/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Obsidian Universe (1): The Obsidian Mountain

The Outstretched Shadow

Mercedes Lackey

In the captivating world conjured by veteran Lackey and classical scholar Mallory (Merlin: The Old Magic) in this first of a high fantasy trilogy, there are three types of magic, each of which has its own rules, limits and variables. But it is the Wild Magic-anathema to Armethalieh, "the Golden City of the Bells," and considered by its residents to be heresy and truly evil-that has the most unusual aspects, for its practitioners must bargain for what they need and pay an often high price for power. Kellen Tavadon, son of Arch-Mage Lycaelon of Armethalieh, has been raised (indoctrinated, actually) to believe that High Magick is the only true magic and that his father and the Council of Mages have the final word. But Kellen isn't so sure. He's always been a bit suspicious of the council's tight control over the city. One day, while playing hooky from his lessons in magery, Kellen finds a set of books about Wild Magic. He knows he shouldn't touch them. To open the books and read them is to court a death sentence, no matter if your father is the Arch-Mage. But Kellen can't resist. And thus, after a bit of a slow start, Kellen sets down a road he never expected to take, on a journey of dire importance to both humans and nonhumans (the latter including elves, unicorns and other enchanting creatures).

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The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

Chapter One

In the City of Golden Bells

THE GARDEN MARKET positively thronged with people, clustered around the wagons just in from the countryside. What a fuss over strawberries—you'd think they were made of solid ruby. Perhaps—to some—they were. Certainly the number of superior kitchen servants that filled the streets of the Garden Market, their household livery enveloped in spotless aprons, pristine market baskets slung over their arms, suggested that the gourmets of the City treasured them as much as if they were, indeed, precious gems.

Kellen Tavadon supposed it was all a matter of taste. The strawberries were said to be particularly good this year, and there must have been a hundred people waiting impatiently for the three ox-carts in from the country to unload the second picking of the day, great crates full of the tender fruit, layered in fresh straw to keep from bruising the delicate flesh. The air was full of the scent of them, a perfume that made even Kellen's mouth water.

"Out of the way, young layabout!"

A rude shove in Kellen's back sent him staggering across the cobbles into the arms of a marketplace stall-holder, who caught him with a garlic-redolent oath just in time to keep him from landing face first in the cart full of the man's neatly heaped-up vegetables. Behind Kellen, the burly armsman dressed in purple-and-maroon livery and bearing nothing more lethal than an ornamental halberd dripping purple-and-maroon ribbons shoved another man whose only crime was in being a little too tardy at clearing the path. This victim, a shabby farmer, went stumbling in the opposite direction, and looked far more cowed than Kellen had. A third, a boy picked up by the collar and tossed aside, saved himself from taking down another stall's awning by going into the stone wall behind it instead.

All this rudeness was for no greater purpose than so the armsman's master need not be jostled by the proximity of mere common working' folk who had been occupying the space that their superior wished to cross.

Kellen felt his lip curling in an angry sneer as he mumbled a hurried apology to the fellow who'd caught him. Damn the idiot that has to make a display of himself here! He picked a fine time to come parading through, whoever he is! The Garden Market couldn't be more crowded if you stood on a barrel and yelled, "Free beer!"

Then again—maybe that was the point. Some people couldn't see an opportunity to flaunt their importance without grabbing it and wringing every last bit of juice out of it.

Father, for instance…

Kellen turned just in time to see that the Terribly Important Person in question this time was High Mage Corellius, resplendent in his velvet robes and the distinctive hat that marked him as a High Mage and thus a creature of wealth, rank, and power. Quite a hat it was, and Corellius held his scrawny neck very upright and stiff supporting it—a construction with a square brim as wide as his arm was long that curled up on the right and the left. It had three gold cords that knotted around the crown and trailed down his back, cords ending in bright golden tassels as long as Kellen's hand. Corellius's colors were purple and maroon, and they suited him vilely. Not only did the shades clash, they made him look as if he had a permanent case of yellow jaundice, which condition was not at all improved by the wattles of his throat and the mottled jowls hanging down from his narrow vulpine jaw. His beady little eyes fastened on Kellen just long enough for Kellen to be certain the smirk on the thin lips was meant for him, then moved on, recognizing Kellen and dismissing him as a thing of no importance.

Kellen flushed involuntarily. Which I am, of course. Father's position and glory hardly reflect on his so-disappointing son. And if I were as properly ambitious as I'm supposed to be, I wouldn't be wandering about in the market in the first place. I'd be at my studies.

The official ranks of Magecraft progressed from the Student at the very beginning of the discipline, through Apprentice, to Journeyman, to Mage, to High Mage. Kellen, as a student, was beneath Corellius's notice under the usual circumstances. But Kellen was no ordinary Student. Not with the Arch-Mage Lycaelon—head of the High Council, and therefore Lord of all the Mages in the City—as his father.

Kellen glowered at the High Mage's back. There was no doubt in his mind Corellius had recognized him, even dressed as he was. How could he not, considering who Kellen's father was?

"That'd be a High Mage, then?" asked the stall-holder, conversationally. "Don't suppose ye know which one?"

Kellen shrugged, not at all inclined to identify himself as someone who would know High Mages on sight. He'd worn his oldest clothes into the City for just this reason.

"Maroon and purple, that's all I know," he replied untruthfully. "Don't know why a High Mage would be barging through the Garden Market, though."

"Wondered that myself." The stall-holder shrugged, then lost interest in Corellius and Kellen, as a housewife squeezed out of the press, positioned herself under the man's red-striped awning, and began to pick over the carrots.

Kellen moved on, taking a path at right angles to Corellius's progress. He didn't want to encounter the High Mage again, but he also didn't want to fight his way through the wake of disturbance Corellius had left behind him. The Garden Market, with its permanent awnings that were fastened into the stone of the warehouse buildings behind them and unfurled every morning, was full every day, but other markets were open only once every Sennday, once a moonturn, or once a season. The Brewers' and Vintners' Market was open today, though, over in Barrel Street, for instance. The brewers were in with Spring Beer today, which, along with the new crop of strawberries, probably accounted for the heavy traffic here in the Market Quarter.

Probably accounts for Corellius, too. Kellen knew the High Mage's tastes, thanks to overheard conversations among Lycaelon and his friends. Corellius might pretend to favor wine, a much more sophisticated beverage than beer, but his pretense was as bogus as—as his apparent height! Just as he wore platform soles to his shoes, neatly hidden under the skirt of his robe, to hide his true stature, his carefully cultivated reputation as a gourmet concealed coarser preferences. His drink of choice was the same beer his carpenter father had consumed, and the stronger, the better. He might have a reputation for keeping an elegant cellar among his peers and inferiors, but his superiors knew his every secret "vice."

They had to: only a convocation of High Mages could invest a Mage into their exalted ranks, and it behooved them to know everything about a potential candidate. Little did Corellius know that a frog would fly before he was invested with the rank he so coveted. The High Mages would have understood and accepted a man who clung to his culinary roots openly— but a Mage who dissembled and created a false image of himself might find it easy to move on to more dangerous falsehoods. So Lycaelon said— loudly, and often.

So Kellen steered clear of the Brewers' and Vintners' Market. Corellius would be in there for bells, tasting, comparing, pretending he was buying for the table of his servants, while brewers fell over themselves trying to impress him and gain his patronage. And as long as the Mage dallied in the market, no one else would be served, which would make for a backlog of a great many impatient and disgruntled would-be customers.

But they would just have to wait. This was the Mage-City of Armethalieh and only another Mage, senior in age or higher in rank, could displace Corellius from his position of importance. Mages had built it, Mages ruled it, and Mages were the only people of any real consequence in it, though it had nobility and rich men in plenty.

It didn't matter if Armethalieh traded with the entire world and held rich merchants within her walls, or that she could boast nobles whose bloodlines went back centuries, some with more wealth than any ten merchants combined. When it came to power and the wielding of it—well— Mages were the only men who had it, and they guarded their privileges jealously.

Not that they didn't earn those privileges. Magick infused and informed this City, often called "Armethalieh of the Singing Towers" for all of the bell spires piercing the sky. Magick ensured that the weather was so controlled that—for instance—rain only fell between midnight and dawn, so that the inhabitants need not be inconvenienced. Magick kept the harbor clear and unsilted, guided ships past the dangerous Sea-Hag's Teeth at the mouth of it, and cleansed the ships that entered it of vermin. There was magick to reinforce any construction, so that (in the wealthiest parts, at least) the City looked like a fantastic confection, a sugar-cake fit for a high festival. The City stretched toward the sun with stonework as delicate as lace and hard as diamonds, be-towered and be-domed, gilded and silvered, jeweled with mosaics, frosted with fretwork. Things were less fanciful in less exalted quarters, but still ornamented with gargoyle downspouts and carved and glazed friezes of ceramic tiles. Magick reinforced these, too, and nearly every block boasted its own bell tower, with still more magick ensuring that all of the songs of the towers harmonized, rather than clashed, with each other.

Magick set the scales in the marketplace and ensured their honesty. Magick at the Mint guaranteed that the square coins of the City, the Golden Suns of Armethalieh, were the truest in the world, and the most trusted. Magick kept the City's water supply sweet and uncontaminated, her markets filled with fresh wholesome food at every season, her buildings unthreatened by fire. There were entire cadres of Mages on the City payroll, dedicated to magick for the public good. If they were well paid and well respected, they had earned both the pay and the respect. Even Kellen, no friend of Mages, had to admit to that. Life in the City was sweet and easy.

As for the private sector, where the real wealth was to be made, there were far more opportunities for a Mage to enrich himself. There was virtually no aspect of life that could not be enhanced by magick. Domestic magick, for instance. If you had the money, you could hire a Mage to thief-proof your house or shop, to keep vermin out of it, to keep disease from your family, and to heal their injuries. If you had the money, you could even hire a Mage to create a winter-box where you could put perishables to keep them from spoiling. And there were even greater magicks to be had—magicks that melded brick-and-mortar into a whole more solid than stone and harder than adamant. Magicks that kept a ship's sails full of favoring wind no matter what the real conditions were. Money bought magick, and magick made money, and no matter how lowly born a Mage was—and the Magegift could appear in any family, regardless of degree of birth (Corellius, for example)—he could count on becoming rich before he was middle-aged. He might become very rich. He might aspire to far more than mere wealth, if he was powerful enough: a seat on the High Council, and a voice in ruling the City itself.

Most important of all of the folk of the City were the Mages, and the most important of all the Mages were those High Mages who formed the elite ruling body of the City, the High Council. They were considered to be the wisest of the wise; they were certainly the most powerful of the powerful. If there was a decision to be made about anything inside the walls of the City, it was the High Council that made it.

And that was what stuck in Kellen's throat and made him wild with pent-up frustration.

If there is a way to fetter a person's life a little further, it is the High Council that puts the pen to the parchment, Kellen thought sourly as he made his way past the Tailors' Mart and the stalls of those who sold fabric and trimmings. His goal was the little by-water of booksellers, but he would have to make his way through most of the markets to get there, since Corellius was blocking the short route.

Kellen was seventeen, and had been a Student for three years now, and although that was probably the acme of ambition for most young men in this City, he would rather have forgone the "honor" entirely. It would have been a great deal easier, all things considered, if he had never been born among the Gifted. On the whole, he would much rather have been completely and utterly ordinary. His father would have been disgusted.

And I could have gotten out of this place. I could have gone to be a sailor… It would have gotten him as far as the Out Islands, at least. And from there, who knew?

Mages weren't always born to Mage fathers, and certainly not only to Mages, but in Kellen's case, if he hadn't been among the Gifted, Lycaelon would probably have had apoplexy—or gone looking for his wife's extramarital interest. Or both. The blood in Kellen's veins contained—as he was reminded only too often—the distillation of a hundred Arch-Mages past, half of whom had held the seat of a Lord of the High Council at some point during their lifetimes.

That was difficult enough to live up to, but he was also the son of the Arch-Mage Lycaelon Tavadon, ruler of the City and the current Arch-Mage of the High Council.

That made his life so unbearably stultifying that Kellen would gladly have traded places with an apprentice pig-keeper, if there were such a thing to be found within the walls of Armethalieh.

Wherever Kellen went in his father's world, there were critical eyes on him, weighing his lightest deed, his least word. Only here, in the "common" quarters of the artisans, the shopkeepers, and the folk for whom magick was a rare and expensive commodity, here where no one knew who he was, did Kellen feel as if he could be himself.

And yet, even here, the heavy hand of Arch-Magisterial regulation intruded.

For these were the markets of Armethalieh, and Armethalieh was the greatest city in the world, after all. This should have been a place where wonders and novelties abounded. The harbor welcomed ships from every place, race, and culture, and caravans arrived at the Delfier Gate daily laden with goods from every conceivable place. There should be a hundred, a thousand new things in the market whenever it opened. And yet—

And yet the High Council intruded, even here.

They, and not the merchants, determined what could be sold in the marketplace. And only products that had been approved by the High Council could make an appearance here. Inspectors roamed the streets, casting their critical eyes over the stalls and stores, and anything that looked new or different was challenged.

In fact, there was one such Inspector in his black-and-yellow doublet and parti-colored hose just ahead of Kellen now. The Inspector was turning to look at the contents of a ribbon-seller's stall with a frown.

"What's this?" he growled, poking with his striped baton of office at something Kellen couldn't see.

The stall-holder didn't even bother to answer or argue; he just slapped his permit down atop the offending object. Evidently, this Inspector was a fellow well known to the merchant.

"Council's allowed it, Greeley, so take your baton off my property afore you spoil it," the man growled back. From his look of offended belligerence, Kellen guessed that the merchant had been targeted by this particular Inspector in the past.

The Inspector removed his baton, but also picked up the permit and examined it minutely—and managed to block all traffic down this narrow street as he did so. Kellen wasn't the only one to wait impatiently while the surly, mustachioed official took his time in assuring himself that the permit was entirely in order. Granted, some merchants had tried—and probably would continue to try—to use an old permit for a new offering, bypassing the inspection process, but that didn't mean the old goat had call to block the street!

"It's in order," Greeley grunted at last, and finally moved away from the stall so that people could get by again.

"Interfering bastard," the merchant muttered just as Kellen went past. "Even if it wasn't, what difference would a new pattern of woven ribbons make, for the Eternal Light's sake?"

Kellen glanced down curiously to see the disputed objects that had so raised the Inspector's ire. The merchant was smoothing out his wares, and Kellen could easily see why the Inspector's interest had been aroused. The ribbons in question were of the usual pastel colors that custom decreed for female garb, but the patterns woven into them were angular, geometric, and intricate, like the mosaics made from square ceramic tiles by the Shan-thin farmers of the north. There wasn't a hint of the flowers and leaves usually woven into such ribbons, and although he wasn't exactly the most expert in matters of lady's dresses, Kellen didn't think he'd ever seen ribbons like this before. Well! Something new!

And the merchant was right—what difference could this make to anyone?

Despite the Council's eternal restrictions, the Market Quarter was still a lush, rich place to wander through, from the heady scents of the Spice Market to the feast for the eyes of the fabrics in the Clothworkers' and Trimmers' Market.

But though there was a great deal of abundance, and it was all wonderfully extravagant (at least, in the markets that Kellen's class frequented), creating an impression of wealth and plenty, it was all the same as it ever had been, or ever would be, except in the minutest of details. It was the same way throughout the entire City—throughout Kellen's entire life—tiny meaningless changes that made no difference. A pattern here, a dance step there, a scarf added or subtracted from one's attire— someone who had lived in Armethalieh five hundred years ago could come back and be perfectly at home and comfortable now.

And if the High Council continued to govern as it had, someone who would live here five hundred years hence could return and find nothing of note changed.

Is that any way to live?

Somehow, that chance encounter with the Inspector had given form to Kellen's vague discontent. That was what was wrong with this place! That was why he felt as if he was being smothered all the time, why he was so restless and yearned to be anywhere but here!

Abruptly, Kellen changed his mind. He was not going to the Booksellers' Market. Instead, he would go to the Low Market. Maybe among the discards of generations past he might find something he hadn't seen a thousand times. He hadn't ever been to the Low Market, where (it was said) all the discards of the City eventually ended up. It was in a quarter inhabited by the poorest workers, the street-sweepers, the scullery-help, the collectors of rubbish, the sewer-tenders—people who had a vested interest in allowing those merchants of detritus to camp on their doorsteps twice a sennight.

Yes, he would go there and hope to find something different. And even if he didn't, well, at least being in the Low Market would be something akin to novelty, with the added fillip of knowing that if Lycaelon found out about where his son had gone, he would be utterly horrified.

THERE were no "stalls" as such in the Low Market, and no awnings sheltering goods and merchants, only a series of spaces laid out in chalk on the cobbles of Bending Square. The "square" itself was a lopsided space surrounded by apartment buildings of four and five stories, centered by a public pump. Within each space each would-be merchant was free to display what he or she had for sale in whatever manner he or she chose. No Inspectors ever bothered to come here, and in fact, it wasn't even "officially" a market.

Some of the sellers laid out a pitiful assortment of trash directly on the stones; some had dirty, tattered blankets upon which to display their findings; some presided over a series of wooden boxes through which the customers rummaged. The most prosperous had actual tables, usually with more boxes piled beneath. Kellen stopped before one of these, inspecting the seller's wares curiously.

He fingered an odd piece of sculpture made of brass with just enough silver in the crevices to tell him it had once been plated. The table was heaped with odd metal bric-a-brac, doorknobs, hinges and latches, old keys, tiny dented dishes meant for salt, pewter spoons.

"That there's a knife-rest, sor," said the ugliest cheerful man—or the cheerfullest ugly man—Kellen had ever seen. He picked up the object that Kellen had been examining with puzzlement, a sort of two-headed horse no longer than his finger. "Gentry used to have 'em at dinner, so's not to soil the cloth when they put their knives down." He set the object in the middle of a minuscule clear spot, and demonstrated, setting a knife with the blade on the horse's back and the handle on the table.

Well —something I never heard of! Kellen thought, pleased.

"Fell out of fashion, oh, in my great-great-granddam's time," the man continued, looking at the object with fondness, and Kellen conceived an irrational desire for the thing. It was absurd, a foolish bit of useless paraphernalia to clutter up an already cluttered dinner table, and he wanted it.

"How much?" he asked, and the haggling began.

Irrational desire or not, Kellen wasn't going to be taken for a gull, if only for the reason that if he paid the asking price, every creature in the market with something to sell would be on him in a heartbeat, determined not to let him go until every coin in his pocket was spent.

It was only when the knife-rest was his that Kellen gave it a good look, and discovered it wasn't a two-headed horse at all—but a two-headed unicorn, the horns worn down by much handling to mere nubs. For some reason, the discovery made him feel immensely cheered, and he tucked it in his pocket, determined to have it re-silvered and start using it at dinner.

And his father wouldn't be able to say a word. There were no edicts against reviving an old fashion, after all, even a foolish one, only against starting something new. The little sculpture rested heavily, but comfortably, in the bottom of his pocket; it felt like a luck-piece.

Maybe I won't use it. Maybe I'll just have it plated and keep it as a charm against boredom.

At the farther end of the square, Kellen spotted a bookseller—one of the prosperous individuals who had tables and boxes of books beneath. The errand that had originally sent Kellen to the Booksellers' Market had been to find a cheap edition of one of the Student Histories—Volume Four, Of Armethalieh and Weather, to be precise. Lycaelon's personal library had one, of course—how could it not?—but Kellen wanted one of his own that he could mark up with his own notes in the margins. This was a practice that infuriated his tutor, Anigrel, and frustrated his father, but as long as he did it in his own books, rather than in the pristine volumes in Lycaelon's library, there was nothing either of them could really say about it. He was, after all, studying.

I might as well see if there's one here. It'll be cheaper, and besides, if it's full of someone else's notes from lectures, I might not need to take any of my own.

Besides, it might be amusing to read what some other Student had thought of the Histories.

He didn't go straight to the bookstall, however, for that would be advertising his interest. Instead, he worked his way down the aisle between the chalk lines, examining a bit of broken clockwork here, a set of mismatched napkins there. It had the same sort of ghoulish fascination as watching the funeral of a stranger, this pawing over the wreckage, the flotsam and jetsam of other people's lives. Who had torn the sleeves out of this sheepskin jacket, and why? How had the hand got bitten off this carved wooden doll? What on earth use was a miniature funeral carriage? If it was a play-toy, it was certainly a ghoulish one. If those rusty stains on this shirt were blood—then was that slash a knife wound?

People came and went from the apartment buildings surrounding the vendors; tired and dirty and coming home from their work, or clean and ready for it. One thing living here did guarantee—that you had a job, a roof over your head, and enough money to feed you. If the roof was a single room and you crammed yourself, your spouse, and half a dozen children into it, well, that was your business and your problem. At least the building was going to be kept in good repair by your City taxes, your spouse and your children could find work to bring in enough to feed all the mouths in the family, and just perhaps one of your kids would turn out to be Gifted and become a Mage—and support the whole family.

Eventually he got to his goal, and feigning complete disinterest, began digging through the books. The bookseller himself looked genuinely disinterested in the possibility of a sale; from his expression, Kellen guessed that he was suffering either from a headache or a hangover, and would really rather have been in bed.

Luck was with him, or perhaps his new little mascot had brought it— Kellen found not only the Volume Four he was looking for—in a satis-fyingly battered and annotated condition—but Volumes Five, Six, and Seven, completing the set. They had stiff, pasteboard bindings of the cheapest sort, with the edges of the covers bent and going soft with use and abuse. They looked as if they'd been used for everything but study, which made them all the more valuable in Kellen's eyes, for the worse they looked, the less objection Anigrel could have to his marking them up further. And the more Lycaelon would wince when he saw his son with them.

I can hear him now — "We're one of the First Families of the City, not some clan of rubbish-collectors'. If you must have your own copies to scribble in, for the One's sake, why couldn't you at least have bought a proper set in proper leather bindings!" And I'll just look at him and say, "Are the words inside any different!" And of course he'll throw up his hands and look disgusted.

Baiting his father was one of Kellen's few pleasures, although it had to be done carefully. Pushed too far, Lycaelon could restrict him to the house and grounds, allowing him to leave only to go to his lessons. And an Arch-Mage found enforcing his will a trivial matter—and one unpleasant for his victim.

He was about to get the bookseller's attention, when a faint hint of gilding caught his eye. It was at the bottom of a pile he'd dismissed as holding nothing but old ledgers. There were three books there, in dark bindings, and yes, a bit of gilding. Rather out-of-keeping with the rest of these shabby wares.

Huh. I wonder what that is —

Whatever it was, the very slender volumes bound in some fine-grained, dark leather, with just a touch of gilt on the spine, seemed worth the effort of investigating. At the worst, they'd turn out to be some silly girl's private journals of decades past, and he might find some amusement in the gossip of a previous generation.

If he'd been in a regular bookseller's stall, Kellen might not have bothered. But…

It might be something interesting. And it's bound to be cheap.

If it wasn't a set of journals, the books might even do as a present for his father if the books were in halfway decent shape. An obsessive bibli-ophile, Lycaelon was always looking for things for his library. Literally anything would do so long as it wasn't a book he already had, and his Naming Day Anniversary would be in two moonturns.

It would be a bit better than the usual pair of gloves I've gotten him for the past three years.

It took Kellen some work to get down to the three volumes on the bottom of the pile, but when he did, he found himself turning them over in his hands with some puzzlement. There was nothing on the spine of each but a single image—a sun, a crescent moon, and a star. Nothing on the cover, not even a bit of tooling, and the covers themselves were in pristine condition—

Odd. Definitely out of keeping with the rest of the wares here.

He opened the front covers to the title pages.

Handwritten, not printed, title pages…

The Book of Sun. That was the first, and the other two were The Book of Moon and The Book of Stars. Journals after all? He leafed through the pages, trying to puzzle out the tiny writing. The contents were handwritten as well, and so far from being journal entries, seemingly dealt with magick.

They shouldn't be here at all! Kellen thought with a sudden surge of glee. They looked like workbooks of some sort, but books on magick were very closely kept, with Students returning their workbooks to their tutors as they outgrew them, and no book on magick that wasn't a part of a Mage's personal library was supposed to leave the grounds of the Mage College at all.

Perhaps some Student had made his own copies for his own use, and they'd gotten lost, to end up here?

But they weren't any of the recognized Student books, or anything like them, as far as Kellen could tell. The handwriting was neat but so small that the letters danced in front of his eyes, and the way that the letters were formed was unfamiliar to him, slightly slanted with curved finials. But it seemed to him that he recognized those three titles from somewhere.

Father be hanged. I want these. Without bothering to look through them any further, he put them on the top of his pile and caught the stallholder's eye. The poor fellow, sweating furiously, heaved himself up out of his chair, and got a little more lively when Kellen made only a token gesture at bargaining. Profit, evidently, was the sovereign remedy for what ailed him.

He got out a bit of old, scraped paper and even began writing up a bill of sale with the merest stub of a graphite-rod, noting down titles and prices in a surprisingly neat hand.

"Ah, got younger sibs at home, do you?" the man asked when he got to the last three special volumes.

"No—" Kellen said, startled by the non sequitur. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, children's stories—" The man gestured at Kellen's three prizes. "I just thought—" Then he shrugged, wrote down three titles and prices, and handed the receipt to Kellen, who looked down at it in confusion.

There were his Student's Histories, Volumes Four, Five, Six, and Seven—but what was this? Tales of the Weald, Fables of Farm and Field, and Hearth-side Stories?

There was nothing like that, nothing like that at all, inside the covers of those three books.

He thought quickly. Perhaps he had better go along with this…

"Cousins," he said briefly, with a grimace, as if he was plagued with a horde of small relatives who needed to be amused.

"Ah," the man said, his curiosity turning to satisfaction, and stuffed the purchases in the carry-bag that Kellen handed to him without a second look.

There was something very odd about those books… and Kellen wanted to get home now, before his father returned from the Council House to plague him, and give them a very close examination. An examination that could be made without any danger of interference. Armethalieh held many magical oddities, but where had he ever heard of a book that could disguise itself? How was a very interesting question—but more pressing than that was—

Why?

THE house of Lycaelon Tavadon was not set apart from the street by a wall. It didn't need to be. The two great stone mastiffs on either side of the walkway to the front door were not mere ornaments, but guardians. Anyone not invited, or not belonging to the household, would be… discouraged from entering. And as one long-ago thief had discovered, a knife has very little effect on a stone dog. Lycaelon's guardians were very, very good.

The front garden, a geometric arrangement of walkway, sculptural shrubbery, and guardians, was not particularly large. The back garden was larger, but no more inviting. The former served to isolate the house from the common thoroughfare and as an ornament against the white stone walls of the mansion. The latter—well, Kellen would have thought that a back garden should be a private place to relax; a spot insulated and surrounded by greenery, to enjoy a bit of sun away from the prying eyes and the noise of the City. Lycaelon's back garden, home to tall, dark, somber cypresses planted along the wall, kept it too shaded for that, and far too cold except in the heat of summer when the sun was overhead. No grass grew there; only careful, somber evergreen plantings in raised beds, separated by gravel, and more statuary, though at least the statuary in the back garden wasn't animated. There was nothing to sit on, in any event, except the edges of the beds or the gravel. There was a single water-spike of a fountain that stabbed up at the sky. Not even birds could find anything to like in this place—though it was possible that, to spare his statues, Lycaelon had worked a little spell to chase the birds away.

Kellen carried his burden up the walkway between the stone mastiffs. As he passed them, there was, as ever, the faintest suggestion of movement; the barest tilt of neck in his direction, the tiniest twitching of stone noses as the household guardians tested him, the hint of the glitter of life in those deeply carved and polished granite eyes.

As always, the back of his neck crawled when he passed them. But he refused to go around by the back entrance just because the damned things intimidated him. He hated the sight of them, though—they were too like the worst aspects of their master, hard and cold, unchangeable and unyielding.

The ebony door, inlaid with silver runes, swung open at his touch, and closed behind him without any effort on his part. More magick, of course; you could hardly do without ostentatious use of magick at every possible opportunity in the home of a High Mage. And when that High Mage was the head of the Council, well, it was actually more surprising that Lycaelon had human servants at all.

He could have done without them, had he chosen to—but it would have meant a great deal of work on his part. Nothing came for free, after all; magick servants in the form of simulacra or homunculi were difficult to create and required an endless supply of magick to keep them working. The alternative, literally making dust vanish, food appear, clothes to clean themselves, was even more time and effort-consuming. Lycaelon would dispense with servers if he had an important gathering of his fellow Mages here, animating a single simulacra that he kept on view, serving double-duty the rest of the time as a chaste statue of a shepherd-boy, but with no one here to impress but his son, human servants were cheaper, easily replaced if they gave offense, and took very little thought on his part—only orders.

On their part—well, the servants knew who they had to please. Lycaelon was generous with his money, but not with forgiveness if anything went wrong. Kellen, however, mattered not at all—except as Lycaelon ordered.

As soon as Kellen set foot in the entryway—black and white marble floor, the pattern being square-in-square rather than checks, white walls, a few tasteful black plinths with tasteful black urns standing against the walls at aesthetic intervals—one of the servants materialized, dressed in the household livery of black and white. An oh-so-refined and elegant livery; hose with one black leg and one white, black half-boots, black, long-sleeved tunic coming to the knee, crisp, white shirt beneath it. The careful, rigid correctness of the man's expression relaxed a trifle when he saw who it was.

"Good afternoon, Kellen," the servant said. He did not offer to take Kellen's book-bag from him. There was nothing about Kellen to command fear or respect from the servants, and no real consequences if they didn't offer him deference. Politeness, yes, they would be polite to him. If they were cheeky, it was possible that Lycaelon would come to hear about it, and then they'd find themselves on the street without references. But they regarded him, Kellen suspected, as a damned nuisance, and did their best to encourage him to stay out of their way as much as possible.

Politely, of course.

The servant turned and vanished before Kellen could return his greeting. Kellen shrugged, and followed in the man's footsteps, into the vast and echoing reception room at the end of the entryway. Here the decor was varied a trifle from the stark black and white of the entryway by the addition of two shades of blue. The ceiling was dark blue, with little Mage-stars glittering above, mimicking the movement of the stars in the night sky. And the three long, low couches and the discreet scattering of chairs were upholstered in satin a slightly paler shade of the same color. All the tables, ornaments, and other accoutrements (including a fireplace big enough to stand or lie down in) were white or black—alabaster and ebony. Even the famous simulacrum, standing on (what else?) another black marble plinth, looked like the finest white alabaster.

There wasn't anything alive in this room; sometimes the rare female visitor would look about, smile knowingly, and say something about the place needing a "woman's touch." Such ladies were never invited back a second time. It was quite true, though, that Kellen couldn't remember flowers ever being in the vases, and the air in here never seemed to warm, no matter how the fire in the fireplace roared.

There were no apparent doors, no openings into this room, other than the one by which he had just entered. Not even windows; the light came from glowing panels set high on the walls, which was how anyone who could afford Magelights would generally illuminate a windowless room.

The servant was nowhere to be seen, which was no great surprise; having ascertained that the master was not the one who had just entered the front door, he considered his duty discharged. Kellen took a few echoing steps into the reception chamber, then turned right and went straight toward a panel of white marble set in the wall between two blue-and-ebony chairs. At a touch, it dissolved before him and he stepped through and onto a fine, handsome staircase.

The panel was keyed to him and other members of the immediate household, of course; a stranger would still be facing a blank slab of marble. He was now in his own portion of the house; House Tavadon was a vast mausoleum, and there were probably sections he had never been in and never would have access to until Lycaelon died and the magic doors all opened. He had never been in his father's wing, for instance, and wasn't even quite sure where it was. He could come and go as he liked within his own rooms—bedroom, separate small library and study, magical workroom, bathroom—and within the set of public rooms comprising the main library, dining chamber, reception room, his father's "public" study—and he could make free use of the guest quarters, which were in this wing below his rooms, reached by a separate entrance from the reception chamber below. Kellen also knew from experimentation that he could also get into the servants' quarters and the kitchen, cellars, and storerooms, but he was usually ushered summarily back to the "proper" parts of the Tavadon manse if he was found in any of those areas.

And the Chapel, oh, the Light forfend I should forget the Chapel! The Chapel had a wing all to itself, and differed from the rest of the house in that it was not done in black and white, but in honey alabaster and gold, as befitted the Eternal Light. Such a tasteful Chapel that it was, so pure and refined in style, with the Everburning Flame on a simple altar, and all the niches for the ancestral ashes set into the walls so that no one could ever forget just how many generations of important men had borne the familial name…

Oh, no, never.

Kellen hardly knew for certain how deeply his father believed in the Eternal Light—but he certainly believed in the name of Tavadon.

He climbed the stairs to the third floor, where his own rooms were. Here things were no longer in stark black and white—in his own suite, he had a certain say in the way things were decorated. The walls were still white, the floors black and white marble again, but there were colorful tapestries on the walls, and fruit in a dish on a plinth beside the top of the stairs, perfuming the air with the scent of apples. He took an apple as he passed it, and got as far as the door to his room, when another servant materialized behind him.

"You'll be having a bath, Kellen?" said the man—Kellen didn't know his name; he wasn't encouraged to learn the servants' names. All women except Cook were "my girl" and all men were "my man." Lycaelon didn't approve of familiarity with the servants.

Kellen had never even known the names of the succession of nursemaids he'd had as a small child; they had only been "Nursie," an endless series of interchangeable middle-aged women with gentle hands and soft voices, the last of which had left when he turned five. Then he'd been on his own in his rooms, his nights filled with loneliness, his days turned over to a succession of tutors who had schooled him according to his father's expectations until he had started attending the Mage College at fourteen.

Servants tended only to impinge on him when they had orders concerning Kellen. Like the bath.

Kellen would have been perfectly happy to do without that bath, but it had not been phrased as a question. This was one of his father's rules, and there was to be no argument about it—when one went out into the streets, among the common folk, one had a bath immediately on return. Lycaelon's abode must not be soiled with the common dust of Armethalieh; the air must be as pure as a breeze passing over an alpine glacier, with no hint of the City outside brought within the walls.

"Of course," he replied with resignation, and left the book-bag just inside the door to his room. At least the fellow wouldn't touch it if he wasn't specifically ordered to—the servants served Lycaelon out of fear and awe rather than loyalty, and seldom did things voluntarily. Lycaelon's standards were exacting enough to make plenty of work, with no need to look for more of it, Kellen supposed.

The bathroom was something he had never figured out how to decorate; as a result, it was entirely white, entirely marble, and as chill and uninviting as being in the center of a cube of snow. The square marble tub sunk into the floor was already full. The water was, as he had expected, cold. It was always cold. Even in the dead of winter, it was cold. He scarcely remembered what a hot bath felt like—he hadn't had one since the last incarnation of "Nursie" had gone, never to return, no matter how much he wept at night for her.

Kellen knew he never got hot water for his bath on purpose, and it wasn't only because the servants were disinclined to stir themselves on his behalf. His father felt that this was an incentive to Kellen's mastering his lessons so that he could heat his own bathwater with magick—as Lycaelon probably did. And Kellen was just stubborn enough that even if he had mastered magick enough to heat the water, he might not have done it, just out of spite.

Well, at least after a long walk followed by the three-story climb, a cold bath wasn't as much of an ordeal as usual. But it certainly didn't make one inclined to linger…

RECLOTHED—in the fresh and considerably more ornate garments the servant had left for him—Kellen was still shivering when he closed the door of his room and unpacked his book-bag. His father wouldn't be home for bells, Kellen knew from long experience. Lycaelon's long bells at the Mage Court kept him away from home most of the time. He usually left after a leisurely breakfast, but often didn't return until well into Night Bells.

And now that the tub had been drained, Kellen wouldn't see a servant in his suite unless he called for one. He was more or less used to being alone most of the time when he wasn't studying, but now and again, it felt eerily as if everyone in the world had forgotten his existence. Sometimes Kellen fantasized that he himself was like a mouse wandering through a giant machine, which would run just the same whether he was there or not. It seemed to him that nothing he ever did made any real mark on the place—that House Tavadon existed for empty display and heartless show, and was less a home than an extension of one of Armethalieh's great public buildings, or Temples of the Light.

Or just a bigger version of Lycaelon's simulacrum-servant.

Although other rooms in this suite had only been opened up for him as he grew older and needed them, this room had been his for as long as he could remember. It had begun as his nursery, with his Nursie sleeping in the same room, or the one adjoining. His cradle had been here, and the box-bed that prevented his falling out as a toddler. The tapestries on the wall covered whitewashed plaster that had been laid over the painted animals of his childhood. The floor was wood, not marble, and brown, not black. The wardrobe, the bed, the chests and bookcases, all were the same pieces he'd had since he was a boy, all were fine pieces, but plain— expensive, but an honest golden brown, not black, not white, and just a little battered by hard use at the hands of an active child. Thick, brightly patterned rugs were on the floor, multicolored cushions were piled in a corner, and there was a single window that looked out on the street. He could see out, but due to the same magic that hid the passages from the reception room into the other parts of the house, no one could see in. His fireplace was of reasonable size, and when it was not in use, it held scented candles that he had selected for himself in the Perfumers' Market. This was the only room in the house that he ever felt warm in.

