Opal had no direct way of contacting Spark Royal; she could only relay a message through Governor Niome in Feliss City. While Annah helped Opal write a note, I went to fetch the school's emergency courier—a seventeen-year-old with the unfortunate name of Wallace Wallace. He was a strapping local farm boy from a strapping local farm, the latest in a line of Wallace Wallaces stretching back two centuries to an ancestor with an unfortunate sense of humor. Like most of his predecessors, the newest Wallace Wallace swore he'd never burden his own son with such a ridiculous name... but considering how consistently his forefathers had surrendered to the weight of tradition, I wondered if our own Wallace-squared would stick to his resolve.

Perhaps he would. This Wallace had a distinction that set him apart from previous generations: a full scholarship at Feliss Academy. He'd earned his place through brains and discipline, not parental wealth. Each year the academy accepted a few exceptional teenagers from the Simka district, without charging a cent for tuition or board. Partly this was a ploy to placate people in the region by helping their best and brightest. Bringing in smart-and-hungry kids also increased energy levels in our classrooms, which otherwise would be populated by well-bred but second-rate plodders who'd grown accustomed to depending on family largesse rather than their own initiative. Added to that, our normal (i.e., rich) students benefited from having floormates who knew the seedier aspects of town—which tattooists used clean needles, which butcher shops sold the best lamb's-skin for condoms, which herbalists kept a supply of jinkweed hidden under the counter. Lastly, the school liked having a few spare hands who could be called upon to run errands in crises... like riding to Feliss City with a message for the governor. It was Wallace's turn to answer the call, which is why I fumbled my way through the pitch-dark corridors and tapped on his door.

He answered immediately... holding a candle and flashing a triumphant grin. The grin faltered instantly. "Dr. Dhubhai!" he said with a surprised yelp.

"Expecting someone else?" I asked.

"No, no," he answered in a transparent lie. "No, no," he said again, in case I missed his guilt the first time.

Considering the circumstances, I didn't have time to interrogate the boy... but my teacherly instincts couldn't help wondering which of our female students Wallace had expected to find knocking at his door. I couldn't remember seeing him with anyone in particular. Then again, the girl might want to keep their relationship secret; snooty elements of the student body considered kids like Wallace to be "peasant charity cases" and would mercilessly snub any high-born girl who sullied herself with a "barnyard beau." Plenty of girls would still fall for Wallace's charms—he was a smart, pleasant kid, good-looking in a fresh-from-the-cow-pen way—but the stigma of his "commoner" background might make a blue-blooded belle keep her feelings out of the public eye. The result: she'd sneak into Wallace's room at 2:00 A.M. rather than openly neck with him behind the stables. To be honest, I didn't much care if Wallace conducted a discreet cuddle session with some duchess/countess/heiress... but a horrid possibility crossed my mind.

"Just tell me," I said, "you weren't waiting for Rosalind Tzekich."

"Rosalind? Of course not. She's taken."

"Who took her?"


By which he could only mean Sebastian Shore, another local boy: son of a successful metalsmith, prosperous by Simka standards but nowhere near the wealth of most students in our academy. Sebastian was a quiet sixteen-year-old who excelled in class but seldom socialized with his peers. He lived in his own head, having little contact with the world around him. When I thought about it, Sebastian might click perfectly with Rosalind Tzekich: both were self-isolated dreamers, staring out that classroom window.

"Doctor," said Wallace, "was there something you wanted?"

I shook off my reverie. "You're the courier on call, aren't you?"

He nodded, not looking happy about it.

"Then get dressed," I said. "You're going to Governor Niome, so wear something respectable. Something warm too—it's cold in the open wind. When you're ready, go to the kitchen and pack food for the trip. Then see the chancellor in her room. Got it?"

"Chancellor's room. Yes, sir." Wallace's face had brightened considerably; on the downside, he was going to miss his midnight tryst... but a jaunt to see the governor obviously struck him as acceptable compensation. He could take one of the school's best horses, see the famous Feliss Government House (home of the largest prison system in the world), and enjoy some time on his own. The city was a good ten hours' ride from Simka—maybe more, depending how snowy the roads were. Wallace would have a pleasant adventure to brag about to his friends when he got home.

"Get going," I told him. "The chancellor will expect you in... oh, twenty minutes." That would give Wallace time to get dressed and packed, plus (if he was smart) a few minutes to write a note apologizing to whichever girl he was standing up.

I've never liked ruining my students' love-lives.


I started back to the chancellor and Annah... then changed my mind and headed for the room of Sebastian Shore. If Sebastian had been close to Rosalind, perhaps he'd visited her earlier in the evening. Perhaps he'd seen something unusual in her room, some indication of an intruder. And perhaps (the thought made me shudder), he was lying dead in his bed with white curds dribbling from his nose. If Rosalind had been infected and Sebastian had kissed her good-night...

I didn't want another corpse on our hands.

Even if Sebastian hadn't been infected, the next few minutes wouldn't be pleasant. I'd have to tell the boy his sweetheart was dead. As a don, I wasn't a stranger to giving students bad news—over the years, there'd been several occasions where I'd had to sit down with someone and say, "We've received a letter from your home..."—but this was the first time I'd have to tell one of my charges about the death of a fellow student. For a moment, I hesitated outside Sebastian's door, trying to compose appropriate words of sympathy in my mind. I failed utterly. In the end, I took a deep breath and knocked before I slunk away like a coward.

Seconds passed. The boy didn't answer my knock.

I knocked again, louder. Still no answer. I told myself Sebastian was just sound asleep; heaven knows, some teenage boys can sleep through anything. But I couldn't help remembering poor Rosalind lying sprawled in her silent room. With my mouth dry, I gave one more knock... then got out my pass key.

There was no wretched smell when I opened Sebastian's door—just the usual fusty mix of unwashed laundry, cheap lamp oil, and apple cores rotting in an unseen wastebasket. "Sebastian?" I whispered. "It's Dr. Dhubhai."

I hadn't brought a lamp of my own and the room was inky dark, curtains drawn to shut out the tiniest glimmer of starshine. "Sebastian," I said more loudly, "sorry to disturb you..."

No response. When I held my breath, I couldn't hear a sound—definitely no snores or rustles from the bed. Feeling nausea grow in my stomach, I moved forward in the blackness, expecting any moment to trip over books or clothes or badminton rackets: the debris that boys perennially leave on the floor. But I found no obstacles until I bumped into the bed itself.

"Sebastian," I said. "Please wake up. Sebastian!"

Not a sound.

I reached into my pockets and found my matchbox. Another chill of déjà vu... but this time, when I lit a match, no ghostly breeze blew it out. The wavering light showed me an empty bed, neatly made, with a piece of paper lying on the pillow. The rest of the room appeared equally tidy—nothing tossed on the floor, every book put away, the desk clear of clutter. I stared around stupidly till the match burned down to the point where I had to shake it out. There was no dead Sebastian here; it looked as if the boy had cleaned up his room, then vanished.

Tonight of all nights, I doubted his departure was coincidence.


Feeling my way up the bed, I found the pillow and the paper lying on it. I could have lit another match to read the note... but I didn't. Instead, I took the page and hightailed it out of the room—locking the door behind me and scurrying posthaste to the chancellor's.

On the way, I couldn't help speculating why Sebastian had left. The least sinister scenario was that he'd learned Rosalind was dead. Perhaps the two had arranged a midnight assignation, like Wallace Wallace and his unknown lady love. Sebastian had gone to Rosalind's room; he'd discovered the girl's corpse; he'd run off in grief and horror. It might have been a shattering experience for the boy, but at least it was basically innocent.

There were so many other possibilities that weren't innocent at all.


By the time I reached the chancellor's room, the Caryatid had arrived... along with the rest of our drinking party, Myoko, Pelinor, and Impervia. When cousin Fatima delivered my message, the Caryatid had sent the girl to round up the rest of our group. "I wanted us all together," the Caryatid said. "For the quest, you know. So we can start right away." From the steely glint in the Caryatid's eye, I suspected she was really thinking, If I get woken in the middle of the night, everybody else gets dragged out of bed too. Motherly though she was, the Caryatid lived by the rule I'm not going to suffer alone. (Which, now that I think of it, is a very motherly attitude.)

While I talked with the Caryatid, Annah sat quietly on the couch, making no effort to converse with the others. She wasn't on bad terms with my tavern-touring cronies; she just didn't have much in common with them. They were all so extravagantly loud compared to Annah... yet Annah was the one who held my attention as she slid sideways on the couch, making room for me. When I sat beside her, she murmured, "You were gone a long time. I..."

She didn't finish her sentence. She didn't have to: as if the words I was worried jumped straight from her brain into mine.

"I had to check something," I said. Raising my voice, I announced to the whole room, "Wallace told me Rosalind had been spending time with Sebastian Shore... so I went to see the boy." I paused. "He's gone. Bed made, room tidied, note on the pillow."

"Uh-oh," said Myoko.

"Dear me," said Pelinor.

Impervia silently crossed herself.

I held out Sebastian's note to the chancellor, but Opal waved it away. "You read it," she said. "Aloud."

Reluctantly I unfolded the paper and looked at the message. Sebastian had scrawled it quickly in low-grade watery ink; still, the words were legible enough.

Dear Dr. Dhubhai:

If you don't know already, Rosalind Tzekich and I have eloped. We'll come back when we're ready, but we just want to be alone for a while. You'll see us again when we're married.

Tell our families not to worry. I know they'll disapprove to begin with, but when they see how much we love each other, they're sure to understand.


After I finished reading, there was a long silence... broken finally by Pelinor.

"Perhaps there's something I'm missing," he said, "but how can Sebastian think he's eloped with Rosalind when she's lying dead in her room?"

Impervia made an impatient gesture. "The boy must have written the note ahead of time. Most likely, he and Rosalind arranged to leave their dorms separately and meet off campus. Sebastian cleaned his room, wrote the note, then headed out. For all we know, he's still waiting at the agreed-upon rendezvous: shivering in the dark and crying bitter tears because he believes Rosalind has stood him up."

"Or," said Myoko, "he's blissfully run off with something that looks like Rosalind but isn't."

I spoke for us all when I said, "Ulp."


Though Chancellor Opal was a master of hiding her emotions, the look on her face was stricken. Her thoughts had to be similar to mine: thinking of the thing in the tobacco field. What War-Lord Vanessa had called a Lucifer.

Pelinor, however, hadn't heard the chancellor's tale. He gave his mustache a suck and said, "Come now, Myoko, that's a tad overimaginative. Impervia's version makes sense. Sebastian wrote the note... went off to meet Rosalind... didn't know she would never arrive. Plain and simple."

Myoko raised an eyebrow. "So it's just coincidence Rosalind died the night she planned to elope?"

Impervia gave a dismissive sniff. "Coincidences happen."

"So do doppelgängers," answered Myoko. She turned to the Caryatid and asked, "Aren't there spells that can make a person look like someone else?"

The Caryatid nodded reluctantly. "Some illusion spells can do the trick... but they're always flawed in some way. They mimic the face but not the rest of the body; or they duplicate the appearance but not the voice; or they do the whole job but last for only a few minutes; or the illusion simply can't be seen by some people—like Kaylan's Chameleon, which fools men but not women..."

"But it is possible," Myoko said. "That's the point. And sorcery is just one possibility." She turned eagerly toward me. "Didn't the OldTechs make androids that were perfect doubles of people?"

I shook my head. "The OldTechs never got that sophisticated. Most of their robots were just boxes on wheels, or big metal arms. The few that did appear human were no more than clockwork novelties: programmed with a set of simple gestures and a recorded speech track, but not enough to fool anyone more than a couple seconds."

"All right," Myoko said, "so the OldTechs couldn't make android duplicates—not during OldTech times, four hundred years ago. But since then, the people who abandoned Earth must have improved their technology. They might be able to make lifelike androids now."

I couldn't help glancing at Opal; her gaze was turned to the floor. Meanwhile, the Caryatid said, "Many things are possible, Myoko dear... but what would be the point? Why would one of our space cousins create a duplicate of Rosalind just to deceive a lovestruck teenager?"

Myoko didn't answer immediately—she was looking in my direction, but her eyes were distant. Finally, she gave herself a little shake and said, "Sebastian is more than a lovestruck teenager. He's special."

"How?" asked Impervia.

Myoko lowered her head. "Sebastian Shore is the most powerful psychic I've ever met."


Psionic folks always terrified me... even petite little Myoko. If her gift was strong enough to lift Impervia, it was also strong enough to reach into one's chest and squeeze one's heart to a standstill. Pinch one's carotid artery. Snap one's spinal nerves.

And that was just telekinesis. Other psychics had different psionic powers. Some were clairsentient, hearing or seeing things at remote distances. Others were telepathic, able to read the thoughts of those around them or (even worse) plant an idea into your brain as if you'd thought of it yourself. Some could artificially arouse emotions; some could induce hallucinations; some could strike you blind. Most, thank heavens, had to concentrate a considerable length of time before they used their power, and few had significant range. Still, they were spooky people... and after a prophecy, a haunting, and a bioweapon, I hated to find there was also a psychic in the mix.

"So," Pelinor said, "young Sebastian has psionic powers. Good for him. We need more psychics to... um... do whatever they do. Government work mostly, am I right? Spying and scrying, et cetera?"

Myoko shook her head. "Only a few work for governors: the empath who sits at Niome's right hand to tell her when people are lying; the telepaths who provide communications between provinces; clairvoyants who spy on a governor's enemies. But most psychics don't end up as provincial officials." She dropped her gaze to her hands. "Most psychics end up as slaves."

"Slaves?" Pelinor repeated the word in distaste.

Myoko nodded. "If they're lucky, they get a gilded cage: working for some rich merchant, a secret advantage in wheeling and dealing. Psychics like that are kept on a short leash, but at least they get some pampering. On the other hand, psychics who aren't so lucky..." She clenched her fists. "They can be kept in dungeons, half-starved and brutalized, because that's the way their owners keep freaks in line."

Myoko glared at us all, daring us to speak. No one did. Pelinor gave his mustache a self-abashed suck, but stopped immediately as it sounded in the silence.

Finally Myoko let her hostility drain away as she lowered her gaze. "I went to a school for psychics. A hidden place that developed our abilities. It was as secure as our mentors could make it... but a few students still went missing every year. Kidnapped. There are ruthless criminal bastards who'll do anything to get their hands on a first-rate psychic."

The Caryatid gave a shiver. "You think that might happen to Sebastian?"

"He's powerful," Myoko replied. "He wouldn't be easy to snatch outright. But if someone created a look-alike of his girlfriend and enticed him to run off somewhere... sooner or later, the look-alike could lead him into a trap, and then he'd be stuck for the rest of his life."

"But Myoko," Impervia said, "how would anyone know he was a psychic? You haven't told anyone, have you?" She gave Myoko a reproving look. "You didn't tell us, for example."

"No, I didn't. This academy can handle only weak little abilities—not powerful people like Sebastian. It was sheer accident he was accepted as a 'local outreach' student... and sheer accident I recognized the extent of his talents. For the boy's sake, I couldn't tell anyone how good he was."

"Then how did these hypothetical kidnappers find out?" Impervia asked.

Myoko didn't answer right away. Finally, with downcast eyes, she said, "I can think of one explanation. Rosalind."

The Caryatid's motherly eyes grew wide. "You mean he told Rosalind and Rosalind told..."

Her voice faded away. After a moment, Myoko sighed. "I made Sebastian promise to keep his powers a secret; but when kids fall in love, they hate hiding anything. If Sebastian confessed the truth to Rosalind, she might have reported it to her mother... and we all know what kind of woman Elizabeth Tzekich is."

Pelinor scowled in outrage. "You mean Rosalind betrayed him?"

Myoko shrugged. "I don't think she wrote her mom and said, 'I've met a guy you should enslave.' But she might have written, 'I've met a guy I love very much, and I know you'll let us get married because he's got these powers that are really special.' "

"But if that's so," Impervia said, "wouldn't the mother just tell the girl, 'You have my blessing, bring the boy for a visit?' Perhaps when Sebastian arrived at the Tzekich home, the mother would throw him in chains and tell Rosalind the wedding was off; but until then, there'd be no need to use force."

"Besides," put in the Caryatid, "the Ring of Knives might kidnap Sebastian, but they wouldn't murder Rosalind at the same time. A mother would never kill her own daughter."

"I've heard that mothers kill their own children more often than they kill anyone else," Myoko said. "But maybe it's not Mother Tzekich at all. Maybe there's a spy in the Ring of Knives who learned Rosalind's secret. Maybe the spy told a rival criminal family, so the rivals killed Rosalind and kidnapped Sebastian."

"Or maybe," Impervia replied, "no one at all has been kidnapped and you're talking pure fantasy."

"Everyone calm down," Chancellor Opal said, holding up her hands to prevent further argument. "Let's gather more facts before we get lost in what-ifs. Myoko, Phil... search Sebastian's room."

"What are we looking for?" Myoko asked.

"Anything unusual. You two know the boy better than the rest of us."

Myoko turned to meet my eyes. I nodded. She'd been Sebastian's psionics mentor; I'd been his don. Between the two of us, we might notice if anything was amiss in the boy's room.

"We'll go," Myoko said.

Opal nodded, then shifted toward the Caryatid. "I'd like you to try a Seeking spell on Sebastian's note. See where the boy is."

"If he's a strong psychic," the Caryatid said, "I won't pick anything up. The more psionic power, the more resistant a person is to Seekings."

Opal gave a ladylike shrug. "Do what you can. As for the rest of you, start searching the neighborhood. Possible places Sebastian and Rosalind might meet. As Impervia says, the simplest scenario is that the boy is out in the dark somewhere, waiting for Rosalind to show up."

The others murmured agreement. Annah, still sitting beside me, glanced quickly my way. An egotistic voice in my head whispered she was sad I'd be going with Myoko instead of staying with her; a more sensible voice told me to stop being a self-centered jackass. Before my two mental voices could start arguing, Opal stood briskly and gestured toward the door. "Go. Be useful. Find something." She paused. "And nobody wander off alone. In case there are shapeshifters in the bushes."



Myoko and I headed for Sebastian's room. We walked in silence the whole way... and I could feel rage building up in her, a seething fury utterly unlike the cheerful drinking buddy I knew. I couldn't remember ever seeing her the least bit angry—not in the middle of bar brawls, not when complaining about the most idiotic of students. The worst I'd witnessed was when she'd walked past the mirror in our faculty lounge and noticed a gray hair on her head; as she yanked the offending strand, she'd embarked on a curse-laden diatribe bewailing the cruelty of a universe that made gray stand out so glaringly amidst "youthful black tresses." Only the initial burst of annoyance had been genuine: the ensuing tirade was comic relief, purely for the benefit for those of us watching.

That was the Myoko I knew. Funny. Fun. Playing off the disparity between her outward appearance (dainty, demure) and her joyfully wicked mind. She was one of those rare women who could truly be "one of the boys"—joking more crudely, swearing more colorfully, belching more forcefully, and always with exquisite timing. Best of all, she never went too far: everyone has seen women act more loutish than men, but only gentle-ladies with a feel for the game can make one laugh rather than wince. Myoko had made me laugh a lot; I'd felt comfortable with her from the first day we met.

But not now. Not with her walking tensely beside me, arms crossed tight against her chest, her mouth a severe line. As if the two of us had just had a fight.

Maybe in her mind we had: the ongoing fight between psychics and everyone else. It wasn't something she ever discussed in public; but now that the subject had been broached, Myoko didn't suppress her long-simmering resentment. Though she'd told us how low-powered she was compared to "real" psychics, she must have lived her life in constant fear someone would decide she was worth enslaving.

Her fear was well-based. Naïve old Pelinor might have been surprised about psychics being treated as cattle; but that just proved he wasn't really a high-born knight. Those of us who'd truly been born under a famous coat of arms knew what powerful families did behind closed doors.

We Dhubhais had always equipped our houses with "resident psychics." They were treated with respect, fed well, dressed well, and provided with suitably eye-pleasing companions—but they were never allowed off the grounds, and one could often catch them staring into the distance, their expressions carefully blank. Other rich families in Sheba mocked us for our softhearted ways. Those neighbors ruled their "chattels" with an iron hand.

Was that what was waiting for Sebastian?

Myoko clearly thought so: that's why she'd concealed the truth about the boy, even from those of us who thought we were her friends. She'd wanted Sebastian safe; and what place was safer than Feliss Academy? No one expected a gifted psychic at a school like ours. If you truly wanted to conceal a person's talent—if you wanted to pretend your powers weren't worthy of attention—the academy was an excellent cover.

Which brought up the question of Myoko herself.

