Great Gate that brought us from Evelon, and the things that were discarded as useless because they no longer functioned after passing the Gate. Why? I haven't a notion."

"Yes, well, it's obvious he was an obsessive, at the very least," said the drawler, dismissively. "And judging from the disaster of a conversation I had with Kyrtian, yonder, obsession runs in the family blood. All the poor fool can talk about is military matters! History, tactics, battles no one cares about." A sneer crept into the drawl. "As if anyone would ever give the likes of him com­mand over so much as a squad of latrine-diggers."

By now Kyrtian's neck burned, his cheeks were nearly the same temperature, and his jaw and shoulders ached with the strain of tightly-clenched muscles. He gladly would have given half his possessions for the opportunity to come at any of those foppish fools in barehanded combat!

And that's just what they expect from you, he reminded him­self, trying mentally to throw a little cold water on his over­heated temper. They think you 're an atavistic barbarian, and they may very well be waiting for you to stand up and attack them physically! They would have the right to challenge you or bring you up in front of the Great Council.

And that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was what Aelmarkin wanted him to do, for such an attack would prove to everyone's satisfaction that he, Kyrtian, was just as mad as Aelmarkin claimed in his petition. An Elvenlord and a gentleman did not settle differences hand-to-hand. An Elvenlord and a gentleman issued a proper challenge, and settled it as this feud was being settled.

I have to keep my mouth closed and my eyes open and find out just how these things work! he told himself vehemently. So that if I get a chance, I can arrange for these fools to eat their words without salt!

Beside him, Gel stood at wary attention, as impassive as any statue, and as invisible to these fools as any other bodyguard. Gel had heard every word, too—but you would never know it by looking at him.

Copy Gel, he told himself. Stay quiet, if not calm. Wait, and

watch. He knew only that these feuds were settled in trial-by-combat, using slaves as proxies. If his fighters were better-trained than these—

Then it might be worth dealing with these dolts in a way they 'II understand.

Abruptly, conversation behind him ceased, as some signal he didn't recognize warned the idlers that the combat was about to begin. Abruptly caught up in spite of himself, Kyrtian leaned forward with the rest, as the light in the arena brightened, and the lights above their seats dimmed.

5

Two bronze doors, one at each end of the arena and deco­rated with hammered images of armored fighters, opened onto the sands of the arena. Two lines of heavily-equipped fighters paced through them, moving ponderously into the light. There were fourteen of these humans in all, seven to each side. One set was armored in pale green, with a winged serpent badge in brilliant blue on their breastplates and shields, the other in emerald green with the badge of a rearing alicorn in white.

The armor was impressive; the men inside it were less so. Kyrtian studied each of the fighters minutely, weighing and measuring their general strength, noting the kinds of weapons each man carried. He assumed that Gel was doing the same.

"Ancestors!" came another whisper from behind. "What can be so fascinating about a handful of fighters? Is he so provincial that he's never seen gladiators before?"

Kyrtian's neck burned again for a moment, but he calmed himself quickly. With something before him to study and ana­lyze, he finally managed to think of his own situation in terms of tactics rather than emotions.

Most of them are taking me for a provincial boor, but those are the ones who are ignoring me. The comments might be com­ing from those who are suspicious of methinking that the "provincial fool" might just be a pose. They would be trying to prod me into either doing something typical of a foolsuch as lose my temper and insult them backor to do or say some­thing that will give them more information about what I'm re­ally here for. If I do neither, I'll confuse them further. It's even possible that Aelmarkin is behind the prodding. The possible number of plots and counterplots going on behind his back made him feel dizzy.

And these strangers seemed even more alien to him. How did they do it? How could anyone live like that, spending most of every day in guarding against treachery, and the rest in planning treachery? It would drive him mad in no time. He could not imagine how they coped with the constant paranoia.

Perhaps that is why they spend so much time in debauching themselves. Only by immersing themselves in pleasure can they relax for a few moments. If that was so—he felt suddenly sorry for them. But not too sorry.

The best weapon he had to use against them was the uncer­tainty he represented, the very fact that he was unknown. No matter what Aelmarkin had told them, they probably wouldn't really believe it until they had proved for themselves what he was. They would tend to judge him against the standard of their own behavior. What would one of them do in a situation similar to his? Play the fool? Try and find an ally?

Probably look for an ally or a protector; hopefully by doing neither, he had confused them further. He wished he could talk openly to Gel; of all the times he needed advice—

Then again, Gel might not have any better notion of how to handle these effete creatures than he did.

Well, others have mistaken my caution for a lack of imagina­tion in the pastso perhaps that is what is going on now. I can only hope so; it will make them underestimate me further.

All he really knew was how such situations would have been handled in the far past, as recounted in the history books he spent so much time perusing. In the days of long ago, there had

been less time and leisure for long plots and political machina­tion. The Elvenlords of old had dealt with problems with their own kind in ways that "human barbarians" would find perfectly familiar.

If one of the First Lords chose to deal with the insults instead of tamely accepting them, he would have called his enemy out for a duel-by-magic.

That makes a satisfying fantasy these days as wellprovid­ing you picture yourself as the winner rather than the loser.

In law, that was still an option, but it was one that very few ever took anymore. More than ninety-nine times out of a hun­dred, insults were answered and arguments settled by proxy, in the arena, at the hands of human gladiators like the ones below. Hardly fair, since clearly someone whose means were limited couldn't afford to keep and train as many fighters as someone of greater rank and power, but someone of greater rank and power would also be much stronger in magic than a lesser lord—so it wouldn't make a great deal of difference to the out­come, whether it was settled by combat or magic duel.

It's even possible for someone with weak magic to become wealthy enough to afford first-quality fighters, or to gain an ally with access to such fighters, but nothing increases the power of the magic that someone is born with. I suppose combat-by-proxy is marginally more fair than combat-by-magic.

It wouldn't be quite as viscerally satisfying, though.

I wonder how I'd fare if I decided to challenge one of the charmers behind me to a magic duel? Have any of them even bothered to practice and train their power? There was no way of judging how strong they were by the way they were acting, and he really didn't know how strong his magic was in compar­ison with theirs. Going into such a challenge blind would be the stupidest thing he could do.

He didn't use magic except when there was no way to ac­complish something without it. He really didn't have much use for illusions, so he'd never really practiced them, but there was no reason why even an illusion couldn't be used as a weapon. Other Elvenlords seemed to waste a great deal of power on out­ward appearances—for instance, as Aelmarkin had, turning his

manor into an impossible confection that hardly resembled a dwelling at all. But was that the waste that it seemed to be?

Is it a kind of bluff—or even a way of demonstrating power without the risk entailed by combat?

For a moment, he felt a flicker of concern that he hadn't done likewise; should he have created an opulent illusory costume like theirs? What would these people think if they saw his un­adorned home? Did they think him weak, and of little account, because he didn't create and maintain fantastic illusions?

It doesn 't matter, he told himself quickly. No one ever comes to visit who needs to be impressed, and I'm not the only one here wearing ordinary clothing.

He reminded himself that his status, and that of his family, remained secure—because they produced what others needed, and they had no power that anyone else coveted. It was a reas­suring thought, and one that calmed his new-born concerns. He wanted to look harmless and inconsequential; he'd nearly for­gotten that. He wanted people like these friends of Aelmarkin to underestimate him and his family.

He gave himself a mental shake. These people were contami­nating him—he hadn't been among them for even half a day, and already he was thinking about challenges and status, worrying because they thought he was a provincial, insular bumpkin! So what if they did? That was what kept him and his safe! Let them jockey with each other he reminded himself. Let them ignore us. As long as they consider us politically insignificant, but too use­ful to disturb, we 'II remain secure and safe.

Unless, of course, the family holdings looked so prosperous that they became a choice plum, ripe for picking. Certainly Ael­markin thought so; was it possible that some other, more dan­gerous opponent would come to share that belief?

Perhaps—perhaps he ought to consult with Lydiell when he returned home. Maybe it was time to create a few carefully-crafted bluffs. Lydiell was clever; surely she would be able to concoct an excuse for Kyrtian to demonstrate his powers in such a way that would make it appear that Kyrtian had incredi­ble ability. Or, at least, that he had enough magical power to make challenging him more costly than the prize was worth.

Something to make it appear that it isn 't worth upsetting the way things are now, that's what we need. Something to show that there is nothing to be gained and a great deal to be lost in a direct confrontation.

It might be all to his advantage that most conflicts were set­tled in the arena. He knew for certain that in strength and agility, his own worst fighters were the equal of even the best of the fighters down there on the sand—and were superior to most of the men waiting to fight. If it came to a challenge-match like this one, Kyrtian was confident that his side would not lose.

That realization made him relax a little. Really, he was wor­rying for no reason. As long as issues were settled by human gladiators like those below him, he had nothing to fear.

In fact, the more he studied those fighters, the more confident of that fact he became. It was odd; those gladiators all seemed a good bit younger than he would have expected. This was an im­portant match, or so he had been led to believe. So why weren't the two antagonists fielding their older, more experienced glad­iators? What is it that Gel says? "Experience and duplicity will overcome youth and energy every time."

He had managed to lose track of what the gossips behind him were chattering about while he mulled over his own situation and studied the combatants. When he turned a fraction of his at­tention back to them, he discovered they were placing bets on the outcome, not only of the whole combat, but on the fortunes of individual fighters. Mildly intrigued, he eavesdropped with­out shame.

"You must know something, if you're betting that high," the drawler said suspiciously. "Don't take the bet, Galiath! He's too confident! I think he bribed the trainers to tell him something!"

"Nonsense, he doesn't know anything—he's just bluffing, and I've wanted a chance to get that horse for ages!" replied a new voice, one that Kyrtian thought was slurred just a little with drink. "I'll take that bet; your racehorse against my red-haired concubine and two jeweled armlets that the one with the two swords draws first blood before he's marked!"

It took a moment for the sense of what they were saying to

sink in, and when it did, he felt a little sick. The idea of equat­ing the value of a human with that of a horse—no, as less than that of the horse ... it hit him with the force of a blow to the stomach just how foreign their way of thinking was to his. He'd known it intellectually, of course, but this was the first concrete example he'd witnessed. Up until now, Aelmarkin's slaves hadn't behaved any differently than his own servants at their most discreet.

I truly am the alien here. If they knew how we treat our hu­mans, they wouldn 't hesitate for a moment to bring us all down. He would be considered a traitor to his race, and worse than the Wizards and the wild humans. He had to remember to keep his guard up!

The two feuding parties finally arrived, with great fanfare, at exactly the same moment. With each of the Elvenlords came an entourage of glittering, fancifully-costumed hangers-on. There were box seats at either end of the arena, directly above the two doors that had disgorged the combatants; those boxes were now occupied by the newly-arrived lords and their entourages. Kyrt-ian found that he could not for the life of him remember their names and Houses—not that it really mattered to him. He would, if he was introduced later, congratulate the winner and be properly sympathetic to the loser. It wasn't likely, though, that Aelmarkin would make such an introduction, unless he thought he had a way of making Kyrtian lose face.

How they took their seats and in what order was clearly as choreographed as an elaborate ritual. Neither of the Lords wished to be seated first, and there was much arranging of the chairs and jockeying of seating before the two Great Lords sat at precisely the same moment. They glared at each other across the span of the arena, before turning away with studied indiffer­ence to speak with a companion.

Now Aelmarkin, as host, stood up; Kyrtian caught the move­ment out of the corner of his eye, and turned j ust enough so that he could watch his cousin without being obvious about it.

"Most noble Lords," Aelmarkin said, his smooth and imper­sonal words carrying effortlessly above the whispers of those

seated all around him, "You have determined to settle your dif­ferences in trial-by-combat, and have accepted my offer to host this venture. Are you still of the same mind to accept the out­come of this combat as the settling of your feud?"

He of the azure serpent replied with a gruff, "Aye" while he of the white alicorn simply nodded.

"Very well," Aelmarkin said calmly. "Let the record show that both agree to be bound by the outcome here below us. Let all who ye assembled here so bear witness."

"We so bear witness," came a chorus of voices, some indif­ferent, sxjme full of tense excitement. A hush came over them; all whispers and movement stopped. So profound was the si­lence that the slightest rustle of fabric came as a shock.

As if this had been a signal, the fighters below tensed.

Aelmarkin surveyed the two opposed lines of fighters for a moment, an odd smile on his lips. "Very well," he said at last, into the stillness. "Begin."

Kyrtian's full attention immediately turned to the arena. The two lines of fighters leapt at each other, hurling themselves across the sand to meet in a clangor of metal and harsh male shouts. The noise echoed inside the arena, making Kyrtian wince involuntarily. Added to the noise of fighting was the clamor of shouts and cheers behind him and to either side of him, as the onlookers cheered the combatants on.

Kyrtian was still trying to figure out how Aelmarkin intended to score this combat, when the swordsman nearest him man­aged to beat down his opponent's guard and laid open the other's sword-arm from shoulder to wrist with a single blow.

The rnan screamed, and dropped to his knees, a torrent of shockingly scarlet blood pouring from the wound into the sand as his blade fell from his slack fingers.

For one moment, Kyrtian was startled by how realistic the wound was—then he realized that it wasn't "realistic," it was real.

He felt as if someone had rammed him in the midsection and knocked all the breath out of him. He started to shake, as a wave of sick horror twisted his throat and stomach.

It's realit's real. They're trying to really kill each other.

They 're dying, and all so a couple of idiots can settle an argu­ment! Senselessuselessinsane!

Then, strangely, it all dissolved under a flood of blinding rage. He lost caution, lost focus, lost everything except the will to make it all stop. He rose abruptly to his feet.

"No!" he shouted, spreading his arms wide, his voice some­how carrying above the noise of combat. His powers, leaping to answer his will, poured out; an angry and violent burst of magic tore out of him.

It flung the combatants to their own sides of the arena, and dropped every man in the arena to his knees—except the in­jured one, who was frantically trying to close his gaping wound with his good hand.

The sudden silence, heavy with anger, seemed louder than his shout.

For a moment, no one moved—no one seemed able to be­lieve what he had done.

Then in an instant, both of the Great Lords turned to stare at him with an anger as overwhelming as his. Kyrtian felt the weight of that anger, all of it directed solely at him, and came to his senses with a start.

This might have been a tactical error.. . .

The lord of the white alicorn was the first to rise from his seat; there was lightning in his gaze and thunder in his voice as he addressed, not Kyrtian, but his cousin.

"Aelmarkin," the Elvenlord said, enunciating each syllable with care, "I trust you did not anticipate this?"

Aelmarkin also rose, and his voice fairly dripped apology and concern. "Good my lord, I assure you, I had no idea that my cousin would indulge in such bizarre behavior! I do apolo­gize, I would never have invited him if—"

Kyrtian, who had been staring down at the wounded fighter, now being aided by one of his companions, felt fury overcome his good sense again; he swung around to face his cousin, twist­ing his lips into a snarl, a red haze settling across his vision.

"Bizarre behavior? Bizarre? I call it sanity—stopping utterly senseless and wanton waste! What—"

"Waste?" shouted the other feuding lord, furiously, the ice in

his voice freezing Kyrtian's words in his throat. "Waste? What do you know of waste, you impudent puppy? You provincial id­iot, who let you in among civilized beings? I—"

"I apologize again, my lords," Aelmarkin protested, waving his hands about frantically. "Please, take your seats and the combat can resume—"

"Resume? Resume?" At that, Kyrtian's rage sprang to full and insensate life again, and grew until it was beyond anything, he had ever felt before. He went cold, then hot, then cold again, and a strange haze came over his vision. "Haven't you heard a word I've said? This idiocy will not resume, not while I'm standing here!"

"That can be remedied,'' muttered someone, as Gel finally put a calming hand on Kyrtian's arm. Kyrtian had the sense not to throw it off, but he was quite ready at that moment to snatch up a sword himself and take them all on single-handed.

"Don't back down," Gel muttered, "but get hold of yourself. Think fast—if you can't salvage this situation, we're going to have three feuds on our hands, two with them and one with Aelmarkin."

Aelmarkin was so angry he could scarcely think. When he'd in­vited that fool Kyrtian here, he'd hoped the puppy would make some sort of blunder that would prove he was as foolish as Ael­markin claimed. Well, he'd blundered all right—but he'd man­aged to do it in such a way that now Aelmarkin was potentially in as much trouble as he was! How had he managed to stop the combat? Where did he get all that magic power?

To the desert with that! How am I going to save myself?

This was nothing short of a disaster. The amount of status he stood to lose over this debacle was incalculable. This might even cost him his Council seat.

"Please, my lords," he said, entreatingly, to his two furious guests, "my young cousin has never seen one of these exhibi­tions before and—"

"Exhibitions?" Aelmarkin blinked at the tone of Kyrtian's voice—a moment ago it had nearly cracked with strain, and Kyrtian was clearly a short step from losing control entirely.

Suddenly now—the anger was still there, but it was controlled anger, and overlaid with calculated scorn worthy of an experi­enced Councilor. He turned to see that Kyrtian's face was now a carefully haughty mask.

Could Kyrtian actually salvage this situation?

"Exhibitions?" Kyrtian repeated. "Is that what you call these senseless slaughters?" His lip curled in what was unmistakably a sneer. "I suppose if your idea of 'sport' is to take tame pets and line them up for targets, then you could call something like this an exhibition, but I certainly wouldn't dignify this idiocy with such a term."

Aelmarkin saw with hope that the two feuding lords had for­gotten all about him. Kyrtian's declaration and attitude had caused them to focus all of their insulted rage on him.

"I suppose it's too much to expect you to answer that state­ment of utter nonsense with anything like a challenge?" asked Lord Marthien, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

"Yes it is," Kyrtian replied, answering sarcasm with arro­gance, "Because your fighters are no match for mine. You would lose before the combat began. That is why I say this is senseless. The least of my fighters has four years of combat ex­perience—the best of yours can't possibly have more than one. No, less than one, since I doubt your men ever survive even that long."

That arrogance took them rather aback; Lord Wyvarna glanced at Aelmarkin as if asking for confirmation of the aston­ishing statement. Aelmarkin made a slight shrug.

"And are we supposed to accept this bluff at face value, im­pudent puppy?" Lord Wyvarna demanded.

To their astonishment, Kyrtian laughed, albeit mirthlessly.

"You would be wise to, since it is hardly a bluff," he replied. "Consider what you already know about me and my—hobby. Consider that I have very little to do except train and drill my fighters in every possible style and manner of combat, and that I do not and never have sold any of them for any price. Con­sider that I have been doing this every day for the past ten years at least, personally overseeing the training and practice in every aspect. Meanwhile, what have you been doing? Entrusting the

training and practice of your gladiators to others, quite without supervision, and slaughtering the best of your men in useless exhibitions. And what stake do those you entrust with this train­ing have in your success or failure? What personal incentive have they to make certain that nothing is left to chance? And how many of your gladiators die or are crippled in training? For that matter, what incentive do your gladiators have to succeed? The best and cleverest of them are surely contriving to get themselves mildly crippled in the first week of your so-called 'training!' It would seem to me that the very smartest ones, the ones who would make the very best fighters, would see to it that they were always crippled in training, in order to avoid being slaughtered in one of your so-called exhibitions!"

Kyrtian cleverly left the questions hanging in the air, and now Aelmarkin saw a certain wariness creep over the expres­sions of the two feuding lords.

"And I suppose you have a better idea?" boomed a new voice.

Both Aelmarkin and Kyrtian turned to face the new speaker, who stood up from among his son's entourage. Aelmarkin was startled; he hadn't realized that Lord Lyon had come with his son Gildor—

Damn! Has he been there all along, or did he just arrive for the combat? Did I somehow insult him by not noticing him? Can anything else go wrong here today?

Aelmarkin's thoughts scurried after one another, like frantic slaves trying to clean up a terrible spill. V'kel Lyon Lord Kyndreth—Lord Lyon of the Great House of Kyndreth—stood wrapped in a scarlet cloak embroidered with leaping stags, his arms crossed over his chest. Aelmarkin shivered; the man was one of the most powerful lords of the Great Council. A vote from Lord Lyon was worth three from anyone with a lesser Council Seat. The number of allies he had—the number of peo­ple he could make or break with a single word—

Aelmarkin held his breath. All his own prayers might be an­swered in the next few moments. If Kyrtian insulted Lord Lyon badly enough—if he convinced Lord Lyon that he was as in­sane and unstable as Aelmarkin had been claiming ...

Elvenborn 61

Then before this day was over, Aelmarkjn might be organiz­ing his slaves for the move to his new properties.

Kyrtian looked at Lord Lyon, a veritable icon of power, as if he were no more important than any of the lesser sons and hangers-on.

"Yes," he said, simply, "I have. And I'm quite prepared to demonstrate it, here and now in front of you all."

6

That's V'kel Lyon Lord Kyndreth," Gel hissed in Kyrt-ian's ear. Kyrtian made the finger-sign for I understand, but did not look away from the tall, powerfully-built no­ble who had addressed him. That was one name he definitely recognized, and the half-formed plan he had thrown together in an instant of panic-ridden thinking took on a new importance and urgency. If he could persuade Lord Lyon to use his meth­ods, not only in training, but in challenge-matches, how many thousands of lives would be spared? For if Lord Lyon decreed it, all training and matches would be performed Kyrtian's way.

So he turned his half-formed plan into a bluff. "In fact," he continued, as calmly as if he spoke the truth, "I came here hop­ing to stop this nonsense for all time with such a demonstration."

"Really?" Lord Lyon looked amused, which boded well for Kyrtian. "And how is that? I take it you intend a live demon­stration, and not some illusory shadow show."

"Pit one fighter of your choosing against my bodyguard," Kyrtian said, boldly. "They will use my methods of fighting. They will fight to a death-wound, but neither will be harmed by the experience. You can use the best of your men—the one you would least care to lose—without any fear that harm will come to him and you will be without his services."

"Indeed." Lord Lyon looked from one side of the arena to the

other. "Wyvarna, Marthien—if I proposed using my bodyguard in this combat, would you accept the results of such a duel in­stead of using your gladiators as settling your dispute?"

The lord of the white alicorn looked sullen; the lord of the blue serpent responded first. "How would we decide which fighter represented which of us?"

"Draw lots," Lyon said carelessly. "I know my man takes second-place to very few, and I hardly think Lord Kyrtian's man is less expert." He turned back to Kyrtian. "I agree in prin­ciple that this is a waste of fighting-strength. The training is ex­pensive, and it's all gone to waste when a fighter is killed—or runs off to join those damned renegade Wizards. Before the current unpleasantness, there were no Wizards to run off to, of course, and there was no need to field battle-troops, but our present situation does call for some changes in our own cus­toms. In fact, some of the members of the Council have even asked openly if it might be wise to outlaw challenges altogether to save the waste of trained fighters." He smiled thinly. "Some have even suggested that if challengers are unwilling or unable to conduct duels-by-magic, that they should take sword in hand themselves to settle their quarrels."

Astonished mutters and a few gasps followed that an­nouncement, and Lords Wyvarna and Marthien looked openly dismayed.

Lord Lyon looked down his long, aristocratic nose at Kyrtian with a hint of sardonic interest. Kyrtian raised his chin and re­minded himself that his lineage was as long and proud as that of the House of Kyndrefh. "How much better, then, if you can have your challenges without the loss of a single fighting man or spillage of a single drop of blood?" he demanded. "Maybe your gladiators will stop running off if they know they aren't going to be killed in a senseless grudge-match. And I know I need not point out to a Lord of your experience and wisdom that such training will make better field-forces than anything our foes can create. Think of the kind of fighters you will field, when you can breed the best to the best, then give them real combat experience where they can learn from their mistakes!"

"Bloodless matches? Where's the sport in that?" someone behind Kyrtian muttered.

Kyrtian ignored the comment—and ignored the fact that the spectators were leaving, one by one, grumbling. He had Lord Lyon's attention, and he was not going to give it up. "I am well aware that many consider my interest in the past to be eccen­tric," he continued, "but because of that interest, I have learned at least one of the secrets lost when we passed the Gate from Evelon. I know how the Ancestors conducted their duels-of-honor and their training sessions—how they taught and prac­ticed combat without pulling blows, without using blunted weapons, yet without spilling blood. Didn't it ever occur to you that they must have had some way to learn sword-work them­selves without risking hurt? After all, unlike us—" here he looked down his nose at the young Lords around him with a bland expression "—they engaged in sword-duels themselves, and not by proxy. Their method is what I use to train my own fighters. Furthermore, I give every able-bodied human on my properties a basic training in fighting-skills, against the day that they may need to defend the manor until my real fighters can come to their rescue!"

He did not say what foe he trained his humans to fight—he figured that Lord Lyon would assume that he meant the army of the Wizards or of the Wild Humans, not an army commanded by his fellows. Not a flicker of mistrust appeared on Lord Lyon's face, only a growing interest—and if anyone here had been thinking about the idea of taking his holdings by force, that last statement would give them a reason to think better of the plan.

"If all this is true—" Lord Lyon turned to a silent, black-clad, flame-haired human who stayed at his side like his shadow. "Kaeth-—get down to the arena and get some armor and weapons. I want to see how this works."

The human saluted, and left Lord Lyon's side, jumping down into the arena and walking past the gladiators as casually as if they were statues. Kyrtian caught Gel's eye and nodded; Gel followed him.

"I believe that you will find this well worth your time, Lord Lyon," Kyrtian said evenly, then turned to the feuding parties. "My lords, will you make your choice of combatant?"

There was more grumbling, but finally it was settled that Lord Marthien would be represented by Gel, and Wyvarna by Lord Lyon's man Kaeth. Since it was obvious that there was no longer going to be the bloody spectacle that everyone had planned on, no one really wanted to remain any longer, and both lords lost most of their entourages, leaving only their hu­man bodyguards and one or two other slaves in attendance.

As for Aelmarkin's guests, they had all departed as well, probably returning to the Great Hall and the food and drink and other pleasures they had abandoned to watch the combat. That left only Aelmarkin, Lord Lyon and a young er-Lord who was probably his son, a couple of young lords who looked to be friends of his son, and Kyrtian. Those who remained seated themselves, and waited with varying degrees of impatience for something to happen.

Gel was no stranger to getting into armor quickly, and nei­ther, apparently, was Lord Lyon's red-haired bodyguard. Both appeared at the same door of the arena a remarkably short time later; Gel must have told Kaeth not to bother about weapons, for neither man carried any. Kaeth looked up at his master, who nodded to Lord Wyvarna; Kaeth immediately picked up one of the discarded shields stacked at the side of the arena bearing the azure serpent, and Gel took one of the discarded white alicorn shields.

"We've agreed to longsword and shield, master," Gel called up, in a servile voice that Kyrtian hardly recognized. He sup­pressed a nervous chuckle, and nodded.

Then Kyrtian fixed his gaze on a point on the sand at Gel's feet, and concentrated, drawing motes of power out of himself, and spinning them into the fabric of a pair of his very special blades.

He'd conjured up longswords so many times, that it was hardly any effort at all to spin out a mere pair of them. The air above the sand misted briefly, then shimmered, and a pair of fine blades condensed out of the mist as Kyrtian felt a slight inward

drain of power. He looked up to see that Aelmarkin was watch­ing closely, with a look of intense concentration on his face.

I wonder if he can follow what I'm doing? Has he the talent to read all the special modifications I've made?

Gel gestured to the identical swords and let Kaeth pick first.

The bodyguard picked up the nearest, and gave it an experi­mental swing, then rapped his shield with it. The shield gave off a perfectly normal metallic clang, and Kaeth nodded with satis­faction. "Feels like a regulation longsword, Lord Lyon," he called up into the viewing stands, squinting against the light. "Maybe a bit better balanced than most."

"These blades will act in all respect like a normal battle weapon," Kyrtian assured the few who were left in the stands, but concentrating on Lord Lyon. "With a single exception, that is. They will not cause any physical damage. Gel, please offer your opponent a target."

Gel held out his sword-arm with a grin, knowing that Kyrtian would eliminate the shock of being struck for this part of the demonstration.

"Kaeth, if you would swing at Gel please, and cut off his arm?"

Lord Lyon's slave did not hesitate; he took a full, overhand swing at the arm Gel extended for him as Lord Lyon leaned for­ward a little with interest. The blade passed through Gel's arm, leaving a glowing line, and making about half his body glow.

"Wounds cause a slight shock to the wounded man to tell him that he has been wounded, and the blade leaves a mark that he and any referees can see," Kyrtian explained. "There is no other effect on the fighter so struck, but for the purposes of scoring, there is full attention paid to the realities of battle. The longer Gel stands there, the more of him will glow, representing how close he is to death by blood-loss from such a massive wound. If he had only gotten a slight wound, there would only have been a mark and a shock. Eventually, according to the rules we follow, he will glow all over and be forced to retire."

"And if the wound was immediately mortal, he'd glow all over as well?" Lord Lyon supplied.

"Yes, and he would get a larger, quite unmistakable shock."

Kyrtian replied. He permitted himself a smile. "We allow for the heat of combat causing people to forget themselves, and the shocks they receive will get their attention." He negated the glow with a moment's thought, and Gel shifted his feet in the sand.

Lord Lyon nodded thoughtfully, and even Wyvarna and Marthien looked more interested than they had been. "I'm sure there are more details that I will want to ask you about later," Lord Lyon said after a moment of silence. "But meanwhile— let's settle this quarrel and have our practical demonstration, shall we?"

At this point, Kyrtian caught a decidedly unfriendly expres­sion on Aelmarkin's face. It was there for only a moment, but it reminded him that his cousin was the host of this combat, and that Kyrtian had done him a fair amount of damage.

But maybe there was a way to begin repairing that damage— or at least, doing something to make up for it. Never make an enemy that you don't have to, he reminded himself, and never give an enemy you already have another excuse to act against you.

"Cousin?" he said, gesturing to the arena. "As host, yours should be the honor."

Aelmarkin looked briefly startled, then suspicious, but stood up. He bowed to the two for whom this entire combat had been arranged. "Lord Marthien, Lord Wyvarna, will your feud be settled by the outcome of this challenge?"

"Aye," came the reply—grudgingly, but without much hesi­tation.

"Be it witnessed," Aelmarkin intoned.

"We so witness," came the chorus of Kyrtian, Lord Lyon, Lyon's son, and a pair of hangers-on, thinner than before, but enough to satisfy custom.

"Very well," Aelmarkin continued, as Gel and Kaeth eyed each other and settled into nearly identical stances. "Begin."

Aelmarkin seated himself, and crossed his arms over his chest. Kyrtian leaned forward to watch what he suspected would be a very fine show.

There was no rush to combat and clash of weapons this time, not with two such seasoned fighters. They circled each other

warily, taking careful measure of each other, making tiny feints and gauging the speed of response. Gel and Kaeth were a good match for one another, and although Aelmarkin leaned back in his seat and looked dreadfully bored, Lord Lyon and the two feuding Elvenlords were quickly on the edge of their chairs, recognizing the level of skill each man represented. Kyrtian felt a thrill of pride as he watched Gel's catlike, powerful moves; it was obvious that Kaeth was an extremely well-trained and probably very expensive slave, and regarded Gel as his equal in ability.

When the first exchange came, it was sudden; Kaeth thought he detected a weakness and drove in, making Gel's shield and blade ring with a flurry of blows. Gel countered successfully, and when Kaeth sprang back, both of them had tiny glowing marks, Kaeth along the back of his sword-hand and Gel across his forehead.

Well used to the rules of the game, Gel did something that surprised Kaeth; he sprinted backwards out of reach for a mo­ment, just long enough to pull a scarf from around his neck and whip it around his forehead. Kyrtian risked a glance at Lord Lyon, and saw him frown suddenly in puzzlement, then just as quickly nod and smile slightly.

Good. He understands that if Gel hadn 't done that, the glow would drop over his eye, obscuring his vision as blood would without a scarf to stop it. He's beginning to understand how complex the rules-magic is.

Kyrtian abandoned himself to watching the fight, able to en­joy it as a demonstration of grace and expertise. He noticed that Kaeth was grinning, just as Gel was; evidently, Kaeth seldom found himself with an opponent of comparable ability, and without needing to worry about crippling injuries or death, had given himself over to the exhilaration and visceral pleasure of such a duel. With each exchange of blows, one or both of the combatants came away marked, but only superficially—and by the time they'd acquired half a dozen "cuts" each, Lord Marthien and Lord Wyvarna were on their feet, cheering their representatives on with as much vigor as they would have used if their contest had gone as planned. Kyrtian's own heart was

pounding at this point, and his fists clenched with excitement. It was a terrific combat, and he honestly wasn't certain who he wished to see win it.

Kyrtian noticed a pattern in Kaeth's shieldwork, a weakness, a tendency to push an oncoming blow to the outside rather than hold up under it. That spared the shock to the shield-arm, yes, but it left him open for a sliding parry under the shield or a feint and a drive straight to the chest. If he saw it, certainly Gel did—

Gel made a little dance to the side, another blow towards the shield—but it wasn't a blow, it was a feint, and he followed it with a lunge straight for Kaeth's unguarded throat!

But Kaeth was ready for him! The pattern had been a ruse, a lure to see if Gel would take it! He dodged aside, moving just enough so that Gel's blade slid over his shoulder without harm­ing him, and slashed up in a vicious gut-thrust.

Gel stiffened, and burst into glowing light. Obedient to the rules (and his own sense of high drama), he toppled over and dropped to the ground, "dead."

Lord Lyon rose to his feet, applauding enthusiastically, as Kaeth saluted him, then saluted Lord Wyvarna, who was also on his feet and cheering. So, for that matter, was Kyrtian—

—and oddly enough, Lord Marthien.

"By the blood of our Ancestors, Lyon, I haven't seen a better fight in decades!" Lord Marthien shouted, as Kyrtian banished the weapons, and Kaeth offered his now free hand to Gel to help him up. "It's worth losing the challenge to have seen it!" He turned his attention briefly to the arena, and waved graciously at Gel. "Well fought, boy! I couldn't have had a better champion!"

He gathered up the remains of his entourage, and in amaz­ingly good humor, led them out.

Kaeth and Gel left the arena in a similar state of accord, and Lord Wyvarna made his way to the area of seating where Lord Lyon still stood, clearly in a high flood of euphoria. After a mo­ment of hesitation, Kyrtian followed to join them.

When he reached them, he found them involved in a rehash of the combat, but Lord Lyon broke off when he noticed Kyrt-ian's approach.

"Well, you impudent young puppy, you were right and I was wrong!" Wyvarna exclaimed, laughing. He showed Kyrtian a friendly face for the first time since he'd entered the arena. "An­cestors ! That old fool Marthien was right for the first time in his life—even if I'd been the one who lost, I'd have thought it was worth it to have seen a fight like that!"

He shook his head, and now that he was closer, Kyrtian real­ized that Wyvarna was much older than he had thought. It was often difficult to tell the age of an Elvenlord, but a hint of lines at the corners of his eyes, and a certain sharpening of the tips of his ears indicated that he was older than Lord Lyon. If Lord Marthien was just as old—

Then I've gotten myself two very well-entrenched allies; maybe not as powerful as Lord Lyon, but certainly respected by the Council. This is coming out better than I dared hope!

"And I think it was just as well that it never came to a chal­lenge with young Kyrtian, here, hmm?" Lord Lyon asked, slyly. "Given how well his bodyguard fought—what must his trained fighters be like?"

Kyrtian's respect for Lord Lyon rose a notch. He's remind­ing Wyvarna that this could have been very expensiveand he's making sure that Wyvarna will spread the word. So al­though I might be considered a dolt, I'm a dolt no one will want to challenge.

Lord Wyvarna gave an exaggerated shudder, and laughed again. "Damn me if you aren't right about that! His men would have cut mine to pieces without even breathing hard!" He clapped Kyrtian on the back, hard, trying to make him stagger. Kyrtian, who had been expecting something of the sort, braced himself and stood firm, smiling.

"It was a pleasure to show you the secret I discovered, my lords," he replied blandly. "Of all the things I dislike the most, waste is highest on the list, and there is no reason other than losses in a real battle to have to replace a gladiator or a fighting-slave before his time. Humans are hardly difficult to breed, but it takes time and resources to train them, resources that could more sensibly be put to other uses! Besides, if we keep killing

the strongest and cleverest of our breeding-slaves, what do you think we'll end up with? These techniques are quite easy to learn, and even easier to apply; if you can set a collar-spell, you can create these training conditions."

Wyvarna gave a half smile, and glanced over at Lord Lyon. "Then I expect we'll be getting a mandate from the Council about using them shortly, eh, Lyon?"

"I believe that you can count on that, Wyvarna," Lord Lyon replied, just as blandly as Kyrtian.

Wyvarna coughed, and then shrugged. "Well, times change, and the ones who won't change with them are fools," he said to no one in particular. "I'll be off; Marthien will be sending his conciliation-party, and I should be there to receive them prop­erly, or there'll be another feud on my hands."

With that, Lord Wyvarna turned and led his own entourage out of the arena, leaving Kyrtian standing beside Lord Lyon.

"Well, either you are the cleverest young lordling I have ever seen, or the luckiest," Lyon observed softly. "I wouldn't have given you any odds of getting out of that situation intact."

"The luckiest, my lord," Kyrtian replied quickly—hoping that he sounded modest. "I fear that although I had come to this event intending to demonstrate my discovery, I made a pro­found mistake in permitting my feelings to get the better of me, initially. I am, I fear, a very provincial fellow, and this was the first combat-trial I have ever attended. And if I offended you with my untutored manner, I do apologize, for I had no inten­tion of offending anyone."

And once again, he turned to his cousin. Aelmarkin's expres­sion was so bland it could not have been anything other than a mask. He was probably still infuriated.

"Cousin, I must ask your forgiveness for using your premises as the intended venue for my display, but—well, not to put too fine a point upon it, this is the only combat-challenge I have ever been invited to, so opportunities have not exactly been thick upon the ground." He had no real hope that this would pacify Aelmarkin, but at least it would make it look as if he'd tried.

"I wouldn't worry about it if I were you, Aelmarkin," Lord Kyndreth told the stone-faced Elvenlord, with a raised eye­brow. "I can promise you, this little demonstration is only going to reflect to your glory. If you like, I can even spread it about that you colluded with young Kyrtian here—"

"To what end, my lord?" Aelmarkin asked dryly.

"Ah, well, to a most proper end. You are aware of the dread­ful wastage of fighters we've had in this campaign against the so-called Young Lords. And I assume, given the age and rank of your two main guests, you were aware that I would appear at this combat. Of course you are aware of my keen interest in new methods of training our fighting-slaves faster." Lord Kyn­dreth smiled; the smile reminded Kyrtian of a large cat with its prey beneath its paw. "So you decided to help your cousin and yourself at the same time, by giving him a venue to demon­strate the fruits of his hobby for me. Hmm?"

Aelmarkin's expression remained as bland as cream, but he bowed. "As you say, my lord, and I am deeply grateful to you."

"No more than I am to you." This was clearly a dismissal, and Aelmarkin took it as such.

"I must return to my guests, my lord, if I may excuse my­self?" Aelmarkin bowed.

Lord Kyndreth waved him off, and Aelmarkin departed; the line of his backbone suggested further trouble to Kyrtian. But that was for the future; there was a larger and more dangerous predator in front of him still. Aelmarkin was a jackal at best. Lord Kyndreth was a lion in truth and not just in name.

"Thank you again, my lord," Kyrtian said, meaning it.

"Hmph." Lord Lyon eyed him as if suspecting further clever­ness. "Well, I shall be wanting to come visit you within the next few days. I want to discuss your training methods—and other things."

"I am at your service, Lord Lyon," Kyrtian replied, stunned. "I will send a Portal-token to the Council Hall in your name." Before he could think of anything else to say, the Old Lord had sketched a brief salute and turned away, leading what was left of his entourage off through the exit.

7

Every trace of the bloody conflict that had preceded Gel's fight had been cleared away from the preparation room by the time that he and the other lord's bodyguard retired to it. Even the armor was gone; all that remained was the presence of the liveried gladiators themselves, divided into two tight groups with a careful space between them. Divested of arms and ar­mor, to Gel's eyes they looked absurdly young, barely out of boyhood. The two sets of gladiators hovered at a respectful dis­tance from Gel and Lord Kyndreth's man as they took over the preparation room for themselves. Gel suppressed a smile of amusement; there was more than a touch of hero-worship in those young faces. He and his opponent had not only saved these children from injury and death, they had probably put on the most skillful combat the callow lads had ever seen. He was just glad that he was going to be able to return to his own estate and get away from all those admiring eyes.

As Gel followed Kaeth Jared's example and divested himself of armor, clothing, and walked naked into the white-tiled water-cascade cubicle as if he belonged there, he was thoroughly con­scious of gratitude for being able to clean up after their strenuous bout. With all of the youngsters still watching, awe-filled eyes glued to him, Gel was more than a little uncomfort­able as he plunged under the warm cascade of water and let it soothe muscles that had been asked to work without a proper warm-up. He wondered why the other fighters didn't say any­thing to him—or at least, to Kaeth Jared. They might not know him, but surely they knew Kaeth at least by sight. Well, they've got tongues, he told himself, as he ducked his head under the steaming water and let it pour down his neck and back. If they don't want to use them, that's not my problem.

Kaeth Jared must have been more used to this odd, semi-frightened treatment from his fellow humans, as he acted on the surface as if the other fighters simply weren't there.

On the surface, anyway.

To Gel's experienced eyes, he moved as if he noted and ana­lyzed every move any of them made, however inconsequential. That spelled "assassin" as well as "bodyguard" to Gel, which actually made a great deal of sense, considering Lord Kyn-dreth's prominence and the uncertain times. There was no telling if the Young Lords or his own peers might decide to re­vert to the ancient ways of dealing with an obstacle in the form of another Elvenlord. Who better to guard against assassins than another assassin?

Still. It aroused his suspicions. In all his lifetime, Gel had en­countered no more than four assassins, and he himself was one of them.

And I wonder if Kaeth Jared has made the same conclusions about me that I have about him. . . .

The first had been his own teacher, the third had been his teacher's teacher—a succession of trained men to guard the es­tate's lord, just in case. The fourth had been on the auction block, and that particular set of skills hadn't been mentioned in the auction catalog. Although it momentarily tempted him—to have someone else he could trust with his lord's safety—he had said nothing to the Seneschal who had been looking for a few choice youngsters to introduce to the freedom of the estate. It was a bad idea; like his own teacher he would train his own suc­cessor. There was no telling where that man had been, or why he was on the block.

For a moment, Gel recalled his teacher with great fond­ness—Hakkon Shor had not been Gel's father, but he might just as well have been. He'd helped raise Gel from the moment that Gel showed the sort of athletic potential that made him the skilled fighter he was today. Hakkon hadn't had sons, only daughters—not that one of them wouldn't have served per­fectly well as Kyrtian's bodyguard, but none of them took after Hakkon; in point of fact, they were sweet-natured and ab­solutely oblivious to half of what went on around them. Now

Tirith Shor, who'd been Hakkon's father, felt that was just as well, but Gel knew it had been a great disappointment to the Old Man that his son wouldn't be the one to stand at the next Lord's side....

Kaeth Jared was an unlikely sort for an assassin, if you only saw him clothed. Tall and slim, pale, with hair of a dark auburn and long, clever hands, he didn't look particularly strong. If you saw him nude, however—or in combat—you realized that he was a great deal stronger and more agile than he seemed. There wasn't an ounce of superfluous flesh on him anywhere, and the muscles he had were wire and whipcord; tough, and powerful.

Gel wondered if the others had noticed Kaeth Jared's un­usual alertness and caution, and decided that they probably hadn't. They were just ordinary fighters, and wouldn't be trained or practiced in such careful observation and deduction. They were probably just impressed by the bout that he and Gel had completed—and perhaps a little stunned at its bloodless outcome.

Part of their awe might very well have been due to the lack of scars on Kaeth's body and his own. In the old methods of train­ing, at some point, when two fighters met, they would covertly read true expertise in martial arts not by the number of wounds collected over the years, but by the absence of scarring. An un­marked body in their world meant either that one's lord valued one so highly that he granted the use of magic in healing, or that a fighter's reflexes were so swift and movement so agile that no opponent ever got a chance to land a blow. Neither he nor Kaeth were marred by more than a few trivial lines, long healed.

As Gel emerged from the cascade of water and shook his head like a dog, he caught Kaeth watching out of the corner of his eye; Kaeth knew he'd been caught, and unexpectedly grinned. "You gave me the best bout I've had in a long time, friend," he said, pitching his voice just loud enough to be heard over the sound of the water-cascade. "I'm impressed."

"So am I," Gel admitted freely, as the circle of silent gladia­tors strained their ears to hear every syllable either of them spoke. "And I don't mind saying that if you'd had the benefit of

Lord Kyrtian's system to train under, you'd be so much better than me that it wouldn't have been a contest."

"I wouldn't know about that," Kaeth replied, quickly enough to salve Gel's bruised ego. "But if I'm any judge of Lord Kyn-dreth, he'll be using this system of yours before the month is out. And if he does, every other lord will do the same, or be thought hopelessly provincial and out-of-step. With enough ap­proval behind him, he might well mandate this system through the Council."

The encircling men let out a suppressed sigh; so that was what they had been waiting to hear, and perhaps Kaeth had known that. Gel sympathized; such news would be like a re­prieve from a death-sentence.

Like ? By the Stars, it is a reprieve from a death-sentence! I wonder how many of their comrades were killed in training, and how many more killed in feud-combat or their masters' en­tertainments ? Now the only thing they 'II have to fear is being drafted into the Old Lords 'Army and sent up against the rebels or the Wizards.

"I dare say you're right," Gel agreed, waving his hand in front of the cascade to stop it, then reaching for a towel from the rack behind him. At that point, a servant appeared to sum­mon the gladiators to their respective lords for the return to their home estates, and with palpable disappointment, the two groups of men filed out of the preparation room.

