/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Valdemar (01): Mage Wars

The White Gryphon

Mercedes Lackey

During the Final battle with the evil Ma'ar, Urtho told his people to escape the tower by way of mage Gate and flee as far as they could go. Skandrannon and AmberDrake, and some of the Kaled'a'in peoples ended up South, next to the sea. They decided, since there was no way to return to the tower and the other peoples, to build White Gryphon. 10 years later, they received a suprise. Little did they know that this land was already taken by the Haighlei Empire, the Black Kings of the South. Skan, Zhaneel, and AmberDrake decided to make Allies of these people, but soon after they arrive in Haighlei, treachery begins. A Court noble, who is opposite the Alliance, is murdered by what looks like large talons. If Skan doesn't prove his innocence, White Gryphon an their lives would be in danger .

Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon

Mage Wars 02

The White Gryphon

One

Light.

From crown to talons, tailtip to wingtip, it will be a sculpture of light.

Skandranon Rashkae rested his beaked head atop his crossed foreclaws and contemplated the city across the bay. Although his city was considered dazzling at night by the most jaded of observers, even by day, White Gryphon was a city of light. It gleamed against the dense green foliage of the cliff face it had been carved from, shining in the sun with all the stark white beauty of a snow sculpture. Not that this coast had ever seen snow; they were too far west and south of their old home for that.

Of course, given the way that mage-storms have mucked up everything else, that could change at a moment’s notice, too.

Well, even if such a bizarre change in climate should occur, the Kaled’a’in of White Gryphon were prepared for it. We build our city to endure, as Urtho built his Tower. Let the most terrible winter storms rage, we are ready for them.

It would take another Cataclysm, and the kind of power that destroyed the twin strongholds of two of the most powerful mages who ever lived, to flatten White Gryphon. And even then the ruins of its buildings would endure, for a while at least, until the vegetation that covered these seaside cliffs finally reclaimed the terraces and the remains of the buildings there. . .

Skan shook his head at his own musings. Now why are you thinking such gloomy thoughts of destruction, silly gryphon? he chided himself. Haven’t you got enough to worry about, that you have to manufacture a second Ma’or out of your imagination? You came over here to rest, remember?

Oh, yes. Rest. He hadn’t been doing a lot of that; it seemed as if every moment of every day was taken up with solving someone else’s problems—or at least look as if he was trying to solve their problems.

There was no one near him to hear his sigh of exasperation, audible over the steady thunder of the surf so far below him.

He dropped his eyes to the half-moon bay below his current perch, and to the waves that rolled serenely and inexorably in to pound the base of the rocky cliffs beneath him. On the opposite side of the bay, where the cliff base lay in shelter thanks to a beak of rock that hooked into the half-moon, echoing exactly the hook of a raptor’s beak, the Kaled’a’in had built docks for the tiny fishing fleet now working the coastline. One year of terrible travail to cross the country to get here, and nine of building. We have managed a great deal, more than I would have thought, given that we cannot rely on magic the way we used to.

Now his sigh was not one of exasperation, but of relative content.

From here the half-finished state of most of the city was not visible to the unaided eye. Things were certainly better than they had been, even a few years ago, when many of the Kaled’a’in were still living at the top of the cliff, in tents and shelters contrived from the floating barges.

The original plan had called for a city built atop the cliff, not perched like a puffin on the cliff face itself. General Judeth was the one who had insisted on creating a new city built on terraces carved out of the cliff face. Like so many of the Kaled’a’in and adopted Kaled’a’in, she was determined to have a home that could never be taken by siege. Unlike many of them, she had a plan for such a place the moment she saw the cliffs of the western coastline.

Skan still marveled at her audacity, the stubborn will that saw her plan through, and the persuasion that had convinced them all she was right and her plan would work. Small wonder she had been a commander of one of Urtho’s Companies.

The rock here was soft enough to carve, yet hard enough to support a series of terraces, even in the face of floods, winds, and waves. That was what Judeth, the daughter of a stonemason, had been the first to see. The cliffs themselves had dictated the form the city took, but once folk began to notice that there was a certain resemblance to a stylized gryphon with outstretched wings—well, some took it as an omen, and some as coincidence, but there was never any argument as to what the new city would be called.

White Gryphon—in honor of Skandranon Rashkae, who no longer dyed his feathers black, and thanks to the interval he had spent caught between two Gates, was now as pale as a white gyrfalcon. The only black left to him was a series of back markings among the white feathers, exactly like the black bars sometimes seen on the gyrfalcons of the north.

The White Gryphon regarded the city named for him with decidedly mixed feelings. Skandranon was still more than a little embarrassed about it. After all those years of playing at being the hero, it was somewhat disconcerting to have everyone, from child to ancient, revere him as one! And it was even more disconcerting to find himself the tacit leader of all of the nonhumans of the Kaled’a’in, and deferred to by many of the humans as well!

I thought I wanted to be a leader. Silly me.

Truth to be told, what he’d wanted to be was not a peacetime leader; he’d wanted to be the kind of leader who made split-second decisions and clever, daring plans, not the kind of leader who oversaw disputes between hertasi and kyree, or who approved the placement of the purifying tanks for the city sewage system. . . .

Council meetings bored him to yawning, and why anyone would think that heroism conferred instant expertise in everything baffled him.

He wasn’t very good at administration, but no one seemed to have figured that out yet.

Fortunately, I have good advisors who permit me to pirate their words and advice shamelessly. And I know when to keep my beak shut and look wise.

Somehow both the refugees and the city a-building had survived his leadership and his decisions. Most people had real homes now, homes built from the limestone that partly accounted for the city’s pale gleam under the full light of the sun. All of the terraces were cut and walled in with more of that limestone, and all of the streets paved with crushed oyster shells, which further caught and reflected the light. There was room for expansion for the next five or six generations—

And by the time there is no more space left on the terraces, it will be someone else’s problem, anyway.

Sculpting the terraces and putting in water and other services had been the work of a single six-month period during which magic did work the way it was supposed to. It had been just as easy at that point to cut all of the terraces that the cliff could hold, and to build the water and sewage system to allow for that maximum population. Water came from a spring in the cliff, and streams that had once cascaded into the sea in silver-ribbon waterfalls, carried down through holes cut into the living rock to emerge in several places in the city. It would not be impossible to cut off the water supply—Skan was not willing to say that anything was impossible anymore, given what he himself had survived—but it would be very, very difficult and would require reliably-working magic. It would also not be impossible to invade the city—but every path, either leading down from the verdant lands above, or up from the bay, had been edged, walled, or built so that a single creature with a bow could hold off an army. The lessons learned from Ma’ar’s conquests might have been bitter, but they were valuable now.

Skan raised his head and tested the air coming up from below. Saltwater, kelp, and fish. New fish, not old fish. The fleet must be coming in. It had taken him time to learn to recognize those scents; time for his senses to get accustomed to the ever-present tang of saltwater in the air. No gryphon had ever seen the Western Sea before; his scouts hadn’t even known what it was when they first encountered it.

Huh. “My” scouts. He shook his head. I had no idea what I was letting myself in forbut I should have seen it coming. Amberdrake certainly tried to warn me, and so did Gesten and Winterhart. But did I listen? Oh, no. And now, here I am, with a city named after me and a thousand stupid little decisions to make, all my time eaten up by “solving” problems I don’t care about for people who could certainly solve those problems themselves if they tried. Now he knew what Amberdrake meant, when the kestra’chern said that “my time is not my own.”

And I don’t like it, damn it all. I should be practicing flying, or practicing making more gryphlets with Zhaneel. . . .

Instead, he was going to have to return for another blasted Council session. They could do this without me. They don’t need me. There is nothing I can contribute except my presence.

But his presence seemed to make everyone else feel better. Was that all that being a leader was about?

:Papa Skan,: said a sweet, childlike voice in his head, right on cue. :Mama says it is time for the meeting, and will you please come?: Even without a mage-made teleson set to amplify her thoughts, Kechara’s mind-voice was as clear as if she had spoken the words to him directly. It was another of the endless ironies of the current situation that the little “misborn” gryfalcon had become one of the most valuable members of the White Gryphon community. With magic—and thus, magical devices—gone unreliable, Kechara could and did communicate over huge distances with all the clarity and strength of teleson-enhanced Mindspeech. She was the communication coordinator for all of the leaders—and, more importantly, for all the Silver Gryphons. The Silvers were a resourceful policing organization formed of the remnants of the lighters and soldiers who had made it through the two Kaled’a’in Gates, rather than through the Gates they’d been assigned.

Kechara’s ability, combined with her eternal child-mind, would have caused her nothing but trouble in the old days, which was why Urtho had hidden her away in his Tower. But now—now she was the answer to a profound need. No one ever questioned the care lavished on her, or the way her special needs were always answered, no matter what else had to be sacrificed. She, in turn, had blossomed under the affection; her sweet temper never broke, and if she didn’t understand more than a tenth of what she was asked to relay, it never seemed to bother her. Everyone loved her, and she loved everyone—and with Zhaneel watching over her zealously, making sure she had playtime and naptime, her new life was hundreds of times more enjoyable than her isolation in Urtho’s Tower.

:I’m coming, kitten,: he told her with resignation. :Tell Mama I’m on my way.:

He stood up and stretched his wings; the wind rushing up the cliff face tugged at his primaries like an impatient gryphlet. He took a last, deep breath of the air of freedom, cupped his wings close to his body, and leaped out onto the updraft.

The cliff face rushed past him, and he snapped his wings open with a flourish—and clacked his beak on a gasp of pain as his wing muscles spasmed.

Stupid gryphonstupid, fat, out-of-condition gryphon! What are you trying to prove? That you’re the equal of young Stirka?

He joined the gulls gliding along the cliff face, watching the ones ahead of him to see how the air currents were acting, while his joints joined his muscles in complaining. Like the gulls, he scarcely moved his wings in dynamic gliding except to adjust the wingtips. Their flight only looked effortless; all the tiny adjustments needed to use the wind instead of wingbeats took less energy, but far, far, more control.

And a body in better condition than mine. I should spend less time inspecting stoneworks and more time flying!

He could have taken the easier way; he could have gone up instead of down, and flapped along like the old buzzard he was. But no, I let the updraft seduce me, and now I’m stuck. I’m going to regret this in the morning.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, by the time he got halfway across the bay, he’d collected an audience.

His sharp eyes spared his bruised ego none of the details. Not only were there humans and hertasi watching him, but someone had brought a dozen bouncing, eager young gryphlets.

A flying class, no doubt. Here to see the Great Skandranon demonstrate the fine details of dynamic gliding. I wonder how they’ll like seeing the Great Skandranon demonstrate the details of falling beak-over-tail on landing?

But with the pressure of all those eyes on him, he redoubled his efforts and increased the complaints of his muscles. He couldn’t help himself. He had always played to audiences.

And when he landed, it was with a clever loft up over their heads that allowed him to drop gracefully (if painfully) down onto the road rather than scrambling to get a talonhold on the wall edging the terrace. He made an elegant landing on one hind claw, holding the pose for a moment, then dropping down to all fours again.

The audience applauded; the gryphlets squealed gleefully. Skan bowed with a jaunty nonchalance that in no way betrayed the fact that his left hip felt afire with pain. Temporary pain, thank goodness—he’d been injured often enough to know the difference between the flame of a passing strain and the ache of something torn or sprained. He clamped his beak down hard, tried to look clever and casual, and waited for the pain to go away, because he wasn’t going to be able to move without limping until it did.

Stupid, stupid gryphon. Never learn, do you?

The burning ache in his hip finally ebbed; he continued to gryph-grin at the youngsters, then pranced off toward the half-finished Council Hall before any of the gryphlets could ask him to demonstrate that pretty landing again.

* * *

Amberdrake took his accustomed chair at the table, looked up at the canvas that served as a roof, and wondered how many more sessions they would meet here before the real roof was on. Right now the Council Hall was in a curious state of half-construction because its ambitious architecture absolutely required the participation of mages for anything but the simplest of tasks to be done. The mages hadn’t been able to manage more than the most rudimentary of spells for the past six months, not since the last mage-storm.

That left the Council Hall little more than the walls and stone floor, boasting neither roof nor any of the amenities it was supposed to offer eventually.

But the completion of the Council Hall was at the bottom of a long list of priorities, and Amberdrake would be the last person to challenge the order of those priorities. Just—it would be very nice to look up and see a real roof—and not wonder if the next windstorm was going to come up in the middle of a Council session and leave all of them staring up at a sky full of stormclouds.

The Kaled’a’in mage Snowstar, who had once been the mage that their Lord and Master Urtho had trusted as much as himself, took his own seat beside Amberdrake. He caught the Chief Kestra’chern’s eye and glanced up at the canvas himself.

“We think the next mage-storm will return things to normal enough for us to get some stonework done,” Snowstar said quietly. “This time the interval should be about nine months. That’s more than enough time to finish everything that has to be done magically.”

Including the Council Hall. Amberdrake smiled his thanks. Snowstar had been put in place by Urtho, the Mage of Silence, as the speaker to his armies for all of the human mages in his employ, and no one had seen any reason why he shouldn’t continue in that capacity. General Judeth, former Commander of the Fifth, was the highest-ranking officer to have come through the two Kaled’a’in Gates before the Cataclysm—purely by accident or the will of the gods, for she was one of the Commanders who appreciated the varied talents of the nonhumans under her command and knew how to use them without abusyig them. On Skandranon’s suggestion, she had organized the gryphons, the other nonhumans who had served in the ranks, and the human fighters into a different kind of paramilitary organization. Judeth’s Silver Gryphons had acted as protectors and scouts on the march here, and served in the additional capacities of police, watchmen, and guards now that they all had a real home.

Amberdrake liked and admired Judeth. I would have willingly named her Clan Sister even if no one else had thought of the idea. Members of the Kaled’a’in Clan k’Leshya comprised the bulk of the humans who had wound up together—and with no qualms on anyone’s part, they had adopted the mixed bag of service-fighters, mercenaries, kestra’chern and Healers who had come through with them. The adoption ceremony had ended the “us and them” divisions before they began, forging humans and nonhumans, Kaled’a’in and out-Clan into a whole, at least in spirit. And the journey here had completed that tempering and forging. . . .

Well, that’s the idealistic outlook, anyway. Amberdrake did not sigh, but his stomach churned a little. Most of the people of White Gryphon were folk of good will—

But some were not. The most obvious of those had marched off on their own over the course of the arduous search for a place to build a home, and good riddance to them, but some had been more clever. That was why Judeth’s people still had a task, and why they would continue to serve as the police of White Gryphon.

Because, unfortunately, the Silvers are needed.

In an ideal world, everyone here would have had meaningful work, status according to ability, and would have been so busy helping to create their new society that they had no thought for anything else.

But this was not an ideal world. There were shirkers, layabouts, troublemakers, thieves, drunks—any personality problem that had existed “back home” still existed somewhere among k’Leshya. There were even those who thought Skandranon was the villain of the Cataclysm, rather than the hero. After all, if he had never taken Urtho’s “suicide device” to Ma’ar, there would never have been a Cataclysm. And in a way, there might have been some truth in that idea. There would only have been the single explosion of Urtho’s stronghold going up—not the double impact of all of Urtho’s power and Ma’ar’s discharged in a single moment. Perhaps they would not now be suffering through the effects of mage-storms.

And perhaps we would. Even Snowstar is not certain. But there is no persuading someone whose mind is already made up, especially when that person is looking for a nonhuman scapegoat. Not even Judeth herself could reason with some of these idiots.

As if the thought had summoned her, Judeth arrived at that moment. Her carefully pressed, black and silver uniform was immaculate as always. The silver-wire gryphon badge of her new command gleamed where her medals had once held pride of place on the breast of her tunic. She wore no medals now; she saw no reason to. “If people don’t know my accomplishments by now,” she often said, “no amount of medals is likely to teach them, or persuade them to trust my judgment.”

She smiled at Amberdrake who smiled back. “Well, this is three—Silvers, Mages, Services—and I know that Cinnabar can’t be spared right now for Healers, so where is our fourth?”

“On the way,” Snowstar said promptly. “Zhaneel had Kechara call him.”

“Ah.” Judeth’s smile softened; every one of the Silvers liked Kechara, but Amberdrake knew she had a special place in her heart for the little misborn gryfalcon. Perhaps she alone had any notion how hard Kechara worked to coordinate the Silvers, and she never once took that hard work for granted. “In that case—Amberdrake, is there anything you want to tell us before Skan gets here?”

“Only that I am acting mainly as Chief Kestra’chern in this, rather than as Chief of Services.” With no one else to coordinate such common concerns as sanitation, recreation, medical needs, and general city administration, much of the burden of those tasks had fallen on Amberdrake’s shoulders. After all, the kestra’chern, whose unique talents made them as much Healers as pleasure-companions, and as much administrators as entertainers, tended to be generalists rather than specialists. Amberdrake had already been the tacit Chief of Urtho’s kestra’chern, and he was already Skandranon’s closest friend. It seemed obvious to everyone that he should be in charge of those tasks which were not clearly in the purview of Judeth, Snowstar, or Lady Cinnabar.

Judeth raised an eyebrow at that. “Is this an actionable problem?” she asked carefully.

“I think so.” He hesitated.

“I think you should wait long enough for me to sit down, Drake,” Skandranon said from the doorway. “Either that, or hold this meeting without me. I could always find something pointless to do.”

The gryphon grinned as he said that, though, taking any sting out of his words. He strolled across the expanse of unfinished stone floor to the incongruously formal Council table, the work of a solid year by one of the most talented—and unfortunately, disabled—woodworkers in White Gryphon. Since an injury that left him unable to walk or lift, he had been doing what so many other survivors at White Gryphon had done—used what they had left. He’d built the table in small sections, each one used as an example to teach others his woodworking skills, and then had his students assemble the pieces in place here. Like so much else in the settlement, it was complex and ingeniously designed, beneath an outer appearance of deceptive simplicity.

“So, what is it that was so urgent you had to call a Council meeting about it?” Skan said, arranging himself on the special couch that the same woodworker’s students had created to fit the shape of a gryphon. “I know you better than to think it’s something trivial—unless, of course, you’re growing senile.”

Amberdrake grimaced. “Hardly senile, though with an active two-year-old underfoot, I often wonder if I’m in danger of going mad.”

Skan nodded knowingly, but Amberdrake was not about to be distracted into discussions of parenthood and the trials thereof. “I’m afraid that as Chief Kestra’chern, I am going to have to bring charges against someone to the Council. That’s why I needed three of you here—I’m going to have to sit out on the decision since I’m the one bringing the charges. That means I need a quorum of three.”

Snowstar folded his hands together on the table; Judeth narrowed her eyes. “What are the charges?” Snowstar asked quietly.

“First, and most minor—impersonation of a trained kestra’chern.” Amberdrake shrugged. “I do not personally remember this man being in Urtho’s service, as a kestra’chern or otherwise. I can’t find anyone who will vouch for his training, either. I do know that his credentials are forged because one of the names on them is mine.”

“That’s fairly minor, and hardly a Council matter,” Snowstar said cautiously.

“I know that, and if it were all, I wouldn’t have called you here. I’d simply have examined the man and determined his fitness to practice, then put him through formal training if he was anything other than a crude perchi with ambitions.” Amberdrake bit his lip. “No, the reason I bring him up to you three, and in secret session, is because of what he has done. He has violated his trust—and if he had been less clever he would already be in Judeth’s custody on assault charges.”

Judeth’s expression never varied. “That bad?” she said.

He nodded. “That bad. We kestra’chern are often presented with—some odd requests. He has used the opportunities he was presented with to inflict pain and damage, both emotional and physical, purely for his own entertainment.”

“Why haven’t we heard of this before?” Skan demanded, his eyes dangerously alight.

“Because he is,” Amberdrake groped for words, “he is diabolical, Skan, that is all I can say. He’s clever, he’s crafty, but above all, he is supremely adept at charming or—manipulating people. He has succeeded in manipulating the people who came to him as clients so thoroughly that it has been over a year from the time he began before one was courageous enough to report him to me. Even the other kestra’chern were fooled by him. They couldn’t tell what he was doing behind his doors. But I know—I have felt what his client felt.”

Skan’s beak dropped open a little. “What is this man?” the gryphon asked, astonished. “Some sort of—of—evil Empath?”

“He might be, Skan, I don’t know,” Amberdrake replied honestly. “All I know is that the person who came to me needed considerable help in recovering from the damage that had been done, and that there are more people who are more damaged yet who have not complained.” Amberdrake had been very careful not even to specify the client’s sex; while the victim had not asked for anonymity, Amberdrake felt it was only fair and decent to grant it. He spent several long and uncomfortable moments detailing exactly what had been done to that victim, while the others listened in silence. When he had finished—as he had expected—all three of them were unanimous in their condemnation of the ersatz kestra’chern.

“Who is he?” Judeth asked, her voice a low growl as she reached for pen and paper to make out the arrest warrant.

Amberdrake sighed and closed his eyes. He had hoped in a way that once the charges had been laid and the Council decision arrived at, he would feel better. But he didn’t; he only felt as if he had uncovered the top of something noisome and unpleasant, and that there was going to be more to face before the mess was cleaned up.

“Hadanelith,” he said softly, as Judeth waited, hand poised over the paper.

She wrote down the name.

“Hadanelith,” she repeated as she sealed the order with her signet ring. “Can I deal with him now, or is there something else you want to do with him first?”

“Now,” Amberdrake said quickly, with a shudder. “Arrest him now. He’s done enough damage. I don’t want him to have a chance to do any more.”

“Right.” Judeth stood up. “Skan, would you have Kechara call Aubri, Tylar, Remain, and Vetch, and have them double-time it over here to meet Amberdrake and me?” She handed the arrest warrant to Amberdrake, who took it, trying not to show his reluctance. “I’ll be going with you to take this Hadanelith down. This could look bad—I am considered to be the military leader here. A military leader arresting a putative kestra’chern under any circumstances will cause some discontent. Still, I don’t want to be seen as being above getting my hands dirty or unfit for service with the other Silvers. And I definitely do not want someone like that loose to deal with later. Hate to saddle you with this, Drake, but—”

“But I’m the one bringing the charges, so I had better be there. It’s my job, Judeth,” he replied as he wrung the warrant loosely in his hands. “Though it’s times like these when I wish I was just a simple kestra’chern.”

Judeth snorted and gave him a sideways look. “Drake,” she said only, “you were never a simple kestra’chern.”

“I suppose I wasn’t,” he murmured as she, Snowstar, and Skan left the table and the Council Hall.

Hadanelith whittled another few strokes at the wooden bit before setting it down. After some more cutting and rounding—not too much rounding, though, it needed to remain a challenge for the client, right?—he’d add the pilot holes for the wooden pegs and straps later. Carving wood was so much like what he did for a living with his clients, it was natural that he would be excellent at it. He could grasp the roughness, grip it firmly, and then cut away at every part that didn’t look like the shape he had in mind.

Telica, here, was one of his works. A slice here, a chunk taken off there, and before long she’d be another near perfect item. Her mind was his latest work. She was nude, kneeling on the floor, held in place by several lengths of thread binding her neck to her wrists, her wrists to her ankles. The thread was completely normal in composition, which was what made it so amusing to him.

Virtually any effort at all would have snapped them, without leaving so much as a welt; no, the real bindings here were those of his will over hers. The regular training that made her one more of his items held her as firmly in place as any set of iron shackles or knotted scarves. She was one of his carvings, inside, though she didn’t presently show so much as a scratch on her alabaster-smooth skin.

Every time Telica came to him for one of her appointments she knew she would be trained and tested in a dozen ways. All of his girls knew this. They could be trapped or tricked, hurt or caressed, abused or set up for humiliation, and after a while, they came to love him for it—or at least obey him. Obedience was close enough for him; he’d take that over love any day.

So it was with no worry at all that he took three steps to stand before her steadily breathing, still form, and put a hand to her jaw. “Open,” he said in his rich voice, and her lips parted in instant compliance to receive the wooden bit he’d been trimming. As he pressed it deeper into her mouth, he noted that it scraped the gums, and probably pressed the palate about there. Good, good. It would serve as another test of her training in itself, then, and the soreness that lingered after Telica’s visit would simply be another reminder of his attentions, and who she served now.

Who she served? That was another delicious irony. Hadanelith was, as far as anyone else knew, serving her, but behind these doors, she was his as surely as any other of his whittled treasures. His treasures were six now; Dianelle, Suriya, Gaerazena, Bethtia, and Yonisse, and Telica here, each one a good but still slightly flawed carving.

There was always something wrong with them by the time he’d made them his artworks. Why was that? Why was the wood always unseasoned, or knotty, or split down the middle, when he’d finally carved away enough of the bark to make something beautiful? It was as if the wood that looked so promising on the outside failed to live up to the promise; that by the time he’d gotten enough of the useless wood shaved away to refine the details, the flaws in the material showed themselves.

Telica here, for instance, was too quiet. It was nearly impossible to get as much as a whimper out of her. He was no more lusty than any other man, he felt, and there were times, just as when one craved a certain dish or fruit, when he simply had to hear a muffled cry of anguish or a sob. Telica was mute as a stick unless he lacerated her with a blade or pierced her flesh with a needle. She was just as flawed in her silence as Gaerazena was in her garrulous, hysterical chattering and Yonisse was in her shuddering anxieties.

It couldn’t be his skill; it had to be the material itself. If only he could get his hands on a woman of real substance, breeding, true quality. A woman like Winterhart. . . .

That one he had yet to touch, although he had watched her hungrily for ten years. Now there was a creature fit for an artist! Not wood at all, she was the finest marble, a real challenge to carve and mold. But he could do it. He was more than a match for her, just as he was more than a match for any of them. What sculptor was ever afraid of his stone? What genius was ever afraid of his toys? The challenge would be to unmake and then remake her, but to do it so cleverly that she asked for every change he made to her.

What a dream. . . .

But a dream was all it ever would be. She would never come to him, not while she was mated to the oh-so-perfect Amberdrake. And not when the whole city knew how disgustingly contented she was with her mate. It was all too honey-sweet for words, just as sickeningly, cloyingly sweet as that sugar-white gryphon, Skandranon, and his mate.

It was just a good thing for him that not everyone in this little Utopia was as contented with life as those four were.

He would certainly enjoy giving all of them a bitter taste of reality when the time was right. Especially Winterhart. Get under that cool surface and see what seethed beneath it. Find out what she feared.

Not the ordinary fears of his six creations, he was certain of that. No, Winterhart must surely fear something fascinating, something he would have to work hard to discover. What could he cut free from inside her? Now there was an interesting image; a hollow woman, emptied out slice by slice, with only a walking shell left for everyone else to see. How could it be done? And how thin could he carve those walls before the sculpture collapsed in on itself? Well. If the wood was good enough, he could scoop out quite enough to satisfy his needs.

These thoughts were on his mind as he lowered his knife down between Telica’s thighs. That, and his craving for her to make some noise for him.

The blade touched the birch-white skin of one thigh.

At that moment, a shadow moved across Telica’s still skin. The lighting in the room shifted as someone—no, several someones—came into the room uninvited. Now this was an outrage! Hadanelith whirled, knife in hand, to confront these presumptuous invaders. Before he could utter more than a snarl, a boot to his face made things quite different than a minute before, when he was the one in control.

Amberdrake’s trepidation had hardened into a dull, tight pain in his gut. It certainly wasn’t because he hadn’t seen horror in his life, or felt himself grow ill from feeling others’ suffering. It wasn’t precisely because he feared a violent confrontation, or the cleaning up that was always needed after such a thing happened. The sensation he had, as the group arrived at Hadanelith’s home—or perhaps it should be called a lair—was dread for its own sake. Amberdrake had the feeling that nothing good was going to come of this arrest. Morally it was the right thing to do, by Law it was the right thing to do, yet still there was that gnawing in his gut that told him they were doing more harm than good.

Aubri, the Eternally Battered, apparently felt it also, although it might have just been a bad breakfast that caused his disgruntled expression. He was a gryphon who never had any good luck, if you believed what he said.

“It’s too quiet in there, Drake,” he wheezed, as they held themselves poised just outside Hadanelith’s door. “We know he’s got someone in there, so why isn’t there any sound?”

“I don’t know,” Amberdrake replied, in an anxious whisper. “I don’t like it, either. Judeth?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” she said shortly. “Let’s get in there—now.”

With a wave of her hand, she led her group of ex-fighters through the door in a rush. Amberdrake trailed behind, warrant still held in his clenched hand, dreading what they would find.

So he didn’t actually see Judeth kick Hadanelith in the jaw and send him sprawling to the floor, but once he saw what had prompted that action, he also saw no need to protest what might be considered an act of brutality.

The young woman was bound only by thread, in one of the most excruciatingly uncomfortable positions Amberdrake had ever seen. Her skin was sheened with sweat, and her muscles trembled with the effort of holding herself in place. There were faint scars in many places on her pale skin. With Hadanelith’s carving knife lying on the floor where Judeth had just kicked it, there wasn’t much doubt in Amberdrake’s mind where those scars had come from.

But most horrible of all—she acted as if she were completely unaware of their presence.

No. She’s not acting. She is unaware of our presence. She will not acknowledge that we are here because he has not told her to.

That was what held him frozen, and what made Judeth’s eyes blaze with black rage; that one presumably human person had done this to another.

The scars are only the least of what he has done to her. This will take months to undo. This is a case for the Healers; my people can’t possibly make this right.

With trembling hands, Amberdrake unrolled the arrest warrant and read it out loud. Hadanelith did not move from the place where he lay sprawled across his own floor, not even to finger the growing bruise on his jaw.

He only glared up at Amberdrake in impotent fury as the kestra’chern read out the charges and the sentence.

“You’ve heard the charges. We’ve seen the evidence before our eyes. You’ve been caught, Hadanelith,” Judeth said fiercely, biting off each word as if she bitterly regretted having to say anything to him at all. “Have you got anything to say in your defense?”

In answer, Hadanelith spat at her. Since he was lying on the ground and she was standing over him, it didn’t get very far. The glob of spittle hit the top of her boot and ran down the side. One of the human Silvers snarled and pulled back a fist; Judeth caught his arm.

“No point in soiling your hands, Tylar,” she said coldly. She looked around, picked up a piece of expensive silk that Hadanelith was using for a couch drape, and deliberately wiped her boot with it, dropping it at her feet in a crumpled heap. Only then did she turn to look at her prisoner.

“There are a lot of things I would like to do to you, scum,” she said, her voice flat and devoid of all emotion. “However, we’ve got one Law to deal with people like you. Hadanelith, by reason of being caught in the acts described, you will be taken as you are to the plateau above White Gryphon in chains. You will be taken to the edge of the lands we have claimed and cultivated. There you will be freed of your chains, and you will be given from now until darkness falls to take yourself outside our border marker. If, by tomorrow at dawn, you are still inside them, whoever finds you is permitted to take any steps he deems necessary to get rid of you.”

Hadanelith’s rage showed clearly in his eyes, but his voice was as cold as Judeth’s. “As I am? What, no weapons, no food, no—”

“You are a mad dog, scum. We don’t supply a mad dog with food and weapons.” Her lips thinned, and her eyes glinted as she looked down at him. “You think that you’re so clever—I suggest you start using that cleverness to figure out how to survive in the forest with only what you’re wearing.” She jerked her head at the rest of the Silvers. “Chain him up, and get him out of here before he makes me sicker than I already am.”

The Silvers didn’t need any urging; within moments they had their prisoner on his feet, collared and manacled.

Amberdrake had expected Hadanelith to fight, to heap verbal abuse on them—to do or say something, at any rate. This continued silence was as unnerving as his continued certainty that no good was going to come of this.

He is a mad dog. The forest is going to kill him, but painfully, and perhaps slowly. Shouldn’t we have at least had the compassionate responsibility to do it ourselves?

But his crimes had not warranted execution, only banishment. He could not be cured, that much was obvious, so the rulers of White Gryphon had an obligation to remove him from among those he was preying upon. That meant imprisonment or banishment, and White Gryphon did not yet have a prison.

Hadanelith glared at Amberdrake all the time he was being bound, and continued to glare at him all the time he was being hauled out of the room, as if he held Amberdrake personally responsible for what was happening to him. That just added another level of unease to all of the rest.

If they had found Hadanelith alone, Amberdrake might have turned and bolted at that moment—but they hadn’t, and through all of this, the young woman had not moved so much as an eyelash. Amberdrake’s personal unease gave way to a flood of nausea as he knelt down beside her.

He eased down his own shields, just a trifle, and touched her arm with a feather-brush of a finger to assess the situation.

He slammed his shields back up in the next instant, and knew he had gone as white as Skan’s feathers by the chill of his skin.

He looked up at Judeth, who hovered uncertainly beside him.

“It’s not good, Judeth, but I can take it from here.” He took a deep, steadying breath and reminded himself that this was no worse than many, many of the traumas he had helped to heal in his career as the Chief Kestra’chern of Urtho’s armies. He looked up again and manufactured a smile for her. “You go on along. I can manage. She’ll have to go to Lady Cinnabar, of course, but I can snap her out of this enough to get her there.”

One of Judeth’s chief virtues was that she never questioned a person’s own assessment of his competence; if Amberdrake said he could do something, she took it for granted that he could.

“Right,” she replied. “In that case—I’ll go along with the others. I want to make personally sure that chunk of sketi gets past the border markers by sundown.”

She turned on her heel and stalked out the door, leaving Amberdrake alone with the girl, a young woman whose name he didn’t even know.

And that’s the next thing; go through Hadanelith’s records and find his client list. Where there is one like this, there will be more.

You knew.it could be this bad, Drake. Just think how much worse it would be for her if you weren’t here.

Hadanelith would not run, no matter how grim and threatening his captors looked. He walked away from them at a leisurely pace, as if he was out for an afternoon stroll, keeping his posture jaunty and his muscles relaxed.

It wasn’t easy. The back of his neck crawled, and despite that officious bitch Judeth’s assertions that they were not going to physically harm him—themselves—he half expected an arrow in the back at any moment.

But no arrows came, and he completed his stroll down the furrow of planted ground without incident, carefully stepping on each tiny seedling before him as he walked, and grinding it into powder beneath his feet. A petty bit of revenge, but it was all that he was likely to get for some time.

At the end of the furrow was the land that had not been claimed from the forest—forest that held so many dangers that sending him out here might just as well have been a death sentence. Even the field workers came out under guards of beaters to drive the beasts away, and Kaled’a’in whose specialty was in handling the minds of wild beasts in case the beaters couldn’t frighten predators off.

And archers in case both fail. Thank you so much for your compassion, you hypocrites.

He did not pause as he reached the trees and the tangle of growth beneath them. He pushed right on in and continued to shove his way grimly through the bushes and entwined vines, ignoring scratches and biting insects until he finally struck a game path.

Then he stopped, a little out of breath, to take inventory of his hurts. He wanted to know every scratch, every bruise, for he would eventually extract payment for all of them.

There was the kick to his jaw, the other to his hand; the one had practically broken the jawbone, the other had left his hand numb. His guards hadn’t been any too gentle on the trip up here, either; they’d just about dislocated his arms, wrenching him around, and they’d gotten in a few surreptitious kicks and punches that left more bruises and aching spots under his clothing.

Nevertheless, Hadanelith smiled. They’d been so smug, so certain of themselves—they’d said he was to be sent into this exile as he was, and then were bound by that word from searching him!

Fools. They assumed that a kestra’chern at work would be completely unarmed—but Hadanelith was not exactly a kestra’chern.

And Hadanelith was never unarmed.

He began to divest himself of all his hidden secrets, starting with the stiletto blades in the seams of his boots.

Shortly, he would resume his journey to the boundary markers, and he would be very careful to remain outside them for the few days it took to convince these idiots that some beast or other had disposed of him.

Then he would return.

And then the repayments would begin.