I'd always assumed she was like the rest of us—competent enough to teach students the basics, but an utter mediocrity compared to real professionals. Even a small chore like levitating Impervia seemed to require Myoko's full concentration, not to mention a plenitude of preliminary brow-furrowing. However: after tonight's squabble at The Pot of Gold, Myoko had chatted casually while holding Impervia aloft... and for a brief moment, it appeared as if Myoko wasn't exerting herself at all.

Could she be stronger than she pretended? Could she too be using the academy as camouflage?

Things to think about as we walked unspeaking through the halls.


I was carrying an oil lamp, borrowed from Chancellor Opal. When we got to Sebastian's door, I handed the light to Myoko while I got out my pass key. This broke some wordless barrier between us, because Myoko shuddered and said, "There's something in the air tonight, Phil. Something big."

"Is that a psychic premonition?"

She shook her head. "I don't do premonitions. Just TK. Sebastian, on the other hand..."

"He did premonitions?"

"He did everything," she said. "TK. Telepathy. Remote perception with all five senses. I've never seen anyone like him." She paused. "My teachers at psionics school would say it was impossible."

I gave a weak chuckle. "Imagine that! Teachers being wrong about something."

"Granted. But it's the nature of psionics that..." She broke off. "Phil, you've studied science. Do you know how psionics work?"

"I've heard many theories... but they're all hot air and hand-waving. The only thing scientists agree on is that psychic powers come from outside intervention. Alien high-tech. And sorcery's the same. Someone a lot more advanced than Homo sapiens decided to get cute."

Myoko didn't look at me; she let herself lean back against the wall beside Sebastian's door. "You think the League of Peoples did something? To Earth? To humanity?"

"It's the only sensible conclusion. Maybe they thought it would be a good joke to make human myths come true. Or maybe they thought they were doing us a favor—fulfilling our oldest fantasies. Maybe they had some secret agenda we'll never figure out... but it's no coincidence everything changed at the exact moment they showed up."

Myoko didn't answer; she'd turned her gaze toward the oil lamp, watching the flame's soft glow. Finally, without looking at me, she said, "You know something, Phil? You're right."

I waited for her to go on. She didn't. Finally I asked, "What do you mean?"

"I mean... psychics know. The teachers who taught me—they know exactly what happened." She turned her eyes toward me. "It's a deep dark secret, but..." She shrugged. "Do you want to hear?"

Her voice was nearly inaudible. I said, "Do you want to tell me? If it's a deep dark secret?"

"Sure. Why not."

She was right about there being something in the air. A night for revelations. I fell silent as she began to talk.


"Do you know what nanites are, Phil? Nanotech? Microscopic machines the size of bacteria... or even smaller, viruses, single molecules. You've heard of such things?"

I nodded. OldTech fantasies had predicted nano would solve all the world's problems... provided the stuff didn't destroy the planet first. But before nanotech had progressed beyond a few rudimentary prototypes, OldTech civilization disintegrated to the point where we couldn't even make steam engines, let alone microscopic robots.

"This may surprise you," said Myoko, "but thirty percent of all microbes on Earth today—things that look like bacteria and viruses—are actually nanites in disguise."

"What?" My voice was suddenly shrill: loud enough to wake half the boys on my floor. I lowered it immediately. "What are you talking about?

"Outside intervention, just like you said. Someone covered our planet with nano: land, sea, and air. The nanites are designed to replace natural microorganisms, then work together to make sorcery and psionics possible."

A door opened behind me. The future Duke Simon Westmarch peered out to see who'd been shouting. He wore his stethoscope around his neck, like a medallion dangling over his pajamas. "Go back to bed," I told him. "Everything's under control."

He nodded without a word and shut the door—more proof that this was a night when miracles could happen. I turned back to Myoko. "How could anyone replace thirty percent of all microorganisms without scientists noticing? We still have microscopes; not fancy electron ones, but the best you can get with ordinary optics. When I was at Collegium Ismaili, the biology department examined bacteria every day, and I never heard them mention nanites."

"Two reasons for that," Myoko answered. "First, the nanites superficially resemble conventional microbes. Elementary camouflage. Second, the nanites are smart... at least some of them are. Some are like brain cells, coordinating other nano activity. If the brainy ones notice a biologist getting out a microscope, they tell their fellow nanites to clear out. If worse comes to worst, they send in nano-stormtroopers to crack the microscope lens."

"Nanites are strong enough to do that?"

Myoko put her hand on my arm. "Phil, they're strong enough to lift Impervia. That's how it works. My psionic powers are just a hotline to the local brain-nano. The brains summon other nano from the surrounding environment to act as microscopic sky-cranes... and up Impervia goes."

I tried to picture the physics of how that would work. If lifting Impervia was the action, where was the equal and opposite reaction? I couldn't figure it out and didn't want to display my ignorance, so I changed the subject. "So how did you get this psionic hotline?"

"There are nanites everywhere, Phil—in the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. They get inside us, the same way normal microbes do. Our lungs, our bloodstreams, everywhere. Some drift inside by accident; others deliberately target humans and work into specific areas of their bodies. Particularly into the wombs of pregnant women."

"That doesn't sound healthy."

"Consider it a mixed blessing," Myoko said. "Some types of nano—and there are thousands of different breeds, each designed to perform a specific function—some types target the brains of developing embryos. They embed themselves shortly after conception so they're incorporated into the child's gray matter."

I winced. "How many children are infected like that?"

"All of them, Phil. Every last child bom on Earth for the past four centuries. Animals too—the nanites are everywhere, absolutely inescapable. You have them riddling every part of your brain; so do I; so does everybody."

For a moment, I thought I was going to throw up. "What are the damned things doing in there?"

"Mostly waiting. For instructions."

"From whom?"

"Psychics and sorcerers." She gave me a pallid smile. "Even I don't like to contemplate that fact too long. But how do you think telepaths read minds? It's not tricky once you realize everyone's brain is full of nanites that have been linked into your mental processes almost since conception. They know what you're thinking... and they transmit it to receivers in the telepath's brain. As simple as OldTech radio."

"Simple." I made a face. None of this was the least bit simple. Were all the nanites in my head taking up space that should have been used by brain cells? Did they actually replace brain cells, the same way they'd replaced thirty percent of the natural bacteria and viruses in our biosphere? Were all my thoughts partly running on alien-built nanites rather than regular neurons?

And how did they get enough energy to transmit radio waves? Only one way: they must tap into the body's energy, sucking nutrition from blood just like normal cells. Parasites. Extraterrestrial parasites in the brain. Though I'd lived with them all my life, I still felt close to vomiting. "If we all have these things in our heads," I asked, "why aren't we all psychics?"

"Ah," said Myoko, "there's the trick. The nanites most people have in their brains lie dormant till they receive an outside stimulus... but as I said, there are different types of nano. One particular type—extremely rare—also plants itself into people's brains; but this type has the ability to initiate action. For example, it can tell the nanites in other people's brains to send it signals."

"And that's the difference between a telepath and everyone else? The telepath has one of these initiator nanites?"

"That's it. That's the whole secret." She gave a self-conscious laugh. "Of course, there are plenty of complications." Myoko lifted her gaze to meet my eyes. "Do you know what it feels like when I use my telekinesis?"

I shrugged. "I don't know... maybe like you've got a phantom arm?"

"An arm? Hell, I'd kill for an arm." She rolled her eyes. "You know what I've got, Phil? A phantom knee. My right knee, to be exact. When I picked up Impervia tonight, I visualized tucking my knee under her, then shoving her up, up, up... the feel of it, which muscles would move when, picturing everything exactly. Of course, I couldn't lift Impervia with my real knee—I can't keep a full-grown woman perfectly balanced with just my kneecap jammed against her back. My psychic knee can do things my physical knee could never pull off. But in the end, it's still just a knee; exasperatingly limited. When I think what I could do if I had a hand: the joys of manual dexterity, Phil, the joys of manual dexterity!"

I had to laugh. Myoko did too. "The thing is," she said, "it all depends where the initiator nanite plants itself in a psychic's brain... and how far outward it sends its pseudo-neural connections. My initiator landed in the part of my brain that controls my right knee. As simple as that. So when I focus my attention on my knee in a particular way, the initiator responds."

"Hum." I thought for a moment. "And it responds by sending radio messages to nearby nanites in the air. It tells those nanites to get together and lift Impervia... or to do whatever else the initiator wants."

"Exactly!" Myoko gave my arm a squeeze. "A psychic's power is entirely determined by where the initiator settles in. If it lodges in your visual cortex, you'll be able to see psionically. Maybe you'll be clairvoyant: your initiator can link with nanites half a continent away and see what they see. Or maybe you'll perceive auras... which means your initiator communicates with nanites in other people and presents their emotional states as colors. You might even be able to project optical illusions; your initiator sends images from your visual imagination to receiving nanites in other people's brains. Voilà: they see what you want them to see. There are lots of variations—visual processing occupies great swaths of our brains, and you get different effects depending on where the initiator lands within those swaths."

"I suppose if the initiator lands in a hearing center, you can hear things happening far away... or project sound illusions, or maybe hear other people's thoughts, transmitted by their own mental nanites."

Myoko nodded. "That's the idea. Things get weird if the initiator plunks down in an exotic corner of your mind; there was one guy at school whose initiator lived in his primary pleasure center and he could transmit the most..." She suddenly stopped in embarrassment. "Figure it out yourself."

"Lucky guy," I said.

"No," she replied, "very unlucky. He disappeared one day when he left school grounds. Now he's probably chained in some brothel where he has to make sure the paying guests have a good time... or he's playing gigolo to someone like Elizabeth Tzekich, who'll beat him if he doesn't give her orgasms on demand."

Myoko's voice had suddenly filled with bitterness... and her hand on my arm was an eagle's claw, fingernails digging fiercely through my sleeve. "Come on..." I began; but she gave me a look that made me hold my tongue.

"Don't try to comfort me, Phil. If you do, I might ram you through the wall. It's..." Her voice trailed off for a moment. "The threat hangs over every psychic's head. Always. Forever. The only protection is being too weak to interest the sharks. In a lot of psychics, the initiator attaches itself only loosely to the brain. You get a small intermittent power that isn't much use... or a power that takes a lot of strength and effort to activate. People like that—like me—are usually safe: more trouble than they're worth. But if you have a good strong power..."

"Like Sebastian."

She nodded. "Like Sebastian. Then you'll be a target your entire life... until someone finally gets you." She glanced at Sebastian's door. Her grip on my arm eased and I thought she might be ending the conversation; but I still had more questions.

"How do you know all this?" I asked. "About the nanites. How do you know things that scientists don't?"

"Oh, that. Forty years ago, there was a psychic man named Yoquito—came from a five-hut village near the Amazon, never learned to read or write, died young from chronic tuberculosis... but he had a hellishly powerful initiator in some analytic center of his mind, and he was undoubtedly the greatest genius ever produced by Homo sapiens. He didn't just think with his own brain; he could use all the nano around him like extra neurons. Yoquito wasn't the first person to have a power like that, but he was far and away the strongest: he claimed he could draw upon the power of every brain-nanite in the whole damned rainforest."

"So he was smart enough to figure out how psionics worked."

"He didn't just figure it out, Phil; the nanites literally explained it to him. As if they'd been waiting centuries for someone to ask, and were thrilled they could finally spill the secret. They told him about psionics and sorcery—"

"Sorcery?" I interrupted. "He knew how that worked too?"

"Sure," Myoko said. "It operates through the same nanites... just invoked a different way. Sorcerers don't have initiators in their brains; they initiate effects through gestures and invocations. If you say certain words or enact certain rituals, it triggers the nano to do specific things. Picture the nanites as trained dogs: if you say, 'Sit!' in the right tone of voice, they'll do what you want."

"Or," I murmured, thinking it over, "picture them as library functions in an OldTech computer. You invoke the correct subroutine and the nanites behave in accordance with their programming."

"All right," Myoko said, "if you insist on getting technical. The nanites respond to people performing certain actions... and those actions are intentionally bizarre so the nanites aren't triggered by accident."

"You don't think the aliens just invented crazy rituals so they could laugh at stupid humans dancing naked around a goat's head?"

Myoko nodded. "Maybe that too... but weird magical rituals date back thousands of years, well before sorcery became real. The aliens may simply have designed sorcery to match existing Earth folklore."

She was right—lots of human cultures had developed mythologies about what sorcery should look like, long before nanites made magic a reality. Those myths could easily have inspired the nanite-designers when they were deciding how sorcery would work. "What about the way the Caryatid controls fire?" I asked. "She never performs any fancy rituals."

"She must have when she was younger. When you're starting, you need exactly the right rigmarole; otherwise, you can't catch the nanites' attention. After a while, though, they begin to follow you around and pay attention to smaller and smaller signals. Like a trained dog again: at first you have to say, 'Sit!' very clearly and firmly... but once the dog gets the idea, you don't have to be so formal. Dogs even read your body language and anticipate what you want. The nanites are the same way. Think of the Caryatid's premonitions—they didn't start happening to her until that ritual with the pony and the calliope. After that, the premonitions began to trigger themselves spontaneously."

"And hauntings?" I asked. "The harp in the music room was more nanite activity?"

"Right. Rosalind had nanites in her brain, just like everybody else. Under certain conditions, especially traumatic death, the brain nanites imprint some portion of the dying person's personality on nearby nanites in the air. It's not an accident—the aliens who set this whole thing up wanted to create ghosts, in accordance with human ghost stories. If Rosalind suffered enough emotional turmoil when she died, her nanites were almost certain to create a ghostly manifestation. The ghost isn't the real Rosalind, of course. It's just an artificial reproduction of some part of the girl's psyche: deliberately manufactured for melodramatic effect."

I chewed on that a moment. What I'd seen in the music room had definitely been melodramatic—choreographed for heavy emotional impact. The soft weeping, the harp playing in an empty room, the blood... in a way, it was almost too faithful to the clichés of ghost stories. A real ghost (if there was such a thing) would probably be more original. Still... "These nanites are good at playing out scenes," I said. "Very smart."

Myoko shrugged. "What can I say? There are trillions of the little fuckers everywhere. And they were constructed by aliens who knew a lot more science than the OldTechs ever did. The nanites are smart and very powerful."

"Is there any limit to their power?"

"They're only present here on Earth, so you can't use them to travel off-planet. Apart from that, they seem to up for anything humans can imagine. Transmutation of lead into gold... teleportation... time travel..."

I gulped. "Time travel?"

"Think about it," Myoko said. "How can the Caryatid get accurate premonitions if the nanites don't play fast and loose with time? Information travels from the future back to us in the present. And Yoquito said the nanites could make physical objects do the same thing. I don't know of cases on record... but then, the records would have changed, wouldn't they?"

Ouch. Time travel always gives respectable physicists the screamie-weamies. Not that we're totally convinced it's impossible... but we know enough about the universe to realize just how much of the natural order time travel would screw up. The cliché of killing your grandfather isn't nearly as serious as killing the second law of thermodynamics. "I don't suppose," I said, "your analytic genius Yoquito ever mentioned how to avoid time paradoxes?"

Myoko shook her head. "Yoquito didn't live long enough. When the nanites explained all this stuff, he decided he had to tell someone... and the nanites directed him to a school that housed people with powers just like his. My old alma mater: the school for psychics. It took Yoquito years to make his way out of the jungle and reach the school. After that, he told what he knew, and died from his tuberculosis within a month. One of those cases where a man with a terminal illness keeps himself alive by sheer willpower until he accomplishes what he wants to do. Then he just lets go."

A short silence. After a while I had to ask, "If your school has known this for forty years, why haven't they told anyone else? Scientists would kill for this kind of information."

"That's the problem," Myoko said. "Some scientists would kill for it. At least we're afraid they might. In case you haven't noticed, we psychics don't trust outsiders. The school where I trained has no incentive to divulge the truth, and every reason to play things close to the vest. If scientists understood how psionics worked, maybe they could use that against us somehow. We didn't want to take that risk. Anyway," she said, her voice suddenly brisk, "scientists will find out soon enough. Every psychic who goes through the school is taught what's really happening; when that many people know something, it doesn't stay secret for long. I'm surprised it's lasted forty years."

"As you say, psychics don't confide in other people." I looked up and met her eyes. "Which makes me wonder why you're telling me."

She dropped her gaze quickly. "Because Sebastian is missing. Because he might be in trouble and I want to save him. You're a smart man, Phil, and who knows, maybe if you understand the truth you can use it to help."

"I'll try," I told her. "What did you say the boy's powers were?"

"Everything. As far as I can tell, he's got every damned power in the book. Clairvoyance, clairaudience, telekinesis, telepathy... some more powerful than others, but he's got it all."

"How can that be?" I asked. "Could he have initiators all through his brain?"

Myoko shook her head. "Yoquito said that was impossible. If a baby already has an initiator, other initiators stay away."

"Hmm. Did you ever ask Sebastian to describe what his powers felt like?"

She nodded. "Like the world was filled with happy puppies, eager to do tricks for him. If he wanted something, he asked the puppies and they fell all over themselves to help him out... whether it was lifting heavy objects, displaying pictures in front of his eyes, or telling him the answers on exams. They'd even act without being asked—like once, he almost got kicked by a horse; but the air between him and the horse's hoof suddenly turned into a solid wall and stopped the kick before it made contact."

"Okay," I said. "So the boy's happy puppies are actually nanites. And they want to do him favors: help him, protect him. Maybe the initiator landed in some part of his brain that deals with social relations. Friendships. Every bit of nano on the planet has become Sebastian's loyal pal." I pondered the idea a moment, then made a face. "No: that doesn't sound right. I'll have to think some more." I gave a sideways smile at Myoko. "Though it sure would be nice to have thirty percent of the entire world as my doting chum."

Myoko gave my arm a squeeze. "Sorry, Phil, you'll have to make do with me." Quickly she turned away, toward Sebastian's door. "Let's get this over with, shall we?"


When I'd entered the room in the dark, I'd thought the place had been cleaned up. Now that I had more light, I saw it was not so much "clean" as what the maids called "boy-tidy": clear in the middle of the floor, with clutter shoved against the wall and arranged in balanced stacks. This was still an improvement over the usual state of the room; Sebastian must have spent hours picking things up (or having his nanite friends do the work). That showed the boy hadn't run off on the spur of the moment—he'd put things in order first.

Myoko, standing in the doorway, surveyed the piles of oddments around the edge of the room. "What do we think we're looking for?"

"Clues to where he went," I said.

"Like what?"

"Coach schedules perhaps. Or a note from some priestess willing to many two teenagers without parental consent."

"No one in Simka would perform such a wedding," Myoko said, "and if any kid asked, the church would inform the academy. Opal makes hefty donations to all the local chapels to keep them on our side." Myoko shook her head. "If I were eloping, I wouldn't make wedding arrangements ahead of time; I'd just hightail it to a big city, then look for someone bribable. Heaven knows, Rosalind has enough cash to smooth the way—I've heard kids talk about how much gold she carries. Almost as much as you do."

I thought about that. "It would be nice to know where Rosalind's gold is. Is it still in her room, or has it gone missing?"

"The only way to find out," Myoko said, "would be to search Rosalind's room for her money-belt."

"And entering Rosalind's room," I said, "is an unhealthy thing to do." I turned back to the jumble heaped around Sebastian's dorm. What were we looking for? The boy was too smart to leave obvious hints of where he was going. If we did find a coach schedule with a destination circled, it would likely be a red herring to send us in the wrong direction.

Still, we couldn't give up without looking. Maybe we'd be brilliant enough to deduce where he'd gone from the things he took with him. If, for example, he'd left behind all his warm clothes, we could assume he was heading for the sunnier south.

Either that, or he was a typical teenage boy who didn't think ahead when packing.


Myoko and I began to search: she rummaged through the closets and drawers, while I checked miscellaneous stacks of paper. Five minutes later I was scanning some barely legible history notes when Myoko called, "Phil, can you give me a hand?"

She was kneeling beside the boy's bed. Tucked underneath was a polished wooden case, half as long as the bed itself and thick enough that it just fit between the floor and the bed frame. The case had bright brass handles, gleaming in the lamplight; I grabbed one handle, Myoko took the other, and together we dragged the case out.

There were no markings on the exterior... and no lock either, just a small hook-and-eye to keep the box shut. Myoko slipped the hook and lifted the lid to reveal an interior lined with plush green silk. A light fencing foil lay in a pre-shaped cradle amidst the silk; beside it were three more cradles, empty but obviously intended to hold other swords. Judging by the size of the cradles and the indentations in the silk, I guessed the missing weapons were a saber, a rapier, and a broadsword.

"Pretty," Myoko said, looking at the foil. "Nice workmanship." She tapped her finger on the button at the end of the blade, the little nubbin that prevented the sword from impaling opponents during a friendly fencing match. "Odd that Sebastian would have such a good weapon. I thought his family was poor."

