/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Bardic Voices

The Eagle And The Nightingales

Mercedes Lackey


BARDIC VOICES: The Eagle And The Nightingales

Mercedes Lackey

copyright 1995

Dedicated to

Gail Gallano,

Mother of all Tulsa wildlife rehabbers!

CHAPTER ONE

All the world comes to Kingsford Faire, the Midsummer Faire of Kings....

A Gypsy known only as Nightingale sat on a riverside rock on the edge of the Faire grounds, with the tune of "Faire of the Kings" running through her head. Not that she liked that particular piece of doggerel, but it did have one of those annoying tunes that would stick in one's mind for hours or days.

A light mist hung over the Kanar River, and a meadowlark nearby added his song to the growing chorus of birds singing from every tree and bush along the riverbank. The morning air was still, cool, and smelled of river water with a faint addition of smoke. Sunlight touched the pounded earth that lately had held a small city made of tents and temporary booths, then gilded the grey stone of the Cathedral and Cloister walls behind the area that had been home to the Kingsford Faire for the past several weeks. Nightingale didn't particularly admire the fortress-like cloister, but examining it was better than looking across the river. She kept her eyes purposefully averted from the ruins of Kingsford on the opposite bank, although she was still painfully aware of the devastation that ended only where the river itself began. There was no avoiding the fact that Kingsford, as she had known it, was no more. That inescapable fact had lent a heaviness to her heart that was equally inescapable.

This had been a peculiar year for the annual Kingsford Faire, with something like half of the city of Kingsford itself in ruins and the rest heavily damaged by fire.

I am glad that I was not here, but the suffering lingers.

Perhaps other people could forget the suffering of those who had been robbed of homes, livings and loved ones by that fire, but Nightingale couldn't, not even with the wooden palisade surrounding the Faire and row after row of tents between her and the wreckage on the other side of the river. The pain called out to her, even in the midst of each brightly dawning midsummer day; it had permeated everything she did since she had arrived and crept into her dreams at night. She would never have used the Sight here, even if she had needed to_she knew she would only see far too many unquiet ghosts, with no means at her disposal to settle them.

She had dreams of the fire that had swept through the city last fall, although she had no way of knowing if her dreams were a true vision of the past or only nightmares reflective of the stories she heard. She'd had one last night, in fact, a dream of waking to find herself surrounded by flames that reached for her with a lifelike hunger.

Such a complete disaster as the fire could not be erased over the course of weeks or months. Even now, with the fire a year past, there were blackened chimneys and beams standing starkly in the midst of ashes, and a taint of smoke still hung in the air.

The Faire had been profitable for just about everyone who came this year, herself included. Knowing that the folk of Kingsford would be needing every possible article of daily living, even so many months after the fire, merchants had flocked to the Faire-site across the river with their wagons piled high, their pack-beasts loaded to the groaning point. They had prospered, and they had been generous to those who came to entertain. The Bardic Guild, bane and scourge of the Free Bards for as long as that loosely organized group had existed, had been remarkable for its reticence during the Faire.

Her polite encounters with Guild Bards had been odd enough that they still stuck in her mind. Time after time, she had gotten a distant nod of acknowledgement from Bard and Guild hireling alike, and not the harassment and insults of previous years. One might have thought that the Guild did not particularly want attention drawn to it, she mused. The Guild simply held its auditions and performances quietly and gave no opposition to anything that the Free Bards did. There were rumors, never verified, that the Bardic Guild had a hand in the burning of Kingsford, and that the Church, in the person of a Justiciar Mage and Priest called Ardis, as a consequence had its eye on them. Nightingale discarded both rumors; there was no reason to believe the former, and the Church and the Guild had always operated hand-in-glove in the past and it was unlikely that situation would change any time in the future. Never mind that Ardis was reputedly the cousin of the head of the Free Bards, Talaysen, also called Master Wren; there was only so much a single Priest could do. And one could not change attitudes by fiat.

The meadowlark flitted off, his yellow breast with the black "V" at his throat vivid in the morning sun. Well, I endured; nightmares, sorrow hanging like a heavy mist over the Faire, and all. It will take more than old sorrows and nightmares to keep me from my music. Nightingale had suffered too many lean seasons in her short life to allow personal discomfort to get in the way of her performances. She was, after all, a professional, however much the poseurs of the Guild might deny that. So she, too, had passed a profitable term at the Faire, and now at the close of it found herself prosperous enough to afford a donkey to carry her burdens for her for the first time in her life as a musician. Heretofore when she traveled she had been forced to rely on the kindness of fellow Free Bards or Gypsies, who would grant her a corner of their wagons to stow her goods in. And while the company was welcome, this arrangement forced her to depend on others, and constrained her to whatever itinerary they chose and not one of her own choosing. When given the option, she preferred to avoid cities, towns, even larger villages altogether. Unfortunately, such destinations were usually where her traveling companions preferred to go.

She closed her eyes and pressed her hands against her temples for a moment; not because she had a headache, but to remind herself to stay calm and bulwarked against the outside world. She could not help but wish she had chosen not to come to the Faire this year, but to stay in one of the lands held by those who were not human, or even pass a season or two in the halls of an Elven king, perilous as that was for mortals. The Faire had posed a trial for her ability to keep herself isolated from her own kind, and more than once she had been tempted to give over her ambitions for a wider reputation as a musician and simply walk away.

But all that was in the past now; there was a sweet-tempered little donkey tethered beside her, his panniers loaded with her gear and her two harps strapped over the top of it all. She had a tent as well, if a small one, and with the donkey she could carry provisions to see her through to better lodgings instead of being at the mercy of greedy or stingy innkeepers.

She was all packed up and ready to go, and eager to be on the road and away from the all-pervasive aura of tragedy that hovered over the city across the river. Only one thing kept her here, an appointment that she had made last night, and she wished he would just show up so that_

"Thank you for waiting, my friend." Talaysen's speaking voice was as pleasant as his singing voice, and Nightingale gratefully turned her back to the river and the Church's stronghold to catch his hands in hers in the traditional greeting between Gypsies of the same clan. Talaysen smiled at her, his grey-green eyes warming, and gave her hands a firm squeeze before releasing them. Free Bard Talaysen looked prosperous, too, in his fine leather jerkin, good linen trews, and silk shirt with the knots of many-colored ribbons on the sleeves that denoted a Free Bard. He did not owe his prosperity to the Faire, however. Talaysen shared the post of Laurel Bard to the King of Birnam with his wife, Bard Rune, and his clothing reflected his importance. They were the only Free Bards with any kind of position in all of the Twenty Kingdoms.

Not that he has ever let rank go to his head, Nightingale reflected, allowing his pleasure at seeing her to ease the distant ache of Kingsford's sorrow within her. He has made Birnam a haven of freedom for all of us.

"I would wait until the snow fell for your sake, Master Wren," she told him truthfully, scanning his honest, triangular face for signs of stress and his red hair for more strands of grey than there had been the last time she saw him. She saw neither, and felt nothing untoward from him, which eased her worries a little. He had been so adamant in asking her not to leave after the Faire closed_at least until he had a chance to speak with her_that she had been afraid there was something wrong with him personally. They were old friends, though only once, briefly, had they ever been lovers.

"Well, it is lucky for us both that you won't have to do that," he replied, and his eye fell on her little donkey. "So, the rumors of your prosperity were not exaggerated! Congratulations!"

She raised her eyebrow at that, for there was something more in his voice than simple pleasure in her good fortune. There was some reason why he was particularly pleased that she had done well, a reason that had nothing to do with friendship or his unofficial rank as head of the Free Bards.

"This simplifies matters," he continued. "I have a request to make of you, but it would have been difficult if you had already arranged to travel with anyone else this winter."

A blackbird winged by, trilling to find them standing in his territory, so near to his nest. Her other eyebrow rose. "A request?" she said cautiously, a certain sense of foreboding coming to her. "Of what nature?"

Wren can charm birds out of the trees and honesty out of Elves, and I'd better remember that if he's asking favors of me. It was mortally hard to refuse Wren anything.

But I can hold my own with the Elves; it will take more than charm to win me.

Talaysen sighed, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, like a naughty little boy who had been caught in the midst of a prank_which further hardened her suspicions. "There is something I would like for you to do for me_or rather, not for me, but for the Free Bards. Unfortunately, it will involve a rather longer journey than you normally make; I expect it will take you from now until the first Harvest Faires to reach your goal even if you travel without stopping on the way."

She pulled in a quick breath with surprise. "From now until Harvest Faire?" she repeated, incredulously. "Where in the world do you want me to go? Lyonarie?"

She had thrown out the name of the High King's capital quite by accident, it being the farthest place from here that she could think of, but the widening of his eyes showed her that her arrow had hit the mark out of all expectation.

A pocket of sudden stillness held them both, and it seemed to her that the air grew faintly colder around her.

"You want me to go to Lyonarie?" she asked, incredulously. "But_why? What possible business have the Free Bards there? And of all people, why me? I am no Court Bard, I know nothing of Lyonarie, and_"

And I hate cities, you know that, she thought, numbly. And you know why !

"Because we need information, not rumor. Because of all people, you are the one I know that is most likely to learn what we need to know without getting yourself into trouble over it_or inflaming half the city." He nodded at the ruins of Kingsford behind her, and she winced; there were also rumors that enemies of the Free Bards had set that fire and that it had gotten out of hand. "You're clever, you're discreet, and we both know that you are a master of Bardic and_other magics."

"Perhaps not a master," she demurred, "and my talents are as much a hazard as a benefit_" But he wasn't about to be deflected.

"I know I can trust you, and that I can trust you to be sensible," he continued. "Those are traits this task will need as much as mastery of magic."

"Which is why you are not entrusting this to Peregrine?" she asked. "You could trust him, but he is not always sensible, especially when he sees an injustice."

"He does not do well in cities, any more than you do," Talaysen pointed out. "And he won't abide in them unless he must under direct threat to himself or his clan."

And because I have a large sense of duty, I will endure them if I must, she thought with misgiving. I had better have a very good reason_other than that Wren wants me to, however.

"What could possibly be so pressing as to send me across half the Twenty Kingdoms?" she replied, favoring him with a frown. "And there, of all places. Peregrine may not like cities, but neither do I, and I have better reason than he to avoid them." Her frown deepened. "I'm not minded to risk another witch-hunt because I seem to know a little too much for someone's comfort_or just because I am a Gypsy."

"Not in Lyonarie_" he began, but she interrupted him.

"So you say, but no one had word of what was chancing in Gradford until Robin stirred the nest and the wasps came flying out to sting," she retorted. Talaysen did not wince this time; instead he looked ever more determined. "And I ask again, what is so pressing as to send me there?"

Now Talaysen's changeable eyes grew troubled, and the signs of stress that had not been there before appeared, faintly etched into his brow and the corners of his generous mouth. "King Rolend is concerned, and as Laurel Bard and leader of the Free Bards he often asks me for my opinion. High King Theovere has been_neglectful."

Now Nightingale snorted. "This is hardly news; his neglect has been growing since before Lady Lark joined us. And so just what is it that I am supposed to do? March up to the High King and charge him with neglecting his duty?"

Talaysen smiled, faintly. "Scarcely, though I suspect you could and would do just that if it suited you. No, what Rolend and I both want is the reason why Theovere has become this way. He wasn't always like this_he was a very good ruler and kept the power neatly balanced among the Twenty Kings, the Guilds and the Church. He's mature, but not all that old, and there has been no suggestion that he has become senile, and he hasn't been ill_and besides, his father lived thirty years more than he has already, and he was vigorous and alert to the last."

She shook her head, though, rather than agreeing to take on Talaysen's little wild-goose hunt with no more prompting than that. "I won't promise," she said, as the dim sense of foreboding only increased with Talaysen's explanations. "I will think about it, but I won't promise. All I will say is that I will take my travels in the direction of Lyonarie." As Master Wren's face reflected his disappointment, she hardened her heart. "I won't promise because I have no way of knowing if I can actually reach Lyonarie," she pointed out. "I'm afoot, remember? You and Rune came here in a fine wagon with a pair of horses to pull you and the baby_travel is harder when you walk, not ride. You ought to remember that. A hundred things could delay me, and I won't promise what I am not sure I can deliver."

"But if you reach Lyonarie?" Talaysen persisted, and she wondered at his insistence. Surely he_and the King of Birnam_had more and better sources of information than one lone Gypsy!

"If I decide to go that far and if I reach Lyonarie any time before the next Kingsford Faire, I will reconsider," she said at last. "I will see what I can do. More, I won't promise."

He wasn't satisfied, but he accepted that, she saw it in his face.

"You still haven't answered the other question," she continued, suspiciously. "Why choose me?"

His answer was not one calculated to quell her growing unease, nor warm the prickle of chill prescience that threaded her back.

"Much as I hate to admit this," said Talaysen, wielder of Bardic Magics and friend to the High King of the Elves, "I was warned that this situation was more hazardous than we knew, and told to send you and only you, in a dream."

Three weeks from the day she had left Talaysen beside the river, Nightingale guided her little donkey in among the sheltering branches of a black pine as twilight thickened and the crickets and frogs of early evening started up their songs. Black pines were often called "shelter-pines," for their trunks were bare to a height of many feet, and their huge, heavy branches bent down to touch the ground around them like the sides of a tent. The ground beneath those branches was bare except for a thick carpet of dead needles. Nightingale held a heavy, resin-scented branch aside with one hand, while she led the donkey beneath it; her hair was wet, for she had bathed in a stream earlier that afternoon, and the still, cool darkness beneath the branches made her shiver.

It wasn't just the cool air or the dark that made her shiver. Not all the warm sunlight on the road nor the cheerful greetings of her fellow travelers had been able to ease the chill Talaysen's words had placed within her heart.

He was warned to send me to Lyonarie in a dream, she thought, for the hundredth time that day, as she unloaded her donkey and placed the panniers and wrapped bundles on the ground beside him. What kind of a dream_and who else was in it? Wren can be the most maddening person in the world when it comes to magic_he hates to use it, and he hates to rely on it, and most of all he is the last person to ever depend on a dream to set a course for him. So why does he suddenly choose to follow the dictates of a dream now?

There had been a great deal that Talaysen had not told her, she knew that, as well as she knew the fingerings of her harp or the lies of a faithless lover, but he had simply shut his secrets inside himself when she tried to ask him more. Perhaps if she had agreed to his scheme, he might have told her_or perhaps not. Talaysen was good at keeping his own counsel.

She went outside the barren circle of needle-strewn ground within the arms of the black pine and found a patch of long, sweet grass to pull up for the donkey. She hadn't named him yet; Talaysen had driven all thoughts of such trivial matters out of her head.

Infuriating man. She hadn't even been able to enjoy the feeling of freedom that picking and choosing her own road had given her.

Once the donkey had been fed and hobbled, she made a sketchy camp in the gloom of dusk with the economy of someone who has performed such tasks too many times to count. She scraped dead, dry needles away from a patch of bare earth, laid a tiny fire ready to light, rigged a tripod out of green branches over it, and hung her small kettle full of the sweet water she had drawn at the last stream from the apex of the tripod. She took the tent and her bedding out of one of the panniers and dropped them both nearest to the trunk of the tree. Then she lit the fire and laid her bedding out atop the still-folded tent. Her weather-sense gave her no hint of a storm tonight, so there was no point in putting the tent up, and screen-mesh was not needed since this wasn't the territory for bloodsuckers. She preferred to sleep out under the open sky when she could; she would sprinkle certain herbs over the smoldering remains of her fire to keep biting insects away as she slept. Sometimes the touch of the moon gave her dreams of her own, and it would be useful for one such to come to her tonight.

The water in the kettle was soon boiling, and she poured half of it over tea leaves in her mug. She threw a handful of meal and dried berries into what remained; porridge was a perfectly good dinner, and she had feasted every night of the Faire. It would do her no harm to dine frugally tonight, and there were honey-cakes to break her fast on in the morning, an indulgence she had not been able to resist when she passed through the last village this afternoon.

The moon rose, serene as always. Its silver light filtered through the branches of the tree she sheltered beneath. The donkey dozed, standing hip-shot with his head hanging, the firelight flickering over him but not waking him. Somewhere in the further distance, an owl called.

Nightingale strained her ears for the notes of her namesake bird, but there was no sweet, sad song wafting on the warm air tonight. It was the wrong season for a nightingale to be singing, but she never drifted off to sleep without listening for one, no matter where she was or what time of year it might be. Nearby crickets sang cheerfully enough that she didn't miss the absence of that song too much.

Although it was very lonely out here....

Abruptly, a whistle joined the cricket chorus, and Nightingale sat bolt upright on her sleeping-pad. That was no night-bird song, that was the first few bars of "Lonely Road"! There was someone out there_someone near enough to see the light of her tiny fire, even through the masking branches!

"Might a friend come in to your fire, Bird of the Night?" asked a voice out of the darkness. It was a clear voice, a silvery tenor, a voice of a kind that a trained musician would recognize, although she did not recognize who the speaker was. It held that peculiar lack of passion that only Elves projected.

An Elf? First Master Wren, and now one of the Elvenkin? The chill that had threaded Nightingale's spine since her meeting with Master Wren deepened.

Elves did not often call themselves the "friend" of a mortal, not even a Gypsy. Though Nightingale could boast of such a distinction if she cared to, she was very far from the hills and halls of those few of the Elvenkin who normally called her "friend."

"Any friend is welcome to share my fire," she replied cautiously. "But an unfriend in the guise of a friend_"

"_should be aware that the fierce Horned Owl is as much a bird of the night as the Nightingale," the voice replied, with a hollow chuckle. "Your reputation as a hunter in the dark also precedes you." The branches parted, with no hand to part them, as if servants held two halves of a curtain apart, and the speaker stepped through them as into a hall of state.

It was, quite unmistakably, one of the Elven lords, though the circlet of silver he wore betokened him a lord only, and of no higher estate than that. Amber cat-eyes regarded her with a remote amusement from beneath a pair of upswept brows; the unadorned circlet confined hair as golden as the true metal, cut to fall precisely just below his shoulders. His thin face, pale as marble, was as lovely as a statue carved of marble and quite as expressionless. Prominent cheekbones, tapering chin, and thin lips all combined to enhance the impression of "not-human." The tips of his pointed ears, peeking through the liquid fall of his hair, only reinforced that impression.

He was ill-dressed for walking through a forest in the dead of night, though that never seemed to bother the Elvenkin much. He wore black, from his collar to the tips of his soft leather boots, black velvet with a pattern of silver spiderwebs, velvet as soft as a caress and fragile as the wings of a moth. Nightingale had worn cloth like that herself, when she spent time beneath the Hills.

"Call me a friend of a friend, Bird of the Night," the Elven lord continued, as the branches closed behind him without even snagging so much as a sleeve. Nightingale sighed; the Elves always made such a performance out of the simplest of things_but that was their nature. "And in token of this, I have been asked to gift you with another such as the gift you already bear, the maker of which sends his greetings_"

He held out his hand, and in it was a bracelet, a slender ring of silver hardly thicker than a thread.

It had a liquid sheen that no other such metal had_it was the true Elven-forged silver, silver that no mortal could duplicate, more valuable than gold.

She opened herself cautiously, and "touched" it with a purely mental hand. She did know that bracelet; she wore its twin on her right wrist. The maker could be trusted, insofar as any Elf could be trusted. She relaxed, just a trifle.

"In the name of friendship, then, I accept the gift and welcome the bearer," she replied, holding out her hand. The Elf dropped the silver bracelet into her open palm without a word; the bracelet writhed in a strange, half-alive fashion and slipped across her palm and ringed itself onto her hand, then moved over her hand and onto her wrist, joining to the one already there. As it did so, she heard a strange, wild melody_but only in her mind. This was the music of Magic, true Magic, the magic that the Gypsies, the Elves, and some few_very few_of the Free Bards shared.

If she had not already had this experience with the quasi-life of Elven silver more than once, she would probably have been petrified with fear_but that first bracelet had been set on her wrist when she was scarcely more than a child, and too inexperienced to be frightened. She had not known then that Elves could be as cruel as they were beautiful and that very few of them were worthy of trust by human standards.

For a moment, a fleeting moment, she felt very tired, very much alone, and a little frightened.

When she pulled her hand back to examine her wrist, she could not tell where the first bracelet began and the second ended_only that the circle of silver on her wrist was now twice as wide as it had been. She did not try to remove it; she knew from past experience that it would not come off unless she sang it off.

The Elven lord dropped bonelessly and gracefully down on the other side of her fire, and caught her eyes in his amber gaze. "I come with a message, as well as a gift," he said abruptly, with that lack of inflection that gave her no clue to his intentions. "The message is this: The High King of the mortals serves his people ill. The High King of those who dwell beneath the Hills would know the reason why, for when mortals are restless, the Hill-folk often suffer. If Nightingale can sing and learn, her friends would be grateful."

The chill spread to Nightingale's heart, and she shivered involuntarily at this echo of Master Wren's words.

First Talaysen speaking for one king, now an Elven messenger speaking for another_This was so unreal that if someone had written it as a story-song she would have laughed at it as being too ridiculous to be believed. Why is this happening to me?

"Is there no further word from my friend?" she asked, hoping for some kind of explanation.

But the Elf shook his head, his hair rippling with the movement. "No further word, only the message. Have you an answer?"

It wasn't a wise thing to anger the Elves; while their magic was strongest in their Hills, they could still reach out of their strongholds from time to time with powerful effect. Songs had been made about those times, and few of them had happy endings.

"I_I don't know," she said, finally, as silence grew between them, punctuated by the chirps of crickets. Firelight flickered on his face to be caught and held in those eyes. "I am not certain I can send him an answer. I am only one poor, limited mortal_"

But the Elven lord smiled thinly. "You are more than you think, mortal. You have the gift of making friends in strange places. This is why the High King asks this question of you, why the runestones spelled out your name when he asked them why the mortals grew more troublesome with every passing month, and who could remedy the wrongness."

Nightingale grew colder still. The Elves lived outside time as humans knew it, and as a consequence had a greater insight into past and future than humans did. Elven runestones were the medium through which they sought answers, and if the runestones really had named her_

But I have only his word for that, and the word of the one who sent him. Elves lie as readily as they speak the truth; it is in their nature.

"I will do what I can," she said finally, giving him a little more of a promise than she had given Talaysen. "I cannot pledge what is not in my power to give. The seat of the High King of the mortals is far from here, and I am alone and afoot."

She waited for his response, acutely aware of every breath of breeze, every rustling leaf, every cricket chirp. He could choose to take offense; that Elves were unpredictable was a truism.

The Elven messenger regarded her with one winglike eyebrow raised for a moment, then grudgingly acknowledged that she had a point. She breathed a little easier.

"I will take him your answer," he said as he nodded, and rose fluidly to his feet. Before she had blinked twice, the branches of the tree she sheltered beneath had parted once again, and he was gone.

There was nothing else to do then but finish her porridge, strip off her leather bodice and skirt, and lie down in her bedding. But although she was weary, she stared up into the interlacing branches overhead, listening to the crickets and the breeze in the boughs, tense as an ill-strung harp. This was two: Wren and the Elves. Gypsy lore held that when something came in a repetition of three, it was magical, a geas, meant to bind a person to an unanticipated fate.

Whether or not that person wanted it.

It was a long time before she was able to sleep.

She made better time than she had thought she would; she had assumed she would be walking at the same pace unburdened as carrying her own packs, but she found that she could make a mile or two more every day than she had anticipated, with no difficulty whatsoever. She reached the crossroads and the small town of Highlevee three days sooner than she had expected to_

Which only increased the tension she felt. If she went south or north, she would be traveling out of the Kingdom of Rayden and away from the road that would take her to Lyonarie. If, however, she traveled eastward, she would soon strike the King's Highway, which led to Lyonarie, and there would be no turning back. She'd hoped to have more time to think the problem through.

Though the height of summer was past, the heat had not abated in the least. The sun burned down on her with a power she felt even through her wide-brimmed, pale straw hat; dust hung in the air as a haze, undisturbed by even a hint of breeze. The grasses of the verge were burned brown and lifeless, and would remain that way until the rains of autumn. She had kilted up her skirts to her knees and pushed her sleeves up over her elbows for coolness, but she still felt the heat as heavy as a pack of weights on her back.

Summer would linger in Lyonarie, long past the time when it would be gone here_or so she had heard. At the moment, that did not seem particularly pleasant.

As she led the donkey down the dusty main street of Highlevee, a little after noon, she found herself dragging her feet in the dust, as if by walking slower she could put off her decision longer.

It was with a decidedly sinking feeling that she spotted someone she knew sitting at a table outside the Royal Oak Tavern, just inside the bounds of the town. It wasn't just any acquaintance, either.

Omens come in threes. So do portents. And so do the bindings of a geas set by Fate and the Lady. If ever there was an omen, this must surely be it_for there was no reason, no reason at all, for this man to be here at this time.

Unless, rather than a geas, this is a conspiracy set up among my dear friends....

For sitting at his ease, quite as if he belonged there, was a man called "Leverance" by those who knew him well. The trouble was, most of those who knew him well lived within the walls of the fabulous Fortress-City that the Deliambrens called home.

He should not have been here. He should, by all rights, have been back there, amid the wonders of Deliambren "technology," as they called it. Few of the odd half-human folk ever left those comforts_why should they? There they had lighting that did not depend on candles, as bright as the brightest sunlight on a dark winter night. They had heat in the winter and cool in the summer, and a thousand other comforts even the wealthiest human could only dream of. He should not have been sitting calmly at a wooden table, with a wooden mug in one hand, nibbling at a meat pasty and watching the road, his strange features shadowed by a wide hat of something that was not straw.

He should definitely not have been watching the road as if he was watching for her.

She knew that he was going to hail her as soon as she saw him; the scene had that feeling of inevitability about it. She thought about trying to ignore him_but what was the use? If Leverance was not the next person to request her to go to Lyonarie, someone else surely would be.

Omen or conspiracy, it seems that I am caught.

So she led her donkey toward him, feeling weary to the bone, and wondering if for once she might get a real answer to her question of, "why me?" After all, the Deliambrens didn't believe in portents and omens. Their faith was placed on machinery, on curiosity, on discovery, on something they called "science."

"Don't tell me," she said, before he could open his mouth even to greet her. "You want me to go to Lyonarie to find out why the High King has been neglecting his duties."

Deliambrens resembled humans for the most part, far more than did, say, a Mintak. Leverance wore ordinary enough human garb: a jerkin, trews and boots of leather, and a shirt of what appeared to be silk. She knew better than to assume that the garments were as ordinary as they seemed, however, for nothing about a Deliambren was ever ordinary. Like all Deliambrens, the long, pale hair growing along the line of his cheekbones was immaculately groomed and blended invisibly into the identical shoulder-length hair of his head. His eyebrows were similar to those of an Elf in the way they rose toward his temples, but were thicker and as long as a man's thumb. Leverance fancied himself as something of an adventurer, so his hair was simply cut off straight rather than being styled into some fantastic shape as many Deliambrens sported. Nightingale sighed, but only to herself, knowing that Leverance was certain he was "blending in" with his surroundings. It would be quite impossible to convince him otherwise.

He stared at her with a flash of surprise, quickly covered. "Whyever do you say that?" he asked innocently. Too innocently.

"Because every other person I know seems to want me to go there," she replied tartly, and sat down on the wooden bench across from him. The wood of the table was smooth and bleached to grey by sun and rain, and another time she would have been quite pleased for a chance to sit here in the shade on such a broiling day. She had lost what patience she had and decided it was time to show it. "You may order me something to eat and drink, and you may pay for it. If you are going to try to get me to go to Lyonarie, you might as well begin with a bribe." She kept the tone of her voice tart, to show him she was not going to tolerate any evasions, no matter how clever.

Both of Leverance's eyebrows twitched, but he summoned the serving girl with a single lifted finger and placed an order for wine, cheese, and sausage pastries. The serving girl, dressed far more neatly than Nightingale in her buff linen skirt, bodice, and white blouse, glanced covertly at the Gypsy, her contemptuous expression saying all too clearly that she could not imagine why this exotic Deliambren would be ordering luncheon for such a scruffy stranger, and a Gypsy to boot.

Nightingale straightened abruptly, gathering all her dignity about her, then caught the girls glance and held it, just long enough that the girl flushed, then paled, then hurried off. Now, at least, there would be no more covert looks and poorly veiled contempt.

"I wish I knew how you did that," Leverance said with interest and admiration.

Nightingale shrugged. There was no explaining it to him; he simply wouldn't understand why spending most of her time with Elves and other nonhumans made Nightingale seem strange and fey to those of her own kind. Most people, if asked why they avoided her after one direct confrontation, would stammer something about her expression_how they were sure she saw things that "normal folk" couldn't, and wouldn't want to.

Well, and I do, but that is not why I unnerve them.

As long as the impression she left with them caused them to leave her alone, she planned to cultivate the effect. If she had reasons to be fonder of her own company, and of nonhumans, than of her own kind, it was none of their business.

"Well," Leverance said, when the girl returned with the food and vanished again with unseemly haste, "as it happens, I was sent to find you, and to ask you to go to Lyonarie."

He laid the food out before her; wine in a pottery bottle, beaded with moisture, a thick slice of cheese and crusty rolls, beautifully brown pastries, a small pottery firkin of butter. She took her time; selecting a roll and buttering it, then pouring herself a cup of wine.

"Why?" she asked, then amended her question. "No, never mind. Why me?" She bit into the roll; it might just as well have been straw, for she could not taste it.

Now I discover if this is simple mortal conspiracy, or something I cannot escape.

Leverance stroked the hair on his cheekbones thoughtfully. "Several reasons, actually, although you are not the only person being asked to go there. And you can refuse."

Not the only person? That's new. Or does he mean that it is only his people who are sending more than one person to gather their information?

She snorted delicately. "You still haven't answered the question."

He held up a finger. "You are very observant, and yet you are very adept at making yourself unobserved." He held up a second finger. "You have served as a willing collector of information for your people, for the Elves and for mine in the past." A third finger joined the other two. "For some reason that my people are unable to fathom, things happen around you, and you are able to influence things through no medium that we recognize, and which other people refer to as 'magic.' We don't believe in magic, but we do believe you have some kind of power that acts in a way we can't measure. We think that will help keep you safe and sane where other investigators have failed."

Other investigators? This was the first time Nightingale had heard about others_and the chill now filled her, body, soul and heart. She put down the roll, all appetite gone. The still, hot air could not reach that chill to warm her.

"How, failed?" she asked in a small voice.

He correctly interpreted her frozen expression. "Nothing serious_no one died, for Hadron's sake! They were just found out, somehow, and they were discredited in ways that forced them to leave the city. We think we failed by choosing someone too high in rank. You know how to extract information of all kinds_Harperus says that you have the ability to sieve gold out of the gutters. That is why you." He scratched his head, then added, "Besides, the roads north and south of here are closed. North the bridge is out, and south Sire Yori has put up a roadblock and he's taking all beasts of burden as 'army-taxes.' You could only go on to the King's Highway or retrace your steps."

Nightingale flushed, and mentally levied a few choice Gypsy curses on the Deliambren for choosing the precise words guaranteed to make her go on. Gypsy lore held that to retrace one's steps was to unmake part of one's life_and you had better be very sure that was something you wanted and needed to do before you tried it.

Leverance blinked benignly at her as she muttered imprecations, just as if he didn't know the implications of his words. "Well," he asked. "Can you go? Will you help?"

Signs and portents, omens and forebodings. I do not want to go, but it seems I have no choice.

But she was not going to tell him that. For one thing, if they had sent others on this path, others who had been found out, that argued for someone knowing in advance that they had been sent. She trusted those Deliambrens that she personally knew, but within very strict limits_just as she trusted, within limits, those Elves she knew. But there were Gypsies that she would not trust, so why should every Elf, every Deliambren, or even every Free Bard be entirely trustworthy?

Talaysen probably didn't know about the others. The Elves might not have thought it worth stooping to ask help of mere mortals until now. Only the Deliambrens know the whole of this; but if there was someone acting as an informant against their agents, there is no reason why it could not have been an Elf, a Deliambren, or even one of us. Everyone has a price; it is only that most honest folk have prices that could never be met.

"I will think about it," she temporized, giving him the same answer she had given Master Wren. "My road goes in that direction; I cannot promise that I will end up there."

If there is an informant, damned if I will give you the assurance that I will be the next one to play victim! It is too easy for a lone woman, Gypsy or no, to simply disappear.

She smiled sweetly and ate a bite of tasteless roll, as if she had not a care in the world. "I am alone and afoot, and who knows what could happen between here and there? I make no promises I cannot keep."

Leverance made a sour face. "You'll think about it, though?" he persisted. "At least keep the option open?"

She frowned; she really did not want to give him even that much, but_she had a certain debt to his people. "Did I not say that I would?"

Leverance only shrugged. "You hedge your promises as carefully as if you were dealing with Elves," he told her sourly, as she packed up the rest of the uneaten lunch in a napkin to take with her. "Don't you know by now that you can trust us?"

The suns heat faded again, although no clouds passed before it, and she took in a sharp breath as she steadied herself, looking down at the rough wood of the table, grey and lifeless, unlike the silver of her bracelet.

Trust them. He wants me to trust them, the Elves want me to trust them, and Talaysen, damn his eyes, trusts me. There is too much asking and giving of trust in this.

Her right hand clenched on the knot of the napkin; her left made a sign against ill-wishing, hidden in her lap.

"I only pay heed to what my own eyes and ears tell me," she said lightly, forcing herself to ignore her chill. "You should know that by now, since it is probably one of the other reasons why you picked me. Thank you for the meal."

She rose from the bench and untied her donkey from the handrail beside the road without a backward glance for him.

"Are you sure you won't_" Leverance began plaintively.

Now she leveled a severe look at him, one that even he could read. "I gave you what I could promise, Deliambren. A nightingale cannot sing in a cage, or tethered by a foot to a perch. You would do well to remember that."

And with that, she led her donkey back out into the road. It was, after all, a long way to Lyonarie, and the road wasn't growing any shorter while she sat.

She only wished that she could feel happier about going there.

CHAPTER TWO

From the vantage of a low hill, at the top of the last crest of the King's Highway, Lyonarie was a city guaranteed to make a person feel very small, entirely insignificant.

That was Nightingale's first impression of the metropolis, anyway. There was no end to it from where she stood; seated in the midst of a wide valley, it sprawled across the entire valley and more.

It did not look inviting to her; like something carved of old, grey, sunbleached wood, or built out of dry, ancient bones, it seemed lifeless from here, and stifling. In a way, she wished that she could feel the same excitement that was reflected in the faces of the travelers walking beside her. Instead, her spirit was heavy; she hunched her shoulders against the blow to her heart coming from that grey blotch, and she wanted only to be away from the place. Heat-haze danced and shimmered, making distant buildings ripple unsettlingly. As she approached, one small traveler in a stream of hundreds of others, she had the strangest feeling that they were not going to the city, it was calling them in and devouring them.

It devours everything: life, dreams, hope....

The great, hulking city-beast was unlike any other major population center she had ever been in. There were no walls, at least not around the entire city, though there were suggestions of walled enclaves in the middle distance. That was not unusual in itself; many cities spilled beyond their original walls. It would have been very difficult to maintain such walls in any kind of state of repair, much less to man them. The city simply was; it existed, just as any living, growing thing existed, imbued with a fierce life of its own that required it to swallow anyone that entered and make him part of it, never to escape again.

Was this the reason why I felt such foreboding? That was reason enough; for someone of Nightingale's nature, the possibility of losing her own identity, of being literally devoured, was always a real danger.