Two

Skan cupped his wings and settled onto the ledge of the lair he and Zhaneel had chosen when White Gryphon was first laid out, this time only stubbing two talons upon landing. That wasn’t unusual; he was often less careful when he thought no one was watching him, and the pain was negligible. This was his home. He could blunt his talons on the stone if he felt like it.

Together with a small army of hertasi, they had carved it from the rock of the cliff, used the resulting loose stone for mortared walls and furniture, then filled it with such gryphonic luxuries as they had brought with them. It had a glorious view of the surf on the rocks below, but was sheltered from even the worst winter storms by an outcropping of hard, black stone covered with moss and tiny ferns. It was easily the best lair in the city; mage-fires kept it cozy in the winter, breezes off the sea kept it cool in the summer, and there were plenty of soft cushions and carved benches to recline upon. Occasionally rank did have its privileges.

One of those privileges was absenting himself from the likely unpleasant confrontation with this Hadanelith character. He felt rather sorry for poor Amberdrake but, on the whole, rather relieved for himself. Perhaps he could soothe his guilt later by visiting Amberdrake with a special snack or treat.

At least that Hadanelith mess was one decision I didn‘t have to make. All I had to do was agree with Drake. What’s happened to me, when not deciding someone else’s fate is an event?

His wing muscles still ached, distantly, from his landing, and he felt a lot more tired than he should have been after two relatively short flights. I’m going to have to increase the time I spend skydancing, he decided. No matter how I have to juggle my schedule. I shouldn’t be tiring this quickly. After ten years you’d think I’d get most of my endurance back!

He folded his wings, and glanced back down at the surf before pushing open the door to the lair. Cinnabar kept warning him, even after all these years, that the time he spent between Gates followed too quickly by the perils of their cross-country trek had burned away every bit of his reserves. He was stripped to the bone by the strain, so many years ago—but he should have gotten all of it back by now! Amberdrake, Gesten, and Lady Cinnabar had done their best for him, too. This is all the fault of a sedentary life! I spend more time strolling around the streets than I do in exercises, and no one says anything because I’m Skandranonbut if I were any other gryphon, there’d be jokes about my sagging belly!

He closed the door neatly behind him and stepped over the wall across the entrance—a necessary precaution to keep unfledged, crawling, leaping gryphlets from becoming hurtling projectiles off the balcony. The gryphons had never had to face that particular problem when their lairs had been on the ground, but a small inconvenience seemed a trivial price for the added safety of their youngsters.

Small mage-lights illuminated the interior of the lair—unusual in the city at the moment, as were the mage-fires that heated the lair by winter. Mage-lights and mage-fires were far down on the list of things the mages needed to create during the brief times that magic worked properly. Skan had made most of these, and Vikteren had done the rest.

There we are again. Another reason why I am such a feathered lump. Lying in place for days on end to make mage-lights. Staring at a stone to enchant it to glow like a lovesick firefly while hertasi and humans bring me enough food to sink a horse. What would Urtho think of me now?

The humans and hertasi had to make do with candles and lanterns; while mage-lights and mage-fires were in limited supply, they went first to the Healers, then the gryphons and tervardi, then the kyree. Only after all the nonhumans had sufficient lights and heating sources would humans receive them for their homes. This had been a decision on Skan’s part that although it seemed slightly selfish, had a sound reason behind it. The Healers obviously needed mage-lights and heat sources more than anyone else—and as for the gryphons, tervardi, and kyree, well, the former had feathers, which were dangerous around open flames, and the wolflike latter didn’t have hands to light flames with.

Freshly crisped gryphon and roasted tervardi, mm-mm! Served fresh in their own homes, in front of their children—Ma’ar’s secret recipe! That was the very phrase he’d used to persuade the rest of the Council to agree to the edict, and as he’d figured, the invocation of Ma’ar’s name did the trick, more than logic had.

He hadn’t enjoyed manipulating them, though. Tricks like that left a rather bad taste in his mouth. He really didn’t like manipulating anyone, if it came right down to it. Neither had Urtho.

There were many things Urtho didn’t like, gods bless his memory. I always secretly pitied him for the position he was put in by others’ need for him. He never liked being the leader of all those who craved freedom from Ma’ar, but it was something he had to do. I remember him looking at me once, with a look of quiet desperation, when I asked him why he did it.

Skandranon paused, eyes unfocused, as his memory brought the moment back in sharp detail. He said, simply, “If not me, then who?”

Now I know how he felt then. It wears a soul down, even though the sense of fulfilling a duty is supposed to make a soul enriched. A noble heart, the stories say, is supposed to live and find joy in the responsibility. But I am satisfied less and less, doing a great deal I don’t likeincluding getting fat!

“Zhaneel?” he called softly, when a glance around the “public” room showed no signs of life, not even a gryphon dozing in the pile of pillows in the corner. “I’m—”

He’d called softly, hoping that if the little ones were sleeping, he wouldn’t wake them. Stupid gryphon. Vain hope.

A pair of high-pitched squeals from the nursery chamber greeted the first sound of his voice, and a moment later twin balls of feathers and energy came hurtling out of the chamber door. They each targeted a foreleg; Tadrith the right and Keenath the left.

They weren’t big enough to even shake him as they hit and clung, but they made it very difficult to move when they locked on and gnawed. And Amberdrake and Winterhart thought they had problems with their two-legged toddler! Young gryphons went straight from the crawling stage into the full-tilt running stage, much like kittens, and like kittens they had three modes of operation—”play,” “starving,” and “sleep.” They moved from one mode to another without warning, and devoted every bit of concentration to the mode they were in at the time. No point in trying to get them interested in a nap if they were in “play” mode—and no point in trying to distract them with a toy if they were squalling for food.

Zhaneel followed her two offspring at a more sedate pace. She was more beautiful than ever, more falconlike. Her dark malar-markings were more prominent; now that she wasn’t trying to look like the gryphons whose bodies were based on hawks, and now that she had learned to be self-confident, she carried herself like the gryfalcon queen she was. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t trying to settle them for a nap,” she said calmly over their wordless squeals of glee, as Skan tried vainly to detach them. “We were just playing chase-mama’s-tail.”

“And now we’re playing burr-on-papa’s-leg, I see,” he replied. Zhaneel took one bemused look at what her children were doing and began chortling. At the moment, still in their juvenile plumage, the gryphlets looked like nothing but balls of puffy, tan-and-brown feathers, particularly absurd when attached to Skan’s legs. “The Council session broke up early,” Skandranon continued, “and I decided that I’d had enough and escaped before anyone could find some other idiot’s crisis for me to solve.”

It came out a lot more acidic than he’d intended, and Zhaneel cocked her head to one side. “Headache?” she inquired delicately.

He succeeded in removing Tadrith from his right leg, but Keenath, being the older of the two tiercels, was more stubborn. “No,” he replied, again with more weariness than he had intended. “I am just very, very tired today of being the Great White Gryphon, the Wise Old Gryphon of the Hills, the Solver of Problems, and Soother of Quarrels. No one remembers when I was the Avenger in the Skies or Despoiler of Virgins or Hobby Of Healers. Now they want someone to do the work for them, and I am the fool that fell into it. I am tired of being responsible.”

He slowly peeled Keenath from his foreleg, as the young gryphlet cackled with high-pitched glee and his brother pounced on Skan’s twitching tail.

“You want to be irresponsible?” Zhaneel asked, with a half-smile he didn’t understand, and a rouse of her feathers.

“Well,” he replied, after a moment of thought, “Yes! The more people pile responsibilities on me, the less time I have for anything else! All of my time is taken up with solving other peoples’ problems, until I don’t have any time for my own! And look at me!” He shook himself indignantly. “I’m fat, Zhaneel! I’m overweight and out of condition! I can’t think of the last time I sat around chatting with Amberdrake and Gesten just because I enjoy their company, when I spirited you off for a wild storm ride, or just flew off somewhere to lie senseless in the sun for a while! Or for that matter, to lie on you a while. And the longer this goes on, it seems, the less time I get to even think!”

Zhaneel reached out a foreclaw and corralled her younger son before he reattached himself to his father’s leg, nodding thoughtfully. “But the city is almost finished, except for the things that people must do for their own homes, which you cannot be responsible for,” she pointed out. “So—surely they must not need you as much?”

He sighed and shook his head. “Except that the more things get done, the more they find for me to do. As the months go by, the things are always less vital, but they’re frozen without my word of approval or decree. It’s as if they’ve all decided that I am the only creature capable of making decisions—never mind that I’m only one member of a five-person Council!”

As she fixed her eyes on his, he struggled to articulate feelings that were not at all well defined. “I don’t know if this is some twisted joke that fate has played on me, Zhaneel, but I’m beginning to feel as if I’m not me anymore. It’s as if the old Skandranon is being squeezed out and this—this faded, stodgy, dull old White Gryphon is taking his place! And it is happening in my body, and I can only watch it happen.”

As Tadrith raced around to attack Skan’s other side, Zhaneel cornered him as well, tumbling both gryphlets together into a heap of cushions, where they attacked each other with exuberant energy, their father utterly forgotten. She sat down beside him and nibbled his ear-tuft, with an affectionate caress along his milky-white cheek. “The wars are over, my love,” she pointed out with inar-guable logic. “There are no more secret missions to fly, no more need to dye your feathers black so that you do not show against the night sky—no more real need for the Black Gryphon. We all have changed, not just you.”

“I know that,” he sighed and leaned into her caress. “But—that was more than a part of me, it was who I was and I miss it. Sometimes I feel as if the Black Gryphon died—with—with Urtho—and now all I have left is a shell. I don’t know who or what I am anymore. I only know that I don’t like what’s happened to me.”

Zhaneel clicked her beak in irritation. “Perhaps you do not care for what you are, but there are many of us who were very pleased to see a Skandranon who had learned a bit of responsibility!” she said crisply. “And we would be very annoyed to see that particular lesson forgotten!”

She glared at him just as she would have glared at a foolish young brancher for acting like one of the fledglings.

He shook his head, trying to bite back a hasty retort and instead make her see what he was talking about. “No, it isn’t that,” he replied, groping for words. “I—it’s just that it seems as if I’ve gone to the opposite extreme, as if there just isn’t any time for me to be myself anymore. I’m tired all the time, I never have a moment to think. I feel—I don’t know—thinned out, as if I’ve stretched myself to cover so much that now I have no substance. My duty has consumed me!”

The slightly frantic tone of his voice was enough to make both the youngsters look up in alarm, and Zhaneel patted his shoulder hastily. “You’ll be all right,” she told him, clearly trying to placate him. “Don’t worry so much. You gave a lot of yourself in the journey here. You lost almost all of your strength when you were trapped in the Gates. You just need more rest.”

That’s always the answer, any time I complain that I don’t feel like myself.

“And that’s just what I’m not getting,” he grumbled but gave up trying to explain himself to her. She didn’t understand; how could he expect her to, when he didn’t really understand what was wrong himself?

The gryphlets came galloping over to him again, and he settled down on the floor and let them climb all over him. What was wrong with him, anyway? He had everything he had ever wanted—a lovely mate, a secure home, peace—and he was the leader he had always dreamed of being. Shouldn’t he be content, happy?

Well—except that he wasn’t the leader he had dreamed of being, back when he fought against the sky, makaar, and all the death-bolts an army could hurl at him. The stories he was raised on, of heroes and hopes, said nothing about the consumption of the leader by his duties. He had dreamed of dramatically-lit skies against which his glorious form would glide across the land he protected, and below him the people would cheer to behold him and flock to his presence.

Maybe the problem was simply that he was, at best, a reluctant leader when it came to peacetime solutions, and his discontent with that situation spilled over onto everything else.

Zhaneel nibbled his ear-tuft again, then disappeared into the depths of the lair, presumably with some chore or other to take care of now that he was keeping the youngsters out of her feathers for a while. Skandranon might be caught in chasms of distress, but he would always have affection for his little ones. He loved them day to day as much as he had enjoyed conceiving them. He fisted his claws and bowled the little ones over with careful swats, sending them back into the pile of cushions. They squealed and chirped, rolling around and batting at him in boundless exuberance—for the moment—and he wished that he could be as carefree and happy as they were.

Was everyone as unhappy as he was? He didn’t think so. In fact, he wasn’t quite certain when his current discontent had begun. It was simply that today, he was devoting concentration to realizing it was there, and just how deep it festered.

As arduous as the journey here had been and as fraught with danger and uncertainly, his job had actually been easier then than it was now. He’d only needed to offer encouragement, to keep peoples’ spirits up. He could step up and make a rousing speech, inspire hope, and tell well-timed stories. He was the cloud-white cock of the walk at critical times. Judeth had been in charge of protecting the army of refugees, Gesten and Amberdrake in charge of keeping everyone fed and sheltered. Lady Cinnabar had taken over anything remotely concerned with the health of the group. All he had been asked to do was to provide a figurehead, a reminder of the old days, and what the best of those days had meant.

Skandranon snorted to himself. In other words, vain gryphon, your job was to be their living legend.

Now he had to make decisions—usually difficult, uncomfortable decisions. Worst of all, he was the only “authority” anyone could agree on to arbitrate in disputes between nonhumans and humans—and even though the disputants might agree on him as arbitrator, they were seldom entirely satisfied with him. Humans, he suspected, always were sure he was favoring nonhumans, and the nonhumans were always convinced he would favor humans because of his special relationship with Amberdrake. Annoying, but there it was. And that just led to another source of discontent for him; if people were going to insist he solve their conflicts, the least they could do would be to pretend that they liked the solution! But no matter what he did or did not do, someone would grumble about it!

It almost seemed as if the easier life became, the more trouble people caused! In the beginning, when White Gryphon was nothing more than a collection of tents perched on the terraces, people just never seemed to have the energy or time to quarrel with one another.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe the problems are coming because people have too much spare time?

Surely that was too easy an answer. . . .

And it wasn’t true for everyone, either.

Maybe it was just the curse of civilization. I know that Urtho’s army had all the troubles that plague any big gathering of people. It stands to reason that once people aren’t completely absorbed in the business of trying to get the basic necessities, they’ll go back to their old ways. Look at that Hadanelith creature, for instance! I’ll bet ten years ago he was playing those same games down among the perchi; III bet the only reason he didn’t get caught then was because his clients just didn’t come back to him for more, rather than complaining about him. Or elsehis clients just didn’t come back from the battlefield.

Or maybe Hadanelith hadn’t been old enough, ten years ago, to ply any kind of trade; Amberdrake hadn’t mentioned his age. That could be why he had been able to fake being trained—if he had lied about his training he could just as easily have lied about his age and experience. Most of the kestra’chern attached to Urtho’s armies had not wound up with the Kaled’a’in Clan k’Leshya; instead they had gone through the Gate that had taken the noncombatants from the purely human forces. That only made sense, of course; why should they have gone where the skills they had trained for would not be needed? The Kaled’a’in Clan k’Leshya had chosen to go with the gryphons and the other nonhumans because of their own special relationship with Urtho’s magically-created creatures—but the other Kaled’a’in Clans had not gone to the same refuge for purely pragmatic reasons. It was best not to put all the refugees in one place. If the Kaled’a’in were to survive as a people or even as a vestige of a people, it was best that the Clans split up, to distribute them over too large an area to wipe out. That Amberdrake was here was partly the result of his own friendship with Skan, and partly the fact that he had joined k’Leshya himself; besides him, there were only the k’Leshya kestra’chern and perhaps a handful of others.

So when there was leisure again, and people began to look for some of the amenities of the old days, there were some things—like trained kestra’chern, for instance—that were in short supply.

Which means that the more subtle unethical people will have the opportunity to revert to type, an opportunity that hasn’t been there until now. That makes sense. Probably too much sense, actually. Urtho might have been the most principled creature in the known lands, but there were not too many like him, in his army or out of it. I suppose, given how many people were pouring through whatever Gate was nearest there at the end, that we shouldn’t have expected that everyone with us was of an angelic nature. We shouldn’t have expected anything. We were just glad to be alive at the time. And later—everyone was too busy to get into trouble, even the potential workers of trouble.

That only depressed him more. Perhaps he was overly idealistic, but he had really hoped that they had left things and people like Hadanelith behind them. I suppose there is going to be crime now, theft and assault, fraud and chicanery, who knows what else. He sighed. More work for the Silvers; I’d thought Judeth was just creating make-work for them, but maybe she had more vision than me.

Or maybe she had just had less blind optimism.

Or maybe she is just smarter than the White Fool.

Well, whatever the reason, General Judeth had done her work well. The Silver Gryphons, with their silver badges and ornamented bracers to show their station to even the most drunken of viewers, were as well-trained as they were well-equipped. Fortunately for Skan’s peace of mind, the stylized silver-wire badges they wore, created by a displaced silversmith who was tired of never being able to make jewelry anymore, bore no resemblance to Skandranon, White or Black. After all, there was only so much adoration a sane mind could accept. The former soldiers had applied their military training to other matters under Judeth’s supervision, and at the time Skan had only felt relief that she was giving them something to make them feel useful.

I thought that gradually we’d be able to phase all those old warhorses out, that once we knew we weren’t going to need protection against whatever is out there in the wilderness, they’d become mostly decorative, rescuing children from trees and the like. Silly me. So now we have police; and it looks as if we are going to need them.

No wonder that Judeth had insisted that the Silvers always travel in pairs, with one of the pair being a Mindspeaker—and no wonder she had politely requisitioned Kechara’s talents and service. Skan hadn’t thought much about that, either, except to be glad that Judeth was giving poor little Kechara something to do to make her feel useful. He’d been too grateful to care, since that got her out from under Zhaneel’s feet most of the day. The eternal child, she’d been fine until Zhaneel gave birth to the little ones—and the sheer work caused by the presence of three children in the lair, one of them half the size of an adult, was just a bit much for Zhaneel.

Even the addition to the household of another hertasi, a young lizard named Cafri, who was Kechara’s best friend, playmate, and caretaker all rolled into one, had not helped until Judeth had come to Skan with her carefully-phrased request. Now Kechara went up to a special room in the Silvers’ headquarters in early mom-ing and did not return until after dark—not that Judeth was abusing her or overworking her. The “special room” was very special; it had a huge open high-silled window, a fabulous balcony, was cooled by the breezes in summer and warmed carefully in winter. It was also crammed full of all the toys the grandmothers could make. There were playmates, too. The mated gryphons among the Silvers brought their own offspring to play there as well. It was just that Kechara of all the “children” would be asked from time to time to Mindspeak a message to someone. She would stop whatever she was doing, happily oblige, then get back to her latest game.

Mindspeech seemed to take no effort whatsoever on her part which, in itself, was rather remarkable. She often forget to say things with words, in fact, projecting her thought or feeling directly into the mind of whoever she was “talking” to, particularly when she was impatient. Acting as message-relay for the Silvers did not bother her in the least—in fact, she was rather proud of herself, insofar as Skan could tell, because she had a job, and none of her playmates did.

:Papa Skan?: said that cheerful little voice in his head, suddenly, and he wondered with startlement if she had somehow picked up his thoughts about her and assumed he was trying to talk to her. :Papa Skan, Unca Aubri says you need to know something.:

He sighed with mingled relief and resignation. Relief, because he didn’t want to have to explain what he had been thinking to Kechara, and resignation because Aubri had been assigned to the unpleasant task of ejecting Hadanelith from White Gryphon. Something must have gone wrong. . . .

:What does Uncle Aubri want, sweetling?: he asked carefully, keeping his own feelings out of what he sent. She was quicker to pick up on emotion than thoughts.

Her reply was prompt and clear. :Unca Aubri says to tell you he’s up on the cliff and that there’s a ship that isn’t ours, and it’s coming in to the docks and he wants you to come where he is right away please.:

His head snapped up. A ship? A strange ship? Friend or foe? :Tell him I’m coming, sweet,: he replied quickly. :Can you please tell Uncle Snowstar and Uncle Tamsin what you just told me? And ask Cafri to run and tell Judeth the same thing?:

:Yes, Papa Skan,: she said with a giggle, largely because she really liked to Mindspeak with “Uncle” Tamsin. She told Skan it was because “he has a furry mind, and it tickles,” whatever that meant. :There, Cafri is gone, I’ll talk to Uncle Snowstar now.:

Her “presence,” as strong as if she had been in the same room with him, vanished from his mind. He leaped to his feet and called to Zhaneel, who came quickly out of the rear of the lair.

“Aubri’s seen a strange ship coming in to the docks,” he told her hastily, and her golden eyes widened as the hackles on the back of her neck stood up a little.

“Who?” she asked.

He shook his head. “We don’t know. I’ve had the Council summoned; we’ll have to go down and meet it, whoever it is. I don’t know how long I’ll be.”

She nodded, and shooed the twin gryphlets into the nursery—which just happened to be the most defensible room in the lair. She knew; she was a child of the Mage Wars, after all. They dared not assume this was a friend, or even a neutral party. They must assume the worst. “Stay safe,” was all she said, over her shoulder, her eyes wide with worry that she would not voice. “I love you, Skandranon Rashkae.”

“I love you, Brighteyes,” was all he could say—then he was off, out the door of the lair and onto the landing porch, using the low wall to leap from. A wingbeat later, and the White Gryphon was clawing his way against the wind to the top of the cliff, where Aubri was waiting.

Amberdrake shaded his eyes and stared at the bobbing sail just beyond the mouth of the bay, even though he knew he would not be able to see anything. Even if he had not been half-blinded by the sunlight on the water, the ship was too far away to make out any kind of detail.

That, however, was not true of the gryphons, whose eyes were infinitely better than the humans’. Aubri roused all his brown feathers, then widened his eyes rather than narrowing them as a human would; his pupils flared open, then constricted to mere pinpoints, then flared again with surprise.

“They’re black,” Aubri announced, his voice startled and his beak gaping open, as he peered across the waves at the oncoming ship. “The humans in that ship, Skan, Drake, they’re black”

“They’re what?” Skan craned his neck as far as it would go and widened his eyes as well. His pupils flared to fill his eyes. “By—Drake, Aubri’s right. These humans have black skin! Not brown, not painted, not sunburned—they’re really, really black!”

Black? But—Amberdrake blinked because he, and perhaps he alone of all of the Council, knew what that meant, and recognized who these people must be.

“They must be—but we aren’t that far south—” He was babbling, he knew; speaking aloud what was running through his head, without thinking. He scolded himself. That would be a horrible habit for a kestra’chern to get into!

‘They must be what, Amberdrake?” The Kaled’a’in Adept, Snowstar, stared at him out of silver-blue eyes in a gold-complected face, his expression one of impatience. He tossed his braided silver hair over his shoulder and stared hard at his fellow Kaled’a’in. “What are you babbling about?”

“They must be Haighlei,” he replied vaguely, now concentrating on his effort to try to make out some details of the ship, at least, something that might confirm or negate his guess.

“They must be highly what?” Snowstar asked sharply, perplexed and still annoyed.

“Not highly,” Amberdrake repeated, rather stupidly, shading his eyes against the glare of the westering sun on the water. “Haighlei. From the Haighlei Emperors. You know, the Black Kings. They’re called that because they are black. They’re the only black-skinned people that I know of, but how on earth they came here, I haven’t a clue.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Snowstar’s mouth form into a silent “o,” and the Adept also turned his attention to the boat that was tacking into the bay.

“Aren’t we more than a bit north and west for them?” General Judeth asked, her voice troubled. She was right to be troubled; the Haighlei Empire was vast and powerful, even by the standards Ma’ar had set, and they were as mysterious as they were powerful. She shaded her sharp, dark-gray eyes with one hand, her strong chin firming as she clenched her jaw.

Amberdrake gave up trying to make out any details for the moment, and shrugged. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t know of anyone from our lands who had even the vaguest idea how large their Six Nations are. For all I know, they could run from this Sea to the Salten Sea in the East!”

The only person he had ever met who knew anything about the Haighlei Emperors was his old teacher, the incomparable kestra’chern Silver Veil. At the start of the war with Ma’ar—had that really been twenty years ago?—she had been heading south, toward a promised position in the court of one of the Kings. She would be perhaps fifty now; no great age for a kestra’chern of her lineage and training—and she was one of those women who would never look anything other than agelessly elegant. Had she gotten that position? Was she prospering? He hadn’t found out; the wars had eaten up all his time and energy, leaving none to spare for trying to trace his mentor’s whereabouts.

He turned his attention back to the ship. The ship had entered the bay, now, and it was finally possible to make out the details of its fittings and crew. The White Gryphon “fishing fleet” was made up of fairly crude vessels fitted with oars and a single, basic sail—large enough for four men at the most. This was a real ship, clearly able to carry several dozen people, and Amberdrake didn’t know enough about ships to know if it was of a type any of their few folk familiar with such things should recognize or not. It was quite elaborate, that much he knew on sight; it had three masts and several sails striped in red and white, and there were people swarming all over it. The hull was painted in blue and red, with a pair of eyes on the front; the sails were augmented by a network of lines and rope-ladders. There was a raised, houselike section in the middle of the boat that had a door and several windows in it. The men actually doing all the work were dressed simply, in white breeches, many with colored cloths wrapped around their heads and colored sashes around their waists, but there were three people in much more elaborate clothing standing in front of the door in that houselike section, peering at the people waiting on the dock. Rich hues of red, orange, and the gold of ripe grain, ornamented with winking glints of metal and the sharper gleams of gems marked the costumes of these three notables. The cut of their clothing was entirely unfamiliar to Amberdrake.

It did not comfort Amberdrake in the least to see, as the boat drew nearer, that every man in the crew had enormous knives stuck through their sashes, and that there were racks of spears visible behind the elaborately-garbed men watching them.

They’re tall. They are very tall The ship was finally close enough for Amberdrake to make some kind of guess as to the general appearance of these people. The thing that struck him first was their height. The shortest of them would probably top the tallest Kaled’a’in by at least a head. Their features were handsome enough, finely sculptured, although they were not as hawklike as the Kaled’a’in. Amberdrake was amazed by the garments the three—officials?—were wearing; although the material was very light by the way it fluttered, it was woven with incredibly detailed geometric patterns in bright yellows, reds, and oranges. The robes fastened high up on the side of the neck, with the openings running down the left of the front rather than the middle. The robes boasted high, stiff collars that matched the cylindrical hats each of them wore. Heavy, jeweled neckpieces lay on their breasts and shoulders, and heavy, matching brooches centered their odd hats.

Although their hair was as tightly-curled as a sheep’s fleece, it was so black that it swallowed up all the light. The sailors wore theirs at every length, although perhaps “length” was the wrong term to use for hair that stood out rather than draping down the owner’s back. Some of them had cropped their hair so close to the skull that there was nothing there but a short frizz; others had clearly not cut their hair for months, even years. It stood out away from their heads as if lightning had just struck them. But the three men waiting with folded hands wore their hair as short as they could and still be said to have hair. The hats fit too closely to allow for any amount of hair.

They were all, without a doubt, beautiful to behold. Unfortunately they did not look pleased, if Amberdrake was any judge of expressions.

They did not bring the boat to the dock; instead, they anchored out in the bay, with a sophisticated set of tensioned fore- and aft-anchors that held them steady against the waves.

And there they waited. The sailors formed up in loose ranks on the deck of the ship and remained there, unmoving.

No one spoke a word; the ship hung at anchor, with the only sound being the steady pounding of the surf on the rocks.

“It appears that they expect us to come to them,” Judeth observed, in her usual dry manner.

Of course they do. We’re the interlopers, the barbarians. Amberdrake would have called for a boat to take him and the rest of the Council to the strangers if there had been any—but there weren’t. Every vessel they owned was out fishing or dropping nets.

“They aren’t stupid,” Skan rumbled. “They can see we don’t have the means to come to them. Besides, if they came this far, they can go a few more feet.”

And be damned annoyed when they do, Amberdrake thought silently, but he held his peace. There wasn’t any way they could go out to the waiting vessel, except by flying, and he was not about to suggest that Skan go out there by himself. There was no point in wrapping a potential hostage up like a gift and presenting him to a possible enemy.

The tense moments passed, marked by the waves breaking against the rocks, as the Haighlei stared and the Kaled’a’in stared back, each of them waiting for the other to make the next move. But as it became clear that there were no other vessels available, not even a tiny coracle, the Haighlei leaders turned to the sailors, gesturing as they ordered their men to bring up the anchors and move in to the docks.

To make up for the loss of face, the Haighlei brought their ship in with a smooth expertise that Amberdrake watched with envy. There were no wasted motions, and nothing tentative about the way the captain and pilot maneuvered the ship. Even though the dock was completely unfamiliar to them, they had their vessel moored and comfortably snugged in to the wooden piers in a fraction of the time it took their own people to do the same with a much smaller boat.

“They’re good,” Judeth muttered, with grudging admiration. “They’re damned good. I’ll have to remember to dredge some sandbars to hang them up on if they turn hostile and bring friends. It would cut back the effectiveness of the drag-fishing nets, but we could work around that. If there are hostilities, the gryphons and kyree wouldn’t be free to pull nets in, anyway.”

Amberdrake nodded, impressed all the more by the fact that Judeth’s mind never seemed to stop examining resource management and strategy, even while watching the ship draw in.

Within a few moments, the Haighlei sailors had run a gangplank down to the dock, and were unrolling a strip of heavy woven material patterned in bright reds and browns to cover it. Then they scrambled back aboard their ship, and formed a line of alert bodies along the railing—all this without another issued order.

Only then did the three envoys—if that was what they really were—deign to descend to the dock. And there, standing on the strip of material, they waited, hands tucked into the sleeves of their elaborate, fluttering robes.

Amberdrake started to step forward, hesitated, and caught both Judeth and Skandranon’s eyes. Judeth nodded, slightly, and Skan made an abrupt motion with his beak. Amberdrake assumed the leadership position of the group, and the others followed.

He was the only one of the lot properly garbed to meet these people; Snowstar was wearing simple Kaled’a’in breeches and a wrapped coat, both old and worn. Judeth, though her pepper-and-salt hair might have given her the authority of age, wore one of her old black uniforms with the insignia removed and only the silver gryphon badge on the breast. Bearlike, red-haired Tamsin, who shared the Healers’ Council seat with his love, Lady Cinnabar, was as shabbily dressed as Snowstar. Only Amberdrake kept up some pretense of elegance these days; somehow it didn’t feel right for a Council member to show up in public dressed as if he had just been weeding his garden (as Snowstar had been) or scrubbing medical equipment (which was where Tamsin had been). As the best-dressed Council member, perhaps it was wisest for him to pretend to the position of leader.

He stopped, within easy conversational distance, but no closer. The stern, forbidding expressions on the faces of the envoys did not encourage hearty greetings.

“Welcome to White Gryphon,” he said, slowly and carefully—and hoping frantically that these people might be able to speak his tongue! “We are the Ruling Council of the city. I am Amberdrake.” He introduced the rest of his colleagues as the Haighlei stood there impassively, giving no indication of whether they understood him or not. “May we ask what brings you to our settlement?” he finished, a little desperately.

The man in the middle removed his hands from his sleeves, and cleared his throat. “You trespass upon the lands of King Shalaman, and violate the sanctity of Haighlei territory,” he said, coldly, clearly, and in a precise but dated form of their own tongue. “You will leave, or you will be removed.”

Amberdrake stood there, stunned. A hundred things ran through his mind. Should I apologize? Should I beg for mercy? Should I explain how we came here? What should I say?

Judeth stepped forward and folded her arms over her chest, matching the envoys stare for stare. “We will stay,” she stated, baldly, her eyes meeting theirs without blinking. “There were no territory markers here when we arrived, and there are no signs of habitation for two days’ flight in any direction. We can withstand any force your King may bring against us. We have been settled here almost ten years, and we are staying.”

Amberdrake nearly bit his tongue off, suppressing a yelp of dismay. What is she doing? Who does she think these people are? What

“Drake,” Skan said—as softly as a gryphon could—in Kaled’a’in, “Judeth’s calling their bluff. They can’t force us out, not now, not without bringing a lot of troops up here, way off from their own nearest city, and not without a big expense. They weren’t using this land for anything. And Judeth knows we have to look as if we’re operating from a position of strength or they won’t take us seriously.”

Judeth, who understood Kaled’a’in quite as well as any gryphon, nodded ever so slightly.

The impassive masks of the envoys cracked the tiniest fraction with shock, as if they had no idea that someone might actually challenge them. “You will leave,” the middle envoy began again, as if by repetition he could make his point.

“I said, we will not,” Judeth replied, this time with more force. She smiled, slightly, as the wind stirred her short curls. “We are, however, willing to make alliance with King Shalaman in return for the use of this land.” The envoys did not actually faint with indignation at Judeth’s bold statement, but they were certainly shocked. They were shocked enough to turn away and confer together in buzzing whispers, all the while casting dubious glances over their shoulder at the Council members.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Judeth,” Amberdrake muttered, watching the three envoys—though what he would do if they announced that they were leaving then and there, he had no idea.

“I had my hand in some of Urtho’s diplomatic doings,” Judeth said with equanimity. “Not a lot—but I know a bluff when I see one. Skandranon is right. These people can’t possibly have any way of dislodging us without a lot of trouble. If we take a strong stand now, they’re more likely to give us some respect. It’ll suit them better and save face all around if they decide to make an alliance with us and pretend it was all their own idea.”

Before Amberdrake could reply, the middle envoy turned abruptly and centered his gaze on Judeth. “Flight, you said,” he said to her, frowning. “Two days’ flight.” Although it was not phrased as a question, it clearly was one. Skan read it that way, too, and stepped forward himself. The envoy had ignored his presence and that of Aubri up until this moment—a rather difficult proposition, considering that he was the size of a small horse. “Indeed,” Skandranon told the man in his deepest and most impressive voice, fanning his wings for emphasis. “We gryphons, who are also citizens of this settlement, made flights in all directions before we settled here.” He tilted his head toward the man, whose mouth had actually dropped open in shock on hearing the “beast” speak. Skandranon looked up, with his head lowered at just the right angle to make his brows and eyes appear even more raptorial than usual. “You might be amazed at the things we do.”

The envoy closed his mouth quickly, as if he had just swallowed a bug; the other two were looking a bit ill, with a grayish tone to their skin beneath the natural deep black color. The middle man looked at his two colleagues, who simply blinked at him uneasily. He turned back toward Amberdrake.

“We will confer,” he said shortly, and without another word, he marched back up the gangplank, followed by his fellows.

Two sailors sprang down onto the docks and quickly rolled up the strip of carpet, taking it back aboard the ship. They did not retract the gangplank, however, which might be a sign that the envoys were not done with White Gryphon yet.

Amberdrake could only hope.

“Now what?” he asked Skan and Judeth. Judeth shrugged.

Skan actually chuckled. “I think that is obvious,” he replied. “Now we wait. And of course—we eat. Is anyone besides me hungry? I think that if Aubri and I bite through a few leg-sized bones while we’re in eyesight of these diplomats, they might just reconsider any conflicts and be friendly.”

Judeth, at least, made one concession, a concession that really didn’t do much to mitigate Amberdrake’s anxiety; she suggested that the rest of the Council members drift off one at a time and return wearing clothing a little more appropriate to the situation. “Except Drake, of course,” she added, with an enigmatic half-smile. “He is never underdressed.”

Amberdrake wasn’t certain whether to take that as a compliment or the opposite.

She also suggested that Tamsin send Lady Cinnabar in his stead, a suggestion that everyone else seconded.

Tamsin was hardly offended. “I was going to suggest that myself,” he said, with obvious relief. “Cinnabar has a lot more experience at this sort of situation than I do!” He thought for a moment, then added, “I’ll Mindspeak Kechara while I’m on my way up; I’ve got some ideas that may speed things up a bit.”

He sprinted for the path to the top of the cliff; Amberdrake did not envy him the climb that was ahead of him. But when Lady Cinnabar appeared, long before even their most athletic youngster could have made it up the winding path, it was obvious that at least one of Tamsin’s ideas had been to have Kechara send her down directly.

