Tzekich pulled me across the parquet littered with glass. I tried not to tread in the blood of the dead... but Knife-Hand Liz walked straight through. When she reached a clean section of floor, she left sticky scarlet slipperprints.

Back at the windowsill, the Caryatid and Impervia climbed inside. Staying loyally with me, even though they could have run off into the night. My friends.

Meanwhile, the surviving bully-boys from the Ring un-holstered their pistols. Behind the enforcers, Xavier broke into a wolfish leer—he must have regarded us all as human punching bags, here to help him forget the humiliation of submitting to a Spark Lord. Lucky for us, Tzekich outranked the old bastard... and she was so irked by Xavier's stupid intransigence, she treated Impervia, the Caryatid, and me with utmost gentility. She obviously wanted to annoy her deputy as much as he'd annoyed her.

"Please sit," Tzekich said, gesturing toward a black leather couch. "Tell me everything you know."

We sat, we talked. The facts, but no interpretation. I didn't recount Chancellor Opal's encounter with the Lucifer, nor did I mention what Dreamsinger whispered to me before she left. I'd have to ponder her words some time soon, but not with Elizabeth Tzekich and two armed guards hovering over me. For now, I just stuck to the bioweapon version of the tale; suddenly changing my story might antagonize Knife-Hand Liz to the point of violence.

She was angry enough as it was—during my recitation, Xavier made a constant nuisance of himself with pointless intrusive questions, aggravating Tzekich to the verge of fury. I couldn't understand why she didn't toss him from the room... or borrow a gun from an enforcer and create a new opening in her organization. But she tolerated Xavier's petty interference with clenched teeth, only once giving him a lethal glare and saying, "I am trying to find out about my daughter."

Of course, Tzekich asked questions of her own—and from their tone, I realized she didn't want to believe her daughter was dead. If there were two copies of the girl, why couldn't the one still alive be the real Rosalind? Perhaps an enemy had created a sorcerous duplicate of her daughter as a way to infiltrate the Ring of Knives. But Rosalind had defeated the double by using the impersonator's own cottage cheese bacteria; then the girl had run off with "that Sebastian boy" to escape before more enemies arrived. Elopement was so utterly ridiculous at Rosalind's age, it must be a ruse to throw off pursuers.

That made sense, didn't it?

No one wanted to argue—not even spiteful Xavier. There are some things it's not safe to say when a mother is being willfully blind.


Tzekich rose from her chair and snapped her fingers toward her men. "We're leaving now. Let's go."

Xavier grunted. "Just like that, we're off?"

"To Niagara Falls. Get your fastest boat."

"Ach... it won't be as fast as that Spark Lord."

"No," Tzekich said, "but it might be fast enough to catch the Hoosegow."

Xavier shook his head. "They got a good wind, a long headstart, and the Falls are only ten, twelve hours away. Hoosegow will beat us."

"We'll still be close behind." Tzekich headed for the door. "I refuse to sit here while my daughter's in danger."

Xavier's expression was easy to read: The girl's not in danger; she's dead. But he simply pointed a thumb at Impervia, the Caryatid, and me. "What do we do with them?"

Tzekich stopped in the doorway. She turned back to consider us. Impervia and I tensed, ready to put up a fight... but the Caryatid simply toyed with the anchor device Dreamsinger had left in her keeping, idly tracing one finger along the inlaid gold horseshoes. Did Tzekich want to mess with a Spark Lord's "dear sister"?

A tense silence. Then Tzekich said, "Forget them." She glared in our direction. "Get the hell out."

We didn't need to be told twice. Before Tzekich vanished from the doorway, before Xavier could have us roughed up behind his boss's back, we three teachers were out the window and scurrying into the darkness.


The guard dogs raised a ruckus on our way off the property; but with the Caryatid waving flames in the dogs' faces and Impervia swinging a fallen tree branch as a club, the animals soon decided their duty lay in snarling from a distance rather than outright attack. They saw us to the gate, yapping all the while and continuing long after we were gone. Dogs on other estates took up the barking, making an awful racket... and I cringed at the noise until I realized it was harmless.

We'd survived.

After running afoul of a spike-armed enforcer, a Sorcery-Lord, and the Ring of Knives, my friends and I had survived. We were also cut loose from our burdens: the Sparks were on the case, and didn't need help from mere schoolteachers. We'd even told Knife-Hand Liz her daughter was dead... and once you've informed the authorities and the parents, what more must a teacher do?

Quest over. Home to bed.

But even as these thoughts passed through my head, Impervia asked, "So how do we get to Niagara Falls?"

I groaned.


Arguing with Impervia was futile. Besides, my heart wasn't in it—though part of me wanted to run back to Simka, another part oozed with guilt at abandoning Sebastian. If I could believe Dreamsinger, it seemed certain the boy was now in the clutches of a Lucifer. Furthermore, the Sorcery-Lord was in hot pursuit of the couple; even if she saved Sebastian from the shapeshifting alien, I doubted that she'd treat the boy kindly. A lunatic like her would probably consider Sebastian the Lucifer's partner-in-crime.


Besides, if we went home now, we might never learn what was going on... and despite my past deficiencies in scientific curiosity, this time I wanted to know everything. Therefore, when Impervia began preaching about our divine calling to see this business through, I put up only a token protest: I just pointed out that Dreamsinger and the Ring might both slit our gizzards if we meddled, and that by the time we got to Niagara Falls, all the excitement would likely be over.

Impervia admitted the risk of gizzard-slitting but not that we might be too late to affect the final outcome. We'd been called; therefore we had a part to play. God and the Magdalene had summoned us, and if we stayed true we would end up where we were supposed to be. Holy foot-soldiers in a divine battle plan.

I had no answer to such rock-hard faith. My own sense of religion had never developed one way or the other: I was too embarrassed to say I believed in God, but not angry enough to say I didn't. Neither hot nor cold. I'd always longed to receive a clear vocation ("Philemon Dhubhai, this is your purpose!") but mistrusted anything so pat. When Impervia said we'd finally been called, all I could do was dither.

"Yes, but..."

"No, but..."

"I see that, but..."

"I know that, but..."

I was saved by the arrival of Myoko, Pelinor, and Annah.


They'd been down on the docks when they saw the milky tube descend from the sky. Hard to miss on a dark silent night. So they'd left their fruitless questions about Sebastian—in a port full of smugglers, no one would divulge anything—and they hurried up the cliff-road to the mansions of the rich. Dreamsinger's travel-tube had vanished by the time they arrived; instead, they followed the howling of dogs and found us at the epicenter.

Myoko shook her head ruefully as she approached. "What did you do this time, Impervia?"

Impervia only sniffed.


Tales were quickly told. Myoko said she envied us for finding so much excitement. The Caryatid suggested where she could put that excitement... and much crude-mouthed banter ensued.

Annah, of course, did not take part—not quiet, doe-eyed Annah. She merely listened with a polite smile, glancing my way from time to time. I couldn't tell if those glances meant she was glad I'd survived or if she was having second thoughts about me, my friends, and this whole crisis-prone outing. Before I could draw her aside and ask, Impervia's voice cut through the chatter.

"Enough! We have to find a boat for Niagara Falls. A fast boat. Did you see any possibilities in the harbor?"

"Not among the fishing boats," Pelinor answered. "For speed, you'd want the marina; the expensive pleasure yachts that rich people keep here over winter."

"I'll bet," Myoko said, "we could find a yacht that wasn't securely locked up..."

"Don't even think it," Impervia growled.

Myoko pretended to be surprised. "We can't commandeer a boat in the service of God?"

Impervia only glared.

"I know people in town," Pelinor said. "Horse breeders with money. They probably own boats."

"If we're thinking of people with money," said the Caryatid, "there's always Gretchen Kinnderboom..."

Everyone turned toward me—even Annah, who I'd hoped might not have heard any gossip about me and Gretchen.

I sighed. "Yes, Gretchen has a boat—and she claims it's the fastest in Dover. That's likely just idle boasting, the way she always..." I stopped myself. "Gretchen has a boat. It's supposedly fast. Come on." Silently, I led the way forward.