It was not just the heat that made her feel faint. Thousands of silent voices, dunning into my mind_thousands of people needing a little piece of me_thousands of hearts crying out for the healing I have.... I could be lost in no time at all, here. She would have to guard herself every moment, waking and sleeping, against that danger.

She took off her hat and wiped her forehead with her kerchief, wishing that she had never heard of Lyonarie.

The shaggy brown donkey walked beside her, his tiny hooves clicking on the hard roadbed, with no signs that the heavy traffic on the road bothered him. Traffic traveled away from the city as well as toward it, right-hand side going in, left-hand side leaving, with heavy vehicles taking the center, ridden horses and other beasts coming next, and foot traffic walking along the shoulder. The road was so hard that Nightingale's feet ached, especially in the arches, and her boots felt much too tight.

She'd had a general description of the city last night from the innkeeper at the tavern she'd stayed in. From this direction, the King's Highway first brought a traveler through what was always the most crowded, noisy, and dirty section of any city, the quarter reserved for trade.

Oh, I am quite looking forward to that. Stench, heat, and angry people, what a lovely combination.

About six or seven leagues from the city itself, the road had changed from hard-packed gravel to black, cracked pavement, a change that had given both Nightingale and her beast relief from the dust, but which gave no kind of cushioning for the feet. She knew by the set of the donkey's ears that his feet hurt him, too. This grey-black stuff was worse than a dirt road for heat, on top of that; waves of heat radiated up from the pavement, and both she and the donkey were damp with sweat.

I do wish I'd worn something other than this heavy linen skirt_and I wish I'd left off the leather bodice. I should have chosen a lighter set of colors than dark-green and black. This is too much to suffer in the name of looking respectable. I think I could bake bread under this skirt! She dared not kilt it up, either, not and still look like an honest musician and not a lady whose virtue was negotiable.

The road up the valley toward Lyonarie led across flat fields, every inch cultivated and growing a variety of crops, until suddenly, with no warning, the fields were gone and buildings on small plots of land had taken their place.

As if they had grown there, as well, like some unsavory fungus.

These were small, mean houses, a short step up from the hovels of the very poor, crowded so closely together that a rat could not have passed between them. Made of wood with an occasional facing of brick or stonework, they were all a uniform, grimy grey, patched with anything that came to hand, and the few plants that had been encouraged to take root in the excuses for yards had to struggle to stay alive under the trampling feet of those forced off the roadway by more important or more massive traffic.

The sight made her sick. How can anyone live like this? Why would anyone want to? What could possibly tempt anyone to stay here who didn't have to? No amount of money would be worth living without trees, grass, space to breathe!

The houses gave way just as abruptly a few moments later to warehouses two and three stories tall, and this was where the true city began.

Those who ruled the city now showed their authority. A token gate across the road, a mere board painted in red and white stripes, was manned by a token guard in a stiff brown uniform. He paid no attention to her whatsoever as she passed beneath the bar of the gate. His attention was for anyone who brought more into the city than his own personal belongings. Those who drove carts waved a stiff piece of blue paper at him as they passed_or if they didn't have that piece of paper, pulled their wagons over to a paved area at the side of the road where one of a half-dozen clerks would march upon them with a grimly determined frown. No one cared about a single Gypsy with a donkey, assuming they recognized her as a Gypsy at all. She passed close by the guard, fanning herself with her hat in her free hand, as he lounged against the gatepost, picking his teeth with a splinter. She was near enough to smell the onions he had eaten for lunch and the beer he had washed them down with, and to see the bored indifference in his eyes.

She was just one of a hundred people much like her who would pass this man today, and she knew it. There was virtue and safety in anonymity right now, and suddenly she was glad of the sober colors of her clothing. Better to bake than to be memorable.

How could I have forgotten? I wanted to be sure that no one would remember me; there might be someone waiting and watching to see if I show up! It must be the heat, or all this emotion-babble....

But the press of minds around her was a more oppressive burden than the heat. This was why she hated cities, and Lyonarie was everything she disliked most about a city, but constructed on a more massive scale than anything she had previously encountered. There were too many people here, all packed too closely together, all of them unconsciously suffering the effects of being so crowded. Most of them were unhappy and had no idea how to remedy their condition_other than pursuing wealth, which brought its own set of problems whether the pursuit succeeded or failed. Their strident emotions scratched at her nerves no matter how well she warded them out.

Never mind that. I'm here, so now I need a plan, however sketchy. She hadn't actually formulated a plan until now; she'd been hoping, perhaps, for some unavoidable reason not to go on to Lyonarie. Geas or fate_or not_here she was, and it was time to make some kind of a plan.

Something simple; the simpler, the less likely it will be that I'll have to change it.

Once past the guard, Nightingale pulled the donkey off to the side of the road, taking a moment to stand in the shade of one of the warehouses. She fanned herself with her hat, pretended to watch the traffic, and considered her next move on this little gameboard.

It is a game, too_and I can only hope I've made myself less of a pawn than I would have been if I'd jumped into it without care and thought.

People streamed by her as she stood on the baking pavement with her patient little beast; as she watched, she saw everything from farmers hauling wagonloads of cabbage to the carriages of prosperous merchants_from footsore travelers like herself to the occasional creature more alien than a Deliambren. They all apparently had places to go, and they were all in a dreadful hurry to get there. They paid no attention to her; their eyes were on the road and the traffic ahead of them.

The buildings on either side of the road trapped the rays of the sun; the pavement beneath absorbed the heat and radiated it up again. Sweat ran down her face and back, and not even the most vigorous fanning helped cool her even a little. She licked her lips and tasted salt, wishing for the cooler clothing she'd worn at Kingsford Faire_the light skirt made of hundreds of multicolored ribbons sewn together from knee to waist, but left to flutter from knee to ankle, the wide laced belt of doeskin, the shirt of fabric just this side of see-through, and the sandals.... The leather of her bodice and boots was hot, stifling hot. The soles of her boots were far too thin to cushion her feet in any way or deflect the heat of the pavement.

What she really wanted right now was a cool place to sit, a cool drink, and a moment in semi-darkness to build up her mental defenses.

Well, the sooner I join in this game, the sooner I can leave. If I'm both lucky and clever, I might even be able to get out of here before winter. At least I didn't lose any time on the road.

In fact, she had made such good time getting here that it was not quite Harvest Faire season. She had met with no obstacles, and her earlier good start had been typical of the whole journey. She'd been able to stop before dark every night, and hadn't even been forced to spend much of her hard-earned Faire money.

In fact, her purse was now a bit heavier than it had been when she had left Kingsford. She had made such good time that it had been possible to trade performances in the kind of small country inns she preferred in return for food, a bed, and whatever came into her hat. If she had just been making her rounds of the Faire-circuit, she would have been pleased but not particularly surprised by this. She was a good harpist, a fine musician, and there was no reason why innkeepers should turn her away. Her hat usually had a few coppers in it at the end of the night, no matter how poor the audience.

But the very smoothness of her travel had made her suspicious, or rather, apprehensive. It felt as if someone or something was making quite sure she would get to Lyonarie, and seeing to it that she would be ready for just about anything when she arrived there.

A geas? The hand of God or the Gypsy's Lady of the Night?

Or just a string of unprecedented good luck? And did it matter?

Not really. What did matter was coming up with a course of immediate action that would keep her inconspicuous. If I were truly in the "service" of any of my so-needful friends, what would I do first? she asked herself. The answer seemed obvious: find a tavern or an inn at the heart of the city and take up lodging there. If she was expected to gather information, that would be all that she would do; there would be no time for anything like taking on a regular job as a musician. And that would make her conspicuous_someone who carried musical instruments, yet did not try to find a position; someone who spent money but did nothing to earn more. It would be "logical" to devote all of her time and energy into collecting information, but it would not be wise.

So, since that is what is predictable and logical, it is what I will not do.

She considered her options further as she also pondered the question of High-King Theovere. The two were inextricably linked. How to gain information on the High and Exalted without venturing out of her persona as Low and Insignificant?

At least, now that she wasn't moving, she didn't seem to be quite as warm.

As Talaysen had pointed out, the King should have been overseeing the business of his twenty vassals_but they had been left, more and more, at loose ends, without a guide or an overseer. As often as not, though the King of Birnam was an exception, they had been making use of this laxness to enrich themselves, or simply to amuse themselves.

The King of Birnam thought more of his people and their lands than himself; he was a good ruler, and as a result, his kingdom prospered in good times and survived the bad in reasonable shape. But those lands whose rulers were not out of Rolend's mold were showing all the signs of a careless hand on the reins. The signs were everywhere, and touching everything. In Rayden, for instance, there was little or no upkeep on the public roads: bridges were out, roads were rutted and full of potholes, signs were missing or illegible. In some remoter parts of Rayden and in other lands, the neglect was far more serious, as rivalry between Sires and even Dukes had been permitted to escalate into armed feuding.

The High King was supposed to represent the central unifying power in the Twenty Kingdoms. Now the Church was well on the way to taking over that function.

As if her thought of the Church had summoned a further reminder of its power, the tolling of bells rang out over the rumble of cart wheels on pavement and the babble of thousands of voices. Nightingale lifted her eyes from the road to see the spire of the Chapel housing those bells rising above the warehouse roofs.

And that represented another interest in the dance. There were perhaps hundreds of Chapels in Lyonarie, ranging in size from a single room to huge Cathedrals. The Church was an all-pervasive presence here, and there was no way to escape it. The Church might also have an interest in keeping Theovere weak and ineffectual.

She swallowed in sour distaste. There was no love lost between herself and most representatives of the Church. Too often of late she had been the subject of attempts by Churchmen to lay the blame for perfectly ordinary accidents at her door, because she was a Gypsy, a Free Bard, and presumably a wielder of arcane and darksome powers. In some places, at least, it seemed that the Church was trying to incite people against Gypsies, nonconformists, nonhumans_indeed, against anything that did not obviously and directly benefit the Church itself as much as a flock of sheep would benefit the herdsman.

Well, one advantage of being in a large city was that there were too many people for the Church to play at the kinds of games some Churchmen were able to foment in less populous places. It was harder to find an individual to use as a target and a scapegoat_harder to incite people against a stranger in a town when so many people were strangers, and in fact, people living on the same street might not even know or recognize each other.

Still, it behooved her to find a venue that was not too near a Chapel, if she could. Not near the prosperous, either; they have the leisure to notice things. All things considered, although this was probably the worst part of town, this district would be a good one to try to find a tavern that might have need of a musician.

Another good thing about a city this large_not all the Guild Bards in the world could take all the positions available here. Really, most of them are going to be positions no Guild Bard in his right mind would ever want!

Now that she had gotten her mind moving, and had managed a little rest, she felt ready to rejoin the mob. She pulled the donkey into the stream of traffic again, and scanned the fronts of the buildings she passed for tavern signs. I'll look for information from two sources, she decided as she walked, letting the traffic carry her along rather than trying to force a faster pace. Once I get established, I'll build myself a little army of street-children and pay them to go listen for me. No one ever pays attention to them, and they can get into the most amazing places....

This would not be the first time she had built herself such a network. Children were never regarded as threatening by adults, but street-brats were wise beyond their years and knew how to listen for anything that might be of value. The nice thing about children was. that they tended to stay loyal to the person who hired them. They might be wise beyond their years, but they lacked the experience that taught them double-dealing. Children still believed, in their heart of hearts, in playing fair.

Servants, too_they're the other invisibles. I'll show up at the kitchen doors, clean but very shabby. I'll ask to play in return for food. The Courts of Kings might boast the cream of entertainers, but the servants never saw it, and any chance for a little entertainment of their own usually was snatched at. Kitchen gossip often reflected the doings of the great and powerful long before many of their masters knew about it. So long as she pretended not to notice, she would probably get an earful.

Raven never did learn that lesson, silly boy. He would always start asking questions rather than letting servants babble to each other.

She would be just as invisible as a servant or a street urchin; just another common tavern-musician. There weren't many Free Bards who traveled all the way to Lyonarie; it was a long way from Rayden, where the group first came to be organized, and Free Bards had their routines like anyone else. Likely no one would even recognize the knot of multicolored ribbons on her sleeves as anything other than decoration. Even if they did know her for what she was, well, the Guild had made it difficult for a Free Bard to work in Rayden, and the Church had done the same in Gradford, so it made sense for someone to come this far afield for work.

I look like a Gypsy and there is no disguising that, but that might work for me rather than against me. People like things that are a bit exotic; it gives them a taste of places they'll never see, a kind of life they'll never lead.

Gypsies didn't like cities much, which also might mean she would not be recognized as one. Ah, well. It was always a case of playing odds being a Gypsy.

And if she was recognized, and it caused her trouble_well, she would deal with that when she saw what cards were in her hand.

The donkey suddenly gave a frightened bray and reared back against the lead-rope, trying to dig all four hooves into the pavement. The rope scraped her palm and she tightened her grip automatically as she looked around for what danger might have alarmed him_but a sudden whiff of powerful odor told her that he had simply reacted to another aspect of a city that she hated. There was no mistaking that charnel reek as it wafted into her face: blood and feces, urine and fear.

She put her hat back on her head and soothed him with her free hand as she continued to pull his lead, gently but firmly, until he started walking again. His eyes rolled, but he obeyed her. She couldn't blame him for balking; she'd have done the same in his place. He might even have scented a relative in that reek.

Or rather, an ex-relative.

The warehouses gave place to something else, and now she knew why she had seen so many carts laden with smaller beasts on this road. This was the district of slaughterhouses and all that depended on them.

She held the donkeys halter firmly under his chin as he fought to escape, shivered and rolled his eyes. There wasn't anywhere he could go, and the press of traffic on all sides was enough to keep him moving. Nightingale wished she had taken thought to cover her mouth and nose with a neckcloth as so many around her were doing_she needed both hands to control the donkey, and her kerchief was in her pocket.

The reek of the slaughterhouses and holding pens was not all that came drifting by on the breeze. There were other, equally unsavory smells_the stench of the leather-workers' vats, the effluvium of the glue-makers' pots, the pong of garbage- and dung-collectors' heaps. Fortunately there was something of a real current of moving air here, and it ran crossways to the road; as soon as they were out of the immediate area, the worst of the smell faded, diluted by distance.

But now the slaughterhouse odor gave way to new odors, or rather, older ones. Nightingale winced and tried to barricade herself against a stench that was both physical and mental. Her stomach heaved, and she tasted bile in the back of her throat.

Mighty God. Even animals wouldn't live like this. Even flies wouldn't live like this! And why does the Church allow this? There is a question for you!

Only the poorest would live here, so near the slaughterhouses and the dreadful stench, the flies, and the disease_and the tenement houses lining the road bore ample testament to the poverty, both monetary and spiritual, of those living within. The houses themselves leaned against each other, dilapidated constructions that a good wind would surely send tumbling to the street. Drunken men and women both, wrapped in so many layers of rags and dirt it was hard to tell what sex they were, lay in the alleys and leaned against the houses. Filthy children crowded the front stoops, big bellies scarcely covered by the rags they wore, scrawny limbs showing that those bellies were the sign of malnourishment and not of overeating. They, too, lay about listlessly on the steps, or sat and watched the passing traffic, too tired from lack of food to play. The scream of hungry babies joined the sound of commerce on the road; Nightingale resolutely closed her ears to other sounds, of quarrels and blows, of weeping and hopelessness. This was new; poverty was always part of a city, but never starvation, not like this. It was one more evidence of King Theovere's neglect, even here, in the heart of his own land and city.

I can't do anything about this_at least, I can't do more than I'm already planning to do. I can recruit some of my children from these_I can feed as many as my purse will permit. She salved her conscience with that; there was too much here for even every Gypsy of every clan to correct.

She sighed with relief as more and sturdier buildings took the place of the tenements. More warehouses, mills for cloth, flour and lumber_and something that Nightingale had never seen at firsthand among humans before, although she was familiar enough with the Deliambren version, which they called "manufactories."

Here, in enormous buildings, people made things_but not in the way they were accustomed to make them in villages and towns elsewhere. People made things together; each person performed a single task in the many stages of building something, then passed the object on to the next person, who performed another task, and so on until the object was completed. Every example was like every other example; every chair looked like every other chair, for instance, and every pair of trews like every other pair of trews.The system worked very well for the Deliambrens, but Nightingale was of two minds about it. It did mean made-goods were much cheaper; no one needed to be an expert in everything, and almost anyone could afford well-made trews or chairs or tea-mugs. But it felt like there was no heart in such goods, and nothing to show that a tea-mug was special....

Ah, what do I know? I am a crafter of music, not of mugs_and I am sure there is still a demand for trews and chairs and mugs made by individuals. The system did the Deliambrens no harm; they took as much pleasure in life and crafting as any other being. Still_

I would not like to work in such a place, but that does not mean that other folk would feel the same. Stop making judgments for others, Nightingale.

The donkey relaxed as they entered this district; she let go her tight hold on his lead-rope, and let him have his head again. The shape of this area was determined by the river that ran through it; there was scarcely a bit of bank that did not have a mill wheel on it to make use of the swiftly-flowing current. The buildings here were old_and Nightingale suspected that few of the people traveling beside her had any idea how very old they were. The mill wheels and millraces were recent additions to buildings that had been standing beside this river since before the Cataclysm.

The buildings were not pretty; they were simple, brute boxes with square window-holes where there might, once, have been glass. Now they were covered with whatever might let in light and exclude weather; glass in some places, oiled paper or sheets of parchment in others, but mostly sheets of white opaque stuff the Deliambrens used for packing crates and padding. The base color of these dull boxes was an equally dull grey; where in the past people had tried to apply paint, either to cover the entire building or as crude advertisements, the paint remained only in patches, as if the buildings had some kind of scabrous disease. But the irony was that these places were solid still; they had stood for centuries and likely would stand for centuries more. Nightingale had been inside the Deliambren Fortress-City; she had seen buildings like these being erected. One actually poured the walls, using wood to make the molds to give the walls their form, as if they were huge ceramics. Once the grey stuff set, it was stronger than granite and less likely to age due to weathering.

So the irony, lost to those beside the Gypsy, was that these buildings which seemed relatively new were actually much, much older than the tenements that had been falling down.

The road crossed the river on a bridge that also dated back to the Cataclysm; Nightingale privately doubted that anyone could bridge the Lyon River in these days_except, perhaps, Deliambrens. It was a narrow and fierce stream, with a current so swift and deep that "to swim the Lyon" was a common euphemism for suicide.

For a moment, there was relief from the heat; the waters of the Lyon were as cold as they were swift, and a second river flowed above it_a river of fresh, cool air. Nightingale moved as slowly on the bridge as she could, stretching out her moment of relief.

On the other side, the manufactories gave way again to housing, but fortunately for Nightingale's peace of mind the people here lived in better conditions than those near the slaughterhouses.

There were more of those pre-Cataclysm buildings, in fact, given over to living quarters rather than manufactories. These had more windows, and from the look of things, the ceilings were not as high, granting more levels in the same amount of space. In between these older buildings, newer ones rose, not quite as dilapidated as the tenements on the other side of the river, but by no means in excellent repair. These newer buildings huddled around the old as if for support, as if without those grey bulwarks they could not stand against wind and weather.

Nightingale tried to imagine what this area might have looked like before the wooden tenements were built, but had to give up. She just could not picture it in her mind. Why would people have put so much open space between the buildings, then build the buildings so very tall? Wouldn't it have made more sense to lay everything out flat, the way a small village was built? That way everyone could have his own separate dwelling, and one would not be forced to hear ones neighbors through walls that were never thick enough for privacy....

Ask anyone who has ever spent the night in an inn with newlyweds in the next room.

Well, there was no telling what the ancestors had been thinking; their world was as alien to the Twenty Kingdoms now as that of any of the nonhumans. Nightingale certainly was not going to try to second-guess them.

However, this area would be a good one in which to start her search. However much she disliked the crowding, she could hide herself better in a crowd than in more exclusive surroundings.

At the first sign of a tiny cross street, she pulled the donkey out of the stream of traffic and into the valley between two buildings, looking for a child of about nine or ten, one who was not playing with others, but clearly looking for someone for whom he could run an errand. Such a child would know where every inn and tavern was in his neighborhood, and would probably know which ones needed an entertainer.

And people think that children know nothing....

Nightingale kept her back quite stiff with indignation as she pulled her donkey away from the door of the Muleteer. Her guide_a girl-child with dirty hair that might have been blond if one could hold her under a stream of water long enough to find out_sighed with vexation. It was an unconscious imitation of Nightingale's own sigh, and was close enough to bring a reluctant smile to the Gypsy's lips.

"Honest, mum, if I'd'a thunk he was gonna ast ye pony up more'n music, I'd'a not hev brung ye here," the girl said apologetically.

Nightingale patted the girl on one thin shoulder, and resolved to add the remains of her travel-rations to the child's copper penny. "You couldn't have known," she told the little girl, who only shook her head stubbornly and led Nightingale to a little alcove holding only a door that had been bricked up ages ago. There they paused out of the traffic, while the girl bit her lip and knitted her brows in thought.

"Ye set me a job, mum, an' I hevn't done it," the child replied, and Nightingale added another mental note_to make this girl the first of her recruits. Her thin face hardened with businesslike determination. "I'll find ye a place, I swear! Jest_was it only wee inns an taverns ye wanted?"

Something about the wistful hope in the girl's eyes made Nightingale wonder if she had phrased her own request poorly. "I thought that only small inns or taverns would want a singer like me," she told the girl. "I'm not a Guild musician, and the harp isn't a very loud instrument_"

"So ye don' mind playin' where there's others playin' too?" the girl persisted. "Ye don' mind sharin' th' take an' th' audience an' all?"

Well, that was an interesting question. She shook her head and waited to reply until after a rickety cart passed by. "Not at all. I'm used to 'sharing'; all of us do at Faires, for instance."

A huge smile crossed the child's face, showing a gap where her two front teeth were missing. "I thunk ye didn' like other players, mum, so I bin takin' ye places where they ain't got but one place. Oh, I got a tavern-place that's like a Faire, 'tis, an' they don' take to no Guildsmen neither. Ye foller me, mum, an' see if ye don' like this place!"

The child scampered off in the opposite direction in which they had been going, and Nightingale hauled the donkey along in her wake. The girl all but skipped, she was so pleased to have thought of this "tavern-place," whatever it was, and her enthusiasm was quite infectious. Nightingale found herself hoping that this would be a suitable venue, and not just because her feet hurt, she was wilting with the heat, and her shoulders ached from hauling the increasingly tired and stubborn donkey.

She also wanted to be able to reward this child, and not have to thread her way out of the neighborhood the little girl knew and hunt up a new guide. The streets were all in shadow now, although the heat hadn't abated; much longer and it would be twilight. She would have to find at least a safe place to spend the night, then; it wasn't wise, for a stranger to be out in a neighborhood like this one after dark. In a smaller city she wouldn't have worried so much, but she had heard of the gangs who haunted the back streets of Lyonarie by night; she was a tough fighter, but she couldn't take on a dozen men with knives and clubs.

The child turned to make certain that she was still following, and waved at her to hurry. Nightingale wished powerfully then for that rapport with animals that Peregrine and Lark seemed to share; if only she could convince the donkey that it was in his best interest to pick up his feet a little!

But he was just as tired as she was, and surely he was far more confused. He'd never been inside a city at all, much less had to cope with this kind of foot-traffic, poor thing.

The child slipped back to her side, moving like an eel in the crowd. "Tisn't but three streets up, mum, just t'other side uv where ye met me," she said, looking up into Nightingale's face anxiously. "Oh, I swan, ye'll like the place!"

"I hope so," the Gypsy replied honestly. "I can promise you, at least I won't dislike it as much as I did the last!"

The little girl giggled. "La, mum, ye're furrin, an' the Freehold, it's got more furriners than I ken! Got Mintaks, got Larads, got Kentars, got a couple 'a Ospers, even! Half the folk come there be furrin, too!"

Now that certainly made Nightingale stand up a bit straighten "Why all the_" She sought for a polite word for the nonhumans.

"Why they got all the Fuzzballs?" the child asked innocently. "Well, 'cause other places, they don' like Fuzzballs, they don' like furriners, they even looks at ye down the nose if ye got yeller skin or sompin. Not Freehold, no, they figger Fuzzball money spends as good nor better'n a Churcher. I like Freehold. I'd'a taken ye there fust, but I thunk ye wanted a place where ye wouldn'_ah_"

"Where I wouldn't have any competition?" Nightingale replied, laughing at the child's chagrin. "Oh, my girl, I promise you I am sure enough of my own songs that I don't have anything to fear from other musicians!"

The child grinned her gap-toothed grin again and shrugged. "Ye'll see," she only said. "Ye'll see if I be takin' ye wrong. Freehold_it's a fine place! Look_'tis right there, crost the street!"

But the building the girl pointed to was not what Nightingale expected_

The Gypsy blinked, wondering if the child was afflicted with some sort of mental disorder. This wasn't a tavern or an inn building_it was a warehouse!

It was one of the old, pre-Cataclysm buildings, four tall stories high, with a flat roof and black metal stairs running up the side of it from the second story to the rooftop, and more black metal bridges linking it and the buildings nearest it from roof to roof. She narrowed her eyes and tried to see if someone had partitioned off a little corner of it at ground level as a tavern, but there was no sign of any partitioning whatsoever. Whoever owned this building owned the whole thing. Set into the blank face of the wall was a huge sliding door, and a smaller entry-door was inset in it. This was a warehouse!

But there was a sign above the entry door, and the sign did say THE FREEHOLD....

The child scampered on ahead and pounded enthusiastically at the door. It opened, and she spoke quickly to someone Nightingale couldn't see. By the time she managed to coax her willfully lagging donkey to the doorway, whoever had been there was gone, and the child was dancing from one foot to the other with impatience.

"He's gone t' git the boss," the child told her. "Ye wait here wit me, an' the boss'll be here in a short bit."

Nightingale looked up at the sign above her head, just to be sure. It did say THE FREEHOLD, that much hadn't changed. But how could anyone ever make any kind of profit running a tavern in a place this size? The cost of fuel and candles alone would eat up all the profits!

She tried to make a quick estimate of just how much it would cost to heat this huge cavern of a place in the winter; just as she came to the conclusion that she didn't have the head for such a complicated calculation, the "boss" appeared in the door.

A human of middle years, average in every way from his hair to his clothing, looked her up and down in surprise. "You are a Gypsy, aren't you?" he said, before she could say anything to him. "And a Free Bard?"

She nodded cautiously, but he only smiled, showing the same gap at the front of his teeth that the child boasted. "Well! In that case, we might be able to do some business. Will you enter?"

"What about the beast?" she asked dubiously, keeping a tight hold on the donkey's halter. She was not about to leave him outside, not in this neighborhood.

"Bring him in; there's a stable just inside the door," the man replied readily enough. "If you have a big enough building, you can do anything you want, really, and the owner thought it would be nice if people didn't have to go out into the weather to get their riding-beasts."

"Oh." That was all she could say, really. It was all anyone could say. Who would have thought of having a stable inside your tavern?

"Trust a Deliambren to think of something like that," the man continued, as an afterthought. "He's almost never here, of course, but he's always coming up with clever notions for the place, and the hearth-gods know a Deliambren has the means to make anything work."

Ah. Now it makes sense! And now it made sense for a tavern to be situated in a warehouse, for only a Deliambren would have the means to heat the place_yes, and probably cool it in the summer, as well!_without going bankrupt.

She turned to the girl, and held out the promised penny, and with the other hand fumbled the bag of travel food off the back of the packs. "Here, take this, too," she said, holding it out as soon as the child accepted her penny with unconcealed glee and greed. "Can I find you in the same place if I need a guide again?"

The child accepted the bag without asking what was in it_hardly surprising, since almost anything she was given would be worth something to her. Even the bag itself. She clutched the bag to her chest and nodded vigorously. "Yes, mum, ye jest ast fer Maddy, an' if I ain't there, I be there soon as I hear!" She grinned again, shyly this time. "I tol' ye that ye'd like this place, mum, didn' I jest?"

"You did, and I don't forget people who are clever enough to guess what I'd like, Maddy," Nightingale told her. "Thank you."

Before she could say anything more, the child bobbed an awkward curtsey and disappeared into the crowd. The "boss" of the tavern was still waiting patiently for her to conclude her business with Maddy.

"Don't you think you ought to look us over and see what we can offer before you make a decision?" the man asked her, although his amused expression and his feelings, as loud as a shout, told her he was certain she would want to stay here. This was quite unlike the proprietor of the Muleteer, whose feelings of lust had run over her body like a pair of oily hands.

She simply raised an eyebrow; he chuckled, and waved her inside.

The doorway opened into a room_or, more correctly, an anteroom_paved like the street outside, furnished with a few wooden benches, with a corridor going off to the right. A Mintak boy appeared in the entrance at the sound of the donkey's hooves on the pavement.

Nightingale had seen many Mintaks in the course of her travels, but never a youngster. Like all the others she had seen, this boy wore only a pair of breeches and an open vest; his hide, exactly like a horses, was a fine, glossy brown. His head was shaped something like a cross between a horse and a dog, but the eyes were set to the front, so that he could see forward out of both of them, like a human, instead of only one at a time, like a horse. He had a ridge of hair_again, much like a horse's mane_that began between his ears and traveled down his neck, presumably to end between his shoulderblades.

Unlike the adults, who were muscular enough to give any five men pause, this boy was thin, gawky, awkward, exactly like a young colt. Although he had three-fingered hands that were otherwise identical to a humans, with nails that were much thicker and black, his feet presumably ended in hooves, for Nightingale heard them clopping on the pavement.

"This lady is a musician, and she'll be joining us, Kovey," the man said. "Take her little beast and_" He turned back to Nightingale. "I assume that room and board will be part of the arrangement?"

"That's the usual," she replied shortly, unable to be anything but amused herself at the way he had decided that she was going to stay.

"Right then, have her things taken up to the Gallery and put 'em in the first empty room. Then leave word at the desk which it is."

The Mintak boy nodded his hairy head and trotted over to them, extending his hand for the donkeys lead-rope. The donkey stepped up to him eagerly as Nightingale put the rope into his large, square hands. He smiled shyly, showing the blunt teeth of a true herbivore.

Interesting. If I did not have the abilities I do, I would be very suspicious at this point. They have parted me from my transportation and my belongings and gotten me inside a building with no clear escape route. Do they assume that I am naive, or do they assume that as a Gypsy I do have other senses at my command?

It could be either. Her clothing marked her as country folk; it could be presumed that she was not familiar with the ways of cities and the hazards therein. On the other hand, the man had not only recognized her as a Gypsy, but as a Free Bard....

Boy and donkey trotted off down the corridor, and Nightingale's escort ushered her past the second doorway and into the "tavern" proper.

The man waited for her reaction, but she was not the country cousin she looked, and she didn't give him the gasp of surprise that he had expected. She had assumed that the "tavern" took up a good portion of the building as estimated from outside, and she had not been mistaken. Maddy had not been mistaken in comparing this place to a Faire. The main portion of the tavern_she couldn't think of a better name for it_had a ceiling that was quite three stories above the rest, and pierced with the most amazing skylights she had ever seen. They were not clear, but made with colored glass, exactly like the windows in the larger Cathedrals. Below the skylights hung contrivances that Nightingale guessed were probably lights. Beneath these skylights was an open floor, all of wood, with a raised platform at one end and with benches around it, exactly like a dance floor and stage at a Faire, except that at a Faire the dancing-area would be floored in dirt.

This took up approximately half the floor space. The rest_well, it looked very much as if someone had taken all of the entertainment and eating places at a really huge Faire and proceeded to stack them inside this building.

All around the walls, from the ground floor to the ceiling, there were alcoves for eating and drinking, many with comfortable seating and a small stage for one to three performers. Many of the alcoves had recognizable bars in the back; some had doors that could be slid across the front, cutting them off from the main room. Some boasted braziers and what might be odd cooking implements as well. Some had nothing at all but the seating.

Not that this place was as elegant as the skylights indicated; in fact, the opposite was true. The building showed its heritage quite clearly; walls and the ceiling were roughly finished, huge metal beams were exposed, and ropes and wires hung everywhere.

Still it was a monumental undertaking, putting this place together at all, and Nightingale rather liked the unfinished atmosphere. That was the difference_outside, things looked unkempt. In here, they looked unfinished. Out there in the rest of the city, there was the feeling of decay and decline, but in here there was unfulfilled potential.

It was then that she realized that she was no longer hot, or even warm; that from the moment she had passed within the front door, she had been cooled by a dry, crisp breeze that came out of nowhere.

Ah, more Deliambren magic, of course. And how better to lure patrons to a place like this, down in a dubious quarter of the city, than to ensure that they will be invisibly cooled in summer and warmed in winter!

There was no one on the main platform, but about half the other small stages had performers on them; not just musicians, but a juggler, a contortionist, a mock-mage, and a storyteller who had his audience often in stitches. Savory_though unfamiliar_aromas drifted from three of the tiny kitchens. It was difficult to say precisely where every sound and scent came from in this cavernous place, but Nightingale had the impression that there were similar setups just off the second or third floor balconies, And as Maddy had claimed, a good half of those customers that Nightingale spotted were not human.

"The top floor's lodgings," her escort said diffidently. He waved his hand vaguely at the upper story. "Right side's for customers, left's for staff. You'll be staff, of course_"

"You're assuming I'm going to stay," Nightingale could not resist pointing out dryly. He turned to her with his mouth agape in surprise.

"You_why wouldn't you?" he managed, after a moment during which his mouth worked without any sound emerging.

"You might not want me, for one thing," she said with patient logic. "You don't know anything about me."

"You're a Free Bard, ain't you?" the man retorted. At her nod, he shrugged, as if that was the only answer he needed. "Tyladen_that's the boss, the owner_he's left orders. Free Bards show up looking for work, they got it. He says you're all good enough, that's enough for me. He's the one with the cashbox."

The man had a point_but there were still a few things she had to get clear. "Before I agree to anything, I want to know the terms I'll be working under here," she told him severely.

He nodded, his former surprise gone. "You pick the shift_except we got no openings on morning, so it's afternoon, supper to midnight, or midnight to dawn. You can double-shift if you want, but we don't really like it."

Thus far, sounds reasonable. "Go on," she told him, as the sound of a hurdy-gurdy brayed out on her right.

"Terms are pretty simple: room and board, and you pick what kitchen you want your meals out of. We don't go writin' up food, so if you want to stuff yourself sick, that's your problem. You hire on as a musician, that's what you do_no cookin', no waitin' tables, no bartending, no cleanup."

She sensed that he was about to add something else, then he took a look at her and left the words unsaid. She knew what they were, of course_that she was not to offer "extra services" to the customers.

"We don't argue if the customer brings a_a friend here, and wants a room to share for_oh, a couple of hours," he said finally, "but we don't offer him things like that here."

"Oh, please," she said, exasperated. "I've been on the road most of my life. You don't have whores, and you do have an arrangement with the Whores' Guild, I take it, so you don't allow your entertainers to freelance their sexual services?"

He looked just as startled as he had when she had suggested that she might not want to work here, but again, he nodded.

She suppressed a smile. Well, occasionally clothing does make the person, it appears. I dress like a Churchgoing country girl, he assumes that's what I am! I wonder what he'll think when he sees some of my performing clothing? Perhaps that I am some mental chameleon!

"That will be fine with me_" she began, but he held up his hand to forestall her.

"There's only one more rule," he told her. "That's the one you might not like. No puttin' out a hat."

She raised one eyebrow as high as it would go. "Just how am I supposed to make a living, may I ask?" she said, more than a bit arrogantly. "No one has ever made that part of my arrangements before."