She was wearing one of her seldom-used court gowns, a lush creation of silver brocade and emerald silk that went well with her pale blonde hair, making her a fit match for Amberdrake’s beaded and embroidered, bronze-and-brown finery. And with her were two hertasi laden with “proper” clothing for Judeth and Snowstar, at least by Amberdrake’s standards of the clothing appropriate to diplomatic receptions. Judeth sighed when she saw the particular uniform that her hertasi had brought, but she made no other complaint. Both of them headed for one of the nearby boathouses to change, while the two gryphons, Amberdrake, and Lady Cinnabar waited, keeping their vigil.

It would not be too much longer before the fishing “fleet” came in, and what they were going to make of this imposing vessel, Amberdrake had no notion. He had confidence in the basic good sense of everyone out on the water, though; the sea was a harsh teacher, and those who were not possessed of good sense had not survived the first two years of experimenting with boats and fishing.

“I met Tamsin on the way down, and he told me everything you know so far,” Cinnabar said, as she examined the Haighlei ship without appearing to pay any attention to it at all. “I don’t entirely agree with Judeth’s approach, Amberdrake. I’m not sure it was necessary to be quite so blunt with these people.”

Amberdrake shrugged. “I feel the same way,” he agreed. “But she’d already gotten the bit between her teeth and was galloping away before I could stop her. The little that I know about the Haighlei is that they are extremely formal, that their culture is very complicated. I’m afraid we shocked them, and I only hope we didn’t utterly revolt them.”

Cinnabar pursed her thin lips, but made no other change in her expression. “That could work to our advantage,” she told him. “If we follow up on the shock in the right way, that is. Now that we have shocked them with our barbaric directness—which could be a sign of power, and they can’t know one way or another yet—we need to prove we can play the diplomatic game as well. We can’t simply let them dismiss us as beneath them; we have to complicate the issue for them.”

Amberdrake nodded, relieved to have someone on his side in this. “We also can’t afford to have them out there, waiting, watching for us to make a fatal mistake,” he agreed, “And if we shock and frighten them too much, that’s exactly how they may decide to treat us.” Then he smiled weakly. “Although on the surface of things, it does look as if it would be very difficult for them to insert a spy among us without a boatload of makeup.”

Judeth emerged from the boathouse at that moment, looking as if she had just come from a dress parade. Somehow, despite the fact that the stiff, severely tailored black-and-silver uniform she wore was over ten years old—this time with all her medals and rank-decorations on it—her hertasi had made it look as if it had just been fitted for her yesterday. With it she wore her favorite thigh-high, black leather boots, marking her former position as a cavalry commander.

“I’m glad to see you here so quickly, Cinnabar,” Judeth said with a smile. “This is not my strong suit. Telling them they have no choice but to live with us—now that is my strong suit! But from now on—” she made a helpless little gesture with on hand. “—I’m in the woods. You and Amberdrake play this the way you see fit.”

Amberdrake relaxed a trifle; it would have been very difficult to get anything done if half of the Council members were at odds with the other half-----

“I agree,” Skan put in, “with one proviso. I do not believe that these people are familiar with gryphons or kyree—creatures that they think are mere animals—being intelligent. Look at the way they reacted when I spoke! If you wish, you may put me forward as the titular ruler here, and that will throw them further off balance, a state which we can use to our advantage.”

“Now that is a good idea,” Cinnabar said thoughtfully. “It might be the factor that turns us from mere barbarians into something so very exotic that we take ourselves out of the realm of anything they can calculate. We might be able to get away with a great deal more than we would as barbarians. They will certainly assume we are the most alien things they have ever seen, and make allowances. I like it.”

“So do I,” Amberdrake replied, as Snowstar emerged from the boathouse, garbed in one of his sweeping, midnight-blue silk robes, with dagged sleeves faced with white satin and a white leather belt. He had braided ornaments of white feathers and crystals into his hair as well, and now was more splendid than Amberdrake.

“Well, look who’s putting us in the shade,” Judeth chuckled, as Snowstar rejoined them. “Where were you keeping that rig all this time?”

“In a chest, where it belonged,” Snowstar replied serenely. “It’s not exactly the sort of thing one wears for building walls, weeding gardens, or trekking across the wilderness.” He half-bowed to Lady Cinnabar, who smiled back at him. “One wonders what our visitors will make of our transformation.”

They did not have to wait much longer to find out. As the first of the fishing vessels came up to the dock and tied up—be it noted, carefully and cautiously—the three envoys emerged from the cabin of their ship, waited for the sailors to unroll the carpet again, and trooped down the gangplank to face the Kaled’a’in delegation.

The Haighlei did not miss the change in wardrobe; each of the envoys gave them a penetrating glance, although they said nothing. Skan did not pause to give them a chance to speak first.

“You surprised us with your coming,” he said graciously, rumbling deeply despite the clear volume—offering an apology that was not an apology. “We of the White Gryphon Council are as much responsible for the work of our settlement as any of our citizens. We were dressed for labor when you arrived, as is our duty. Nevertheless, we deemed it important to be here at your arrival—and felt it was irresponsible to keep you waiting as clothes were changed. Healer Tamsin was required urgently above; in his place is the Honorable Lady Cinnabar, also a Healer and a member of our Council.”

Cinnabar inclined her head toward them in an acknowledgment of equal status, and her formal, perfectly fitted gown left no doubt as to her rank. The meaning of the salute was not lost on them.

Amberdrake felt the appraising eyes of the two silent envoys assessing every detail of the new costumes, reckoning value, perhaps even assigning a tentative rank to each of them as the Haighlei judged such things. He thought he sensed a marginal relaxation, now that they were no longer forced to deal with what looked like a band of scruffy workmen.

The leader nodded graciously. “We see now that you are not the piratic interlopers we first took you for,” he said, offering his own not-quite-apology for their first demand. “Our agents reported that they had seen something like a river’s base being constructed; we see that you have built a formidable settlement here, made for the ages rather than the moment, and worthy of the name of ‘city.’ “

I think he’s saying that they’ve had a good look, and Judeth’s right; they can’t dislodge us without a nasty fight. The envoy’s next statement confirmed Amberdrake’s guess. “We see that you would also make valuable allies, and we have been advised to offer you the opportunity to come to King Shalaman’s Court, to negotiate.”

“We see that you are civilized and responsible,” said the man to the envoy’s right, a gentleman who had been silent until now. “We noted the careful planning of White Gryphon, and it appears that you have endeavored to despoil the land as little as possible. We had expected brigands, and we find builders, architects.” He smiled, revealing startlingly white teeth in his black face. “Such people would be valuable guards upon our northernmost border.”

Amberdrake smiled back, and Skan bowed slightly. “I am of the same opinion,” the gryphon said, with complete equanimity. “When would your monarch care to open negotiations?”

“Immediately, if possible,” the envoy replied without a moment of hesitation. “We would be pleased to host a delegation of two with families and retainers, one human and one—other, such as yourself. There is room in our vessel to convey your initial delegation; others may follow you, if you so desire. We are authorized to wait here until you are ready to leave.”

That made Amberdrake’s eyebrows rise. Either these envoys had extraordinary power in making a decision here, or they had some way to communicate directly with their superiors.

Very possibly the latter. If their magic was working more reliably than magic used by the Kaled’a’in refugees, such communication would be simple enough.

Skandranon was equal to the challenge. “We would be pleased to host you in our city above for the night and show you a pale reflection of the hospitality we will be able to offer when our city is complete. In the morning Amberdrake and I and our families will be ready to leave with you. We are as anxious to conclude a treaty as you are.”

“Excellent,” the envoy said, as if he meant it. And for the first time, the three envoys stepped off their little strip of carpet and onto the dock.

Leaving their territory for ours? Whatever the gesture meant, it seemed they were perfectly prepared to make the trip up the cliff.

Well, none of them are very old, nor do they look out-of-shape . . . and how better to show them that we’re fortified for defense? Each of the envoys fell in beside one of the Councilors as they all began the walk to the path leading upward; the chief speaker beside Skan, the second man who spoke beside Amberdrake, and the one who had been silent the whole time beside Judeth.

The second man was thinner and a little taller than the other two, putting him at least a head taller than Amberdrake, who was not undersized by Kaled’a’in standards. His garments of red, black, and orange, while trimmed with heavy embroidery in gold threads, were made of very light material, perhaps silk. His walk and posture were relaxed now, and he strode beside Amberdrake with an easy gait that made the kestra’chern think that he was used to walking long distances. Perhaps they had no beasts of burden in his land.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Amberdrake said hesitantly, “How is it that you speak our language so fluently? Our people have heard of the Haighlei Emperors, and how powerful they are, but nothing of any detail and certainly not your tongue.”

“Oh,” the man said, with a flashing smile and a wave of his hand, “That is simple. We have had many northern kestra’chern in the Courts of the Kings over the years—there is one with King Shalaman now.”

“There is?” Amberdrake wondered—

“Oh, yes. A most remarkable and talented woman, and a great confidant of King Shalaman. Since he has no wife, she serves as Royal Companion. He even made her his Advisor for her wisdom. They call her Ke Arigat Osorna—that is, in your tongue and hers, The Silver Veil.”

Somehow, Amberdrake managed not to choke.

Three

Winterhart closed the pale-blue gauze curtains over the doorway to the balcony of the palace bedroom she shared with Amberdrake, and sighed contentedly. She left the doors open to the light breeze, a breeze that was already turning oppressively hot, and turned with all the grace of a courtier born, poised and elegant in the gown Lady Cinnabar had lent her. It was of a light cream silk, which complemented her skin. Her long hair, laced with cords of matching cream silk ornamented by bronze beads and cream-colored feathers, brushed her face as she smiled slowly at Amberdrake, and flicked her braids over her shoulder.

Then with all the abandon of a child, she flung herself between the pale-blue gauze bedcurtains into the heap of pale-blue silk pillows topping the bed. She grabbed one and hugged it to her chest, looking up at Amberdrake with a face full of mischief.

“A maid for the bath, another for the rooms—two nursemaids for Windsong—eating incredible delicacies at the royal table—and a suite of five rooms all to ourselves! And all Gesten has to do is oversee the Haighlei servants! I could get used to this very quickly,” she said contentedly. “It certainly is a cut above spending my mornings weeding the vegetable garden, my afternoons tending to minor gryphonic ailments, and the rest of the time chasing a two-year-old with endless energy and a positive fascination for heights!”

Amberdrake smiled, and sat down on the bed beside her, reaching out to touch her cheek. “As far as I am concerned, the main benefit is the nursemaids, who give us the chance to be alone together! How is it that Windsong always knows the moment you and I—”

“Empathy, I suspect,” Winterhart said impishly. “She certainly takes after you in every other respect, so I can’t see any reason why she shouldn’t have your gifts as well. And you know how little ones are, they want to be the center of attention, so when Mum and Da begin to shift that attention to each other. . . .”

Amberdrake sighed. “It is a perfectly rational explanation,” he said ruefully. “But it doesn’t suggest a solution to keep her from interrupting.”

“But the nursemaids will,” Winterhart said gleefully and waved her legs in the air, looking for all the world like a giddy adolescent. “Which means that we can spend as much time together as you can spare from being a diplomat.”

“You are as much the diplomat as I, no matter how much you bounce on the beds,” he reminded her with a slight grin. Small wondershe never had a chance to be giddy when she was an adolescent. He ruffled her hair affectionately. She is good at this business; she looked every bit as regal as the highest of the Haighlei at the court reception this afternoon.

It had taken two weeks to sail down the coast to King Shalaman’s capital city of Khimbata; a second vessel with more room for passengers would be arriving at White Gryphon shortly, to bring the rest of the delegation. The initial party consisted of Amberdrake and Winterhart, Skan and Zhaneel, the twin gryphlets and Windsong, and three hertasi, Gesten, Jewel, and a little female named Corvi. Jewel and Corvi were with Skan; Gesten mostly served (and lectured) Amberdrake these days, but he often stuck his bossy little snout into Skandranon’s quarters to make certain that Jewel and Corvi were “doing things right by the old bird.”

The first few days had been occupied with settling into their new quarters, a pair of side-by-side suites in’ the Royal Palace itself. The architecture of Khimbata was strange and fascinating, even to those who were used to the weirdly lovely buildings Urtho, the Mage of Silence, had raised over his lands. It had an oddly organic feeling to it, with pronounced woodgrains, and no exterior surface was ever left unornamented. The swirling curves were covered with mosaics and sculptured reliefs of plants, birds, and animals. There was seldom anything as simple as a straight line, either, even in the interiors of buildings. The corners and the joining of walls and ceilings were always gently rounded, forming arches; ceilings sloped slightly upward to the center of a room, where there was always a flower-shaped or globe-shaped lamp. There wasn’t a right angle to be seen here, unlike the carved stone austerity of the buildings of long-lost Ka’venusho.

The private rooms all seemed to be decorated in pastels, and featured a number of ingenious ways to at least simulate coolness. There were gauze curtains to reflect away the worst of the sunlight, and huge windows and balcony doors to catch the least breeze. Fabrics were light and airy, smooth and soft to the touch. That was just as well because Khimbata lay in the heart of a jungle, and it was the most northerly of all the Haighlei Kingdoms. Amberdrake did not want to think about spending summer in one of the more southerly regions. One, at least, was a desert, with temperatures literally high enough to kill a man standing under the open sky for more than a few moments. So he had been told, at any rate, and he saw no reason to dispute the claim.

In the public chambers, however, the Haighlei love of color ran riot. The Haighlei felt as much at home in the jungle as within a building, and brought the jungle into their buildings as a pleasant reminder of the wealth of life lying outside the city. Huge, lush plants prospered inside, placed where sunlight would reach them and accompanied by cheerful fountains or pools with lazy fish of gold, white, and black. Tiny, huge-eyed furry creatures scampered tamely up the plants’ trunks, and out onto their limbs, and loud, rainbow-bright birds sang, whistled, or spoke mockingly down at the humans passing beneath.

The birds made Amberdrake feel comfortable amid all the alien architecture. They were like the tiny, rainbow-hued messenger-birds that the Kaled’a’in had brought with them, cherished, carefully nurtured, all the way from Urtho’s Tower. These birds were larger, but like the messengers, spoke in human voices, with sense to their speech. He had already made friends with two, a salmon-pink one with a backward-curving crest of deep red, and one seemingly painted in blue, gold, and green.

The walls were covered with mosaics that were just as colorful as the birds, and cool, dim, deep-green passages between the vast public rooms brought to mind the cool, dim trails between huge forest giants.

The Haighlei themselves were as harlequin-bright in costume as their architecture; the clothing the three envoys had worn was fairly typical. Silk, raime, the finest linen imaginable, and a gauzy stuff made from fluffy plant fiber were dyed and fashioned into elaborate, fluttering robes, billowing trousers, and draped gowns, none of which incorporated less than three colors.

Amberdrake had pulled out all his most elaborately beaded and embroidered robes in anticipation of this; Winterhart would have been in some sartorial difficulty if it hadn’t been for Lady Cinnabar. The Lady, it seemed, had used all of her old court gowns as padding on the floor of her floating-barge when planning for the evacuation of Urtho’s Tower. That was clever of her, and reasonable given that fabric for padding was not a high priority and that her gowns were not made of stuffs that could be used as bandages or other useful articles. The clever aspect was that she had packed her gowns in a way that allowed her to retrieve the robes and dresses unharmed. “All” of her court gowns comprised a formidable number, and most of them were utterly unsuitable for the life of a Healer in a half-finished city.

Not all of the gowns were still pristine, and the lighter the fabric, the more it had suffered from wear and the intervening decade. Winterhart, however, was smaller than the aristocratic Cinnabar, and even those articles showing signs of wear or weakness at the seams could be cut down for her and look new. Jewel and Corvi had spent most of the sea voyage frantically—but delightedly—retailoring those gowns to suit their new owner. There was nothing a hertasi enjoyed more than costume-making, and there had been little enough of that during the war with Ma’ar or the search for a new home. Even Gesten had gotten into the act, much to the amusement of Skandranon.

So now Winterhart could put on as fine a display as Amberdrake, wearing her elaborate gowns with all the aplomb of the lady of nobility she had once been. The difference was, now she was not suffering under the expectations of her high-ranking family; now it was Amberdrake who was under the careful scrutiny of countless critical eyes, and she who needed only smile and whisper a bit of advice unless she chose otherwise.

She was enjoying it; Amberdrake was quite sure of that. He thought about Winterhart with a wry smile as he looped string on his fingers, preparatory to making a cat’s cradle. She was enjoying the luxury and pampering she had not had in decades. For the past ten years she had done all of her own chores, her own cleaning, her own cooking—or rather, she had done those things with the help of Gesten and Amberdrake. For years before that, she had lived the rough life of a trondi’irn in Urtho’s army, a healer and tender of Urtho’s gryphons, a post where there were few luxuries and no pampering. Even Urtho himself had lived a life positively austere by the standards of the Haighlei Courts.

“Is Silver Veil able to visit us this afternoon?” Winterhart asked suddenly. Amberdrake covertly searched her face for any hint of jealousy, but to his relief, there didn’t seem to be any signs of it. He would not have been at all surprised to discover that Winterhart was jealous of The Silver Veil. His mentor was one of those fine-boned, ageless women who, once they achieve maturity, seem to hover at an indefinable perfection until they are very old indeed. Her hair had turned silver in her teens, and she had capitalized on what might have been a handicap for someone in her profession by growing and cultivating it until it reached the floor, making it the trademark that had become her name. She was as strikingly graceful and beautiful now as she had been when he knew her, and it would not have been unexpected for Winterhart to react with jealousy at the inevitable bond between astonishingly beautiful mentor and student.

“What do you think of her?” he asked cautiously, looping another strand. “Your own opinion, not what you think I want to hear.”

“I like her,” Winterhart said thoughtfully, her gaze turned inward for a moment. “If you can say you ‘like’ someone as self-contained as she is, that is. I want her to like me, and not just be polite to me, and that’s not just because she is your old teacher and your friend. I like to listen to her talking; I think she is fascinating. I hope that I may age as gracefully.”

Amberdrake nodded; it was a good observation. ‘To answer your question, she said she wanted to come to our suite this afternoon, if that is all right with you.”

“When everyone else is taking a nap, which is a good time for northerners like us to get together and pretend we are accomplishing something even though we aren’t,”

Winterhart chuckled. “I thought that was so absurd when we first arrived here, for everything to stop at the height of the day—but now, I can’t imagine even trying to get anything done when it’s so horribly hot. Even Windsong takes her nap without arguing now, and I thought that was nothing short of miraculous.”

“But it’s the perfect time of day to socialize,” Amberdrake pointed out, verbally, since his fingers were weaving and unweaving intricate knots. “Especially if little ‘why-mama’ is chasing dream-butterflies. And if we northerners can’t bear to sleep during the day when we should be getting work done, at least we can keep each other company.”

Gesten appeared in the doorway, as if on cue. “Windsong is asleep, and Silver Veil is here, Drake,” he said. “Would you prefer the sitting room or the garden?”

Amberdrake raised an eyebrow at Winterhart, signifying that it was her choice. After all, his hands were tied at the moment. “The garden, I think,” she replied after a moment. “I hope the fountains in the pool will make it cooler than the sitting room.”

By now, as always, even the cool stone of the floors was not helping cool the air much. It was always like this; shortly after noon, the heat began to collect, and it weighed down the very air until the sun neared the west-em horizon.

Gesten shrugged. “They’re supposed to, so they tell me,” the little hertasi said philosophically. “I’ll have Jewel tell someone to send up the usual refreshments.”

“I’d appreciate it if you’d serve us yourself, Gesten,” Amberdrake said before Gesten could leave. “I don’t think we’re likely to say anything dubious, but it’s hard to tell how the Haighlei would translate some of our conversations or mannerisms.”

Gesten nodded and went off to attend to all of it; no need to elaborate with him. They all knew that the so-attentive servants were reporting whatever they saw and overheard to their superiors, and possibly to masters besides their superiors. That might have been the reason for Winterhart’s choice of the garden as well; the sound of the fountains would cover any conversation from more than a few feet away.

Discretion, discretion. Still, this is better than facing the Haighlei warships. They were on sufferance here; how much, perhaps Silver Veil could tell them. That was what she had implied when she asked for this meeting; that she could tell him more about their position here, now that the delegation had settled in.

Winterhart smiled as Amberdrake showed off the finished cat’s cradle, then she slipped off the side of the bed and smoothed down her skirt. Amberdrake unraveled the elaborate finger and string sculpture, rose to his feet and straightened wrinkles out of his robes. Together they made their way to the tiny garden in the center of every suite of rooms. The Palace sprawled out across the Royal Compound, rather than being built in the vertical as Urtho’s Tower had been. It was a vast complex of suites connected by corridors, with tiny gardens everywhere, as if they had been scattered like seeds and the Palace had been built around them. Every garden had one huge tree growing in the middle, shading everything, and most had more of the same ubiquitous fountains and pools that their own garden had. The theory was that this allowed more air to flow through the rooms, and the falling water cooled the breeze further. Since there was no need to worry about heating this vast pile, there was no need to build so as to conserve heat.

Their garden was mostly water, a complex of fountains and connected pools with a fabulous collection of water-lilies, water-irises, and flowering reeds to set off the fat fish in their armor of red and black, gold and white. Their tree was a huge giant, towering far above the roof three stories above, and shading the entire courtyard perfectly. Gesten had set a low wooden table and three upholstered lounges out in the flagstoned midst of the pools, and Silver Veil was already there, wearing a thin gown of finger-pleated linen with gold ornaments on her arms and bare ankles, trailing her fingers gracefully in the water. Feeding the fish, perhaps? They were always greedy for crumbs. She rose as they approached. Her thin, delicate face was suffused with pleasure.

She kissed both of them on the cheek, impartially, and they all took their seats as Gesten arrived with cool beverages and slices of fruit arranged artfully on a plate. At the moment, the earlier breeze had died away to nothing, leaving only the heat and the babble of water; Winterhart picked up a fan made of woven palm leaves and created a breeze of her own. The palm-leaf fans woven into fanciful shapes were another Palace fixture; servants left stacks of them everywhere.

“Does it ever get cold here?” she asked, a little desperately, as Silver Veil followed her example with a fan shaped like a spade blade.

Silver Veil shook her head, and her silver hair followed the motion. “Never; in the deep of winter it is sometimes very cool during the night, but only so that one wants a brazier of coals in one’s bedroom, and perhaps a light blanket. I never thought that I would long for snow before I came here.”

“Well, we of White Gryphon have snow enough in winter for you,” Amberdrake replied, “if you can get leave to come visit. You would be very welcome.”

But Silver Veil only sighed. “I fear not,” she said reluctantly. “I am one of Shalaman’s Chief Advisors, you know; there is only Truthsayer Leyuet and Palisar, the Speaker to the Gods, besides me.” She coughed delicately. “I fear that their advice is rather biased in some areas. I would rather be here to counter them, so to speak. In fact, that was why I wished to speak with you both, now that you have had time to settle in and view the situation.”

“Oh? I am flattered that you would hold our welfare in such esteem, Lady,” Winterhart said carefully.

Silver Veil laughed; it sounded like one of the fountains. “So discreet, Winterhart!” she exclaimed, with no hint of mockery. “From what northern court did you spring? It took me years to learn such discretion.”

“Some are born with such grace,” Amberdrake replied quickly, to save Winterhart from the question. Nevertheless he was enjoying the exchange, for this was like some of the conversations he had shared with her in the past, during the few moments of tranquillity during their flight from Kiamvir Ma’ar’s forces. Now, however, the conversation was better, because it was between equals, not world-wise mentor and overstressed pupil. I would not want to repeat that time for any amount of money, but I am glad to have experienced it, in a peculiar way. Certainly I am grateful for the privilege of learning from her.

When all was lost to him, she had taken him in. When he was adrift, she found him the avocation best suited to his talents. Who else would have done such a thing?

Silver Veil bowed her head in ironic acknowledgment of the truth of his answer. “Well, here and now comes the time to leave a certain amount of discretion outside the garden, and speak frankly, northerner to northerner, friend to friend.” She leaned forward, her violet-gray eyes darkened momentarily. “I need to give you some small idea of the world you have blundered into.”

“It baffles me,” Amberdrake confessed. “I am not certain how to act, and I find myself doing nothing rather than chance an incident.” He looked to Winterhart for confirmation, and she nodded.

Silver Veil fanned herself quietly. “Your instincts must be guiding you correctly,” she told them both, “For that is the safest thing to do here; nothing. Had you noticed anything odd about the Court itself? Physical things, I mean; things that seem familiar, but antique.”

Amberdrake frowned, for he had, although he could not name precisely what had set off those strange feelings of familiarity at one remove. But Winterhart was quite certain.

“There are strange echoes of our past here,” she said. “I see it in the clothing, some of the customs, even some of the food. But none of it is like the North we left.”

“Precisely,” Silver Veil said, with a nod. “It is like the North of years, decades, even centuries ago. That was what gave me the key to understanding these people. They both abhor, and adore, change.”

Amberdrake shook his head. “I’m not sure I understand,” he began.

Silver Veil interrupted him with a gesture of her fan. “The Haighlei are a people who avoid change at all cost. Their own customs go back in an unbroken line for hundreds of years. To them, our way of life with its constant changes and readjustments is one short step below blasphemy, for if the gods wanted men to change, would the gods not decree it?” She shrugged. “The point is, they not only hate change, it is mandated against by their holy writings. Change comes as the gods decree, when the gods decree.”

Winterhart frowned. “But if that’s the case, how is it that customs of ours have ended up in practice here?”

“A good point.” Silver Veil looked pleased. “That is one reason why change, with all the attraction of the forbidden, is very appearing to many of them. And the answer to how change comes to them is this; someone, at some point, understood that without some changes taking place, this society would rot from within. So at some point in the past, the holy writings were modified. There is a celebration connected to an eclipse that takes place once every twenty years. The more of the sun that vanishes, the more change can be integrated into the society. Thereafter, however, it does not change, except for deep exploration of the details. That is why you see things here that have only been written about in our lands. And that is why the office and position of kestra’chern were established here in the first place.”

“But it is the kestra’chern of a hundred years ago that they imitate?” Amberdrake hazarded.

“More like two hundred or more, the kestra’chern who were the pampered and cultured members of the households of the very elite, and never seen by the common folk at all.” She pointed her fan at the two of them. “You are on sufferance here; you embody change. Only if Shalaman accepts you and adds you and your presence here to the Eclipse Ceremony will you be actually accepted by the Haighlei as a whole.” She flicked her fan idly at a blue fly blundering past. “You don’t have many friends here. The Speaker to the Gods is firmly against your presence. Others are curious, but fearful of all the changes you represent.”

He nodded, slowly. “I understand. So the question becomes, how do we persuade others over to our side?”

She shook her head, and her jewelry sang softly. “Gentle persistence. It helps that you have Skandranon with you; he is such a novelty that he is keeping peoples’ minds off what you folk truly represent. I was accepted because what I am fell within the bounds of what they had already accepted. You must tread a careful path, Amberdrake. You dare not give offense, or give reason for the Haighlei to dismiss you as mere barbarians.”

“What else do we need to know?” Winterhart asked urgently.

“Mostly that the Heighlei are very literal people; they will tell you exactly what they mean to do, not a bit more, and not a bit less.” She creased her brow in thought. “Of course, that is subject to modification, depending on how the person feels about you. If you asked one who felt indifferent toward you to guard your pet, he would guard your pet and ignore the thief taking your purse.”

Amberdrake nodded, trying to absorb it all.

“What can you tell us about this Eclipse Ceremony?” he asked.

Silver Veil smiled.

“Well,” she said, with another wave of her fan, “Obviously, it begins, ends, and centers around the Eclipse. . . .”

Zhaneel found the hot afternoons as soporific as any of the Haighlei, and usually followed their example in taking a long nap. Even the youngsters were inclined to sleep in the heat—her Tadrith and Keenath and Winterhart’s energetic girl Windsong. Well, since the twins had been born, she had been short on sleep, so now she might have a chance to make it up at last. Let Skandranon poke his beak in and around the corners of this fascinating Palace; while it was this hot, she would luxuriate in a nest of silken cushions, or stretch her entire length along a slab of cool marble in the garden.

She was doing just that, when one of the servants entered, apparently unaware of her presence. The twins were asleep in the shade, curled up like a pair of fuzzy kittens beside one of the pools, for they liked to use the waterfall as a kind of lullaby. The servant spotted them and approached them curiously, then reached out a cautious hand to touch.

Not a good idea, since the little ones sometimes woke when startled in an instinctive defensive reaction. An unwary human could end up with a hand full of talons, which would be very painful, since each of the twins sported claws as formidable as an eagle’s. She raised her head and cleared her throat discreetly.

The servant started, jerking upright, and stared at her for a single, shocked second, with the whites of his eyes showing all around the dark irises. Then he began to back up slowly, stammering something in his own language. She couldn’t understand him, of course, but she had a good idea of the gist of it, since this wasn’t the first time she’d startled a servant.

Nice kitty. Good kitty. Don’t eat me, kitty

She uttered one of the few phrases in his language she knew, the equivalent of “Don’t be afraid, I didn’t know you were coming in; please don’t wake the babies.”

He stared at her in shock, and she added another of the phrases she’d learned. “I prefer not to eat anything that can speak back to me.”

He uttered something very like a squeak, and bolted.

She sighed and put her head down on her foreclaws again. Poor silly man. Doesn’t anyone tell these people about us? It wasn’t that the Haighlei were prejudiced, exactly, it was just that they were used to seeing large, fierce, carnivorous creatures, but were not used to them being intelligent. Sooner or later she and Skan would convince them all that the gryphons were neither dangerous, nor unpredictable, but until they did, there would probably be a great many frightened servants setting new records for speed in exiting a room.

Those who accept us as intelligent are still having difficulty accepting us as full citizens, co-equal with the humans of White Gryphon, she reflected, wondering how they were going to overcome that much stickier problem. At least I don’t have to worry about that. Skan does, but I don’t. All I have to do is be charming and attractive. And the old rogue says I have no trouble doing that! Still, he has to do that himself, plus he has to play “Skandranon, King of White Gryphon.”

The sound of someone else discreetly clearing her throat made Zhaneel raise her head again, wondering if she was ever going to get that nap.

But when she saw who it was, she was willing to do without the nap. “Makke!” she exclaimed, as the old, stooped human made her way carefully into the garden. “Can it be you actually have nothing to do? Can I tempt you to come sit in the garden?”

Makke was very old, and Zhaneel wondered why she still worked; her closely-cropped hair resembled a sheep’s pelt, it was so white, and her back was bent with the weight of years and all the physical labor she had done in those years. Her black face was seamed with wrinkles and her hands bony with age, but she was still strong and incredibly alert. Zhaneel had first learned that Makke knew their language when the old woman asked her, in the politest of accented tones, if the young gryphlets would require any special toilet facilities or linens. Since then, although her assigned function was only to clean their rooms and do their laundry, Makke had been Gesten’s invaluable resource. She adored the gryphlets, who adored her in return; she was often the only one who could make them sit still and listen for any length of time. Both Zhaneel and Gesten were of one accord that in Makke they had made a good friend in a strange place.

“I really should not,” the old woman began reluctantly, although it was clear she could use a rest. “There is much work yet to be done. I came only to ask of you a question.”

“But you should, Makke,” Zhaneel coaxed. “I have more need of company than I have of having the floors swept for the third time this afternoon. I want to know more about the situation here, and how we can avoid trouble.”

Makke made a little gesture of protest. “But the young ones,” she said. “The feather-sheath fragments, everywhere—”

“And they will shed more as soon as you sweep up,” Zhaneel told her firmly. “A little white dust can wait for now. Come sit, and be cool. It is too hot to work. Everyone else in the Palace is having a nap or a rest.”

Makke allowed herself to be persuaded and joined Zhaneel, sitting on the cool marble rim of the pond. She sighed as she picked up a fan and used it to waft air toward her face. “I came to tell you, Gryphon Lady, that you have frightened another gardener. He swears that you leaped up at him out of the bushes, snarling fiercely. He ran off, and he says that he will not serve you unless you remain out of the garden while he works there.”

“He is the one who entered while I was already here.” Zhaneel snorted. “You were in the next room, Makke,” she continued in a sharp retort. “Did you hear any snarling? Any leaping? Anything other than a fool fearing his shadow and running away?”

Makke laughed softly, her eyes disappearing into the wrinkles as she chuckled. “No, Gryphon Lady. I had thought there was something wrong with this tale. I shall say so when the Overseer asks.”

Zhaneel and Makke sat quietly in easy silence, listening to the water trickle down the tiny waterfall. “You ought to be the Overseer,” Zhaneel said, finally. “You know our language, and you know more about the other servants than the Overseer does. You know how to show people that we are not man-eating monsters. You are better at the Overseer’s job than he is.”

But Makke only shook her head at the very idea, and used her free hand to smooth down the saffron tunic and orange trews that were the uniform for all Palace servants, her expression one of resignation. “That is not possible, Gryphon Lady,” she replied. “The Overseer was born to his place, and I to mine, as it was decreed at our births. So it is, and so it must remain. You must not say such things to others. It will make them suspect you of impiety. I know better because I have served the Northern Kestra’chern Silver Veil, but others are not so broad of thought.”

Zhaneel looked at her with her head tilted to one side in puzzlement. This was new. “Why?” she asked. “And why would I be impious for saying such a thing?”

Makke fanned herself for a moment as she thought over her answer. She liked to take her time before answering, to give the question all the attention she felt it deserved. Zhaneel did not urge her to speak, for she knew old Makke by now and knew better than to try to force her to say anything before she was ready.

“All is decreed,” she said finally, tapping the edge of her fan on her chin. “The Emperors, those you call the Black Kings, are above all mortals, and the gods are above them. The gods have their places, their duties, and their rankings, and as above, so it must be below. Mortals have their places, duties, and castes, with the Emperors at the highest and the collectors of offal and the like at the lowest. As the gods do not change in their rankings, so mortals must not. Only the soul may change castes, for each of the gods was once a mortal who rose to godhood by good works and piety. One is born into a caste and a position, one works in it, and one dies in it. One can make every effort to learn—become something of a scholar even, but one will never be permitted to become a Titled Scholar. Perhaps, if one is very diligent, one may rise from being the Palace cleaning woman for a minor noble to that of a cleaning woman to a Chief Advisor or to foreign dignitaries, but one will always be a cleaning woman.”

“There is no change?” Zhaneel asked, her beak gaping open in surprise. This was entirely new to her, but it explained a great deal that had been inexplicable. “Never?”

Makke shook her round head. “Only if the Emperor declares it, and with him the Truthsayer and the Speaker to the Gods. You see, such change must be sanctioned by the gods before mortals may embrace it. When some skill or position, some craft or learning, is accepted from outside the Empire, it is brought in as a new caste and ranking, and remains as it was when it was adopted. Take—the kestra’chern. I am told that Amberdrake is a kestra’chern among your people?”

Zhaneel nodded proudly. “He is good! Very good. Perhaps as good or better than Silver Veil. He was friend to Urtho, the Mage of Silence.” To her mind, there could be no higher praise.

“And yet he has no rank, he offers his services to whom he chooses, and he is one of your envoys.” Makke shook her head. “Such a thing would not be possible here. Kestra’chern are strictly ranked and classed according to talent, knowledge, and ability. Each rank may only perform certain services, and may only serve the nobles and noble households of a particular rank. No kestra’chern may offer his services to anyone above or below that rank for which he is authorized. This, so Silver Veil told me once, is precisely as the kestra’chern first served in the north, five hundred years ago, when the Murasa Emperor Shelass declared that they were to be taken into our land. I believe her, for she is wise and learned.”

Zhaneel blinked. Such a thing would never have occurred to her, and she stored all of this away in her capacious memory to tell Skan later. No one can rise or fall? So where is the incentive to do a good job?