Kaeth waved his own hand at the cascade beneath which he'd been standing, and the sound of rushing water was re­placed by silence. He seized a towel and dried himself, then wrapped it around his waist as Gel already had and exchanged a wry smile with his companion. "Alone at last!" he said.

Gel chuckled, warily. For an assassin, this man had a remark­able sense of humor and no reticence about showing it. "I would hardly have thought my conversation was that entrancing."

Surely he's here by accident. Assassins are normally sent against key humans in an Elvenlord's entourage, and there was no way of knowing who would be playing bodyguard to Kyrt-ian. Was there?

"It's better than theirs." Kaeth jerked his head in the direction

of the exit door. "Those poor blockheads don't have much to talk about except fighting, food, and sex. If they'd gotten up the courage to speak to us, you'd have found that out."

Gel raised an eyebrow. "Well, they're young," he pointed out, as he followed Kaeth carefully into the main room.

"And under the old system, not likely to get older," Kaeth re­torted, getting his clothing off the shoulder-high shelf beside him, and laying it out on a polished wooden bench. "How old's your oldest fighter?"

Gel considered his reply carefully before answering, using the opportunity to lay out his own gear as a chance to stall a lit­tle. "If you count retired fighters who could still pick up a weapon in defense of the estate—the oldest just turned seventy-eight."

Kaeth was actually taken aback, and let out a low whistle as he reached for his trews. "I don't know that I've ever seen a hu­man that old, much less a fighter! You mean your lord actually puts his old men out to pasture instead of putting them down? Great Ancestors, man, how many of these retired fighters have you got?"

"I'm not sure," Gel replied, his suspicions aroused. He's ask­ing too many questions. He's a trained assassin, 1 know he iswhat if he's targeting Kyrtian?

It was possible—Lord Kyndreth could be a patron and ally of the obnoxious Aelmarkin. It might be that he would wait just long enough to learn Kyrtian's training-technique, then elimi­nate Aelmarkin's inconvenient cousin.

In fact he might have been brought to get rid of Kyrtian right here and now, which was why Kyrtian got the invitation in the first place! Maybe that's why Lord Kyndreth wants to come to our estate now, to get the secret, then get rid of Kyrtian where there aren 't any witnessesand maybe get rid of the Lady at the same time!

By now, Gel had gotten his second wind, and such alarming thoughts only increased his energy. And Kaeth, all unsuspect­ing, had actually turned his back to him. If there was ever a time when a trained assassin would be vulnerable, this was it.

Gel didn't even pause for a breath; he acted. He had been

bent over, tying his boots; now without warning, he turned his pose into a charge, staying crouched over and rushing Kaeth, shouldering him into the wall face-first. He heard Kaeth grunt as he hit the wall, but before he could secure the assassin, Kaeth writhed loose a trifle. His reactions were as swift as a serpent's, and he managed to get himself turned around, but not before Gel grabbed a wrist in either hand and smashed them into the wall, then got his knee up to reinforce his hold. Now Gel had Kaeth pinned against the wall with both wrists imprisoned over his head and Gel's knee in his gut.

His legs are still free. If he can kick my leg out from under me

Flushed, but impassive, he stared into Gel's grey-violet eyes for a long moment as Gel waited for him to speak or act. His wrists under Gel's hands showed no sign of tension, nor was there any indication that he intended resistance or struggle.

But that could be a ruse to get me to drop my guard.

"I suppose it's too much to ask what prompted this—ah— rather unexpected action of yours?" he finally asked mildly, a bit out of breath, but completely polite, in spite of the situation.

Gel glared at him, but he didn't drop his eyes. "I suppose you're going to deny you're an assassin," he replied flatly.

"Ah!" The expressionless eyes now reflected understanding, and the mouth relaxed a trifle in a faint smile. 'Wow I under­stand! You think Lord Kyndreth has targeted me at you—or perhaps, your master! Be at ease, friend; Lord Kyrtian is in no danger that I know of, other than from his own conniving cousin. And you're in no danger at all, least of all from me."

It felt honest. Gel wanted to believe him.

"But you don't deny you're an assassin—" Gel's instincts warred with his intellect. His instincts and his senses swore that Kaeth was telling the truth—his more cynical mind warned him that this was just a trick. Still, he was very tempted to release the fellow; this just didn't seem like a lie.

"Hardly, since you seem to have caught me as one," Kaeth replied, with a surprising amount of humor. "Although my own Lord isn't nearly as observant as you, since he is totally un­aware of my training; I went to him, bought at auction after the

unlamented death of my old lord. Still, once an assassin, as they say, the cloak never drops from your shoulders—so I'll qualify it by admitting for Lyon Lord Kyndreth, I'm an active agent, but an inactive assassin, nor am I ever likely to let him know of my more esoteric abilities."

"Huh." Slowly, carefully, Gel rocked his weight back onto his own feet, and released Kaeth's wrists. Just as slowly, Kaeth dropped his hands from the wall and rubbed, then flexed, his wrists, testing them. "And just how did you become an inactive assassin?"

"Look for yourself." Kaeth reached up and pulled the neck of his tunic open, then tilted his chin up so that Gel could see his slave-collar clearly. It wasn't the seal of Lyon Lord Kyn­dreth there, but that of the deceased—and, as Kaeth had said, unlamented—Lord Dyran.

Things were beginning to add up.

The noble Lord Dyran, who trained all manner of slaves in skills best left unexamined.. . and whose estate was broken up and divided among his relatives, with what was left going to auction. And that was where I saw another assassin!

That seal couldn't possibly be counterfeited, either. The fact that he was still wearing Dyran's collar meant that he'd been claimed after Dyran's death—otherwise the new master would insist on having the old collar removed and his own put on. Gel backed up, giving him a little more space. "Interesting."

"My beloved former master," Kaeth said, with a touch of ironic inflection on the word "beloved" that did not escape Gel's notice, "Was not the sort of Elvenlord to forget the tradi­tions of his Ancestors."

"Including assassination?" Gel replied evenly.

Kaeth nodded with a dignity that impressed Gel in spite of himself. "Even so. I was trained from childhood, having shown unusual ability for getting into and out of supposedly guarded spaces and places without being caught. Whether or not you choose to believe me, I will say that my training was never em­ployed against Elvenlords...."

"Not that Dyran would have hesitated if he'd thought he

could get away with it," Gel interjected. Again, Kaeth nodded, this time with a shrug.

"Be that as it may, my usual tasks were to act as his intelli­gence agent, which is how I was employed at the time of his de­mise. And, not knowing any better, that is how my talents were advertised when the estate was broken up and the slaves went to auction, as an agent and bodyguard." Kaeth turned his palms up, and shrugged his shoulders again.

"And you, of course, were under no compulsion to enlighten the auctioneers.” Gel felt a reluctant smile creeping over his lips; if this story was true, Kaeth was a very clever fellow in­deed. Hardly likely he 'd tell them, when it was a lot more likely that the other Elvenlords would order him destroyed rather than take the chance of one of their number getting his hands on a trained assassin. "I don't suppose it ever occurred to you to bolt?"

"Of course it did," Kaeth replied, and sat down on the bench, indicating to Gel that he should do the same. "Oh, don't worry about anyone overhearing us. If there had been anyone listen­ing or watching, they'd have been in here the moment you went for my throat. I cost Kyndreth a very pretty penny, and he'd take it personally if someone deprived him of my services."

And this could be a set-up, but it's getting rather too unlikely and complicatedno, I think I'll go with my instincts and take him at his word.

"Naturally, it occurred to me to flee to the Wizards and the Wild Humans," he repeated, "But—well, 1 learned a few things about these collars that I wasn't supposed to. Only Dyran could compel me magically, and once he was dead, no other Elven-lord can harm me through this collar, unless he is Dyran's equal or better in power. That was a reason to run. But Dyran was as clever a bastard as his reputation claimed—I can still be traced and pursued through the collar, and any attempt to take it off will deprive me of my head. That was Dyran's little fail-safe in case anyone ever decided to subvert me."

Gel winced; that took powerful magic, and it took a particu­larly cruel mind to think of it.

"So, on the whole, it seemed better for everyone that I turn myself in as one of Dyran's slaves and go up for auction with the rest," Kaeth concluded with a lazy smile. "After all, I still had the option to bolt if my new master proved unbearable, and I'd be able to plan my escape so that I'd have a decent chance to get so far away before they discovered I was missing that it wouldn't be worth pursuit. At the time of Dyran's death I was in a position where that wasn't a possibility."

"What if Kyndreth ever finds out from another of Dyran's slaves—" Gel began, but Kaeth interrupted him with a gentle shake of his head.

"It's not likely, since everyone who ever knew what I was trained for is dead—mostly at Dyran's hands, I might add." For just a moment, there was a shade of bitterness in his voice, but he quickly covered it. "And of all the Old Lords, frankly, Kyn­dreth is the least likely to use an assassin. He's powerful enough to do his own dirty work, and ruthless enough to enjoy doing so. No, I'm out of the business, unless for some reason it becomes necessary to re-enter it long enough to protect myself. On the whole, I'm rather enjoying myself. Kyndreth treats ex­pensive property well, and my duties are light, compared to those I had under Dyran."

Gel didn't miss the veiled threat in those words, but he shrugged them off. "I don't give a flying damn what you do with your skills, as long as you're not targeting Kyrtian." He couldn't help it; a note of fierce protectiveness crept into his voice.

Kaeth blinked slowly, and looked deeply and penetratingly into Gel's eyes for a moment. "Interesting," he murmured. "I'd heard rumors about Lord Kyrtian's people ..."

Then he shook his head, as if it was no consequence. "I over­hear a great deal, as all bodyguards do, and Kyndreth has the usual failing of our masters that he forgets how much his slaves see and hear. I hope you will believe me when I tell you that Kyndreth's plans are such, and so complex, that it is unlikely he could ever fit a trained assassin into them with any degree of confidence."

"Maybe against the Old Lords, and the lords that haven't re-

volted," Gel objected, "but what about the Young Lords who are still in revolt?"

"A bare possibility if they actually developed a leader with enough charisma to make them all work together." Kaeth ad­mitted. "But it's more likely that cattle will fly before that hap­pens. And besides, even if he did, sons aren't so thick on the ground that the victim's relatives would be very happy that the errant lad had been eliminated rather than returned to the parental fold." He smiled, but this time there was no humor in it. "After all, a youngster who has had all thoughts of rebellion neatly wiped from his mind can still function to sire the next genera­tion, even if the rest of the time all he does is sit in a corner and drool."

That shocked Gel; he'd heard rumors that some of the Old Lords had the ability to tamper with another Elvenlord's mind and memory, but this was the first time anyone had said any­thing that confirmed what he had privately thought was a rather wild tale.

He did his best to seem as nonchalant about it as Kaeth was, however. "Putting it that way—I suppose you're right. Kyn-dreth would get no joy from the surviving relatives if he wiped out an heir, no matter how they felt about that heir when he was alive." He shook his head, and allowed his disgust and baffle­ment to show. "Damn, but this is as twisted as ball of snakes! How do you make it all out?"

"Early training, mostly." Now Kaeth actually relaxed, and for the first time, Gel saw him drop all of his defensive mannerisms. He knew that he was meant to see that—and he instinctively knew that Kaeth now trusted him as far as he had ever trusted anyone but himself. "Politics among the Elvenlords—it's con­sidered a high art. Sometimes I think it's a pity that no one will ever know how accomplished an artist I am but myself."

Gel had to chuckle at that, and Kaeth smiled—a real, un­masked smile—in answer. "Well, I'm a plain man, and I tell you now that I'd rather map battlefield strategy than political strategy any day."

"It's cleaner." The regret in that voice was so deep that Gel could have drowned in it. For a moment, they both fell silent,

then Kaeth coughed. "Well—before Lord Kyndreth wonders what is taking me so long, and summons me—what can you tell me about this training method of Lord Kyrtian's?"

Gel studied his expression, and came to an interesting con­clusion. He approves. Granted, if his master asks what we were talking about, this will give him something to feed to him, but he also approves of this and wants to know for himself. Fasci­nating. I wouldn 't have thought that an assassin would be in­terested in preserving lives.

"He's doing something with his magic that's initially compli­cated to set up, but doesn't take a great deal of power," Gel ad­mitted. "That's what he's told me, anyway. Not being a lord, I don't know the mechanics of it." He brooded a moment, think­ing back to the first time that Kyndreth set the spells. "There are two different pieces of magic involved: one to create a weapon that looks and feels real, but has no more substance than an il­lusion; and the other that he sets on the fighter that works with the weapon and reacts to what the weapon does."

"Senses it, you mean?" Kaeth asked, his eyes intent.

"I guess that's close, as close as anything a human can un­derstand." Gel licked his lips. "Anyway, that second spell is what makes the glow and the shock when you're hit. The first time he did it, it took him most of the day; he says it gets easier as you get used to it. And according to him, it's almost as sim­ple to work the spells on a lot of people as it is to cast them for one—he said something once about giving the magic extra en­ergy and it copies itself for as long as you feed it." He laughed with embarrassment. "That probably sounds stupid, but that's the best I can tell you."

"No, no, it makes sense," Kaeth told him. "I've heard them talking about that, when they want to create a lot of something, like trees or flowers—doing the first one, then setting it to copy itself. That's how they can tell the difference between the illu­sion that a really powerful lord creates, and one created by an underling. You never see a powerful lord making copies; in his illusions, every tree, every flower is different."

"Whatever. That's the best description I can tell you." He pondered a moment, then decided to give Kaeth some informa-

tion that, should he feed it back to Lord Kyndreth, would be a protection for Kyrtian rather than a danger. "Kyrtian has as many regular fighters as any other Great Lord, but I have to tell you, all we do is practice—either in daily drill using his method, or in actual battle-simulations. That's the regular fight­ers. Once a fighter is over forty, he goes on light-duty; he has some other job, but keeps in practice—archery practice, mostly, though some of them keep their sword and spear work right up to their old standards."

"Which means you don't just have gladiators, you have an army, trained to fight together." Kaeth pulled on his lower lip. "And you have a back-up corps of those older men. Interesting. Only a fool would challenge your Lord."

That was said as a statement, not a question.

Good. Let Kyndreth chew on that! "Exactly," Gel nodded. "That's because Lord Kyrtian likes to see how battle-strategy really works, rather than just reading about it. We work out new combat simulations fairly often, because unless someone steps into a hole and breaks a leg or something equally stupid, we come out of combat with the same number of fighters we went into it with."

"It's a damned good system," Kaeth agreed, finally. "So good, it makes me wonder what the advantage is to Lord Kyrt­ian. Trained fighters could revolt, if they put their minds to it,"

Gel laughed easily. "Well, for one thing, there aren't any real weapons around where we can get hold of them. They're all locked up in the armory under Kyrtian's seal."

"So he doesn't have to worry about a slave-revolt." Kaeth's face cleared, and he nodded.

"And, of course, knowing you aren't going to get injured or killed makes the men willing to practice."

"He wouldn't have the expense of buying or raising replace­ments, either." Kaeth sighed in open admiration. "Brilliant strategy, especially for someone with no political allies. After today, no one will dare challenge him to a feud; his position is secure against all normal avenues of challenge. I would never have thought it, given his reputation."

"Not exactly bad strategy to make the others underrate him

until he was ready, was it?" Gel said slyly, and Kaeth actually laughed.

Gel had the impression now that despite his sinister training, Kaeth Jared was a pretty decent sort, and that surprised him, more than a little. He'd always considered assassins to be—

To be scum, actually. I suspect most of them are. This one, thoughwell, he's got my respect.

His thoughts were interrupted by a discreet cough from the door, where a pair of young lads in Aelmarkin's livery stood uneasily. "Your Lords—" the nearest said, a tremor in his voice.

"Our Lords require us," Kaeth supplied with a nod. Suddenly the mask dropped over his face and he was all cool surface again, remote and unreadable. "Of course, immediately."

Gel stood only a fraction behind Kaeth, who turned and of­fered his hand. "It was a pleasure in every sense," Kaeth said, the warmth of his tone belying his lack of expression. "I would like to meet you again under similar circumstances."

Gel clasped the offered hand solemnly. "I hope that we can," he replied as warmly, "and I look forward to it."

And with that, they parted. As Gel followed his guide, he wondered what Kaeth's emotions were. He didn't think he was mistaken; something had resonated between them.

Maybe not friendship, at least not yet, he decided, as he saw Kyrtian waiting up ahead with a sense of relief that the ordeal was finally over. But definitely admiration. And neither of us wants to ever have to kill the other. That has to count for something!

8

Kyrtian passed through the Portal, which on Aelmarkin's side was a great gilded bas-relief gate wide and tall enough for a cargo-wagon to pass through, and on the manor side was an ornately-carved wooden door with a high

lintel featuring the family crest. He had been in a profoundly thoughtful state of mind from the moment that he had parted with Lord Kyndreth, and Gel didn't interrupt his musings by trying to talk to him. Then again, it was entirely likely that Gel was too tired to talk, which didn't hurt Kyrtian's feelings in the least.

Longstanding family tradition of caution situated the Portal inside a small chamber with walls of stone and a locked door of fire-toughened bronze as insurance against an enemy using it to penetrate the heart of the manor. Invited guests were met here by an escort and let out, and the chamber itself would hold no more than ten at the most. The "key" to unlock the door was the presence of a family member or someone else (like Gel) to whom the lock had been sensitized. Of course, it was possible to overpower the escort and open the chamber door that way, but the door was guarded every moment of every day, and at least one guard would be able to raise an alarm. There would be no invasions of the estate through this Portal—or so it was hoped. After all of his studies in military tactics, Kyrtian was only too aware that a clever commander could think of ways to get past their precautions. His only comfort was that most of the Elvenlords were not very clever commanders.

Kyrtian parted with Gel just outside the Portal Chamber, as the guards tried to pretend they weren't eavesdropping. "Well, we're in for it now," he said, in mingled pride and cha­grin. "I think this is the highest-ranked member of the Great Council to come here since Grandfather's day, and we're go­ing to have to make certain everyone is totally prepared and understands what they need to do. The sooner we start preparing the staff and servants for Lord Kyndreth's visit, the sooner we can get it over with, and then everything can go back to normal."

"And the longer we delay, the more we risk an insult. Don't worry, I'm on it," the Sergeant said with a wave. "You go break the news to the Lady."

Gel made for the training-quarters at a trot, and Kyrtian re­flected that the Sergeant was probably already five steps ahead of him in planning things. And one thing was absolutely cer-

tain; the visit could not take place until every servant on the es­tate was so well-rehearsed in the appropriate conduct of a slave that nothing would force him to depart from it, not insult, not punishment, and certainly not carelessness. Those servants closest to Kyrtian and his mother would have to be the best ac­tors of the lot, which meant that certain of the younger and less experienced house-servants (such as Lynder) would be replaced for the duration with others who had been promoted to other positions or had even retired. Kyrtian would certainly be doing without most of his personal servants, who would be attending Lord Kyndreth, but that was a small price to pay for keeping up the deception that this was a normal Elven household.

All that would be in the hands of Gel, Lady Lydiell, and Lord Tenebrinth the Seneschal, and the sooner he let the last two know what was about to descend on them, the better. Gel was right; Lord Kyndreth's visit could not be postponed for long without offending him.

He paused for a moment to locate both his mother and the Seneschal; this was no time to waste precious moments hunting for them by ordinary means. The merest whisper of magic told him that, as was often the case at this time of day, Tenebrinth was with his mother in the latter's office, probably going over the household and estate accounts, making plans for the next couple of months, or dealing with issues of the servants. That could not possibly have been better for Kyrtian's purposes. By catching them together, Kyrtian would only have to go over the prospective visit and the reasons for it once.

Lydiell's office was literally at the center of the manor, over­looking everything. The manor boasted five towers, one at each corner and one at the center, with the center-most being a good two stories taller than the others—a full twelve stories tall. The towers gave the manor a look of delicacy and attenuation that Kyrtian found both attractive and amusingly deceptive, for the building itself had been constructed to survive a long siege, and had been built to withstand siege weapons that for the most part no longer existed. Lydiell's office was a glass-walled room at the very tip of the center-most tower, a place that would, in war-

time, be occupied by at least four lookouts. Even in the worst weather, it was a snug and welcoming place, as the tower was one of the few places in the manor that depended on magic for more than lighting and a decorative illusion or two. Magic, and not mechanical contrivances, heated and cooled the tower and protected it from the worst weather. Magic also ensured the safety of any occupants of the transparent tube he entered at the bottom of the tower, powering the little platform under his feet that slowly rose through the tower to the top. No human could use this contrivance by himself, not even if that human was blessed with the humans' own form of magic. In this way, when she worked, Lydiell could be assured that no one could inter­rupt her without having to go first to one of elven blood. There were drawbacks to being as approachable as the lords of this manor had always been; the short-lived humans tended to come to them with any problem that had them stymied for more than a few moments, assuming that long experience granted unfath­omable wisdom.

If it did that, there wouldn 't be a Young Lords' War now. The Old Lords would have known better than to let them get as far as they did. And there wouldn't have been a second Wizard War either.

The intervening floors of the tower were, for the most part, unfurnished, although this was the oldest section of the manor and everything else had been constructed around it. The round rooms were too small to use for anything but offices, and only Lydiell and Tenebrinth had need of an office. So Kyrtian passed room after round, empty, alabaster-walled room with nothing more to entertain him than brief glimpses of the outside through the weapon-slits that served in place of windows. Even the look of alabaster was deceptive; the tower was built of something far stronger, though too much magic went into the construction of the material for anyone to use it these days. This tower was an artifact of the first fifty years after the Elves crossed out of Evelon, when no one knew if this world would prove to be as dangerous as the one they had left, a time when the elven-born existed as closely crowded together as any of the

primitive humans in their huts, and waited for something infi­nitely more dangerous to descend without warning than a mob of weak, short-lived humans.

Tenebrinth's office, just below Lydiell's, was empty and un-tenanted as Kyrtian had anticipated. That office, and Lydiell's, were nearly double the size of the rooms below them. The walls swelled out here, giving the tower the look of a deep plate or shallow bowl balanced on a candlestick and covered with a round, pointed silver dish cover that was the overhanging (and projectile-proof) roof. The windows in Tenebrinth's office were only half the size of the ones in Lydiell's, but were glazed with the same impervious substance used instead of ordinary glass in every opening of this tower. Light that came through this substance lost some of its color and strength, making it appear as if the office lay underwater.

Now Kyrtian heard voices, and as he rose through the ceiling of Tenebrinth's office into that of Lady Lydiell, Lord Tene-brinth himself got up from his chair to greet him. Lady Lydiell remained seated, but welcomed her son with a smile and an ex­tended hand.

Tenebrinth was a little older than Kyrtian's father would have been had he still been alive, having apprenticed in the position of Seneschal under Kyrtian's grandfather. He had served in his official capacity for as long as Kyrtian had known him, and as one of Kyrtian's tutors as well. As with all Elvenlords above a certain age but below the point of being considered ancient, it was impossible to tell exactly how old he was. Tall, thinner and less muscular than Lady Lydiell, with a long jaw and nose and prominent cheekbones, hair confined with a silver clasp at the nape of his neck, he looked exactly like what he was, a studious creature, serious and careful in thought and speech, a true scholar and thinker who preferred to joust with his mind and not his body.

"Well, I see you survived your encounter with the young tygers," the Seneschal said genially. "Permit me to congratu­late you."

Kyrtian stepped out of the tube, kissed the back of his mother's hand, and took the chair that the Seneschal offered

him. "Believe me, it felt like being in a tyger-pit," he replied with feeling. "I can't imagine how anyone enjoys these so-called social occasions."

"They aren't all as bad as combat challenges seem to be," Lady Lydiell said with a touch of sympathy and a shrug. "Some of the fetes can be positively pleasant, especially the fetes for unwed daughters. The presence of women seems to make the young tygers sheath their claws and hide their teeth, at least long enough to look civilized while in the company of the ladies."

Kyrtian had debated whether or not to tell his mother every­thing, and decided now that on the whole she was better off not knowing about how he had interrupted the challenge-combat, since only good had come out of his near-blunder in the end. "Well, I know you don't care who won the dispute—but Gel and I managed to pull off a little triumph that I think you two will approve of."

Tenebrinth blinked, and his mother raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" she said. "Now what have you two gotten into?"

"Well, there's good news and there's inconvenient news," he replied, "The inconvenient news is that Lyon Lord Kyndreth wants to visit for long enough to learn my training and combat methods. The good news is that the reason he does is that we persuaded the two feuding lords to have their differences set­tled in a combat my way, between Gel and Lord Lyon's man. Lyon was impressed, and not only wants to know how the spells are set, but said in the presence of the other lords that he intends to make this the way in which fighters are trained and disputes settled from now on. After seeing bloodless combat, he says that he agrees with me; the old ways are too wasteful to continue."

With every word, Lydiell and Tenebrinth grew more and more astonished, eyes widening and mouths dropping slightly open. It was Tenebrinth who could not restrain himself as Kyrt­ian leaned back in his chair, a satisfied smile on his face.

"By the Ancestors, boy, that isn't good news, it's wonderful news! Do you realize what this means to the humans out there?" Tenebrinth waved his arm at the world outside the windows.

"Well—mostly," Lady Lydiell interjected gently. "There are going to be those of our race whose thirst for blood and cruelty will not be satisfied with bloodless combat and who will con­tinue to waste the lives of gladiators. Not even Lyon could get a law through the Council forbidding them to kill their own slaves. That strikes at the heart and soul of what nearly every Elvenlord sees as his basic rights over creatures he considers to be no better than beasts and property." At Kyrtian's nod of agreement, she smiled. "Nonetheless, Tenebrinth is right. Most of the Elvenlords will be only too pleased with the notion that they can settle differences through bloodless combat. It's a great drain, breeding and buying expensive fighting stock. The further expense of training gladiators and keeping them in training is bad enough; it's worse to have their expensive prop­erty massacred during training, and nearly as bad when the massacre happens in settling a petty argument, leaving them to train gladiators all over again if they wish to maintain their po­sition and status."

Tenebrinth nodded. "That's been a complaint of the Lesser Lords against the Greater for the past two generations—very few have the resources to toss away slaves without considering the expense! Lord Lyon will gain a great deal of support among the Lesser Lords for this, if he makes it policy—and almost as importantly, he won't aggravate the Greater. He stands to win all around."

Lydiell patted her son's hand. "I'm so pleased that I won't even ask what trouble you tumbled into in order to achieve this remarkable goal!"

"Mother!" Kyrtian objected, hoping he didn't sound guilty.

"But the price of this is that we are to expect Lord Kyndreth some time in the immediate future?" the Seneschal interjected. "Did you actually set a date for the visit?"

"No date has been set, and I told him that I would send him a Portal-key when I had things ready for him. I tried to give the impression that, as we were a small household, reclusive and unused to visitors, we needed time to prepare for the visit of so prominent a guest. He was satisfied with that so far as I could tell, and I have no intention of letting him set foot here until

everyone is prepared. That won't be until you two and Gel have gotten the servants and field-hands ready to hold up the illusion that this is an ordinary estate," Kyrtian assured him. "He didn't seem all that impatient and he wasn't offended that I couldn't offer him our hospitality immediately."

"No doubt he has business of his own to take care of before he can afford a formal visit," the Seneschal murmured, as if to himself.

"More likely he is taking the time to see who is and is not our ally, going back to the time we all left Evelon," Lydiell replied tartly. "Someone of his rank and status can't afford an ally with an inconvenient number of deadly enemies."

"Well, the only enemy we have that I know of is Ael-markin...." Kyrtian said, letting his voice trail off and looking at his mother questioningly.

"Correct; Aelmarkin is our only open enemy, with the re­mote possibility that his allies might choose to throw in on his side," his mother confirmed. "Though once they see that Lyon has thrown in with us, however briefly, they are unlikely to back Aelmarkin against us in anything important. Thank the Ancestors we never meddled in politics on either side of the family! We'll have a clean slate, so far as Lord Lyon is con­cerned. All we have to worry about is keeping up appearances for a few days at most."

"I—don't intend to ask anything of Lord Lyon for this, Mother," Kyrtian said, hesitantly. "And I don't intend to make it seem as if I consider it a great favor on my part to teach him my methods. I want it to seem as if I consider this to be—how shall 1 put this?—something that I truly believe should be offered, part of my duty to the Elvenlords as a whole. I want to give him the impression of a solemn young man who is devoted to the welfare of his people. Which I am; just not the people that he thinks." He smiled. "There's no point in disillusioning him on that."

"Exactly right; any of the ordinary status-grubbers would do the opposite," she confirmed. "By acting differently than he ex­pects, you'll catch him off guard and he won't know quite what to think of us. At best, he may decide that we're worth

having as a permanent ally. The worst he'll assume is that we are so quietly provincial, so wrapped up in our own ways and life, with such quaint ideas of loyalty and duty, that we are no threat or challenge to anyone. We'll be safe to patronize, and he'll be motivated to protect us from any more of Aelmarkin's maneuverings."

"For my part, I would say that this would be the best thing he could assume," Kyrtian replied, relieved. "Can I take it that you approve?"

"Completely," Lady Lydiell said, as Tenebrinth nodded. Kyrtian smiled, a little thrill of pleasure tickling his spirit at the notion that his first foray into the dangerous world of Great Lords and politics had come off so successfully.

Even though I almost turned it into a disaster, he reminded himself. This is not the time for hubris!

He took his leave of both of them and stepped into the tube, which held him in place until the platform rose to receive him. Once he had been deposited on the ground floor, he headed straight for the West Tower, which held all five floors of the great library.

He planned to do a little genealogical investigation himself before his own plans went any further.

In the home of every Elvenlord, Great or Lesser, there was always a Great Book of Ancestors, kept up to date by either the Lady of the clan or a clerk she personally supervised. Every birth, death, and wedding was promptly reported to the Coun­cil, which sent out immediate notification to every household, however small and insignificant. No marriage or alliance could be made without consulting the Great Book, which dated back to the exile from Evelon.

Kyrtian sat at the table holding the Great Book on its slant­ing stand, and drew it closer to him. As he always did, because those First Days fascinated him, Kyrtian opened the Book to the first page where the names of all of those who had dared the Gate out of Evelon were written. Fully half of them were inscribed with death-dates that came within days or weeks of the Crossing. Some had died of the strain of the Crossing it­self, or of injuries sustained in Evelon before the Crossing.

Few in these days realized that those who had made the Crossing had been the losers in a war that had split Elvenkind and set one half warring against the other. The Crossing had been the desperate attempt of the defeated to escape rather than surrender, not the valiant and bold move of those who were in search of a new world to conquer. That was one fact that those who ruled here now preferred to forget and bury in the past.

Of the survivors that remained after the Crossing, none were still alive at the present day. Elvenlords lived long, provided no accident, illness, inherited weakness, or murder disposed of them before the normal span of four or five centuries, but they were hardly immortal. Kyrtian's paternal great-grandfather had been one of the longest-lived survivors, as (he now learned) had Lyon Lord Kyndreth's great-grandsire; most other Elvenlords in these days were yet a further generation down the line from the original inhabitants of the new land.

He turned the page to trace his mother's line, rather than his father's. Odd, he thought, as he noted something that had never seemed important before. I'm literally the first male any woman of her line has produced since Evelon

"That is why there was no great objection when I wedded your father," said Lydiell, behind him, as if she had the human gift of reading thoughts. He was too used to her uncanny ability to do this with him to be startled; he simply turned and smiled at her as she stepped forward another pace and placed her hand affectionately on his shoulder.

"No one—least of all Aelmarkin—ever thought I would pro­duce a male heir," she said quietly. "That was why there was no objection raised to the marriage, and why Aelmarkin is so in­tent on dispossessing you of your inheritance now. He assumed that the ripe plum of our estate would drop into his lap without any effort on his part—or that he could somehow connive or force me to wed my presumed daughter to him." Lydiell smiled down at her son, whose birth had spoiled Aelmarkin's plans.

"But he's really a cousin in name only," Kyrtian objected, tracing back Aelmarkin's line. "His people haven't been di­rectly related to ours since Evelon itself! It was our great-

grandfathers who were cousins, and there's been no closer mar­riage since then."

"But if you trace carefully, he's the only other male heir to the Clan," Lydiell pointed out. "That's as much your great­grandfather's and grandfather's fault as anything else. Once they had a single, living child, the need to protect what we had built here took precedence over trying to sire any more chil­dren. They each had one male heir by one marriage and no fur­ther children; no daughters to wed outside the Clan, no second sons to secure alliances. Granted, they were exceptionally long-lived, and that's what saved us, but I was the first bride to come from a family not bound in any way to your Clan, and if your father was still with us, by now you would have at least a younger sister or brother, because I would have personally seen to it, rather than accepted the edict that there was no need for further children."

Now Kyrtian noted something else that had somehow es­caped his attention. His ageless mother was nearer in age to his grandfather than his father! She saw his eyes resting on the birth-date under her name, and chuckled richly.

"I wondered when you would uncover that!" she said. "Yes, I'll admit it; I robbed the cradle! When your grandmother— wiser or more pragmatic than her husband—knew that she would not survive your father's birth, she had enough time to handpick a successor. She turned to our family, who had been her friends; she wanted my sister, but the family had already wed her off, so she chose me! But she had reckoned without your grandfather's love and devotion; he refused to take another wife, especially one as barely-nubile as I was. Still, for the sake of my friendship with her, I visited often and long, trying to amuse your grandfather and possibly even persuade him in time that I was fascinating and desirable! I wish you had seen me, still barely past my presentation fete, slinking around here as if I was a hardened seductress!"

Since Kyrtian couldn't imagine his mother slinking around like a seductress at any age, he spluttered a little and reddened.

"Well, when seduction failed, I thought I would win him by showing him what a devoted mother I could be to his son," she

continued. "There was one little wrinkle in that plan; by the time I thought of it, your father was hardly of an age to need mothering! But I persisted in cultivating him, only to find that his son and I were mutually falling head over heels in love as soon as he was old enough to think of such things! Your grand-sire was much amused, and so was my sister, Moth."

"Moth," of course, was V'tern Morthena Lady Arada, nearly a full century Lydiell's senior, and the only surviving relict of Lord Arada's tiny Clan. She held a small estate granted her by her late husband in her own right, with no inconvenient cousins to pester her.

Kyrtian sighed. When he looked at the Great Book, in the complicated web of intermarriages and second and third mar­riages, his family stood all alone, like a single strand of silk off to one side of the greater pattern.

"I have not told you this before, but Aelmarkin tried to force a marriage on me when your father first disappeared," she con­tinued, as calmly as if it had happened to someone else. "That was when Moth came to my rescue; she dug up an obscure law preventing a man from marrying the widow of his cousin if she already had a male heir. She visited each of the Great Lords herself and pointed out to each one of them—with examples— how that law would protect their own sons from certain of their opponents if anything happened to the lord himself. Needless to say, they upheld the law to a man, and Aelmarkin had to slink away with his tail between his legs."

"No wonder he hates you," Kyrtian replied, enlightened.

She sniffed delicately. "Personally, I prefer not to waste an emotion as empowering as hatred on that worm. It was obvious from the start what his plans were when he came slinking around here, oozing false sympathy and groomed and jewel-bedecked to within an inch of his life. Even if I had been the foolish woman he thought I was, I would quickly have seen that such an alliance would mean your death. No matter what my personal feelings were on the subject, I would never have placed you or our people in the hands of the odious Aelmarkin!"

"Thank you for that!" Kyrtian laughed.

"And sometime you might thank your aunt for devising the

means to protect us both," she replied cheerfully, with a light squeeze of her hand on his shoulder.

"Well, however much you play at modesty, I think that you would have found the solution just as quickly as Lady Moth if you hadn't had her help," he told her. "You are two out of the same mold, as clever as you are beautiful, and far more intelli­gent than any mere males."

"I only needed to be clever enough to take advantage of our isolation," she said, with a laugh at his attempt to compliment her. "After all, we are out back of beyond of nowhere, and I doubt that anyone other than Aelmarkin would even consider wanting our estate for that reason;" Her tone turned scornful. "And frankly, I think if Aelmarkin knew how much work it is to keep this estate so profitable, he'd quickly change his mind about wanting it."

"I only wish that were true," Kyrtian sighed. "It's only a lot of work because of the way we treat our human friends; if this estate were run on the same lines as any other, the profits would probably be much higher. At least," he amended, "That's what Tenebrinth told me once."

"That's beside the point," Lydiell said resolutely. "The point now is to make sure we get the most out of Lord Lyon's visit, without making any blunders and without sacrificing any of our independence. You go off and consult with Gel over dinner; I'll do the same with Tenebrinth. We're going to want to please Lyon without dazzling him, charm him without making it look as if we have anything he really wants other than your knowl­edge and expertise. And you and Gel ought to put your heads together to see if you can think of anything else he might want out of you in particular."

Kyrtian closed the Great Book with a determined snap. "You're perfectly right, as usual," he said. "I'll go change into something less ostentatious and find Gel, and we'll get down to business."

But in spite of the excitement of the moment, there was one thing he had realized as he walked off in search of Gel. With all of the conversation about marriages and alliances, for the first

time since he'd come of age, Lydiell had not even mentioned the prospect of his own marriage!

And that was enough of a relief that his steps became notice­ably lighter.

9

Over the next several days, he and Gel were so busy with preparations for Lord Kyndreth's visit that he hardly had time to do anything other than eat and sleep. He certainly didn't have any time for staging even combat-practice, so the fighters were left to fend for themselves until Gel could take over their practice-sessions using the old, blunted wooden weapons instead of the magic ones.

He already knew that he did not have to worry about the fighters taking advantage of his inattention. Thanks to a very real sense of what Gel would have to say—and do—about it, if they spent their time idle, they took it upon themselves to fol­low the usual course of exercise and simple drill, varied with hand-to-hand, unarmed contests, in which the worst accident that could befall would be a broken bone or two.

Kyrtian also knew that the fighters would not give the game away by acting out-of-character. They were military, heart and soul, and would no more speak out-of-turn or hesitate to obey an order than fly. No, the fighters could be counted upon to play their parts like the professionals that they were.

It was the regular servants and field-hands who had to be drilled in subservience until it became second nature, and many times Kyrtian was strongly tempted to meddle with their minds by means of magic to keep them from forgetting. It was finally Gel who came up with the excellent solution of actually work­ing through the elf-stones on their seldom-worn collars, setting

up a warning tingle whenever the wearer altered his or her pos­ture from that of complete servility.

That worked, and far better than Kyrtian had expected. The servile pose, with shoulders slightly hunched and eyes on the ground, forcibly reminded people of how they were expected to act. "It won't matter if they look cowed and afraid all the time," Gel pointed out. "Lord Kyndreth won't know it's all acting a part, no matter how exaggerated it seems to us. A real slave just can't be too servile; if they grovel a lot, he'll only think you're keeping their leashes short and using the whip a great deal. Now—much as I hate to bring this up, but what if Kyndreth doesn't bring along some of his own women? He'll expect to be offered entertainment, even if he turns it down."

"I don't have any concubines to offer him," Kyrtian pointed out. "I suspect that's one of the things Aelmarkin tries to use against me with the other Lords, that I'm—ah—"

"Virginal and chaste—and probably sexless, hence no fit heir," Gel growled bluntly. "Well, you may not have a harem to offer him at the moment, but what are you going to do? Have you made any plans?"

"Mother had an idea," Kyrtian replied, but made a face of distaste. "I don't like it, mind you, but... she thinks it's just that I'm too fastidious. She's going to send Tenebrinth to the slave markets and buy a pretty concubine or two just before the visit; she'll meddle with their memories to make them think they've been here for the last couple of years, keep them iso­lated in a tiny harem of their own and have me offer them to Lord Kyndreth."

"You're too fastidious," Gel told him bluntly. "It's perfect. They won't know anything about us, and they won't be related to anyone here. If there's an ... accident... we won't be los­ing any of our people."

Kyrtian's distaste grew, but he couldn't deny that Gel's prag­matic view was at least practical. "And what do we do with them afterwards?" he asked sourly.

Gel shrugged. "Hardly matters. Concubines aren't the brightest as a whole, and I suspect any that your mother picks will be very pretty and very dim—much safer that way. We

could probably marry them off to someone, if you've got no taste for having them around. Or sell them again," He raised an eyebrow at Kyrtian's expression, and snorted. "Do yourself a favor; let your mother and Tenebrinth deal with it. Keep your hands clean if you dislike it that much."

As if my not knowing makes it any better, he thought grimly. No, that's no answer. "I'll tell Mother you agree with her idea, and even though I don't like the idea, I agree it's necessary, there really doesn't seem to be a better solution."

"There isn't," Gel said, with emphasis. "What else do you want to do, ask for volunteers?"

That was definitely no answer. He shook his head. "I'll do the memory manipulation—mother isn't going to be able to im­part many convincing illusions about—um—I mean, it's not as if she's a male—" He flushed, and didn't complete the sen­tence, but got the distinct feeling that Gel found his embarrass­ment highly amusing. "We'll do what we have to, all of us, and try to make things up afterwards if there's anyone hurt by this." He just hoped that Lord Kyndreth wasn't one of those who left women damaged. "I can always make the girls forget every­thing when he's gone," he added, as much for his own benefit as for Gel's.

Gel looked relieved. "You'll never be a real commander if you can't make the difficult decisions and carry them out," he reminded his erstwhile superior—perhaps just a touch smugly.

"I just did, didn't I?" he replied, irritated. "Enough; we're spending more time on this than the issue warrants, and it has nothing to do with your part in this, which is getting the fighters ready. Well?"

Gel grinned. "Oh, they're ready. Very eager to show their paces, and just as eager to see you vindicated. Have no fear, they know their parts. We'll give Lord Kyndreth a show he isn't likely to forget for the next three centuries."

Triana considered the slave dispassionately—a rare state of mind for her. There were several considerations here, not the least of which was this; how far could one trust a human? As she had told Aelmarkin, she seldom trained female

slaves. Never was not the operative word; never was not a word to be used at all among the Elvenlords, whose long lives had no room in them for never. Sooner or later, whatever it was that had been vowed against would happen. Mind, there were El­venlords so rigid in their thinking that they actually believed that they could say they would "never" do something—but Tri-ana knew better.

This woman was not of her breeding; the female slaves that Triana bred on her own estate were strictly utilitarian, and while not plain (she couldn't bear to have anything plain or ugly about her) were about as animated as statues in the pres­ence of their mistress. This girl, bought, not at auction, but handpicked from among the offerings of a private sale, was the opposite of stoic and unanimated. She was trained as a dancer as well as in harem skills; she was very intelligent. Triana needed a woman who was intelligent, but with intelligence came the liability of thinking for one's self.

How far to trust her? That was the question.

"Would it surprise you very much to learn that I need a spy?" she asked aloud.

The slave shook her head slightly, enough to indicate that she was not surprised, but not so much that the mute reply could be considered impertinent.

"The mother of a certain young lord is purchasing harem slaves, and I intend that you should number among them," Tri­ana continued. "I need to know what goes on in his household, and harem slaves are in a unique position to find that out."

"But harem slaves are kept in isolation—" the girl responded tentatively.

Triana smiled. "But men do not heed their tongues when among them," she corrected. "I could have merely planted a teleson-ring on you and sent you on as a passive listener—but I would not learn a tenth as much as I will when you work for me in full knowledge of what I want." She considered the girl fur­ther. "It is your duty to give me that, but your previous master indicated that you are bothersomely intelligent—"

Here the girl flushed and looked down at her feet.

"—and as a consequence, I am aware that mere duty is not

going to extract what I want from the place to which I am going to send you." Triana chuckled, and the girl looked up again in surprise. "Oh, come now—I am not one of those lords who prefers slaves to have no thoughts of their own! You little mayfly humans may not have the capacity to appreciate what your masters can, but you are still as motivated by the prospect of gain as we are. I know full well that once planted in this household, your leash will be slipped and you can and will do as you please in this matter." She leaned forward, catching and holding the girl's gaze with her own. "I have an incentive to of­fer you, so that you will work that dear little mind of yours to the fullest on my behalf."

A flicker of emotion passed across the girl's face, and she flushed again. "Incentive, Mistress?" she ventured breathily.

Satisfied that she had found the correct key to the lock of the girl's ambition, Triana leaned back. "A reward, if that word pleases you better; a reward for exemplary service. Exert your­self to the utmost on my behalf, find a way to convince Kyrtian to leave the harem door unbarred to your comings and goings, and above all, report everything you see and hear, however small and seemingly inconsequential, to me. Do that, satisfy me, and at the end of a year in his service I will have you re­trieved. You can retire here, and name what you will for your conditions of living, never again being required to do anything you do not care for. From a cottage and mate of your choice to the suite and service of a young Lady. Or—if this is more to your liking—you may go to your wild brethren among the Wiz­ards. I can arrange for that as well."

From the slight quickening of the girl's breath, Triana knew she had caught her. Mine, she thought, with satisfaction, and nodded to set the hook, now that the bait had been taken. "This will not be easy," she warned. "You will have to bend your whole mind to the task, and you will have to keep Lord Kyrtian and his mother from ever guessing that you are not what you seem. If you do not satisfy me—" she shrugged "—I will not be able to punish you, obviously, but I can and will leave you in place, and you will live and die the concubine of a minor lord in a tiny harem with unvarying routine. Kyrtian does not often

have guests, so you would not even have that prospect to brighten your days. I believe that someone like you would find that sort of life maddeningly restrictive."

The slave did not hesitate even for the smallest part of a mo­ment. "I will serve you, Lady," the girl replied decisively. "You will find nothing lacking in my zeal."

Triana laughed aloud, with a glance at the girl to invite her to join in her good humor. Ah, Aelmarkin, she thought, as she set­tled down to instruct the girl in the use of the teleson-ring and her initial duties. This wager is already won!