He flushed and looked apologetic. "That's the rule. There's a charge at the door t' get in. You get a salary, an' it depends on how big a draw you are. Lowest is five coppers each shift, highest_well, we only had one person ever get highest, that was a half-royal."

A half-royal? The equivalent five gold pieces? It was Nightingale's turn to stare at him with mouth agape. Very few Guild Bards were ever granted that kind of money, and no Free Bard that Nightingale had ever heard of_not even Talaysen, Laurel Bard to a King, was ever paid that much!

"So in other words, I'm on trial until you see what kind of an audience I can collect," she said, finally, after she had gotten over her astonishment. "And I have to take your word for what I'm worth."

He lifted his shoulders, apologetically. "That's the terms; that's what the boss set," he replied.

She considered it for a moment, leaving her own pride out of it. This wasn't entirely a bad thing. She could, if she decided it was worth it, exert herself only enough to pay for her army of children. She had shelter, food, and an excellent venue to hear a great deal. A place like this one would be very popular, not only with working-class folk, but with those with wealth and jaded appetites_or a taste for "uncommon" entertainment. If she had petitioned the Lady of the Night for the perfect place for her information-gathering, she could not have come up with anything better.

Most of all, she would only have to work six hours of every day; that left her at least six to make her own investigations, provided she cared to exert herself that much. She could make herself as conspicuous, or as inconspicuous here as she wanted.

In fact, that was not a bad idea. She could play the exotic Gypsy to the hilt here within these four walls_but her persona outside the tavern could be as plain as a little sparrow. No one would connect Nightingale with_whatever she called herself in here.

And if she did that_well, she might not find herself in the "half-royal" category, but she was fairly certain that the five coins she would earn each shift would be silver, not copper.

"I believe I can live with these terms," she said, without bothering to try and strike a better bargain. Not that there would be much point to trying_the price a Deliambren set was not subject to bargaining. One accepted, or one did without.

"Excellent!" The man positively beamed. "I saw that you had harps; we don't have any harp players right now. I can put you up in the Oak Grove, that's on the third floor, far enough away from the dancing that you shouldn't have any trouble with noise. What shift?"

"Supper to midnight," she replied immediately, and he beamed again.

"Perfect! Let's go check the front desk and find out what room you've got_ah_" He looked a little embarrassed. "I didn't catch your name_"

"That's because I didn't give it to you," she replied, softening the words with a faint smile, as she ran a list of possible alternative names in her mind. She would save "Nightingale" for now_just in case this Deliambren was already part of her friend's little plot. "My name is Lyrebird."

He nodded with approval. "The lyre's a harp right? Got a nice sound to it_I'm Kyran, by the way, Kyran Horat."

She held out her hand, and he shook it, in the way of Gypsies sealing a bargain. "Welcome to Freehold, Lyrebird," he said heartily. "I think you'll be happy here. You can lighten up now; the bargaining is over."

She chuckled, then looked away from him and out over the expanse of the building and all it contained. There would be enough people here every night that she_or rather, Lyrebird_as flamboyant as that persona would be, would simply be one more flamboyant entertainer among many. She would earn enough to not only get her covert quest done, but quite possibly turn a profit. This place was built by a Deliambren, so she could probably expect some luxuries in her quarters that Kyran hadn't even seen fit to mention_which was a far sight better than anything she'd find in an ordinary inn. All things considered, this had turned out to be luck of the sort that had eased her journey all the way here.

"I think you're right, Kyran," she replied as she suppressed the shiver that thought brought her. "Shall we find out about that room?"

Luck this good has to break sometime, she thought as she followed him. I only pray that when it does, it does not turn as bad as it has been good!

And if this was the result of that fate, geas, or whatever else had brought her here_well, that turn of good luck to bad, very bad, was all too likely.

CHAPTER THREE

Nightingale found nothing to complain about in the room that Kyran assigned to her, except the lack of windows_and on the whole, although it did make her feel a bit closed in, that might have been as much of a benefit as a lack. Certainly there was not going to be much of a view around here, and if the wind happened to come from the wrong direction_well, what traveled on the wind from the direction of the slaughterhouses was nothing she wanted to have to endure.

She surveyed what was likely to be her refuge for the next several weeks, if not months, and on the whole was pleased. There was one light overhead in the main room, a second in the bathroom, both controlled by plates on the wall that one touched_her escort had shown her how to use them, and she had not revealed that she already knew what they were. This was Deliambren light, of course, not an oil lamp or candle; it replicated natural sunlight at about an hour after sunrise; warm, clear, but not too bright. The overall effect with the four walls bare of decoration was of a white box, but that was not altogether bad_Deliambren taste in artwork was not always something she admired, and only the Lady knew who or what had this room before she got it. The one thing this room did boast that was quite out of the ordinary was its own tiny bathroom.

It's out of the ordinary, unless you happen to be acquainted with Deliambrens, that is. By their standards, this is all patched together, old and rather tired, the bare minimum for civilization. She considered the closer examination she'd been able to make as she walked up the open staircases and along the balcony to her room. All visible equipment was very shopworn by Deliambren standards_their equivalent of secondhand goods. It was all too heavy and too bulky to steal, which made it safe to use here, surrounded by humans who just might try to carry it off otherwise. And those dangling wires and furlongs of conduit_those weren't just afterthoughts, things they hadn't quite tucked out of sight. This equipment was probably reliable, but, to Nightingale's eyes at least, was very clearly cobbled together from several other mismatched pieces of heavy equipment, and likely there was no place else for those wires to go.

The bathroom, stuck off one corner of the main room, was in keeping with the general feeling of "making do." A tiny box, tiled on all surfaces with some shiny white substance that might be ceramic, it had a small sink, one of the Deliambren-designed privies, and an oblong object in one corner that she was certain must puzzle the life out of ordinary folk. She had been inside the Fortress-City any number of times; the Deliambrens used these things in places of bathtubs. At a touch, water cascaded from the nozzle in the wall, and although one could not soak in this contrivance, it was the best thing in all the world for washing hair. To her delight, her employers provided soap and towels_probably, she thought cynically, because so few of their new employees had more than a nodding acquaintance with either. That was fine with her; those were two more things she was not going to have to provide.

It isn't a tenth as luxurious as the baths in their guest quarters at home, though, she thought smugly. And if you look closely, those tiles show some chips and scratch marks, which means they have been reused. Probably all of the fixtures are reused. They probably believe that these rooms are as austere as a Church Cloister, and feel guilty over putting their employees through such hardship!

A rectangular opening high on the wall with a screen over it allowed warm air_or cool, as now_to flow into the main room, while another on the opposite side removed it. There was a similar arrangement in the bathroom.

All of the furnishings were built into the walls, meaning that they could not be moved_which was a minor annoyance. There was a wardrobe on the same wall as the bathroom, a chest which doubled as a seat, and a bed that folded up into the wall if she needed more floor space. A tiny shelf folded down, next to the bed. It was a very nice bed, though_and typically Deliambren. It bore very little resemblance to the kind of beds that she would find in other inns here. Wide enough for two, the bed was a platform that dropped down on a hinge at the head of it to within an inch or two of the floor and perched, on a pair of tiny legs that popped out of the foot. The mattress was made of some soft substance she simply could not identify. The same followed for the sheets, towels and pillows. They weren't woven; that was the only thing she could have said for certain. A single light, small but bright enough to read by, was built into the cavity at the head of the bed; it too was controlled by a palm-plate.

Other than that, the room itself was unremarkable, and as she knew quite well, unlike the kinds of quarters that Deliambrens reserved for their guests.

Oh, I imagine that my good host, knowing that the rooms for staff among humankind are very simple, opted for this as being "typical." Trust a Deliambren never to ask advice on something like this!

The fact was, by most human standards, between the heating and cooling and the bathroom, this place was palatial. Her panniers, covered with road dust and shabby with use as they were, looked as out of place here as a jackdaw's nest in a porcelain vase. Though this "vase" had a few cracks in it, there was no doubt what it was.

She put the bed back up into the wall in order to have more room to work, then set about unpacking her things and putting them away. The harps she left in their cases for the moment, but set beside the cushioned chest-seat. Her costumes were next, and she quietly blessed her instincts as she unpacked them, one by one, and shook them out thoroughly before putting them away in the wardrobe. She had been tempted to get rid of the more flamboyant of them, relics of her first days on the road and ill-suited to her current life. There were three of them, all made of ribbons and scarves sewn into skirts; seamed together from the waistband to the knee, then left to flutter in streamers from the knee to the ground. With them went patchwork bodices made to match the skirts, and shirts with a May-dance worth of rainbow-ribbons fluttering from each sleeve. One was made up in shades of green (from forest-green to the pale of new leaves), one in shades of red (a scarlet that was nearly black to a deep rose), and one in shades of blue (from the sky at midnight to the sky at noon).

I was so proud of being a Free Bard, then, that I thought every bit of clothing I owned should shout to the world what I was. They were my flags of defiance, I suppose, and fortunately, at the time, no one who might have taken exception actually recognized them for what they were! Now I hardly ever wear them except at Kingsford Faire.

She hung those at the front of the wardrobe; they would do very nicely for Lyrebird in a casual mood. The majority of her clothing, sensible enough skirts_three of them, of linen and wool_bodices to match of linen, leather and more wool, and six good shirts with only a modest knot of ribbon on each sleeve, she hung in the rear. They were clearly worn and had seen much travel, the wool skirt and bodice were carefully mended, and three of the shirts plainly showed their origin as secondhand clothing to the experienced eye. Those she would use on the street; she could even add a patch or two for effect. She had done so before.

Then came underthings and a nightshift, stockings and a pair of sandals, her winter cloak and a pair of shawls for weather too cold for shirtsleeves but not chill enough for the heavy cloak.

Then, at the bottom of the pannier, the other clothing that would_oh, most definitely!_be suited to the exotic Lyrebird. These costumes would virtually guarantee that she was seen and remembered.

The packet she removed from the bottom of the pannier was hardly larger than one of her sensible skirts folded into a square. She had never worn these garments in human company before_not that anyone had ever forbidden her to, but she had never felt safe in doing so. Some would have considered them to be a screaming invitation to the kind of activity the proprietor of the Muleteer assumed she would be open to. Others would have considered their mere possession to qualify her for burning at the stake.

She unfolded the outer covering of black, a square of that same, soft black velvet that the Elven messenger had worn, and shook out the garments, one by one.

And as always, she sighed; what woman born could refrain from a sigh, presented with these dresses? They were Elven-make, of course, and not even the Deliambrens could replicate them. Elven silk. Incredible stuff. Now there is magic! The sleeves, the skirts, floated in the air like wisps of mist; they gave the impression that they were as transparent as a bit of cloud, and yet when she wore them, there was not a Cloistered Sister in the Twenty Kingdoms who was as modestly clad as she. There was so much fabric in them that if one took a dress apart and laid the pieces out, they would fully cover every inch of space on the dance floor below, yet each dress packed down into the size of her hand and emerged again unwrinkled, uncrumpled.

One dress was black, with a silver belt, otherwise unadorned, but with its multiple layers of sleeve and skirt cut and layered to resemble a birds feathers. One was a true emerald-green, embroidered around the neckline, sleeves, and hem with a trailing vine in a deeper green; it had a belt of silk embroidered with the same motif. The third was the russet of a vixen's coat, and the sleeves and hem were dagged and decorated with cutwork embroidery as delicate as lace; the belt that went with this was of gold-embroidered leather.

They would suite Lyrebird very well_and because no one save the Elves had ever seen Nightingale in this finery, there was very little chance that anyone would recognize her from a description. She would certainly stand out_but no one would know her.

Nor would anyone recognize, in the plain, shabby little mouse who would go out into the streets, the flamboyant harpist of Freehold in her Elven silks.

And since most of my customers and the members of my audience are going to be nonhuman, Lyrebird is going to be perfectly safe from any untoward conduct, even in her Elven silks. Very few non-humans were going to find her attractive or desirable, which was just fine so far as she was concerned.

She selected the russet for her first performance_what better place for a russet vixen than an Oak Grove?_and gratefully stripped out of her sweat-soaked clothing and headed for the bathroom.

The water-cascade worked just like the one she remembered, and to her great pleasure the soap was delicately scented with jessamine and left a fresh perfume in her hair. She luxuriated in the hot water pouring over her body, washing every last trace of the long journey away. This would be wonderful for easing the aches and strains of long playing, caused by sitting in one position for hours at a time.

She dried and styled her long, waist-length black hair in an arrangement very unlike Nightingale's simple braid; this was an elaborate coil and twist along the back of her head, with the remainder of her hair emerging as a tail from the center of the knot, or allowed to trail as a few delicate tendrils on either side of her face. She slipped the silken dress on over her clean body_it would have been a desecration and a sin to have put it on without a full bath_reveling in the sensuous feel of the silk caressing her hips and legs, slipping sleekly over her arms.

Now she took the cover off the larger of her two harps, the one she could only play while seated, and tuned it. She ignored her stomach as she did so_she could eat later, if need be, but at the moment she had to get the harp ready in good time before her performance. Kyran had told her that he would send one of the servers up to her room, to guide her to the Oak Grove when it was time for her to play_her performance would extend past midnight, just this once, because she would never have had time to bathe and change and ready herself before suppertime.

It was very hard, though, to ignore the savory aromas wafting up from below. Most of them were as strange as they were pleasant_not exactly a surprise, if most of the clientele were not human.

She was going to surprise Kyran, however. He probably expected her to perform human-made music only, but Lyrebird was a bird of a different feather altogether.

Hmm. Perhaps I ought to have worn the black!

She was going to sing and play the music of at least three nonhuman cultures, besides the Elves. Human music would comprise the smallest part of her performance.

And again, since very few people, even among the Gypsies and the Free Bards, knew that she collected the music of nonhumans, this would be utterly unlike Nightingale.

She retired to her room in a glow of triumph, harp cradled in her arms, two hours after midnight; entirely pleased with herself and her new surroundings. Her particular performance room_which was, indeed, decorated to resemble a grove of trees with moss-covered rocks for seats and tables "growing" up out of the floor_was far enough from the dance floor that her own quiet performance could go on undisturbed. She had begun with purely instrumental music, Elven tunes mostly, which attracted a small, mixed crowd. From there she ventured into more and more foreign realms, and before the night was over, there were folk standing in line, waiting for a seat in her alcove. Most of them were not human, which was precisely as she had hoped; word had spread quickly among the patrons of Freehold that there was a musician in the Oak Grove who could play anything and sing "almost" anything. Most of the nonhumans were hungry for songs from home_and most of the time she could oblige them with something, if not the exact song they requested.

As she climbed the stairs to her room, oblivious to the cacophony of mixed music and babbling talk, she hardly noticed how tired she was. She was confident now that her salary would be in the three-or four-silver area, if not five. That would be enough; it would purchase the help of quite a number of children at a copper apiece. Kyran had checked on her during one of the busier moments, which was gratifying_he'd had a chance to see with his own eyes how many people were lining the walls, waiting for seats. His eyes had gone wide and round when he'd seen her in costume, too.

He certainly didn't expect that out of the drab little starling at the front door!

Finally she reached the top of the stairs, the balcony overlooking the dance floor, and the hallway leading off of it. Though the hall muffled some of the echoing noise from below, she couldn't help but notice that her room was just not far enough from the balcony for it to do much good. She put the harp down to open her door; set it inside and turned on the light, then closed the door behind her. The din outside vanished, cut off completely once the door was closed. She sighed with relief; her one worry had been that she might be kept awake all night by the noise. Evidently the Deliambren had thought of that, as well.

She set the harp safely in the corner, and reached for the plate that released the bed. It swung down, gently as a falling feather, and she fell into it.

And got up immediately at a tapping at her door. She answered it, frowning; had someone followed her up here, expecting the kind of entertainment that Kyran had sworn she would not have to provide? If so, he was going to get a rude surprise. Nightingale did not need a knife or a club to defend herself; her Lyncana friends made a fine art of hand-to-hand combat, and while she was a mere novice by their standards, she was confident that there was not a single human, no matter how large and muscular, who could force himself upon her. Many had tried in the past, and many had ended up permanently singing in higher keys.

But when she opened the door, there didn't seem to be anyone there_until she dropped her eyes.

"Evenin' snack for ye, mum," said a tow-headed urchin with a pair of ears that could have passed for handles, holding up a covered tray. He had to shout to be heard over the bellows and cheers from the dance floor below. "Boss figgered ye'd be hungered."

She wasn't about to argue; she took the tray from the boy with a smile, and before she could even thank him, he had scampered away down hall to the staircase, nimble as a squirrel and just as lively.

Hmm. My first reward for a job well done? That could be; she wasn't going to press the point. She was hungry despite a few bites taken here and there during the breaks in performing. After all, she hadn't eaten since noon, and that was a long time ago!

She took the tray over to her bed, set it down, lifted the cover, and nearly fainted with delight.

There was quite enough there, in that "snack," to have fed her for two days if she'd been husbanding rations. A tall, corked bottle of something cold_water beaded the sides and slid down the dark glass enticingly_stood beside a plate holding a generous portion of rare roast meat, sliced thin and still steaming. Three perfect, crusty rolls, already buttered, shared the plate with the meat. Very few humans would have recognized the next dish, which resembled nothing so much as a purple rose, but she knew a steamed kanechei when she saw it, and her mouth watered. To conclude the meal, there was a plate of three nut-studded honeycakes.

Her stomach growled, and she fell to without a second thought. When she finished, there was nothing left but a few crumbs and a blissful memory.

Following Deliambren tradition, she took the tray to the door and left it next to the wall, just outside. As she looked up and down the hallway, she saw another tray or two, which meant that she had done the right thing. The shouting from below had died down somewhat, but it sounded rather as if the drummer for the musical group was having some kind of rhythmic fit, and the audience was clapping and stamping their feet in time. She closed the door again quickly.

Why is it that the drunker people become, the more drumming they want? Maybe the alcohol blunts their ability to enjoy anything subtle_like a melody.

She had intended to read some of her own notebooks of nonhuman songs_but after that wonderful meal, and especially the light, sweet wine that had accompanied it, she could hardly keep her eyes open. So instead, she slipped out of her gown and hung it up with a care for the delicate cutwork; drew her nightshirt on over her head, turned off the light and felt her way into bed. She hardly had time to settle herself comfortably, when sleep overtook her.

"Therefore, my friends and brothers," the young Priest said, earnestly, his brown eyes going from one face below him to the next, "Yes, and my sisters, too! You must surely see how all these things only prove the unity of everything in the Cosmos_how God has placed the warmth of His light in every heart, whether the outer form of that heart walk on two legs or four_be clad in skin, hide, scales, or feathers_whether the being call God by the Name that we know him, or by something else entirely! What matters is this, only: that a being, whatever form he wears, strive to shelter that Light, to make it shine the brighter, and not turn his face to the darkness!"

The homely young Priest signaled his musicians and stepped back with a painfully sincere smile. Nightingale slipped out of St. Brands Chapel just as the tiny_and obviously musically handicapped_choir began another hymn-song, slipping a coin into the offering box as she passed it. She stepped out into the busy street and blended into the traffic, squinting against the bright noon light.

This was the fourth Chapel she had attended in as many days, and it had her sorely puzzled. In the other three_all of them impressive structures in "good" neighborhoods_she had heard only what she had expected to hear. That only humans had souls; that nonhumans, having no soul to save, had no reason to be "good." That if they had no reason to be good, they must, therefore, be evil.

This wasn't the first time such an argument had been used against nonhumans; obviously one of the things that the Church absolutely needed in order to galvanize its followers was an enemy. It was difficult to organize opposition to an abstract evil_and even more difficult to get people to admit that there was evil inside themselves. That meant that the ideal enemy would be something outside the Church and outside the members of the Church, and as unlike the human followers of the Sacrificed God as possible.

Easy enough to point the finger at someone and say, "he doesn't look like you, he doesn't believe in what you believe, he must be evil_and your natural enemy," she thought cynically, as she settled her hat on her head and let the crowd carry her along toward Freehold. She had expected this; if the Church was snatching secular power away from the High King, Lyonarie would be the place where it would show its truest hand_and that would be the place where the Church officials would take a stand showing who they had selected to be the "Great Enemy."

What she had not expected was that here the Church was openly divided against itself.

When her patrons first began telling her about this, in discussions she had started during the breaks between her sets, she had at first dismissed it as being a trick of some kind. After all, why in the world would Priests openly preach against what was, supposedly, Church canon? She couldn't come up with a reason behind such a trick, unless it might be to lull the nonhumans into complacency_but what other reason could there be?

She decided to take to the Chapels herself to find out.

Thus far, she had discovered a pattern, at least. Chapels in certain districts_aggressively human-only_always held Priests who followed the canonical path. But Chapels elsewhere might just as often harbor Priests like Brother Brion back there; Priests who preached the brotherhood of all beings, and stressed the similarities among the most various of beings rather than their differences. They could have been operating the kind of trick she suspected_but they could not hide the feelings behind their words, not to her, not when she chose to follow the music of their emotions.

And the music was of a sweeter harmony than that sadly under-talented choir back there. These Priests truly, deeply, believed in what they were saying. And if the stories her patrons told her were true, there were just as many Priests of this radical line as there were who followed canon.

The crowd carried her up to the front door of Freehold, and she slipped out of the stream and onto the doorstep. One or two others followed her there, but she knew after a quick glance that these were patrons, not fellow staff, and she simply granted them a brief smile before opening the door and taking the other hallway to the right, the one that led to the back stairs rather than the stable. She really didn't want anyone to know that "Tanager"_her street-name_and "Lyrebird" were one and the same. Especially not customers.

But as she climbed the dimly lit back staircase to the top floor, she couldn't help thinking about the words of that so-earnest young Priest, and all the trouble those words must surely be causing him in certain circles.

And in her brief experience, Priests, no matter how well meaning and sincere, simply did not do or say things that would get them in trouble with their own superiors.

Except that here and now, they were.

What, in the name of the Gypsy Lady and the Sacrificed God, was going on here?

T'fyrr tried to concentrate on the music coming out of his friend Harperus' miraculous little machine, but it was of no real use. A black mood was on him today, a black mood that not even music could lift.

He finally waved at the little black cube, which shut itself off, obediently. He turned and stared out the windows of Harperus' self-propelled wagon at the human hive called Lyonarie. Humans again. Why am I doing this? Surely I shall never interact with humans without something tragic occurring!

He examined the scaled skin of his wrists, where the marks of his fetters were still faintly visible, at least to his eyes. The invisible fetters, the ones that bound his heart, hurt far more than the physical bonds had.

Why did I agree to come here? How is it that Harperus can charm me into actions I would never take on my own?

Months ago, he had agreed to help Harperus in yet another of his schemes: a partial survey of the human lands. All had been well, right up until the moment that he had been caught on the ground by humans who claimed that he was a demon, a creature of evil, and had fettered and imprisoned him, starving him until he was more than half mad. Their intent had been to kill him in some religious spectacle_

That was what Harperus said. I scarcely recall most of it.

Little had he known he had friends among the crowd assembled to see him die: a pair of Free Bards, who had provided him with a distraction, the means to his escape.

Unfortunately, not everyone had been distracted at the crucial moment. A single human guard had seen that he was about to flee and had tried to stop him.

To a fatal end....

That was the reason for his black depression. It did not matter that he had killed in self-defense; the point was that he had killed. The man he had eviscerated in his pain and hunger-madness had only been doing his duty.

In fact, no matter what Harperus claims, since he was doing his duty, to the best of his ability, he was as "good" as I_perhaps my spiritual better. Certainly he is_was_not the one with blood on his conscience.

Could this mean, in the end, that the fanatics who had called him a demon, and evil, were actually right? The question haunted him, and Harperus, who had found him shivering in a field after his flight, had not helped. Harperus merely shrugged the entire question off, saying that the guard had followed the orders of a superior who was in the wrong. He further claimed that the man must at some point have known that his superior was in the wrong, and that evened the scales between himself and the man he had murdered.

But Harperus is a Deliambren, and they are facile creatures. They can make white into black and sun into midnight with their so-called logic. Harperus simply could not understand why this should torment him so; after all, it was over and done with, and there was nothing more to be said or done but to move on.

Oh, yes. To move on, without a load of guilt upon my soul so heavy that I cannot fly.

T'fyrr sighed gustily, and turned away from the window, waving at the machine again. It started right up obediently. Not that T'fyrr didn't know this particular human song by heart, but he wanted to have every nuance that Harperus had recorded. This was a love duet, sung by two of the finest of the human musicians_at least in T'fyrr's estimation_that Harperus had ever captured in his little cubes.

Lark and Wren. Why do so many of these humans bear the names of birds, I wonder?

Of course, part of the passion here was simply because the two who sang this song of love were lovers, and they allowed their feelings free voice. Still, T'fyrr had heard other humans who were their equals since he had descended from the mountains of his homeland, and not all of those were represented in Harperus' collection.

The one called Nightingale, for instance....

A Haspur's memory was the equal of any Deliambren storage crystal, and his meeting with Nightingale was fraught with such power and light that for a moment it completely overwhelmed his terrible gloom.

He and Harperus had taken a place for the Deliambren's living-wagon in a park, a place created by Gypsies for travelers to camp together. This was enlightened altruism; they charged a fee for this, and the intent of the place was to sell them services they might not otherwise have in the wilderness between cities.

Still, they erect and maintain such Waymeets; surely they deserve recompense I cannot fault them for charging fees.

T'fyrr had been restless, and Harperus had not seen any reason why he should have to remain mewed up in the wagon_the Gypsies were very assiduous about protecting the peace of their patrons. So he had gone for a walk, out under the trees surrounding the camping-grounds, and after an interval, he had heard a strange, wild music and followed it to its source.

It had been a woman, a Gypsy, playing her harp beside a stream. He had known enough about humans even then to recognize how unique she was. Black-haired, dark-eyed, her featherless skin browned to a honey-gold from many miles on the open road beneath the sun, she was as slender and graceful as a female of his own race and as ethereal as one of the beings that Harperus called "Elves." With her large, brooding eyes, high cheekbones, pointed chin and thin lips, she would probably have daunted him in other circumstances, since those features conspired to give her an air of haughty aloofness. But her eyes had been closed with concentration; her lips relaxed and slightly parted_and her music had entwined itself around his heart and soul, and he could not have escaped if he had wanted to.

They had shared a magical afternoon of music, then, once she finished her piece and realized that he was standing there. She had been as eager to hear some of the music of his people as he had been to learn the music of hers. An unspoken, but not unfelt, accord had sprung up between them, and T'fyrr sometimes took that memory out and held it between himself and despair when his guilt and gloom grew too black to bear.

The wagon lurched, and T'fyrr caught himself with an outstretched hand-claw.

Deliambren chairs were not made for a Haspur; the backs were poorly positioned for anyone with wings. Harperus had compromised by having a stool mounted to the floor of the wagon, with a padded ring of leather-covered metal that T'fyrr could clutch with his foot-talons a few krr above the floor. It was only a compromise, and T'fyrr found himself jarred out of his memory of that golden afternoon with Nightingale as the wagon lurched and he had to clutch, not only the foot-ring, but the table in front of him, to avoid being pitched to the floor.

Those stabilizer-things must be broken again. Much of the Deliambren's equipment had a tendency to break fairly often; Harperus spent as much time fixing the wagon as he did driving it. Most of the time the things that broke merely meant a little inconvenience; once or twice the Deliambren had actually needed to secure the wagon in a place that could be readily defended at need and call his people for someone to bring him a new part.

Still, this was a marvelous contraption. T'fyrr had, out of purest curiosity, poked his beak into the wagons of other travelers, and this behemoth was to those little horse-drawn rigs as he was to a scarcely fledged starling.

The wagon was divided into four parts: an eating and sitting part, where he was now; a sleeping part; a bathing and eliminating part; and a mysterious part that the Deliambren would allow no one into but himself. T'fyrr suspected that this final part was where the controls for the wagon were, and where Harperus kept some of the "technical" and "scientific" instruments that he used. Not that it mattered. T'fyrr was supremely incurious where all that nonsense was concerned.

The wagon could propel itself down a road without any outside pulling by horses or other draft-beasts. Right at the moment it was doing just that, although up until this point the Deliambren had taken exacting pains to keep humans from knowing it could move of itself. On the hottest days, it remained cool within_on the coldest, it was as warm as the Haspur could have wished. There were mystical compartments where fresh food was kept, remaining fresh until one wished to eat it. There was another kind of seat for elimination of bodily waste, and a tube wherein one could stand to be sluiced clean with fresh water. The whole of the wagon was most marvelously appointed; shiny beige wall and ceiling surfaces, leather-covered seating, rough, heavy rugs fastened down on the floor that one could dig one's talons into to avoid being flung about while the wagon was moving. Even the beds were acceptable, and it had been difficult for T'fyrr to find an acceptable bed_much less a comfortable one_since he had come down out of the mountains.

The very windows of this contrivance were remarkable. He could see out, but no one could see in. T'fyrr still did not understand how that was possible.

Unfortunately, the view displayed by those windows at the moment was hardly savory.

And Harperus claims that this is not the vilest part of this city! It is difficult to believe.

The Haspur lived among the tallest mountains on Alanda; while they were not very territorial by nature, they were also not colony-breeders. Each Haspur kept a respectable distance between his aerie and those of his neighbors. No enclave of Haspur ever numbered above a thousand_and there were at least that many humans just in the area visible from the window of the wagon!

They crammed themselves together in dwellings that were two and three stories tall, with the upper floors extended out over the street in such a way that very little sunlight penetrated to the street below. There must have been four or five families in each of the buildings, and each family seemed to have a half dozen children at absolute minimum. T'fyrr could not imagine what it must sound like with all of them meeping and crying at once. And how did their parents manage to feed them all? A young Haspur ate its own weight in food every day during the first six years of its growth; after that, he ate about half his own weight each day until he was full-grown. That was one reason why Haspur tended to limit their families to no more than two_T'fyrr could not even begin to imagine the amount of food consumed by six children!

This was not even a good place in which to raise young. In addition to the lack of sun, there was a profound lack of fresh air in this quarter. The buildings restricted breezes most cruelly. T'fyrr did not want to think about how hot it must be, out there in the street; why these people weren't running mad with the heat was a mystery. And the noise must be deafening, a jarring cacophony also likely to drive one mad.

Perhaps they are all mad; perhaps that is why they have so many offspring.

Haspur did not have a particularly good sense of smell, which he suspected was just as well, for he was certain that so many people crowded together_like starlings!_must create an environment as filthy as a starling roost.

The crowds seemed to be thinning, though, and the standard of construction in the residences rising the farther they went. He was not imagining it_there definitely was more room between the buildings; there were even spots of green, though the greenery was imprisoned away behind high walls, as if the owners of the property were disinclined to share even the sight of a tree or a flower with the unworthy.

There were fewer children in the street, too, and those few were not playing; they were with adults, supervised. Some even seemed to be working under adult supervision, sweeping the gutters, scrubbing walls, polishing gates.

They paused for a moment; T'fyrr couldn't see what was going on at the front of the coach, but a moment later they were on the move again and he saw why they had stopped. There was a simple wooden gate meant to bar the road, now pulled aside, and several armed guards to make certain no one passed it without authorization. They watched the coach pass by stoically enough, but T'fyrr noted that they did seem_impressed? puzzled?

Well, Harperus is Deliambren, and he was bent on displaying Deliambren wonders to the court of the High King... I suppose he must have decided to begin with everyone in the city.

Harperus had insisted that here in Lyonarie it was of utmost importance to display as much power as one could, conveniently. Abstractly, T'fyrr understood this; the powerful were never impressed by anyone with less power than they, after all. But this business of going out of their way to look strange and different, including operating the coach without horses_

Looking different can be hazardous; I have had a crop full of what that hazard can be. Displaying too much power can incite as much envy as anything else, and the envious, when powerful, are often moved to try and help themselves to what has excited that envy, at whatever cost to the current owner.

Still, Harperus claimed that he had "connections" at the court of Theovere, and given the dangerous trends of the past two years, he and his people had felt it was time to employ those "connections."

Theovere was a music lover of the most fanatic vein; apparently this was what had been occupying the time he should have been spending doing his duty as High King. Originally, Harperus was going to offer Theovere one of the music machines and a set of memory-crystals as a blatant bribe for a little more influence in legislation, but since the time that original plan had been conceived, he had evolved a better one_

Better, not just because it means no dangerous "technology" will be in the hands of those who might somehow manage to find an unpleasant use for it, but because it will mean_or so he thinks_that he will have a direct influence instead of an indirect one.

T'fyrr sighed, flipped his wings to position them more comfortably, and drummed his talons on the table. He was not looking forward to this. Harperus' plan was to have T'fyrr appointed as an official Court Musician to the High King himself. Harperus was unshakably certain that once the High King heard T'fyrr sing, the Haspur would become a royal favorite. And once a nonhuman was a royal favorite, it would be much more difficult for other interests to get laws restricting the rights of nonhumans past the High King.

Interests such as the human Church, perhaps... though I am not particularly sanguine about one Haspur being able to overcome the interests of the Church, however optimistic Harperus may be. Religion rules the heart, and the heart is the most stubborn of adversaries. Rule the religion, and you rule the heart, and no one can oppose you_unless what you offer is better. Then, you must convince them that what you have is better, and people will die to hold on to what they already believe....

T'fyrr twitched his tail irritably. Harperus was optimistic about a great many things_and T'fyrr did not share his optimism in most of them.

Even if we can get in to see this High King, there is no guarantee he will be impressed with my singing. Even if he is, there is no guarantee that he will actually do anything about it personally; and from what I have seen, if he leaves my disposition up to his underlings, they will find a way to "lose" me. No, Harperus is counting on a great deal of good luck, and good luck seems to have deserted me.

T'fyrr glanced out the windows again and was impressed, though in a negative fashion, by the homes he now passed. These dwellings_each a magnificent work of art, each set in its own small park and garden_were clearly owned by those of wealth and high rank. And the guards on that gate they had passed showed just how unlikely it would be for a commoner to get access to these lovely garden-spots.

So the low and poor must crowd together in squalor, while the wealthy and high live in splendor. If I were low and poor_I think I would go elsewhere to live. My home would still be poor, but at least I would have sunlight and fresh air, green things about me and a little peace.

But_perhaps these humans enjoyed living this way. Starlings certainly did. That made them even less understandable.

Not that he had come close to understanding them so far. The humans' own Sacrificed God spoke of fairness and justice and faith in the goodness of others. These things should prevent believers from doing harm to strangers. Why should an underling, clearly seeing his superiors doing vile things to another living being, believe that those things were justified? How could he be convinced that another being, who had done no harm, was a monster worth destroying? How could such a man be so convinced that those superiors were correct that he would spend his own life to carry out their will?

Perhaps those superiors were right; perhaps T'fyrr was as potentially evil as they claimed. After all, he was the one who had killed. Perhaps he misunderstood what the Sacrificed God was all about_after all, if the Deliambrens could make white into black, maybe the humans could, too.

I only hope that Harperus' plan works as well as he thinks it will, T'fyrr thought, depression settling over him again. I might somehow redeem myself, if only I can be in a position where I can do some real good_or perhaps this helplessness to affect anything for the better is punishment for my evil....

T'fyrr was not as expert at reading human expressions as he would have liked, but there was no mistaking the look the Court official facing them wore on his refined visage.

Disdain.