He never felt entirely undisturbed here, not since the day that he'd found one of the servants clearly rummaging through his wardrobe, but at least he could relax to a certain extent here. Lycaelon might send servants in here to spy, but he never troubled to come himself.

For a moment Kellen paused in his unpacking. He'd forgotten about the servants, and the way they periodically went through his belongings and reported the results to his father. How was he going to hide those books—

Then he laughed. Stupid! They're going to hide themselves, of course. These books clearly didn't show their true nature to just anyone. Probably only a Mage would see them for what they were—and there were only three Mages that ever entered this part of the house, and of the three, two, Lycaelon and Anigrel, never entered this room.

So he put his new acquisitions in with the old, battered storybooks from his nursery days. If they'd disguised themselves as children's stories before, they probably would again. No one would ever notice that there were three more books on that shelf than there had been before.

What he wanted to do was to open the books then and there and try to read them—but there were rules in the house of Arch-Mage Lycaelon, and one of those rules was that of routine and schedule.

He heard the sound of Noontide Bells begin to ring—the high clear note of the crystal bell of the Temple of the Light struck first, followed by the bells of the other towers in the City, and last of all the great bronze bell atop the Council House added its deep note to the chorus.

A blind man could tell time—and even the season of the year—in Armethalieh, for the intricate pattern of her bells told the hour of the day, the season, and more.

The only towers that rang all the bells were the Temple of the Light and the Council House. You could actually tell which bell of the day it was by the sound of the ring: at Midnight Bells, only those two rang together, making a beautiful and eerie sound. At Evensong, Noontide, and Morning Bells (a few bells later than actual dawn, fortunately for light sleepers), all the towers in the City rang out. And at every bell and season, the pattern changed: it was one of the duties of the Mage Council to set the towers by magic.

From Evensong until Midnight Bells, fewer and fewer towers would ring each bell, until the Temple and the Council House rang alone. Then, slowly, a few privileged towers would add their voices to each bell through the rest of the night—first the Mage College, then the Great Library, then the Merchants' Guild—until all the towers throughout the City rang-out Morning Bells, as they would ring each bell throughout the day, until Evensong, when once again, they began to fall silent.

By the sound of the bells—the pattern of the ring would have told him it was the Noontide Bells, even if he hadn't been able to see the sun—and by the emptiness of his stomach, Kellen knew it was time for dinner. Even though the Arch-Mage himself might not be home for it, dinner would be served. And if Kellen wanted anything to eat before supper, he'd better be there when the plates went on the table.

Just as he left his room, the soft gong that announced that very fact sounded through the corridors.

Down the stairs and out into the reception chamber he went, and from there to another blank panel that let him into the main part of the house. When Lycaelon entertained, this panel was left open, and the suite of enormous "public" rooms beyond it, a music room, the library, the dining room, and a garden room were all lit and furnished with anything that a guest could conceivably want. Now they were all left in shadowy half-darkness, with curtains drawn, except for the dining room at the very end of the corridor.

The same color scheme of black, white, and blue held here. The enormous ebony table, stretching the length of the room, could easily seat thirty or forty guests; there were two place settings laid as usual. One at the very head of the table was meant for Lycaelon—he appeared only rarely, but woe betide the servants if they weren't prepared for that eventuality!—the other, roughly halfway down the table, for Kellen. A series of covered dishes waited on the sideboard; a single liveried servant stood there, waiting to serve them.

In silence, Kellen took his seat, and the meal began.

One by one the dishes were presented to Kellen, and he either shook his head or nodded acceptance. Hot food stayed hot, and cold nicely chilled, thanks to more small magicks on the depressions in which the dishes rested. Kellen's bath might be cold, but his father didn't have to share that particular discomfort, whereas he did share Kellen's meals. Lycaelon spared no effort or expense when it came to the pleasures of the table.

Kellen ate with a good appetite, and was not particularly surprised to find that the meal ended with a dish of strawberries, beaten cream, and white cake. He helped himself, thinking wryly that if he'd looked closely at the mob in the Garden Market this morning he might well have seen his father's black-and-white livery on one of the servants there.

The entire meal took place in total silence, except for the faint clink of cutlery and the sounds of plates being picked up and set down. Kellen was used to it; even when his father was here, there was no conversation during a meal. Lycaelon did not believe in conversation at mealtime. He had to put up with it when he entertained, but when he and Kellen were alone, silence prevailed. And certainly in Lycaelon's absence, Lycaelon's servants would not presume to begin any conversation with his son.

When he was finished, Kellen pushed his chair away from the table and left the footman to clear up. The library — I should go look through the books in the library, he thought. I'll bet that's where I found those references to my books. If I go check now, I should have plenty of time to look in the likeliest places long before Father gets home.

Books that hid their nature…

Lycaelon apparently had never even noticed that Kellen used his library on a regular basis. I think I'd like to keep things that way, too, he thought as he walked in through the library door and headed straight for the curtains, to pull them wide and let pale sunshine stream in through the windows. In fact, he had been reading the books on magick for a very long time now—and he was at least familiar with a great deal more than his father or Anigrel suspected, even if he couldn't yet manage to put his knowledge into practice.

And I know things that neither of them want anyone under the rank of High Mage to know about, he thought, pulling one of the ladders over to the bookcase that housed some very esoteric volumes on the top shelves— volumes that, had Lycaelon or anyone else known he was poking around in the place, would surely have been removed or locked up. There were a lot of things on those shelves that were not meant for a Student's eyes.

It didn't take long at all for Kellen to find what he was looking for, because the more he thought about his finds, the more convinced he became that they were books that were hiding their nature for a very good reason.

Sure enough, he found the reference precisely where he'd begun to suspect it was, in the Ars Perfidorum, the Book of Forbidden Acts.

Kellen wasn't even supposed to be aware that the Ars Perfidorum existed, much less have leafed through it. For that matter, he didn't even think his tutor was supposed to know about it; knowledge of this particular book was, if he recalled correctly, restricted to members of the Council and specific senior Mages. And the reason Kellen knew that was because Lycaelon had once allowed one of his fellow Council members to use the library, and the fellow had carelessly left the Ars Perfidorum and two other similarly restricted books out in the music room where he had been reading them. The resulting explosion when Lycaelon found them there had been memorable.

Lycaelon had not been aware that Kellen was anywhere about, and the entertainment value of hearing his father swear and curse the stupidity of another adult—a High Mage at that!—had been so great that Kellen took his chances on being caught in order to eavesdrop. He made very sure to get back to his own rooms as soon as the coast was clear—but after that he'd been afire to find those books and see them for himself.

He vividly recalled his disappointment at finding them to be deadly dull. It had seemed to him that a book with such an exciting title should have been full of horrors—bloodcurdling examples of Forbidden Acts, in excruciating detail, so that Mages down the centuries would know exactly how to recognize a Forbidden Act when they saw it. In fact, Ars Perfidorum was a mealymouthed prude of a book, more intent on outlining the punishments to be meted out for each perfidious deed than describing the deeds themselves. It was—it was a clerkly sort of book, and sent him off into a near-doze when he tried to read it.

Maybe I thought that book was dull then, he thought, swiftly leafing through the text, but that was before anybody shoved the History of the City in Seven Volumes under my nose — hah!

There they were—just as he remembered. His three books—titles and all.

He leafed back a page.

"The Foule and Invidious Practices of Wilde Magick." Now what in the name of the Light is that supposed to mean? Kellen wondered, frowning.

The chapter in question didn't exactly answer any of his questions, although Ye Boke of Sunne, Ye Boke of Moone, and Ye Boke of Starres were named as the "prime texts of the heinous practitioners of those who seek anarchy and chaos." In fact, except for that single item of hard fact, the chapter was singularly unhelpful. It railed at great length against the "Wilde Mages," suggested any number of unpleasant means to deal with them, and attributed all manner of evils to them (always prefacing the accusation with the words "it is said") but it didn't say anything about what this "Wilde Magick" was, or why it should be so bad.

In fact, the worst accusations that the author seemed to be able to come up with were that it was unpredictable, that it could not be controlled, and that some of the so-called lesser races such as Centaurs and fauns were known to practice it. "And well we knowe that these creatures are closer to the Beaste in nature than to Noble Manne—"

Huh. "And in particular, Wilde Magick is the greatest seducer of Womyn, who are weak in Mind and Spirit and inclined to Corruption." Now what did that mean? That women could and did use it—or that it could be used to seduce women?

Hmm… Now there was a possibility that had all manner of pleasant ramifications…

Well, at least he knew now what the books were, and why they were passing themselves off as children's tales. He put the Ars Perfidorum back in its proper place, taking care that it fit exactly into the place where he'd pulled it down from, then moved the ladder back to where he'd found it. It looked as if the only place he was going to find any answers about the books was within their covers.

He grinned to himself. And what good luck that he had the entire rest of the day free! I got just what I wished for, Kellen thought with glee, something new — something new —at last!

NIGHT had fallen over the City while Kellen puzzled his way through the Books' peculiar crabbed handwriting in the safety of his room, although it was never really dark here. Lamps, magickal and otherwise, kept the darkness at bay all night long, in every season. Lamps illuminated the streets and decorated the gardens; lamps even lit alleyways to discourage the presence of thieves. Not that anyone would be foolish enough to attempt to rob the household of a Mage of any sort. Not twice, anyway. He'd skimmed through all three of the Books once quickly, finding little that made sense to him. The Book of Sun was composed partly of philosophy, partly of spells, but the spells were not of a kind that he recognized, and Kellen was doubtful that they could actually work. They seemed to verge on wondertale superstition. Burn this leaf. Say those rhymes. He could imagine nothing further from the abstruse disciplines of the High Magick.

But at least The Book of Sun did contain things Kellen recognized as magick. The Book of Moon didn't even seem to contain any actual spells, just hints at spells—as far as he could tell from a quick skim, it was something halfway between an etiquette book and a philosophy text—and The Book of Stars made no sense to him at all. He had the odd feeling, though, that there was something there, if he could only figure it out.

The house was utterly silent, with all of the household in bed, from which comfort no one would stir until they had to. That Lycaelon was a stern master was no secret; he did not approve of his servants "prowling," as he put it, during the bells of proper sleep. This included Kellen, of course, and after having been caught by Lycaelon once or twice, he kept to his own part of the mansion when restlessness kept him awake.

Tonight was one of those nights.

He had his shutters open on the small balcony that overlooked the gardens, and across the gardens he could see the lights of the other homes of the Mage elite. Soft globes of pastel colors lit their gardens—you could tell where one garden took over from the next by the color of the lamps. Only a few lights were burning in the homes themselves, and those were probably night-lights, not an indication that anyone was wakeful or working. In the distance he could see the Council House, facing the Delfier Gate that opened onto the forest road.

The Council House stood symbolic guard over the gate and access into the City. Or was it more than merely symbolic?

There were a few farming villages in that direction—the City claimed extensive lands outside itself. Certainly soldiers were sent out there, and tax collectors, the latter to feed the City's prosperity, and the former— perhaps to ensure the City's prosperity?

But Kellen had never been there, and emigration between village and City was strongly discouraged, or so he'd been told, though never why.

He could understand why the Council wouldn't want too many people trying to move into the City; conditions were crowded enough without adding more people. But why keep citizens from leaving if they wanted to?

It was a puzzle for which he had no answer. Unless it was simply that City-dwellers had few, if any, skills that would be of use in a rural or agrarian society. Perhaps the idea was merely to save them from inevitable failure...

Still, shouldn't people be allowed to learn this for themselves?

If would-be City-folk-turned-rustics came trailing back with their tails between their legs after failing some bucolic experiment to the ridicule of their former neighbors, surely that would be more effective than any reprimand from the Council.

The Council House itself was ablaze with light, for Mages worked there all night, every night, weaving spells for the good of the City. It was the only place in the City that never slept. Of course, all those lights so nearby meant that the stars were hard to see from the gardens of those living nearby.

Someday Kellen would spend his nights there too, if his father's plans for his future went according to Lycaelon's oft-expressed wishes.

A night owl by nature, that hadn't seemed so bad in the past, for he would be well out of Lycaelon's purview most of the time once he went to night duties—but for some reason now, the thought seemed stifling. As stifling as the High Magick itself had seemed of late, for it required a finicking obsession with detail that, applied to anything else, would be considered unhealthy. Kellen had come to realize of late that High Magick was boring, that—once certain tools of memory and power manipulation were mastered—it was entirely composed of written spells that were descriptions of the change in reality that the Mage would like to produce. Very exact descriptions, very minute descriptions, down to the smallest detail, written in a kind of mystical shorthand and forced into the face of reality-as-it-was by magickal power.

Frankly, if the simple spells were enough to induce yawns, the advanced spells that he'd managed to glimpse looked to Kellen a very great deal like abstruse mathematical problems expressed in words and symbols of the sort that drove schoolboys mad—"If A leaves his house on the corner of Bodhran Street and approaches Taman Square at the same time B—"

Learning how to read, write, and thoroughly comprehend this sigil-language and apply it to the world in the form of memorized spells was what the Mage-in-training first learned. Only then was he allowed to do anything with his knowledge.

It was bloodless and terribly boring, when it came right down to it. There was so much preparation and memorization and detail required to do even the simplest thing that by the time you actually accomplished what you'd set out to do, you were probably so bored with the process that the accomplishment came as an anticlimax. And in any case, the tiny things Kellen was allowed to do now—and so far, all he'd managed to do successfully was light a candle once or twice—were so simple and so insignificant that he hardly knew why anyone had ever bothered to write down the spells for them.

He looked out at the City, looked at what little he could see beyond the City walls from his third-floor balcony, and it gradually came over him that not only was he not happy, but for most of his life, save only a few stolen moments, he had never been happy. Other people were happy— why wasn't he? Why wasn't any Mage, really?

He knew they weren't.

His father wasn't, and his father was Arch-Mage, the highest and most powerful rank any Mage could attain. But Lycaelon was perpetually dissatisfied. When was the last time he'd ever seen his father enjoy anything? Other than finding an excuse to browbeat his son, that is…

And none of Lycaelon's colleagues seemed any more content with their lives, even though they had wealth and power and the envy of everyone in the City who wasn't them. When was the last time he'd seen any of the Mages take pleasure in anything, other than humiliating one another?

Being a Mage doesn't make you happy, Kellen realized with something very much like fear.

He'd never thought about it before.

He hated the lessons, was bored by the memorization, and didn't like his fellow Mage Students very much. But he'd always, well, sort of assumed that he'd get through all of it somehow, become a Mage, and things would get better.

What if they didn't?

Suddenly, staring out at the brightly-lit Council House, Kellen confronted his own life, and the prospects for the future, and he didn't like what he saw. And the more he pondered it, the less he liked it, and he began to come to some uncomfortable conclusions.

One of which was that his studies were going to drive him mad before too long, all this obsession with pointless detail. He brooded on the view without seeing it, wondering why anyone would choose to be a Mage when a Mage had so little room in his life for life. If he did as Lycaelon wanted, Kellen would only trade the stultifying life of a Student-Apprentice for the tedious life of an Apprentice, and then for an even more restrictive and obsessive life of a Journeyman, and then what? Spend his entire life like his father, with a fantastic home he never saw, a garden he never went into, possessions he never used, and colleagues—not friends—he couldn't stand? Was he to live a life so measured, so controlled, that all the juice was sucked out of it?

He shuddered, appalled by the prospect of becoming like one of them—with a dry little mummified excuse for a soul, spending his days contriving ways to control other people's lives for them, his evenings spent building baroque and convoluted spells, or equally baroque and convoluted schemes for the downfall of his political rivals. Where was the joy, the life, the pleasure in that?

There had to be some other alternative…

His mind turned naturally to the Books of the Wild Magic, which seemed, from the little he'd managed to understand so far, to be all that the High Magick was not.

And if they were—if they were, in fact, the very opposite of High Magick—it would be very surprising indeed to find that Lycaelon looked upon them with favor… Furthermore, there might, there just might be something in them that would lead him to freedom.

And that alone decided him. He got them from his hiding place, lit a single, well-shielded candle, and began to read The Book of Sun in earnest.

Chapter Two

Dark Lightning

THE ARCH-MAGE Lycaelon Tavadon was a very busy man. Arch-Mage of the High Council of Mages that, in turn, governed all the lesser Mages who kept the Golden City running smoothly, his days were filled, not with spells and magicks as the commonfolk might think, but rather with the tedium of endless paperwork. A pile of unread reports sat now at his left elbow, teetering dangerously. A far smaller pile—read and annotated in his crabbed scholar's hand—waited for his secretary to come and bear them away. And at that, a day devoted to such tedium was a welcome change from the endless rounds of judgments and formal hearings that his rank demanded his attendance upon. Arch-Mage! The least of his Journeymen, it seemed, spent more of his time in practice of the Art than did Lycaelon these days.

But we all serve the City, each doing his part in service to Armethalieh the Golden, the Arch-Mage reminded himself.

He took a moment to indulge in a bit of pardonable pride in himself; not for him the plaints of lesser men, who bleated about the fettering of their great gifts to the rock of bureaucracy, the loss of their personal time, the sacrifice of their relationships and families on the altar of Duty. He had never once complained, and did not begrudge such sacrifice, though his late wife had shown her displeasure in no uncertain terms. But then even the best of women were lesser creatures, and could hardly be expected to understand when sacrifice for the greater good of all was required of a man. Which was only one more reason why they could never understand, nor be permitted to practice, High Magick, for they could never be depended upon to act selflessly when sacrifice was called for. Lycaelon often wondered why the Light had created them at all except as a vehicle for the perpetuation of a man's line.

If only a man didn't need them for that purpose! How much easier, how much more serene and well tempered a man's life would be without the tears, the hysterics, the white, clinging arms that held him back even as they held him close…

Not that females didn't have their uses, and their bodies certainly gave pleasure, but a well-made and finely crafted simulacrum would do as well, and could be left on a plinth or in a closet when not needed. Unlike a wife.

He toyed with the notion for just a moment of finding a spell that would allow a Mage to reproduce himself without the intercession of a woman—say, perhaps from his own essence, making an exact duplicate of himself in infant form.

But—no. That was forbidden magick. Only the Light could create life, and any attempt for a mortal to do so would invite in the Darkness. He gave up the idea with regret, and turned his attention back to the reports of the Mages of the Water-Works.

He scribbled his recommendations on the last page, then paused for a moment to stand and stretch the kinks out of his back, looking down the length of his imposing work chamber.

The Arch-Mage's private offices were in a wing of the Council House itself, so that he could be summoned at any moment to join the Council in its deliberations. No Magery had been spared in its construction; his desk, of a rare blood-red wood, was situated atop a dais elevated above the rest of the floor so that to reach it required ascending three steps of black marble. Few received such an invitation, least of all such supplicants who found their way to this office, but it was good to have that extra level of intimidation here in case it was required.

The walls were of white alabaster, intricately carved in elaborate geometric patterns at the bidding of some long-dead Arch-Mage, giving the whole room the look of a chamber deep inside some enormous machine. The floor carried out the pattern begun upon the walls, only here the pattern was repeated in colored marbles, giving the illusion of texture and depth. Non-Mages had been known to trip upon that disorienting floor, to Lycaelon's private amusement. Fools of un-Gifted, not to be able to accurately see what their eyes presented them—it was fortunate for all concerned that they had the High Council to rule them!

At the end of the chamber, the pattern repeated again upon the far wall, only this time in an enormous window of colored glass wrought of hues so piquant and intense that Magery must have played a hand in their crafting, for each pane was flawless and brilliant, a rainbow of colors framing the large disk of pure clear glass at its center, through which Lycaelon could see the Delfier Gate set into the City wall across the square from the Council House, and the Western Road beyond it. As always, the gate stood closed and barred: the only time it opened was to allow the entrance of City buyers bringing the fruits of trade caravans or the produce from the outlying villages that served the Golden City to the City warehouses.

Once they had allowed farmers and traders to enter the City itself, but that course of action had proven… unwise. Now City buyers went out and brought the produce into the City, where it was kept fresh and vermin-free under spells of containment until the Merchants and Provenders Council was ready to release it to the City markets. Under their guidance—advised by the Mage Council, of course—all ran smoothly, with neither glut nor famine to disturb the steady workings of the City. Only a few choice items were permitted to enter the markets directly from the fields, to create an illusion of scarcity and a kind of aura of festival—the first crop of early-summer strawberries for instance, and Spring Beer. Such occasions were necessary to give the populace something to look forward to. Gorging on strawberries once a year was hardly harmful, and allowed the masses a chance to feel that they were indulging themselves. Indulgence bred content, and a content population was a quiet one.

As for the traders…

They traded now in Nerendale, the closest of the farming villages, less than a day's ride from the City gates, offering goods to a Journeyman-Undermage who acted as broker. Those that were on the Approved List— or which Armethalieh's broker thought might be approved—were sent on into the City.

It was much tidier.

Lycaelon settled himself in his chair again and reached for his jade teacup, then drew back his hand when he realized the cup had grown stone cold. It would be the work of an instant to summon enough Magefire to warm it, but reheated tea was an abomination. Better to send servants to the kitchens for fresh.

He was reaching for the bell-pull when the door to his office opened, and his confidential secretary, Chired Anigrel, entered. Anigrel was as fair as Lycaelon was dark, and many decades younger than his master, but both men bore the unmistakable stamp of Mage breeding: the narrow saturnine features, high forehead, and slender, long-boned build that set them apart from ordinary men. Anigrel wore the dark grey robes of a Journeyman-Undermage; in a few years, he would be a Master Undermage, released from mundane tasks such as this and on his way to the years of study that would lead to full Magehood. But for now he served and learned.

But given his somewhat elevated position as Lycaelon's assistant and tutor to Kellen, Anigrel was permitted something other than plain grey robes. Although he was not allowed any variation in color, his robes were made of somewhat finer materials than most, and were tastefully ornamented with cursive grey embroidery. It did not suit Lycaelon to have his personal aide taken for an ordinary Journeyman; not when Anigrel carried his master's word and prestige. It had only taken a single instance of Anigrel wasting half the day cooling his heels in some officious little noble's hall instead of discharging his errand and returning to his duties before Lycaelon had ordered the change in wardrobe.

"Master," Anigrel said, folding his hands and bowing his head submissively.

"There is a problem?" Lycaelon asked, attempting to mask his irritation. Anigrel knew better than to interrupt him with trifles.

"A small problem. But one that can be handled by no one else, Arch-Mage."

Lycaelon sat back in his chair, sighing. He trusted Anigrel's judgment— or else the man would not have long survived in his current post—but he loathed being interrupted.

"You may continue," he said grudgingly.

"A merchant family has lodged a complaint—of sorcery within their home," Anigrel said reluctantly.

Lycaelon leaned forward. "Sorcery? Uncontrolled Magery? Piffle! More likely their cook has been using the wrong sort of mushrooms in the stew— and if it is sorcery, any trained Undermage could deal with it. You could deal with it!" He glared at the secretary.

Anigrel cleared his throat nervously. "Forgive me, my lord Arch-Mage, for not making myself entirely clear. The family involved is the Tasoaire family. Apparently this… sorcery… has been going on for some days. They are quite distracted, if I may say so."

He hummed under his breath for a moment, then added, reluctantly, "Actually, things are at a bad pass with them, by the report they have given us. It is my opinion that it should be… dealt with, immediately. They are not of exalted status by birth, but they are… influential."

And very, very rich. Lycaelon added what Anigrel was too tactful to mention aloud. The Tasoaires were one of the wealthy trading families who controlled much of Armethalieh's material wealth, and paid a great deal in taxes for the privilege. Whatever the true nature of their problem, they were important enough to need their feelings soothed by having no less a personage than the Arch-Mage himself deal with their problem, whatever it was.

He focused his attention on Anigrel again. "Very well. You were quite right to come to me with this. I will go to see them. And now you may stop quaking in your slippers and tell me what else you know about this problem, the part you are certain I will very much dislike."

Anigrel swallowed hard. "Naturally we did a preliminary investigation of the complaint—without bringing it to the attention of the family, of course. There does seem to be some actual cause for alarm. And the focus of the disturbance seems to be the, ah, daughter of the house…"

A scant quarter-chime later, Lycaelon Tavadon strode down the main thoroughfare of Armethalieh, his heavily embroidered black-on-silver Arch-Mage robes belling behind him with the force of his passage, and the wide-brimmed, pointed hat that matched them held on to his head by a clever cantrip. The afternoon sunlight flashed off the bright ornament at the tip of his Staff of Office, its gold-and-crystal finial meant to depict the Unbounded Light in all its glory. He could certainly have taken his carriage, or a sedan chair, or even a horse, but he knew he needed the walk to clear his head and calm his feelings, or else he'd risk blasting the entire family to ashes where they stood, and wouldn't that set the merchant families fluttering like chickens with the fox among them! Not so easy to deal with at the next Trade Council meeting, half of which seemed to be spent soothing ruffled feathers and smoothing over imagined slights at the best of times.

The crowd parted before him, giving him a wide berth even without the need for his retainers to clear the way. In fact, people pressed back against the walls as he passed, their faces blank, transfixed with awe and a little fear. They might not know one Mage from another, usually, but everyone knew what his staff of office looked like, and knew by extension who the bearer must be. Their deference soothed him, but only a little. Anigrel was right, he could not delegate this particular task, much as he would like to: Arch-Magisterial oil was needed to calm these waters.

But…

A girl! A puling insignificant maggot of a female, Tradeborn to boot, working magick, or trying to. Of course it had gone wrong! And now he must come in and deal with it, and calm their superstitious fears—for as Anigrel had reminded him several times, the Tasoaires were the wealthiest of the merchant families, terrified beyond reason by this firebird in a hen's nest, and fear could quickly turn to anger…

Anger was the bane of every Mage, from the lowliest Student to the Arch-Mage himself. No one, not even a street-sweeper, much less a wealthy merchant, should ever look upon the works of a Mage with anything other than the deepest and most profound gratitude, a gratitude all-important and all-encompassing. The City could not survive without that gratitude, though the citizens knew it not.

These idiot Tradeborn fools—they would never, ever guess what the Arch-Mage had saved them from, besides their folly, that is, when he finished with this mess. For there was a worse thing that the girl could become if she continued down the path she was on; something so dreadful he dared not even hint at it to anyone outside the most trusted of the Mageborn.

There were times when he wished devoutly to sink every female in the world to the bottom of the Selken Sea. Only a female could create such havoc with so little effort!

So. He took a deep breath, and another, willing himself to be calm in the face of this mortal insult to his Art. No one would see his inner feelings. He went to pacify, not to frighten. We all serve the City, each doing his part in service to Armethalieh the Golden.

Although sometimes only the Light can see how!

HE would easily have found the Tasoaire home even without the uniformed servant who was waiting at the nearest cross-street to lead him to it. The man was wearing a livery more suited to a captaincy in one of Armethalieh's little-used cavalry regiments than to a footman of a proper merchant family, but the Tasoaires had done more than well for themselves, and were not averse to letting the world know it. Wealth had long since outstripped good taste, and though the Tasoaires were not so blind to all good sense and common decency to think of moving out of the Merchants' Quarter, they had certainly let their good fortune seduce them into making such extensive changes to what had once been a modest and sensible home that Lycaelon could almost have imagined for a moment that it was one of the mansions of the Mage aristocracy, grotesquely distorted and crammed into a space far too small for it.

As Lycaelon followed the man to his destination, he kept his face from showing the disdain he felt. The house stood out from its fellows in a way that was almost—Lycaelon's lip curled—foreign. Honest timber and stone had been replaced with golden marble that would not have been out of place in Lycaelon's own courtyard (and so was very much out of place here), and instead of the neat stone walls and colorful glazed pots filled with seasonal flowers that graced the forecourts of other merchant houses, the Tasoaire home was enclosed by a fanciful iron gate with gilded accents behind which a fountain—small, but still far too large for the space it occupied, and covered with vulgar imported colored tiles besides— sprayed jets of water into the sky. Anyone approaching their door, tradesman or guest, was sure to receive a soaking, regardless of the weather.

But "anyone" was not the Arch-Mage Lycaelon Tavadon. He paused for a moment before the gates, and concentrated on a simple Binding Spell, drawing on the stored power in the Talisman around his neck and one of the many simple cantrips he had memorized years before. There was a stuttering sound from deep beneath the earth, and the arcing jets of water drooped and died.

The servant stared up at him, wide-eyed and anxious. Lycaelon allowed himself a thin smile. Let them all wonder—or, if they thought about it at all, perhaps they would blame the fountain's sudden failure on the madness they were harboring within their own walls. The madness he had come to end, and the sooner, the better.

Straightening his robes, Lycaelon tapped the butt of his staff meaningfully on the paving. The servant stopped staring and scurried to open the gate. The Arch-Mage's escort peeled off to stand at strict attention on either side of the gate, while the Arch-Mage entered.

Before Lycaelon had taken three steps up the walk, the door of the house was swinging open at the hand of an even more ornately uniformed personage than the footman who had guided him to the house. Correctly identifying this apparition as the Tasoaires' butler, Lycaelon surrendered his cloak, hat, gauntlets, and staff. He imagined the servant looked embarrassed to be seen in such an outfit—as well he ought, in such a hideously indecent household! Wealth, like power, belonged only in those hands suited to wield it properly.

It occurred to Lycaelon that perhaps something could be done about the Tasoaires' improper good fortune. Some gradual readjustment of their affairs—for the good of the City, of course. He would look into it once he got back to the Council House. But at the moment, he had a more immediate problem to solve…

"I am expected," he announced austerely.

"Of course, Lord Arch-Mage. If you will accompany me?"

Lycaelon followed the butler into the house, amusing himself by attempting to discern the bones of the original building beneath the veneer of its clownish makeover. It was like walking through a jackdaw's nest— there was no regard for taste and balance, only for vulgarity and expensive display. And he was certain that at least a few of these items had made it off the Selken ships without the Council's imprimatur.

He was also interested to note that there seemed to be gaps—prominent, but irregular—in the overabundance of tawdry ornament, as if broken items had been hastily removed and the survivors had not yet been rearranged to hide the absence. Apparently the girl had indeed broken most of what was breakable in the Tasoaire household, for which he held himself much in her debt.

But to Lycaelon's faint disappointment, the room to which he was led seemed to have suffered the least from the Tasoaires' new wealth. The heart-room of the house still displayed its timber and plaster walls unchanged, and the large tiled fireplaces at each end of the room were lovely and tasteful examples of merchant-class craftsmanship. Small-paned windows, open to the unusually warm spring day, showed glimpses of a small back garden that was very much as it ought to be. Carved oak settles, their wood honey-dark with years of beeswax polishing, flanked each hearth, and there was a small writing desk under one window, angled to catch the natural light. There was a sideboard on the wall facing the windows, and Lycaelon was interested to see that where he would have expected to see fiery cut-crystal, he saw instead a pewter jug and a collection of mismatched pewter cups, badly dented but polished to a satiny gleam.

But the seemly and modest effect was spoiled by an enormous gilded chair with a scarlet velvet cushion that squatted in the middle of the room, obviously carried in for his benefit, with a painted and gilded table beside it that was undoubtedly more suitable to a whorehouse than a merchant's townhouse.

The two people awaiting him arose from their seats on one of the settles as the door opened, and moved hesitantly forward to greet him.

Lycaelon recognized loan Tasoaire from his many appearances before the Council, and the painfully overdressed woman beside him must be his wife, though Lycaelon didn't trouble himself to recall her name. Both were upholstered in so much satin, multicolored brocade, gold lace, and velvet piping that they looked like a pair of overstuffed chairs designed by a madman. Both of them looked worn and frightened. Lycaelon smiled, radiating charm—a simple enough cantrip, really, among the many every High Mage always kept in readiness for situations such as this.

"Come, loan, you know me," Lycaelon said, injecting good humor and warmth into his voice. "I'm here to help. And who is this lovely young thing? Surely this isn't your daughter?" loan Tasoaire smiled, and Lycaelon could see that it cost him some effort. "Nay, Lord Arch-Mage, this is my wife, Yanalia."

"You can help her, can't you, Lord Arch-Mage? Help our Darcy?" the woman burst out. "You do know what it is with her, don't you? Don't you?"

"Hush now, Yana," loan said, pulling his wife back before she could approach Lycaelon. "I'm sure the Arch-Mage will do all he can."

"Of course I will," Lycaelon said, settling himself in the garish throne-chair, inasmuch as seemed to be expected of him. "I came as soon as I heard there was trouble—in fact, I'm a little hurt, loan, that you didn't come to me sooner. What are friends for, if not to help one another?"

Yanalia began to weep in harsh strangled sobs, clinging to her husband. Lycaelon forced himself to keep his face smooth, his expression benign. Puling and weeping with hysteria already, and he hadn't been in the house more than a few moments! How like a woman!

"We were afraid," loan said slowly.

Lycaelon composed his features into an expression of hurt regret and bowed his head. "If that is the case… if that is truly the case… then I have failed you, failed all the people of Armethalieh. How can I help you, if you won't come to me for help? Look at me, loan." He spread his hands, a sad smile on his face. "I'm a Mage. That's all I am. That's all I do. I don't plant crops, or spin cloth—or make gold out of thin air like you do, loan!" He allowed himself a rueful smile at the small joke, and was pleased to see loan smile in return. "All I do is help people. That's all any Mage does. That's all the Art Magickal is for. But when people won't come to me for help, then, well… I'm useless. I can't help you if I don't know that you need help, and my Gifts go to waste."

He lowered his head again, as if meeting their eyes was too much for him. Had he overplayed his hand, laid it on too thick? But no. They were distracted, afraid, and from the looks of things hadn't been sleeping well at all. If he could get them feeling guilty as well, they should be supremely easy to manipulate.

"It weren't—it wasn't that." loan had made his way up from the laboring classes and married a minor merchant's daughter, taking her name, as was customary when marrying into a higher-ranked family. When he was upset, his low-class origins showed in his speech.

"We thought it would go away. It didn't, but then we thought she'd get better!" Yanalia burst out, her voice still thick with tears. "But it's only gotten worse, Arch-Mage. The fires, and the breaking things, well, at first we thought it might be a spirit or something, not her—we had a Light-Priest in to bless the house, and it stopped for a while, but then it started up again. Then I began thinking about old tales and when we realized it was her, not a spirit, we thought it would get better…" Her voice faltered, and for a moment Lycaelon thought she was finished speaking, but she composed herself with an effort and went on. "After all, don't all Apprentices have trouble when they start learning magick?"

Only years of self-discipline and iron self-control kept Lycaelon's features composed in a benign mask. He even managed to smile at the witless creature. "Perhaps you had better begin at the beginning," he said smoothly. "Tell me everything. Leave nothing out."

It was an old and not unfamiliar story, a mainstay of the romances so beloved of the lower classes. A child of humble parents—a merchant, a tavern-keeper, or perhaps even a farmer—begins to find bizarre things happening around him at the same time his body begins changing from child to adult. Things vanish, only to reappear in strange places. Stones rain down on his house. Plates, cups, and other small objects fly through the air around him as if thrown, though no one seems to have touched them. Mysterious voices are heard, music, odd sounds. Sometimes spontaneous fires start, or the boy sleepwalks, going into trances and speaking of things he has no way of knowing. And then, to provide the story with a happy ending, just as things seem darkest, a Mage comes, and recognizes the child's power, and takes him away for training in the Art Magickal, elevating him into a world of privilege, duty, and entitlement.

These people had heard such stories a hundred times, and when the same things started happening in their home, and they eliminated the possibility that it was some spirit of mischief, doubtless had visions of the glory that having a Mage in the household would bring them.

But it is always a boy of whom the storytellers write and sing. Because there never has been, and never would be, a female Mage in the Golden City of Armethalieh.

"And you say there have been fires?" Lycaelon asked smoothly, when it became clear that the story loan and Yanalia had to tell was degenerating into a recital of a long series of boring incidents, and they had no more real details to give. Fires… well, that put the cap on it. If there were fires starting, it wouldn't be long before what was happening inside these walls would migrate outside, endangering far more than a few trinkets, no matter how strong the Protection Spells on the surrounding buildings were.

"They started a day or two ago," loan said, sighing heavily. "And now Deglas says the fountain has stopped running as well, and where will we get the water to put out the next one? Lord Arch-Mage, what can we do? Protective amulets just shatter. Beating the girl does no good—it only makes matters worse!"