Gel knew his business, none better. Kyrtian left the matter of the household to his mother, and took charge of the rest. Now that the warnings were in place and the attitude of the field-hands and farmers had been established, he judged that it was time to prepare the general outward appearance of his people. They must look self-sufficient and prosperous, but not too pros­perous. The servants must not look too healthy, too happy. In fact, the ones in the fields must not look happy at all.

He spent a day considering how to accomplish that, research­ing spells of illusion, wondering what he would do if Lord Kyndreth detected them or broke them. Kyndreth had not got­ten where he was by being a fool, and if he detected illusions, he would want to know what they hid—he would first suspect treachery, but he would definitely want to know why there were illusions on human slaves.

Finally, in the twilight, he decided to take a walk to see if the fresh air would clear his head out and let some fresh thoughts in.

The stars were just coming out, and a fine breeze carried the scents of the gardens on its wings. He took a moment to extin­guish the glowing globes illuminating the pathways, for he knew the garden paths by heart and had no need of the lights. At the moment, he would rather enjoy the darkness, not because he was brooding, but because he wanted his mind to rest.

How did Aelmarkin's servants look? That would be the sort of thing to get his own people to emulate. Despite their servile stances, there was still something wrong about them that he could not put a finger on. He took slow, deliberate steps and

cast his mind back a few days, trying not to frown in concentra­tion. It wasn't an exact memory he wanted, after all, but an im­pression. How did the ordinary servants, the ones who cleaned the rooms and brought the food from the kitchen, seem to an observer?

It was easy enough to remember the pretty ones, the upper-level slaves, whose duties included being decorative. Those weren't the ones he wanted, at least in part because he wasn't certain any of his people could manage a convincing imitation of a pleasure-slave, and in part because it wouldn't do any harm for Lord Kyndreth to believe that his household was on the aus­tere and sober side. Let Kyndreth think of him as hard-working, somewhat obsessed with his hobby, and not really interested in the opulent life. That would do no harm at all.

It will also reinforce the impression that we aren't worth the attempt to take us over. Profit can only be stretched so far; we might be austere because we can't afford too many luxuries.

Try as he might, all he could come up with was a vague im­pression of sameness, as if the lesser servants were all as alike as ants, and as interchangeable. They could have been furniture, floor-tiles, the plinths upon which statues stood, they blended so well into the background.

With a flash of insight, he realized at that moment that this was what he wanted!

They must have all been in some drably uniform tunics, or the like, he decided. They aren't supposed to stand outthey should be invisible. Drab tunics would do that. No matter that he didn't know what such a tunic or what-not should look like—any of the seamstresses could deal with that detail. He'd take the need to them first thing in the morning, and let them de­cide how to make everyone on the manor lands uniformly drab.

As for making people look unhappy ... he grinned as an­other idea came to him. I'll have the field-workers stick a burr or a pin somewhere in their clothing where it'll irritate them without really hurting themor put stones in their shoes, or wear shoes too tight or too big. That'll give them all sour ex­pressions, should any of Kyndreth's people come snooping about.

He yawned, and realized that he'd been up far too long—but they were all going short on sleep, trying to get themselves ready. Bed, he decided. And first thing in the morning, the manor seamstresses.

Even though he woke very, very early—just at the break of dawn, in fact—when he showed up unannounced at the seam­stress's workrooms, they were already well into the day's labors. That surprised him; he'd always known, in a vague way, that his people began their work early, long before he awoke, but he hadn't ever given much thought to what that meant.

Here was a large, well-lit room, furnished with comfortable chairs in which several women were seated, sewing diligently. There was a large table covered with a piece of fabric at the far side of the room, and a woman with a wickedly-bladed pair of scissors made deft cuts in it, folding and laying aside the pieces she had made as she went along. Bolts of fabric were arrayed in a rack along one wall, ribbons and other trim were wound around wooden cones on pegs, and spools of thread were arranged in little racks beside them. He put his need to the chief of the ladies, a formidable dame with silver-streaked hair, ex­plaining the effect he wanted, and why. She pursed her lips and frowned.

"My lord—do you realize what you are asking when you re­quest common uniform tunics for the entire estate? Aye, we've enough seed-sack material about, but no time—even a simple tabard with no hems would need side and shoulder seams, and it'd be so crude it would look makeshift—"

"Dye," interrupted one of the women engaged in some mys­terious task that seemed to involve the edges of a great deal of fabric that pooled on either side of her. "Don't bother with making anything new, just fire up dye-pots and have everyone come in and dunk an old tunic and trews, so you get the look of wear as well as having it look uniform."

"Oh, well-thought!" the older woman exclaimed, her brow clearing. "That might be a problem, mightn't it—if it looked as if everyone in the place had new clothes!"

"For color—black'd be best, walnut-black the cheapest, and

we've got plenty of that; soon or late, everybody needs some bit of black, and that way I doubt there'll be much complaining about spoiling something good." The woman was very pleased with her ingenuity, and so were Kyrtian and her supervisor.

"Aye, that's the way! Thenkee, Margyt!" The head seamstress beamed and patted Kyrtian on the shoulder as if he was a small boy. "Don't worry your head about it, my young Lord, we'll han­dle this for you; when the day comes, everybody'U be making a nice depressing background." She actually pushed him—gently, but pushed him, nevertheless—out the door. He didn't resist; in fact, he was rather amused at the situation. He'd had no idea how things were run on the domestic side, but clearly this woman was as much a "commander" in her own ranks as Gel was in his!

And he had no doubt that she would get the job done, either. She had the air about her that said she would ride right over the top of anyone and anything to complete whatever she'd promised.

He went back to his own preparations, calling in each of the supervisors of work-parties and explaining to them what he wanted done—the burrs and all—and why. He'd discovered a very long time ago that if people knew why they were being asked to do something that seemed senseless, they were much more likely to comply.

"Now, I don't want anyone to start getting too creative," he warned. "Don't let anyone go maim himself, or try to counter­feit plague or something, but if people get other ideas about how to look less than happy and healthy, let them go to it. Par­ticularly I'm a bit worried about the little children giving things away—the older ones will be all right if you put it to them as being important, but the littlest are used to running right up to any stranger and saying what they think."

"There're several of the parents figuring on that now, my lord," one of the supervisors assured him. "If nothing else, everybody's agreed that we can hide the littlest off somewhere nobody'll see them, all in a group. Perhaps we could take them out into the woods, and let them have a camping-excursion. Leave it to us, we'll take care of it. Tell them it's a holiday treat, and they'll be good as lambs."

So many details—as soon as Kyrtian thought he'd dealt suc­cessfully with the last, another occurred to him. It wasn't until days later that his mother approached him as he was arranging with one of the building crews to make "alterations" to the workers' quarters. It had occurred to him by then that it was un­usual enough for his people to have their own little homes and villages instead of being herded into vast warehouses when they weren't working—and he'd better have their quarters look shabby and ill-made!

Lady Lydiell waited patiently as he and the builders quickly worked out what was needed; it was pretty clear that she wanted to speak with him alone, so he dismissed them as soon as he could, and closed the door of his own new office behind them.

She sat with a rustle of silk and a swirl of scarlet skirts. "You told me to come to you when I had your harem, and I have," she said simply, and the words hit him like a splash of cold water in his face. "They're ready for you to prepare them."

He didn't allow the shock to freeze his thoughts, though. "I don't have anything on my plate at the moment, so I had best see to them, then," he told her, and was pleased to see a bit of surprise in her eyes that he was willing to deal with the un­pleasant duty so quickly. She knew that he hated meddling with humans' minds through their collars, especially for a purpose like this—

But on the whole, he'd rather just get it over with so that he wouldn't have to dwell on it.

"That's fine," she replied quickly, getting to her feet with that grace he admired so much and was so much a part of her. "Come along; I've converted your old nursery to a harem; it was the most secure suite in the manor and the only one not in use."

"It had to be the most secure, didn't it?" he chuckled, opening the door for her. "Not only did you have to worry about some­thing getting in at me, you had to worry about me getting out!"

"And a mischievous escape-artist you were, too," she re­torted. "Well, I can tell you that I am very proud of Tenebrinth, and you will be, too, when you see these women. With all of the upheavals, the slave-trade has been very much disrupted—"

"Which I will not shed tears over," he responded, with a hint of a frown.

"Nevertheless, it has made his task harder." The look she gave back to him was one of reproach. "Many of the slave-markets have been closed down, and others have only the most meager of selection. On the other hand, if it hadn't been so dis­rupted, I doubt we would have found three women so perfectly suited to our purposes. I doubt that even the great Lord Kyn-dreth will wonder why your harem is so small, once he sees these girls."

"Oh?" Now his curiosity was piqued.

She nodded, her hair falling in a graceful curve across her brow as she did so. She pushed it back with an impatient hand. "Firstly, I very much doubt that anyone other than their trainer and former owner have ever seen them, which makes it much easier to carry off the fiction that you would have owned them yourself for several years. Secondly, if the trade were not so disrupted, I doubt if we would have been able to get them at all; they'd have been snapped up before they reached the greater markets."

Now he was surprised. "Are they that attractive, then?" he asked, his curiosity more than piqued.

"They are not precisely great beauties, although they are quite handsome—well, make that judgment for yourself." By this time they had reached the door—and now guarded—of his former nursery. The guards stepped aside, faces as expression­less as statues, and Lady Lydiell opened the door, gesturing to him to go in ahead.

He did so, feeling the faint tingle of a second "door" as he crossed the threshold that would prevent the women from crossing it until it was taken down. That was usual enough in harems to keep them out of the Lady's Bower; it was necessary here, to keep them from wandering and seeing things they shouldn't.

The three women had clearly been told to await him, for they were standing in poses that were a little too contrived to be nat­ural. That was when he understood what his mother had meant.

There could not possibly have been three women more strik­ingly different. The first, tall, with pale gold hair and vivid blue eyes, had an angular face and a figure as slender and willowy as any Elven lady, and a far-away expression as if she lived en­tirely in a cloud of dreams. She had posed herself beside a giant vase of flowers, musing on a single enormous lily-blossom, her frilled and lacy gown echoing the pastel colors of the blooms. The second, a brunette with brown eyes full of passion, full lips, and a sensuous body, fairly radiated promises; she lounged against a pillar in a way that thrust her bosom forward—strain­ing the silk of her scarlet, form-fitting wrap—and allowed her to watch him with a provocative, flirtatious, sideways glance. The third had a tumble of flaming curls and merry green eyes, a dancer's body of strength and agility clothed in a simple blue tunic that left her legs bare, and the expression of a completely innocent child; she looked up from the kitten she was playing with to smile at him with a face full of laughter. It seemed that in these three, all the variety of an entire harem was encom­passed. And only a statue could have failed to respond to the silent invitations each of them sent to him in her own way.

"You see?" Lady Lydiell said quietly, as the three sank to the ground in deep curtsies. He glanced at her, and saw that she had a glint of mischief in her own eyes. "Well, dearest, is it safe to leave you alone with them?"

He couldn't help it; he flushed—but he covered it with a half-mocking bow. "You're going to have to if I'm to give them convincing memories," he told her, causing her to blush. It was with a bit of satisfaction that he bowed her out, and turned to face his new "acquisitions."

He was trying to think of something to say when they de­scended on him as a body and made speech irrelevant, at least for that moment, and the many that followed.

Sergeant Gel followed Lord Tenebrinth into the Old Tower, his mood not precisely apprehensive, but tinged with that emotion. Lady Lydiell rarely spoke to him face-to-face, and this was the first time that she had ever required him to attend her in her pri­vate office.

He had never been inside the Old Tower; few humans had, only the one or two required to clean Lydiell's, and Tene-brinth's, offices. One of the lords, or the lady herself, would have to have brought him personally; there was no other way for him to use the only means of access, which was a bizarre transparent tube. He couldn't imagine how he was supposed to climb it and entered it with Tenebrinth rather dubiously—only to suppress a start as the floor beneath him began to rise. It gave him a queasy sensation, despite his familiarity with magic, to ride this contraption. It just didn't seem... natural. Round, empty room after room passed him—or rather, he passed them—as he rose with no real sensation of movement.

He began to wonder if he would ever reach the top, when fi­nally one of the rooms showed signs of occupation—as did the next after that—and then the platform slowed and came to a stop at the topmost level.

Lydiell's office, at the top of the tower, had a dizzying and unrestricted view that he, as a military commander, could see was of incalculable value for the chatelaine of the manor—or the commander of its defenses. The office walls were all win­dow, and he wondered as he stepped gingerly off the platform what a storm would be like up here.

Lydiell greeted him with a smile, which made his apprehen­sion vanish. She even rose; that was an unexpected honor, and he bowed as deeply as he could without looking ridiculous. The Lady did not like groveling; none of her clan did.

"Sergeant Gel, please, make yourself easy," she said, as she gestured with that grace only the Elvenlords possessed towards an unoccupied chair. "This is not an official summons—rather, it is a personal one. I have a desire to consult you."

Tenebrinth evidently took this as the signal to depart; he stepped back on the little platform and discreetly dropped back to the next level, leaving them alone.

Gel took his seat and examined the Lady's face, and swiftly understood why she wanted to see him. "Kyrtian?" he asked, wasting no words.

She nodded, and took her place behind her desk, clasping her hands on the surface before her. "I had hoped," she said, hesi-

tantly, as if she was voicing thoughts long held in secret, "that I could keep Kyrtian isolated from the politics of the Great Lords and the Council. Unfortunately, it seems that the times conspire against my hopes."

"It does look like he's going to get tangled up whether he likes it or not," Gel said cautiously, his eyes never leaving her face, unnerving as it was to look her straight in the eyes. "My Lady, I don't mind telling you that I don't like the idea any bet­ter than you do."

"I'm not certain you realize just how tangled he's likely to get," Lydiell replied, a faint frown-line creasing her ageless brow. Gel couldn't for the life of him read those odd emerald eyes the Elvenlords all had, but at least she wasn't trying to hide her facial expressions. "Lord Kyndreth is not going to be content merely to learn a few tricks with magic to help train hu­mans—when he realizes just how extensive Kyrtian's knowl­edge and practical experience of military matters is, he is going to want my son to exercise his talents in the service of the Old Lords. He will certainly want Kyrtian to command a force against the Young Lords, and possibly keep him on after the Young Lords are crushed, to move against the Wizards and the wild humans."

Gel swore under his breath, angry at himself for not thinking of that himself. And it was far too late to try to talk Kyrtian out of abandoning the full-scale maneuvers he had planned. The boy was determined to prove to Lord Kyndreth that this was the only way to train fighters, and nothing would do but to show him how easy it was to hold the spells needed on entire armies.

Lady Lydiell sighed. "Your face tells me that my fears are likely to be realized. Oh, why couldn't he have been an artist or a musician, or obsessed with—with—oh, horticulture or some­thing equally frivolous?"

"At least he isn't bent on being the dead opposite of his fa­ther, my Lady," Gel replied grimly. "You'd not like him as a fop, or a lazy layabout. Or worse, falling in with—"

He hesitated; after all, he was a human, and Lydiell was El-ven. Blood was blood—

But Lydiell surprised him with a bitter smile and a light an-

swer. "Falling in with the pampered perverts that most of my kind are. You don't need to spare my feelings, Gel; we cannot afford to be less than honest with each other if we are going to be able to keep Kyrtian out of the pitfalls lying before him."

Ah, cowflops. Why do I have to feel like it's me that's his fa­ther? I'd rest easier at night. He might be only a few actual years older than Kyrtian, but in real terms, he might just as well have been the Elvenlord's father. By the standards of his race, Kyrtian was the equivalent of a stripling, although by human reckoning he was in his late thirties. In knowledge and general responsibility, he was certainly that—but in the unconscious things that characterized an adolescent, he was very much Gel's junior. His boundless energy, his enthusiasm, his tendency to act rather than sitting back and waiting for events to come to him—those were the characteristics of the young, and made Gel feel very old.

The strength, speed, and endurance of youth were also his, and might be for the next century or two, which made Gel feel even older. He'd noticed of late, much to his chagrin, that he was slowing down, losing some of his edge; in fact, he and that man of Lord Kyndreth's had talked about that. Kaeth wasn't getting any younger either, and if he ever had to actually foil a fellow-assassin, that could be fatal if he didn't take steps to compensate.

We 'II both just have to be sneakier to make up for what we 're losing, he reminded himself. Youth and enthusiasm are no match for experience and treachery.

"I hate to admit this, my lady," he said, feeling ashamed that he had not anticipated this situation, "but I've kept him as igno­rant as you have of the way things are—" he waved his hand vaguely at the windows "—out there. And I did it for pretty much the same reasons as you, I figure. Why throw something at him that he couldn't change and would only worry about?"

Ah, all those old lessons came back to him now, of being taken off the estate as Tenebrinth's page, so he could see just how the other Elvenlords really acted and thought. Tenebrinth had collared him, of course, and if he'd done something even slightly stupid—which, even as a child he hadn't been likely

to—the Elvenlord could have quickly controlled him. And in a peculiar way, that, too, had been part of the lessons in just how fragile and precious the life humans led here was.

Lydiell nodded. "And at this point, if we try to tell him that Lord Kyndreth is no more to be trusted than Aelmarkin, he would only make the wrong decisions. He'd try to put Kyndreth off, or—or something. And now that he's aroused Kyndreth's interest, he can't do that without arousing suspicion as well."

"Damn all politics anyway," Gel said sourly. "Kyndreth is going to use him, make a tool out of him, and give him nothing but fine words and empty praise for his troubles—"

"Yes—but—" Lydiell began.

Gel waited, but she didn't complete the thought. He spoke into the heavy silence. "But it might not be bad for him; so long as he's valuable to Kyndreth, he's not going to be wasted. And as long as he's valuable, Kyndreth will see that we're left alone, no matter how peculiar some things around here may look to him."

Lydiell nodded, and Gel felt a certain relief that she agreed with him. There was selfishness in his motivation, and he knew that; as long as Kyrtian was not only alive and well but under the open protection of someone like Lord Kyndreth, Gel and the other humans on the estate would be perfectly safe. Ael­markin wouldn't dare try to interfere or continue in his at­tempts to gain control of the manor and lands.

As for the humans living elsewhere—humans that Kyrtian would be very concerned about if he knew how bad things could be on other estates—Gel found it difficult to worry about the well-being of people he didn't know. The sufferings of hu­man slaves on other estates were just stories to him, and al­though he believed them in the abstract, he just couldn't make himself care when people he knew needed his whole concentra­tion and concern.

He couldn't really believe in anything he hadn't seen with his own eyes, not deep down where it counted.

Those are all old stories, anyway, and it makes no sense these days that the Elvenlords would wantonly waste or mar their own possessions. With wild humans on the border, drag-

ons in the sky, the Wizards threatening to start the war up again and their own children in armed revolt, they can't afford the sort of goings-on they did in the past. Slavery—-yes, there was no doubt that the Elvenlords were harsh masters, and kept their humans under complete control. It was a terrible thing that hu­mans elsewhere had every action controlled by someone else, that they could make not even the smallest decision about their own lives. But starvation, torture, abuse—why? There's no rea­son to do any of those things; a starved, abused, or injured slave works less, and is worth less, than a healthy one who is punished only when he deserves it.

"Lady, I pledge you, I will not let the boy out of my sight or care, no matter what Lord Kyndreth wants of him," he prom­ised, coming back to concerns he could understand and see for himself. "I'm a treacherous old bastard, and if I think he's in trouble, I'll dose the boy's wine, make Kyndreth think he's had a fit, and drag him home myself." He surprised himself with his own sudden fierce protectiveness, and tried feebly to smile. "Once we've got him safe, we can talk him into playing witless. If he's lost his senses, he might not be of value to Kyndreth, but he won't be a threat, either."

And that was the best promise he could think of to give her, poor as it was.

Lydiell sent Gel back to his work without feeling much comfort from his words. She was very troubled, and could see no imme­diate way out of the dilemma that had come at them out of nowhere. I had hoped to keep him isolated from all of this, but events have conspired against us, she thought somberly, staring out the window at the placid fields spread so invitingly below. Thanks to the two latest Wizard Wars, Kyrtian 's obscure skills are no longer without value; he will be drawn into Elvenlord politics whether he likes it or not. But Gel is right; telling him some of the realities of the situation won't help him. He might be better if he remains in ignorance. If he knows what the El­venlords are really like, his own sense of honor just might drive him to make some very dangerous choices. If, however, Kyn­dreth feeds him what the Old Lords want him to know, and con-

vinces him to help themthen keeps him ignorant of the truthhe will serve them well and stay out of trouble.

There was one positive effect of all the warfare and quarrel­ing; there were nowhere near as many of the Old Lords as there once had been, and those that remained were mostly very shrewd. They have little power to spare, and won't waste any tool that comes to their hands when it costs little to keep that tool content. There are very few Dyrans about in the higher councils these days.

She sighed, tasting the bitterness of her own expedience, the sour knowledge that by keeping him ignorant she was playing the same manipulative games as those she despised.

Kyrtian would be used, indeed, but wasn't it better to be an unwitting tool than a dead hero?

I cannot see any other options.

Keeping him purposefully blinded about the true nature of his fellow Elvenlords might have been a mistake, but she could not see how she could have done anything else.

Gel did have a good idea, she reminded herself, if it looks as if Kyrtian is in danger. Everyone thinks his father was mad, and no one would be particularly surprised if he went mad under the strains they will probably put him under. Oh, Ancestors, why did I try to keep him sheltered? Why couldn 't I have given him some armor against the thorn-maze he is about to walk into?

She only prayed that her decision would not cause more harm than she had ever dreamt possible.

10

I hope I don't look as nervous as I feel," Kyrtian muttered to

himself, as he re-checked his appearance in the gilt-edged

 mirror to his right. He'd lost count of the number of times

he'd glanced into mirrors today, making certain—of what? He

wasn't quite sure; he only knew that he didn't want to look like Lord Kyndreth's son Gildor and his cronies, nor did he want to ape the appearance of Lord Kyndreth himself. He wanted to look mature, sober, perhaps a touch on the scholarly side, but able to hold his own in physical combat as well. Looking pros­perous, but not necessarily opulent, was as important; on reflec­tion, perhaps what he wanted was to look as if he could be Lord Kyndreth's intellectual equal, but not as if he already assumed that he was. After going through at least four changes of cloth­ing and nearly driving his poor servants mad, he finally settled on a conservative tunic and tight-fitting trews of soft doeskin dyed a rich blue and slashed to display the silver satin of his shirt. Matching boots suitable for some hard walking com­pleted the outfit, with a heavy silver chain and fillet confining his hair as his only jewelry. Jewels would not impress Lord Kyndreth, who was a powerful mage and knew how easily such things could be produced by illusion.

The mirror he kept glancing into was just outside the Portal Chamber; at any moment now Lord Kyndreth and his en­tourage should be coming through. The door to the chamber was open; it was really too small to allow for a graceful exit of so large a group. Servants in the household colors lined the chamber and the hall outside, but Kyrtian was the sole repre­sentative of the family; he was the head of the Clan now, and it would betray an unhealthy influence from his mother if she were here to receive the guests as well as he.

The servants, well-schooled in their roles, kept their eyes cast down as Kyrtian fidgeted with the chain around his neck. At long last, the Portal shimmered with energy, and Kyrtian snapped to attention, presenting a mask of calm, the perfect picture of a welcoming host.

The first figures through the Portal were, naturally, Lord Kyrtian's bodyguards, one of whom was the fighter called Kaeth that Kyrtian remembered from the combat. They de­ployed themselves on either side of the Portal with smooth, ef­ficient, and practiced movements, making a barrier of themselves between the Portal and Kyrtian's servants. They must go through such maneuvers constantly; what surprised

him was that they looked alert and suspicious, not bored. The servants took no notice; Gel had lectured them on what they could expect and what they should—or more appropriately, should not—do. They kept their places, as if this sort of quasi-military invasion happened every day.

Lord Kyndreth was next through the door, followed by his son Gildor. Kaeth moved in closer to his lord, standing unob­trusively nearby, close enough to intercept any aggressive ac­tion. Kyrtian moved immediately to welcome the Elvenlord, making sure that his own movements were non-aggressive.

"Welcome, my lord," he said, pitching his voice low, but put­ting warmth into it. "And thank you for being patient enough to wait until we could welcome you with all the honor and com­fort that is your due. I hope that you will be pleased with what we have to show you."

Lord Kyndreth took Kyrtian's extended hand in his, in a firm clasp that was clearly a test. Kyrtian returned an equal pressure, and Lord Kyndreth smiled, ever so slightly, as he released Kyrt­ian's hand. "It is I who should be thanking you for your hospi­tality, Lord Kyrtian," he replied, as they moved forward to permit the rest of the entourage to come through. "Your house­hold is a quiet one, and I understand that you have few visitors; we are creating quite a disruption for you."

Kyrtian made the expected disclaimers, as he kept one eye on Lord Kyndreth and the other on Lord Gildor and the part of the entourage that was composed of Gildor's friends. "I hesitate to mention this, my lord, but we were not expecting so large a group—perhaps some of the guests would accept accommoda­tion in a pavilion?"

Lord Kyndreth east an eye back at his son and his son's fol­lowers, who were clearly intoxicated and likely to remain that way for some time. "Lord Gildor and his associates are not re­maining," he replied smoothly. "They came only to view the pitched battle, and will depart as soon as the demonstration is complete."

Kyrtian did not let out a sigh of relief, but some of his con­cern left him. Housing Gildor and his cronies was the last of his potential problems, and the only one he hadn't anticipated.

Lord Kyndreth and his servants should behave in predictable ways, but Gildor and his drunken friends were neither pre­dictable nor safe for the servants to be around. They were used to getting their way in all things, used to taking what they wanted, and it was entirely possible that what they wanted would invoke automatic, unthinking rebellion in the human ser­vants, who were not used to being treated as objects to be used and discarded at will. But if Gildor and his cronies were al­ready planning to leave right after the demonstration—well, Kyrtian was confident his people could hold things together for that long.

"The demonstration is ready, my Lord," he said; and ges­tured, bringing several pre-selected servants forward. "My peo­ple will guide your servants to your quarters, so that all will be in readiness for your comfort when the battle is over."

"Excellent." Kyndreth did nothing, but Kaeth made a ges­ture, sending two of the bodyguards and several of Kyndreth's slaves laden with baggage to join Kyrtian's servants. Kyrtian's people quickly took over most of the burdens of the luggage and led the others down the corridor towards the guest-quarters. Lord Kyndreth gave an expectant glance at Kyrtian, who took the hint and led the rest of the group through the maze of corri­dors to the balcony outside the lesser dining-room. This same balcony overlooked the field usually used for celebrations; to­day it would be the site of a battle.

For this occasion, the balcony was sheltered from the glare of the sun with an awning made of tapestry, giving it the look of a viewing-stand for a formal tournament. Banks of comfort­able seats awaited the visitors, and refreshments had been pre­pared and set out to greet them, all under the watchful eye of Lady Lydiell. Out of the corner of his eye, Kyrtian saw the smugly superior expressions of Gildor and his friends changed to looks of gratification and pleasure. Obviously they had not thought to find a sophisticated level of hospitality in this provincial household.

Now Kyrtian presented his mother to the guests; Lydiell had gone to great effort to appear as a typical Elven lady. Gowned and coiffed as her son had seldom seen her before, her expres-

sion that of a flawless statue, she resembled her everyday self very little indeed. Kyrtian had not seen her until this moment, and winced inwardly as he thought how long she must have spent in the hands of her servants to achieve her appearance. Her silver hair had been divided into hundreds of tiny braids, which had then been arranged in a series of draped loops and knots held in place with jeweled pins. Her pastel-hued gown, of multiple layers of misty, cobweb-like blue fabric, with sleeves and train that trailed behind her, could not possibly be more impractical for her normal duties. Each and every hem had been edged in lace so fine it was close to transparent, and likely to snag on everything unless great pains were taken to prevent such a disaster. Tiny, sparkling motes of gems winked amid the misty folds of the gown, and more gems strung on gossamer strands of silver wreathed her neck. From her toes to the last hair, Lydiell's costume was so fragile it invited ruin in the mere acts of moving and walking.

That, however, was not an Elven Lady's business to worry about; it was the duty of her slaves to manage sleeves and hems, and see to it that her gown remained perfect and pristine at all times. So it was today; any time Lydiell moved, she was trailed by four women whose only purpose was to see that she could move about as easily as a graceful image in a perfect daydream.

This, of course, was exactly what Lord Kyndreth expected to see, so he simply bowed over Lydiell's hand and escorted her back to her chair while Gildor and the rest chose seats. Lord Kyndreth took the place of honor at Lydiell's right hand, and Kyrtian assumed the seat at her left. As soon as each guest was in his chosen seat, a servant presented him with a chilled glass of sparkling wine and a platter of dainties from which to make a choice. Gel and Kyrtian had left nothing to chance, not even the number of guests; a young page had sprinted to the balcony while Kyrtian and Lord Kyndreth spoke to report the exact number of Elvenlords that had arrived. There was neither one chair too many, nor too few, and precisely the correct number of servants, one to each guest. The human slaves, Lord Kyn-dreth's bodyguards included, all stood, of course. No slave sat in the presence of his masters.

Only when everyone was settled, did the two "armies" move out onto the field. Lord Kyndreth leaned forward in his seat im­mediately, his attention riveted on the combatants. For his part, Kyrtian tried not to fidget nervously, though not because the success of the combat was in doubt. No, it was only that he was not on the field himself; this would be the first time he was only an observer rather than a participant. He found, somewhat to his own chagrin, that he did not make a very good observer.

As the two forces charged towards each other, shouting taunts and battle-cries, Gildor and his friends were momentar­ily diverted. But as the combat continued—and it was clear that it would be a bloodless combat, as man after man glowed scar­let or blue and had to retire to the sidelines—they quickly lost interest.

"How many men can you hold this magic on at a time?" Lord Kyndreth asked quietly, as Kyrtian ignored the muttered jeers and scornful laughter of Gildor and his friends.

"I don't know for certain, my lord," Kyrtian said honestly. "I've never had occasion to try it on more than a thousand, so I have not yet found an upper limit."

"A thousand!" Kyndreth was clearly impressed, even if his son was underwhelmed. "By the Ancestors, that is remarkable! There should be no difficulty then in training battalions of fighters in field maneuvers so long as several mages are used to hold the magic in place!"

"I should think not, my lord," Kyrtian responded deferen­tially. "Especially if the mages concerned are powerful ones such as yourself. I am certain that you would find it a trivial task to hold the magic on twice that number."

Behind them, Gildor and his friends were making deep in­roads on the wine, showing quite clearly just how bored they were with the combat. Nevertheless, given Lord Kyndreth's interest and approval, they didn't dare be too vocal in their contempt.

Finally their restlessness got to the point where it annoyed Lord Kyndreth himself. The battle had devolved into a mass of single combats between the most skilled of the fighters, and it was obvious it would be some time before sheer weariness be-

came the undoing of many of the fighters. Lord Kyndreth abruptly stood up, and Kyrtian took that as he was meant to, blowing the shrill whistle that signaled the end of the demon­stration.

Obedient to the signal, fighting ceased immediately, and in the sudden silence, Lord Kyndreth turned to his host with a broad smile.

"This has been a most impressive demonstration, Lord Kyrt­ian," he said, with as much warmth as Kyrtian had ever seen him display until now. "Even more so than the single-combat you originally showed us. I am looking forward to learning this new application of magic in the next few days—but I fear than my son and his friends have previous commitments and must be on their way—" Now he leveled a gaze on his bemused son that shook the young Elvenlord into momentary sobriety. "Mustn't you, Gildor?"

The younger lord, startled by his sire's abrupt change of mood, stammered out his reply. "Of—of course, certainly," he babbled. "Previous commitments, pressing engagements, and all that. So sorry. Excellent show. Be on our way now—"

"My people will show you the way back to the Portal Cham­ber, Lord Gildor," Kyrtian replied, with as fine a display of the height of good manners as anyone could have asked. He gave no hint that he had heard the disparaging remarks, nor that he was well aware that Gildor was so drank he probably could not have found the door without help. "I cannot tell you how grati­fied I was by your presence, or by your appreciation. I hope that we will be able to give you a better demonstration of our hospi­tality at some time in the future."

Gildor and his friends filed back into the dining hall, sub­dued by Lord Kyndreth's enthusiastic reception of the demon­stration. There were no more jeering asides, no more snickers. Kyrtian was under no illusions about this; he fully expected that the moment the younger Elvenlords passed the Portal, they would begin their scornful gossip again. But for now, it was ob­vious who the master was, and what the master approved—and all the young lords fell obediently into line.

Odd, Kyrtian thought, as Lord Kyndreth exchanged some

polite compliments with Lady Lydiell and the last of the un­wanted visitors passed through the doors of the lesser dining hall. I would have thought, given the way he likes to puff him­self up and bluster, that Gildor would have sided with the Young Lords against his father. Lord Kyndreth isn't going to pass over power any time in the foreseeable future, and I would have thought that by now Gildor would be hungry for that power.

Perhaps, though, Gildor liked comfort better than power. Perhaps he already knew he didn't dare to challenge his father. Or, perhaps Gildor was less ambitious than Kyrtian would have been in his place. As it was, Gildor had prestige, status, and a carefree, pampered existence. If he sat where his father now heJd sway, he might actually have to work.

Kyndreth turned to Kyrtian, who collected his scattered

thoughts. "I believe that I would like to retire to my quarters to

prejpare for dinner and think about all you have shown me," he

said. "Unless you have something more planned to show me

today?"

"Only one thing, and that is on the way," Kyrtian replied, with a slight smile. "Please, allow me to escort you. Perhaps some questions will occur to you that I can answer as we walk."

They both bowed to Lady Lydiell, who nodded gravely to both of them without speaking. Kyrtian waited while one of the servants held the door open for them; he also waited for the bodyguards to flank his guest before taking his own place be­side Kyndreth. Other than that, he paid no attention to the bodyguards.

Kyndreth glanced sharply around as they passed along the hallways; for a moment, Kyrtian wondered what had caught his attention, then Kyndreth answered his question with a query of his own.

"You use no illusion here, do you?" Kyndreth asked, as if surprised.

"Very little, my lord," Kyrtian replied, and smiled slightly. "Perhaps we are somewhat conservative in nature, but we—my mother and I, that is—prefer the real to the illusory. Illusion is—" He groped for words.

"Cheap?" Kyndreth surprised him with the word he had been

trying to avoid, and the ironic lifting of his eyebrow. "I tend to agree, actually. Any halfway competent mage can cloak rotting timber and moth-eaten tapestry in illusion. To maintain a gra­cious and attractive home without illusion requires dedication and effort. Illusion is, I believe, the lazy man's way."

"I agree, my lord. We here prefer substance to style, one might say." Again, he ventured a smile. "Our home may be old-fashioned in style, but that is the price of preferring substance."

By this time, they had reached the area of the old nursery— which was now the new harem—and Kyrtian paused. "I would like to offer you all the comforts of our house, my lord. If you would care to pass within?"

Lord Kyndreth could easily see the shimmer of power that cloaked the door, which meant his bodyguards would not be able to follow him inside. But there was also no doubt what Kyrtian's words had implied, and he was probably curious just what sort of harem the notoriously ascetic Kyrtian had. He sig­naled to his bodyguards to join the two guards at the door, and followed Kyrtian within.

The three young women were waiting for them, and rose in­stantly to their feet, pausing just long enough for Lord Kyn­dreth to get a good look at them before they sank to the ground in deep curtsies.

For the very first time, Kyrtian saw the Great Lord surprised. So surprised, in fact, that his jaw dropped, just a trifle. The he recovered his composure, and turned to Kyrtian with a sly grin.

"You young dog!" he exclaimed, and clapped Kyrtian on the shoulder. "No wonder nothing tempts you to mix with the other youngsters. They haven't anything to offer that could ever match these treasures!"

Kyrtian bowed his head slightly. "So I believe, my lord." He gestured, and the young women, flushing prettily, rose again. Lord Kyndreth surveyed them again, his eyes lingering on each in turn.

"I believe I shall take up your offer," he said with a chuckle. "But after dinner. There is, as the Ancestors said, a pleasure in anticipation that the wise man learns to cherish as much as the fulfillment of that anticipation."

"Very true, my lord," Kyrtian murmured deferentially. "Very true."

Lord Kyndreth was a surprisingly good dinner-guest. He ate and drank moderately, gave praise to the cook, and took care to involve Lady Lydiell in the conversation. Kyrtian gradually re­laxed. The visit was going well; if it continued in this vein, the entire expenditure of time and energy would have been well repaid.

As the dessert course was brought in, Lord Kyndreth turned to Kyrtian, and for the first time there was a hint of hesitation in his expression. "Lord Kyrtian, there is something that I have been curious about for a very long time, but I hesitate to bring up a subject that would cause you or your Lady-Mother any discomfort."

"What subject would that be?" Kyrtian asked, cautiously.

"I am—and have been—very curious about your late father," came the surprising answer. "More to the point, I am curious as to his reasons for vanishing into the wilderness. I know some have made inappropriate observations about him, but I saw noth­ing in your father's demeanor before he vanished to make me be­lieve that he had anything but very good reasons for his actions."

Kyrtian glanced at his mother, who nodded slightly. The un­spoken message was clear: he could go ahead and reveal some of what he already knew.

Kyrtian cleared his throat. "There is a tradition—some might call it a legend—in our family that when the Elves first came across from Evelon, the machines and most of the books they had brought with them were too burdensome to carry. More pressing concerns had to be dealt with—in the hunt for a place to live and the means to do so, ancient knowledge was of no use in such a brand new world. So all these things were more of a handicap than an advantage, and they were cached shortly after the search for more hospitable territory began. For some rea­son, no one ever went back for them—perhaps only because the Elvenlords were too busy subduing the natives. Those caches of ancient knowledge were what my father was hunting when he vanished."

"Interesting." Lord Kyndreth pulled at his lower lip in thought. "Assuming that there is useful knowledge there that we have lost, which is quite possible, whoever found those cached materials could have a distinct advantage."

"Since I replicated my methods of combat-training by means of research into the old books we still have, I suspect there is a great deal of knowledge that has been lost or forgotten," Kyrt-ian replied, somberly. "Frankly, I have no idea what might lie out there, nor did my father. We simply haven't got enough in­formation even to make a guess."

What he did not observe was that Lady Lydiell knew some­thing more and had told Kyrtian her family traditions as well as his father's. And it was not particularly flattering to the Great Lords of this land.

The tale of the Crossing was one that the Great Lords had probably done their best to forget. There had been a civil war in Evelon, and their side was the one that was, at the time of the Crossing, the losing side. The ancestors of the current Erven-lords decided to escape through the Gate they would build to­gether, taking their chances on finding a hospitable land with easily cowed natives on the other side. It was either that, or face surrender, and have their power reft from them by the winners. The result would be that the losers would live on, but enslaved, and disgraced.

"Official" history said little of the war, and did not even hint that the Elvenlords might have been getting the worst of the conflict. Instead, by common consent, the Ancestors were re­garded as bold, fearless pioneers, striking out on their own when life in Evelon grew wearisome through its never-changing sameness.

Lady Lydiell knew more, preserved through the female line. Even though it had been agreed that all of the Elven mages would pool their strength and magic, the more unscrupulous and selfish held back. As a result, when the Gate went up, some were drained of magic power, while others still had enough to make them the rulers on the other side.

That was the difference between the original Great Lords and

the Lesser Lords, and not, as the Great Lords would have every­one believe, a matter of intelligence and inherited power.

"The machines that came over seemed to encounter difficul­ties, possibly due to the disruptive effect of the Gate on their spells, and may have been abandoned as a consequence. My fa­ther had found a speculative document suggesting that the war-machines they brought with them could be drained for power, even if they no longer worked correctly," Kyrtian went on. "If so, they could provide a reservoir of magic to fall back on when a mage's own powers were depleted."

Once again, he saw Lord Kyndreth's eyes narrow slightly, as he contemplated this possibility. Kyrtian's father had in­tended—if it could be done—to restore the magic to those Elves who lacked it. Lord Kyndreth was probably thinking in terms of keeping all that power to himself, to be doled out as he chose.

That would give him unprecedented power among his own peers, and an unprecedented tool to manipulate them. A mage with such a resource at his disposal would be what the Elven-lords had never yet had.

A King.

"At any rate, that was why Father was out hunting—looking for the machines and the books, and obviously this was not something that a rational man would have human slaves doing, because of the dangers implicit in exposing slaves to things so unknown and unpredictable," Kyrtian finished. "The humans do have their own form of magic, after all—and who knows what exposure to those machines would do? It might free them of their collars—might give them powers to match ours! No, that was a task he preferred to keep to himself."

"I can see why—and your father was a far wiser man than anyone has given him credit for being," Lord Kyndreth said gravely. "Now you have given me twice as much to think about...."

Kyrtian shook his head. "But this talk of lost machines and cached books—such things surely must wait until we have dealt with the Halfbloods and our own rebellious youth." He

deliberately framed the reply to include himself in the opposite party to the Young Lords, and he saw Lord Kyndreth smile in reply.

"You are correct," the Great Lord replied. "And long before we do that, there is much we must accomplish—not the least of which is to do justice to the finale of this excellent meal."

Kyrtian signed internally, and answered Kyndreth's smile with one of his own. He had been accepted—perhaps not as an equal, but certainly as an ally. And that should put paid to Cousin Aelmarkin's plans for the near future, at least.

"Very true, my lord," he murmured. "You are entirely cor­rect, as usual."

11

One worry, at least, was off Kyrtian's mind by the next morning. As soon as he awoke, he paid a cautious visit to the harem; if anything unpleasant had happened to the young women, he wanted to be the one to deal with it. He was, after all, the one responsible for them.

But as it happened, Lord Kyndreth had treated all three of the harem women very well; had, in fact, given them each a hand­some gift of jewelry for pleasing him. They were excited and happy, and did not make much of an effort to disguise their hopes that there might be more such visits—and presents— from the Great Lord. Kyrtian found it rather touching, actually; they were so like three little girls in their innocent pleasure at being rewarded with baubles.

There were three other Elvenlords in Kyndreth's entourage, but none of them were of high enough status to be offered the services of the harem. They would have to put up with enforced chastity until they returned to their own homes, for house-servants, unless they actually offered themselves or were of-

fered by the host, were considered off-limits. If Lord Kyndreth had shown himself to be lukewarm in his regard for Kyrtian, such a breach of etiquette could have taken place anyway, but not when Kyndreth had shown his favor. Kyrtian could remove at least this one minor concern from his long list of worries; the girls would not be abused by his guest, nor would his servants be mistreated by Kyndreth's underlings.

As soon as Lord Kyndreth put in an appearance and had bro­ken his fast, the rest of the day was spent in an odd role-reversal, as Kyrtian tutored the older Lord in the magic of mock-combat.

It felt awkward. It was also dangerous work, and not from a magical standpoint. Somehow Kyrtian had to simultaneously be teacher and deferential (but not groveling) Lesser Lord to Kyndreth's Greater. Kyrtian walked a narrow line between those two extremes, and he dared not deviate from it, if he wanted Lord Kyndreth's protection.

But Lord Kyndreth wanted this knowledge badly enough to exert himself to be accommodating and charming, and slowly Kyrtian began to relax, forget about his own careful pose, and simply instruct.

He'd called in all of his fighters to act as subjects for the practice, though initially the magic was only cast on one. Kyrt­ian was sure enough of his own mastery that he reckoned he could counter any mistakes Lord Kyndreth made before they caused any harm, and it was a very real measure of the trust his men had in him that the fighters took that for granted, standing relaxed and unconcerned while Lord Kyndreth felt his way through the weaving of the complicated magery the first time. It took a fine touch, a delicate touch, to ensure that the fighter en-spelled felt enough of a warning tingle to tell him that he'd been hit, even in the excitement of combat—yet was kept from actually being hurt, which would be counterproductive.

"This is the opposite of the way we train our gladiators now," Kyndreth observed, pausing to wipe his brow with a spotless scrap of white silk, which he then dropped, without thinking about it, on the ground behind him. His own man automatically retrieved the handkerchief and stepped back again. Kyndreth

never even noticed. "When they practice, even with blunted weapons, the point is that they will be hurt if they allow a blow to fall, and so their defense-work is supposed to improve."

"Yes, but if that blow falls, even in practice, it can disable a man," Kyrtian pointed out, as the fighter waited patiently for Kyndreth to complete the spellcasting. "What's the good of learning from your mistake if you end up losing so much time in recovering from your injury that you have to go back to the beginning again? Conditioning is as important as training, or so my experience leads me to believe."

"Oh, you are arguing with the converted, young friend," Kyndreth chuckled, casually massaging his hands as if they felt stiff. "I've lost far too many fine and promising specimens per­manently to so-called 'training accidents.' It's a costly business— too costly, when now we need fighters for real combat more than we need gladiators." He resumed the task before him, and the fighter began to have a faintly glowing aura.

"In the case of men who are stubborn about acknowledging hits, I do set it high enough to hurt, though," Kyrtian admitted, as he supervised Lord Kyndreth's effort. "There are some fel­lows who get so worked up during a fight that nothing less than real pain seems to get through to them."

"Those men I would put in the front lines," Kyndreth ob­served wryly, with a side glance at Kyrtian. "If they are that im­pervious. I've seen a few of those; they have a kind of madness in battle. It's useful if they're in the front line, but they're as much a danger to friend as to foe anywhere else. I put 'em on the point of a thrust; let them carve their way in, and take ground behind them with fighters that can keep their heads."

Kyrtian nodded, although he hated to think of any of his fighters being in the front lines of real combat. His eyes nar­rowed as he kept track of Lord Kyndreth's progress. "There—" he cautioned. "That is exactly the level you can usually set it at. That's perfect." As Kyndreth let go of his control of the field around the fighter, Kyrtian flexed his shoulders to ease some of the strain in them. "Now we build the weapon." He smiled. "That's not as difficult; it's just a little different from a truly ex­pert illusion."