Not all of Harperus' Deliambren charm or magic had been able to remove that look from the face of this so-called "Laurel Herald." He had taken in the splendor of Harperus' costume_a full and elaborate rig that made the Deliambren look to T'fyrr's eyes rather like one of those multitiered, flower-bedecked, overdecorated cakes that some races produced at weddings and other festivities. He had watched the coach drive itself off to a designated waiting place with a similarly lifted brow. Of course, he was probably used to seeing similar things every day, and his livery of scarlet and gold, embroidered on the breast with a winged creature so elaborately encrusted with gold bullion that it was impossible to tell what it was supposed to be, was just as ornate in its way as Harperus' costume. He sat behind a huge desk_a desk completely empty so far as T'fyrr could see_in the exact center of an otherwise barren, marble-walled and mosaic-floored chamber. The walls were covered with heroic paintings of stiff-faced humans engaged in conflicts, or stiff-faced humans posing in front of bizarre landscapes. There was a single bench behind the desk, where many young humans in similar livery sat quietly.

Now he waited for Harperus to declare himself, which Harperus was not at all loathe to do. The Deliambren adored being able to make speeches.

"I am Harperus, the Deliambren Ambassador-at-large," he announced airily to the functionary. He went on at length, detailing the importance of his position, the number of dignitaries he had presented his credentials to and the exalted status of the Deliambren Parliament. Finally, he came to the point.

"I have a presentation to make to Theovere," he concluded.

Not "His Majesty High King Theovere," but the simple surname, as if he and the High King were of equal stature. T'fyrr was impressed, by Harperus' audacity if nothing else.

The title Harperus claimed was not precisely a fiction, although very little of what the Deliambren actually did on his extensive trips ever had anything to do with conventional diplomacy. And it was entirely possible he had presented his credentials to every one of the dignitaries he named_they were all wealthy enough to afford Deliambren goods, and Harperus often acted as a courier for such things. The official favored Harperus with a long moment of silence, during which the "Laurel Herald" scrutinized the Deliambren as carefully as an oldster examining her daughter-in-laws aerie for dirt in the corners, unpolished furniture, or a fraction less klrrthn than was proper.

Harperus simply stood there, radiating a cool aplomb. T'fyrr was grateful that no human here could possibly have enough experience with Haspur to read their expressions and body language, or he would have given it all away with his rigid nervousness. He stood as straight and as stiffly as a perching-pole, his wings clamped against his back. Probably the official didn't notice, or if he did, thought it was stiff formality and not nerves.

He didn't seem to notice the Haspur at all; in the simple silk body-wrap, T'fyrr probably looked like a slave.

Finally the "Laurel Herald" elected to take them at face value; he signaled to a boy he referred to as "Page," one of the dozen waiting quietly on the bench behind his desk, and gave them over into the boy's keeping.

"Take them to the Afternoon Court," the Herald said, shortly, and turned his attention to other business on his empty desk.

After an interminable walk down glass-walled corridors that passed through the middle of mathematically precise gardens, the boy led them toward_a structure. If the scale of the Palace had been anything T'fyrr considered normal, it would have been another wing of a central building. But since everything was on such a massive scale, this "wing" was the size of entire Palaces. It was certainly the size of the huge Cathedral in Gradford, which was one of the largest human buildings T'fyrr had ever seen.

"That's Court, my lords," the boy explained, enunciating carefully. "That's all that goes on in that Palace building, just Court. Morning and Afternoon Court, informal Court, formal Court, Judiciary, Allocation, City_"

The boy rattled on until T'fyrr shook his head in disbelief. How many ways could one entitle the simple function of hearing problems and meeting people? Evidently quite a few....

The bureaucracy here must be enough to stun a thinking being. I feel dizzy.

The doors at the end of the corridor swung open without a hand to open them as they approached; T'fyrr glanced sideways at Harperus, who smirked in smug recognition.

A Deliambren device, of course. Why am I not surprised?

The doors closed behind them, silently, and the Haspur noted larger versions of the Deliambren lighting that Harperus employed in his coach hanging from the ceiling, encased in ornate structures of glass and gold. There were probably hundreds more examples of Deliambren wonders here, but none of them would be of the type that could be taken apart without destroying them.

Well, no matter what the Church says about the "evil magic" of those who are not human, past High Kings have not scrupled to buy and use our devices. T'fyrr grimaced. No matter what happens, I would place a high wager that they would continue to use such things, even in the face of a Church declaration of Anathema. The Church would either look the other way, or the High King would pay the fine and continue to have his lighting and his self-opening doors.

The High King would be able to afford whatever fine the Church levied without even thinking about it; T'fyrr knew, after traveling so long with Harperus, just how much that lighting, those doors, probably cost. Nor was the display of wealth limited to the nonhuman devices so prominently displayed and used. Of course, the money came from somewhere, and T'fyrr's mind played out an image of the human hive they had come through.

They followed down a hallway paved in polished marble with matching marble paneling. Graceful designs had been incised into the marble of the walls and gold wire inlaid in the grooves. At intervals, along the wall and beneath the lighting, where they were displayed at their best advantage, were graceful sculptures of humans and animals, also of marble with details of gold inlay. Between the sculptures stood small marble tables, topped with vases made of semiprecious jade, malachite and carnelian. The vases were filled with bouquets, not of fresh flowers, but of flowers made of precious stones and gold and silver wire.

T'fyrr could not even begin to calculate the cost of all of this. Surely just one of those flowers would keep a commoner out in Lyonarie fed and clothed for a year!

The page led them to a pair of gold-inlaid, bronze doors, each a work of art in itself, depicting more humans_though for once, these were not in conflict, but gathered for some purpose. The doors swung open, and the boy waved them in.

"They'll have brought your name to the Presiding Herald," the boy whispered as T'fyrr caught sight of a jewel-bedecked throng just inside the door. "He'll add you to the list; just listen for him to announce you, and then present yourself to His Majesty."

"Thank you," Harperus said gravely. The boy bobbed an abrupt little bow, and hurried off; Harperus strode between those open doors as if he had every right to be there, and T'fyrr moved in his wake, like a silent, winged shadow.

He had not donned all of the finery that Harperus had wanted him to put on_a huge, gemmed pectoral collar, ankle-bracelets, armbands and wristbands, a dusting of gold powder for his wings. Now he was glad that he had not. Not only had the wrist and armbands and bracelets felt far too much like fetters, but T'fyrr was certain that he would only have looked ridiculous in the borrowed gear, as if he was trying to ape these jeweled and painted humans, who were oh-so-carefully not staring at the nonhumans in their midst. There did not appear to be any other nonhuman creatures in this room, although it was difficult to be certain of that. They could have been crammed up against the white marble walls_that, evidently, was the place where those of little importance were relegated. The magic circle of ultimate status was just before the throne, within earshot of everything that went on upon the dais. Harperus strolled toward that hallowed ground quite as if he had a place reserved for him there, and to T'fyrr's amazement, the haughty courtiers gave way before him.

Perhaps they are frightened by his costume!

The nearer they got to the throne, the more annoyed and resentful the glances of those giving way for them became. Just at the point where T'fyrr was quite certain Harperus was about to be challenged, the Deliambren stopped, folded his arms, and stood his ground, his whole attitude one of genial listening. T'fyrr did his best to copy his friend.

Harperus was truly paying attention to what was going on around the throne, unlike many of the humans here. As T'fyrr watched and listened, following the Deliambren's example, he became aware that there was something very wrong....

The High King_who did not look particularly old, though his short hair was an iron grey, and his face sported a few prominent lines and wrinkles_sat upon a huge, gilded and jeweled throne that was as dreadful an example of bad taste as anything Harperus had ever inflicted on an unsuspecting T'fyrr. The King's entire attitude, however, was not at all businesslike, but rather one of absolute boredom.

On both sides of the throne were richly dressed humans in floor-length ornate robes embroidered with large emblems, with enormous chains of office about their necks, like so many dressed up dogs with golden collars. But these dogs were not the ones obeying the command of their master_rather, the prey was in the other claw entirely.

Harperus had been right. Harperus had actually been right. The High King virtually parroted everything these so-called advisors of his told him to say.

Now, T'fyrr was mortally certain that very few of the courtiers were aware of this, for the Advisors bent over their monarch in a most respectful and unctuous manner, and whispered in carefully modulated tones what it was they thought he should say. They were taking great care that it appear they were only advising, not giving him orders. But a Haspur's hearing was as sharp as that of any owl, and T'fyrr was positive from the bland expression on Harperus' face that the Deliambren had some device rigged up inside that bizarre head- and neck-piece he sported that gave him the same aural advantage.

During the brief time that they stood there, waiting their turn, King Theovere paid little or no attention to matters that T'fyrr thought important_given as little acquaintance as he had with governing. There were several petitions from Guildmasters, three or four ambassadors presenting formal communications from their Kings, a report on the progress of the rebuilding at Kingsford_

Well, those might easily be dismissed, as Theovere was doing, by handing them over to his Seneschal. There was nothing there that he really needed to act upon, although his barely hidden yawn was rather rude by T'fyrr's standards. But what of the rest?

There was an alarming number of requests from Dukes, Barons, and even a mere Sire or two from many of the Twenty Kingdoms, asking the High King's intervention with injustices perpetrated by their lords and rulers. Wasn't that precisely the kind of thing that the High King was supposed to handle? Wasn't he supposed to be the impartial authority to keep the abuse of power to a minimum? That was how T'fyrr understood the structure of things. The High King was the ultimate ruler, and his duty was not only to his own land but to see that all the others were well-governed_enforcing that, even to the point of placing a new King on a throne if need be.

But most of these petitions, like the rest of the work, he delegated to his poor, overburdened Seneschal_everything that he did not dismiss out of hand with a curt "take your petty grievances back to your homeland and address them properly to your own King."

The Seneschal, however overworked he already was, always looked pained when the King used that particular little speech, but he said nothing.

Perhaps there isn't a great deal that he can do, T'fyrr thought. The Seneschal's chain was the least gaudy of all of the chains of office_perhaps that meant that, among the Advisors, he had the least power.

The rest of the Advisors however were not so reluctant to voice their opinions_which were universally positive. They actually congratulated the High King every time he dismissed a petition or passed it on to the Seneschal.

They were particularly effusive when he trotted out that little speech.

"A fine decision, Your Majesty," someone would say. Another would add, as predictably as rhyming "death" with "breath," "It is in the interest of your land and people that they see you delegate your authority, so that when you are truly needed, you will be free to grant a problem your full attention." And a third would pipe up with, "You must be firm with these people, otherwise every dirt-farming peasant who resents paying tax and tithe to his overlord and the Church win come whining to you for redress of his so-called wrongs."

And the High King smiled, and nodded, and suppressed another yawn.

T'fyrr flexed his talons silently, easing the tension in his feet by clamping them into fists until they trembled. How in the world did Harperus think he could help with this situation? The King was getting all of this bad advice from high-ranking humans who were probably very dangerous and hazardous to cross!

Memories of fetters weighing him down made him shiver with chill in that overly warm room. Hazardous to cross....

But before he could say anything to Harperus, the Presiding Herald announced their names, and it was too late to stop the Deliambren from carrying out his plan.

"My Lord Harperus jin Lothir, Ambassador-at-large from the Deliambrens, and T'fyrr Redwing, envoy of the Haspur_"

A tiny portion of T'fyrr's mind noted the rich tones of the humans voice with admiration; the rest of him was engaged in trying to watch the reactions of anyone of any importance to the announcement.

The King's face lit up the moment Harperus stepped forward; as the Deliambren launched into a flowery speech lauding the greatness of King Theovere, and the vast impact of the High King's reputation across the face of Alanda, the Advisors waited and watched like an unkindness of ravens waiting for something to die. They didn't know what Harperus was up to_if, indeed, he was up to anything. That bothered them, but what clearly bothered them more was the fact that for the first time Theovere was showing some interest and no boredom.

Theovere might not be the man he once was, but he still knows where the "marvels" come from.

Now T'fyrr wondered if the trouble was with the King's age; there was a certain illness of the aged where one regressed into childhood. Theovere certainly betrayed some symptoms of childishness....

T'fyrr followed the speech; he knew it by heart, and his cue was just coming up. Without pausing or skipping a beat, Harperus went from the speech to T'fyrr's introduction.

"_and I bring before you one who has heard of your generous patronage of the art of music, the envoy of goodwill from the Haspur of the Skytouching Mountains where no human of the Twenty Kingdoms has ever ventured, here to entertain you and your Court."

Harperus stepped back, and T'fyrr quickly stepped forward. One of the Advisors opened his mouth as if to protest; T'fyrr didn't give him a chance to actually say something.

He had already filled his lungs while he waited for his cue, and now he burst into full-chested song.

Although the Haspur had their own musical styles, they also had the ability to mimic anything so exactly that only another Haspur could tell the mimicry from the genuine sound. T'fyrr had chosen that lovely human duet to repeat_it was ideally suited to his voice, since it was antiphonal, and he could simulate the under- and overtones of an instrumental accompaniment with a minimum of concentration. He did improve on the original recording, however. While Master Wren was a golden tenor, Lady Larks lovely contralto was not going to impress an audience this sophisticated_so T'fyrr transposed the female reply up into the coloratura range and added the appropriate trills, glissandos and flourishes.

The King sat perfectly still, his eyes actually bulging a little in a way that T'fyrr found personally flattering, though rather unattractive. With his superior peripheral vision, he could keep track of those courtiers nearest him, as well, and many of them were positively slack-jawed with amazement.

His hopes and his spirits began to rise at that point. Perhaps he was impressive to this jaded audience! Perhaps he would be able to accomplish something here!

The instant that he finished, the staid, etiquette-bound courtiers of High King Theovere broke into wild and completely spontaneous applause.

But the Advisors applauded only politely, their eyes narrowed in a way that T'fyrr did not at all like. They resembled ravens again; this time sizing up the opportunity to snatch a bite.

"So," Harperus muttered under his breath, as T'fyrr took a modest bow or two, "now do you think I'm crazy?"

"I know you are crazy," the Haspur replied in a similarly soft voice, "but you are also clever. That is a bad combination for your enemies."

The Deliambren only chuckled.

CHAPTER FOUR

Ah, T'fyrr thought with resignation, perched uncomfortably upon the tall stool that had been brought for him. I do enjoy being talked about as if I was not present.

This was not the first time he had found himself in that position. At least, in this case, the discussion concerned his life and prosperity, not his imminent and painful death.

And at least this time he was seated, and on a relatively appropriate stool_in deference to his wings and tail_rather than standing in an iron cage, fettered at every limb.

Harperus was not part of this discussion, this Council session; the Deliambren had not been invited. This was probably more of an oversight than a deliberate insult, since the subject of this meeting was T'fyrr and not Harperus. T'fyrr wished profoundly for his company, though; as the only nonhuman, as well as the object of discussion, he was alternately being ignored and glared at. It would have been less uncomfortable if Harperus had been there to share the "experience."

By the standards of the Palace so far, this was a modest room, paneled in carved wood, with wooden floors and boasting Deliambren lighting. The Council members, all of the King's Advisors, sat at a rectangular marble-topped table with the King at the head and T'fyrr at the foot. They had carved wooden chairs that could have doubled as thrones in many kingdoms; the King had a simpler wooden replica of the monstrosity in the room in which he held Court, gilded as well as carved. Behind the King stood a circle of four silent bodyguards in scarlet and black livery, armed to the teeth, in enameled helms and breastplates, as blank-faced as any Elf.

If they projected the fact that they are dangerous any harder, there would be little puddles of "danger" on the floor around them. Look, it's "danger," don't step in it!

"I want him as my personal Court Musician," King Theovere said, with a glare across the table at his Seneschal. The King had convened this Council meeting as soon as Court was over_and he had cut Court embarrassingly short in order to arrange the time for the meeting. Evidently nothing could be done, not even the appointment of a single musician to the royal household, without at least one Council meeting. But it was obvious to T'fyrr that no matter what his Advisors thought, this meeting was going to go the King's way. He wondered if they realized that yet....

Lord Marshal Lupene shrugged his massive shoulders. The Marshal was an old warrior, now gone to fat to an embarrassing extent, though from the way he carried himself it was likely he didn't realize it_or didn't want to. "Your Majesty might consider what the envoys both have to say about it. They might have other plans."

Theovere did not quite glower, but T'fyrr was as aware as Theovere that the the Lord Marshal's implying that the King had not already consulted with T'fyrr and Harperus was cutting dangerously close to insubordination. This Lord Marshal must have been very sure of himself to chance such insolence.

"He is willing_even eager!" Theovere said angrily as T'fyrr nodded slightly, though no one paid any attention to him. "The Deliambren Ambassador says that he can manage without T'fyrr along, that he and T'fyrr were really no more than convenient traveling companions. I tell you, I want him in my employ starting from this moment_"

Lord Chamberlain Vidor, who had charge of the King's Court Musicians, pursed his thin lips. The Lord Chamberlain was as cadaverous and lean as the Lord Marshal was massive. "Your Majesty cannot have considered the impact this will have on his other musicians," Vidor intoned, keeping his disapproval thinly veiled. "Musicians are delicate creatures with regards to their sensibilities and morale_appointing this Haspur could wreak great damage among them. After all_he isn't even human, much less a Guild Bard!"

Theovere turned towards his Chamberlain and raised one bushy eyebrow. "The second follows upon the first, doesn't it?" he asked testily. "The Guild won't accept nonhumans, which makes it altogether impossible for T'fyrr to be one. I have, in fact, considered the impact of this appointment, and I think it will serve as an excellent example to my other musicians. Having T'fyrr in their midst will keep them on their mettle. They have been getting lazy; too much repetition and too little original work. They could use the competition." His tone grew silken as he glanced aside at Lord Guildmaster Koraen. "Perhaps it might give the Bardic Guild cause to reconsider their ban on nonhuman members, with so excellent a musician being barred from their ranks."

And from lending the Guild my prestige, my notoriety, T'fyrr added silently, seeing some of the same thoughts occurring to the Guildmaster. Koraen was good at hiding his feelings, but T'fyrr detected the sound of the bulky, balding man grinding his teeth in frustration. The Guild has just lost a fair amount of prestige thanks to my performance, and might lose some royal preference if I continue to succeed here. This man is going to be my enemy. He mentally shook his head. What am I thinking? They are all going to be my enemies! The only question is how dangerous they consider me!

"The Bardic Guild_" the Guildmaster began.

Theovere slammed his open palm down on the table. "The Bardic Guild had better learn some flexibility!" he all but shouted. "The Bardic Guild had better learn how to move with the times! The Bardic Guild had better come up with something better than elaborations on the same tired themes if they want to continue to enjoy my patronage!"

"But this sets a very bad precedent, Your Majesty," interjected another Council member, a thin and reedy little man who had not been introduced to T'fyrr. He wore a sour expression that seemed to be perpetually fixed on his face.

"My Lord Treasurer is correct," agreed the Lord Judiciar smoothly, an oily fellow of nondescript looks who had been among the first to congratulate the King every time he dismissed a petition. "It sets a very bad precedent indeed. You are the High King of the Twenty Human Kingdoms; what need have you to bring in outsiders to fill your household?"

Now, for the first time, T'fyrr saw signs of petulance on the King's face, a childish expression that looked, frankly, quite ridiculous on a man with grey hair. And the royal temper, held barely in check, now broke_but not into shouting.

"I want him in my household, and by God, I will have him in my household!" the King grated dangerously, glaring at them all. "In fact_" His expression suddenly grew sly. "I'll appoint him my Chief Court Musician! Yes, why not? I have a vacant place for a Chief Musician in my personal household; let T'fyrr fill it! That is a position solely under my control, subject to my discretion, and the Council can only advise me on it, as you know."

As the expressions of the Council members around the table changed from annoyed to alarmed, he chuckled, like a nasty little boy who has been picking the wings off flies.

"But_but Your Majesty_" the Lord Chamberlain spluttered, obviously blurting the first thing that came into his head. "That is impossible! The_the_Chief Court Musician must be a Knight! All of Your Majesty's household must be of the rank of Sire or better!"

"Oh, well, if that is all there is to it_" Before anyone could stop him, the King rose from his seat and walked to T'fyrr's, pulling out his ornamental short sword as he came. "I can certainly remedy that. I am a Knight as well as a King, and according to the rules of chivalry, I can make other Knights in either capacity as I choose. They need only be worthy, and T'fyrr is certainly far more worthy of this post than any Bardic Guild popinjay you've presented me with thus far!"

Oh, good heavens. He's lost his mind.

T'fyrr was not certain what he should do, so he did nothing, except to rise, turn to face the King, and bow. This did not seem to bother Theovere at all. The King tapped him on each shoulder in a perfunctory manner, then resheathed the sword. The Council members sat numbly in their places, struck dumb by the sudden and abrupt turn of events. Clearly the King was not supposed to take so much initiative.

Obviously they have never tried to balk him before. They have just learned a lesson. I believe they thought the King too much in their control to slip his leash like this.

"There," the King said, casually. "Sire T'fyrr, I now name thee a Knight of the Court, whose duties shall be to serve as my Chief Minstrel in my own Household. Do you accept those duties and swear to that service?"

"I do," T'fyrr rumbled, and then a storm of protests arose.

By the time it was all over, the Council had suffered complete defeat. T'fyrr was still Sire T'fyrr_a title which was fundamentally an empty one, since no gift of land went along with the honor. He was still the Chief Court Musician. When the Lord Chamberlain swore that the other Court Musicians would never share quarters with a nonhuman, the King gleefully added a private suite in the royal wing to the rest of T'fyrr's benefits. When the Lord Treasurer protested that the kingdom could not bear the unknown living expenses of so_unusual_a creature, Theovere shrugged and assigned his expenses to the Privy Purse. The only real objection that anyone could make that Theovere could not immediately counter was the objection that "the people will not understand."

Finally Theovere simply glared them all to silence. "The people will learn to understand," he said in a threatening tone that brooked no argument. "It is about time that the people became a little more flexible, just as it is about time that the Bardic Guild and the members of my Court and Council became a little more flexible, and the example can be set here and now, in my own household!" He glared once more around the table. "I am the King, and I have spoken! You work for me. Is that understood?"

T'fyrr then saw something he had not expected, as the faces of the Council members grew suddenly pale, and they shut their lips on any further objections.

What? he thought with interest. What is this? And why? They have been treating him like a child until this moment_now, why do they suddenly act as if they had a lion in their midst? What was it about that phrase, "I am the King and I have spoken," that has sudden changed the entire complexion of this?

Silence reigned around the table, and Theovere nodded with satisfaction. "Good!" he said. "Now, you may all go attend to your pressing duties. I am sure you have many. You keep telling me that you do."

The Council members rose to a man in a rustling of expensive fabric, bowed, and filed silently out, leaving only T'fyrr and Theovere, and Theovere's ever-present bodyguards. The King chuckled.

"I am not certain, Your Majesty, that I deserve such preferential treatment," T'fyrr said at last, after a moment of thought. I have had enemies made this day of nearly every important man in this Court. This appointment has just become a most comfortable and luxurious setting in which to be a target! "Perhaps if you chose to return to your original plan?" he suggested gently. "I am only one poor musician, and there is no reason to make my position in your household into a source of such terrible contention."

Theovere shook his head. "I meant what I said," the High King replied. "They can learn to live with it. There has been too much talk of late about the superiority of humans_and you have just proven that talk to be so much manure, and you have done so in my open Court. It is time and more than time for people to learn better_you will serve as my primary example."

Thus making me a target for every malcontent in the city, if not in the Twenty Kingdoms! Thank you so much, Your Majesty!

"I will call a page to show you to your new quarters, and have your friend, the Deliambren, sent there to meet you," the King continued, rising to his feet. T'fyrr did likewise with some haste, bowing as the King smiled. One of the bodyguards reached for a bellpull, and as the King moved away from the table, a young, dark-haired, snub-nosed boy appeared in the still-open door, clad in the High King's livery of gold and scarlet.

The King acknowledged T'fyrr's bow with an indolent wave of his hand, and walked out of the Council room, trailing all but one of his bodyguards. The one left behind, the one who had summoned the page, gestured to the boy as T'fyrr rose from his bow.

"This gentleman is now the King's Chief Court Musician in his personal household," the bodyguard said to the boy in a voice lacking all expression. He kept his face at an absolute deadpan as well, and T'fyrr could only admire his acting ability. "His name is Sire T'fyrr. You will escort him to the royal wing, see that he is comfortably lodged in the Gryphon Suite, and from here on, see that his needs are attended to. For the immediate future, you will see to his special needs in furnishing his quarters, then, when Sire T'fyrr indicates, find the Deliambren Ambassador and escort him to Sire T'fyrr."

The child bobbed his head in wordless acknowledgement, and the bodyguard left, apparently satisfied that the King's orders had been correctly delivered.

As soon as he was gone, the boy glanced up at T'fyrr, and the Haspur did not have to be an expert in human children to see that the boy was frightened of him. His face was pale, and his fists clenched at his sides. If T'fyrr said or did anything alarming, the poor fledgling would probably faint_or forget his duty and bolt for someplace safe to hide!

"I am a Haspur, young friend," T'fyrr said gently, and chuckled. "We don't eat children. We do eat meat, but we prefer it to be cooked_and we would rather not have had a speaking acquaintance with it before it became our dinner."

The child relaxed marginally. "Would you follow me, Sire T'fyrr?" he said in a trembling soprano. "Do you have any baggage that you will need brought to you?"

"My friend Harperus will see to all that," T'fyrr told him, and added as an afterthought, "He is the Deliambren. You should have no trouble finding him; he is the only being in the Palace who is dressed to look like a saints palanquin in a Holy Day Festival Parade."

That broke the ice, finally; the little boy giggled, and stifled the laugh behind both hands. But the eyes above the hands were merry, and when he turned a sober face back to T'fyrr, his eyes had a sparkle to them that they had lacked until that moment.

"If you would come with me, then, Sire?" the boy said, gesturing at the door.

T'fyrr nodded. "Certainly_ah, what is your name? It seems rude to call you 'boy' or 'page.' "

"Regan, Sire," the boy said, skipping to keep up with T'fyrr as the Haspur strode down the hallway. "But my friends call me Nob."

T'fyrr coaxed his beak into something like a human smile. He had learned that the expression made humans feel better around him. "Very well, Nob," he said, projecting good humor and casualness into his voice. "Now, if you were in my place, granted a title and a new home, what would you do first?"

"You mean, about the suite and all, Sire?" Nob asked, looking up at T'fyrr with a crooked grin. "Well, I might have some ideas_"

"Then by all means," T'fyrr told him, "let me hear them!"

Harperus lounged at his ease on one of the damask-covered sofas in the reception room of the suite, watching T'fyrr try out the various pieces of furniture that Nob had suggested he order brought down from storage. Somehow, it all matched_or at least, it coordinated, as the main colors of the suite were warm golds and browns, with gryphons forming the main theme of the carvings. Padded stools proved surprisingly comfortable, as did an odd, backless couch that Nob particularly recommended. And to replace the bed_

When T'fyrr had sketched what a Haspur bed looked like, Nob had studied the sketch for a moment, and then snapped his fingers with a grin of glee. He hadn't said a word to T'fyrr, but he had called another servant_an oddly silent servant_and handed him the sketch with a whispered explanation.

Six husky men appeared about an hour later, just as Harperus arrived with more servants bearing T'fyrr's baggage. The men took the bed out without a single word and returned with something that was the closest thing to a Haspur bed that T'fyrr had ever seen in these human realms. He stared at it, mouth agape, while Nob grinned from ear to ear.

He had a suspicion that there was more to this than met the eye, and his suspicion was confirmed when Harperus took one look and nearly choked.

"Very well," he said, mustering up as much dignity as he could. "Obviously this is not the Haspur bed that it appears to be. What is it?"

Nob clapped both hands over his mouth, stifling a laugh. "You tell him, my lord!" he said to Harperus, gasping. "I_nay, I can't do it!"

He turned around, growing scarlet in the face, obviously having a hard time containing himself. T'fyrr waited, curiosity vying with exasperation, while Harperus struggled to get himself under control.

"It's_its something no well-bred boy should know about at Nob's tender age," Harperus managed finally. "Lets just say, it isn't meant for sleeping."

Enlightenment dawned. "Ah! A piece of mating furniture!" T'fyrr exclaimed brightly, and clicked his beak in further annoyance when both Nob and Harperus went off into paroxysms of smothered laughter.

I cannot, and never will, understand why the subject of mating should make these humans into sniggering idiots, he thought a little irritably. It is just as natural as eating, and there are no whispers and giggles about enjoying one's breakfast! So that explains the ever-so-reticent servant that found the thing; in a place like this, there must be a servant in charge of romantic liaisons!

By the winds, there was probably even a division of labor_one servant for discreet liaisons, one for very discreet liaisons, one for indiscreet liaisons, one for the exotic....

Well, at least Nob hadn't been so bound up in this silly human propriety nonsense that he refused to have the object sent for! It might be a piece of mating equipment to these humans, but it made a perfectly fine nest-bed, and T'fyrr looked forward to having one of the first completely comfortable nights he'd had in a very long time.

Finally, after many false starts, the page got himself back under control, although he would not or could not look Harperus in the eye. "If you need me any more, Sire," he told T'fyrr with a decent imitation of a sober expression, "just ring for me."

"Ring for you?" T'fyrr asked, puzzled, and Nob walked over to the wood-paneled wall, pulled aside a brown damask curtain, and pointed to a line of gilded brass bellpulls.

"This is the guards_this is the kitchen, if I'm off running an errand_this is the bath servants, if I'm off running an errand_this is the maid, in case you need something cleaned. This is for me_I'm your page now, Sire. I'll be sleeping in that little room just next to the bathroom. Unless you want someone older, I'll be your body servant, too. That means I dress you." Nob eyed the simple wrapped garment that T'fyrr wore for the sake of modesty. "Doesn't look as if there's all that much work tending to your wardrobe."

"Not really," T'fyrr agreed. "Do you want to be assigned to me?"

"Oh yes, Sire!" Nob replied immediately, and his artless enthusiasm could not be doubted. "There's status in it; I'd be more than just a page_and you'll be a good master, Sire. I can tell," he finished confidently.

T'fyrr sighed. "I hope I can live up to that, young friend," he answered, as much to himself as to the boy. "Well, so what are all these other bells?"

When Nob finished his explanations, Harperus intervened. "I can show him the rest, young one," the Deliambren said easily. "My people built most of the complicated arrangements in this Palace. You go see to getting your own quarters set up."

"Yes, my lord," Nob said obediently, as T'fyrr nodded confirmation of Harperus' suggestion. "Thank you, my lord, I appreciate that_"

As the boy whisked out of the suite, Harperus turned to T'fyrr. "Well, now you're a Sire, and that lad is your entire retinue. The thing to remember is that Nobs duty is always to you, first. That means if you keep him doing things for you all the time, he has no right to eat, rest, or even sleep."

T'fyrr's beak fell open as he stared, aghast. Harperus just shrugged.

"It's the way these boys are brought up," he said philosophically. "Chances are, he was hired as a child of four or five, and he doesn't even live with his own family anymore_he probably doesn't see them more than twice or three times a year. His whole life is in Palace service. Just remember that, and if you want the boy to have any time to himself, you'll have to order him to take it."

"I'll keep that in mind," T'fyrr said absently. Every time I think I have seen the last of subtle human cruelties, another pops up! Can it be that there are masters who would keep their servants so bound as to permit them no time to eat or sleep? Is that why he said he thought I would be a good master?

"Well, come let me show you the bathing room, old bird," Harperus said, oblivious to T'fyrr's thoughts. "You'll probably like it better than the one in the wagon; since this is a royal suite, there should be a tub big enough for you to splash around the way you do when you find a pond." The Deliambren shook his head with amusement. "Honestly, you look like a wren in a birdbath when you do that!"

"I do not," T'fyrr responded automatically, but followed Harperus anyway. This room was bigger than the entire traveling wagon put together, tiled on the walls, floor and ceiling in beige and brown. The bathroom was all Deliambren in its luxury, every fixture sculpted into some strange floral shape, the floor heated, the rack for the towels heated as well. The sink was big enough to bathe an infant in, the tub fully large enough to have a proper Haspur bath, and the "convenience"_convenient, and discreetly placed behind its own little door. The "usual" Deliambren lighting could be made bright or dim as one chose. There was even one of the Deliambren waterfalls that Harperus called a "shower-stall," though it was much more luxurious than the one in the wagon. There were full-length mirrors everywhere, and T'fyrr kept meeting his own eyes wherever he looked. The Deliambren showed him the various controls, then ran water into the basin.

"There," he said under the sound of the running water, "if there's any spies listening, and I'm sure there are, this should cover our conversation."

"Ah." T'fyrr nodded cautiously and pretended to finger another fixture, as if he was asking questions. "Well? Did this proceed as you hoped?"

"I'm overjoyed. You could not have done better," Harperus told him gleefully. "You absolutely exceeded my wildest wishes."

"I didn't do anything_" T'fyrr objected, feeling uncomfortable about taking praise for something he'd had no hand in.

"You kept your beak shut and let the King have his way by not giving his Advisors anything to use against you; that was enough," Harperus said. "Now, I'll have to make my instructions very brief_there is one bag that isn't yours; there are some devices in it that you will recognize. I want you to place them around your rooms; tell Nob that they're statues from your home. Then talk to Nob about everything that happens to you that you think I should know. If there are spies listening, it won't matter; they won't be surprised that you're asking advice from a page, they'll think it shows how stupid you are, and they won't know what those 'statues' are."

T'fyrr made a caw of distaste. "If they are what I think they are_I've seen those little eavesdroppers of yours. They are hideous, and you will make Nob and those spies believe that my people have no artistic talent whatsoever."

Harperus grinned and went on. "You'll need to get directions eventually to a tavern called the Freehold. It's owned by a Deliambren, and he'll be your contact back to us if you need anything else." He correctly interpreted T'fyrr's dubious expression. "Don't worry, before the week is out, people will think it's odd if you haven't visited there at least once. It's the center of social activity for every nonhuman of every rank in Lyonarie_and a fair number of humans, as well. It's like Jenthan Square in the Fortress-City. You might even go there just to have a good time."

T'fyrr nodded, relieved, and Harperus reached over and turned the water off. "You may want to leave specific orders with Nob for baths," he said, as if he was continuing an existing conversation. "You know how the lights work, of course. Can you think of anything else?"

His eyebrows signalled a wider range to that question than was implied by the circumstance. T'fyrr only shook his head.

"Not really," he said truthfully, spreading his wings a little to indicate that he understood the question for what it was. "I only hope I can serve Theovere as well as you expect me to. I am, after all, less of an envoy and more of a messenger of good will."

Harperus raised his eyebrows with amusement at T'fyrr's circumspect reply. "In that case, I'll leave you to settle in by yourself," he said. "Once the boy finishes with his own gear, you should have him fetch a meal for the two of you. You'll be expected to eat in your own quarters, of course_people are likely to be uneasy dining around anyone sporting something like that meathook in the center of your face."

People will be offended if I dare to actually take my meals in public, with the rest of the courtiers and folk of rank. After all, I'm only a lowly nonhuman. I shouldn't allow myself any airs.

"Of course," T'fyrr agreed, allowing his irony to show. "I'm not at all surprised."

Harperus took his leave_and T'fyrr swallowed his own feeling of panic at being entirely alone in this situation and went to look for "his" servant. He found Nob putting away the last of his belongings in a snug little room just off the bathroom. When he suggested food, Nob was not only willing, he was eager, suggesting to T'fyrr that it was probably well past the boy's usual dinnertime.

Or else, that like small males of every species, he was always hungry.