Kinnderboom Cottage was thirty times the size of any cottage on Earth; but Gretchen reveled in twee diminutives, like calling her thoroughbred stallion "Prancy Pony" and the three-century oak in her side yard "Iddle-Widdle Acorn." (Gretchen had a habit of lapsing into baby talk at the least provocation. She was that kind of woman... and beautiful enough that I often didn't care.)

Like all houses in this part of Dover, the Kinnderboom mansion squatted in the midst of a pointlessly large estate overlooking the lake. The building itself was an up-and-down thing, equipped with so many gables it seemed more like a depot where carpenters stored their inventory than someplace people actually lived. Wherever you looked, there was an architectural feature. Each window had a curlicued metal railing; each door had a portico, an arch, or an assemblage of Corinthian columns. And everything changed on a regular basis: an army of construction crews, landscapers, and interior decorators passed through each year, ripping out the old, slapping up the new. I don't think Gretchen really cared what any of the workers did—she just hired them so she could have more underlings to boss around.

The workers were always men.


The grounds of Kinnderboom Cottage were surrounded by a wall; but I had a key to the gate, plus a good deal of practice sneaking in under cover of darkness. I let my friends enter, locked the gate behind us, then motioned everyone to stand still. Ten seconds... twenty... thirty... whereupon an unearthly creature appeared from the shadows, his stomach pincers clicking as he walked.

"Ahh," he said. "Baron Dhubhai."

Myoko turned toward me and mouthed the word Baron? I shrugged. I had no title in my native Sheba—no one did, except a few old men, indulgently allowed to call themselves princes—but Gretchen knew how rich my family was, and she fervently believed such money would make me at least a baron in any "civilized" province. Therefore, her household slaves were obliged to address me in that fashion.

As for this particular slave, he was the size of a full-grown bull but built like a lobster. Eight legs. Fan tail. Chitinous carapace—colored cherry red, though it looked nearly black in the darkness. His body angled up centaur-style to the height of a human, so his head was a hand's breadth higher than mine. He always had a light smell of vinegar, faint here in the open air but still quite noticeable. His face: flat and wide with dangling whiskers and a spike-nosed snout. His arms: two spindly ones almost always folded across his chest and two nasty pincer claws at waist level, jutting forward at just the right height to disembowel an adult human. He was still clicking those claws idly as he looked us up and down.

From past visits, I knew this alien's name was Oberon. He served on guard duty every night; Oberon was one of Gretchen's most trusted "demons."

All of Gretchen's staff were extraterrestrials. In fact, the Kinnderboom fortune came from "demonmongery": breeding and selling alien slaves. Gretchen didn't dirty her hands in the family business—she didn't dirty her hands with any sort of work—but she kept more than a dozen ETs in her household "for the sake of appearances." Foremost among those ETs were Oberon and his family, who came from some species with human-level intelligence but an antlike predisposition to follow the commands of a queen. Even though Gretchen couldn't have resembled the queens of Oberon's race, she still filled that role in his eyes. After all, Oberon had never seen a queen... and he'd been raised from the egg by Gretchen herself, brought up to obey her every whim.

There in the yard, lobsterlike Oberon was obviously trying to decide how Gretchen's whims would run tonight. If I'd been alone, he would have let me proceed to the house immediately; Gretchen's standing orders were to let me pass, and she'd decide for herself whether to admit me to her glorious presence. But I'd come with five strangers in tow, and Oberon wasn't eager to let them close to his exalted mistress. He belonged to his species' warrior caste, and his first instinct was to keep his queen safe from outsiders.

He clicked his pincers softly. "We weren't expecting guests tonight, baron."

"I know. But we need to see Gretchen immediately."

"The question is, does she need to see you?"

"Excellent point, good fellow," said Pelinor. Our noble knight liked aliens almost as much as he liked horses; he'd been gazing in admiration at Oberon ever since the big ET had appeared from the darkness. And just as he had a feel for horse psychology, Pelinor could guess what was on Oberon's mind. "How about this," he told the demon. "You keep us here while, uhh, Baron Dhubhai goes for a private chat with Ms. Kinnderboom. No problem with that, is there?"

Oberon nodded immediately and waved me toward the house. I gave my friends one last glance (attempting a soulful meeting-of-the-eyes with Annah, then a warning glare at Impervia, who was gazing at Oberon with the thoughtful look of someone considering where to punch a lobster for maximum effect); then I hurried up the gravel drive.


The front of Kinnderboom Cottage was dark: no lights in any of the rooms, just a single oil lamp above the main entrance. Still, I was certain Gretchen would be awake; for the past five years, she'd slept days instead of nights. If anyone asked why, she'd say, "I'm a vampire now, darling, didn't you get my note?"... but in fact, she was just a woman on the high side of forty, trying to deny she might ever show her age. Daylight was too unforgiving, especially since the cottage had mirrors in every room. Gretchen preferred to see herself by candleshine, or when she was greatly daring, by the muted glow of sun through curtains. Her bedroom had curtains in three different colors—red, gold, and dusky brown—plus meters of thick white lace, so she could make love in the afternoon and tint the lighting to whatever shade made her feel sexy.

She never went outside. Ever. Sometimes after a night together, she would nudge me out of bed at dawn and get me to open the doors to the balcony outside her window. She would ask me to pull the thinnest lace curtains across the opening, like a sheer white veil; then she would make me get back into bed, and she would go alone to the doorway, standing naked in the sunrise, inhaling the morning and the breeze that fluttered the curtains around her.

But she never threw the curtains wide open. Never took that last step onto the balcony to feel the sun on her skin. She always stayed behind the thin lace barrier. Sometimes I wondered if this was all just a performance, so I could see her body backlit by dawn and imagine the breeze licking her nipples, the sheer curtains swishing against her stomach and thighs... but at other times, I was sure I could sense an ache inside her, a yearning to be truly outdoors instead of a single step shy. She would stand there for minutes, closing her eyes and taking deep silent breaths; then she would come back wordlessly to bed and either cling to me like a little girl or throw herself into ravenous love-making, driving, driving, driving until we were both obliterated.

Those moments were what made me keep coming back to Kinnderboom Cottage—not for the sex itself, but for the woman who used sex to run from herself. Lonely, silly, exploitive Gretchen. She made me feel needed... which is not the same as being loved or appreciated, but it can still be addictive if you don't ask yourself too many questions.


The door opened as I walked up the front steps. Oberon's mate Titania stood in the entrance, bowing low in greeting. Like her husband, she was built on lobstery lines, but smaller and colored a deep earthy brown. Instead of pincers, Titania had a second pair of arms: nimble and strong despite their thinness. She served as Gretchen's majordomo, keeping the other slaves organized. If Titania were human, she might easily have become total mistress of the estate, since Gretchen had neither the shrewdness nor the discipline to resist. Gretchen could have become a pampered prisoner with Titania controlling the staff and the purse-strings. But Titania was not human; she was an alien lobster whose instincts to follow a queen were just as strong as Oberon's. Though Titania ran the cottage far better than Gretchen ever could, Titania would never dream of usurping ultimate command.

"Good evening, baron," Titania said. "It's provident you came. Mistress Gretchen could use some company just now."

"I'm afraid that's not why I'm here. I need Gretchen's help."

Titania stared at me a moment, the tips of her whiskers lifting. I'd come to recognize that as her species' look of disapproval: Queen Gretchen was apparently in some black mood and Titania wanted me to make things brighter, not bring new problems of my own. On the other hand, it was not a courtier's place to shield her queen from making decisions; in Titania's mind I was behaving with commendable sense, approaching Queen Gretchen with a humble petition for aid. That's what loyal subjects did... and loyal retainers didn't stand in the way.

"All right," Titania said, making an effort to relax her whiskers, "I'll present you. But take off your boots—they're filthy."


We walked up to Gretchen's room in silence: Titania in front and me behind, because she was too big for us to walk side by side through corridors built to normal human scale. She held a kerosene lamp in one hand, but its shine was blocked by her body; climbing the stairs, I was almost completely in the dark.