Once Kyndreth had the initial magic set, he was able to swiftly make copies upon as many fighters as Kyrtian had pres­ent. "This is amazing!" he observed, his eyes widening a little, as his total passed twenty. "The first one is difficult, but there is very little drain once the initial fighter is done! 1 had expected this to be quite expensive in terms of personal energy."

"I believe that is because you aren't exactly replicating the magic—I believe you are simply spreading it to include every subsequent fighter," Kyrtian observed, pleased with how quickly Lord Kyndreth had learned the special techniques. The sooner he has mastered all this, the sooner he can be gone, and we can get this masquerade over with. "I hope that makes sense to you."

"Perfect sense." Kyndreth gave him an odd look. "Do you also make a study of the mechanics and theory of magic? It's an esoteric branch of study, and one I had not associated with someone who is so clearly a—well, a soldier, so to speak, rather than a pure scholar."

"Only a little—I had to do a certain amount of study to repli­cate this—" he waved his hand vaguely at the assembled fight­ers. "I won't claim to be a genius, or even to have a particular knack for research, only a great deal of patience and persistence when it comes to something I'm interested in."

Lord Kyndreth's expression blanked for a moment, as if Kyrtian's attitude had taken him aback, but he said nothing.

"Well, let's have the fighters pair off, and see the magic in ac­tion, shall we?" Kyrtian continued, wondering what that look meant. Have I been too modest? Have I tipped my hand? Or is it just that he isn't used to hearing someone that doesn't boast about his prowess ?

"An excellent plan." Lord Kyndreth stepped to the sidelines, and Kyrtian signaled to the fighters to begin sparring. Lord Kyndreth's pleasure in the discovery that his replication of the magic functioned exactly the same as Kyrtian's was obvious.

For his own part, Kyrtian was just as pleased. For once, he didn't have to hold both sides in the spell, and that freed up enough of his attention that he could more fully appreciate the skill of his men.

Kyrtian signaled to his men to stop, and turned to his guest, his own feeling of accomplishment matching Lord Kyndreth's. "You are a marvelously quick study, my lord, and no one would doubt your mastery of magic," he said, wim no intent to flatter. "I do not think you need to learn anything else from me. You have the technique now, and all that you need is practice. In time you will probably be faster even than I at setting the magic."

"Practice is something I can get at home; I will not strain your generous hospitality longer than I have to," the Great Lord replied immediately, much to Kyrtian's veiled relief. He wants to leave so soon! Thank the Ancestors!

"Truly, it is a great honor to be your host," he protested any­way, for form's sake.

"And truly, it is a great inconvenience for you," Kyndreth said, with just a touch of mockery in his voice. "I am not blind, Kyrtian. For all that you and your Lady Mother live graciously, your means are limited, and I am a burden on them. This is a small and very private manor, and my folk are an intrusion and an inconvenience to your routine, no matter how you cloak that in good manners. I shall beg your forbearance for just this one night more, for there is something I would like to discuss with you, but tomorrow my folk and I will leave you and yours in peace. Meanwhile—I feel in strong need of a bath and a rest!"

Before Kyrtian had a chance to react to the first part of that statement, Lord Kyndreth had clapped him on the back like an old friend, then turned to dismiss the magic he had cast over the fighters. He strode off in the direction of the manor, presumably to return to the guest quarters, leaving Kyrtian in charge of his own people.

"You did well, men; Gel, take over the practice," was all he dared say, not knowing whether he was under some covert ob­servation. He recast the magic, and Sergeant Gel assumed com­mand, barking out orders to pair off and start sparring. He watched, an observer rather than a participant, as the fighters went through their usual paces, changing weapons, changing sparring-partners, until they were all drenched with sweat and exhausted. It was very difficult to remain aloof; his hands

twitched to hold a sword, and several times he had to force him­self to remain quiet when someone required correction. It would not do for him to correct the men himself; he must be pa­tient and wait for Gel to spot the problem and deal with it. Kyn-dreth might have a man watching; he could have a magical "eye" observing them. It would not do for Kyrtian to be seen wading in as if he was of no higher estate than his own drill-master. Only when the men were completely exhausted did he dismiss them and permit them to return to their own quarters under the supervision of Sergeant Gel. And only then could he return to his mother's office and find out what Lord Kyndreth's three underlings had been doing while he and Kyndreth were occupied with the fighters.

Lady Lydiell was waiting for him as he rose through the floor of her office; she must have seen him approaching from the practice-field. "Tenebrinth took them riding," she said immedi­ately, knowing with that acuity that sometimes resembled a hu­man's magic what he wanted before he even voiced the question. "They just wanted exercise; I think they were bored. Tenebrinth took them on a tour of the hunting-reserve, which is far enough away from any of our little villages to keep anything untoward from happening, and I think they may actually have done a little hunting themselves. Look—you can see them from here—"

She pointed, and he went to the western side of the office, peering into the distance until he caught sight of four brilliantly colored atomies making their way alongside a tree line that had been reduced by distance to a mere blur of green.

"What about Kyndreth's human slaves?" he asked, without taking his eyes off the distant riders.

"They remained within the guest-quarters, except for the bodyguards, who were keeping you and Kyndreth under sur­veillance," Lydiell told him calmly. "And some of our people were in turn watching them. It made me wonder how many lay­ers of watchers-watching-watchers we could have had before people began running into each other!"

Kyrtian turned away from the window, and caught his mother's ironic smile. "It would be an interesting experiment.

That human Kaeth is a very sharp fellow; I have no doubt that he knew his people were being overlooked. I shouldn't like to have to pit Gel against him; I think that Gel might be out­matched in certain areas."

"Then let us hope we never need to." Lydiell looked at him sharply. "What is it that you have not told me? Something Kyn-dreth said?"

"Something he has yet to say," Kyrtian sighed, chagrined that she was able to read him so easily. I should know better than to think I can hide anything from her. "He learned the magic quite quickly; actually more quickly than I had anticipated. Whatever else his accomplishments may be, there is no doubt that he de­serves his position as a mage and a Great Lord."

"Do not attempt to distract me; I am too old to play that game with," Lydiell responded, a touch sharply. "What was this about 'something he has yet to say' ?"

"He implied that he wishes to discuss something with me, possibly at or after dinner. 1 have no idea what it is." Kyrtian tried to shrug it all off as of no importance, but his mother im­mediately looked concerned, then tried to conceal it.

"Did he say anything else?" she asked, a little too casually.

"One thing more—that he and his people will be leaving in the morning, which is not too soon for me." Feeling overly con­fined by the relatively formal garments he'd been buttoned into this morning, Kyrtian ruined the efforts of his body-servants by restlessly unbuttoning the collar of his tunic and running his hands distractedly through his hair.

"At least that is good news." Lady Lydiell sank into her seat behind her desk. "I knew this charade of ours would be a strain, but I hadn't expected it to be as much of a strain as it has been."

Kyrtian nodded in agreement, and took a quick glance back at the window. The tiny figures were no longer so tiny and were growing larger by the moment—the riders must have decided that they had exercised enough for one day. Either that, or Kyn-dreth sent a magical summons to them. "If I am going to con­tinue the game, I had best get down to my quarters to dress for dinner, Lady-Mother. Since this is to be Lord Kyndreth's last night—shouldn't we do something—well—elaborate?"

"Indeed we should, and I will follow your example as soon as I've seen the cooks." She rose from her chair and moved around her desk to kiss him fondly on the cheek. "We must show him every possible honor. We need to drive it home to Lord Kyn-dreth that we are reclusive, but neither mad, nor barbaric."

Kyrtian was tempted to break his long-standing habit and use illusion to augment his costume, for the clothing his servants laid out for him was not the sort of thing he would have chosen for himself. It was impressive, yes, but the plush velvet tunic of a sober midnight-blue was so heavily ornamented with gold bullion and tiny beads made from sapphires and emeralds that it weighed as much as armor, and the high collar was probably going to drive him to distraction before the evening was over and he could take it off.

Nevertheless, he allowed his men to assist him into the stiff costume, and made his appearance in the grand dining room well ahead of their guest. Somehow Lady Lydiell had worked miracles among the cooks, for there was every evidence of a meal worthy of the room in the offing. The table, decked in snowy damask, was adorned with a dozen different glasses at each place, and the sideboard was laden with small dishes and a myriad of specialized knives, forks and spoons, each (by the rules of etiquette) suited only to very particular sorts of courses. Also by the rules of etiquette, there was only a single plate and no utensils at each place. The particular silverware needed for each course would be laid with the course, and whisked away again to prevent any faux pas in dining on the part of a guest. When Lord Kyndreth and his three underlings appeared, con­ducted by a household servant, even they seemed surprised and impressed by the preparations.

Lydiell arrived last, in a gown of deceptive simplicity, one that Kyrtian had never seen her wear before. It was only when she drew near that it was obvious that only the "cut" of the gown was simple; with close-fitting sleeves and a modest neck­line, it was composed entirely of miniature interwoven links and plaques of silver, each no larger than a gnat, each plaque studded with diamonds no larger than the head of a pin. She

seemed to be gowned in shimmering fish-scales, or that fabu­lous substance, dragon skin.

And I thought my costume was uncomfortably heavy! he thought in awe. He'd had no idea she even possessed such a thing; it couldn't be illusion, but where had it come from?

I wonder if it could turn a blade ? he thought, as he waited for Lydiell to be seated. There was no telling how old such a gar­ment might be—it might even date back to Evelon itself. If so ... perhaps the ladies of those long-gone days had made a virtue of the necessity of wearing protective armor even to a festive meal.

They took their places, and the ceremonial meal began, course after course, until Kyrtian lost count of them. Each course was no more than a taste, a bite or two of some delicacy; then the plates and cutlery were whisked away to be replaced by a new setting, another dish. Cold dishes and hot, savory, salty, sweet, sour—fragrant noodles, lightly cooked and sea­soned vegetables sculpted like flowers, flowers made into tiny salads of petals, tiny portions of barely seared meat garnished with rare herbs and sauces, soups hot and chilled—each course was accompanied with a different drink. This was not always wine; it could be a spiced juice, a tea, or delicately flavored spring water, whatever best complemented the course.

It could not be called a meal, it was an event unto itself, a thing which swiftly acquired its own momentum. If Kyrtian was amazed, Lord Kyndreth was not—although it seemed he was very, very pleased. Hours passed, the sunset faded outside the windows and was replaced by the night and stars; Kyndreth and his people exerted themselves to be charming, and Lady Lydiell was equally charming and witty. Kyrtian was awed; he'd never seen his mother quite like this before, and he had to stretch his own wits to keep pace with the others.

Finally, the last course was placed before them—and the fact that it was the final course was signaled by the disappearance of every human servant the moment each plate was placed before the diners. Each plate held a single delicate, gilded fruit-ice the size of Lydiell's graceful hand. Each scoop of ice had been

molded into the Lion of Lord Kyndreth's House, with the de­tails picked out in sugar-crystals and pearlescent icing.

Lord Kyndreth stood up, and raised his cup to Lady Lydiell.

"My dear hostess," he said, in a voice full of warmth and ad­miration. "I cannot imagine how you conjured up a Court feast on less than no notice, but allow me to declare that you are surely the equal of any Great Mage in the land, and I bow to your prowess. I drink to you, Lady Lydiell!"

The rest answered his toast, and Lydiell gracefully acknowl­edged the compliment with a nod of her head.

Kyndreth sat down again. "I can see by all of this that my judgment of your House was not mistaken. If you do not move in the circles of the Council, it is not because you do not merit such attention, but because you chose not to seek it."

He looked from Lydiell to Kyrtian, and back again. It was Lydiell he evidently expected to answer, and it was Lydiell who made the reply.

"My Lord Kyndreth, our family has long preferred to keep our own company, and live quietly and even reclusively," Ly­diell murmured. "It is not out of unseemly pride, I beg to urge, but out of modesty and a genuine preference for a quiet and reclusive life. All of us—my late husband, his father before him, and my son as well as myself—are more of the tempera­ment of a scholar than of a courtier, and the life of a seeming hermit suits us well. Perhaps our needs and pleasures may seem simple to you, but we find that they satisfy every wish and de­sire we have, for our wishes and desires are for the inner world of thought, rather than the outer world, which others might find stimulating, but we find contentious and disturbing."

Kyndreth sighed, a bit melodramatically, perhaps. "And I wish that you could continue to enjoy that quiet life, my Lady, but the times, I fear, will not permit your modesty to deny the genuine talents that lie hidden in this little haven of yours."

Now he turned to Kyrtian. "Lord Kyrtian, I do not have to tell you what your reputation is among the ignorant; you have heard it already from the mouth of your kinsman, Aelmarkin. I was prepared to discount that reputation when I accepted your

invitation, but now I find that your kinsman was not only incor­rect, he was—" Kyndreth shook his head. "Words fail me. Ael-markin is either poisonously prejudiced against you, or completely blind. I have seen and heard enough in two days to convince me that, despite your own disclaimers, you, Lord Kyrtian, are nothing short of a military genius. This is no mere eccentric hobby that you have, it is a genuine vocation."

Kyrtian opened his mouth to protest, but Kyndreth silenced him with a wave of his hand.

"You have, with no help other than that of some ancient man­uscripts, uncovered a training method that creates expert fight­ers in a fraction of the time we have taken heretofore and as you yourself pointed out, with none of the criminal wastage that our method entails. I have seen your strategic ability in action, I have seen your careful attention to every aspect of military life. Lord Kyrtian, you cannot remain a hermit any longer; you are desperately needed. The High Council needs you."

"I—cannot imagine why you would think that," Kyrtian stammered, taken completely by surprise. "You already hold the key to the training-magic, and you are a greater mage than I—"

"We need your military knowledge," Kyndreth insisted. "Be­tween the wars with the Wizards and the revolt of our own un­grateful offspring, there are precious few with the wisdom and knowledge to command, and none with your talent. We need you, Lord Kyrtian. We need you to lead our armies."

Out of the corner of his eye, Kyrtian saw his mother tense, and realized that although he had not anticipated this demand, she had.

"You already have leaders," he protested. "Leaders of higher rank than 1.1 would not dare—"

"With my backing, no one would dare dispute you" Kyn­dreth countered, grimly. "With my backing, I can easily per­suade every Councilor that matters that you are the only possible Commanding General for our forces."

Kyrtian was dumbfounded; he had hoped that Kyndreth's gratitude would bring them a respite from Aelmarkin's enmity, but he had not expected Kyndreth to propose he take his place among the Greatest of the Great Lords!

"Lord Kyndreth, please do not think me ungrateful—rather, I am stunned," he managed. "And surely you realize that I have no practical experience!"

Lord Kyndreth raised his eyebrow. "All the practical experi­ence of our current Commander has availed him nothing," he pointed out. "The situation with our young rebels has been in stalemate for the last month and more." He paused. "And that is to go no further than this table; only the members of the Coun­cil are aware of it."

"Stalemate—" Kyrtian bit his lip. "How much territory are they holding?"

"Roughly half of the estates are in the hands of the rebels," Kyndreth replied. "We are fortunate that none of them are vital to the economy—they were mostly estates producing little ex­cept slaves and luxuries. Nevertheless, that is a great deal of ter­ritory to be in unfriendly hands—and there are isolated estates within that territory that are still in the hands of our people, loyal folk who need and deserve succor." Now he looked shrewdly at Lydiell. "Unless I am very much mistaken, one of those is the estate of Lady Morthena, your kinswoman."

"Lady Moth?" Lydiell paled. Kyrtian bit his lip. Granted, Lady Moth had conspicuously not taken sides, and if the rebels had troubled her, Lydiell certainly would have heard about it by now. Still, she might be presumed to be in danger.

"Lady Morthena is encircled and certainly trapped," Kyn­dreth continued, his eyes nicking from Lydiell to Kyrtian. "As yet, she has held control over her slaves, so that she has pre­vented any incursions onto her lands. As yet, the rebels have not attempted any serious effort at capturing her. But how long will it be until they see her as a valuable bargaining tool? She is a Great Lady; the honor of the High Lords and the Council would be compromised if she were to be captured and held against her will. We would either be forced to abandon her— which is unthinkable—or make concessions to the rebels— which is also unthinkable."

It is all unthinkable. Kyrtian gritted his teeth. Kyndreth ei­ther knew or guessed that he would be extremely loyal to those members of his family—unlike Aelmarkin—who deserved loy-

alty. He had known that Lady Moth was close to the territory held by the rebels, for she herself had told them. The Young Lords could not block teleson messages, and did not even try; so far Lady Moth had seemed entirely unconcerned about her position in the midst of the Young Lords, even professing to a certain detached sympathy for their cause. But Lord Kyndreth was right; if the Young Lords cared to, they could take Lady Moth captive to use her as a bargaining-chip. A quick glance at LydielFs face told him all he needed to know; this was no idle speculation, but a real possibility.

"You must give me time to consider all you have said, Lord Kyndreth," he managed, finally. "I am—stunned. I need time to shake my thoughts loose."

"I can sympathize," Kyndreth said gravely, but there was a smile of satisfaction in his eyes. He already knew that Kyrtian would agree, just as Kyrtian already knew he must agree. It was only a matter of time, and time was not his friend.

12

Lord Kyndreth retired to his guest-suite and the competent hands of his body-slaves with a feeling of total content-ment. Not only had he just savored the pleasure of enjoying

an exquisitely prepared, presented, and served High Court feast, but he was perfectly well aware that he was about to ac­quire a most useful adherent. He had seen young Kyrtian's re­action to the double temptations of power and the opportunity to play the hero. He had also noted Lady Lydiell's. The boy might be naive, but his mother was no fool, and she knew that the Great Lord and High Councilor Lord Kyndreth would not have made those offers if it was possible to refuse them.

She also knows that without my patronage that cousin of theirs will continue to be a thorn in their sides, at the very least,

and might well find a patron powerful enough that he can take everything from them, he thought with satisfaction. She read that implicit threat clearly enough.

He'd mentioned Aelmarkin for just that reason. In this partic­ular game of hounds-and-alicorns, Lord Kyndreth had herded the hounds into exactly the positions he wanted them.

His slaves undressed him and he slipped into the silk lounging-robe one of them held out for him. As always, his bodyguard Kaeth was in unobtrusive attendance, and when the last slave left the room, Kaeth remained, a faithful shadow, to be ignored—or not. Kaeth was equally receptive to either condition.

Kaeth's training must have been impeccable; Lord Kyndreth only wished that he could have gotten Kaeth's trainers along with the bodyguard. When the slave grew too old to serve, it would be difficult to replace him, and it would by necessity be with an inferior specimen.

Kyndreth turned his back on his bodyguard and took a seat beside an illusory fire burning in the very real marble fire­place—one of the few illusions in this suite. The flames danced with rainbow colors, and as the fire "burned," it gave off a pleasant scent of cedar and aloes-wood, but no heat.

"Well, Kaeth," Kyndreth said to the fire, "the boy will take the bait, I've no doubt. He doesn't dare refuse it."

"True, my Lord." As always, Kaeth was as economical with words as with everything else. "He'll accept by morning, I ex­pect."

"He's as good as I think." That was a statement; Kyndreth didn't expect Kaeth to disagree. "The boy is going to break the deadlock for us. The only reason Aelmarkin managed to con­vince everyone that he was half-mad was because he stayed mewed up here. Anyone who had bothered to talk with him for more than half an hour would have known he was sane—and brilliant. If he'd been out in society, Aelmarkin wouldn't have had a chance of making a laughing-stock out of him."

"He is better than you think, my Lord."

Astonished, Lord Kyndreth swiveled his head to look at his normally laconic bodyguard. "Indeed?" he managed. By the Ancestors, I can't remember the last time Kaeth volunteered a

comment, much less an opinion! This youngster must be some­thing truly out of the ordinary!

"I have examined his library, his strategy-room, and some of his own writings, my lord. I also watched his men when he commanded them. It is one thing to command men; it is another to lead them. Lord Kyrtian is a leader. Men may not always obey a commander—or at least, they may only obey the letter of his commands, but not exert themselves beyond that—but they will always follow a leader." Kaeth's unreadable expres­sion did not change by so much as a hair, but Lord Kyndreth fancied he'd heard the faintest hint of approval in the body­guard's voice.

Interesting. Very interesting.

He turned back to the fire. It wouldn't do to give Kaeth too much direct attention. The slave was intelligent, highly intelli­gent, and Kyndreth needed to be very careful how he handled the man. Too much attention might give him a sense of self-importance that could affect his usefulness. "All the more rea­son to put him in charge of the army. Half the time Lord Levelis has to drive the troops into action with pain and punishment. If the troops had some other motivation, that alone might ensure our victory."

"Lord Levelis," came the surprising reply, "will be mortally offended by being replaced by a—Lesser Lord."

Again, Kaeth had volunteered an observation. Lord Kyrtian must have impressed the man so much that Kaeth's careful self-control was cracking a trifle. Kyndreth laughed mirthlessly. "By an eccentric nobody, you mean, but of course cannot say. If his dear cousin is to be believed, a half-mad nobody. Lord Lev­elis will have to survive being offended; he has done nothing to endear himself to me, he has bungled every attempt at putting down the rebels, and he is not one of my adherents. I can afford to offend him; let his patron find a way to console him."

There was no reply; the human really couldn't reply to the statements without being insolent, and Lord Kyndreth would not tolerate insolence, even from a slave as trusted as his bodyguard.

"The boy's position will be safe enough when it is clear that I am his patron," Kyndreth continued for Kaeth's benefit. "I

could have him installed tomorrow, if I chose. Levelis has bun­gled too many times, and he will not dare move against me or anyone I choose to replace him with."

"Perhaps not against you—but out on the battlefield, Lord Kyrtian will no longer be under your direct supervision or pro­tection. Lord Levelis may move against him there; my Lord, the battlefield is a chance-ridden place, and accidents do hap­pen to even the most careful."

Well, well! I do believe that is another opinion!

Kyndreth could not resist the temptation to see what else he could draw out of Kaeth—further observations, even sugges­tions? This was more than the bodyguard had shown of himself in years!

"Perhaps I should send you to watch out for his welfare," he half-jested.

"I will do whatever you direct, my Lord," came the expres­sionless reply, and Kyndreth sighed with disappointment. Kaeth had revealed all that he was going to—and probably would not venture so much as a bland comment for the next year.

Kyndreth had no intention of assigning Kaeth—who was far too valuable where he was—to the task of seeing to Kyrtian's well-being. The boy will either be able to protect himself, or not. And if he cannot, then he does not deserve my patronage. There was that bodyguard of his own, after all—a man who had come very close to defeating Kaeth in combat. Having that par­ticular slave in his train showed a certain amount of self-preserving sense.

Levelis wouldn't be able to eliminate him until after he'd broken the stalemate, anyway, and by then the real work would be done, and Levelis could have his old position back if he re­ally wanted it. By that point, Kyndreth would have what he wanted; credit for breaking the backs of the rebels, and when the rebels were defeated, Kyrtian would be—

expendable. Still useful, perhaps, but expendable.

Gel had stood silent watch throughout the long meal, listening to the conversation with a face as impassive as that of the body­guard Kaeth—and when the servants vanished he did the same.

But he didn't go far. Like every public room in this manor, there was a spy-hole where a trusted confederate could listen to the Elvenlords when they thought they were speaking among themselves.

He didn't trust Lord Kyndreth. No matter how that particular Elvenlord acted, he would never do anything that wasn't in his own interest; solely and completely in his own interest. He might lull others into believing that he acted out of—say— friendship, or even the altruistic wish to do someone who might deserve help a favor, but there would always be a hidden reason for such actions, and either a later cost, or a current benefit.

It was moderately interesting to hear Kyndreth speaking so openly in front of, and to, his bodyguard Kaeth. It wasn't un­heard of or out-of-character, though; after all, what was the use of having a fully-trained and intelligent bodyguard if you didn't make use of all of his skills?

The spy-hole was a clever little construction, built where the chimney would have actually been had the fireplace been real and functional. There was enough room to sit comfortably with one ear to the wall, forehead resting against a padded proj­ection, in the utter darkness—not a single peep-hole, not even a thin little crack to betray the possible presence of a spy here.

So, the current commander is going to be an enemy. That was no surprise, though it was a good thing to have the man's name. Tenebrinth could put some time into investigating the fellow. It might well be possible to compensate him in some way for the loss of his important post.

It might be possible to placate him with no more than a sim­ple visit. Kyrtian plays the humble soul very well.

The murmur of voices in the other room continued, and he strained to hear every nuance, wishing he also had some way to read Lord Kyndreth's thoughts.

The current commander isn't Kyndreth's? That's good to know; Kyndreth probably knows next to nothing about him, and if Kaeth does, he's only said that the fellow is going to be in­sulted. Well, insults can be negated with a purging dose of hu­mility. If Kyrtian paid an immediate call on Levelis, after

accepting the appointment but before it became generally known, and groveled ...

Must ask Tenebrinth. That can be a two-edged sword.

Assuming that the current commander could not be placated or bought off, there was a possibility that Levelis would revert to the ancient ways of Evelon. The Elvenlord was not likely to act openly—after the display at the challenge-duel hosted by Aelmarkin, no one was going to issue a challenge that they knew they were going to lose. A challenge to a duel-by-magic was possible, and there were several potential ways of dealing with it. Kyndreth and the Council could forbid it. Kyrtian could accept and the duel could go on, and he could either win or lose—and in either case, Gel would have to be certain that the stakes weren't too high to lose. What is the limit on stakes in these things? Must ask Tenebrinth. If it's pretty much a token, it might pay Kyrtian to lose anyway.

But if the Council forbade a duel altogether on the grounds that the challenge was specious and made purely out of pique, Levelis could decide to take matters into his own hands. That left the possibility—if Levelis had or could purchase a properly-trained slave—of assassination. He wished very strongly that he had Kaeth at his disposal about now—an assas­sin would be the best possible expert at spotting another.

But he didn't. And I spotted Kaeth, so I suppose I could spot another. Provided he was operating in the open, and not mak­ing an attempt at sniping from a distance. Damn. He made an­other note; make sure that Kyrtian's tent and person were always out of bow shot of any cover. Fine, provided that the current battlefield site wasn't in the middle of a forest.

But he knew that there was no use in trying to persuade Kyrt­ian not to go; he didn't even consider the option. It was too dan­gerous to try and decline the invitation, at least in the short-term. So long as Kyndreth was Kyrtian's sponsor, Ael­markin would keep his distance.

Damn them all for a nest of twisty snakes, anyway! Why couldn't anyone among these pointy-eared bastards ever do anything in a straightforward manner?

But the subject had changed, and Gel shoved his ear even tighter against the wall, hoping for more insights.

Kara and Gianna were fussing with their clothing again, hoping for a second visit from the Great Lord and a second present of jewels, no doubt. What good jewels were, with only their mas­ter to see them, Rennati had no idea. Rennati sighed, but qui­etly; Kara had gone through three changes of costume already, and still she wasn't satisfied with the impression she was going to make.

She looked back at the window; a doe and fawn appeared at the very edge of the lawn, but quickly darted back out of view before she got more than a glimpse of them.

I would like a fawn, more than jewels. Or a kitten of my own, like the one that slipped in when we first came here. Any kind of pet. Kara and Gianna wouldn't want to share the harem with an animal, though.

Kara tried another gown, and rejected it immediately—not that there was anything wrong with it, but because she had worn it two days ago.

Well, maybe Lady Lydiell shouldn 't have given us such exten­sive wardrobes when she bought us and installed us here, Ren­nati thought. Half of all this costume-changing is only because Kara's got an excuse to try on everything in her closet.

Kara and Gianna twittered at each other; what did Rennati need with a bird when she had them? "The black," she said, in the first available moment of silence. "Wear the black. It's at the right end of the closet."

Two heads swiveled on two swan-like necks to peer in her di­rection, both sets of eyes, blue and brown, equally uncertain. "Black?" Kara said doubtfully. "But—" she shuddered. "He'll think—"

"Black's not for mourning, not with them," Rennati said, an­ticipating Kara's objection. "I know it's not a color you usually wear, but Lady Lydiell has perfect taste, and she wouldn't have put the black in your wardrobe if she didn't think you'd look good in it."

The fair and deceptively fragile Kara pursed her lips in thought. "I could try it, I suppose—"

The thought was mother to the act; in a mere moment, the gown of seventeen overdresses made of sheerest silk was in a heap on the floor, and Kara slid the heavy satin black over her head while Gianna picked up the discarded gown, shook it out, and put it back in the wardrobe. Gianna, fortunately, had a ma­nia for neatness. Kara smoothed the bias-cut gown over her flat stomach, settled the pointed neckline, and twitched the long sleeves so that the points of the cuffs came down precisely over the backs of her hands, then turned to gaze at her reflection.

Gianna was already staring in awe, her lips pursed. "Oooh, Kara!" she enthused. "It's perfect, Ren's right! Wear it!"

And it was perfect; Kara's misty-blue eyes in the reflection were wide with surprise as she pulled her long hair over one shoulder to fall in a silver-gilt cascade along the shining black satin. Rennati smothered a smile. "Remember those silver-and-jet ornaments that puzzled you in the jewel-chest?" she prompted. "I would bet that they're meant to go with the black." As the other two women dove for the jewel-chest, Rennati went back to her own thoughts. She and Gianna were more than ready for any potential call for their services; it was only Kara who'd been indecisive. Kara could never make up her mind about anything, and preferred to be led by the other two.

Which was fine with Rennati. Gianna was the natural leader of the harem, if one could be called a "leader" in a group of three. Rennati was indifferent to who took the lead in such pressing questions as what to eat, what music to play, or what to wear. Even now Kara sat passively while Gianna decided what to do with her hair and the wealth of silver and black or­naments that were obviously supposed to go into a coiffure.

Gianna had been ready hours ago; last night she had worn a close-cut scarlet velvet gown with a cleavage so low and tight that she nearly popped out of it—not that, with her generous features, she wasn't perilously close to popping out of anything she wore. Tonight she favored a dusty rose that was not tight-fitting at all, but plunged so low in the back that there was not a

single one of her perfectly-sculptured vertebrae that was not on show, and as usual, she had made up her mind after swiftly ri­fling through her closet. Rennati had been ready even earlier; last night she had worn an emerald-green sheath that matched her eyes, slit to the hips on either side, and tonight it was a pale green tunic with an asymmetrical hem and no shoes. She didn't expect Lord Kyndreth to get to her, anyway; she expected to dance while the other two worked their wiles on him. Lord Kyndreth had expressed pleasure with her dancing last night, and she hadn't even begun to show off her talent. If the other two occupied his bed, that would give her a rare moment alone to activate her teleson-ring to speak with her real Mistress.

She hadn't learned much—except that Kyndreth was pleased, very pleased, with Lord Kyrtian, and intended to be­come his patron—but she remembered Lady Triana's instruc­tions to report everything. They hadn't yet been allowed out of the tiny harem, though neither Kara nor Gianna particularly cared. Rennati would have liked the chance to get out, rare though it might be for a concubine to have that chance, but she had to admit that, although the suite was relatively small, it was sumptuously appointed and should satisfy most cravings.

It even had windows gazing out on the world; from the look of things, their suite was in a tower, for the window-seat where Rennati lounged was at some height above a wide, green lawn. There were trees in the far distance, although with twilight darkening the sky it was hard to distinguish anything but a vague, bluish blur at the end of the lawn. This was a novelty; Rennati had never been in a harem that had a view of the world she had last seen as a young child, and she spent as much time as possible in the windows, watching the rest of Lord Kyrtian's slaves walking from here to there with purpose in their steps, or even working on that plushy grass.

Anything they might possibly have wanted had been sup­plied to them. There were the usual lutes and harps to play on, if they desired, or they could leave the instruments to play by themselves with a touch of the hand on a little silver stud in the neck. If they chose the latter, the instruments somehow also supplied an accompaniment of drums, bells, and flutes. There

were materials for embroidery and beadwork, scents, cosmetics of every sort, hair-dressing instruments, and even books, though Rennati was the only one of the three of them who could read with any proficiency. The bathroom was small, but one didn't necessarily need a bath one could swim in, and the food invariably pleasant, if not sumptuous. Still, one didn't par­ticularly want a feast presented to one every day in a harem; it was altogether too easy to overeat, and that would be a disaster for the figure.

The door-chime sent the other two into a flutter, and Rennati rose from the window seat to join them as they flew into the reception-chamber together.

Lord Kyndreth, tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome enough for any two humans, strode unaccompanied into the room. All three of them dropped to the floor in a profoundly deep curtsy the moment his foot crossed the threshold. He laughed at Kara's eager face as she looked up at him.

"Well, last night you were a lily, so what are you tonight, hmm?" he teased. "A black narcissus, perhaps?"

"I am whatever your lordship pleases to call me," Kara replied, rising first, with an expression of adoration.

She probably didn't feel adoration, but she was adept at as­suming any expression she thought might be met with pleasure.

"As it should be," he responded, gesturing to Kara and Gi-anna, and gathering each into an arm. "Come now, last night I had but a brief introduction to flame-hair's dancing, and I am eager to see more."

He took a seat on a couch piled high with silk and velvet pillows, still with a girl on either side to minister to him. Ren­nati made the rounds of the room, touching each of the wait­ing instruments in turn, then set the time for the dance by clapping her hands for a measure. The instruments, in concert, struck up a lively piece; she let it play through for four mea­sures before leaping out into the room and setting her flying feet into motion.

This, if anything, was what she lived for. She would rather have died than not dance. Her first owner, a Lord of discrimi­nating tastes (so he styled himself) and limited means, had

grown bored with her passion, and had decided to dispose of her in a private sale to finance the purchase of a new girl to train.

"There's nothing at all wrong with her," he'd told Lady Tri-ana, "It's just that she's always dancing. I'd really like to find a new girl who has talents that are a little more restful. One doesn't always want prancing about; it's very fatiguing to watch after a while."

For Lord Kyndreth, however, Rennati's passion apparently had the virtue of novelty, even if he was so busy with Kara and Gianna that he paid scant attention to the nuances of Rennati's performance. And long before she was weary, he was fully in­volved with them. Ornaments had been removed and set care­fully aside, along with a few bits of clothing, and when Rennati signaled the instruments to play quietly to themselves and stole out of the room, none of the three even noticed. That was fair enough; she'd been Lord Kyndreth's first last night, which had left Kara out. Kara no doubt wanted a chance for a better pres­ent tonight.

Rennati stole up the stairs to the uppermost story of the tower where their bedrooms were—not so much bedrooms, as curtained-off alcoves of a room meant never to be seen by the eyes of a Lord. Here they could practice with cosmetics, sometimes to hilarious effect; here they kept the litter of their previous lives, personal belongings too shabby for a Lord to see. Kara had a battered old doll, much loved and worn, and every bit of "jewelry" she ever owned, going right back to a string of pierced sea-shells some little boy-child had once given her, up to her own efforts with needle and beads. There were a dozen works-in-progress on a table, along with a doll being costumed with beads and bits. Gianna had managed to keep hold of all of her attempts at artwork and kept her sup­plies and easel up here. She was making an attempt at a still-life of Kara's work-table, but Kara kept moving things around, much to her frustration.

Rennati had books—not the pretty leather-bound volumes of poetry downstairs, but dirty old things with torn covers or no covers at all on every subject under the sun, rescued from the

Lord's trash-heaps. And, of course, she had Lady Triana's teleson-ring.

With a few hesitant words, she activated it.

It was too small to allow a picture; it sent and received voices only. As she had been told to expect, the first voice was unfa­miliar.

"Who calls?" the voice asked.

"Rennati," she replied breathlessly, a little astonished and a lit­tle fearful to be holding a thing of such great magic in her hand.

"Ah—wait one moment. Lady Triana will wish to speak with you herself."

The ring, a beryl like the one in her collar, fell silent. Rennati waited patiently; so long as no one came up here to interrupt her, she would wait for as long as she was told to. Elvenlords were busy, and it was not reasonable to expect one to drop whatever she was doing simply to come and hear what a mere concubine had to say.

Finally, "Speak," said an imperious female voice from the ring.

"I have been here since your agent sent me to Lady Lydiell," Rennati said instantly. "I am with two other concubines, in a tower, in a small harem. I can see outside from the windows, but I have not yet been allowed to venture past the door. Lord Kyrtian has been here once only. He is entertaining Lyon Lord Kyndreth, who was here last night and is here now. Lord Kyn-dreth is going to become Lord Kyrtian's patron. He told Kara tonight that Lord Kyrtian has pleased him and that we must not expect to see very much of our master for some time, since he is going to go away to take charge of an army."

There was an odd laugh. "Well, that rather puts a kink in my plans; if he won't be there, you won't be able to learn much from him. On the other hand, if you do manage to get out, you can see a great deal more when the lord himself is away. And this other news—more than interesting. I take it that this is all you have for me for now?"

Rennati nodded, forgetting for a moment that she could not be seen, then hastily said, "I am sorry, but that is indeed all I have learned."

"It is not a great deal, but the quality is good, and I am pleased. Notify me the moment you learn anything more. You may deactivate the ring now."

Obediently, Rennati passed her hand over the ring, shutting out the light from the room for a moment, which turned it into an ordinary beryl again. Then she placed the ring in the darkest comer of her jewel-box, and hurried back downstairs.

After all, it was not too late to earn another generous present from Lord Kyndreth—and more importantly, he might be in­clined to talk afterwards. Elvenlord or human, if they didn't sleep, they were all often inclined to talk—afterwards.

13

The sun shining down on the top of the highest tower of the lady-keep imparted a drowsy warmth to Lady Moth's back that she was thoroughly enjoying. She had always liked the gentle heat of the sun; her late husband had once scornfully accused her of being half-lizard for the way she en­joyed basking in the garden. But even if it had been the dead of winter, she would have been up here, for this was the only place on the entire estate that gave an unrestricted view down into the valley below. And what she watched through the eyepiece of her bit of antique equipment was fascinating indeed. There was no breeze to stir the silken, silvery-blue folds of her dress, or disturb the simple, straight fall of her hair, nor to make breezes wave distant branches between her and the interesting scene so far away in the valley. She felt sorry for the tiny little figures that she knew by their drab tunics were human slaves. First one brightly-colored creature in scarlet paraded them out and set them to work in the kitchen-garden. Then a second appeared, clad in a violent blue, far too soon for them to have accom­plished much, and marched them off to drill with weapons.

Then a third emerged from the stables, this one in bronze satin, and ran them off into the farm-fields. What those poor bewil­dered slaves must be thinking now, she could not even begin to guess.

"Lady Morthena?" said a diffident voice from behind the El-ven lady. "What are you doing?"

Lady Moth took her eye away from the eyepiece of the old-fashioned, gold-and-bronze telescope, and turned to smile at her most recent guest.

"I am using an old device, my dear," she said to the younger woman in a kindly voice, knowing that Lady Viridina would never have seen such a thing as a telescope. "In fact, it dates quite back to Evelon—or at least, the lenses in it do. It is called a telescope, and although I normally use it to examine stars, at the moment I am using it to spy upon our neighbors." She pat­ted the long cylinder of bronze, with ornate curlicues chased into the metal and inlaid with gold wire, for it was a very old friend and long-time companion.

Lady Viridina's pale brow wrinkled with puzzlement, with a faint frown on a face that was attenuated by long illness. "Why are you bothering to do that?" she wondered. "They already tell you everything, don't they?"

"That, my dear, is what I am ascertaining for myself." Lady Moth put her eye back to the eyepiece, and continued to make mental notes on the movements of the Young Lords' slaves out­side the Great House. "In point of fact, I rather doubt that they are telling me everything. For instance, there seems to be some disagreement down there about just who is in charge of what. Just during the time I have been sitting here, I have seen one hapless group of slaves herded from one uncompleted task to another by three different Young Lords." She chuckled, and her laughter was echoed faintly by her companion, who patted the knot of long, silver hair at the back of her head self-consciously. "That is what comes with age, Viridina; suspicion. I stopped tak­ing things at face value a very, very long time ago."

"So did I—but the difference between us, I think, is that you found other ways of finding out what you needed to know, and I didn't even try," Viridina said ruefully, twisting her hands in

the fine silk of her flowing and many-layered violet gown. "If I had, perhaps—"

She didn't finish the sentence, but Lady Moth was not about to allow her to sink into self-recrimination. "If you had, I doubt that it would have materially changed anything. You and I were firmly under the thumbs of our unlamented Lords, and no knowledge or even foreknowledge would have allowed us to change what happened to us. Knowledge is not always power." She smiled again. "If it was, fond as I am of my Tower, it would be Lady Moth who ruled the manor down there, and not that rabble of Young Lords."

Lady Moth had known very well that there was going to be a slave revolt when the Young Lords staged their own revolution against their elders. Her own slaves had told her. She had al­ready taken herself out of her disagreeable husband's home; she had made a bargain with him—if he gave her the lady-keep, which had been the Dowager-House attached to his estate, she would make no trouble for him when he filed a divorcement with the Council. He had his eye on a very young Elven girl— his tastes had begun to run to the barely-pubescent in the past few years—and he was heartily tired of the wife who could not or would not take him as seriously as he thought he should be taken.

"I wish you had managed to take the Manor," Lady Viridina sighed wistfully. "I hate to think what damage those careless boys are wreaking to your beautiful home."

Lady Moth only shrugged. "I have an equally beautiful home here—and much more manageable," she pointed out. "It's probably just as well that I didn't try."

For her part, she had been so heartily tired of her lord that— given that she would not be required to remarry and could have an establishment, however small, of her own—she was pre­pared to allow him to say whatever he pleased about her in or­der to obtain his freedom. She suspected that he would claim she was pleasuring herself with human slaves—but as it fell out, he never got the chance, so her reputation survived intact.

"May I look?" Viridina finally asked, allowing her curiosity to

overcome her reticence. Moth just laughed, showed her how to focus the instrument, and rose so that Dina could take her seat.

Moth's husband had not even lived to encounter the revolt, though without a doubt, if he had, he and his son would have been on opposite sides of the conflict. Her son, who had sud­denly become as conservative as his father once he was in the ruling seat, had managed to be slaughtered almost immediately, and her daughter had fled after an abortive attempt to rule the manor herself had failed miserably. Lady Moth, as was the tradi­tion in her family, had always treated her slaves with considera­tion and respect, entirely as if they were servants, not slaves, and as if they were free to leave her service if they chose to. She had taken all her slaves with her to the Tower, every slave for which she could concoct even the remotest excuse to have with her— a fact which probably would have provided ample fodder for her husband's accusations. Once there, she had deactivated the elfstones in all of their collars, making them merely decorative shams, and told them frankly that they now were free to go or stay. They all, to a man and woman, chose to stay. When the re­volt was at the breaking-point, her slaves had told her. They had fortified the place, she had armed those who knew how to use weapons. Together, they had outfaced rebellious ex-slaves and Young Lords. In fact, her burly young guards called her "little mother," and took as much care of her as if she had truly given birth to them—unlike her own offspring.

"Why not use scrying instead of this device?" Dina asked, moving the telescope to gaze at another part of the valley.

"Because, my dear, the place is adequately shielded against scrying—oh, not by magic, by all that iron and steel they've managed to collect." She stared down at the valley, one finger tapping her lips thoughtfully. "Very clever of them, actually; there aren't three of them together that are a match for a single one of the Old Lords, but the metal does their work for them."

Needless to say, her son's magic had not been enough to save him from enraged and mistreated humans who came in the middle of the night to beat him to death in his own bed—espe­cially not when they arrived bedecked in thin iron armbands.

During the chaos of the revolt itself, some of her son's slaves had escaped to her; the rest fled to the Wizards and the wilder­ness. When more armed bands of escaped slaves had come upon the Tower, her people protected and guarded her while she stood ready to use deadly war-magics if it became neces­sary. She knew about the effects of iron and steel; she would not have made any attempt to blast attackers, unlike those fool­ish Elvenlords like Dina's husband. She planned to blast holes into the earth beneath their feet—or to use her magic to launch large and heavy objects at them. Most of her anxiety had not been for herself, but for her people, if they could not convince their fellow humans to go away peaceably. She didn't want them hurt on her behalf, and she didn't want them to have to witness what she might have to do to protect them all.

Dina stood, and relinquished her seat with a smile. "Very clever of you to know the things that can't be interfered with by that metal," she said, as Moth took her seat again.

"Not clever, dear, only resourceful. If I were clever, I'd have managed to find a way to eavesdrop on them." That irritated her; she still hadn't managed to insinuate a reliable spy into their slave-stock.

She was not entirely certain what her people had told ma­rauders during those first weeks of the Revolt to dissuade them from attacking the Tower; there probably had been several dif­ferent stories, specifically tailored to each group. It was true enough that a few, select escapees had decided to swell the ranks of her own folk—no doubt, because they were unwilling or unable to make the strenuous journey over the mountains to an uncertain and probably uncomfortably barbaric existence in the wilderness.

Not that she blamed them in the least. She had always had an ample portion of "Lady-magic," and although her husband had not been aware of the fact, she was his equal in the realms of Elven magic usually taught only to men. Had it been necessary, she could have defended the Tower as well as many Elvenlords, and probably better than most. Now, her magic went to ensuring the continued survival of her diminished estate. She did every­thing needed to ensure exactly the right weather for the farm-

fields, she went over the fields and gardens daily to monitor and encourage growth and health in plants and animals. She had the knowledge and the long memory to tell them what they needed to do, and when. They trusted her, her learning, her judgment, her experience. That was what she had brought to the table; they had brought their labor. Returning to the grand tradition of her family, they had worked together to make sure that Elven-blood and human-blood prospered.

"Is there anything you'd like me to do this afternoon?" Dina asked, diffidently.

Moth examined her friend carefully. There had been mo­ments, in those first days after Viridina took refuge with her, that she truly felt that Viridina would never be entirely sane again. But Dina was stronger than Moth had first thought; even after escaping murder at her Lord's hands and seeing her Lord incinerated virtually at her feet, she had not truly had a break­down of her senses. It took time and careful tending, but she had recovered. Moth decided that it was time for her to help do her part here.