But when Nob returned with servants bearing dinner, it was with many servants bearing dinner, and with three of the King's Advisors following behind. T'fyrr welcomed them, quickly covering his surprise, and invited them to take seats while the servants made one small table into a large table, set places for all of them, and vanished, leaving Nob to serve as their waiter.

"If you would arrange yourselves as is proper, my lords," he said finally, "I have no idea of precedence among you, except that you are all greatly above my rank. I would not care to offend any of you."

His three unexpected dinner guests all displayed various levels of amusement. Lord Seneschal Acreon actually chuckled; Lord Secretary Atrovel (a cocky little man who clearly possessed an enormous ego) smirked slightly. Lord Artificer Levan Pendleton only raised his eyebrows and smiled. The Seneschal, a greying man so utterly ordinary that the only things memorable about him were his silver-embroidered grey silk robes and chain of office, took charge of the situation.

"As our host, Sire T'fyrr, you must take the head of the table. As the lowest in rank, I must take the foot_"

Lord Levan and Lord Atrovel both made token protests, which the Seneschal dismissed, as they obviously expected him to.

"Lord Secretary, Lord Artificer, I leave it to you to choose left or right hand," the Seneschal concluded.

Atrovel, a short, wiry, dark-haired man robed in blue and gold, grinned. "Well, since no one has ever accused me of being sinister, I shall take the right," he punned. Levan Pendleton cast his eyes up to the ornately painted ceiling, but did not groan.

"Since I am often accused of just that, it does seem appropriate," he agreed, taking the seat at T'fyrr's left. "We are all here, Sire T'fyrr, in hopes of showing you that not everyone in the King's Council is_ah_distressed by your presence."

Acreon winced. "So blunt, Levan?" he chided. The Lord Artificer only shrugged.

"I can afford to be blunt, Acreon," the man replied, and turned again to T'fyrr. T'fyrr found him fascinating; the most birdlike human he had yet met. His head sported a thick crest of greying black hair; his face was sharp and his nose quite prominent. Perched on the nose was a pair of spectacles; they enlarged his eyes and made him look very owl-like. The rest of the man was hidden in his silvery-grey robe of state, but from the way it hung on him, T'fyrr suspected he was cadaverously thin.

"Why can you afford to be blunt, my lord?" T'fyrr asked, a bit boldly. The human laughed.

"Because I am in charge of those who make strange devices, Sire T'fyrr," he replied genially. "No one knows if they are magical or not, so no one cares to discover if I can accomplish more than I claim to be able to do. That is why folk think me sinister."

"That, and the delightful little exploding toys, and the cannon you have conjured," Atrovel said with a smirk. "No one wants to retire to his room only to find one of those waiting for him, either."

"Oh, piff," Levan said, waving a dismissive hand. "They're too easy to trace. If I were going to get rid of someone, I'd choose a much subtler weapon. Poison delivered in a completely unexpected manner, for instance. In bathwater, or a bouquet of flowers. It would be a fascinating experiment, just to find out what kind of dosage would be fatal under those circumstances." And he turned toward Nob, who was offering a plate of sliced meat, his eyes wide as the plate. "Thank you, child_and I'll have some of that pudding, as well."

"There, you see?" Atrovel threw up his hands. "No wonder no one wants to dine with you! You'd poison us all just to see how we reacted!" He helped himself to the meat Nob brought him, and turned toward T'fyrr. "Levan would like to get on your good side because his worst rival is Lord Commerce Gorode; he's in charge of the Manufactory Guild, and they are always trying to purloin Artificers' designs without paying for them_and Lord Gorode already hates you just because you aren't human."

"Ah," T'fyrr said, nonplussed at this barrage of apparent honesty. He hoped that Harperus' little "devices" were hearing all of this.

"The Seneschal," Atrovel continued, pointing his fork at Acreon, who munched quietly on a plate of green things without saying a word, "is on your side because he actually thinks you're honest. Are you?"

"I try to be," T'fyrr managed, and both Levan and Atrovel broke into howls of laughter.

"By God, this is more entertaining than Court Dinner!" Levan spluttered. "T'fyrr, you must be honest, or you'd never have answered that way! What a change from all those oily, wily Guild Bards! Dare I actually ask if you are interested in music instead of advancing yourself?"

"Music is_is my life, my lord," T'fyrr said simply, expecting them both to break into laughter again. But they didn't; they both sobered, and the Seneschal nodded.

"You see?" Acreon said quietly. "Honest, and a true artist. Innocent as this boy, here_Sire T'fyrr, I thought you might need a friend, now I am certain of it. I hope you will consider me to be your friend, and call on me if you need something the boy cannot provide."

T'fyrr was at an utter loss of what to say, so he replied with the feeling that was uppermost at that moment. "Thank you, thank you very much, Lord Acreon," he said, as sincerely as he could. "I am not so innocent that I do not realize that my position here is extremely delicate. The King offended many of high estate today, but I am the safer target for their wrath, and they will probably try to vent it sooner or later."

"Innocent, but not stupid," Levan said, jabbing a fork into his meat with satisfaction. "I like that. So, Atrovel, why are you here, anyway?"

Atrovel waved his knife airily. "Because I enjoy seeing so many of our pompous windbags_ah, excuse me, noble Council members_discomfited. It is no secret that I dislike most of them, and am disliked in return. The King trusts me because I amuse him; they hate that. I enjoy causing them trouble. They are boring, they have no imagination, and they don't appreciate music. That is enough for me."

"And you appreciate music?" T'fyrr asked. Although none of them really watched him eating, they weren't going out of their way to avoid watching him swallow down neat, small bites of absolutely raw meat. That was interesting. Although he could eat other things_and would dine on the cooked meat on one tray, soon_he'd deliberately chosen the raw steak as a kind of test.

Levan snorted and picked up his goblet to drink before answering. "Enjoy? Oh, my dear T'fyrr, this is the foremost musical critic of the Court! Or at least, he thinks so!"

"I know so," Atrovel replied casually, raising one eyebrow. "Your performance, by the way, was absolutely amazing. Were you simulating an instrumental accompaniment with your voice?"

So someone had noticed! "A very simple one," T'fyrr admitted. "A ground only. I could not have replicated a harp, for instance_"

"Oh, don't start!" Levan interrupted. "I like music as well as the next man, but having it dissected? Pah! You two wait until you're alone and let the rest of us just listen without having to know what it all breaks down to!"

"Fine words from one who spends his life breaking things into their components to find out how the universe runs," Acreon pointed out mildly. He had graduated from salad to some mild cheese and unspiced meats. T'fyrr suspected chronic indigestion; hardly surprising, considering how hard he worked.

"I prefer to leave some few things a mystery, and music is one of them," Levan replied with dignity. "However_are all your people so gifted? Or are you the equivalent of a Bard among them?"

T'fyrr passed an astonishingly pleasant hour with the three Royal Advisors, and after the Seneschal and the Artificer pled work and left, spent two more equally pleasant hours discussing the technicalities of music with Lord Atrovel. The diminutive fellow was as much of a dandy as Harperus, and just as certain of the importance of his own opinions, but he was also scathingly witty, and his observations on some of the other Council members had T'fyrr doubled up in silent laughter more than once.

When Lord Atrovel finally left, T'fyrr sent Nob off to bed (over the boy's protests that he was supposed to help the Haspur undress), and unwrapped himself. He let the silk wrapping fall to the floor_consciously. No more picking up after himself; no more going to fetch things.

I have to give the boy something to do, or he'll think he isn't doing his job. This was not a situation he had anticipated, to say the least.

He had thought_when he actually let himself entertain the notion of success at all_that he might possibly end up as one of the King's private musicians. He had a notion what that meant; he would have been a glorified servant himself. That would have been fine_but this was out of all expectation.

He palmed the lights off, and stayed awake awhile, cushioned in his new bed, thinking.

I have a servant, a retainer_someone who depends on me to be a good master or a bad, and has no choice but to deal with what I tell him to do. What kind of a master will I make? That was one worry on top of everything else; could he, would he become abusive? He had a temper, the winds knew; if he lost it with this boy, he could damage the child, physically. On the practical side, he had no idea of the strength or the endurance of a human fledgling; Harperus had said the boy was_what? Something like twelve years of age. What could he do? What shouldn't he do?

Perhaps it will be safest to watch him, and send him to rest at the first sign that he is tired. I wonder if he can read? If not, I shall see to it that he learns. If so, I shall find out if he enjoys reading, and make that one of his tasks. It would be a safe way to make the boy rest, even if he didn't think he should.

As for the task Harperus had assigned to him_

I believe I have a far wider field of opportunity than either of us thought. He would have to give this a great deal of consideration. If he was going to be the King's Chief Musician, that implied that he would be performing solo, probably quite often, possibly even on a daily basis. He would have plenty of opportunity to sing things that just might put the King in mind of some of the duties he was neglecting.

I wish that I had one of the Free Bards here; the ones that Harperus says work magic, he thought wistfully. It would greatly help if I could use magic to reinforce that reminder.... If only Nightingale were here! She and I make such a good duo_and she is a powerful worker of magic, I know she must be, even though Harperus didn't mention her by name. And it would be so good to have a real friend, someone I could trust completely, to be here with me.

As well wish for Visyr and Syri to come help him; the Free Bards were all very nearly as far away as the Fortress-City and his other two friends.

Well, it would be enough for the moment for him to keep the Deliambrens aware of developments by means of those ugly little "devices" of theirs. They must surely have gotten an earful tonight, before the talk turned to music!

And that brought him to something else he really should think about.

Lord Acreon, Lord Levan, and Lord Atrovel.

Out of all of the King's Advisors, three_admittedly three of limited power, but still_had openly allied themselves with him. The question was, why had they done so? The reasons were without a doubt as various as the men themselves. And likely just as devious. T'fyrr was under no illusions; each of these men had agendas of their own that allying themselves with him would further. The King would certainly notice that they were openly his "friends," and that could hardly hurt them. Right now, the King was not very happy with most of his Advisors, and while he might forget that by tomorrow, he also might remember.

Whatever had been done to lull the King into the state he was in now, for the moment, T'fyrr had cracked it, and with that crack, some of their power had escaped.

Lord Acreon, the Seneschal. T'fyrr had the oddest feeling that the Seneschal had meant every word he had said; that he had sided with T'fyrr because he thought that T'fyrr was honest, a real musician, and needed a friend who understood the quagmire this Court truly was. He wasn't entirely certain if Acreon actually liked him, but Acreon was going to help him.

Perhaps Acreon himself is not certain if he likes me. I doubt that he has had much commerce with anything other than humans. I wonder if I frighten him a little? He does not strike me as a particularly brave man, physically, although I think he is very strong in the spirit. I also think, perhaps, he does not know how strong he is.

Could Acreon be trusted? Probably. Of the three, he was the one with the least to lose and the most to gain if T'fyrr succeeded, out of all expectation, in making the King see where his duty lay. He was already overburdened and uncredited for most of the work he did; if the High King began acting like the ruler he was supposed to be, a great deal of that burden would be lifted from the Seneschal's shoulders.

He might even be able to enjoy spiced meat again, without suffering a burning belly.

He decided that he would make use of the Seneschal in the lightest way possible_by asking advice, not on difficult things, but on the subject that the Seneschal probably knew better than any other, his fellow Advisors. Acreon would probably tell him the truth, and if the truth were too dangerous, T'fyrr suspected he would be able to hint well enough for the Haspur to guess at the truth. Very well. Trust the Seneschal, as long as Acreon had nothing to lose by what T'fyrr was doing.

Levan Pendleton. The Lord Artificer was a puzzle. He liked music well enough. He was fascinated by the workings of things, and devoured facts the way a child devoured sweets. Those traits, T'fyrr was used to_the Deliambrens were rather like that.

He is also utterly amoral. He saw no difficulty in ridding himself of an enemy by murder; had even boasted tonight how he would do so. T'fyrr, adept at reading the nuance of voices if not of human expressions, sensed that he meant every word he said. He might even have been warning me, obliquely. He all but said openly that he was for sale. He might have been telling me that someone might buy his services to use on me.

There were only two things that Levan Pendleton valued_fact and truth. They were also the only things he cared about; he had said, more than once, that no matter what the cost, he would not conceal facts or distort the truth, at least when it came to his discoveries about the workings of the world. He had described, as if it were only an amusing anecdote, how his stand had already gotten him in serious conflict with the Church, and that only his rank and position had saved him from having to answer to Church authority.

T'fyrr could supply him with plenty of facts, anyway. He had traveled in lands that the Lord Artificer had never even heard of, and that meant he could enlarge Levan's knowledge of Alanda. As for things closer to home, the devices and machines that the Artificer so loved, if he could not explain the workings of Deliambren machinery, he could at least supply information on the workings of simpler things. The staged pumps that brought water up to the highest aeries, for one thing, or the odd, two-wheeled contrivance that the Velopids rode instead of horses.

I can probably entertain Levan for months, even years, and as long as I entertain him, I am too valuable for him to eliminate. I am also too valuable for him to permit anyone else to get rid of me. I can trust Levan Pendleton, but within strict limits.

And those limits would be determined mostly by what T'fyrr himself could or could not supply. An added benefit was T'fyrr's vast collection of music, much of it from strange cultures. Levan liked music, and to have someone who could not only perform it but explain the meaning or the story was something he had not anticipated. This could be a very good position to be in, so long as T'fyrr did not overestimate the limits of his entertainment value.

Levan Pendleton would be most useful simply as a patron. If people didn't like to go to dinner with him_they would also be disinclined to try to eliminate or disgrace one of his friends.

Lord Secretary Atrovel. Now there was a puzzle! He seemed completely shallow, a sparkling brook that was all babble and shine on the surface, but was nothing more than a lively skin of water, unable to support or hold anything of value. Yet the man was witty, and while it was possible to be witty and be stupid, it wasn't very likely.

Atrovel had access to everything the King did and said. That was his job. Now, it was probably not a bad idea to have a flippant fellow for a secretary, a man who really didn't care a great deal about the correspondence and documents he handled. But still_T'fyrr had the feeling that that sparkling surface was not all there was to Atrovel.

Perhaps, though, the deepest thing about him is his pride. He was certainly a man who had no doubts whatsoever about his own worth, and had no modesty about it, either. He would be the first to tell you just how important he was.

That might have been what T'fyrr sensed: beneath the flippant exterior was a man with a deep sense of pride in himself. If that was true, then the worst thing one could do to Lord Atrovel would be to harm his pride, to make him look foolish. He would never forgive that, and as Secretary he had access to the means to take revenge. Certain papers could fall into the hands of an enemy, perhaps... certain others vanish before they could be signed.

Lord Atrovel could be trusted_warily. And T'fyrr would have to be very careful of that touchy little man's feelings.

Oh, this is all too much to think about_Yet there remained one more human that T'fyrr sensed he must consider tonight, before he slept.

High King Theovere.

Now there_there was a puzzle and a question more complicated than that of Lord Atrovel.

For one thing, he is not sane. He is not rational. He has mood changes that do not necessarily correspond to what is going on around him, and his ability to concentrate is not good. His priorities are skewed. His Advisors don't care, because his insanity gives them leeway to do anything they really want. The problem is, what caused this? Theovere was not the man he once was. Harperus had been quite emphatic about that. High King Theovere had been well-respected, if not precisely beloved; he had kept every one of the Twenty Kingdoms under his careful scrutiny. So what happened? Why did he suddenly begin to lose interest in seeing things well-governed?

Was it a lack of interest? Was he ill, in some way that simply didn't show itself on the surface? There were certainly hints of that in the childishness, the petulance, the obsessive interest in music and other trivialities.

And yet_and yet there was still something of the old King there as well. King Theovere wanted T'fyrr the way a child wants a new toy, yes, but there was something else beneath that childish greed.

He is using me. Something in him is still vaguely aware that there is trouble in his Kingdoms, trouble involving nonhumans, and he is using me, he said so himself. I am to provide an example of excellence and tolerance. And I don't think the Advisors are truly aware that he is using me in that way, even though they heard him say so. They don't believe he could still have that much interest outside his little world of Bards and Musicians.

So, was there something there that T'fyrr could touch, perhaps even something he could awaken?

I think so. In spite of the childishness, the pettiness_there is something there. I believe that I like him, or rather, I like what he could be. There is a King inside that child, still, and the King wants out again.

At some point, King Theovere had been an admirable enough leader that his bodyguards were still inspired to a fanatic loyalty. A man simply did not inspire that kind of loyalty just because he happened to have a title.

I wish I could talk to one of the bodyguards, honestly, T'fyrr thought wistfully. It would never happen, though. They had absolutely no reason to trust him. For all they knew, he was just another toy, this one presented to the King by a foreigner instead of one of his Advisors, but a toy and a distraction, nevertheless.

I don't want to be a toy, and I especially don't want to be a distraction. I want to remind him of what he was.

Well, to that end, he had delved into Harperus' store of memory-crystals and come up with several songs about King Theovere. Most of them weren't very good, which didn't exactly come as a shock, since they had been composed by Guild Bards_but there were germs of good ideas in there, and decent, if not stellar, melodies. I could improve the lyrics; even Nob could improve on some of those lyrics. He could sing those, and literally remind the King of what he had been.

And there were other songs he had picked up himself on the way, songs that actually had some relevance to one of the situations the King had sloughed off into the Seneschal's hands.

I can certainly sing those songs that Raven and the rest wrote about Duke Arden of Kingsford_how he saved all those people during the fire, how he's beggaring himself to rebuild his city. That should get his attention where reports won't!

And if T'fyrr got his attention, he just might be moved to do something about the situation.

If I put a situation in front of him in music_ah, yes, that is a good idea.

And who better to suggest such situations than the man who would otherwise have to take care of them_Lord Seneschal Acreon? Oh, now there was an idea calculated to make the Seneschal happier!

He'll help. This is exactly the kind of help that he has been looking for_I would willingly bet on it. The only problem is that if anyone besides Acreon figures out what I'm doing, they'll know I'm not just a blank-brained musician; they'll know I'm getting involved, and I might be dangerous. Which will make me even more of a target than I was already.

Well, that couldn't be helped. He had made a promise and a commitment, and it was time to see them through. Now I have a plan. Now I have a real means to do what Harperus wants me to. And I have a chance to redeem myself in the process, to counter the evil I have already done.

Suddenly the tension in his back and wing muscles relaxed, as it always did when he had worried through a problem and found at least the beginnings of a solution.

That was all he needed to be able to sleep; in the next instant, all the fatigue that he'd been holding off unconsciously descended on him.

Ah... I didn't realize I was so... tired.

He was already in the most comfortable nest he'd had in ages, and in the most comfortable sleeping position he'd had since he'd begun traveling with Harperus.

This nest is very good... very, very good. I don't think I want to move.

It was just as well that he was settled in, for as soon as he stopped fighting off sleep, it stooped down out of the darkness upon him, and carried him away_to dreams of falling, iron manacles and screams.

Midnight. You'd think the city would be quiet.

It wasn't though; the rumble of cartwheels on cobblestones persisted right up until dawn, and a deeper rumble of the machineries turned by the swiftly moving river water permeated even ones bones.

Nightingale perched like her namesake on the roof of Freehold, staring out into the darkness at the lights across the street. No Deliambren lights, these_though they were clever enough; she'd noticed them earlier this evening, just outside the building, where two of them stood like sentinels on either side of the door. Some kind of special air_a gas_was what these lights burned. One of her customers had told her that. It was piped into them from somewhere else, and burned with a flame much brighter than candles, without the flicker of a candle.

With lights like that, you wouldn't have to wait for daylight to do your work....

No, you could work all night. Or, better still, you could have someone else work all night for you.

There were similar lights burning inside that huge building, but not as many as the owner would like. He would have been happier if the whole place was lit up as brightly as full day. Only a few folk worked inside that building at night, those who cleaned the place and serviced the machines.

Nightingale leaned on the brick of the low wall around the roof, rested her chin on her hands, and brooded over those lovely, clear, cursed lights and all they meant.

She had learned more in her brief time here than she had ever anticipated, and most of it was completely unexpected.

When she had arrived here, she had been working under the assumption that the Free Bards' and the nonhumans' chiefest enemies were going to be the Church and the Bardic Guild, that if anyone was behind the recent laws being passed it would be those two powers. It made sense that way_if the High King really was infatuated with music and musicians, it made sense for the most influential power in his Court to be the Bardic Guild, and the Bardic Guild and the Church worked hand-in-glove back in Rayden.

Well, they have gotten a completely unprecedented level of power, that much is true. But the Bardic Guild was by no means the most important power in the Court. They weren't even as important as they thought they were!

No, the most important power in this place is across the street. In those buildings, in the hands of the men who own them.

The merchants who owned and managed the various manufactories were individually as powerful and wealthy as many nobles. But they had not stopped there; no, seeing the power that an organization could wield, they had banded together to form something they called the "Manufactory Guild." It was no Guild at all in the accepted sense; there was no passing on of skills and trade secrets, no fostering of apprentices, no protection of the old and infirm members. No, this was just a grouping of men with a single common interest.

Profit.

Not that I blame them there. Everyone wants to prosper. It's just that they don't seem to care how much misery they cause as long as they personally get their prosperity.

And the Manufactory Guild was now more powerful than the Bardic Guild and even many of the Trade Guilds. They even had their own Lord Advisor to the King!

Their agenda was pretty clear; they certainly didn't try to hide it. They tended to oppose free access to entertainment in general, simply because entertainment got in the way of working. They wanted to outlaw all public entertainment in the streets, whether it be by simple juggler, Free Bard or Guild Bard. They had laws up for consideration to do just that, too, and some very persuasive people arguing their case, pointing out how crowds around entertainers clogged the streets and disrupted traffic, how work would stop if an entertainer set up outside a manufactory, how people were always coming in late and leaving early in order to see a particular entertainer on his corner. There was just enough truth in all of it to make it seem plausible, logical, reasonable.

Oh, yes, very reasonable.

They had another law up for consideration, as well, a law that would allow the employers at these manufactories to set working hours around the clock, seven days a week. It seemed very reasonable again_and here was the example, right across the street. There was no reason why people couldn't be working all night, not with these wonderful, clear lights available. It would be no hardship to them, not the way working by candlelight or lamplight would be. It was the Church that opposed this law; it was the Church that decreed the hours during which it was permissible to work in the first place, and the conditions for working. Church law mandated that Sevenday be a day for rest and religious services. Church law forbade working after sundown, except in professions such as entertainment, on the grounds that God created the darkness in order to ensure that Man had peace in which to contemplate God and to sleep_or at least, rest from his labors, so he could contemplate God with his full attention.

The Manufactory Guild wanted a law that permitted them to hire children as young as nine, on a multitude of grounds_and Nightingale had heard them all.

So that children can be a benefit to their families, instead of a burden. So that families with many children can feed all of them instead of relying on charity. So that children can learn responsibility at an early age. To keep children out of the street and out of wickedness and idleness. Oh, it all sounds very plausible.

Except, of course, that one would not have to pay a child as much as an adult. A family desperate enough to force its nine-year-old child into work would be desperate enough to take whatever wage was offered. And that child, who supposedly was learning to read and write from his Chapel Priest, would be losing that precious chance at education. There were Church-sanctioned exceptions to the law_children were allowed to be hired as pages or messengers, and to help their parents in a business or a farm. But all of those exceptions were hedged about with a vast web of carefully tailored precepts that kept abuse of those exceptions to a relative minimum, and all those exceptions required that the child receive his minimum education.

You can't keep a child's parents from working him to death, or from abusing him in other ways, but you can at least keep a stranger from doing so. That was basically the reasoning of the Church, which decreed the completely contradictory precepts that a child was sacred to God and that a child was the possession and property of his parents.

Then there's that lovely little item, the "job security law." That was a law that specifically forbade a worker in a manufactory from quitting one job to take another_effectively keeping him chained to the first job he ever took for the rest of his life, unless his employer chose otherwise, or got rid of him. That one had yet to be passed as well, but there was very little opposition, and the moment it was, it would mean the complete loss of freedom for anyone who went to work in a manufactory.

They say that retraining someone is costly and dangerous, since folk in a manufactory are generally operating some sort of machinery. Oh, surely. "Machinery" no more complicated than a spinning wheel! But I would think that to most people, who think a well-pump is very complicated machinery, they'd look at the manufactories and agree that having an inexperienced person "operating machinery" could be very dangerous. As if most of what I've been watching people actually do was any more complicated than digging potatoes.

But the Manufactory Guild wanted to keep that ignorance intact. And here the Church itself was divided; one group saw clearly the way this would take freedom away from anyone who worked in those places, leaving them virtual slaves to their jobs, but the other group was alarmed at the wild tales painted of accidents caused by "inexperience," and was in favor of the law.

She shifted her position, turning her back on the lights of the manufactory to stare up at the sky. You didn't see as many stars here as you could in the country; she didn't know why. Maybe it was all the smoke from the thousands of chimneys, getting in the way, like a perpetual layer of light clouds.

The nastiest piece of work she'd heard about was something that so far was only a rumor, but it was chilling enough to have been the sole topic of conversation tonight, all over Freehold.

This was_supposedly_a proposed law that had the support of not only some of the Church but the Manufactory Guild and the Trade Guilds as well.

They called it "the Law of Degree."

Nightingale shivered, a chill settling over her that the warm breeze could not chase away. Even the name sounded ominous.

It would set a standard, a list of characteristics, which would determine just how "human" someone could be considered, based on his appearance. But the "standard" was only the beginning of the madness, for it would mandate that those who were considered to be below a certain "degree" of humanity were nothing more than animals.

In other words, property. Bad enough that such things as being indentured are allowed everywhere, and that slavery is sanctioned in at least half the Twenty Kingdoms. The Church at least has laws that govern how slaves are treated, and an indentured servant has the hope of buying himself free. But this_this would be slavery with none of the protections! After all, it wouldn't be "reasonable" to have a law stating that a man couldn't beat his dog, so why have one saying he can't beat his Mintak?

Deliambrens, for instance, would be considered human under the law_but Mintaks and Haspur, with their hides of hair and feathers, their nonhuman hands and feet, their muzzles and beaks, would be animals.

Some people were arguing that as property, these nonhumans would actually have protection they did not have now_protection from persecution by the Church. "Animals" by Church canon could not be evil, because they had no understanding of the difference between good and evil. It was also argued that some of the violence done to nonhumans in the past_the beatings and ambushes_would end if this law was passed, because since they would then be the property of a human, anyone harming one of them would have to pay heavy restitution to the owner.

Naturally all those nonhumans not falling within the proper degree of humanity would have their property confiscated_cattle can't own homes or businesses, of course_and both they and their property would be taken by the Crown. I'm sure that never entered the Lord Treasurer's consideration. And, of course, as soon as the ink was dry on the confiscation orders, the Crown would then have itself a nice little "animal" auction. More money in the King's coffers, and it wouldn't even be slavery, which is wicked and really not civilized.

Nasty, insidious, and very popular in some quarters. Yes, it would "protect" the nonhumans from the demon hunters, for a little while_until Church canon was changed to make it possible for animals to be considered possessed!

Which it would be; after all, it's in the Holy Writ. There were the demons possessing a human that were cast out, and then possessed a herd of pigs and made the pigs drown themselves.

Small wonder that the Manufactory Guild was also behind this one, at least according to the rumors. If it was passed, the owners of manufactories could neatly bypass all the Church laws on labor by acquiring a nightshift of "animals" to run the machines without wages. There was no Church law saying animals couldn't work all night_nor any Church law giving them a rest day. If it passed_

Well, most of the nonhumans would flee before they could be caught, I suspect, but there are always those who can't believe that something like that would happen to them. There would probably be just enough of those poor naive souls and their children in Lyonarie to make up a workforce large enough to work the manufactories at night.

There would be a business in hunters, too, springing up in the wake of this law. Hunters? No, more like kidnappers. They would be going out and trying to entrap nonhumans in whichever of the other human kingdoms existed that did not pass this law, and bringing them back here to sell.

Nightingale clutched her hands into fists and felt her nails biting into the palms of her hands. If she ever found out who the nasty piece of work was that first came up with this idea, she would throttle him herself.

With my bare hands. And dance on his corpse.

She told herself she had to relax; at the moment, it was no more than a rumor, and she had only heard about it here. No one had mentioned it in the High King's servants' kitchen this morning, nor even in the Chapels friendly to all species. It might be nothing. It might only be a distortion of one of the other laws being considered.

It might even be a rumor deliberately started by the Church in order to make some of the other things they were trying to have passed look less unappetizing.

Or to allow them to slip something else past while the nonhumans are agitating about the rumor.

She would wait until the morning, and see what was in the kitchens and on the street.

She took a deep breath_after a first, cautious sniff to make sure that the wind was not in the "wrong" direction. She let it out again, slowly, exhaling her tension with her breath. This was an old exercise, one that was second nature to her now. As always, it worked, as did her mental admonition that there was nothing she could do now, this moment. It would have to wait until tomorrow, so she might as well get the rest she needed to deal with it.

When she finally felt as if she would be able to sleep, she got to her feet and picked her way across the rooftop, avoiding the places where she knew that some of her fellow staff might be sheltering together, star-watching. Supposedly the Deliambren who owned this place was considering a rooftop dining area, but so far nothing had materialized, and the staff had it all to themselves.

And a good thing, too. The streets hereabouts aren't safe for star-watching or nighttime strolls before bed. When customers of wealth came here, they came armed, or they came with guards. Not only were there thieves in plenty, but there were people who hated those who were not human, who would sometimes lie in wait to attack customers coming in or out of Freehold. They seldom confined their beatings to nonhumans_they were just as happy to get their hands on a "Fuzzy-lover" and teach him a lesson about the drawbacks of tolerance.

Once or twice a week, some of the staff would turn the tables on them, but that was a dangerous game, for it was difficult to prove who was the attacker and who the victim in a case like that. If the night-watch happened to hear the commotion and come to break it up instead of running the other way as they often did, the Freehold staff often found themselves cooling their heels in gaol until someone came to pay their fines. The law was just as likely to punish Freehold staff as the members of the gang that had ambushed the customers.

Nightingale was still ambivalent about joining one of those expeditions; she could add a good margin of safety for the group if she used Bardic magic to make gang members utterly forget who their attackers had been. But if she was caught doing something like that, and fell into the hands of the Church_

Flame is not my best color, she thought, trying to drive away fear with flippancy.

She reached the roof door to the staircase going down, and turned to take one last look up at the stars. And she thought, oddly enough, of T'fyrr.

I am glad he is safe with Old Owl, the Deliambren, she thought soberly. If any of the rumors are true, he would be in grave danger. At least, with Harperus, he has protection and a quick way out of any danger that should come.

So at least one person she cared for was safe. And with that thought to comfort her, she took the stairs down to the staff quarters, and to her empty bed.

CHAPTER FIVE

Nightingale slipped out into the early morning mist by way of a back staircase. She had learned about it from one of the waiters, the second day of her arrival at Freehold. It was mostly in use by night, rather than by day; it locked behind you as you went out, but Nightingale had learned from that waiter that she already had a key. Every staff member had a ring of keys they got when they settled in; Nightingale didn't know even yet what half of them went to, but one of them locked the door to her room, and one unlocked this back staircase door.

She had visited the used-clothing market soon after setting up her network of children, and had acquired a wardrobe there that she really didn't want too many people in Freehold to know about. It was not in keeping with Lyrebird, or with the sober and dignified woman she had portrayed herself as when she arrived.

In fact, she rather doubted that she would have had a hearing if she'd shown up at the door in these patched and worn clothes. They were clean, scrupulously clean, but they did not betoken any great degree of prosperity. That was fine; she wasn't trying to look prosperous, she was trying to look like the kind of musician who would be happy to sing in the corner of a kitchen in exchange for a basket of leftovers.

She made one concession to city life that she hoped no one would notice, for it was quite out of keeping with her costume. She wore shoes. She had no stockings, and the shoes were as patched as her skirts, but she did have them, and no one as poor as she was supposed to be would own such a thing.

But I'm not going out into a mucky street or traipse around on cobblestones all day without something to protect my feet, she thought stubbornly, as she crossed the street headed east, skipped over a puddle and skirted the edge of a heap of something best left unidentified. There was just so much she would do to protect her persona, and there was such a thing as carrying authenticity too far.

She did not carry a harp at all, only a pair of bones and a small hand-drum, the only things a musician as poor as she would be able to afford.

The mist here beneath the overhanging upper stories of the buildings chilled the skin and left clothing damp and clammy, but in an hour or so it would be horribly hot, and the one advantage this costume had was that it was the coolest clothing she had to wear, other than the Elven silks. That was mostly because the fabric was so threadbare as to be transparent in places. It was all of a light beige, impossible to tell what the original color had been now. The skirt had probably once been a sturdy hempen canvas, but now was so worn and limp that it hung in soft folds like cheesecloth, and was as cool to wear as the most finely woven linen. She didn't have a bodice; no woman this poor would own one. Nor did she have a shirt. Only a shift, which if she really was this impoverished, would serve as shirt, petticoat, and nightclothes, all one. It was sleeveless, darned in so many places she wondered if any of the original fabric was left, and had at one time been gathered at the neck with a ribbon. Now it was gathered at the neck with a colorless string, tied in a limp little bow.

She hurried along the streets, sometimes following in the wake of one of the water-carts that was meant to clean the streets of debris and wash it all into the gutters. In the better parts of town, that was probably what it did do_but the street-cleaners were paid by the number of streets they covered, and every time they had to go back to the river filling-station to get more water, they lost time. So in this neighborhood, the water sprinkling the street was the barest trickle, scarcely enough to dampen the cobbles, and certainly not enough to wash anything into the gutters. Those few businesses who cared about appearances, like Freehold, sent their own people out to wash the street in front of the building. And there were those who lived here who didn't particularly care for having garbage festering at the front door, who did the same. But mostly she had to pick her way carefully along the paths worn clean by carts and rag-pickers.

As the light strengthened and the mist thinned, she got into some better neighborhoods, and now she took advantage of the directions her children had given her, slipping along alleyways and between buildings, following the paths that only the children knew completely. Even the finest of estates had these little back ways, the means to get into the best homes, so long as you came by the servants' entrance where no one who mattered would see you.

Even the Palace. They can put gates across the roads and guard the streets all they like, but even the Palace has to have an alley. Even the Palace has to have a way for people to come and go_people that the lords and ladies don't want to know exist.

Rat catchers. Peddlers. Rag-and-bone men. Dung collectors. Pot scrubbers and floor scrubbers and the laundry women who did the lower servants' clothing. Garbage collectors. There was a small army of people coming and going through that back entrance every day, people who didn't live at the Palace, despite the huge servants' quarters, but who lived off the Palace. Even the garbage from the Palace was valuable, and there was an entire system of bribes and kickbacks that determined who got to carry away what. The Church actually got the best pickings of the edible stuff, and sent the lowest of the novices to come fetch it every day. They carried away baskets of leftovers from the royal kitchens that fed the lords and ladies and the King himself. Allegedly those went to feed the poor; Nightingale hadn't seen any evidence for or against that.

None of these people were "good enough" to warrant the expense of clothing them in uniforms and housing them in the Palace; they got their tiny wages and whatever they could purloin, and came and went every day at dawn and dusk. They never saw a lord or a lady_the most exalted person they would ever see would be a page in royal livery.

But, oh, they knew what was going on in that great hive, and better than the lords and ladies who lived there! Each of them had a friend or a relative who did rate quarters above, and each of them was a veritable wellspring of information about just what was going on. Gossip was almost their only form of entertainment, so gossip they did, till the kitchens and lower halls buzzed like beehives with the sounds of chattering.