"Broke all my best dishes after that," Yanalia said, dabbing at her eyes. "Oh, not her—but they flew around the kitchen like bats for half a bell, all smashed to flinders, and the cook left and both the scullery-maids; I haven't been able to keep a girl since! You must help us! Please! You must take her now!"

"Take her now." The Light preserve us. The daft woman really does think we'll take the wretched creature and make a Mage of her!

"Rest assured, Goodlady Tasoaire; your problems are at an end. You and your husband have done the right thing by coming to me." He kept his voice soothing, although his own emotions could best be described as "seething" rather than "soothing."

"I will deal with this myself, here and now. Your Darcilla will never again be troubled by these strange and unwelcome visitations. I will see to it that her energies are redirected into some other activity that is more suited to her sex," Lycaelon told her, though in truth, he wanted to grab the idiot creature by the brocaded shoulders and shake her until her teeth rattled for being such a fool. "Obviously, since it is a girl-child involved, and not a boy, we will have to take action before she harms herself with this—unnatural power. Quite impossible for any girl to use such a thing, of course. Quite, quite impossible. Now, if you will send for the girl…"

"But why aren't you going to take her and make her into a Mage?" Yanalia asked, taken aback. "I thought—the stories all say—she has such power…"

Lycaelon stared at her, too stunned for a moment to retain his mask of avuncular calm. Was it actually possible that despite what he had just told her, this cretinous female was going to insist that her daughter be taken in and trained by the Mages?

Clearly, she was not listening. And he was going to have to take a stronger stand. Much. In fact, he was going to have to be disagreeable with her. He got to his feet, frowning sternly. "My good woman, try not to be any more featherbrained than absolutely required by your female nature. Do think, will you? Have you ever seen a female Mage in this City?"

Yanalia cowered back, aware that she had somehow offended the Arch-Mage but not quite sure what she'd done.

"Well. no," she admitted. "But I don't see…"

"Precisely. You don't see. Because, my good woman, you are not a Mage. But surely you have eyes." He waved his hand around. "Look at the shambles she's made of your house, and imagine what a disaster she could make of the City were she turned loose upon it. It's the simple truth that women lack the emotional detachment necessary to master the High Magick; a truth that has been proven time and time again, and sometimes with tragic results. Their gifts lie elsewhere—in the arts, in business, in the home. She is as unhappy now as you would be, madame, should I ask you to strap on sword and armor and patrol the City walls. Bring her to me and I shall heal her of this inconvenient fever, and you will all be more comfortable for it."

"She'll be all right?" loan asked uncertainly.

Lycaelon smiled at loan, man-to-man, allowing a faint undercurrent of magic to speak to him, silently. Your wife, as you have always thought, is a fool. You and I know better than any mere female. You must be the master in your house. Put your foot down with her, put her in her place, and your world will become infinitely more comfortable and harmonious. "It will be as if this last moonturn never happened. She'll be your own happy grateful child once more. Peace beneath your own roof, loan, what more could any man ask for, eh?" loan smiled, letting out a long sigh of relief. "Ah, that's that, then. Go and fetch the girl, Yana."

Yanalia Tasoaire still looked doubtful, but not quite uncertain enough to be willing to argue with her husband in front of the Arch-Mage of Armethalieh. She bobbed a hasty curtsy and left the room.

"She'll be a while," Iaon said, with the air of one who has had long experience with wives and daughters. Whatever he was like normally with his wife, he had drunk deeply of the spine-strengthener supplied by Lycaelon, and was acting accordingly. He stepped to the sideboard. "Care for a stiffener while you wait?"

"Ah… no. My Art prevents, you will understand."

While it was partly true—no Adept of the Art Magickal partook of senses-clouding substances lightly, least of all when about to perform magic—it would have been a simple matter for Lycaelon to change the contents of the cup until it was no more potent than spring water. Refusing to drink with his host was all part of a certain mystique the Mages wove about themselves, a dance of etiquette designed to set them apart from the average citizens whom they governed. The people of the Golden City must never be allowed to forget that their servant-Masters were woven of finer cloth than they themselves were.

"But do go ahead," Lycaelon said generously. "I imagine this has all been quite a strain for you and your good lady." loan laughed raggedly. "Like a wondertale come to life—and not one of Perulan's, where you know all will end well!" He poured himself a full cup and drank, and Lycaelon smelled the rich scent of good brandy.

"I must admit, I was never convinced that Darcy was ever going to control this—"

"Inconvenient fever," Lycaelon supplied smoothly.

"Cursed inconvenient. It just kept getting worse, not better. But my wife—" He coughed. "You know how women are. They get harebrained notions and nothing will shake them loose of it."

Lycaelon judged it time to change the subject. "Tell me, loan, this Darcilla of yours, what are her interests? Will she be following you into the business?"

"Nay, not she—that's for her older sister; Mora's been mad for the counting-house ever since she could hold a string of tally-beads. No, for Darcilla it's always been the music." The man looked bemused. "Even before she could walk or talk, it was the music."

Ah. Lycaelon felt a small spark of satisfaction. So the girl had some small spark of talent for music, did she? All to the good. It would make what he was about to do that much easier; music required some of the same abilities and talents as the Art Magickal, so redirecting the girl's interests wouldn't be as painful or difficult as it could have been.

"Conservatory isn't cheap," loan went on, "but what's money for if not to spend, says I?"

"Indeed," Lycaelon agreed smoothly. And you will have every opportunity to spend a great deal of your money on this daughter of yours. I shall see to that.

The door opened again and Yanalia entered with her daughter. Though barely out of childhood, Darcilla Tasoaire was already taller than her mother, with something of her father's dark good looks. She was clean, though slatternly dressed; a worn pink house-tunic, several sizes too big for her, dragged, unbelted, on the floor, and her long dark hair hung lank and uncombed down her back. Darcilla's cheeks were flushed, and her eyes flashed dangerously; she and her mother had obviously been fighting over how she should appear before this important guest, and the lightnings of uncontrolled Mage-potential crackled around her like the warnings of a storm to Lycaelon's finely attuned senses.

For a moment he felt a flash of pity for the young victim. Who knew what would happen if things were allowed to go on as they were? Powers such as the girl now possessed didn't simply go away, and no mere female could possibly learn to control such subtle and powerful energies. She could only be led down the paths of madness and chaos, dragging the Light knew how many innocents in her wake. Curse her parents for letting this go on as long as they had out of foolish pride and misplaced pity! It only proved once again how unfit ordinary folk were to involve themselves in any dealings with High Magick.

And females. Most especially females.

"Now I must ask you to leave us alone together for a short time," Lycaelon said, rising to his feet.

He saw Yanalia brace herself to argue, but loan was already moving toward her, detaching his wife from his daughter and moving her briskly through the open door. The door shut behind them, and the Arch-Mage was alone with Darcilla Tasoaire.

"You would do well to heed me," Lycaelon said in a slow, deep resonant voice quite unlike the one he had used with her parents. The words themselves were unimportant; he actually had no interest in speaking with the girl. Speaking was only a way of catching her attention, to key the prepared cantrip that would place her into a trance so that he could do the work that must be done.

He saw the girl's lashes flutter as she fell quickly into trance—those with the Gift were far more susceptible to it than those with no talent whatsoever, oddly enough—and he moved to catch her before she fell. Under his guidance, she walked over to the enormous gilded chair and seated herself docilely in it.

He took a moment to prepare himself, just as a surgeon does before making the first incision. Like a master surgeon, this was an operation the High Mage had performed hundreds of times, for not all of those born with the ability to learn the High Art, despite what the talespinners said, were suited to practice it, either for reasons of temperament or birth—or sex. For the good of the City, it was often the unpleasant duty of a Mage to protect both the Art and the people by removing the Gift from an ill-suited practitioner, as well as to perform other delicate operations on the mind. Armethalieh had no prisons. There was no need of them, in a city ruled by the Mages who wielded this most delicate and subtle of all the High Art's Gifts.

With quick deftness Lycaelon entered the girl's mind. To his Mage-sight, the parts of her brain that sensed and handled Mage-energy glowed brightly, as brightly as a diseased organ beneath a surgical spell. He drew upon his Talisman, focusing its stored Mage-energy upon each of those centers in turn, burning and destroying them until they were cold and dark.

It would not affect her normal functioning. No one but Mages used those parts of their brain, after all. With Magesight he watched carefully as their glow faded like the embers of a dying fire, vanishing away into darkness. And when all the glow was gone, there was nothing left but a perfectly ordinary girl, like hundreds of others throughout the City.

Now that part of his task was done, Darcilla could no longer sense, evoke, or work with any of the energies called magick.

But her memories of doing so remained, and to leave them in place would be to leave his task half-finished. The desires that had turned her toward magick in the first place were still there, and if they weren't attached to some new interest, they would fester and lead to anger and discontent. She would be angry with her parents for turning her over to the Arch-Mage and "robbing" her of what she undoubtedly considered her "rightful" powers. She would be even angrier with the Arch-Mage, and it was truly said that there was no creature more dangerous than a woman bent on avenging a personal grudge; she was young, and she would have a long, long time to plan her revenge. He could not leave such a dangerous creature loose and unfettered—what if she decided that the way to repay the "wrong" was to ruin Anigrel or subvert Kellen?

He was here in the first place because her father was a powerful man, with a seat on the Trade Council. He could not allow an embittered child to jeopardize that delicate political balance, either. Let loan be grateful for this day's work, and the City would run that much more smoothly… best for everyone if the girl was subtly molded into a shape more pleasing for all concerned.

Slowly, carefully, like riffling through the pages of a book, Lycaelon sought through Darcilla's memories. Each time he found one attached to magick—even one so seemingly innocuous as listening to a song, attending a play, reading a book—he reached in and changed it, erasing some parts, changing others, connecting all of them with music. Slowly he rebuilt her personality, making only tiny individual changes, but attaching all her interests, her drive, her will, to music. She would, without a shadow of a doubt, become as great a musician as he had promised her father—she now had the dedication and the drive, as well as the talent. He'd made sure of that. And if she seemed a little obsessed with it for the next few moonturns, well, that would pass as the spell settled into place, and what silly young girl wasn't obsessed with something or other at this age? Her parents should thank him for ensuring that she wouldn't be climbing out of her window every night to keep a rendezvous with some pimply young laborer intent upon marrying into wealth, just as her father had! No indeed, if—no, when, for Lycaelon would see to it that an invitation to audition came from the Conservatory by the next Sennday—she entered the Conservatory as a student, that single-minded obsession alone would guarantee her success. In the practice of music, like the practice of magick, success went to the single-minded, those who devoted the most time to practice.

He had done her the greatest favor possible. She might have become just one more featherwitted girl of wealth, unfocused, bored, and restless, with no other prospects than marriage. Now she would become a rising star in the Conservatory, and eventually a great artist. Eventually, she would be as great, in her own sphere, as any Mage. She would certainly have more public acclaim.

His task complete, Lycaelon withdrew from her mind, and sent her from a trance into a deep sleep. She'd awaken in a day or so unable to remember her part in any of what had happened, feeling that she was just as she had always been, her memories an unbroken line from her earliest days till now. The Tasoaires would engage a new flock of servants who had not been around during the recent unpleasantness, and all would be well.

The Arch-Mage stepped back, gazing down at the sleeping girl with a certain satisfaction. Everything had been set right. Things were now as they were meant to be. Trouble had been avoided for the good of the City, what was wrong had been set right, and in fact, the world would be a better place for his actions. Thanks to him, the City would now nurture a budding artist of exceptional ability, who would one day bring pleasure to thousands.

Straightening his robes, he went to give final instructions to her parents.

Chapter Three

The Books of the Wild Magic

KELLEN, YOU'RE NOT attending."

Three mornings a week, Kellen went off to private lessons with his tutor in one of the heavily warded private workrooms at the Mage College of Armethalieh.

The Mage College was a complex of buildings set among beautifully landscaped grounds in the heart of the Mage Quarter. It was surrounded by the homes of the Mages, and no one who was not himself a Mage or a Mage-to-be had ever set foot upon its grounds. Many of the wondertales circulating about the City dealt at great length with a young Apprentice's first sight of the College. All were completely inaccurate, as none of the fabulists had ever actually seen it.

Kellen regarded the fables with a mixture of disgust and amusement. The reality was nothing like they imagined: no talking fountains, no trees bearing every kind of fruit out of season, no herds of animated statuary in every conceivable shape and color wandering over the lawns, no beds of jeweled flowers wafting jets of strange perfumes into the air, no kindly elderly Mages wandering the grounds, trailing clouds of rainbows and Magelights…

No kindly elderly Mages at all. Crotchety, arrogant Mages in plenty, though.

... and no circles of eager Apprentices standing about chattering among themselves as they worked on great spells…

Lots of Apprentices scurrying from class to class, but that's about it.

And certainly no strange collections of Other Races, kept here out of sight of the common run of Armethaliehans.

Everything was just ordinary. And boring.

The only statues that might possibly be animated were the two lions that flanked the main gate, and Kellen had never actually seen them move, though rumor had it that if a non-Mageborn ever tried to pass between them, they would leap down and rend him to bits. It was unlikely that a non-Mageborn would ever get that far, though. Not only would custom and common sense—and the Constabulary—keep ordinary citizens away, there were simple wards all around the grounds, to turn back the drunk, the sick, and the mad.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard he'd tried, Kellen had never been sick enough to be turned back.

He stared blankly at his tutor, Undermage Anigrel. He stared blankly because he knew better than to stare with challenge in his gaze. Anigrel looked like a younger—and blond—version of Kellen's father; tall, lean, and saturnine, with just a hint of pointed beard and a pencil line of moustache. All the Mageborn were slender and fine-boned, their bodies shaped by no physical labor more arduous than lifting a wand or a pen. Their coloration was vivid; black, blond, or red hair running strongly in particular Mage families. They were elegant.

Kellen… wasn't.

His classmates called him "farmer" and "laborer" behind his back, and in truth, he did tower over most of them, especially since his last growth-spurt. Muscles meant for use, and honed by climbing walls and trees, and simply walking for miles through the City, bulked the fabric of his tunic and the loose-fitting trousers he preferred to the fashionable hose worn by some of his more daring classmates. He bet Anigrel wore hose—not that he'd ever seen his tutor without his grey Journeyman robes, or was likely to. Or wanted to, come to that.

Chired Anigrel wasn't from a prominent enough family to have family colors, and as a Journeyman-Undermage he wasn't yet entitled to colors of his own, so he wore the universal uniform of the Mages of the City, the long grey robes and sleeveless, floor-length vest that would someday— if he was fortunate and worked hard—bear the colors of a full-fledged High Mage. Anigrel was in high favor with Lycaelon, however, which meant that his personal fortune stretched to a finer style of clothing than most—soft grey linen in this weather, with a discreet trimming of darker grey and equally discreet silver-grey geometric motifs in fine embroidery on the front and back panels of the vest.

It occurred to Kellen at that moment that he hadn't ever really noticed the way that the differences between those who were in favor with someone of high position and those who were not were subtly displayed despite the plain grey "uniform" that was supposed to be identical for every Mage, regardless of class or social background. Once again—as usual—fine words fell short of reality where the Mages were concerned.

"Begin again, Kellen," Anigrel said crossly, and Kellen sighed and raised his Student wand. Anigrel began to chant the names of the sigils that Kellen was supposed to have memorized.

"Eleph. Vath. Kushon. Deeril. Ashan …"

As Anigrel spoke the name of the sigil, Kellen was supposed to trace it in the air. In this order they were meaningless, and not even the magick stored in the wand did more than permit them to glow in the air for a few moments before fading. But assembled together in set orders, they would make the key components of the first-level spells that every Student Mage had to master before moving on to the next level. Kellen was only a Student-Apprentice; not even a full Apprentice. He was unable to cast even the simplest spell of the High Magick—or at least, he was supposed to be unable to.

Kellen was very well aware that he should be long past memorizing sigil-lists by now. He should, in fact, be mastering the first-level spells and well into the groundwork for second-level spells, which involved more complicated structures of sigils and words of Power. And in fact he actually had mastered one or two second-level spells, even though he didn't really know the groundwork—though that was something he kept to himself.

The trouble was, of course, that all this business with tracing sigils in the air without much result was boring. When he'd been a lot younger, there had been a certain excitement in seeing the sigils glowing with magick as they hung in the air before him; there was even a kind of aesthetic pleasure in creating them, for like ornamental writing, they were pretty in an austere, yet baroque fashion. But that had been a long time ago. These days, Anigrel kept finding all manner of little defects to correct in the sigils he'd mastered, and lists of new sigils to learn. He was tired of it; tired of rote memorization and repetition without any results.

His mind kept drifting off to the very different sort of magick that he had found in The Book of Sun. There was substance there, a kind of magick you could get your teeth into. And it was a magick anyone could understand. There didn't seem to be any nonsense with memorizing books full of sigils and words of power.

The Book of Sun was the easiest of the three Books to understand, a primer on personal energy and how magick actually worked. It was the first time he'd ever seen anything about how magick worked. The High Mages didn't want to explain anything—at least to a lowly Student like Kellen—his studies consisted of endless drill, and he was supposed to take it on faith that someday the endless round of memorization would make sense.

Not like the Books of the Wild Magic. They actually told you things; how things worked, why they worked, why they didn't work. Even better, they had actual spells.

He'd discovered that the back half of The Book of Sun was mostly full of little cantrips and minor spells to make things happen—everything from lighting a candle to sending a one- or two-word message to scrying what was happening at a distance.

If these Books were intended to serve the same purpose for young Wildmages as his textbooks on High Magick, they were certainly a lot more straightforward—and you actually got to do something besides memorize!

"Kellen!" Anigrel said sharply. "Your line is drifting to the right—I've told you over and over: you must keep your sigil centered directly in front of you! Now, again—retrace that Methra—"

Kellen sighed; he didn't think he was off-center. He began retracing the sigil.

Well, while it was true that you could start doing the Wild Magic immediately, there also seemed to be—ramifications. The spells in the three Books didn't seem all that different from the basic High Magick spells he'd been learning (if not actually using), but now that he'd finished the first Book he was starting to get an idea of why the Books were anathema to the High Mages. Wild Magic seemed to be utterly unpredictable.

And oh, how the High Mages hated the unpredictable! Absolutely hated it! As far as they were concerned, everything ought to be regulated, measured, moderated, and controlled, and Wild Magic just… wasn't. You could cast your spell, set the process in motion, and as far as Kellen could figure out, there was no telling just how your end would be accomplished, or even if it would be attained at all. That point was made over and over again in The Book of Moon. Spontaneity, variety, unpredictability, all linked into that most powerful of things, magick—the High Mages couldn't possibly do anything other than hate the Wild Magic, now, could they?

And despite the fact that you might not get what you wanted, that was part of what Kellen found so attractive about Wild Magic, just when he was the most unhappy with his life and the future his father had all planned out for him.

It was very strange, finding the Books in the Low Market like that, though perhaps it would be better to say that they found him. Perhaps that was just one more demonstration of how unpredictable Wild Magic was.

Perhaps he had been practicing Wild Magic even before he'd found the Books, even without knowing it, and because of that he had sensed the Books and been drawn to them just when he had been longing for the new and different, for excitement and change. Maybe his longing had become the instrument of Wild Magic…

Or Wild Magic had used him…

And that sudden thought made him just a bit uncomfortable.

"Xota. )ald. Eron. Batun," Anigrel chanted, as Kellen traced sigil after sigil, each one more complicated than the last. The first set had only glowed with a single color; now that he was into the more advanced of the sigils, the lines that he drew in the air boasted three different—though always harmonious—colors, or three shades of the same color. And now the sigils themselves pointed out where he went wrong, for the colors would not be quite right if his tracing was off even a little. And if they were wrong altogether, well, he'd often get vile shades that set his teeth on edge.

I wonder what would happen to a color-blind Mage? Kellen thought suddenly. That would hardly be a problem for a Wildmage, now, would it?

Of course, there were other difficulties with Wild Magic…

His mind wandered again; there was something else that had occurred to him that made him more than a little uneasy about his three Books.

The Books, if they had not actively sought him out, had surely picked him—or something connected with them had. Probably they had sat in that merchant's stock for years, and before that, perhaps in some other merchant's stock or some forgotten library. So. What was it about him that had made them pick him? Whoever had copied out the three Books had set a spell on them to enable them to stay together as a set, and must have set a second to ensure that only someone who was "right" for them would find them. The question in Kellen's mind was—just what was it about him that was "right"?

Obviously the Books knew they had to go to someone who wouldn't automatically turn them over to the High Mages, which probably ought to bother him more than it did. And they had to go to someone who had the personal energy to be a Wildmage. But what else was involved? Was it only that the person had to be willing, even eager, to accept something that was different, someone who was tired of the endless sameness enforced by the Council? Or was there something more to it than that?

Was it a weakness in him? Something, as the Ars Perfidorum suggested, corruptible?

And of course, he had another worry altogether. Whether or not the Ars Perfidorum was correct about the Wild Magic being bad, there was still the law. The three Books were anathema; there was no arguing with that. At the very least, if they were discovered in his possession, they'd be taken from him and burned. At worst… well, he wasn't sure what the worst would be. He had to hope that the Books would continue to hide themselves—but what if he was found out?

He tried to picture his father coming across them. Asking where he'd gotten them. Asking if he'd read them. Just how much trouble would he be in?

He wanted to think that it couldn't be that bad; after all, they were only Books. It wasn't as if he'd done anything, even if he had read them. Right?

Nevertheless, he had the horrible feeling that it would be a lot worse than anything he had ever gotten into before.

UNDERMAGE Anigrel felt a headache coming on.

Being appointed as the tutor to the only son of Arch-Mage Lycaelon was a great honor, one he had fought tooth-and-nail for.

Life had not been easy for him, although it also had not been particularly difficult, either. He'd been just wealthy enough to see true wealth and long for it; just exalted enough in status to know what real status was and crave it. Perhaps, in a way, that had been worse than being born impoverished and ignorant.

Chired Anigrel was the grandson of a tradesman. His father had shown Magegift and been taken away by the Mages to be trained. Anigrel knew nothing of his father's family, and little more of his Mageborn mother's, who had cut her off completely when she had married the son of a tradesman, even though he was a promising young Mage. She had died bringing Anigrel into the world, despite all that High Magick could do, and after that, Torbet Anigrel's fate had been sealed. He had been a wealthy man by the standards of the City, but in comparison to the fees the High Mages could command for their work, he'd been a pauper, and his dead wife's family had made it crystal clear that Torbet Anigrel would never rise above the ranks of the plain, common Mages who labored at the thankless jobs of the City.

If Anigrel had learned one lesson from his father's life, it was not to let family stand in his way. His father had died untimely early, while his son was still at his own magickal studies, and once his father was dead, Anigrel had sold the house and everything in it and set about erasing every link that bound him to the tradesman's son, the upstart Mage who had f killed a Mageborn daughter. Everyone would still know, but they would admire the effort he used to try to make them forget.

The money after the estate was settled hadn't gone far, but it had bought him a new set of friends, ones with more important fathers, important enough to counteract everything that his mother's family could muster to pull him down. At length, Anigrel was on his way up in the world—the only world that counted, the one ruled by Mages, and if his mother's family was no help to him, they did not go out of their way to hinder him, either. With time, the path of friendships and carefully tended connections had led to the House of Tavadon, to the Arch-Mage himself. The Arch-Mage had a young son, and young sons grew, and needed tutors…

Anigrel knew Kellen's bloodline, knew his potential, and had cherished daydreams of great reward from his father when he turned over to him a polished and accomplished young Apprentice to follow in the Arch-Mage's footsteps.

The trouble was, Kellen wasn't cooperating. Light knew he'd done his best to make things easy for the boy—he gained nothing from producing a failure, after all!

But no matter what he did, Kellen would not apply himself to his studies. Would not memorize the basic groundwork, the framework upon which the architecture of High Magick must be built. And without that, Anigrel could do nothing. In fact, as the years passed, Kellen actually seemed to manage to unlearn some of his lessons, if that was possible!

As time passed, he felt the unspoken pressure from Lycaelon and the increasing resistance from Kellen and felt very much as if he was being squeezed between the two.

Well, of the two, Kellen was the one he could break the easiest. Much depended on it.

"Kellen," he said, tinging his voice with heavy disappointment layered with an artful coloring of scorn, "I am not certain what your difficulty is today—if I didn't know how intelligent you are supposed to be, I'd consign you to the ranks of the useless dullards. And I fear that your father would not be at all surprised."

The boy flushed, and his mouth took on that pouting downturn that made him look even more sullen than usual. Anigrel scowled. Kellen was a singularly unpromising specimen, all things considered. He had nothing of the look of the Mageborn—there was some scandal there, something to do with the Arch-Mage's late and unknown wife, but Anigrel was far too clever a social-climber to ever touch on such a sensitive issue. In his private hours, however, Anigrel sometimes wondered what the nameless female might have had to recommend her to the Arch-Mage's attention.

Undoubtedly she had been a beauty, but surely a Mage would seek for more than that in a marriage alliance that would produce sons? The features that commended themselves to masculine attention upon a female face could be unfortunate when passed on to male offspring, after all. That girlish face and pouting mouth might be quite beguiling on a young maiden, but Kellen was far too heavy-featured to make them into assets. In fact, Kellen seemed to take no pains with his appearance at all. Above heavy eyebrows was a thatch of curling brown hair that always looked a little too long no matter how often or expertly it was cut, and never looked neat. Kellen loomed above his peers, with hands and feet too big for the rest of him, and even the most expertly tailored robes and tunics never seemed to quite fit. He was nothing like his elegant father—no ambition, no drive—and Anigrel was more than tired of Kellen's constant sulking.

Well, it was time to pass some of that irritation back to the appropriate recipient.

"Sit down, and take out your notes," Anigrel continued. "You can take notes, can't you? Your mind hasn't gone so dull that you can't write your letters?"

The boy flushed again, and this time there was a flash of anger in the dark eyes. Good. He'd finally struck a nerve.

Anigrel waited while the boy took his seat at the small table just under the single window in the workroom, and took out the book of blank pages in which he was supposed to take notes while Anigrel lectured. Anigrel regularly inspected this book to be certain that the boy understood the lectures delivered to him—or at least understood enough to note down the salient points of each lecture. And to be certain the boy wasn't just doodling or writing nonsense.

"Power," he began, pacing slowly back and forth while he spoke, "and by that I mean magickal power, does not arise out of nothing. As you know, every Mage has his own personal reserves of power, and this is all very well for small matters, but for greater Workings, power must be pooled. This is part of every Mage's training, how to cooperate and meld the power each one holds into a greater whole. But even this is not enough to supply the needs of our City and its people. Therefore, in the distant past, the Arch-Mages discovered and learned to harvest a still greater source of this power."

He paused in his pacing to glance aside at his pupil, whose head was bent over his book, his pen scratching diligently on the pages.

Well, regardless of how absentminded the boy was today, the information that Anigrel was about to give him should certainly wake him up.

"You know that every Mage has his own personal reserve of power," Anigrel continued. "But you may not have realized it is not only Mages who have stores of this power. All people have it, although of course they can never use it themselves."

The boy looked up sharply at that. Anigrel smiled slightly. It was about time that the boy began to understand how the world really worked! Perhaps some inside knowledge would give him the motivation to succeed! "Yes, you may well stare! Now, do you know why a Mage needs to learn how to share his power with others?"

Kellen shook his head mutely.

"Because, boy, only one born to the power of a Mage can resist someone trying to take his power from him, and he instinctively does so when he feels his power being drained from him. It takes training and will to overcome that instinct. The ordinary person, one who has no notion that he has this power, does not resist when it is harvested. And that is what we do, we Mages in the service of the City. Fully half of us spend all our waking time harvesting the power of our citizens to serve the City itself.

"Not, as you may have thought, in using our own little stores of power in long and involved spells that make the maximum use of tiny amounts of it, in order to do the work that we must. No, we constantly harvest the power of the people of the entire City, storing it, so that we need not deplete ourselves in order to do the work of the City."

Rather elegant, he'd always thought; like an invisible tax. Take from the citizens to do the work that they insisted in having done: purifying water, destroying vermin, creating the Golden Suns that Armethalieh spent so lavishly in trade with the outside world. And if the Mages siphoned off a bit here and there to make their own lives easier, well, that was only fair. Nothing in life was free.

The boy gaped at him, as if he didn't quite understand what he had heard. "You mean, you take it from them? Without asking? Without them even knowing?" he asked incredulously.

"And what would be the point of telling them?" Anigrel demanded sharply "Half of them wouldn't believe it, and the other half would want to be paid for it, somehow—as if living in the City weren't payment enough. Ridiculous—they don't use it, they can't use it, they don't miss it, and if it weren't harvested, it would just drain away, accomplishing nothing. All things have their price, and the good of the City is paid for by the power of its citizens. Why should we deplete ourselves for them, when they can supply the power instead?"

"But—we should tell them, at least," Kellen persisted, then shut his mouth as Anigrel frowned at him furiously. Had the boy no higher instincts at all?

"Stupid sentimentality!" Anigrel snapped. "They are beneath us; uneducated, without the wisdom that knowledge gives to us; they are not fit to make decisions in this regard. Yet they are pleased to accept all the benefits that living within the walls of Armethalieh brings. They must pay for it somehow—just as they pay other taxes, this is a tax that they must pay to the Mages and the Council. That they do not know they pay it is irrelevant. Everything has a price. Everything. And that is the way that the real world works."

KELLEN bent his head back down over his book and scribbled Anigrel's words down verbatim, hiding his unease as best he could. So this was how all the magick of the City was fueled! He was very certain now that none of the Mages ever used his innate personal power for anything except his own personal needs. Why should they, even though the Mages benefited as much as anyone else from all of the municipal magicks, when they could save their own power for themselves and use the power of the citizens instead?

The problem was, The Book of Moon seemed to say that whenever you were the one who benefited from magick, you were the one who had to pay the price. Maybe that was only true in Wild Magic, but Kellen had to wonder. Wasn't all magick essentially the same, all governed by the same underlying rules?

He guessed that was why High Mages and Wildmages—if there still were any—couldn't agree about anything, if they couldn't agree about that. From his lessons with Undermage Anigrel, Kellen already knew that the larger the effect of the spell you cast, the higher the price in terms of raw power you had to pay for it, and where High Magick was utterly indifferent to the possibility of a personal price, Wild Magic seemed to say that not only was there always one, but that it had to be paid, and by the person casting the spell.

He bet the High Mages hadn't liked hearing that, if anyone had ever told them.

It had taken him a good part of last night to get his mind wrapped around that concept, but once he'd managed it, it seemed both logical and inevitable, if not precisely something that made him comfortable.

The personal price wasn't directly related to what was being done— that was what had been so hard to understand. So in Wild Magic, the more powerful the spell, the more likely it was that you'd have to do something besides supply your own personal power—like copy out and bespell those three Books, for instance, in exchange for, perhaps, creating a well or healing an injury.

The thing was—yet another concept he'd had trouble with—there was just no way of telling in advance what the price of any given spell would be. And if paying the "price" for a spell involved casting more spells, you could spend all your time in an endless cycle of "Magedebt" to the Wild Magic that way, always trying to "pay off" obligations for magick you'd used to pay off previous obligations! My head hurts, Kellen thought. It all seemed so complicated!

The Book of Moon said that the reason the price was never the same was that the caster of the spell wasn't the same person he was the last time he cast it, which seemed, well, kind of an odd thing to claim. How could you be a different person today from the one who'd cast, oh, say, a Finding Spell yesterday? People didn't change overnight!

Kellen knew that people changed, of course. He wasn't the same person at seventeen that he'd been at seven. But that was normal. Everyone changed while they were growing up.

But then they stopped. His father had been the same person for as long as Kellen had known him, and if Lycaelon lived another fifty years, Kellen was sure that he wouldn't change a single habit or opinion.

Kellen tried to imagine people continuing to change all their lives— and for that matter, changing quickly. It would be like, like…

Like waking up one morning and finding you were living in a strange and unfamiliar house.

He felt a faint thrill of excitement at the thought. Could the Wild Magic make that happen? What if the prices you had to pay somehow changed you? What if the price was to change?

That would be another thing the High Mages wouldn't like. As far as I could tell, the whole point of High Magick was to keep anything from changing. Ever.

Anigrel blatted on about how the citizens of the City owed their energies to the Mages, his face set in an expression of self-satisfied arrogance that just made Kellen sick. He didn't want to listen to it. Didn't the Mages get rewarded enough, being paid for the work they did, and handsomely, too? There wasn't such a thing as a poor Mage in the entire City—once you were a full Mage, you had as good a house, servants, food, and clothing as any well-off merchant in the City, and for a lot less work, too! A nice life… no wonder everyone wanted it.

Everyone but Kellen, maybe.

"Kellen!"

The sharp tone of Anigrel's voice brought Kellen's attention back to his tutor, and the annoyance in Anigrel's face made it very clear that while he'd been thinking, his pen hadn't been moving…

"I do not know what could possibly have gotten into you, boy," Anigrel said with smoldering irritation, "but you clearly are not prepared to pay attention—and I am not prepared to waste my valuable time on a pupil who doesn't wish to learn."

Oh, grand. Father is certainly going to hear about this, Kellen thought with a sinking feeling. And what could he say? That he didn't like the way the City was run? But he had liked it, mostly, up until now.

He guessed…

Anigrel made a shooing motion with his hands, frowning exasperatedly. "Get out of here, boy. Go play, since that is obviously the only thing you're fit for today. I shall attempt to salvage something out of this morning while you idle your way about the City, child that you are. Be grateful I don't call for a nurse to take you to your room to play with toys."

Release, but with a sting in it.

Kellen picked up his notes and strode out of the room before Anigrel changed his mind.

Release—but at the cost of being treated like a child, like an infant, at being insulted and abused by a fatuous prig who thought he was owed everything he got!

Kellen set his chin stubbornly and left the workroom.

He stopped on the way out of the College and deposited his books in his locker, hoping he wouldn't run into any of his year-mates at the Mage College who would wonder why he wasn't still at his morning's lessons with his tutor—or worse, that he wouldn't run into his father, who sometimes visited the College between Council sessions to check up on some of the more promising senior pupils.

He thought of going home, but the thought of going back to Tavadon House, to the chilly corridors and grudging servants, nearly made him ill. He had to get out, somewhere far from here, from there, from Mages and magick. He needed free air and—if there was such a thing in this City— free talk.

There was only one place to go for both of those things.

Kellen opened his locker again and pulled off his robe, wadding it up and stuffing it in atop his books and tools. Where he was going, it would be a disadvantage to be recognized as a Student-Apprentice of the Mage College of Armethalieh.

A definite disadvantage.

WHEN the foreign ships from the Out Islands and the lands beyond the bounds of those claimed by the City were in, there was one place in Armethalieh where there was little or no chance that anyone would recognize him for who and what he was. The docks were the one place where Mages didn't go if they could help it.

Sailors distrusted them, captains did not like having to depend on the magicks that they bought at such high prices from them—the Talismans that brought fair following winds, the Amulets that directed storms to move out of the path of a ship, the Runestones that dispelled fog, the Wands that warned the man at the tiller of shoals and dangerous rocks. Yet those who failed to purchase such aids often came to grief—far oftener, said the whispers, than mere bad luck could account for…

And as for the merchants, well—it was the Mages who dictated what could and could not be sold. It was hardly to be expected that they would welcome the sight of those who restricted their ability to profit.

Foreign sailors were confined to the area of the docks; only the merchant-captain of a ship—or better still, his City-born representative— was allowed into the City proper to present samples of the cargo for inspection or deliver promised goods. The dock even had its own market, plenty of taverns and inns, and in any case the sailors were kept busy enough even in port that they didn't have much time to spend wandering the streets of Armethalieh.

The citizens were not encouraged to wander the docks, either, and generally everyone had heard tales of drunken sailors quarreling with peaceful citizens, starting fights, and generally behaving in an uncivilized manner. That was enough to keep most folk away. But Kellen had learned—by going there himself—that very few of those stories were true, and of the rest, well, people got drunk and got into fights, robbed and were robbed across the breadth of the City every day. Sailors and foreigners were as apt to be victims as victimizers.

But the area of dockside was a rough neighborhood, and a Mage who wandered in there, if he kept his nose in the air as most did, was apt to be greeted with jeers and rudeness. If the sailors and travelers weren't welcome in the City proper, well, they returned the favor in their own territory. So when Kellen went to the docks, he was careful to do so wearing inconspicuous clothing. He watched what he said and who he said it to. Mostly, he just looked and listened, and tried to stay out of the way.

The boundary dividing the dockside from the rest of the City was nothing more than a very wide boulevard, but it was patrolled by regular City Guards, who questioned anyone who crossed that particular street quite closely, and turned back anyone going in either direction if he didn't seem to have appropriate business where he was going. And "I'm just going to look around" was not considered to be appropriate business.