"Would you make the rounds of the kitchen-gardens for me, dear? I would really appreciate it, and I know you must have tended your own gardens thousands of times. I needn't tell you what to do." Moth felt herself both justified and rewarded when Dina's face lit up.

"Gladly! I have been feeling so—" she gestured frustration with both hands "—so useless. And a burden on you."

"You have never been a burden," Moth lied gracefully. Dina only smiled, recognizing the lie, and the graciousness behind it, and turned to go back down the stairs, her sleeves and trailing hem fluttering behind her.

After most of the escaping slaves were gone, but before Moth had a chance to move herself and her people back to the Great House, the Young Lords had moved in. Occasionally, even now, she cursed herself for hesitating—but on the other hand, the Great House was much less defensible, and even with her new followers, she still had really not enough people to ad­equately staff and run a property that was ten times the size of that attached to the Tower.

The Young Lords had taken over the abandoned estate; they had brought their own slaves with them. Lady Moth was not en­tirely certain where they had gotten those slaves; many of them seemed terribly young for the work they were required to do. She suspected that the Young Lords had raided the breeding-farms of some of the Old Lords while the latter were occupied with the fighting, carrying off hordes of confused and fright­ened creatures barely out of childhood.

Poor, poor things, she thought, taking one last look through the telescope, her lips tightening. Well, at least there are enough of them to do the work they are ordered to do, and they are saved one horror. Their masters are too busy with their own concerns to abuse them; confusion is the worst they have to face.

The reason she had asked Dina to take her place in "work­ing" the garden was that she had an appointment with the Young Lords quite soon, and it was bound to be stressful. She had come up here in the first place to get a little more information before she faced them; now it was time to change into a riding-habit and make the short journey over to their stronghold.

She chose her clothing carefully: a tailored, severe habit of stark black, with only the barest hints of silver at the cuffs and throat. She dressed to intimidate; the last thing she wished to be thought was "feminine." Her groom brought her horse around, along with her guards, and she mounted and made the short journey to what had once been her home.

She was accompanied by four burly young men—humans, not Elves, and humans that wore scale-armor of iron, not bronze, and had ostentatiously bare necks. Moth had played the game of wits and treachery for centuries before these striplings had ever been born.

They were, one and all, less than a century old; when she swept into the meeting-chamber in her trim sable-silk riding habit, her hair in an uncompromising knot bound in a black silk snood, with all four of her escorts flanking her, they found themselves rising from their seats despite whatever their origi­nal intentions had been in the way of greeting.

She paused at her seat, looked gravely up and down the table

with an unreadable expression, and only then did she sit— which in turn, allowed them to resume their seats. She might not be the leader here, but in their hearts, they all acknowledged her power.

Which is more than their fathers would. Then again, she probably wouldn't ever use tactics this crude with their fathers.

She listened without comment to the reports of their progress—or lack of it—against their fathers. The situation was clearly at stalemate, and had been for some time now. This was not necessarily bad, and had they asked her opinion, she would have advised patience. When there is stalemate, it is often pos­sible for frustration to drive one side or the other to make a cru­cial mistake.

But, of course, they didn't ask her opinion, and she didn't of­fer it—since it was clear that they would not believe a mere fe­male would have any experience relevant to the "man's work" of warfare.

As if they have any! she thought, without amusement. But warfare was not why she had come to this meeting. Eventually they got around to the topic she wished to cover, in the form of a single casual comment by one of the least intelligent (to her mind) of the lot, occasioned by one of her bodyguards stifling a cough at one of the more fatuous suggestions.

"Lady Morthena," said Lord Alrethane, with a frown on his face, "I really do not know what you are thinking, allowing armed and uncontrolled slaves to continue in your service."

"They are not slaves, they are my willing servants," she countered smoothly. "I find that I sleep better, knowing that my sleep is guarded by faithful people who serve me from loyalty and not because they are forced to."

"Loyalty? Loyalty?" Alrethane exploded. "Are you actually ascribing a civilized emotion to these simple-minded barbar­ians? They're a bare step above the beasts!"

Another discreet cough reminded him that he was insulting people who were freemen, armed, and protected with armor that would stop both magic and blades. He stopped, abruptly, and averted his eyes.

"He has a point—" someone said.

Morthena looked up and down the table again, examining ex­pressions, and was disappointed.

So. Nothing has changed. She had hoped that some, at least, of the Young Lords would have started to see sense. Insofar as the humans were concerned, the Young Lords were of two camps; the majority—a scant majority, but enough—held hu­mans and halfbloods in the same contempt as did their elders. The minority, led and coached by Lady Moth, wanted to see hu­mans and halfbloods given equal status with Elves. So far, none of those she considered to be "wavering" had changed their minds. She had hoped that this particular display, showing just how far she trusted her people, would have had some effect.

At least the minority saw to it that the human slaves owned by the rest were not mistreated.

And there have been enough chances already that those who had the courage and initiative to escape to the Wizards have al­ready done so.

The slaves they now had probably served out of the usual mix of fear of the collar, an inability to imagine that anything could be different, and an inability to get their hands on any iron or steel which would render a slave-collar useless. She sus­pected that it was the former two reasons that were the strongest, since anyone who really wanted the metal rings that would negate the collars could have one from Moth's people just by asking. Pity would only take her so far; if the slaves here couldn't look beyond their fear, if they didn't have the basic in­telligence to imagine something different from their current life, she couldn't help them.

I won't press the issue any further; if I do, I'll only weaken my own party, and if the rest of these young fools turn on me, I will have to barricade myself within my own lands and hope they grow bored with me. There would be no point in trying to flee; I am not at all sanguine about the likelihood of a full El-venlord finding a welcome among the Wizards, even if Dina's children are among them.

Her thoughts were momentarily distracted by that reminder of Dina's children. Poor Dina; she hadn't heard anything from them since they parted from her on Moth's doorstep. It was, af-

ter all, just as likely they were in hiding somewhere other than among the halfblooded Wizards. Only one of them was a half-blood anyway—Lorryn, the boy. Sheyrena was of full elven blood, and she could not imagine the girl being welcomed by the Wizards.

It's likely that although Lorryn might have been able to con­vince the Wizards that Sheyrena was not actually an immediate danger to them when he first encountered them, he would never be able to convince them that Rena is completely harmless. And if he couldn't convince them that his own sister wasn't going to bring disaster on them, he'd never be able to make them believe that an ancient Elven lady like Moth was on their side.

Poor, poor Dina; she worried so much about them, although she tried not to show it. The one regret that Moth had was that there was no way for her to discover if Dina's two children were all right, or even where they were.

It is the most likely, actually, that Rena is ensconced some­where off in the wilderness, far from Elvenlord, human, or half-blood. She has magic enough to keep herself safe—well, according to Dina, she has magic enough to control alicorns! And Lorryn would never allow her to come to harm or suffer any wantif he's with the Wizards, he'll see to it that she's got food enough and shelter. In a way, she envied the two young­sters. If I'd had the youth and the opportunity, I'd have gone right off the map. The world is wide, after all; wide enough to hide dragons from us for all these centuries, it can certainly hide a few Elves who don't wish to be found.

The conversation had made a wide detour around the ques­tion of the slaves, and was back on the topic of the war. Some­one wished aloud for some secret that would allow the select elimination of some of the leaders. "That would throw a good fright into them," the callow youngster said, with a savagery worthy of any "barbarian and bestial human." "Let a few more of them die the way Lord Dyran died, and they'll give us what­ever we want!"

Moth held her tongue. It was just as well that the Young Lords were not aware that Dina and her daughter managed to incinerate Dina's husband, the Lord Treves, in a' way very sim-

ilar to the way Lord Dyran's son slew him. Her own trusted ser­vants knew, and they had kept it a strict secret, and she was quite grateful to them for preserving that secret. These young hotheads should never learn something that dangerous. They 'd probably manage to kill each other with it.

Eventually the meeting ground down to its inevitable conclu­sion, and Moth rose. "With your permission, gentlemen, I should like to go tend to the library until sunset, if I may?" she asked politely.

They didn't even take a second thought about her request— young Lord Ketaliarn waved vaguely at her, and she took that as permission and left, trailed faithfully by her escort.

Of all the things that showed how callow they were, this was by far the most blatant. They considered the library to be use­less, fit only for the concern of silly old ladies half living in the past. They thought all she was doing was cleaning and preserv­ing the books—removing a few, now and then, for her own amusement in her bower.

Oh, the young fools.

The room she now entered, one of the finest libraries ever as­sembled in this world, was (had they only had the wit to realize it) full of information the Young Lords could use to help their own cause. She breathed deeply of the scent of leather, vellum, parchment and paper, took a long look around the shelves that her husband had only seldom permitted her to access while he was alive, and set to work.

Many of the oldest books had not been tended in far too long; she would not permit any book, however trivial, to suffer from the worm's tooth or the decay of age. Whenever she was here, she spent a few hours in cleaning and restoring those ancient books—no matter how trivial they seemed to be, there was no telling when some scrap of knowledge in them might prove useful.

Most of her time, however, was spent in looking for the ones that she would rather not leave to the curious eyes of the Young Lords.

Lady Moth had helped young Kyrtian's father with his re­search in this very library once or twice before his disappear-

ance, and. she was well aware that he had known better than she what lay here. She only knew within her own books was a set of very, very ancient works that Kyrtian's father had consulted in his searches for ancient secrets; she did not know which books they were, nor what they held.

Nevertheless, since she had been forced to quit the place, she had been determined that at the first chance she would get in here and find them again. Since the Young Lords got here, she had been using her visits to find each and every one of those precious volumes and take them back to the Tower, a few at a time. Whatever was in them had led to the death of one Erven-lord; she suspected that what he had gone seeking had some­how killed him. Which implied that the secrets to be found in those books could be very, very dangerous indeed.

None of the Young Lords cared what she did in there. So as she worked on the task of keeping the library cleaned and pre­served, and she ferreted out those precious few books so that one day, perhaps, she could present them to Kyrtian, they were completely oblivious to the value of what she was taking out right underneath their very noses.

I shall have to do some research of my own, I'm afraid, she reflected. A dangerous secret was exactly what she was looking for, after all; there were a few old half-remembered stories of things that had been abandoned right after the Crossing, and techniques that had been forgotten in the haste to find and build a secure haven.

For her part, at the moment, she would be happy to find some way to communicate with her nephew other than by teleson or messenger.

She had just been informed this morning of a very disturbing rumor—as yet unconfirmed, but she had been hoping to hear something either to confirm or deny it at today's meeting. One of her servants took periodic and very risky ventures into the lands still held by the Old Lords, coming back just after dawn with the situation as viewed from the Enemy's vantage—and he had told her that there was a report that Kyrtian had taken com­mand of the Old Lords' army.

If that was true—

If that is true, then the other side has made a desperate gam­ble, and all unknowing has hit upon the one thing that will probably give them victory. And the thing is, these young fools will be dead certain that putting Kyrtian in command of the En­emy is going to be the one thing that will ensure the Old Lords' defeat. Young idiots.

If only she could speak to him, and persuade him that she was one of the rebels, surely he would think twice about his current allegiance!

I don't dare use a telesonthose are too easily monitored. And none of my humans have the human type of magic that lets them talk mind-to-mind with each other. And I won't send one of my people where he might be captured or conscripted into the army. It is a terrible position to be in.

She was going to have to start studying these old tomes her­self.

After all, it was a far better idea than sitting with her hands folded, waiting for disaster to overtake all of them.

Besides, she decided firmly, shoving another ancient volume into the saddlebag for her guard to take with him. I will never sit by with folded hands while things fall to pieces.

not even if someone ties me into the chair and binds my hands together!

14

In the heart of the Citadel, the home of the halfblooded Wiz­ards, Lorryn ignored the drone of voices around the table and took just a moment to marvel at his surroundings. It seems so strange, even now, to finally be myself. No illusions, no care­fully hiding what I am— In spite of everything, all the hard­ships, all the danger, even the silly aggravations, Lorryn was not sorry to be here, among Halfbloods like himself, at last.

This most spacious of caverns in their new home that the Wizards used as a meeting-hall was a pleasant place in which to find oneself—so long as no one was meeting in it. A peculiarity of the caverns allowed a wonderful flow of fresh air through here, so long as certain openings that served as doors and win­dows were left open to catch the summer breezes. Last winter things had gotten a little stale in this room, and with such a high ceiling it tended to be dank and chill.

Unfortunately for his sheer pleasure, there was a meeting go­ing on, and Lorryn was glad that he had ample experience in keeping a pleasant expression plastered on his face while he himself was not feeling in the least pleasant. He had a headache like a tight band around his head, and he had inserted his tongue a trifle between his teeth to keep from grinding them and making the headache worse.

How is it that Caellach Gwain has managed to find the pre­cise nasal whine best calculated to set my nerves on edge ? he asked himself, as he nodded affably at the elder Wizard. He ac­tually couldn't make out more than half of what the man said, thanks to the weird acoustics in the place, but then he didn't have to listen to Caellach to know what he was going to say. The man is like a teleson stuck on endless repetition of the last thing it sent.

This was supposed to be a meeting about the progress made in setting up the sheep and cattle farm below the Citadel, but Caellach had taken it over as usual. He was intent only on recreating as much of the old comfort of the first Citadel in their new home as he could manage, and he had taken the op­portunity of a brief allusion to the old Citadel to air his usual grievance.

Which is, of course, that the Wizards are not treated like El-venlords of the High Council. Old fool. Hasn't he figured out yet that when one group lords it over another, the underlings are going to want to strike back?

The old man's litany of complaints was as familiar to Lorryn as the texture of the wooden table he stared at as he controlled his temper and his expression. The beginning, middle, and end of Caellach's troubles were seated in his own greed. He wanted

all the effort of the younger Wizards and the humans to go into making him as cossetted as he had been before the second Half-blood War. He didn't care that they had to be self-sufficient now, and couldn't steal magically from the Elvenlords any­more. He didn't trouble himself to think that it was far more important to see to the raising of sheep, goats and cattle, the cultivation of fields, than to scrub an old wizard's floor on a daily basis.

And he absolutely hated that the majority of the Halfbloods, voting down Caellach and his cronies, had made treaties of al­liance with the Iron People and with the Trader clans, giving them the status of full equals and honored partners. These were fullblooded humans who had the status of full equals and hon­ored partners. Though he did not dare come out and say so di­rectly, this attitude incensed Caellach and his ilk, for to their minds, the halfblooded Wizards were clearly superior in every way to mere humans, and thus, should be treated as such.

And we should all be running and fetching for them, tending to their comfort, giving them of ourselves and the first fruits of our labors, so as to reward them for the fatiguing effort of their magics on our behalf. Lorryn, who was not only halfblooded himself, but had been brought up as an Elvenlord with all of the attendant privileges, found Caellach's attitude just as insulting and absurd as any of the highly independent Iron People or Trader clan folk did. There was nothing inherently superior about a wizard. Yes, they had magics, but so did the humans. And since they had been settled here in the new Citadel, the older wizards had not exerted themselves once for the common good—except, rarely, to teach some of the children how to use their powers.

Rather than listening to Caellach's words, Lorryn listened to the tone behind the words. He'd discovered he possessed an in­teresting knack for ferreting out the emotions and motives be­hind what people said, provided that they weren't as skilled at covering themselves as he was. He heard injured self-esteem and affront—that was expected—but he also heard fear, and that was interesting. He had not anticipated that.

I should have, though, he thought, raising his eyes and study-

ing Caellach's expression as the man shifted his eyes away from Lorryn's direct gaze. Caellach was looking a bit unkempt, now that there was no one to wait on him. His clothing, the usual long robe affected by most of the older Wizards, was a bit stained and frayed about the hem. His grey hair was brushed, but no longer hung about his shoulders in a kind of thick man­tle—instead, it was held back untidily in a tail, and it seemed to Lorryn that it had gotten a bit thin at the temples. People do tend to react to new things either with interest or fear, and re­ally, I think Caellach Gwain is too hidebound to react with in­terest to anything new.

Lorryn already knew that Caellach was afraid of the dragons; that was abundantly clear to anyone with half an eye. The old Wizard wouldn't set foot outside when there were dragons about in their natural form, and as for the ones shifted into half-blood or human shape—well. If they took seats on one side of the table, it was a safe bet that Caellach would place himself as far from them as physically possible while still remaining at the table.

His dislike of the Traders and the Iron People was a little more complicated, and harder to understand. Lorryn let a few of the old wizard's actual words—laden with anger and appre­hension—sift in past his own thoughts. What in the world had the old man's trews in a wad?

"—and how dare they demand payment in advance, much less at all, for—"

Ah. That was enough to get the key. Lorryn had the tail of the tree-snake now. Caellach wasn't incensed that he was expected to pay in advance for the goods that the Traders brought here— he was angry that he was expected to pay at all. Possibly be­cause Caellach's only available coin was, quite frankly, debased. He wasn't the most powerful Wizard anymore, he wasn't the most skilled, and his greed had led him to expend most of his energies on his own comforts, leaving him with lit­tle that he could use to barter for things he wanted.

"And as for those—barbarians—"

Third leg to the stool; he was incensed that the Iron People showed him no deference at all—and didn't need his magic.

Though why Caellach should think that a mob of ill-regulated cave-dwelling refugees should consider themselves more civi­lized than a well-regulated nomadic people was beyond Lor-ryn's imagination. But prejudice has nothing to do with logic. Perhaps it was because the Iron People were completely unim­pressed by the Wizards. They didn't need Wizards to defend themselves from the Elvenlords; they had their iron ornaments and a powerful warrior class. Not to put too fine a point on it, they had actually held two Elvenlords as enslaved prisoners for the purposes of their own amusement. The most that Caellach Gwain had ever managed was to escape relatively unscathed from them.

That had been a near thing, too. Caellach and his cronies ei­ther did not realize, or would not admit, that it wasn't the El-venbane's fault entirely that the old Citadel and its dwellers had been discovered. The Wizards had been dancing on the edge of a knife for a very long time, what with their pilferings from the Elvenlords and all. So far as the Elves were concerned, there was only one kind of good halfblood—a dead one. Halfbloods weren't even supposed to exist, and most of the Elvenlords were utterly devoted to making certain that they didn't. Lashana's actions had only triggered the avalanche of Elven retribution, not caused it.

And if it hadn't been for her quick thinking, and her draconic friends, the wizards wouldn't have survived it.

What was more, they weren't out of the woods yet. As long as the halfblooded wizards lived, the Elvenlords would try to eliminated them, treaty or no treaty. If Caellach Gwain and his circle thought any differently, they were deluding themselves.

Not that there was anything new in the notion of Caellach Gwain deluding himself....

Finally, Caellach ran out of things to say, and sat down. Lor-ryn had very quickly figured out that allowing the old Wizard to rant and whine, while unpleasant to listen to, generally had the salubrious effect of making him silent for the rest of any meet­ing of which he was a part. "Thank you, Caellach; your experi­ence is, as always, apparent to all of us," he said, graciously. Caellach began to preen. "Your observations are continuously

fascinating." He ignored the grimace that one of the younger halfbloods made at him from behind the shelter of one hand, and the spasms that crossed several other faces in an effort to keep from bursting out into laughter. "Now—I'd like to put the matter of the proposed upper pasture for the goats to a vote. All in favor?"

Even Caellach raised his hand, seduced, no doubt, into think­ing that the goats would look after themselves, and not require shepherds, now that they had some of the huge cattle-dogs raised by the Iron People at their disposal. Lorryn made certain that there were no dissenters, and nodded. "Good. We're all agreed. Halfden, would you see about finding some volunteers for the job and getting them to me to be interviewed?" He needed humans for this task, preferably children with the abil­ity to speak mind-to-mind, so that they could call for help if they saw anything, or if there was something out there that nei­ther they nor the dogs could handle.

More of the servants that Caellach Gwain thinks are his per­sonal property.

Halfden, one of the older ex-slaves, nodded, and Lorryn called the meeting to a close.

But like it or not, he wasn't quite done with Caellach—at least so far as Caellach was concerned.

"I really need to talk with you about the quality of my quar­ters, Lorryn," the wizard said, grabbing him by the elbow before he could make his escape. Lorryn leveled a blank gaze at him.

"My good sir," he said, with the kind of polite tone in which a specious warmth and charm were mixed with utter calm, "if you think you are being slighted, I invite you to come and in­spect my quarters—or Shana's for that matter. I think you will find that they are by no means superior to yours. In fact, given that neither of us chose our rooms until everyone else had got­ten their pick, you'll find them far inferior to yours."

"Yes, but—" Caellach protested-—although weakly, since he had been in the little nook of a cave that Lorryn used, and knew that it was scarcely larger than the closet in his own suite of linked cavelets.

"I know that it is trying to you to be in such primitive sur-

roundings, after having to abandon such a wonderful and com­fortable place as your old home," Lorryn said, now interjecting a soothing note into his voice. "Who could know better than I? Do think what I left behind; I was the only male heir to a pow­erful lord! But you will soon find this life as exhilarating as I do if you regard it as an opportunity rather than a loss! Think of it! You now have the chance to design your very own quarters in precisely the way you'd most like them—rather than be forced to endure inconveniences and awkwardnesses that countless generations of wizards before you created! With a little effort, you can, for the first time, have everything perfect!"

"Yes—but—" Caellach faltered.

"There, you see?" Lorryn slapped him lightly on the back. "That seems better already, doesn't it? I knew I could rely on you!"

And with that, he strolled away, leaving Caellach to go over the conversation in his mind and try to determine what could possibly have gone wrong.

As he rounded a corner, someone jumped at him from the shadows. Instinctively he sidestepped and drew his hidden dag­ger, with a defensive magic meant deflect a levin-bolt already in place.

"You're getting better," Shana laughed, leaning against the rock wall with her arms crossed over her chest, looking quite as if she had not been catapulting herself across the hallway from a natural niche just at the level of his head a moment before.

"I should hope so," he retorted. "You certainly give me enough practice. Were you listening in on the meeting?"

"I was—and you are a genius. And some sort of mage that I haven't quite figured out." She tilted her head to the side, quizzically. "How you manage Caellach—and how you man­age to not strangle Caellach—is quite beyond me."

Lorryn laughed and offered her his hand, which she took. "No magic—just politics," he told her. "Verbal self-defense. I didn't spend much time among the schemers and plotters, but I did hob-nob with some of them and, of course, I always had to be able to placate my father. I learned early how to say nothing while seeming to say everything."

She squeezed his hand. "It's still sheer genius. No matter how hard I try, I can't manage people half as well as you do."

He glanced aside at the young woman called "the Elven-bane." She didn't look like the stuff of legends; her scarlet tresses were tied up onto the top of her head in a very practical tail, which she often tossed like an impatient horse plagued with flies. Her handsome face was nothing in beauty compared to the homeliest of elven ladies, and her figure was so well-muscled that most of them would have recoiled in horror at the notion of looking like her. Today she had on a sleeveless tunic of leather and a pair of coarse slaves'-cloth trews—but to his eyes, she couldn't have looked better if she'd been enrobed in his sister Sheyrena's presentation-gown.

"I hope you aren't—bothered by me taking on all these meetings like this," he said, hesitantly. "You're supposed to be the leader, I know, but—"

"Am I jealous? Oh, Fire and Rain, get that idea out of your head this moment!" she replied with a laugh. "I never asked to be the Elvenbane, you know—and the only reason besides that stupid legend that people pay any attention to what I think is that I think quicker than they do. Handling the old goats is not a job that requires quick thinking—and you have the—" She considered for a moment, head tilted to one side. "—the 'man­ner born' is how I'd put it. You say things, and people do them, instead of arguing with you about it."

He thought that if she was dissembling in any way, he would be able to tell; he was getting pretty sensitive to her nuances— not that she had many, for she was a strikingly open person. No, she seemed to be happy with him taking her leadership role.

"If I could find a double to play Elvenbane for me, I'd do that in a heartbeat," she continued onwards, oblivious of his scrutiny, "And then I could just be Shana again."

"Speaking of just being Shana—oh crafty one—" he led her down a side passage that brought them out onto the top of the Citadel, into the warm air and sunshine, where they could sit and talk without being overheard.

She didn't fling herself down onto the grass as she usually did when brought outside. "Crafty one, hmm? I know what that

means." She sauntered casually up the hill a little ways to a grassy knoll with a shade-tree atop it—downwind of the half-hidden entrance. Now they could speak without being over­heard. Only then did she drop down into the grass in the sun, with all of the pleasure of her foster-mother dragon in basking.

"Ask away," she said, as he plopped down beside her. "I've just spent the better part of the morning talking to Keman but I need your help to reach Shadow."

Shana, freed from the responsibilities of the day-to-day run­ning of the Citadel, was concentrating on the vastly more im­portant project of collecting intelligence reports, by means of amplified telepathy, from Keman and some of the other people she and Lorryn had out in the greater world. Although it would not be possible to send either a human or a halfblood into the midst of Elves to spy under a spell of illusion, the halfbloods were not limited to illusion as long as they had dragons with them, for the dragons could actually shift their shape to appear like anyone or anything they liked. Shana's foster-brother Ke­man and his probable mate Dora were Shana's shapechanged spies among both camps of Elves.

"Your mother is not only doing well, so far as Dora can tell, she's taking over some of Lady Moth's duties on the home-fields," Shana told him, smiling at his sigh of relief. It might not be the most important piece of information, but it was the one that was most likely to relieve his mind. "Dora thinks that she's probably well over the shock of—well, you know—by now."

"I know I do her a disservice by thinking of her as being so frail," he replied, chafing one finger against another nervously, "But that's how she looks. And she's my mother—"

"You can't help being protective of your mother, I know. I feel the same way about my mother." By this, she meant not her real mother, who presumably had been an Elvenlord's con­cubine, but her foster-mother, who was a dragon and not much in need of anyone's protection. But Lorryn refrained from say­ing this.

"Is there any change in the situation there?" he asked, and Shana shook her head.

"Stalemate. The Old Lords can't break in and the Young

Lords can't break out. Occasional skirmishes and feints, but nothing worth talking about. Lady Moth's no closer to getting the Young Lords to see that humans are—well—people. And until she does, they're going to be ignoring the one resource they have that might tip the scales in their favor." Shana sounded curiously indifferent to the situation, more as if it was a chess game that she was observing, rather than playing in. Lorryn wondered how she could detach herself from it so eas­ily. He couldn't.

"Now, on the other side—there's something just come up that Keman thinks is going to give the Old Lords the advantage, and a major one at that." She tossed her head, and her "tail" switched like an impatient horse's. "They've got a new com­mander, and from what Keman says, he's absolutely brilliant."

There was no indifference in her voice now, and he sat up a bit straighter. "A new commander? Who? I thought that there wasn't an Old Lord in the lot that could coordinate a proper attack!"

"Keman says his name is Kyrtian. Kyrtian V'dyll Lord Pras-taran." She turned her head to look keenly into his emerald eyes with her own, the mark of their Elvenlord blood along with the pointed ears and Elven magics. "Heard of him?"

"Vaguely." And that, in and of itself, was interesting. It sug­gested that for some reason the High Council had elevated a no­body into a position of major importance, with no steps in between. "I think his father was supposed to be a scholar—I know there was something when I was a child about Lord Pras-taran who vanished off in the Waste Lands between here and the site of the Gate that brought us from Evelon." He waved vaguely in a southerly direction. "He keeps—kept—to himself, and his son did the same. Until now. And why, one wonders?"

"Apparently, because he's brilliant. And according to Ke­man, because he's got a way of training slaves to be soldiers without the untidy process of having half of them cut to ribbons in order that the rest get experience in fighting." She drammed her fingers silently on the side of her leg. "And you realize, of course, that this is not good news for us."

"No." That was clear enough; if this Kyrtian was as brilliant as Shana said, he wasn't bound by tradition—he would use

what worked. Being encased in tradition like a chrysalis never meant to be opened was the only thing that kept the Old Lords from hammering their less-experienced offspring.

"A good commander with the resources of the Old Lords be­hind him can take the defenses of the Young Lords to pieces," she continued, turning her gaze in the direction of Elven-held lands.

"When he does that, he'll have proved himself to his mas­ters," Lorryn agreed. "And it won't take them any time at all to break the treaty and send him after us." He felt his stomach turn over uneasily. "I don't suppose you have any good news for me, do you?" he asked plaintively.

She shook off her own somber mood. "I know what you're thinking, and you're right; until we know something about this Kyrtian, there is no point in imagining all the things he might— or might not—do. Besides, Mero and Rena are doing very well for us, and the Iron People seem to like them a great deal."

"The Iron People helped us hold off the Elvenlords the last time without actually getting involved—" Lorryn mused, feel­ing a bit less hag-ridden at the thought of another conflict with the Elvenlords. "If they joined us this time—between them and the dragons—"

"It might be the Elvenlords doing the retreating," Shana fin­ished for him. "One of Dora's lair is helping them to find graz­ing and ore—and lately there have been small groups of 'wild' humans turning up who speak some dialect that the Iron People understand."

"Do you suppose they could be what is left of the Corn Peo­ple?" Lorryn asked, his curiosity now piqued.

Shana shrugged. "They could just be Traders—we knew al­ready that the Iron People have had some contact with Traders. Keman says they are slowly bringing in their families and de­pendents to join the encampment, and some of them have been saying it's safer than hiding in the wilderness. They do know farming, though—"

"Grazing—and farmers to help with crops." Lorryn pulled a grass stem to chew on it. "That would suit the Iron People down to the bone. They'd prefer to make a settlement, if they can. It's

hard to run proper forges unless you're settled. Did you tell Mero about this new Elven commander?"

She nodded. "I told him to pass the information on, as he sees fit. There's been a complication; we really need to find a reliable source of iron. Mero and Rena can't do anything about finding some, and if we're going to keep the Iron People as al­lies, we have to get a dragon to find us a mine."

"That reminds me—we've got an iron-related problem of our own." Lorryn wished profoundly that Caellach Gwain wasn't at the heart of so many of his problems. "There is another prob­lem among the wizards so far as Caellach Gwain and his cronies are concerned."

"The magic-twisting." Shana made a face. "Well, we've known about that for as long as we've had any amount of iron around us; you just increase your focus to get around the way the magic warps. Or you use the warp—I've seen Orien actu­ally lob a levin-bolt around a corner! What's the problem?"

"Younger wizards can learn how to deal with it, because they're used to using semi-precious stones as focuses. Caellach just doesn't want the iron around, at all. So far as he's con­cerned, it's one more Change in the Way Things Were, and that's what he wants to go back to." Lorryn sighed, and felt his headache coming back. Why was it that so many of the prob­lems seemed to begin and end in Caellach Gwain?

"He's just lazy," Shana snorted.

"Well—I agree, he is, but not all of the older wizards are, and they're having the same problems adjusting. And they aren't complaining, they're just suffering quietly."

"Suffering?" Shana raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"Well, not suffering then, but it's hard for the old ones. They aren't as fit, they aren't as healthy, and it's harder for them to learn new things. None of it's out of stubbornness." He felt very sorry for them—he'd seen some of them struggling to use a focus-stone to do things that pre-adolescents were accomplish­ing without a thought. He'd watched them suffer with aching joints and coughs and colds from living in caverns rather than the comfortable rooms of the old Citadel. Most importantly, he'd seen them disheartened and frustrated, thinking that after

all of their years in hiding, they were now considered to be lit­tle better than useless.

"I know." It was her turn to sigh. "It's not fair, is it? If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here. But I don't know what to do about it. We can't stop things from changing—"

"No, but—let me think about this one." He offered her a shy smile. "You've said it yourself; you're the one that's good with plans and strategy, I'm the one that's good with people. Maybe we can find a way to turn all this to our advantage."

"How?" That skeptical look again—but this time he had just the glimmering of an idea, and he met her gaze firmly.

"I don't know—but there's always possibilities, as long as you keep your eyes open for them." And on that positive note, he got to his feet and offered her his hand. "Let's go take a walk and blow the cobwebs out of our brains before we go back to work."

"Cobwebs do get in the way of clear sight," she agreed, to his great pleasure. "And I could use a walk—with you."

And those last two words increased his pleasure tenfold.

15

Rena had been working hard most of yesterday, changing grasses and leaves with her elven magic into sweet treats with which the Iron People could lure in the young bulls for their first lessons in being accustomed to saddles and being ridden. Horses could be broken to saddle—it was not the best way to teach them, but it was successful—but bulls, never. Their stubborn natures and the great courage bred into their line made it impossible to break their spirit, so the only way to train them for their duties as war-bulls was to begin by tempting them, gently, into captivity, and rewarding them for every sign of cooperation with the one thing they always responded to—

food. More specifically, a treat, a taste they couldn't find on their own. Like people, cattle had a sweet tooth, and now that Rena was acting as an envoy to these people, she was deter­mined to do everything that she could to bring the weight of debt over to the wizards' side of the scales. If that meant that she spent half a day changing grass into the goodies with which the bull-trainers could reward their animals, so be it.

The magic that elven ladies were traditionally trained in was a gentle art of transformation, which they usually used to tailor garments seamlessly to fit like silken skins, to sculpt flowers into gossamer and fantastic shapes, or to make other cosmetic changes. Rena had learned to use it to turn the relatively inedi­ble into edible and tasty—and, at need, to stop a beating heart. It had lately occurred to her that she could also use it to start a heart that had stopped, or perhaps to cure disease or mend a wound, but she had not yet had the opportunity (or the courage) to try.

The normal noise of the camp woke her just after dawn; the sounds of voices and cooking, the far-off lowing of the cattle herds. She lived with the Iron Priest, Diric, and his wife Kala. The great friend of the Elvenbane Lashana, halfblooded Mero, who was openly courting Rena, also lived with them, but Kala watched over both of them with as stern an eye to propriety as if Rena was their own child. Diric and Kala had given them separate sleeping-chambers on opposite sides of the family tent. Rena found that reassuring; raised as a sheltered elven maiden, isolated, for the most part, from all males but her brother and father, she enjoyed Mero's attentions but she was also uncomfortably shy about being courted. Not that she wanted him to stop! By no means. But she was not yet prepared to go any further than a hesitant kiss or two.

Still, waking up in the cool of the dawn, with the bustle of the camp around her and a breath of breeze carrying the scents of grass and the smoke from dung-fires wafting under the skirts of the tent, she felt just a little lonely in her solitary bed.

Lorryn isn 't so shybut then, Lorryn isn 't a girl. She sighed. I wish I was like Shana. Shana is always so strong, so brave, and she never worries about what people will think. She won-

dered if Shana and Lorryn shared a bed; she wondered, in the freedom of thought that being only half-awake lent to her, just what went on when one did share a bed. Mero's careful kisses and caresses sent strange sensations through her; pleasant, oh my yes, but strange. Surely it wasn't—well—like the cattle, or the birds of her garden....

Her thoughts drifted; she listened to the cheerful voices of women preparing the morning meal outside. She liked the sound of their voices; they were deeper than those of the women she was used to, even the human slaves. Lovely! In­stead of that annoying bird-like twitter, this was a melodious murmur.

Then, of course, the mood was broken as a child did some­thing wrong, its mother raised her voice in a scold, and another child began to cry in sympathy. Rena woke entirely at that, and laughed at herself and her notions; how typical of an elven girl to try and cast a specious glamorie over something rich and sat­isfying in and of itself, if less than perfect and not at all tranquil.

She stretched, yawned, and wriggled out of her blankets, giv­ing herself a quick wash in the leather bucket of water that stood just inside the flap that connected her portion of the tent with that of Diric's wife. The Iron People wore loose and com­fortable clothing perfectly suited to their nomadic way of life. Kala had fitted Rena out with the outgrown clothing of her eld­est daughter—well suited to the slim build of an elven female. Women of these people either wore a similar outfit to the men—loose trousers with a drawstring waist and a sleeveless, v-necked shirt—or long, embroidered gowns fitted to the waist with a pair of ties in the back. In either case, the colors were earthy and bold. Rena could not imagine anything less like the gowns she had once worn in the bower, with their trailing hems and sleeves, tightly-laced waists, and pastel colors, all in the most delicate silks and satins.

Today she slipped into one of the dresses, a warm brown linen that would have made her look like a bleached-out little wax doll if she still looked like the pallid, timid girl who had es­caped from her father's manor. But although she still had the pale silver-gilt hair of that girl, her skin was a warm ivory, sun-

kissed and glowing with health, and there was nothing that was bleached about her anymore.

She sighed, though, as she pulled the dress on over her head and tied the straps behind her back. Her first duty, today as ever, was to see if she could do anything with the captive Elvenlord, Haldor.

As if there was anything lord-like about him now!

Neither Haldor, nor his fellow-captive Kelyan, were entirely sane anymore, but Haldor was worse. When she and Mero had come back to the camp of the Iron People, one of the first things that Diric had requested of her was to see if anything could be done about the two captives, who had been taken by the great-grandsires of the current Iron People and pressed into service as entertainers, using their magic to create illusions. They clearly couldn't release either of the Elves, for even if they weren't mentally competent anymore, they still knew too much—and they couldn't give them over to the Wizards either, at least not in Rena's opinion. In the time they'd been gone, Haldor had lapsed into a stupor or torpor and could scarcely be roused enough to eat. It had fallen upon his fellow captive Kelyan to take care of him, but at least they were no longer forced to entertain the Iron People, and thanks to Rena's trans­formative magics their diet was something other than curds, milk, and meat.

She hated going near them, to tell the truth. She wasn't afraid of them, but there wasn't anything she could really do for them either. She had the rather sick feeling that they were both too far gone to help. If only there was some way to wipe their minds clean of everything that had happened to them since they'd been captured! Then they could be put to sleep and set down by a dragon somewhere—perhaps where one of the El-venlords' trading-caravans crossed—

She paused, one hand on the tent-flap. That's no bad idea, she thought, struck by the notion. And maybe Mero is the one who could do just that! Mero, like all the halfbloods, had both the magics of his human mother, and those of his Elven father. The human magics included the ability to understand the thoughts of others—could Mero change them as well?

She lifted the partition-flap, intending to ask him as soon as she saw him, but to her disappointment, he was nowhere to be found. Neither was Diric, for that matter; only Kala was in the part of the tent that served as a common area for eating and so­cial functions. The Iron Priest's ample wife was bent over her breakfast-preparations, and looked up at Rena's entrance, her teeth shining in a startlingly white smile against her dark brown skin.

The Iron People were unlike any humans that Rena had ever seen; their skins were a black-bronze (nearer to black than to bronze) and their ebony hair curled more tightly than sheep's fleece. Nomads, though not by nature, they descended from a long line of cattle-, goat-, and grel-breeders whose religion and lives centered around their forges. In the long-ago when the El-venlords first came to this world, they had a close alliance with another human race of farmers, now vanished, called the Corn People. The Iron People provided the "meaty" side of the di­etary equation, the Corn People the grains and vegetables. The Iron People worked in leather and metal, the Corn People in pottery and fabric. Then the Elvenlords had descended, and drove the more-mobile Iron People into the south, presumably adding the Corn People to their long list of slave-nations.

"There is another group of Corn People come," Kala said cheerfully. "Diric and Mero have gone to speak with them. I expect them back before too long; they went off without any food, and I have never yet seen a man who can do without his morning meal without becoming cross."

Rena laughed, and went outside to their little fire to help Kala with her meal-preparations.

Ever since the Iron People had arrived in what now appeared to be their ancient pasturage, this plain below the mountains where the Wizards and Traderkin lived, small groups of people with flax-colored hair had been drifting into their camp, claim­ing the right of ancient alliance. They resembled the descrip­tions that Lorryn had read in the old histories, and they certainly spoke a language similar to that of the Iron People, so there was every reason to think that they were the remnants of the Corn People.

Certainly Diric's folk believed it and welcomed them as long-lost kin. Mero was perfectly pleased to see them coming to the Iron Folk; if the old alliance could be re-established, with the Corn People farming part of the plains for grain, the fiber-crops of hemp and flax, and vegetables as they once had, the Iron People would have one more reason to settle. There was plenty of good grazing here; all they needed to be perfectly happy was a steady supply of iron ore.

If we can induce them to settleif we could just work out a way to find them enough iron! she thought, helping Kala by spreading the thin batter for morning cakes on the hot stone that served her as an oven. All of the families had such a stone, flat and black, polished smooth, which served as a cooking sur­face or to keep foods or liquids warm, and they were cherished as the important objects they were. The thin, tough pancakes that they used for bread were cooked on these stones, eggs could be fried atop them, pots of tea or soup kept warm on them. They were buried in coals to heat them for cooking, the coals and ashes brushed to one side when the surface was needed.

Rena spread the batter atop the stone with circular motions of a horn spoon; Kala performed the trickier task of judging when the thin cakes were done enough to peel off and flip, and she did it with fingers toughened by many years of working at her own jewelry-forge. Rena wouldn't have dared to try; she'd have come up with blisters on the tips of every finger.

The finished cakes, paper-thin and tasty, were tossed into a basket to wait. Breakfast was always cakes, milk, a little cheese or meat, and whatever fruit could be found. There were bram­bles out here, and the berries were just coming ripe. Rena her­self had gathered some yesterday, after cheating a bit by softening the thorns with her magic so that they wouldn't stick her while she gathered the fruit.

Just as they finished the last of the batter, they heard the voices of the two men: Diric's a low, cheerful rumble like the wheels of a heavy cart on a bumpy road, Mero's a clear tenor.

"—I haven't any idea where this 'Lord Kyrtian' came from," Mero was saying as they came around the side of the round

tent. "There certainly wasn't any Elvenlord commander by that name when I had any regular contact with the Elvenlords."

By that Rena realized that Mero had been catching the Iron Priest up on what he'd been told last night when Shana had fi­nally been able to reach him with her thoughts.

"But this can mean very little to us," Diric objected, then paused to bend and give his wife a morning-kiss by way of a greeting. He was a tall, round-faced human, heavily muscled— not surprising, given that he was the chief Priest of a religion that centered around the forge. Rena was no good at judging the ages of humans, but Mero said he guessed that both Diric and Kala were probably in their fifties. "Kala, my rock-dove, the young one tells me that the Demons have a new War-Captain in their battle with their own rebellious youth. This one seems to have rather more sense than the last, and is making progress in his campaign to bring them to heel. Mero is concerned that this could mean trouble for us."

"This can have very little to do with us," Kala agreed com­placently. "Except, perhaps, good. Let them concentrate on each other and forget that we are here."

"But that's just what won't happen if this Kyrtian is success­ful, don't you see?" Mero objected, as Rena nodded vigorously.

But the gray-haired Iron Priest only shook his head. "Time enough to be concerned if it happens," he responded with a shrug. "My people will be more fretful that their forges are dark than that some war among Demons has possibly taken another turn."

Mero bit his lip and looked to Rena for help, but she couldn't offer him any. Diric was right; the Iron People hadn't had to en­gage the Elvenlords in combat for generations, and legends were unlikely to arouse any anxiety in their hearts at this point. But the lack of iron for their forges was a problem, and a cur­rent, even urgent one.

It was a concern for the Wizards, as well—the Young Lords' Rebellion had been grounded on the foundation of the iron jew­elry that the Iron People had made and the Wizards had distrib­uted. Wearing this jewelry, the rebels—not just younger sons, but the abused and reviled Lesser Lords with very little magic,

who often were treated as badly as any human slave—were protected from the Great Lords' magic. For the first time, they were able to act without fear of levin-bolt and paralyzing pain, and act they had.

But that had used up the scant store of raw iron, and the Iron People were grumbling about the lack of material to work with and wondering if their sacrifice to help save the Wizards by giv­ing the Great Lords a new threat to worry about had been worth it. So far, the only bits of iron that the dragons had been able to find had been coaxed out of the ground and dropped as raw lumps between the territory claimed by the Wizards and the strongholds of the Elves. They formed a barrier of protection, difficult to find and disruptive far out of proportion to their small size, and the Wizards were very reluctant to remove them, however badly the Iron People wanted them.

The plain fact was that the Iron People were not going to make any more of their jewelry for the Wizards unless and un­til the Wizards came up with more iron. And the supply of jew­elry to sneak in among the rebels had long ago run out. How much more disruption could be accomplished if simple iron torques could be sent in among the human slaves? Those iron bands could negate the magic that controlled the slaves through their collars—with them, escapes could be successful, and even the takeover of an entire estate. Without them—nothing would change. If this Lord Kyrtian managed to conquer the Young Lords by power of arms alone, the Wizards would desperately need another diversion to keep the Elvenlords occupied, and the human slaves could only look forward to more abuse, more repression.

Diric ate his breakfast with a placid face, oblivious to the concerns of his guests. "The Trader-people are to come, also, at last," he offered, between bites. "One of the new Corn People told me that they were following no more than a few days be­hind, with burdens of trade-goods. I am eager to see them, and I think the rest will be also."

Rena smiled, despite her concerns. "I have no doubt," she replied, thinking of the excitement that each new boatload of Traders caused among the Wizards.

"They are good people," Mero offered. "You won't be sorry that you decided to open full trade with them."

"So you said in council, though there are still those of my folk who think we should simply take them as slaves and have them and their goods." The gleam in Diric's eye reminded Rena that the Iron People were quite used to the idea of having other humans as slaves. There weren't many slaves among the tents, mostly ton People who had been sold by their parents or who had sold themselves to repay debts, but they did exist. Mero had been rather taken aback when he discovered their existence.

"And I pointed out then, as I will repeat, that it will be far more profitable to trade honorably. If you take them and their goods," Mero reminded the Iron Priest shrewdly, "you will only have a few slaves and the goods they carried. No more will come to you. But if you trade—more will pour into your camp, and you will likely be able to barter what is common to you for what is worth a great deal to you."

"Eh, now, did I say that I did not feel the same way?" Diric asked, ingenuously, pretending that he had never even enter­tained the notion, although both Rena and Mero knew how hard they had argued to sway him to their way of thinking. This would be one more hold on the Iron People, one more reason for them to stay here instead of looking for another spot to set­tle. Right now, with a growing number of voices calling for an­other move to some place that might have more to offer than just water and grazing, the Traders could provide what Mero and Rena needed until somehow, somewhere, they could come up with a source for the all-important iron.