Then again, I didn't need any light—I'd gone up and down this stairway so often in blackness, I knew exactly how many steps there were and which were likely to creak under my weight. Heaven knows why Gretchen and I were so furtive when there was nobody else in the house except slaves, and the slaves were aliens with precious little interest in human sexual affairs... but we always conducted our meetings like an adulterous couple sneaking around while their spouses slept nearby.

Stupid habit. But that's what Gretchen and I had: just an ongoing habit.

Titania tapped on the door of Gretchen's suite, then went inside without waiting. I followed into the so-called Sitting Room: a place seldom used but often redecorated, with its appearance changing from season to season (sometimes month to month, or week to week). At the moment, it was designed to fight the dourness of winter with warm/hot colors—wallpaper of ferocious carmine red accented with a black and gold border around the top. The furniture (couch, rocking chair, ottoman) matched the color scheme with appropriate upholstery or afghan throw-covers draped neatly over bare wood. The neatness of the afghans proved Gretchen truly was in a bad way. When she was feeling good, she sprawled wherever she wanted with no regard for how the afghans might slip; when she was in a mood, she needed everything just so, and could spend hours fussing to get proper tucks and folds.

Titania crossed the room as quickly as her eight legs would go—I think she deliberately avoided seeing how fastidiously everything was arranged—and she knocked at the door to the bedroom. "Mistress Gretchen," she murmured, "Baron Dhubhai has come to visit." Titania looked my direction as if daring me to say otherwise; then she turned back to the closed door and asked, "May I let him in?"

If any answer came, it was too quiet for me to hear. Nevertheless, Titania turned the knob and pushed the door open. "The mistress will see you now."

I nodded. Titania bowed once more, then silently brushed past me as she headed downstairs.


I'd never seen the bedroom so brilliantly lit: every flat surface held two or three shine-stones, beaming dollops of quartz I assumed had been enchanted by sorcerers working for Papa Kinnderboom in Feliss City. Usually Gretchen only kept one or two stones out in the open, and she often draped those with squares of thin cotton to mute the gleam; but tonight there were dozens all over the place, standing uncovered on the vanity, the dressers, the night stands, even scattered on the floor. My eyes ached from the brightness—I had to shield my gaze with my hand as I searched for Gretchen herself.

Despite the incessant remodeling in other parts of the house, Gretchen's bedroom hadn't changed in years—except for the darkening curtains, the place was always white, white, white, the walls, the bedding, the carpet. For variation, the furniture was painted in a range of bleached grays. There were also accents of color where Gretchen had thrown a sapphire blue dress over a chair, and left a crimson bra pooled on the floor; but the overall impression was still that eye-glaring white, illuminated now by several dozen shine-stones.

Quite bright enough to show that Gretchen was missing.

She'd recently been in the bed: the covers were thrown back and the sheets rumpled. The sight made me think of dead Rosalind, her covers wide open too. But Gretchen was not lying sprawled across the mattress... nor was she sitting at the vanity or lounging in the giant bathtub against the far wall. I peeked into the walk-in closet, but saw no sign of her. I didn't get down to look under the bed, but I glanced in that direction while staying on my feet, and decided it was unlikely Gretchen had managed to crawl out of sight. Since there was nowhere else she could hide (short of scrunching into a cedar chest or one of the trunks in the closet), I was on the verge of leaving; then a puff of breeze swirled the curtains in front of the balcony doors.

The doors were open. Despite the chill of the not-yet-spring night.

The hairs on the back of my neck bristled as I walked across the room. If she'd finally taken that last step into the open air... I kept picturing her throwing herself off the balcony in some fit of despondence. Or bid for attention. We were only one story up, so she'd almost certainly survive; but I didn't want to look over the railing and see Gretchen lying below. I had to force myself to push through the curtains, into the cold night breeze...

...where Gretchen stood quite alive, naked and hugging herself, rapidly puckering into one gigantic goose-pimple.


"Hi," I said.

"Hi yourself." Her teeth chattered. "Could you, uhh..." She lifted one arm to gesture back into the room, then quickly went back to hugging herself. It took me a moment to realize what she wanted.

"The lights?" I said.


I hurried back into the bedroom and collected shine-stones, dropping them into the thick velvet sack where Gretchen usually kept them. As I worked, I couldn't help chuckling—imagining Gretchen as she heard the knock at her door. She must have realized she was surrounded by more light than a summer afternoon... so she scuttled to the balcony to keep me from seeing her in the unforgiving glare. All those times I'd tried to get her outdoors, I'd been using the wrong tactics.

I laughed again.

Soon I was carrying a bag full of shine: all the stones except one. I'd left that one on the night stand and covered it with a scarf of turquoise gossamer that had been balled up on the vanity. The resulting light tinted the room either sickly green or sea-mist blue, depending on your tolerance for turquoise... but it seemed to satisfy Gretchen, for she immediately came back inside, and closed the doors behind her. For a count of three she tried to bluff out the moment, letting her arms fall to her sides and striking a pose of regal nudity, pretending to be unfazed by cold. Then the shivers hit her and she stumbled forward, ripping a comforter off the bed and wrapping herself as her body shook.

I took her into my arms. She was a tall woman, almost exactly my height, long-legged and lean... but at that moment she seemed much smaller, shrinking into me as she opened the comforter and wrapped it around the two of us. Her bare body pressed against my clothes. Milky skin, green eyes, russet hair—all of which seemed entirely natural, but when a woman's daddy has sorcerers on his payroll, one can never tell how much cosmetic help she had in her formative years. Kaylan's Chameleon isn't the only beauty spell cast on developing girls—sorcerers have plenty of "tuck 'n' tweak" enchantments, making eye color more vivid, hair more lush, and adolescent body development more in keeping with local fashion. There was a reason my cousin Hafsah had such memorable loveliness: my grandma the governor paid for it. For the same reason, Gretchen's creamy complexion showed no hint of the usual freckles, moles, and other punctuations that flesh is normally heir to.

Yet sorcery has its limitations—it can correct imperfections, but it can't stop time. Removing a mole just means banishing pigments from a specific area of tissue; removing a wrinkle from a forty-ish woman's face means fighting the whole course of physical development, all the ongoing changes that lead to dry skin, slowing hormones and declining glands. Aging isn't one thing, it's everything... and neither science nor sorcery has identified all the body's clocks, let alone figured out how to turn them back in unison. There are too many proteins and enzymes and secretions that have to be balanced: if you stop the formation of crow's feet by changing the quantity of a particular body chemical, other body chemicals shift too. Lots of chemicals. Next thing you know, there might be a rash, or sores, or an epileptic fit.

Aging isn't an aberration that can be set back on track... it's the track itself.

I looked at the woman in my arms, and despite the dimness of the light, I could see everything she didn't admit was there: the wrinkles, the crinkles, the lines. A puffiness around the jaw; lapses in the sleekness of her neck. All very subtle, what most of us would consider insignificant—anyone standing back a few steps would see a woman at the peak of her beauty. But that wasn't enough for Gretchen. When she invited a man to her boudoir, she had no intention of keeping him at arm's length.

"I'm glad you're here," she whispered. Her breath caressed my neck; a moment later, her lips did too.

"Gretchen," I said, "I can't stay."

"Don't be a silly billy." She kissed my neck again. "You just got here."

"I have some friends outside. There's been trouble at the school, and we need to borrow your boat."

"What?" She blinked as if I'd just pinched her.

"One of our students has run off. People are after him—dangerous people. We need a fast boat so we can find him before they do."

"You're just here to take my boat?" Her voice had an edge of outrage.

"It's important, Gretchen. A girl is dead. Murdered. And other people are dead too, thanks to a Spark Lord who—"

"A Spark Lord? Which Spark Lord?"

"The female Sorcery-Lord. Called Dreamsinger. She showed up at a tavern and—"

"You met a Spark Lord? When?"

"Tonight," I said. "Just a while ago. Now she's gone to Niagara Falls, and we need your boat to—"

"So this Sorcery-Lord is in Niagara Falls?"

"That's where she said she was going."

"And you want my boat to go there too?"