However, there were other places the guards didn't bother to check; one of them was a section of large warehouses that, rebuilt after a great fire a hundred years ago, had spread across the boulevard into the City. There was always so much coming and going there, wains being loaded and unloaded, men and boys heaving bales and barrels of goods about, that the guards couldn't have questioned everyone, and didn't bother trying. Kellen slipped across the border there, along with a gang of men and an empty wain; once on the dockside, he separated from the group and headed for the wharves.

He knew by now how to move out of the way of the stevedores and stay out of the way, and before too very long, he was perched on a piling in a disused slip, with the salt breeze blowing his hair away from his face, looking out at the harbor and the sea beyond.

If he squinted into the sunlight, it was possible to see a sort of shimmer across the mouth of the harbor—if he had used the spell that allowed him to see magick in action, he'd have seen what that shimmer really was. A curtain of power hung across the mouth of the harbor, the result of a spell that protected the harbor from the waves and winds and storms—but could also be "tightened" to keep everything, including ships, out… or in.

It could have been made completely invisible, of course, but the Mages of the City didn't want that. They wanted the foreign captains and their sailors to see that faint shimmer, to feel a little tingle as they crossed it, and know that while it protected them, it could also exclude them if they became too troublesome. The City was a huge, voracious creature. It devoured entire cargoes, disgorging in return other goods and minted gold coins so pure and so exact in weight that they were the standard against which all other currencies everywhere in the world were measured. The square Golden Suns of Armethalieh were accepted everywhere, for thanks to the special magicks worked at the City Mint, they could not be melted down, debased, shaved, or otherwise adulterated—unless another Mage broke the spell, at which point they lost their stampings and ceased to be Golden Suns, becoming only blank shapes of gold.

The foreign ships were in, and Kellen watched the pre-approved cargoes being unloaded. The wharf was full, every mooring place taken, and the masts of all the ships formed a kind of leafless forest, stripped of the sails that had carried them all this way. In their holds were things that would never be allowed to leave the confines of the ships; perhaps perfectly ordinary things, perhaps wonderful things. Kellen would never know, for he would never be permitted to see them. No one except the Mages of the Council would ever be permitted to see them. He could only wonder what might be there.

Still, even to be close to so much freedom made him feel better. He took a seat on a piling, out of the way, and watched the sailors of the ship nearest him unloading their cargo. Are there things in that hold that Wild Magic made? he wondered. Or things that Wild Magic has touched? He wouldn't be able to tell, not from here, not with the aura of High Magick everywhere, overwhelming anything subtle. And Wild Magic was nothing if not subtle. Did anyone outside of the City know about Wild Magic/ Surely they must.

High Magick—the Mages were more disciplined than the soldiers of the Council's Army, and they imposed their will upon the cosmos to the exclusion of any other possibility with the iron of that discipline. There was no room for error, for creativity, even for much experimentation in High Magick. A Mage could work for years, decades, just to develop a single variant in an existing spell, and even when he had spent his life upon it, it still might not be approved by the Council.

Kellen was supposed to feel comforted by this; the fact that nothing changed, nothing would change, was supposed to make people feel secure. But he wasn't—

The slip next to the one that Kellen sat beside held a slim little trading vessel of the sort that specialized in speed rather than bulk to make a profit. It rode high in the water, and was in the process of being loaded with small casks—probably distilled spirits—and wooden boxes—which would be spices, incense, and medicines, particular specialties of Armethalieh. The ship's master himself was at hand, helping to load the cargo; a vessel like this, Kellen had learned, seldom had a crew larger than ten, with perhaps a passenger, and since it dealt in cargoes of small valuable objects easy to steal, the crew never allowed anyone to load or unload but themselves.

The Dock Patrol—a detachment of the City Guard that regularly worked the dock area—came down the pier, eyed the ship and her crew, then cast a glance over at Kellen. But Kellen was prepared for them. He had a stick and a string he'd picked up from the rubbish waiting for the trash collectors, and the moment he'd taken his seat on the piling, he'd tossed the string into the water. It looked enough like a fishing-rod at a distance to fool the guards, and anyone could come down to the docks to augment his dinner with a little fish, if he chose.

It was odd, considering how much trouble the regular City Guard went to to keep citizens away from the docks, that the Dock Patrols so rarely chased people away from the wharves, but Kellen had found, to his surprise, that it was true. But perhaps it wasn't so odd after all. Only the poorest of Armethalieh's citizens would risk the social stigma of coming here—no one with any money at all would stoop to gleaning "trash" fish from the harbor for their suppers—and there was always the possibility of being "contaminated" by alien ways that would keep any Armethaliehan with a pretense of respectability far from the foreigners. Perhaps the Dock Patrol thought it was easier to keep an eye on the usual visitors to the docks than to simply try to keep them all out. Perhaps they relied on the fact that the regular City Guard, or the Constables of the Watch (who generally patrolled only the residential districts of Armethalieh), would turn back any really suspicious characters before they reached their patrol area. For whatever reason, the Dock Patrol favored Kellen with no more than a single glance before turning away to resume their patrol of the wharf.

He was just as glad that he'd worn his oldest clothes beneath his Student robes today. He'd found out a long time ago that nobody at the College cared what you wore beneath the stiff, bulky, light blue Student robes that covered the Students—Student-Apprentices, Apprentices, Entered Apprentices, and Student Mages—from neck to ankle, and Kellen took great advantage of that freedom. Once he'd pulled off his robe and stuffed it into his locker, his clothing didn't mark him out—at least not too much—from anyone else in the City. Anyone who wasn't a Mage, at least.

It was only when the Dock Patrol was well out of sight that a newcomer slipped out of the cover of an alley, and hastened over to the captain of the trader. Kellen was careful not to turn, careful not to draw attention to himself. Another "respectable" citizen of the City—here! One who was neither an Inspector nor a merchant, nor—from his dress—a member of the lowest classes. What could he be doing here?

The newcomer was a young man, perhaps a year or two older than Kellen. His clothing was of good quality; he carried a bag and wore a harried expression.

He did not seem particularly well-to-do, although he was perhaps a cut or two above a common laborer—perhaps a tradesman. He was a little older than Kellen, but the look of stifled, sullen dissatisfaction on his face was—oh, that was very familiar. It was the one Kellen saw in his own mirror nearly every day.

The ship's captain spotted the young man on the dock as he stood looking up at the ship with mingled hope and doubt. Mutual recognition appeared on both their faces, and relief as well on the young man's as the captain hurried down the gangplank to meet him.

Kellen remained very still, willing them to ignore him.

It seemed to work.

The captain reached out his hand, and clasped the one the newcomer extended to him. "I'm pleased that you haven't changed your mind," he said. "I was afraid that you might. Many do. When the time comes to leave the City forever, they find it isn't worth the sacrifice."

"Not me," the young man said, his chin thrust forward stubbornly. "I can't go back in any event. I've been thrown out by my father, disowned by my mother—"

"Ah," the captain said. "Your mother—that's different, then. Mothers forgive nearly everything, but when your mother disowns you, there's no going back."

"Hmph." The young man shook his head. "They don't forgive it when you've besmirched their social standing by insulting the most important person they've ever managed to lure to the dinner table, I can tell you that."

Since Kellen had wanted to do just that, and more than once, his admiration for the young man soared. But the captain was most concerned with the reactions of the man's parents, it seemed.

"So what did they say exactly?" the captain persisted.

"That I was to leave and never return, never use their name, never intimate that I even know them, much less am related to them. It was more than just saying it," he continued bitterly. "They made quite a production of it, gathered all the servants and my brother and sister, and threw me out with what I'm carrying."

All this only made the captain more cheerful. "Ah, good!" he exclaimed. "Then there won't be any problem!"

"Problem?" The young man seemed confused.

So was Kellen. The captain, apparently, was in a mood to explain.

"Here, take a seat." The captain took his own invitation, and perched himself on a nearby piling. "It's like this—the way things are, here in this City of yours, your Council wants everybody happy with the way things are, so that everything runs smooth as fine sailing. So they go out of their way to keep everybody happy. Now, a lot of times, young fellows like you get itchy feet, get the idea of traveling outside the City walls, maybe even have a bit of a to-do with their parents and decide they'd be better off somewhere else. Well, that may be so, but their parents aren't any too pleased if they find 'em gone, and it could be they've got skills or they're doing a job that needs doing here. So"—the captain shrugged—"when someone like me takes 'em aboard, sometimes there's trouble. Sometimes there's a search before we leave the dock, sometimes before we leave the harbor, and sometimes, if the lad's got an important enough family, those magick barriers that keep the storms out keep us in until we've handed the lad over."

I knew it! I knew it! Kellen thought. I knew the Mages were keeping people from leaving, somehow —

But there went any hope he had of escaping. Not with Lycaelon as a father. If he went missing, well—Lycaelon would probably keep anything larger than an ant from getting out of the City until Kellen was found and brought back.

"But for you," the captain continued, looking positively gleeful, "well, your parents have done it, haven't they? And the Council knows that tryin' to keep their paws on a restless lad like you, cast out of his own family and liable to cause trouble, even if he doesn't mean it, well, that's not going to make for a peaceful City. Bet you've been doin' a bit of tavern brawling, hmm? Been in trouble with the Watch, just a bit?"

The young man flushed. "And if I have?" he demanded.

"Now, don't come all over toplofty on me!" the captain remonstrated. "Really, it's all to your good! Council knows they're better off lettin' you go! And you aren't the only one, not by a stretch! There's a steady leak of young fellows like you, and a few older ones too, all heading for the Out Isles like you, or the Selken Holds, or maybe through the gates for the farms, I don't know. Not a lot of you, maybe, but it lets the steam out, so to speak. Council knows they've got to do that, or face trouble, later."

The young man took a deep breath, then let it out, his anger going with it. "All right for me, then, I suppose. I shouldn't take it amiss. And I won't." His expression cleared. "No, I won't! It's a gift, and I'll take it." He stood up, and slung his bag over his shoulder. "Mind if I come aboard, then?"

"Be my guest," the captain replied genially. "We sail in an hour— that's half a bell to you—our cargo has already gotten its inspection, and there won't be anyone by to look at it before we leave," the captain said. "We'll be under way as soon as we get this lot loaded."

The two of them went up the gangplank, still oblivious to Kellen. He might not have even been there.

Or had it been the Wild Magic helping him? It could have been, easily enough, even though he hadn't actually done anything with it. The Book of Sun said that it might act on its own, through him or on him, when it wanted something done. It might have wanted him to know that escape was possible. It might also have wanted him to know that he would not be able to get out as easily as the young man he'd just seen.

Suddenly Kellen lost his taste for the docks, and for gazing out at a freedom he could not have.

There was money in his pocket, and a tavern nearby. Not that he was going to get drunk… No, but if he bought a round of drinks, he'd soon find someone willing to tell him tales of their travels in return for more drinks. Perhaps he could steer the conversation in the direction of magick, if he was very careful. He might even learn something more about the Wild Magic that way.

He tossed string and stick into the water, and left his perch, weaving his way carefully among the dock laborers until he came to the door of what passed for a respectable drinking establishment out here. It was dark, reeked of fish, and the furnishings were crude benches and tables. The only food available was battered, fried, and highly salted to encourage thirst. As he entered, the half-dozen sailors perched at the tables eyed him with suspicion. Kellen ordered a fish-roll, and after a careful look around at the clientele, a round of beer for the house.

His generosity was greeted with an upwelling of warmth, and Kellen took a seat across from a fellow who looked as if he was a bit more intelligent and observant than the rest, and might have a tale or two to tell.

"Workingmen got to stick together, eh?" he said as he sat down and clinked mugs with the weather-beaten sailor. "Came down here to get a bit of sun and fresh air on my day off, and what do you think happens?"

The sailor spat off to the side. "Guard gives you trouble?" he asked, though they both knew it wasn't a question.

Kellen grimaced. "Too true, mate. Dunno what they thought I was gonna get up to—I told 'em I had a fancy for fried fish, and was there a law against that now?"

The sailor guffawed. "Good answer. What's your trade?"

"Scribe-in-training. Got a letter you need written? Don't mind doing a favor for a tale or two," Kellen said quickly, knowing he would never pass for an ordinary laborer. But a scribe was a workingman, no higher in rank than the laborers he served, since no one of any means at all needed them. "I'd leave if I could—but my mother—" He shrugged helplessly. "If I can't leave, I'd as lief hear a tale."

"Aye, that's a fair trade," the sailor said cheerfully, and called for pen and paper, which the bartender brought, and which the sailor paid for himself. He dictated his letter, a common enough epistle. Kellen read it back, and the sailor took possession of it with great satisfaction. "I'll hand it off to someone on the Sea Sprite," the man said, looking pleased. "They're on the inbound leg, and my Evike will be right glad to get a word of me so soon. Now, young friend, you were after a tale. Well, I mind me of something that happened two voyages back, on a dark night with no moon, when we were near dead in the water…"

Kellen settled back to listen with an intensity that his tutor Anigrel would have been surprised to see.

Chapter Four

Music in Chains

THE CHAMBER IN which the High Council of Armethalieh met was a vast space devoted by day to meetings of the Council. By night, it was used as a secure chamber for the workings of the High Magick that guaranteed the smooth functioning of the City of a Thousand Bells. The enormous circular chamber occupied most of the center wing of the Council House, and was easily the largest single enclosed space in the entire City. Save for a star-shaped ring of windows at the apex of its vast domed golden ceiling, it was windowless, its enormous interior space lit by the sourceless blue-white glow of shadowless, unchanging Magelight. The soft directionless light made day and night as one: the only hint of time's passage was the movement of the sunlight or moonlight that spilled through the windows at the apex of the dome, and the muffled chiming of the City bells.

Few of Armethalieh's ordinary citizens ever saw this place, for a hearing before the assembled High Council was reserved for those occasions when every other means of resolving a situation in accordance with the City's ancient Laws had been exhausted—for that, and for the few necessary dealings of Armethalieh with foreigners. And for these reasons, and others not known to most of the inhabitants of the Golden City, the chamber's designers, in the long-ago time of the City's first founding, had taken great care to make the High Council chamber as stark and intimidating as possible.

The walls of the Council chamber were of featureless white marble, polished so perfectly that their smooth curve gleamed like a dull mirror, broken only by two golden doors set into their surface at opposite sides of the circular chamber. Each door was wrought with the symbol of the Eternal Light in gleaming high relief, so that the planes and angles of their exquisite surfaces glittered, even in this diffuse light, as if they were aflame. The floor was inlaid in a complex pattern of polished black and white marble—to the uninitiated eye, no more than a slightly disorienting decorative pattern, but in fact a series of keys that allowed Adepts to keep their proper places during the nighttime Workings. It was a singularly cold room, designed to chill the spirit and numb the ability to think. It took some time for even a Mage to become accustomed to these surroundings and work unaffected by them.

At one end of the windowless room, its curve echoing that of the curving wall behind it, there stood a judicial bench of black marble twice the height of a tall man, behind which the thirteen members of the High Council sat to make their solemn deliberations. The Arch-Mage of Armethalieh, chief of the High Council, Lycaelon Tavadon, sat at the center of them, the back of his unadorned thronelike chair of black marble rising high above the other seats, a stark silhouette against the white wall behind him. Six unbreathing stone golems, seven-foot statues given life and motion by the High Magick, stood guard in the room to protect the Mages from their supplicants, their mirror-polished grey granite skin reflecting the softer stone of their surroundings. The elaborate and distinctive embroidery on the thirteen Mages' formal grey robes of Judgment—from which those who were versed in such things could discern not only rank and family, but much of that Mage's personal history and record of achievement and awards as well—was the only spot of color in the entire room—and of course, since Lycaelon's "colors" were black and white, he looked of a piece with the room, and scarcely more human than the golems.

Yesterday the Selken trading fleet had docked, and as was traditional, Undermages from the Customs House had gone aboard to inspect the cargoes, releasing those items that had been approved on previous voyages to the traders' warehouses for inspection and sale. But the traders were always bringing new wares to offer to the City of a Thousand Bells, and so today, as had been set down in custom from time immemorial, each trading captain must bring samples of his new merchandise to the Council House to see if it might also be approved for sale in Armethalieh.

As the merchant-captains stood in an apprehensive gaggle several yards away in the center of the room, Lycaelon and his fellows conferred over the sample wares. No matter how many times some of them might have stood there, Lycaelon was pleased to see the foreigners never lost their proper awe of the High Mages of Armethalieh. A Spell of Judgment, carefully cast over the chamber before the captains had been allowed to enter, allowed each member of the council to share the feelings at the surface of the others' minds, projecting them so that each member of the Council could be aware of the opinion of all the others, whether favorable or otherwise.

The High Council had spent the morning on cloth, ribbons, beads, and dyes—simple enough matters all, but each was new to the City, and each must be carefully weighed and judged for its possible impact on the well-being of the populace before being released into the marketplace. Changes in fashion should be subtle things; it was difficult for most men to imagine what difference something like a change of sleeve or ornament might make—frankly, most men wouldn't even notice—but women were profoundly influenced by such things. If one woman snatched up a new ornament to set a radical new fashion, it wouldn't be long before the desire to replicate or better her effort would spread through the City like a fever, begetting an orgy of spending, a frenzy of stitching and cutting, and then—well, then the rot would set in, the wish for change, just for the sake of change, which would spread at last from the women to their men. All from a new bead, a new color, a new ribbon, something that the ordinary man would think was insignificant.

So the Council was careful, very careful, even with something as tiny as a bead or a button. Beginning with dyes, they had moved on to perfumes and spices. Most of the perfumes had been rejected out of hand for being simply too foreign, and of all of the senses, the most subtle and most open to unconscious seduction was that of smell—but the spices were a more difficult matter.

Lycaelon touched his finger to his tongue, and took up a small amount of the brownish powder on the twist of paper before him. He held it beneath his nose for a moment, then touched it to his tongue. It had a sweet, nutlike flavor, elusively familiar, tasting of anise and cinnamon. It was enough like both that its introduction into City marketplaces would cause no disturbances in the even tenor of City life; earlier this morning, before it had even reached the Council, an Undermage had inspected it by magick for narcotic properties and other dangerous side effects, and found none. Had Lycaelon not known this, he might have suspected some tranquilizing property in the stuff, for his reaction to it was to find the taste curiously comforting. Well, a feeling of comfort was something to be cultivated among the populace. Comfort bred contentment, and a disinclination to change.

"Interesting. What do they call this?" he asked, leaning toward his nearest colleague.

"Rendis," Mage Volpiril said. The Magister-Regnant very much wished to succeed Lycaelon as Arch-Mage of Armethalieh, and regarded his superior with an interest that Lycaelon found simple to interpret, even without High Magick's aid: Should Volpiril express approval? Disapproval? Which would best further his own interests?

"I call the vote," Lycaelon said formally, ending the period of inquiry by raising his right hand, palm out, to signal approval of the new spice. Palm down would indicate disapproval.

Unsurprisingly, Volpiril raised his own hand in the same fashion, and the rest of the Council unanimously followed suit. A public vote was a matter of show for their trader-audience, really; if a matter really required a discussion to reach a consensus, it would hardly be dealt with in front of foreigners.

But, as with so many things the Mage Council did, it was good to preserve an illusion of open discussion before the foreigners. If any of the Council had serious reservations about something brought before them, something that could not be projected into the Judgment Spell, he would use his Art for a moment of Silent Speech with Lycaelon, who would simply defer the "vote" if the matter truly seemed to warrant it. Before foreigners, the Council would always present a united front. That was the path of Power.

An Undermage came to clear away the small packets of spices and to serve the Council small cups of strong kaffeyah to clear away the lingering scents. The next class of items was usually a difficult one—whole manufactured items of foreign origin—so to keep the Council from becoming overtired in its deliberations, it was interspersed with something quite simple: book approvals, both new works by current City authors, and reprintings of old tales. While naturally books by foreign authors, containing as they did foreign and dangerous notions, could never be allowed into the City, often the trade ships brought foreign editions of books by approved City authors, frequently authors who had been so long out of print in the City that their works were a novelty again. These exotics sold very well, but it was the Council's job to be certain that there had been no disturbing additions made to them in their foreign manufacture.

But before the books, some difficult decisions needed to be made.

"What is the first item?" the Arch-Mage asked his page, who was standing just behind his chair of state with the long list of items that needed to be approved in today's Council session.

"A… 'cittern,' Lord Arch-Mage," Auronwy said, stumbling over the foreign word. "It is a stringed instrument for making music, I have been told. The captain has asked to be allowed to demonstrate the item to you."

Lycaelon suppressed a faint spark of irritation. Really, the presumption of these Selkens was truly amazing. No matter how much liberty the Council granted them, they always demanded more. Still, a show of mercy and fair-dealing was one of the City's greatest strengths, and each time the Selkens overstepped the bounds of civility and good taste, they only harmed themselves and strengthened Lycaelon's own position.

"Very well. Have him approach." And watching barbarians caper should do a little something to relieve the tedium, at least.

Auronwy descended the steps behind the judicial bench and approached the waiting captains. He spoke briefly with one of them, who came forward and retrieved a peculiar instrument from the pile of trade goods that waited beneath the watchful eyes of the motionless guard golems.

The cittern appeared to Lycaelon's eyes like some sort of giant, misshapen lute—flat on both sides, its sound box pulled into a sort of peculiar sand-glass shape. The neck was grotesquely elongated, and it seemed to have only half the proper number of strings. No fretwork covered the hole in the soundbox, either; if you stood close enough, you could probably see all the way down into the body of the instrument. How crude it looked, and how unfinished! Lycaelon steeled himself; surely this instrument's sound would be as unpolished as its appearance.

The captain slung the cittern's strap over his shoulder, plinked a few strings hesitantly, and began to play.

Lycaelon resisted, though with difficulty, the impulse to cover his ears, and felt the wave of disgust from his fellow Mages through the Judgment Spell. It was like nothing any of them had ever heard—not like the lute, nor the harp, nor the viol, nor any other stringed instrument known in the City. It was loud. It jangled. It was infernally cheerful. Very raucous, barbaric, and not in the least bit calming. If the drinking songs caterwauled in taverns could have been turned into an instrument upon which they might be played, this was it.

As the captain himself seemed about to break into song (which only confirmed the Arch-Mage's impression of the instrument), Lycaelon raised his hand.

"That will be quite sufficient," he said firmly. He shook his head very slightly, not needing to look to the rest of the Council to feel their agreement and relief. This decision, at least, would be an easy one, with no dissension and no need for a discussion. "The Council regrets, we cannot permit you to sell this… 'cittern' here."

"But why?" The captain looked honestly surprised—and hurt, as if he'd offered them a rare treat and been spurned. Lycaelon sighed inwardly. The Light blast all overemotional thin-skinned barbarians back to the First Cause and beyond! If there were some way for the City to do without the trade ships, he, personally, would weave such a spell as would seal Armethalieh's harbors off from the outside world for a thousand years…

"Please understand," Lycaelon said, projecting a warmth and regret he did not feel into his words. Beneath them, he let an undercurrent of magick flow outward toward the captain: If it were my choice alone, I would welcome this innovation. But we are both of us at the mercy of forces greater than ourselves, and cannot always act as we choose. You and I, we must both make hard choices for the good of those we serve. "I am certain that this 'cittern' is a lovely instrument, cherished in your homeland. But we of the City have never heard anything like it. It would require new compositions to be written for it, new musicians to be trained in its use. Our City simply isn't ready to accept so great an innovation, we regret."

He saw the captain step back, glancing toward the rest of the Council, confusion, acceptance—and regret—plain on his features. He would return to his ship, convinced that the High Council—and especially Lycaelon—acted out of hard necessity, but were themselves good men.

As it should be. As it must be—for the good of the City.

"Perhaps next time you might have a new lute to demonstrate instead."

The captain still looked as if he might be about to protest, but one of his fellows caught his eye, shook his head slightly. The first fellow clamped his jaw shut with a visible effort, bowed, and withdrew, taking his abominable instrument with him.

Lycaelon let him go without comment. "What is the next item on the agenda?" he asked briskly.

"A new illustrated edition of Pastoral Poems of Golden Days by a Gentleman of Leisure, printed and illustrated in Bariona," Auronwy announced smoothly, setting the book before Lycaelon with a practiced gesture.

TWO more books—both passed—then a music box that was found acceptable both in form and content, then two more books, one of which was found to have entirely unsuitable illustrations. Why the publisher had chosen to dress the characters in the costumes of the Lothien Archipelago when the book was intended for the City baffled Lycaelon; he must have known they would never allow depictions of barbarian dress within their walls! It was most peculiar.

The Council was preparing to consider an item that its importer assured them was a new timepiece of heretofore impossible accuracy, when a Senior Undermage from the Printers Council appeared in the doorway.

Without being told, Auronwy hurried over to him, and was back in a moment with his message, which he whispered into Lycaelon's ear.

"Lord Arch-Mage. A few days ago Citizen Perulan brought his latest book to the Council to receive his license to publish—"

Though everywhere else in the City the degrees of class and birth were closely noted and observed in forms of observance and address, here within the Council chamber there were only two classes: Mages and citizens. And Perulan, no matter to what class he had been born, now belonged unequivocally to the latter.

Perulan was a fabulist whose popular pastoral fantasies of a magickal idealized life in the farming communities west of the City had gained him fame and following over the last several years. His latest book had been eagerly awaited.

"Challenged on first reading by Banarus, wasn't it? Unpublishable. Nothing like his usual work. Pity," Lycaelon said softly, leaning back in his chair. The acoustics of the Council chamber were such that nothing said behind the judicial bench would carry to those standing in the center of the floor, though the rest of the Council would be able to hear him if he wished them to.

"He demands a hearing before the High Council, Lord Arch-Mage," Auronwy said, equally softly. "He is… not in agreement with Undermage Banarus's decision."

While it was every citizen's right to take any grievance, no matter how minor, to the High Council itself, it was a right rarely invoked. But artists had no sense of proportion or reality. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it was a waste of the Council's time and annoyed them to boot. But artists had no sense of proportion or reality; they saw things only in terms of their own "vision," regardless of what was good for the City.

"Is he here?" Lycaelon asked, hoping that the answer was "no." This was likely to become a very unpleasant scene, one he was certainly not going to begin in front of the foreigners.

"Outside, my lord. With his manuscript," Auronwy confirmed.

Lycaelon felt his jaw tense. Why was it that these artists always had to have an audience, even for their tantrums? "He can wait until out proper business is completed. See that he remains."

Auronwy bowed and withdrew.

Lycaelon returned his attention to the approvals.

IT was nearly Evensong Bells by the time the Council chamber was cleared of the day's legitimate business. Banarus and Perulan entered, Perulan clutching a leather-wrapped bundle.

Perulan was tall and slender, his pale hair going to grey. He had been born into a Mage family, a younger son, and while it had been something of a scandal for him to turn his back upon the High Art and follow his passion to become a teller of tales, it was only a small scandal, and his success had done nothing to bring real disgrace upon his family. Perulan lived suitably and modestly in the Artists Quarter of Armethalieh upon a small allowance his family made him and the revenues from his writings, and had made no trouble… until now.

If the man had followed proper procedure, he was now holding the only copy of his manuscript, having destroyed all notes and drafts once he had made the fair copy. They would see.

"Who comes before the Council?" Lycaelon asked.

"Perulan, son of Nadar, of House Arbathil," Banarus answered formally.

"What justice does Perulan Arbathil seek?" Lycaelon responded, equally formally.

"Lord'Arch-Mage," Banarus said, bowing. "Citizen Perulan seeks a license to publish for his latest work. The Printers Council has reviewed it and found it… unacceptable. Citizen Perulan challenges this decision, as is his right."

"Let the manuscript be brought before the High Council for fair, final, just, and merciful irrevocable judgment, as is the right of every citizen of Armethalieh," Lycaelon said.

Banarus took the manuscript from Perulan's arms and brought it to the end of the bench. Auronwy accepted the hefty bundle and brought it to Lycaelon, setting it on the polished marble before him.

Faintly curious now, Lycaelon untied the leather covering and exposed the first page. The title was written large, in Perulan's flowing clear scribe-hand: Goiden Chains: A Tale of the City.

Not an auspicious title—why should an author of pastoral fantasies now choose to write about the City? And the Arch-Mage did not in the least care for the sound of "Golden Chains" either. Unless, perhaps, it was a romantic tale, of the sort that foolish women devoured, and the chains were those of love? Lycaelon frowned, and marshaled a small cantrip, one foolishly relied upon far too often by Student'Apprentices: Knowing That Which Is Written. While Knowing would not allow one to master the intricacies of a thick technical volume of Magecraft, no matter how many times it was cast, it was certainly sufficient to put a Master Mage in possession of the contents of a simple work of fiction, no matter how long.

In moments, the contents of the book rushed into Lycaelon's mind. And he was appalled.

It was a saga of love indeed, among other things, and unhappily unlike any other Perulan had ever written. People died unhappily and for no reason at all, true loves proved false, Priests of the Light were corrupt, servants betrayed and were betrayed by their masters for personal gain, masters repaid the loyalty of lifelong servants with indifference, discarding them to poverty when they were no longer useful…

In short, it was "reality," and not fantasy, unvarnished, unmasked, and horribly uncomfortable. It was not the escape that the readers of Perulan's previous tales would expect, and in a lesser author, disgust would lead a disappointed reader to fling the book across the room. But Perulan was skilled, highly skilled, brilliant even. No, the reader would persist, drawn into the story against his will, and when he was finished—

Discontent. Unhappiness. Restlessness and a sense of injustice that would seek an outlet.

This cannot possibly be published!. Lycaelon thought in stormy shock, and felt the assent of the Mages around him as his knowledge of the manuscript spilled into the Judgment Spell. This was nothing less than an attack upon the City itself!

"Is this your only copy? You cannot recreate this book? Answer truly," Lycaelon said.

Out of Perulan's line of sight, Banarus's fingers went up to touch the Talisman around his neck as the Undermage cast a Truthspell upon the writer, cued by Lycaelon's demand for the truth. Perulan's next words would be the whole and complete truth, whether he wished to tell it or not.

"Lord Arch-Mage, this is truly my only copy of the book. I burned all my notes and drafts. I spent years writing it—it comes from my heart—I can never recreate it. It is my finest work—a work of truth—the truth that no one wishes to see."

The truth-aura around him burned blue and steady to Lycaelon's Mage-sight. Perulan was telling the truth. In all things. The foolish man really believed it was a masterpiece, the crowning achievement of his career.

Idiot. He was Mageborn; he should have known better. Of all things, the Mages could not tolerate discontent. Just as there could be no new and strange goods in the markets to startle people and make them think that other places might be better, there could be no new thoughts in books, no new ways of painting a picture, no innovations in music, because all of those things would wake up the imagination. There must be nothing within the walls of the Golden City that might make her citizens think, wonder—and start to look outside the walls.

For only within these walls could there be safety. Without lay chaos, madness, and anarchy, the years of Blood and Darkness awaiting the spark that would kindle their rebirth. To open Armethalieh to change was to court her destruction.

"It cannot be published," Lycaelon said flatly. He held out his hand over the manuscript and spoke a simple spell: Magefire. There was a bright flash, and the manuscript and its leather wrapping were gone, burned away to a few wisps of ash.

Perulan cried out, once. It was a heartrending sound, not loud, but so full of pain that it gave even Lycaelon pause for a moment. Half protest and disbelief, half wail of despair, like a mother who sees her child murdered before her eyes. Perulan's face went grey, and he swayed unsteadily on his feet.

"How could you?" he whispered in a shaking voice. "It was my life! All my skill—all I knew…"

"It was not suitable," Lycaelon told him sternly. "Why, when it is unsafe to go outside the City walls, should you write some poisonous fable to make the people of Armethalieh doubt that their rulers know what is best for them? Why should you seek to make them believe that their betters rule only for the sake of gain, and not to make them safe and happy? Why, above all things, should you write something that was calculated to stir rebellion in their hearts and discontent in their souls? They might begin to believe that other places are better than here; they might begin to believe that they would make better rulers than those who are wiser than they. And, in their profound ignorance, they might seek to put themselves in our places, and that would be—not to be thought of. Go, and write something more pleasing next time—or don't write at all."

Perulan only stared at him, eyes wide with shock, as if he had not heard—or did not understand—Lycaelon's words. The Arch-Mage gestured impatiently, and Banarus half led, half carried the writer from the Council chamber. Perulan accompanied him like a man in a trance, moving as unsteadily as one who has received a mortal wound.

What a fuss to make over a few scraps of paper and a silly story! Just as well Nadar excised the Magegift from his mind; the man was far too emotional to ever have been trusted with the disciplines of the High Art…

Lycaelon dismissed the matter from his mind. Banarus would see to the man, and do all that was necessary to conclude the matter properly.

"Well, that was unpleasant enough," Lord-Mage Perizel said sourly when the door had shut behind the pair.

Lord-Mage Meron, sitting beside him, nodded his head. "Won't be the end of it. You mark my words, my lord Mages. Talespinners! Always scribbling something, and all of it nonsense."

There was a general murmur of agreement, and Volpiril leaned close to Lycaelon. "If you will permit, my lord Arch-Mage, perhaps someone should be placed in Perulan's household? He might bear further watching—just to make sure he doesn't do something foolish, of course."

There was no expression on his bland face, but Lycaelon, who was about to order the same thing, wondered why Volpiril felt it necessary to suggest such a move before Lycaelon could do so.

"Of course," Lycaelon said, keeping his own countenance as bland as Volpiril's. "Are we all in agreement on that? I will leave you to see to it, Mage Volpiril."

And I will remember that you will bear further watching, as well, my lord Volpiril …

He glanced down with sudden distaste at the mass of ashes and crisped leather on the table, and added, with just a touch of venom, "And someone clean up this mess!"

AS the shadows lengthened and the cool spring air filled with the music of Evensong, Kellen realized, with resignation and great reluctance, that it was time to be returning home. It wouldn't do for him to be anywhere but his rooms when his father arrived—Lycaelon had made it clear on several memorable occasions what he thought of a scion of House Tavadon wandering the streets of Armethalieh like one of the common folk.

But with any luck, his father would still be busy at the Council House, and Undermage Anigrel would have found something else dull and boring to do as well—something that would keep him away from both Tavadon House and Lycaelon. No one needed to ever know that Kellen hadn't gone straight home after his unfortunate early dismissal from his lessons. With further luck, Anigrel might even forget to tell Lycaelon about the whole incident, though that was probably too much to hope for.

Kellen approached Tavadon House through the mazelike network of back and side alleyways that ran between the great houses of the Mage Quarter. It was easy to get lost here—there were no signs, and nothing to distinguish one seamless Magecrafted stone wall from another, but Kellen had no difficulty in finding his way. He knew the back alleys of the Mage Quarter as well as any refuse hauler or rag-and-bone dealer did; the narrow streets were much used by those vendors and tradesmen whose business was not quite appropriate for the front doors—or even the main service entrance—of the imposing houses of Armethalieh's Mageborn aristocracy.

The Mageborn preferred that the messier aspects of life be tended to invisibly, and the noble and wealthy aped their habits. Kellen doubted that any of them had ever seen a refuse hauler in their lives.

But in his seventeen years of life Kellen had discovered, as many had before him, that there was no privacy to be had in a house full of servants, and if he did not want to alert everyone in House Tavadon to all of his comings and goings—most of which weren't supposed to be taking place in the first place—the best thing to do was to find a more private way in and out of the house. Though he could not use it too often without drawing attention to it, the small side door at the bottom of the kitchen garden, where the garbage from the kitchen was left every morning in neat bins, filled his needs nicely: he could let himself in and out whenever he wanted without alerting the servants, and if anyone missed him and wanted to make a fuss, who was to say he hadn't simply been somewhere in the formal garden—or the house—the whole time he'd been supposedly "missing"?

Though of course the door was warded against intruders, as a son of the house, Kellen could pass through those wards without triggering them. And although it was kept locked from the inside, Kellen simply took the key with him when he went and left the door unlocked behind him. The servants rarely had business in the garden, and the gardener never bothered about anything that close to the house itself. So far his tampering had gone undiscovered, and Kellen had been able to come and go as he pleased.

He reached his destination—a nondescript (though, of course, costly and well-made) wooden door set into the tall, plaster-covered brick wall— and confidently gave it a shove, expecting it to swing inward, revealing the sere Tavadon garden.

The door didn't move.

Kellen tried again, pushing more slowly and with greater force. Still nothing. The door was locked. Sometime in the last several bells, some overzealous servant must have come down into the garden and locked it.

Well, that was all of a piece with the way his day had been going until now. Kellen sighed, reaching into his belt-pouch for his key, only to discover that his bad luck was still in full flower, and likely to get worse.