The Traders arrived riding on—of all improbable things— pack-grels. These incredibly ugly animals, long-legged, long-necked, with bulging eyes and blubbery lips, served the trading-caravans into the desert commanded by the Elvenlords, but Mero had hardly expected that the Trader-clans would have any. Up until this point, he had thought that they traveled exclu­sively afoot or on water.

The Iron People were just as surprised, and even more ex­cited to see a half-dozen of the creatures they themselves had

once depended on. In the oldest chronicles, the Iron People had even been referred to as the "grel-riders." It was only when they had been driven south that they had lost the grels, which had not survived the arduous journey and the new pests that the cat­tle had shrugged off.

The grels were less enthused to see these new dark-skinned humans—they had no long tradition of association, and they shied and bellowed at the unfamiliar dark faces, much to the Iron People's disappointment.

"I'm sorry, but they aren't very bright, and they think any­thing they don't recognize is going to eat them," the grel-handler kept saying, over and over, stumbling a little over the unfamiliar syllables of the Iron Peoples' tongue. Eventually, when the beasts refused to cooperate, the curious got over their disappointment and settled down to serious trading.

Each side laid out the goods that they had brought. The Iron People offered hides, dried meat, baskets, ornamental bead-work, skilled leather work, horn bows, and weaving. They had linen—flax grew abundantly on the plains, and outriders made sure that the cattle didn't devour it before the women had a chance to gather it. They did not have sheep, although they did have goats and were skilled at spinning and weaving goat-hair. The Traders had raw wool, glass, stone, and pottery objects, flour and salt, some very specific wood products—like long­bows of yew, which the warriors were very impressed with— and arrowheads, which were always in short supply. They also had some copper trinkets, copper pots, and a few ingots of cop­per. But most of all, of course, the Iron People really wanted iron more than anything else, and at the initial trading session it was clear to Rena that they were disappointed not to see any.

Still, they covered their disappointment well, and trading on the first day proceeded briskly. At the end of the day, Halkan, the spokesman and leader of this particular group, invited the im­portant members of the tribe to dinner in his tent, and included Mero and Rena in on the invitation more out of politeness than anything else. The Trader clans had a set of firm agreements with the Wizards, and it wasn't as if he could have expected any­thing new out of two envoys to these odd, ebony-skinned folk.

Mero had never seen an actual camp of the Trader clans be­fore, and looked around with lively interest as they accompa­nied Diric and Kala to the modest feast. The Iron People lived in round tents constructed of hides and felt; the Traders had square and rectangular pavilions of sturdy heavily-waxed cloth. Beneath the wax, random patterns of blotches of green and brown had been painted on the canvas, and he thought that it would be difficult to spot such tents in the middle of a forest. Out here, of course, they looked a bit odd.

All around the outskirts of the camp were wicker cages on poles; they weren't torches or lamps, and Mero couldn't even guess what function they were supposed to serve. As they all took their places beneath an ornamental pavilion to enjoy their hosts' hospitality, he found that the Traders had elected to place their guests on flat cushions around a central serving area, with Traders alternating with their guests. That put one of the Traders (a nervous, thin fellow) between him and Rena, which was a little annoying. He was worried that she might be uncom­fortable with the seating arrangements, but he hadn't reckoned with her early training—if she was uncomfortable between two strangers, she didn't show it.

Mero mostly stuck to small-talk with his two neighbors, al­lowing Diric and his fellow chiefs to monopolize the conversa­tion. But just as they were served a dessert of honey-drenched fruits (from the Traders' stores) and beaten cream (supplied by the Iron People), something reminded him of those curious wicker cages and he asked about them.

Out of courtesy, so that the Iron People could understand everything that was said around the circle, they both spoke in the Iron Peoples' tongue. "Ah! Those are to protect us from the Demons and their magic," said the young Trader whose name Mero hadn't caught. "We put fool's gold in them, and it works as the iron jewelry does."

Heads snapped in their direction from all around the circle the moment that the word "iron" was spoken. "What is this?" Diric demanded.

The Clan-chief explained, and tried to describe the contents

of the ward-baskets in such a way that the Iron People would understand, but Diric was baffled. "Wait—" he said, finally, and sent one of the younger Traders to fetch one of the baskets-.

In front of Diric's interested gaze, he opened the top of the basket and poured out about three fistfulls worth of glittering, gold-colored stones with rough surfaces. "Fool's gold," the Trader-chief said dismissively. "Fools think it is real gold; it is good only for keeping the—"

He stopped, his face a study in bewilderment, as Diric ut­tered a cry of triumph and scooped up two handfuls of the stones, brandishing them over his head.

"Tell him!" the red-haired Trader-chief said, whirling and addressing Mero frantically. "Tell him it is not gold! Tell him that it is worthless!"

But what Diric and the others were shouting was not gold— nor would they have been half so excited over a basketful of true gold nuggets.

"Iron!" Diric bellowed with joy, "Iron!"

And he and the others ran out of the camp, leaving Mero and Rena to try to explain.

"We call these things 'iron pyrites,' and there are things we can do with them that we cannot with other iron," Kala said to Rena, as she bent, gloating, over her precious pile of rocks. Once the Traders realized how much their "fool's gold" was valued by the Iron People, it didn't take long for them to trade away all they had, trusting to their own skills and a promised escort of bull-riders to make it back to the cover of forested lands safely. They didn't have much, but at least they knew where there was more, and the Iron People were no longer threatening to take their herds and the Corn People and go elsewhere.

"It is the women who will most value these," Kala continued. "The men would only wish to melt them down. There are better things to be done with these stones."

Rena watched in fascination as Kala made good her words, her plump, stubby fingers moving with great skill and surpris-

ing delicacy, as she cut and faceted tiny "gemstones" from the iron pyrites, little things that glittered like black diamonds. It took unbelievable patience.

"What are you going to do with these?" Rena asked, stirring a finished one in the palm of her hand with one finger.

"Oh, I shall melt down the waste and cast it into a setting for it," Kala responded absently. "It will be a different style than you have seen heretofore, but I think you will like it. We have agreed to exchange it for the raw pyrites, so that the Traders need no longer waste these precious things in baskets on poles in order to protect themselves. One weight of jewelry to ten weights of pyrites."

There was no doubt in Rena's mind that Kala thought she was getting the better part of the bargain. Rena continued to watch her for a while, but Kala became so involved in her work that it seemed an intrusion to stay, and she got up and went to look for Mero.

"We have a problem," she said to him, worriedly, as soon as she caught sight of him hurrying towards her through the tents.

"I know; Diric told me the trade-agreement," he replied, just as worried. "I mean, it's a good thing that they've got some iron, but this cuts us right out of everything. They can get most of what they need from either the Corn People or the Traders—"

"—so what use are the Wizards to them?" Rena concluded for him. "If the Elvenlords do manage to defeat the Young Lords and come after us, why should the Iron People bother to help now? There's nothing in the alliance for them!"

Mero nodded. "They're nothing if not practical." He set his chin. "Right. First of all, we need to get in touch with Shana and let her know what's happened. Maybe she'll have some ideas."

"And next?" Rena asked, hopefully. Mero was resourceful— surely he could think of something they could do!

"I can't think of a 'next,'" he replied, dashing her hopes. "I only wish I could...."

16

Kyrtian sat wearily on his horse beneath the broiling sun, and waited for his scout to come report to him. Ahead of him—somewhere—were the retreating forces of the Young Lords. They were far enough ahead of his troops that there wasn't even the tell-tale sign of a dust-cloud on the horizon.

It was uncanny, it was indeed. The moment, the very moment that the Council agreed—reluctantly—to put him in charge of their forces, someone must have alerted the rebels. And that same someone must have told them that in Lord Kyrtian they were going to face a trained commander and trained troops. Be­cause he never even got a chance to face an army in the field, only a few skirmishers meant to delay him while the army itself retreated.

That was what his scouts were out looking for now—skir­mishers, traps, false trails. And, just possibly, signs that the Young Lords had chosen a place to make a stand. But he didn't really expect that, not for some time yet. They were too far from areas they held secure, nor was the ground particularly good for turning at bay.

Meanwhile—

The scout—one of his own people—came running up; the man stopped at his stirrup and saluted.

"Report," Kyrtian commanded.

"My lord—all's clear, and the others have marked out a se­cure campsite," the man said crisply. "No sign of the enemy, other than the marks of retreat."

"Very good." Kyrtian saluted in dismissal, and the scout trot­ted off to return to his own group. He looked over at Gel, who was also mounted, and waiting just beside him.

"Well?" he asked.

Gel barked a laugh. "It's making your reputation easily enough," he said. "But I wouldn't count on it to last."

"I'm not." He sighed. "Let's get them moving. If we camp early enough, I can drill them some more."

"Good plan." Gel wheeled his horse away and headed to­wards the main body of the army, paused for a rest, to relay Kyrtian's orders. Kyrtian stared at the horizon—and wondered when the inevitable blow was going to fall.

Rennati sighed, brushed her hair back over her shoulders, and bent to look out of the window in her sleeping-alcove, craning her neck to see as much of the view below her as possible. Since Lord Kyrtian had left—and she did not know why, only that their servants said that he had gone—there had been noth­ing to report to Lady Triana, and nothing whatsoever had hap­pened here in the harem. No more visitors had come, and nothing had been told to the concubines. Rennati had assidu­ously practiced her dancing, but one couldn't fill every hour of the day with dancing. It had been her one passion, but now she had all the leisure she could ever have dreamed of to practice and perfect her art, and she realized that without an audience to appreciate what she did, simply practicing and perfecting no longer was enough for her.

The other two concubines were happily occupied with the contents of several chests that Lady Lydiell had thoughtfully sent up. Somehow she had known that the last batch of dress­making materials was exhausted, and she had supplied a true horde of precious things—swaths of silks, satins, and velvets, yards of trim, buckets of glittering glass, shell and stone beads, gold and silver and silken embroidery threads, and everything the heart could desire for the making of dresses and ornaments. A thoughtful gift that had rather surprised Rennati, actually; nothing in her life would have led her to expect any such atten­tions from the chatelaine and mother of a young lord. And if Rennati had been just a little more like the other two slaves of Lord Kyrtian's harem, she would have been right down there

beside Gianna and Kara, planning dresses, sewing, and making delicate little amulet-necklaces with the wealth of beads.

She had done some of that, but like her dancing, there was only so much puttering with trinkets that she could do before she lost interest. Concubines were supposed to be obsessed with clothing and self-ornamentation; Rennati liked clothing well enough, and she enjoyed looking pretty, but she had al­ways felt frustrated and confined by life in the harem, though she had taken very great care never to show it. The alternative to the harem was the life of a field- or house-slave, and they were not treated nearly as well as the concubines.

The view from her window, though restricted, was more in­teresting than anything inside the harem. At least there was something going on out there, something different from the in­terior of the harem tower. Weather changed, slaves walked past, birds flew by. And she was, frankly, putting off reporting to Lady Triana. The Lady had been increasingly impatient with Rennati's lack of information and, the last time, had threatened to revoke her bargain unless Rennati had more to report the next time she called.

At last, with a grimace, she decided that she couldn't put it off any longer. She picked up the little box of personal jewelry, and dug the teleson-ring out from its hiding-place among her tiny treasures. Carefully she put it on, spoke the few words that activated it, and stared into the dark green murk of the beryl, waiting for a voice to call to her thinly across the vast distance between this manor and Lady Triana's.

"Well. So this is where the disturbance has been coming from."

Rennati started, and looked up, for the voice did not come from the ring, nor was it Lady Triana's.

Lady Lydiell stood in the doorway, and in her shock, Rennati could only stare at her dumbly. Elven ladies never entered the harem, much less came into the concubines' private quarters! She had feared discovery by Gianna or Kara, or perhaps even Lord Kyrtian himself, but never, ever by his mother!

The lady was not dressed in the same fashion that she had

been when Rennati first met with her; in fact, she looked very little like the sheltered Lady of the manor that Rennati knew her to be. With her long, silver hair bound into a severe knot at the nape of her neck, no cosmetics on her face, and no jewels— wearing a soft brown divided skirt and matching long-sleeved tunic—only her air of authority betrayed her rank.

Her eyes were quiet, unreadable pools of murky green, ex­actly like the beryl in Rennati's ring; her face as expressionless as a statue.

Lady Lydiell calmly took the few steps needed to cross the distance between the doorway and Rennati, and held out her hand.

"Whomever you have been reporting to won't answer you, child," the Lady said, with no sign of anger or any other emo­tion that Rennati could detect. "I've taken care of that. You might as well give that teleson-ring to me."

Numbly, Rennati took the ring off and handed it to her—then automatically dropped to her knees beside the couch she had been seated on, and bowed her head, clasping her hands behind her back, waiting for the Lady to punish her.

Her vivid imagination painted a dozen pictures for her of what to expect in the next few moments, as her heart beat so rapidly she had trouble breathing, and she shivered with fear. Her mouth dried, her throat closed, and she felt as if she was about to faint. She would be punished, of course. She had be­trayed her Master—at the behest of another Elvenlord, true, but that was no excuse. No slave could betray her master and be caught, and expect to escape without punishment. At the least, she would be sent out into the fields. At the worst—

"What on earth are you doing, child?" Lady Lydiell asked, in an astonished voice, which turned exasperated as Rennati re­mained where she was. "Oh, for—get up little fool! I'm not go­ing to hurt you! And look at me!"

Automatically Rennati leapt obediently to her feet, turning her astonished eyes to the Lady's face as her heart skipped beats and her chest tightened along with her throat. For a mo­ment, she thought she would faint.

Lady Lydiell frowned, but not in such a way as—say—Lady

Triana had frowned. This frown was just annoyance, not some­thing that would freeze the blood. It was an impersonal frown—there was no real anger in it. Though Rennati's skin felt cold and clammy, her heart slowed, just a little, and the ten­sion in her chest eased.

"'Sit down," Lady Lydiell said shortly, and Rennati obeyed, her eyes fixed on the Lady's face. "And tell me about this ring. Who gave it to you? Why? And what have you been telling him?"

"Her," Rennati corrected automatically, and clapped her hand to her mouth in renewed alarm. But when no slap, sting of the collar, or indeed, any other correction came, she took her courage in both hands, and began her tale.

There was no reason to lie; if Lady Lydiell cared to, she could have it all out of her in a moment, either under the influ­ence of drugs or by application of pain through the collar. And at this point there was no chance that Lady Triana would keep her side of the bargain, which had specified that Rennati remain undetected. So Rennati told everything, from the moment that Lady Triana picked her out of a slave-sale to the last thing that she had reported. As she spoke, Lady Lydiell's frown softened, until when at last Rennati fell silent, the elven lady's expression was no worse than thoughtful and slightly disapproving.

As she spoke, and Lydiell's expression eased, so, too, did the feeling of panic and fear, the awful sick feeling in her stomach. As she finished her last words, Lydiell nodded.

"It could have been worse," she said when Rennati fell silent. "You haven't given that creature much that's going to be of any use to her, and forewarned is forearmed as they say." She watched Rennati for a few moments, then appeared to make up her mind about something. "Stand up, child," she said. "I want you to come with me."

The fear returned, redoubled, and her heart raced again, her breath coming quickly as she tried to get air past the terrible tightness of her throat and chest. Now it comes, Rennati thought, heart sinking with dread. But, of course, she couldn't disobey. She followed Lady Lydiell down the stairs, past Gi-anna and Kara—

And out past the barrier at the door that kept unauthorized

slaves from getting into the harem—and the concubines from leaving it. There was a faint tingle on her skin as she passed through the shimmering curtain of magic power, and she shiv­ered. Now she was outside, and away from the scant protection of the presence of the other two. What was Lady Lydiell going to do with her? Hand her over to the gladiators?

"You're intelligent, and I don't think you're a bad child at heart," Lydiell said, as if to herself, then looked over her shoul­der at Rennati, who shrank inside herself when those penetrat­ing green eyes met hers. "I'm usually considered a good judge of character, by the way."

"Yes, my lady," Rennati whispered, since it seemed that Lady Lydiell was waiting for an answer as they walked down a marble-faced hallway.

"I'm going to take a chance with you," Lydiell continued, still holding her with that,sharp gaze. "I'm going to do some­thing that has never been done with a human from outside our own circle, born and raised among us. I'm going to show you exactly what you've jeopardized with your actions."

And for the next several hours, Rennati found herself hauled all over Lord Kyrtian's estate, seeing things that left her gaping, too overwhelmed to speak. This—this place was nothing like anywhere she had ever been before!

At first, it only seemed as if this was just an ordinary estate, although the Master and Mistress of it were unusually kind to their slaves and treated them extraordinarily well. First, the Lady took her to every nook and cranny of the Great House— not only through the rooms that she and her son and the other Elvenlords of the household used, but into the kitchen, the still-room, the laundry, the sewing and weaving room. Everywhere the Lady was greeted with respect, though not servility; more importantly, she didn't expect or seem to demand servility. In every other household Rennati had been in, slaves were ex­pected never to speak unless directly addressed, never to raise their eyes to the mistress's face unless given permission, and never, ever, to do as these slaves did, and actually approach the mistress with a report or a query. But Rennati quickly began to

realize that Lady Lydiell not only was incredibly approachable, she was also greeted with actual affection by her slaves.

Affection? From slaves? How was that possible?

"What do you think of our home so far?" Lydiell asked, as they moved outside and headed for a long, low building. This was a question that would have been appropriate if asked of an equal or one only slightly inferior, but not of a concubine. Con­cubines were not supposed to have opinions. They were barely supposed to think.

The question surprised her into honesty, not the least because the slaves in the kitchen had actually called cheerful and wel­coming greetings when the Lady had first entered, leaving Ren-nati dumbfounded. "I don't understand," she said. "They like you! How can slaves like you?"

She hadn't really expected a reply, unless it came as a re­proof. But what Lady Lydiell said in response to the impulsive exclamation shocked her to the core and left her speechless.

"They like me because they are not slaves," Lydiell said. "Neither they, nor their ancestors, were ever slaves; here, in this one manor, no Elvenlord has ever enslaved a human."

What? Rennati felt her heart actually stop for a moment.

"They are in my employ," Lady Lydiell continued. "They are my helpers, and we respect each other. Kyrtian and I protect them from the outside world, as his father did for their ances­tors, and his grandfather for theirs, and for that protection, they and their families serve us," the Lady said quietly. "We have never had slaves here, and never shall, if we are left alone by the Lady Trianas of the world."

It was such an astonishing statement that it had to be a lie. It was simply not possible that there was a family of the Elven-lords that hadn't enslaved humans!

And yet—how could it be a lie? Why should the Lady make up such an astonishing story? What purpose would it serve? And how could she have gotten all of her slaves to act in such a natural way, unless it was true and not a lie?

As Rennati continued to follow Lady Lydiell out into the fields, to the cottages of the farm-laborers, to the barracks of

the fighters, she had been protected by a core of utter disbelief, but the more she saw, the more that core eroded. If the Lady had only shown her the household servants, she would not have trusted what she saw, but here were people who should never have set eyes on the lady, who, if they ever by some chance had seen her should never recognize the plainly-dressed Lady for the authority that she was. But time after time, the Lady was met with welcome and greeting, with the kind of common talk that might be shared with a trusted human overseer, but never with an Elvenlord, and she herself asked questions about the farming, training, or the slaves themselves and their families (families? Impossible!) that showed she was intimately familiar with the minutiae of their lives.

Even so, Rennati clung to her stubborn refusal to believe in this miracle of Elven kindness, right up until the two of them approached a set of small buildings constructed around a gar­den. Rennati could not imagine what they could be, but to her incredulous ears came the sound of high, shrill voices—the voices of children—

As Lady Lydiell came into view of the garden, the children playing there caught sight of her, and ran toward her, shrieking greetings at the tops of their lungs.

"Lady Lidi! Lady Lidi!" "Come see my puppy!" "Will you make us sweeties?" "Lady Lidi, Jordy found a frog!"

Lady Lydiell only smiled serenely as the horde of small chil­dren (some of them very grubby indeed) swarmed all around her, holding up flowers, a frog, a puppy, dolls, and toy bows and arrows for her approval. As Rennati stared, her mouth dropping completely open, the Lady gave each of the children her gravest attention.

Now she knew why there were no breeding pens, no mass nurseries, no other signs that human slaves were bred here with the same care to selection and carelessness as to feelings as were cattle and horses. The cluster of small buildings were— houses. Houses for families. Families who were allowed to keep their children with them. And since there were no breed­ing pens, this must be the norm here, not the exception, as it was on the estate that had bred Rennati.

These children were utterly fearless in the presence of the chatelaine of the manor. They must never have received so much as an unkindness from an Elvenlord.

And look at the Lady herself! She couldn't have been more patient with this horde of exuberant children if she had been their nursemaid or beloved relative!

Rennati let fall the last of her disbelief, and felt the world whirling around her, turned utterly upside down.

"Will you please make us sweeties, Lady Lidi?" asked one of the boys, polite, but bold as a young rooster.

Lady Lydiell laughed. "All right. One flower each. Go pick fresh ones." She turned to Rennati, who clutched a beam em­bedded in the corner of the house beside her, feeling actually dizzy. "Elven women are trained to use their magic in small ways rather than large—you'll find most of them making fool­ish sculptures out of flowers, but that's a bastardization of what we originally did in Evelon. We healed wounds and sometimes sickness—but most important of all, we made the inedible edi­ble. Lady Moth taught me that little trick, which she learned from her mother. I still use it to make honey-sweets from flow­ers for the children—ah, here they come!"

There were plenty of flowers in the little gardens that Rennati now noticed around the houses, and it hadn't taken the children long to pick out which flower they wished made into a treat. She noticed that the girls generally chose roses; well, she was partial to rose-petal candies herself. Many of them sucked thorn-wounded fingers, but none of them complained. The boys seemed to prefer sunflowers, dahlias, anything large. But one lit­tle girl at the rear of the group came up holding a single violet, and looked to Lady Lydiell with eyes filled with disappointment.

"Sahshi, what's the matter?" Lydiell asked, seeing her and her distress at once, and motioning for the others to let her through.

"You said only one," Sahshi whispered imploringly. "But I like vi'lets—"

"Oh dear—children, do you think it's fair for Sahshi only to have one tiny violet?" Lydiell applied to the rest of the children— and had they been pen-born and nursery-raised, where it was

every child for himself, Rennati knew what the answer would have been. But not here.

"No!" came the clamor, instantly, and without prompting, several of them ran to nearby gardens, bringing back bunches of violets that they pressed into Sahshi's hands until the child couldn't hold any more.

Her face glowing with happiness, Sahshi held up the violets for Lady Lydiell to transmute—and then gave Rennati a further surprise (as if she needed one at this point) by sharing out her sweets with the others as they waited in their turn for Lady Ly­diell to get to them. This was probably just as well, for had she eaten them all herself she would surely have earned herself a bellyache, but never before had Rennati seen a child of the low­est, field worker class who would not have immediately shov­eled a treat into her mouth with both hands and devoured it as fast as she could, stuffing herself until she was sick because it would be ages before she might taste any other good thing.

It was all, in a word, impossible.

When Lydiell had finished with the last flower, the children thanked her and streamed back to their playground, a small square surrounded by rough-hewn logs enclosing an area of soft sand that held stumps and bars to climb on, a board with seats on either end poised on a hewn block of wood that al­lowed the ends to rise and fall with children balanced on seats there, and other things that the children seemed to enjoy swarming over.

These things all showed signs of a great deal of wear; they hadn't been placed there recently. This was no artificial setting made for her benefit, to sway her opinion.

As if my opinion, the attitude of a mortal, actually means something! But to Lady Lydiell it did, it patently did.

Lydiell turned back to face Rennati with a quizzical smile on her face. "Well?" she said, pointedly.

Rennati felt cold and hot at the same time, and there was a faint buzzing in her ears. "What—is—this—place?" she asked, thickly.

"Ah. That is a very good question." Lady Lydiell took Ren-nati's arm, as if she was Rennati's oldest friend. "Come back to

the manor with me. I think, when you have had something to drink to steady you, you will have a great many more questions, and I will try to answer them."

In the end, Rennati thought she would never come to an end of her questions. Lydiell answered each and every one, with infi­nite patience as they sat in elegant chairs on either side of a lit­tle table on one of the outdoor terraces. Here she was—eating dainties that, in her excitement, she did not truly taste; drinking something that might just as well have been water for all the at­tention she paid to it; and arranged across from a highborn el-ven lady on one of the private terraces as if she, too, was Elvenborn. The sun shone down on the gardens below them, al­though they were shaded by a fine cloth canopy of tapestried linen. A few women worked in the gardens below, the very pic­ture of bucolic contentment—well-clothed in practical leggings and long, loose linen tunics, protected from the sun by broad-brimmed straw hats, and no supervisor in sight.

Slowly she began to really understand just what it was that Lord Kyrtian's family protected here. That was when the enor­mity of her own treachery dawned on her, hitting her with the force of a blow. If she had still been able to weep, she would have, then; she'd have broken down and howled with the pain of what she had done to these amazing Elvenlords and their hu­man charges. She wanted to; her throat closed and she nearly choked on her unshed tears, but weeping had long since been trained out of her, and she could not cry, not even for this. Con­cubines did not weep; it spoiled their looks, and only annoyed their masters.

But the depth of her despair could not be measured, and she could not simply sit there and bear it invisibly.

She slipped from her seat and sank down to her knees, then prostrated herself on the stone of the terrace, not daring to look at the Lady lest she crack into a thousand pieces.

"Ah," said the lady softly. "Now you understand."

It was hard, hard to speak; hard to get words around that lump of guilt and pain in her throat. "Yes." It was all she could manage.

"Now I have questions for you," Lady Lydiell said, in a voice that warned she would insist on answers.

Rennati could not bear to look into the face of the one she had so vilely betrayed, and she remained where she was, pros­trated on the stone of the terrace, speaking brokenly to the soft grey slab just below her nose. The lady's questions went on as long as Rennati's had, every detail of her life, of her bargain with Lady Triana, pulled from her gently, but inexorably.

It seemed to go on forever, and when she was done, she felt drained of everything except pain. There was nothing that Lady Lydiell did not know about her now, and surely, surely, the pun­ishment she so richly deserved would be forthcoming.

The lady finally made a sound—a weary sigh. "Get up, child, and sit down so that I can talk to you properly."

Rennati couldn't move—but a moment later, she found her­self being moved, as Lady Lydiell took her elbows, lifted her to her feet and replaced her in her seat, as effortlessly as if she weighed nothing. Perhaps, for the Lady, she was near-weightless; she was clearly a past mistress of Elven magic, and how could Rennati know what was and was not possible in magic?

"Now," the Lady said, her eyes boring into Rennati's as if to stare into her very thoughts. "You understand what you have done to us. Are you prepared to make amends?"

By now Rennati had exhausted all emotions but one—hope. And underneath all that heavy, black despair, hope stirred and eased the constriction of her throat enough to let her breathe a little. Numbly, she nodded.

Speaking carefully and exactly, Lady Lydiell outlined what Rennati was to do. And Rennati agreed to it, without ever once making a single objection or asking what would happen to her when the inevitable moment came when she was no longer useful.

It had been a long, very hard day, most of it spent in the saddle, and Kyrtian was already wearied when his mother called him.

So far, the campaign against the Young Lords was turning into something other than the hard-slogging battle he'd been

led to believe it would be. In fact, if it wasn't for the evidence of the devastated estates he'd seen, with manors half-burned and fields left to weeds, it would have been something of a farce.

Because the moment he took command of the army—quite literally from the moment he took command of the army—the Young Lords' direct opposition melted away. Quite simply, they turned and ran.

Now, as a commander, he had to agree with their tactics. He brought with him his own people, who would have strength­ened the line as nothing else could have. The next pitched bat­tle would have been a conclusive one. The Young Lords' army was not near any area that could be used as a secure base, and supplies had to be problematic, even with the use of magic. If he had been in their situation, he'd have done the same.

But now he was in pursuit, which meant that when they did take a stand, it would come as a surprise to him, and would be on ground of their choosing. And very probably he would be facing their rested force with his own weary one.

Kyrtian stared down at the tiny image of his mother in the teleson-screen set into his campaign-desk, with Gel watching over his shoulder making interested noises.

"Triana?" he said, finally. "Aelmarkin I could understand, but why would Triana want an agent in our household?"

Gel snorted, before Lydiell could answer. "That's simple enough. They're working together. Or Aelmarkin thinks they are. From all I've heard, that b—" he coughed. "—ah, female is an even nastier piece of work than your cousin, if that's pos- sible. Sneakier, anyway. What do you think about this girl? Can you trust what she says? Can you trust what she'll do, now that you—"

Lydiell smiled. "Oh, come now, Gel. This is the Lady you're talking to. How many of our people have the human magic? And how many do you think were keeping watch on the girl's thoughts while I questioned her besides the ones I asked to— just to make sure that the others didn't miss something?"

Gel had the grace to blush. "Shouldn't try and teach my grandam what mushrooms to pick, you mean. Sorry, m'lady. So she's safe?"

"More than safe. I think we should keep her," came the rather surprising reply. "She's very intelligent, she's clever—which is not at all the same thing as being intelligent—and she's got a kind nature. I'd be very happy to see her make her home with our people. She could be very useful to us—we haven't got many people who've been raised in the slave-pens; she gives us a look into that world that is beyond price."

"Not as my concubine—" Kyrtian blurted, and flushed when Gel chuckled.

"I rather doubt that by the time she's learned to take her place among our people she'd be willing to be anyone's concubine," Lydiell replied dryly. "And after all, that would be the point, wouldn't it?"

"I take it that your plan is to have her send dearest Triana as much disinformation as you think she'll swallow?" Kyrtian said, hastily changing the subject.

"It seems a pity to waste the opportunity," Lydiell agreed, her eyes twinkling a little, or so Kyrtian thought, although the im­age was so small it was difficult to tell. "If it seems that the ploy is working, perhaps you might want to have her with you. I un­derstand that many officers have a concubine or two with them—"

Before Kyrtian could object, Gel replied. "That's a good idea, when you're sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can trust her, Lady," he enthused. "If Triana is reporting back to Aelmarkin, we can feed her nonsense leavened with just enough truth to make it seem that the girl is doing more than the b—woman ever expected."

"I wouldn't call Triana a 'bitch,' Gel," Lydiell said mildly. "It's a terrible insult to all female canines, which are, on the whole, rather nice creatures."

Gel nearly choked on his laughter, and Kyrtian felt his face grow hot. What had gotten into his mother lately?

Or was it only that now his mother considered him enough of an adult not to mince words around him?

"In the abstract, it sounds like a good idea to me, provided that bringing her out here doesn't put her in any danger," he temporized. "And I don't mean danger from the fighting; that's

turning out to be rather—well—tamer than I thought. For now, anyway. Someone's convinced the Young Lords to run, rather than stand and fight. I can't say I'm unhappy about that—it cer­tainly makes me look like a brilliant commander. But while this girl is within the walls of our estate, she's safe enough from Triana—if she comes out here, and Triana decides that she wants more than a few words over a teleson-ring, it would be no great chore to find some way to kidnap her. Human slaves and Elvenlords are coming and going from my quarters all the time, Gel is the only person I'd trust to keep her safe, and he and I can't have her on the battlefield with us."

And I really don 'twant a female complicating things around here, he added, but only in thought. He really did not want his mother- worrying about the danger. There was, of course, a great deal more of that than he was going to tell her about. When the inevitable happened, and the Young Lords turned at bay—

Lydiell pursed her lips in thought. "That hadn't occurred to me," she admitted. "For that matter, it wouldn't take a great deal of effort on Triana's part to send someone to your quarters to intimidate the girl, and we can't have that. Well, let's hold that ploy in reserve for a while, in case Triana starts urging it on her. It may be that concocting a story that I've made her into my private maid while you're gone and she can 'overhear' my con­versations with you will be enough."

"I should think," Kyrtian said firmly. "Ancestors! For once, you have been the one with all the interesting news! All I can tell you is what I have before; that, and I'm nearer to Lady Moth's estate and I think I can push the lines back far enough to put her in our hands again within the week."

"Assuming she wants to be," came the thoughtful reply. "All things considered—do you think you might be able to push just far enough that she can send a message or come to you herself, without cutting her off from the Young Lords?"

Again, Kyrtian was surprised by the question, but he saw im­mediately why his mother had asked it. "No one is likely to question me as long as I push them back-somewhere," he re­sponded. "You think she has worked her way into their confi­dence, don't you?"

"Yes. And I'm not entirely sure you should be working so hard to defeat them." Lady Lydiell frowned slightly. "There is this: while the Great Lords are concentrating on the rebels, they aren't paying any attention to us."

"Or the Wizards," Gel added.

"Or the Wizards," she agreed. "But if you defeat the Young Lords, they are certain to want you to lead an army against the Wizards next."

The very idea made Kyrtian's heart sink, and he felt a little sick for not thinking of that himself. Of course they would! And while he didn't in the least mind bringing the young pups to heel for the old dogs, the very idea of pitting an army of slaves against their fellow humans—

"I'll resign first," he said hurriedly. "I'll find an excuse. Or Gel can break my leg."

"Or your skull," Gel growled, but there was approval in his voice. "We'll worry about that when the time comes. In the meantime—"

"In the meantime, I'll say goodbye, and you can think about what to do about Moth," Lydiell said firmly. "If we talk any longer, someone is bound to try and mirror this sending. Watch your back, my love."

"I will," Kyrtian promised, and the teleson winked out, leav­ing both him and Gel with far too much to think about—

—and far too little time for thinking.

17

The plight of one young woman could not hold Kyrtian's

attention for long. So long as she was no longer a threat,

he didn't particularly care what his mother did with her.

Truthfully, he couldn't even remember which of the three girls

she was; she was Lydiell's problem now, and he would just as

soon that things stayed that way. Within a few moments, he had even forgotten her name as his attention turned to the more ur­gent task of changing his strategy to deal with Moth and the Young Lords in light of this new information.

It was just a good thing that they had already settled at their evening campsite. Outside the tent was the usual cacophony of hundreds of humans setting up campfires and bedrolls, getting fed at the mess-wagons, and being ordered about by their elven officers. The mellow golden light of near-sunset made the west­ern wall of Kyrtian's tent glow; the air was full of dust and the scent of trampled grass and wood smoke. There was food on a tray on his camp-bed, virtually the same sort of food that the human fighters would be eating, but Kyrtian ignored it. Gel would probably nag him into eating it eventually.

"Well, we need to rethink our battle-plan," he said to Gel, spreading his terrain-map out over the blank black glass of the teleson-screen set into the top of his campaign-desk. "The question is, what can we push towards now that will allow us to get close enough to Moth that she can send someone out to us if she wants, without making straight for her estate or look as if we're trying to avoid that estate?"

"Good question." Gel pulled at his chin while he studied the map, frowning. "Damn good question. What about here—" his finger stabbed down at a spot on the map where they had noted a possible slave-camp, one full of former gladiators. "We can let it out that we think this is a training-camp for the Young Lords' soldiers. That ought to be reason enough for anyone."

Taking the army in that direction would allow them to skirt Moth's estate without actually taking it—and would give them a corridor for a strike deeper into Young Lords' territory. Kyrt­ian nodded, and reached absently for his mug of water, taking a sip to ease a throat tickling with inhaled dust. "Let's make a re­port to Lord Kyndreth and suggest the change of plan. I want him to argue against me for a little."

"Why?" Gel gave him a quizzical glance, brows knitted.

Kyrtian refolded the map carefully and set it aside. "Because this is going to serve us in more ways than one. He's going to point out that with a very little effort I can rescue Moth. I'm go-

ing to counter that Moth is probably safe where she is, that the Young Lords probably haven't even thought about one old woman in a tiny estate, and pushing towards the Young Lords at that point will make them think that Moth is valuable to us. I want him to see that it's possible some of the old retainers held behind the lines that have been ignored until now could be used as hostages. It doesn't seem to have occurred to the Young Lords to do that yet, but I want Kyndreth to realize he doesn't want to give them the idea. I do want Kyndreth to focus on that and not look for other reasons why I might not want to push at that point."

"That'll give him something more to think about," Gel said, pulling on his chin until Kyrtian wondered if he was going to stretch it out of shape somehow. "Aye, and that'll give him one more thing to warn the others about."

"Which will give the Council something else to think about besides the Wizards. It might even give them a reason to order me to hold back until they can find ways to get the people they want out of harms' way." Kyrtian nodded as Gel's eyes widened. "You see. You know, I never thought I'd be trying to think up ways to get Kyndreth to pull our forces back—but that could be the best strategy at the moment." The back of his neck ached with tension, and he rubbed it, hoping that a headache wasn't coming on. "I never thought this would be so compli­cated," he said plaintively, to no one at all. "If I had known—"

"If you'd known, you still wouldn't have been able to escape this," Gel pointed out bluntly. "Kyndreth wanted you; what Kyndreth wants, happens."

There was no real answer to that, and Gel knew it. Kyrtian just shook his head, and winced a little at the start of that headache he'd hoped to avoid.

He keyed the teleson with Kyndreth's seal, placing it face­down in the little round depression made for receiving such seals in the upper right-hand corner, and with a touch and a word, activated the spell. As he expected, he contacted, not Kyndreth directly, but one of the Great Lord's many underlings.

The plainly-clad Elvenlord stared up at him with a solemn and expectant expression on his long face. "Would you please

consult with Lyon Lord Kyndreth?" Kyrtian asked politely. "Please inform him that I believe we need to change our battle-plans." He explained his new plans carefully and the reasons for them, while the underling took detailed and copious notes, oc­casionally stopping and asking him politely to repeat or elabo­rate on something. Kyrtian was impressed; he'd encountered no few of Lord Kyrtian's flunkies who had been utterly bored with him and his campaign since he'd been put in charge of the army, but this fellow was not of that ilk.

"I'm to be your liaison with Lord Kyndreth for the foresee­able future, Lord Kyrtian," the underling said solemnly. "Lord Kyndreth has made it very clear that your reports are to be given his first consideration, and I have the authority to break in upon him at any time—including in his sleep, if you should deem your report to be sufficiently urgent."

Well, well, well. Kyrtian blinked. "It's not urgent, since we'll still be moving through territory that the Young Lords have abandoned for at least two more days, but I should like to hear his opinion before we break camp and move at dawn tomorrow."

The underling gave a slight bow of his head. "I shall see to it that he reads this report and communicate your request to him within the hour, Lord Kyrtian."

The teleson-screen went blank again, and Gel, who had stayed carefully out of range for the duration of the conversa­tion, chuckled. "It seems that your value has gone up in the world, Kyrtian."

"So it does," Kyrtian replied, and put a thin, flat plate of be-spelled bronze over the teleson-screen, fitting it into the slight depression where the glass had been inset there, to prevent it from being inadvertently activated. Should someone—Lord Kyndreth, hopefully—wish to contact him while the plate was in place, the plate itself would glow and emit a pleasant repeat­ing chime to alert him. Kyrtian always "plated" his teleson when he wasn't using it himself; it was possible for outsiders to activate one's screen and spy on what was going on within its range if they had a key to it—like the ones he had to Lord Kyn-dreth's teleson and his mother's. And keys could be duplicated by even the weakest of mages.

With the plate in place, he turned to Gel. "Interesting, don't you think?" he asked. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"That Lord Kyndreth's own status is going up because of what you've managed to do out here?" Gel countered. At Kyrt-ian's nod, he pursed his lips. "If that's the case, he may want you to press ahead to Moth's estate anyway."

"So we have to think of an alternate plan." The more Kyrtian thought about it, the less he wanted to press the Young Lords now holding the estate that Moth's husband had once owned. "We've got to give him a richer victory. Not just the possibility, but the real thing."

"Ah, horse turds," Gel said sourly. "You don't ask much, do you? Let me get some scouts out; maybe they can find us a juicy prize."

He stalked out of the tent to round up a few of the scouts who had, in all likelihood, settled in at their campfire and would not be pleased to be sent out again. The scouts were all Elvenlords, of course—the previous commander had not trusted humans to run free and act as scouts, and Kyrtian was not going to risk any of his own people in this situation. None of them had more than the bare minimum of magic; they were Elven only by ben­efit of birth and blood. In the world of the Great Lords they were useful only as overseers and supervisors of humans and breeders of possible mates for unmarried sons or themselves. They were expendable, and often treated worse than slaves deemed to be more valuable, such as treasured concubines or skilled gladiators.

From the beginning, Kyrtian treated them with respect, and as a consequence, had gradually won their loyalty to the point where they had accepted Gel as Kyrtian's second-in-command, something no Great Lord would ever do. He took pains never to show them that he felt sorry for them, but he did. In the long story of the Elvenlords in this place, next to the history of the enslaved and abused humans, theirs was the saddest.

A chiming from the bronze plate at his elbow broke into his thoughts, and he hastily uncovered the teleson.

The craggily handsome face of Lord Kyndreth himself stared up at him, and Kyrtian made a sketchy salute. "Hrotheran

passed on your request, and the reason for it," Kyndreth rum­bled. "My first thought was that the young pups wouldn't dare threaten harm to another Elvenlord or lady but—" he chuckled harshly "—my next thought was that they already have."

"Well," Kyrtian replied, "yes. Frankly, we've no way of knowing if the deaths of some of the Lesser Lords on their es­tates were at the hands of revolting slaves, or of the Young Lords. They wouldn't admit it if they had killed one of us, not when they know very well how harsh the penalties will be when we defeat them."

Kyndreth smiled without any humor. "You show a fine grasp of reality for such a young man. I'd expected a little more ide­alism from you until this last message of yours."

"My lord, I have studied our history since Evelon well enough to realize that honor is only for those who can afford it," Kyrtian replied, without any expression in his voice. "We have' the all the advantages and can afford to be honorable; they can­not, and the only reason they haven't taken such a step before this is probably because it hasn't occurred to them." He paused and added judiciously, "I am afraid that I have not yet detected much in the way of imagination in their tactics. I should not like to be the one to give them ideas that would not have arisen on their own."

"Well said. Now, I'll handle the Council; you go on as you have." Kyndreth chuckled dryly, this time with just a touch of real amusement. "Given their past performance, it's entirely pos­sible that the puppies will panic and just abandon their strong­hold anyway when you've flanked them. Keep me informed."

"Yes, my lord," Kyrtian said, but the Great Lord had already broken his spell and the connection; the teleson-plate reflected only Kyrtian's own face.

It was Moth's own people, and not the Young Lords headquar­tered on her old estate, who gave her the astonishing news that Kyrtian's forces were inexplicably turning aside without trying to take the Young Lords' stronghold. She'd had the cleverest of her "boys" out shadowing the army, and it was one of these who had come back in the dawn to report that the army was up

and away at right angles to their previous line of march. They were not merely clever, four of them had the "human magic," the knack of listening to the thoughts of others. When they were close enough, they were able to hear what the common fighters and even some of the officers knew, and that was invaluable.

The army was now headed, presumably, for the training-camp that the Young Lords had set up to retrain some of the gladiators that they had taken as soldiers.

"They just up and changed march, Little Mother," the swarthy, squat young human told her, as she kept refilling his glass and his plate. The "boys" tended to forget about eating and drinking while they were out there, and came back starved and ready to drink a lake. "It's as if they got different orders last night."

Lady Moth considered this information for a moment, then made up her mind. "Lasen, on a fast horse, how long do you think it would take me to catch up to the army?" she asked. The man stared at her, understanding slowly coming into his brown eyes; his brow wrinkled with concern so that he looked like a worried hound.

He knew her; he knew better than to try and dissuade her. He didn't have to read her thoughts to know what they were— although, if he had cared to, he probably could have, since he was one of the four with wizard-powers.

He won't though; those boys think it's impolite to hear thoughts without permission, if you 're a friend. He probably wouldn't even think of doing it unless my life or his was at stake, the dear child. There was nothing in her thoughts she cared to hide from anyone these days—though when she'd been younger...

"You could catch them by sundown," he told her, slowly. "But the question is, can you come at Lord Kyrtian through all of his army and come away again back to us?" A fleeting ghost of fear traveled across his face then, and it was that fear she an­swered before she addressed the spoken question.

"I have no intention of abandoning all of you, my lad," she said fondly, and tapped his shoulder in mock-admonition with the book she was holding. "Never fear that; you and the rest are

all the family I have now, and all the family I want. I want to talk to Kyrtian, that's all; I think I can do a lot for all of us if I can just talk to him."

Lasen looked skeptical, and Lady Moth smiled. "Little Mother, this is the Army Commander, not one of your Young Lords."

"He's no older than the Young Lords, my lad, and what's more, if you think I'm good to my people, you should see his! I pledge you my word for it."

Lasen nodded slowly. Moth didn't often pledge her word; all her humans knew that when she did, she was beyond certain of what she promised. A little of the concern cleared from his face.

"As for getting in and out—" she chuckled "—no fear there, either. So long as there isn't another Elvenlord I have to outwit, I'll get in and out again."

"I'll have Starfoot saddled and waiting—and it's myself that will come with you, then," Lasen said, in a voice that told her that he would be just as stubborn as she on that point. She in­clined her head in tacit agreement, and went off to tell Viridina what she intended, and to change her gown for something more suited to the task at hand.

Lasen waited at the door of the stable, Starfoot and another horse saddled and ready, when she arrived, clad in breeches and somber tunic of brown doeskin. Starfoot was a mare so named, not because she was lovely (for in actual fact she was as ugly as a mud-pie and scrawny as a sapling), but because she was fleet as any shooting-star. She was perfect for such a task; her mud-color would hide her, just as the brown of Moth's clothing would serve the same purpose. Lasen had chosen another mud-colored, swift horse, a gelding that was Starfoot's half-brother, and already wore dust-grey tunic and breeches for the same camouflaging purpose.