She drew away from me—not abruptly, but in typical Gretchen fashion: a squeeze of mock affection, then an ooze of regretful detachment, and finally a playful flash of her naked body before she closed the comforter around herself. "All right," she said, "we'll head for Niagara Falls."


"Yes: we." She threw off the comforter and began to get dressed.


She'd probably claim that she dressed in a hurry... and she did abbreviate her usual routine of trying on half her wardrobe before deciding what suited her mood. But Gretchen was not one of those heroines from fiction who can switch instantly from pampered beauty to rugged adventurer. If her bedroom caught fire, she wouldn't leave until she'd tried on half a dozen outfits to see which matched the flames. As for being seen in public without rouge, mascara, perfume, et cetera—silly billy, what are you thinking?

So I sat on the bed and waited as patiently as I could. Trying to rush Gretchen was worse than useless—if you annoyed her, she slowed down to punish you. The woman had a knack for petty vindictiveness: entirely unconscious too. She'd be genuinely shocked if you suggested she was deliberately taking longer than necessary to redden her lips, pluck her eyebrows, and choose which garters went with which stockings inside which boots to wear on a muddy night in late thaw; and then she'd slow down even more.

Gretchen could drive a man mad in so many ways.

"Now tell me," she called as she rummaged through boxes in her closet, "what did this Dreamsinger look like?"

"Don't know," I answered. "She was hidden in Kaylan's Chameleon."

Gretchen stuck her head out of the closet. "Now I really want to know what she looked like. Me perhaps?"

"If you were my ideal sexual object, do you think I'd admit it?"

She laughed and disappeared back into the closet—no doubt convinced I couldn't possibly desire any woman besides herself.

I said, "You realize this trip might get dangerous? We aren't the only ones going to Niagara. Have you heard of the Ring of Knives?"

"God, those people? I swear, that dreadful Warwick Xavier spies on me with a telescope."

"He's a smuggler; he watches the lake for customs agents."

"He watches my windows for a glimpse of my booboos."

"Do you ever give him one?"

Gretchen laughed. "Of course. Every girl needs someone to torture."

"In addition to herself."

Gretchen didn't dignify that with an answer. For a while, the only sound from the closet was the squeal of metal hangers scraping sharply along clothes-rods.

"So," I finally said, "why so many shine-stones tonight?"

"Nothing, darling, just a whim."

"What kind of whim?"

"An idle one."

Since she couldn't see me, I rolled my eyes. "You weren't, for example, afraid of the dark and wanted as much light as possible? Or feeling so depressed, you thought the light would cheer you up?"

"Don't be ridiculous. I feel fine."

"Really? Titania was worried about you."

"What did she say?"

"She didn't say anything. But she has a way of twitching her whiskers..."

"Titania should keep her whiskers to herself." Gretchen stuck her head out of the closet again. For some reason, she was wearing a green felt hat shaped like an iguana. The rest of her was still naked. "Really, darling, I'm fine. Honestly."



She vanished once more into the closet. I could hear boxes being shoved around... or possibly being kicked. Under all that racket, she murmured something so softly I couldn't make it out.

"Beg pardon?" I said.

Gretchen didn't answer right away. Then she spoke in a manner intended to sound airy and offhanded. "I suppose Titania thought I was upset because the Earl of Brant canceled his visit yesterday. But why should that bother me? He's a busy man; he said he had pressing affairs of state."

I winced. For centuries, the phrase "affairs of state" has meant hopping into bed with some trollop. The expression is so universally associated with sex that people in government avoid it when referring to legitimate activities—if you truly spend your time on official duties, you don't say you're dealing with affairs of state. That only makes folks snicker.

Besides, I knew the Earl of Brant: a rake in his mid-twenties, far too good-looking and rich. Brought up by a doting aunt whose only means of discipline was telling the boy how much better he was than anyone else. "So don't you think you should act better too?" I couldn't picture the earl spending a nanosecond on real administrative chores; if he'd wriggled out of a date with Gretchen, it was only because he'd found someone younger, prettier, and/or double-jointed.

Gretchen must have known that too: she was blind about many things, but astute in detecting the lies of unfaithful lovers—she had extensive knowledge of such lies, having used them all herself. No callow pup like the Earl of Brant could deceive Gretchen Kinnderboom, especially with such a transparent excuse. Affairs of state indeed! The earl was thumbing his nose at her, as if she wasn't worth inventing a better story.

I knew it. Gretchen knew it.

Gretchen must also have known I'd see through the earl's lie... yet she told me anyway. Almost as if she were confiding in me. As close as she could come to sharing her pain. My eyes stung with tears, and guilt. If Gretchen had ever reached out to me before this, rather than toying with me, dangling me on the hook, never admitting she might need me for anything more than scratching a sexual itch—if she'd ever acknowledged the slightest crack in her armor—perhaps I would have been thinking, I hope Gretchen doesn't get jealous over Annah. But I was thinking, I hope Annah doesn't get jealous over Gretchen.

That was the way things were. I cared what Annah thought, but all I had left for Gretchen was pity: that the earl's cruel brush-off had shaken her so badly she was finally seeking an emotional connection with me.

Just a few hours too late.

"So you must have been bored," I said, trying to keep my voice light, "sitting here without company. Why didn't you send me a note?"

"Don't be ridiculous. I wasn't bored." The rummaging in the closet had gone silent. "Besides, what would you think if I had invited you? The gentleman must petition the lady, never the other way around. Otherwise, it looks like she's groveling."

"No. It looks like she needs a friend."

"A friend?" She must have realized her voice had gone shrill, because she broke off and forced out a laugh. "If I need a friend, I'll buy a spaniel. What I can't buy is a man."

"True." Though she'd tried to buy men on many occasions. "So why are you interested in this Spark Lord?"

The rummaging sounds resumed, plus the clatter of hangers and the opening/closing of the drawers built into the closet. "I've never met a Spark," Gretchen said as she rifled through her wardrobe. "It's one of my lifelong dreams." She faked another laugh. "You know what a horrid social-climber I am."

"This Spark isn't social, she's a sociopath. The type who bursts people into bloody giblets just so she can make a dramatic exit."

"But she won't do that to me," Gretchen said. "It wouldn't make sense."

"I don't think Dreamsinger cares whether her actions make sense. She's a few candles short of a black mass, if you catch my meaning. Either that, or she just acts like a crazy woman to intimidate us lesser mortals. I'll admit that's a possibility. All Sparks act unbalanced: sometimes benevolent, sometimes homicidal. Ruling by both love and fear—Machiavelli would approve."

Gretchen stuck her head out of the closet again. Still naked from the neck down, she had on a black suede cowboy hat and long diamond earrings. "You talk as if you know all about the Sparks," she said.

"No one knows all about the Sparks; but my governor grandma studied them as best she could. Asking other governors for information... gathering reports on where particular Spark Lords had been seen... what they did... whom they associated with..."

"It's a wonder the Sparks didn't kill your grandmother for snooping."

I shrugged. "They expect such behavior from governors; they even approve. The more a governor learns about Spark Royal's capabilities, the less that governor is likely to cause trouble."

"Because the Sparks are unpredictable and have outrageously powerful technology?"


Gretchen disappeared back into the closet. "Rumor has it they're backed by extraterrestrials."

"Yes," I agreed, "rumor has it."

"High-up races in the League of Peoples."


"You don't believe it?"

"The League claims to oppose the murder of sentient creatures. It's supposed to be their most fundamental law—not to take life deliberately or through willful negligence. So why would they support a bunch of killers like the Sparks?"

"Mmm." Something went <SNAP> in the closet: an elastic waistband, a garter belt, some kind of fastener. Gretchen said, "Maybe the League needs the Sparks for special services."

"What special services?"

"I don't know—necessary work that's beneath the League's dignity. Emptying chamberpots... slitting throats... going to bed with crazy Uncle Hans so he won't bother anyone else."

I laughed. "The League of Peoples has a crazy Uncle Hans?"

"Everyone has a crazy Uncle Hans." Her voice was muffled, presumably by a garment being pulled over her head. "Seriously, darling, everyone has a kleptomaniac aunt, or a cousin who plays with his peepee in front of guests. Perhaps Spark Royal looks after the League's embarrassments. In exchange, the Sparks get fancy weapons and armor and gadgets to keep those embarrassments under control."