"Only in comparison to the rest of our student body. The Shores run a local metalworks... and they make good money catering to the lordlings of our academy. Custom weapons, repairs, that sort of thing." I gestured toward the case. "When Sebastian was accepted at our school, I'll bet his family gave him a set of their best blades. So he wouldn't feel outclassed by the other kids."

"Hmm." Myoko looked into the case again. "Where are the other three swords?"

"Good question." I ran my fingers over the empty silk cradles. "He probably took one with him—a reasonable precaution if you're wandering the countryside at night. Maybe he brought one for Rosalind too."

"Surely she had a sword of her own," Myoko replied. "People talk as if her mother armed the girl with every weapon under the sun."

"That was the real Rosalind. A false Rosalind might not have access to the real one's arsenal."

Myoko gave a grudging nod. "All right: one sword for Sebastian, possibly one for Rosalind. What happened to the third blade?"

I shrugged. "Maybe he hocked it. He often complained about needing cash to keep up with the other kids."

"He said the same to me," Myoko agreed. "That's why I thought he was poor. But he despised himself for feeling that way, and refused to go on spending sprees to impress what he called those rich nobs."

"But what if he needed money for something special?" I asked. "Like eloping with Rosalind."

"Yes," Myoko said slowly, "he might pawn the sword then. If he needed money to get away. And he'd want to pay for everything himself, without using Rosalind's gold."

I nodded. Sebastian might have been a psychic prodigy, but he was still a teenage boy. Romantic, proud, and stubborn—to prove he was a man, he'd want to finance the entire elopement by himself. So why wouldn't he decide to sell a sword or two?

Again I looked at the box's empty cradles: a saber, a broadsword, and a rapier. Sabers and rapiers were practical weapons, but broadswords were too heavy for anything but ceremonial combat. (Of course, the academy trained its charges in ceremonial combat as well as normal fencing—many of our students were destined for ceremonial lives.)

If I were Sebastian, I'd sell the broadsword first. But where? Not to another student: too much risk someone would blab to a teacher. Selling the sword to a store in Simka would also raise problems. People there knew the boy; if he tried to hock a high-class sword, word would get back to his family. Sebastian was smart enough to avoid such trouble. So where had he...

I smacked my head with my palm. "What?" Myoko asked.

"Those fishermen tonight," I said. "That Divian with the broadsword—he had no idea how to use it. As if he'd never had one in his hands before. And it was a fancy-looking weapon: more ornamental than practical."

"You think he got the sword from Sebastian?"


I closed my eyes to think. The sword was easily worth enough to purchase passage for two on any fishing boat in the Dover fleet. The boat captain involved would demand payment in advance—well in advance—so Sebastian must have gone down to Dover immediately after classes ended in the afternoon. He'd just have time to go to the docks, hand over the sword to pay his fare, then return to the school for supper. Meanwhile... as soon as the boat captain got the sword as payment, he'd send away any crew members who wouldn't be needed for the trip. That would be about five o'clock: plenty of time for the fishermen we'd met to make their way to Simka and get rip-roaring drunk before they showed up at The Pot of Gold.

And why had the Divian been carrying the sword? My guess was that the captain wanted the little blob-eared swamp-rat to sell the blade in Simka—hock the weapon and turn it into cash. Either the Divian hadn't found a buyer, or he wanted to swagger around for a while with the sword in his hand before he had to part with it.

Yes. It all made sense... and the timing held together.

"Let's find Pelinor," I told Myoko. "He saw the weapon close up... and our noble knight knows about swords."


"Quite right," Pelinor said. "The sword was unquestionably from the Shore metalworks. Distinctive etching on the pommel: their top-of-the-line model." He sucked his mustache. "But every sword in Simka comes from Shore's. They're the only weaponsmiths from here to Feliss City."

We'd found him with Annah in the academy's vast stables. Following the chancellor's instructions, our armsmaster and musicmaster were searching for Sebastian... and naturally, Pelinor had wanted to check out the horses: "Just to see if one's missing."

Pelinor was a maniac about horses. He didn't own one himself—he told everyone he was "between mounts"—but when he wasn't drinking at The Pot of Gold or shouting at less-than-eager students not to let their foils droop, he was in the school stables badgering the grooms.

We had a lot of grooms. Every paying student at the school kept at least one horse, and most had more: a hunter, a traveler, a "steed" who looked pretty on official occasions, a war-charger, a pack-animal or two, and perhaps several others of varying colors, to make sure one always had a mount that matched one's clothing. At times, we had more than five hundred animals under the stable roofs, many of them high-strung, and all in need of pampering—heaven forbid if a single stallion showed the least little mange. Therefore we employed an army of stable-staff, all of whom gritted their teeth when they saw Pelinor coming.

Pelinor asked questions. Pelinor gave advice. Pelinor wondered if that roan in Stall 42 was favoring his right foreleg, and if they should add minced chestnuts to the fodder of that pregnant palomino. He was correct often enough that the stablemaster didn't lock the old boy out... and Pelinor was happy to shovel stalls or do other gruntwork, so workers didn't chase him away. Nevertheless, the hands paid for the help he gave; they paid by putting up with the old duffer's enthusiasm.

There were no grooms in sight at the moment: just hundreds of stalls filled with quiet horses. The nearest animals stared at us with equine curiosity—they seldom saw people in the middle of the night, especially people they didn't recognize. One beautiful chestnut gazed at me with particular soulfulness, no doubt hoping I was the sort of person who carried carrots in his pocket. Alas, I wasn't; I was the sort of person who had to investigate a murder.

"So," I said to Pelinor, "could the sword have been Sebastian's?"

"Perhaps. He owned one like that. But so do a dozen other people in town."

"Unlikely for a Divian slave to be one of them."

"Yesss," Pelinor said with another mustache suck, "it does seem strange. A broadsword decorated that much would be quite pricey... and impractical in a street fight. Better to buy a rapier or saber. Then again, the Divian may not have bought the blade himself. He might have stolen it. Or won it playing Beggar-My-Bum."

"I still think the sword was Sebastian's." I glanced at Myoko. "We'd better tell the chancellor."

"We'll come with you," Annah said softly. "We've discovered something too."


She didn't answer. It was Pelinor who said, "Two of Rosalind's horses are missing. Her favorite mare and a nice quiet gelding. And Rosalind's saddle is gone from the tack room. Also the saddle Sebastian used in his riding classes."

Myoko made a face. "How can two kids walk off with a pair of horses in the middle of the night? Don't the stablehands keep watch?"

"The horses weren't taken in the middle of the night," Pelinor answered. "The head groom says Sebastian and Rosalind went riding this afternoon—the same time as every other student." That made sense to me; they probably went down to Dover to pay the captain for their boat trip. "With riders coming and going," Pelinor continued, "none of the grooms noticed that the two children never brought their horses back. On evening rounds, the hands saw the animals were missing; but someone had put notes on the empty stalls saying HORSES ON LOAN. The staff didn't know what that meant, but there was no reason to raise an alarm."

"So Rosalind and Sebastian might have disappeared this afternoon?" Myoko asked.

"No," I said, "they were both at dinner. In the afternoon, they must have taken the horses and tethered them somewhere. Sebastian's a local boy; he'd know hiding places where the horses would be safe. Then he and Rosalind walked back to put those notes on the stalls. That way, they wouldn't have to smuggle out their mounts later on."

"These kids planned ahead," Myoko muttered.

"So it seems," Pelinor said, "but there's one part that bothers me." He was looking toward the chestnut who'd been eyeing me earlier; he might well have been speaking to the horse rather than us humans. "If these students prepared so meticulously, why was Rosalind in bed?" He turned to me. "That's how you found her, correct? So why did the girl go to sleep instead of getting ready to elope?"

We thought about that in silence. Myoko finally said, "Rosalind was poisoned with curds-and-whey. Eventually, she'd start to feel sick... so maybe she decided to lie down. Hoping a rest would make her feel better."

"That doesn't quite fit," Annah said. "When we found her, Rosalind wasn't wearing clothes. Would she undress completely just to lie down? Especially when she planned to go out later?"

Myoko shrugged. "Maybe she wasn't thinking clearly. If the disease was making her delirious..." She stopped. "No, if the disease was making her delirious, Rosalind would just flop straight onto the bed. Too much trouble getting undressed. Unless she was burning up with fever and thought she could cool off..." Myoko shook her head. "That's not too convincing, is it?"

We nodded. Something about Rosalind's nudity didn't add up—one more out-of-place detail to confuse the picture.

"Let's go back to Opal," I said; and because the others didn't have any better suggestions, they followed me out of the stables.



Half an hour later, we were back with the horses: watching disheveled grooms saddle six mounts so we could head off to Dover-on-Sea.

Five of the horses were for those of us who'd been present in The Pot of Gold: Myoko, Pelinor, Impervia, the Caryatid, and me. Chancellor Opal had decided if we were destined to go on a quest, that's what we should do—hie ourselves down to the docks and quest for Sebastian.

Hence, the five mounts. Plus one for Annah. Who hadn't been ordered to accompany us and hadn't said she wanted to go, but was following close enough on our heels that the stablehands assumed she belonged to our party. I couldn't tell if she'd truly intended to accompany us or was just letting herself be swept along—Annah had retreated to her usual shy passivity, silently lurking in the background while everyone else chattered. From time to time I tried to catch her eye... but she had far too much experience withdrawing from the world for me to dent her self-isolation.

It didn't help that the rest of our group were being their noisy selves, arguing over which horses they should take. Of the six of us, I was the only one who actually possessed a mount of my own: a sturdy white gelding named Ibn Al-Hahm. Despite his name, Ibn was not an Arabian—he was an Appaloosa I'd bought when I arrived on this continent. However, his characteristic Appaloosa splotches were small and restricted to his hindquarters; when I was seated on him, he looked much like a purebred white stallion I used to ride on our family estate.

Everyone else in our party had to make do with animals owned by the school itself. Pelinor couldn't bear to buy a mount for himself unless it was absolutely perfect... and if there is such a thing as a perfect horse, it can't be purchased on a teacher's salary. Impervia, of course, had taken a vow of poverty; I wasn't clear on the specifics, but it certainly ruled out expensive possessions like horses. As for Myoko, she claimed she was too small to ride anything bigger than a pony; when asked why she didn't buy a pony, she gave an Impervia-style sniff and said ponies were beneath an adult woman's dignity.

Perhaps she just didn't like riding—that was certainly the Caryatid's excuse. The Caryatid, despite her roly-poly figure, displayed an obsession for walking: to her, horses were fine for pulling plows, but if you wanted to get somewhere, it was vastly more enjoyable to use your own two legs. The rest of us were hard-pressed to persuade her we shouldn't head for Dover on foot... but eventually, under the weight of "Time is of the essence," the Caryatid grudgingly agreed to ride.

At least we all could ride; our chancellor "strongly encouraged" every teacher to learn the basics. This policy was eminently practical—student groups went on numerous field trips throughout the year, whether to Feliss City (where Governor Niome would attempt to charm the brats with talk about "trade opportunities in our fair province") or around the countryside to see notable sights like Niagara Falls, the concrete ruins of Trawna, or just the color of the autumn leaves. These outings had to be supervised... and Opal didn't want any teacher avoiding the job with, "Oh, I can't ride."

Therefore, we all knew which end of a horse was the front, how to cinch a saddle, and when to let one's mount rest. We also rode regularly on the school's private horses to keep our thigh muscles in shape. (I don't know if any out-of-shape rider has actually died of stiffness the day after a long trip, but many have wished they could.) Even the Caryatid went for a canter several times a week; apparently, stints on horseback weren't immoral in themselves, you just weren't supposed to substitute them for walking. As for Myoko, she did look tiny, even on the school's smallest quarter horse, but she never had trouble controlling the animals she rode. If her size caused a problem, the only sticking point was her pride.


We received no formal send-off: everyone else was searching for Sebastian. Opal had rallied all available staff and faculty to scour the immediate neighborhood for signs of the boy. The grooms who saddled our horses were in a hurry to join the hunt—they hung around long enough to make sure we got mounted, then hastened into the night. Heaven knows why they were so eager to blunder through the muddy countryside; maybe they just wanted to get it over with, so they could then return to bed.

Whatever the explanation, we were left alone in the stable yard—dark except for the stars and a torch-sized flame sitting on the Caryatid's shoulder like a parrot. None of us believed this was just a quick trip to the lake. We were embarking on a quest; who knew when or if we'd return?

It was Pelinor who finally broke the silence. "There's no reason to be glum," he said. "We aren't heroes, are we?"

Impervia lifted an eyebrow. "What do you mean by that?"

"Well..." He gave his mustache a suck. "Quests go one of two ways: either the company dies off one by one until the hero is left to save the world single-handed; or everyone else survives and it's the hero who has to make a tragic sacrifice at the end." He looked around at our company. "Since nobody here shows heroic promise, perhaps we'll all come out of this with our skins intact."

"Unless," said Impervia, "God intends to demonstrate that everyone has the potential for heroism. In that case, each of us will be tested to the utmost... and we shall live or die accordingly."

"I'm a teacher," Myoko muttered. "I give tests, I don't take them."

Impervia attempted to blister Myoko with a haughty look. In our holy sister's worldview, no one was immune to the occasional pop quiz administered by heaven.

"Of course," I said, "there's always the chance we won't be bound by the stereotypes of bedtime stories—that things will unfold, devoid of meaning, because we're living in real life!"

Annah, who'd slipped her horse beside mine, gave me the ghost of a smile... but the Caryatid gasped in shock. "Phil," she said, "this isn't real life. This is a quest."

I hoped she was joking; but I couldn't tell for sure.


The main road to Dover-on-Sea was an OldTech asphalt highway, cracked with age and lined with the shadowed hulks of collapsed buildings. Close to town, the buildings were mostly houses: shoddily constructed things, thrown up four hundred years ago when Simka was going through a period of overoptimistic expansion. Armies of aluminized clapboard had marched past the town limits into the countryside, wasting prime farmland; then a few years later, the people in those houses turned tail and ran... most of them heading for outer space, courtesy of the League of Peoples.

The subdivisions fell empty. The townhouses just fell.

I don't think it happened quickly—first the roofs sprang leaks, then the interior wood and plaster began to rot. Birds and mice and carpenter ants took turns nibbling holes for nests. Heavy winter snowfalls made the crossbeams sag; heavy spring rains undermined the foundations; heavy summer thunderstorms blew off shingles and siding; heavy autumn melancholy leached away whatever survival instincts the houses could muster as they slowly crumbled away.

A century of that, and Simka's version of suburbia was fit only for wrens and raccoons. Three centuries more and you could barely recognize the houses at all... but in places, one could still see concrete steps with rusty metal railings leading up to doors that weren't there, and netless basketball hoops standing on poles in the middle of tumble-down trash warrens.

Farther out in the country, the houses were mostly intact: farmers had occupied nearly every OldTech residence and they kept their homesteads in good repair. Admittedly, the houses didn't contain much of their original building materials—everything had been replaced over the past four centuries, except for hardy components like flagstones—but they were still standing in one piece, more or less on the sites where they were first constructed.

Therefore, if you saw a collapsed building in the country, it wasn't a house. It might be an OldTech diner with a paintless tin sign creaking rustily in the wind... or a country church with its spire toppled onto its briar-patch graveyard... perhaps an aluminum barn that once enclosed millions of snow-white mushrooms, still harboring mushroom descendants under heaps of debris.

These ruins were overrun with winter-shrunk weeds—mostly lemon verbena and mint-scented geraniums. The plants were escapees from some garden center four days' journey to the east; they'd been bioengineered for extreme hardiness, and when OldTech culture imploded, the plants had seeded themselves and spread from the greenhouses where they'd originally been developed. Native vegetation couldn't withstand the encroachment: thistles and milkweed and purple loosestrife gave ground before the onslaught. Much of Feliss province was now taken over, anywhere that wasn't kept clear by farmers or gardeners... and on hot summer nights, the tangled smells of lemon and mint would hang thick in the breezeless air.

We rode past it all in silence. There was nothing to say; or if there was, no one wanted to say it. Our horses clopped rhythmically along the age-degraded pavement, pausing now and then when a sound or a scent disturbed them. But nothing attacked us from the darkness—it was still cold enough that coyotes and lynx were mostly hunkered down in their dens, and the few that might be hunting stayed well away from the flame on the Caryatid's shoulder. The sky was a patchwork of clouds and stars with no threat on the horizon...

...until we were a minute away from Death Hotel.


Lovely name, isn't it? Death Hotel. It was a rural landmark halfway between Simka and Dover, one of the few OldTech buildings that was one hundred percent intact. The place was made of granite blocks, carefully chiseled and fitted together into a box-shaped edifice with a halfhearted attempt at a dome on the roof; if that doesn't give you enough of a picture, think, "Big, gray, and ugly." Add to that four centuries of passers-by slathering graffiti on the outside, mostly of the M.G. LOVES S.T. variety, and you've got the idea. At the very front, however, on the wall facing the road, some long-ago hand had painted DEATH HOTEL in big black letters; and over the years, local kids had repainted the inscription whenever it got too faint, in order to preserve the place's "charm."

Death Hotel had a story behind it. In fact, it had many stories, but only one I actually believed. Once upon a time, the place had been built as a mausoleum for some well-off family. Something went wrong—folklore suggested many possibilities, from believable problems like the family going broke, to extravagant hypotheses like a Romany curse or a prophetic vision warning of dire consequences if the tomb was ever used—but whatever happened, no corpse was ever interred within those thick gray walls. Instead, the place became a popular spot for transient workers to sleep while they waited to get hired in the local harvest. Those workers called the place Death Hotel... and eventually one of them painted the name on the outside.

For several years, the hotel grew in fame; on rainy nights, dozens of people took shelter inside, a few sleeping in the wall niches meant for coffins but most just lying on the floor. They never caused any trouble... and most Simka residents were amused by the idea of people sleeping in an empty mausoleum. Alas, a handful of loud-voiced fuddy-duddies called it a "desecration of sacred ground," especially since many of the transients had dark skins or foreign accents. In the end, the party-poopers prevailed upon authorities to brick up the entrances with cinder blocks; and the bricklayers had done such a good job, no one had got inside since.

That didn't end the hotel's popularity with visitors. Folks continued to drop by and write their names on the walls. A few even claimed to see ghosts in the neighborhood. It didn't matter that the place had never contained a single corpse: a mausoleum is a mausoleum even without dead bodies, so why shouldn't people see phantoms there?

Before that night, I'd laughed at yokels who thought Death Hotel was haunted. But after my experience in the music room, I wasn't so ready to smirk... and the closer we got, the itchier I felt. What bothered me most was that we wouldn't be able to see the mausoleum until we were almost upon it—there were tall stands of spruce on both sides that shielded the site, even in winter. For all I knew, an entire un-dead orchestra could be planted on the snowy front lawn, just waiting for us to come into view before they struck up the funeral march from Beethoven's Third.

A hundred meters short of the hotel, I caught myself clutching at Ibn's mane, grabbing so hard the poor horse turned his head to look at me, wondering what I wanted him to do. "Sorry," I whispered, letting go and giving his neck what I hoped was a reassuring pat. Of course, there'd be no ghosts at the mausoleum—as a man of science, I could prove it by probability. The odds of seeing a single ghost must be a million to one, so the odds of seeing two in a single night were so immensely astronomical...

At that moment, something filmy and white streamed down from the sky.


It was a creamy tube of light, glinting with colors like the Aurora Borealis. Green. Gold. Purple. As it shimmered in the darkness, I could see the stars behind: the tube was like glowing milky smoke. It stretched so high it disappeared into the blackness as if it soared beyond our planet's atmosphere—but that was just as terrifying as if the thing were simply a ghost. A ghost could only go, "Boo!" Mysteries from outer space could cause real trouble.

I couldn't help thinking of Opal's story. A Spark Lord. A Lucifer. An Explorer from the galaxy at large.

The upper body of the tube flapped and fluttered like a banner in a stiff wind, but the bottom seemed rooted in place. Though the trees blocked our view, I knew the spectral tube had attached itself to Death Hotel. I could imagine it like a phantom lamprey, mouth spread and locked onto the building's ugly dome; or perhaps the tube was a pipeline that fed ethereally into the sealed-up interior, and even as we watched, it was pumping down a horde of aliens. Or spirits. Or worse.

"Oh look," said Pelinor, pointing at the tube. "Isn't that pretty." Pause. "What is it?"

Nobody answered. The horses stopped one by one, either reined in by their riders or halting of their own accord as they saw the tube twinkling in the sky. The thing fluttered in silence—the whole world had hushed, as if even the horses were holding their breaths. Then, without a whisper, the ghostly tube snapped free of the mausoleum like a broken kite string, and in the blink of an eye it slithered up into the night.