“We are ruled by our scribes in many ways,” Makke continued, a little ruefully. “All must be documented, and each of us, even the lowest of farmers and street sweepers, is followed through his life by a sheaf of paper in some Imperial Scribe’s possession. The higher one’s rank, the more paper is created. The Emperor has an entire archive devoted only to him. But he was born to be Emperor, and he cannot abdicate. He was trained from birth, and he will die in the Imperial robes. As I will be a cleaning woman for all this life, even though I have studied as much as many of higher birth to satisfy my curiosity, so he will be Emperor.”

“But what about the accumulation of wealth?” Zhaneel asked. “If you cannot rise in rank, surely you can earn enough to make life more luxurious?” That would be the only incentive that I can imagine for doing well in such a system.

But Makke shook her head again. “One may acquire wealth to a certain point, depending upon one’s rank, but after that, it is useless to accumulate more. What one is decrees what one may own; beyond a certain point, money is useless when one has all one is permitted by law to have. Once one has the home, the clothing, the possessions that one may own under law, what else is left? Luxurious food? The company of a skilled mekasathay? The hire of entertainers? Learning purely for the sake of learning? It is better to give the money to the temple, for this shows generosity, and the gods will permit one to be reborn into a higher rank if one shows virtues like generosity. I have given the temple many gifts of money, for besides dispensing books and teachers, the temple priests speak to the gods about one’s virtue—all my gifts are recorded carefully, of course—and I will probably give the temple as many more gifts as I can while I am in this life.”

Zhaneel could hardly keep her beak from gaping open. “This is astonishing to me,” Zhaneel managed. “I can’t imagine anyone I know living within such restrictions!”

Makke fanned herself and smiled slowly. “Perhaps they do not seem restrictive to us,” she suggested.

“Makke?” Zhaneel added, suddenly concerned. “These things you tell me—is this forbidden, too?”

Makke sighed, but more with impatience than with weariness. “Technically, I could be punished for telling you these things in the way that I have told you, and some of the other things I have imparted to you are pieces of information that people here do not talk about, but I am old, and no one would punish an old woman for being blunt and speaking the truth.” She laughed. “After all, that is one of the few advantages of age, is it not? Being able to speak one’s mind? Likely, if anyone knowing your tongue overheard me, the observation would be that I am aged, infirm, and none too sound in my mind. And if I were taken to task for my words, that is precisely what I would say.” Makke’s smile was wry. “There are those who believe my interest in books and scholarly chat betokens an unsound mind anyway.”

“But this is outside of my understanding and experience. It will take me a while to think in this way. In the meantime, what must we do to keep from making any dreadful mistakes?” Zhaneel asked, bewildered by the complexity of bureaucracy that all this implied.

‘Trust Silver Veil,” Makke replied, leaning forward to emphasize her advice and gesturing emphatically with her fan. “She knew something of the Courts before she arrived here, and she has been here long enough to know where all the pit traps and deadfalls are. She can keep you from disaster, but what is better, she can keep you from embarrassment. I cannot do that. I do not know enough of the higher stations.”

“Because we can probably avoid disaster, but we might miss a potential for embarrassment?” Zhaneel hazarded, and Makke nodded.

And in a society like this one, surely embarrassment could be as deadly to our cause as a real incident. Oh, these people are so strange!

“There is something else that I believe you must know,” Makke continued. “And since we are alone, this is a good time to give you my warning. Something of what Gesten said makes me think that the Gryphon Lord is also a worker of magic?”

Zhaneel nodded; something in Makke’s expression warned her not to do so too proudly. She looked troubled and now, for the first time, just a little fearful.

‘Tell him—tell him he must not work any magics, without the explicit sanction of King Shalaman or Palisar, the Speaker to the Gods,” Makke said urgently but in a very soft voice, as she glanced around as if to be certain that they were alone in the garden. “Magic is—is strictly controlled by the Speakers, the priests, that is. The ability to work magic is from the hands of the gods, the knowledge of how to use it is from the teachers, and the knowledge of when to use it must be decreed by priest or Emperor.”

Zhaneel clicked her beak. “How can that be?” she objected. “Mages are the most willful people I know!”

Makke only raised her eyebrows. “Easily. When a child is born with that ability, he is taken from his parents by the priests before he reaches the age of seven, and they are given a dower-portion to compensate them for the loss of a child. The priests raise him and train him, then, from the age of seven to eighteen, when they return to their families, honored priests and Scholars. I say ‘he,’ though they take female children as well, though females are released at sixteen, for they tend to apply themselves to study better than boys in the early years, and so come to the end of training sooner.”

“That still doesn’t explain how the priests can keep them under such control,” Zhaneel retorted.

“Training,” Makke said succinctly. “They are trained in the idea of obedience, so deeply in the first year that they never depart from it. This, I know, for my only daughter is a priest, and all was explained to me. That, in part, is why I was given leave to study and learn, so that I might understand her better when she returned to me. The children are watched carefully, more carefully than they guess. If one is found flawed in character, if he habitually lies, is a thief, or uses his powers without leave and to the harm of others, he is—” she hesitated, then clearly chose her words with care. “He is removed from the school and from magic. Completely.”

A horrible thought flashed through Zhaneel’s mind at the ominous sound of that. “Makke!” she exclaimed, giving voice to her suspicions, “You don’t mean that they—they kill him, do you?”

“In the old days, they did,” Makke replied solemnly. “Magic is a terrible power, and not for hands that are unclean. How could anyone, much less a priest, allow someone who was insane in that way to continue to move in society? But that was in the old days—now, the priests remove the ability to touch magic, then send the child back to his family.” She shrugged. “It would be better for him, in some ways, if they did kill him.”

“Why?” Zhaneel blurted, uncomprehendingly.

“Why, think, Gryphon Lady. He can no longer touch magic. He returns to his family in disgrace. Everyone knows that he is fatally flawed, so no one will trust him with anything of any consequence. No woman would wed him, with such a disgrace upon him. He will, when grown, be granted no position of authority within his rank. If his rank and caste are low, he will be permitted only the most menial of tasks within that caste, and only under strict supervision. If he comes from high estate, he will be an idle ornament, also watched closely.” Makke shook her head dolefully. “I have seen one of that sort, and he was a miserable creature. It was a terrible disgrace to his family, and worse for him, for although he is a man grown, he is given no more responsibility than a babe in napkins. He is seldom seen, but the lowest servant is happier than he. He is of very high caste, too, so let me assure you that no child is immune from this if a flaw is discovered in him.”

Zhaneel shook her head. “Isn’t there anything that someone like that can do?”

Makke shrugged. “The best he could do would be to try to accumulate wealth to grant to the temple so that the gods will give him an incarnation with no such flaws in the next lifetime. It would be better to die, I think, for what is a man or a woman but their work, and how can one be a person without work?”

Zhaneel was not convinced, but she said nothing. At least the Black Kings certainly seemed to have a system designed to prevent any more monsters like Kiamvir Ma’ar! There was something to be said for that.

Almost anything that prevented such a madman from getting the kind of power Ma’ar had would be worth bearing with, I think. Almost. And assuming that the system is not fatally flawed.

“Have the priests ever—made a mistake?” she asked, suddenly.

“Have they ever singled out a child who was not flawed for this punishment, you mean?” Makke asked. Then she shook her head. “Not to my knowledge, and I have seen many children go to the temples over the years. Truly, I have never seen one rejected that was not well-rejected. This is not done lightly or often, you know. The one I spoke of? He has no compassion; he uses whomever he meets, with no care for their good or ill. Whilst his mother lived, he used even her for his own gain, manipulating her against her worthier offspring. There are many of lesser caste who have learned of his flawed nature to their sorrow or loss.”

Zhaneel chewed a talon thoughtfully.

‘There is one other thing,” Makke said, this time in a softer and much more reluctant voice. “I had not intended to speak of this, but I believe now perhaps I must, for I see by your face that you find much of what I have said disturbing.”

“And that is—?” Zhaneel asked.

Makke lowered her voice still further. “That there is a magic which is more forbidden than any other. I would say nothing of it, except that I fear your people may treat it with great casualness, and if you revealed that, there would be no treaty, not now, and not in the future. Have your people the magic that—that looks into—into minds—and hears the thoughts of others?”

“It might be,” Zhaneel said with delicate caution, suddenly now as alert as ever she had been on a scouting mission. All of her hackles prickled as they threatened to rise. There was something odd about that question. “I am not altogether certain what you mean, for I believe our definitions of magic and yours are not quite the same. Why do you ask?”

“Because that is the magic that is absolutely forbidden to all except the priests, and only then, the priests who are called to special duties by the gods,” Makke said firmly. “I do not exaggerate. This is most important.”

“Like Leyuet?” Zhaneel asked in surprise. She had not guessed that Truthsayer Leyuet was a priest of any kind. He did not have the look of one, nor did he wear the same kind of clothing as Palisar.

“Yes.” Makke turned to look into her eyes and hold her gaze there for a long moment, with the same expression that a human mother would have in admonishing a child she suspects might try something stupid. “This magic is a horror. It is unclean,” she said, with absolute conviction. “It allows mortals to look into a place where only the gods should look. Even a Truthsayer looks no farther than to determine the veracity of what is said—only into the soul, which has no words, and not the mind. If your people have it, say nothing. And do not use it here.”

We had better not mention Kechara, ever, to one of these people! And Amberdrake had better be discreet about his own powers!

That was all she could think at just that moment. While Zhaneel tried to digest everything she’d been told, Makke stood, and carefully put the palm fan on the small pile left for the use of visitors. “I must go,” she said apologetically. “A certain amount of rest is permitted to one my age, but the work remains to be done, and I would not trust it to the hands of those like that foolish gardener, who would probably think that Jewel and Corvi wish to rend him with their fearsome claws.”

Since neither Jewel nor Corvi had anything more than a set of stubby, carefully filed down nails, Zhaneel laughed. Makke smiled and shuffled her way back into their suite.

The gryphlets looked ready to sleep for the rest of the afternoon; not even all that talking disturbed them in the least. Zhaneel settled herself on a new, cooler spot, and lay down again, letting the stone pull some of the dreadful heat out of her body.

She closed her eyes, but sleep had deserted her for the moment. So Makke is an untitled Scholar! No wonder she looks as if she were hiding secrets. Now, more than ever, Zhaneel was glad that she and Gesten had made friends with the old woman. Next to the Silver Veil, it seemed they could not have picked a better informant. That explains why she bothered to learn our language, anyway. She must have been very curious about Silver Veil and the north, and the best way to find out would have been to ask Silver Veil. It must have taken a lot of courage to dare that, though.

But Makke was observant; perhaps she had noticed how kind Silver Veil was to her servants, and had decided that the kestra’chern would not take a few questions amiss.

An amateur scholar would also have been fascinated by the gryphons and the hertasi. Perhaps that was why Makke had responded to the overtures of friendship Zhaneel and Gesten had made toward her.

And when it became painfully evident how naive we were about the Haighlei—Zhaneel smiled to herself. There was a great deal of the maternal in Makke’s demeanor toward Zhaneel, and there was no doubt that she thought the twins were utterly adorable, even if they looked nothing like a pair of human babies. Perhaps Makke had decided to adopt them, as a kind of honorary grandmother.

She said, only daughter. She could have meant only child as well. And if her child is now a priest—do the Haighlei allow their priests to marry and have children? I don’t think so. Zhaneel sighed. I wonder if her daughter is ashamed of Makke; she is only a cleaning woman, after all. For all that most priests preach humility, I never have seen one who particularly enjoyed being humble. If that were the case, Makke could be looking on Zhaneel as a kind of quasi-daughter, too.

I shall have to make certain to ask her advice on the twins. I don’t have to take it, after all! And that will make her feel wanted and needed. Zhaneel sighed, and turned so that her left flank was on the cool marble. But the warning about magicthat is very disturbing. Except, of course, that we can’t do much magic until the effect of the Cataclysm settles. That might not even be within our lifetimes.

She would warn Skandranon, of course. And he would warn Amberdrake. Zhaneel was not certain how much of what Amberdrake did was magic of the mind, and how much was training and observation, but it would be a good thing for Drake to be very careful at this point. Winterhart, too, although her abilities could not possibly be as strong as Drake’s. . . .

Healing. I shall have to ask Makke about Healing. Surely the Haighlei do not forbid that!

But the one thing they must not mention was the existence of Kechara. If the Haighlei were against the simpler versions of thought-reading, surely they would be horrified by poor little Kechara!

The fact that she is as simple-minded as she is would probably only revolt them further. And she is misborn; there is no getting around that. It’s nothing short of a miracle that she has had as long and as healthy a life as she has. But she is not “normal” and we can’t deny that.

So it was better not to say anything about her. It wasn’t likely that anyone would ask, after all.

Let me think, thoughthey may ask how we are communicating so quickly with White Gryphon. Sothis evening, Skan should ask permission from King Shalaman and Palisar to “communicate magically” with the rest of the Council back home. Since they do that, they shouldn‘t give Skan any problems about doing the same. He’s clever; if they ask him how he can communicate when things are so magically unsettled, he can tell them about the messages we send with birds, or tell them something else that they’ll believe, and not be lying. Then, when we get instant answers from home, they won’t be surprised or upset because we didn‘t ask permission first.

So that much was settled. If the Haighlei sent resident envoys to White Gryphon, there was no reason to tell them what Kechara was—

And since she is there among all the other children of the Silvers, her room just looks like a big nursery. Would they want to talk to her, though?

Would an envoy have any reason to talk to any child, except to pat it on the head because its parents were important? Probably not. And Cafri could keep her from bounding over and babbling everything to the envoys; he’d kept her from stepping on her own wings before this.

With all of that sorted out to Zhaneel’s satisfaction, she finally felt sleep overcoming her. She made a little mental “tag” to remind her to tell Skan all about this conversation and the things she’d reasoned out, though. Gryphonic memory was excellent, but she wanted to make certain that nothing drove this out of her mind, even on a temporary basis.

Then, with her body finally cooled enough by the stone to relax, she stretched out just a little farther and drifted off into flower-scented dreams.

Four

Winterhart moved easily among the Haighlei in their brilliant costumes of scarlet, vermilion, bittersweet and sunset-orange, wheat and burnt umber and the true gold of the metal; she seemed one of them despite her dress and light skin. She was distinctive, a single, long-stemmed lily among a riot of dahlias. Lady Cinnabar’s refitted gown of white silk gauze and emerald silk damask was as startling in this crowd as one of the common robes of the Haighlei would be in a Northern Court.

A Northern Court. . . .

Assuming there was such a thing as a Northern Court anymore. The few bits of information trickling in seemed to indicate that the Cataclysm had a far more widespread effect than any of the Kaled’a’in had dreamed.

We were so concerned with our own survival, we never thought about what would become of the lands we left behind, she reflected, as she exchanged a polite greeting with a highborn maiden and her bored brother. Oh, we knew that Urtho’s Tower was gone, and the Palace with it, but we never thought about other lands.

Without Ma’ar at the helm, the kingdoms he had conquered—the few that survived the Cataclysm—fell into chaos and intertribal warfare, the same kind of warfare that had devastated them before he came to rule.

And Winterhart could not help but feel a certain bitter satisfaction at that. If they had not been so eager to listen to his mad dreams of conquest, he would never have gotten as far as he had. Now, from being the acme of civilization, they were reduced to the copper knives and half-wild sheep herds of their ancestors, with the hand of every clan against members of any other clan. Their cities were in ruins, their veneer of civilization lost, all because they had followed a madman.

But beyond Ma’ar’s lands, the Cataclysm utterly devastated other nations who relied heavily on magic. A few refugees had reached the Wtasi Empire to the east, on the Salten Sea, after all this time, and the word they brought of far-reaching consequences of the double explosion was terrible. Many lands had once relied on Gates to move supplies and food, especially into the cities. It wasn’t possible to erect Gates anymore; there was no certainty that they would work. With no Gates, these cities starved; once people were starving and desperate, order collapsed. And worse was to come, for no sooner had the authorities—or what passed for them—sorted out some of the chaos, in poured hordes of leaderless troops who took what they needed by force of arms. Winterhart could only hope that those were Ma’ar’s leaderless troops who were acting that way—but in her heart she knew better. It was likely that their own people, when faced with privation, would act just the same as their former enemies.

It is easy to assign the persona of a monster to the faceless enemy, but the fact is that most of them were just soldiers, following orders, no worse than our own soldiers. It had taken her a long time to work her way around to that conclusion, and it still wasn’t a comfortable thought. But that was one unexpected result of living with Amberdrake: learning to seek or reason out truth, and accept it unflinchingly, no matter how uncomfortable it was.

The result of the Cataclysm was that there were no central governments worthy of the name up there now. For the most part, the largest body of organization was the small town, or the occasional place that those aforementioned soldiers had taken over and fortified. Old skills that did not require magic had to be relearned or rediscovered, and that took time. Civilization in the north was gone, as far as the Haighlei were concerned.

And where the Clan k’Leshya was concerned, as well, and all the adopted Kaled’a’in with them, Winterhart among them. There had been no communication from any of the other Kaled’a’in Clans, and no one really expected there to be any. K’Leshya had traveled far beyond the others, the distance of the maximum that two Gates could reach, rather than just one. That was too far for anyone except Kechara to reach with Mindspeech, and too far for the messenger-birds to go, assuming anyone was willing to risk them.

We are on our own, and we can only hope that the other Clans survived as well as we did. Our future is here, and we had better build a firm foundation for it.

So she walked among these strange people in their strange garb and accustomed herself to them, until they no longer seemed strange, until it was her dress and her pale skin that seemed odd. She moved through the gathering like one of the graceful slim silver fish that lived in the ponds with the fat, colorful ones. Unconsciously she imitated the slow, deliberate pace of their steps and the dancelike eddies and flows of the Court itself. She took all that into herself and made it a part of her.

That was, after all, precisely what she had been trained to do, so long ago. This was what she had been before she became the Trondi’irn Winterhart, serving the Sixth Wing gryphons in the army of Urtho, the Mage of Silence. Before, when she had borne another name, and a title, and the burden of rank, she had moved to the dancelike pattern of another Court.

Now rank was no longer a burden, but a cloak that trailed invisibly from the shoulders. The name she wore was hers, with no invisible baggage of long and distinguished lineage. The title? Hers as well, truly earned, like the name.

But the rest was familiar, as familiar as the feel of silk sliding along her body, as real as the exchange of banal courtesies and pleasantries. And since this was a Court like any other—with the folk of White Gryphon a strange and possibly hostile presence—there was caution and even malignity beneath the courtesies, and fear beneath the pleasantries. It was her task to discover where, who, and what hid under the posture and counterposture.

She often felt at a time like this as if she were a sword sliding into an old, well-worn sheath, or a white-hot blade sinking into a block of ice. She was Winterhart, the trondi’irn—but she was also much more than the Winterhart her fellow refugees knew. She had not used these old skills in a very, very long time, but they were a significant part of her, long disregarded. She stretched muscles long unused, and she relished the sensation.

Amberdrake, to her bemusement, simply smiled and bid her follow her instincts and her inclinations. “I have been among the well-born,” he’d said this very evening, before they made their entrance. “I know how to act with them and comfort them. But I never was one of them. You were, and all that early training makes you something I cannot be, and can only imitate. It gives you an assurance that is part of you rather than assumed. Believe me, my love, it shows. So go and be your own gracious self, and show me how it is done. After all,” he said with a grin and a wink, “I enjoy gazing at you anyway.”

Like a hawk with the jesses cut, he sent her off, trusting she would return to his glove. And she would, of course, for like a true falconer and his bird, they were partners.

Or perhaps we are more like those Kaled’a’in scouts with their specially-bred birds, the bondbirds, who Mindspeak with the ones they are bonded to. She wondered what the Haighlei would make of those! They had relatively few domesticated animals, and most of them were herdbeasts. No horses, though—

They have sheep, goats, and cattle. They have those misshapen, hairy things that need so little water for riding and bearing burdens in the deserts, and donkeys for pulling carts. Dogs the size of small ponies! A few, a very few, of the Great Cats that have been partly domesticated. No house cats, no horses, no birds of prey. She smiled and nodded and exchanged small-talk with the envoy from the Kumbata Empire, and let part of her mind consider the possible impact that the introduction of each of these domesticated creatures could have on the Haighlei. The cats alone would cause a stir—those huge dogs had been bred to hunt equally large cats, and she could well imagine the delight that the elegant Haighlei would take in the graceful “little tigers” that the adopted Kaled’a’in had brought with them from their homes.

Trade and the possibilities of trade . . . it would be much easier on the citizens of White Gryphon if they could get their hands on proper plows, and not the trial-and-error instruments they had now, made by a weapon-smith who thought he recalled the one lesson he’d had in forging such things, twenty years ago. Proper boats, made for fishing, would save lives if the fishing fleet was ever caught by a big storm. Seeds bred to grow here—and the odd plants that the Haighlei themselves grew to eat—that would not fail in the heat, or sprout too late or too soon.

And in return—horses and cats, for a beginning. Lionwind, the k’Leshya Clan Chief, would be happy to learn of a “proper” market for his riding horses, which just at the moment were, to his injured pride, often trained to harness for pulling carts and plows. After that, there were surely skills they could exchange. Haighlei jewelry, for instance, was lovely and costly, but massive. Not crudely made, but with none of the detail that—for instance—the silversmith who made the Silver Gryphon badges could produce. Would the Haighlei like that sort of thing? They’d certainly admired the delicacy of Winterhart’s ornaments, so they might—particularly if the northern jewelry became a fad item.

Odd. I feel so at home here, as if I were bom for this place and this court, so rigidly structured, so refined in its subtleties. . . . The longer they were here, the more comfortable she felt.

The Haighlei ruled a territory more vast than anyone up north had ever dreamed; two Kingdoms—or Empires, for they had aspects of both—here, sharing the land between the Salten Sea and the Eastern Sea. Four more farther south, dividing yet another continent among them, a continent joined to this one by a relatively narrow bridge of land. The Haighlei called their rulers both “King” and “Emperor” indiscriminately, something that sounded strange to Winterhart’s northern ears.

Another member of the Court greeted her, and Winterhart smiled warmly into Silver Veil’s eyes, oddly relieved to see that she was no longer the only pale face with a northern gown here this evening. Silver Veil wore her hair loose, as always, and a pale gray silk gown that echoed the silver of her hair. “You are doing well, little sister,” Silver Veil said softly. “I have been listening, watching. Amberdrake is respected for his office and his training, but you are acknowledge to be a Power.”

She flushed, with embarrassment as well as pride. “Well, Skandranon has us all bested. He is doing more to impress the Haighlei simply by being himself than I could with all the clever words in the world.”

But Silver Veil shook her head. “You underestimate yourself, my dear. That is your one fault, I think. But be aware that my people do not underestimate you. You are a Power among them, and they will all, from highest to lowest, accord you that respect.”

Then she drifted away on another eddy of the crowd, as the dance of the Court carried them both off to other partners. Winterhart smiled and murmured greetings, and wondered about Silver Veil’s words. She certainly didn’t think of herself as particularly important beyond the fact that she was an envoy . . . but the kestra’chern was right, people were treating her with that sort of deference.

Not as if she were nobly born, but as if she were royal.

As royal as King Shalaman.

The King himself was here, sitting like a stiff statue on a platform about three steps above the rest of the room. He didn’t have a throne, precisely; he sat on a gilded bench, shaped like a lion, with the head at his right and the tail at his left. He wore the pelt of the lion over one shoulder, but the rest of his costume consisted of a robe of a brilliant saffron color, belted with a sash made of thousands of links of pure gold, so finely made that at a distance it appeared woven. His pectoral collar was made to match, with the stylized mask of a lion on the front. He looked neither to left nor to right, and Winterhart found herself admiring him for the fine figure that he presented. It was difficult to believe that he was over sixty; if she had not been assured of that figure, she would have assumed he was a vigorous warrior in his early thirties at most, and that his white hair was due to premature graying—or to the fact that he was also an Adept-class mage, and working with node-magic had turned his hair white.

Evidently he was only supposed to grace these gatherings with his presence, he wasn’t actually expected to mingle with his courtiers. She had the definite feeling, though, that he missed very little, and that what he himself did not notice, one of his advisors would tell him later.

Well, let them tell him that the Lady Winterhart is charming, well-spoken, and utterly opaque.

She smiled at that, and turned the smile on yet another Haighlei courtier. Even a smile could not be wasted. Not here, and not now.

Palisar watched the dance of the courtiers with only one eye, for the other was on his Emperor. The Emperor was watching one particular section of the dance, and Palisar did not care for the fact that the pale-skinned foreigner in her bizarre gown was at the center of that section.

“The Outland woman—” Shalaman murmured to the Speaker to the Gods. “She seems well at ease among us.”

“She does, Serene One,” Palisar replied, cautiously. He did not care for any of these new Outlanders, but it would not be a good idea to allow Shalaman to learn of this. Not while The Silver Veil, who favored them, was so great a favorite of the King, at any rate.

He was prepared to make many exceptions for The Silver Veil, who was a kestra’chern, and who had served Shalaman well and loyally for many years. That she so favored these Outlanders was understandable, since one of them was her own pupil. And their own audacity was forgivable, given that they had made their home in territory so far north that it was virtually uninhabitable. Still.

It does not make them our equals. Let them be made our clients, a liege-alliance, and then let them go home again.

That was what Palisar devoutly wished.

But Shalaman’s next words to his Advisor nearly shocked Palisar into revealing his true feelings in the matter. “I would like you to bring her the Lion Lilies, impart to her my pleasure that she has blended so well into my court, and invite her to walk in the Royal Gardens tomorrow, if she so desires.”

The Royal Countenance remained inscrutable, the Royal Voice was even and thoughtful. He might have been suggesting that Palisar order a new lionskin for him, rather than asking Palisar to upset every well-born princess in the court, and shock half of his courtiers numb and insensible. Granted, Shalaman was the son of the gods, but this—

—even the son of the gods could not reign for long by violating all the laws!

Only many years of serving Shalaman enabled Palisar to keep an outward seeming of composure. But he could not help but interject a note of caution—

Better a note of caution than to shout to the King that this could mean utter disaster!

“Is that entirely wise, Serenity?” he murmured, as if only faintly troubled. “So soon after they have arrived? This could betoken favoritism. You have other allies you have not invited to walk in the garden—and there are many other ladies, far more appropriate, to whom you have not sent the Lion Lilies.”

All the while, he was choking on the words he wanted to say. This is insanity! How can you even think of courting this barbarian Outlander when you have two, nay three dozen princesses from Haighlei Kingdoms here in your own court, waiting for such a gesture? You will offend your fellow Kings! You will offend the women themselves! And what has this woman done to deserve such attention, that The Silver Veil cannot do with more grace?

But he knew the answer—for this woman was like Silver Veil, but differed from the kestra’chern in three important ways. She was not familiar. She was younger. And she was theoretically a good candidate to cement an alliance.

“My other allies do not need to be examined, for I know what they can and cannot do,” Shalaman said, reasonably. “They are firmly my allies, and I need not strengthen those alliances any further than to see that the daughters are disposed of to high officials of my court. That is what they are here for, after all. And the ‘appropriate’ ladies do not interest me enough that I should send them the Lion Lilies. Impart to Lady Winterhart my words, give to her the Lilies, and bring me back word of what she said.”

This was a direct order, which Palisar was helpless to disobey. With a sinking heart, he gathered up the Lilies from their brass vase, on an ebony stand beside the Lion Throne, while a stir of interest rippled through the court at his gesture. The Lilies, huge, tawny-gold, many-petaled bells on long, slender stems, spread their heavy fragrance as he moved them. There were three Lilies in the vase, as always, since Shalaman had not begun to court a consort in earnest. Three—for interest. Four betokened more than interest.

A dozen, along with the betrothal-necklace of ancient amber, gold, and bronze, became a proposition.

He bore the Lilies with a sinking heart, as the ladies he had to walk past looked hopeful, then excited, then downcast as he passed them by. He bore them toward Winterhart, that pallid, sickly-looking creature, like one of the Lilies herself, but a blighted one, colorless, stiff, and thin. All eyes followed his course across the highly polished floor of inlaid woods, and she, of course, must turn to see what everyone else was watching. When he stopped before her, he saw puzzlement in her eyes, quickly covered, as she bowed gracefully to him.

At least she can do that much. Pray to the gods she is feeble-minded, with no interests of her own. One conversation, and Shalaman will tire of her.

“Lady Winterhart,” Palisar said, allowing no hint of his innermost thoughts to show in his voice. “The Emperor sends you the Lion Lilies, and has instructed me to convey his pleasure in the fact that you have fit yourself into our Court so gracefully and easily. He invites you to walk in the Royal Gardens in the afternoon.”

He handed her the Lilies, praying that she might drop them, which would be a dreadful omen and would surely erode Shalaman’s interest in her. But she smiled and took them from him without mishap. Clearly, she had no idea what an honor had just been bestowed upon her, nor what it might lead to. He was not inclined to tell her.

If she does not know, she may yet say or do something that Shalaman will not approve of.

“Please tell the Emperor that I am unworthy of his notice or his compliments, but that I am grateful that he deigns to allow his sun to shine upon this poor northern lily. I will accept his invitation for the morrow with great pleasure, though I by no means deserve such a privilege.”

Palisar smiled, although he felt more like gritting his teeth. How had she learned precisely what the best sort of reply would be? It was exactly the right mixture of humility and graciousness. And that—that dung about “allowing his sun to shine upon this poor northern lily”—making a delicate play upon the Lion Lilies themselves, and making the comparison to herself that he had even noted—

Clever—no, not merely clever. Brilliant.

He bowed, and made his way back to the Emperor. Already a headache throbbed in his left temple. By the time court was over, it would be a torment. He always got these headaches when something went wrong, and he had the feeling that this was only the first of many such torturous headaches.

Shalaman waited for several long moments after Palisar took his place again before speaking to his Advisor. He watched Winterhart cradle the flowers carefully, watched her ignore the envious or avid glances from those other ladies who were too unschooled in the ways of the court to conceal their feelings beneath an urbane mask. Then, when at last the Emperor spoke, he spoke in that low voice that only Palisar was meant to hear, but casually. In fact, from the tone of his voice, he might have been asking what the weather in the gardens was like, and nothing of more import. But Palisar was not deceived by the casual tone. Shalaman knew the ways of dissembling better than anyone in his entire court.

“Well?” the Emperor said. “And what did she say?”

Palisar told him.

There was silence for a few more moments, then a sound which, again, only Palisar heard, but which was enough to make his headache worsen tenfold.

For quietly, deep within his chest, Shalaman was chuckling.

* * *

How do they light this garden so well? They are not using mage-lights, but the place is brighter than a night with a full moon! We need to learn how to do this, ourselves. White Gryphon would be made even brighter with such knowledge. Skandranon looked out into the Great Garden—which was more than a simple garden although it was shaded with more of the enormous trees that grew everywhere in the Palace. It was also a natural bowl-shaped amphitheater floored with grass, with carefully placed trees and beds of flowers beside carved benches on little terraces going up the sides for seating an audience. The only break in the bowl was the door from the Palace where he now stood. He gave his feathers a great shake to settle them, before stepping carefully into the bottom of the bowl.

As always, Evening Court was followed by some other kind of gathering, one which the King was not obligated to attend, although he often did. Perhaps the afternoon nap made people too restless to sleep until well after midnight, although Skan could think of things a lot more exciting to do than caper about at an official function, particularly with all those charming private and semipri-vate gardens available.

And think, to one day have these in the White Gryphon settlementgrottoes and gardens for dalliances and courtship. Hertasi, tervardi, kyree, humans, and gryphons amid such beautiful landscaping. And perhaps even some Haighlei?

Tonight there was to be an enormous formal Dance, ostensibly in honor of the envoys from White Gryphon. This wasn’t a dance as Skan was accustomed to thinking of a dance; more of a performance, really, rather than a gathering with music where everyone danced.

They didn’t seem to have such things here. Instead, a Dance meant that most of the courtiers would be watching the trained dancers go through a long set-piece. All of the Royal Dancers and some of the courtiers would be participating, the courtiers as a kind of untrained, minimally-moving background to the Dancers, all two hundred of them, who were schooled from the time they were five and performed until they were deemed too old to be decorative.

That was interesting; there were a few people Skan had known—most of them kestra’chern or the odd perchi—who had gotten formal dance training. Virtually everyone else was self-taught.

But Drake said that before the wars there were dance troupes, so there must have been performances and people gathering to watch rather than participate.

These Dancers were different from that, though. They “belonged,” in a sense, to the King—as the mages belonged to the Priests. They performed only for the King and his court. When they were too old to dance, they were turned into teachers for the next generation, if they had not already married. It was considered a great honor to be permitted to wed a Royal Dancer, and the marriage could not be consummated until the Dancer had a replacement.

The four envoys would be sitting on top of a little pyramid-shaped affair in the center of the performance area, a wooden structure erected for this purpose, surrounded by the dancers and the pivot point of the dance. Skan was rather disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to perform this time; he had a notion that he could give these folk an eyeful!

Next time, he consoled himself. Next time. The Dancemaster has promised I may participate, and is planning aerial maneuvers to compliment the dancing on the ground.

In fact, the Dancemaster already had a title for the next performance; Phoenix Dancing with Dragon, an old legend among these people. Skandranon would be the Phoenix, Air-Spirit and Fire-Spirit in one; the dancers would join together to form the earthbound serpentine Dragon, who embodied Water and Earth together.

The very notion had him chuckling with glee. He could hardly wait!

This performance would give him a good notion of how these people danced, and how to adapt his own skydancing techniques to their style.

Without that, I would look more alien to them than I really want to. Perhaps it’s just as well that I’m not dancing tonight.

The others, including Zhaneel, had already preceded him, according to some sort of strict protocol that mandated that he, supposedly the highest in rank, be the last one seated. Now four of the Royal Dancers paced gravely up to him in their flowing robes of blue and green with short, cylindrical hats strapped to their heads; four young girls who could not be older than eleven, who looked up at him with solemn eyes and bowed to him until their foreheads touched the grass.

He bowed in return, just as low, and just as gracefully, bending over one extended foreleg until every muscle complained.

They took their places around him, forming a square with himself in the middle, and they all marched out into the garden together.

Murmurs of conversation rose on all sides, and he sensed the curious eyes of those ranked on the benches above him. What did he look like, the white gryphon parading on the green grass? Dangerous—or handsome?

Both? Oh, I hope so. I know I’m handsome, but I haven’t felt dangerous all day.

The four girls split off as they all reached the pyramid, a smallish construction with a flat platform on top. He went on alone, climbing the wooden steps with ease, and discovered as he took his place beside Zhaneel why this was such a place of honor. From here, elevated above the dancers, you saw not only the dancers themselves, but the patterns they formed, abstract constructions created by the special colors of the costumes they wore.

Well, this should be fascinating. I can study their dance steps very well from here; the patterns ought to be incorporated into what I will do as well. As he settled in, a touch of a color he hadn’t expected caught the corner of his eye—Zhaneel was buff and gray, Winterhart had worn green and white, and Amberdrake was all in green. So why the vivid, warm golden-yellow? He turned out of curiosity, and saw that Winterhart was cradling a bouquet of three large, tawny-gold lilies in her arms.

That’s interesting. She didn’t have those when we came down to Court, so she must have gotten them at Court itself. I wish I hadn’t been so busy talking to Leyuet; I must have missed something. Wonder who gave them to her?

Chances were it was Amberdrake, that incurable romantic. But where had he found them? Skan had never seen anything like them before, and he knew there wasn’t anything like them growing in the gardens. Gesten would have noticed; Gesten was always on the lookout for plants to take home to White Gryphon, and he would love these.

But before he could say anything to Winterhart, the musicians struck up; Haighlei music wasn’t anything like the Kaled’a’in stuff Skan remembered, nor like the music of the minstrels and Bards of the old northern courts. Like the Royal Dancers, these Royal Musicians were all trained to play together as a group, and their music lessons began in earliest childhood. They even wore a uniform that was unique among the Haighlei garments, in that there were no trailing sleeves or other encumbrances to interfere with the playing of instruments.