His key wasn't there.

Oh, no —

Now what was he to do? Never mind that Anigrel had virtually ordered him to go hare off on his own. Anigrel would be certain to deny it, and say he'd meant Kellen to go home and study, and certainly that was what an obedient son of House Tavadon would have done. If anyone found out he'd actually been wandering around the City until Evensong, he'd really be in for it!

Not yet in a panic, but not far from that state, Kellen spun around, gazing around the empty alley wildly, as though by some miracle the key to the garden door might suddenly materialize.

Think, you doudwit!

He was sure—he was almost sure—he'd had it with him when he'd left for his lesson with Anigrel this morning. Could he have dropped it somewhere? It was a big heavy brass key; he was certain he would have noticed the sudden absence of its weight from his pouch, or heard the noise it would have made when it fell to the street.

Unsurprisingly, the key was nowhere to be seen; after all, he hadn't left by this door. And retracing his steps—well, that was an exercise in futility; a key that big would have been found and picked up, for the value of the scrap metal if nothing else…

Kellen sighed gustily, running his hand through his disorderly mop of long brown curls distractedly. Where was the Light-forgotten thing?

All right. No need to get in a state. Nothing's going to happen just yet. If the garden door was locked, there was still the front door… but that meant going in past the mastiffs, and that would rouse the servants— there'd be no chance of sneaking in. And if his father or Anigrel had left instructions that he hadn't been here to receive… well, it would mean an unpleasant scene at the least. If his father found out he hadn't gone straight home from his morning's lesson, Lycaelon would want to know where he'd been, and if he couldn't think of something innocuous and impossible to disprove, he'd be in deeper trouble yet.

Why is it that everything I do ends up with me in trouble?

No. He'd find another way.

He looked up at the wall, gauging his chances of simply scaling the wall. But the wall had been plastered smooth to discourage just such a possibility, and the errant coil of bramble-rose vine that trailed down just above his head was far too slender—and prickly—to serve as a climbing rope. He couldn't use a cantrip to unlock the door from outside, either, even if he knew the right spell, because the locks were counterspelled against just that.

But there was another way. He had his new magick. And if he couldn't use it to unlock a door (and so far there didn't seem to be an Unlocking Spell anywhere in the three Books, or at least not one that he'd discovered), he could use it in some other way to get in. And the simplest was— to find that blasted key.

With the Wild Magic, he could cast a Finding Spell, get his key back, open the door, and slip inside. He'd be safe in his rooms before Lycaelon arrived, and no one would be the wiser about just how long it had taken Kellen to come home from lessons. And a Finding Spell was such a small magick—harmless. All it involved was getting back what was his in the first place. What could that hurt? No one would see, and no one would know. And he had everything he needed to cast it right here: his desire— and a drop of his own blood was easily come by, with the bramble-roses to help.

Pleased at his own cleverness at finding so simple a solution to a potentially embarrassing problem, Kellen reached up and pulled the bramble-vine down toward him. He selected a particularly large and sharp-looking thorn and drove it into the ball of his thumb, wincing at the sudden pain, and as the bright drop of blood welled out, he focused all his will on the key to the garden gate and his need to have it in his hands.

There was a faint tingle, as if someone had thrown a handful of snow-flakes at him, and he held his breath in anticipation. What would happen? Would the key just appear1. Would someone bring it, looking for the owner?

But—nothing. The tingle faded, and nothing whatsoever happened. Nothing changed, not even the faint stink of produce past its prime that came up from the sunbaked stone of the alley. Obscurely disappointed, Kellen let go of the vine—it snapped back into place with a dry shaking °i leaves—and sucked at his injured thumb, walking absently up the alleyway.

I might as well give up, and use the front door, and take my chances…

Wait. Where am I going?

As he'd started walking he'd told himself he'd given up and was going around to his front door, but then he found himself turning away from the house, in a direction he'd never gone before, unable to stop or turn back. The more he tried to fight against this compulsion, the faster he went, until he found himself running, losing track of the turns he made, until he was entirely lost in the warren of Mage Quarter back alleys.

And still he ran on, as if there was something pulling him—or chasing him. The Wild Magic had him, he had no doubt whatsoever of that, and it wasn't going to let go!

He was finally allowed to stop in front of another wall elsewhere in the Mage Quarter, but whatever force had taken possession of him when he cast his Wild Magic spell of Finding wasn't through with him yet. The walls here were green with ivy, providing easy access to the garden beyond to anyone who cared to climb the wall, and to his horror and amazement, Kellen found his arms and legs acting as if they belonged to another person, sending him up the ladder of vines as if he were a squirrel.

Over the top he went on his belly. He slid down through the thick mass of ivy on the interior side and froze, holding his breath. If anyone caught him here, if he couldn't talk his way out of this… they'd turn him over to the City Constables, or at the very least, they'd summon his father out of his Council meeting, and what could Kellen possibly say to explain what he was doing trespassing in some other Mage's garden? He didn't even know whose garden this was! And if it belonged to one of his father's many political enemies… Oh, Light defend him! What could Kellen possibly say to explain? He was trapped by his own decisions to cast a Wild Magic spell. What had he done to himself?

As he stood frozen, trying to figure out what had just happened to him, Kellen became aware that somewhere nearby someone was crying— the choked, grief-stricken sounds of someone terrified and in complete despair, but equally afraid of being overheard.

A very young someone; from the high voice, it must be a child.

And at that moment, Kellen stopped worrying about himself; his own predicament could wait. Whoever was making that sort of weeping sound was in more trouble than he could ever possibly get into. He knew the difference between the way a child sounded when it was crying angrily over a hurt, real or imagined, when it was crying out of self-pity, and when it was crying because it was truly, deeply, in despair. And this was the latter.

As silently as he could, Kellen moved away from the wall and toward the source of the crying.

Coming out from behind a screen of bushes, Kellen saw a little girl— no more than seven or eight—wearing the simple clothing of an under house servant. She wasn't old enough to have much responsibility; she was probably a kitchen maid—children usually apprenticed in the kitchens of a Great House, where there were fewer things to break, and much fetching and carrying to be done—which meant she certainly had no right to be in the master's garden at all.

Her shoulders drooped with fatigue, and her little body trembled with each suppressed whimper. She was kneeling at the base of an enormous magnolia tree that was the focal point of the garden, looking up into its branches. He stepped on a bit of gravel that crunched under his boot, and she swiveled around, her round, tear-streaked face white with fear. The moment she saw him, she got to her feet with a strangled sob. In a moment she would run, and he knew, without knowing how or why, that she was the reason he was here.

"Don't be afraid," Kellen said quickly. "I'm not supposed to be here either. I climbed over the wall. In fact, if anybody sees me, they'll probably run for the nearest Constable. I heard you crying—will you tell me what's the matter?" He bestowed his most winning smile on her, the one that had usually gotten him out of trouble with every one of his "Nursies."

The girl hesitated, then stood where she was, shifting her weight from foot to foot, regarding him doubtfully. She had certainly been told to be wary of housebreakers and thieves, but even dressed in his oldest clothes, Kellen figured he didn't look very much like either one.

"I live nearby," he said coaxingly. "Won't you tell me why you're so unhappy?"

That seemed to decide her, and her face regained a little color. "Can— can you help me, goodsir?" she asked hopefully. She gestured up at the branches over her head with a slim little hand. "Milady is in the tree— she got out of the kitchen and climbed up, and if Mistress finds us here, she'll have me whipped—and she'll drown Milady!" Fresh tears began to roll down the girl's face.

"I know she will, I know she will, and Milady—"

— Is probably the only friend this little one has, Kellen supplied for himself, feeling a surge of anger at a woman he didn't even know, who would be so heartless as to snuff out the life of a child's pet because it did what any cat would do. When she'd first started to speak, he'd wondered if Milady might be a child of the house that the girl was supposed to be watching, but if the girl was afraid that Mistress would drown her…

It had to be a cat—though the Light help him if it turned out to be a white squirrel, or a monkey, or a ferret, or some other form of outlandish pet. A cat he could probably coax down; with an exotic, he'd probably wind up with a handful of sharp teeth.

"Hush now, don't cry." Kellen rummaged inside his tunic for a clean handkerchief—reasonably clean, anyway—and handed it to the girl. "Blow your nose and dry your eyes. I'm sure we can do something about your problem."

He approached her; she wasn't going to run now. "Can you show me where she is?"

The girl stood beside him and pointed up into the tree. Kellen looked in the direction she indicated, squinting against the last rays of the setting sun. High in the tree, perched on one of the topmost branches, he could barely make out a small grey fuzzy kitten, its fur nearly the same color as the slippery bark of the tree. It edged back and forth on its branch, which shifted dangerously with every move it made.

Kellen sighed, just a little. Still, he couldn't leave the little thing up there to get all three of them in trouble. And he couldn't just leave the poor little girl here to try to coax it down. Kittens had the bad habit of climbing into inaccessible places, then being too frightened to get down by themselves.

He glanced over his shoulder. A high hedge of ornamental shrubbery screened the bottom of the garden from the view of the house, and at this chime, the inhabitants would be dressing for dinner and the staff would be preparing it. For a little while, at least, it wasn't likely that they'd be found here. He thought hard, coming up with a plan.

He patted her clumsily; she didn't seem to mind. "Now look here, I'll see if I can't help you out. I'll climb up and get your kitten down. If anyone comes while I'm up there, you must scream as loud as you can, and point up at me. Don't say anything, just scream. Do you understand?" Kellen asked.

The little girl looked puzzled. "But why?"

Kellen smiled ruefully. "Well as to that, sweeting, I think you're far too pretty to be whipped for wanting to save your kitten. If you make a lot of noise, they'll all think you came out in the garden chasing me, and you'll be a great heroine."

"But what about you?" she asked. She might not be very old, but she was evidently wise enough in the ways of her household to know that if she acted as if he were an interloper rather than someone who'd come to help her, he would be in serious trouble.

Then again, anyone who had spoken so casually of being whipped knew plenty about punishment.

"Oh, I'll think of something," he said airily. And thought: I just hope I don't have to.

And keeping that thought in mind, Kellen turned away from her, put foot and hand to the trunk of the tree, and began to climb.

The lower branches were easy, though the fine-grained bark was as slick as polished wood. The flowers had an overpowering sweet and slightly unpleasant scent as if they were just on the wrong side of decay, even in the cool of the evening, and he dared not get any of their fleshy, greasy petals between his hands and the bark. Once he was higher in the tree he could hear the kitten mewing—hoarsely, as if it had been doing it for some time—but with the leaves in his face Kellen could no longer see it. He did know it was still somewhere above him.

"Here, kitty-kitty-kitty," Kellen muttered, mostly to himself, for he doubted that the cat could hear him over its own plaintive cries. As a matter of fact, at the moment he felt like making a few plaintive cries of his own…

The tree was very tall. He looked out once, and found himself on a level with the third-floor windows of whatever Mage-house's gardens he was trespassing in, and fought down his vertigo with an effort. After that, he kept his eyes firmly focused on the trunk of the tree and the branches in front of his face.

Then, at last, the cries were near at hand. He moved aside a branch while clinging desperately with his other hand, and there it was.

And it was not at all happy to see him. Rather than regard him as a rescuer, it apparently thought he was there to eat it. He reached toward it—and it backed away, then scrambled off down a side branch, forcing him to leave the trunk and follow.

Then began a pursuit that would have been comical if Kellen hadn't been so petrified of falling. Several times he was almost within reach of the kitten. Each time it regarded Kellen's outstretched hand in pop-eyed horror and retreated out of reach, either around the trunk or out along a limb. Several times it fell, slipping to a lower branch to glare at him in affronted indignation before bouncing off—just out of reach—to resume its piteous cries for rescue.

You stupid lint-brained furball! Can't you see I'm trying to rescue you? Kellen thought with something more than irritation.

Finally, he'd gone as high as he could go without falling himself. The tree trunk itself swayed slowly with his weight, a slow sickening motion that would surely give away his presence here if anyone bothered to look. The kitten was just above him, on an even narrower branch.

And for one brief moment, all its featherbrained feline attention was devoted to keeping its balance. Kellen lunged, grabbed it around its middle, tore it loose from its perch, and stuffed it down into his tunic as deep as he could, wrapping one arm around himself to keep it from struggling free.

Kittens, Kellen discovered at that very moment, might be small and helpless-looking, but they had a very large number of very sharp claws. The claws weren't big, but they made up for their lack of size in degree of sharpness. He was being lacerated by needles. He clamped his mouth shut on a yell, which would only have attracted unwanted attention.

Gritting his teeth and trying to concentrate, he turned toward the trunk, feeling with his foot for the branch below.

And slipped.

His descent from the tree was much faster and far less comfortable than his ascent. Kellen grabbed one-handed at everything he could to slow his fall, but his weight and the speed of his fall tore the branches from his fingers almost as soon as he grasped them.

At last he stopped.

Abruptly. On his back.

He struggled to breathe for a moment, and his vision greyed out, then returned as he managed to gasp in a breath.

Kellen lay on the ground, panting, taking in huge gulps of air, looking up at the tree. He was dimly aware of something struggling free of his tunic and worming its way out through the neck-hole.

I've broken my back. Father will have a fit.

A healing-Mage could mend a broken back of course, and it wasn't as if Lycaelon couldn't afford the best there was—but oh, what he'd have to say about it!

He twitched feet and hands experimentally, then moved arms and legs. They all worked, and no movements produced any stabbing pains…

Oh, good. I haven't broken my back. Or anything else, I guess.

Groggily he sat up, shaking his head. Leaves, flower petals, and bits of twig rained down on him from his hair and from the hole he'd left through the branches as he fell.

He looked up at the little kitchen maid. She was clutching the kitten beneath her chin and beaming at him, her tears forgotten. The kitten was purring loudly and looking smug. Wretched little monster. For a brief moment Kellen could see why someone would be tempted to drown it.

Maybe I should have left it up there…

But—no. The tear streaks remaining on the child's face reminded Kellen of why he really didn't mean that last thought.

"Are you all right?" the girl asked anxiously.

"I think so," Kellen said, though he really didn't think anything of the sort. He shifted, and heard something crackle beneath him as he moved. For a moment, he was afraid it was his spine after all.

But if his spine had made a noise like that, he wouldn't have been able to move. Kellen got to his knees, pulling the object out from beneath him.

A bird's nest. A big one, the size of a soup plate, woven of sticks, and full of… junk?

"A jackdaw's nest," Kellen said aloud, identifying the item. "I must have knocked it free when I fell."

Jackdaws were notorious thieves, attracted to anything that was colorful or shiny. Curious, he began to pick through the jackdaw's trove.

Bits of tinsel and glass. Faded hair ribbons. Pieces of painted tin, relics of the last Festival day. Among the junk, a real treasure—a gold and emerald chain.

"That belongs to Mistress!" the little girl gasped, staring at it. "She was looking everywhere for it!"

"Here," Kellen said, tucking it into a pocket in the girl's smock. "Tell her you found it somewhere. Urn—tell her that you saw the jackdaw carrying it off and you threw stones at the nest until it came down. That will explain this mess, and it should save you and Milady from a few whippings in the future."

There was one more thing at the bottom of the nest: a key.

Kellen's key.

When he held it in his hand, .all his unease at the Wild Magic and the geas its spell had cast upon him came rushing back. "All magic has a price," it had said in The Book of Sun. Kellen had thought his blood was the price of the magick, but he'd been wrong. That was only the price of the spell. Rescuing the kitten had been the price for finding the key, because if he hadn't rescued the kitten, he'd never have found the key.

But I chose to rescue the kitten, didn't I? Kellen wondered uneasily. Magick didn't make me do it.

He'd thought the Wild Magic was just like the High Magick, just with fewer rules: you did the spell and you got the result. But it wasn't. The spell had only brought him here. If he hadn't cared about the girl and her kitten, he'd never have found the key. It was what was in him, what he was, that made the magick work the way it did—as if, when he looked into the Books of the Wild Magic, somehow the Wild Magic was also looking into him, and judging him.

I Don't like this, Kellen thought apprehensively. What if I weren't me? How would the magick work then?

He got to his feet, putting the key into his pocket.

"I've got to go now," he said, feeling uncomfortable. "Could you show me where the garden door is?"

He hated to involve the girl in any more trouble, but the way he was feeling right now, another climb over the wall was the last thing he could manage.

"It's right over here. No one will see you. And… thank you, goodsir."

"Thank you, gentle miss. I learned a lot here today," Kellen said honestly. More than I wanted to learn, if the truth be told.

She led him across the garden—Kellen limping along behind her— and when the door had closed behind him, he wasn't really surprised to see he was in an alley he recognized, only a few turnings from home.

IT was full dark—first Night Bells had rung—by the time Kellen reached his own garden door once more, for he had been moving rather slowly as he'd left that garden gate. He was lucky not to have any broken bones or bad sprains from his fall, but by tomorrow morning he'd have a rainbow of bruises, and he felt stiff all over. He was thinking longingly of sneaking down to the laundry for a long soak in one of the spell-heated washtubs as he crossed the garden—there'd be nobody there at this time of night, and the water in the washing vats was always hot—and he wished he could soak out the memory of the Wild Magic as easily as he could soak out the stiffness of his bruises.

Why did it work the way it did? How could it work the way it did? If it worked like this for a simple Finding Spell, what would happen if he dared to cast one of the greater spells described in the Books? What sort of price might the Wild Magic ask then?

Kellen was so engrossed in his own thoughts on his way to his room to pick up fresh clothes for after his bath that he failed to see his father on the stairs leading to his suite. And unfortunately, Lycaelon saw him. Apparently Lycaelon had gotten home early for once—and had been looking for him.

"Kellen!"

Kellen froze where he was, stunned. It had never occurred to him that he'd run into his father now—Lycaelon was rarely home before midnight, and sometimes not before dawn, if he was participating in a Greater Working, not just a Council session. Kellen wished suddenly that he was a Mage out of the wondertales—one who could stop time, turn himself invisible, or simply teleport himself away with no more than a thought. But Mages like that only existed in stories, not real life.

Lycaelon reached the top of the stairs, a ball of blue Magelight hovering behind his left shoulder. As its cerulean radiance reached Kellen, the boy saw his father's expression change from one of irritation to actual anger.

"I see. What have you to say for yourself?" Lycaelon said.

He always starts arguments in the middle and expects me to play catch-up! Kellen thought, becoming angry in turn. He sees what, exactly? He felt his mouth settle into a sullen line, and said nothing. What was there to say, when he didn't even know what he was being accused of. Except it's always the same thing, isn't it —not being him, not being the kind of son that would be happy to be a mindless little copy of him? A model of exemplary behavior to be held up to every other Mage who has a son?

"Undermage Anigrel told me you'd shirked your lessons today to go off and wander around the City again like an out-of-work laborer—and from the look of you, you've spent that day rolling around under hedges. Mend your ways, or you will be dead weight, Kellen, dead weight—and the City has no place for dead weight!" Lycaelon thundered.

Thundered? Maybe he thought he sounded impressive, but to Kellen's ears, Lycaelon's voice was pompous, not awe-inspiring. He sounded more like the outraged patriarch in a bad play, the one that the lovers were going to outwit, no matter what he did.

"It isn't—" Kellen tried to interrupt. I didn't SHIRK them! He sent me away! But I don't suppose he bothered to tell you that part, did he? Oh, no, whatever happens, it's always MY fault, isn't it? Light blast it, I can say the truth, that I was rescuing a little girl's kitten, without giving away what happened! He's always telling me to be more responsible, and isn't that the sort of thing he means?

It wasn't though, and Kellen knew it. Now, if he'd rescued the kitten of a wealthy, noble, or Mageborn child, oh, that would be entirely different…

Lycaelon raised a hand. "No! I have coddled you long enough. I spend my days in long and thankless labor to keep the City running smoothly, and you spend yours attempting to destroy everything I'm trying to build for your future! You cannot just step into a position such as mine by simple right of birth—it takes a lifetime of preparation and study—preparation which you do not seem willing to make! A person in our position in society has duties as well as privileges—he must behave suitably as an example to those below him, for the good of the City, and this is a responsibility you have so far ignored. How are you ever going to take your proper place in society if you keep shirking your obligations this way?"

Duties— obligations— suitable behavior—meaning suitably arrogant, suitably deceptive, suitably oh-so-superior to any poor fool who doesn't happen to be Mageborn! Kellen thought mutinously. And somehow he just couldn't hold his feelings in any longer.

"You're always bleating at me as if I want people bowing and scraping to me all day and looking for new ways to humiliate themselves! Well, maybe I don't! Maybe I don't want a place in your precious society, if to get it I have to stick my nose in the air, act like a prig, and turn into a slavish copy of you!" Kellen burst out. He turned away and stormed into his room, slamming the door behind him.

Chapter Five

The Courts of Nightmare

THE WORLD WITHOUT Sun was a wonderful place, just as vast and far more beautiful than the Bright World. For centuries Queen Savilla had ruled over its lightless halls and shadow caverns, its vast subterranean seas and darkling plains. But like all rulers, she loved her palace best, for here all the good things in her world were distilled to their ultimate perfection. Here, in the Heart of Darkness, she tended the strands of her web of knowledge and power, patiently awaiting the day when the Tree of Night would bear that fruit whose harvest would prove so bitter to the Brightworlders.

Once—twice—the Endarkened had not been so patient, and He Who Is, their master, had chosen to teach them patience, allowing them to be defeated in their battles for mastery in the World Above. In the last battle—called in the Bright World the Great War—their defeat had been so profound and all-encompassing that they had been swept from their every stronghold in the World Above, forced back into their most secret strongholds, there to lie hidden, recovering their strength—and their numbers—for centuries.

But they had not been defeated. No. Let the haughty Elves, the foolish Centaurs, the arrogant humans think that. Let them revel in their false victory and turn in their false peacetime upon each other, dissolving their ancient Alliance and retreating each to his own place. That suited Savilla's Plans very well. From the very moment of the Endarkened's last retreat, while the wings of dragons still blackened the sky and the music of the victory horns still sounded among the armies in the World Above, Savilla had begun to plan for the day that now, at last, seemed so near. Centuries had passed before she had first dared to send forth her agents into the Bright World once more, but she had waited patiently, and now her plans began their final, ever-accelerating plunge to fruition at last.

Did not the humans isolate themselves in their Golden City, certain that they were the masters of the world and that all lesser races must bow before them?

Did not the Elves retreat to their Forest of Flowers, too content with their own ways to look outside themselves and see how the world had changed?

Had not the dragons vanished altogether, seen never by humans, seldom by others, and only at a distance?

Were not the other races so fragmented and harassed by the humans of the Golden City that it was far more likely that they would abandon the City to any enemy that should appear than to ever ally themselves with it?

So it was.

And ancient allies became present enemies—with the help of the Endarkened and their agents—insulated, isolated, each in his own petty world, each nursing exasperations and minor grievances to the exclusion of intelligence and common sense, each combating problems he was certain were his and his alone and were the most important and terrible difficulties in the universe.

Each with misfortunes that could be solved by the other, did he only know it. And that was the beauty, the artistry of her plan—that salvation should be within the grasp of each, and that they would turn a blind eye to it, choked by their own baseness and pride, until they died of it.

Savilla smiled, exposing long gleaming white fangs, as she reclined on her royal couch, prodding the quivering mass at her feet with one taloned foot, still preoccupied with her thoughts of the Endarkened victory to come.

It was wonderful to contemplate the suffering of her enemies, and still more delightful to know that none of them even suspected that the Endarkened were the architects of their quiet misery and diminution, moving against them even now. Nor would they suspect it, until it was far too late. This was the way to win a war. Not on the battlefield, with banners, bright swords, and brave words, but by weakening a foe until he destroyed himself. That was where the former ruler of the Endarkened, her predecessor, King Virulan, had made his fundamental errors; he had counted on brute force to ensure his conquest.

That was why he was the former ruler.

Perhaps she would even set her ancient enemies to warring with one another. It would not matter who won that war… the victor would be weak, exhausted by his battles, easy prey for her Endarkened legions and their subject-allies. Whoever triumphed would fall to her, and after the great city-states had gone down into defeat and shadows, then would fall their shattered exiles and former enemies. She would pick them off, one by one.

And then the world—both worlds—the World Without Sun and the Bright World—would belong to the Endarkened and to He Who Is.

Savilla regarded her surroundings with complacent approval before turning her attention to the treat before her. Work was done for now, and it was time for pleasure. To the Endarkened—those whom the Bright-worlders in their bigoted ignorance called Demons—torture was the highest art, one requiring the most luxurious setting. Where a mortal or even an Elven ruler would have ornamented his throne room, libraries, or law courts with fine paintings and sculptures, the Endarkened lavished all such skills and embellishments on their torture chambers. The devices that could cause hideous pain and damage were crafted of precious metals, rare woods, and ivories, inlaid with a jeweler's skill, and the walls of such chambers were lined with comfortable couches and divans, so that favored friends and confederates could come to spend a pleasant afternoon listening to screams of pain and whimpers for mercy and release as masters plied their most refined arts upon their victims.

Every Endarkened noble had a private torture chamber, but Queen Savilla's was the most beautiful of all, its painted and jeweled walls covered with detailed and elaborate depictions of agony, its vaulted dome crafted of black crystal mirror, and its lovely mosaic floor an intricate inlay of gold and polished skull-ivory, so that Savilla could walk upon the bones of vanished victims and cherish the memory of their deaths.

She reclined upon her satin couch—black, to enhance the deep warm scarlet of her skin—and stroked the arm lovingly. It was inlaid with a pure spiral of unicorn horn, harmless to her now with the death of its owner. How well she remembered the wonderful months she had spent torturing the magnificent creature slowly to death, for the Endarkened did not rush their pleasures, and even the death of a magicless mortal could take a very long time. The Endarkened were master magicians, and all magic must be Paid for. They gained their power through the pain and suffering of others, and there were so very many sorts of pain that could be inflicted, even before the first welt had been raised upon the skin.

Savilla looked around herself, regarding her courtiers complacently. Only a favored few had been invited to witness this very special day— those who stood high in her esteem… or those who needed a very special lesson in what it meant to lose her favor.

In the Courts of the Endarkened, it was often difficult to tell ally from enemy. Savilla knew. She made it her business to know. But those who had eagerly accepted the invitation to this particular treat could not, themselves, be certain why they had been invited, and that undercurrent of uncertainty only added to her pleasure. Mental cruelty, emotional suffering—there was a saying among the Endarkened: Each tear shed is Power gained.

Tanilak was far beyond tears.

Savilla looked down at the body lying on the velvet cushion at her feet, taking a deep breath of pure delight. She had taken the Endarkened noble as her lover over a year ago, knowing when she first welcomed him to her bed that the affair would end in the scene now playing out here. She had raised him high in her favor, plied him with honors, and then sent him into the Bright World to accomplish a small—but very difficult— task for her.

It would have been lovely had he been able to accomplish it to her satisfaction, and in fact he had done far better than Savilla had expected, for Tanilak had honestly wanted to please her. That was the beauty of it. The anguish of his failure, the terror of his punishment, the horror of going as her prey and victim to that place where he had gone so many times as a spectator, all were heady wine to her Endaikened senses. He might have hoped for mercy, for allies to engineer his rescue. But Tanilak had no friends at Court. She'd made sure of that as she'd engineered his downfall. By raising him high and encouraging arrogance, she had invoked jealousy and resentment in even those who once had allied with him. He'd left no grieving hearts behind to make trouble later.

When she'd had him seized, he'd done everything he could think of to save himself. For weeks she'd fed his hope, letting him think it was possible. She'd even engineered—and foiled—an escape attempt, tactics that would not have worked a few weeks before, but Tanilak was maddened with fear and hope, credulous as a child. When she'd come to him in his cell, he'd clung to her skirts and wept, clutching her barbed tail, kissing it and begging to be allowed to do something, anything, to prove himself, in the name of the love they'd shared.

Savilla smiled reminiscently at the memory, flexing her clawed toes in remembered ecstasy. How wonderful that moment had been, to see his yellow eyes well up with tears, their slitted pupils wide in the dimness, to see the moment when all hope died. She shivered with remembered delight, rubbing her hands over her bare gold-dusted arms.

But then, at last, it had been time to move on, to show him the engines that he knew so well, to explain what she would use on him, and how, and when, to savor his utter despair and feel his desperate search for a way to kill himself before she began. That, too, she frustrated.

And then, when he thought himself unable to feel anything more, Savilla proved him wrong again. Once more they were united in bonds of flesh and blood, until he yielded to her more completely than any lover possibly could.

And now, the last and sweetest consummation.

It was something impossible save with one of their own flesh, for in the case of another Endarkened, when at last the victim had been reduced to a quivering mass of agonized protoplasm, the final outcome was to be absorbed completely by their torturer—to yield up everything—life, soul, spirit, memory—knowing at every moment what was happening, feeling the slow and inexorable death of the "self" as it was taken away to feed the life and power of the one it had come to hate and fear and worship.

Her skirts swishing about her slender ankles, Savilla rose gracefully to her feet and knelt beside the body before her, furling her delicate membranous wings tightly against her back.

Only its scarlet skin revealed that this had once been a noble of the Court. Horns, tail, ears, nose, teeth, eyes, fingers, and toes had all long since been removed, and all the rest reduced to a jellylike consistency, held together only by the skin. The shapeless mass was far smaller than Tanilak had been in the days of his glory, but deep inside, what had once been Tanilak was still aware, was still himself. And now she was going to devour him.

Savilla leaned forward and placed her lips against his skin, biting down just enough to pierce the surface with her fangs. She began to suck gently. The taste of his essence filled her mouth, as warm and delightful as the taste of a fine brandy.

She sat back, sighing with pleasure. It had been too long since she had partaken of this particular delicacy. Her enjoyment was heightened by the sight of her Court favorites seated upon divans about her, watching her with greedy envy. It was rare that any of the Pure Blood transgressed so thoroughly as to render themselves prey for the rapacious appetites of their peers.

As she bent to sip again, her attention was caught by movement on the far side of the room, and she heard excited whispering among the Endarkened gathered here to watch her finish Tanilak.

Prince Zyperis had entered the Heart of Darkness, but he was not here to observe his mother's pleasure—or not entirely. Zyperis had brought a companion with him—a human.

The Prince towered over the human, and his scarlet skin made the human look as pale as a glistening grub. Zyperis was a truly beautiful creature, with waist-length hair as black as Savilla's own, curving golden horns, an elegant barbed tail, and large, graceful ribbed wings—a mark of his noble blood. He was dressed all in white and gold, from his elegant sandals to his flowing silk trousers, gilded codpiece, and diaphanous jeweled sleeves. A large pearl drop glowed in one ear, and his hair was held back from his face with a set of matching pearl combs.

His companion, Savilla was pleased to see, was clean and well fed and dressed in the most opulent of human finery. Zyperis had a fine touch with the Art, and would ensure that his own offering to the Art lasted a very long time. For now, the human's every physical need was being fully met, while Prince Zyperis played upon his mind and nerves. Bringing him here today was only the first step in the campaign that the Prince would wage upon those citadels, Savilla thought proudly. Zyperis would extract every ounce of torment possible from the human's fear and uncertainty before moving on to the first taste of physical pain.

She bent forward and let Tanilak's essence fill her mouth again, drinking in his memories, his long-buried desires.

PRINCE Zyperis regarded the human beside him with pleasure and interest. Henamor Lear had been of little use in the fashion he had sworn he could be, but the man would yet have his opportunity to repair that insult—and provide Zyperis great entertainment into the bargain.

"If you will only give me another chance, Exalted One," Henamor whimpered desperately. He was barely able to keep his attention upon the Prince, for Henamor Lear had never seen so many of the Demonkind in one place together, and certainly he had never before been so deep within their realm. He only hoped he could still escape alive—for if he did, this was the end of his dealing with Demons!

Zyperis smiled, knowing full well the direction and content of his captive's thoughts. Yes, let the man still hope for a reprieve… for a time… even though his fate was irrevocably sealed. There were so many humans, after all, each willing to exchange freedom and safety for the powers of Darkness. With so many eager to take Henamor's place, the human was entirely disposable.

"But why should I do that, when you failed so dreadfully on your last attempt? You assured me it would be so simple, so possible, to find a dragon and bond with it through your spells, O Great Magician," Zyperis said playfully.

"But it is—it will be!" The human whispered, shrinking in upon himself, as one of the nearest Endarkened turned her gaze away from the Queen and rested it upon the human. "Only let me draw near to it, and it will fall prey to my spells—then you will have all its power—and mine— for your own, to use as you choose!"

"But I already have you, and all your power, Henamor," Zyperis pointed out with mock-obliviousness. "How could I possibly be greedy enough to wish for anything more?"

"Only let me try again," Henamor begged. "It must have detected me somehow, hidden itself before I could discover its den. I have done all that you asked, Exalted One—for years I have been your eyes and ears in the Bright World, doing all that you asked of me, growing in your power, working your Dark Arts. I have given you many slaves, even my own wife and children—"

"But you promised me a dragon," Zyperis said in jesting singsong tones. "And you didn't give me a dragon. Now why should I give you a second chance to fail at what you didn't manage to accomplish once? I really don't think another failure would be at all good for you, my Henamor. Now come. You have always been curious about our secrets. Let me show you the heart of our power."

He put an arm around the human's shoulders, and drew him close to his side, savoring the shudders of fear that Henamor tried hard to suppress, drawing ever-so-delicately upon that anguish. Zyperis directed his agent's attention to the wall paintings, as if to praise their beauty, knowing the man would only see their subject, the endless and exquisite ways that the Endarkened had devised for their victims to die, and think of his own fate. He summoned a servant—one of the Lesser Endarkened, its hoofed .and scaled form such that the Brightworlders found especially hideous— and pressed wine upon his guest, before directing his attention to a pair of golden boots. They stood upon a long wooden rack beside several other sets of oddly shaped footwear, all metal.

"Are they not lovely? Rather bulky, I'm afraid, but that is because there are hollows built into the outer shell that can be filled with boiling oil. And the wonder of it is that even filled, they are light enough to dance in. Imagine!" Zyperis smiled proudly at his guest. The Court ladies in attendance upon the Queen giggled approvingly, flirting their jeweled fans as they tried to catch the young Prince's eye. "Have you ever seen such craftsmanship, such cunning?"

"A-amazing," Henamor whispered. He gazed pleadingly at the Prince, begging silently for mercy. Zyperis pretended not to see.

"It is a wonderful thing to have a creature entirely at your mercy— but I need hardly tell you that, my friend," Zyperis said. "You, too, have accomplished great things in your time."

"And I will do more, if you will permit me, Master," Henamor gasped, seizing the opening. "I know I have failed you—"

"Now, now—what are two old friends such as we to talk of failure?" Zyperis said chidingly. "Still, I should so very much have liked to have had a dragon… But perhaps another time. Please allow me to show you the flaying knives. They are so wonderfully sharp and thin that it is quite possible to remove a man's skin in one piece, you know, though it can take weeks—sennights as you call them—to properly loosen the skin of the face. I understand that the best method is to make a small incision and then to inject brine beneath the skin—did you not tell me you had done that once?" Zyperis allowed his brow to furrow, as if in thought. "Oh, yes, now I remember. You said the man died of the pain, but I assure you, that won't happen here," the Prince added, in soothing tones.

Like all the so-called Masters of the Dark Arts with whom Zyperis had dealt in his lifetime, Henamor was brave enough when inflicting pain on others, but the mere thought of receiving such treatment himself made him weep like a child. Zyperis reveled in this delicious foretaste of the banquet to come—and the beauty of it was, the human had no notion his Demonic host was already siphoning off his pain and despair, while leaving its wellspring intact. Patience; that was the essence of success. Queen Savilla was right; patience won all, with patience, one could create a feast of fear and pain that would satisfy the most finicky of appetites.

Henamor was weeping now, quite frantic with terror, and Zyperis judged that it was time to offer some small modicum of relief, lest matters progress too swiftly.

"But I am sure that you will want to tell me more of what you know about the dragons, leaving nothing back," Zyperis said, drawing the human away from his horrified contemplation of the crystal cases filled with slender glittering knives.

When Henamor had come here, the man had intended to withhold some of his information, to use it to bargain for his freedom, or at the very least, to persuade the Prince of his continued usefulness. Now he found himself telling everything he knew, or guessed, or suspected about the caverns where the dragons might be found—how to seek them out, the spells that might be used to compel them, how to force a bond upon one of them.