Deep dark quiet. Then, beneath me, Ibn gave a snort that filled the cool air with horse steam. The other horses snorted too, perhaps trying to decide if they should worry or just shrug off what they'd seen. In front of me, Myoko cleared her throat... but before she could speak, an ear-shattering <BOOM> ripped the silence.

I had an instant to register that the noise came from the hotel: like a cannon being fired. Then there was no more time for thinking, as Ibn went wild with fear. He reared up whinnying, nearly bashing into Annah's mare, who was doing exactly the same thing. For several seconds, we were swept up in six-horse chaos, the animals trying to bolt, the humans trying not to get tossed off. My leg was slammed hard between Ibn and some other horse, but I couldn't tell whose—it was dark and confusing, voices yelling, "Whoa!" and "Easy!", horses neighing, Ibn lurching in panic as I tried to hang on.

Somehow Ibn got himself turned around and started galloping back toward Simka, his eyes bulging white. I had no choice but to let him run: if I tried to rein him in, he might rear and throw me off. The pounding of hooves behind me suggested the others were in the same situation, letting their horses run until the first burst of terror burned itself out.

Thirty seconds after he'd bolted, Ibn slowed a notch. He still had gallop left in him; but as I pulled lightly on the reins, he didn't resist completely. He didn't stop either: it took another half minute before he let himself be cajoled to a panting halt. Annah cantered past me, still working to slow her mount—she was always very tentative on horseback, just as in life. The other four, however, had got their animals under control; when I turned to look, they were stopped on the road behind me, bending over their mounts and murmuring, "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right."

The Caryatid was closest, only a few paces away. When she noticed me looking at her, she asked in a harsh whisper, "What the blazing hell was that?"

"How should I know?" Down the road, a cloud of dust or smoke drifted above the treetops: the remnants of whatever made that deafening bang. I couldn't see any light shining on the cloud from ground level; with luck, that meant the explosion hadn't started a fire in the surrounding forest.

The Caryatid was still staring at me, her face paler than usual in the glow of her shoulder-flame. "So," she whispered, "do we investigate the boom?"

"Of course we do!" That came from Impervia, riding up to join us. Her face was set in a grim smile, trying not to show too much enthusiasm. As always, she longed to charge straight into trouble, but did her best to hide it.

"We shouldn't get distracted," I said, knowing I sounded like a rationalizing coward. "Our first priority is Sebastian; is there a good reason to waste time on something that has nothing to do with him?"

Impervia made a scoffing noise. "It's got to be part of the same business, Phil. When was the last time we had mysterious deaths or strange things appearing from the sky? Never! And now they're all happening the same night. Everything's connected, and we have to find out how."

Without waiting for an answer, she turned her horse and kicked it into a trot back toward the mausoleum. Her mount, a gray gelding, showed no reluctance to head in that direction; perhaps the stupid beast had already forgotten the bang that made him panic.

The Caryatid gave me a look. "We can't let Impervia go alone, Phil." She tugged lightly on her horse's reins, and started up the road herself.

Sighing, I checked how Annah was doing. She'd got her mare under control and was coming back toward me. "Are you all right?" I asked.

"Fine," she said softly. "You?"

"Fine, fine, fine."

Pelinor and Myoko were fine too—they'd joined Impervia and were riding toward Death Hotel together. Annah's eyes met mine: a look that probably meant something, but in the darkness, I couldn't tell what. "We'd better keep them out of trouble," she murmured.

I nodded. Together we rode forward.



The air near the mausoleum reeked with a chemical stink, something acrid that made the back of my throat feel raspy.

Our horses wouldn't go near it—we tied them to nearby trees and proceeded forward on foot. Needless to say, Pelinor went with cutlass drawn; Impervia kept her fists ready in a guard position, the Caryatid cradled a flame in her hands; Myoko's hair splayed out from her head like a huge black halo.

I would have pulled out my change-purse, but Annah might get the wrong idea.

Thinking of Annah, I turned toward her, intending to deliver some manly speech of reassurance like, "Stay close, I'll protect you." But when I looked around, she was nowhere in sight. Her horse was tethered with the others; I'd helped her dismount. But now...

Something touched my elbow. I consider it a triumph that I didn't squeal like a castrated piglet. Annah stood beside me in the darkness; but she'd put on a hooded black cloak that faded uncannily into the shadows. For a brief moment, I saw the white of her teeth under the hood as she smiled—a smile far more impish than one might expect from a quiet woman. Proud of herself for taking me by surprise. Then the smile vanished and Annah did too. Though I was staring straight at her, I could barely make her out in the silent blackness.

Surprise, surprise: our pretty musicmaster wasn't just a shy wallflower, she could literally fade into the background. I had to stop underestimating the woman—she was far far from helpless.


Our group moved wordlessly forward. The ground was muddy, but clear of snow; with the mausoleum and surrounding trees acting as windbreaks, the front lawn had been shielded all winter from the brunt of most blizzards. Whatever shallow snowdrifts may have built up over the past few months, they'd already melted in the spring thaw.

As we drew nearer the building, I could see rubble strewn on the far side. Impervia saw it too; she waved us in that direction and hurried her pace. The chemical smell grew stronger—not enough to choke us, but it made our eyes water. The stink reminded me of explosives my friends had made in Collegium Ismaili's chem lab... but I'd never paid enough attention to tell one incendiary chemical from another just by the after-blast odor.

Poor planning on my part.

When we rounded the building's front corner, we saw what the bang had done. Most of the mausoleum's side wall had blown out in a huge detonation, scattering stone and concrete like grapeshot. The spruce trees ten paces away had great ragged holes ripped through them; needles and branches had been pulverized by flying debris.

Much of that debris came from the cinder blocks bricking up the side entrance... but the blast had been powerful enough to loosen the building's granite as well. The entire edge of the roof was gone, exposing steel I-beams that had trussed up the weight of the dome. Here and there, the steel looked partly melted—the bottom lip of the I-beam sagged in places like softened candle wax.

Amidst the rubble, nothing moved. The mausoleum waited, filled with pitch-black shadow.

Pelinor stared at the hole. "Looks like something smashed its way out," he said in his usual hearty voice. I winced at the sound, piercingly loud in the silent night... but nothing attacked Pelinor or anyone else. If our luck was good, whatever had caused this wreckage was gone: stomped off to parts unknown while we were getting our horses under control.

Impervia moved toward the rupture in the wall, obviously intending to clamber inside. "Wait," said the Caryatid; she raised her arm and tossed her ball of flame through the breach with an overhand lob. Half a second too late, I wondered if there might be combustible gases inside... but the original explosion must have burned off anything capable of igniting. The Caryatid's flame ball landed tamely on the mausoleum's floor, merely lighting what there was to see.

To be precise: absolutely nothing.

One might expect the people who'd slept in the hotel to leave evidence of their stay—the usual litter and trash. If so, either it had been cleaned out before the place was sealed, or it had completely decomposed over the ensuing centuries. The floor showed dirt, nothing more. The walls bore splotches in shades of gray, as if they'd been covered with graffiti that had faded over time... but it might just as easily have been mold or lichen. The Simka region was perpetually damp, especially in comparison to the dryness of my birthplace; if there was anywhere on the planet that mold could survive four hundred years of complete darkness, it was here in Feliss province.

Impervia scrambled over broken stone and into the building. She stopped for a moment, looking ahead into the shadows; then she moved forward, with the little flame ball gliding half a step behind her like a curious dog. I watched as she walked the entire length of the crypt... but there was nothing to see, just the bare stone floor and tiers of shadowy casket-niches in the wall. Impervia checked each niche as she passed, but reported nothing: no caskets, no bones, no lurking horrors. From time to time, she even checked the ceiling; I don't know if she truly expected some monster to be clinging to the roof, but if she did, she was disappointed. Nothing above, below, anywhere.

When Impervia had searched her way to the far end of the tomb, she came back quickly with a sour expression on her face. "Whatever it was, it's gone."

From behind my back, Myoko called, "I think it was a woman."

We turned. Myoko stood a stone's throw away, near the edge of the forest. She pointed down at the mud. "Footprints. A woman's boots. They look fresh."

I started forward, but she held up her hand. "Wait. You might trample the trail." Keeping her eyes on the ground, Myoko walked toward us, obviously following the tracks. She got halfway back when she stopped and peered about; she'd reached a spot where the rubble was fairly thick all the way to the mausoleum. At last, she shrugged and gestured toward the building. "Whoever it was must have stayed on top of the wreckage till she got to this point. Then she stepped into the mud. Her tracks are quite clear."

The rest of us hurried to see. When we looked where Myoko pointed, the footprints were easy to discern in the damp soil... and they definitely came from a woman's boots. Fancy, fashionable boots: the heel was a smallish triangle that dug deep into the earth, quite separate from the rest of the sole. It was the closest you could get to a high heel while staying within the bounds of practicality. Even so, such shoes would be better suited for walking down nice clean sidewalks than slogging through country mud. I glanced at the boots of my female companions; they all had much larger heels, choosing functionality over style.

One reason why I liked them.

The footsteps led away from the mausoleum. Impervia followed the trail a short distance, then turned to the rest of us. "You can see it's a straight line," she said, pointing back toward the building, then moving her finger to trace the path to the trees. "After the explosion, our mystery woman must have climbed out through the hole and headed directly for the forest"

"But how did she get inside the tomb?" Pelinor asked. "Hadn't it been closed for centuries?"

"Sealed solid as long as anyone can remember," I said. "Either the woman was inside all along and that thing in the sky woke her up... or else the thing we saw was a conduit bringing her here from somewhere up above the clouds. It funneled her into the interior, straight through solid granite. Then she used a bomb to blow her way out."

"Phil," the Caryatid murmured, "I don't like either of your possibilities."

"If you can think of another, I'm all ears."

She frowned but said, "You're right. Either the woman was already inside the mausoleum, or she got put there by that tube of smoke. Or was it ectoplasm? Milky, see-through... it could have been ectoplasm." The Caryatid shuddered. "Stupid. Why am I deliberately trying to scare myself?"

Impervia laid her hand on the Caryatid's shoulder. "Fear isn't stupid. Fear keeps you alert. But you can't let it stop you from doing what's right." Impervia looked once more at the bootprints and followed them with her eye to the edge of the woods. "The woman's got only a short headstart. And she's heading for Dover-on-Sea. If we follow her tracks, we might catch her before she gets there."

"Then what?" Myoko asked. "Start a punching match with someone who can blast her way through granite?"

"Only if necessary. We'll start by politely inquiring if this woman knows what's going on." Impervia gave Myoko a stern look. "I'm not completely deranged, you know."

"Sorry, Impervia," Myoko said. "I didn't mean—"

"Yes, you did," Impervia interrupted. "You all think I'm too..." She paused, then smiled thinly. "Impulsive. Which may be true. This time, though, I know we mustn't act rashly." Her smile grew more fierce. "But we must act. We've been called." She took a deep breath. "It's so desperately rare that one receives a call, one must seize the moment with both hands."

She spoke with quiet intensity, low but fervent—far from the steely self-control she usually displayed. It was as if she'd finally pulled off her nun's mask, the discipline, the role... and none of us could meet her burning gaze.

"Look," Impervia said, "haven't we all been waiting for this? Something to do. Something that matters. A dozen times a day, I pray, 'God, God, call on me.' I don't care how often my Mother Superior says I have been called, that teaching is an honorable profession, that educating children is vital work... it's not enough. My confessor tells me I lack humility—who am I, a lowly handmaid, to think I deserve something more important? But still I've prayed, 'Choose me, God, use me. Just once in my life, let me do a great thing.'

"And can any of you say," she went on, "you haven't wished the same? Deep in your hearts, don't you long for a calling? A vocation so strong you can't doubt it? The voice of God crying from the whirlwind, 'Your destiny is at hand!' Not just passing the time and keeping yourself busy, but finally, finally, your true purpose. Isn't that what you want? An end to numb mediocrity?"

She glared, challenging any of us to deny it. No one did. How could we? After nights of drowning in bad ale, complaining, bemoaning the pettiness of our existence, how could we pretend we were happy with who we were? Even Annah, standing dark and silent beside me: I didn't know her nearly as well as I'd thought, but one thing I didn't question—she too had spent her life waiting, composing wistful music in empty rooms, waiting, waiting for pure sweet lightning to strike.

Passion. Meaning. Justification.

"All right," Impervia said, "let's not waste time. Get the horses; follow the trail; stay alert." Pause. "If any of you believes in God, this would be an excellent time to pray."

The good sister could obviously pray while walking; without a second's hesitation, she strode back toward our mounts. As for the rest of us...

The Caryatid said nothing; but she had a crazy joy in her eyes, a look I'd only seen once before, when she was cuddling a flame after two beers more than usual. Suddenly she'd started hugging the fire to her breast while her clothes smoldered. Rubbing it against her cheek, kissing it over and over: tears dribbling from her eyes and instantly turning to steam in the fire's heat, a heat so intense her cheeks were red and raw the next day. The only time I'd ever seen fire come close to burning the Caryatid. Now the same expression blazed across her face... and she followed after Impervia, walking, then running, then leaping—over rubble, over puddles, over nothing at all, just jumping for the sake of the thrill.

Pelinor watched the Caryatid leaping, jumping, skipping. For a moment his face was grim; then it softened into a grizzled smile. "Why not?" he said under his breath. "Why the hell not?" His eyes continued to follow the Caryatid as she caught up with Impervia and the two matched step. "There are worse things," he said. Then he smiled apologetically to the rest of us. "There are worse things," he said again. Then, not jumping or skipping, but walking with a quick firm pace, he followed the Caryatid's lead.

Myoko seemed to have been holding her breath; now she let it out and turned to me. "What do you think?"

I shrugged. Just a shrug but it felt strange, as if I were telling some kind of a lie. Feigning cool detachment.

"Yeah, well," Myoko said, turning away. "I always knew it would come." She was talking to herself now. "Sooner or later, it had to. Yeah." She drew in a sharp breath. "Only question was, who would start it: me or someone else? Might as well be me." She glanced back in my direction once more and gave a mirthless smile. "Here we go. Here we go." Then she headed for the horses, walking with her arms squeezed tight in front of her.

Just Annah and me left. When I looked at her, she'd thrown back the hood of her cloak; her eyes met mine.

How can eyes sometimes be so alive?

"Are you ready?" she asked.

"Sure," I answered, "someone has to keep them all out of trouble, so—"

She put her hand on my mouth. "Shhh." Her fingers stayed against my lips. "They're ready. I'm ready. Are you ready?" Her hand didn't move. "Don't make jokes or speeches. Are you ready?"

I was too proud to nod obediently; nor could I shake my head no. After a moment, I took her hand from my lips, then leaned in and kissed her on the mouth.

It felt like a good answer. Apparently, we were all ready.



The stand of spruce beyond Death Hotel wasn't big enough to be called a forest—it was just a thick windbreak separating the mausoleum from the farm fields beyond. Even so, the woman we pursued must have had trouble pushing through, thanks to snarls of undergrowth and drifts of un-melted snow. We couldn't take the horses into those woods; we had to go back to the road and trot to the far side while Impervia followed the tracks under the trees. She came out damp and disheveled, spruce needles clinging to her long black coat... but one look at the taut expression on her face, and none of us said a word.

"The tracks went straight through," she reported, pointing downward. The mystery woman's bootprints were visible in the mud at Impervia's feet. "And look at this."

She lifted the lamp she'd been using to follow the tracks. With the other hand, she held out a few scraggly threads of crimson, frayed on the ends. "I found these snagged on bushes."

The Caryatid shucked off one sleeve of her overcoat and laid her arm close to the fibers. The red of the threads matched perfectly with the Caryatid's crimson body sheath. When she looked up, we nodded in understanding. Centuries ago, the first Sorcery-Lord of Spark designated that particular shade of red as the "Heraldic Hue of the Burdensome Path" (i.e., the proprietary color of sorcery). There was no explicit law against others wearing that color, but nonsorcerers still avoided it. You shouldn't pretend to be something you're not; it's even worse when your presumption annoys people who can cast powerful spells.

"So our quarry is a sorcerer," said Pelinor. "Or rather a sorceress. And a powerful one, if she could blow out the side of that mausoleum." He glanced my direction. "You're the history buff, Phil; was there ever a major sorceress entombed hereabouts? You know the type—wickedly strong, diabolically evil, locked up for all time because not even the Sparks could kill her."

I made a face. "I haven't heard such stories, and wouldn't believe them if I did. The Sparks can kill anyone... and if by some miracle there was somebody they couldn't rip into constituent atoms, they wouldn't just leave her in an unguarded crypt. They'd bury her ten klicks underground, and surround her with the most god-awful traps they could devise, not to mention alarm systems, sentries, and heaven knows what else."

"Enough chat." This came from Impervia, who'd hopped back onto her horse while Pelinor and I were talking. "The trail goes this way. Let's move."

We moved: into the dark muddy field, the horses' hooves making soft sucking sounds through the wet.


The bootprints led in a straight line for fifty paces, then turned toward the road. Those fifty paces must have been how long it took the sorceress to admit that slogging through muck was a waste of strength—the winding road might not be as direct as trekking cross-country, but its OldTech asphalt made travel much faster. Once the sorceress reached the pavement, her footprints left a dirty trail for another twenty paces. After that, the mud had worn off her boots and there was nothing for us to follow.

At least we knew which direction she'd gone: toward the lake and Dover-on-Sea, the same way we'd been riding before we got sidetracked. We headed forward with all due haste... which wasn't too quick, given that the horses had to move carefully to avoid potholes in the road. It didn't help that we were traveling with minimal light to prevent the sorceress from seeing us; all we had were candle-sized flames tight to the ground, guided by the Caryatid at the speed of a shuffling walk.

In this manner we proceeded—silently peering into the darkness. Each time we rounded a bend my nerves would tighten, expecting to spy the sorceress ahead... but nary a sign did we see of her, ever. She too must be traveling in near darkness: walking fast, perhaps even jogging, and always keeping at least one bend farther in front.

Thus it continued all the way to Dover.


Dover-on-Sea is several hundred kilometers from the nearest ocean. The so-called "sea" is actually Lake Erie, entirely fresh water... for a sufficiently loose definition of the word "fresh." (Lake Erie is actually quite clean these days, now that it isn't being poisoned by run-off from OldTech mega-cities; but the people of Simka love to infuriate Doverites by pretending the lake is still a stinking cesspool. One of those regional rivalry things.)

Dover's harbor is the center of a thriving fishing industry and home to what the town council calls the largest inland fleet in the world. I view that claim with suspicion—the councilors have been known to invent spurious accolades ("Voted the prettiest village on the Great Lakes" or "Universally regarded as the best source of handicrafts in all Feliss"). The council then disseminates these accolades at genuine tourist attractions like Niagara Falls in an effort to attract gullible visitors to Dover's overpriced "country boutiques." Nevertheless, Dover's harbor is filled with a huge bevy of boats... many of which catch fish only one day in ten. The rest of the time, they devote themselves to grand-scale smuggling.

Dover-on-Sea is definitely the Smuggling Capital of Feliss province... though the town council never mentions that distinction in their advertising. Each time Governor Niome tries to stimulate the provincial economy by taxing imports, the benefits are first felt in the back streets of Dover: each new tax creates a new line of business for the smugglers. On any given night, so-called "fishing" boats drop anchor in shadowed inlets along the nearby shore, offloading contraband liquor and linen, not to mention all manner of illegal substances from narcotics to necromancy aids.

At least, that's the gossip I'd overheard in sordid places like The Pot of Gold. I had no actual proof of unlawful activity, or I would have been obliged to tell the proper authorities. Assuming I could find some customs agent who wasn't in the pay of the smuggling cartel. Also assuming I didn't care if I suffered some nasty retribution. The smugglers wouldn't try to break my legs, but I would never again be allowed to buy the extra-special "handicrafts" available to "favored customers" in the back rooms of Dover's aforementioned "country boutiques."

At the very least, no more peach-scented soap for Gretchen Kinnderboom.

Who, incidentally, lived in Dover-on-Sea. Gretchen owned a mansion on the lake (or rather on the bluffs overlooking the lake, with a canopied walkway down to the water) where she sponged off her family fortune and allowed me to visit when she had no one better to do. Our relationship was mutually nonexclusive; but like most people in an "open" arrangement, I tormented myself that she was laughing behind my back as she rutted like a maniac mink. I could picture her bedding a different lover every night, turning to me only when a scheduled beau was forced to cancel because he had to sail to Amsterdam to corner the market in diamonds... whereas I passed my nights getting drunk with platonic "chums" like Myoko, and inventing fantasies about women throwing themselves at me (including Annah and every other eligible female who passed within reach).