And Lasen had one other advantage as her guide and guard; he had the human magic of speaking and hearing in thoughts. No one would get near to them without him knowing, and they could avoid the army's own scouts and sentries easily. That was the one thing that idiot Elvenlords always forget, Moth thought sourly, as she mounted Starfoot a little stiffly. Human

magic makes it possible for them to know long before an enemy arrives.

It was a long, hard ride, even for Moth, who was used to rid­ing the bounds of her own estate every day. They did not stop except to rest the horses and allow them to drink and snatch a mouthful of oats. And it was after sunset when they finally saw the campfires of Kyrtian's army from the top of a hill, like strange, yellow stars sprinkled across the hillside opposite them.

Lasen stared at the encampment. "The password is 'A fine satin sheep,'" he said, after a moment's pause.

"Sheep? Not sheet?" she asked, nonplused.

"Definitely sheep," he replied. "They're using nonsense phrases just to make things a bit more secure."

Moth dismounted; no need to order Lasen to watch the horses and lie concealed while she made her way into the army. He vanished into the darkness behind her; she worked her magic on herself.

She was already as thin and bony as many human men, and her loose tunic concealed what there was of her figure. With her long hair knotted on the top of her head and hidden beneath a cap, she needed only to alter her appearance a trifle to pass as a slave: round her ears, darken her skin, and so long as she kept her head down, simply darkening her eyes would suffice to hide what she was.

And the magic of elven women, after all, was to alter small things....

It hurt; that was the worst of it. Her ears burned as if she had dipped them in boiling water as she rounded the points, and she bit her nether lip until it bled to keep from crying out. Then it was the turn of her eyes—not so difficult, this, to change the color, and not as painful.

Then, following the whispered conversation that Lasen had given her before he vanished, she walked into the army en­campment. Thanks to Lasen she had the password she needed to pass the sentries quite as if she was part of the army herself. No one even gave her a second glance.

As she strode stiffly among the campfires, in the flickering

light from fire and torch that made it possible to pull off the next part of her ruse, she kept a sharp eye out for something she could use to get up as far as, and even into, Kyrtian's tent. One piece at a time, she managed to pilfer a tray, a plate, and a rough-hewn wooden cup; with a breath of her own magic, they acquired a patina of silver. Water took on the rosy hue of wine, and a couple of chunks of wood became meat, cheese and bread, at least on the surface. A snatched handful of weeds transformed into tasty-looking "garden" greens put the final touches on. This all looked edible (although it wasn't) but by no means more than a scant touch above the ordinary soldiers' ra-. tions. She knew her nephew; knew that was what he would eat by choice. She didn't want her excuse for entrance to be snatched away by the officious servant of some lesser Elven-lord just because it looked tasty enough to be appetizing to his master!

By this time she was well up to the cluster of tents of the commanders; the larger size of Kyrtian's made it obvious which was his. There were guards on the tent, but her age, size, and burden made her status and errand obvious, and they gave her the merest of cursory once-overs to ensure that she wasn't armed before holding the flap aside and sending her in.

Kyrtian and his human shadow Gel were bent over maps, seemingly oblivious to anything else. She cleared her throat ostentatiously.

Neither of them turned around, or even so much as started. "We know you're there," Gel said crossly—which relieved her somewhat, since she'd been a little alarmed at how easily she had gotten close to her nephew, unchallenged. "Put it down and get out."

"That's a fine way to talk to your Lord's aunt," she replied, loudly enough so they could hear her, but softly enough that her voice shouldn't carry to the guards outside.

They pivoted so fast to look at her, their eyes so wide and shocked, that she chuckled.

"Moth? Moth?" Kyrtian squeaked.

"Voice just now starting to break, boy?" Moth replied with a

grin, putting down her inedible burden. "Always knew every­thing about you was slow to grow but your mind, but isn't that a bit much?"

"So, that's the situation, then," Kyrtian finished. The arrival of his aunt on his very doorstep—and disguised as a human slave, no less!—had been something of a shock. A pleasant shock, however. "And I don't mind telling you that I've been scram­bling to find some excuse not to rescue you." He and Moth had been talking nonstop for so long that they were both hoarse, and once he got over his surprise, he had never been so glad to see anyone in his life.

"Well," she ruminated. "You can see why I was in no great hurry to be rescued. These young rebels are still not the best an­swer to our troubles, but they're a damn sight better than their fathers."

He reached for a pitcher of something she had conjured up out of water, a handful of blossoms and a bit of magic and poured cups of the stuff for both of them. Whatever it was, it had as good an effect on a hoarse throat as honeyed tea. "I don't know what to do," he admitted. "I can't stop commanding the army—it will just mean humans slaughtering humans. At least this way I'm keeping bloodshed to a minimum. But if I defeat the Young Lords, mother thinks the Great Lords will turn the army against the Wizards, and never mind the treaty."

"Your mother's right," Moth said sourly, her mouth twisted up into a scowl. "There was never an agreement reached by any of the Great Lords that wasn't broken as soon as one or the other of them could manage it, and that's a fact you'd better get used to. There's no honor among them; your cousin is just a bit more open about his treachery than most of them are. If he was good, he'd have had your estate years ago."

Kyrtian could only shake his head. Since taking command, he had gotten one example after another of the duplicity of his own race, and he was still having a hard time getting used to it. What was the point of all this double-and triple-crossing, any­way? Wasn't the world wide enough for everyone to prosper?

Evidently not, or at least, not so far as the Great Lords were concerned.

Gel's sardonic expression and occasional sarcastic com­ments had made it very clear that he was not anywhere near as innocent as Kyrtian had been. And, all things considered, Lady Lydiell probably wasn't either.

"Look," Gel said, breaking into his thoughts. "We need a plan, and I think I have one, but it depends on Moth's ability to scare the whey out of these pet rebels of hers." He raised an eyebrow at her. "Can you?"

"Depends on what you and this army of yours can do," she temporized. "What's the plan?"

"You can go as yourself to this training-camp. The gladiators will trust your humans, I suspect; fighters tend to trust other fighters. Whatever it takes, see if you can get them to listen to you and agree to what you want to do."

She smiled. "It won't take much," she told them both, wear­ing an expression that told them she was mightily pleased with herself. "I can negate their collars; I've enough bits of iron to do that. We've done some experimenting, and all it takes is a thin sheet of it slipped in behind and around the lock and beryl, and you can pry the collar off without hurting the slave. I al­ways carry a few pieces with me now, just in case."

"Hah!" Gel hit the table with his fist, greatly pleased. "Good! You tell 'em that when we attack, if they scatter instead of fighting, we'll open up our lines at a particular point inside the forest to let 'em through, then swallow them up into the army." Kyrtian immediately saw what Gel had in mind—they had a cadre of fighters that Gel trusted trained up now, who were ac­tually loyal to Kyrtian. So even if, say, Lord Kyndreth was watching via magic, all he would see was that the enemy gladi­ators scattered and nothing more. He also had a good idea what Gel was going to suggest next.

"Then," he took over, "Moth, you go to your rebels, and sug­gest that they break up and get out of the estates; take to the hills with small groups to avoid being captured, and start a guerrilla war."

His aunt absorbed all this for a moment, then a smile broke out on her face. "I see! I scare the youngsters, by telling them what I personally witnessed of the slaughter of their best troops, and convince them that they can't possibly hold out di­rectly. They abandon the estates, or at least the ones that still have older relatives among the Great Lords to claim them— which is half of what their fathers want. I can be 'rescued' and serve as their eyes and ears into what their fathers are up to— which gives you eyes and ears into what they're doing, so you can arrange things to your liking. You still have a war that you can fight in tiny skirmishes, without ever coming to a conclu­sion." Her grin widened. "I can even offer to hide the ringlead­ers and some of the rest on the property I hold now, and they can run their fight from there."

Kyrtian gave her a little bow of respect. She should have been a general. "Which means the Great Lords won't send me against the Wizards, at least, not for a while." He considered the next move in the plan. "We can delay things for a while, while I try and come up with a better solution."

Lady Moth laughed mockingly. "And my reward is to get my husband's estate back, which is no bad bribe for my complic­ity, boy."

"There has to be something in this bargain for you, my Lady," he demurred. She shook her head at him.

"I think this will work for a while, anyway," Gel voiced his own opinion. "I like it. And I've got no particular objection to patching together temporary solutions for the next two decades."

Lady Moth stood up. "Time for me to go. Boy, when you have the time, find an excuse to come to the estate—I've found some things in the library I think will interest you."

She didn't waste time on farewells; Lady Moth was not one to waste time on anything, as Kyrtian recalled. A brief embrace for him, and a sketchy salute for Gel was all she gave, then she was out of the tent and back on her way to her waiting human escort.

Gel followed her out, to be sure she got back safely through the lines. While he was gone, Kyrtian folded the maps, tidied

the tent, and removed the bronze plaque from the teleson. He wanted to talk to Lady Lydiell about this while it was all still fresh in his mind. It was worth the chance of being "overheard," although given that this was a very odd hour to be talking to her, that was less likely this time.

Lydiell listened to his brief summary with her eyes alight. "If this had been anyone other than Moth, I would have said it was too good to be true," she said when he was finished. "But it is Moth, and frankly, it's exactly the sort of thing I would expect out of her. Well—look what she's done on her own, discovering how to negate the collar-spells and get them off without hurting the slaves!"

"Useful bit of information, that," Kyrtian murmured, think­ing out loud. "It would have to be a human that did it, though; I wouldn't want to chance either poisoning by the metal or mag­ical backlash. Mother, how am I going to keep Lord Kyndreth from suspecting that something is up when all resistance sud­denly melts away?"

"By staging more of a rout at this next mock-battle than you're likely to get from the handful of former gladiators there," she said instantly. "You and I will create a Gate from here to there, and we'll send through all of our people that can fight. They'll pose as slaves of the Young Lords—they'll hold a line, then break and rout—straight back to the Gate and home. That will give you something to convince Kyndreth that you've won a conclusive victory."

"A Gate? Can I do that?" he asked doubtfully. "Am I strong enough?"

"Not by yourself—but remember what you discovered about combining magic from several people?" she countered. "You have me and the others here; together we will have quite enough to create a Gate."

He nodded, and began to feel more confident. "Perhaps I should invite Lord Kyndreth to observe?"

"At a distance," she answered. "With the Council. There's an old viewing-teleson in the Council Chamber; they probably haven't used it since the disastrous debacle with Lord Dyran."

"But if I choose where to put the teleson-sender, they'll see

what I want them to see." This was coming out better and bet­ter. "And with all of the Great Lords jostling about, they aren't going to notice the Gate—"

"They won't notice it anyway," Lydiell said with confidence. "It's very noisy, but they won't be expecting it and they'll be too far away. They'd have to know something like that was go­ing on."

"Oh, I can cover it with some levin-bolts anyway," Kyrtian decided. "They'd be expecting something of the sort. Mother— I think this is going to work—"

"I never doubted that you would find a way," she said serenely.

When they ended their conversation, and he had covered the teleson-screen again, he waited impatiently for Gel to return so that he could work out all the details of this addition to the plan.

For the first time since he had taken over the command of the Great Lords' army, he began to hope he could save, not only his own people, but everyone involved. Or at least, almost every­one. And that was so much more than he had ever thought he'd be able to do, that he felt as if he had just drunk an entire bottle of sparkling wine.

Now, let's hope all this doesn't prove to be as ephemeral as wine-joy!

18

The ears outside Lord Kyrtian's tent are a lot keener than he has any reason to guess, Keman thought with glee, as he heard Kyrtian concluding the second conversation of the day with Lady Lydiell. So, Elvenlord, why haven't you fig­ured out that you have dragons on your doorstepliterally?

Keman, Shana's foster-brother, was, of course, that dragon. So was his partner in this spying endeavor, although she came

from a Lair that had never known there were other dragons in the world until she met him. Dragons, with their ability to shapechange into virtually anything they chose, were uniquely suited to spying on the Elves, who could easily crack any dis­guise wrought with illusions. In spite of the fact that in his real form he was easily forty or fifty times the bulk of even the strongest and tallest male human (or Elf) he'd ever seen, the draconic gift of being able to push mass and weight else­where—they called it, "into the Out"—made it possible for him to masquerade as even a small child.

He and Dora had shapechanged themselves into human fighters and insinuated themselves into the Great Lords' army as soon as it became obvious that this new commander was just as brilliant as the old one had been incompetent. When they first began this task on Shana's behalf, they had gone from one Great Lord's household to another in the forms of various slaves—since no Great Lord ever bothered to take note of a mere human so long as he didn't disobey and had no hint of magic as an Elf understood it about him. They had actually been in Lord Kyndreth's household as a pair of pages when the first news of Lord Kyrtian's victories came in. From there it had been a matter of simplicity to insinuate themselves into the company of fighters the Great Lord sent to augment the army.

The only hard part had been slipping away at night every so often to hunt, for a dragon needed vastly more food than a hu­man. Even that hadn't been too horribly difficult, and they had been keeping Shana informed faithfully of all that this new commander was doing. It had taken him a little time to get used to his partner's outward appearance, however; having a griz­zled, muscle-bound, surly male look at him while he was hear­ing Dora's voice in his mind was a little unsettling. And it hardly needed to be said that while they were in these guises, they could not even make the most casual of affectionate ges­tures towards one another, not even the sorts of things that had been possible as pages. Only when they flew in their own shapes could he court her as she deserved.

Keman and Dora weren't the guards just outside the tent flaps of Lord Kyrtian's tent—that position was reserved for the

handful of men that Sergeant Gel had tested and tried and found trustworthy. For one thing, although both dragons might look like fighters, they didn't have any real skill with the formidable weapons that they held—skill did not come with the shape, alas. They hadn't even been among the volunteers hoping for such a position. No, they were guarding the wagons holding the possessions of the other Elvenlords serving as Kyrtian's offi­cers, possessions which had not been unpacked for days (much to the disgruntlement of their owners) since the speed of march had not permitted the kind of leisurely camping with luxuries that the previous commander had allowed.

It was a good thing that darkness cloaked any faint signs of his impatience, for Keman could hardly contain himself. They had known for some time that Lord Kyrtian was very unlike Lord Levelis, the previous commander, in more ways than sim­ple competence. For one thing, his method of training was as­tounding—using magic to counterfeit blades and other weapons, so that it was possible to acquire real skill without ever getting hurt! For the first time, a human slave delegated to the position of "fighter" stood a decent chance of surviving— and would manage to get through his training period without being killed or maimed.

That in and of itself had brought excitement among the ranks to a fever pitch, but there was soon more to rejoice in. Rumor in the ranks had soon been proved truth—that Lord Kyrtian actu­ally cared about the humans who served in the ranks and was not inclined to throw them into combat and use them up the way his predecessor had. But until tonight they had not realized how wildly different his attitudes toward humans were from those of other Elvenlords!

It seemed that Lady Moth and the late and lamented Lord Va-lyn were not the only ones of their kind to regard humans as something other than objects of possession, creatures destined by birth to serve and be consumed and tossed away at the whims of their Elven masters. Even the rebellious Young Lords had proved something of a disappointment once they had a modicum of power—the humans under their control might not have to fear the terrible punishments inflicted on them by magic

anymore, but they were still slaves, and treated as such. Not so with Lord Kyrtian, whose very second-in-command was a hu­man, much to the further disgruntlement of the Elvenlords serv­ing as officers.

Wait until Shana hears all this! he thought, hardly able to contain himself and wait for the next shift of guards to come and relieve them.

It was clear to Keman at least that someone from the Wizards was going to have to approach Lord Kyrtian. They couldn't af­ford not to, now. It was clear from his two conversations that he did not want to find himself forced to hunt down the Wizards, which he would, if he managed to defeat the Young Lords.

What was more, it was entirely likely that he could find them and beat them in combat. The one thing that had saved them in the past was that the Elvenlords had used mostly magic against the Wizards—and the Wizards had used mostly magic against their foes. The problem was that the Wizards' main defense now was the use of iron—which was brilliant, but did prevent them from using magic offensively. The dragons could help, but they were as vulnerable to real weapons as humans and halfbloods were—and Lord Kyrtian could field an army of slaves that would have no difficulty in defeating any Wizard army.

Unless, of course, the Iron People could be convinced to help. Ah, but why should they? Why should they actually fight, when they themselves were in no real danger from the Elven­lords and they could always go back to the south and safety? Their leader, the Iron Priest Diric, certainly liked Shana and her friends, but he was a pragmatic sort, and he could lose his posi­tion if he advocated something that would bring danger to the Iron People with little or no reward.

Ah, but now they knew that Lord Kyrtian didn't want to fight the Wizards. True, he might find himself in the position where he had to appear to fight them, but if the Wizards were in secret partnership with Lord Kyrtian, he could obey the orders to do so with every appearance of obedience to the Council. If, for in­stance, he knew where the Wizards actually were, he could hunt unsuccessfully, but dutifully, everywhere that they weren't until the Council got tired of it all and disbanded the army.

Sooner or later they would do just that; especially if the Wiz­ards were able to help in that direction. It wouldn't be difficult to stage scenes of abandoned camps and great desolation, to make it look as if, once chased from the haven of the Citadel, the Wiz­ards had found it impossible to survive in the wilderness.

Keman's thoughts filled with contempt for the "Old Whin-ers." They would have had that very problem if it hadn't been for Shana and the dragons. Caellach Gwain and the others like him were no more equipped to take care of themselves than the pampered Elvenlords themselves would have been if stripped of magical powers. Put some forlorn "settlements" together, . made of mud huts with crumbling walls and caved-in roofs, and scatter a few bones about, and leave them for Lord Kyrtian to "discover" and the Elvenlords might be convinced that if any halfbloods did survive they were not worth pursuing.

And then, Keman thought, when we're secure again, we might even be able to secretly trade with Lord Kyrtian for things that we need. Although he liked Diric and the Iron Peo­ple, and the folk of the Trader clans, enormously, it made him very uneasy that the Wizards now depended on these two sets of relative strangers (who after all had agendas of their own) for the things they couldn't produce themselves. Keman could never forget that the Iron People had once held him, Shana, Mero, and Father Dragon captive—Iron Priest Diric had nearly been toppled from his seat of power once, and it could happen again. Keman would rather that his friends and foster-sister had one more layer to their net of survival.

The Wizards had once stolen what they wanted from the supply-wagons of the Elvenlords themselves, but that had all come to an end when the Elvenlords realized that they still ex­isted and were pilfering supplies. Such thefts were too danger­ous now and, in fact, had been forbidden by the tenuous treaty that the Elvenlords had agreed to with them—but the Wizards were not craftsfolk or terribly successful farmers. Hunters—oh my, yes—they merely had to magically transport an animal from the forest or fields by magic to kill it, and even the least skilled of them could do that, for magic was one stalker that no beast could scent. Meat of all sorts they had in abundance, and

hides, and the rather lovely horns of alicorns, but the best they were able to do in the way of agriculture was a bit of vegetable-gardening. Shana, one of the few Wizards to manage the trans­portation spell that enabled her to move living creatures intact, had been able to bring the flock of sheep that had been at the old Citadel, and had purloined some chickens that had strayed and so were technically not Elvenlord property. Keman and Kalamadea had brought them goats, and even horses, but the terrain around the caves they had taken to live in was simply unsuited for cultivating grain.

And as for crafts, well, at some point they were going to run out of cloth, and there weren't more than a dozen of the fully-human ex-slaves among them that knew how to spin and weave. There was one single potter, and no glassmakers. As for metal-smiths, well, the less said, the better. True, the Iron Peo­ple had smiths in plenty, but they were down in the plain, and thus far there hadn't been a great deal that the Wizards could provide that the Iron People wanted in trade.

At least three quarters of that lack of skilled workers was due to the attitudes of Caellach Gwain and his cronies. What sensi­ble wild human or even a former slave, especially one with skills and a trade, would care to settle among people who re­garded him as an inferior peon who should be happy to serve his "betters" with no thought for compensation? No few of the slaves that had escaped during the Young Lord's initial revolt had settled briefly with the Wizards then drifted off with the Traders to settle elsewhere.

They're as bad as the Elvenlords, Keman thought, not for the first time.

For now they were relying on the things that had once been stockpiled in the Citadel; they hadn't been able to carry those things away with them, but the Citadel had somehow remained unpenetrated—or at least, no one had bothered to loot it or de­stroy what was in it. Shana had teams of the younger wizards working together to transport everything possible out of there and into the hands of those who actually owned the things or into the storage-rooms of their new home. Some things were in surplus—anything that didn't get used up or suffer much from

wear and tear. Nevertheless, they had more—many more— bodies to clothe and mouths to feed than they'd had back when only halfblooded Wizards lived in the old Citadel.

But if they could set up a trading-agreement with a real El-ven estate ... well, then their transportation magics could be used to swap hides and meat, raw lumber, even the gems and precious metals that were so easy for the dragons to coax up out of the earth, for most of those things that they now depended on the Traders and Iron People for.

Don't depend on that egg to hatch just yet, Keman, he warned himself. Report to Shana first. It's more important to get to the point where we 've got an agreement with this Kyrtian that will prevent him and the army from coming after us!

Their relief party arrived just then, two stripling humans that had been recruited from the ranks of the gladiators and looked it—muscled everywhere, including between their ears. They presented themselves with the proper password, and he and Dora gratefully surrendered their arms to the new sentries and plodded down the hill to their own campsite. They had man­aged to make themselves unpopular, not by unpleasant behav­ior, but simply by being unfriendly and taciturn. No one disliked them, but no one wanted to associate with them either. Humans, in Keman's experience, when away from their famil­iar surroundings, needed to socialize. When any particular hu­man offered a cold shoulder, he was generally shut out tacitly.

So Keman and Dora had a little fire to themselves; they un­dertook their duties in silence, and now they collected their ra­tions from the common camp-kitchen without comment beyond a grunt or a nod. They brought their food back to their camp, and to all appearances settled down to their belated dinners.

Ah, but beneath the surface, thoughts were flying between them. They were, in fact, mostly finished with that rather mea­ger (by draconic standards) meal, before the exchanges got be­yond incredulous :Can you believe what he said?: and similar exclamations of astonishment.

:How soon tonight do you think Shana will try and make contact with us?: Dora asked at last. :We have to tell her about

this! If we can somehow get this Kyrtian on our side, it will make all the difference!:

Keman's face showed no expression, but there was nothing but glee in his thoughts. :It's what we've needed all along, re­allywhat Shana has needed—: he amended.

:Oh, we dragons have thrown our lot in with the Wizards now, no matter what some of us think,: Dora said cheerfully. :It's what we need, an ally and a person inside the ranks of the Elvenlords.:

Keman thought a chuckle. :It wouldn 't hurt the Trader clans to discover they've got some competition, either.: He was be­ginning to resent the casual way in which the Traders had as­sumed that the Wizards were totally at their mercy now when it came to things that the Wizards couldn't produce. His persis­tent fear was that the Traders would learn that the Iron Folk most valued and needed the metal that gave them their name, and would find a way to supply it in quantity, thereby giving the Iron People no reason to continue their alliance with the Wiz­ards. That could be a disaster; without the Iron People, the Wiz­ards didn't have a lot of fighting-types if it came to real combat.

:But if we can get this new commander on our side, we won't need any fighters!: Dora reminded him excitedly.

:I wouldn't want to abandon the alliance, though,: he replied with caution, as he took her tin plate and his own, and scraped coals into both of them to burn off the remains of their stew— the most common way any of these humans here cleaned their dishes when they were done with them. Even the cooks cleaned their great pots this way sometimes. Especially lately, with Kyrtian moving the army from dawn to just before dark, chas­ing the Young Lords' army.

:Well, do you think you've sufficiently calmed down enough to help me reach Shana?: he teased, as he sat down across the fire from her.

Her reply was not translatable, but was rude. He almost cracked his disguise with a grin, then they settled into their task—looking from the outside as if they were two middle-aged, weary men dozing by their fire.

Shana had hardly been able to believe what Keman told her; in fact, the moment he'd told her what Lord Kyrtian was plotting with his aunt Morthena, she'd asked him to wait for a moment. Then, her blood singing with excitement, she ran to get Lorryn so that he could hear and verify it before it actually sank in as truth.

She pounded down the rough stone corridors, red hair streaming behind her, from her chambers to the common-room, where he was sitting with Zed and one or two others, practicing working in concert and using gemstones to focus and amplify their powers. These were the skills that the younger wizards had developed that enabled them to do so much more than their elders—abilities which Caellach Gwain and his cronies re­sented without actually troubling themselves to learn.

"Keman has some news," she said breathlessly, as the little group looked up with some surprise at her hasty entrance. "I'd like to hear what you think about it, if you can spare the time, Lorryn."

"Certainly; we were just about finished anyway." Lorryn stood up, and handed the basket-full of baby chicks he'd been cradling in his lap to Zed with a grin. "I never thought that I'd find myself purloining chickens with magic when I ran off to join the Wizards!"

"Hah. Can you think of any better way to practice the 'safe' transportation spell?" Zed countered, with his own wide grin splitting his tanned and swarthy face. "If you flatten a chick or two, it's no great loss."

"But they're so—well, cute—I'd feel guilty," Lorryn protested, looking down at the yellow balls of fluff while they cheeped sleepily.

Zed only grinned wider. "All the more incentive, then," he pointed out.

"Let's take a walk," Shana suggested—a good excuse to get away from the others. She didn't want to raise hopes that might be crushed; Lorryn could be trusted to consider all possible out­comes and not just the most desired. Together they could dis­cuss possibilities—grim as well as hopeful.

Which is just another reason why I'm glad he's with me. She'd fallen into the habit of considering him as a partner so quickly it was almost as magical as any spell. How not? She knew she could depend on him to do something when she asked him to, but even more importantly, she knew she could depend on him to do something he saw needed doing even if she didn't ask.

After a quick walk up to one of the concealed exits on the top of the hill covering their cave-complex, the two of them were out under the stars. It wasn't likely that they'd be overheard, but Shana related what Keman had told her mind-to-mind anyway. Just because something wasn't likely that was no reason to as­sume it wouldn't happen.

And the Old Whiners are just as like to set someone to spy on us as not, she thought resentfully. The fat would be in the fire if they even thought that I was going to open negotiations with an Elvenlord!

:Ancestors!: Lorryn exclaimed, .-This is fantastic news! I would never, ever have anticipated this!:

While Shana went to get Lorryn, Keman had been waiting patiently; now she sat down on a rock and concentrated on the focus-stone in her hand, contacting him once again.

:I have Lorryn,: she told him, opening her thoughts slightly so that Lorryn could sense what Keman was telling her. :Can you go through all that again for both of us?:

Keman was only too willing to; Shana sensed both Lorryn's growing excitement and that of Dora behind Keman's carefully controlled thoughts. But Lorryn sobered immediately after the first burst of incredulous enthusiasm, and didn't interrupt any­more while Keman concluded his report to Shana. It was diffi­cult enough for them to maintain contact at such extreme distance, and Shana appreciated that he kept his own thoughts quiet while she and her foster-brother finished their business.

But Keman had an idea of his own for their situation, that he voiced before they broke off contact.:Shana, why don't you ask Mother and Kalamadea to find iron for you ? Oh, I know it in­terferes too much even with our magic for them to bring it to the surface, but surely they can find it, and once it's been found, you can work out how to mine it. Surely the Iron People know how!:

.7 can ask,: she replied.

:Good! The more claws we have sharpened, the better,: was his final reply.

"That's not a bad thought," Shana said aloud, as a mental si­lence filled the place where Keman's word-thoughts had been. She headed back down into the caverns, with Lorryn following beside her. "But I thought the dragons didn't much like being around iron—"

"They don't," Lorryn agreed, "But Father Dragon and your foster-mother Alara are likely to agree to do just about anything within reason that you ask them to, don't you think?"

"Hmm. Somehow I can't believe that it's going to be that easy," Shana told him, skeptically. "Still, there's no harm in asking."

"And no time like the present," Lorryn agreed. She was not at all displeased when he took her hand and squeezed it encourag­ingly, then didn't bother to let it go as they descended once again into the Citadel corridors.

And when they found the two dragons who (next to Keman) had most closely aligned themselves with the Wizards, she put the question to them.

They had made themselves real lairs here, which was no great difficulty for a dragon, a creature who could shape rock and earth to its will. The two of them were in Alara's lair, re­clining in their natural forms in smooth hollows filled with the soft sand that dragons preferred to rest in. Father Dragon— Kalamadea by actual name—was not at his full size in here, for dragons never really stopped growing as long as they lived, and Father Dragon was very, very old and his size was immense. He would hardly have fit in one of Alara's hollows if he hadn't shifted part of his bulk into the Out first.

Even so, both of them were huge, dwarfing the two half-bloods next to them. Alara's scarlet-scaled torso could have served as a hut if it were hollow.

"I thought what you needed were gemstones and precious metals to trade with," Alara responded to Shana's question, her bobbing head indicating her confusion. "That's what we've all been looking for. That's what you asked us to find."

Shana grimaced. "I know; that was my mistake. I thought so, too—actually, I didn't really think, not even when Shadow told us how nervy the Iron People were getting without any new source of metal for their forges. Two mistakes, then. I suppose, if I had thought about it at all, I just assumed that now that the Iron People were settling, they'd find their own iron. So, can you find it?"

"More or less," Kalamadea rumbled, lifting his head from his foreclaws. "Remember, after all, that we use magic to find things, and since the Rotten Metal interferes with magic, its very presence is going to interfere with locating it. We'll actu­ally have to do some roundabout reckoning on where the inter­ference is strongest to find veins of ore."

"I knew it couldn't be all that easy," Shana muttered to her­self, but at least Father Dragon seemed to think that there was a way to work around the problem, and that was more than she had expected.

"We also won't be able to bring it to the surface the way we can the silver and gold," Alara sighed regretfully. "So once we find it, you'll still have to dig for it, and it'll be ore rather than the nice, pure nuggets of other things we can bring up."

"Oh, Ancestors—" Lorryn said in mock dismay. "Think of it—one more reason for able-bodied folks to have to leave the Citadel, which means fewer servants to attend to the whims of the Old Whiners! They might actually have to learn to clean up after themselves once in a while!"

Shana had noticed that Lorryn had, if anything, less patience with Caellach Gwain than she did, although you would never have known it by the way he acted with the old wizard and his cronies. She smiled. "I wouldn't mind taking my turn on the end of a shovel," she volunteered. "Especially if it meant that you would take over dealing with them instead of me."

He groaned and shook his head. "Oh, Shana—all right. I sup­pose that among the three of us, Parth Agon, Denelor and I can handle them. I've noticed a distinct improvement in Parth's atti­tude ever since he's seen just what an idiot Caellach is being."

"And Denelor always was a dear," Shana said, speaking fondly of her former teacher and the "master" to her "apprentice."

Kalamadea snorted. "I would not have used that description," he said. "But he certainly is far more willing to adapt, accom­modate, and change than any of the other older wizards. Well, I would say that we have something of a plan, then. Alara and one or two of the others should be the ones to go looking for Rotten Metal; when they find some that is not too far beneath the surface, you and a few hardy souls, Shana, can see about digging some up. Meanwhile Lorryn will advise Parth Agon, with the help of Denelor—and me."

Shana almost laughed aloud at that last. If Caellach was afraid of anything, it was of the dragons, and Kalamadea was the most imposing of his kind. Caellach had tried—and nearly succeeded—in undoing all of the reforms of the younger wiz­ards once, when Shana had been away from the Citadel. As it happened, she had been the captive, at the time, of the Iron Peo­ple, as had Kalamadea and Keman. So there had been no one in place to keep Caellach Gwain in check.

"You or I, Shana, will always have a presence here, and Lor­ryn, too, I think," Father Dragon rumbled, confirming her thought. "At least, until the day when Caellach Gwain swells up with indignation and explodes."

They all laughed so hard at the images conjured up by that statement that a sleepy older wizard padded grumbling into the lair to lodge a protest at having her sleep disturbed, and went away muttering under her breath.

19

Kyrtian sat uneasily on his horse in the chill darkness just before dawn. He had brought in his troops just after mid­night, positioning them as if this was going to be a real fight and not the sham thing that he and Moth had arranged. Af­ter all, the only people that knew it was a sham were his own

people on both sides of the coming battle, all of Moth's people, and he and Gel. It was a given that some of his commanders (if not all of them) were reporting to one or more of the Great Lords. Kyrtian wanted them to report the most impressive vic­tory yet—and the most decisive.

This would be enjoyable only if he was down there with his troops; he would have given a great deal to be able to leap out of his saddle and head up the men he knew so well. Well, the only reason it would be enjoyable is because I know how much of this attack is sham.

Ancestors, but it was cold! Armor and padded gambeson weren't doing a lot against the dankness, which penetrated everything. In fact, the armor was only making things worse; it sucked heat away from him instead of holding it in.

And—was there actually dew condensing on it?

A cold droplet sparkled for a moment just before his eyes, then dropped off the tip of his helm to splash onto his nose.

There was. He shivered and tried to stop himself; it only made his ridiculous, useless, over-ornamented armor rattle.

Not possible for him to join his men where they waited for the signal to attack, of course. The Great Lords who were his ultimate masters here would, one and all, have had him hauled up in front of them for recklessness and blatant disregard for his position.

So he had to sit on a horse on a hill—making an excellent target, incidentally, had his magic not been so strong—and di­rect his fighters from afar. Never once dirtying his hands with actual combat, oh, no. That was beneath his dignity as a com­mander, and damaging to the authority of Elves in general and the Great Council in the person of its designated commander in particular.

At least this time he would have something to do besides sit and watch and issue an occasional order. Moth's young rebels were going to be very visibly in the field today; they were also going to be wearing some of that bizarre jewelry she'd told him about. They couldn't work any magic while wearing it, but that didn't matter, since most of them didn't have that much in the first place. It would protect them from his levin-bolts; they

wanted to demonstrate in the most public forum possible that their fathers could no longer threaten to strike them down in that particular fashion.

I cannot imagine that. I just can't. I know intellectually that there are men out there who think of their sons as possessions, and are perfectly willing to destroy them and try begetting a son again if their "possessions" offend them, but I still cannot fathom it in my heart.

Since their fathers didn't know it was only sets of gold-plated cuffs and torques that protected the rebellious Young Lords, and not some new sort of magic, this demonstration was going to set the Council rather well aback.

The rebels aren 't just Young Lords either, though most of them here are. Moth had given him a brief summary of the rebellion—and to say that he'd been shocked was an under­statement. There's a considerable number of the ones who are Lords only because they aren't human, the scornfully disre­garded Elvenlords no one talks aboutthe ones with little magic. Moth had introduced him to two of those bitter rebels, men Lord Kyndreth's age if not older. I wonder if the Great Lords have any idea how cordially they are hated by so many of their "inferiors " ?

Mind, this invulnerability to levin-bolts wasn't going to do the rebels any practical good, in the planned scenario. Kyrtian's army was too large and well-organized, and when the rebels fled, their army would fall apart. Kyrtian's men had orders to take anyone who surrendered as a prisoner; the rebels had no il­lusions about the loyalty of their slave-fighters. When they fled, their army would drop weapons and capitulate. Kyrtian's vic­tory was a certainty—as finely scripted as a Court dance and as predictable.

It was definitely getting lighter. When he'd first brought his reluctant mount up here beneath these trees, it had been too dark to see. Now the horizon had lightened, and he could make out the dark shapes of trees and undergrowth beneath him, and in the distance, the square and rectangular bulks of the build­ings where their quarry waited—supposedly asleep and un­aware of the army about to descend on them.

Good thing we aren't going to have to besiege this place; we'd be here for months. Before battles, or even the practices he and Gel had held on the estate, he usually got a tightening in his stomach, a dry mouth, and his skin felt hypersensitive. Not today; in fact, if anything, he was bored and he wanted it over with. The conclusion here was foregone; the only question was whether or not any of Moth's people would be injured before they could surrender.

The Young Lords had actually chosen their supposed strong­hold well—although there wasn't a man on the Great Council who would have valued it properly. For the last couple of cen­turies it had been the very minor holding of a very minor El-venlord who had not been swallowed up by some greater Lord only because he never quarreled with anyone, never gave of­fense to anyone, and raised nothing more desirable than herbs and spices. This was finicky work, far more than any Great Lord had any interest in undertaking, so V'trayn Ildren Lord Je-remin and his wife, daughter and slaves had been left in peace. Until the rebellion, that is. At the moment, Lord Ildren and his household were safely waiting out the conflict in their cara-vanserie in one of the cities.

So much for him; what was of interest was his manor, which in the far past had been one of the original fortified manors of this region, built back when humans had armies and were con­sidered at least a threat to Elvenkind. It had been further forti­fied at the beginning of the first Wizard War, making it quite a snug little retreat. It was Kyrtian's opinion that its former owner would have done better to remain buttoned up inside it rather than fleeing to the city and the cramped discomfort of his tiny caravanserie.

But he hadn't, and the rebels had appropriated it as a place to house and train their human fighters.

It had been, therefore, of minor strategic importance until this moment. But he and Moth had decided that for today's purpose it would play the role of the rebel's headquarters, so that when the Young Lords all went to ground on Moth's estate after a spectacular rout, no one would be looking for them there.

It was a given that no one on the Council would wonder why people who had been clever enough to choose a defensible structure like this one as their headquarters would also leave it for a pitched battle outside the walls of the structure. Analyzing the enemy's strategy was not a skill that the Great Lords of the Council exercised. So long as things went their way, they were not inclined to ask why or look the situation over very closely.

Which is why they are in this particular quandary in the first place.

Birds twittered softly and sleepily overhead. They had begun to wake; it wouldn't be much longer before the attack.

Light seeped into the landscape, revealing it in shades of blue-grey. Rounded shapes were bushes, trees. Pointed ones, rocky outcrops. And in the far distance, leagues below his hill, the squares and rectangles were the fortified manor.

The light strengthened, although the only sign of the sunrise to come was the steady brightening in the east. A single figure stood sentry on the walls below; those of the Great Lords ob­serving this in their telesons must be laughing now. One sentry! And the gates wide open!

The gates were wide open so that the army within could boil out easily—which, in a moment, when the sentry "spotted" the first of his troops attempting to approach by stealth and sounded the "alert", they would.

The distant figure suddenly moved, and the thin wail of a trumpet carried up to Kyrtian's ears, and the peace of the morning shattered like brittle glass as fighters erupted from every gate, shouting, their voices rising to Kyrtian in a con­fused babble.

Time to give the signal.

Kyrtian stood up in his stirrups, pointed his right hand sky­ward, and launched a bolt of magic up to the deep blue-grey bowl of the pre-dawn sky: not a levin-bolt, but one of the harm­less illusion-bolts often used to enliven evening entertainments, a soundless shower of colored sparks of light high in the air. And now it was the turn of his army to emerge from the places where the men had lain hidden half the night, not shouting, but eerily silent, like an army of spirits....

But they didn't stay silent for long; that was too much to ex­pect of flesh and blood. Halfway down the hill their nerves or their excitement got the better of them, and their own throats opened with a collective roar. Beneath his horse's hooves, the ground shook, and the terrified birds burst out of the tree above him.

At that moment, before the two armies had even met, Kyrtian spotted the Young Lords coming out of the gates of their fortress. He knew them by their colorful armor, riding out through the flood of their own fighters, their horses carried along like flotsam in a stream.

Ha!

He had been told not to hold back, and he didn't. As soon as the foremost of the riders got free of the human sea about him, Kyrtian aimed—gathered his power from the depths of his soul—clasped both hands above his head, and let loose a levin-bolt at the nearest.

The levin-bolt streaked from his clasped hands across the space between them, a fire-streaming comet, and those who saw it and had the time to react flung themselves screaming out of its path. Anyone with any experience of levin-bolts would see that this one was deadly—and strong.

It hit—it hit! Kyrtian's throat closed for a moment—what if Moth was wrong? But in the same moment, he knew, he knew that Moth had not been wrong, for his fatal levin-bolt in the moment of striking fragmented into a thousand shards of light, blinding his view of his target for just a moment. In the next moment, there was his target, unharmed—though the poor horse was frozen in place, all four hooves planted.

Yes! It works! Now sure that he would not kill someone, Kyrtian didn't hesitate, and at last he had a little of the thrill of battle, the exultation of success; bolt after bolt flew down the hill and into the chests of the Young Lords; bolt after bolt shat­tered on their defenses just as the first had.

By now the fighters of both sides had cleared out of the way of the bolts, which meant that aside from a few scattered pairs locked in combat, the main body of troops weren't actually fighting anyone. That, too, was part of the plan.

But instead of taking heart from the failure of his levin-bolts to kill—as any sane commander would have—the Young Lords apparently "panicked" when confronted by a mage of superior power.

They turned tail and fled; not in a body, but breaking from their army, sending fighters tumbling out of the way of the hooves of their bolting steeds, and scattering in every possible direction except towards the enemy, whipping their horses in a frenzy of feigned fear. And at the sight of their leaders in a rout (which was, of course, the signal to certain of the human fight­ers to move into the next phase of the plan), the rebel army it­self suddenly broke off combat before it had even begun. Leaderless, it was every man for himself, and the humans were under no obligation to carry out the orders of masters who had abandoned them. Most surrendered or fled within moments. The lion's share of the ones who fled were Kyrtian's—brought to augment the Young Lords' troops and make the army look formidable enough to have been a real threat. Kyrtian's men, throwing down their weapons the better to flee unencumbered, were heading for a Gate that would take them home.

The rest dropped their weapons as well, but threw them­selves on their faces to surrender—Kyrtian had counted on that, and he had the satisfaction of seeing that the surrendering fight­ers managed to impede those who might have followed the ones who fled.

Now there was some pleasure, the thrill of seeing a plan un­fold perfectly, though there was and would not be any of the excitement and triumph of a real victory.

The Great Lords' fighters pursued—but the vanguard was composed of more of his own men, and they managed to ob­struct the passage of the men behind them by getting tangled up with those who were surrendering. This managed to impede the rest of the fighters, slowing them and permitting the van­quished to get a head start. By the time real pursuit got under­way, the enemy was already too far ahead to pursue effectively afoot. So, given that Kyrtian gave no orders to urge them on from his hilltop command-post, they began the easier task of taking charge of those who surrendered. Moth and Lady Virid-

ina had taken the precaution of tampering with every slave-collar to make it seem that the Young Lords had found a way to override the rightful owners' compulsions. Gladiatorial slaves—the only ones that were reasonable candidates for combat—weren't so plentiful these days that anyone would even consider killing or punishing these men for something they could not help; if their original owners couldn't be deter­mined, they'd probably be allotted among the Great Lords as booty.

Further enrichening the coffers of those who don't need it. Kyrtian felt almost depressed, as he watched the chaos of the battlefield sort itself into tidy groups of prisoners and captors. There didn't seem to be many dead or seriously wounded; there were a few distant figures still on the ground, but they were moving in a way that suggested injury but not serious trauma.

I should be glad of that. And he was—but he also felt as if he'd been cheated, somehow; all of the preparation for a bat­tle—more, far more, in the way of planning and organization— but none of the excitement. The most he felt was gratitude that it was done with and there were so few casualties.

The sun was only just cresting the eastern horizon, the mer­est fingernail-paring of hot rose, and the battle was over; so far as the Great Lords were concerned, the war with their rebel off­spring was over, too. Now would come the hard part; hunting them down individually, or waiting for them to come crawling back, looking for forgiveness. That was what they would be thinking, anyway, and Kyrtian was not about to allow them to discover any part of the truth.

He signaled to his horse, and let it plod back down the hill to his tent. Time to prepare himself for Lord Kyndreth's congratu­lations, and pretend to an elation he didn't feel.

The subcommanders milled about in the background, not dar­ing to approach such exalted personages as Lords of the Coun­cil without being summoned, but clearly hoping to be noticed.

Kyrtian, on the other hand, was very much the center of atten­tion, and not feeling particularly comfortable in that position.

"Brilliant!" Kyndreth boomed, as Kyrtian ducked his head

modestly. "Brilliant! Clearly they never guessed you would force a march after dark to get into place before sunrise."

"I had made a point of always bivouacking before sunset un­til I knew where they had made their headquarters, my lord," Kyrtian said, as Lord Kyndreth accepted a glass of wine from one of the slaves. "I wanted them to see a pattern and become used to it."

Kyrtian's tent had been cleared of everything except tables and chairs borrowed from those of his underlings who insisted on traveling with suites of furniture; with carpets on the floor and slaves holding trays of refreshments, it could not have looked less like his campaign headquarters. But Lord Kyndreth had insisted on Gating here ("with a select few of the Council, nothing to trouble yourself about") to tender his congratula­tions in person. "Nothing to trouble yourself about" had en­tailed non-stop, frantic work on the part of his staff up until the very moment that the temporary Gate opened and Kyndreth and entourage marched through.

"Ha—of course, you'd never done such a thing before, so they lacked the imagination to suppose that you would do it now," Kyndreth laughed, as the other three Great Lords he had brought with him nodded wisely. "Of course, old Levelis never did such a thing either."

"Levelis," said one long-faced Lord sourly, "never exerted himself to travel more than a league or two at a time."

"Levelis is an old fool," Lady Moth snapped, joining the dis­cussion, wineglass in hand, "and if it had been left up to him, I'd still be penned up on my estate next Midwinter."

Moth rode over, escorted by her bodyguards, soon enough to welcome the Councilors along with Kyrtian and to serve as his hostess. This was not the first time in the conversation that she had made a point of mentioning that Kyrtian had rescued her from the rebels, and it probably would not be the last.

"Entirely possible, my lady," the sour-face Councilor said, with a slight bow. "And now what do you plan, young com­mander?" he continued, turning to Kyrtian.