Zyperis listened intently, sipping the fear that radiated from the human just as he absorbed the information—though this was hardly the last time he would have this information from Henamor's lips before the Mage-man died. If only he could use it himself—but unfortunately, his race was unable to make an alliance with the dragons. Only a Mage could bond with a dragon, and only a human could become a Mage. But once bonded, a dragon was psychically and emotionally vulnerable to anything that its rider was vulnerable to, and humans were so very, very vulnerable…

As he listened, he watched Queen Savilla at her feast, savoring Tanilak's destruction nearly as much as she did. Though she had not taken him into her confidence, he had guessed her plans from the moment she had first begun to show favor to Tanilak, and had secretly been delighted when he was proven right. Zyperis had never tired of watching the two of them here together in the Heart of Darkness, glorying in the anticipation of the moment he knew was to come.

Henamor's words faltered to a stop, his eyes following the direction of Zyperis's gaze. "What…is that?" he whispered.

"That is my mother the Queen," Zyperis said, pretending to take offense. "The most beautiful and accomplished of all of the host of Endarkened—"

"No!" Henamor protested frantically, terrified of causing new trouble for himself. "I meant no disrespect! I meant… with the Queen."

"Ah." Zyperis smiled, and allowed himself to be pleased. Henamor had recovered his equilibrium, and was ready to be frightened once more. "That was once a noble of this Court, who failed to give satisfaction in a far more trivial matter than you have, my dear friend. The Queen's abilities in the Art far exceed my own, and as you see, she has quite destroyed poor Tanilak. Now she consumes him utterly."

Already the scarlet pulsing mass had much decreased in size, while Queen Savilla glowed with increased power and life. Zyperis felt the intimate tug of her beauty.

"She's… eating him," Henamor moaned.

"So she is," Prince Zyperis said, as if he'd only just discovered that fact. "And do you know, as she does, she is consuming every one of his memories, and his soul as well. There will be no rebirth for Tanilak upon the branches of the Tree of Night."

The frisson of despair that jolted Henamor played deliciously on all of Zyperis's senses, and he luxuriated in it. Not quite so delicious a vintage as the essence of Tanilak, but savory in its own small way. Let Henamor believe for as long as possible that this could be his own ultimate fate. Humans were so short-lived that they set great store by their souls' fates.

And even though it was not possible for Zyperis to do to Henamor precisely what Queen Savilla was doing to Tanilak, the Prince had plans for the human Mage's immortal spark. Plans that he would reveal to his victim at the appropriate time in their relationship…

"But come," Zyperis said. "I know that our afternoon together has tired you, and you will wish to spend some time alone meditating upon your numerous failings and considering how you can best please me. Although of course," he added, almost as an afterthought, "I can think of no way that you can save yourself from your fate."

He turned away, knowing that in Henamor's wearied and distracted condition it would take several seconds for the meaning of his words to sink in, and raised his hand. One of the Lesser Endarkened hurried over, its hooves clicking against the glittering mosaic floor. It bowed low before the Prince, casting a greedy glance toward the human.

"Return my guest to his rooms and see that he has food and drink, for I anticipate many long hours of pleasure spent in his company in the future."

The Prince turned back to Henamor, who was only now beginning to realize what Prince Zyperis had said. He would still deny it to himself, and hope he had heard wrong—Zyperis meant to fan the flames of hope and uncertainty for many days yet, before dashing those hopes forever.

"Please—Prince Zyperis—Your Highness—"

"Your company grows tedious, my friend. Do not make it entirely offensive," Zyperis said gently. He watched as Henamor reluctantly allowed himself to be led away by the Lesser Endarkened, and heard the sibilant sound as it whispered to the human, telling him horrors—on Prince Zyperis's orders, of course—that would cause Henamor Lear a long and sleepless night.

The Prince smiled, and returned his attention to the enchanting tableau before him. Tanilak was so diminished by now that the Queen could cradle what was left of him in her cupped palms like a malign scarlet fruit, and as Zyperis watched, she sucked him in with one last deep swallow.

A murmur of appreciation passed through the watching Endarkened, and a ripple of gentle applause.

Zyperis approached, bowing low.

SAVILLA regarded her son with approval. He had handled the ugly little human splendidly, feeding from him so subtly that the human Mage probably wasn't even aware that the vampirism had taken place. Now he knelt before her, flushed with power—and quite the most attractive member of her Court, at least since the day, so many years ago, when his father went the way that Tanilak had just gone. Dear Urallesse—in so many ways he had been her equal, save in guile, and there was no one in all the Court these days to match him.

Save Prince Zyperis. Strong and handsome, ambitious and utterly merciless… he was her peer, almost her equal.

She rose gracefully to her feet, regarding him through lowered lashes. He stared back at her with a hot-eyed gaze of frank admiration, as drawn by her increase in power as she was captivated by his youthful charms.

She held out her hand. He took it, first kneeling gracefully in homage, then rising to his feet and bringing her hand to his mouth, kissing first the palm, then the wrist where the pulse of stolen life beat strongly. Their eyes met, and there was no doubt between them where this unspoken conversation would lead.

"I shall be in my chambers for the rest of the afternoon," Savilla announced, leading Zyperis toward the door that led to her rooms. "My… private chambers."

Chapter Six

A College of Magicks

KELLEN WAS SURE there would be further repercussions from the quarrel in the morning. He'd rarely dared to contest his father's will openly in the past—certainly he'd never before gone so far as to raise his voice to his father— and the punishment for not falling immediately into line with whatever Lycaelon had planned for him had always been swift, unpleasant, and crushing.

But to his faint surprise and great relief, Lycaelon seemed disinclined to pursue the matter this time. Maybe having his offspring talk back to him had taken him by surprise. Or maybe he just hadn't yet managed to think of a punishment commensurate with the "crime."

Whatever the reason, Lycaelon was already gone by the time Kellen came downstairs in the morning. Second Morning Bells were ringing throughout the City, and the breakfast table was cleared. The servants didn't seem to have any "special orders" regarding Kellen, so he resorted to his usual morning habit of sneaking into the kitchen and filching leftovers from the sideboard, then hurried off to class.

Fortunately this wasn't one of the mornings that he had to face his tutor. Having seen Anigrel yesterday, he wouldn't see him again until tomorrow. All he had to suffer through was the regular round of classes and lectures that were the lot of every Student Apprentice in Mage-craft.

PASSING through the main gate of the College, Kellen entered the Quadrangle. At this time of day it was filled with bodies—Students in their plain blue robes, Entered Apprentices in grey robe and soft cap, Journeymen in grey robe and tabard, Mages in their colors, all hurrying (in the case of Student, Apprentice, and Journeyman) or going leisurely (in the case of Mages) about their business.

The principal buildings of the Mage College were grouped around the Quadrangle. Just as the wondertales told, there was a fountain in the center of the Quad, but it was of the most mundane sort, a statue of a triton with water spewing from the tips of his trident. The Library and the Chapel of the Light were on the left, the imposing building that held the classrooms and lecture halls on his right. Straight ahead was the building that held the offices of the College, and the tutors' workrooms that had been Kellen's destination yesterday. Beyond that—and most carefully and thoroughly warded—was a building containing another series of workrooms, where senior Apprentices and Journeyman Mages practiced and tested their work in spellcraft. They certainly didn't do so in public on the lawn—another thing the wondertales always got wrong. Though Kellen supposed it would make a very pretty picture—if the Mages had actually been the sort of people the wondertales presented them as being…

Elsewhere on the grounds—though not near the Quadrangle, which tended to be noisy—were the residence halls of those Mages who, for whatever reason, did not wish to either live with their families or put themselves to the trouble and expense of keeping a house. For the few children from non-Mage families who were discovered to be worth training, other arrangements were made.

As Kellen crossed the Quadrangle, the bells in the carillon of the Temple of the Light began to chime Third Morning Bells. The sound was picked up by towers throughout the City—though of course the Temple of the Light began every ring, as was only proper—and Kellen realized that if he did not hurry, he'd be late for his first class. And that was the last thing he wanted to be today. He hurried, and was in his appointed seat before the last echoes of Third Bells had sounded.

THE course was "History of the City," and here at the College, that meant it was the history of the High Mages as well, for as Mage Hendassar, the Master Undermage who taught them, had told them over and over, the Mages were the City, and the City was the Mages. Kellen generally found the lectures not only pointless, but painful, for Mage Hendassar delighted in humiliating those of his Students whom he could catch unprepared, and Kellen was usually among them.

But today, it seemed, Mage Hendassar had chosen another victim.

"Come now, young Master Cilarnen. Surely you can recite for me the names of the Arch-Mages who have led the High Council since the founding of the City. Or perhaps thoughts of romance have distracted you from your studies… ?"

Kellen glanced up, and saw Cilarnen slide down in his seat as far as he dared, looking uncomfortable. He wondered what was going on. Cilarnen was the son of a high-ranking Mage family—his father was the High Mage Lord Setarion Volpiril—and until now he'd been one of Hendassar's pets.

Hendassar turned away from Cilarnen and strode to the front of the room.

"Gentlemen," he said. "Behold before you a young man of flawless birth and impeccable breeding—and heretofore undeniable gifts—who believes that there is something more important than serving the City! Now, can any of you imagine what that is?"

Kellen shrank down in his own seat in sympathy. Whatever Cilarnen had done, it must be awful.

All twenty blue-robed Students regarded Mage Hendassar with silent fascination.

"Women—!" Mage Hendassar said in hushed disgusted tones.

Several of the bolder members of the class burst into stifled snickers.

"Now, of course, women are important. Most of you will—eventually—marry, in order to breed strong Mage-sons to serve the City. And of course, your wives will produce daughters as well, since Mages must marry Mageborn daughters in order to keep the bloodline pure. However, we must never forget that women are essentially unimportant to the life of a Mage, unable to participate in or even understand the actual concerns of his life: the practice and study of the Art Magickal."

Hendassar broke off to glare at Cilarnen again.

"There is a time and a place for everything. And certainly when one should be devoting all of one's energies to the mastery of those concerns which will occupy one's entire future, one should not be occupying one's energy in writing love poetry to Lady Amintia. Such as this example."

Mage Hendassar reached into his sleeve and withdrew a slender scroll.

Oh, no. Kellen groaned inwardly. He didn't like Cilarnen particularly—he didn't even know him. Lord Volpiril was one of Lycaelon's rivals on the Council just to begin with, and Lycaelon had disliked his son fraternizing with lesser beings—and in Lycaelon's mind, even his fellow Mages were lesser beings—but Kellen didn't like to see anyone publicly humiliated.

Mage Hendassar began to read out the poem, playing it for laughs— which he got. Kellen didn't know a lot about poetry; he guessed it was pretty bad, but still, nobody deserved to be treated this way. If Lord Volpiril didn't want Cilarnen to see Amintia, why hadn't he just told him so, rather than doing something like this to him?

At least Kellen's father had never made him into a public spectacle. He supposed he ought to be grateful for that much. But he knew it wasn't because Lycaelon cared about him in any way. It was because Lycaelon couldn't bear the thought of seeming less than perfect: the perfect Arch-Mage with the perfect—and perfectly obedient—son.

By the time Mage Hendassar had finished reading out the poem, the rest of the class was roaring with laughter, and Kellen was filled with an odd cold anger.

Why were Mages supposed to be so different from ordinary folk? Kellen had spent a lot of time—much more than either Lycaelon or Anigrel suspected—in the poorer quarters of Armethalieh. He'd had to learn to be handy with his fists, to earn his place among the children there, but once he'd won a few street-fights—his size and strength had served him well, there—they'd accepted him as more than a nasty interloping Mage-born brat, and he'd learned a lot about how the "other folk" lived.

For instance, he knew that at among tradesmen and laborers—and even among a lot of the non-Mage nobles—people were courting and marrying. Yet the Mageborn weren't even supposed to think about such a thing until they had reached Journeyman Undermage rank at least, if not Master Undermage—and that could take another decade of studying.

And where did they find the women they were supposed to marry? If Kellen had stayed where he was supposed to stay and only gone where he was told to go, he knew, he doubted he'd ever even see a woman. As a child, he'd played with children in the parks and made friends with them when he'd been under the care of his "Nursies," but all that had changed as soon as he was deemed old enough and Gifted enough to someday become a Student-Apprentice. Then, Lycaelon had done his best to cut Kellen off from all human contact. If Kellen had not continued to sneak out onto the streets—and carefully concealed the fact—and managed to make friends of his own, however fleeting, he'd have grown up completely alone, for he had no friends among what his father would have called "his own kind."

As he'd grown older, Kellen's own attitude to the hypocrisy he saw in the Mages that were his father's cronies, as much as the growing rivalry for future place among their sons, had done much to keep him isolated by his own wish, even from those who would have sought to curry favor with the Arch-Mage by cultivating a friendship with his son.

Kellen did not want friendship on those terms, even if Lycaelon would have permitted it. But it did make him wonder where Lycaelon thought his future daughter-in-law was going to come from. He knew that some of his fellow Students had sisters—they must have, from what Mage Hendassar had said, but…

There was no point in thinking about it. It wasn't, after all, a subject that actually interested Kellen very much. And he didn't need another thing to get himself into trouble about.

Eventually Mage Hendassar relented, and restored the class to order, assigning Cilarnen a long punishment essay—due at the beginning of the next class—on the History of the Great Arch-Mages. With a few more blighting remarks on the irrelevancy of females to a Mage's life, he returned to his scheduled lecture.

After that, it was hard for Kellen to keep his mind on the assigned subject, but he was safe at the back of the room, and Mage Hendassar didn't seem to be looking for any more victims today. Kellen let his mind drift back to more familiar questions.

The map of the City, ancient and yellowed, hanging on the wall behind Mage Hendassar caught his eye. Though he'd seen it a thousand times before, today an errant beam of light fell on the legend "Delfier Gate."

What was beyond the Delfier Gate? What lands did the Selken Traders sail to? Where were the Out Islands, exactly? Somewhere beyond the mouth of the harbor, but where1.

Like every other inhabitant of the City, Kellen knew—vaguely— about the Home Farms, the villages that grew the food the City consumed. He knew the Mountain Traders brought things down from the High Hills that made their way into the City in the trading caravans—furs and spices and medicinals—but the High Hills were no more than a name to him. He knew there must be lands beyond the sea that produced the goods that came in the Traders' ships and appeared in the City markets. But those places weren't even names.

Why not?

He'd never thought about it before.

He'd been carefully encouraged not to, Kellen realized, just as he'd been encouraged not to think about marriage and family and Mageborn gjrls—about anything outside of his studies, in fact. The only histories he'd learned were the history of the City and its inhabitants and the history of the High Magick. As for geography… he could draw a map of the better quarters of the City from memory, but set him one foot outside its walls, and he'd be lost.

That wasn't right.

Was it?

Surely the information existed somewhere, even if it wasn't being taught.

After History came Geography—another boring useless class—and then Natural Philosophy. And then the day's lessons were done. Kellen headed for his locker to put away his books and then headed quickly out through the gates, his robe bundled beneath his arm, intent on finding the answers to at least some of his questions.

Though the information he sought might very well be archived within the walls of the Library of the Mage College, there was no possibility of Kellen's getting at it there. No one below the rank of Entered Apprentice was allowed beyond the small first-floor Student Reference Library, and Entered Apprentice was a rank Kellen had yet to reach—he was still a lowly Student-Apprentice, not yet allowed to exchange his humble blue robe for one of magickal grey.

But there was more than one library in the Golden City…

Without anyone noticing, he made his way to the Great Library that stood at the center of the City, across from the Main Temple of the Light. The two buildings had been designed to complement each other: Wisdom and Knowledge marching hand in hand.

Uneasily, Kellen touched the Talisman he wore around his neck on a heavy gold chain, the golden symbol of his citizenship. Though they might wear it on a leather cord or a cotton string or a silver chain or one of gold and jewels, every citizen of Armethalieh wore the same gold rectangle, marking them as a citizen of Armethalieh. Each month you brought it to the Temple of the Light and exchanged it for a new one. You came to the Temple of the Light for your new Talisman on the moonday on which you had been born, so that everyone didn't end up coming on the same day. Kellen had been born on the eighth day of the moon, and so, ever since his Naming, when he had received his first Talisman, he had been brought—or later, came alone—to the appropriate Temple of the Light (the main one in the City Square, of course; Lycaelon's social consequence would admit of no less) to receive a fresh Talisman.

The ceremony was simple: the old Talisman went into one bowl, the new Talisman came out of another, was blessed by the Arch-Priest, and placed into the worshiper's hand. As the bowls filled (or emptied) they were taken away by Deacons of the Light, and new bowls were brought.

Then you stepped aside, and someone else took your place. There were always a dozen young Deacons of the Light standing around to help make sure you could get your Talisman back onto its keeper-chain again without trouble, and to be sure you were wearing it when you left.

It had always seemed like a great deal of unnecessary fuss, when keeping the same identification Talisman until it wore out, was damaged, or was lost would surely have served the City's purposes (so he'd once thought) just as well. He'd never questioned why—like so many things in the City, it was just the way things were, and custom was custom, not to be questioned.

But now, after what Anigrel had told him, Kellen wondered if he could ever do it again, could ever face the Light-Priest and hand over his Talisman with the same calm acceptance, knowing that when he did so he was giving up a part of himself? How could he, knowing that the Mages fed upon him, upon all the citizens of Armethalieh, as if they were no more than a herd of milk-cattle?

It was disgusting. No, worse than that. It was sick.

And worst of all, Kellen didn't see a single thing he could do about it.

Gritting his teeth, Kellen turned away from the Temple of the Light and strode up the steps into the Great Library.

It was City Law that one copy of every book that came into the City had to be kept available here. Most people who used the Library had to go to one of the Reading Rooms, fill out a request, and wait for the books they wanted to be brought to them, but there were some advantages to being the Arch-Mage's son. Kellen was greeted personally by the Chief Librarian, and after a few vague comments about needing to do some research—Kellen didn't say for what, and if the Chief Librarian assumed it was for his magickal studies, well, he didn't say anything to correct the man's mistake—the Chief Librarian presented him with an "All Access" pass to the stacks.

Kellen hung the square silver tag around his neck so that it would be plainly visible, thanked the man politely and profusely, assured him he would remember him to his father the Arch-Mage, and made his escape into the stacks.

THIS was not the first time he'd been here—Anigrel had brought him once or twice before—but it was the first time Kellen had been here unescorted. Panels of Magelight illuminated the long shelves of books in the windowless corridors, and the faint hum of Preservation Spells, endlessly renewed, made the air sleepy and thick. Fortunately, the Great Library used the same cataloguing system as the smaller Student Reference Library at the Mage College did, so Kellen knew where to look for what he wanted.

He began with travelogues. Surely there would be some information there about the lands beyond the City.

But though he made a promising beginning—all the books in that section were marked "Do Not Circulate," which meant they must contain something interesting—Kellen discovered to his disgust that every single one of them was fiction. Tales of travel to the moon, beneath the sea, to ridiculous wondertale kingdoms at the center of the earth. None of them had anything to do with the real world.

By the time he finished his investigations, the closing bell had rung— joined, he could hear faintly, by the echoing bells of Evensong sounding throughout the City. Kellen tucked his pass inside his tunic—he had no intention of giving it up just yet—and hurried out of the Library. He was far from finished.

BUT his experiences the following day mirrored those of the first. As soon as his lesson with Anigrel was finished, Kellen returned to the Great Library—making sure the key to the garden was safe in his pocket, this time. Now he turned his searches to books of geography, to anything with maps, and was similarly disappointed. Either the books were missing entirely from the Library's shelves—although you really couldn't say they were missing, when it was obvious they'd never been there in the first place—or they were obviously fantasies. And even the fantasies were marked "Do Not Circulate," as if someone didn't want the citizens of Armethalieh—or at least, the ones who couldn't afford to buy books of their own—to even think about the possibility of a world beyond the City walls.

Growing more frustrated—and just a little frightened, something he wasn't quite prepared to admit to himself—Kellen began delving into any book that might contain even a passing reference to the world outside the City walls. Each day, once his lessons were done, he returned to the Great Library—it was a safe enough destination, should Lycaelon ever discover he hadn't actually been at home. A little odd, perhaps, but scholarship was a respectable thing for one of the Mageborn to be engaged in, and there were a lot of perfectly reasonable things Kellen could have been looking up.

As the days passed, he continued to return to the Library. Kellen consulted histories of the City, plays, popular fiction, looking for anything that even mentioned the fact that there was a whole world that didn't stop at the Delfier Gate and the harbor mouth.

And he found nothing.

At last, after a whole sennight of fruitless searching, he set the book he'd been looking at back in its place on the shelf with a disgusted sigh. There was no point in going on. He'd spent a sennight here, and if he spent a dozen sennights, if he read every book in the Great Library cover to cover, he knew he wouldn't find anything different.

It was as if the world stopped at the City walls, and nobody cared. At least, nobody cared so long as the strawberries and beer came in through the gates in their seasons, and they had hot water and vermin-free kitchens.

Nobody but Kellen Tavadon. Or those few people who were lucky enough to be parentless, or to have their parents disinherit them, so that they could get passage on a Selken ship out of the City.

Well, if the Library couldn't help him, he had other resources.

He had the Wild Magic.

Kellen had done a lot more reading in his three Books while he'd been working his way through the contents of the Great Library—not only The Book of Sun, but also The Book of Moon, which explained a lot more about what he'd gone through with that first Finding Spell. He realized that he'd actually gotten off pretty easily, all things considered, and now that he'd actually done a Wild Magic spell, he understood a lot more about it than he had when he'd just been daydreaming about it during Undermage Anigrel's lecture.

While High Magick and Wild Magic were alike in requiring a "payment" for their working, with the Wild Magic, the payment was not just the personal or group energy involved in setting the spell, but a further personal cost that could not be determined in advance. For the Wildmage, the more powerful the spell, the more likely that the price of actually getting what he wanted would require the Wildmage to act as a human agent of the Wild Magic's "desires."

And whatever the personal price might be, there was a good chance it wouldn't be the same thing twice. He'd actually read that part before, but he'd been, well, careless. He'd thought that a Finding Spell was small enough to be exempt from that personal cost, but he'd obviously been wrong about that.

That led to all kinds of questions, and Kellen had no one he could possibly ask. Was the Wild Magic alive? Did it "want" things—and if so, why did it "want" things—and even more importantly, what did it want them for! How could getting a servant-girl's kitten out of a tree be a part of anything, well, bigger? The Ars Perfidorum in his father's library talked about how dangerous and terrible the Wild Magic was, and Kellen hadn't really liked having his will taken away like that, but once he'd gone over the garden wall, he hadn't felt the compulsion any longer. He'd just acted naturally, and in the end he'd gotten what he'd asked for, and been able to help someone else, too, almost by accident.

Except that this was magick, and in magick there were no accidents. So the Wild Magic had meant him to help the girl, while helping himself at the same time.

Kellen shrugged, staring at the shelves of books that hadn't answered any of his questions, and shook his head. He didn't understand it, but nobody had gotten hurt, and so he was willing to risk trying it again. The Library had told him nothing—but somewhere in the City someone had to have the answers he needed! All he had to do was find them.

With the Wild Magic. Finding answers was a Finding Spell, after all. How much could it cost him?

He left the Library, stopping to turn in his pass at the Chief Librarian's office and thank the man for all his help. There'd been no classes—and no tutorial—today, so Kellen had gotten an early start at the Library. He still had most of the day before him. Plenty of time to cast a spell and see where it took him.

He spent a short time searching for a secluded place where he wouldn't be disturbed; easy enough to find here in the center of the City on the Light's Day. As before, the Finding Spell took him only a little time to cast. This time he wasn't as specific: he wasn't asking it to find a specific object, only information—about life outside the City, or, failing that, why the information couldn't be found. The Books said that the less specific you made your goal, the lower the price that would be asked of you, and the more likely you would be to gain what you sought.

This time, when the compulsion took him, Kellen didn't fight it, simply following where the pull led him.

He was surprised to find himself drawn down into the Artists' Quarter, where the painters, poets, musicians, and writers of Armethalieh tended to gather. It was one of the oldest parts of the City—the streets here were narrow, with taverns, boardinghouses, printing shops, and kajfeliah-parlors all crammed in together. Music floated through the air as musicians practiced their craft or gave lessons in upper rooms, and the sharp smells of drying paint and turpentine were strong in the cool air.

I could live here, Kellen thought hopefully. He didn't know what he could do to earn a place for himself here—he had no particular talent for the arts—and he wasn't sure he'd fit in, but at least these people didn't look as if they were spending their lives practicing for their own funerals and hoping to attend the funerals of their rivals first.

Distracted from the spell-geas by the color and gaiety, he slowed down to peer into a shop filled with colorful pottery, but the pull of the spell drew him onward, and Kellen reluctantly obeyed, promising himself to return another time.

Urged onward, he turned a corner, then another, and found himself on a quiet back street with fewer shops and more houses. This street wasn't as well kept up as the others he'd gone down, and large grey creatures scurried out of his way as he approached.

Ugh. Rats.

At last he felt the compulsion to move on lift as he reached the end of a dead-end street. He looked around. He was on a narrow street of shabby two-story brick houses that had seen better days. The City services that kept the better quarters of the City clean and orderly were less in evidence here—such services cost money beyond the house tax that paid for the City Watch and for the spells that kept house fires from spreading out of control, and those who lived in places like these rarely had the ready coin to pay for them.

A scent of brackish water and rotting garbage assailed his nostrils, and he traced it to an old cistern in an empty corner lot beside one of the houses. Once it might have been used to catch rainwater, or even have been used as a communal well, but now it was choked with garbage and trash, and was obviously a clubhouse for the local rats.

Kellen felt a sensation inside himself as if a key had turned in a lock, and realized exactly what he had to do. He didn't understand how cleaning the cistern out and rilling it in with clean dirt would lead him to the information he sought, but he had no doubt that this was the price the Wild Magic wanted him to pay.

And me in my good clothes, he thought with a sigh.

He stripped off his tunic and undertunic, folding them carefully and setting them to one side, and got to work. He couldn't finish this task in a day, and he'd be sure to bring tools and wear more suitable clothes when he returned tomorrow. But the Wild Magic had brought him here, so he'd better start now.

Hesitantly, Kellen approached the cistern.

"YOU! Boy! What are you doing there!"

Kellen had become so involved in his task—he'd started by dragging away the heavy boards that were balanced precariously at the top of the trash heap that covered the cistern, and when he'd pulled the first of them loose, several rats had bolted out of the cistern, squeaking angrily as they ran—that the shout took him entirely by surprise. He dropped the board he was holding (narrowly missing his own foot) and turned in the direction of the voice.

A man in a yellow tunic—he had the look, but hardly the manner, of one of the Mageborn—was leaning out the side window of the house, staring at him in surprise. Kellen stared back for a long moment before realizing he really needed to come up with an explanation. A good explanation. One that didn't involve the Wild Magic.

"I'm, uh, cleaning out your cistern, goodsir. It's full of garbage, you see, and, well, there are rats…"

"I know there are rats! Their squeaking keeps me up half the night— but will the Council do anything about it? No! They say it isn't on public property, so it isn't their responsibility! You're not from the Council, are you?"

"Me? No, I'm just… me," Kellen said. "But I really want to clean it out," he added hastily.

The man in the window stared at him for a long moment, as if attempting to judge just exactly how crazy Kellen was. "You ought to have work gloves," he said after a moment. "Wait there."

He withdrew from the window, leaving Kellen staring after him, wondering what he ought to do. After less than a tenth-chime, the man returned with a pair of heavy leather work gloves in his hand.

"I knew I still had these somewhere. Mind you put them back on the front step when you're finished for the day."

He tossed them out the window. They landed at Kellen's feet.

"Yes, goodsir," Kellen said meekly. "Ah, goodsir? I'm going to have to come back tomorrow. And maybe for a few days. To finish."

"Well, see that you don't come too early," the man said, and closed the window firmly.

Well, he's an odd one, Kellen thought to himself, going to pick up the gloves. They were a little small, but he was able to force his hands into them. They made the work go a lot easier, and he was careful to leave them just where the man had said when he'd done all he could for the day.

I wonder who he is? Kellen thought as he left.

THE next day Kellen came back just after Second Morning Bells wearing his oldest clothes, with a pick and shovel and some burlap bags he'd taken from the gardener's hut at the bottom of his garden. Even a garden that was home to nothing but gravel required constant tending, Kellen had discovered, and the tools were going to come in handy.

The gloves were where he'd left them the night before, and he put them on and set to work.

As Kellen dug, he sorted his "finds" as best he could—rotting garbage (which went into the bags), clean garbage (broken pottery, small bits of wood or bone), which he could use when he filled in the cistern again, and large unidentifiable things, which would have to be hauled away somehow, unless he could manage to break them up into small pieces with the pick or shovel. It was hot, dirty work that kept him stooped over, and he didn't dare step down into the cistern to work from there. Not yet, anyway. He had no idea how deep it went, and even though he was now wearing heavy work boots, he had no desire to slice his foot open on a piece of rusty metal or glass that had been steeped in rotting garbage.

It certainly explained why the cistern hadn't been cleaned out before now. If the Council wouldn't pay to have it done because it lay on private land, the land's owner would have to pay someone privately to do it, and Kellen could hardly begin to imagine how much someone would charge to do this work. A lot, probably. More than someone down here had, almost certainly.

At least most of the big stuff seemed to be near the top, where he could hook it with the pick and drag it up.

"You! Boy!"

Kellen heaved his latest "find"—a tangled mass of bailing wire—to the edge of the cistern, and looked toward the house. The man who had given him the gloves the day before was looking out the window at him again. This time the tunic was red, its sleeves spotted with old ink stains.

"Yes, goodsir?" Kellen said politely. He assumed the man was a "good-sir," and not a "gentlesir," for all his aristocratic looks. It was not unknown for Mageblood to appear elsewhere in the City—that was where lowborn Mages came from, according to Mage Hendassar. Perhaps this man's sire or grandsire had been a Mage on the wrong side of the blanket. It did happen, though hardly as often as the wondertales claimed.

"I suppose you're going to dig all "day?" the man said.

"Yes, goodsir, I think I am," Kellen said, glancing down at the cistern. With the largest of the objects removed, he could now see that the cistern—a stone circle about six feet across—was full of an inky black sludge starting about three feet below its lip. Kellen had no idea how far down it went.

"And I suppose you didn't bring any lunch with you?" the man asked waspishly.

"No, goodsir," Kellen admitted sheepishly. He'd forgotten about that until just now.

"Well, come around to the back of the house, then." The man withdrew and the window was shut once more.

Kellen gazed at the closed window for a moment, then meekly did as the man said, picking up his discarded tunic—one of his most disreputable—on the way. The man was waiting at the door with a tin bucket and a towel.

"Rinse yourself off and come in. You've done a good day's work so far; I won't have you fainting dead away from hunger before you finish."

Kellen took the bucket and stepped back to pour its contents over his head and shoulders. The icy shock made him gasp, and he shook his head, toweling his head and chest quickly dry before slipping into his tunic. He followed the man inside, setting the bucket and the damp towel down just inside the door.

"Come—come!" his host urged, more cordially now, and Kellen passed through the kitchen into the room beyond.

It was a parlor, dominated by a large table covered with a white cloth upon which had been set a sizable plain luncheon. His host was seated at the head of the table, and gestured for Kellen to sit beside him.

"My boots—" Kellen began, stopping at the edge of the rug.

"It's only a little mud," his host said graciously, "and my girl hasn't enough to do just looking after me. My name is Perulan. And yours?"

"Kellen," Kellen said, sitting as he'd been bid. Perulan poured him a large beaker of cider, and Kellen drained it thirstily, then, at Perulan's urging, poured himself another, of water this time. He'd gotten very thirsty digging outdoors all morning.

The servant-girl Perulan had mentioned a moment before entered, carrying a large china tureen of soup, and for a while there was silence while Kellen satisfied the hunger honed by several bells of hard labor. There was hot thick vegetable soup, hefty slices of cold mutton, large chunks of golden cheese, and thick slices of warm bread with fresh butter. Perulan watched him eat, a faint approving smile on his face, but restricted himself to no more than his soup and a little cider.

"So, Master Kellen," he said when Kellen had slowed down a little, "what do you do when you aren't cleaning out cisterns for… former… writers ?"

"You're that Perulan?" Kellen asked without thinking. He suddenly wished he'd curbed his tongue, for the older man winced, as if Kellen had spoken of something very painful. "I mean, I'm a Student, Gentlesir Perulan," he said hastily, trying to remember if it should be "gentlesir."

"noble-sir," or "lord."

"I study."

"Just 'Perulan' if you please, Master Kellen. My family has disowned me long since, and I have no patience with empty honorifics, nor do they have any place between friends. As for study… it can be a broadening thing, if a bit dangerous," Perulan said. "You must be careful in your studies, Master Kellen. You might learn things you didn't wish to discover."

"I know," Kellen said, sighing. "Look, I was wondering if you could tell me… do you know how deep that cistern is?"

Perulan had obviously been expecting him to ask something else: his face first showed surprise, then relief. "I believe it goes down about ten feet. Certainly not much deeper."

"And… do you know if it feeds into a spring? Or is it solid at the bottom?"

Perulan smiled. "Quite solid, young Kellen. When I was a young man, and first bought this house, that cistern was still empty. I recall making plans to turn it into a fish pond, or something of the like, but those plans, like so many others I made as a young man, came to naught. But I think it best if you fill it in now, or people will simply come and throw more garbage into it."

"That's what I plan to do," Kellen said, relieved to have Perulan fall in so easily with his own plans. "It needs doing."

AFTER lunch, he worked for a few bells more, marking time by the distant echo of the carillons that sounded faintly over the roofs of the City, for the nearest bell tower was several streets away, and had not paid its bell tax in some time. He would have continued working far longer, but Perulan called him back into the house and insisted on giving him tea before sending him home for the day. It occurred to Kellen that the old man must be lonely, and he wondered if Perulan might be the source of information the Wild Magic had sent him to.

He wondered about that all the next day as well, while shoveling smelly black muck out of the cistern. From somewhere, Perulan had provided a bucket and wheelbarrow for his use: Kellen would fill the bucket, use it to fill the barrow, wheel the barrow to the back of the lot, and dump the contents into an ever-growing, stinking pile. Maybe the sun would dry the sludge out into something he could use. Maybe he could dig it into the ground and bury it when he dug up fresh earth to fill in the cistern.

As he worked, he wondered if it would be just too cold-blooded to ask Perulan what he wanted to know about the City and the lands beyond. He liked Perulan, and he didn't want to make trouble for him, and Kellen had already come to realize that there were some questions meant never to be asked—or answered.

But even without asking outright, Kellen found out some things that, just as Perulan had warned, he would have been happier not knowing.

"SO you're from a Mage family, young Kellen?" Perulan asked. "I would not have thought it. You haven't the look, as you are no doubt long tired of hearing."

Kellen choked on his lunchtime cider, managing (with an effort) to swallow decorously. "But how did you know?" he asked when he was able.

"Come come, young sir. A writer must be observant, and I was born .into a Mage-family myself, as you are certainly aware. While you have a talent for hard labor, you're no laborer, and a member of a Trade family would be hard at his apprenticeship at your age. What does that leave?"

"Mages," Kellen said bitterly.

Perulan raised his eyebrows and smiled faintly.

"Ah, speak softly of our beloved rulers—or else they'll find what you love best and cherish most, and turn it to ash before your very eyes."

Kellen stared at him.

"I'm Perulan the Writer, as you know—only Perulan the Writer's last and greatest work was denied a publication license, and so it was destroyed by the High Council before his very eyes. For the good of the City, of course. It is always for the good of the City." The smile faded, and Perulan stared bleakly off into space, contemplating something Kellen couldn't see.

"Do you think it really is?" Kellen asked before he could stop himself. "How can they know! Aren't they just trying to—well—make all of us quiet and fat and not think, just so we'll want to keep things as they are, like them? So we won't want to even think about leaving the City? But the City isn't the only place in the world!"

"No," Perulan agreed. "There are other places—across the sea, across the forest—and they do things very differently there. To be different is not to be wrong, or even inferior. Only… different."

"Can you—" Kellen said, and stopped himself.

"Can I tell you about them?" Perulan asked. "Yes, and perhaps I will, if you are certain that is what you wish. But not now. Think about whether you really want to know, Kellen-of-a-Mage family, and ask me again. Perhaps you will come to dinner, and we will talk, once you have finished with my cistern."

IT was the backbreaking work of several more days, but at last Kellen had dug down to bare stone, and then filled in the cistern again. From somewhere a load of old brick appeared to greet him one morning, and on another day, an iron-bound cistern cover cut to size—Perulan's doing, Kellen supposed. Kellen tumbled the bricks into the hole, layering them in with fresh-dug clean dirt from the lot and stamping on each layer to pack it tight as he put it in. He buried the muck and trash he'd dug out of the cistern in the hole he'd dug to get the fill dirt, and stacked the bigger pieces of trash to be hauled away.