Admittedly, something was developing on the Annah front. Maybe. If I wasn't misconstruing the situation. And maybe the next time Gretchen sent me a peremptory message (Tonight, 10:00, and for god's sake, don't wear that sweater), I'd have the backbone to answer, "Sorry, I'm busy with someone else."

All of which assumed I'd survive the next few hours. It'd be just my luck to get killed before I could brush off the exalted Fraulein Kinnderboom at least once.


By the time we entered Dover's minuscule "business district," even Impervia admitted we'd lost the sorceress. We'd never caught a glimpse of our quarry... and once she'd reached town, she could have gone any number of directions. To the docks, for example: either the "pretty" tourist docks, dotted with food stands, craft shops, and music halls, or the real docks with their omnipresent reek of small-mouth bass. Our sorceress might also have headed toward the palatial beach houses in Gretchen's neighborhood, or the more modest residences belonging to fisherfolk and shopkeepers. For that matter, she might have left Dover entirely, taking the lakeshore highway east or west to destinations unknown.

We therefore stopped at the town's main crossroads to discuss our next move... only to have the discussion cut off by Impervia saying, "Here's what you're going to do."

Dictatorship is so efficient.

Pelinor, Myoko, and Annah were dispatched to the fishing docks in search of anyone who'd seen Sebastian, the sorceress, or the Divian with the sword. Impervia, the Caryatid, and I would make inquiries at inns and taverns. No one liked that we were splitting up—Annah met my gaze with owlish regret and the Caryatid stared similarly at Pelinor (hmm!), while Myoko took me by the arm, squeezed my hand, and whispered, "Don't let Impervia get you into trouble"—but none of us had the nerve to argue, or could suggest better arrangements. With whispered good-byes and fervent last glances, our two trios went their separate ways.


Three-fifteen by my pocket watch—not the best time for visiting rum-holes, especially in Dover-on-Sea. All decent establishments were closed up tight as a tom-tom: nobody awake except for whichever stablehand was stuck with the midnight shift, watching for horse thieves. Surprisingly, all such stablehands seemed to be avid readers of penny-dreadfuls, the kind where no self-respecting hostler will speak until given a handful of silver. I had plenty of cash for such shakedowns... but with Impervia watching, there was no point reaching for my coins. She didn't believe in paying for information when others should supply it "out of the goodness of their hearts"; she did, however, believe in the threat of violence, using fists or the Caryatid's candleflame. Her violence led precisely nowhere, since none of the stablehands we browbeat had seen anything of relevance.

This left us to investigate establishments which were not decent: hole-in-the-wall taverns and fleabag inns. Places frequented by folks in murky professions where 3:15 is a regular working hour. Such people do not take kindly to questions; and Impervia was incapable of being diplomatic.

Ergo, she barged into a dive called The Buxom Bull and glowered at the patrons therein. She did not speak; perhaps she was watching which patrons guiltily averted their gaze. As for the assemblage of hard-bitten men and hard-biting women, they showed no surprise to see a nun enter the premises. Either they were too jaded to care, or else Buxom Bull patrons were used to "ladies" whose jobs occasionally required them to dress in nun's habit.

The inn's clientele were not so blasé about persons dressed in sorcerer's red. Since the Caryatid wore a plain black overcoat, her crimson body-sheath was not immediately visible; but the tavern was hot and stuffy, filled with people who spent their days in hard physical labor on boats reeking of fish, so the Caryatid shucked off her coat as soon as she came through the door.

That caught everyone's attention.

Most of the tavern was dark—business would suffer if customers could actually see what they were drinking. However, there were three bright oil lamps near the door to let management give the once-over to whoever entered... in case any newcomers were waving pistols, swords, or badges. Therefore, everyone in the taproom could see the Caryatid's outfit as soon as she revealed it; and within seconds, every drink-slurred conversation faded to a strained silence.

Impervia gave an offended sniff that the onlookers could possibly be more impressed by a chubby little sorceress than a lean mean Magdalene. She recovered quickly and spoke to the crowd in her usual piercing tones. "Ladies and gentlemen... using the terms loosely..."

I gave her a warning nudge. "Be nice. We want answers, not bloodshed."

She glared at me, then returned to addressing the room. "We're teachers from Feliss Academy. One of our students has run off tonight—"

"She's upstairs blowing my brother!" a male voice shouted from the back corner. The crowd laughed.

"Very amusing," Impervia said. "However, the student we're looking for is a sixteen-year-old boy..."

"He's upstairs blowing my other brother!"

More laughter.

"How nice for your brothers," Impervia said. "It must be a pleasant change from paying you to do it."

"Oh yeah?" In the back corner, the man who'd been yelling witticisms jumped to his feet: a surprisingly handsome fellow of Chinese extraction, black hair, slight but sturdy. He wasn't especially imposing at first glance... but I'd seen enough fights to know that looks can be deceiving. Big burly types can sometimes crumple after a single punch, while slimmer middleweights can turn out to be as tough as terriers. The Caryatid, standing close by my shoulder, knew the same thing; in a low voice, she told Impervia, "Be careful."

"Don't worry," Impervia said. "I have a plan."

"What kind of plan?"

"I'll make a show of strength. To loosen the tongue of any patron who has useful information."

"Provided it doesn't loosen your teeth instead."

Impervia gave the Caryatid a withering look. Then she turned back to the man... who was attempting to barge through the crowd in an angry rush, but had trouble weaving between the tightly packed tables. Though he wanted to appear livid with outrage, I could see he was trying not to jostle people as he pushed past them. That boded well for Impervia. She wasn't facing a hot-tempered brawler; it was only a man who was acting hot-tempered, as if he wanted to impress the assembled spectators.

When the man finally reached Impervia, he stopped in front of her and opened his mouth to say something. I don't know what the words would have been. A threat? A demand for an apology? The truth will remain a mystery... because Impervia grabbed him by the lapels, swung him off his feet, and slammed him down on a nearby table top.

"Good evening," the good sister said. "My name is Impervia. What's yours?"

The man was slow to answer, maybe because his collision with the table had knocked the wind out of him. Impervia lifted him slightly, then slammed him down on the table again. "Your name?"

"Uhh... uhh... Dee-James. Dee-James Mak..."

"Well, Dee-James Mak, I've told you what I'm here for. A boy is missing from Feliss Academy. Have you seen him?"

Dee-James shook his head.

"Do you know anyone who might have seen him?"

Dee-James shook his head again.

"The boy might have booked passage on a boat. Do you know any boats that left harbor tonight?"

"N-no," said Dee-James.

"Who would know something like that?"

Dee-James didn't answer. Impervia thumped him against the table again. "Who would know?"

"Uhh... uhh... Hump."

"Who is Hump?"

"Me." The single word came from the table where Dee-James had been sitting, far in the shadowy corner. A chair scraped across the floor and thudded into the wall. A man rose slowly to his feet—an extremely large man. Because of the darkness, I couldn't see details... but size is size, and this man's size was intimidating.

Except, of course, to Impervia. "Yes," she said, "you certainly look like a Hump." She let go of Dee-James, who remained sprawled on the table. "Mr. Hump, would you care to tell us what we want to know?"

"Get fucked."

"I've taken a vow against that."

"Vows were meant to be broken," Hump said.

The good sister shook her head. "I may break your arms or your kneecaps, but never my vows."

"Impervia, shut up!" the Caryatid whispered.

"Don't worry," Impervia whispered back. "This is still my show of strength." She raised her voice. "Well, Mr. Hump?" She spoke in her best Intimidating Teacher tones. "Do you have any answers for me? Or is your mind a blank? Have your thoughts gone dry? Is that it? Are you a dry Hump?"

For a moment, the tavern went utterly silent. Then someone snickered. The noise was immediately stifled, but similar choked laughter sounded all around the room.

"Ah jeez," the Caryatid muttered. "That did it."

She was right. Growling obscenities, Hump kicked his chair over and began lumbering forward with murderous intent. He showed none of the qualms that Dee-James had about shoving people and furniture out of his way. Folks who got beer dumped in their laps only made soft damp gasps; they knew better than to complain. Considering that the ale-drenched people looked tough as nails themselves, the behemoth stomping our way must be the meanest ass-kicker in the bar.

With the possible exception of Sister Impervia. She turned to the Caryatid and me. "See? My plan is working."

I didn't feel much reassured. As Hump came closer to the light by the door, I could see he was no drunken fisher-lout, all blab and no balls—he virtually had enforcer branded on his forehead, not to mention tattooed on his knuckles and etched across his sharply filed teeth. He was a mean-eyed sneer-faced bruiser, dressed in leather that he probably ripped off the cow with his bare hands.

Considering how many Doverites took part in smuggling, it required someone special to keep them in line: someone so terrifying, nobody would dare skim the take or turn crown witness for the contraband cops. I conjectured that Hump was the man who cracked that whip... and for the sake of his bad-ass image, he couldn't let Impervia belittle him without reducing her to a bleeding pile of bones.

The good news was that he'd fight on his own; with his authority challenged by a single woman, he couldn't possibly accept help from anyone else. The bad news was he didn't need help: he measured a shaved head taller than Impervia and bulged twice as wide, but his bulk looked more muscle than fat. A man that big was apt to be slower than Impervia, but his extra reach, mass, and muscle-power made up for his lack of speed. Featherweight boxers are faster than heavyweights, but you don't see them taking on the big boys in title bouts.

So: Hump versus Sister Impervia for the championship of Dover. The Buxom Bull's tapman didn't say a word about taking the fight outside; the tapman, in fact, had abandoned his post, disappearing through a back door. A lot of patrons were bolting too, not even pausing to snatch up their tankards. The only exception was Dee-James, still lying on the table. Now he sat up and said with foolhardy but admirable courage, "Aww, c'mon, Hump, this is nothing. Let's just get out—"

Hump grabbed a tankard off a table he was passing and hurled it at Dee-James's head. The smaller man ducked and shut his mouth... but he stayed where he was.

That made Dee-James one of the only people who hadn't evacuated Impervia's vicinity. The others were the Caryatid and yours truly. The Caryatid held a candleflame in her cupped right hand, but looked reluctant to use it. If Impervia beat the enforcer in a fair fight, the crowd would show respect; if we stooped to sorcery, the bar patrons might attack en masse. Your average Dover sot bears the same enlightened attitude toward sorcery as the torch-waving peasants outside Castle Frankenstein.

As Hump passed the last table in his way, he picked up a chair and hurled it at Impervia's head—a traditional move, the redneck equivalent of a martial artist bowing to his opponent before a match. Impervia accepted the gesture in a similar spirit: she caught the chair in mid-flight and swung it straight back. If I may translate this body language into something more verbal, it went roughly as follows:

Hump: Good evening, sister. I believe we should consider chairs to be admissible weapons in our forthcoming contest.

Impervia: Very well, sir. I accept your proposal and will demonstrate my agreement in the most direct terms available.

Impervia had grabbed the chair by the legs... and it was a good solid chair of good solid wood, chunky enough to withstand the rigors of The Buxom Bull (e.g., lard-assed drunks unacquainted with treating furniture gently). However, when she slammed the chair into Hump using a hard downward swing, he barely noticed—he took it on one arm raised to protect his head, then simply drove forward, chair and all, straight into Impervia. She nearly got trapped between the chair and the wall behind her; but she threw herself sideways, just slipping clear before the chair struck the plaster with a chip-spraying whomp.

Hump tossed the chair behind him, presumably to keep such weapons out of Impervia's reach. Bare fists gave him an advantage. Then again, Impervia wasn't ready to get within punching range; instead, she lashed a kick at the enforcer's forward knee, barely missing as he jumped back.

They both had their hands up in guard position now, Impervia's hands open, Hump's hands closed. If I knew anything about martial arts, I could tell you what that said about their fighting techniques: "Ah yes, Impervia's open hands indicate the softer style of kung fu, while Hump's closed fists are more reminiscent of hard-style karate." But I don't know what I'm talking about, and anyway, there was no time for detailed analysis because Hump bulled his way forward, bellowing profanities.

He must have expected Impervia to retreat—no doubt he was used to folks running, the common response to a huge man yelling, "I'll rip your fucking head off!" and other such endearments. The good sister, however, subscribed to the easier-said-than-done philosophy of Use your opponent's force against him: if someone charged her, she charged forward too, so her strikes combined the speed of herself and the attacker. Of course, she didn't go straight head-to-head, but rather off at an angle: veering to eleven o'clock, and throwing a ridge-hand to Hump's nose as she went past.

I could hear the snap of gristle as the nose broke; but I could also hear a "Whoof!" from Impervia at almost the same instant. Hump had caught her with something as she sped by, an elbow or punch I hadn't seen. It connected somewhere on her torso: solar plexus, floating ribs, something like that. The hit wasn't enough to take her out, but it certainly didn't do her any good; she spun away fast, trying to retreat so she could catch her breath.

Hump had no intention of giving her a break. His eyes were watering from the crack on the nose, and his view of the world had to be blurred with tears; still, he knew where Impervia was because he barreled toward her, hollering the ever-popular, "Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!" Impervia heard him coming and straightened up fast... either through sheer force of will or because she wasn't quite as breathless as she seemed. (She sometimes faked injuries to put opponents off guard—a certain type of man turns careless if he thinks he's drawn blood.)

So Impervia was ready for the bleary-eyed enforcer. He popped a kick at her knee—not serious, just a distraction—then came down hard with his kicking foot, hoping to crush Impervia's toes. Simultaneously, his hand lashed out at her head, the punch timed to coincide with his toe-stomp. It looked like the kind of combination you'd practice in a gym, feint-kick to foot-slam with coordinated cross to the face.

Too bad for Hump that none of his strikes connected.

Impervia parried the first kick with her own leg, knocking Hump's kicking foot to one side. That meant Hump's stomp came down nowhere interesting: on bare floor instead of the good sister's instep. At the same time, she used a high block to deflect the punch over her head (a move made easier by the enforcer's height, since Impervia could slip under his shoulder). Finally, she delivered a strike of her own—a palm-heel driving hard under Hump's chin to snap his head back, then raking her fingertips down the man's face in a move she called the Tiger's Claw. This wasn't, as you might expect, a scratching maneuver intended to draw blood; Impervia kept her fingernails almost invisibly short, so she had nothing to scratch with. It was more a gouging action designed to wreak havoc on soft tissues like cheeks and eyes... not to mention Hump's nose, which had already taken one nasty hit. If the nose wasn't completely broken before, the Tiger's Claw finished the job, shifting the nasal position several centimeters to the left and rearranging all adjacent facial features.

Herewith, another translation from body language:

Hump: Oh goodness gracious me!

Impervia was close to the enforcer's body, a dangerous place to be even when your opponent is half-blind and reeling with pain. I wondered if she'd risk staying there long enough to deliver a few more whacks or if she'd withdraw before she got cracked by the man's wild flailing. Impervia chose to disengage: not going backward but continuing forward, past Hump's back. As she went, she snapped a low kick behind her in the general direction of Hump's right leg. I couldn't tell whether she was trying to buckle the knee or to hit one of the femoral nerve points she swears will induce an instant charley horse if struck correctly. Either way, she missed... probably because she was distracted by a sudden ripping sound as Hump's leather jacket sleeves burst open from shoulders to wrist.


Impervia took cover, diving over a nearby table and kicking it behind her as a defensive wooden wall. I don't think she knew what had happened—she just wanted to get out of the way till she figured out what the ripping noise had been. A weapon hidden up Hump's sleeve? Some kind of concealed pistol? Hump was just the sort of man who'd carry extra "protection" to whip out when things didn't go his way. He'd already lost the fight; yes, he was still on his feet, but Impervia had hurt him enough that she could now whittle him down. Kick at his legs from a distance, try hitting him again with a chair... she had plenty of options, and with his damaged nose, he couldn't see well enough to fend off everything. From Hump's point of view, it was time to play his hidden cards.

In this case, said cards were razor-sharp spines growing out of his arms. Sharp enough to shred tough leather as they sprouted bloodily from his skin.

They reminded me of spikes on a sea urchin: organic white spurs, even if they were the size of the studs on a morning-star. Definitely not some strap-on weapon—these were part of the man himself, rooted in place by sorcery, surgery, gene splicing, or all three. The physiology that let the barbs extend and retract might be fascinating to study under more detached conditions; but at the moment, all I needed to know was that they were big, lethal, and heading for Impervia.

The good sister muttered something, possibly a quick prayer; but her words were drowned out by cries and curses from others in the room. Up till now, the patrons had been hiding in the shadows, staying out of the fight but watching keenly all the same—bar brawls no doubt passed for high entertainment in The Buxom Bull. However, a man with spikes running the length of his arms seemed more than the crowd could stomach. Amidst yells of panic, I caught words like "Demon!" and "Witchcraft!"... which brought to mind more images of peasants, torches, and Gothic castles after dark. Some night very soon, Hump might find himself waylaid by a mob who didn't like freaks in their midst.

But the mob wouldn't convene in time to help Impervia—they were too busy scuttling for the exits. Meanwhile, Hump treated us to his own show of strength by slamming his right arm into a table. The spikes bit deep into the wood, spraying splinters. When he lifted his arm, the table rose too, as if attached to the man by nails... but he clenched his fist and the spines retracted, releasing the table and letting it fall with a thump.

"Now you," Hump said to Impervia. His voice was low and controlled—no screaming "Bitch!" now, just pure focused malice. Impervia's face was focused too: not the grim smile she usually adopted for bar fights, but something more somber. I don't think it was fear; it looked more like finality.

"As God wills," she said.

She was close to a chair, so she threw it. Just something to keep Hump busy; in the time he took to knock it aside, she was halfway toward the bar. The path was clear of bystanders—people were stampeding out both doors, and even through windows (smashing out the glass with hastily swung tankards). Only Dee-James, the Caryatid, and I stayed where we were... rooted to the spot like scared rabbits, hearts pounding, barely able to breathe.

When Impervia reached the counter, she vaulted over with gymnastic ease and grabbed two bottles of high-proof liquor. One was cheap rum distilled in Feliss City; the other was something colorless in clear glass, gin or vodka, maybe schnapps. Both bottles were almost full. Impervia yanked the corks with her teeth, one after the other, then threw them full in Hump's face.

He hadn't been standing still through all this—he'd been bashing his way toward the bar, kicking furniture out of his way rather than going around. When the bottles came spinning his way, he swatted them aside with his hard-spiked arms. The rum bottle was simply deflected (splashing rum as it flew), but the clear bottle shattered against his bony spikes, spraying glass shards and hooch in his face. Hump grimaced, but didn't seem hurt. In fact, he was wearing an "Is that the best you can do?" smile when Impervia reached for an oil lamp sitting beside the beer taps.

It took Hump a moment to realize he was damp with flammable alcohol. He charged at the same instant Impervia grabbed the lamp and smashed its glass chimney on the bartop. Amazingly, the lamp flame didn't go out... but then, one should never be surprised by the behavior of flames when the Caryatid is close at hand. I don't know if our sorcery teacher really did keep the fire going by means of hocus-pocus, but the lamp continued to burn, even as Impervia hurled it full in Hump's face.

The enforcer had no time to duck. His reflexes were good enough to shield his face with one arm, but that simply meant the lamp stuck sharp spikes instead of anything softer. Smash. The alcohol on his skin combined with flame and lamp oil to ignite with a gusty whoosh: a blue halo burst around his head and shoulders.

Beside me, the Caryatid murmured, "Pretty!"

Though the fire was searing hot, Hump didn't let it faze him. A man of blazing determination. Even Impervia was taken aback by his stubbornness—she stared in surprise a dangerous half-second, giving Hump time to get closer. Nothing separated the two of them now except the bar-top itself. Hump threw himself forward onto the counter, his hands streaked with fire, the spikes on his arms slanting toward Impervia as if they were hungry for blood. In the cramped space behind the bar, she didn't have room to dodge. Spikes and flames came straight for her. Nothing to do but tuck tight, arms in front of her head, the defensive tortoise position of a boxer who can't do anything but ride out a flurry of hits...

Then suddenly, everything stopped. The world froze as motionless as a painting. Hump in mid-lunge, spikes less than a hand's breadth from spearing their target. Flames around him snuffing out as if smothered. Impervia frozen too, like a bug in invisible amber. The Caryatid leaning forward, her mouth open slightly. Dee-James suspended a short distance off the floor—he'd been rolling off the table, preparing to run elsewhere. Even I was struck inert, not paralyzed but simply trapped, as if the air around me had turned rock-solid. It held me encased, no wiggle room at all. Breathing was like sucking wind through a woolen blanket.

Behind me, from The Buxom Bull's front door, somebody crooned, "Quiet now... everyone quiet. Hush-a, hush-a, all fall still."

It was a woman's voice, lilting softly as if singing a baby to sleep. I couldn't turn my head to look, but I guessed we'd found our mystery sorceress.