There were at least a dozen different kinds of drums alone in that group, plus gongs, bells, cymbals, zills—at least half of the musicians played percussion of one sort or another. The rest were equally divided between instruments with plucked or bowed strings, and various flutes.

As might be expected with that kind of balance, the music was heavily percussive in nature, and Skan was glad he wasn’t sitting too near the ensemble.

You could go deaf quickly with that much pounding in your earsand I pity the poor creature with a headache! But when it all blends together, it is deep and driving. I like this a lot. It reminds me of—

Skandranon realized what it reminded him of. It was visceral. It reached deep into him; the vibrations carried through his chest, through his wings, through his bones.

It felt like sex; it felt like skydancing and mating, when the blood thrummed in his ears and all the world shook.

Oh, I remember those times, when I weighed less. I was strong and virile. And fast! And sleek and glossy black.

Skandranon suppressed a delighted laugh. Those were the days!

Then the dancers struck their initial poses, right arms with their trailing sleeves raised high, left arm bent toward the earth, and bodies curved backward until it made his back ache to look at them. He forgot everything else from that moment on in his absorption in the dance, studying the details.

“Enjoy yourself?” Zhaneel asked with a saucy gape-grin on her delicate gryfalcon face, as they looked in on the twins before taking to their own bed. Skan was yawning; the performance had gone on for a very long time, and it was well after midnight when all the congratulations had been made to the Dancers, the Musicians, and the Dancemaster, and they could return to their rooms again.

Not that he hadn’t savored every minutes of it!

The little ones were curled up in their nests of cushions, making a ball with two heads, four wings, and an indeterminate number of limbs—in other words, the usual nighttime position. In the heat of the day, they sprawled, belly-down on cool stone, looking rather squashed. But for now, they were puffballs.

“I liked it a great deal,” he told her, as they left the twins to their dreams of mischief among the fishponds, and walked into their own room. The servants had already been and gone, leaving the suite prepared. The door to the balcony was wide open, the curtains pulled aside to allow entry to the cool breeze that always came up around midnight. The air that drifted in was scented with the heavy perfume of a flower that bloomed only at night, a tiny white blossom like a trumpet.

She is just as sweet. I wonder if she is in the mood?

Skan stretched luxuriously. “These Royal Dancers are quite amazing. I don’t remember ever seeing anything like that be—”

Someone pounded on their door. Skan and Zhaneel exchanged startled glances as one of the Haighlei servants ran out of the servants’ rooms to answer it.

Who can that be at this hour? Surely nothing can be so important that they need to summon us now! Unless—Skan suddenly felt a rush of chill. Unless something’s happened to Drake or Winterhart

The servant exchanged some half-dozen words with whoever was there, then quickly stood aside and flung the door open wide. Leyuet, the Truthsayer and Advisor to King Shalaman stood firmly in the doorway, looking both solemn and very upset, and with him were ten of Shalaman’s guards, all armed to the teeth.

I don’t like the look of this!

“You will please come with me,” Leyuet said, trembling, his voice shaking a little as he looked into Skandranon’s eyes, past the formidable beak. “Now.”

Skan pulled himself up to his full height, and glared down at the thin Truthsayer standing in the doorway. Better act important and upset. If this is some kind of a trap, I might be able to bluff my way out of it. “Why?” he demanded. “It is midnight. It is time for sleep. And I am the envoy of my people and a ruler in my own right. What possible cause can you have to come bursting in here with armed guards at your back? What possible need can anyone have of my presence? What is so urgent that it cannot wait until morning?”

Is this some way to try and separate us? Have we come all this way only to find we’ve willingly become hostages? Was Drake wrong in trusting that Silver Veil would protect us?

But Leyuet only looked tired, and very, very frightened, but not by Skandranon. “You must come with me,” he insisted as he clasped his hands together tightly in front of his chest. “Please. You must not make me compel you. I tell you this for your benefit.”

“Why?” Skan demanded again. “Why?”

“Because,” Leyuet said at last, his face gray under the dark color of his complexion, “there has been a murder. And it was done by a creature with wings, with magic, or with both.”

Zhaneel was not wanted along, so she stayed behind under guard. Skan was just as happy to have her elsewhere, although he doubted that she would get any rest until he returned. It looked as though it was going to be a long night for both of them.

And we were just getting our stamina back, too!

He was not under arrest. Fortunately, he and the others had been sitting in the middle of that Dance, under the scrutiny of the entire court, all the Dancers, and however many servants had managed to steal a moment and a place to watch from. Or rather, his “arrest” was a token only, and meant to last only so long as it took for half a dozen witnesses to be hauled from their beds and swear before the King that Skan had not once left his seat from the moment the Dance began. As he was counted as the highest authority among the newcomers, protocol dictated that he would be questioned first; presumably this was so that he would have the option of naming any of his underlings guilty of the crime, and thus save face.

Shalaman waited on his bench-throne, face stern and impassive, as six sleepy Haighlei—a Dancer, a servant, three courtiers, and an envoy from one of the other Kingdoms—all vouched for him at different times during the Dance. Evidently, they were leaving nothing to chance.

When the last of them left, Leyuet listened for a moment while the King spoke, then turned back to Skan. “The King would like your opinion on what transpired, and he requests that you accompany us to investigate the scene. As you pointed out, you have wings, and you know magic. The King believes that you will have insights into this tragedy that we may not.”

As if I have any choice. If I refuse, it will look bad, perhaps suspicious, and these people are suspicious enough of me already.

Best to put a good face on it, then. He bowed as he had to the dancers. “Tell the King that I will be pleased to add whatever I can to help determine who is the author of this murder.” He tried to look calm, dignified, and just as impassive as Shalaman himself.

His innocence ascertained, the King waited for Palisar, Silver Veil, and a gaggle of priests and official-looking fellows with spears that were both functional and decorative to arrive. Then all of them, Skan included, trooped off together to a far corner of the Palace, to one of the towers that housed some of the higher-ranking nobles.

The corridors were deserted, but not because people were sleeping. Skan sensed eyes behind the cracks of barely-opened doors behind them, and sensed fear rising like a fog all along their path. People knew that something terrible had happened although they didn’t know what it was. Rumors were probably spreading already.

I only hope I look like an investigator and not a prisoner or a suspect in custody!

Up the wooden stairs of the tower they went, four stories’ worth of climbing, with a landing and a closed door giving onto the staircase at each floor, until they came out onto the landing of the suite belonging to the victim. This was the uppermost floor of the flat-roofed tower, with only the staircase as an access route. Leyuet took pains to point that out, as they opened that final door into the victim’s suite.

They didn’t exactly have to search to find the body—or rather, most of the body. It was all still in the first room of the suite.

Skan didn’t know the victim. When Leyuet had mentioned the name, it hadn’t triggered a feeling of familiarity; there were a lot of high-ranking nobles, and he’d hardly had time to learn all of them by name. He might have recognized the face—if there had been anything left of the face to recognize.

The problem was that there wasn’t anything left to recognize. The body had been shredded, flesh sprayed all over the walls and furniture with such abandon that the hardened guards looked sick, and the more susceptible Palisar and Leyuet had to excuse themselves. The King, who presumably had seen quite a bit of carnage over bis lifetime, if only on one of his fabled lion hunts, was visibly shaken. Silver Veil’s face was as white as her dressing gown, but her features remained composed. Skan wondered how she managed it.

Then again, she took her wagon and her apprentices through Ma’ar’s battle-lines, and before that, through the areas he‘d “pacified.” Perhaps this isn‘t anything worse than she saw back then.

Well, that was a horrid thought. And, unfortunately, probably true.

Skan paced slowly around the room, avoiding the blood and bits of flesh, noting how and where the blows had fallen. There wasn’t a great deal of furniture in this room, which made his task easier. “I hope your Serenity will excuse what might seem callousness on my part,” he said absently, crouching to examine the path of a particular blood spurt. “But I am a warrior. I have seen worse than this visited upon my own people in my very presence. Silver Veil will have told you of Ma’ar, of the wars. I assume that I am here in part because of that experience, as well as the fact that I am a mage and I am capable of flying.”

Silver Veil translated, and Shalaman nodded. He said something, and Silver Veil turned toward Skan.

“His Serenity says that the woman who died was seen in Court this evening, and left just as you entered the garden for the Dance in your honor. She was known to oppose the alliance, and chose to make her opposition public with her withdrawal.”

Charming. My enemy, which makes me suspect all over again. “I was not aware that this particular woman felt that strongly,” Skan said mildly. “I do not feel it is my place or my duty to interfere in the opinions of the Haighlei. Firstly, they are your people, not mine, and your Serenity will deal with them and their opinions as he sees fit. Secondly, actions tell more than words; I behave with honor and candor, and that will do more to reverse a poor opinion of me than all the arguing and attempts at persuasion of all the learned diplomats in the world.”

Shalaman smiled faintly as Silver Veil translated this, and Skan went back to his examination. Since he had tacit permission to do so, he invoked mage-sight, although he frankly wasn’t expecting it to work correctly. Sometimes it did, these days, and sometimes all it showed him was a wash of magical energy over everything like a fog, impossible to see through. Once in a while, very rarely, it showed him nothing. That might mean that it wasn’t working—or it might mean there was nothing to see.

This time, he got that foggy wash of energy over everything, which was hardly useful.

He examined the windows, which were unlocked and open, and found nothing there, either. No bloodstains showing that the murderer had escaped that way, and no signs of clawmarks as there would be if the murderer had landed on the window ledge and grasped it as a gryphon would.

He reported both those nonfindings dutifully.

“Could a mage have done this?” Leyuet prompted.

“Certainly,” Skan replied. “If any mage could gather enough power to overcome all the present difficulties in working magic—difficulties I am certain that Your Serenity’s priests have already advised you of—this could be done at a distance, without the mage needing even to be near this room. It could also have been done physically. My opinion is that most of the damage was done while the victim was already unconscious or dead, probably the latter.”

He pointed out with clinical precision why he had come to that conclusion—the lack of force in the blood sprays, the apparent lack of movement on the part of the victim. Leyuet looked sick but continued to translate.

I had better learn this language quickly if I am going to find myself fending off accusations of murder!

“I cannot tell if this was done by magic means or physical,” he concluded. “There was time enough for someone to have done this by physical means before the body was discovered, since the victim dismissed her servants to brood alone during the Dance. I cannot tell if someone flew here or climbed up from below. The latter would be easy enough, for the north side of this tower is all in shadow, and does not overlook a guard post or a garden where someone might have been walking. If the murderer was very, very good, he could even have come up by the stairs and left the same way without anyone seeing him.” He shrugged. “I am sorry to be of so little use.”

Leyuet nodded, as Silver Veil translated, and then said something to Shalaman himself. The King spoke, and both of them listened gravely.

It was Silver Veil who translated the reply. “Skandranon,” she said hesitantly, “I do not care to be the one who tells you this, but His Serenity decrees that while he is convinced for the moment that you had nothing to do with this, there are others who will not be convinced. You must therefore submit to his supervision.”

Skan ground his beak, and Leyuet winced at the sound. “And what sort of supervision will that be?” he asked harshly. He could already tell from Silver Veil’s expression that he wasn’t going to like it, whatever it was.

“You must have one of the Spears of the Law with you at all times, or submit to being closed inside a locked and windowless room if you must have privacy,” she told him apologetically. “That is the only way we can be certain of your whereabouts at all times. It is as much for your sake as ours, you know.”

Oh, lovely. Either have one of these ebony spearcarriers watching my every move, or get closed up into a closet. Charming. This is not going to do a great deal for my love life! Somehow I doubt that Zhaneel will welcome a third party to our little trysts. . . .

And the idea of any kind of exertion in a locked and windowless room, especially in this climate, was not a pleasant one.

I shall certainly lose weight. It will be steamed off!

But what other choice did he have?

None, and that’s the problem, isn’t it?

“Very well,” he growled, making no secret of his displeasure. ‘Tell everyone that I will suffer that they may feel more comfortable. Tell them I will voluntarily be their hostage in a closet. I can’t see any other solution.”

“Neither can I,” Silver Veil replied with a sigh.

It was matched by Skan’s. And there was one more problem to be faced.

I have to explain this one to Zhaneel!

There was a windowless room in their suite, as it turned out; normally used as a storage room, and hastily turned into a sleeping chamber. Fortunately for him, it might have been windowless, but it wasn’t airless; he had forgotten the humidity that went along with the heat in this land. You didn’t dare close things into an airless chamber, not and expect to extract them again in the same shape they went in. Mildew and mold were the twin enemies that housekeepers fought here, and mildew and mold would thrive in a completely closed chamber.

So there were air-slits cut just below the ceiling, no broader than the width of a woman’s palm, but cut on all four walls, and providing a steady stream of fresh air into the room.

“At least it will be dark when we wish to sleep,” Zhaneel said philosophically as she set a tiny lamp up on the wall, trying to make the best of the situation. It was a good thing that she had handlike foreclaws, and not Skan’s fighting claws—with no mage-lights available, it was either a lamp or nothing, and he couldn’t light a lamp. Except with magic, which he’d been warned not to use. “These slits cannot let in much light. And if the little ones wake at dawn and begin to play, the walls will muffle the noise.”

Skan tried not to growl. It was not exactly compensation for being shut into a closet at night.

“I won’t say I like this,” he said, throwing himself down on their bed, and resisting the urge to claw it to bits in frustration. “I wish I had a better solution. Sketi, I wish I’d never come here in the first place! If I wasn’t here, there’d be no one from White Gryphon to suspect!”

“I would not count on that,” Zhaneel countered thoughtfully, stretching herself down beside him, and beginning to preen his ear-tufts to soothe his temper. “Consider; what if this were devised precisely to implicate you? Or rather, to implicate one of the White Gryphon envoys. If Judeth had been here in your stead, the murder might seem to have been performed by a fighter; if Lady Cinnabar, the victim might have been dissected with surgical precision. Or a weapon from the north might have been found in the room.”

“Hmm.” Skan pondered that; it had the right sound and feel to it. “But what does that mean for us at the moment?”

Zhaneel delicately spat out a tuft of down and answered him. “Whoever did this in the first place must not realize that you were under the eyes of hundreds of witnesses at the time of the murder. The best that we can do is be graceful and gracious beneath this burden, and wait for some other evidence to surface. What is needed is motive. Perhaps this courtier had some great enemy, or perhaps she owned something that will prove to be missing.” She shrugged and went after the other ear-tuft. “In any case, it hardly matters at the moment. I think that there is magic involved.”

“How, when mages are so watched and bound by laws and priests?” Skan asked skeptically.

She had no answer for that, but there was no reason why he couldn’t pursue that particular quarry for a moment. “I suppose that accidents could happen,” he mused aloud. “This is a large country. A child could be overlooked, or even run away from the school. Once he knew what he was, if he didn’t turn himself in—”

“Then obviously he would already be a criminal,” Zhaneel stated.

“A good point. Which would mean he would drift into the company of other criminals.” He nodded, and leaned a little more into her preening; she knew where all the really itchy spots were.

“Which would mean that he would become a weapon in the hands of other criminals,” she replied. “I think the most likely is that this woman had a great enemy, and that the enemy decided to rid himself of the woman during a time when he was unlikely to be caught.”

“During the Dance, you mean? But everyone knew we were going to be there, didn’t they? After all, it was supposed to be in our honor.”

“That would be known to those in the Court itself. The fact that the murder looked as if a gryphon did it might actually only be a coincidence, if this was a crime of terrible and profound anger,” she pointed out. “And the murderer could simply be incredibly lucky, to have gotten into his victim’s suite, killed her, and gotten out without being seen. People do have that kind of luck, you know.” She glanced at him slyly. “Certainly, you did.”

“Huhrrr.” He thought that over. It was possible. Not likely, but barely possible. “He’d have to be lucky and good. And if that’s the case, we’ll never catch him.”

“But when nothing more happens, this will all evaporate in a few days,” Zhaneel pointed out. “After all, you could not have done the deed, even Palisar admits that. As unreliable as magic is, even if you had done this by magic, you would still have needed privacy and a great deal of time, and there would be traces. So, when nothing more is discovered, all the attention upon us will fade in importance in no more than a week, and they will remove their guards and precautions.” She glanced at him, with a sideways tilt of her head. “They may never find the murderer, but this will soon become only the interest of what passes for a policing force here.”

Skan sighed, and nuzzled her tiny ear-tufts. “You’re right, of course,” he said as she craned her head upward to blow out the lamp. “In a few days their suspicion of us will be forgotten.”

There. I have said what will comfort her. Why don’t I believe it myself?

Five

There was a familiar knock at the door, a little after dinnertime and just before Court. The servant spoke a sentence or two in hushed tones.

“Don’t tell me,” Skandranon groaned, as the servant—once again—ushered in Leyuet and the Spears of the Law. This was the third time in six days. “Another murder.”

Leyuet nodded grimly. His dark face was drawn and new worry-lines etched the corners of his mouth. And was there more gray in his hair? It seemed so. “Another murder. Another professed opponent of the treaty. This time, in a room locked and barred from within. It must be by magic. You were, of course, watched all afternoon during your sleep period?”

Skan gestured broadly to indicate the pair of heavily-muscled spear-bearers, standing stoically in what passed for the corners of the room. “They never left my side, and they never slept.” After the second murder, a single watcher had not been deemed enough to insure Skandranon’s innocence by some parties, so a second Spear of the Law had been added to make certain that the first was not duped or slumbering. “I’ve either been here or in the garden. Just ask them.”

Leyuet sighed, a look of defeat creeping over him. “I do not need to, for I know that they will confirm your words. But I also know that no magician of the Haighlei could have done this. As you rightly pointed out, to overcome all the disturbances in the use of magic would require more power than any of our priests or mages has available to him. Thus the mage must be foreign, with foreign ways of working magic.” He rubbed his eyes, a gesture that had become habitual over the past several days, as Leyuet clearly got less and less sleep. “No Haighlei would ever have committed murder so—so crudely, so impolitely, either.”

Skan coughed to keep from choking with astonishment. Every time he thought he understood the Haighlei ways, someone said something that surprised him all over again. “You mean to tell me that there is a polite way to commit murder?” he blurted.

Leyuet did not rise to the bait; he just shook his head. “It is just the Haighlei way. Even murder has a certain protocol, a set ritualistic aspect to it. For one thing, a murderer must accomplish certain tasks to be certain that the spirit of his victim has been purged from the earth. How else could the perpetrator feel satisfaction? But this conforms to nothing Haighlei. It is not random, but there is no pattern to it, either.”

Zhaneel coughed politely, drawing Leyuet’s gaze toward her. “All the victims were women as well as being opposed to the alliance,” Zhaneel suggested delicately. “Could it be a case of a jilted lover? Someone who approached all three of the women about an assignation and was rebuffed—or someone who once had affairs with them and was cast off for another?”

But Leyuet only shook his head again. “There would be even more of ritual in that case. No, this has no pattern, it was done by magic, and it is like nothing we have ever seen in the Empire.”

As if some madman among the Haighlei could not act in a patternless fashion. “It is new, in other words,” Skan said flatly. “And since it is new, and we are new, therefore—”

“Therefore I must summon you before the Emperor Shalaman once again,” Leyuet finished for him, spreading his hands wide. “It is the pattern.”

Skan simply bowed to the inevitable. I have no choice, after all. I cannot even try to go back to White Gryphon now; they might decide that retreat was an admission of guilt and send an army. “Lead on,” he replied, gesturing with his foreclaw. “I am at your disposal.”

And I only hope that isn’t a prophetic phrase! I would very much prefer not to be “disposed of!”

Kanshin worked the little wooden ball up and around his fingers, from the index to the littlest finger and back again, in an exercise often used by street-entertainers who practiced sleight-of-hand and called it magic. He was no street-entertainer, however. He was a thief, and a master thief at that. More than any street-entertainer, he needed to keep his hands supple.

His father would be horrified, if he still lived, to know what “trade” Kanshin now plied. Better to be a master thief than a master-ditchdigger. That was what Kanshin’s father had been, and his grandfather, and so on back for ten generations. That, so the priests and the gods decreed, was what Kanshin should have been.

Kanshin sneered at them all, at his father for being a fool, at the priests for the “decrees” that duped so many. A pox upon priests and gods together. Assuming there even are any gods, which I doubt.

He worked the ball around his left hand, across the palm, and up to the index finger again. My father believed in the gods and the priests, and we starved. I like my way better.

Kanshin had more intelligence than to believe the pious rhetoric spewed out in regular, measured doses by the priests—especially when the only way to “be certain” of a better position in one’s next life was to bestow all of one’s wealth on the priests in this one. Not that a ditch-digger was going to acquire much wealth over the course of a lifetime, but Kanshin’s father had devoted every spare coin to the purchase of that new life, to the detriment and hardship of his own children.

Perhaps that was why Kanshin had seen through the scheme by the time he was five. Hunger undermined manners. Polite people didn’t question.

He glanced at the door to the guest room, thinking he had heard a sound, but it was nothing.

Even our guest would certainly agree with me and not with my father. He might be insane, but he certainly isn‘t stupid.

He had hoped for a while that he might escape the endless cycle of backbreaking labor and poverty by being taken by the priests as a mage—but that never happened. No mage-craft and easy life for me. What a joke! If the gods really existed, they’d have arranged for me to have the powers of magic, wouldn’t they? If they had, I’d be one of their fat priests or fatter mages right now, and there would be many people still in the incarnations I cut short. But there were no gods, of course, and no priest had come to spirit Kanshin away to a better life. So, one day, when his father and mother and bawling, brawling siblings were all sleeping the sleep of the stupefied, he ran away. Away to the city, to the wicked, worldly city of Khimbata, and a chance for something better than blisters on his hands, a permanently bent back, and an early grave.

Kanshin smiled with satisfaction at his own cleverness. So much for the gods, who sought to keep him in his place. For although he could not go higher in caste to win himself the fortune and luxury he craved—he could go lower.

He transferred the ball to his right hand, and began the exercise all over again.

He had started out as a beggar, self-apprenticed to one of the old hands of the trade, aged Jacony. Jacony had taught him everything; how to wrap his body tightly with bandages to look thinner, how to make his face pale and wan or even leprous, how to create sores from flour, water, and henna, how to bind his leg or arm to make it look as if he were an amputee. That was all right for a while, as long as he was young and could look convincingly starved and pathetic—and as long as the sores and deformations his master put on him were strictly cosmetic. But when the old man let drop the fact that he was considering actually removing a hand or a foot to make Kanshin into a “wounded lion hunter,” Kanshin decided that he’d better find another trade and another master.

I can’t believe the old man thought I’d stand for that. I wasn’t that desperate! Butmaybe he was. And missing a hand or afoot, I’d be a lot more conspicuous if I tried to run off—a lot more dependent on him, too, I suppose.

It didn’t take him long to find a new master, now that he knew his way around the city. By that time, he was quite conversant with the covert underground of beggars, whores, and thieves that swarmed the soft underbelly of the lazy metropolis, like fleas living in the belly-fur of a fat, pampered lapdog. And he knew what he wanted, too.

There were other masters ready to take me at that point. Lakshe, for instance. He hadn’t ever given Lakshe’s offer serious thought because he didn’t intend to become a boy-whore, although the trade paid well enough. He would have only one chance in ten of earning enough before he became too old to be called a “boy” anymore, and there wasn’t a lot of call for aging catamites.

And the odds of becoming a procurer like Lakshe are even lower than earning enough to keep you for the rest of your life.

He’d tried being a beggar, and he just looked too healthy, too strong; not all the paste-and-henna sores in the world would convince people he was really suffering, not unless he did undergo a self-amputation. I didn’t like begging, anyway. No chance for a fortune. And scraping out a living that way was hardly better than digging ditches.

So—that left thief, an avocation he was already attracted to. He smiled as he worked the ball across his fingers. I’d even picked a pocket or two by then, so I was ready, ready to learn more.

He was still young enough—just—to get a master. He chose one of the oldest thieves in the city, an alcoholic sot who lived on cadged drinks and a reputation many doubted. No one knew that Poldarn was more than a drunk and a liar. Kanshin had not doubted him after several of the stories had, on investigation, proven to be true. Nor had he doubted the man’s ability to teach him, if only Kanshin could keep him sober and alive long enough to do so.

He had managed both, and now, if he was not the master-thief in the city, he was certainly among the masters. Poldarn did know every trick of the trade, from picking locks to climbing up walls with no more gear than ten strong fingers and toes. He was good, I’ll grant him that. Too bad drink addled his wits.

And his master? Dead, now; collapsed back into the gutter as soon as Kanshin left him on his own. He couldn’t stay sober a day without me. He was drunk the day I set up on my own, and I never saw him sober after that. I don’t think he lived more than a fortnight after I left.

Hardly a surprise; the man’s liver must have been the size of a goose. Either thator he went back to drinking the same quantities of strong liquor that he had of weak, and the drink itself killed him. Small loss, to the world or to me. Where were the gods for him, when he was drinking himself into a stupor?

The young thief had been good—and careful. He neither over- nor under-estimated his own abilities, and he always brought back the goods he’d been paid to take.

Now Kanshin had all the things he had dreamed of; a house, slaves, fine foods to eat and wines to drink. The food was as good as that from the King’s table, and the wines were often better.

The house was a grand affair, like the dream of a palace on the inside—granted, the house was in the heart of the Dakola District, but no one was stupid enough to try to rob Kanshin. The last fool who’d tried was still serving out his punishment, chained to a wall in Kanshin’s basement, digging a new cesspit. That was afar more effective deterrent than simply killing or maiming interlopers. After all, most of them, like Kanshin himself, had become thieves to avoid hard labor. When they found themselves little better than slaves, forced to wield shovels and scrub dirty dishes, they never tried to rob him a second time.

He listened very carefully, and smiled when he heard the faint scrape of a shovel on dirt. Now there was one unhappy thief who would not be making a second visit to Kanshin.

The house itself looked like every other filthy, rundown heap in the district—outside. Inside, it was crammed with every luxury that Kanshin could buy or steal. Perhaps service was a little slower than in the homes of the nobles—the slaves were hobbled with chains to hinder their escape—but Kanshin didn’t mind. In fact, he rather enjoyed seeing people who could probably boast higher birth than he, weighted down with iron and forced to obey his every whim. Slavery was not legal in this kingdom, but none of these people would dare to complain of their lot.

Not all of this was due entirely to his own work, but it was due to his own cleverness.

He set the ball aside, and began to run the same exercises using a coin. It was clever to find this perfect partner. It was clever to see his cleverness. Some eight or nine years ago, right after that strange winter when the priests all seemed to vanish for a time and there were rumors all over the city of magic gone horribly wrong, a young and comely stranger began walking the streets of the Dakola District. He claimed to be a mage, which all men knew to be impossible, since no mage—by definition a Law-Keeper—would ever frequent the haunts of the Law-Slayers. So all men laughed him to scorn when he told them this, and that he was looking for a thief to partner him in certain enterprises.

No one believed him. They should have known that a story so preposterous had to be true.

All men laughed at him but one—Kanshin, who bethought him that if a ditchdigger could slip through the Law to become a master-thief, could not a renegade mage slip through the Law as well to retain his magic? So he sought out this man, and discovered that what no one else would believe was nothing more nor less than the barest, leanest truth.

He—the man called himself “Noyoki,” which meant “No one”—was a mage. And he had, by sheerest accident, slipped through the hands of the priests. At seventeen he had been discovered in some unsavory doing by the priests, his teachers—what, Kanshin never bothered to find out for true, although Noyoki said it had been because he used his powers to cheat at games of chance.

That seems unlikely . . . but then again, these priests find cheating to be a sin only second to murder. I suppose it never occurs to them that they are the real cheats. They had, of course, decreed that he should have his powers removed, as always. No child caught misusing his powers could be allowed to retain them. For that matter, it was rumored that adult mages had been stripped of their powers for misuse.

A useful rumor to circulate I suppose, if you are intent on preserving the illusion of the integrity of your adult mages.

It was the mad magic that had saved Noyoki, that first wave of mad magic ten years ago that had lit up the night skies, created abortive and mismade creatures, muddled everything and turned the world of the mages upside-down. The priest that should have burned the magic out of his head had been struck down unconscious and died the following week without ever waking again, but Noyoki had the wit to feign the sickness that came when such a deed had been done. And with magic gone quite unpredictable, no one of the priests could tell that it had not been done.

So he was sent back to his family in disgrace—powers intact, and lacking only a few months of training to be a full mage.

They were told he should never be trusted, never given power, a high office, or any responsibility. Kanshin smiled at that. Another challenge to the nonexistent gods; if they had never given this boy magic, he would never have turned against the world and cultivated Kanshin. If he had never met Kanshin, there were things stolen and deaths recorded that would never have happened.

So much for the gods.

It was a lofty house, for Noyoki had quarters of his own within the Palace itself. Noyoki had waited until they ceased to put eyes on him wherever he went, and left him in scorn to seek whatever excesses might soonest bring his cycle to the earliest end. That was what he was supposed to do. No one dreamed he had any ambitions at all; they should have been burned out with his magic.

Then, once no one bothered to watch him anymore, he went down into the quarter of the thieves, to seek a thief as a partner.

Kanshin and Noyoki were successful beyond Kan-shin’s original dreams of avarice—though Noyoki never seemed to want the gems and artifacts, the drugs and the rare essences that Kanshin stole with his help. No, Noyoki was most interested in paper, documents—

Well, that was fine with Kanshin. Let Noyoki have the documents; Kanshin knew better than to try to take them to use himself. That required subtlety which Kanshin had, but it also required knowledge of their owners and the enemies of their owners which he did not have. He was smart enough to know that he could and would never learn these things in time to make proper use of the stolen papers.

Noyoki also had another power—rarely used and hard on him—that allowed him to place Kanshin within a locked and barred room and extract him again. At first he had not been able to do this more than once a year or so, but lately, he had been able to accomplish it much oftener. For a thief, such a talent was beyond price, and Kanshin treasured his partnership, suffering insults and slights from Noyoki he would never have suffered from another living being.

Things have been going well. Kanshin frowned. So why has Noyoki suddenly gotten greater ambitions?

Everything had gone according to the plan Kanshin had worked out for his life—when the unexpected happened. Kanshin had wealth, power, a certain amount of fame, and needed only to work when he chose. But one day not long ago, Noyoki had brought the madman now in Kanshin’s guest chamber to Kanshin’s home and bade him care for the pale-skinned creature.

Hadanelith was the madman’s name, a man with the white skin of a leper, the pale-blue eyes of a lemur, and hair like bleached straw. Kanshin would have thought that this “Hadanelith” was some kind of misbegotten sport, created from a normal man by the mad magic, if he had not once seen the Emperor’s kestra’chern, The Silver Veil, with his own eyes. She had skin as pale, eyes as washed-out, and hair of an even stranger silver color. So the madman was not a misbegotten thing, but only a man from another land.

I do not understand this creature. Hadanelith found humor in things not even Kanshin found amusing; he made slaves of the slaves, manipulating their minds in such a way that Kanshin could remove their chains at any time and never fear their escaping. Of course, once Hadanelith had done with them, they were useless to anyone but him. Kanshin was just glad he had not given the man access to more than three, of which only two were female. Hadanelith had no use for males. Kanshin refused to allow himself to be intimidated by the man, but his strange behavior unnerved him.

On the other hand, he is frighteningly intelligent. He had learned their language so quickly that Kanshin wondered now and again if the man had plucked it from their minds. But no—he had only learned by listening, and when he finally spoke, it was with no real accent. He might giggle like an hysterical girl with pleasure in the work he had done for them, but it was competent work, and within the limits he and Noyoki set, Hadanelith worked well.

One of the slaves—one that Hadanelith had not spoiled—came to the door of Kanshin’s work room, a chamber filled with the tools of his trade and the instruments he used to keep his body as supple as that of the young thief he had once been. “Master,” said the man, his head lowered submissively, “Noyoki awaits your pleasure in the reception chamber.”

“Good.” Kanshin placed the coin back in the holder beside the ball, and rose from his chair. “Tell him I will be with him shortly.”

With a faint clinking of chain, the slave bowed and shuffled out. Kanshin smiled at his back.

Then he surveyed himself in the full-length mirror to be certain there was nothing lacking in his appearance. He suspected Noyoki to be of extraordinarily high birth, and he had tried, since the beginning, to look as outwardly respectable as someone of high caste could. Noyoki himself cultivated a rapscallion appearance, wearing untidy robes of odd cut, his hair woven into braids like a working man, but that did not mean he was not influenced without his realizing it by the appearance of respectability. Every trick that came to hand was necessary when dealing with Noyoki.

There was nothing to mark Kanshin as a person of anything less than the caste of bankers and professionals.

He smoothed his robes with a proprietary hand and went in search of his partner.

Noyoki sprawled casually on one of the couches in the reception chamber, his hair beaded as well as braided, his bright cotton robe made of patchwork material, like that of a mountebank or street-entertainer. He was examining a piece of carving that Hadanelith had left on one of the tables, looking it over with intense scrutiny, a frown of concentration on his handsome, chiseled features.

“What do you make of this?” he asked as Kanshin entered, followed by the slave with a tray of fruit ices for their refreshment. He held it up; there was no mistaking what it was meant for, but the shape was odd. It was carved to resemble a rabbit, with long ears pressed tightly together, and a misshapen, bulbous body. The expression on the rabbit’s stupid face was that of sheer terror. Not the sort of expression one would expect to find on a toy of that nature. It was not unheard of for these toys to be shaped like animals, but the animals always looked as if they were cheerfully enjoying themselves.

“It is one of your friend’s toys,” Kanshin replied easily. “And I suspect it would give us a great deal of insight into his way of thinking if we knew why he had carved it that way. He presented me with it this afternoon. There was blood on it.”

“Charming.” Noyoki did not put it down immediately, as Kanshin had thought he might. Then again, given that he had turned to blood-magic, perhaps the thing held some arcane significance for him. “He performed well this afternoon.”

“You would be the one to know, not I, by the results of your working.” Kanshin raised his eyebrows in inquiry; Noyoki only smiled, and ran his fingers along the smooth wood of the carving, caressing the toy with his touch.

“If that is a question, yes, the blood-power came through strong and clear. It more than tripled the reserves I expended to put him in place and take him out again.” Noyoki had told Kanshin that only the power that came through pain and spilled blood was strong enough to allow him to work magics in the old way, before magery had run wild. What he was doing, Kanshin did not ask. He really did not want to know. The less I know of his doings, the safer I am. He knew very well that Noyoki would not hesitate to be rid of him if the mage thought he knew too much.

Whatever magics the man worked now, it was something to put Noyoki back in a position of power, though whether overt or covert, Kanshin would not even guess. He knew that the victims Noyoki had chosen for his “pet” to slay were all rivals or former rivals; perhaps he was ridding himself of his male rivals by using the deaths of their females to undermine them.

“It is a pity that we cannot persuade the man to broaden his—ah—interests,” he said carefully.

Noyoki frowned. “If I could find a way to coerce him to take men—well, perhaps coercion would be a bad idea. He is an artist in his way, and when one coerces an artist, the work is always flawed.”

Kanshin nodded, although the turn of Noyoki’s phrase surprised him. Had the mage spoken from past experience?

Their dual role in this was to use Hadanelith to simulate murder by magic. Kanshin would find a way to insert Hadanelith into the victim’s chambers and get him out again; if there was no other way in, Noyoki would spirit him in and out by that odd talent of his when he was done, using the excess of the power released from the victim’s suffering and death. In between, Hadanelith had free rein to work whatever atrocities on the victim that he chose, up until the moment he received the signal to kill.

A clever plan, which required a minimum of magic to carry out. At the moment, Kanshin’s payment was coming through Noyoki, and both maintained the polite fiction that Noyoki was working for someone else, some great noble who wanted obstacles removed from his path, but in such a way that these dangerous new pale-skinned allies were also placed under suspicion.

It is easier to discredit foreigners anyway. It is just a good thing that their arrival coincided with the beginning of our plan. Kanshin had not told Hadanelith any more than was strictly necessary to carry out the work, but he wondered if the man had guessed who was taking the blame for the murders. If so, he did not seem at all displeased by the idea of what might be his own countrymen being falsely accused.