Very few of them ever got to hear even a street-singer; no one was out in the morning when they would scamper in to work, and by the time they went home in the evening, it was generally in a fog of exhaustion. Sevenday was the day for Church services, and if one picked the right Chapel and began at Morningsong and stayed piously on through Vespers, the Priest would see that piety was rewarded with three stout meals. No street-singer could compete with all the bean-bread, onions, and bacon grease to spread on the bread that one could eat, and a cup of real ale to wash it down. Sometimes on Holy Days, there were even treats of a bit of cheese, cooked whole turnips, cabbage soup, or a sweet-cake... all the more reason to come early and stay late. And if one happened to doze off during the sermon, well, Sevenday was a day of rest, wasn't it?

So when a poor musician like Tanager showed up, looking for a corner to sit in, asking nothing more than the leftovers that the kitchen staff I shared, she was generally welcomed. As long as she didn't get in the way and didn't eat too much, her singing would help pass the time and make the work seem lighter, and one just might be able to learn a song or two to sing the little ones to sleep with.

So in the corner Tanager sat, drumming and singing, and between songs listening to the gossip that automatically started up the moment that silence began.

Now the alley was hemmed on both sides by high walls, walls with tantalizing hints of trees and other greenery on the other side. Nightingale_or "Tanager"_joined the thin stream of other threadbare, tired-looking people all making their way up this long, dark alley, some of them rubbing their reddened eyes and yawning, all of them heading for their jobs at the Palace.

There was nothing at the end of this corridor of brickwork, open to the sky, but a gate that led to the Palace grounds.

By now, she was elbow-to-elbow with the Palace servants, none of whom were distinguished by anything like a livery. No one ever saw these people but other servants, after all. She slipped inside the back gate with the others, completely ignored by the fat, bored guard there, whose only real job was to keep things from leaving the Palace, not from entering it.

Now she saw the first real sunlight she'd seen this morning; the cobblestoned courtyard and kitchen garden was open to the sky. Here, the sun had already burned away the mist, and she squinted against its glare as she stared across the courtyard to the great stone bulk of the Palace, dark against the blue sky, with the sun peeking over it.

She had no real idea just how big the Palace was; huge, that was all she knew for certain_at least the size of several Freeholds. From all she had been able to gather, this was only one building of several, all joined by glazed galleries, and all as big as this one was. It made her head swim just to think about it.

She paused just a moment to take in a breath of fresh air before she headed for the back door to the servants' kitchen.

The servants, of course, were never fed out of the same kitchen that conjured up the meals for the lords and ladies. In fact, there were two kitchens that fed the servants: Upper and Lower. Upper Kitchen was the one that fed the pages, the personal maids and valets, the Court Musicians, nannies and nursemaids, tutors and governesses, all those who were not quite "real" servants, but who were not gentry, either. Lower was for the real servants: anyone who cleaned, cooked, sewed, polished, served food and drink, washed, mended, or tended to animals or plants. Tanager would never have dared intrude on the Upper Servants' Kitchen; Lower was where she fit in, and Lower was where she went.

She needed that breath of fresh air when she got there; as usual, it was as hot as a Priest' Personal Hell in there, with all the ovens going, baking bread for afternoon and evening meals before it got too warm to keep the ovens stoked. Breakfast bread had been baking all night, of course, and Tanager's arrival was greeted right at the door by one of the under-cooks, with enthusiasm and a warm roll that had a scraping of salted lard melting inside it. Tanager got out of the doorway and ate the roll quickly, as would anyone for whom this would be a real breakfast. Then she hurried across the slate floor and took her seat out of the way, off in a corner of the kitchen that seemed to be an architectural accident; a bit of brickwork that might have served as a closet if it had been bigger, and might have served as a cupboard, if it had been smaller, and really wasn't right for either. Before she had come to sing, there had been a small table there. You could put a stack of towels there, or a few of the huge pans needed to cook the enormous meals they prepared here_or Tanager. There were other places for the towels and pans; now the wedge-shaped corner held a stool for her to sit on.

The kitchen was a huge, brick-walled room, lit by open windows and the fires of three enormous fireplaces, where soup and stew cooked in kettles as big around as a beer barrel. There were five big tables, and counters beneath the windows, where the cooks and their helpers worked. No fancy pastry cooks here; the fare dished out to the lower servants was the same, day in, day out: soup and stew made with meat left from yesterday, sent from the Upper Servants' Kitchen, bread, pease-porridge and oat-porridge. On special occasions, leftover sweets came over from the Upper Servants' Kitchen, as well_breakfast sweets came over at noon, lunch-sweets at dinner, and dinner-sweets appeared when all the cleaning up had been accomplished, by way of a treat and a reward for the extra hours. So far, Tanager hadn't seen any of those.

Tanager thought long and hard as she settled herself on her stool. This was the first time she had needed to hear about something specific. Something as odd as the "Law of Degree" was not going to come up in normal conversation.

And I'm not going to ask about it myself. That leaves only one option; I'll have to use Bardic Magic to coax it out of them.

Tanager was a simple girl; Nightingale was anything but. Easy in her power and comfortable with it, she had been using Bardic Magic for as long as she had been on her own, on the road. Often she had no choice. The use of Bardic Magic to influence the minds of those around her had sometimes been the only way she had gotten out of potentially dangerous situations. Living with the Elves had refined her techniques, since Bardic Magic was similar to one of their own magics. Now she scarcely had to think about tapping into the power; she simply stretched out her mind, and there it was.

I need a song as a vehicle; something that includes nonhumans. But nothing too jarring to start with; something they would enjoy listening to under ordinary circumstances. And it will have to be something with a strong beat as well, since I only have the drum to accompany me. Ah, I know; that song Raven wrote: "Good Duke Arden." It has several verses about Arden taking care of nonhumans in his train.

So she began with that, then moved on to other melodies, songs that dealt with nonhumans in a favorable light. And all the while she sang, she concentrated on one thing. Talk about the nonhumans, what the lords and ladies are saying about them.

She sat and sang and drummed until her wrist and voice tired; one of the pot scrubbers, with an empty dishpan and nothing better to do at the moment, brought her a cup of flat ale. Tanager pretended to drink it, but it really went down a crack at her feet. And while she drank, she listened.

There was nothing at all in the gossip about the "Law of Degree," but there was something that made her sit up straight in startlement.

"La, Delia, did ye see th' lad wi' all the snow-white hair, him an' his coach with no horses come in yestere'en?" asked one of the under-cooks. "Faith, 'tis all m'sister, her as is Chambermaid t' Lord Pelham's nannies, can talk about!"

Lad with all the hair? Coach with no horses? Dear Lady, that cant be_oh surely not_

"Coo, ye should'a seen what came w' him!" said another, one of the chief cooks. " 'Tis a great bird man, 'twas, w' wings an' all, an' a great evil beak like a hawk i' the middle'v his face! An' claws! I wouldn' want t' get on the wrong side uv him!"

Tanager sat frozen, her hands wrapped around her empty cup. It was! It was Harperus_and with him, T'fyrr! It must be! But why here, and why now?

"Ah, but ye haven't heard the best of it," said a third girl knowingly. "My second cousin is best friend t' Lord Atrovel's secretary's valet, an' this birdy-man like to set the whole Court on its ear!"

As Tanager sat in stunned silence, the girl gleefully told the entire story, while the rest of the kitchen worked and put in a word or two of commentary. According to the girl, a nonhuman who had to be a Deliambren from the description, and another who was either T'fyrr or another of his race, had come in yesterday afternoon to Court. They had been announced as some kind of envoy, and at that point, for a reason that the girl either didn't know or couldn't explain, the bird-man broke into song. From there, her version differed slightly from the ones offered by a few others. The others claimed that the bird-man had challenged the King's Musicians to a contest and had won it; the girl maintained that he had simply begun singing, as a sample of what he could do.

At any rate, when it was all over, the King had appointed the bird-man to be his Chief Musician (the others claimed Laurel Bard), the rest of the Court Musicians were furious (no one differed on that), and most of the King's Advisors were beside themselves over the fact that the King had overruled them.

Ah, but if the first girl was to be believed, the King had not only appointed the Haspur_for it must be a Haspur, even if it wasn't T'fyrr_as his Chief Musician, he had appointed him directly to the Royal Household, made a Sire out of him, and installed him in a suite in the royal wing of the Palace!

I only hoped to hear something about the Law of Degree, Tanager thought dazedly, not this_

Could it be T'fyrr and Old Owl? She didn't know of any other Haspur and Deliambrens traveling together. But why would they come here?

Why am I here? Whoever these strangers are, it is for the same reason, surely.

Now she was very grateful that she had been so careful to keep her real identity and purpose here a secret. With two sets of agents blundering about, it would have been appallingly easy for them to trip each other up.

Now I need only watch for them, and avoid getting entangled in whatever scheme they have going. Oh, yes, need only. If it is Harperus, that will be like trying to avoid the garbage in the streets! He's more clever than twenty Gypsies in his own way, and encompasses everyone he meets in his grand plots in some way or another. Ah, well, at least he doesn't know I'm here; I just hope he doesn't get T'fyrr in trouble....

Somehow she managed to pull herself together and continue singing and playing for the rest of the morning. That was all the time she ever spent here_and that was reasonable, for Tanager. Mornings were fairly useless for a street-musician; the afternoon meant better pickings, and Tanager would now, presumably, go on to whatever street corner she had staked out as her own. There she could expect to earn "hard currency" for her work; pins, mostly, with a sprinkling of copper coins, and some food.

As usual, she spread out a threadbare napkin, and the chief cook filled it with her "pay"_mostly leftover bread, with a bit of bacon and a scrap of cheese, some of last nights roast from the Upper Servant's Kitchen that was too tough and stringy to even go into soup today. Tanager thanked her with a little bobbing curtsey, tied it all up into a bundle, and slipped out the door just in time to avoid the lunchtime rush.

She always hurried across the cobbles to the gate, but today she had more reason to half-run than usual. She wanted to find out if anyone in the city had heard anything about the bird-man, or the Law of Degree, and to that end, there were two places she needed to go. First, as Nightingale, the Chapel of Saint Gurd. Second, the square just down the street from Freehold where she generally met Maddy and the rest of her army of urchins just after lunch.

Surely, between them, Father Ruthvere or the children would have heard or seen something. And at the moment, she was not certain whether she wanted to hear more about the Law of Degree or_T'fyrr.

If that was who the feathered wonder was.

Nightingale slipped back into Freehold by the back door feeling quite frustrated. There had been nothing worth bothering about in the way of news at the Chapel; the Priest, Father Ruthvere, had heard nothing about a "Law of Degree," but he promised Nightingale fiercely that he would do his best to find out about it.

Father Ruthvere was something of an odd character, and Nightingale never would have trusted him with her true Bard-name if it had not been that he had recognized her Free Bard ribbons during one of her visits (not as Tanager) and had asked her how Master Wren and Lady Lark were faring. It turned out that he had some sort of connection to that cousin of Talaysen's who was also in the Church. He had been promoted to his own Chapel here, and he had promised Priest Justiciar Ardis when he was sent on to Lyonarie that he would keep an eye out for Free Bards and help them when he could.

That in itself was either an example of how small a world it truly was_or that there was something in the way of Fate dogging her footsteps.

The convoluted twists that this little mission of hers was taking were beginning to make her head spin.

For the meantime, however, Father Ruthvere was an ally she was only too glad to have found. He was one of the faction that followed the "we are all brothers" faith, and that made him doubly valuable to her, and vice versa. He knew what was going on, to a limited extent, within the Church_she had her information from the street and the Court. Together they found they could put together some interesting wholes out of bits and pieces.

Maddy and her crew hadn't come up with anything either, though as usual they were glad enough for her bag of leftovers and the pennies she gave them all. The only thing that one of the boys knew was that his brother had actually seen the horseless wagon on its way to the Palace. It had not been pulled or pushed by any beasts, and from the description, it could have been the wagon that Harperus used.

But then again, she thought to herself, as she scrambled up the staircase, wouldn't any Deliambren wagon look like any other? I don't know for a fact that Harperus is the only one traveling about the countryside.

But would any other Deliambren have a Haspur with him?

She slipped down the hall, making certain first that there was no one around to catch her in her Tanager disguise, then unlocked the door to her room and whisked inside.

"I don't even know that it's a Haspur," she told herself, thinking out loud. "There is more than one bird-race, and most of them would match the description that girl gave. It could be anyone. In fact, it's just not likely that it's Harperus and T'fyrr."

But as she changed out of her Tanager clothing and headed for the bathroom for a needed sluicing, she couldn't help but think that_given the way that things were going_the fact it wasn't likely was the very reason why it would turn out to be her friends.

She drifted down the stairs in one of her rainbow-skirts; the blue one this time. Today, Lyrebird was in a casual mood and had dressed accordingly.

Actually, today Lyrebird was ravenous and wanted to be able to eat without worrying about delicate dagging and fragile lace. She had missed her lunch in order to fit in a stop at Father Ruthvere's Chapel, and she'd given all those leftovers to the children without saving even a roll for herself.

Not that she had been hungry enough for stale rolls and stringy beef. Her stay here had spoiled her; there had been plenty of times when those leftovers would have been a feast.

Well, plenty of times in the long past, when she was between villages and her provisions had run out, maybe. Nightingale had never been so poor a musician that she'd had to sing for leftovers.

This hour was too late for lunch and a bit too early for dinner. Only a few of the eating nooks were open and operating, and all of those were on the ground floor. Lyrebird went to one of her favorites, where the cook was a merry little man with no use of his lower limbs because of an illness as a child. Not that he let it get in the way of his work; he was a cook, after all, and he didn't need to move much. He plied his trade very well from a stationary seat within a half-circle of round-bottomed pans, all heated on Deliambren braziers to the sizzling point. You picked out what you wanted from a series of bins of fresh vegetables, and strips of fowl, fish and meat in bowls sunk in ice, and brought it to him in your bowl; he would quick-fry it in a bit of oil, spice it according to your taste, and serve it all to you on a bed of rice, scooped out of the huge steamer behind him. If he wasn't busy, he was always happy to talk.

Nightingale was always happy to talk to him, and this time of day she was often his only customer.

"Well, Lyrebird, you're eating like a bird indeed today_twice your weight in food! You're eating like dear little Violetta!"

He winked at that; most of the staff found Violetta amusing. The name was female, and surely the little misfit dressed like a woman, but there wasn't a person on the staff who was fooled.

No matter. Freehold was full of misfits, and if "Violetta" wanted to dress in fantastic gowns and gossip like one of the serving-wenches, no one here would ever let "her" know that they had seen past the disguise.

"Skip your breakfast?" Derfan asked, eyeing the size of the bowl she had picked up at the start of the bins.

"And lunch," she confirmed, bringing him her selection and taking a seat on one of the stools nearby to watch him work. He had the most amazingly quick hands; she would have scorched everything, or herself, but Derfan never spoiled a meal that she had ever heard. And he never once burned himself, either.

He pursed his lips and shook his head at her. "That's very bad of you. You'll do yourself harm if you make that a habit. I should think you'd be ready to faint dead away. What was so important that you had to skip two meals?"

"That business with that new law people were so upset about last night," she replied casually. Since it had been the talk of Freehold, there was no reason why she should not have been out looking for confirmation. "I know a good Priest who keeps his ear to the ground and hears a great deal, but he's halfway across the city."

"And?" Derfan prompted, dashing in bits of seasoning and a spot of oil while he tossed her food deftly on the hot metal.

"He hadn't heard a thing," she told him. "I'm halfway convinced now that it was a rumor being spread so that our good leaders can slip something else into law while we are out chasing our tails over this."

"Could be, could be," Derfan agreed, nodding vigorously. "It wouldn't be the first time they've done things that way." The jovial man grinned infectiously as he ladled some juices here and there. "But we've got enough excitement right here in Freehold to keep everyone stirred up for the next few days, and never mind some maybe-so, maybe-no law out there."

She shook her head as he handed her the bowl full of rice and stir-fried morsels. "I haven't been here, remember?" she said, fanning the food to cool it, and daring a quick bite. It was too hot, and she quickly sucked in cool air to save her tongue.

"Our leader's shown up." Derfan raised both eyebrows at her.

She wrinkled her brow, unable to guess his meaning.

"Our real boss," Derfan elaborated. "The one Kyran works for." He sighed when she shook her head blankly. "Tyladen, the Deliambren, the owner of Freehold. He's here."

She stopped blowing on her food and looked up at him sharply. "No," she said. "I thought he never came here!"

Oh, this is too much! she thought as Derfan nodded and shrugged. Not one, but two Deliambrens showing up in the space of a single day? What is this, a conspiracy? Is everyone around here involved in some kind of plot ?

"It isn't that he never comes here, it's just that he doesn't do it often," Derfan told her as she applied herself grimly to her food again. "Maybe he's decided he ought to, seeing as there's been all that law talk. Maybe it's about time he did, too_he's the one with all the money. Precious little you and me could do if the High King decides to make trouble for our friends, but Deliambrens have got the stuff that the high and mighty want, and that means they have money and a reason for the lords and ladies to listen to 'em. They've used that kind of influence before, I've heard."

"Well, if he wants to have any customers, he'd better get involved, I suppose," she agreed mildly.

Now what? What happens if he recognizes me? I didn't recognize his name, but that doesn't mean he doesn't know me. I've met a lot of Deliambrens, and I don't remember half of them. Damn! The last thing I want is some wealthy fuzzy-faced half-wit breathing down my neck right now, watching everything I do and wanting to know why I haven't found out more!

As if to confirm her worst fears, Derfan had even more news about Tyladen. "Word is," Derfan said in a confidential tone, "that Tyladen's going to make the rounds of the whole place tonight; look in on all the performers, the cooks and all, see how they're doing, see how many customers they're bringing in."

"Well, you have no worry on that score," Nightingale pointed out. Derfan blushed, but Nightingale spoke nothing but the truth. Derfan's little corner was always popular, since his customers always knew what was in the food he fixed for them. Some of them, like the Mintak, were herbivorous and could not digest meat. In addition, the food was ready quickly, and if you were very hungry, you didn't have to spend a lot of time waiting for someone to prepare your dinner, the way you did in some of the other little nooks.

"You don't either, from what I've heard," he countered. "You're very popular."

She shrugged. "Usually I would agree with you, but any musician can have a bad night. It would be my luck that tonight would be the one."

Derfan snorted. "I doubt it," he began. "A bad night for you is a terrific night for some other people around here and_" He interrupted himself. "Turn around! There he is, out on the dance floor, looking up at the light-rigs on the ceiling!"

She turned quickly and got a good view of the mysterious Tyladen as he stood with his hands on his hips, peering up at the ceiling four floors above. And to her initial relief, she didn't recognize him.

He was much younger than she had thought, although age was difficult to measure in a Deliambren; the skin of his face was completely smooth and unwrinkled, even at the corners of the eyes and mouth. He was dressed quite conservatively for a Deliambren, in a one-piece garment of something that looked like black leather but probably wasn't, with a design in contrasting colors appliqued from the right shoulder to the left hip and down the right leg. His hair was relatively short, no longer than the top of his shoulders, and so were his cheek-feathers, although she could have used his eyebrows for whisk brooms.

He dropped his eyes just as she took the last of this in, and she found herself staring right into them. For one frozen moment, she thought she saw a flash of recognition there.

But if she had, in the next instant it was gone again. He waved his hand slightly in acknowledgement of the fact that he knew they were both watching him and they were his employees, then went back to staring at the ceiling, ignoring them.

But now she was so keyed up, she even read that as evidence that he was going to try to interfere in her careful and cautious plans.

She finished her dinner quickly, thanked Derfan, and hurried up to the Oak Grove, certain that Tyladen was going to show up there and demand an explanation.

But as the evening wore on and nothing happened_other than Violetta showing up, as if Derfan's earlier mention of "her" had conjured "her"_she began to feel a bit annoyed. Granted, she really didn't want some Deliambren meddling in her affairs, but she wasn't sure she liked being ignored either!

When Tyladen finally did show up, it was during the busiest part of her evening and she was in the middle of a set. She didn't even realize he was there until she looked up in time to see him nod with satisfaction, turn, and walk out the door.

Just that. That was all there was to it.

Her shift came to an end without anything more happening, and none of her customers had any more information about either the Law of Degree or the mysterious bird-man at the High King's Court. Not even Violetta, who knew or at least pretended to know something about everything, had anything to say on either subject. On her way upstairs, she stopped at a little nook that sold prebaked goods and got a couple of meat rolls and an apple tart to take up to her room, half expecting to be intercepted between her room and the Oak Grove. No one materialized, though, and no one was waiting in her room.

She ate and cleaned up, and finally went to bed, feeling decidedly odd.

She was just as happy that she wasn't going to be interfered with, but after getting herself all upset about the prospect to find that she was being ignored was a bit_annoying!

But that's a Deliambren for you, she decided, as she drifted off to sleep. If they aren't annoying by doing something, they're bound to annoy you by not doing it'.

T'fyrr checked the tuning on his small flat-harp nervously for the fifth time. He had decided this morning what he was going to perform for this, his first private concert for the High King, and he was going to need more accompaniment than even his voice could produce. The flat-harp would be ideal, though, for the songs he had selected were all deceptively simple.

He had wanted to do something to remind the King of his duty; he had found, he thought, precisely the music that would. He had modified one of those songs about the King himself for his first piece_not changing any of the meaning, just perfecting the rhyme and rhythm, both of which were rather shaky. But from there, he would be singing about Duke Arden of Kingsford, a series of three songs written since the fire by a Free Bard called Raven. The first was the story of the fire itself, describing how the Duke had worked with his own bare hands in the streets, side by side with his people, to hold back the fire. While not the usual stuff of an epic, it was a story of epic proportions, and worthy of retelling.

Let him hear that, and perhaps it will remind him that a ruler's duty is to his people, and not the other way around.

If nothing else, it might remind the King of Duke Arden's straitened circumstances, better than a cold report would. That might pry the help out of him that the Duke had been pleading for.

That will make the Lord Seneschal happy, at any rate.

The second was a song about the first winter the city had endured, a saga as grueling, though not as dramatic, as the fire. It described the lengths to which Arden went to see that no one died of hunger or lack of shelter that season. The third and final song described not only Arden but his betrothed, the Lady Phenyx Asher, a love story wound in and around what the two of them were doing, with their own hands, to rebuild the city.

Actually, it is more about the lady than about the Duke; Raven truly admires her, and his words show it.

The next songs were all carefully chosen to do nothing more than entertain and show off T'fyrr's enormous range. A couple of them were not even from human composers at all.

And the last song was another designed to remind the King of his duties_for it had been written by another High King on his deathbed, and was called "The Burden of the Crown." Though sad, it was a hopeful song as well, for the author had clearly not found the Crown to be a burden that was intolerable, merely one that was a constant reminder of the people it represented.

If that doesn't do it, nothing will, T'fyrr thought, then sighed. Well, I suppose I should not expect results instantly. I am not a Gypsy, with magic at my command. If he only listens to the words, it will be a start.

He had been given nothing whatsoever to do except practice and wait for the King to send for him. He hadn't especially wanted to venture out of his suite, either; not until the King had heard him play at least once. He had spent all his time pacing, exercising his wings, and practicing. Nob had enjoyed the virtuoso vocalist's practice, but the pacing and wing-strokes clearly made him nervous. He had sought his room when T'fyrr suggested that he might want to go practice his reading and writing for his daily lessons with the pages' tutor.

Finally the summons had come this afternoon, and Nob brought T'fyrr to this little antechamber to the King's personal suite, a room with white satin walls, and furnished with a few chairs done in white satin and gilded wood. There he was to wait until the King called for him.

It seemed he had been waiting forever.

At last, when he was about to snap a string from testing them so often, the door opened and a liveried manservant beckoned. T'fyrr rose to his feet, harp under one arm, and followed him, the tension of waiting replaced by an entirely new set of worries.

As it happened, it was just as well that he had not set his expectations unrealistically high, for the King did not show that the songs affected him in any way_other than his delight and admiration in T'fyrr as a pure musician. He asked for several more songs when T'fyrr was through with his planned set, all of which T'fyrr fortunately knew. One of them gave him the opportunity to display his own scholarship, for he knew three variants, and asked which one Theovere preferred. That clearly delighted the King even further, and when at last the time came for Afternoon Court, a duty even the King could not put off, Theovere sighed and dismissed the Haspur with every sign of disappointment that the performance was over.

"You will come the same time, every day," the stone-faced manservant said expressionlessly as he led T'fyrr to the door. "This is the High King's standing order."

T'fyrr bobbed his head in acknowledgement, and privately wondered how he was going to find his way back to his own quarters in this maze. He had no head for indoor directions, and more than a turn or two generally had him confused. It didn't help that all these corridors looked alike_all white marble and artwork, with no way of telling even what floor you were on if you didn't already know.

To his relief, Nob was waiting for him just outside the door, passing the time of day with the guard posted outside the King's suite. This was another of those dangerous looking bodyguards, but this one seemed a bit younger than the ones actually with the King, and hadn't lost all his humanity yet.

"Thought you might get lost," the boy said saucily, with a wink at the guard, whose lips twitched infinitesimally.

T'fyrr shrugged. "It is possible," he admitted. "Not likely, but possible, I suppose. This is a large building."

The guard actually snickered at that little understatement, and Nob took him in charge to lead him back to their quarters. "I admit I wasn't entirely certain I knew the way," T'fyrr told the boy quietly, once they were out of the guard's earshot. "The hallways seem to be the same."

"The art's different," Nob told him, gesturing widely at the statues. "This one, the statues are all of High Kings, see? We turn here, and the statues are wood-nymphs."

Nude human females sprouting twigs and leaves in their hair. So that is a wood-nymph! No wonder the shepherds in my songs are so surprised; I don't imagine that it is every day that a nude female prances up to the average shepherd and invites him to dance.

"We turn again here_" Nob continued, blissfully unaware of T'fyrr's thoughts, "and the statues are all shepherd couples."

Oh, indeed, if one expects shepherds to be flinging themselves after their sheep wearing a small fortune in embroidery and lace! This is as likely as nude women frolicking about among the thistles and thorns and biting insects, I suppose.

"Then this is our corridor, and the statues are historical women." Nob stopped in front of their door. "Here we are, between Lady Virgelis the Chaste, and the Maiden Moriah_"

Between someone so sour and dried up no one would ever want to mate with her, and someone who probably didn't deserve the title of "Maiden" much past her twelfth birthday, T'fyrr interpreted, looking at the grim-visaged old harridan on his left, who was muffled from head to toe in garments that did not disguise the fact she was mostly bone, and the ripely plump, sloe-eyed young wench on his right, who wasn't wearing much more than one of the wood-nymphs. He wondered if the juxtaposition was accidental.

Probably not. He had the feeling that very little in this palace was accidental.

"So," he said, as Nob opened the door and held it open for him, "to get to the King's suite, I go_right, through the ladies to the shepherds, left, through the shepherds to the wood-nymphs, left through the nymphs to the High Kings, and right through the Kings to where the guard is."

"Perfect," Nob lauded. "You have it exactly right." The page closed the door behind them, and T'fyrr decided that he might as well ask the next question regarding directions.

"Now," he said, "if I wanted to go into the city, how would I get out?"

One of the so-called "supervisors" in charge of expelling rowdy customers_who elsewhere would have been called "peace-keepers"_intercepted Nightingale on her way upstairs after her performance the second night after the Deliambren Tyladen arrived to take over management from Kyran.

"Tyladen wants to see you in his office," the burly Mintak said shortly, and Nightingale suppressed a start and a grimace of annoyance. "Tonight. Soon as you can."

"Right," she said shortly, and continued on up to her room to place her harp in safekeeping. So, he recognized me after all, or someone warned him, or he got a message back to the Fortress-City with my description or even my image and they've told him I'm supposed to be doing some investigation for them_She clenched her jaw tightly and closed the door of her room carefully behind her, making certain she heard the lock click shut. I could deny it all, of course, and there is no way that he can know that I am Nightingale unless I admit it. Still, even if I deny it he'll be watching me, trying to see if I'm doing anything, likely getting underfoot or sending someone to follow me. Oh, bother! Why did I ever even consider this in the first place? I must have been mad. Every time I get involved with Deliambrens there's trouble.

She fumed to herself all the way down the stairs, and even more as she wormed her way through the crowds on and surrounding the dance floor. That was no easy task; at this time of the night, the dance floor was a very popular place. Special lights suspended from the ceiling actually sent round, focused circles of light down on the dancers; the circles were of different colors and moved around to follow the better dancers, or pulsed in time to the music. Some folk came here just to watch the lights move in utter, bemused fascination. Many spectators watched from the balconies of the floors above. Nightingale was used to such things, but for most people, this was purest magic, and they could not for a moment imagine what was creating these "fairy lights." It was easy to see why Freehold was such a popular place; there wasn't its like outside the Fortress-City, and not one person in ten thousand of those here would ever see the fabulous Deliambren stronghold.

The lights made Nightingale's head ache, especially after a long, hard day, and she was less than amused at being summoned now. She wanted food, a bath, and bed in that order. She did not want to have to go through a long session of deception and counter-deception with some fool of a Deliambren.

Fortunately, she was tall for a woman, and hard to ignore. One or two human customers, more inebriated than most, attempted to stop her. All it took, usually, was a single long, cold stare directly into the eyes of even the most intoxicated, and they generally left her alone quickly. A touch of Bardic Magic, a hint of Elven coldness, delivered with an uncompromising glare_that was the recipe that said leave me alone in a way that transcended language.

She finally reached the other side of the dance floor with no sense of relief. The offices were down a short corridor between one of the eateries that catered to strict herbivores and a bar that specialized in exotic beers made from all manner of grains, from corn to rice. The corridor was brightly lit, which was the best way of ensuring that people who didn't belong there weren't tempted to investigate it. Somehow the adventurous never wanted to explore anything that was lit up like a village square at noon on midsummer day. It wasn't very inviting, anyway; just a plain, white-walled, white-tiled corridor with a couple of doors in it.

There were two doors on the corridor to be precise; the nearest was Kyran's office. She tapped once on the farthest and entered.

There wasn't much there except for a desk and a couple of chairs, although the Deliambren sitting at the desk quickly put something small, flat and dark into a desk drawer as she closed the door behind her. She guessed that whatever it was, she wasn't supposed to see it or know it existed. More Deliambren devices, I suppose, she thought sourly, more Deliambren secrets. As if any of them would be useful to me! But she schooled her face into a carefully neutral expression, and said shortly, "You wanted to see me, Tyladen?"

No "sir"; she was quite annoyed enough with him to omit any honorifics. But he didn't seem to notice the omission, or if he did, he didn't care. He smiled, nodded at the nearest chair, and put his hands back up on the empty wooden desktop.

"I did. Lyrebird, is it?" At her nod, he smiled again. "Good name. Appropriate for a musician. Quite. Well." He laughed, and she had to wonder if he was as foolish as he seemed at this moment. Probably not. "Seems you're very popular here at Freehold."

He waited for an answer, and again she nodded, cautiously, as she dropped gracefully into the chair. It didn't look comfortable, but to her surprise it was. "I'd like to think so," she added, making a bid for an appearance of modesty.

"Oh, you are, you are_one of our most popular musicians among the nonhumans, that's a fact." He continued to smile, and she waited with growing impatience for him to get to the point. What was he after? Did he want to know why she, a human musician, should be so popular among those who were not of her race? Was he going to challenge her and demand that she reveal her true identity?

He just waited, and finally she came up with another short answer for him. "That's what they tell me." She shrugged again, trying to appear modest.

"Well, they tell you true." He nodded like the child's toy they called a "head-bobber," still giving her that silly smile.

I know that Deliambrens have a hard time relating to humans and their emotions, but this is ridiculous. I can see why he has Kyran acting as manager here most of the time. He doesn't know the first thing about interacting with us. I know he can't be stupid, but he certainly projects himself as a prime silly ass.

Of course, he could be trying to soften her up for the confrontation. He could be hoping to make her think he was an idiot so that she would underestimate him and let something slip.

Well, if that was what he was waiting for, he'd be here until the building fell to pieces around him.

"Yes, they tell you true," he said, head still bobbing vigorously. "So I'm going to have to move you. Oak Grove isn't big enough, and some of the customers can't get up all those stairs, anyway. I want you down here, on the ground floor. Silas wants to join the dinner-to-midnight dance group, they want to have him, and that frees up the Rainbow, and that's where I want you."

The Rainbow? her mind babbled. The biggest performance room in Freehold? Me? Take over from Silas? Me?

As she sat there in stunned silence, he added, as if in afterthought, "Oh_and you'll be getting what Silas was, if that's all right. Two Royals a night?'

Two_two Royals? Me? Nightingale? Has he got the right person?

"Oh, that's quite fine," she replied in a daze, and he reached his hand across the desk. Thank you. Thank you very much!" Without thinking, she leaned forward to take it as a token of her acceptance.

"Done then. We'll see you down here tomorrow night, then, Lyrebird." He took her hand, shook it once, awkwardly, and let it go. Then he waved his hands at her as she continued to sit there blinking, shooing her playfully out the door. "You need sleep, if you're going to open in the Rainbow tomorrow, my lady. Off with you."

She rose, opened the door in a daze, and walked back out into the noise and the music.

The Rainbow? It was the biggest performance room in Freehold! The only other venue larger was the dance floor itself. Silas was another human_or so he claimed_with an inhumanly beautiful face and body, a waist-length mane of golden curls, and a voice like strong bronze, powerful and compelling. Silas liked to display that body in clothing much like Tyladen had worn that first day, except that Silas' skintight garments were real leather. He was extremely popular with both male and female customers, and by reputation, distributed his favors equally between both sexes. She had heard rumors that he wanted to join the dance group, and she could certainly see why; he would be able to concentrate on singing, and choose the powerful and rhythmic music he preferred instead of the ballads that a performance room demanded. His guitar playing was the weakest part of his act; now he wouldn't need to worry about it, with an entire ensemble to back him.

And the dance floor will be more crowded than ever_Silas is bound to sing fast music, which will make people thirsty, which will sell a great many drinks. It is a good bargain all around, even at continuing to pay him his current salary or above. But_me? The Rainbow? Who am I? I'm not gorgeous, like Silas. I know I'm good, but I don't have a fraction of his charisma. I'm just a Gypsy street-player, a good one, but nothing more than that. How can I ever fill the Rainbow?

She found herself on the staircase, with no clear memory of how she had crossed the intervening floor. The Rainbow Room was easily three times the size of the Oak Grove. How could she ever justify being put there? Who would come?

All those people who wait for seats now, whispered an elated little voice in the back of her mind. All those people who stand crowded into the back wall. And all those who want to hear you, but can't climb three flights of stairs. You know there are plenty of those. Derfan's said as much. Lady of the Night, now Derfan can even come listen to you!

Well, that was true. Many of the folk who crowded into Freehold of a night were the human misfits of the city; those who, like Derfan, were not sound of body by everyday measure. Out there, they were cripples. In any other tavern in the city, they would still be cripples. Here, they were no stranger than anyone else, and their only limitations were how far up the staircases they could get_and there were plenty of nonhumans who couldn't manage that. Kyran and Tyladen spoke vaguely of putting in some sort of lifting system to accommodate them, but apparently there was some problem with getting it to work reliably. There were hoists for food and drink for the various tiny kitchens, but they were all powered by the muscles of Mintaks and other strong creatures and not really practical for hauling people up and down.

Besides, the worst that happened if a hoist failed was the loss of a little food and profit. The worst that could happen if a lift full of customers failed was not to be contemplated.

That was why the most popular acts were all on the first floor, where everyone could see them that wanted to.