She walked forward, <TIP>, <TIP>, <TIP>: as if she were up on her toes, trying to make as little noise as possible. The shy tread of a mousy person... but when she came into view, there was nothing shy or mousy about her.

She was the most beautiful woman I'd seen in my life.

I mean this literally—she was an exact double of my cousin Hafsah at age eighteen, and teenaged Hafsah was the most exquisite woman I've ever known. The last time I saw Hafsah she was still quite lovely, though approaching forty and uninterested in the draconian regimen required to preserve great beauty into middle age; but at eighteen, Hafsah was monumentally breathtaking... and I was a moonstruck ten-year-old whom she spent time with because my puppy love amused her. Sweet indulgent Hafsah was the pinnacle of feminine beauty and I would never meet anyone who could make my heart pound so fast.

We are all prisoners of our ten-year-old selves.

Now that I'd reached thirty-five, one could wonder why my tastes hadn't matured... especially since I knew eighteen-year-olds were not the amazingly sophisticated creatures I once believed them to be. But the woman tiptoeing into The Buxom Bull was living proof I hadn't outgrown my boyish infatuation; I saw her as Hafsah, the teenaged Hafsah, and that meant my beautiful cousin still had a smiling stranglehold on my psyche.

What am I talking about? Sorcery: a well-known spell called Kaylan's Chameleon of Craving. (Mage Kaylan was superb at research but a lowbrow hack when it came to naming his enchantments.) In scientific terms, the spell must have been caused by nanites in my brain stimulating whatever set of neurons encoded my ideal of feminine beauty. I saw what the nanites told me to see—the woman most guaranteed to arouse me.

Creating such an illusion had to be a complex neural process, but the result was utterly simple: when Kaylan's Chameleon was cast on a woman, every man viewed that woman as the embodiment of his personal lust. If a man was entranced by breasts, he saw mammaries of his favorite size, shape, and degree of gravitational impossibility. If he adored auburn hair hanging creamy smooth down to the ankles, that's what he saw... and what he felt too, if he ran his fingers through the tresses. If a man didn't pant after women, he saw another man... or a child, or a high-heeled shoe. And if a man dreamt of his cousin Hafsah (or his sister, his mother, or that nanny who used to spank him), Kaylan's Chameleon could be a real eye-opener.

Despite its vagaries, the Chameleon was one of the most popular spells in the world—a sure moneymaker for any sorcerer who endured the ritual to acquire it. Lots of rich women paid cartloads of gold to become artificially dazzling... including a number of girls at Feliss Academy. It was a popular first-menses gift from doting grandparents: the bestowal of Ultimate Beauty.

Or at least a hint thereof.

The extent of Kaylan's Chameleon depended on the power of the caster. When a bazaar-class sorcerer muddled through the spell, it might enchant only the woman's eyes, or her hands, or her navel. There was nothing wrong with a pair of eyes men couldn't stop pining for, but a mediocre mage had no control over which part of the subject's anatomy would become irresistible. A woman who paid her life's savings often felt cheated when all she got was a particularly winsome elbow. (Though I've heard of men who would crawl over hot coals to fondle such a thing.)

Even first-rate sorcerers had trouble enchanting a woman's whole body; they considered the spell a success if it charmed a meaningful subregion, like the face, torso, or legs. The Chameleon-bewitched girls at Feliss Academy almost all had this partial level of ensorcellment... and let me tell you, it had its drawbacks. I'm reminded of a warm lazy day outside the dorm when a blonde fifteen-year-old named Ilsa sunned herself in a meager bikini; it was most disconcerting to see the sharply marked "tan-line" at her waist where the pale Nordic skin of her upper body changed to the dark complexion of my cousin Hafsah, shapely brown down to the calves, then abruptly white again at the ankles. One boy who saw her ran screaming across the courtyard and vomited in the hollyhocks. Heaven knows what he saw.

But the woman in The Buxom Bull must have received her Chameleon from a stupendously powerful sorcerer—she was totally Hafsah from head to toe. And an exquisite head it was; a fine mouth-watering toe. Dark laughing eyes, demure yet kissable lips, softly rounded nose, chocolate brown hair that practically demanded you bury your face in it, and hips one could grab like a drowning man seizes a life preserver. She looked perfect and I knew she would feel perfect, whatever I kissed or nibbled.

That really pissed me off.

The falseness of her. Beneath her Chameleon glamour, she could be a scrawny twelve-year-old or a pock-marked crone of ninety; tall or short, dark or fair, and I'd never see the truth. I longed to ask the Caryatid what she saw—the Chameleon spell fooled only men, not women—but I couldn't speak a word with the air still solidified around me.

One last thing about the woman entering the room: she was dressed in an outfit Hafsah once wore to a formal family dinner (gold silk trousers of the style foreigners call "harem pants," a midriff-baring white shirt with a half-sleeved gold overjacket, assorted bangle-jangles and gold-mounted pearls), but in addition she wore something that clashed glaringly with the Hafsah persona: a billowing knee-length cape of crimson. Sorcerer's crimson. Hidden under the doppelgänger of my cousin, there was indeed a sorceress.

The sorceress. Powerful enough to blast a hole through Death Hotel. Powerful enough to immobilize us all like bugs in a spider's web.

"Hello," she said with a baby-soft version of Hafsah's voice. "I'm called Dreamsinger: Sorcery-Lord of Spark."

Uh-oh. Even more powerful than I thought.


Dreamsinger continued a few more steps: TIP, TIP, TIP. She wasn't actually walking on her toes, but each time she placed a foot, she did so with gingerly caution, as if fearful of making too much noise. Not the spit-in-your-eye brashness one expects from a Spark Lord. In fact, she stopped in the middle of the room and looked around as if she had no idea what to do next. Lost and dismayed. At last her gaze settled on the Caryatid; her face brightened.

"Sister!" she cooed. The Sorcery-Lord tip-tapped to the Caryatid and air-kissed her cheek. This wasn't just an empty gesture, the way unctuous people pretend to kiss while avoiding actual contact—Dreamsinger's lips pushed as close as possible to the Caryatid's face, but a hand's breadth of solidified atmosphere blocked the way. The Spark Lord kissed the invisible barrier fervently, once, twice, three times. "Sister! Dear comrade on the Burdensome Path. Please tell me what's happening here."

The Caryatid remained motionless. Dreamsinger waited a moment... then a moment longer... then raised her hand to her mouth in the embarrassed horror of a little girl realizing she's done something rude. "You mean you can't just... but it's such a simple spell!" Dreamsinger leaned in close, her forehead pressed against the imprisoning air as she stared into the Caryatid's face. "All you have to do is shrug it off. A tiny trivial shrug. Not the physical sort, but you know when you focus your mind, then flip the magic away?"

No response. The Caryatid looked as if she was straining to shrug/focus/flip, but the only result was a flush of effort turning her cheeks pink. Dreamsinger watched a moment more, then dropped her gaze. "Well, ah, it can sometimes be difficult..."

Eyes still averted, the Spark Lord made a twiddly gesture with the last three fingers of her left hand. The Caryatid lurched forward, as if she'd suddenly regained her momentum from a minute before and was continuing her run toward Impervia. Dreamsinger waited politely (keeping her gaze elsewhere, pretending she didn't notice anything ungainly) until the Caryatid staggered to a halt. Then the Sorcery-Lord lifted her head and said, "So, dear sister, you were going to explain...?"

The Caryatid curtsied low. My grandma Khadija (who'd been governor of Sheba for twenty-three years) had told me the Sparks hated people bowing or scraping—"They don't want deference, they want obedience." But Dreamsinger waited placidly as the Caryatid held the curtsy for a full five seconds. Then the Caryatid rose and said, "Milady, we... we're on a quest."

Dreamsinger's eyes grew wide. "Really? My brother says the only people who believe in quests are professors of literature. But he must have been teasing. My family likes to invent stories to see what I'll believe. They call me 'delightfully gullible.' "

She repeated the phrase in the singsong voice of a little girl who's heard the words frequently but doesn't quite understand them. Perhaps beneath her luscious exterior, Dreamsinger was far more child than woman. As I said, girls from affluent families often received Kaylan's Chameleon as a "Welcome to puberty" gift; take away the sorcerous glamour, and the real Dreamsinger might only be eleven, with scrapes on her knees and a first-figure bra. One might ask why her family let her leave Spark Royal without an adult chaperon... but her freeze-the-room spell showed she could take care of herself. Perhaps it was standard practice for the High Lord to send his children on the prowl: GO YE INTO ALL THE WORLD, AND INSTILL THE FEAR OF THE LORDS.

"I regret," Dreamsinger said, "I don't know much about Life. I have paid a great price to follow the Burdensome Path. A grave and awful price." She looked to the Caryatid for sympathy. "Studying day and night, learning to reprogram the world. This is the first time I've been outside Spark Royal since... dear me, I don't remember. Sorcery has jumbled my brain."

She laughed: the artificial type of laugh one gives when feeling awkward, but not half so forced as the laugh the Caryatid gave in response. It's hard to sound jolly when a Spark has just confessed to being mentally unstable.

Dreamsinger let her laugh fade to an encouraging smile. "But you were talking about your quest. It must be lovely to see the world... meet people... make a difference instead of constantly performing horrid rituals. What is your quest about?"

"We don't know, milady. There was just this, uhh, sort of a prophecy kind of thing. It said we'd go on a quest. No hint of what we should do."

"Who gave you this sort of a prophecy kind of thing?"

The Caryatid cleared her throat. "A detached dog tongue, milady."

Dreamsinger didn't even blink. "And it didn't give instructions?"

"No, milady. But we're, uhh, we've run into things that demand attention. Earlier tonight, there was a haunting. At Feliss Academy. And a girl was killed with what my friend believes was an OldTech bioweapon."

Something changed in the Spark Lord's posture: a sudden stillness, an infusion of icy cold that wasn't quite hidden by the warm Hafsah illusion. "You say your friend believes this?" She looked at me, then Impervia. "One of these people?"

The Caryatid lifted her hand in my direction and opened her mouth to speak; but before a single word came out, Dreamsinger spun toward me, made the same three-finger gesture that unfroze the Caryatid, and caught me by the lapels as I suddenly fell free of my imprisonment.

"Your name?" she said.

"Philemon Abu Dhubhai." Short concise answers. Spark Lords like short concise answers.

"Clan Dhubhai, Sheba province?"

"Yes. The late Governor Khadija was my grandmother."

"Can you prove it?"

I thought for a moment, then reached into my pocket and pulled out my purse. "Spark Royal gave her this; I inherited it."

Dreamsinger examined the purse for a moment. Took it in her hand. Slapped it hard on a nearby table. Nothing but a jingle of coins from inside. She tossed the purse back to me. "All right. What's your scientific background?"

"A doctorate from Collegium Ismaili. Phys-math."

Her eyes narrowed slightly. My assessment of bioweapons would have been more credible if I'd had a degree in biology or medicine... but at least she realized I wasn't a scientific illiterate. "Describe what you saw," she said.

"A disease or parasite, like cottage cheese growing in the girl's nose and throat. Death by suffocation. It developed very fast: at supper she showed no symptoms, by 1:00 A.M. she was dead. The girl was the daughter of Elizabeth Tzekich, leader of the Ring of Knives. We thought the mother's enemies might have—"

Dreamsinger shook me so fiercely my teeth clacked together. If she was an eleven-year-old girl, she was a stunningly strong one. "I see the obvious," she said. The Sorcery-Lord pulled me closer. "Are you certain the substance was like cottage cheese? It was white and wet, not dark and dry?"

"Very white and very wet."

Silently, I wondered what kind of bioweapon created dark and dry deposits, but I knew better than to ask. Dreamsinger had moved her face so close to mine I could feel her breath on my nose: the smell of cinnamon and mint, just like my cousin Hafsah. "Now, Philemon Abu Dhubhai," she said, "one last question and you must answer most truthfully. Is the disease contained?"

I swallowed hard. "To the best of my knowledge, yes. We believe the disease was planted in the girl's room; she caught it there and died without ever going out. Those who found the body didn't touch anything, and the room is now sealed. But, uhh... the girl had a boyfriend. He's missing, and we don't know if he visited her while she was contagious. We don't think he did, but we aren't sure. People are searching for him near the school, but we came down here because he might have—"

Dreamsinger tossed me aside. Literally. Not trying to hurt me, just removing me from her sight. Like a child who casts away a toy that bores her. She turned back to the Caryatid. "Dear sister, the dead girl's body is still at Feliss Academy?"

"Yes, milady."

The Sorcery-Lord reached up and tapped one of the pearl necklaces looped about her throat. At least that's what it looked like to me—someone not befuddled by Kaylan's Chameleon might have seen something different. The necklace made a soft whistle. "Spark Royal, attend," Dreamsinger said. "Give me Rashid. It's urgent."

The necklace whistled again. Computer-controlled radio transmitter, I thought. Frustrating that I couldn't see it because of the Hafsah illusion. Two seconds later, a male voice spoke from the same necklace. "Damn it, Dreamy, do you know what time it is?"

"No," she said. "I don't have a watch. My last one got broke." Dreamsinger's voice had acquired a layer of little-girl sulkiness. How old was she? "And even if I knew the time where I am, I wouldn't know what it is where you are. You could be anyplace from Gdansk to the Galápagos."

"You know where I hang out these days," the man answered. "Right now, it's three-thirty in the morning."

"A Spark Lord is always on call." Primly reciting a lesson. "We've got a potential outbreak, Rashid. Supposedly a bioweapon."

"Says who?" asked Rashid—who had to be Lord Rashid, Science-Lord of Spark. He'd once visited Collegium Ismaili and spoken with several of my fellow students. (The promising ones. The ones with goals.)

Dreamsinger glanced at me. "The report comes from one of the Sheba Dhubhais. He claims he knows science."

"Hmph," Rashid said... as if he doubted the possibility of my knowing anything. "Which bioweapon is it?"

"Nothing I recognize. Cottage cheese in the nose and throat."

"Hmm. Cottage cheese. Not dark and dry?"

"Not according to this Dhubhai fellow."

Again, I wondered what threatening substance was dark and dry; but Rashid was speaking again. "All right, I'll check it out. Where?"

"Feliss Academy."

"Then I'm close already. Within a few hundred klicks. Meet you there?"

"No, I have other business." Dreamsinger glanced at me. "Tracking down a boy who may be infected."

"If there's somebody sick wandering in public—" Rashid began.

"I know," Dreamsinger interrupted. "First, you tell me if it's really a bioweapon, and if it's contagious. I'll handle the sterilization."

Rashid didn't reply immediately. Finally, he sighed. "You're first on the scene—it's your call. I'll radio back as soon as I check the academy."

The pearl necklace whistled once more. Dreamsinger turned straight to the Caryatid. "Dear sister, this boy who's missing... do you have some belonging of his so we can do a Seeking?"

The Caryatid shook her head, shame-faced. "I tried a Seeking but got nowhere. The boy's a powerful psychic. At least," she added hastily, "too powerful for me to find. So there was no point bringing his possessions with us. Besides, we thought Spark Royal would be annoyed if we removed anything of Sebastian's from the premises. That might be seen as tampering with evidence."

"True." Dreamsinger smiled: a sweet dimpled Hafsah smile. "This Sebastian is a powerful psychic? That's..." Her voice trailed off. Judging by the look on her face, I guessed some worrisome possibility had crossed her mind; but after a few seconds, she turned to the Caryatid and said, "Dear sister, you'd better tell me everything you know."


It didn't take long—we didn't know much. Several times the Caryatid looked to me for help, but Dreamsinger glared me into silence: only the Sorcery-Lord's "dear sister" was allowed to speak.

The Caryatid went through the facts (the dog tongue, the harp, the missing sword) and wisely omitted conjectures (the possibility of a doppelgänger Rosalind) until she reached the explosion at Death Hotel. I could see she was aching to ask if Dreamsinger had caused the kaboom, but didn't want to seem insolent. Therefore, the Caryatid tried leading statements such as, "The thread was sorcerer's crimson... like your cape," in the hope Dreamsinger would say, "That was me." No such luck. The Sorcery-Lord stayed silent to the very end of the tale.

And the silence continued long after the Caryatid said, "So that's everything." Five seconds. Ten. Thirty. Dreamsinger appeared lost in thought, eyes lowered, brow furrowed. The Caryatid met my gaze with a puzzled lift of her eyebrows, but one does not disturb a pensive Spark Lord... not even when she looks like a teenaged girl and a teacher's instinct is to ask such girls, "Would you like to talk about it?"

But I longed to know what was churning in Dreamsinger's brain. What did she know that we didn't? After all, she'd arrived in the neighborhood before she learned about the bioweapon... so she'd come here for some other reason. If this was a woman who got out so rarely she couldn't remember the last time she left Spark Royal, why had she suddenly left home to come to this turd of a village?

But I didn't dare ask. Grandma Khadija had drilled into our family the only way to deal with Spark Lords: never question, always obey. Anything else was suicide... or worse. And if you can't picture anything worse than dying, you don't know much about the Sparks.

With time on my hands, I stole a glance at Impervia. She'd been trapped in solidified air for several minutes; how well was she breathing? I remembered the sensation, like sucking air through a blanket... and Impervia had built up an unhealthy oxygen debt in her exertions during the fight. Now her eyes had an unfocused look, not turning to meet my gaze. She might have passed out inside her invisible cocoon—either that, or she'd deliberately forced herself to slide into some semimystic martial arts trance.

I hoped that was it. I hoped she hadn't completely suffocated.

Perhaps Dreamsinger saw me staring in Impervia's direction. With a sudden, "Aha!" the Sorcery-Lord snapped out of her reverie and strode toward the bar. Her goal, however, was not Impervia; she moved to the spike-armed Hump and clapped her hand in front of his mouth. "Speech only," she murmured. "Neck up, release."

Her words must have been a command to the nanites who held the enforcer in place. While Hump's body remained frozen, a breath exploded from his mouth followed by a great and grateful inhalation. Apparently the spell had let go of his head, allowing him to breathe freely. Dreamsinger gave him five seconds to guzzle oxygen, then squatted beside his shoulder. "Now," she said softly, "tell me about this town's Smuggler Chief. Name. Headquarters. Any defenses I might encounter on a visit."

Hump gave a snort he probably thought was a haughty laugh. "If you think I'll tell you shit, you're crazy."

"Oh, sadly," Dreamsinger said, "I am crazy. I walk the Burdensome Path." She glanced at the Caryatid with a Dear sister, why must we suffer expression. Then she returned to the enforcer. "But I am also a Sorcery-Lord of Spark. If you are not my loyal subject, you are an enemy of the human race."

"Ooo, I'm shivering," the man said. "You might scare these other lollies, but to me you're just a big-titty bitch. Someone taught you a pissy little trick, freezing the air... but as soon as I get loose, I'll show you some real magic, whore. I'll do you with my fist. Make you howl for mercy."

Uh-oh. Thanks to Kaylan's Chameleon, Hump must have seen Dreamsinger as some penny-a-poke prostitute... which told you something about the man, if that kind of woman most aroused his ardor. On seeing the image of his innermost lusts, his first inclination was to beat her up. What a world. Then again, maybe it was good the enforcer was an utter bastard—I wouldn't feel so bad when Dreamsinger chopped him to sashimi.

The Sorcery-Lord's face formed a gentle smile—a fond smile—and she patted Hump on the cheek. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, dear friend. Several people in my family say whenever I walk into a room, something bad in my head won't let me leave until I've killed at least one person. They tease me mercilessly; they say I'm compulsive. But you know what?" She leaned close to Hump's ear. "Whenever I walk into a room, I find there's always at least one person who needs killing."

Dreamsinger placed her hand lightly on the man's shaved head. He growled obscenities and tried to duck away... but she simply squeezed tighter, her gold-painted Hafsah fingernails digging into the man's scalp. With her other hand, she traced a complicated pattern in the air, as if spelling words in some arcane language. Soon she began to hum, a single tone that started in her throat, then moved without changing pitch: traveling into her nose, then opening up to get more lung-power and finally reverberating all the way to her diaphragm.

Wind rushed past my ears—as if invisible forces were answering a summons, gusting out of the night to do the Sorcery-Lord's will. Nanites, I thought. Nanites gathering by the billion for some hellacious spell.

The flame on the Caryatid's shoulder—burning all this time, even while the rest of us were frozen—disintegrated into a million tiny sparkles that flew in Dreamsinger's direction: nano-sized particles of magic, ripped from the Caryatid's weak power and drawn toward the Spark Lord's greater attraction. Every atom of enchantment in the room, every high-tech microscopic mite except the ones still holding Hump frozen, came in response to Dreamsinger's call. The unseen shell around Impervia evaporated; she gasped and crumpled out of sight behind the bar. I could hear her pant and wheeze, but didn't dare move to help her.