Perhaps he simply doesn‘t care. Or perhaps these people drove him out of their ranks. . . . That was an interesting thought. If Hadanelith had tortured and killed before, it would account for his peculiar competence in that area.

He was a good, if flawed, tool. He followed his instructions to the letter, as long as he knew why he was supposed to be doing something. When the signal to kill came, he never balked.

The trouble is, we cannot be certain how much longer he will remain tractable.

As Kanshin understood it, for Noyoki’s blood-magic to work, the power he received had to be incredibly strong, which meant the murders must be committed with a diabolical, rabid brutality. Despite the fact that the Emperor was trying to keep the news suppressed, rumors of the murders were already in the lower districts of Khimbata, and hardened criminals spoke of the scenes and the victims with troubled awe, as if even they could not imagine doing such things.

“How much longer do you think we can keep a leash on our dog?” Noyoki asked, as if he was aware of Kanshin’s doubts.

Kanshin shrugged. “How much longer do you need him? He seems stable enough for now. I think as long as he knows that we are the only route to what he wants, he will obey. But he is not sane, Noyoki. He could suddenly change, and we would have no warning of it.”

Noyoki nodded, face solemn, the beads on the ends of his braids clicking with the movement of his head. “His carving might give us a clue.”

“True.” Hadanelith had a mania for carving; he always had a knife in his hands and a piece of wood, and there were more of his twisted little sculptures all over the house. Kanshin didn’t mind the mess and the shavings at all; while Hadanelith carved, he was not getting into other mischief.

“I think he knows about the visitors taking the blame for the murders,” Noyoki said, suddenly switching topics. “I think it pleases him. Perhaps these people were his enemies.”

“Perhaps they were his jailers!” Kanshin retorted sharply. “Never forget what this man does, Noyoki! Never forget that Hadanelith is mad, and he could decide he wants to do it to you! We may turn the tiger upon the tracks of our foes, but the tiger can decide to turn back again and seek us instead!”

“Yes,” Noyoki replied with an odd and disquieting smile. “And that is what makes the game all the more interesting, is it not?”

Madness must be contagious, for he surely is mad! Kanshin thought with astonishment.

“I am not mad, Kanshin,” Noyoki said, in another uncanny answer to words left unspoken. “I am simply interested in a challenge, and Hadanelith presents such a challenge. If it is possible, I should like to tame him to my hand as I have tamed the lion and the pard.”

Kanshin shrugged. “On your head be it,” he replied. “I am interested only in getting rid of him once our tasks for him have been completed. If you choose to take him into your own household, I simply ask that you take him as far away from me as possible.”

“Perhaps I will,” Noyoki observed, stretching like a well-fed and very lazy cat. “And with that, I shall take my leave of you; I will bring you the information on the next of Hadanelith’s playfellows tomorrow.”

Kanshin bowed him out to the street and stood in the doorframe, watching his back as he disappeared into the swirling crowds. He is not a fool, but he is foolhardy, the thief thought as he closed the door and retreated into the perfumed safety of his own home and away from the noisome babble and stenches of the streets. Too foolhardy for me. Once this set of jobs is over, I am retiring, far away from here. He had just the place in mind too; a lake big enough to be considered an inland sea. Such recklessness is like teasing a lion; you never get a second chance to learn how much is too much.

He retreated deeply into the depths of his home, past rooms that only opened when he had picked a complicated lock, and which relocked themselves when the door closed. He took himself to the farthest of those rooms, a place where Hadanelith did not go and where, hopefully, he could not go.

The trouble was, the madman learned at a terrible speed. There was no reason why he could not learn to master all those locks, as he had already mastered the language and the thief’s tricks that Kanshin had taught him.

Kanshin flung himself down on a couch, and laid his right arm across his eyes. How long would the madman remain “safe?” That was a good question.

He only wished he had an answer.

Skandranon was making some decisions as he marched toward the Audience Chamber under armed guard for the third time in a week. For one thing, he was getting damned tired of taking the blame for someone else’s murders! Especially when the law-keepers didn’t seem to him to be making much of an effort to find the real culprit!

His control over his temper had improved over the past several years, but he was just about to lose all that hard-won control. He felt the hackles on the back of his neck rising, despite a conscious effort to make them lie flat.

How can they even pretend that I’m still a suspect? he growled to himself. I’ve been under guard for two of the three killings! After the second, they should have removed my guard, not doubled it!

The situation was uncomfortable enough for him personally, but by now it was obvious that someone, probably someone in Shalaman’s own court, was trying to discredit the Kaled’a’in. We should be uniting to find the culprit, he seethed. They should have asked me to bring in the other mages from White Gryphon, mages who might know other techniques to get at the truth! Insteadhere I am, being hauled up in front of the King again!

These murders were jeopardizing everything he had worked for since Urtho’s death, threatening to put the Kaled’a’in in the position having to make an untenable choice—abandon the city and rebuild elsewhere, where the arm of the Haighlei did not reach, or stand and fight for what they had built so far, against a vastly superior force.

By the time they reached the Audience Chamber, Skan was so angry he was just about ready to disembowel something.

So instead of parading meekly into the chamber as he had the past two times, this time he shouldered his guards aside and pushed his way up to King Shalaman. The courtiers quickly leaped aside when they saw the look on his face, the parted beak, the raised hackles, the anger in his eyes. The King’s bodyguards instinctively stepped forward when the last of the courtiers jumped out of his way, leaving nothing between him and Shalaman but those two guards. But Skan waited for Leyuet and the escort to catch up—which didn’t take long—and then he opened his beak and let the words pour out.

Leyuet was babbling, trying to keep up with his own flowing torrents of words. Skan ignored him, in part because he had a suspicion that Shalaman didn’t need an interpreter.

“. . . and what I don’t understand is why no one has even begun to look for a suspect besides me!” he ranted, his voice coming close to a shriek on the last few words. People winced and tried to cover their ears. “What is wrong with you people? I mean, I know that magic’s gone bad, but surely with enough power behind a simple spell your mages could make it work! If your mages don’t know anything about using magic to find criminals, then mine do, and I’ll bring them here from White Gryphon if that’s what it takes!” He was in fine style now, pacing and lashing his tail, radiating enough anger to have sunburned anyone near him. “Are you deliberately obstructing the investigations? Have you even started them? I saw no signs of it!”

There was horrified scandal in the murmurs he heard, the faces he watched as he paced and ranted.

He was actually beginning to enjoy himself. Evidently this was something that was just Not Done in Haighlei society.

Well, murder is Not Done, and accusing someone falsely of murder is Not Done—and it’s about time someone woke them up to that fact.

Since the polite approach had produced no obvious cooperation on their part, perhaps violating all their social rules would!

Leyuet watched in horror as the huge white gryphon broke away from his escort and began to force his way through the courtiers—although it didn’t take long for the courtiers to notice what Skandranon was doing, and leap hastily out of the way. What did the creature think he was doing? Surely he wasn’t going to—

But Skandranon stopped short of the throne and began to pace back and forth, his voice raised to a shout, accusing the Haighlei of trying to blame him for the murders for the sake of convenience. Accusing the King of originating the plan!

The gryphon was angry, showing more anger than Leyuet had ever seen demonstrated in his life. His rage was a palpable thing, radiating from him in waves of passion as he paced and turned, never once ceasing in his accusations.

He is innocent. Leyuet was sure of that on all counts; such rage could not be the product of guilt, and that was nothing more than simple fact. Leyuet himself had ascertained the gryphon’s innocence a dozen times over, with far more than the simple facts to guide him.

So now what do we do? For the very first time since the strangers had arrived here, Skandranon was acting like a King, like the equal of any of the Haighlei Emperors, addressing Shalaman as an equal, demanding his rights, demanding action. This, along with their basic understanding of the gryphon’s position as the Kaled’a’in leader, only confirmed his real position in Leyuet’s eyes—and presumably in the eyes of every other Haighlei present.

And that only complicated the situation.

I will have to remove the guards, of course. A King simply could not be imprisoned or under guard—or held for ransom—or even questioned publicly!

“I swear to you, to you all, if you don’t do something, I will!” Skandranon shouted, his feathers standing on end with rage, his beak snapping off the words as if he would like very much to be closing it on someone’s arm. “I will find the murderer! I will bring him to justice!”

Leyuet’s dismay deepened, as he surreptitiously gestured to Skandranon’s guards to take themselves elsewhere. Now what were they going to do? Kings didn’t run about trying to solve a murder! They left that up to the Truthsayers and the Spears Of the Law!

Except that the Truthsayers and the Spears hadn’t been doing very well. The gryphon was right enough about that.

Whatever were they going to do?

The Emperor caught Leyuet’s eye and gave a slight nod in Skandranon’s direction. Leyuet cast his own eyes upward for a moment, then nodded back. Some called it magic, some felt that it bordered on the blasphemous powers of seeing into another’s mind, but the Truthsayers were trained by the priests to know, infallibly, whether or not someone was speaking the truth. And Leyuet had just told Shalaman without words that the white gryphon was doing just that. It was only a surface touch of the soul; Leyuet dared not go deeper, as he would with a human. He had no notion how his own soul would react to such an intimacy. But at the moment the surface touch was all that was needed.

The skin around Shalaman’s eyes twitched. That was all, but it was an unusual display of emotion from the Emperor.

We are in a tangle, and I see no way out of it. But I am not the King. Perhaps Shalaman

The gryphon finally ran out of words—or his rage overcame his ability to speak—and he stood quietly, sides heaving with angry pants, glaring at Shalaman. The silence that fell over the court was so profound that the calls of birds and monkeys penetrated into the Audience Chamber from outside.

“I understand your anger,” Shalaman said quietly in the foreigners’ own tongue—shocking Leyuet. The Emperor never demeaned himself by speaking the language of another!

Unless, of course, the other was a King in his own right. In one stroke, Shalaman had just confirmed the gryphon’s status and changed the rales of the game.

“I understand it and sympathize with it,” he continued. “Look about you—you are no longer under any sort of guard.”

Skandranon nodded shortly without looking around. Good. He is willing to take Shalaman’s word for it. Leyuet let out a tiny sigh of relief, for that was one small obstacle dealt with.

“I know that you have not seen any of our investigations; be assured that they are going on, even at this moment,” Shalaman continued. “It is only that all such things must take place within the grounds of the temples. That is our way. That is probably also why you have noticed nothing of a magic nature taking place in the vicinity of the palace.”

“Ah,” the gryphon replied, a little more satisfied. “Now I understand. I had taken the lack of spell-energy for lack of effort.”

“It is an effort,” Shalaman admitted. “As you yourself are aware, that event you call the Cataclysm has changed everything for both our peoples. The mages and priests have, thus far, come up with no suspects—but they have eliminated you, which gives you yet one more voucher of innocence.”

The gryphon muttered something under his breath. Both Leyuet and the Emperor pretended not to notice.

“Please, I earnestly ask you, do not bring your foreign mages here,” Shalaman continued. “Such an act will only serve to drive a wedge between yourselves and our priests. That would be a bad thing for all concerned.”

“Then what can I do?” Skandranon demanded.

“Be patient,” Shalaman told him. “Please. You are once again free to come and go as you will in this Court and Palace. You will not be guarded nor watched.”

Leyuet wondered if the gryphon realized that Shalaman was giving him tacit permission to go fly off and perform his own investigations.

Probably, he decided. The gryphon is not stupid. If he can master the court dances the way he has, he will be able to read what is not said as well as what is said.

But that would only give him one more personal headache; how to keep the gryphon safe while Skandranon was winging his way everywhere.

The gryphon’s feathers slowly collapsed, bringing him down to a more normal appearance. He and Shalaman exchanged several more words, now in calmer tones, and with less vehemence behind them. That was when the gryphon surprised Leyuet yet again by replying to one of Shalaman’s questions in the Haighlei tongue, neatly turning the diplomatic tables on the Emperor.

Although all of this was very good, a headache still throbbed in Leyuet’s temple when it was all over and the gryphon had gone away, bowing gracefully.

Leyuet did not follow; the Emperor’s eyes held him where he stood. For a moment, he feared that Shalaman would summon him to the side of the throne, but once the gryphon was well away, the Emperor only nodded, releasing Leyuet from any further need to dance attendance on him.

Shalaman’s nod was accompanied by the faintest of sympathetic smiles, telling Leyuet that the Emperor had noticed the lines of pain about his eyes and mouth. Shalaman was good at noticing things, and was only unkind to his subordinates when need drove him to unkindness.

Leyuet took himself out, quickly. Silver Veil had not been in her Advisor’s position at the throne, and neither had Palisar. The latter was probably in the temple complex located on the Palace grounds, overseeing the magical investigations into the murders. The former must be in her quarters.

This was, for Leyuet’s sake, a very good thing, the first good thing that had happened today.

A Truthsayer must always find the truth. A Truthsayer could not be bought for any coin. This was a weighty responsibility; and all those bearing weighty responsibilities went to Silver Veil for solace. That solace was generally not the kind of physical comfort that the lower classes assumed. Leyuet could have that at any time, from any number of skilled ladies. No, the solace that Silver Veil provided was of another order altogether.

His feet took him to Silver Veil’s suite without a conscious decision on his part, purely in the hope that she might not be giving another the privilege of her skills. He had not gone to her in many days, respecting her need for privacy in the wake of the horrifying murders—but now, his own pain and need were too great. The physical pain of the headache warned him of worse to come if he did not have it tended to, now.

Silver Veil’s servants answered his knock and ushered him into a room he knew well, a room where the harsh light of the sun was softened by gauze curtains drawn across many windows, where the scents of flowers blended gracefully with those of soothing herbs, where the only furnishings were low couches covered in soft, absorbent fabrics, couches that could also be used for massages.

The colors here were all cool; deep greens and blues, strong, clear colors that accentuated Silver Veil’s pale beauty. She entered once the servants had settled him on one of the couches, and had clothed him in a light robe suitable for a massage.

She slipped among the gauze hangings like a slim silver fish through water-weeds, a silver-chased basket in her hands. She put it down beside him, and experimentally touched his shoulders with her fingers.

“My goodness,” she said with an upraised eyebrow. “You should have come to me several days ago! Palisar certainly didn’t hesitate.”

“I am not Palisar,” he reminded her.

“No, you aren’t. You are Leyuet, who sacrifices his own comfort far too often. Here—” She flipped open the lid of the casket, revealing the contents.

It contained neither massage oils nor treasure, but Leyuet’s own secret passion and guilty pleasure: sugar-powdered pastries and cookies.

“Oh—” he said ruefully, in mingled appreciation and concern. “Oh, my dear child, I shall eat these and put on so much weight that my robes will strain across my stomach!”

“You will eat those because a little bird told me you have eaten next to nothing these past three days,” she said firmly. “You will eat these because you need them, for the soothing of your spirit, because you deserve them. Besides, they are good for you. I used special recipes. I do not ascribe to the belief that what is good for you must taste like so much old, dried-up hay.”

Leyuet finally broke into a smile, selecting a plump pastry. He held it and devoured it first with his eyes, anticipating the sweet savor, the way that the first bite would melt away to nothing on his tongue, releasing the mingled flavors of almond, vanilla, and honey. He closed his eyes, brought the pastry to his mouth, and bit into the flaky crust, as sugar-glaze broke and scattered over his hand.

It tasted every bit as good as he had imagined, and before he realized it, he was licking the last crumbs from his fingers.

Leyuet opened his eyes to see that Silver Veil was watching him with a pleased smile on her lips, her hands folded in her lap. He laughed.

“Silver Veil,” he asked, feeling a warm contentment begin to loosen those knotted muscles in his shoulders before she could even place a finger upon them, “how is it that you always know what someone needs before he himself knows? How is it that you can do the things that are kind as well as the things that are duties, in the face of all obstacles?”

She continued to smile serenely. “I could say it is a professional secret, dear heart—but the truth is that I simply think of another’s hopes before my own, and the kindnesses follow, as naturally as flowers follow buds. It is really no more mysterious than that.”

Leyuet shook his head. “If these strangers, these folk of the Gryphon King, could possibly be anything like you—”

“At least one is, for I taught him, and I think that I know him as well as any person can be said to know another,” she interrupted, directing him to turn his back to her so that she could begin to work on the muscles of his neck and shoulders. He was tempted by the still-open casket beside him, but resisted the temptation.

“Amberdrake, you mean.” He sighed. “He is so foreign—and their King, more alien still. I do not understand them, and I wonder how they could ever understand us. They seem to, but how could they, really? How could anyone who has a King like theirs ever hope to understand us?”

“Would that not make it easier?” she countered. “If someone can understand the ways of a creature like a gryphon, should it not be easier for them to understand the ways of fellow humans?”

He let out his breath in a hiss of pain as she struck a nerve, then shook his head again. “You and they are of a piece, my dear. Their lands gave birth to you and nurtured you. Yet somehow you fit in here as well as with them, and I find that even more mysterious than anything else about you. How can you move so well in two different worlds?”

Silver Veil worked on his muscles for a little longer before she answered.

“Perhaps—” she hesitated. “Perhaps because I have lived long enough that I no longer pay a great deal of attention to what is different, only to what is the same,” she answered slowly. Then her tone grew lighter. “And one of the things that is universal is that no one can truly have his back worked on while he is sitting up like an old nursemaid displaying perfect posture!” She rapped him reprovingly on the shoulder. “Down, Truthsayer! Give me the space to work my will upon you!”

Chuckling, he obliged her, and for the space of an hour at least, he forgot the troubles that had brought him there.

Six

Hadanelith carved another delicate sliver of dark wood from his current sculpture, and surveyed the result critically, lips pursed, humming a bit to himself.

Not quite perfect. Not yet. Soon, though. A little more here, and here. . . .

He had every reason to feel pleased. The last game he’d run for his “hosts” had been very satisfactory, particularly since they had consulted him before they told him what they wanted done. In fact, they had asked him for descriptions of some of the more interesting spells that dear old Ma’ar had used on his foes.

It’s a pity I was never a mage. I’d know more about spells of destruction. Still, Hadanelith had a very good memory, and as a youngster he had always been very attentive when bodies were brought in from the front lines. No one ever paid any attention to him then; he’d been quite an unremarkable child, and since the concern of the Healers was for the living, he’d often been able to examine the dead quite closely. He remembered quite precisely what some of the most amusing effects Ma’ar had produced looked like. Well enough to counterfeit them, in fact, and that was what he had assured Noyoki and Kanshin.

His hosts had particularly liked the description of the flaying-spell, the one Ma’ar had preferred to use on gryphons. “Copy that,” they’d told him, leaving the ways and means up to him. That rather clever thief, Kanshin, had smuggled him into his target’s rooms by way of a ventilation shaft, and had taken pains to assure him of a relatively satisfactory length of time alone with her.

Skandranon certainly recognized the result, although I doubt he guessed the method. What Ma’ar had accomplished with profligate use of magic and an exquisitely trained and honed talent, Hadanelith had duplicated with nothing more than determination and precise surgical skill. He’d taken care to leave nothing behind to betray that fact. Poor Skandranon. By now he must be sure there’s another Ma’ar around.

Hadanelith giggled at the thought; he had thought that the role of a kestra’chern would give him ample scope for his fantasies, but what he had accomplished then was a pale shadow of the pleasures he had now. This situation had so much to recommend it! A free hand with his targets—even if they weren’t of his choosing—was worth any amount of interference from his hosts, and, in fact, they actually gave him very little interference. The delicious moment when his targets realized that they were completely in his power and there was no help coming—that was better than all the tame slaves in the world!

Add to that the chance to terrify the so-powerful Skandranon and a way to undo everything that those presumptuous prigs from White Gryphon were trying to accomplish, and he had pleasure and revenge all in one tidy little packet.

All of these were equally delightful reasons to pursue his current course. But beyond those was the most delightful of all.

Personal revenge. Revenge on Amberdrake, who had dared to sit in judgment on him. Revenge on Skandranon, who had given Amberdrake the authority to throw Hadanelith to the wolves. Revenge on all of those fools of White Gryphon, who agreed with Amberdrake and Skandranon and who tamely went along with anything those two wanted.

Hadanelith would prove that he was cleverer, craftier, superior to all of them. Wasn’t he proving it now? His hosts thought that they were the ones in control of the situation, that they held Hadanelith’s leash. They didn’t know he was the one using them.

Once the news of the Kaled’a’in settlement reached the Haighlei, Noyoki had scryed the area around White Gryphon during one of the few times that his magic worked properly. He was nobly educated; he knew several northern languages, and he had probably done his scrying in the vague hope of discovering a malcontent among the Kaled’a’in that he could make use of. He found Hadanelith, skulking around the guarded periphery, stealing from the gardens—and he’d scryed out people who knew something of Hadanelith’s so-called “crimes.”

He’d sent swift hunters and a small, fast vessel of his own to find Hadanelith and bring him back. That much, Noyoki had conveyed to him in his own language, obviously hoping to get some sort of gratitude in return.

Hadanelith kept his own counsel and simply looked agreeable. After he’d used his own rudimentary powers of mind-magic to pluck their own language out of then-heads, he had made one small error out of sheer pique. He’d been so annoyed with Noyoki’s callous remarks about how he planned to exploit Hadanelith’s “madness” that he’d revealed his own knowledge of their tongue before he’d taken thought to what that slip might cost him.

Still, that sudden expertise in their tongue had impressed them no end. And he’d discovered with that slight mistake just how horrifying they found the bare concept of mind-magic. Forewarned, he’d managed to pass his sudden proficiency off as simple intelligence, and perhaps a side-effect of his “madness,” rather than the use of anything forbidden.

So now he had a double advantage over them; he knew their language much better than they had any notion that he did, and he could occasionally read their thoughts. He knew that while they were aware he was of the same general race as Amberdrake, they did not know that he actually knew Amberdrake. They had no idea that he had his own little vendetta to pursue, and that they were helping him to do so.

So much the better. The less they realized that he wanted to do what he was doing for more reasons than just the obvious, the more power over them he held.

He shaved another sliver of wood from a curve of the sculpture and ran his finger over it to assure himself that there were no splinters or rough spots there. That would not do at all.

It was interesting that his “partners” were not at all horrified by the various acts he perpetrated on their chosen targets. In fact, so far as Noyoki was concerned, the more—artistic—the better. Noyoki apparently had more reasons than one himself for choosing these women; Hadanelith had sensed a deep and abiding resentment, even hatred, for each of them. That was interesting, too. Hadanelith intended to continue watching Noyoki’s thoughts for more such information. Information was power, and one could never have too much power.

As for Kanshin, he was indifferent to the fate or plight of anyone except himself. Hadanelith found that attitude laudable as well as practical—and the exact opposite of those idiots from White Gryphon, who concerned themselves over the fate of every little social butterfly, slave, and useless leech.

Together the two of them fit very neatly into his plan. Noyoki obviously wanted the envoys from White Gryphon discredited and disgraced at the very least, and possibly destroyed at the most. Kanshin wouldn’t care what Hadanelith did as long as he continued to get paid.

So now that some shadows had been cast over the reputations of the newcomers, Hadanelith would pour a little more fuel over the fire.

Before Amberdrake died—and he would die, in disgrace and despair—Hadanelith would see that he suffered all the agonies that only so sensitive a person was capable of suffering.

He had arranged via Kanshin to have some of Amberdrake’s distinctive finery filched from the Palace laundry. Not enough of it to be missed, at least not immediately, but just enough to leave a few incriminating clues at the site of the next little exercise. Amberdrake’s combination of Kaled’a’in styles and kestra’chern construction and luxury, with the specially woven fabrics and elaborate bead-fringes, were absolutely unique to him and him alone.

Hadanelith took up a fine wood rasp and began smoothing the surface of the carving, smiling with anticipation. This would be so sweet, so very sweet! The next victim would be left bound and gagged as well as whatever else Noyoki wanted him to simulate, and the Haighlei would find the tantalizing little bits of evidence nearby, as if torn from the murderer’s clothing. There was no way that they could mistake these things for something Haighlei—oh, no. They would be identifiable immediately as distinctly foreign, and then as distinctly in the style of no one else but Amberdrake.

Suspicion would move from Skandranon—for the moment—to Amberdrake. Unlike Skandranon, however, it was not likely that Amberdrake would have any watchers to provide him with an alibi.

There was one small flaw in this plan. It was just barely possible that Amberdrake would recall Hadanelith and his predilection for bindings and gaggings . . . and might remember that Hadanelith knew more about him than anyone else outside the White Gryphon delegation. It might occur to him to wonder if somehow Hadanelith had found his way here, to Khimbata, Shalaman’s capital.

But even if he did, there was still the large matter of convincing the Haighlei that Hadanelith could be the guilty party. His story of a mad kestra’chern banished into the wilderness, who had mysteriously transported himself to the capital to begin murdering high-ranked Haighlei, would be so ridiculous that no one would be foolish enough to give it credence. It would sound like something made up out of pure desperation—and not concocted very well, either.

In fact, if I told myself my own story, I wouldn’t believe it. Hadanelith giggled and continued to smooth the dense, dark wood with his rasp. No matter how logically he presents it, no one would ever believe a wild tale like that. He could bring all the witnesses he liked, and it would make no difference. No one here has seen me but my two partners, and my little playmates. My partners aren’t likely to talk, and as for my playmatesunless someone here has the ability to speak with the spirits, they are otherwise occupied.

He giggled hysterically at his own wit while he continued to work on his latest sculpture. Perhaps, when he didn’t need it anymore, he would present this one to Noyoki.

I may never come to truly understand these people, Amberdrake thought with resignation. Winterhart told him that he didn’t need to understand them as long as he could follow the logic of their customs, but he had been a kestra’chern for too long to ever be content with anything that superficial. Life at Court had gotten back to a semblance of normalcy—as normal as it could be, with three murders being gossiped about, and foreigners under suspicion. Nevertheless, the Haighlei being what they were, custom, even in the face of murder, must be observed.

Which meant that every night must contain Evening Court, and every Evening Court must be followed by an Entertainment. Tonight the Entertainment was a play, a very stylized play, accompanied by equally stylized music. Amberdrake had to admit that this one baffled him, even with his experience in all manner of entertainments. The actors wore heavy masks and their dialogue was chanted to the sounds of a drum and two particularly nasal-sounding instruments, one a stringed thing and one a reed flute. Their multicolored, multilayered costumes were so complicated that the actors had to move slowly when they could move at all. The scenery was sketchy at best—a plant in a pot represented the jungle, a screen invoked a bedroom, a spindly desk someone’s office or study. The tiniest gesture of a finger was supposed to convey entire volumes of information, but the gestures were so arcane that only an aficionado could ever decipher them. The result was that Amberdrake had given up even pretending to watch the play, and had moved away so that the music didn’t give him a headache.

He wasn’t the only one ignoring the piece, however; it seemed that most of the Haighlei were doing the same. One wasn’t required to sit and be a “proper” audience for this piece the way one was for a performance of the Royal Dancers, and little knots of conversation had formed all over the room. Only a few folk still sat on the cushions provided in front of the tiny stage. Either the rest of them already knew this thing by heart, or it was as annoying to the natives as it was to a foreigner.

Very possibly the latter! he thought with amusement. It must be rather disheartening for the performers, however. Perhaps they were used to it. Perhaps they didn’t care as long as they were paid. Or perhaps they were content to display their complicated art for the benefit of the few faithful. He managed to have a rather lively discussion with another envoy regarding the merits of several different massage-lotions for the treatment of aged joints, and he was looking for Winterhart when the musicians suddenly stopped in the middle of a phrase with a decidedly unmusical squawk, and the performance end of the room, where both Emperor Shalaman and “King” Skandranon were ensconced erupted into frenzied activity.

Naturally, Amberdrake and everyone else at his end of the room hurried over to find out what the fuss was about, expecting it to be something minor—someone who’d been slighted or insulted by another courtier, perhaps, or even word of a dangerous lion attacking a village. King Shalaman was famous for his lion hunts, but he never hunted anything but man-killers, and there hadn’t been one of those in several years. Amberdrake found himself shuffled right up to the front of the crowd with absolutely no expectation of trouble in his mind—just as a grim-faced Leyuet and his brace of Spears of the Law laid bloody evidence of yet another murder down in front of Shalaman and Skan.

Amberdrake froze, as did everyone else within sight of the relics. There were bloodstained ropes and a ball-gag, torn clothing—

And then Amberdrake’s heart stopped beating completely, for among the evidence was a bit of beaded fringe that could only have come from one of his own costumes.

Nono, it can’t

His face froze into an expression of absolute blank-ness, and his mind went numb, as he recognized more of the bits of torn clothing as his own.

This isn’t possible!

Fear clutched a chilling hand around his throat, choking off his breath, and he went cold as all eyes turned toward him. He was not the only one to have recognized those telltale bits of finery.

How did that—wherehow— His thoughts ran around like mice trapped in a barrel.

Skandranon rose from his seat, his hackles raised and his eyes dilated with rage, as a murmur passed through the crowd. At that point the courtiers began to back away from Amberdrake, leaving him the center of a very empty space, the evidence of terrible murder lying practically at his feet.

“These things—” Leyuet poked at the bead fringe, the torn cloth, with the end of his staff, “These things, clearly the property of the foreigner Amberdrake, were found with the body, oh King,” he said stiffly, clearly continuing a statement he had begun before Amberdrake got there. “The bit of fringe was found in her hand. The death occurred at the afternoon recess, when Amberdrake dismissed his servants and there are thusly no witnesses to Amberdrake’s whereabouts save only his own people—”

Skandranon let out his breath in a long, starth’ngly loud hiss, interrupting Leyuet in mid-sentence. “I can vouch for Amberdrake’s whereabouts,” he said fiercely, yet with surprising control. “But I will do more than vouch for it.” He faced Shalaman, who sat his throne as impassively as a carving. “If you suspect Amberdrake of murder despite that, then I must stand prisoner alongside him. Pray recall, Serenity, that you suspected me of these murders less than a week ago!”

There was another murmur running through the crowd, this time of surprise mingled with shock, as Skandranon held up his head and challenged both the Emperor and Leyuet with his gaze. “I am as good as any of my fellows and companions from White Gryphon, and they are as trustworthy and law abiding as I. If their integrity is to be under question, then so must mine. I will offer my freedom in trust for their innocence.”

Skan’s voice carried to the farthest reaches of the room, and Amberdrake managed to shake himself out of shock enough to look around to see the effect of those words. Oh, sun above, has Skandranon lost the last of his sanity? What is he doing . . . ? The dumbfoundedness he saw on every face told him without any explanations how unheard of this kind of declaration was. Obviously, no Haighlei ruler would ever have stood personal surety for the honor of a subject; this went quite out of their understanding.

But Urtho would have done the same—Skan raised himself to his full height, and Amberdrake realized that he was slimmer and more muscular than he had been a few weeks ago. He was changing somehow. Had the gryphon been exercising in secret? “Let it be known that the honor of those I trust is my honor!” he said, in the Haighlei tongue, clearly as the call of a trumpet. “This so-called evidence was concocted to cast suspicion upon one who is innocent, just as the other murders were accomplished in such a way as to cast suspicion on me! Amberdrake is innocent of any wrongdoing—and just as I urged the Spears of the Law to seek for the true perpetrator in the last murders, I urge them to do the same now! If you imprison him, you must imprison me as well, for I am as guilty or as innocent as he. I demand it! I stand by my companions, in honor and in suspicion!”

Amberdrake nearly choked. Did Skan realize what he was saying? By these peoples’ customs, he was linking his own fate with that of Amberdrake!

Not that Urtho would not have done the same as well, but—but that was Urtho, Mage of Silence and Adept of more powers than Amberdrake could number!

“And if it is proved that Amberdrake did murder, will you die beside him?” That was Palisar, as cagy and crafty as ever, making certain that Skandranon knew what he was doing with his assertions, so that he could not claim later that he was not aware of all of the implications.

Skan snorted contemptuously. “No, of course not,” the gryphon replied immediately. “That would be ridiculous. My friends and I are honorable, but we are not stupid. But if you could prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt and to my personal satisfaction, that he had done such a thing, I would deliver the death sentence upon him myself, and I would carry it out myself.”

The murmuring swelled to a low rumble, as Leyuet and Palisar stared at both Skan and Amberdrake, and the King blinked thoughtfully. Skandranon had now made it impossible to imprison Amberdrake and perhaps “question” him under torture to extract a spurious confession, yes, but—

But has he lost his mind? Amberdrake was practically ready to gibber and foam at the mouth, although the shrieking voice was only in his own thoughts. Oh, he’s been clever, all righthe’s thinking on his feet

—and he moved like the old Skandranon, alive with a fire and an enthusiasm that could not be denied.

But had he lost his reasoning to recklessness?

And what about me? his thoughts wailed, as his knees turned weak with fear. They think I’ve committed murder, and there’s no way to prove them wrong! We can’t use magic, we haven’t any way to hunt a criminal out, we’re strangers here, and the natives aren ‘t likely to look for one of their own when they have a convenient suspect! What am I going to do?

Never mind that Skan had already been a suspect—he at least had solid alibis. Amberdrake had nothing. And whoever was behind these deaths was smart enough to see to it that things remained that way. Except for the first murder, when Amberdrake had been watching the Dance with the others, he had no alibi at all for the times those other deaths had taken place. He could be charged, not only with this murder, but with all the rest as well!

What am I going to do? He wanted to run, but he knew he didn’t dare even move. He felt horribly like a mouse looking up at the talons of an owl. Anything he did could look suspicious at this point!

As he stood there, frozen with fright and indecision, terror and shock, Skandranon continued to speak, taking the attention of everyone—even Leyuet—off of him. The removal of their multiplied regard freed him somewhat, and he felt the paralysis that had held his limbs weaken its hold over him, but he still didn’t know what his very next action should be. How was he going to disprove all this? He was a kestra’chern, his skills didn’t lie in investigation! And where was Winterhart? Had they already taken her into custody as an accomplice?

Oh, Star-Eyed, if they’ve taken her and they’re torturing her right now—Paralysis was replaced by panic.

A gentle touch on his arm at that precise moment made him jump, and he began to shake as he turned. Now it came—despite anything Skan had said. Leyuet had sent Spears around to take him, arrest him, and carry him off under the cover of the crowd. They’d have a confession out of him in no time and—

But it was not a frowning, brawny man who had touched him to get his attention. He turned to gaze into the face of, not a dark and forbidding stranger, but an oh-so-welcome, calm visage he knew just as well as the face in his mirror.

“Silver Veil—what—is happening to—” he began, then forcibly shut his lips on what threatened to turn into hysterical babble as she laid a finger on her own lips.

“Come with me,” she said, tucking her hand into the crook of his elbow and leading him to a side entrance of the Audience Chamber. “You and I must talk—and quickly.”

Zhaneel did not want to attend Court or the Entertainment, and she had a perfect excuse not to: the gryphlets. Makke was better company than all the courtiers rolled into a bundle.

What was more, Makke was willing to help with them and more willing to learn about them than either of the “nursemaids.”

“So, you see?” Zhaneel said, as Makke wiped down the feathers of both gryphlets with a very lightly oiled cloth. “First the bath, then the drying, then the oil. When they are older, they will oil themselves like any bird, but for now we must do so for them. Otherwise, if their feathers get too wet, if they decided to go fishing in the fountain after dark, for instance, they could take a chill.”

Makke nodded and sent both of the little ones tumbling away with pats to their hindquarters. In the past few weeks, she had been spending more and more time in the gryphons’ suite, time that had nothing to do with any cleaning that was needed. All Makke’s children were gone, and the twins had obviously aroused in her all the old maternal urges. Zhaneel had been more confident with Makke in charge of the nursery than she had been in entrusting the safety of the little ones to the young and obviously childless “nursemaids” supplied by the chief of the serving staff.

Makke was clearly surprised, despite all her earlier talks with Zhaneel, that anyone of Zhaneel’s rank would grant her such a privilege. She had even protested, once or twice, that this was not the sort of thing that she should be allowed to do.