Can I do it? she asked herself, and forced herself to think about it dispassionately. Yes, she decided, on sober contemplation. I think that I can.

But she had to stop on the way up and bespeak a pot of very hot water from one of the tea vendors. Mingled excitement, anticipation, and stage-fright were beginning to build inside her at the prospect of facing the largest audience at the greatest rate of pay she had ever, in her life, warranted. If she was going to be able to do anything tomorrow, she was going to need to get some sleep tonight, as Tyladen had pointed out. Fortunately, she had packed a number of herbal remedies in her panniers, and one of them was for sleeplessness.

And tonight she was going to need it.

The excitement was almost enough to drive her real reason for being here out of her mind.

Almost.

As she reached her room again, shut and locked the door behind her, and began to prepare for bed, her mind went back to what Tanager had heard at the Palace today. The Haspur_and if the mysterious new Court Musician wasn't a Haspur, he was of some race so like them that it made no difference_was the sensation of the Court and had inspired some of the most envious hatred in the King's musicians she had ever heard of. Some of them were threatening to pack up and leave the King's service; others swore they would "get rid of" the interloper. Nightingale was not particularly worried about the ability of the Court Musicians as individuals to "get rid of" their rival; they were Guild Bards after all, and as a group, Guild Bards were singularly ineffectual at doing anything of a practical nature. The trouble was that they all had been placed where they were by someone; they must have powerful allies, and those allies might decide to take an interest. Allies and patrons of that sort had access to all manner of unpleasant things, from simple thugs to sophisticated poisons. They might consider the new Court Musician to be too trivial a problem to bother with_but in a Court ruled by a High King with an obsession for musicians, that was not as likely as it would otherwise have been. In fact, the new musician might be considered as deadly a potential rival as any of the Grand Dukes and Court Barons_and one with fewer protections.

Did the Haspur know this?

I hope so, she thought, slipping into her nightshift and preparing her pot of soporific tea. Oh, I hope so. I hope he is finding himself some equally powerful allies. Because if he doesn't_he's going to find himself wing-clipped and surrounded, and that lovely position he has earned himself will be no more than a beautifully gilded trap....

Like most of the other performance rooms in Freehold, the Rainbow Room lived up to its name, but not in the way that anyone who had not seen it would have expected. It was not decorated in many colors, nor worse, festooned with painted rainbows like a child's nursery. The Rainbow Room was the plainest, simplest performance room in the building, its walls and ceiling painted a soft white, the floor and tables some seamless substance of a textured, matte black, the booths and chairs upholstered in black as well, something as soft and supple as black suede leather, although Nightingale was fairly certain that was not what it was. It would have cost a fortune to cover that much furniture in black leather, and not even a Deliambren had that much to spare on furnishings in a performance room.

No, it was when the lights were dimmed and the special performance lighting lit that the Rainbow Room lived up to its name.

For there were crystal prisms hidden everywhere: in the ceiling fixtures, in the pillars supporting the ceiling, set into the leaded glass windows that divided the room itself from the dance floor. When the performance lighting was illuminated, those prisms caught and refracted it into a hundred thousand tiny rainbows that flung themselves everywhere, and since many of the prisms were free to move with air currents, the rainbows moved as well in a gentle dance of color. With that as a backdrop, no performer needed anything else.

Silas had shown himself to advantage here, and Nightingale hoped to emulate him. To that end she had chosen her black Elven silks for this first performance in the new room.

And in fact, she was beginning to think farther ahead than just the next few days or even weeks. If she could sustain her popularity here_why go anywhere else? Why go back on the road, once she had collected the information that the Deliambrens, the Free Bards, and the Elves all wanted? She didn't particularly have a sense of wanderlust the way some Gypsies did; she simply had never found a place she wanted to stay for more than a few months at a time.

Why not stay here?

Granted, she hated cities, but she couldn't avoid them altogether, and if she was going to have to endure them, why not do so where she was guaranteed a level of comfort that she would never get anywhere else? Where else would she have her own room with her own bathroom, heated and cooled to perfection? Where else would she get her choice of foodstuffs, so that she could go all month and never eat the same meal twice? And where else would she find a performance venue like this one?

And to that end_if she stayed, she would need new costumes, many new costumes, all of the same quality as her silks. The Elves would owe her once she got their information back to them; she could send word back with her own messages that she needed new dresses, and ask for specific colors and designs....

She shook herself out of her reverie as the doors of the room opened and people began to make their way in. Concentrate on what's going on right now, foolish woman, she scolded herself. Deal with what you have before you. Worry about far into the future when you know you will have that kind of future.

Outside on the dance floor, Silas and the other musicians were setting up; she saw them clearly through the window. He must have sensed her watching, for he turned toward the Rainbow Room and waved, grinning broadly, then gave her the Gypsy sign for well-wishing. She smiled back and did the same, knowing that he could see her as easily as she saw him. He looked particularly wonderful and outrageous tonight, and his tight leather costume would give most Church Priests heart failure. It was cut out in unexpected patterns that allowed his golden-tan skin to show through, and unless she was very much mistaken, he was wearing a leather codpiece with a red leather rose appliqued on the front.

Showoff. But she smiled as she thought it. It was impossible not to like Silas; he went out of his way to be kind to even the lowliest of the waiters and cleaners and encouraging to the worst of his fellow entertainers. There wasn't an unkind bone in Silas' body.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a chaste bone in there, either. "Promiscuous" did not begin to describe him, and Nightingale feared he would meet an early end, either torn to pieces among a dozen jealous lovers, each of whom was sure he or she was Silas' only true love, or worn away to nothing by the exertion of all his love affairs. Silas' one fault_and it was a bad one_was that he had a habit of telling his lovers whatever they wanted to hear. That had gotten him into trouble in the past, and he had never learned better. Perhaps Silas unconsciously feared the same early end that she suspected for him; he seemed to be trying to pack a lifetime's worth of experience into months rather than years.

But for now, at least, he's having a fine time as far as I can tell. Still, it wouldn't be my choice to burn up like a falling star for the sake of a single spectacular bout of fireworks. I would rather leave a carefully crafted and large legacy of music behind me.

This new venue was only going to give him more trouble in the popularity department; now he was free to move about the stage as he sang, instead of being pinned to a stool behind a guitar. That was only going to make him more attractive so far as his admirers were concerned. Up until now they'd had no reason to suspect Silas danced as well as he sang.

Well, this wasn't the time to worry about Silas and his troubles; her harps were in perfect tune, and the place was about as full as it was going to get until and unless word spread tonight that her performances were not to be missed. So_

So it's time to start creating a performance that is not to be missed, foolish wench!

She ran her hands over her harp strings, and the quiet murmur of talk died away as the lights above the stage brightened and the ones out in the room dimmed slightly. She took a deep breath, mentally ran over all of her options, and decided to begin with something she hoped would impress even the most difficult critic. She chose an Elven piece, and backed it with the appropriate Bardic Magic meant to enhance the moods called up by the song.

After that, all of her attention was bound up in her music and the reactions of her audience. It seemed to her that the listeners were impressed; they were quiet when she wanted them to be, nodded or tapped along in time when she played or sang something lively, and responded to the subtle textures she added with the Bardic Magic she wove into the fabric of her songs. In this incarnation, the magic was only meant to enhance an experience, not to manipulate anyone's thoughts. That was how the Elves generally used it among themselves. The room continued to fill as she played, until at the end of her first set, there were not too many tables or booths empty. And this was at supper_once people were finished eating, the audiences should grow larger.

The lights came back up as she signaled the end of her set; she stepped off the stage and went into the back of the room, where a cleverly concealed door led into a small closet-like affair. This was where another of the nonhumans, a fellow whose race she didn't even know, sat doing arcane things with a board of sliding bits and buttons. Xarax was a likable fellow, though he didn't speak much to anyone; he looked as human as Nightingale until you got close to him and saw that his eyes were exactly like a goat's, with an odd, sideways, kidney-shaped pupil, and his skin was covered with tiny hexagonal scales. She didn't know if he was completely hairless, but his "eyebrows" were nothing more than a darker pattern of scales, he had no sign of a beard, and he always wore a shirt with a hood and kept the hood up. He was the one in charge of the lighting here; he worked this room for Nightingale now as he had worked it for Silas before.

"That was perfect," she told him warmly. "I couldn't have asked for anything better."

His thin, lipless mouth stretched in a smile. "Excellent," he replied, with no hiss at all to his words. "You are a more subtle performer than Silas; I hoped I would match that subtlety. The audience likes you. The exquisite Violetta actually came here to listen to you before she went off to the dance floor. That is a good omen and proves that the customers like you."

"They do?" she replied, knowing she sounded pathetically eager, as eager as any green child in her first appearance, and knowing it would not matter to Xarax. "Oh, I hope so_"

"Tyladen did not choose you wrongly to take Silas' place," the nonhuman assured her, even reaching out with one three-fingered hand to pat her on the shoulder in an awkward gesture of reassurance. "He was half minded to choose another exactly like Silas, but I told him that would be a mistake, for such a choice would only invite comparison and unwelcome rivalry. I said to him to choose someone as unlike Silas as possible; someone whose emphasis was on the music rather than the performer_and here you are, and you prove me right. And Tyladen, who chose you."

That was the longest speech she had ever heard out of Xarax, and he abruptly turned back to his buttons and boards, as if embarrassed by the outpouring of words. She knew better than to be offended at his abruptness; she thanked him again and left him alone with his beloved machinery.

When her break was over, most of the people from her first performance were still in the room, sipping drinks they had ordered from waiters during the interval, and many more had arrived to fill up the rest of the seats. As the lights dimmed again, she saw the dance group had ended its first performance, and the dance floor had emptied. Silas and his group would be taking a longer break than she did_their work was physically more demanding. For a while, at least, the music in here would penetrate onto the open dance floor, and might attract more people here.

And even as she began her first song of the second set, she caught sight of someone who startled her so much that for a moment she faltered_

Then she recovered, so quickly that she doubted anyone in her audience noticed, or thought the break was more than a dramatic pause. But out there, striding across the empty dance floor, wings swept dramatically back behind his shoulders, was_

T'fyrr!

It had to be him! It was not just the wings, the feathered body, the raptorial head_it was the costume, the way that closely wrapped fabric fell in particular folds that she remembered, the color of the fabric itself. It was also the color of his feathers, a rich grey-brown with touches of scarlet on the edges of his primaries and tail feathers. Nightingale had a peculiarly good color memory; she was able to match even greys and beiges without having a swatch of the fabric in question with her. She knew, from all of her years as an observer of nature, that no two birds were exactly colored alike; there were subtle shadings of tone that enabled someone who watched them a great deal to tell them apart. Surely that was the same with the Haspur_

And yet he looked through the window of the Rainbow Room, straight into her eyes, and showed no sign of recognition. Her hands played on, a peculiar, haunting Gypsy song; it was one she was certain that T'fyrr could never have heard, and it had been a Gypsy melody that had brought him to her in their first meeting. Surely he could not have resisted a second such song_

But although he must have heard the music, he paid no attention to it or to her. He was looking for someone, however, and in a few moments, as Kyran brought Tyladen to him, it was obvious just who he was looking for. The two nonhumans strolled together in the direction of Tyladen's office and were soon out of sight, leaving Nightingale puzzled and a bit confused.

It can't have been T'fyrr. T'fyrr would never have gone past without at least greeting me. It must have been some other Haspur.

But how many Haspur were there? And how could another Haspur look so exactly like T'fyrr?

The lighting is odd out there. Maybe I mistook his coloring. I saw T'fyrr in shadowed daylight under trees; the light out on the dance floor is a lot dimmer than that, and there are all those colored lights to confuse things.

Maybe so_but in every other way, this Haspur looked enough like T'fyrr to have been his twin....

And I only saw him for a day or two. I could be wrong. It feels as if his image has been branded into my memory, but I could be wrong.

All she really knew, if it came down to it, was this. There was a Haspur in this building who had come looking for a Deliambren. There was a bird-man with a Deliambren who had arrived at the High King's Palace. These two might even be the same as that pair. In a way she hoped so. This city was no place for someone like T'fyrr right now, and the position that Haspur held at Court was no position for T'fyrr to be in. If there had to be a Haspur in danger, she would really prefer it wasn't one she knew, one she cared for.

So why, she asked herself, as she started on her next song, am I still so certain it is him_both here and there, and probably in danger in both places?

Nob's directions were exact to the last detail, and he had not been at all surprised that T'fyrr wanted to visit the tavern called Freehold. "Pages aren't allowed to go there," he'd said wistfully. "But as soon as I'm old enough_"

"As soon as it is possible, I will take you there," T'fyrr promised, and the boy's eyes lit up. "If it is as wondrous as I have heard, it would be a crime not to let you see it."

And with that, armed only with directions and a bit of money secreted in his body-wrappings, he ventured into the city. He was not particularly worried about being attacked; not in broad daylight, at any rate. He had trodden the streets of worse neighborhoods than Freehold was in with perfect safety. Most would-be attackers took one look at his foot-talons, his hand-talons, and his beak, and realized that he was better armed than the worst bravo. He wanted to reach Freehold now, before he needed to go, so that he knew the way. If Nob's directions proved misleading or erroneous in any way, he wanted to know now, when he had the leisure to ask for better directions.

Still, there was always the chance that he would be followed_and he really didn't want to walk the entire way.

So once he was out of the Palace and onto the grounds, he did the obvious; he took to the air.

His shadow passed over the guards at the gate and they gaped up at him as he flew overhead. They had heard of him by now, of course, but hearing about him and seeing him in the air were obviously two different things. His eyesight was good enough to see that their hands tightened on their weapons as he passed them, but they did not make any kind of threatening gesture. But_probably when he returned, he should come in on foot and show them his proper safe-conduct from the King.

No point in giving them a target for arrow practice.

He was quite glad that he had decided to fly when he saw how crowded the streets below him were. It would be hot down there, too; another reason to put off landing until he had to.

On the other hand, I'm not exactly inconspicuous. Anyone who wanted to know where I'm going need only climb into the nearest Church tower and watch me to see where I land.

But if he was being followed_that might not occur to someone who didn't himself fly.

Well, what's done is done. No use closing the coop door after the pigeons have flown.

It wasn't at all difficult to follow Nob's directions from the air, and in a remarkably short period of time, he landed in a square next to a fountain about three blocks away from the building that housed Freehold. It took him longer to walk those three blocks than it had to fly the rest. Although foot traffic tended to part before him, the streets were still crowded, and there weren't too many places for other pedestrians to move in order to get out of his way.

He suspected that he was indeed being followed when he was two blocks from the place, and only then did it occur to him that it probably didn't matter if he flew or walked. This, as Harperus had pointed out, was a logical destination for him. All anyone had to do was to leave a watcher near the place, and sooner or later he was bound to show up.

If I'd had any sense, I would have sent a message to Tyladen that I was coming and would land on the roof, he told himself angrily. But no, I have no more sense than an unfledged eyas. And this is all for no reason! I don't have anything at all to report!

Other than to make T'fyrr the very visible symbol of his new policy of tolerance for nonhumans, the King literally had not done anything since T'fyrr's arrival. At least, he hadn't done anything that T'fyrr had witnessed. He left everything in the hands of his underlings, just as he had that very first day, and those underlings were making very certain that T'fyrr was given nothing whatsoever to do when the King wasn't requesting private performances. Other Court musicians regularly played for the humans gathered at various places during the day; not T'fyrr. Someone was being very careful to see that T'fyrr stayed out of sight. T'fyrr, on the other hand, was making very sure that he stayed visible, attending every open Court session that he could_but he really hadn't learned anything new.

Well, it was too late to do anything about followers now; he walked up to the front door of Freehold as if he hadn't a care in the world and presented himself to the doorkeeper with casual aplomb. He did enjoy the way the man's eyes widened at the sight of his wings and talons, but when he asked to see Tyladen, the man did not ask why or claim that the Deliambren was busy. Instead, he directed T'fyrr to go inside and said that he would tell Tyladen to come meet him.

T'fyrr followed the human's directions, but once inside the door, his senses were assaulted in a fashion that left him momentarily dazed by the barrage of light and sound. People_not only humans, but other peoples_were everywhere. Music pounded at his ears from the center of the room and echoed down off the high ceiling. A space in the middle of the room was full of creatures dancing to a wild reel; above the gyrating bodies was the group responsible for the high-volume, fast-paced music itself. They were all humans, but they played as if they were the demons that the Church claimed T'fyrr had represented.

A moment or two later, to his relief and gratitude, the music ended; the bronze-maned human singer threw back his hair, acknowledged the applause of the dancers, and indicated that he and the group were about to take a rest. T'fyrr sighed in gratitude; it would have been impossible to cross the rapidly emptying floor with it full of dancers, and he wasn't certain he would have been able to maintain his equilibrium_literally!_with that much music pounding into his ears.

As the dance floor cleared, T'fyrr started across it, sweeping his glance across the many odd alcoves and glass-fronted rooms surrounding the open space. Harperus and Nob had both described Freehold to the best of their abilities, but both descriptions had come up rather short of reality. If he had not been so concerned about those who had followed him, he would have been happy to explore the place_

And then, as he glanced into a rainbow-laced room with a single performer upon the stage, his heart and footsteps faltered for an instant.

No.

But, yes. It was Nightingale. Not the Nightingale he remembered from that single memorable afternoon, but a more elegant and exotic version of the same woman. She wore a night-black gown that flowed about her body like a second skin of feathers, and her hair had been left to flow down her back in a single fall of darkest sable. But it was her_it was her.

And if he acknowledged her, whoever was following him and watching him would want to know why he had done so_would want to know how she had met him, and where, and what she was to him.

If those followers were from any of his enemies at Court, she would not be safe, not even here. Her only safety lay in his pretending that she was as much a stranger to him as anyone else here.

Yes, they would see him meeting with the Deliambren, Tyladen_but the Deliambren could take care of himself. Beautiful, fragile Nightingale could not.

So he allowed his eyes to brush across hers with feigned indifference and pretended not to see the shock of recognition in her face. Instead, he waited until he caught a glimpse of a Deliambren hurrying toward him from a nearby corridor_who could only be Tyladen, the owner of this place. He gave all of his attention to his host, and as Tyladen hurried him into a back room, he did not even spare a second glance for the musician in the room of rainbows_however much his heart yearned for a welcoming smile from her.

"I'm glad you came," the Deliambren said as he closed a reassuringly solid door behind T'fyrr and turned a chair around so that the Haspur could lean his arms on the back and have his tail and wings unencumbered. "I was hoping to be able to catch you up on news from the Fortress-City before things get to a point where they are critical. The listening devices are no replacement for regular contact. We can hear you just fine, but unfortunately we can't tell you what it is we'd like you to talk about."

"Something new?" T'fyrr asked.

The Deliambren shook his head. "Not exactly new_just that there is some information we need to help us fill in some holes in our knowledge. You know that we still want to map all of Alanda, of course. That hasn't changed."

"I didn't think it would," T'fyrr rumbled with a little reluctant amusement. "Once you people get a direction in your heads, you're as hard to sway from it as a migrating goose."

Tyladen smiled. "We've run into some obstacles. There are some of the human kingdoms that have decided they don't want any part of us, and in order to carry out the expedition properly, we'll have to cross their lands. The High King can override their objections, so now we need his blanket permission in order to get the expedition underway."

T'fyrr blinked, as the conversations of several of the past few Court sessions he'd sat through played in his head. He had made a point of going to every single open Court that he knew about; not only to have something to do, but to make himself visible as an act of defiance against those Advisors who were trying to make him vanish. None of them seemed to realize just how good his hearing really was; he'd overheard a lot that he wasn't supposed to, both on the dais and among the courtiers. Once you knew the factions and who belonged to what, you knew where to listen.

In addition, he had been present at several private meetings between the King and his Advisors, in his capacity as the King's Personal Musician. He'd heard quite a bit there, too. He just hadn't realized that it meant anything.

"I believe I know what you need," he said. "There are several of the King's Advisors who are against the expedition, but they have not been showing their hands openly."

"Yes!" Tyladen exclaimed. "And we couldn't tell how the King himself really feels about it."

T'fyrr coughed. "Oh, the King_well, he is very enamored with your technology, though he refers to it as 'Deliambren magic.' He would like to have still more of your little wonders, and as long as he has that desire, he will be swayed in favor of letting you have anything you want, within reason. However_the Advisors are not the only problem you have to deal with."

"They aren't?" Tyladen looked puzzled.

"You forget," T'fyrr said, trying not to sound bitter, "how much these people are herded by the opinions of their religious leaders. There are several of them who are not happy with your 'magic' and are quietly lobbying the King against it. They are not necessarily the ones who are against nonhumans, by the way."

The Deliambren's eyebrows rose sharply. "Ah! I see! Yes, the religious leaders who hate and fear nonhumans are depressingly easy to recognize, but I had not realized that there were others who might be against technology."

T'fyrr snorted. "Think about it. Your ways have the potential to prove some of their assertions are a pile of mutes and castings, and that would be bad for their business. Of course they fear you! Now, since I know what it is that you need, let me name you some names."

He closed his eyes and brought up faces and attitudes in his mind's eye, then began to recite all that he knew. In the background, he was vaguely aware of a faint hum that was probably one of the recording-crystal devices at work, and of a steady tapping, which might mean that Tyladen was taking notes in some other way. He was rather surprised at the sheer volume of information he had, really. It wasn't only the King's Advisors who were important, it was also the factions with whom they were involved.

All of those factions were represented by people, and all of those people had names, descriptions, attitudes_weaknesses that could be exploited, perhaps_likes and dislikes.

He had to stop, rest and enjoy some cool water more than once in the course of his recitation. It all took a very long time, even for someone like him. His people relied on oral history before they met the Deliambrens, and as a consequence they were very good at organizing their memories. Still, it took time to get everything out, and when he was finished, he was well aware that it was very late.

"That was fabulous," Tyladen said with admiration as he tapped a few more things into some sort of device on his desk and slipped the device itself into a drawer. "You are going to prove to be a lot more useful than you thought, I'm sure of it. This is all information none of our human agents were high enough to obtain."

"I hope you are correct," T'fyrr told him sincerely. "I was not as sanguine about this position of mine as Harperus was; I simply did not see what a simple musician could learn that would make any difference to all of us."

It was the Deliambren's turn to snort. "Well, most 'simple musicians' can't hear a mouse squeak five hundred sdaders away, either. You're overhearing far more than anyone has any reason to believe. Don't let them know that, whatever you do."

"I won't!" T'fyrr hastened to assure him. "My safety lies in that, as I know all too well! Don't think for a moment that I am not aware of that."

"Good." Tyladen pushed himself away from his desk. "I need to go into the back and transmit all this home. Can you see yourself out? Oh_you can feel free to stay a while if you want. I left orders that whatever you ask for is no charge."

After all that_hmph. I should hope so. Then T'fyrr chided himself for the uncharitable thought and thanked his host. "Perhaps I will. Right now, I should like just a drink of something for my throat, and then I will look around a little, perhaps."

"Whatever." The Deliambren opened a door in an apparently blank wall. "Enjoy yourself." He slipped inside, and the door closed behind him, leaving, again, an apparently blank wall.

Evidently Tyladen literally meant for T'fyrr to show himself out. And evidently he trusted T'fyrr not to snoop around in the office, either.

Not that it was any kind of a temptation, no more than it had been a temptation to snoop in Harperus' exotic travel-wagon. If this had been a library full of music recordings, perhaps, but there was nothing likely to be in this office that would hold even a hint of interest for T'fyrr.

Not unless there is something on the personal records of the musicians here_

No. No, he would not try to look up Nightingale to see what had brought her here. That would be rude.

But he could go out and at least listen to her sing without revealing his presence. That wouldn't hurt anything or anyone.

Maybe, if the opportunity presented itself, he could find a way to contact her discreetly, privately. A note or a message, perhaps.

So with that thought in mind, he opened the door and walked out into the main room, which was once again crowded with dancers, preoccupied with the idea of seeing his friend again, and a little surprised at the pleasure that gave him.

CHAPTER SIX

It can't be T'fyrr. But how can it not be? It must be_but how can it be him? The thoughts circled one another in her head, mutually antagonistic. For a while, Nightingale was so taken aback by the appearance of a Haspur who could be T'fyrr's twin that she didn't pay a great deal of attention to the customers as people, only as her audience. That is, she reacted to them and paid attention to the way in which they reacted to her, but as a group, not as individuals.

And she also wasn't watching them for potential trouble. She used to keep a careful eye on every person in her audiences when she was on the road, because she never knew who or what was going to cause a problem for her. Sometimes trouble came from someone who just happened to be offended by the lyrics of a particular song; sometimes it came from a more obvious source, a drunk, or a person who had arrived with his own set of prejudices riding his shoulders like a pack. She had gotten out of the habit of looking for problems in her audience since she'd been here, and maybe that wasn't such a good thing....

It wasn't until her second set was over that she shook herself out of her reverie and began that kind of "watching" that was normally second nature and due entirely to a Free Bard's healthy sense of self-preservation. Even when trouble erupted around a Free Bard, it generally came to include the Free Bard, even if it hadn't been intended to.

She scolded herself for neglecting that here in Freehold. Perhaps her instincts had been convinced that this was a kind of "safe" place, like a Waymeet or a Gypsy camp_after all, there was someone else watching out for trouble and troublemakers here. Many someone elses, actually, most of them Mintaks, or extremely large humans of the Faire-strongman variety. The "peace-keepers" generally kept the peace very effectively; their mere presence was enough to keep some types outside the doors.

But where the Haspur who was the King's Chief Musician was showing up_given that the possibility of two Haspur in the same city was vanishingly small_there might be someone following.

No. There would be someone following. The only question would be if it was a friend or a foe.

And the chances of the Freehold staff recognizing that sort of trouble if it walked in the door were remote. A "friend" would be fine_a guard assigned to protect the King's Musician discreetly. But a foe_well, anyone following the Haspur would be hired by someone attached to the Court, and he would not be the kind to catch the notice of one of the "peace-keepers." He would not be drunk, nor rowdy_in fact, he would take pains not to catch anyone's attention unless the Haspur showed up again.

But this was not the first time that Nightingale had needed to watch for that sort of trouble. Free Bards were always acquiring enemies among Bardic Guild musicians, for instance, and the Bardic Guild had plenty of coin to hire experienced ruffians. So as she took her break between sets, she got herself something to drink and began to stroll the floor, watching the customers, seeing who didn't quite fit in.

There was a general feeling about the customers at Freehold. No matter how well or poorly or oddly they dressed, they all acted pretty much the same. They were here to have a good time in a place where very few people were going to make any judgments about them; that engendered a certain relaxed air. Even those who were here for the first time generally succumbed to that all-pervasive mood after a while. This was especially true of the crowd around Silas and the dance-floor.

That was why the three men sitting at one of the tables near the entrance struck her watchful instincts immediately.

They were not here for a good time. They had drinks, and they watched the dancers, but there was nothing relaxed about them. They weren't even paying any attention to Silas, and that in itself was unusual. She let her barriers down just a trifle, and her immediate reading was confirmed by the state of alert, slightly nervous tension she read in them, the edginess showing they were prepared to do something physical, and soon. These men were here on some kind of dirty business, and they didn't want anyone to notice them.

She also had the feeling that she had seen them before, but not in this part of town. There was a nagging something about them; their clothing was wrong somehow. They didn't match the clothing; that was it. It was just a little too new, a trifle too expensive, and they were not comfortable in it.

Still, that edginess, the waiting feeling, could just mean they were here to meet a lady of negotiable virtue.

Or someone else's wives.

Just because they were here and on edge, and they weren't regulars, that really didn't mean much.

Maybe.

Then again... They didn't show up until after the Haspur did, and they wouldn't have gotten through the door in time to see where he went. Now they're down here, near the entrance, just off the dance floor, in a spot where anyone arriving or leaving is going to have to pass them.

She took her own drink to a table nearby, where she could see both the corridor leading to the offices and the table holding the three men. She watched them out of the corner of her eye, feeling rather put out; this was one of Silas' better performances, and she wasn't able to give it more than a fraction of her attention. Silas always needed one set to warm up, and by the fourth or fifth of the night he was beginning to tire, making his second and third sets perfect for someone who really appreciated seeing him at his best. And tonight was his first night with the dance group, making him doubly eager to do his finest. Nightingale would have liked to be able to sit back a little and enjoy it. Although Silas wasn't really her type, the sensuality he radiated tonight was enough to stir a corpse, and that skintight leather outfit of his made it very clear that however else Silas indulged himself, he did not neglect his physical health.

What was even more annoying was the simple fact that she couldn't sit here forever; she had her third set to do shortly, and she would have to leave. She was debating whether or not she should ask one of the peace-keepers to keep an eye on the three for her when the Haspur finally emerged from the office corridor, and one of the three men caught sight of him and sat straight up, as if someone had stuck a pin in him.

Then he quickly slumped back down, but not before Nightingale had seen his sudden interest. And not before she saw him lean over and say something quickly to his two companions.

No more than a heartbeat later, one of his companions calmly got to his feet and reached out onto the dance floor for one of the dancers.

He just seized whoever was nearest; it happened to be a human male, dressed, as many of Silas' followers did, in a carefully crafted imitation of one of Silas' outfits.

The dancer turned toward the man who had grabbed him in bewilderment_he started to say something, and the stranger calmly slung him around toward the tables and punched him in the face hard enough to knock him backward. He knocked over two tables as he fell and landed on a third, collapsing it. Those tables overturned, and their occupants scattered, more than a few of them getting to their feet and looking for the cause of the trouble with fire in their eyes.

Another heartbeat later, and that entire corner of the room was involved in a free-for-all_which quickly spread in the Haspur's direction.

Peace-keepers converged on the brawl from every part of Freehold; Nightingale spotted them making for the stairs and pushing their way through the dancers, most of whom were not yet aware that there was anything wrong.

But more violence erupted along a line between the strangers' table and the Haspur, with fighting breaking out spontaneously and spreading like wildfire.

Soon an entire quarter of the room was involved in the brawl, and fists were flying indiscriminately.

Fights were not all that usual here, especially not one of this magnitude. It was almost as if there was someone going through the crowd provoking more violence, instigating trouble and moving on before it could touch him_

Nightingale was still outside of the fighting, though many people around her had abandoned the dancing or their tables and were peering in the direction of the altercation. She jumped up onto her chair, then stood on her table and scanned the crowd as the fight converged on the openly startled Haspur and engulfed him.

Intuition and a feeling of danger warned her that the strangers must be in there, somewhere_and if the Haspur was their target, they would be moving in on him now.

Her flash of intuition solidified into certainty as she spotted them widely separated in the crowd. There they were, all right, converging on the Haspur from three directions as he tried to extricate himself from the brawl without getting involved himself.

And as for the Haspur's identity_there was no glass between her and him now, and she had a good look at his head and face, at the way he moved. It was T'fyrr; it had to be. If it had been a stranger, she might have been tempted to let the peace-keepers handle it.

Well, it wasn't. And damned if I am going to let these ruffians go after a friend!

Her harp was safe in the Rainbow Room; she was no bar-brawler, but she hadn't been playing the roads for all these years without learning a few tricks. She jumped down off the table and began slithering through the crowd of struggling, fighting customers. As long as you knew what you were doing and what to watch out for, it was actually fairly easy to wade through a fight without getting involved_or at least, without suffering more than an occasional shove or stepped-on toe. She made her way to the spot in the milling mob where she'd last seen T'fyrr fairly quickly_but she actually got within sight of one of the men that were after him before she saw the Haspur.

That was when she knew that T'fyrr was in danger, real danger, and that these men weren't just planning on roughing him up. After all, if these people weren't after him, why would this one be carrying a net_why carry a net into a place like Freehold at all? Lyonarie was not a seaport_Freehold might offer a lot of entertainment, but fishing wasn't part of it_and this lad didn't look anything like a fisherman!

She looked around frantically for something to make his life difficult before he got a chance to use that net. If he caught T'fyrr in it, he could entangle the Haspur and_

No, best not think about that. Find a way to stop him!

There! She darted out of the fight long enough to seize a spiky piece of wrought-iron sculpture_or, at least, Tyladen alleged that it was sculpture_from an alcove in the wall. It wasn't heavy, but it was just what she needed. She slid back into the crowd nearest the fellow with the net, just in time to see him back out of the crowd a little himself and spread the net out to toss it.

She heaved her bit of statuary into the half-open folds just as he started to throw it.

He lurched backward, unbalanced for the moment by the sudden weight of iron in the net. He was quick, though; he whipped around to see if someone had stepped on the net, and when he saw how the spikes of the sculpture had tangled everything up, his mouth moved in what was probably a curse. He pulled the mess to him, since no one seemed to be paying any attention to him, and began to untangle it, moving out of the crowd completely for just a moment.

That was when Nightingale slipped up behind him and delivered an invitation to slumber with a wine bottle she'd purloined from an overturned table.

He dropped like a felled ox: net, statue, and all. Nightingale dropped the bottle beside him after giving him a second love-tap to ensure that he stayed out of the conflict for a while.

There was no longer a background of music to the brawl; Silas and the rest had probably deserted their stage before the fighting engulfed it.

She moved around the periphery of the fight, looking for T'fyrr, and finally spotted him again as his wings waved above the crowd momentarily. She worked her way in toward him.

But as she got within touching distance of him, she saw that another of the bully-boys was moving in on him, and the weapon he carried was like nothing Nightingale had ever seen before. In fact, she wouldn't have known he had a weapon at all if she hadn't seen the "blade" glint briefly in the light. It was needlelike, probably very sharp_and poisoned? Dear Lady, who knew? It might very well be!

She was too far away to do anything!

She opened her mouth to shout a futile warning as the man lunged toward the Haspur.

But T'fyrr was not as helpless as he looked; somehow he spotted his attacker, coming from an angle where no human would have seen him moving. He grabbed a chair, whirled with the speed of a striking goshawk, and intercepted the weapon as the man brought it down toward the point where his back had been a heartbeat before. With all the noise, there was no sound as the man drove it into the chair-back, but he staggered as he hit the unyielding wood instead of the flesh and feathers he had been aiming for.

It must have embedded too deeply in the wood of the chair to pull free, for he abandoned the weapon and leapt back, looking around for help.

But there wasn't any help to be had. The third man had either seen Nightingale fell his partner, or simply had noticed that he was down. Instead of dealing with his part of the attack, the third man was helping the semiconscious net-wielder to his feet and dragging him out of the fight toward the door. There was no doorkeeper at this point, and he was not the only person helping an injured friend out.

They're going to get away, and I can't stop them, damn it!

The man with the stiletto took another look at T'fyrr, who had tossed the chair aside, and with wings mantling in rage, was advancing on him.

He gave up. Faster than Nightingale would have believed possible, he had eeled his way into the brawl and out of T'fyrr's sight and reach. While T'fyrr looked for him, futilely, Nightingale saw him reappear at the side of his two companions, taking the unconscious mans free arm, draping it over his shoulder, and hustling both of the others toward the entrance and out before she could alert anyone to stop them.

She cursed them with the vilest Gypsy curses she could think of_but she couldn't follow them with anything more potent than that.

With the peace-keepers converging on the fight wholesale, and no one around trying to keep it going, the battle ended shortly after that. Peace-keepers didn't even try to sort out who started what; they simply separated combatants and steered them toward the entrance, suggesting that if there was still a grievance after the cool air hit them, they could resume their discussions outside. There didn't seem to be anyone with any injuries worse than a blackened eye, either, and a good three-fourths of the people involved had only been trying to keep themselves from getting hurt by the few folk actually fighting.