The expression on Dreamsinger's face had become beatific... and my friend Caryatid also seemed transformed. Avid. Hungry. Like a music-lover who's spent too long listening to amateurs tweedle on tin flutes, then hears the full glory of a great symphony orchestra: Yes, I remember—this is what it can be like. The Caryatid possessed only modest gifts of sorcery, but she knew the real thing when she felt it.

The real thing. Magic. Just how good good can be.

I saw it in the Caryatid's eyes—recognized it from my own eyes twenty years past, when I was going to be amazing. When I was going to wield power. A world-shaking physicist/mathematician/composer/philosopher/hero. Revolutionizing society. Correcting the mistakes of previous generations. Cutting through the crap and never getting bogged down in distractions. Or self-pity. I'd stood on the verge of an epic life, and was certain no great deed would elude me.

Remember the feeling that anything was possible? How we would ride Life like a wild stallion that only we could tame?

I knew the Caryatid remembered as she watched Dreamsinger gather sizzles of magical force. My sorcerous friend once told me she'd invented her guild name, the Steel Caryatid, when she was only thirteen years old: a name that would look good in history books. Sorcery came so easily to her compared with everyone else in her little school. Then she went to the big-league sorcery department at her provincial university...

You can fill in the rest yourself: shock, denial, bouts of crazed studying, bouts of depression, bouts of self-sabotage with men/drink/procrastination, finally leading to acceptance of a humbler destiny. But the Caryatid could still look at Dreamsinger with sharp-edged memories of what it was like to touch greatness. The power that might have been.

Hump sensed the power too. Sweat glistened on his shaved head as he tried to slide out of Dreamsinger's grip. She held on calmly, never once losing hold despite the man's slick of perspiration. Her smile curled as tranquilly as the Mona Lisa's... even as her hand began to glow a fierce gold.

The enforcer must have noticed that fingershine—he couldn't see the hand itself, but he couldn't miss a new source of light so close to his head. Especially one as bright as noon. He poured out a new round of curses, but I wasn't fooled by his bluster; panic underlay every syllable. As the light increased in intensity, he yelled, "What do you want, bitch?"

Dreamsinger didn't answer. Her one-note humming took on a tiny edge of pleasure.

"I'll kill you, bitch," the man wailed. "I'll fucking kill you." The bravado rang so hollow I would have ignored it... if I hadn't noticed Dreamsinger's lips move at the same time, mouthing the identical words. "Let me go, or I'll rip out your throat." The man spoke; Dreamsinger spoke with him. Her eyes blazed with inner amusement. When Hump jerked his head, trying to snap out of the Spark Lord's grasp, Dreamsinger's head moved too. Duplicating the motion in perfect unison.

That's when I noticed her own head had begun to glow: the same golden color as her hand, dim at first, but brightening quickly. Hump continued to curse; Dreamsinger continued to mimic his words and actions; the golden shine grew fierce.

I realized I was witness to a Twinning.

Twinning spells were legendary: sorcerers linked their thoughts to someone else as a way to pluck information from the target's brain. People talked about "copying brain waves," but I knew enough about cognition to realize it wasn't so simple. To clone thoughts from one brain to another required drastic restructuring in the receiver's mental architecture—not just writing a few chance thoughts onto the surface, but shuffling billions of neural connections. Our thoughts aren't superficial things; they're the conscious tips of unconscious icebergs, the end results of uncountable electric pulses channeled along complex chemical pathways. To duplicate the knowledge in someone else's head, you need the same chemical pathways: the same underlying linkages. Twinning wasn't just telepathic eavesdropping; it was gouging out your old brain, reconstructing every synapse to match someone else's blueprints, then seeing what useful information you could now recall.

Some people named it the Sorcerer's Suicide. Certainly, the spell could be used that way. Enchanters who hated their lives (the terrifying rituals, the fear and mistrust from "normal" folks) might grab someone who looked contented and perform a complete Twinning. Exit the sorcerer, enter a duplicate of a more cheerful person. Or rather, a would-be duplicate. Many a sorcerer had Twinned another man's happiness, only to discover the man was happy because he loved his wife, his children, his friends. The sorcerer now loved the same people... but they didn't love him back.

More misery. Much potential for disaster. Twinning never guaranteed "happily ever after."

It didn't even guarantee information. Consider Dreamsinger as she Twinned with Hump: presumably she wanted the name and whereabouts of Dover's smuggling boss. To get those facts, she had to absorb some significant quantity of her victim's mind—you can't pick and choose which memories you get first. Eventually, the spell would provide what Dreamsinger wanted... but by then, she might also have absorbed the enforcer's surly personality. She might, in fact, be the enforcer; maybe not a hundred percent, but enough to be unhealthy for those in the same room.

Yet she was doing it anyway—as if she believed her own personality sufficiently strong to resist being corrupted. If she was lucky, she'd discover the relevant information soon enough that she wouldn't change much: only a few of her own traits, memories, and perceptual matrices would get wiped out, replaced by ones copied from Hump. She could then halt the spell and walk away, only slightly damaged. If she was unlucky, however... we'd get two enforcers for the price of one.

The radiance around their two heads grew more brilliant by the second, a blazing gold so intense it was like staring into the sun. I had to look away... and as I did, I noticed a third golden blaze in the room. It came from Dee-James, still frozen in the act of rolling off the table. He burned with his own golden fire: a third sun orbiting at a distance from the other two.

I wondered how long he'd been glowing. With so much light from Dreamsinger and Hump, I hadn't noticed the third flare-up. For all I knew, he could have been ablaze for the past few minutes.

Even as I watched, his body unfroze; Dee-James fell to the ground with a dazed thump. The light surrounding him hurt to look at—I had to close my eyes. But why was he part of the Twinning? What did he have to do with...

Someone screamed. Ear-splitting. Then Dreamsinger croaked in a strangled voice: "Warwick Xavier, Nanticook House, four armed guards, and an antiscrying field. Three dogs patrolling the estate."

"That's all?"

The question came from Dee-James. Surprised, I opened my eyes to see Dreamsinger spit with rage toward him. The Sorcery-Lord shouted, "What the fuck else do you need, you little shit?"

"Nothing," Dee-James said, "and everything." He walked forward slowly, answering Dreamsinger's fury with a smile. "Dearest, dearest sister, you're so precious and lovely."

He threw his arms around Dreamsinger, squeezing her close and beginning a deep hot kiss. The man was good-looking but nothing compared to the Spark Lord's Hafsah beauty—his clothes were worn, his face a bit dirty—but in that split second, Dee-James seemed stronger and more self-possessed than the Sorcery-Lord. Venting some passion that was so demandingly right, it could overwhelm even a Spark.

But the kiss lasted only an instant. Then Dreamsinger lashed out with both hands, shoving Dee-James away so fiercely he slapped hard against a table. The impact must have hurt—his elbow thunked heavily on the table's edge, the sort of impact that sends pins-and-needles shooting through one's arm—but Dee-James only laughed. "Ooo, what a bully. Push me around some more."

Dreamsinger snarled and charged. She held her arms out from her body, an ungainly way to run... till I realized her brain must be so dominated by Hump's, she thought her arms were covered with razor-sharp spikes. When she reached Dee-James, the Spark Lord slammed her forearm toward the man's face—a vicious attack, even if you didn't have bone-spurs jutting from your body—but Dee-James, still chuckling, didn't flinch.

The instant Dreamsinger's blow made crunching contact, both the Lord and Dee-James were engulfed in gold light so searing I felt as if I'd been stabbed in the eyes. I snapped my head away, trying not to cry out. Eyes shut, I could still see an image scorched into my retinas—the Sorcery-Lord bringing down her arm, Dee-James smiling as he got his face clubbed, the burst of unbearable radiance.

Twenty seconds passed before the ache in my eye-sockets subsided. When I opened my eyes again, I could barely see through my blur of tears... and what I saw didn't make sense: Dee-James was back sprawled on the table, and Dreamsinger had pressed down on top of him, gasping through another fierce kiss.

I blinked. My vision cleared a bit, but the sight didn't change. A Spark Lord kissing a nobody. The nobody kissing back. The two of them almost convulsed with passion. I had time to blink once more; then Dreamsinger pushed away slightly, her face still close to Dee-James. "Your breath reeks."

"Awful me." The man's words were slurred; Dreamsinger's blow half a minute before had split his lip. It might also have broken some teeth—blood dribbled from Dee-James's mouth. He lifted himself on one elbow and spit red onto the floor. "If my breath is so foul, perhaps I should kill myself."

"I could do it for you," Dreamsinger said.

"And rob me of my fun? Fuck you."

"If only there were time."

They both laughed and Dreamsinger stepped away, leaving Dee-James on the table. The man reached down toward his foot and drew out a bone-handled knife from an ankle sheath. Not a big blade, but practical. He rubbed his thumb on the blade to test it: not lightly across the metal edge, but hard down the length, slicing his skin clean open. "Sharp enough," he said, extending the bloody thumb for Dreamsinger to see.

"I envy you," Dreamsinger said.

"Of course," Dee-James answered. "Here's what 'expendable' means."

He lay back comfortably on the table and planted the knife-tip just below his ribcage. With a strong upward jerk, he plunged the knife into his own heart.


Dreamsinger put one palm on the butt of the knife, then slapped hard with her other hand, driving the blood-drenched blade even farther into Dee-James's vitals. The gesture was unnecessary—the man had done an expert job of skewering himself, a quick and certain kill. Dreamsinger obviously didn't care; she wrapped her hands around the knife handle and tried to twist, as if the man still weren't satisfactorily dead. "Dear sister," she whispered. "Dearest, dearest sister."

She bent to give the dead man a last soft kiss... and finally I understood what she'd done.

Before Dreamsinger stole the enforcer's brain, she'd copied her own mind into Dee-James. A forced Twinning; it explained why Dee-James had been surrounded by golden light. The man's mind had been expunged, totally replaced by the Sorcery-Lord's. In effect, Dee-James became Dreamsinger... with all the sorcerous knowledge that entailed. Then Dreamsinger had proceeded to Twin with Hump, safe in the knowledge that her original personality was preserved elsewhere—"on backup," as OldTech computer programmers might say. Once the desired information had been obtained ("Warwick Xavier, Nanticook house..."), the Dee-James copy of Dreamsinger used another forced Twinning to restore the original Dreamsinger's brain.

The kiss between Dee-James and the Spark Lord had been Dreamsinger kissing herself.

Then Dee-James had rammed a knife into his own heart. Dreamsinger committing suicide. Why? Because she could die happy, leaving the horrors of existence to her other self?

As the duplicate died, the real Dreamsinger had said, "I envy you."

So much for the myth that Spark Lords revere life. And let's not forget Dreamsinger had wiped Dee-James's original mind as casually as borrowing a piece of paper to write down a note. The Sorcery-Lord needed a mental receptacle, and the man was close to hand.

Poor Dee-James. Martyred because he happened to be convenient.

And if he hadn't been there, would Dreamsinger have used someone else? Impervia? The Caryatid? Me?

I shivered.

"Dear friends," said the Spark Lord. "Shall we go to Nanticook House?"

Impervia, the Caryatid, and I nodded in cowed silence.

On our way out the door, Dreamsinger stopped with a dimpled smile. "Almost forgot." She turned back toward Hump, still frozen above the bar. "Boom," she said.

Hump went boom.

For weeks afterward, they'd be finding pieces of him caught in cracks of the walls.



Nanticook House sat atop the bluffs east of town: the same pricey neighborhood as my on-again/off-again Gretchen. But "neighborhood" was the wrong word—people there didn't know what "neighborly" meant. The estates were big enough that you could see the house next door only with a telescope, assuming your telescope could pierce the high brick walls around each property. Nobody cared to view or visit the folks nearby. The only sense of community came from the packs of guard dogs who patrolled these grounds; some nights, the dogs on all the estates howled at the moon in unison.

The humans, however, avoided contact with each other. That's the difference between the small-town rich and their city counterparts. The urban upper crust enjoy getting together: they hold masquerades, go to the opera, and try to outdo each other with big weddings as they marry off their children in strategic alliances. There's always a whiff of arrogance (and often jaded decadence), but the aristocrats in cities are sociable. They have fun with each other; they talk.

The wealthy in Dover-on-Sea were different. They'd chosen privacy over personal contact; they had secrets to hide. My Gretchen, for example, entertained many a gentleman visitor from out of town, but never left her own property. Nursing her secrets. And Warwick Xavier of Nanticook House apparently had secrets too... most notably, his position as Dover's Smuggler Supreme.

I'd passed his place often on my way to Gretchen's: his mansion was a two-story sprawl built around a big inner courtyard. From above it would look like a picture frame surrounding gardened greenery—a pleasant design for Mediterranean climates, but not very practical in Feliss winters. Every room was exposed to the elements on two walls, the outer and the courtyard side, so it must have been hell to keep the house heated. Most likely, Xavier walked around all winter in three layers of long-johns, looking like a wool-swaddled teddy bear. Then again, if he was Smuggler King, he could afford fireplaces in every room, plus warm-bodied companions who'd cuddle close whenever he felt a chill.

As we approached the estate, multiple chimneys were pouring out smoke. The wind blew toward us; soot had accumulated on the few piles of snow untouched by thaw. Though the wall blocked our view of the house, we could see lights shining up into the night. Warwick Xavier seemed to be awake, despite the late hour.

"Dear friends," Dreamsinger whispered, "leave your horses here. And please, please be quiet."

As I tied Ibn to a sapling outside the walls, I reflected how unnecessary it had been to ask us to shut up—we'd barely spoken a word since The Buxom Bull. I was the only one who knew where Nanticook House was, so I'd taken the lead; apart from the occasional "This way," we'd walked in complete silence. It would have been nice to speak to Impervia or the Caryatid, if only to ask what Dreamsinger looked like under the Hafsah illusion... but the most I could do was meet my friends' eyes and exchange plaintive looks.

Now the Sorcery-Lord moved to the front, making no sound as she led us forward. I wondered why she kept us with her. A Spark didn't need schoolteachers to protect her—if things turned messy, we were more likely to get in the way than provide assistance. Unless, of course, Dreamsinger needed us the way she'd needed Dee-James, as a holding tank for her mind.

But you don't walk out on a Spark, even when she's leading you into danger. So we all proceeded to Nanticook House's front gate.


The gate was wrought-iron, glossy black without a hint of rust. Sheets of wood had been fitted into the gaps between the iron bars, held in place by wires. The sheets were so thin, Impervia could have put her fist through them, but they weren't there as defense—just preventing gawkers from peering into the grounds.

Warwick Xavier must like his privacy.

Dreamsinger didn't bother to check if the gate was locked. She just made a gesture, her hands glowed red, and the wrought-iron frame flopped inward, as if its fittings had vaporized.

The gate didn't make much noise as it fell—with the gaps between bars filled in, it was like a sheet of light wood toppling over in a carpenter's shop, its descent slowed by air resistance. Nothing more than a breezy whump when it hit the ground. The sound still carried a short distance, but there was no one inside close enough to hear... no one anywhere along the gravel drive leading up to the house. No guard dogs either; with soot from the house's fireplaces filling the air, the dogs probably couldn't smell us, and by luck, they were all out of sight on the far side of the building.

The driveway was long and wide—over a hundred meters from the gate to the house and broad enough for two oversized carriages to pass each other comfortably. Xavier might be antisocial, but Nanticook House could accommodate guests if necessary. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised the Smuggler Chief had plenty of room for carts moving in and out; on occasion, the place might be as busy as a freight warehouse.

No carts were in evidence tonight, but something was definitely afoot. Every room on the ground floor showed lights, and not just a candle or two: the place beamed with lampfire, as if Xavier was hosting a dance-ball for everyone in Dover-on-Sea. No music played, however, and no gabble of conversation reached our ears as we drew near the house; I could see no movement through the windows.

Brightly lit houses are seldom so quiet. And when they are, it makes me nervous.


For a while, it looked like Dreamsinger would prance straight up to the front portico and tug on the bell. I think she considered it; she stopped on the stoop for a full count of ten—not, as far as I could see, listening for tell-tale sounds or using some sorcerous clairvoyance to peer through the door, but simply debating how brazenly she wanted to handle the situation.

While we waited, the Caryatid produced a flame from somewhere and began passing it back and forth nervously between her palms. Sister Impervia assumed what she called a "natural" stance—perfectly balanced, knees slightly bent, hands free at her sides—which is to say, a martial artist's attempt to look nonthreatening while still poised to dislodge your skull with a spinning hook kick. As for me, I'm sure I did something that showed my friends I was jittery as a June-bug, but I was trying to look nonchalant.

In the end, Dreamsinger was struck with an attack of discretion. She suddenly wheeled from the door and started to circle the house: moving quickly, peeking into every window we passed, but staying far enough out into the darkness that people inside couldn't see us.

We saw nobody in any of the front rooms; not a guard, not a servant, not even a parakeet. The decor looked costly but soulless—a lot of dark pine furniture and nondescript china on plate-rails. Each room (and there were a lot of rooms) held a single objet d'art: always a portrait painting, always undistinguished and always in murky colors, as if the painter had once seen a Rembrandt but could only remember it had dim lighting. None of the rooms showed any particular purpose; they were all generic parlors/drawing rooms/sitting rooms/lounges, rather than serving a recognizable function like a dining room, bedroom, or study. They were, in other words, strictly for show—the sort of rooms a real family would soon subvert with doll houses, billiard tables, and piles of Aunt Miriam's embroidery.

The side of the house was more promising than the front, with an honest-to-goodness kitchen and even two women at work. One woman was big, blonde, and bready, extracting the guts from a turkey. The other looked more decorative: young, slim, as dark as Impervia, and dressed in a short tight uniform designed for the pleasure of male viewers rather than the practical performance of scullery work. Still, she was diligently kneading a wad of dough, pushing it around the counter with experienced efficiency.

I wondered why these women were working at 3:45 in the morning... but maybe Xavier kept his whole household on smugglers' hours. Work at night, sleep by day.

We passed the kitchen silently, drawing no attention from either woman. Next door was a pantry and next to that, windows covered with cheap curtains—probably the servants' quarters, with the curtains put up by the servants themselves to frustrate peeping toms.

Since I couldn't see anything in those rooms, I turned my eyes to the stables that paralleled the house across a gravel yard. Two four-horse coaches were parked in the open drive-shed; I wondered if Xavier had company, or if he'd simply purchased two carriages because they were cheaper by the pair.

Finally, we reached the back of the house: the side overlooking the lake. There was little to see but a great crinkled blackness beyond the edge of the bluffs. At the mouth of the harbor below, a small lighthouse lit the water around its footings, casting a few meters of dappled dimness. Apart from that, the only hints of light on the lake were brief reflections of stars, caught for fleeting instants on vagrant ripples. The rest of the vista was dark and cold.

In contrast, the rear of Nanticook House blazed with more lamps and hearth fires—just as many here as on the side facing the road. Yet the dining room was empty, the table bare. Beyond it was another drawing room, this one equipped with a bar: dozens of bottles on display, but no sign anyone ever drank from them. No hint that guests had ever pulled the chairs into a comfortable circle, or shoved furniture aside so there'd be room to throw darts.

I was beginning to think Warwick Xavier just didn't use the bottom floor of his house. Perhaps all life took place on the top story... yet there were no lights up there at all.

The next room looked equally ignorable. I was moving along when I nearly bumped into Dreamsinger—she'd stopped and was gazing inside, her eyes narrowed. Once more I glanced into the house but saw nothing of note; yet the Sorcery-Lord was staring as if enraptured.

I looked again at the house. Immediately my eyes shifted elsewhere: the lawn, the lake, the dark upper floor, any place but the room in front of me. Closing my eyes, I couldn't even picture what was in there—just that it was utterly uninteresting, not worth my attention.

Aha. This must be the "antiscrying field" Dreamsinger had mentioned while Twinned with Hump: an enchantment that made you believe the room was boring. Nanites inside my brain were playing games with my emotions and perceptions, perhaps raising my threshold of selective inattention whenever I looked in the room's direction—suppressing visual input so that it never reached my consciousness.

But Dreamsinger obviously could resist such trickery. She strode boldly forward, toward the room's windows. Assuming it had windows. Whenever I tried to look, my gaze slid off. It was better to watch the Sorcery-Lord herself, to train my eyes on her beautiful Hafsah derriere. That kept me moving ahead, despite a growing emotional force that pushed me away, crying, "Don't waste your time, there's nothing here!" Then I passed through some invisible boundary, the edge of the antiscrying field; and I could see Dreamsinger in front of me, reaching out, her hand touching window glass.

She whispered, "Boom."


The window exploded at Dreamsinger's touch, blasting shards of glass into the room. It was a big window; it had lots of glass.