"So Earth is a prison planet and the Sparks are the guards?"

"Not guards, darling. Baby-sitters."

Gretchen came out of the closet, a traveling case in one hand and her clothes swirling. The greatest swirl came from her dress: a warmth of forest green that stretched with eye-fetching cling from throat to waist, then flared out below to eddy around her ankles. For tramping outdoors, the hem was almost too low: one wouldn't want it dragging through the mud. But Gretchen had also donned knee-high buckskin boots with platform soles, not ridiculously high but enough to keep her gown clear of the muck. Another swirl above her waist came from a woolen shawl the color of burgundy, pinned at the neck with a silver ankh. She'd abandoned silly hats in favor of a thick green band that held her red hair back and wrapped warmly around her ears... all in all, a more practical outfit for traipsing through slush than I would have expected.

"Well?" Gretchen asked, flashing her dimples.

"Ravishing as always. I didn't know you had outfits for leaving the house."

"Silly billy. I have outfits for everything."

"But you don't go out, do you?" I tried to meet her eyes, but she pretended to be busy, picking nonexistent lint off her sleeve. "Why now, Gretchen? What do you want with Dreamsinger?"

"I told you, darling, I'm such a flighty social-climber—"

"Don't lie," I interrupted. "If you have some harebrained idea you can get something out of a Spark Lord—if you think you can charm or outwit her—you don't know who you're dealing with. Dreamsinger is nowhere near sane. If you make her angry, Gretchen, she'll kill you. Maybe the rest of us too."

"Darling," Gretchen said, "I don't make people angry. I don't make you angry, do I? I'm just curious to meet someone truly important."

She swirled from the room without letting me answer. Without even pausing to freshen her makeup one last time.

Uneasily, I followed her out.



Titania said nothing as she held the front door, but she did something odd with her whiskers: a diagonal weave, right-side-up/left-side-down, then vice versa, back and forth several times. I had no idea what it meant in her species... maybe surprise, maybe a smirk, maybe some lobsterish emotion with no human equivalent.

Gretchen ignored it completely—she linked her right elbow in my left, wrapped her free hand around my arm, then surged off into the darkness. (I, of course, was carrying her traveling case. It wasn't light.) The way she pressed her body against mine could easily be mistaken for passion. Few people would have recognized the effort of a housebound woman driving herself outdoors by sheer momentum, clutching me for moral support. I could feel her shiver, though she was thoroughly wrapped against the cold.

It would have been cruel to push her away, but I still considered it as we approached the gate. I hated the thought of my friends seeing Gretchen barnacled to my side. They'd met her once, when she threw a special soiree for them ("Phil, introduce me to all your widdle chums!"), and it had been every bit the nightmare you'd expect. Gretchen played La Grande Hostesse, determined to flaunt her wealth and pedigree; Pelinor and the Caryatid had embarrassed themselves by trying to act "sophisticated"; and Myoko and Impervia had radiated such pure contempt all evening, it was a wonder they hadn't blistered the paint off the walls.

As for Annah, I cringed to think of her seeing Gretchen cling to me. Gretchen groping my sleeve. Gretchen talking her baby talk, or gushing about some party she'd held for the Duke of This and the Viscount of That.

Unquestionably, Gretchen would gush. She'd gush and twitter and fondle my arm in front of everyone. And I'd have to bear it. Not only did we need Gretchen's boat, but I found myself in that state of endure-anything politeness that descends like a portcullis when you've separated yourself mentally from an old flame but haven't yet told her you're leaving. You'll suffer any cloying demand for affection, you'll be punctiliously attentive, because it's your penance for what you soon intend to do.

I wondered what Annah would think when she saw Gretchen all over me. I just hoped she wouldn't burst into tears of betrayal.


Annah laughed. Loudly. White teeth appearing in her dark face, lips opening, a surprisingly throaty chuckle. She covered her mouth quickly, but I could still hear giggles behind her hand. By the light of the Caryatid's flame, I could also see Annah exchanging looks with Myoko. For a moment, I had no idea what was going on; then I realized Myoko must have predicted Gretchen and I would appear in exactly this way, Gretchen pawing me possessively. It was always the same whenever Gretchen met my female friends—she'd immediately make a big show of fawning over me, as if to say, This man is mine.

"You took long enough," Impervia declared. She probably thought Gretchen and I had stopped for a brief romp between the sheets; to Impervia, the world was a hotbed of fornication, always just beyond her sight. "We've already taken the horses to Ms. Kinnderboom's stables," she said. "And rubbed them down. And listened to Pelinor fight with the hostler about what kind of fodder they need."

"Please forgive us," Gretchen oozed. "The delay was my fault." She was using her charm-the-peasants voice—a tone of creamy condescension that was never as false as it seemed. Though she sounded phony, Gretchen liked people: almost everyone she met. Her mistake was thinking she could make them like her in return. "I had to get dressed," Gretchen said. "Your mission sounds so important, I'm coming too. To help any way I can."

Out of Gretchen's sight, Myoko rolled her eyes. Pelinor, however, clapped Gretchen on the shoulder. "Good for you—that's the spirit. I assume your vessel is large enough to hold us all?"

"Of course. Shall we go?"

"Oh yes, do let's," said Myoko, making her voice as low and satiny as Gretchen's. She slipped Gretchen's traveling case out of my hand and tossed it to Oberon (who caught it in one of his pincers). Then Myoko took my right arm in exactly the same grip as Gretchen held my left, and batted her eyelashes outrageously.

Behind my back, Annah broke into another bout of giggles.


I crossed the grounds of Kinnderboom Cottage with women clutched to my arms. Gretchen spent the time quizzing everyone on their impressions of the Sorcery-Lord, but got little information in response. The Caryatid answered every question as if the Sparks might be listening: never speaking a negative word, praising Dreamsinger's power and "force of personality." Impervia, who usually loved detailing the character flaws of people, chose to be contrary this time and told Gretchen nothing.

The only new data I gleaned from conversation was a description of Dreamsinger's armor: a body shell made from glossy plastic, colored sorcerer's crimson, and shaped to mimic the contours of a female body. The helmet had no holes for eyes or mouth... just a plate of smoked glass that offered no glimpse of the woman inside. The several times Dreamsinger had kissed someone—Dee-James, the Caryatid—she hadn't removed the helmet, so no one had seen her face. She could still be anything from a bandy-legged twelve-year-old to a gray-haired grandam.

When we reached the bluffs, Myoko and Gretchen were forced to release their grip on my arms—the stairway down was only one person wide. I made sure Gretchen had a firm hold on the banister, then took the lead downward.

The canopy that usually covered the stairs had been removed for the winter. Therefore, we had a clear view of the lake stretching off to the horizon, glimmering with catches of starlight. On either side of the steps, tangles of thistle and burdock grew despite the looseness of the soil. The weeds had gone brittle in the winter's cold, but plenty of life remained in their roots: they always sprang back when the weather warmed, and I expected Oberon would soon be down here using his pincers to prune any vegetation that encroached on the stairs.

Thinking of Oberon, I glanced back over my shoulder and saw him making his ponderous way down the stairs. The big lobster refused to leave his queen unprotected among strangers... though at the moment, the greatest threat to Gretchen was that Oberon would miss his footing and become a bull-sized avalanche plummeting down upon us.

But Oberon was sure-footed despite his ungainly size: eight legs bestowed remarkable stability. We descended the steps without incident and found ourselves on Gretchen's private pier, facing the good ship Dainty Dinghy.

It was not, of course, a dinghy... nor was it close to dainty. Gretchen's boat was a full-fledged frigate, a former ship-of-war in the Rustland navy and decommissioned in its prime under dubious circumstances.