Last of all, he used the back of the shovel to bang the heavy wooden stakes that would hold the cover in place into the dirt around the edges of the cistern, then stepped back to admire his work.

No more rats, no more garbage, no more stink.

He was done.

"Excellent work, young Kellen," Perulan said. The older man came to stand beside him, gazing down at the cistern cover. It was the first time Kellen had seen Perulan leave his house. "I suppose now that your task is done, our fair neighborhood will no longer be graced with your presence?"

"I…" In truth, Kellen hadn't thought much past getting the cistern filled in.

"No matter," Perulan said graciously. "I think I shall not be here much longer myself. And now, the time grows late. Would you care to join me in my evening meal?"

Looking around, only now did Kellen realize that he had grown so engrossed in his task that he had not even heard the sound of Evensong Bells. In fact, he had stayed later at Perulan's house than ever before. The sun was westering, and it was already almost too dark to see. But his father wouldn't be home yet—and even if he was, what would it matter? Whether Kellen tried to do what Lycaelon wanted or not, the end result was the same: these days, it seemed, they always ended up arguing.

"Sure. I mean, I'd like that, gentlesir."

Dinner was a more elaborate meal than the lunches Kellen had enjoyed at Perulan's house, with a large hot meat pie brought from the local cookshop, roast fowl and potatoes prepared by Perulan's all-but-invisible maidservant, baked apples roasted on the hearth, and candied fruits and wine to follow.

The parlor was mellow in the golden light cast by the fat white candles in the fixture hanging over the table, and warmth radiated from the tiled hearth tucked into one corner.

"You asked me once what I knew of the world outside the City," Perulan said when the servant had cleared away the dishes and retired to the kitchen. "Would it surprise you to know that when I was a young man, I had a correspondence with, well, let us call them Folk From Away?"

Kellen stared at him, a piece of candied ginger halfway to his lips. "But how? That's not possible!" he stammered.

"Not quite impossible, merely difficult, my young Student. The Selken-folk smuggled my letters out, and smuggled my correspondents' replies back in. It can be done, with trust, and for a price—the Selken-folk have no love for the Mage Council, and are happy to trick them if they can.

And I was young and adventurous—just as you are now—and wanted to know everything about the world and all it contains.

"But—alas!—then I grew famous, and well regarded, and had more to lose than when I was a hungry young struggling writer. I thought of that and became cowardly. I stopped writing to my friends across the sea because I feared the risk of discovery."

Perulan stopped, and took a long drink from his wine cup, staring down into it broodingly. "But now… I no longer have anything to lose. Now, I think, I will pay my Selken friends to smuggle me away. It will hurt to leave Armethalieh, but if I cannot write the books I want to write, I might as well be dead, and in the face of death, exile holds no terrors."

"But— But— Why can't you just go live in the country if you don't like the City anymore?" Kellen asked, floundering to accept this torrent of new ideas. It was one thing to see someone leave, to dream of leaving himself, but to actually talk to someone about leaving…

Perulan smiled sadly, shaking his head.

"My dear young Kellen, have you ever heard of anyone who did? The villages exist to serve the City with their crops and their taxes and their labor, as much our beasts of burden as the horses who pull our carts. Citizens and villagers don't mix and never have, despite the foolish fables I have written. If I were to go out into the villages, the villagers would know me for a citizen and hate me for it—and for the hope of reward, cheerfully turn me over to the Council's soldiery to be returned to the City. No. If I am to leave, I must leave Armethalieh entirely: leave the City and all its lands."

"But couldn't you just go openly?" Kellen asked. It was true that he'd never heard of anyone doing that, but surely some people…

He realized that, deep down inside, even though he had imagined leaving, buried in that daydream had been the surety of coming back someday. As much as he hated the restrictions Armethalieh placed upon its citizens, hated the thought of living the life his father had planned out for him, the City was the only home he had ever known.

Perulan laughed bitterly and patted his hand. "Dear boy! I forget how young you are! I assure you: the Council would never let someone go forth to bear tales to 'unknown enemies.' No, Armethalieh the Golden hoards her treasures—and her people—for always. But I hope, if the Light is kind, that there may be a way for one of her Golden Children to escape her…"

Kellen turned his head, distracted by a flicker of movement at the kitchen door. But when he looked, there was no one there.

"But how?" he asked, turning back and forgetting the momentary distraction. "If the Council won't let you go—?"

"It is best that I tell you nothing more. What you do not know, you cannot reveal, even under Truthspell, and more lives than mine are at risk upon this venture. But though we may see one another again, I think it best if we say our true good-byes now. I have enjoyed our friendship, Kellen, and allow me to offer you one last piece of advice: if you ever think to leave Armethalieh the Golden, go quickly, go far, and trust none of her citizens with your intentions."

"I won't," Kellen said, getting to his feet. "Good-bye, sir. May the Light go with you."

"And with you," Perulan said gravely.

IT was nearly midnight when Kellen reached home, for he had gone slowly, his thoughts full of his conversation with Perulan. To leave the City! It was one thing to stow away on a ship as a young man of Kellen's age, like the fellow he'd seen down at the docks. But for someone as important, as well connected, as Perulan to be contemplating it…

Where did they go, the ones who successfully escaped Armethalieh's golden chains of privilege? What other lands did the Selken ships trade with? What was beyond the Delfier Forest, beyond the City lands whose farms fed the City?

The Council didn't want anyone to know.

Why not? What was so bad about them? And if the places over the Sea and Beyond the Forest were so bad, why did Armethalieh trade with those places? Yet they did: by ship and trading caravan both.

It didn't make sense.

Nothing made sense.

The house was dark when he eased open the unlocked garden gate, carefully locking it again behind him in case someone should check in the morning. This was no time to rouse the servants. He'd remembered to bring the pick and shovel with him, and groped his way down to the gardener's cottage to put them away. He didn't think they'd been missed in the last sennight, and as long as they were back now, there shouldn't be any trouble about them having been gone in the first place.

Mission accomplished, Kellen headed up to the house. He'd better find some way to get rid of the clothes he'd been wearing all this time as well—even if he washed them, he didn't think they'd pass muster as something suitable for a son of the House of Tavadon.

HE knew something was wrong the moment he came through the servants' quarters into the main part of the house—knew without having any way to forestall whatever disaster was to come. All he could do was just walk right into it, and hope the consequences weren't too terrible.

"Don't you know that people talk?"

His father came out of his first-floor study—just like an adder out of its hole, Kellen thought unkindly—just as Kellen entered the reception chamber. Kellen froze, his hand on the panel of white marble that led to his staircase, then turned back to face his father. Lycaelon was standing in the doorway of the study, backlit by the yellow glow of candles.

"Why is it, do you suppose, that you have plenty of time to spend digging ditches and wallowing in muck but not one moment to attend to your studies?" Lycaelon asked him, in the same voice Kellen's professors used when they asked him a question they didn't really want an answer to.

Kellen stared at his father in dawning horror. He'd been so focused— obsessed, really—with getting the cistern cleared, with paying the price the Wild Magic asked, that it hadn't occurred to him until this moment that he'd simply disappeared for a sennight—cut his regular lessons at the Mage College, missed his private sessions with Undermage Anigrel, everything! What could he possibly say?

"I was busy," he muttered. "I'll do better, I promise." He winced inwardly at the sound of his own words, knowing they were a feeble and inadequate defense.

"You'll forgive me, Kellen, if I don't think your promises are worth very much. Promises, excuses—all they are is evasions—evasions of your duties and responsibilities! All you care about is yourself and your own pleasures," Lycaelon answered scornfully.

"That's not true! You think cleaning out a clogged cistern is a pleasure?. It wasn't—but at least it helped someone, and it was more constructive than sitting around repeating sigils that I've done a hundred times already and listening to useless lectures! You don't know me—you don't know who I am or what I think about!" Kellen burst out angrily.

"Think?"

He should have known better than to try to justify what he'd done.

Lycaelon obviously wasn't listening. He'd probably been planning his little lecture for bells now, and he was going to deliver it intact no matter what Kellen said to him.

" 'Think'? I don't believe you think at all. You certainly don't act as if you do. Don't you know that people see you—and talk? Don't you know that everything you do reflects on my position? Don't you know that you have a tradition to live up to?"

Every time he tried to talk to his father, it always came back to this: duties, responsibilities, behave like a good little Tavadon-golem to make everything easy for the great and powerful Arch-Mage! It was all about Lycaelon Tavadon, and nothing about Kellen!

"Don't you think," Kellen shot back, angrily mimicking his father's tone, "that if you care so much about things like that you'd be better off not having a son at all? Or why don't you just make a son with magick, so you can get one that's exactly what you want?" He turned away, opened the panel, and ran up the stairs, ignoring his father's angry shouts to return.

Kellen slammed the door to his room behind him and leaned against it, half afraid—and half hopeful—that his father would come after him. Why couldn't they ever just talk?. He knew his father only wanted the best for him, just as Lycaelon wanted xhe best for the City, but for the past few years, ever since Kellen had started studying the High Magick when he turned fourteen, it seemed they couldn't even say "good morning" without arguing about Kellen's behavior.

Not that Kellen had many opportunities to say "good morning" to his father. For as long as he could remember, Lycaelon Tavadon had been Arch-Mage of Armethalieh, spending more bells at the Council House than he did in his own home. Kellen had been raised by a succession of servants, each staying for a few years before moving on. He saw more of Undermage Anigrel than he did of his own father!

When it became clear that once again Lycaelon was not going to pursue the matter, Kellen sighed and moved away from the door. He stripped off his dirty, sweaty clothing, and gave himself an unsatisfactory ? sponge bath from the bowl and pitcher that stood on his night table. At least he'd gotten a good dinner at Perulan's.

It was while he was pulling his nightshirt on over his head that it occurred to him Lycaelon must have known more or less where he'd been all week—that crack about "digging ditches" had been pretty close to the mark, after all.

He frowned for a moment, and then his brow cleared. Well, Perulan had known he was from a Mage family, and had probably just been too polite to admit he knew which one. Gossip was gossip, after all, and gossip was the one thing that could run through the streets of the City of a Thousand Bells faster than a Mage-spell. Probably someone had mentioned to someone else that he was down there, and it had gotten back to his father somehow.

Mystery solved to his satisfaction, Kellen flung himself down on his bed and slept.

Chapter Seven

Magic Unmasked

THE EARLY MORNING sunlight woke him only a few bells later, and the music of First Morning Bells echoing through the City told him just "how early it was. For a moment Kellen contemplated just pulling the covers over his head and going back to sleep, but with a deep sigh, he changed his mind. He was going to prove to his father that he wasn't the self-seeking irresponsible wilding Lycaelon seemed to think he was. He'd get up and go off to the precinct for his morning lesson with Undermage Anigrel—and get there early for once! He'd even let the Undermage bore him silly with all the dustiest cantrips in all the High Magick repertoire without a single yawn of complaint. He'd apply himself to his studies, he'd pay attention…

And maybe—just once—his father would admit he was proud of him. For once, Kellen paid attention to his clothes, dressing with particular care in his best green velvet day-tunic and cream linen undertunic, a new pair of low kidskin City boots, and a pair of fawn trousers so form-fitting they were almost hose. He added his usual belt, and after a moment's thought, added two items he'd never worn before, an elaborately ornamented pencase and matching coinpouch—Naming Day gifts from his father, never worn until now. He transferred some personal items from his old pouch and case to the new one—his pens and knife, some small money, the unicorn knife-rest that he carried as a luck-piece—ran a comb through his unruly hair, glanced at the result in the mirror, and sighed. Time for another haircut, he supposed. Well, Father would have nothing to complain of in his clothes, at least.

Kellen's hopeful mood lasted until he reached the kitchens. Though breakfast would have been laid out in the sunny morning parlor for his father, Kellen was usually up too late for it, and made a habit of picking over the remains of the dishes after they'd been returned to the kitchen. The servants turned a blind eye to this particular intrusion into their domain, as it made less work for them than setting out a second breakfast service would, something Kellen would be well within his rights to demand. And as such a demand would reflect directly upon Lycaelon's own consequence as master of Tavadon House, it would have been enforced, unlike so many of Kellen's other wishes.

Seeing the butler's sideboard empty, Kellen realized that for once he was too early for leftovers and was about to retreat when he heard the servants talking around the corner.

"—such a shame about that poor man! And him a writer! Criminal, it was."

He wasn't sure who was speaking; thanks to Lycaelon's efforts, Kellen had only the vaguest notions of the size and composition of the household staff. He heard the clink of cups and plates, and knew that the upper servants must be having their breakfast during this lull in the day's activities; he knew that the servants ate before their masters. Kellen pulled back farther into the shadows, out of sight—but not out of earshot—of the gossiping servants.

"Drowned at midnight. It's like something out of a play," a woman said, sounding pleased.

"Well, what I want to know is, what was Lord Perulan doing down at the docks at midnight? Nothing decent—you may take that from me." Kellen recognized the voice of the house's butler.

Perulan—dead? The servants were unlikely to be misinformed—house-servant gossip was generally a fast and reliable source of information about everything that went on in the City.

And he knew, he knew, that this was no coincidence.

It's my fault.

Every time he used those three Books of the Wild Magic, every time he cast a spell, something happened that just seemed to make Kellen's life darker and more uncertain. If he'd never met Perulan, never talked to Perulan, maybe the writer would have gotten over his loss. Maybe he would have decided it was worth writing again, and gone back to his wondertales. He would have stayed safe in his little house, and not gone down to the clocks for a reason Kellen could well guess. And he'd still be alive.

That does it. That's it. I'm never, ever casting another Wild Magic spell!

He turned to leave the kitchen, but the thought of running into his father somewhere in the house stopped him. If he saw Lycaelon now, Kellen knew, he'd only say something unforgiveable. His father would never understand what it was about Perulan's death that upset him so.

You burned his book—and he killed himself!

No. He couldn't say that to his father. His father had only been doing his job.

I have to get out of here. I have to calm down. I have to think.

Almost running, Kellen hurried through the kitchen, past the startled servants, out through the garden, and out through the garden gate into the street.

IN the sunny breakfast parlor, Arch-Mage Lycaelon Tavadon sat over his morning tea, wondering, without any real expectation that it would come to pass, if his errant son would come to join him at the morning meal.

He should have dealt with the boy firmly last night, but there had been no time. He had been needed at the Council House to oversee the Working, and once it was over, had spent the rest of a long sleepless night brooding over the current problem before the Council. And now Kellen was lying abed as usual. Just as well, Lycaelon supposed, for he had much to occupy his mind this day.

At dawn, a messenger had come to let him know that the Working in the matter of the writer Perulan had run its course. Just as Volpiril had suggested, a spy had been set in Perulan's house the very day Perulan had come before the Council. A serving-girl; men of Perulan's sort never took any notice of what their servants did, and the girl had been able to listen and hear much in the days that followed. She had been able to inform the Council that Perulan meant to flee the City; to escape by ship through the help of contacts cultivated in former years. The Council had been given no choice but to act.

To give water form and then life was a difficult business, requiring both great skill and great power, but the High Council of Armethalieh possessed both in abundance. They had sent a water golem to follow Perulan once he reached the docks, to make sure he never spoke with any of the Selken captains… or indeed with anyone else, ever again.

Once it had completed that grisly task, it had left Perulan's body where it was sure to be found, for if Perulan were simply to vanish, there were sure to be others infected with his sickness who would believe he had managed to successfully escape. And that could not be allowed.

No one escaped from Armethalieh. Even those few fools who managed to bribe the Selken-folk to smuggle them out—and Lycaelon knew that there were a few such reckless and determined folk, every year— would mysteriously sicken and die within a few moonturns, at the very most, after they had passed beyond the magickal barrier at the edge of the harbor. The spell was a simple one, renewed each moonturn at the same time their power was harvested through the exchange of the City Talisman each citizen wore about his or her neck.

And should anyone be rash enough to try to flee overland—a far more difficult proposition to keep secret—there was no need for a similar spell upon the Western Gates. The farmers in the surrounding villages well knew the terrible price of doing aught but holding such a fugitive prisoner to face the City's swift justice. Escape by land was even less possible than escape by sea.

No, Armethalieh's greatest treasure—her citizens—were hers and hers alone. Hers to keep. Forever.

But with all his heart, Lycaelon wished there had been some other way than the unpleasant course of action he had been forced to permit. Why couldn't Perulan have taken the opportunities the Council had given him to live out his days in peace and happiness here among folk who loved and understood him? Armethalieh was the best place in the world, his home, filled with people who cared for him. Even at the last, his family would have willingly taken him back. The loss of a single book was no great matter—he should have looked upon the experience for what it was, a necessary correction to his thinking, a lesson in responsibility! Then he could have returned to penning the bucolic tales that were the proper exercise of his talent!

But instead of seeking healing, Perulan had hugged the sickness of his despair to himself like an addiction and let it destroy him. He'd turned away from everything good, becoming a danger to himself and to others— like a mad dog. And like a mad dog, finally Perulan had to be put down for the good of the City.

And Kellen had been with Perulan in the last sennight of his life. Only Lycaelon's influence had kept Kellen from being brought immediately before the Council to be questioned about his knowledge of Perulan's intentions, and that only because Lycaelon promised to handle the matter himself. But influence—even the influence of the Arch-Mage of Armethalieh—could only extend so far. It would be a grave transgression of the oaths he had sworn in defense of the City for Lycaelon to blind himself to evil beneath his own roof out of misplaced familial loyalty.

That, as much as anything else, had kept him from acting last night, dearly though he had wished to strike the boy down for his unthinking insolence. He owed House Tavadon better than that. He must be strong. He must be clear-sighted and calm. It was his duty—both as a father, and as Arch-Mage—to consider the matter carefully before he acted.

Was Kellen going down the same dark road of anarchy and chaos that Perulan had? The boy was young yet, but it was also true that Kellen's behavior had become increasingly erratic and disrespectful of late—not only to his father, but to his tutor, and to others, highly placed and deserving of his respect and deference, as well.

I have given him every advantage — every warning—and it has done no good! Lycaelon thought; his sense of anguish tempered by his sense that justice needed to be dispensed, regardless of whom it fell upon.

In fact, rather than seeing the error of his ways and moderating his wild, improper behavior, Kellen only grew worse—actively seeking out Perulan only a few days after the writer had been censured by the Council, constantly wandering the streets of Low Town (to meet with who-knew-what other disreputable elements of society?), neglecting his studies in a fashion that showed his utter contempt for the Armethaliehan way of life. The boy seemed intent on rejecting everything about his upbringing—for surely, if Kellen felt he could not confide in his father or his magickal tutor, he would at least seek counseling from a Priest of the Light?

But Lycaelon had made inquiries among the Priesthood, and none of them reported speaking with his son.

There must be a reason!

All of Lycaelon's life was built on a foundation of reason, and truth, and Law. If Kellen was behaving in this heretical fashion, there must be a reason for it. Lycaelon would make one last attempt to discover what it was before resorting to stronger measures.

Kellen would certainly still be in his bed at this bell. He would go, rouse the boy out of bed, and get to the bottom of this once and for all, for both their sakes.

And for the good of the City.

BUT when Lycaelon reached Kellen's room, Kellen was already gone. Lycaelon stood for a moment in the middle of the teenaged disorder—Kellen having forbidden the servants access to his rooms a year and more before— and stared at the empty bed, pondering what to do.

Surely, if there was a clue to the soul-sickness that had befallen his son, it would be here.

Hesitantly, and then with increasing fervor, Lycaelon searched his son's room. Though he was thorough, opening every drawer, shuffling through every paper and book, he found nothing inappropriate, and after a tenth-chime of searching Lycaelon realized that this was only a sign that things were worse than he thought. No rude, high-spirited young man slowly turning bad—like Kellen Tavadon—left no signs of the cause of his dissipation! Where was the stash of brandy bottles; the hidden box of dream-smoke herb so beloved of the laboring classes; the stash of gambling winnings or record of debts; the bundle of perfumed love letters from some cozening lowborn female looking to snare a Mageborn son? Something was at the root of Kellen's increasingly antisocial behavior, and if the boy was taking such pains to hide it, that something must be very bad indeed— worse than anything Lycaelon had thought of so far. Kellen's room had been his own as a boy, and Lycaelon was familiar with its "secret hiding places," but so far, every hiding place he'd found was empty, or obviously hadn't been used for years, containing such outgrown boyish treasures as dried frogs and old birds' nests crumbling away to dust.

At last Lycaelon did as he knew he ought to have done from the first. He called upon the power stored in his Arch-Mage's Talisman and cast the strongest Illusion-Dispelling Spell he knew, one that would counter every form of magic designed to conceal or misdirect, one that would bring all hidden things to light.

He spoke the Word that held the whole of the spell in concentrated form, and for a moment Time itself seemed to slow, as the ripples of the spell spread outward from Lycaelon, washing over every object within its radius, making the outlines of every object appear momentarily sharper and more real. When the spell settled, Lycaelon looked around.

The old bookshelf, filled with ancient tattered picture books from Kellen's nursery days, drew his attention strongly. With a sinking heart, he went to it and riffled through the volumes there one more time. Tucked casually in among the outworn relics of childhood were three small books.

Filled with dread—knowing already what he would find—Lycaelon reached out and picked them up. He knew them by reputation, knew of their unclean glamouries that kept all but their intended victim from seeing their true nature, and kept even that victim from seeing his danger until far too late.

The Book of Moon.

The Booh, of Sun.

The Book of Stars.

Lycaelon felt his heart swell with grief and fury. This was far beyond anything a father, no matter how indulgent, could overlook or ignore. He must bring these Books before the Council at once, and tell his brother Mages all.

For the good of the City.

THIS was, bar none, the most soothing and engrossing class of Kellen's studies. Matfis… he thought with a feeling of comfort as he settled into his seat.

He was on time; the rest were late, and took their places with an air of resignation. Most of Kellen's fellow Students hated Maths. At one point, Kellen had, too. It had seemed only one more set of things to learn by rote for no reason. But that was before the lessons progressed beyond simple Maths to the elegance of geometry.

Here, as nowhere else, he found something that made absolute sense, followed clear rules, where A plus B always equaled C and the equation could be applied to the ordinary world; a science that described the visible world and could be used to do things. Useful things.

It was the one class he seldom skipped. And, as was all too often the case in his life, it was the one class that was held only once a fortnight. The instructor was the least-regarded Mage in the entire Mage College; an old, old man, an Undermage all of his life, an Undermage still, who would die an Undermage. His robes were plain and uncared for, and though clean, were threadbare about the hem; his eyes were distant and a little sad beneath his heavy white brows. There was a dispirited air about him, a sense that he had given up long ago, and was merely marking time here, teaching the one thing he knew well to Students and Apprentices who did not value it, until the Council would permit him to retire to a little set of rooms somewhere.

And die.

Not that anyone would ever notice. Possibly the old Mage himself might not notice.

But he was very good at teaching Maths. It probably was the only thing he was good at. And even if Lycaelon wasn't impressed by Kellen's high marks in the subject, the old man seemed to revive just a little whenever his eyes fell on his prize pupil.

Kellen had thrown himself into work on the hardest problem they'd ever been set the moment he had arrived in class—because while he was working on the pure lightness of the puzzle, he didn't have to think about anything that had been happening to him. He could forget his father, forget the Wild Magic and the three Books, forget what had happened to poor Perulan. Everything between the covers of his workbook was a matter of figures, line, and angle, and there was only ever one right answer.

But his concentration was interrupted when he was only halfway through the complex calculation by a heavy hand falling on his shoulder.

Startled, he looked up, for the old Mage had never gripped his shoulder like that before.

It wasn't his instructor.

The burly, sallow-faced fellow in the uniform tabard of a servant of the Council looked down at him with an unreadable face.

Kellen clamped down on his jolt of fear.

It wasn't just the lack of expression in the man's face that made him unreadable, it was the feeling that this man had only a trifle more life and thought in him than one of the Council's stone golems…

"Kellen Tavadon?" the man asked, completely without inflection except for the slight rise at the end of the two words that made it a question instead of a statement.

Kellen wondered what the man would do if he denied being himself; considered doing just that for one fleeting moment, then nodded, reluctantly.

"You are summoned to attend the High Council at the third bell of afternoon."

By now the rest of his class was staring at him—and at the stony-faced apparition that had delivered the Council's message. It was the most attention he'd gotten from his fellow Students in moonturns. Some of them were whispering to each other. The poor old Mage just looked confused.

"The third bell," the man repeated.

"I—understand," Kellen managed to say.

A cold hand closed around his heart, and a cold finger traced its way down his spine. The Council! This could only be Lycaelon's work. So he was to be punished for last night's rebellion after all.

"The third bell." With a thud, the messenger let fall something on Kellen's workbook. Kellen picked it up; it was a heavy brass plate engraved with the Council sigil, the sign that he had been called before them. Having said his piece and delivered his burden, the Council's retainer turned on his heel and left. Kellen picked up the little brass plate and shoved it into his pocket, then tried to go back to his Maths problem, but he had completely lost the ability to concentrate.

What do they want? Surely my having an argument with Father is no matter for the Council?

Unless Father makes it one…

The rest of the members of the class murmured to each other as he bent his head over his paper.

The sound of the voices, though—there was nothing in their tone to warn him that they had any notion why he was being summoned.

But he did. Oh, yes, he did. He just didn't want to even consider it.

But he had to; even if you were the Arch-Mage of Armethalieh, you didn't hail your son in front of the High Council just to deliver a lecture on filial duty. Besides, for Lycaelon that would be tantamount to admitting that he was a failure at bringing his offspring to heel, and Lycaelon could not bear admit he was a failure at anything.

No, there was only one thing that Kellen could think of that would cause the High Council to haul him in for a confrontation.

Wild Magic.

The Books.

Father found the Books.

After all, Lycaelon had known he'd been talking to Perulan, and that meant the Arch-Mage was keeping a watch on Kellen somehow. If he'd learned that, he surely would have learned other things.

Or he decided to search my room.

He knew he shouldn't have left early this morning! If he'd been there, surely Lycaelon wouldn't even have thought of searching the room—or if he had, he'd have left it to the servants, who would, as usual, have found nothing.

And though the three Books could disguise their nature from ordinary servants, they probably couldn't hold up their glamourie against the magic of the Arch-Mage of Armethalieh.

So Lycaelon knew about the Books, and if he knew, the whole High Council knew. Lycaelon would never keep something so illegal, so potentially scandalous, secret.

But if anyone here at the Mage College had any idea why Kellen was being called up before the High Council, they wouldn't be whispering, they'd be getting out of their seats and trying to get out of the room before the dangerous criminal noticed them.

So no one here knows, and the High Council has decided not to say anything yet, Kellen thought with a faint pang of relief. Rumors usually spread through the Mage College like wildfire, so there wasn't a rumor. Yet.

Which doesn't mean a thing. The High Council was perfectly capable of being closemouthed when it suited them.

Kellen gave up on trying to concentrate, or even pretend to, shoved away from his desk, and stood up to leave. The whispering stopped, and every eye in the room was riveted on him. Even though the appointed time was bells away—probably calculated that way by Lycaelon, to allow his son to stew and fret until the appointed time—everyone knew that a summons before the High Council had to be answered immediately. In fact, they were probably wondering why he hadn't gone already.

Kellen stalked out of the classroom, keeping his back rigid and his head held high with a bravado that was entirely feigned.

THE other Students and his teacher would probably assume that he would go straight to the Council House to cool his heels in one of the waiting rooms and reflect upon his sins. That, however, was not what Kellen had in mind.

He stopped at his locker—probably for the last time—to deposit his books and his robes. He spared a moment of thanks that today he was dressed in his best clothes beneath the all-concealing Student blues: to think that only this morning he'd been planning to start afresh, to impress his father and Anigrel with his devotion to the ways of the Mage life, to study and conform and be a good son of House Tavadon!

He'd been so stupid.

For the first time ever, he went openly to the harbor, glaring defiance at the Watch as he crossed the street into the harbor district.

The Constables didn't try to stop him, but perhaps because he was dressed as ostentatiously as any City noble, they thought he was there on some legitimate business. The more fools they.

He stalked across the street and plunged in among the offices of the various shipping companies and merchants, giving the Constables about as much attention as he would a piece of statuary. His pencase and coin pouch bounced against his thigh as he strode angrily along—oh, he looked a proper son of House Tavadon today. All he lacked was a cloak and sword, and a pair of ornamental gloves thrust through his belt to be the image of a proper petty lordling. And who cared?

He did. If there was something Kellen knew he didn't want to be, it was that.

When he reached the wharves themselves, Kellen took a moment to simply breathe in the fresh salt air and get his bearings. He wanted to remember this day clearly—every sight, every sound, every smell. After all, this might well be the last time he would be able to come here.

Might? That's a virtual certainty. If I'm lucky, I'll only be confined to my room for the rest of the year. If I'm not, it'll be the rest of my life…

There were several ships in today, and more waiting outside the harbor to come in; their sails tacking back and forth just over the horizon. It was a busy day, one that usually meant a lot of work for the High Council… which meant that the High Council considered his situation to be a serious one, worth interrupting their day over.

Not good.

Kellen picked a spot out of the way of anyone working around the ships, and watched a new vessel sail in and tie up. He was full of restless energy, discontent, and a sick undercurrent of fear that he tried hard to ignore. Never had he felt so much raw envy for the Selken-folk, or for the few nameless Armethaliehans who managed to escape on their ships. He watched the half-naked sailors bringing a ship skillfully in to its mooring, scrambling up into the rigging and furling the sails, heaving ropes over the side and tying up to the piers. Wood creaked; the wood of the dock, and of the ship. Men called to each other, up in the rigging, and a group of them, hauling on a rope wrapped around a capstan, chanted in unison. Their captain shouted orders at them, punctuated by strange, wild oaths, and waves splashed against the pilings and the sides of the ship. The air smelled of fish, tar, sunbaked wood, and salt, with an undercurrent of strange scents too faint to be identified.

On another ship, a little farther down the dock, another crew was unloading their ship's cargo. They traded insults with the crew of the new arrival while Kellen watched and listened, and tried not to think too hard about how much he wished he could just saunter aboard and sail away with them when they left.

I don't suppose there's a chance that Father would disinherit me and let me go with them… Kellen thought wistfully.

No. Not Lycaelon. The Arch-Mage's motto should have been, "What I have, I hold." No matter what Kellen did, Lycaelon would never let him go—

The anger and discontent swelled in him until he thought he would burst from it. Probably the only thing that did keep him from bursting was the fear he felt inside… for he knew now that there was no place for him in the City unless he conformed to every one of his father's wishes. He could never escape what Lycaelon wanted, not even if he tried to renounce his own Magebom talents and turn common laborer. No matter what he did, Lycaelon would have him followed and brought back, and once again, there would be the edict: Obey. If he didn't do so of his own free will, he'd be forced into it.

Conform — or —

Well, he'd butted heads with the "or" many times in his seventeen years, but this time the "or" had more than just his father behind it. This time he was going to face the entire High Council. And although he had no doubt that whatever they decided to do with him would be what Lycaelon had already decided, their edict would be enforced by Constables, Council retainers, and if necessary, other means. And the High Council had a great many options under that last category.

One of the farther ships pulled away from the dock even as he watched, and began its slow, graceful tack toward the harbor mouth. Its sails filled with a Mage-conjured breeze, belling out like great white wings, carrying its crew away from Armethalieh and out to freedom.

Freedom that he was never going to taste.

The ship passed through the shimmering curtain of magick, its own outline shivering a little as if seen through a heat haze. And at that moment, Noontide Bells rang out. Kellen felt a surge of guilty nausea. He just had time to get to the Council House before the appointed hour.

Glumly, he trudged out to meet his fate.

THE Council House was at the opposite side of the City from the docks, facing the Delfier Gate in the west, and Kellen realized, as he trudged up the almost-empty avenue that led to the Council House and the gate beyond, that he had never actually seen the Delfier Gate open. Citizens were not encouraged to linger near the gates when the farm carts and trade caravans were moving in and out—not that citizens were encouraged to linger in the Mage Quarter in the first place.

Not for the first time, Kellen wondered what it would be like to go through those gates and take the road that led into the forest and what lay beyond.

Perulan had said that no citizen had, that none could. But Perulan had been referring to trying to take shelter with the villagers out there. What if someone decided to live out in the forest itself? Could anyone be found who really wanted to hide out there?

Don't be an idiot, he scolded himself. You aren't exactly a woods-wise forester out of a wondertale. How, exactly, would you live out there? What would you eat? Roots and berries? Have you ever even seen a berry that wasn't already picked and in a basket?

Crumbs, he hadn't even ever cooked for himself. Just how did he think he was going to survive in a forest?

But, oh, the idea was so tempting…

Anywhere but here, Kellen thought to himself. Anywhere has GOT to be better than here!

THE Council House was a tall, round white marble building with a domed and gilded roof, and it was much bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside. Magick, of course. A little glamourie to let it look important and imposing, but not too important or imposing, of course. Kellen's teachers had explained that this was to ensure that every citizen felt free to come before the Council, whether of his own will or if summoned. Now Kellen wondered if there was another reason for the spells entirely.

To keep the ordinary citizen from knowing just how little freedom he truly has? Or to keep him from realizing just how much power over him the Mages have?

Both, probably.

It was as if—now, when it was too late to do him any good—fear suddenly made Kellen able to think of the questions he'd never been able to even think of before.

The gleaming bronze doors, ornamented with the portraits of the greatest Arch-Mages of the past, were guarded by two stone golems, seven feet tall and looking just like the animated polished black granite statues that they were.

The Mages of the High Council preferred golems as guardians. Any jumped-up merchant could hire a small army of human guards and spear-carriers, but no one but a Mage could have a golem to guard his door.

And besides, nothing short of being shattered into a hundred thousand bits would stop a golem in the course of its duty. If that duty was to rend interlopers into component parts, well, too bad for the interlopers if they hadn't hired a Mage who'd come prepared with counterspells (assuming anyone could find a Mage who would work against his fellow Mages) or brought a big contingent of followers with stone-breaking hammers.

The golems allowed Kellen to pass unmolested when he held up the Council sigil he was sent with his summons. If passing between the stone mastiffs at Tavadon House made his flesh creep, walking between the two utterly silent human-shaped statues, their eyes glittering malevolently at him as he entered the gilded door, made every hair on his body stand up.

Once inside, the door swung shut behind him with a thunderous boom. It had been dark and shadowy when the door opened, but now the place was flooded with light, and he blinked in surprise.

He was standing inside the Council chamber.

How had he gotten into the Council chamber from the main door? When he'd been here before, at the age of twelve, when he was first made a full citizen, he'd come with a gaggle of his Mageborn year-mates. Then they'd passed by the door of the Council chamber, and the Council chamber had been at the end of a long corridor, not right inside the main door. This time, magick had brought him straight to this room, without passing through any of the intervening spaces. Why? Did his father not want anyone to see him but the High Council? Then why go to the trouble of tracking him down at his lesson and presenting the summons in public in front of all his classmates?

To overawe me, Kellen thought sourly, unimpressed. To make sure I know what they're capable of—as if I didn't know that already.

He looked around. White marble walls, a black and white marble floor; facing him at the far end of the room was the High Council sitting at a high horseshoe-shaped black marble table, their aides standing behind their chairs.

High up so they can look down upon their victims, he thought. And he shuddered, frightened in spite of all of his attempts at bravado. Was this what poor Perulan had faced, in defense of his book? He was braver than I thought…

Arch-Mage Lycaelon, tall, saturnine, and imposing in his robes of state, stared down at his son, his face as expressionless as those of the stone golems outside, but his eyes glittering just as dangerously.

"Kellen Tavadon!" he said, his voice echoing hollowly in the vast chamber. "You have been summoned here by the High Council on a matter of gravest concern to all good citizens of the City. Step forward!"

Much as he would have liked to disobey, Kellen knew better than to try. Reluctantly, he walked across that vast expanse of black and white marble until he stood just below the dais.

Lycaelon glared down at his son for a moment, looking as if he'd never seen him before, then pointed a monitory finger at him. "Kellen Tavadon! Three forbidden Books were found in your quarters. Do you deny that they are your possessions?"

Lycaelon's voice boomed and echoed in a most imposing fashion; even though Kellen knew it was all a trick of acoustics and clever architecture, it still made him want to grovel.

But he was too overcome with the nightmare feeling that his worst fears were about to be realized to even make the attempt.

For the offending Books were brought forth by another golem, a smaller one this time. It was scarcely six feet tall—about his own height— but it was no less intimidating for all that; its feet clattered like steel-shod hooves against the marble floor, and he could see the chessboard reflection of the floor against its highly polished grey skin. In its hands were three small shabby books. Kellen felt himself grow sick with dread; he had no difficulty in recognizing the Books that the golem carried. The Book of Sun, The Book of Moon, and The Book of Stars, his three finds, that had hidden their nature from all eyes but his.