The shards slashed like shrapnel into two brawny men who stood just inside. The men didn't have a chance: they went down under the barrage, blown off their feet, sliced by glass splinters. One man collided with a heavy chair, drove it forward half a meter, then toppled off sideways... striking the floor at an angle that shoved crystal daggers deeper into his flesh. Blood gushed from a severed artery—a fountain that lasted several seconds, then subsided to a pressureless drip.

The other man landed facedown on the carpet, slivers of glass protruding from his back like needles on a porcupine. He lifted his arm feebly, reaching blindly for nothing. Beneath his tattered clothes, bony spurs pushed weakly from the raised arm, then retracted again in defeat.

The spurs showed that Hump wasn't the only smuggler with pointy augmentation. Not that the spikes seemed to do much good. The man in front of us slumped unconscious and continued to bleed from a dozen lacerations.

Suddenly, I was grabbed from behind and thrown onto the muddy soil. "Idiot," Impervia whispered, pressing her body against my spine. I opened my mouth to protest but was drowned out by an eruption of gunfire from inside the house. Oops. I'd been so busy watching men die near the window, I'd never looked farther into the room. There must have been more guards inside, beyond the blast radius of the glass. Now they were shooting in our direction: shooting at Dreamsinger alone, since the Caryatid had hit the dirt beside Impervia and me.

The Sorcery-Lord made no effort to remove herself from the fire zone. As the shots continued, she stepped over the low windowsill and into the room itself. Bullets zinged through the air; a few passed through Dreamsinger's crimson cloak, tearing several holes in it before the cloak was ripped to rags... but the majority of shots were directly on target, plowing straight into Dreamsinger's body.

The bullets had no effect; they never quite made contact.

A violet glow had sprung up around the Spark Lord's outline, like a fringe of indigo fire. Each time a shot hit the glow, the bullet was met with violet flame—a blazing hot flame that dissolved the chunk of lead into spittles of molten metal. Stinking smoke filled the air as drops of liquefied lead fell to the floor... but none of it touched Dreamsinger. She just stood with a placid smile, waiting for the barrage to end.

Lying on top of me, Impervia whispered, "That glow around her... is it sorcery?"

"No," the Caryatid replied. "I've heard it called a force field. Projected by her armor."

"She's wearing armor?" I asked.

"What do you think she's wearing, idiot?" That was Impervia again.

"She's wearing Kaylan's Chameleon. Total coverage. I can't see a square millimeter of who she really is."

"Vanity, vanity," Impervia murmured. She shifted her body slightly against my back. "So, uhh, Phil... what do you see?"

I didn't answer.


The shooting dwindled to an anticlimax of prissy little clicks: firing pins hitting on empty chambers. A woman inside the house growled, "For God's sake, assholes, give it up. Xavier, will you please call off your dogs?"

A grunting sigh. "You heard her." An old man's gristly voice. "Stand down... but reload."

Both the man and the woman spoke with accents: something Central European. Teaching at the academy, I'd heard lots of accents from my students—but those accents were all upper class. The people in Nanticook House sounded rougher... more ragged and throaty.

"Warwick Xavier?" Dreamsinger asked.

"You know who I am," the man answered. A statement, not a question.

"She's a Spark," said the unknown woman inside. "She knows everyone." A pause. "Judging by the crimson armor, you're the female Sorcery-Lord. Serpent's Kiss."

"Serpent's Kiss was my predecessor. I'm Dreamsinger."

"Ach, such a fancy name," said Xavier. "Fine women, always so pretentious."

Impervia slid off me. On hands and knees she peered over the windowsill, into the room beyond. The Caryatid and I joined her—like the comic relief in a Shakespeare play, the three of us poking our noses up in the background while more important characters played the main action downstage.

Xavier stood beside the unknown woman at the far end of the room. He was white-haired, big-eared, stoop-shouldered, an imposing jowly man who might be as old as seventy, dressed in formal black-and-white; she was black-haired, fierce-eyed, sharp-boned, an imposing skeleton-thin woman in her early thirties, wearing gray silk pants and shirt, cut so loosely they seemed tailored for someone four inches taller and thirty pounds heavier. If Warwick Xavier was the Smuggler King, this woman might be his Queen or Crown Princess... either a wife half his age or his daughter. Maybe even granddaughter. Or perhaps she was his heir-apparent, ruthless in her own right and ready to take over as soon as the king showed weakness.

Before Dreamsinger's entrance, Xavier and the woman had been examining papers spread on a table—records, I assumed, of ill-gotten gains. Two gunsels stood nearby: big men who'd now holstered their pistols and stood with razor spikes bristling along their arms, ready to slash anyone who got too close. The sort of men who didn't know when they were out of their depth.

Dreamsinger ignored the enforcers. She gazed only at Xavier and the woman... smiling in what I thought might be recognition.

"You're a long way from home," Dreamsinger said.

It was the woman who replied. "I have many homes."

"And home is where the heart is," Dreamsinger observed. "Or within a few kilometers. Which came first, dear sister? This operation or Feliss Academy?"

"This operation, of course. I chose Feliss Academy only because I had an outpost nearby."

"Did your daughter know?"

The woman beside Xavier shook her head. "Rosalind is happier thinking she's not completely under my wing. But I don't send her to a school unless it's close to my holdings... and wherever she goes, I follow."

Dreamsinger smiled. "Dear sister, she's gone somewhere you can't follow. Your daughter died several hours ago."

The thin woman—Elizabeth Tzekich, Knife-Hand Liz—caught her breath. That was all. Then she clamped her jaw tight.

I saw no tears.

Where Elizabeth Tzekich was gaunt, Rosalind had been plump—possibly in rebellion, the daughter fattening herself to look as little like her mother as possible. Yet the mother's tight face, the way she suppressed all grief, reminded me of Rosalind concealing her own emotions: the careful hiding-behind-walls of a girl who'd given up making friends.

Like mother, like daughter. And the fierce woman in front of us must have been Rosalind's age when she gave birth to her child. How had that happened? A passionate elopement the way Rosalind had planned to run off with Sebastian? It wouldn't surprise me. Then pregnancy, and who knows? I couldn't imagine how a woman that young could create the Ring of Knives, but Elizabeth Tzekich had managed it. Not only spreading through Europe, but all around the world.

Rosalind had moved from school to school and Knife-Hand Liz had moved from one Ring outpost to another. I wondered who led whom. Was the mother following the daughter just to be close to her? Or was Elizabeth Tzekich touring her assets, inspecting her lieutenants, streamlining operations, spending a few months in every branch office... and whenever she moved on, forcing her daughter to move too, shunting the girl into any school that was handy at the next port of call?

Maybe a little of both.

But she had kept her daughter near her. When Rosalind came to Feliss Academy, Mother Tzekich must have moved in with Warwick Xavier—Xavier, who was district manager for the Ring, in charge of smuggling and miscellaneous skullduggery. Had Knife-Hand Liz crept near the academy from time to time in hope of catching sight of her daughter? Or had she stayed away, never trying to see the girl but staying close in case something happened?

In case the girl got in trouble. A mother wants to be there.

But she hadn't been.


Tzekich asked, "How did Rosalind die?"

Dreamsinger shrugged. "Perhaps an OldTech bioweapon. My brother is investigating."

"But it was murder?"

"That seems likely."

"Who was responsible?"

Dreamsinger cocked her head to one side. "That's my question for you. Do any of your enemies have bioweapons hidden in their vaults?"

"Not that I know of—otherwise, I'd report the bastards for possessing banned substances. I'm a loyal subject of the Spark Protectorate."

Dreamsinger smiled. "Of course. Dear sister."

"So why are you here? Just to tell me my daughter's dead?"

"Oh no. That was an unexpected pleasure." Dreamsinger smiled again. Such a sweet smile. "I came to ask Mr. Xavier about a boy who's gone missing."

"I don't know any boy," Xavier said. His voice was tired; I suspected it wasn't Xavier's idea to be awake at this hour. Knife-Hand Liz had to be the one simmering with nervous energy, perusing papers long into the night.

"Who is this boy?" Tzekich asked. Her voice was sharp; she obviously had guessed this was connected to Rosalind's death.

"The boy intended to elope tonight. These people..." Dreamsinger waved toward the three of us at the window. "They believe he chartered a fishing boat to go somewhere. I believe the boat's crew would let you know what they were doing."

"Why would they?" Xavier asked. "It's no business of mine if some brat runs away."

Dreamsinger waggled a finger in his direction. "But it is your business if a boat goes smuggling without permission. I'm sure you deal harshly with those who try to turn independent. To avoid such suspicions, any captain leaving port after dark likely sends you a note. Gentle master, I'm just taking a passenger somewhere, so please don't break my knees when I get back."

Xavier looked surly, as if he wanted to deny Dreamsinger's words. Tzekich slapped him hard on the arm. "For God's sake, tell her anything you know!"

The old man's expression didn't change... but he turned his scowl on Tzekich. "In the old days, we didn't let outsiders deal with our problems. Your daughter is murdered? That's our business, not the Sparks."

Tzekich slapped him again. "Spark business is what they say it is."

Dreamsinger chuckled. "Despotism is nice that way."

"Besides," Tzekich continued to Xavier, "we can't deal with anything if a Spark kills us for being uncooperative. Stop stonewalling!"

Xavier paused another long moment, making sure no one missed his disgust. A man of the old school, I thought: responding to every obstacle with brute force, and if something didn't fall down, he'd just hit it harder. It explained why a man Xavier's age was still just a minor lieutenant, living in a backwater like Dover-on-Sea; he could be trusted to keep people in line and maintain a basic revenue stream, but he'd botch any job that called for finesse.

After one last glower, the old man turned and shuffled across the room to a grand piano shoved against the wall. The piano was placed wrong-side-out: if you opened the lid above the strings, the sound would be deflected into the wall rather than to the room at large. Perhaps Xavier had seen pianos in other people's houses and decided to buy the most expensive one he could find. Clearly he didn't care about music—the cover was closed over the keys, and stacked with piles of paper, mostly unopened envelopes. Xavier's filing system: toss incoming mail onto the piano, and deal with it whenever.

The message Dreamsinger wanted had just arrived that night, so it must be on top of a pile. Xavier realized that we all would know that—otherwise, I could imagine him shuffling through papers with sullen slowness, while Tzekich grew more and more livid. But he found the note soon enough; then the only delay was the time he took unfolding the page and moving the paper back and forth until he established a distance where he could read the words.

"It's from Ian Nicoll of the Hoosegow," Xavier said. "Nice little boat, the Hoosegow. Ian gave it the name because he says it feels like a prison, but if you ask me—"

Tzekich snapped, "Just read the damned note!"

Xavier tried to hide a smile, clearly pleased he'd got under her skin. "All right, let me see. Let me see. Let me see." He squinted and shifted the paper a little closer to his eyes. Then a little farther away. Then back to its original position. "Got some passengers tonight," he finally read. "Two kids from that school in Simka. Eloping, the idiots. Going to Niagara Falls, to get married then fuck their brains out. Pathetic. But I get paid, so who cares? I'll be back in time for..." Xavier stopped reading and folded the page. "The rest is just private."

Dreamsinger held out her hand for the note. Xavier only stared at her until Tzekich heaved an exasperated sigh. "Either you give it to her or she takes it from your cold dead fingers."

"If you want me to kill him, dear sister," Dreamsinger said, "just say the word."

Tzekich gave a humorless laugh. "No thanks, milady. That might sound as if I was giving an order to a Spark Lord... or asking for a favor, which is possibly more dangerous."

"Spoilsport," Dreamsinger pouted. She looked back at Xavier, her hand still held out for the message. With a grumpy look, he plodded across the room and gave her the page. Dreamsinger unfolded it and studied the message briefly. "What time did you receive this?"

Xavier said, "A few hours ago. From my man Ripsaw."

"When did Ripsaw receive it?"

"He walks around the port every night after supper. Between six and midnight."

"I want the exact time."

Xavier smiled as if he'd been hoping she'd say that. "Ask Ripsaw yourself." He pointed at one of the men who'd been standing too close to the windows when Dreamsinger blew them in—a man with more blood on his clothes than in his veins. Dreamsinger peered at the corpse with calculation in her eye; perhaps debating whether it was too late to try a Twinning, whether the brain was still intact or just soggy sweetmeats. After a moment, she sighed with regret.

"So," she said, "we don't know whether this note got written before or after passengers arrived at the Hoosegow. If it was before, the captain simply expected 'two kids from that school'—which doesn't tell how many really showed up. If it was after, and the captain was looking right at the two teenagers as he wrote his message... that would make things more interesting." She looked at Xavier. "Do you know if Hoosegow actually left port?"

The old man made a sour face. I suspected he did know, but disliked providing information that might actually be useful. Before he could vacillate on an answer, one of the two surviving enforcers spoke up. "I was on harbor watch tonight. Hoosegow left its slip at 11:05."

Xavier gave the man a dirty look; the enforcer ignored it, keeping his gaze on Tzekich. Obviously, the bully-boy had decided that pleasing the top boss helped one's career far more than humoring a surly deputy.

"So," Dreamsinger murmured, "the boat is on its way. No reason for that if it didn't have passengers; so Sebastian must have showed up and said, 'Let's go.' He wouldn't do that unless Rosalind was with him."

"Rosalind?" Knife-Hand Liz repeated. "I thought you said..." Her voice trailed off.

"Dear sister," Dreamsinger said, "one version of your daughter is dead. Another may be sailing to Niagara Falls; and now I'll have to follow." She shuddered. "Pity me, friends. Such a dreary place. So conventional and crowded. Why do people come from around the world to see water falling over a cliff? And all the hideous 'attractions'; they should be called distractions, built to prevent newlyweds from realizing the banality of what they've just done. I hate it all. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it, hate it..." She stopped herself with an effort. "But, I suppose while I'm there, I can check—"

Her voice choked silent. Her face froze—as if some inner reflex held her expression immobile so we couldn't guess what was going through her mind. An instant later, she whirled to face the three of us at the window. "This Sebastian was a powerful psychic?"

We all nodded.

"What was his power?"

Impervia and the Caryatid looked at me to answer. I chose my words carefully. "Our psionics teacher says Sebastian can talk to the world: as if land, sea, and air are full of happy puppies, eager to fulfill the boy's tiniest wish. So his powers cover the whole spectrum."

"The boy talks directly to nanites? And he's headed for Niagara Falls?" Dreamsinger's voice had gone shrill. "With a creature that can make itself look like Rosalind?"

Mother Tzekich stirred at her daughter's name, but didn't have a chance to speak. Dreamsinger surged toward the window where Impervia, the Caryatid, and I still crouched. The Spark Lord grabbed me by the jacket and heaved me up as if I weighed no more than a rag doll. "Fool!" she whispered, so softly no one else could hear. "Those curds weren't a bioweapon. They were cast-off cellules from a Lucifer."

"But I thought..." Opal had said the flake-away bits of Lucifer were like grains of black gunpowder. Dark and dry. I suddenly remembered that both Dreamsinger and her brother had asked if I was sure the curds I'd seen were white and wet, not dark and dry. They both must have suspected there was a Lucifer in our neighborhood, but my talk of a bioweapon had made it seem like something else. "It looked like cottage cheese," I said. "Honestly..."

"The Lucifer mutated," Dreamsinger told me in another furious whisper. "It's been trying to do that for decades. It knows Spark Royal can track its life-signs... so the blasted thing finally managed to change its metabolism. And now it's going to Niagara Falls with a psychic?"

She tossed me aside in disgust. Pure luck let me grab a corner of the window frame and catch my balance; otherwise, I would have fallen onto the broken glass that littered the floor. Dreamsinger didn't care—she was already stepping over the sill, out onto the dark lawn. At the same time, she tapped her pearl necklace: the one that was actually a radio transmitter. "Spark Royal, attend," she snapped. "I need immediate pick-up, this location."

"Please activate anchor," a metallic voice said from the necklace.

"Give me ten seconds."

Dreamsinger reached toward her waist. To my eyes, she was grabbing at nothingness a short distance in front of her bare navel. A belt pack, I thought; her armor must have pouches and attachments that I couldn't see because of the Chameleon spell. A moment later, she pulled a small device from thin air—a black plastic box the size of a book, with four metallic gold horseshoes arranged in a diamond on its top face.

"Dearest sister," she called to the Caryatid, "could you come here, please?"

The Caryatid hurried forward.

"Do you see this switch?" Dreamsinger pointed to a toggle on the box's side. "When I'm gone, please push that; it turns the anchor off. Be careful not to turn it on again—just keep the anchor safe, and I'll come for it someday."

"Yes, milady."

"Good. Keep faith with me." Dreamsinger kissed the Caryatid lightly on the lips. Then she whirled and told the rest of us, "Only my sister on the Burdensome Path may touch the device. Everyone else stand clear."

Without waiting for an answer, she stepped away from the Caryatid, pushed the toggle-switch herself, and laid the box on the ground. "Spark Royal, attend," she said to empty air. "The anchor is active. Take me home."

A tube of creamy white lashed down from the sky: the same ectoplasmic smoke we'd seen at Death Hotel. It glinted with color, buffed gold, sea green, peacock blue... and again I tried to imagine what it might be. An energy beam projected from an orbiting satellite? Ionized particles like the Aurora Borealis, curled in a shimmering sleeve? Or perhaps a living creature, some ethereal worm hundreds of kilometers long, ready to lower its tail whenever a Spark commanded?

The thing stabbed down like a lightning bolt, straight for Dreamsinger's anchor. The device must have worked like a magnet, for the instant the smoke-tail made contact, its tip adhered to the box; then the tail's mouth spread wider, until its edges touched all four golden horseshoes on the anchor's top surface.

The tip was locked down and secure. But the rest of the smoke-tail flapped wildly, making no sound but whipping through the darkness in ghostly frenzy. A fluttering wraith reaching high out of sight.

Beyond the house, dogs began to bark—Xavier's guard pack, finally noticing something was amiss. Why hadn't they come running when Dreamsinger made the windows explode? Idiotic beasts. Then I realized the explosion had taken place inside the antiscrying shield; since the dogs were outside, the antiscrying sorcery would make them ignore the din of smashing glass. They wouldn't react till something became visible on their side of the shield.

Something like a big smoky tube sprouting from the lawn to the stratosphere.

Three German Shepherds dashed snarling into view; then they stopped in a doggy double-take. They paid no attention to those of us still within the antiscrying shield: all they saw was a pillar of ghost-smoke flicking around the yard, sweeping past the bare-branched trees, occasionally billowing out over the bluffs before whisking back to the house again. The tube's random swooping soon took it in the dogs' direction... and they backed off, whining in their throats. The smoke didn't touch them—it didn't touch anything, not the house, not the trees, not a single blade of winter-parched grass—but it came within a hair of grazing everything in sight, skimming past my face, darting at the Caryatid's feet, even looping once around Impervia's neck before uncoiling again and careening off. As if it were stalking each of us in turn, trying to make us flinch.

Flinch we did... and the smoke-tail wagged itself happily, heading off to scare the dogs again.

The metallic voice spoke from Dreamsinger's necklace. "Anchor established. Ready for transport to Spark Royal."

"Dear sister, I must go," Dreamsinger told the Caryatid. "Turn off the switch when I'm gone."

The Caryatid nodded. Dreamsinger smiled back, then squatted beside the anchor box. She slid one finger under the tethered end of the smoke-tail, slipping her fingertip into the mouth of the tube... and suddenly her whole body was sucked inside, her bones, her flesh turning as malleable as clay. It looked like something from a comic drawing, a woman's body pulled thin as a garter snake, then rammed into an aperture no bigger than a mouse hole; but there was no humor in seeing such grisly distortion for real. The whole thing lasted less than a second, and made no sound except a soft swish of air—otherwise, I might have been sick on the spot.

The Caryatid, looking equally queasy, forced herself to press the anchor's toggle-switch. Click. Immediately, the smoke-tail slipped free, jerking loose from its tether and bounding high into the sky like a taut rope suddenly cut. It soared halfway to the clouds, dropped down once more to the treetops, then flew straight up out of sight.

Mission accomplished. The tube had removed Dreamsinger to Spark Royal—whence, presumably, she'd ride a similar tube to Niagara Falls. There'd have to be an anchor device somewhere in the Niagara area, ready to catch hold of the tube's tail end... but I suspected there were anchors all over the world, planted in out-of-the-way corners, waiting for the day a Spark Lord needed to get somewhere in a hurry.

There'd been one in Death Hotel—a place the small device could lie undisturbed for centuries. It was probably radio-controlled, ready to activate itself when a signal came...

My train of thought was interrupted by someone behind me seizing my arm. I looked around. Elizabeth Tzekich was there. "The Spark Lord's run off," she said. "Leaving you to my tender mercies." Her eyes flashed. "Now you're going to tell me what's going on."