Specifically: in Gretchen's youth, when she was wild and adventurous and unafraid of open sunlight, Gretchen had wanted a ship. She voiced this desire to a Rustland admiral over whom she exercised undue influence. The admiral somehow arranged for the frigate to be declared "obsolete and supernumerary," whereupon Gretchen purchased it at a rigged auction for vastly less than its true worth. Later, the admiral had been court-martialed, and it was now ill-advised for either Gretchen or the Dinghy to venture into Rustland waters; but lucky for us, the lake's north shore from Dover to the Niagara river was Feliss territory. We were entirely safe from Rustland's old grudge.

Unless we were blown off course. Which I didn't want to think about. Our streak of bad luck had to end sometime, right?


"Ahoy, the ship!" Pelinor shouted. Good thing he'd taken the initiative. If we'd left the job to Gretchen, she'd have stood on the dock who-knows-how-long, genteelly clearing her throat until somebody noticed us.

Two seconds later, a head poked into view above the ship's railing. It was not a human head; since the light from the Caryatid's shoulderflame didn't carry far, I couldn't see the face distinctly, but I knew it lacked eyes, nose, and mouth. This was Captain Zunctweed, an alien I'd met several times. He belonged to a race that demonmongers called Patatas: Spanish for potatoes, so-called because his people had pock-marks all over their bodies like the "eyes" of a potato. Some of Zunctweed's pock-marks were eyes, randomly arranged from head to toe. Other pocks were breathing orifices, others were for eating, a few were for smelling or hearing... and the rest had yet to be understood by what we laughingly called Science on post-Tech Earth.

All we knew about Patatas, one could learn from a brief inspection of any member of the race:

(a) They were human-shaped with two arms, two legs, and a head. However, they had practically no torso—their legs came up almost to their armpits, giving them a gangling gawky appearance but truly astonishing speed when they chose to run.

(b) Despite their sprinting prowess, Patatas never ran when they could walk, and never walked when they could lie in a hammock, bawling out orders.

(c) It took bitter cold or heat before Patatas would wear clothing. Quite simply, they liked showing off their unclad bodies. And no two members of their race had anything close to the same skin coloration—I'd seen one covered with swirls of lurid red and orange, another who was eye-watering turquoise with zebra stripes of mauve, and a third whom I might describe as "reverse cheetah": dark brown with flaming yellow spots.

Captain Zunctweed was mostly white with smears of soft green on his elbows, knees, and other major joints. Oberon claimed that Zunctweed "enhanced" his true coloration by rubbing himself with grass... but given the time of year, he hadn't had access to green grass for several months, so at the moment he was au naturel.

Zunctweed folded his hands resignedly on the deck-rail in front of him and looked down on us like a dignified grandfather interrupted by noisy brats. This was quite a trick, considering that he had no facial features to give this impression. Still, the collection of flecks and divots on his cranium radiated aggrieved forbearance. "Yes?"

The alien's voice was a chorus of whispers—his multiple mouths talking simultaneously, saying the same words. I theorized that each breathing orifice on his body had its own small-scale lungs; no single mouth could draw enough air to achieve significant speech volume, but acting together, they could make themselves heard. I'd always had a modest desire to dissect Zunctweed and see if my theory was correct... but like my other vague notions for Scientific Research, nothing had ever come of it.

"Good evening, captain," Gretchen said. "We're here to go for a sail."

"A sail?" Zunctweed repeated the words as if he'd never heard them before. "A sail. A sail. No one informed us of any sail." He gravely turned to speak with someone behind him on deck. "Have we received any memoranda concerning a sail?"

He was answered by a high-pitched chitter. That had to come from a member of Dinghy's crew—aliens called NikNiks, like rhesus monkeys but as smart as human five-year-olds. They understood English, but didn't speak it; their mouths couldn't shape the words. Instead, they talked in high-pitched squirrellike tirades. Zunctweed claimed to understand them perfectly... and since nobody else could comprehend a syllable, he'd become captain: the only slave in Gretchen's possession who could converse with both humans and the crew.

"Zunctweed," Gretchen said, "you haven't heard about this trip because I just decided on the spur of the moment. Wild and spontaneous... that's how I am."

She smiled prettily. With dimples. Gretchen could make her dimples appear at will.

"Ah," replied Zunctweed. "Wild and spontaneous. I see. Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. All very well for some people—those who can afford to leap before they look. Still, at your age, one might expect such thoughtless frivolity would have begun to taper off."

Gretchen gasped in outrage. Oberon clacked his pincers. "Zunctweed! You're talking to our mistress."

"Our mistress?" Zunctweed repeated. "Our mistress? You may have the pleasure of such a relationship, Oberon, but Ms. Kinnderboom is not my mistress, she is merely my owner. A subtle distinction, but there it is. Whatever gratification you find in being a slave, I am only kept here by sorcery."

"Captain Zunctweed," Gretchen said sharply, "I'm aware you dislike your position in my household. But you work for me and you'll take my orders. I've decided to sail to Niagara Falls; that's all you need to know."

"That's it, is it? All I need to know. Well." Zunctweed spoke with half his mouths while the other mouths heaved ostentatious sighs. "Then I don't need to know how long it takes to make a boat shipshape after long periods of disuse? Years when you were too busy with parties and fine food and umty-tiddly to care about basic nautical maintenance? And that's not to mention the winter just past. It's a good thing I don't need to know how hard winter is on a ship. When the lake freezes and ice crushes against the hull—"

"Captain," Gretchen interrupted, "the boat was not locked in by ice. You took it into the middle of the lake where the water doesn't freeze, and you sailed around doing God knows what for most of the winter. Probably smuggling and piracy."

"Smuggling and piracy? I see. I'm a smuggler and a pirate. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of contraband rum. Dancing the hornpipe on a dead man's chest." Zunctweed made a pathetic attempt at capering, waving his arms ponderously. "Tra-la-la, I'm a jolly buccaneer."

"The point is," Gretchen said, "you've been using the Dinghy for months. I'm sure it's perfectly ready to sail."

"And in all those months, could it be we used no provisions? Yes, that must be it: we weren't supposed to eat. And now you think our larders are brimming with venison and lark's tongue, not to mention mangoes and kiwis and amusingly shaped rutabagas..."

"Quiet!" Gretchen snapped. "We're going to Niagara Falls! A mere ten hours away. Neither you nor your crew will starve in that time, even if you have run out of food, which I strongly doubt. And if we do find ourselves maddened by hunger, I know whom we'll kill and eat first."

"Oh. So it's come down to threats. The owner/slave relationship laid bare. Well. There it is. Never mind that one of my hearts is shutting down. I'm supposed to soldier on obediently, even if I'm too blinded by pain to navigate and we all end up on the rocks. Being wild and spontaneous is so much more important than responsible maritime practice..."

Beside me, Impervia moved. I'd expected it sooner than this, but perhaps she'd needed time to figure how to board the ship. The Dinghy was a sizable vessel, not a modest yacht or pleasure craft. Its deck was two stories above us; its hull was a solid wood wall along the side of the pier, and there was no gangplank to welcome guests. There were no rope ladders either, nor chains, nor any other accoutrements someone might scurry up. Even the ropes securing the boat to the dock had big wooden funnels clamped around them, mouths facing toward us: obviously the funnels were attached to prevent anyone from clambering up to the deck. I wondered if these were normal precautions, or if Zunctweed had some special reason for sealing off the ship.

Impervia was going to find out. She crossed the dock and whispered into Myoko's ear. Myoko nodded. Pelinor and the Caryatid stepped back to give more room—they knew what was coming. While Gretchen and Zunctweed continued their verbal fencing, Myoko's hair rose... and a moment later, Impervia rose too, lifted by telekinesis for the second time that night.

Zunctweed didn't notice until she was level with the deck. The captain only had time to say, "Bother!" Then Impervia was over the railing and landing with a thunk.

"Good evening, sinner."

Zunctweed ran. It was futile, considering he was stuck on a ship with nowhere to go... but he gave it his best, fleeing from Impervia with the inhuman speed of his overlength legs. Impervia chased him anyway, both of them disappearing from view, their footsteps echoing across the timbers. I could track the sound as they raced below decks, then a door slammed: probably Zunctweed locking himself inside the captain's cabin. Five seconds later came another slam, which I took to be Impervia kicking the door off its hinges. Squeals ensued, then bumps and thumps.