Nightingale had seen it all before; people who, either drunk or simply worked up over something, would take any excuse to fight with anyone who wanted to fight back. The three bravos must have known something like this would happen, too, and had counted on it.

Which, unfortunately, argued very strongly that they were professionals in the pay of someone with enough money to hire them.

While the peace-keepers dealt with the mess, Nightingale picked her way through the overturned tables and chairs toward T'fyrr. There was an uncanny silence beneath the dance lights_as she had thought, Silas and his crew had decided that discretion was better than foolhardiness and had abandoned their platform for the safety of one of the performance rooms. She saw them across the empty dance floor, with Silas in the lead, making their way cautiously back toward their stage.

But at the moment, she had someone else she wanted to talk to.

The Haspur stood so quietly that he might have been frozen in place_but there was a faint trembling of his wing feathers that told her he was locked in some kind of emotional overload.

Better break him out of it.

"Hello T'fyrr," she said calmly, touching his arm lightly, and projecting peace and a sense of security at him.

He jumped in startlement, and she saw, still floating in that strange, detached calm that exercising her power brought her, that he extended his talons for a moment before he recognized her. And he did recognize her; that tiny touch was all she needed to read the recognition and dismay flooding through his mind and heart.

He looked for one short moment as if he might still try to pretend that he didn't know her, but she kept her eyes fastened on his, and he finally shook his head.

"Hello, Nightingale," he replied in that deep, rumbling voice she knew so well. The tension in the arm beneath her hand told her he was still caught up in the fighting rage the attack had stirred up in him. But he spoke to her calmly enough to have fooled anyone but her, or someone like her. "I_I am sorry I did not greet you, but I was afraid that something like this might happen. I did not want anyone following me to know that I knew you."

She nodded; it would be time enough later to find out why he was being followed, and what in the world had brought him to Lyonarie_presumably with Old Owl, since that was the last Deliambren she had seen him with. Right now, there were other things she needed to do.

Bring him calm, for one thing, and help him convince himself that the danger is over for now.

"I saw them; there were three of them. One never got close to you, one had that stiletto knife, and one had a net."

His eyes widened at the mention of the word "net."

Well, that certainly touched a nerve.

"Whoever they are, they're gone now," she pointed out quickly. "I saw them leave_unfortunately, I wasn't in a position where I could get someone to intercept them."

He took a deep breath. "I would rather that they escaped than you got yourself involved in my troubles," he replied.

She only shook her head. "I have to start my next set," she said instead, changing the subject completely. "Why don't you join me?"

He blinked at her slowly, as if he didn't quite understand what she had just said. "Do you mean to listen," he asked, "or to participate?"

"Either," she told him. "Both. It will do you good to think about something else for a little until your thoughts get organized and you have a chance to calm yourself down. I know how good your memory is; surely we both know enough of the same music to fill a set. I also know how good you are_and there is no one else I would rather share a stage with. I would love to have you join me, unless you'd rather not."

But he took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as if her reply had answered some need of his own. "There is nothing I would like better," he said, his voice now a bit more relaxed. "If you would care to lead the way_?"

By the time the two of them reached her little stage, Nightingale noticed that Xarax had altered the lighting to suit both of them. She gave T'fyrr her stool and took a chair for herself; after a brief consultation to determine some mutually acceptable music, they began.

The Rainbow Room had emptied as the brawl began, now it slowly filled up again with customers who were shaken by what had just happened. While fights were not unheard of in Freehold, there had never been one of this magnitude, and the regular customers were still asking themselves how and why the violence of the outside world had intruded on this place they had considered immune to it. Nightingale could have told them, of course.

When powerful people are determined that something will happen, no place is safe that has not been warned and has not created specific defenses against the weapons that they can bring to bear. Powerful people have the means to make things happen, no matter what anyone else might want.

But that was not what these people wanted to hear, and at the moment, that was not what they needed to hear, either. They needed to be soothed, and since that need matched T'fyrr's, that was what Nightingale gave them all.

As she played and sang, and wove a web of magic to hold them all in a feeling of safety and security, she opened herself cautiously to T'fyrr. "Reading" a nonhuman was always a matter for uncertainty, but she thought that she knew him well enough to have a solid chance at getting a little beneath his surface.

Do I? It is an intrusion. But he is in need_it's like the ache of an unhealed wound. Could I see him wounded physically and not help? No, this is something I must at least try to help with.

She closed her eyes, set part of herself to the simple task of playing, and the rest to weaving herself into the magic web, opening herself further to him, letting herself slide into his heart.

There is fear; that is the surface. Singing seemed to ease him somewhat, but beneath the obvious concerns_anxiety over being followed, remnants of fear from the moment when he had seen an attacker targeting him, more fear for what the attack really meant_there was some very deep emotional wounding, something that went back much farther than the past few hours, or even weeks.

She sensed that, but she did not touch it. Not yet.

We are too much alike, more than I knew. If I go deeper_he will have me. She felt that old, unhealed ache of her own, the scars from all of those others that she had given herself to, who had in the end only seen that she knew them too well, and fled. If I had known he would be another_But she had not known.

She could pull herself back and not give what he needed to him. There was still time to retreat.

I cannot retreat. He is my friend. He was trying to protect me by pretending he did not know me; I owe him enough to venture deeper.

So she did, slipping past the fear, the anger_

Ah. The fear and the anger are related. He fears the anger.

There was pain, dreadful pain both physical and spiritual; more fear, and with it a residue of self-hate, deep and abiding doubt, and a soul-wounding that called out to her. There was nothing to tell her what had caused all this, what had changed the confident, happy creature she had met in the Waymeet to the T'fyrr who doubted, even despised himself and sought some kind of redemption here in Lyonarie. She could only read the emotions, not what caused them.

But being Nightingale, now that she knew the hurt existed, now that it was a part of her, there was no choice for her, either. She had to find out what it was that troubled him, and why, and help him if she could.

The hurt was hers; the soul-pain was hers now, as she had known it would be. That was the curse that was also her gift. Once she read a person this deeply, she was committed to dealing with what she found_

Which was one of the reasons why she preferred to spend as much time in the company of those who were not human as possible. It was difficult to read nonhumans, harder still to read them to that extent; very seldom did she find those whose hearts called to hers for help. The concerns of the Elves were either only of the moment, or of the ages_she could help with neither. The Deliambrens were as shallow streams to her, for they simply did not understand human emotions. Other nonhumans either could not be read at all, or their needs were so alien to her that their pain slipped away from her and vanished into darkness before she could do more than grasp the fact that it was there.

Not so with T'fyrr. She braced herself against the pull of his needs and his hurts, but only to keep herself from being devoured by them. His aches were hers now, and would be until and unless she helped him to heal them. The bond between them might even last beyond that moment; it was too soon to tell.

And too late to call it back and say, "No, wait_"

She brought her awareness back to the here and now, her hands playing of their own will, despite the new hurts in her heart, the hurts that were not hers, and yet were now a part of her. She felt, as she always did on these occasions, as if the pain should somehow manifest itself physically, as if she should bear bleeding wounds on her hands and breast, as if she should look as bruised and broken outside as T'fyrr was within.

But, of course, there were no such signs, nor was it likely that T'fyrr had any notion what had just happened. He sang on, finding his momentary release in music, just as she herself often did.

Ah, Lady of the Night, we are more alike than I had thought!

With the readiness, if not the ease, of long practice, she walled as much away as she could inside herself and smoothed over the pain that she could not wall away. Eventually, it would all be dealt with....

Or not....

But for the moment, it was this moment that counted.

And there were more duties that she owed than this one. She had her duty as a musician as well as a healer, and it was as a musician that she was operating now. She sang and smiled, played and probed the needs of her audience, and answered those needs. And eventually, the set was over.

"Let's go somewhere quiet for the break," she said once they had taken their bows and left the stage. "We have a great deal of catching up to do." And as the skin around his eyes twitched, she added quickly, "Unless you have somewhere you need to go? I don't want to get in the way of anything that you are already committed to."

"No," he said after a moment's awkward silence. "No, I don't have anywhere to go, and no one is expecting me. I had hoped to get back before darkness fell, but_"

"Darkness had already fallen by the time you left Tyladen's office," she pointed out, and he sighed.

"I thought as much." He said it in a discouraged, but unsurprised tone. "I suppose I can fly in the darkness; there is enough light coming up from the streets_"

She interrupted him, feeling more than annoyed at Tyladen for not taking care of this himself. "It was Tyladen's fault that you were here longer than you wanted to be, and Tyladen's fault_or so I suspect_that you were caught here by those men. Tyladen can damn well arrange for you to be taken to_ah_wherever it is you need to go in some kind of protected conveyance! And I'll tell him so myself!"

She actually started in the direction of Tyladen's office, when T'fyrr, laughing self-consciously, intercepted her. "By the four winds, now I see the Nightingale defending the nestling!" he said, catching her arm gently. "So fierce a bird, no wonder nothing dares to steal her young! No, no, my friend, I can fly at night, I am not night blind like a poor hawk. And I will be far safer flying above your city at night than I will be in any kind of conveyance on the ground!"

She let herself be coaxed out of going to confront the owner of Freehold; he was right, after all. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a marksman to make out a dark, moving shadow against the night sky. But that did not make her less wroth with Tyladen for his sake.

If I didn't dare let him know that I am working for the Deliambrens, I would give him a real piece of my mind! The wretched, stupid man! Oh, how I'd like to_

She forced herself to remain calm. Even Tyladen could not ignore this night's near-riot, and when she told him what she had seen_

Well, he just might decide to take a little better care of his agent!

She hesitated, then offered her invitation. "Then if you can stay_and want to stay_I have one more set. After it's over, we could go up on the roof; it's quiet up there, and no one will bother us. And no one will know if you leave from there if I don't tell them."

He pondered a moment, then agreed. But she sensed not only reluctance but resistance. He knew, somehow, that she was going to try to get him to talk about what had happened to him, and he was determined not to do so.

And being Nightingale, of course, this only ensured that she would be more persistent than his determination could withstand.

Just wait, my poor friend, she thought as they spoke of inconsequentials that he apparently hoped would throw her off the track. Just wait. I have learned my patience from the Elves, who think in terms of centuries. If I am determined to prevail, you cannot hold against me.

T'fyrr sat through Nightingale's last set as part of the audience, watching those who were absorbed in the beauty of her music and the power that she put into it. She held them captive, held them in the palm of her hand. There was no world for them outside of this little room, and every story she told in melody and lyric came alive for them. He saw that much in their dreaming eyes, their relaxed posture, the concentration in their faces.

Was this that mysterious Bardic Magic at work? If so, he couldn't see any reason to find fault with it. She wasn't doing anything to hurt these people and was doing a great deal to help them. They listened to her and became caught up in her spell, losing most of the stress that they had carried when they entered the door of her performance room. How could there be anything wrong with that?

He only wished that he could join them. He was shaken by the fight, more than he wanted to admit. The entire incident was branded with extraordinary vividness and detail in his memory, and there was no getting rid of it. If he closed his eyes, he could still see the stiletto and the man holding it, the man with the cold eyes of someone who does not care what he does so long as he is paid for it.

The eyes of High Bishop Padrik.... Padrik had looked that way, the one time he had really looked at T'fyrr. He had weighed out T'fyrr's life in terms of what it would buy him and had coldly determined the precise way to extract the maximum advantage from killing the Haspur. T'fyrr had been nothing more to him than an object; and not even an object of particular value.

As much as by the memory of his attacker, he was shaken by the memory of his first instinctive reaction.

I lost all control. No one knows it but me, but I did. I could, easily, have murdered again. Granted, this time my victim would have been someone who was attacking me directly, without provocation, but it would still have been murder.

Rage had taken him over completely. A dreadful, killing rage had engulfed him, a senseless anger that urged him to lash out and disembowel the man. Only luck had saved the man, luck and the ability to get out of sight before T'fyrr could act.

Would he have felt that same rage a year or more ago? He didn't think so.

Singing with Nightingale calmed him; simply sitting here listening to her sing alone calmed him even more, but he was still shaking inside. That was as much the reason why he had decided to stay here for a bit as was his desire to talk to Nightingale.

Lyrebird. I must remember that she is called Lyrebird here. I wonder why?

In fact, paired with his desire to talk with her was his fear of resuming their interrupted friendship. I cannot place her in jeopardy, and she will be in as much danger as I am from my enemies if they learn that we are friends. I am not certain that Tyladen will be willing to protect her even if I warn him; after all, she is nothing more than an employee to him. And he knew, with deep certainty, that he was in danger from at least one enemy who was willing to hire bravos to come after him. He had known, even before Nightingale told him, that there were at least two people in that staged brawl who had been targeting him, and perhaps three or more. Being thwarted once would not stop them; they would only seek him somewhere else.

Or seek some other way to reach me than the direct route.

If he came and went via the sky, there would only be two places where they could ambush him: within the Palace grounds, or within Freehold. Both places had their own protections, and both had people who would protect him. But Nightingale had no wings; she could not travel except on the ground. He knew her kind, she was a Gypsy, and it was not natural for her to stay in one place for long; she would not stay here even if he warned her that it wasn't safe to leave. If his enemies knew that he valued her, they would not hesitate to use her against him.

He sighed and sipped at the iced herbal drink someone had brought him, while Nightingale sang and played one of her strange Gypsy songs. I wish that I knew who my enemy was, and why he sent men after me. It could be one of the other Court musicians, who wishes to be rid of me. It could be one of the Advisors, or one of their allies, who thinks that I have too great an influence with the King. He sighed. If only I did! But that doesn't matter as long as someone believes that I do. It also could be someone who simply does not wish to see a nonhuman in a position of such importance and visibility. Or it could be for none of those reasons, for a cause I cannot even think of.

It could also be that someone in this city, possibly with the Church, had recognized him as the "demon" who killed a Church Guard. Since that killing could not actually be proved, this might be their own way of seeing that justice was done.

All of those people would have ample reason to try to use Nightingale, even someone connected with the Church and High Bishop Padrik.

That might be worst of all for her. He had seen the shadowed fear in her eyes on the single occasion when they had spoken about the power of the Church_the idea of Nightingale in the hands of a sadist like Padrik left him cold and shaking.

He would not have been happy until he had forced her to confess to some awful crime, so that he could have her done away with in a way that brought him more power. He would have done it as casually as swatting an insect, and I know that there are more men like him in this human Church. I have seen them, watched them as they watch me in the Court, their eyes full of hot hatred, or worse, cold and calculating indifference. Like Padrik, others are important to them only as the means to power, or the taking of power from them.

He was so lost in his own bleak thoughts that he didn't realize Nightingale's last set was over until she came to his seat and tapped him on the shoulder. He started and stared up at her.

"Let's go up to the roof," she said, not commenting on how jumpy he was. "You'll feel better up there with open sky above you."

Now, how did she know that? Or was it simply logical deduction for a creature with wings?

Whatever the cause, it shows a sensitivity that I had not expected from a human.

He followed her up several flights of stairs, down a corridor on the fourth floor that she said was part of the staff's area, and up a short set of ladderlike stairs. She pushed open a hatchway and climbed up; he followed her to find himself once again under the open sky. But now it was quite dark, with stars winking through thin, high clouds.

She shut the hatch quietly. "There are probably a few more people up here," she said quite softly, "but they won't bother us, and I know where they are likely to be." She beckoned to him, and he followed her, a gracefully moving shadow, lightly frosted with silver from the half moon overhead. She took him to the very edge of the roof and patted the raised rim of knee-high poured stone that kept people from walking right off the edge.

"This makes a perfectly good bench if you aren't afraid of heights," she told him, laughing a little at the absurdity of the idea of a Haspur with no head for heights. He echoed her laugh_though it sounded a bit feeble to him_and joined her on the improvised seat. A warm thermal rose from the pavement below, still heated from the afternoon's sun.

"I come up here nearly every night except when I am very weary," she told him as she looked out over the city below, then up at the moon and stars above. "It's very peaceful. I'm sure Freehold is a wonderful place, but if you work here, you get very tired of it, especially if you aren't particularly used to cities. I don't like cities very much, myself. I prefer the countryside. I'd trade a hundred Freeholds for one good Faire at Kingsford."

He had more than his share of questions that he wanted to ask her about that. What in the world was she doing here, for one thing! Why here and why now? The last time he had seen her, she had been going in the opposite direction of Lyonarie! There were no Free Bards here, at least none that he knew of, and probably not many Gypsies, either. So what had possessed her to come here, and what had possessed her to take a position as an entertainer in Freehold of all places?

The trouble was, if he asked questions, she would be as free to ask questions of him. "I was rather surprised to find you working here," he said finally, trying to find a topic that would not lead back to the weeks he did not want to discuss.

Only a few weeks, really. Not very long at all to turn me into a rabid murderer.

"Not half as surprised as I was," she replied dryly. "I have been wondering if I should tell you this_but given what happened tonight, I think perhaps I'd better."

If she should tell him_She gave him no chance to collect his thoughts.

"Our mutual friends, the Deliambrens, wanted me to come here to ferret out information for them," she said, surprising him all over again.

Nightingale? Working as a Deliambren agent? But_

"Them, among others, that is," she added, and coughed. "I have many friends among the non-humans, and they seem to have a high regard for my ability to observe things. They asked me to come here and try to discover what I could about_oh, I know this sounds ridiculous, but there are reasons_about the High King. He used to be a great leader, but now it seems that there are other people making all the decisions. I was besieged on all sides, when it came down to it; I had at least three different people ask me to come here and simply keep my eyes and ears open."

"Why you?" T'fyrr finally asked.

She tapped her fingers on the balustrade. "To be honest, I'm not certain. I have done similar things in the past, but_T'fyrr, it was never something like this. They have more faith in my limited abilities than I do, I suppose." She shook her head. "As it happens, they are all people to whom I owe something_loyalty, favors, respect. I did listen. I understood why they were asking me. I knew that there were, indeed, some things I could learn, even with my limited abilities. Much to their disappointment, I refused to promise anything, and I hope they are not even aware that I made it here."

He felt his beak gaping in shock at her words. Not just that the Deliambrens had tried to recruit her as an agent_but that she was going along with it without any of the help she would be getting if she had agreed to aid them!

"But why_why are you doing this alone?" he asked. "Isn't it more dangerous, uncertain?"

"One of my friends told me that they had already sent people in who had been uncovered and had to leave. It seemed to me," she continued, idly tapping out a rhythm on the stone, "that if even one person that I didn't personally know and could count on became aware that I was here and working as a Deliambren agent, that was one person who might betray me, either on purpose or inadvertently. That's why I call myself 'Lyrebird' here_and I have yet another name out on the street. If I find anything of substance, I will tell those who wanted me to come here, but not before, and not until I am out of Lyonarie."

He reflected ruefully that it was too bad he could not have done the same. "It is a little more difficult to hide a pair of wings, a beak, and talons," he replied by way of acknowledgement that he was doing the same work as she.

"Ah." She listened for a moment, but he could not tell which of the street sounds or night sounds had caught her attention. "I take it that you are the new Court musician that everyone has been babbling about? And that our dear Deliambren friends talked you into promising what I wouldn't?"

He did not bother to ask how she knew; if the Deliambrens had tried to recruit her as an agent, she must have ways of gathering information that he had not even guessed. And here he had been under the impression that she was nothing more than a simple musician!

The more she revealed, the more mysterious she became, and the more attractive. And the more he was determined to protect her from the danger following him.

"It was Harperus' idea," he replied. "He seemed to think I might have some kind of influence for good on the High King. He was certain that I would at least be able to overhear things that would be useful."

"Hmm." He wished he could see her face so that he could tell what she was thinking. "And have you? Had influence on the High King, that is. I assume you would not have come here tonight if you hadn't already learned some things that were useful."

"Not that I have seen," he said honestly, then added greatly daring, "but then, I have not got the magic that some of you Free Bards do. If I did, perhaps I could actually do something to influence King Theovere." Now, let me see if that shakes loose an admission of magic from her!

"Do we?" she retorted sharply. "Well, if I had magic, what do you think I would use it for, if I were in your position?"

"To get the High King to listen to what I am singing," he replied, feeling the pain and frustration he felt at seeing the King acting the fool building up in him yet again. "The King still has his moments when he does things that are not only wise but very, very clever. He was a good ruler, and not that long ago_yet now_"

"Now he delegates all his power to people who abuse it, and wastes his own time with musicians and Deliambren toys," she finished for him. "I know; I've heard all about it from the Palace kitchen. No one there knows why, though; or what caused the change. He hasn't been ill, he hasn't had an accident, and there's no record of this kind of_of loss of mental power running in his family. Is he being drugged, or has he simply been listening to the wrong people for so long that he no longer thinks clearly or pays heed to the warning signs about him?"

"I don't know either," he admitted, deflated. "And if anyone else knows, they haven't confided in me."

Nightingale turned toward him in the darkness and made a little sound_not quite a chuckle, but full of irony. "They wouldn't now, would they? After all, you are only a lowly musician. One of the very things that the King is frittering away his time with. Why should anyone who wants to restore Theovere to what he was trust you?"

He felt his talons scraping along the stone of the balustrade as he clenched his fist in frustration. He said nothing, though, and she did not press him.

"I heard_" she began again tentatively, and he sensed she was going to change the subject. "I heard that you had been traveling with Harperus all this time, that you were somewhere around Gradford last fall at around the time Robin and Kestrel were there, too."

Too near the bone! He shied away quickly. "I don't remember all the places we were," he lied, knowing the lie sounded clumsy. After all, given how precise his memory was, how could he forget where he had been? "Harperus' wagon travels faster than beasts can pull it, if he chooses to make it so. We have been too many places to count."

"I thought for certain I heard Harperus say the two of you were heading for Gradford when we parted company, though," she persisted, and he had the feeling that she was trying to probe for something. "Didn't you even tell me yourself that you were going to meet Robin and Kestrel there?"

He winced this time, and was glad that it was too dark for her to see it. "I don't recall," he lied again. "Its been a year, at least, after all."

"And a great deal has happened between then and now," she replied, but then she stopped pressing him. "Except, perhaps, to me. I didn't do very much in the time since you left me; I spent most of the time I passed among humans in very small villages where nothing much ever happens. My audiences are small, my recompense smaller, but it is enough to keep me. That is all the news that I have for you, I fear."

It took a moment for that statement to sink in, and when it did, he was astonished. Why would she do that? Look how she fills rooms here, where there are all sorts of entertainers! Why would she choose places where they could never understand what a great musician she truly is?

"But_" He fumbled for words that would not sound like an insult. "But you are a superb musician! You should be performing in places like Freehold all the time! Why do you spend your time, your talents, among people who can never appreciate them?"

"Never?" He heard the irony in her voice again. "But one of those people, not that long ago, was our own little Lady Lark. There are hidden treasures in those tiny villages, T'fyrr. Now and again I come upon one with the music-hunger in him, and I wake it up and show him that he does not have to remain where he is and let it starve to death. For that alone, it is worth the days and weeks among people who would not care how well I played, so long as I could play 'The Huntsman' twenty or thirty times running."

And from the tone of her voice, that was probably precisely what happened in those tiny villages she claimed to like so much. There must be other reasons_

"There are other reasons," she admitted, as if she had read his thoughts. "If some authority has a grudge against Free Bards or Gypsies, I generally know it the moment I set eyes on the people there, and I can keep moving. That is better than thinking that I am safe and suddenly finding an angry Mayor or Priest with a mob come to drive me out of town. And, at any rate, I try not to spend much time actually in those villages. There are other places where I am welcome."

Such as with the Elves, perhaps? Hadn't Harperus said something about that, at a time when he was trying to distract T'fyrr from his depression? He hadn't been paying as much attention as he wished he had now.

Something about Nightingale being considered odd, "fey," he said, even among her own people. That she spent more time among the Elves and other nonhumans than among her own kind. That sounds uncannily like_myself. Is there something that she is trying to avoid, I wonder, even as I? Is that why she spends much time among those who care little about her and much about her music? There was a great deal that she was not saying, and he found himself wondering what it was. She had her secrets too.

If that was the case, would she understand him and his guilt, as Harperus had not?

He was tempted to unburden himself, sorely tempted, but resisted the temptation. He really did not want to drag anyone else into his troubles or his dangers. And he did not want to burden her, of all people, with the knowledge of his guilt. She had enough to bear.

"I suppose I should go," he said finally, and glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. She nodded; reluctantly, he thought, but nodded.

"I have work tomorrow, and so do you," she said_then hesitated. "I don't suppose that you might be free tomorrow afternoon, though, would you?"

"Normally the King does not need me in the afternoon," he said cautiously. "And at the moment, I believe I have learned all that I am likely to for a while from the Afternoon Court. Why?"

"Because I'd like to guide you in the city, to give you some idea what places are safe for you," she replied unexpectedly. "And there is someone I would like you to meet. Well, more than one person, actually, but there is one person I particularly want you to meet, someone I think will surprise you very pleasantly. I know he would like to meet you. If you'd like to come along with me, that is."

He struggled with his misgivings for some time before answering. He was so lonely_he hadn't realized just how lonely he was until tonight, but the few hours spent with Nightingale had forced him to see just how much he needed a real friend. Not someone like the Lord Seneschal, nor like Nob. The former was using him, and T'fyrr was using the Seneschal, and both were aware and comfortable with the arrangement. The latter was a child, and no real companion or equal. But Nightingale was different, even among all of the people he had met since leaving the mountains. She was comfortable with him; when he was with her, sometimes he turned to her and blinked to see that she did not have a beak and feathers. The only humans that comfortable among the Haspur were the ones who lived among them, sharing their mountaintop settlements and their lives. In a way, those people were as much Haspur as human.

"I_I think I would enjoy that," he said finally, letting his hunger for companionship overcome his misgivings. "Shall I meet you here, on the roof?"

"Perfect," she said. "Just after noon. Now, you'd better go, while the moon is still up."

He nodded_then, impulsively, reached out with a gentle talon and touched her cheek. She placed her own hand on the talon, and brushed her cheek and hair along the back of his hand in a caress of her own.

Then she released him_and afraid of doing or saying anything else that might release his pent-up emotions, he turned away from her abruptly.

Without stopping to make a more protracted farewell, he leapt to the top of the balustrade and flung himself over the edge of the roof, snapping his wings open and catching the rising current of warm air coming from the pavement below. In a moment, he was too far from Freehold to see if she was still there watching him.

But he sensed her, felt her eyes somehow finding him in the darkness, as he winged his way back to the Palace.

And he wished that he could turn and fly back to her.

In deference to Nightingale_Tanager, he reminded himself. On the street, she is Tanager._in deference to Tanager they were afoot, but this section of the city was not as crowded as the streets around Freehold, and as before, crowds seemed to part before them, anyway. It was hot; he held his wings away from his body in a futile effort to cool himself, and his beak gaped a bit as he panted. Tanager looked comfortable enough, although there were beads of moisture on her brow and running down the back of her neck. She wasn't wearing much by human standards, although her costume revealed less than that of some of the humans he'd seen in the Palace.

Many of the people here were wearing similar clothing, anyway. Perhaps in deference to the heat, they had foregone some of that silly human body modesty. He would have been more comfortable doing without his body-wrapping, but Nob had advised against such a move.

"Where are we going?" he asked, dodging around a child playing in the middle of the walkway, oblivious to the foot traffic around her.

"I told you, I want you to meet someone, but first I want you to hear him speak," she said as she threaded her way along the narrow, stone-paved streets, slipping skillfully between pushcarts and around knots of playing children. "You'll understand why I want you to meet him once you've heard him."

At that moment, she darted across the street with him in tow and trotted up the worn steps of a fairly nondescript grey stone building. It wasn't until they were almost inside the door that he suddenly realized the building had a steeple_it was, in fact, a Church building, a Chapel, as they called them here.

He started to balk, but changed his mind just as abruptly as Tanager slipped inside the open door. I have heard her express fear of Church Priests. I have seen the trouble that some of these men have caused her people as well as me. She would not bring me here if she did not have a very good reason. Was this the place where she intended to have him meet that special person she had spoken of last night?

Could it_could it be her lover?

For some reason, his chest tightened at that thought, and he wanted, passionately, for that person to be anything, anyone, but a lover.

Be sensible. She said nothing about a lover. And why would she meet a lover in a Church building?

He followed her, noting with relief that it was much cooler inside the building than it was in the street. She seized his hand as they entered the sanctuary itself, gestured that he should be silent, and pulled him into a secluded nook at the rear of the sanctuary. They stood beneath the statue of a kind-faced, grieving man, out of the way, where his wings would be lost among the shadows.

The Chapel was relatively full for a mid-afternoon service, and the first thing that T'fyrr noticed was that not all of the people here were human. There were at least two Mintaks, and he noted a Felis, a Caniden, an entire family of Caprins_heads too oddly shaped to ever pass as human poked up among the caps, hoods and uncovered hair of the human attendees.

Nor did the humans seem to care!

He quickly turned his attention to the Priest presiding from the pulpit_for the Priest of such a congregation must be as remarkable as the congregation itself.

He was a middle-aged man, if T'fyrr was any judge. The hair of his head had thick strands of grey in it, and the hair of his beard boasted the same. He was neither short nor tall, and his build was not particularly memorable. His square face had the same kindly look to it as that of the statue they sheltered under, and his voice, though soft, was powerful, with pleasant resonances.

But it was his words that caught and held T'fyrr, just as they held everyone else here.

Perhaps not the words themselves, for it was evident that the Priest was no writer of superb speeches as Bishop Padrik had been. But the content of the sermon was something that T'fyrr had never expected to hear from the lips of a human Priest.

For this Priest, standing before humans, in a Chapel built by humans, was preaching the brotherhood of all beings, and citing examples of the "humanity" of nonhumans to prove his point.

T'fyrr's beak gaped open again, and not because he was overheated.

The more the Priest spoke, the more confused T'fyrr became. Bishop Padrik had used his Church's Holy Book to prove that any creature not wearing human form was evil. This Priest used the same Book_almost the same words!_to prove the very opposite.

He was sincere; T'fyrr could not doubt it. He was devout; there was no doubt of that, either. But he was saying, and clearly believed, the very opposite of what the High Bishop of Gradford swore was true.

How could this be?

He was still gaping in surprise when the Priest finished the service, and the congregation happily filed out, leaving the Chapel empty but for the Priest himself and the two of them. The Priest turned to the altar, putting away the implements of the service and cleaning it for the next service. Tanager remained where she was, and T'fyrr stayed with her.

"You can come out, now, Tanager," said the Priest over his shoulder as he folded and put away a spotless white altarcloth. "And your friend, too. I'm glad you came."

Tanager laughed_her laugh had a different sound than Nightingale's laugh; it was lighter, and somehow seemed to belong to a younger person. T'fyrr could only marvel at her ability to assume or discard a persona with a change of the costume.

"I persuaded my friend to come here to meet you, but he didn't know he was coming to a Church service, Father Ruthvere," she said banteringly. "I haven't had a chance to ask him if he was bored or not."

The Priest put the last of the implements away and turned, stepping off the dais and descending into the main body of the Chapel. "I hope he wasn't, my dear child," Father Ruthvere said, chuckling, "but I make no claims for my ability as a speaker. I never won any prizes in rhetoric."

As he moved forward, so did they; and as T'fyrr came out of the shadows, Father Ruthvere's eyes widened and then narrowed with speculation.

"There can't be more than one bird-man in this city," he began with hesitation in his voice. "But I have to wonder what this gentleman is doing here, rather than on the Palace grounds."

T'fyrr glanced down at Tanager, who nodded encouragingly.

"I am the only Haspur in all of this kingdom that I know of, sir," he replied gravely. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Father Ruthvere. I can assure you, you did not bore me."

"Coming from the High King's newly appointed Personal Musician, that is quite more praise than I deserve," Father Ruthvere responded just as gravely. "I hope you know that I meant every word, and I am not the only Priest in this city who feels this way." He held out his hand, and T'fyrr took it awkwardly. "I should be very pleased if you might consider me a friend, Sire T'fyrr," the Priest continued, then twinkled up at him. "I think, though, despite the message of my sermons, it might be a bit much for me to ask you to consider me as your brother!"

That surprised a laugh out of T'fyrr. "Perhaps," he agreed, and cocked his head to one side. He decided to try a joke. "If I were to present you as such, my people would be much distressed that you had feather-plucked yourself to such a dreadful extent."

Father Ruthvere laughed heartily. "That is a better joke than you know, Sire T'fyrr. I have a pet bird that unfortunately has that very bad habit_and my colleagues have been unkind enough to suggest that there is some resemblance between us!"

Tanager smiled; she was clearly quite pleased that T'fyrr and the Priest had hit it off so well. For that matter, so was T'fyrr.

They exchanged a few more pleasantries before T'fyrr and Tanager took their leave; the Priest hurried off to some unspecified duty, while they left the way they had arrived.

"Surprised?" Tanager asked when they reached the street again. "I was, the first time I heard him. And he's telling the truth; he's not the only Priest preaching the brotherhood of all beings. He's just the one with the Chapel nearest Freehold. It is a movement that seems to be gaining followers."

"I am trying to think of some ulterior motive for him, and I cannot," T'fyrr admitted. "Perhaps attendance falling off, perhaps a gain in prestige if he somehow converted nonhumans to your religion."

"Neither, and there're more problems associated with attracting nonhumans than there are rewards," Tanager told him. "As I told you, I was just as surprised, and I tried to think of some way that this could be a trick. I couldn't_and information I have assures me that Father Ruthvere truly, deeply and sincerely believes in what he was preaching."

T'fyrr picked his way carefully among the cobblestones and thought about the way that the Priest had met his own direct gaze. It was very difficult for humans to meet the eyes of a Haspur, for very long. Just as the gaze of a hawk, direct and penetrating, often seemed to startle people, the gaze of a Haspur with all of the intelligence of a Haspur behind it, seemed to intimidate them. Father Ruthvere had no such troubles.

"No, I believe you," he said finally. "And I find him as disconcerting as you humans find me."

"He is one of my sources of information," she said as they turned into a street lined with vendors of various foods and drink. "We share what we've learned; he tells me what's going on inside the Church, and I tell him the rumors I've learned in Freehold and in the Palace kitchen."

T'fyrr nodded; she had already told him about her clever ploy that got her into the Lower Servants' Kitchen every day. "Well, I can add to that what I learn," he said, "though I am afraid it will be stale news to him."

She shrugged. "Maybe; maybe not. Oh_look down that street. That might be a good place for you to go if you're caught afoot and need to get into the air_"

She pointed down a dead-end street that culminated in a bulb-shaped courtyard. Unlike the rest of the street, there were no overhanging second stories there. He nodded and made a mental note of the place.

She continued to guide him through the narrow, twisting streets, pointing out flat roofs and protruding brickwork where he could land, then climb down to the street_finding places where he could get enough of a running start that he could take off again. And all the while she was showing him these things, she was also questioning him....

She was so subtle and so good at it that he didn't really notice what she was doing until he found himself clamping his beak down on a confession of what had happened to him in Gradford. It was only the fact that he made a habit of reticence that saved him. The words tried to escape from him; he put a curb on his tongue, and still his heart wanted to unburden all of his troubles to her.

So he distracted both her and himself with a description of what the High King had done that day. Or, more accurately, what the High King had not done, and how troubled he was by it all.

"There is something fundamentally wrong with the way Theovere is acting," he said finally. "My people have no equivalent to his office, but_if you allow yourself to take advantage of great privilege and great power, should you not feel guilty if you do not also accept what obligations come with it? Should that not be required, in order to enjoy the privilege?"

Tanager sighed. "You'd think so, wouldn't you?" she replied. "I know that I would feel that way."

"The