Kyrtian sighed. "Now, my lord, comes the most tedious, most time-consuming, and least-rewarding part of this cam-

paign," he replied. "We hunt down the fugitives one at a time and bring them back to the Council for judgment. I'd calculated that something like this would occur, and planned for it from the beginning; this is a task for smaller parties of men, and if you will permit me, my lords, I would prefer to use my own men if possible. I can count on them not to damage the fugitives when they are caught. As for the rest of the force—well, if it were my decision to make, I would disband it. An army is es­sentially a great beast that is all mouth and stomach out of which no useful work can be gotten when it is not engaged in a campaign."

"We will—take that under consideration," Lord Kyndreth replied, with a glance at his fellow Council members. "It does make sense, however."

He's thinking about the Wizards. Kyrtian took a sip of wine and tried to look unconcerned.

"Oh, come now, Kyndreth, the boy's right," said the sour one, appropriating a tidbit from one of the trays and examining it as if he expected to find a bug on it before putting it cau­tiously in his mouth. "There's no point in keeping these men sitting about doing nothing more useful than military maneu­vers when we could have them all back on our estates doing some meaningful work, even if it's only in the breeding pens."

He's not. And he might not be in favor of another Wizard War if the subject were broached at the moment.

"And Levelis," pointed out a Council member in midnight blue and deep green, who was making steady inroads on the wine without showing the least sign of intoxication, "would im­mediately advise to keep these men out here under his com­mand."

"And you know how I feel about" Levelis," Kyndreth acknowledged with a faint smile. "Another salient point, but one that is better discussed in Council, don't you think?"

"Hmmm," said the fellow in blue, but didn't add anything more.

How is he drinking so much and staying sober?

Kyndreth immediately changed the subject back to the cur­rent victory, but Kyrtian couldn't help but notice that there was

an aspect of it that he did not touch on—the rebels' ability to counteract his own levin-bolts. It was the fourth member of Kyndreth's party who brought it up.

"I had no notion that you had so much magic of your own— and how were those brats managing to dodge your levin-bolts, Kyrtian?" he asked, incredulously. "I thought they hadn't but driblets of magic of their own!"

He shrugged. "I never saw anything like it," he admitted. "Even if they had been using shields as I know them, the levin-bolts wouldn't have acted in that way when contacting a shield. I'm baffled."

"Huh. I wonder if they found anything in my library.. .." Moth mused, as if thinking aloud—but her sly glance at Kyrt­ian alerted him that she was about to present him with an op­portunity for something.

But what?

"Your library, my lady?" Kyrtian asked, obeying her prompt­ing. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, when I got into the Great House on the estate, the li­brary was in a right mess," she replied promptly, "books down off the shelves, piled up on the tables, left lying open—some­thing on the order of the huggle-muggle your father used to cre­ate in there when he was doing his research, Kyrtian, but on a larger scale. My household is cleaning up the chaos now, but to tell you the truth, it's as if they were following his lead and looking for something."

"Perhaps they found it—" Kyndreth said slowly, speculation creeping into his gaze as he looked from Moth to Kyrtian and back again. "Perhaps—having discovered that the son's little eccentric hobby was so deadly to their cause, they thought to counter it by following the father's example."

Kyrtian did his best not to stare at Moth with his mouth open in shock, gathered his wits, and seized the opportunity he'd been given with both hands. "If that is true—and I do recall my father being very enthusiastic over something he found in Lady Morthena's books—then the rebels might have done just that, and we need to discover what it is that they found!"

"Agreed!" said the Councilor in blue, instantly. "Someone should begin immediately!"

I wish mother could hear that. My father has just gone in an instant from crazed eccentric to vindicated.

He turned to Lord Kyndreth. "My lord, if I may be so bold— anyone can track down fugitives; it's only a matter of having good hunters and endless patience—but I know the direction of my father's research as no one else could. Would the Council be pleased to permit me to course this particular hare?"

Lord Kyndreth's speculative expression gave Kyrtian the thrill of excitement that the sham battle had not. "What, pre­cisely, was he looking for?"

"A way, or perhaps a device," Kyrtian said, very slowly, "for those with little magic to amplify that magic." Even as he said that, he realized that this would not be pleasant hearing for those whose powerful magic kept them at the top of the hierar­chy. "Presumably it would do the same for those with great magic as well," he added quickly. "I would assume it would work for anyone who used it, whether 'it' is a device, an object, or a method."

"What sent your father into Lady Morthena's library, Lord Kyrtian?" asked the wine-loving Lord, with every evidence of interest.

"He was a student of our history, and could not fathom why we were unable to replicate some of the feats of the Ancestors, when according to the fragments of chronicles he found, even the least of the Ancestors could accomplish what the Great Lords could," Kyrtian replied carefully, looking earnestly into the older Lord's intent eyes. "And he could see no reason why magic should be thinning in our bloodlines."

"A good point." Kyndreth mulled that one over, as the other Councilors looked interested, even eager. Even the sour-faced one lost some of his dour look.

Kyrtian thought about saying more, thought again, and held his peace. It was Moth who dropped another tidbit into the pool for the shining carp to gobble.

"It was all of the oldest books that were left lying about," she

observed innocently. "The same sorts of chronicles exactly that Kyrtian's father used to look at. And my word—the dust was unbelievable!"

"Kyndreth, I think we ought to let the boy investigate this," the sour-faced Councilor said decisively. "Let him keep his own fighting slaves in case he finds nothing and elects to hunt down our fugitives, while you take the rest of the army back to the mustering-barracks. We can decide what to do with it after Kyrtian determines if there's anything to this hunting about in the old chronicles or not. Meanwhile, we've got men and arms ready to send out on the chance that one of our puppies man­ages to scrape together another force and mounts an attack on one of the outlying manors."

"Good plan!" seconded the one in blue, and drained his wineglass. "Personally, I think they're going to crawl back to us begging for mercy, but I'd rather be ready for the treacherous young dogs just in case."

Lord Kyndreth looked in bemusement from one to another of his fellow Councilors—evidently he was the one who normally concocted all the plans in Council of late, and he was somewhat taken aback that these three had suddenly devised a solution of their own.

"We don't need a majority vote for this, Kyndreth," the wine-lover pointed out. "Kyrtian won't actually be doing any­thing, not unless he decides that there's nothing to be found in that library, and by then the whole Council will have had a chance to sit."

Lord Kyndreth laughed. "I see that you have already made up your minds," he said, genially—though Kyrtian wondered if there was a hint of annoyance, and even anger, under his smooth words. "As it happens, I am entirely in agreement with you, if for no other reason than that it gives our fine young com­mander an opportunity for some well-earned leisure before we lay any further burdens on his shoulders." He cocked an eye­brow at Kyrtian. "I am correct in recalling that you consider delving into mountains of musty old books to be an enjoyable leisure activity?"

Kyrtian laughed. "You are correct, my lord," he agreed, smil­ing a genuine smile for the first time that afternoon. "Like fa­ther, like son, you see."

"Well then." The smile Lord Kyndreth returned never reached his eyes, but there was no sign of disapproval that Kyrt­ian could detect in it.

I suspect his annoyance is reserved at this moment for his fellow Councilors.

Kyndreth spun, and fixed one of Kyrtian's subordinates with a steely gaze. "You've heard the plan, Astolan. You're in charge of everything but Kyrtian's slaves. Give the lot a good feed and good rest, then march them and the prisoners back to mustering-barracks. We'll sort out the prisoners there. And see to it that you make as good time coming back as Lord Kyrtian did going out."

Lord Astolan went flushed, then pale, and drew himself up straight as any of Gel's recruits. "My Lord!" he responded, with a crisp salute, followed by a bow, just for good measure.

Kyndreth transferred his gaze to the others. "The rest of you see that he succeeds in making good time," he concluded, mak­ing it perfectly clear that the penalty for failure would land on all of their shoulders.

Before they could make any reply, Kyndreth's attention had already gone back to the other Councilors. "Shall we make our departures, my lords?" he asked, making it very clear that he was leaving, and if the others wanted to remain, they would have to find their own ways back. And since he held the key to the temporary Gate ...

There was no dissension.

Kyrtian escorted them to the Gate, and watched the strangely shining structure fade and disappear after they passed through it. He returned to his tent to find Lady Moth entertaining his subordinates with scandal.

"Well, Astolan!" he said cheerfully as he pushed the tent-flap aside. "My things are already packed up and out of the way, and yours are here—well, part of them anyway—so why don't I just round up my slaves and escort Lady Moth back to her es­tate and leave you free to follow Lord Kyndreth's orders?"

Astolan swelled with pride and self-importance. Clearly he hadn't expected to be confirmed in his new—if temporary— command so soon. "Certainly, my lord, if that is your wish—"

"It is; if we start now, we will all be at Lady Moth's estate well before sundown," he said firmly, and offered Lady Moth his arm. "My Lady?"

She swept him a curtsy, and allowed him to see a glimpse of the wicked amusement in her eyes before accepting his arm. "My lord," she replied. "Let us go in search of that so-admirable chief of your slaves, that so-stern fellow Gel, and be on our way. I cannot wait to be home, now that I know that my home is safe again."

How is she managing to keep a straight face? "I shall be at pains to keep it ever so, my lady," he replied, deadpan, and was rewarded by the shaking of her shoulders as she tried to keep from laughing as they swept out.

20

Her guide paused at the edge of the mining-pit, and Shana surveyed the activity below her with an intense feeling of satisfaction. The dragons had, incredibly, found a place not that far from the New Citadel where iron ore lay near to the surface of the earth, making it possible to extract the precious substance without having to dig dangerous under­ground tunnels.

The dragons, however, had given some strict orders regard­ing mining operations. The fertile topsoil was to be carefully removed before true mining began, and set aside; when a spot had been played out, the harvested soil was to be returned and replanted with saplings culled from the forest, or clumps of meadow-flowers. Although this made very little sense to most

of the Wizards and all of the humans, the dragons were so adamant about this that no one argued.

Shana, however, fully agreed with this injunction. She had lived among dragons for too long not to think in terms of cen­turies rather than years—and the scars left on the land by un-considered mining would last for centuries. In the desert and the mountains, resources were not inexhaustible; to scar the land and leave it that much less able to support the humans and Wizards of the Citadel was unthinkably stupid. No matter what else she was, she hoped that even her own worst enemies would never think of her as that stupid.

A great deal of work was required to produce a few ingots of iron. In the pit below her, twenty or thirty quite burly men, broad shoulders and backs pouring sweat, labored with picks and shovels to fill crude wheelbarrows. The barrows were in their turn trundled up a dirt ramp to the rim of the pit by less burly men, some women, and even a few adolescent boys with the muscle to make the grueling trip over and over.

At the opposite rim of the pit stood their primitive smelter, the mysteries of which were of no interest to Shana. That was Zed's purview, and so far as Shana was concerned, as long as his fuel-cutters and charcoal-burners cut their timber selec­tively and replanted where they cut, she didn't care. Her con­cern was for the iron to trade with and the land it came out of, not for how the iron was produced.

It was the number of people at work here that surprised her—and their ages. She had sent Zed and his would-be miners off with the young dragon who'd found this place, and there hadn't been a single one of them much over the age of twenty—nor were any of them particularly muscular. But down there in the pit were men that could have been labor-slaves for an Elvenlord—

"What do you think of my crew?" called Zed, as he waved at her from across the pit. The miners looked up, glanced from him to Shana, and grinned broadly. Fire and Rain! They looked like labor-slaves and were scarred like gladiators!

Not a familiar face among them. ...

"I think they're very impressive," she called back, as she and her guide made their way around the edge of the pit. "But what I'd really like to know," she continued, as she came closer and didn't have to shout, "is where they came from—"

Zed laughed. "They're slaves—ex-slaves actually. The same ex-slaves that old Caellach drove away from the New Citadel by treating them as slaves rather than our fellow-creatures."

"But..." She wrinkled her brow, puzzled. "They're working just as hard—harder—than they would have if they'd stayed at the Citadel."

"But I'm not treating them as slaves," Zed pointed out. "I don't expect them to work here for the sheer gratitude of serv­ing a wizard and getting nothing more generous than food and shelter. They each get a fair share of the iron we smelt; they can trade it back to me for whatever we Wizards have that they want, or for what I've gotten from the Traders or the Iron Peo­ple. That way the actual iron stays in our control, but they get a fair wage for their work." He raised an eyebrow. "We're great believers in wages here."

She shook her head in admiration. "Zed, that's brilliant! Are they settled here? Do they want to stay? Can they build a village or something?" It would be wonderful to have these strong folk nearby—there was so much they needed simple laborers for, and Shana didn't in the least object to bartering for work done.

"They want to know whether Caellach is likely to poke his nose in here first, before they actually build a settlement," Zed replied with a grimace.

Shana glanced down, and saw that all work had stopped, while the former slaves all listened for her reply.

She was not at all loath to give it, pitching her voice so that the workers could hear it as well as Zed.

"Caellach Gwain is about as likely to appear here as I am to be welcomed into the ranks of the Elvenlords," she said, with a touch of acidic humor. "He's gotten so bad about having the tiniest bit of iron near him that we've taken to wearing the false-gold pendants when we aren't working magic. Lorryn calls them 'Caellach-chasers.'"

Zed's guffaw drowned anything from the workers, but Shana saw plenty of grins as they bent back to their work.

"I think you can count on a settlement going up here, then," Zed replied. "There's enough iron ore here to keep the smelter going for years and years, and more than enough work for everyone. Whoever isn't mining, smelting or hauling can be put to work on the replanting and restoration of played-out areas."

"I was afraid, after I saw that first load of ingots, that I was pushing you too hard over here," she said in tones aimed only for his ears, once he stopped speaking. "I'm glad to see that I was mistaken."

Zed patted her shoulder. "Anything but," he replied. "Ah— would you like to see the smelter? Or not—"

"Not," she said firmly. "I'm no Caellach, but this much iron kind of makes the inside of my head itch."

Zed shrugged. "Doesn't bother me as much, but then I've never had as much of the elven magic as you do. Here, I'll show you where we want to put a settlement instead. I think you'll be surprised."

He turned away from the smelter and headed into the woods. Shana followed him, glad to get out of the hot sun, away from the smelter and under the tree-shadows.

"How did the Iron People react to our first delivery?" Zed asked, with acute—and thoroughly understandable—interest.

"By throwing a festival, or so Mero tells me," she was happy to tell him. "I'm afraid that the Traders are a bit disappointed, though."

"The Traders can learn to live with their disappointment," Zed said smugly. "Now we can start doing more to protect ourselves—and we can send out the jewelry again."

"That can't happen too soon for me," Shana said fervently. "It's not just the Young Lords who need it, though the more jewelry we can get into their hands, the more disruption they'll make with the Great Lords. No, I want to get pieces to the Ladies, and I especially want to get it into the hands of the slaves."

Want was too mild a word; ever since she had last heard from

Keman and Dora, she was positively wild to get the jewelry moving out into the Elven lands again. If they could get Lord Kyrtian on their side—

The jewelry might put Lord Kyrtian on their side. If he had a way to protect his own people from Elven magic, to protect his lands from the magical attacks of other Elvenlords, there was no doubt in Shana's mind that Lord Kyrtian's own intensely loyal fighters would be more than a match for any physical force that the Great Lords could bring against him. It was only attack—magical attack—that he needed to fear.

And treachery. There was that. And the Great Lords were past masters at treachery.

"You think it might nullify the collars?" Zed asked with in­terest, "Remember, if we can't do that, we might as well not give the stuff to them."

"I think I know how." Eagerly she outlined her idea, which had come to her just that morning. "If we make a sort of clamshell device that closes over the beryl in the collar, back and front—" she mimed the idea with her hands "—something that will lock in place, tight, even if we can't get the collar off, we keep commands from getting to the elf-stones and the stone from actually doing anything to the wearer."

Zed considered the idea. "Interesting. It doesn't help some­one like a concubine, who might have a collar studded with beryls, but a common worker won't have more than one. So un­less the Lords start replacing all the collars on all their slaves, which would be expensive, even for them, we could free whole groups at a time!"

Shana grinned with glee. "That was my idea—the clamshells wouldn't be big, and it wouldn't be hard to distribute them. For instance, we could smuggle a whole bagful out to the workers in a field, the slave taking the water-bucket around could pass them out, and the whole group could bolt at once."

Or the shells could be passed around an army, at night, un­der cover of darkness. And when the morning comes, and coer­cion no longer works on the fighters and they are safe from magical attack, how many of them will remain to fight for their masters?

"Tricky," Zed said with admiration. "It's too bad that collars are usually metal, not leather; we could incorporate cutters into the edges of the clamshell, and nullify the beryl and remove the collar all in one go. Well, this is where the camp is, and where the men would like to put in a permanent settlement."

There wasn't much there at the moment, and it was a good thing that not only was it high summer but there had been re­markably good weather, for the shelters were barely enough to keep off the rain. Shana could see how it would make a perfect spot for a settlement, however, and she made all the right sounds of enthusiasm for Zed and his people. There was no doubt in her mind that she and Lorryn had made the right deci­sion in putting Zed in charge of mining, smelter, and crews to man both operations, although she would not have pictured him as a leader. And Caellach Gwain had, of course, argued against the mere thought of putting someone as young as Zed in charge of anything.

She completed her inspection—if that was not too official a word for merely looking the situation over—in short order. Things could not possibly be better; at the moment, she really didn't want production going any faster. It wouldn't hurt trade to keep the Iron People waiting for their ingots just a little be­tween each shipment; she didn't want them to start thinking that the supply was unlimited, and she had a long talk with Zed on just that subject. He was disappointed in one way, and re­lieved in another. He wouldn't have been unhappy to be asked to find more ex-slaves to recruit, but on the other hand, he didn't want his workforce growing past the point where he could handle everything himself.

In the end, Shana and the latest load of crude iron ingots re­turned overland to the New Citadel by pack-mule, arriving just about sunset.

Just in time for Caellach Gwain to run straight into them.

He stared; he began to shake with anger. In a matter of mo­ments, he was practically beside himself with rage.

"What are you doing, girl?" he screamed at the top of his lungs, drawing everyone within hearing distance to the mouth of the cavern where the unloading was taking place.

"I should think that was perfectly obvious," she retorted. After the long walk—for she was not going to ride when she had two perfectly good legs, and her weight-equivalent in iron bars could be loaded on a mule in her place—she was hot and tired, and not in the mood for the temper-tantrums of irascible old men.

"You idiot!" he shrieked. "Bringing that—filthy stuff here? Bringing it inside the caves? You're mad! You're crazed! How is anybody supposed to work magic with that foul garbage practically on top of us?"

There were some grumbles and mutterings from the older wizards in the crowd that had gathered around them, but this time Shana stood her ground. It was about time that the recalci­trant wizards adapted to the situation, instead of expecting someone to work around their reluctance to change.

"You'll work magic around it the same way we youngsters do," she said firmly, hands on hips, glaring at him. "I should think you'd be grateful to me! The more iron there is around here, the safer you are! Haven't you at least figured that out by now?"

Usually she made some pretense of politeness to the old man, but she was in no mood for him at the moment, and her at­titude sent him into an incoherent frenzy.

That was just about the last straw.

"Shut up, you stupid old man!" she screamed—and since her soprano was considerably more piercing than his hoarse howls, even he heard her, and stared at her, mouth agape.

"Ever since we arrived here, all you've done is complain!" she shouted, her face flushed. "We've fed you, clothed you, seen to it that you got your creature comforts, and you have done nothing, nothing to help the rest of us! You're a parasite, Caellach Gwain, you're as useless as a second nose and you aren't even half as entertaining! Now shut up and learn to work magic around iron like everyone else, or—or—"

"Or what?" Gwain sneered. "You'll turn me over to the El-venlords? That's just what you would do, isn't it? Elvenbane?"

As hot as she had been the moment before, now she was cold. "No," she said flatly. "But only you would think that I could. No. If you won't learn to adapt to our new life here,

Caellach Gwain, I will see to it that no one else will cosset you from this moment on. You will find your own food or starve, clean your own clothing or go dirty, cut your own firewood or freeze. Sooner or later, you'll figure out how to live like a re­sponsible adult, and high time, too."

And with that, she turned on her heel and stalked off, push­ing her way through the surrounding crowd of mingled young and old wizards.

Someone grabbed her elbow; she started to pull away blindly, when she realized it was Lorryn. "Don't run off," he muttered. "Not now. This isn't over yet." He turned her back to face the crowd.

"I've heard the mutters and the complaints," he said loudly. "I've heard them from the moment that I arrived here. I couldn't help but notice that most of them came from the same set of mouths—so let's just address this situation once and for all. I'm calling a convocation of all Wizards."

"Here?" someone gasped. "Now?"

"Here and now," Lorryn agreed. "I give you all a quarter-candle to get everyone assembled; whoever isn't here by then I'll assume has no interest in the way things are run in the New Citadel, and doesn't feel the need to have his voice heard."

About half of those present shot or lumbered off in every di­rection to gather friends and enemies from every part of the Citadel. Shana looked askance at Lorryn.

"Is this a good idea?" she asked doubtfully.

"It had to happen sometime soon," Lorryn replied. "Better that it comes as a surprise to both sides; Caellach and his cronies won't have a chance to prepare themselves."

"And we're prepared?" she replied, staring at him incredu­lously.

"More than they are—and what's the besetting sin of every one of the Whiners?" he asked, and answered himself tri­umphantly. "Laziness! That's why I only gave them a quarter-candle. How many will think it's too much trouble to drag themselves away from whatever they'd planned or were in the middle of?"

"Maybe enough to make a real difference," she said slowly—

for already the young wizards were coming up to the clearing at the entrance, brought in by the youngsters who had scattered like quail to bring the message to everyone within reach of a pair of fleet feet.

With the help of a couple of their friends, Lorryn prepared the area. This was also the spot where firewood was chopped and stored, and the young wizards got to work, rolling in some logs for the less-than-healthy to sit on down in front, and set­ting up sawn sections of trunk for himself, Shana, and presum­ably Caellach to stand on so everyone could see them. Caellach, of course, merely stood about and observed them sourly. More and more people were arriving with every passing moment, and by the time the allotted span was gone, the only Wizards not present were a scant handful of the oldest or lazi­est. The biggest surprise was the number of pure humans who had come as well; virtually every full human in the Citadel.

With a great deal of overacted infirmity, Caellach bullied a couple of human youngsters into helping him up onto one trunk-section, as Shana and Lorryn took the other two.

"Now, settle down!" Lorryn shouted, very loudly, so that those who were chattering and milling about obediently stopped talking aloud and turned their attention to where the three of them stood. "All right, then. I am going to moderate this convocation since I'm the one who called it."

"But you're Shana's lover!" Caellach sputtered, red-faced.

Shana was going to protest, but Lorryn beat her to it. The fu­rious look that Lorryn turned on him sent him from red to white, and he even shrank back a little. No one had ever seen Lorryn angry before—and he looked positively murderous.

"I am not," he replied into the silence, "Lashana's lover. We are friends, and she has been relying upon my experience on my father's estate to help her handle you unruly lot. Even if that were true, it would have nothing to do with this situation and it would be none of your business so long as her foster mother ap­proves. I am offended, Caellach Gwain. I do suggest that you confine your words to the issues at hand, or I will be tempted to challenge you."

Challenge him? What on earth does he mean by that? Shana

thought, bewildered. Caellach Gwain evidently knew, though, for he turned even whiter, and stammered an apology.

"The primary issue at hand," Lorryn said, when the old wiz­ard was done, "is a greater one than just the presence of iron within the Citadel, or the number of people who are attending to tasks other than ... housekeeping." His bland expression gave no hint as to his own feelings on the subject, and although they were no secret to Shana, from the looks on the faces of Caellach's cronies, they were not sure if he was Shana's parti­san or not. He might be courting her, but he was also an aristo­crat, used to the attentions of hundreds of slaves, so shouldn't he be on their side? For that matter, he might only be using her to get the power of leadership himself—she saw that in the new speculation with which Caellach regarded him.

"Caellach Gwain," Lorryn continued, turning to the old wiz­ard, "you have voiced your opinions often enough for the ears of your friends and supporters—I must insist that you allow everyone in the Citadel to hear them."

Caellach stared at him; tried without success to stare him down. His expression remained inscrutable. "As moderator, I will not be questioning either of you. Instead, you will answer questions from everyone except me. I will see to it that there are no interruptions and that you both have a fair chance to be heard."

What? That took Shana completely by surprise, and she felt seriously shaken. What on earth was he after? Surely the Old Whiners would try to make her look a fool—

But it was too late to back out now, for either of them, as Lorryn fielded those who wanted a chance and selected one of Caellach's cronies for the first question.

"You were the one that brought the Elvenlords down on us in the first place, girl, so what've you got to say for yourself?" shouted the old man, who practically trembled with eagerness to finally have a chance to confront her in front of witnesses. "If it hadn't been for you and your pretensions of being some mythical Elvenbane, we'd still all be back in the Citadel and comfortable!"

Think! Don't react, think! "I never called myself the Elven-

bane," she retorted, throttling down panic and irritation that mingled uncomfortably, setting her insides topsy-turvy. "I never even heard of the Elvenbane until after I was brought to the Citadel. And besides, it was the dragons that made the El­venbane up in the first place, not me!" She caught sight of Fa­ther Dragon back in the crowd, in his halfblood-shape. "Right, Kalamadea?"

Gazes followed hers, and several of the more wary, elderly wizards who found the dragons as uncanny as Caellach did cleared away from him. Father Dragon cleared his throat mod­estly. "Well, it was mostly my doing," he admitted. "But yes. We dragons created the legend of the Elvenbane, and we were just as surprised as the rest of you when the legend came to life." He warmed to his subject. "We believe, we dragonkin, that certain creatures are endowed at birth with great hamen-leai, which is the power to become Fate rather than to be steered by it, and I tell you all now, Lashana, even as an infant, showed such tremendous hamenleai that even if she had been raised by alicorns in the wilderness, the legend would have fit­ted itself around her. Every dragon acknowledges that now, whether or not they count her as a friend. Where she walks, great change will follow."

That was not what Shana had hoped he would say—nothing like it, in fact—but she gamely took up where she had left off. "As for all of you still being in the Citadel, I don't think you would have lasted undetected for much longer. You were taking too many risks. Someone would have found out why goods and supplies were vanishing and where they were going, if nothing else. The Elvenlords were already starting to wonder about that even before I joined you."

"Didn't I say that was too risky?" said a wizened old scrap of a wizard, before he was hushed. Lorryn had already signaled someone else to ask a question, and Shana felt her heart sink as she surveyed the faces around her. She had felt, and sounded, weak and uncertain. She hadn't convinced anyone, and Father Dragon hadn't helped.

"What makes you think you're better than any of the rest of us at leading?" shouted someone from the back. "Both of you!"

"I don't," Shana replied promptly, but Caellach was already swelling with self-importance and ran right over the top of her.

"I have decades of experience, not to mention intelligence and wisdom," he boasted, "which is far more than this impu­dent little girl can claim. I do not make impetuous decisions, and I do not rush to embrace something just because it is novel and new. There is no doubt in my mind that the situation here is well on the way to becoming intolerable, between these foolish innovations in magic and dangerous liaisons with barbaric wild humans, not to mention creatures that aren't even human. The young should serve their elders, not dictate absurd rules to them! They should be thrilled to trade their service for the wis­dom that we have gathered!" He warmed to his subject, sur­rounded as he was by his own nodding supporters, paying no attention at all to the expressions of some of those who were farthest away. "What should we Wizards have to do with hu­mans, anyway—except in that they, too, should be eager to serve us! We are more powerful, we are longer-lived and have the opportunity to garner far more experience than what can be learned in the few years these mayfly humans enjoy. It is clear that we are far superior in every way—and this girl, this child, thinks that we are to treat them as equals! Never! I will never tolerate treating such debased creatures, creatures who should be competing in devotion to me, as my equals!"

An actual growl arose from the humans who made up the bulk of the crowd—perhaps few of them had ever realized just how deeply Caellach's prejudices went, nor how poisonous they were. At that moment Shana realized Lorryn's tactics in al­lowing this convocation to take place in the way it had, for he had permitted Caellach full freedom to say whatever he chose with his followers around him, and the old wizard's mouth had run away with him.

"Debased creatures, are we?" came an angry shout from one of the carters who had brought the last batch of iron ingots up from the mine. "I'd like to see you try your hand at a little hon­est work, you soft white worm!"

"You can just fetch and carry for yourself from now on!" came another, disgusted voice, along with a chorus of similar

sentiments. Even some of the children that Caellach had cowed into obeying his demands took heart from the sentiments of their elders, and added their shrill voices to the rest.

Caellach and the others woke to their danger, but consider­ably too late for any retraction. They gathered in a knot around Caellach and it became painfully clear to them how tiny a mi­nority they formed, as a sea of angry faces surrounded them. Shana and her shortcomings were quite forgotten.

Lorryn allowed them enough time to really begin to frighten Caellach, before using a little touch of magic to amplify his voice so that it carried over the noise of what was fast becoming a mob.

"Friends!" he boomed. "Quiet! Please!"

Surprise silenced all the voices for the moment—just long enough for one single voice, the voice of her foster mother Alara, to be heard.

"Shana, the objections seem to be to all of the changes," Alara said, in the first reasoned voice Shana had heard in the last few moments. "And you really were the author of most of them. So what have you to say about the objections?"

"If you don't change," she said, very slowly, choosing each word as carefully as if she picked her way across a treacherous swamp. "I think you become just like the Elvenlords."

That brought true silence, in which even the sighing of the breeze in their clearing seemed loud. It was a silence that begged for an explanation and drew further words, however un­willingly, out of her.

"They haven't changed, not since they conquered this place, and maybe not even in longer than that," she continued. "They assume that they're the proper lords of the universe and that nothing they want or think or do can be wrong—no matter how many times things happen that prove that they are wrong. When you don't change, you get brittle, and the next thing that hits you will break you."

She looked past the faces of her own friends, out to the hu­mans, in whose eyes smoldered resentment for all Wizards now, even her. "Changing means that we can't sit in our Citadel

and think we're superior to anything just because we can do some things well. Don't you see?" She fumbled a little. "We all need each other. Oh, I can bring in a live sheep from the hills with magic, but I don't have the first idea of how to take clay and make a watertight cup, and let's face it, if I'm thirsty, I need that cup, and the person who can make it is superior to me at that moment! Don't you see?" she pleaded. "I never wanted to be a leader, but—I don't know, maybe Kalamadea is right and hamenleai has something to do with it and I just can see that we all need to change and we all need each other if we are going to survive—and maybe, if they'll learn to change a little, we even need—them—"

She gestured helplessly at Caellach and his friends, unable to put what she wanted to show them into words—the great puz­zle that she saw in her mind that somehow had places for all of them to fit into.

But evidently, although there was some puzzlement out there, she got part of her point across. The resentment and anger had faded, and although there were grimaces at the thought of including Caellach and his ilk back into the fold, there seemed to be acceptance of the idea, too.

Then came the thing she hadn't expected—

"It's hard on an old man, all this changing," said one of Cael-lach's cronies plaintively. "It's hard, girl. You go along with your life all even, then suddenly it's all upset—but—"

He took a deep breath, and shuffled across the space be­tween Caellach's crowd and the rest of the convocation. He looked up at her, and heaved a sigh. "I hate all of this uncom-fortableness and having to do without," he continued, half in complaint, half in resignation, "but I'd rather stand with you than against you. Just don't ask too much all at once of an old, tired man, will you?"

She got down off her slice of tree-trunk and offered her hand. He took it, and that was the beginning of the end. In ones and twos, the rest of Caellach's followers came over to her side, al­though most of them just tried to blend back into the crowd and didn't actually come to stand with her. It didn't matter; they'd

abandoned Caellach. Even if they didn't entirely agree with her, even if they were still going to argue and grumble, they'd abandoned their leader and they had opened themselves up to the possibility of change.

It was enough. For now, it was enough.

21

Rena took her place on the carpet next to Mero in Diric's tent. The flaps were rolled knee-high, and scrims of loosely woven linen kept bugs out while allowing a breeze to flow through. It was dinnertime, a meal much en­livened these days by the addition of vegetables supplied by trading and the gardens that the Corn People were growing, as well as by the changed herbs provided by Rena herself. Dinner, shared with Diric and Kala, was a more-than-pleasant meal, now that the first lot of crude iron ingots had arrived from the Citadel. Once again, Diric's star was in the ascendant, so far as his people were concerned; and he had lost that worried frown. Kala was just as pleased and far more open about it. After all, the Iron People now had everything they needed—iron, good grazing and water, and even the remains of their old allies, the Corn People, to settle in somewhere nearby and commence the farming that they would not or could not do.

Rena and Mero were reaping the benefits as well; as the rep­resentatives of the Wizards, everyone with a forge wanted to know what they knew about possible future production, and there were no few folks who wanted to see if they could some­how ease to the head of the queue waiting for the next ship­ment. The Trader clans were a little discomfited to find that they were no longer the only source of iron, but they'd gotten over it, particularly now that the women among the Iron People had be­gun to experiment with faceting the fool's gold and polishing

yet another form of mineral with a high iron content that the Traders had brought in. Both made fine "gems" for setting, the new "oil-iron" in particular having a lovely liquid-black sheen to it that looked wonderful in blackened-iron filigree. So now the women had more material for their tiny jewelry workshops than they'd ever had before and the new materials had brought on a spate of creativity that had even the men intrigued and hovering over the women's work, trying to reckon how they could coax their mates, mothers, sisters, and friends to produce some of the new work for them. Diric already sported leather arm-guards inlaid with iron settings that held large oil-iron cabochons, courtesy of Kala's hands, and she was working on a matching collar as well. He was setting something of a fashion, much to Rena's silent amusement and Kala's open glee.

It seemed an auspicious time for Rena to see about some­thing she had been planning for a while.

Kala brought in plates of flatbread, broiled meat, thinly sliced vegetables, and bowls of soured cream. The Iron People could now enjoy one of their favorite meals—flatbread rolled around spiced meat strips and vegetables, garnished with dol­lops of cream. Rena and Mero had come to enjoy these as much as their hosts, and Mero quickly made himself a roll as soon as Kala set the platters on the carpet before them.

"How badly do you want to keep your two Elvenlords, Diric? They don't look very healthy to me," Rena asked, as Diric reached for a piece of flatbread.

He didn't even pause in his motion. "They haven't been a lot of use for some time," he admitted, laying a paper-thin slice of cucun-pod and some of Rena's sweetened and tenderized grasses on the flatbread, following it with strips of meat and a dollop of soured cream. "Out of respect for your wishes they haven't been entertaining us, but I don't think they would now even if we tried to force them into it with beatings. I think they're going mad, actually. Their keeper can barely get them to eat and drink; I'm told all they do is stare at whatever they're pointed at."

"I think they've gone mad," Rena replied, relieved to hear the matter-of-fact tone in his voice. "You can still get Kelyan to

talk if you try hard enough, but Haldor—your keepers are hav­ing to feed him by hand. I want them, if you don't."

"Tell me what you want to do with them, first," Diric replied cautiously.

Rena took a deep breath and looked to Mero, who gave her an encouraging smile. She looked back into Diric's sable-brown eyes, and told herself what a fundamentally reasonable man he was. "I want—I want to try something. I want to see if my magics can change people's memories. There have been ru­mors, oh forever, that some of the Old Lords can do that, and I should think that since women's magics among my people are used delicately, it should be easier for a woman to do that than a man. Since Kelyan and his friend are already mad, I can't hurt them further, and I may be able to help them." She steeled her­self. "If I can—help them, that is—there are several things I want to do with them. The first thing is to find out how the elf-stones of the slaves' controlling collars are made and how the slaves are controlled by them."

"Shana's got this idea that would take less iron than the jew­elry," Mero put in helpfully, his green eyes alight with enthusi­asm for his friend's plans. "Sort of a clamshell arrangement to close around the beryl like this—" he demonstrated with his two hands snapping together "—and cut it off from magic get­ting out or in. Those would be easy to get in to the slaves in sackfuls, and if everyone who was ready to escape all snapped their iron-clamshells over their stones at once, they could make a njn for it. The Elvenlords wouldn't be able to pursue any sin­gle individual or track him either, and by the time someone with enough magic to cast levin-bolts was summoned, the slaves would be long gone."

"But we have to know how the elf-stones work so we can see if the plan would work," Rena continued, as Diric set down his half-eaten flatbread and leaned forward, intrigued by the idea. "I never learned how, and I don't think Lorryn ever did, either, but Kelyan probably did. So I want to see if I can get him to show me. If I can't trick him into doing it, maybe Mero can get the memory straight out of his mind. Once we know how to make the elf-stones, we can test the clamshells."

"But that is not all you plan, I gather?" Diric asked, with heavy eyebrows raised. He looked more than intrigued now, he looked enthusiastic.

"Um—no." She decided to go ahead and tell him her entire plan while he still was open to it. "I want to wipe away every trace in their minds of being captured, of the Iron People, and replace it with something else."

"What else?" Diric wanted to know. "Why?"

"I thought—" she faltered for a moment, then went on. "I thought I'd construct some new memories—illusions really— out of the way Lorryn and I wandered around in the wilderness. Or maybe Mero can help me put things in their minds, when I've blanked out the old memories. And once I knew that they weren't going to remember anything about the Iron People or the Wizards or dragons or anything, I'd put them to sleep and get Keman or one of the other dragons to drop them somewhere near enough to an estate for them to find their way back." She bit her lip and waited for the inevitable reaction.

"You mean that you intend to free them?" Diric's eyebrows had crawled all the way up to the top of his forehead. "You think we should let them go to join the rest of our enemies?"

"Well, we can't kill them!" she said, a little desperately.

For a moment she feared that Diric would respond with, "And why can't we?" But he regarded her thoughtfully, pulling on his lower lip, and said nothing for a very long time.

"If that was your plan," he replied, pitching his voice low, "it seems a waste of a perfectly good resource for deception that we can further use against the Demons that you call Elvenlords. Rather than giving the prisoners memories of wandering about in the wilderness, why not give them memories that are com­pletely erroneous?"

"Such as—?" Rena asked, her heart lifting. He was going to let her do this! Finally she was going to be able to do something that would help poor Kelyan and Haldor, but maybe help out Shanaas well!

"Oh—I think we can work out something. Make them think that they were held captive by the Wizards, more Wizards than the Elvenlords have any notion exist." Diric grinned in that sud-

den way that made him look like a boy full of mischief. "And in their minds we can locate their prison in some impregnable fortress somewhere in the opposite direction from the real Citadel." He winked wickedly. "For that matter, concoct a set of Wizards that have never even heard of our set! Make the Demons think that they have an enemy that until that moment they had known nothing about! Make them waste time and war­riors trying to find this new set of Wizards!"

Mero uttered a whoop of laughter. "Ancestors! What an idea! It'll have them scrambling to guard their rear, it'll have them fighting over which set of Wizards are the most dangerous, and best of all, it will buy us more time to get stronger!"

"Exactly so." Diric picked up his forgotten meal, and waved his free hand at Rena. "If that is your plan, child, take them and welcome. They are nothing but a burden now, and if you can succeed in your plan, you will convert them to an asset."

He said nothing about what would happen to them if she couldn't wipe their memories clean, but she decided that she would deal with that if the occasion arose. She thanked the Iron Priest and turned to her own untouched meal with a good appetite.

Diric had something he wanted to discuss with Mero after dinner, and Rena decided that she might as well tackle the first part of her plan straight off. Not being a halfblood was some­thing of a handicap, as she couldn't read the minds of the two Elvenlords directly—so what she planned to do was to try and coax the information out of them using words, illusion, her own sex, and gentle prodding. She'd had the Traders bring her an old, deactivated collar from one of the escaped slaves working with Shana; she brought this with her as she entered their tent.

"Kelyan?" she called; she'd put on die illusion of one of the fine gossamer gowns she'd worn in her old life, and as Kelyan roused from his apathetic trance and slowly raised dull eyes to look at her, she created a second illusion, that they were in a typical room that one would find in an Elven manor. She used as her model one of the rooms in which her father would infor­mally entertain guests, but kept the place shrouded in shadows.

Kelyan looked terrible; his emerald eyes were clouded, his

pale hair hung lank and brittle, the only time he changed his clothing was when his keepers stripped him of the soiled cloth­ing. Rena wasn't sure what had triggered this dive into insanity— perhaps he'd just snapped when he'd first seen Keman in dragon-form, or perhaps he had just given up when it became obvious that even though the Wizards had been accepted as al­lies, there was no way that two Elvenlords were going to be re­leased. But his current confusion, and the way in which he drifted in and out of a world of his own making, would help her. She hoped that in his current mental state he would either be­lieve that he was back among his own people, or was dreaming; either would serve her equally well. It was unlikely that he would recognize the Rena he knew in the Elven lady-guise she had just created for herself; she'd even done herself up in High-Fete fashion with exaggerated cosmetics.

His eyes brightened as he took in her and her surroundings; there still wasn't a great deal of sanity in them, but there was more sense. To reinforce the illusion she had created, she hid Kelyan's companion in captivity in the shadows so that he wouldn't see Haldor's motionless form and have his illusion broken. He didn't seem to notice or care.

"My lady—?" his head tilted inquiringly, showing that he re­ally didn't recognize her.

"Sheyrena," she supplied. "Welcome to my fete, Lord Kelyan."

"My Lady Sheyrena." He nodded his head. "Do I know you?"

Good. He doesn 't remember or recognize me, or something deep in his mind doesn't want to. He'd much rather live in dreams than in the world he's in now.

"I am the daughter of a friend of your mother's," she replied, aping as best she could her own mother's manner when with a guest. "Thank you for coming with your mother to my little en­tertainment. I wondered if I could impose upon your good na­ture for a trifling task?"

"I am at your command," he responded, with a hand over his heart and a slight bow.

"I have taken a new body-slave, a little girl who has not yet been fitted with a collar," she lied glibly. "As you know, my fa-

ther will not return from his meetings with the Council for sev­eral days, and I wondered—could you—help me with clearing and setting this so that I can use it on the child?" she held out the collar, and he took it from her fingers.

And frowned, slightly. "This is hardly a fit collar for the neck of a lady's slave," he pointed out.

She pouted. "It is the only one I could find that has not been set and placed on the neck of a living slave, and I don't want to wait for someone to construct one for me," she said with just a hint of petulance. "Besides, I've taken a particular fancy to this one child. She's quite pretty, and I don't want Father to decide to give her to someone. If she's sealed to me, he shan't be able to."

Kelyan smiled, and she smiled back, instantly forming a con­spiracy of two against their greedy elders. "In that case, I shall be happy to set it to you on your behalf," he replied easily.

He bent over the collar and went immediately to work on it—

And she followed the slightest nuance of that work with an intensity that surely would have startled him, had he not been concentrating on the collar to the exclusion of all else.

She had been doubly-prepared; in case she needed to use this ploy again, she didn't want him to think it was anything other than a dream.

When he finished his magics, she thanked him prettily. "You have done me a great good turn, Lord Kelyan," she said, flirt­ing subtly with him in a way that would probably have had Mero wild with suppressed jealousy. "How can I properly thank you?"

She plied him with drugged wine as she fluttered her eye­lashes at him, perfectly aware that he wouldn't actually do any­thing other than flirt back. There was a rhythm to this sort of courtship; until he had her father's tacit permission to approach her, he would only indicate gallant interest. He wouldn't want to find himself called into a challenge that he might not have the trained slaves to meet. Leasing gladiators to meet a chal­lenge was possible, but expensive, since some of them would almost certainly die in the combat. Better to be cautious.

"Performing any service for a fair lady is a privilege, not a burden," he replied, downing the wine in a single gulp. As she

had planned; she'd doctored the wine to make its taste smoother than honey and disguise its nature. She refilled his glass, and he downed that as well. She passed him a little bowl of highly-salted, toasted bits of root—also manipulated by her magic. The more he ate, the thirstier he would become.

"Thank you," he said after his first taste, and when she left the plate there beside his hand, he didn't object. "I do not have the company of a lovely lady often enough that I see it as less than a reward in and of itself," he continued, now sipping from his glass and nibbling at the snacks.

She laughed softly, producing a tinkling little sound that sur­prised her and made his eyes widen with approval.

"I do not have the company of fine young lords often enough to think it less than a treat," she replied in the same vein. "Tell me something of yourself."

He was not at all loath to do so, and she continued to ply him with wine as well as conversation until his eyes drooped, his head dropped, and he collapsed limply down onto the pallet he'd been sitting on all this time. With a thought and a flick of her fingers, she banished all the illusions she had created, leav­ing him again in the felt-walled tent. When he woke the next morning, if he recalled the incident at all, it would probably be as a dream.

Then she blew out the lights, and left him in the darkness, turning the collar over triumphantly in her hands.

Now it was Kala's turn on the new project to liberate the slaves; she examined the collar and the stone, and set about making the clamshell clasp that would lock the stone away from wearer and mage. She was certain she could make such a mechanism; the trick would be to create one that was small enough to conceal, but large enough and sturdy enough to have an effective seal.

Meanwhile, dropping her guise and coming as herself, Rena attempted to engage the two Elves in conversations every day while Mero "eavesdropped" on their minds. As she talked to them—or, as often as not, at them—she played, delicately, with her magic inside their heads.

When the Great Lords removed memories, they did so

wholesale, leaving behind a blank. She had delved into the mysterious workings of the brain as well as she could, and now she suspected their crude efforts, difficult as they were, created a mental infant. Probably afterwards their victim had to be re-taught even the simplest of things, which was why she—it was usually a rebellious girl who was so cavalierly treated— wouldn't make a reappearance for a year or more after she was subjected to the treatment. Rena wanted to be more subtle.

So while she talked and spied upon the physical workings in­side their heads, she did so on the same minute level that she worked when making the leaves and plants sweet and tasty—or just plain edible. When Mero "saw" a memory that he knew they needed to expunge—which would be when one of the Elves actually thought about it—he signaled Rena. She would know then where it physically resided, and that, she could change. After a few days, she began doing just that. Gently, she broke the connections that made the memories, then erased them altogether with the tiniest of shocks—much, much