“But you have been a mother, have you not?” Zhaneel had said, with patient logic.

Makke had nodded slowly.

“And you know and love children, you see my two imps as children and not as some sort of odd pet.” That was the problem with the “nursemaids,” who had probably been brought hi from the ranks of those normally in attendance on the many animals that courtiers brought with them. The girls treated the gryphlets as beloved pet animals, not as children—expecting a degree of self-sufficiency from them that the youngsters simply didn’t have yet. They might be as large as any of the biggest lion-hunting mastiffs, but you simply couldn’t leave them alone for any length of time without them getting themselves into some kind of trouble. Tadrith, in particular, had a genius for getting himself into situations he couldn’t get out of.

“That is so, great lady,” Makke had admitted.

“Then you are the correct person to help me with them,” Zhaneel had said firmly. “We of White Gryphon count what is in one’s heart far more important than what caste one is born into. For those of us who shared the same trials, bore the same burdens, rank has come to mean very little.”

Normally Makke came to the nursery with smiles wreathing her wrinkled old face, but tonight she had been unaccountably gloomy. Now she watched the two youngsters play with such a tragic hunger in her eyes that it might as well be the last time she ever expected to do so. Even as Zhaneel watched, the old woman blinked rapidly, as if she were attempting to hold back tears with an effort.

“Makke!” Zhaneel exclaimed, reaching out to her. “What is wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing, great lady—” Makke began, but then her resolve and her courage both crumpled, and she shook her head, tears spilling out of her soft dark eyes and pouring over her withered cheeks. “Oh, lady—” she whispered tightly, blotting at her eyes with her sash. “Oh, lady—I am old, my children are gone, I have nowhere to go—and I must leave the Court—I have disgraced myself and I will be dismissed, and once I have been dismissed, I will die. There is nowhere that will shelter me—”

“Dismissed?” Zhaneel interrupted sharply. “Why? What could you possible have done that they would dismiss you for? I need you, Makke, isn’t that—”

“But you cannot trust me, lady!” Makke wailed softly, her face twisted with despair, the tears coming faster. “You must not trust me! I have failed in my duty and my trust, and you cannot ever dare to trust me with so precious a thing as your children, can you not see that? And I will be dismissed because I have failed in my trust! I must be dismissed! It is better that a worthless old rag as I should go after so failing in my duty!”

“But what have you done?” Zhaneel persisted, now seriously alarmed. “What on earth have you done?” A hundred dire possibilities ran through her mind. Makke was old, and sometimes the old made mistakes—oh, horrible thought! Could she have accidentally hurt or poisoned someone? Could she have let the fact that she suspected the Kaled’a’in of having mind-magic slip to one of the Priests? Could she have allowed someone of dubious reputation into the Palace?

Could she even, somehow, have been indirectly involved in the murders Skan had been accused of?

“Tell me!” Zhaneel demanded, insistently. “Tell me what you have done!”

“I—” Makke’s face crumpled even further, and her voice shrank to a hoarse whisper, as she yielded to the long habit of instantly obeying those in a caste above hers. “I—oh, great lady! It is dreadful—dreadful! I have cast disgrace over myself for all time! I lost someone’s—” Her voice fell to a tremulous whisper. “laundry.”

Sheno—Zhaneel felt her beak gaping open. “You—what?” She shook her head violently. “You lost—laundry? And for this you would be dismissed and disgraced?” She shook her head again, and the words made no more sense than they had before. She blurted out the first thing that came into her mind. “Are you people insane?”

She did not doubt Makke, nor that events would follow precisely as Makke described. But—dismissal? For that?

“Great lady—” Makke dabbed at her eyes and straightened a little, trying to meet Zhaneel’s gaze without breaking down again. “Great lady, it is a matter of honor, you see. If it were my own laundry, or that of the Chief of Servants—or even that of a ranking lady, it would be of—of less concern. But it is the envoy’s laundry that I have lost. I must be dismissed, for there is no greater punishment for such carelessness, and it is our way that the punishment must equal the rank of the victim. This is—in our law, it is the same as if I had stolen his property. I am a thief, and I deserve no better, surely you must see this.”

“I see nothing of the kind,” Zhaneel said stoutly. “I see only that this is all nonsense, quickly put right with a word to Amberdrake. Unless—” She clenched her claws in vexation; if Makke had already told the Chief of the Servants what had happened, there was no way that Zhaneel could save the situation. “You haven’t told anyone but me yet, have you?”

Makke shook her head miserably. “I have not yet confessed my crime, great lady,” she said, tears pouring down her cheeks afresh. “But I wanted to say farewell to you and to the little ones before my dismissal. Please forgive—”

“There is nothing to forgive, Makke, and I do not want you to report this until you and I have had a chance to speak with Skandranon and Amberdrake—” Zhaneel began, reaching out her left talon to surreptitiously hook the hem of Makke’s robe so that the old woman could not run off without tearing herself free of Zhaneel’s grip. “I. . “

The door to the suite opened, thudding into the wall.

Makke and Zhaneel turned as one, as surprised by the fact that no one had knocked as the fact that the door had hit the wall.

Winterhart stood in the doorway, one hand clutching a wreath of tawny-gold lilies, the other at her throat, convulsed around an elaborate necklace of carved amber lilies and solid gold and bronze sun-disks. Her face was as pale as a cloud, and her expression that of a stunned deer.

She stumbled into the room as Makke and Zhaneel stared, and fumbled the door shut behind her.

“Winterhart?” Zhaneel said, into the leaden silence. “What is wrong?”

Winterhart looked at Zhaneel as if she had spoken in some strange tongue; she licked her lips, blinked several times, and made two or three efforts to reply before she finally got any words out.

“The—King,” she said hoarsely, her eyes blank with disbelief. “Shalaman—”

“What about him?” Zhaneel persisted, when she fell silent.

But when Winterhart spoke again, it was Zhaneel’s turn to stare with disbelief.

“He—” Winterhart’s hands crushed the lilies, and her knuckles whitened under the strain. “He has asked me to marry him.”

* * *

“You must confine us both to our suites,” Skandranon was insisting, to an increasingly alarmed Leyuet. “You must place us under guard, if you will not imprison us.”

Frantically, Leyuet looked around for a higher authority, but the King and Palisar were both gone, Silver Veil had vanished earlier with Amberdrake, and only he and Skandranon were together in this little side-chamber. This, of course, was precisely the way Skan wanted things.

He’s one of Shalaman‘s protocol administrators. These demands are going to send him into a spinning frenzy. He can’t grant them, of course. I already made the bold, dramatic gesture, which forced the King to counter it with a bold, dramatic sign of trust.

“The Emperor has decreed that nothing of the kind is to occur,” Leyuet said at last, forced to rely on his own judgment. “You must not be placed under arrest. Such a thing would be dishonorable. It is impossible to agree to this demand of yours.”

I know, Skan thought smugly. That’s why I made it.

“Are you saying that I am free to move about this Court as I will? That this is what the Emperor wants?” Skan retorted, allowing skepticism to creep into his voice. “That can’t be right.”

“I tell you, it is!” Leyuet insisted, his face now so contorted with concern that it resembled a withered fruit. “You must move freely about the Court—nay, the Court, the Palace, the entire city! This is the King’s decree! This is how he shows his trust in you!”

There is a certain glint in his eyes . . . I think he has finally figured out that this might be a better move on their part than trying to keep us locked up. After all, that didn’t work before. If we actually were guilty, this kind of freedom might make us careless, and give them a chance to trap us, and I’m sure those are precisely the thoughts that are going through Leyuet’s mind at this very moment.

So, there would probably be watchers, covert and overt, keeping an eye on Skan and Amberdrake at all times. That was just fine with Skandranon. He wanted to be watched.

He continued to express doubt, though, and Leyuet continued to express the King’s wishes, and all the while he was making plans, grateful that it was very difficult to read a gryphon’s facial expressions.

I will wait until Kechara contacts me tonight, and I will tell Judeth to send only the Silvers and keep the rest of the delegation at home. I’ll tell her to fortify White Gryphon. We might yet need to defend the settlement before this is over.

And he had one more request of Judeth; one he knew that she would understand. He had a list of things he wished her to take out of the storage chests in his lair—and he would ask her to prepare and send a cask of ebony feather-dye.

And last, but by no means least, he would bid her to tell the settlement of White Gryphon that the Black Gryphon was back.

The Black Gryphon is back.

Shalaman had long been in the habit of listening to his court secretaries with half of his mind, while the other half mused on subjects that had nothing to do with the minor issues at hand. Whatever he left to the secretaries to read to him was minor, after all; that was why he had them read these letters to him after Evening Court and the Entertainment, and just before he retired. He had a mind that was, perhaps, a trifle too active; he needed to tire it or he would never be able to sleep.

So the secretaries read the innumerable petitions, and he grunted a “yes,” “no,” or “later—delay him,” and he let his thoughts circle around other quarry.

Tonight, they circled Winterhart, that strange, pale beauty from the North. Engaging—nay, fascinating! She had many of the attributes of the incomparable Silver Veil, but unlike a kestra’chem, Winterhart was attainable. . . .

Silver Veil could never give heart and soul to any single person. No kestra’chem can. That is why they are kestra ‘chern; their hearts are too wide for a single person to compass. But Winterhartah, Winterhart

Like Silver Veil in elegance, in grace . . . not precisely a shadow of the kestra’chem, but reachable. Shalaman had learned, if he had learned anything at all, that there was no point in yearning for the unattainable. Better to have the moonflower that one could touch than to lose one’s heart to the moon.

Logic gave him plenty of arrows to spend against the target of Palisar’s inevitable objections. This would be a valuable gesture; even in the light of the murders. Should Amberdrake prove to be the murderer, he will be repudiated, and wedding her would mollify the northerners. Marrying her would create the kind of alliance that would bring them into my Kingdom as vassals rather than allies. The gryphons alone are worth wedding her for!

So he would tell Palisar and Leyuet—though he did not think that the Truthsayer would object, only the Speaker.

He would not tell them his other reasons.

This is the kind of woman, like Silver Veil, who could make me happy when I am not in the Court’s gaze. Silver Veil was not always there when he needed—company, companionship, pure and simple. She had other duties, others who needed her skills as much as he. Winterhart could be only for him.

She said little enough about herself, but he sensed that she hid depths that she had not disclosed. She carried herself well, unconsciously projecting a nobility of spirit that spoke of noble birth, just like Silver Veil. But unlike Silver Veil, her surface was not entirely flawless; there were hints of vulnerability. One could reach her if one tried.

He had ten Year-Sons and two Year-Daughters, born of the Year-Brides of his first decade of rule. He need not wed her for heirs, for he needed none. He could wed her for himself alone.

The first secretary coughed and reached for water, his throat raw. Shalaman waved to the second to begin where the first had left off, as his thoughts drifted northward—not to Winterhart, but to the place where she had come from.

White Gryphon; no parrot in the world can crack that palm-fruit. His spies had drifted through the city in the guise of sailors and other harmless sorts, and the word that they sent back was of caution. The city was built for defense, and with very little work could be made impregnable. Technically, it was within his borders—but only technically. If he had to make war upon them, his allies would rightly say that a settlement perched so precariously on the edge of his lands was not worth disputing over. His allies would be correct. There were troubles enough in his Empire without taking on a nasty little border war. The sudden failure of magic and the strange creatures emerging from the deserts and jungles in the wake of magical catastrophe were quite enough to occupy the rest of his tenure on the Lion Throne.

As for the newcomers themselves, unlike Palisar, he saw no harm in them. They were a fact; they were not going to leave, and their very existence meant a change in Haighlei ways, whether or not anyone admitted it. Precedent was important, too, since there might yet be more Northerners to come. If they came, they would mean change, too.

We desire change even as we fear it. Like children looking for demons in the dark, but hoping the demons will bring us three wishes, or wealth, or magic carpets to ride. . . .

And whether or not Palisar liked the presence of the newcomers and the changes they would bring, their discovery on the eve of the twenty-year Eclipse Ceremony was too serendipitous to be coincidental. If I were a religious man, I would call it an omen.

Even Palisar would accept and embrace a change that was mandated at the height of the Eclipse. When the sun vanishes at midday, then change comes to the Haighlei. That was the word in the holy books themselves, many of which had been written following changes that came with the Ceremonies of the past. It was wise of our gods to give us this. We love things to remain the same, but if they remain the same forever, we will rot as a people. Pah, if they had remained the same forever, we would still be a collection of little villages of thatched huts, hunting with copper-headed spears, growing only yams, lying in fear of the lions in the dark! Or elsea nation more flexible would have discovered us and carried us away to be slaves in their fields.

“Tell him it is impossible until after the Eclipse,” he said, in answer to one of the petitions. “If it is still an issue then, I will reconsider.”

Many of the current petitions could be put off until after the Eclipse. Many of them were not problems at all, only the perception of a problem, and simply delaying a decision would make it less of a perceived problem with every passing day. Others—well, they tied in with the decisions he would have to make about these people from White Gryphon, and none of them could be resolved until he decided what he was going to do about them and made his decrees . . .

. . . or did not.

At that point, it would become the problem of his successor, for he did not foresee himself living to see another Eclipse Ceremony. Nothing whatsoever could be done about the outlanders until the next Ceremony.

And there are a fair number of Emperors who resolved such tricky problems by just such a postponement, he thought wryly.

But again, Winterhart came into his thoughts. She could be the perfect, symbolic embodiment of that change; the focus for it, the way to present it to Shalaman’s more doubting or hidebound subjects in an acceptable form.

If only Silver Veil

But Silver Veil was a kestra’chern, and she, too, was bound by the edicts of the ages. She was not for any one man. Her office was too important, and not even the Emperor could take her for himself.

He had already proposed marriage to Winterhart anyway, this evening, before that dreadful interruption of the Entertainment.

She had been overwhelmed, of course, as any woman would. She had stammered something about being bound to Amberdrake, though, and there was a child, now that he came to think about it—

Shalaman was too well-schooled to frown, but his thoughts darkened for a moment.

Still, that may not be a problem for long, after this evening. In a way, the fourth murder had come as something of a blessing. It was rather difficult for even the most sensitive to be dreadfully upset about the death of that harridan, Lady Fanshane. She had moved into the life of Lady Sherisse years ago, turning the poor thing into a man-hating recluse, and she was cordially detested by most of the wiser folk in Shalaman’s Court. And once Lady Sherisse had drunk herself into an early grave, Lady Fanshane had been circling the court like a vulture, looking for another victim to fatten on.

Still, she had been murdered, and murder was a crime most foul (and never mind that in the laws of return, Lady Fanshane could be considered guilty of the murder of her former paramour), and evidence was mounting that it was Amberdrake who was guilty of that crime, and perhaps the previous three murders as well. Once there was enough evidence, Amberdrake would be out of the way, and Winterhart would be free to accept the honor that the Emperor had offered her.

He might be innocent, muttered a third part of his mind, a part he seldom heard from. This might be some strange conspiracy, and Amberdrake the victim of it as much as those who were slain.

No. That was utter nonsense. If—if—Amberdrake were truly innocent, why had he not asked for the services of the Truthsayer immediately? If his conscience was clear, the Truthsayer would know; as the King’s guest, he was entitled to the offices of the highest Truthsayer in the land, Leyuet, who was also the leader of the Spears of the Law. If Leyuet declared him innocent, not even Palisar would challenge that declaration.

So, obviously, he had something to fear from a Truthsayer’s examination.

But what if these people know nothing of Truthsayers? niggled that annoying little voice. What if he does not know he has the right to such an examination? It is magic, after all, and all the outlanders have been cautioned against the use of magic. Why, what if they do not even have such a thing as Truthsayers among them? How can he ask for something he is not aware exists?

Oh, that was nonsense! Of course these people must have Truthsayers! How could any society exist without the means to tell truth from falsehood? That was insane! Besides, wouldn’t Silver Veil have said something if there were no such things as Truthsayers among the cultures of the north?

No, Amberdrake, if not directly guilty, knew something of the murders, enough to make him fear the touch of Leyuet’s mind on his. That would make him guilty of conspiracy to murder, which was just as great a crime as murder itself.

It would be only a matter of time now. Either the evidence would become irrefutable, Amberdrake would slip up and be caught, or he would finally break down and confess.

And then Winterhart would be free—and once she was free, she would be his. Then he would be lonely no more.

Hadanelith flung open the windows of the darkened chamber, and the night breeze blew the gauzy curtains about, giving them the uncanny semblance of grasping, ectoplasmic hands.

This would be the first time he had dispatched two victims within a day of each other—but the Haighlei were expecting the same pattern as the last time, and they had all let their guards down in the wake of the last murder.

Fools; they patterned their lives like pieces on a game-board, and expected everyone else to do the same!

Even this rather ineffectual old biddy; she had followed the same pattern every night for as long as he and Kanshin had watched her. It had been child’s play to insinuate himself up the wall and into her chamber after she dismissed all of her servants for the night. She hated the sounds of other people breathing in their sleep (or worse, snoring), or so Kanshin said, and she would not abide another human being or animal in her chambers after she retired for the night. She would ring a bell to summon her servants once she awoke, but from the moment she took to her bed to the moment she left it, she was alone. And not even a murderer on the loose would induce her to change that pattern.

Fool.

Hadanelith had pinned Lady Linnay to her bed, stuffed the end of his latest special carving down her throat to prevent even the slightest sound out of her—

That was a bit unsatisfactory. I would have liked to have heard her beg.

Then he had dragged her over to the window, his skin pressed against her bedclothes, at precisely the spot she might have stood if she’d heard something large—say, the size of a gryphon—land on her balcony. Then he pretended to let her go.

Predictably—Pah, these fools are so tediously predictable!—she had turned to run, and he had struck her down from behind with his new sculpture, a club carved into the exact likeness of a gryphon’s foreleg.

He opened the window now, so that the overwhelming body of evidence would be that it was open before she died. Then he stood over her unconscious body, and raised his club again.

As he brought it down in a punishing blow, regretting the necessity of doing this in the dark, he felt just a little bored. These Haighlei as a whole were just not interesting prey—the Kaled’a’in may have been sanctimonious, sickeningly sweet prigs, but at least they did something once in a while. The Haighlei just lined up like good little sheep for his knife. They didn’t even alter their habits when it was obvious who and what kinds of folk his targets were!

Well, they aren’t really important, he consoled himself with a grim smile, bringing the club down on the body with all of his strength. They aren‘t my real prey, anyway. They’re only tools. Their deaths are not the end, only the means. They’re only the stepping stones to my real goal, the ladder to reach my revenge.

Although—actually, this was turning out to be a little more interesting than he had thought it would. I’ve never actually beaten anyone to death before. Hmm. Fascinating. I didn‘t realize how much punishment a body could take and still breathe! He knew it could be done, of course; provided nothing like the spleen or the skull was injured, a great deal of injury could be inflicted in theory before the body was so broken that it literally bled to death from bruising. But he’d never actually witnessed such a thing.

In fact, he thought, beginning to feel some of that manic strength coming into his arm that only the best kills brought out in him, this is rather fun!

He wanted to giggle, but he kept his mirth well-contained as energy poured into him and the club felt as if it weighed no more than a straw. It rose and fell of its own accord, and he brought it down, over and over, harder and harder, the thudding of wood into flesh pounding in his ears like the thumping of his own heartbeat pounding with excitement and—

The club splintered. He heard the crack of the wood over the dull sound of the blow.

He stopped in mid-swing, immediately. He was too well-trained, and much too clever, to risk a final strike and leave behind even a single shred of evidence that it had not been the claw of a gryphon that had done the deed. Instead, he stood over the now-motionless body, breathing heavily, while he surveyed his handiwork as best he could by moonlight.

Quite impressive. He’d left the head intact except for the initial blow that had rendered her unconscious. For the rest—there was nothing to show that she had not been bludgeoned to death by the fisted claw of a gryphon. There were the cuts and tears in the skin that even a claw closed tightly could and would leave, and the telltale signs of the essentially bony nature of the “hand” that had beaten her. Virtually every bone in her torso had been smashed, however, and the stiff and structured Haighlei would assume that no human could do that.

Which will leave the obvious, of course. Skandranon.

Lady Linnay had been one of Lady Fanshane’s few friends, and had been one of the loudest in her insistence that Amberdrake was guilty and must be made to pay then and there. And as such, she became an obvious target for Kaled’a’in elimination.

Hadanelith grinned as he moved carefully away from the body. Somewhere nearby, Noyoki was capturing all of the potent energy released by this death, and channeling it into whatever project he had in mind. Kanshin waited above, with a rope-ladder, ready to spirit him off the balcony and across two rooftops. Noyoki would meet them both there, and use a bit more of that channeled energy to lift them down to the ground, noiselessly, and efficiently, putting them all in a garden cul-de-sac where Kanshin had concealed the servants’ livery they had worn earlier to move through the Palace grounds.

Of course, no one who was not a Palace servant would ever even think of wearing Palace livery—nor would the Spears of the Law consider that possibility. It was simply Not Done. Here, all crimes worked by ritual and custom!

Hadanelith backed up onto the balcony, glad for the first time of his pale skin, which blended into the stonework very nicely. Of course, Kanshin would have contrived to look like a shadow, but still—

Still, even he hasn’t got the audacity to do work like this in the nude. Even if this murder was discovered before they got off the Palace grounds, watchers would search in vain for bloodstained clothing. There wouldn’t be any. And one quick wash with the bucket of water that Kanshin had up there with the ladder would remove any trace of evidence from Hadanelith’s person.

I will never forget their faces when I told them how I planned to avoid getting blood on my clothing. And of course, for all but one of these old hags, the sight of a naked man in their rooms was shocking enough to stun them all by itself. They didn’t even think to scream until I’d made screaming impossible.

The only time he had worn anything had been this very afternoon, when he’d worn just a bit of Amberdrake’s stolen finery. He’d let his target struggle just enough to tear the clothing from his back in an artistic fashion.

That time he’d brought his change of livery with him, of course. And he’d cleaned himself up in the pool in the prey’s own little garden. Had anyone noticed a sign of blood there?

Probably not. But if they did, they’d assume it was Amberdrake cleaning up after himself.

That was the essence of making all of this work; attending to detail. With no bloody clothing to dispose of, that left one detail already taken care of. With no blood about, there was nothing for a mage to trace.

He would have to remind Noyoki to cleanse this club very thoroughly, though.

The rope-ladder dropped down from above, and Hadanelith grabbed it, clenching the end of the club between his teeth so that he could use both hands in climbing.

The night breeze felt very good, slipping along his skin like a caress. Was this how a gryphon felt when it flew? Was this how a gryphon felt when it made a good kill, and launched itself up into the vast dark vault of the night sky?

I should have been born a gryphon! he thought, laughing to himself, as he let his energy carry him up the ladder effortlessly. But no, not a gryphon. TonightI was better than a gryphon! TonightI was the ultimate predator, the killer of gryphons! Yes. Oh, yes. Tonight, I was makaar!

Seven

Leyuet was a sorely puzzled man, and his worries dogged his footsteps as he passed through the cool, dimly-lit hallways of the Palace. The rest of the Entertainment had been canceled, of course. That left most of the courtiers at loose ends, with nothing to do but gossip until their normal time to retire. And gossip they certainly would—but Leyuet felt certain that most of them would not come within a bowshot of the truth of tonight’s drama.

Even though all the evidence pointed to the foreigner Amberdrake as the author of the latest murder, he himself would never have believed it to be so, after he witnessed the foreigner’s reaction. Amberdrake had been as shocked as anyone in the room at the revelation of a fourth murder, and his reaction on being accused was to freeze, like a terrified bird. He had not been plotting means to escape the room, he had not come forth immediately with plausible alibis—he had frozen, struck dumb, as any innocent man would.

And seeing his bewilderment and terror, Leyuet would bet his professional reputation that, if he had been asked to perform a Truthsaying on the man, the results would mirror his intuition.

Furthermore, it occurred to him on reflection that the person who spirited himself into four rooms without detection, committed butchery without detection, and spirited himself out again without detection, would not have been stupid enough to leave so many clues behind as to his identity.

Still, though, the first three murders had been made without leaving a signature, as was customary among professional assassins. The foreigners’ ways were not those of the Haighlei, though, so perhaps the murderer did not know what should be done. Even in assassinations, customs were to be observed—but only if the assassin knew the customs.

The foreigners don’t know the customs of assassination any better than they know how to address a social convention in Court, if that is the case. That is circumstantial evidence, but evidence nonetheless, that a foreigner committed the murders.

He would have said as much to the Emperor in private, if the Gryphon King had not interrupted with his theatrical posturings and outrageous statements. By the time Skandranon was finished and Shalaman had been forced to order both of them free on their own recognizance, there was no point in saying anything, at least not until things calmed down a trifle.

Leyuet had intended to speak to the Emperor in private even before the murder was discovered, but he never got the chance. The Gryphon King had been spending a great deal of time today in the air, although Leyuet had not seen Skandranon anywhere near where the fourth murder had taken place—and anyway, there had been no way to get into the murder room from outside the building. But why was he flying about, spying? There was no reason for him to do so. This observation was of a piece with everything else about this series of murders—strange things were occurring all over the Palace, yet none of them fit with the murders or even with each other.

Strange thingssuch as the Emperor absenting himself from the Entertainment, and only reappearing after the Ho Play was well underway. I could not find him. Silver Veil and Palisar could not find him. Where was he? What was he doing? This play was about his own grandfather; what could have kept him from watching it?

There were others absent this evening, but the Emperor was conspicuous in his absence. He only appeared after several people had been asking for him.

But there were other questions, more troubling than that, which plagued Leyuet this night—and they were about the murders.

I am the Chief Truthsayer of this Kingdom, and at the moment I would be willing to swear that Amberdrake is as innocent of murder as I. What is more, I would be willing to swear that Shalaman thinks so, too. So why did he not call upon me to exercise my office and settle the accusation immediately?

When it first appeared that the Gryphon King was a suspect, Leyuet had shrunk from the notion of touching such a strange creature’s soul for a full and formal Truthsaying, and Shalaman had not asked it of him. There really had been no need, since the first murder had occurred when Skandranon—and his mate, which accounted for the only two gryphons besides their flightless children—was under the eyes of hundreds of spectators, and the next two when he was under guard. The suspicion was really only in the minds of those who hated and feared the foreigners in the first place, and was eventually dismissed without Leyuet’s intervention, as the Truthsayer had hoped.

I could understand and appreciate the Emperor’s reluctance to ask me to examine the mind of the Gryphon Kingafter all, I was reluctant myself and he surely saw that. Skandranon is not human, and I might not be able to read his soul, or trying to do so might cause me damage or distress. But Amberdrake is as human as I, and there should be no question of my being able to read him. Even if the foreigners are unaware that calling a Truthsayer is their right, the Emperor certainly knows! So why did he not call upon me? I was waiting!

Shalaman seldom forgot anything; with Leyuet standing there and Amberdrake accused of a terrible crime, surely he could not have “forgotten” to ask Leyuet to exercise his chief office! So why had Shalaman done nothing? Innocence or guilt could have been settled in a single evening!

And while under Shalaman’s gazeand commandit would have been improper of me to volunteer. Protocol must be observed.

Leyuet turned a corner and realized that he had quite missed the corridor he wanted; his feet had taken him in the direction of the Guest Quarters—and Silver Veil’s suite—without him intending anything of the sort. He knew that Silver Veil was with Amberdrake now, possibly advising him, so there was no point in going on.

My heart knows what I needbut he has need of advice more than I. Surely I can unravel this by myself, if I can only see all the clues.

He turned, and was about to retrace his steps, when he saw that he was no longer alone in the corridor.

Stumbling blindly toward him, a look of stunned bewilderment on her face, was the foreign woman Winterhart. Leyuet would have attributed her expression to the terrible accusation laid against her mate, if not for two things. One, was that he knew that she had not been in the room when the accusation was laid.

And where was she if she was not there?

And two, an observation that left him stunned—she wore the Royal Betrothal Necklace of amber lilies and golden lion heads about her neck, and she carried in one hand the wreath of ten Lion Lilies, signifying the King’s intention to wed her.

Her eyes saw nothing, and he pressed himself back up against the smooth wooden paneling of the wall, hoping the dim light would disguise his identity. With luck, she would take him for a servant.

She walked numbly past him, clearly lost in her own thoughts and paying no attention whatsoever to him, as he stared at her with his mouth slightly agape. His own thoughts swirled with confusion for a moment.

And suddenly, the reason for the King’s inaction became blindingly, painfully clear.

Shalaman wanted Winterhart,

But Winterhart was bound to Amberdrake, by whatever simplistic rites these barbarians used as marriage. There was a child, in fact, a girl-child called Windsong, or so Silver Veil had told him.

Now, if Winterhart chose not to be bound by such things, then she would not be considered wedded, not by the laws of this land. Even among the Haighlei, most women would be so overwhelmed by the King’s offer that even a legal marriage would be—dealt with.

Such things had happened before. If the woman were already wedded, she and her family, and possibly even her husband and his family, would do all that they could to hurry through a divorce so that she could be free to wed the King. Most marriages were arranged by parents, anyway, and a woman had only to declare her soul at complete opposite to that of her husband for a priest to make a marriage null and void. There was no particular disgrace in that, provided the husband also agreed. And in the case of the King’s indicating his interest—well, there could be considerable status and profit in being the amiable and agreeable ex-husband of the new Royal Consort.

Fortunes had been made, and noble rank achieved, by men who had been willing to honor the King’s interests before their own.

But that was only true where there were no bonds of the heart and soul. Now, admittedly, Winterhart was so poised and self-controlled that Shalaman might not be aware of any real attachment to Amberdrake—but it was Leyuet’s experience in many long years as a Truthsayer that no woman packed up herself and a young and restless child to follow her mate into a strange land if she did not love him dearly, and could not bear to be parted from him.

Which meant that the King’s interests would never be fulfilled.

Ordinarily.

He did not think that Winterhart was so dense as to be unaware of how singular an honor this was—but he also did not think that questions of status and opportunity would ever enter into Winterhart’s considerations on this subject, either. In fact, he guessed that no threat or bribe would ever force her to break the bonds of the heart that she shared with Amberdrake.

But the death of Amberdrake, as a punishment for murder . . . that would break at least the earthly bonds of marriage, leaving the way clear for Shalaman. Even his imprisonment on suspicion alone might do that, if the imprisonment were made for life.

Or if something unfortunate happened to him in prison. Disease, a vengeful relative taking matters into his own handsthese things have happened before, too.

Leyuet stood frozen, his back still pressed up against the paneling of the corridor. It all made sense—horrible, dishonorable sense, but sense still.

He tried to find some other plausible reason for Shalaman’s inaction. The King might not know that they are unaware of the real meaning of my office. I only knew, because Silver Veil asked me about it when she first arrived, and she was astonished to hear that we had such a thing. He might not know that they do not know they can demand my services if he does not offer.

He might not—but Leyuet had the horrible feeling that Shalaman would not raise even a whisper to find out. Not with Winterhart at stake.

Leyuet clenched his hands into fists at his sides, every muscle tight with anxiety. Oh, how was he to deal with this? What was he to do? It was a dreadful dilemma!

My duty as Chief Truthsayer is clear. If I even suspect there has been an attempt to circumvent my office, I must arrange for the barbarians to be informed of my function and my duties, and offer myself to them immediately. I must! That is fundamental to all of the oaths I swore! “Let no man be denied the Truth”no man, be he Haighlei or foreign, and not even the King can deny that!

But his other oaths—the ones he swore when he took office as the King’s Advisor, were now in direct conflict with his oaths as a Truthsayer.

I have a duty to honor the wishes of the King. All of this is supposition and suspicion on my partexcept for the fact of the Lilies and the Necklace, which make the King’s wishes clear to me.

His hands rose of their own accord to hold his temples. This was giving him a headache that surely rivaled any of Palisar’s.

I shall never again be tempted to think lightly of his pain!

Which of his duties was the deeper? Shalaman needed a Consort; indeed, he and Palisar had been urging him for many, many years to select one. How could he continue in the next twenty-year cycle if there was no female principle beside him to balance his male? And he needed a Consort for his own sake as well; the Royal Consort was the equivalent of a personal kestra’chern in many ways, a kestra’chern Shalaman would never have to share with anyone.

Winterhart looked, to Leyuet’s eyes at least, to be fully capable of serving that position admirably. In addition, wedding her would bring the foreigners neatly into the fold without having to concede anything. There would be no need for elaborate arrangements, or for special inclusion in the Eclipse Ceremony—they would become allies by virtue of marriage, the simplest way of all.

But my duty as a Truthsayer

There had been nothing whatsoever in his training, arduous as it was, that dealt with a situation like this!

What do I do when the King, who is the embodiment of the honor of the Haighlei, isis possibly—acting with less than honor?

Should he confront Shalaman? What good would that do? It was not his place or his right to confront Shalaman over anything—and anything less than an accusatory confrontation would serve no purpose. If Shalaman were innocent of these suspicions, he still would be shamed and lose face before Leyuet.

That would be unthinkableand for suspecting such a thing, I should offer to take my own life.

If he were guilty—he would deny his guilt and probably still contrive to keep Amberdrake from exercising his rights.

And he might demand that I take my own life. How would I know without Truthsaying if he were innocent or guilty? I cannot Truthsay the Emperor without his leave!

There was really only one solution, and that was for Leyuet to redeem Shalaman’s honor himself. The only way to save this situation is to remove the temptation for Shalaman to act wrongfully. If I circumvent the need to confront him, then events will fall as they would have if he had not neglected to call me forward in the first place.

That meant that Leyuet, who abhorred taking direct action, would have to do just that.

You must make it impossible for Shalaman to make his “convenient” oversight, Truthsayer, said a stern, internal voice, his own voice. That is the deeper duty, both to your office and to your King. If he is acting without honor, he will be forced to confront that for himself without having an outside force confront him. If he was simply forgetful, he will be saved from the results of that neglect, as is your duty to him as an Advisor. You, yourself, must go to the barbarians and make it clear to them what their options are.

It might possibly be, still, that Shalaman knew something that Leyuet did not. He might be aware of some reason why the barbarians would not want Leyuet inside their hearts and souls. But Leyuet would not know that unless he went to the barbarians himself. Only then would his own conscience and honor together be clean.

And I cannot sleep this night until I make them clean.

With a weary sigh, Leyuet turned again, and walked slowly in the footsteps of Winterhart, making his way to her suite in the Guest Quarters. He would tell her what he must. The next steps would be up to her—

And to Amberdrake—for Amberdrake, after all, was the one person around whom this tragedy was revolving, and the one person who had the power to resolve at least part of it.

And all of this so close to the Eclipse. Why do the gods torment and taunt us this way?

Amberdrake’s head and heart were already full of confusion when he walked in through the door of his rooms, although he had been relieved of a considerable burden of fear and tension by his graceful mentor.

Now the problems are not threatening my lifeat least not immediatelybut oh, the problems we’ve uncovered!

Thanks to Silver Veil, at least now he had the means to prove his innocence; the services of someone called a “Truthsayer” would put an end to any accusations. Unfortunately, now there were greater questions to be answered, for it was painfully obvious that someone in this land wanted the Kaled’a’in dead, discredited, or both. And it was absolutely imperative he find out who and why, and soon. . . .

And all this must be done before their Eclipse Ceremony, or we can bid farewell to any kind of arrangements with the Haighlei for another generation or more!

He was hoping to find Winterhart, sanity, and a tiny space of peace in which to muster his thoughts and come up with some plan of action.

Instead, he walked into chaos as soon as he opened the heavy wooden door.

The servant Makke was sitting on the floor and wailing, her face buried in her hands as she rocked back and forth. Zhaneel—and what was she doing there?—stood over her with wings mantled and hackles up, as if Makke were one of her gryphlets and under attack. Winterhart sat in the chair by the door that the servants used, staring blankly into space, her face white with shock and a crumpled wreath of flowers at her feet.