Or at least, they had until now.

Father searched my room. And he used magick to do it.

Just as Kellen had feared.

"I see by the guilt and shame on your face that these are yours," Lycaelon said with disgust and utter contempt. "Where did you get them?"

Kellen clamped his mouth shut. There wasn't much he could do right now, but at least he wasn't going to get that poor old fellow in the Low Market in trouble—not when he knew very well that Lycaelon would make some sort of scapegoat out of him.

Instead, he just stared at the marble at his feet. He would have liked to have stared defiantly into his father's eyes, but he knew that if he did that, his father would know just how to get every bit of information he wanted out of him.

"Speak!" Lycaelon roared, his voice echoing in the chill room. "Be aware, we will find the criminal that supplied them to you! Was it Perulan?"

Kellen stared at his own boots. That was a thought that hadn't occurred to him. And they couldn't hurt Perulan any more than they already had. He was Mageborn too. That'll stick in their throats. He recognized most of the faces behind the dais from his father's infrequent entertainments: Volpiril, Lycaelon's particular enemy; Isas and Harith, who his father considered spineless allies; and the other nine, any of whom would be glad to step into the Arch-Mage's seat and probably saw today as a stepping-stone to that end.

"What if it was?" he replied sullenly, still staring at the floor. "What are you going to do? Dig him up and use necromancy on him?"

A gasp from his left told him that he'd struck a nerve. Necromancy was as forbidden as Wild Magic, if not more so. He wondered if they would have tried it, maybe one or two of them, in secret… if he hadn't said something about it. Now they wouldn't dare. Not with the other ears in the room, their aides, and servants, and the ears that were probably outside, pressed to the door.

"If you hurry," he added nastily, "he probably won't smell too much or lose too many body parts while you question him. Of course, in this heat, you never know—"

"Enough!" Lycaelon roared, going red and white by turns. "Wretched boy! Do not presume on our patience, and confine your speech to answering our questions! Have you been practicing this foul perversion called Wild Magic?"

He could claim that he hadn't, and unless they had someone using a Truthspell on him, they'd never know any differently. He could claim that Perulan had given him the Books at their last meeting, and that he hadn't had time to look at them yet.

But if he did that, they'd just take the Books and destroy them, punish him anyway, and aside from being punished, nothing else about his life would change. Aside from being punished? What was he thinking? From this moment on, he'd probably have a watcher with him every moment, waking and sleeping! But if he didn't—

You wanted something that would make your father disinherit you, didn't you? Well, this is probably it. Your one chance to get on a ship and escape.

And besides, they probably had someone casting a Truthspell on him anyway.

Better to remain silent about it, though—not confess, but not deny it either.

He raised his eyes to his father's face and summoned as much defiance as he could. "What do you think?" he asked, keeping his voice even with a great effort.

Lycaelon began to turn a striking shade of cerise.

"Boy," interrupted Lord-Mage Vilmos, "Wild Magic is anathema for a good reason. It is totally unpredictable. It offers you your desires, but grants them in its own twisted fashion—affecting not only you, not only those you know, but innocent parties who have never met you and certainly do not deserve to be caught up in your spells and have their lives ruined by your foul meddling."

Perulan, Kellen thought, and suppressed a wince. Was it his fault that Perulan was dead?

"It is a perverted form of true magick," Vilmos continued, managing to sound both angry and pompous at the same time. "It requires no study, no discipline, no thought at all, thus appealing to inferior persons of inferior intellect and no sense of proper responsibility."

That stung. And Kellen, goaded, replied just as angrily. "Inferior by your standards, maybe! Just because they don't want to waste their lives learning to lick your boots for a taste of what you've got! I don't think so! And I don't think that the mere fact that Wild Magic isn't predictable was ever a good reason to outlaw it then, or to ban it now! This place could do with a little less predictability! Maybe it would stop being a stagnant suck-hole that chokes the life out of anything that's new and good!"

The startled and offended glares he got from every live creature in the room would have been funny if the situation hadn't been so serious. This was not what the Mages in general and his father in particular wanted to hear from him—they had expected him to be terrified and penitent.

Well, I'm not! And they can damn well deal with it! He felt energized and alive in a way he hadn't been for longer than he could remember. He felt ready to take them all on, singly or together! Stupid, hidebound old fools, it was their fault Perulan was, dead, not his, and how many other people did they kill or ruin every day, refusing to change, refusing to see what was right in front of them? A fire built in his gut, and he matched them glare for glare, prepared to say and do anything to wipe those looks of smug superiority off their faces.

"Maybe I haven't done much of any kind of magick," he snarled, "but I've read all three Wild Magic Books from cover to cover. Have any of you? Do you really know what it is that you've outlawed, or are you just flapping and squawking like a lot of mocker-birds, repeating the decisions of a bunch of people afraid of their own shadows, people dead so long that you don't even remember their names?" He snorted derisively. "Mocker-birds! You aren't even that! You're a bunch of old hens, cackling and shrieking about nothing because every other old hen is cackling 'Danger! Danger!' at the top of her lungs!"

Mage Isas was sitting there with such a stunned look on his face that Kellen wondered if he was about to fall out of his chair. Harith worked his mouth, but no sound came out.

The rest were various shades of interesting colors, from white to purple, his own father included.

"And just what is wrong with being unpredictable, with change, with innovation?" he flung at them. "Just why is it that everybody has to be protected all the time? Last time I looked, the rest of the world didn't need all of that protection, and they were getting along just fine!"

Finally Mage Breulin managed to get to his feet, his stiff silver beard waggling with the force of his indignation. "You don't see any reason, do you, you mutinous young puppy? And of course, you are so very learned, you who cannot even produce an adequate understanding of the history of the City, much less that of the world!"

How am I supposed to have an understanding of the history of the world when you don't let me see it? Kellen thought angrily. "You—" he began.

"I have an answer for you, insolent brat—Wild Magic is the magick of chaos and anarchy; using it brings down the darkness of confusion, and there is no room for anarchy and confusion in a civilized world!" Mage Breulin had the wind in his sails now, and was prepared to run down anything in his path. "Where there is chaos, evil finds a way in, as it did before. No one who dares to practice Wild Magic can remain untainted by evil!"

And you've got every incentive to lie to me, and none to tell me the truth. "You don't know that!" Kellen shouted back. "There's a whole world out' side the City, and I bet some of them know Wild Magic! And most of them don't give a toss about High Magick—look at the Selken-folk! They do without you just fine, and they can't all be evil, or you'd never even allow the little trickle of trade with them that you've got! You're just afraid that if you let people see there's a different way possible, they'll decide they can do very nicely without you, and you'll all be left to have to make an honest living for a change!"

"Enough!" Lycaelon bellowed, the acoustics of the place giving his voice far more strength than Kellen's. "We aren't here to listen to the ignorant nonsense of children. Kellen! You will either make a public apology, personally burn the books, and renounce your wayward behavior, or—you will face Banishment! Not mere disinheritance, you miserable, ignorant brat—though, by the Light, I swear I should disinherit you no matter how sincere your apology—but Outlawry, you puling whelp! To be cast out through the Delfier Gate into the forest with nothing but the clothes on your back and provisions for a single day!"

Lycaelon's face was so suffused with anger it had become a mask indistinguishable from the golems' carved faces. "Light save me, would that I had never had a child at all, would that you had died with your mother, would that she had died in infancy, rather than spawn youl"

Kellen could hardly recognize his own father in this rigid, unyielding, intolerant demagogue, thundering down judgment as if he thought he was a god—

Right, then, Kellen thought furiously. You wish I'd never been bom, well so do I! I'd rather starve to death in the forest than eat another bite of food at your table!

"Kiss my foot," Kellen sneered, in a voice he hardly recognized as his own. "You don't want me? Well, I don't want you, old man. I'd rather have a wolf for a father." He thrust out his chin, and crossed his arms over his chest. "Go ahead. Banish me."

Lycaelon barked a single word in the tongue of the High Magick, and before Kellen could wonder what it meant, his arms were seized from behind. And in the next moment, he was pulled off his feet and dragged out of the Council chamber by two of the stone golems.

And behind him, as the doors closed, he could hear the chamber erupt into a tumult of noise as all the members of the Council began to shout at once.

KELLEN staggered forward, thrown off-balance as the golems thrust him through the open doorway. He'd thought the room beyond would be larger, for some reason, and as he fumbled against the far wall of the cell, too stunned to quite understand where he was, he heard the door of the cell close behind him with an awful finality, cutting off most of the light.

There was no point in crying out in protest. The golems lacked the power to answer him.

In fury and outrage—the only things keeping his growing despair at bay—Kellen whirled and stared at the six-inch square opening in the door. Its grill admitted the unwavering pale blue Magelight of the corridor, providing the only light in his cell.

He stood as rigidly still as if he were made of stone himself, listening to the clatter of the golem's footsteps as they walked away, slowly rubbing his arms where they had gripped him. Hard enough to bruise, not hard enough to break bone. Not quite. But it had hurt, and the pain had shocked him in a way that nothing else had, not even hearing about Perulan's death. No one had ever manhandled him before; not even his father. Punishment had always meant being confined to his room on a diet of nourishing gruel and water. The implied violence in the golems' treatment of him caught him right in the gut.

The footsteps faded away, and slowly Kellen became aware that the only sound was his own shallow frightened breathing. He forced himself to move, to take a step, to breathe deeply, and to see what he could of his surroundings.

The cell was even smaller than he'd thought. Smooth grey stone, a cubicle a bit less than eight feet square, a stone bench at one end, all with the perfect seamlessness of Magecrafting. When Kellen looked up, the ceiling was lost in darkness, too far away to see. A cell—and not a Mage's meditation cell, either!

This was a prison cell. So there were cells beneath the Council House to house people the Council deemed inconvenient. Another thing to mar the pretty picture the High Council painted for the people of Armethalieh of how things worked. How many people before him had stood in this very spot? Kellen wondered. What had been their crimes—and what had happened to them?

Reflexively, his hand sought his golden City Talisman for comfort, but when he touched it, he recoiled as if he'd been burned. No. Not after what Anigrel had told him about the Talismans and their real purpose.

He forced himself to take a step, to turn his back on the door. The Council—his father—wanted him to recant, to humiliate himself in public, to help them destroy the first breath of fresh air the City had seen in a thousand years, to say he'd been wrong to study the three Books of the Wild Magic. To go back to them and be a good little Kellen-golem and do whatever he was told, and believe whatever they told him to believe.

But he hadn't been wrong in what he'd done. Kellen knew he hadn't. And he wouldn't say he had. Lycaelon searched my room. He used a spell to find those Books —he had to have! If anyone's done something wrong, it's him! Wasn't he, wasn't everyone entitled to privacy? Wasn't he old enough to make up his own mind about the world? Everyone says that Armethalieh is a city of Law — but where's the Law in the things that the Council's done lately? The Mages live off the citizens like leeches, they destroyed Peruktn, and even if they didn't kill him they put him into a state where he went where he would get into trouble and they probably knew he would! How many other people have they destroyed? They do what they want to because they can, that's all. That's the way it's always been.

Let them Banish me if that's what they want now. I won't play their games anymore.

It was an easy vow to make, and a harder one to keep in the forefront of his mind as the time stretched on, seamlessly, and with no way to mark its passing, down here in the dark. Did the Council mean just to leave him down here and forget about him? He couldn't even hear the City bells, and he hadn't thought there was anywhere in the City where you couldn't hear the bells of Armethalieh.

He paced until he got tired, then he sat down in a corner with his back against the wall. How long had he been here? Did the Council mean just to leave him down here and forget about him so that he could just vanish quietly? Somehow that frightened him more than the idea of Banishment. The cell was just chilly enough to be uncomfortable, and Kellen could stand and think, or sit and think, but either way he was as much a prisoner of his own thoughts as of the stone around him.

If he had wanted a demonstration of the absolute power the Council could wield when it chose, he was receiving it now. Everyone at the College had seen him receive the summons. No one would be surprised if he simply disappeared, not really.

And nobody would talk about it, either, at least not openly. That wasn't the way the citizens of the City did things. After all, the Council knew best, didn't they? They only acted for the good of all citizens. If there was no announcement that he had been Banished—and Kellen suddenly realized just how embarrassing such an announcement would be for his father—well, everyone knew how rebellious he was, and what a poor Student he was. There might be some idle speculation, but most of it would be around the suggestion that Lycaelon had sent him away to someplace where he'd "learn proper discipline." And in time, people would forget about him.

He was so wrapped up in his own thoughts and fears—with very little sense of how much time had passed since the golems had shoved him roughly into this dark, chilly stone box—that at first the renewed sound of footsteps didn't penetrate Kellen's gloom and self-absorption. But he was quickly summoned to full awareness by the sound as it came nearer: not the heavy impact of stone-on-stone, but the softer sound of leather City-boots on stone floors.

Someone—a person—was coming.

Despite his best intentions of standing up to his captors and showing a defiant face, Kellen backed away from the door as far as he could, his heart beating faster.

The door swung open, filling the cell with light from the corridor, and a robed Mage, accompanied by a hovering ball of Magelight, stepped into the cell.

"Kellen," Arch-Mage Lycaelon said, inclining his head. He made a small gesture, and the blue ball of Magelight soared up to hover several feet above their heads, bathing the whole cell in its even unchanging brightness. Somehow that made the cell seem both larger and smaller, all at the same time. The height of it made Kellen feel insignificant; the length and width so small as to give him a feeling of claustrophobia.

"Father," Kellen answered evenly. Too many emotions to sort out filled him all at once. Relief that someone had come—anger, at the Mages and at Lycaelon personally—a sense of betrayal so intense that it made his whole body tremble.

"I trust you're as well as possible under the circumstances? The golems were not intended to injure you. But they are, when all is said and done… stone," Lycaelon said.

Kellen recognized his father's "public" voice, smooth and confident. Why was Lycaelon here? Surely his father had said everything to his wilding son he intended to say back in the Council chamber? Why this display of parental devotion now, when nobody was here to witness it?

Or maybe what had gone before had been the public act… and this was to be the private truth?

"I'm fine," Kellen said crossly. He rubbed his arms, wincing again as he touched the developing bruises. He saw Lycaelon sigh, watching the gesture.

"In a way, Kellen, it is… unfortunate that you were halted in your studies when you were."

Kellen stared at his father. He'd expected more threats, more denunciations. Not this. Despite everything, he felt a tiny spark of hope.

Lycaelon smiled thinly. "You accused us of never having read the Books of the Wild Magic, Kellen—and it is true that no Mage of this generation has done so, but do you think that no student of the High Art ever has fallen afoul of them, in all the years since the founding of the Golden City? Why in the name of the Light would Wildmagery then be so grave an offense? No, Kellen. The Council isn't as arbitrary as it seems to you. Our ancient brothers in the High Art studied the Books of the Wild Magic in full, to their peril and their cost, and discovered what I believe you would have discovered yourself with only a little more time."

"Then why can't I have that time?" Kellen burst out. "If—"

Lycaelon raised a hand. "Please, my son. Hear me out. The risk is too great—not only to you alone, but to all those you might endanger through studies that seem innocent now. Think hard, and answer honestly: In all the time you have studied and worked with those Books, have you never felt even a little uneasy about what you do?"

Kellen blushed angrily, hanging his head. He thought of every time he'd vowed to set The Book of Moon, The Book of Sun, and The Book of Stars aside forever. Hadn't both the spells he'd done spiraled out of control, involving him in things he never would have gotten into if he hadn't cast them?

"You need not speak aloud," Lycaelon said soothingly. "Nor are you to blame. It is the very nature of the Books of the Wild Magic to seem—at first—nothing more than an innocent and powerful tool, capable of being used for good. But the Wild Magic is as seductive as the Elvenkind, using the Wildmage for its own secret purposes, luring him slowly away from his own path, and into convoluted schemes of its own, plans of darkest Evil. There are Mages who recognized them for what they were and rejected their lure in time to save themselves… from what you do not say, I pride myself that you would have soon realized that what they purport to teach are not lessons, but tainted fantasies, foul sorcery that is the enemy of the Light, and rejected their false teachings before it was too late. But now, I must burden you with knowledge normally given only to those far above your rank."

Really. How… privileged I feel, Kellen thought sardonically.

Lycaelon, of course, read a willingness to listen into his silence.

"For centuries we of the City attempted to tame the power of the Wild Magic… and failed. In time, the High Mages realized Wildmagery could not be practiced safely, even by Master Mages—not even by the Arch-Mage himself. If you had gotten further in your legitimate studies, you would have been taught to recognize the Books, and taught why they must be destroyed wherever they are found."

So just how is it, then, that they keep popping up? Kellen wondered silently.

"You see, Kellen, every single Mage who worked with the Wild Magic without rejecting it not only went to the bad, but lost his mind into the bargain, ultimately destroying not only his own life but the lives of those around him. You have already seen that the Wild Magic seems to have an ultimate purpose of its own, one that it hides from you. In ancient days, we discovered to our sorrow what that purpose is. Practice of the Wild Magic leads to conversation with Demons, monstrous creatures who are the enemy of all Light and Life, and any Mage who deals with Demonfolk is inevitably corrupted and seduced by the Darkness, in the end betraying his own kind to the Demons' embrace. The High Magick is an alliance with the Light, and the Wild Magic is its opposite, an exaltation of Darkness. And so, in the end, the Wildmage becomes the tool of Darkness."

Demons? Kellen fought to keep his face expressionless. He had thought his father might bring any number of arguments to bear on him, but he never would have dreamed that Lycaelon would use the terror of the nursery as a serious ploy.

"Nursie" had terrified Kellen with tales of Demons as a child… to scare him into behaving. They were supposed to belong to the Darkness that was the opposite of the Light, but the Priests of the Eternal Light actually tended to discourage belief in them, saying that Demons were only a children's tale, that the Light, which was all-powerful, would certainly not permit something as dark and twisted as Demons to exist, and in fact, they weren't even discussed in his magickal studies or his Natural Philosophy courses. Kellen had read far deeper in the Art Magickal than either Lycaelon or Anigrel suspected—and there was nothing there about Demons, either!

But Lycaelon continued speaking, oblivious to Kellen's expression—if he'd even noticed it.

"And so the Council was formed, to cast out the Wildmages forever, to banish the Demon-taint from Armethalieh, and to let the Light shine free and unfettered over the Golden City and all her people. And the greatest gift of all the gifts we have given them is freedom from the memory of those terrible ancient days. Only we of the High Council retain any access to the histories of so long ago, and because of that we know that the Black Days when Demons walked the land were so terrible that any risk, no matter how slight, of the Demons' return is too great. Wild-magery opens a door to that return, and for that reason, the Council cannot tolerate the taint of Wild Magic, the barest possibility that Demons could get a toehold in this City again. No mercy can be shown, not even when the Mage in question is my own son." Lycaelon bowed his head for a moment, and drew a deep breath.

"I know this is terribly hard for you to believe now, when the Wild Magic is helping you find lost objects and light candles, and other seemingly innocent pastimes, but even the most treacherous mountain has soft and pleasant foothills. You do not know what your future holds if you do not renounce your present course, Kellen. I beg you, my son. Turn back. There is still time. If you will not do it for your own sake, then, please—do it for the sake of the City, for your honor here as a Tavadon, for the glory of our ancient name—"

KELLEN grimaced in self-disgust, shaking off the spell of his father's words. For a moment he'd almost believed Lycaelon, and he hated himself for it, and for hoping, even for a moment, that his father had come down here to talk because his father cared for him. But no. It was more of the same practiced tricks that Lycaelon used on everyone to get what he wanted—and at the end, the Arch-Mage hadn't been able to resist throwing in that last turn of the knife, about doing it for House Tavadon, and that proved all the rest was a lie, didn't it? Lycaelon would do anything rather than suffer the humiliation of having a Wildmage for a son, including coming down here to try to feed Kellen a pack of lies as if he were seven instead of seventeen!

Demons—why hadn't his father just said "bogeymen" and had done with it? Kellen should have recognized the plot line of this particular story a little sooner—it was right out of the Ars Perfidorum, after all—with the addition of "Demons" to make it more interesting.

So. His father hadn't even bothered trying to talk to him as an adult. He'd come down here with this wondertale to try to scare Kellen into doing what he wanted, and it wasn't going to work. If there were such things as Demons, wouldn't there be at least some sign of defenses against them? I wouldn't imagine that mere walls would keep them out. You'd think that someone, somewhere, in all the books in Father's library would have let something slip about how to protect yourself from them! '

But no. And that was because nobody created a counterspell against something that didn't exist. His father had come down here with this nonsense to try to scare Kellen into doing what he wanted, just so Lycaelon could look good for the Council. The mighty Arch-Mage, so persuasive he even managed to turn a budding Wildmage back to the paths of order and obedience and Law! Well, Kellen was tired of performing that particular function in his father's life, thank you very much. The Wild Magic had never really hurt anybody, which was more than Kellen could say for the Council and its tricks. In fact, everything it had made him do had helped other people! Even Perulan: it wasn't Kellen's fault that Perulan had decided to flee the City—from what Perulan himself had said, the writer might very well have decided to try to escape the City long before Kellen ever came on the scene.

He stood silent, head down, no longer meeting his father's gaze. Kellen thought he'd been angry in the Council chamber; now he knew he'd only been disgusted. He was furious now, and more. Emotions he did not want to name boiled up within him, and with all his strength, Kellen fought to keep from letting any of them show on his face. All his concentration was focused on one thing—to keep from lashing out at his father with words and fists, to keep from giving back one iota of the pain his father had given him with his contempt.

Contempt. Yes. That was the word. Long, long ago, Kellen had learned never to expect love or even kindness from his father. But the realization of the utter contempt in which Lycaelon held him was a sharp new blow, more painful than any bone-bruise given by unliving stone golems ever could be. Only a man who truly despised his fellows would attempt to manipulate them the way Lycaelon was trying to manipulate his son.

I've never been anything more than an object to him; a trophy, something to show off to the other Mages. The proof that his bloodline breeds true.

The realization carried with it a sense of loss so intense it shocked him, for Kellen had thought he had nothing left to lose, and the realization that he did took him by surprise. But it was true. Lycaelon did not even treat his servants as badly as he treated his only son. He only ignored his servants, and sent them away if they displeased them. He'd showed his son no such mercy. For Kellen there had been no escape from that constant torture in all the years of his life.

Until now.

Now Kellen saw an escape. And he was going to take it.

"HAVE you nothing to say?" Lycaelon said, his voice growing harsh and impatient. "I see," he said after a pause that Kellen did nothing to fill. "You persist in your ignorant defiance. No doubt you have some childish romantic notion of Banishment, of making a life for yourself outside the City. Allow me to disabuse you of one more infantile delusion. I shall explain to you precisely the terms of your Banishment, and you shall have one last chance to recant."

You'd like that, wouldn't you? After all, if I don't recant —you lose. You lose the game, you lose face, and you lose me. Surprise, Father. You lost me a long time ago.

"At sunset, you will be stripped of your Talisman, don the Felon's Cloak, and be set outside the walls of the City. The terms of Banishment are these: that you have until sunrise to be outside the boundaries of the City lands, or face the Outlaw Hunt. At dawn, the City gates will open again and the Outlaw Hunt will fare forth to hunt you down and tear you to pieces if you are still within our bounds. But I will tell you one thing more: the Outlaw Hunt will certainly reach you."

Lycaelon took a step nearer. Another. And his voice descended to a sinister growl.

"Do not delude yourself about that. No power under the heavens could carry you to the edge of the City lands in a night—not the fastest horse ever foaled, were you permitted to claim a horse from the City stables, could bear you beyond the boundaries of the City lands. Banishment is a death sentence. No one has ever escaped an Outlaw Hunt. No one!"

Kellen glanced up then, shocked at the triumph in his father's voice, and caught Lycaelon's smile of victory. The Arch-Mage was certain he'd won, certain that now Kellen would give in, give up, submit tamely to punishment and public humiliation.

But he hadn't counted on the depth of Kellen's anger.

"I'll die then! I'd rather die—it's better than living on your terms, as your lackey, as your nothing, as less than a dog that eats your scraps!" Kellen shouted. He took a step forward, unable to control himself any longer, fists clenched until they ached.

In the cool azure Magelight, he could see the dark blood fill his father's face until Lycaelon's complexion was nearly purple. The Arch-Mage took a step backward, raising his hand.

"By the Light, I should have known you'd live down to your bad blood!" Lycaelon roared, his voice thick with fury. The Arch-Mage whirled, flinging the cell door open with a gesture, then cast a killing look over his shoulder at Kellen. "There's bad blood in you from your mother's folk—you're just like your sister, and you'll come to the same end!"

Lycaelon stepped out into the hallway. The door of Kellen's cell slammed between them so hard the wood groaned and protested, the sound deafeningly loud in such a small space. The echoes of its crash blotted out any sound Lycaelon might have made in his departure.

Kellen stood where he was for a long moment, his heart hammering in his chest until he thought it might burst. At last he drew a deep breath and moved shakily over to the stone bench, sitting down carefully. He'd won—he thought he'd won—but it didn't feel like it. The unleashed anger of Arch-Mage was more than a temper tantrum. It could have serious consequences for everyone in his presence. Kellen felt ill with more than the aftermath of his own fury. He leaned his head against the cold stone of the wall and tried to slow his racing heart.

After a few moments he felt better. Lycaelon hadn't been trying to hurt him at the last. Why should he? According to him, by morning, the Outlaw Hunt was going to rip the Arch-Mage's inconvenient son to pieces.

Just like it had his sister.

Sister?

Puzzled, Kellen forced himself to concentrate on Lycaelon's parting words, setting aside his other painful thoughts. "You're just like your sister," Lycaelon had shouted… but Kellen didn't remember having a sister, and it wasn't the sort of thing you just forgot.

Although she'd probably died before he'd been born. Died, another victim of the Outlaw Hunt, probably spending some of her last bells in this very cell.

He wondered what she'd done. He hoped, whatever it was, that it had been something really, truly excessive. Not something like theft or murder—but something bold and brave, a strike against Lycaelon and for freedom.

Something worth dying for.

He looked up. The Magelight was still there, hovering near the ceiling. Lycaelon had been so furious when he left that he'd forgotten to summon it to follow him. Well, it would have to stay there until Lycaelon or some other Mage came back to retrieve it.

Kellen grinned irrepressibly, his spirits recovering a little. Maybe it would stay there forever. Lycaelon had been so furious when he left that he'd probably forgotten about it completely, and nobody was likely to remind him.

He guessed whatever his lost sister had done to merit Banishment, it had been pretty annoying after all.

Chapter Eight

By the Light of the Moon

A SHORT TIME later, two Constables in the deep scarlet uniform of the City Watch opened the door to Kellen's cell once again. Both carried the long halberds that—along with the truncheons slung at their belts—were the only weapons of the Watch. Kellen supposed he ought to be grateful the Council hadn't sent the Guard and a couple of detachments of the Militia as well. Then again, there wouldn't be enough room for them down here.

"Time for you to go, boy," the older one said, not unkindly. Despite the gentleness of his tone, Kellen noticed the man did not look directly toward him. Neither of them did. It was as if Kellen had already begun to cease to exist.

The Constable tossed a leather day-pack to the floor of the cell. It skidded across the smooth stone floor until it bumped gently against Kellen's feet.

"Best you check that all's accounted for there. I'll have no one saying that prisoners are ill done by on my watch."

Because it seemed to be expected of him, Kellen leaned over from his seat on the stone bench and picked up the pack. It was cheap leather, held shut with crude horn toggles. He opened it. Inside was a flat loaf of penance-bread—of the sort that minor criminals condemned to bread-and-water punishments were forced to subsist on—and a waterskin. He hefted it experimentally. It sloshed, full.

Kellen replaced both items in the pack and closed it, and put it back down on the floor, his throat suddenly tight. He looked up and nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

This was no game. They were really going to do it. This was supposed to be food and water for the journey, to preserve the fiction that there would be a journey of Banishment, one that didn't end with sunrise and the release of the Outlaw Hunt.

He wondered if either of the Constables knew that every Banishment ended in death. He wondered if either of them would believe him if he told them. Or care. After all, he was a lawbreaker, or he wouldn't be getting Banished right now, so how much consideration did a lawbreaker deserve ?

"And this." The Senior Constable tossed a bundle of bright yellow cloth toward Kellen. It landed in the middle of the floor. Kellen got slowly to his feet and picked it up. His legs were still a bit shaky, and he took a deep breath, refusing to show these two strangers any hint of what he was feeling now.

It was a thin hooded cloak of coarse weaving, its fabric of the cheapest possible material. The black symbol of Felony had been painted on its back with thin tar, making the fabric there stiff. It tied at the throat with a drawstring.

"You'll be wanting to put that on before we go. But first, we'll be needing your Talisman. You don't belong to the City anymore," the Senior Constable said, a little less patient now.

Slowly Kellen worked the golden rectangle up from beneath his clothes and slipped the long golden chain off over his neck. He tossed the Talisman, chain and all, to the floor. It struck the stone with a high sweet ringing sound, and even though he knew what the Talisman really represented, being without it made Kellen feel oddly naked.

The Junior Constable reached out with his halberd and scooped the Talisman across the floor to where he could pick it up, transferring it to a pouch that hung at his belt. His face was set in firm lines of disapproval. The Senior Constable just looked tired and old.

Kellen felt paralyzed with inertia. As if, as long as he just stood here, it wasn't real, and nothing would happen.

"Well, go on, boy. Sun's westering, and you've got to be out of the City by dusk," the Senior Constable said. He stared, not at Kellen, but at some place on the wall just behind Kellen's shoulder.

Setting his jaw, Kellen bent down and picked up the pack, slipping it on over his shoulders. He picked up the cloak next—shoddy workmanship, the coarse cloth barely suitable for sacking vegetables, for all its lurid color, but at least it was clean, having obviously never been used before—and flung it over his shoulders. He resisted the momentary urge to pull the hood up over his face. He had nothing to hide. It was the Council that should be hiding their faces in shame, not him! He'd done nothing he was ashamed of, while they—they'd lied, cheated, stolen… and the worst of it was, most of their victims didn't even know it.

He straightened and faced the two Constables once more. Both of them held their halberds in front of them, as if they were afraid he might be tempted to attack them. The Junior Constable was unable to keep from flicking suspicious glances upward at the ball of hovering Magelight, as if he suspected Kellen of having something to do with it.

Not me. Blame that one on the Arch-Mage.

Silently they stepped back, indicating he should go before them through the open door of the cell.

In silence, Kellen preceded the two Constables down the hallway along which he'd been dragged by the stone golems such a short time earlier. He felt numb, still unable to completely believe this was happening to him, even with the harsh dye-smell of the Felon's Cloak tickling his nostrils, and the lying weight of the day-pack tugging at his shoulders, filled with rations for a journey he would not live to complete. He, Kellen Tavadon, was being Banished from the Golden City!

Only it wasn't really Banishment, was it? It was execution, a death sentence carried out in such a way that the High Council could pretend to be merciful, so that their victims could cherish hope until the very last moment, so that the citizens of Armethalieh would never know that they were being governed by a pack of murderers.

At the foot of the stairs that led to the surface he stopped, wanting to say something, to tell them the truth, only to receive the sharp prod of a halberd point in the small of the back.

"None of that," the Senior Constable said quietly. "Don't say nothin', lad. You're not to talk to us."

In mutinous silence, Kellen climbed the stairs. He wasn't surprised to find that this time they led directly to the outside world. He was in the courtyard directly outside the Council House, a short walk from the Delfier Gate. The lesser gates of gilded bronze, set into the Great Gate that hadn't been opened in all of Kellen's lifetime, stood open, glowing gold in the last rays of the setting sun, and as he took a step toward them, the bells of the City began to ring the Evensong.

First one bell—the great crystal bell in the Main Temple of the Light—began to toll, in long ringing notes that hung in the air, and then, at its signal, every bell in the City joined in, each with its own special tone and cadence, until the air was filled with sound. Last of all, the deep-throated golden bell of the Council House itself joined in, so close that Kellen's bones vibrated with every stroke.

If he turned and looked, he could see Tavadon House from where he stood, but another jab in the back discouraged that impulse before it was fully formed. Herded forward like a pig to market, Kellen approached the Delfier Gate, feeling more alone than he'd ever felt in his life.

Beneath his feet were the usual eight-sided granite cobblestones that covered most of the better City streets. At the gate, they stopped abruptly, as if to underscore the fact that here Civilization ended. Beyond was a wide well-used dirt road, hammered smooth by generations of trade caravans and farm carts. Conscious of the two Constables at his back—and the round dozen uniformed City Guards waiting to close and bar the gates—Kellen walked out of the City.

For the first and last time.

THE lesser gates—together only large enough to admit a single cart at a time—clanked shut behind him, and through, the chiming of the City bells, Kellen heard the booming of the bolts being thrown home, cutting him off from the City forever.

He looked back.

On the inside, the walls and gates of Armethalieh were lavishly ornamented. The gates were gilded bronze, covered with bas-relief sculpture depicting the joys of living in the City. The walls themselves were glazed and colored tile. Even in the poorest quarters of the City, the City wall itself was a work of art, beautifully painted if nothing else.

Outside was a different matter, so it seemed.

Here the gates were plain unadorned bronze, the wall itself plain dark stone, its true color difficult to tell in the twilight. Automatically, he pulled the thin yellow cloth of his Felon's Cloak tighter around him and shivered, although he wasn't really cold. Not yet.

This was the face that the City showed to outsiders. And Kellen was an outsider now. Cast out by the City, cut off from the only life he'd ever known. He'd never felt so completely alone in his life.

As he stared at the blank forbidding walls, out of the corner of his eye he caught a flicker of movement high above him. He glanced farther up, and saw one of the City Guards staring down at him, grinning nastily.

Kellen quickly turned his back to the City, blotting out the sight of the guard's gloating expression. The sunset was a thin line of gold through the trees toward the west. In less than a tenth-chime more, the sun would set completely.

He was cast out. Banished—from the City and all its lands. And in the morning, when the first rays of the sun rose to gild the dome of the Council House, the Outlaw Hunt that the Mages would have spent all night enchanting would be sent forth through the very gate he had just walked through to rip him to shreds if he was still within reach.

Without conscious thought, Kellen began to move, heading down the Western Road at a fast trot.

This was the road the farmers from the villages used to bring their produce to the City. Though it was only used during harvest season, it should be smooth and even enough for him to make good time on, even in the dark. And the moon was full tonight—that was another stroke of luck. It would be rising in a bell or two, and a full moon would surely give him enough light to travel by.

Kellen winced, listening to the direction of his own thoughts. He slowed to a walk, and then stopped, realizing it had become too dark to see, at least for running. He risked a glance back over his shoulder. The Evensong Bells were silent now, and he could no longer make out the City behind him, though he knew it would probably be visible in daylight. The walls blocked off all sight of the buildings—and their warm and comforting lights—from outside.

All at once the enormity of his situation seemed to settle over him like a far heavier version of the Felon's Cloak. Who was he trying to kid? Even if he could manage to run full-out all night long there was no way he could reach the edge of City lands by dawn. He didn't even know how far they extended—or where this road led. He could use the moon to keep himself heading due west, though there was no guarantee that the road would oblige him by going the same way.

For once his father had been telling the simple truth, just as Perulan had. "My dear young Kellen, have you ever heard of anyone who simply LEFT the City?"

No, Perulan. Not even you, Kellen thought mournfully.

Banishment wasn't banishment—it was murder. Banishment was just a convenient and innocuous way for the Council to explain how they got rid of troublemakers. A bloodless death sentence that the Council could claim—assuming anyone ever dared to ask—represented a fair chance for the victim. And until his father had told him the truth down there in the cell, Kellen would have believed them, just like everyone else in the City believed in the myth that the Banished just went elsewhere to live. Of course they did. The High Council was wise and kind; the Mages wouldn't condone anything that wasn't in the best interests of everyone involved. As for the Outlaw Hunt, well, that was just to make certain that the Banished didn't sneak back inside the City with the farmers to make more trouble, of course.

But Lycaelon had given him the reality behind the pretty myth. And no matter how much Kellen was inclined to doubt everything his father had to say, there was something about standing all alone in the middle of a dark forest on a road that led to nowhere that made Lycaelon's words ring with truth. "Banishment is a death sentence. No one has ever escaped an Outlaw Hunt. No one!"

Banishment was murder.

How could anyone find the edge of the City lands when no one knew where they were? In all his fruitless days of searching the City Library for information about the lands outside the City, Kellen had never even encountered one scrap of information about the extent of the City lands beyond the City walls—nor had anyone volunteered to provide that vital piece of survival information to a Banished Outlaw.

So that much of what Lycaelon had told him must be true.

Kellen began walking again, more slowly now, as furious with himself for believing the High Mages' lies so easily as he was with the Council for having lie