A fight. Impervia had got into a fight. How astonishing.


"Perhaps," said Pelinor, drawing his cutlass, "I'd better go up there too. Myoko, if you'd please..."

With a running start, he leapt energetically toward the deck. It was the old knight's way of being helpful—the few times he'd needed a telekinetic pick-me-up during street fights, Pelinor always made an effort to jump so Myoko didn't have to lift him as far. She'd given up trying to explain he was just making things more difficult: forcing her to snatch a moving target. On occasion, she just hadn't caught him, whether because she wasn't ready or because she wanted to teach him a lesson; once or twice, he'd landed amidst a flurry of fists, taking punches till Myoko deigned to spirit him away. This time, however, Pelinor stood to suffer more than bruises: he'd hurled himself toward the boat at top speed. If Myoko didn't nab him, he'd whack against the Dinghy's side, then fall into the narrow gap between ship and pier—down into cold winter water, dredged deep enough to float a frigate. Prime potential for drowning. Not to mention the rocking of the waves might crush him between the boat and the dock's pilings.

I had a split-second to glance at Myoko. Her hair had returned to normal since lifting Impervia—no static-electric spread, just a little residual puffiness. She growled in exasperation, "Pelinor!" Then the knight soared upward, over the Dinghy's side-rail, and onto the deck's solid planks.

Myoko's hair didn't move at all.

Pelinor disappeared in the direction Zunctweed and Impervia had gone. I ignored him. Instead I stared at Myoko. "You just lifted Pelinor, but your hair didn't—"

"Shush! Just shush." She glanced furtively at the others. The Caryatid, Gretchen, and Oberon were busy trying to see up to the deck; Annah stood apart from them, hidden in her cloak, almost invisible in the dark. I didn't know if fading into the background was just a reflex for her or if Annah was deliberately making herself inconspicuous.

Myoko looked at them all for a few moments, then turned back to me with a scowl. The scowl lasted a long ten seconds... then faded into a sigh. In the cold night air, the sigh billowed clouds of steam.

"What's on your mind, Phil?" Myoko asked.

"Your hair," I murmured. "You use your TK to lift it, don't you? You lift your hair whenever you lift anything else. To make a big show, so people will think you're safe; they don't have to worry about you pulling some sneaky TK trick because the hair always gives you away. But you do the hair deliberately. And you flipped Pelinor onto the deck without even wrinkling your brow. All that hard concentration you usually do is just another show."

Myoko said nothing. Her eyes were lost in darkness.

"You're hiding," I said. "Pretending to be a low-talent nothing, useless for anything but teaching in a mediocre school like Feliss. When really—"

She put her hand to my lips. "Yes. When really."

When really it was a clever ruse to protect herself from people who enslaved psychics. After all, if Myoko's powers were what she pretended, how could she be used to someone's devious benefit? She supposedly couldn't do her tricks quickly; she couldn't work without people noticing the levitating hair; and she demonstrated only modest lifting strength, about the same as a muscular man. So why would anyone kidnap her? There was nothing she could do psionically that couldn't be done more simply by a common laborer.

"So," I whispered, "bad guys leave you alone and you can have a real life."

"No. If I had a real life, I wouldn't lie in bed every night making a mental list: the few people I couldn't bring myself to kill if they ever learned the truth."

Silence. A chill went through me. Myoko turned away. "Relax, Phil—you're on the list."

She walked stiffly back toward the others... as if I'd somehow injured her deeply and she was pretending the wound didn't hurt.


Annah's hand slid softly into mine. "She's in love with you," Annah murmured. "Myoko. The way she looks at you when you aren't watching—in the faculty lounge, or when she 'accidentally' passes your classroom while you're teaching—Myoko's loved you for years." Annah shrugged. "I used to ask myself why she didn't tell you. Why she went out of her way to convince you she was 'just one of the guys.' What fear was holding her back?" Annah squeezed my hand. "It's certainly a night for revelations."

I couldn't answer. I'd gone speechless.


Sometime in the past few minutes, the Dinghy had fallen silent: no more fighting, no noise of any kind. Now, a thump, thump, thump came from the ship, accompanied by footsteps and grunting. The sound was moving upward: someone carrying something heavy up a flight of steps. By the time the thumping moved onto the deck, the Caryatid had sent her flame to the height of the railing. "Hello," she called, "who's there?"

Pelinor's head appeared over the rail. "Not to worry. We're all in one piece." He paused. "Some of us more than others."

"What does that mean?"

"Give me a minute."

Pelinor disappeared. Part of the railing opened like a gate and a gangplank slid down to the dock. Oberon scrambled up at once, his mass making the plank bend and creak... but the plank's reinforced wood was designed to hold rum barrels and other heavy cargo being rolled aboard, so Oberon made it to the deck without mishap. Myoko and the Caryatid hurried close behind; Gretchen followed at a more sedate pace, but she was clearly eager to see what was happening.

I was not quick to join the procession: my brain had slipped a gear, detached from the world. (Annah thought Myoko loved me. My good-time pal Myoko. Who had hidden her feelings because... because she was protecting her secret, and wouldn't allow herself to get close to me. How do these things happen? I could have sworn I was just Myoko's drinking buddy... and Gretchen's sexual fallback, Annah's excuse for melodrama. A stick man to them all: a convenience. Now, all three women had somehow changed into involvements. How do these things happen?)

Annah nudged me toward the gangplank. My feet responded but my head didn't; she had to prod, drag, and coddle me before my wits rallied and I moved of my own volition. She gave me a wry look... then she released my hand and went up the gangplank unburdened.

On deck, the others stood in a circle around a white lump the size of a backpack. Myoko poked the thing lightly with her toe as Pelinor said, "So when I came through the door, Zunctweed caught one glimpse of my cutlass and he collapsed. Literally. Dropped to the floor and folded into this tight little bundle." Pelinor pointed at the lump. "You wouldn't think you could tuck a whole person into something that small."

"Oh, demons," Gretchen said with a dismissive gesture. "They all have a few silly tricks."

Oberon tapped the whitish bundle with his forefoot. "This is obviously a defense posture. The top's quite bony." He pressed down harder. "And strong. The whole skeleton must be hinged to form a protective dome over the vital organs." Oberon glanced at me. "Knowing you, baron, you must be consumed with scientific curiosity to dissect the body and see how the anatomy is constructed."

A groan came from the bony white bundle.

"No one's dissecting anyone," the Caryatid said in a Children-must-not-misbehave voice. "I don't know why you brought Zunctweed up here at all," she told Pelinor.

"Because Impervia didn't want him staying with her."

"Where is Impervia?" Myoko asked. "What's she doing?"

"Standing guard," Pelinor said.

"Over what?"

"Over what Zunctweed didn't want us to see." He waved toward a companionway that led below. "Take a look for yourselves. I'll watch the captain."

Gretchen didn't have to be told twice—she headed immediately toward the stairs. Oberon, the ever-faithful bodyguard, raced to go down ahead of her... only to find he couldn't fit through the companionway's narrow opening. He stood there squinching his whiskers in agitation until Gretchen rapped on his shell: "Move, slave. You're in my way."

"Mistress Gretchen, you don't know what's down there. You don't know whether it's safe."

"Oh, it's safe," called Pelinor. "I think. Yes. I'd definitely say it's almost certainly safe."

This didn't reassure the big red lobster... but Gretchen wouldn't tolerate slaves telling her no. She banged again on Oberon's shell. "Move. Now. That's an order."

"Don't worry, dear," the Caryatid told Oberon. "We'll look after her."

Still reluctant, Oberon shuffled away from the opening. Gretchen went down without hesitation, though she did it in the landlubber way: facing the steps and holding the iron banisters, like climbing down a ladder. The rest of us followed close after. (Just for the record, the Caryatid descended à-la-landlubber too; Myoko slid down like an old salt, back to the steps, face out, feet barely touching the treads; I attempted to do the same, though without much grace; and Annah almost seemed to teleport—one second she was at the top of the companionway, then her cloak billowed and she was standing beside me. Making me feel ridiculous for having poised myself at the bottom, arms out and ready to catch her if she needed help getting down. I really had to stop underestimating that woman.)