And the moment he entered, all three of them started, stared at him as if he was one of Ma’ar’s worst creations, then began babbling like a trio of lunatics.

“Forgive me, great lord—I have betrayed you, I have stolen from you—”

“She didn’t do anything, neither of them did anything, it is not their fault—”

“Oh, gods—I didn’t mean to encourage him—please believe me—Drake, please, you must believe me—”

He clapped his hands over his aching temples and shook his head violently. What on earth were they all babbling about? “Please—” he said faintly, over the din, “Please, one of you at a time—”

As if his plea, faint as it was, had been a thunderous roar, they all fell silent at once, staring at him. He knew he felt as if he had walked through the seven hells in his bare feet, but he didn’t think he looked that way!

Unfortunately, the silence was just as uninformative as their babbling had been.

I must look worse than I thought. I must look like I’ve been dragged behind a horse through all the hells of all the religions of the world. They must not have heard . . . they expected me to be Amberdrake the Imperturbable, and I look as shaken as they are, and they don’t know why.

This was clearly no time to fall apart and hope for them to pick him back up and put him together. It was also clear that what had happened to Winterhart, Zhaneel, and Makke was as serious as a murder accusation, at least in their own eyes.

My immediate problem is settled. Come on, Drake, get a hold on yourself, they need you! He took a deep breath, and pulled himself together. I am a kestra’chern, dammit! I was a pillar of strength for others as a profession! If I cannot be a rock of sanity at this moment, I can at least pretend to be sane and calm!

“Easy,” he said, in a calm and soothing voice. “Let’s sit down and get all this sorted out, shall we?” He smiled at Makke. “Now, what’s all this about betrayal?”

In a few minutes, and at the expense of his own nerves, he had a sketchy idea of what had happened while he had been dealing with accusations of murder. He told them, with equal brevity, what had happened at the Entertainment. And there was a feeling of sickness in the pit of his stomach about the betrothal offer in light of what he had learned from Silver Veil, a nauseous unease that warned him that there was danger there he had not ever expected. There was also a rising sense of anger. King Shalaman wanted his mate. He had been struggling to be at peace with the King, and all the while, Shalaman had been coveting Winterhart! Had they all been fools, assuming that because the Haighlei were formal and civilized, they could not possibly be lustful or treacherous? What were Shalaman and his advisors orchestrating?

But he hadn’t even begun to sort it all out, much less get the details from any of the three, when there was a knock at the door. Reflexively, because a kestra’chern was trained to always answer a knock, because it might be someone in grave need, he answered it.

He thought, when he opened the door, that he was either hallucinating or caught in a nightmare. It was Leyuet, the leader of those who administered Shalaman’s justice—the very man who had just accused him of killing a woman in cold blood.

He’s come to imprison me!

That was the first, panicked, thought. But there were no Spears of the Law with the Advisor, which meant he could not have come here for that, at least. But why? And in the name of the gods, why now?

“Ah, Leyuet—” he stammered, trying to think of what the Haighlei protocol would dictate in this situation, “I appreciate that you have come to my quarters, I presume to ask me some questions, but it is very late and this is not a good time—”

“I must speak with you, Lord Amberdrake,” the rabbity little man said urgently, actually stepping forward so that Amberdrake had to move back, and thus managing to get himself inside the door. “I must. My honor, the King’s, and your life may all depend upon this.”

As Leyuet entered, he shut the door behind him, thus preventing Amberdrake from coaxing him out with similar trickery. And at the moment, he did not really look rabbity at all. Haggard, yes—but rather more like a determined and stubborn goat than a rabbit.

Determined, stubborn, and in extreme discomfort. The man was so ill at ease that he radiated it; even Winterhart stared at him with narrowed eyes as if she sensed it, and she was not as Gifted with Empathy as Amberdrake.

“You must listen to me—it is exceedingly important that you understand what I am and what my duties are,” Leyuet blurted out, and then launched into a detailed explanation of what a Truthsayer was and did—and that his position as Advisor and Chief of the Spears of the Law was strictly secondary to his vocation as a Truthsayer.

“You are entitled to a Truthsayer to establish your innocence, Lord Amberdrake,” Leyuet finished, his insides clearly knotted with anxiety, if the state of Amberdrake’s own stomach was any indication. “Furthermore, as an envoy, you are entitled to the services of any Truthsayer you may wish to summon. It is serving no purpose to conceal from you that I am one of the best of my kind. If I declare you innocent, there can be no doubt of it.”

Since Silver Veil had already gone through an even more detailed explanation of a Truthsayer’s abilities and duties, Amberdrake saw no reason to doubt him. She had not recommended Leyuet by name—

But the hints she dropped were certainly specific enough that I should have made the connection already. Amberdrake nodded, aware that there was a lot more going on in Leyuet’s mind and conscience than the Advisor wanted to admit—or be questioned about. The important thing was that he had offered his services, of his own accord. Silver Veil was of the opinion that the effectiveness of a Truthsayer was affected by whether or not he was bringing his gifts into play reluctantly, and she had warned him that he must find a Truthsayer who brought himself to his task with a whole heart. Leyuet, obviously, had made up his mind that he was not going to be reluctant.

Best not to question further. I do not want to know what he does not want to reveal.

“Leyuet—my Lord Leyuet—thank you for bringing this information to me, and so generously offering yourself as my Truthsayer,” Amberdrake said, making sure that he projected sincerity and profound gratitude into every word. “Rest assured, your services will be called for shortly, perhaps even tonight—as it happens, the kestra’chern Silver Veil gave me identical advice, although she did not suggest you, specifically, and if anyone questions me I must in all honesty say that I ask for a Truthsayer on her word.”

He had said precisely the right thing. Rather than taking offense, Leyuet visibly relaxed when Amberdrake said he would be giving Silver Veil the “credit” for advising him.

He doesn‘t want anyone to know he came to tell me the same things as Silver Veil. I think perhaps I’ll ask her why later.

“I cannot begin to tell you how pleased I am that you have a true friend like The Silver Veil in this Court,” Leyuet said, fervently, “And I will remain awake for a while yet, if you think you may wish to call upon me tonight—it is not that late—we would all still be watching the Entertainment under other circumstances—”

He broke off, embarrassed, as if he realized he was babbling.

There is a great deal of babbling going on tonight. “I believe that will be the case,” Amberdrake told him, gravely. “And I thank you in advance for going to such lengths for me.”

“It is nothing more nor less than you deserve,” Leyuet protested, opening the door and letting himself out quickly, as if he feared Amberdrake might want to question him further. “It is only my duty; it is only what is right. I bid you good night—for now.”

And with that, he gratefully took himself out. Amberdrake had the feeling that if it had been within the bounds of propriety to run away, he would have.

There is something that he doesn’t want me to ask about, and I would bet that it has to do with the King’s proposal to Winterhart.

He turned back to the three anxious faces that were, at least, a little less anxious for hearing Leyuet’s speech.

“Now,” he told them, “let’s get comfortable. The garden, I think—we’re less likely to be overheard there. Makke, would you go fetch Gesten and have him bring us something to drink that will help keep our nerves I steady? We have a great deal to sort out, and we must find a way to do it in a way that will keep anyone from being hurt.”

When Makke rejoined them in the garden, with Gesten and a tray of strong tea and another of sugar-cakes, he ordered her to remain. “You have a part in this, little mother,” he told her, patting a seat beside him and smiling at her as she took it, timidly. Gesten went around the garden lighting the insect-repelling lamps and candles. “Let us begin with the lost clothing, for that is what brought me to such a terrible accusation. I think you do not realize that you have been betrayed as badly as you believe you betrayed me.”

She bowed her head to hide her face, her shoulders trembling. Odd. I feel steadier now than I have all evening. I wonder why? Was it because he was pretending to be the ever-serene kestra’chern? Or was it because they needed him to be the calm one?

Well, as a servant, she cannot demand the services of the Truthsayer, I suspect. But because the loss of my property is what led to my being accused of murder, I can demand she be examined myself. I think Leyuet will find she did not lose anythingthat the missing clothing was stolen, and she cannot possibly be blamed for having clothing stolen by the crafty fiends who have successfully completed four murders!

He sensed Winterhart’s anguish even as his mind raced through plans dealing with his quandary and Makke’s, and he reached out for her hand even as he spoke soothing words to Makke. When the old woman finally raised her eyes to his, he smiled encouragingly at her and turned his attention to his own beloved.

“Amberdrake, I—” she began.

He managed a weak chuckle. “You are as blameless as poor Makke, if you think you somehow encouraged Shalaman to think you were interested in him,” he said, taking a cup of tea from Gesten and pressing it into her trembling hand. “All you did was to be yourself. Dear gods—that was certainly enough to ensnare me, wasn’t it?”

Her manners are flawless, in a Court which values manners and those things that have no flaws. Her mannerisms are all charming. She fits here as well as Silver Veil, and it is obvious even to a fool that she would never do anything that would disgrace her, in the purest sense of the word! Winterhart is surely as exotic as Silver Veilthough why Shalaman hasn’t made this offer to her—well, it might be some stupid caste issue, I suppose. It irritated him to think that Silver Veil might somehow be considered unworthy of the King’s matrimonial attentions, when he was obviously taking advantage of every one of that redoubtable lady’s many talents.

Silver Veil would make such a Queenand she loves him. Why can’t he see that? Oh, damn. Let me get this settled first. A little matter of a murder accusationI’ll deal with hearts and minds later.

“All you did was to be yourself,” he repeated. “And that was just a temptation that was too much for the Emperor to resist. I understand his desire, and I can hardly blame you if I can’t blame him!”

She sensed his sincerity, even if she could not share his thoughts, and she managed a tremulous smile.

“The problem is—” he hesitated a moment, then said it out loud. “The problem is, it does appear that Shalaman was perfectly willing for me to stand accused of murder so that his way was clear to take you as his wife.”

Makke’s face turned gray, but both Zhaneel and Winterhart nodded. Zhaneel’s hackles were up, and Winterhart’s jaw clenched.

“The obvious answer is to demand Leyuet’s services in Court,” he continued, but Winterhart interrupted. And not, as he might have supposed, with angry words about the Emperor.

“You have to be careful not to imply in any way that Shalaman was using the accusation as a way to obtain me,” she pointed out. “You can’t even let other people make that implication. If anyone besides Leyuet suspects him of dishonorable intentions, he’ll never forgive us.”

Oh, that is the lady I lovethinking ahead, seeing all the implications, even while her own heart is in turmoil! He felt better with every passing moment, more alive than he had in years—the way he had right after the Catastrophe, when every day brought a new crisis, but she was there to help him solve it.

“Even if it all simply slipped his mind in the excitement, people could still suspect that if I act in public,” he replied, thinking out loud. “If he was operating with those intentions—he’ll become our enemy for exposing him. And if he wasn’t, well, when people put facts together and come up with their own suspicions, however erroneous, wouldn’t he lose face with his own Court?”

Winterhart nodded as Zhaneel looked from one to the other of them. She toyed with the necklace as she spoke. “It is almost as bad for the Haighlei to lose face as to be dishonorable, and while he might not become our enemy over his own mistake, he isn’t going to be our friend, either.” Winterhart frowned. “But we can’t simply leave things the way they are!”

“If he is disgraced before his own people, might he not even declare war upon us in an attempt to show that he did not want Winterhart after all?” Zhaneel hazarded, her eyes narrowed with worry. “Oh, I wish that Skandranon were here!”

I’m just as glad he’s not. He’s more than a bit too direct for a situation like this one.

“In any event, if we do this in public, and everything came out well, we still must have Makke’s part of the story—and that makes her a conspicuous target for anger,” Amberdrake said, as Makke nodded and turned even grayer. “I can’t have that. And we have to remember something else—there is someone out there who wants all of us dead or gotten rid of, and if we take care of this in public, he’ll only try again to do just that. The next time he might be still more clever about it. As long as we don’t know who our enemy is, we can’t guard against him without just going home.”

Winterhart clasped her hands together in her lap, around the cup of tea, and Amberdrake pretended not to notice that her knuckles were white.

“You are saying that we can’t do anything, then?” she asked tightly. “But—”

“No, what I’m saying is that this can’t be public. I spoke at length with Silver Veil, and she gave me another piece of advice—”That which is unthinkable in public is often conducted in private.’ Is there a way, do you think, that we could get Shalaman alone, without any witnesses to what we say to him?”

“I don’t see how,” Winterhart began. “He always has bodyguards with him, even when he gave me the Necklace and the Lilies—”

Makke cleared her throat, interrupting Winterhart, and all eyes turned toward her.

“A bride-to-be accepts her betrothed’s proposal in her own house,” she said carefully. “She does so in private. This is an old custom, and one that dates back to the days when the Haighlei were barbarians, and occasionally kidnapped women they wished to wed. By making the groom come to her, alone, she prevents being coerced into acceptance.”

“So—if I sent a message to Shalaman saying I wished to see him here, alone—” Winterhart began.

Makke nodded. “He would assume that you were going to accept the Necklace, and he would send away his guards, arriving at your door unaccompanied. He would, of course, expect that you would be alone as well.” She coughed delicately. “It is often said that there are many children whose births come at intervals that are easily calculated back nine months to the date of the bride’s acceptance. . . .”

“Would now be too soon?” Winterhart said, blushing furiously. “I—I wouldn’t want to seem too forward.”

“I suspect,” Makke replied, with a hint of her old spirit, “that our King is pacing the floor, hoping that you will find it impossible to sleep until you have answered him.”

Winterhart smiled, but it was a tight, thin smile. “So I shall,” she said. “So I shall. . . .”

Skandranon, predictably, arrived just at the moment when they were about to send that carefully worded message to the King.

“I was on the roof,” he said, looking at all of their tense faces with puzzlement. “I was waiting for Kechara to contact me. I was concerned that there might be an off chance that there was someone capable of sensing mind-magic at work within the Palace.”

“Why go on the roof?” Amberdrake asked.

He shrugged. “If that was the case, I didn’t want anyone to associate the messages passing between myself and our little gryphon with me. It wasn’t our roof, you see.”

They had to explain it all over again to him, which took a bit more time. Amberdrake was a little worried that Skan might come up with another one of his wild plans instead of falling in with theirs. To his relief, Skan was in complete agreement with all of them.

“I must admit I didn’t expect you to go along with this without an argument,” Amberdrake finally said, as Skan settled himself into a corner with Zhaneel tucked under a wing.

The gryphon looked up at him thoughtfully. “Not an argument, exactly,” he replied. “More of an addition. It’s unethical, of course—but you’ve had a game played on you that was worse than unethical, and I think this would just even the scales between you and Shalaman.”

Amberdrake winced; whenever the gryphon suggested something “unethical,” or something to “even the scales,” there was no predicting what he was going to say. Gryphons were carnivores, and they showed it in their ideas of justice and fair play. “Well—what was your suggestion?”

“Two things, really,” Skan said, preening a talon. “The first is the unethical one. You’ve got a rather formidable Gift in that Empathy of yours. Use it. You know very well you can make people feel things as well as feeling them yourself—so use that. Make Shalaman feel very guilty and in your debt for not exposing him. Shove your sincerity and good-will down his throat until he chokes on them. Make him eat kindness until he has to do us major favors or burst.”

Amberdrake gritted his teeth over that one, but he had to admit that Skan had a good idea. He hated using his powers that way, but—

But if I’m going to ensure the success of this, I have to use every weapon I have. He’s right.

“And the other?” he asked.

“Tell him you’re lifebonded.” Skan finished preening the talon, and regarded him with that direct gryphonic gaze. “From what I’ve learned, it’s unusual here and it’s important to these people. Leyuet can probably confirm that to him. I think telling him might just tip the scales in our favor.”

Amberdrake considered that for a moment. “Well, I can’t see why it should, but I also can’t see how it can hurt. All right, Gesten—are you ready to play messenger?”

The hertasi nodded tightly. “This is going to need a lot of fancy footwork, Drake, I hope you know that.”

“Believe me,” Amberdrake replied grimly. “No one knows it better than I do.” He handed the hertasi the carefully worded messages, one to the Emperor and one to Leyuet. “We’ll be waiting.”

Gesten slipped off, and the five of them arranged themselves very carefully. Makke was off to one side, out of the way. Zhaneel and Skan placed themselves on either side of the door, ready to interpose their bodies if the King should decide to storm out. He would not get past them; they could simply block the door with their bodies, or an extended wing, using no force and no violence. Amberdrake stood beside Winterhart, who was seated on the floor, with the Necklace gleaming on a pillow, arranged in a pattern that Makke said signified “polite refusal.” It seemed there were customs for the arrangement of the necklace, which included “angered refusal,” “fearful refusal,” “wistful refusal,” “unexplainable refusal,” and so on. There was a ritual for everything.

“What did Judeth have to say?” Amberdrake asked Skan, to fill in the time. “How much did you tell her?”

“Oh, as relayed through the little one, she was apoplectic about the murder accusations, of course,” Skan said casually. “She wanted us to come home. I pointed out how stupid that would be, and how it might only get us in deeper trouble. Then she was going to cancel the next lot of diplomats; which wasn’t a bad idea, but I had a better one. I told her to send us some of the human Silvers instead, ones that can at least go through diplomatic motions and leave the real work to us. She thought that was a pretty good notion, giving us our own little private guards. She wanted to send mages, but I told her that would be a very bad idea and why. She agreed, and started working out the details so things can move quickly and the Silvers can sail with the tide. That’s pretty much where things stand.”

Amberdrake had a shrewd notion that wasn’t all Skan had told Judeth to do, but it hardly mattered. At the moment, more strategy was required than diplomacy—the kind of leadership of a field commander rather than that of an administrator. Those were, and had always been, Skan’s strengths. He was never better or more skillful than when he was alone, making decisions that only a single person could implement.

He hates being a leader. Now he’s in his element. As dreadful as this situation is, it’s good for him. Andis he losing weight?

At least this meant that there would be some skilled fighters showing up shortly, and if worse came to worst, as Skan said, they would have their own little guard contingent. If everything went wrong and they really did have to flee to save their lives—provided they could all escape the city—with the help of several skilled fighters, they could probably make their way across the jungle and back to White Gryphon.

It occurred to him that they ought to start making emergency escape plans, just in case. But before he could say anything, the sound of footsteps out in the hallway, coming through the slightly-open door, put all of them on alert.

Shalaman pushed the door open and took three eager steps into the room before he saw that there was a group waiting for him rather than Winterhart alone. His expression was so eager, and so happy, that Amberdrake’s heart went out to him—despite the fact that Shalaman wanted him out of the way. Perhaps that was only a sign of how much a kestra’chern he was, that he could always see someone else’s side.

Oh, gods, if only everyone could have everything they wanted out of this situation—But he knew very well that there were never such things as unadulterated happy endings, and that the very best that anyone could hope for here was that hearts would not be broken too badly. . . .

Shalaman was clearly taken aback when he saw Amberdrake; he stopped dead, and his face lost all expression. In the next heartbeat, his eyes dropped to Winterhart, then to the necklace on the pillow in front of her.

His eyes went back to Amberdrake, and turned cold. His face assumed an expression of anger. But his words surprised the kestra’chern. “Lady,” he said softly, “if this man has threatened you—if—”

Winterhart raised her eyes to his, as Skan and Zhaneel closed the door very softly and put themselves between Shalaman and the exit. He did not appear to notice anything except Winterhart and Amberdrake.

“This is my answer, Serenity,” she said steadily. No one who knew anything about her would ever have doubted the firm resolution in her voice. “If you think that anyone could threaten me to perform any action against my will, you are very much mistaken. Amberdrake is here because I wish him here, I asked him here, and because I wish to show you that we are of one heart in this and in all else.”

Shalaman’s face fell—but before he could react any further, Amberdrake spoke.

“You desired my lady,” he said very gently, without even a hint of threat. “And you did not advise me that I had a right to a Truthsayer when accused of murder. I cannot think but that the two are connected.”

He tried to keep the words neutral, tried to make his statement very casual, but the accusation was still there, and there was no real way to soften it.

Shalaman went absolutely rigid, as if struck with a sudden paralysis. His face froze except for a tic beside his right eye; he opened his mouth slightly, as if to speak, but nothing emerged.

Amberdrake sensed a turmoil of emotions—chief of which was panic. And overlaying that, real guilt. And beneath it all a terrible shame. All of his own doubts were resolved; consciously or not, Shalaman had tried to rid himself of his rival by underhanded means and had just been forced to acknowledge that.

Caught you. Now to soothe you.

“Serenity,” he said swiftly, using his Gift just as Skan had advised, to emphasize his words and gently prod the Emperor’s emotions in the direction he chose. “Winterhart is a beautiful woman, full of wit and wisdom and grace. She is a fit consort for any King, and I cannot fault you for desiring her. We are private in our emotions, and you could not know that this was not a marriage of convenience between us.”

“You are generous,” Shalaman growled.

Amberdrake noted the dangerous anger behind that simple statement. Time to turn that anger in the proper direction.

“I also cannot fault you for falling into a trap that was laid for all of us,” he continued with a little anger of his own. “A trap contrived by someone—or a conspiracy of someones—who must be the most clever and fiendish I have ever had the misfortune to encounter. The party behind it—whoever he or she is—saw your interest and did not scruple to use it against all of us.”

Shalaman knitted his brows slightly in puzzlement. “I do not understand,” he told the kestra’chern. “What are you trying to say? That these murders are serving another purpose?”

Amberdrake nodded. “There is someone in this land who wishes to be rid of the folk of White Gryphon. I dare say he or she would not be averse to seeing you come to grief as well, and this person contrived to put you in a situation where you might not see the threat to your honor.” There. No accusation, only point out the existence of the threat. “That is why—or so we believe—these dreadful murders have occurred, all of them of people who objected to our presence but were completely loyal to you. That is why—so we conjecture—this person arranged a situation that you would also be entrapped by.”

“So—I have a traitor in my own ranks?” the King asked, his expression darkening to anger, seizing gratefully on the suggestion that his actions had been manipulated by someone else—just as Amberdrake had known he would. It was an easier answer, one that was more palatable.

Better that than be thought dishonorable, even by barbarians. Interesting. Amberdrake had the feeling that he was finally beginning to understand these people.

“We believe so. The problem is that we will never find this person unless we lull him into carelessness,” Amberdrake told him earnestly as Skan and Zhaneel moved quietly away from the door. “So, before we go any further, that I may clear my name and honor before you, at least, I should like the services of Truthsayer Leyuet—but only in private.”

Again, the King was taken aback. “Why in private? Do you not wish your name to be made clean?”

Amberdrake shrugged. “We are gambling with more than just my personal honor here,” he said philosophically. “To ask for the Truthsayer before the Court would reveal that we are aware of some of what is going on, and I am willing for others to continue to suspect me if it will help us to catch the true villain. That is more important, and I can abide suspicious glares and the anger of your courtiers to achieve justice for the murders.”

Sincerity, honesty, graciousness . . . do believe me, Shalaman. It all happens to be true.

Shalaman nodded cautiously; too much the diplomat himself to take even this at face value.

“I also request Leyuet’s services on behalf of the servant Makke,” he continued persuasively. “The reason will become clear when you hear what she has to say.”

Shalaman frowned but nodded again. Gesten—who had left his message with Shalaman only to go fetch Leyuet—knocked in his familiar pattern at that precise moment, and Skan moved to open the door to let the hertasi and the Truthsayer in.

They almost lost their advantage at that moment as Shalaman realized how they had manipulated him. But his own good sense overcame his temper, and he managed to do no more than frown at his Advisor as Leyuet came in.

Leyuet made a formal obeisance to his leader which appeared to mollify the King somewhat. Shalaman gestured to the rest of them to take seats, then appropriated the best chair in the room and sat down in it with ill grace.

“I see you have all this planned,” he growled, waving his hand at Leyuet. “Continue, then, before I lose my patience. Truthsayer, examine the man Amberdrake.”

Good. He’s angry. Now to turn that anger away from us and toward whoever is conspiring against us.

“There is only one thing more that I need to tell you, Serenity,” he said, very carefully. “But I needed the Truthsayer here to confirm it so that you will believe it. If you would, please, Leyuet?”

The Truthsayer nodded and then knelt upon the floor at Amberdrake’s feet, closing his eyes and assuming an expression of intense concentration. As Silver Veil had explained it, Leyuet would not actually read Amberdrake’s thoughts as a Mindspeaker might, nor his emotions as an Empath would. She could only describe it as “soul-touching, perhaps, or heart-reading”—that Leyuet would take in what Amberdrake was, with no emotions or surface thoughts intruding, and relate that to the truth or falsehood of what he was saying. As she described it, the act would be far more intimate on Leyuet’s part (for Amberdrake would sense nothing) than any Empathic sensing of emotion. It was impossible to lie to a Truthsayer, she claimed. If that was the case, Amberdrake did not envy Leyuet his Gift—

There are more than a few slimy souls I would never have wanted to touch in that way. Ma’ar, for instance, or Shaiknam. The very idea makes me shudder.

“I wish to prove to you why my lady and I are more than we appear. Winterhart and I have a very unusual bond,” he said, choosing his words with care. “In our tongue, it is called ‘lifebonding.’ I have not been able to find the equivalent in yours, but it is a binding of soul to soul—a partnership that completes both of us. What one feels, the other feels as well—”

He continued, trying to describe their relationship in terms that Shalaman might understand, groping through the unfamiliar Haighlei words, until suddenly Leyuet’s eyes flew open and the Truthsayer exclaimed with dismay—

“Serenity! These two are loriganalea! Oh, dearest gods—what did you think you were doing?”

The look of horror on Leyuet’s face was mirrored in Shalaman’s.

What on earth? Why—

Amberdrake had no time for any other thoughts, for suddenly, the Emperor himself, the great Shalaman, was on his knees, clutching the hems of Amberdrake’s garment and Winterhart’s in turn, begging their forgiveness. Amberdrake had not seen anyone so terrified in ten years. What had Leyuet said?

Amberdrake was taken so aback he didn’t know what to say or do next. Leyuet seemed to be completely paralyzed.

Finally it was Skan who broke the impasse.

“Well,” he said, in a completely casual tone, as if he saw all-powerful Emperors groveling in front of his friends every day, “I always said you and Winterhart were something special.”

Things were very confusing for several long moments. When a greatly-shaken Shalaman—who had by this time lost every aspect of Emperor and seemed to have decided that he would be, for now, only Shalaman the man—was calmed down and assured of both their forgiveness, they finally learned from him and from Leyuet why their reaction had been so violent. In fact, Leyuet was still looking a bit gray about the lips.

“This is a sacred bond,” Leyuet said, carefully, so that there could be no mistake. “This is a marriage, made not for lust or for power or the sake of convenience, but made by the gods. The holy books are very plain; interfering in such a bond will bring the curses of the ages upon anyone who tries to break it, anyone who helps to break it and anyone who does not aid the bonded ones. If he who tried to interfere in the bonding is a ruler, the curses would fall even upon the people as a whole. You have done a good thing, Amberdrake, by recognizing this bond and telling us of it. You have not only saved the Emperor’s honor, you have prevented the curses of all of our gods and yours as well from falling upon this land.”

“You were well within your rights to withhold this knowledge from me,” Shalaman said miserably, shaken to his bones. “If I had not the opportunity to obtain your forgiveness, it is possible that the curses would still have come, and you would have had your revenge upon me threefold. It would only have been justice—your withholding of information in exchange for my omission.”

The Emperor shuddered, his lips pale with strain. “There is nothing I can give you in my entire Empire that can compensate you—”

This was too much. Amberdrake cast a glance of entreaty at the Truthsayer for help, since nothing he had said seemed to penetrate the Emperor’s reaction. Leyuet placed a hand upon Shalaman’s, keeping him from saying anything more. “It is enough. It did not happen. Amberdrake and Winterhart understand and forgive. They both know—well, enough.”

‘That is the truth,” Amberdrake said hastily. “Remember, we were all caught in a web of deception. The blame should rightly fall on the spider who spun it; let the curses fall upon him.”

That was evidently exactly the right thing to say; the Emperor closed his eyes and nodded, relaxing a little.

But Leyuet was not finished. “And you know, my Emperor, that even if Amberdrake were to perish in the next instant, Winterhart would still not be for you, nor for any other man. You may wish to consult Palisar on the matter, but I would say this proves that the gods regard those of White Gryphon as they would the Haighlei, in matters of the soul and love.”

That last was said with a certain stern relish that made Amberdrake wonder if the pointed little reminder were not Leyuet’s tiny act of revenge for his own mental and emotional strain over this situation. Poor Leyuet. He walked a thread above a chasm, and he survived. I should not be surprised if he garnered more white hairs from this.

Shalaman nodded weakly. “I know. And I swear that I will think of her from this moment as I would my own sister, my own mother, my own daughter—and with no other thoughts in my heart.” He shook himself a little, then looked up at Amberdrake. “Now, you will assert your innocence in this matter, and Leyuet will verify it, and I will make this public if there is no other way to prove that you are blameless. Will that suit your plan to trap this plot-spinning spider?”

“It does. But do not reveal my innocence unless there is no other way to save my life,” Amberdrake reminded him. “We must make our enemy think that he has us trapped, all of us. He will never make any mistakes unless he becomes overconfident.”

We have to think of other things that will make it look as if I am still the chief suspect. . . .

Leyuet assumed his Truthsaying “trance” again, and Amberdrake carefully stated his innocence in all the murders. There was no point in doing this if Shalaman would still be wondering if Amberdrake had anything to do with the other three deaths. “Nor would I harm any other member of your court,” he added, “except to bring this killer to justice.”

There. I think that covers everything. Shalaman hardly looked at Leyuet, who confirmed everything Amberdrake said in a dreamy, detached voice. Odd; he looked so strained before, but now he actually seems to be experiencing something pleasant! I wonder why?

“Now, for Makke—” Amberdrake brought the trembling woman to sit in front of Leyuet. She seemed to be on the verge of tears, but bravely held them back, looking only at Amberdrake. She seemed to take comfort and heart from his presence, and he put a steadying hand on hers as he knelt beside her chair, out of Leyuet’s way.

“Makke, you are the servant and cleaning woman for myself, Winterhart, Zhaneel, and Skandranon, are you not?” he asked in a gentle voice.

She nodded mutely, and Leyuet echoed the gesture. “One of your tasks is to see that our clothing is taken to the laundresses and returned, is that not so?” he continued; she nodded, and Leyuet confirmed the truth of the statement.

“Now—today, this morning, when you fetched the clean clothing, some of it was missing, correct? Whose was it?”

Makke’s voice trembled with suppressed tears. “Yours, great lord.”

“And that was before the afternoon recess, when all the Court takes a rest, was it not?”

“Yes, great lord,” she replied, a single tear seeping out of the corner of her eye and escaping into the wrinkles of her cheeks.

“When you took it away yesterday, did it ever leave your hands from the moment you received it to the moment you delivered it to the laundresses?” he asked. She shook her head mutely.

“And when did you discover that there was a piece missing?” he asked her.

“When I opened the bundle as it came from the laundresses, in these rooms, great lord,” she said and sobbed as she lost her tenuous control of herself. “I am—”

“No,” he said quickly, putting a hand on her shoulder to stop her from saying anything more. “Describe the missing piece, if you can.”

As he had hoped, she remembered it in minute detail, and it was obvious to anyone who had seen the bloody fragments that the robe she described and the pieces found with the last victim were the same.

“Good,” he said. “Now, simply answer this. Did you leave the bundle anywhere, after you received it from their hands? Did you even leave it alone in our rooms?”

She shook her head.

“So during the entire time when the clothing was in your control, you did not leave it anywhere but in the hands of those who were to clean it?” It was a rhetorical question, but she nodded.

“The woman speaks the truth,” Leyuet said tonelessly.

“So—first, the clothing that turned up with the last murder victim was missing from my possession this morning, so I could not have been wearing it,” Amberdrake said triumphantly. “And second, it cannot possibly have been Makke’s fault that it came into the possession of someone else. She was not careless, she didn’t lose anything—it was stolen, and she can hardly be held responsible for the acts of someone who is a murderer, a traitor, and a thief.”

Shalaman sighed wearily, and Makke suddenly looked up, her expression changing in an instant from one of despair to one of joy.

“That is so, Emperor,” Leyuet said slowly as he shook himself out of his trance. “Though I fail to see why it was so important—“

He stopped himself, flushing with shame. “Forgive me, woman,” he said to Makke, with stiff humility. “It was important to you, of course. Not all troubles involve the curses of gods and the fate of empires—but sometimes the fate of empires can devolve upon the small troubles.”

Makke obviously didn’t understand what Leyuet was trying to say, but she nodded timidly, shrinking back into the chair.

‘The question is,” Leyuet said, “what do we do with her? I do not know that she should continue as your cleaning woman. Perhaps a retirement?”

Makke shrank back further still.

“If I may make a request?” Zhaneel put in. “Makke is the only one who knows that the clothing was missing. This puts her in danger, if the murderer thinks of it. Could she not be protected if she were here, in our personal train? If she were to be made—oh—” Zhaneel’s expression became crafty “—the nurse of my little ones? She would then be in our suite all the time, and under our guarding eyes and talons!”

Leyuet looked dubious. “Is this permitted?” he asked Shalaman. “She is of the caste of the Lower Servants, is not a nursemaid of the caste of Upper Servants?” He seemed far more concerned over the possible breach in caste than by the threat to Makke’s life. Shalaman’s brow creased with a similar concern.

Hang these people and their ranks and castes!

Skandranon snorted with derision before anyone else could say anything. “At the moment, the servants watching the little ones are from whatever caste takes care of pet dogs and parrots!” he said with thinly-veiled contempt. “This is, I believe, on the judgment of whoever it is that decides who should serve where. I hardly think that they can be of any higher caste than Makke. They are certainly of less intelligence!”

Leyuet looked a little happier. “It is true, Emperor, that there is no description or caste for one who would be a nursemaid to—to—” He groped for a tactful description, and Skan supplied him with an untactful one.

“Nursemaid to the offspring of intelligent animals,” he said shortly. “And I don’t see any reason why Shalaman can’t declare it to be in Makke’s caste and give her the job here and now.”

“Nor do I,” Shalaman said hastily, obviously wanting to get what seemed to him to be nonsense over with. “I declare it. Leyuet, have a secretary issue the orders.”

Leyuet emerged from his trance feeling more like himself than he had since the foreigners arrived. His stomach was settled, his headache gone, his energy completely restored.

And it wasit was a pleasure to touch the soul of Amberdrake, he realized with wonder. As noble a soul as Silver Veiland how ever could I have doubted that? Was he not her pupil? Is he not still her friend? Why should I have forgotten these things?

He did not even express impatience with the amount of time spent on the servant woman, where a few days ago he would have been offended at this waste of his gifts, and insisted that a lesser Truthsayer attend to her.

It would, of course, have been a great pity if anything happened to her, so the female gryphon’s suggestion about how to keep her safe was a good one. But it was an insignificant detail in the greater work of this evening. He and Amberdrake between them had managed to engineer all of it without ever having Shalaman’s honor publicly called into question.

And Amberdrake saved us all from the curses of the godsand on the eve of the Eclipse, too! His relief at that was enough to make him weak in the knees. The disaster that would bethe curses could have persisted for the next twenty years, or worse!

But of course Amberdrake’s forgiveness came quickly and readily; that was the kind of soul that Leyuet had touched.

He simply rested from his labor as Skandranon, Shalaman, and the rest worked out what the next moves would be.

“I think perhaps that we should do more than continue to foster the illusion that I am the chief suspect,” Amberdrake said gravely. “In fact—Winterhart, if you have no objections, perhaps we should also foster the illusion that you and I have quarreled over this, and that you have accepted the King’s proposal.”

Leyuet woke up at that. It was a bold move—and a frightening one. He would have been more concerned, except that he had violated custom and Read the King, and he knew that Shalaman had been truly frightened by his narrow escape, and that he would, indeed, regard Winterhart as purely and without lust as if she was his daughter from this moment on.