The corridor below-decks was short, but had four doors leading off: one forward, one back, one each side. Cluttering came softly from behind the closed side doors. The NikNiks must have gone into hiding when Impervia chased Zunctweed—the little monkey-things had fled into the crew quarters till the furor died down. NikNiks didn't like other people squabbling; it distressed them mightily, not from fear but embarrassment. They ran at the first hint of confrontation and would stay out of sight for days if necessary.

The forward door was open and lamps burned within. Though the room was appallingly small, it was clearly the captain's quarters—it had a real bed (narrow but mattressed) and a small table whose legs were secured to the floorboards. Gretchen, the Caryatid, and Myoko stood before the table, blocking my view of whatever lay on top... but it had to be something of interest, because one of the women had just gasped in surprise.

Annah and I squeezed into the room. Impervia was off in the corner, dour as usual and surreptitiously pressing her hand against the side of her chest. She always held herself that way when she'd cracked a rib but wanted to pretend it didn't hurt. Obviously, Zunctweed wasn't a total pushover when it came to fighting. I sidled toward the good sister, ready to tape her up—I carried first-aid supplies for just such contingencies—but Gretchen thought I was trying to get close to the table, so she made room for me.

That's when I saw what Zunctweed had been hiding: a helmet of bright orange plastic. Featureless, except for a smoked glass plate in front of the eyes. It might as well have had PROPERTY OF SPARK ROYAL printed all over it.


Gretchen let out her breath. "That's Spark armor, isn't it?"

The Caryatid nodded. "It's the same style as Dreamsinger's."

Annah glanced at me, as if I could confirm what Dreamsinger's outfit looked like. I only shrugged. Still, the helmet on the table was undoubtedly of recent manufacture—it had none of the scratches or weathering you see on plastic from OldTech trash heaps—and these days, the Sparks were the only people who could mold plastic so flawlessly. This helmet had to come from them.

"Orange," Gretchen said, still gazing at the helmet. "Orange is for Mind-Lords."

Everyone in the room turned toward Myoko. Mind-Lords were masters of psionic power... and they spent their spare time getting to know other psychics. Especially psychics of first-class strength. Just as the Science-Lord had visited the best students at my university (completely ignoring me), a Mind-Lord must have visited Myoko's school occasionally to chat with those who stood out.

Like Myoko?

She said nothing—just stared at the helmet. After a while, the Caryatid touched her on the arm. "Are you okay?"

"They called him Priest," Myoko whispered. "He never gave any other name. Mind-Lord Priest. The saddest man I ever met."

She lifted her head, accidentally caught my gaze, and immediately lowered her eyes again. "He was constantly talking about religion. All religions. New ones, old ones, bizarre ones. He wanted to believe in something, but he was too, oh, inhibited to make a leap of faith. The sort of man who reads books full of prayers but never says a single one; who could describe fifteen different meditation techniques, but had never sat down and closed his eyes. I think he was afraid of being disappointed. The saddest man I ever met."

Myoko reached out as if intending to touch the helmet. A few centimeters short, she let her hand drop limply to the table. "He came to our school several times a year. Spent a day with each class: exactly from dawn to dawn. I don't know when he slept. Maybe he didn't need to. He'd just talk, let us ask questions. But he didn't give direct answers; more like sermons on whatever came to mind. We loved him deeply. I suppose we couldn't help that because of his power, but still..."

"What was his power?" Gretchen asked.

"You felt what he felt. Whatever made him angry made you furious; whatever made him happy filled you with joy. It seemed like you'd touched his soul and fully comprehended the wisdom of his opinions. Whatever he thought was right—whatever he considered necessary—you believed the same, as if everything in your life had led you to that conclusion." She shook her head. "As if you understood exactly who Priest was, and saw that he was holy."

Myoko suddenly clenched her fist. "I've told myself it was all just fake. He was a Spark, right? You can never take Sparks at face value. Wouldn't a Spark Lord enjoy people thinking he was sweet and sad and poignant? He could wrap us around his fingers. But Priest never tried to exploit us... though, God knows, we were ripe for it. Young, idealistic, infatuated. Every last one of us would have walked through fire just to ease his terrible sorrow..."

Her voice trailed off. The rest of us didn't speak. Finally, Impervia broke the silence: her words brisk, trying to dispel the deep melancholy that had gripped us. "I don't know why we're jumping to conclusions. Yes, this looks like a Spark helmet; yes, orange stands for Mind-Lords. But there can be more than one Mind-Lord at a time; why think this belonged to your Priest?"

"It's his," Myoko said. "I can feel it."

"No, you can't. You're not the sort of psychic who feels things."

"With this I can." Myoko reached out again and this time touched the helmet with her fingertips. "That was Priest's power: making people feel. I can feel his essence, and I know something happened to him. Something deadly."

"You're being ridiculous—" Impervia began, but Myoko cut her off.

"It's his helmet! It couldn't just fall off. I've seen Priest's armor, and everything locked securely..."

Myoko picked up the helmet as if she was going to show us whatever mechanisms kept it attached to the rest of the suit. But the moment she lifted it off the table, something fell from the helmet's neckhole, plopping softly onto the tabletop.

Gooey white nuggets like curds of cottage cheese. Spilling from the Spark Lord's helmet.



"Eww," Gretchen said. "What's that?"

Nobody answered. Myoko set down the helmet, carefully covering the curds that had fallen onto the table. She stepped back quickly, bumping into the wall behind her.

The rest of us did the same—even Gretchen, who hadn't heard the details of Rosalind's death. There was something about those moist white nuggets that made you shy away.

"I think," Myoko said, "we should ask Zunctweed where he got the helmet."

Nods all around. We tried not to leave the cabin in an undignified stampede.


Up on deck, Oberon and Pelinor stood on either side of Zunctweed. The captain was still folded into a peeled-potato lump, headless, legless, armless. Impervia crouched beside the alien's origamied body and rapped on his bony hide. "Open up! Now!"

A muffled voice answered, "Shan't."

"Shall," Impervia told him. "Otherwise, we'll tie a rope around you and toss you into the lake. Tucked in like this, you'll sink like a stone... and the lake water here was ice a week ago. We'll leave you until you start drowning, then we'll drag you out. We'll keep doing that again and again, leaving you under a bit longer each time till you're ready to cooperate."

Annah gazed admiringly at Impervia. "You have such a gift for teaching."

Impervia almost broke into a smile... but her face went blank again quickly. Impervia hated to seem too human.


We never got to see how Zunctweed responded to ice-water. Impervia trussed him up with a rope Pelinor found—I hoped the rope hadn't been attached to something important—and Myoko lifted the alien over the side by sheer force of will. We could have done the lifting by hand, but we thought Zunctweed would loosen up more if we went beyond the mundane: so Myoko put on an impressive show, furrowing her brow with fierce concentration, spreading her hair into a great intimidating sphere (hip-long tresses stretching to arm's length in all directions), then shakily levitating Zunctweed off the deck, banging him against the rail as he went over the edge, bumping him repeatedly against the hull on the way down... at which point he moaned, "I know it won't help if I beg for mercy; but consider how bad you might feel about this if someday you acquire a conscience."

Myoko stopped his descent. Impervia called down to the hovering alien, "I have a conscience; what I don't have is information. Where did you get the orange helmet."

"Is that all you want to know? And you couldn't ask before this? No, I don't suppose you could. It's more fun tormenting a slave than asking direct questions. What if I answered them willingly? Then you'd have no excuse for entertainment."

Oberon, standing by the rail, gestured impatiently with his pincers. "Shut up and start talking."

"You self-righteous claw-thing," Zunctweed muttered. "Go back to licking your mistress's boots."

"Stop whining," Gretchen said. "Are you going to tell us what we want?"

"Didn't I say I would?"


"Lift me up and I shall disclose the whole story."

"We'll get better answers," Impervia said, "if you stay where you are. Provided"—she turned to Myoko—"you can hold him?"

"For a little while," Myoko answered in a strained voice. "I'll manage if he speaks quickly." She winked at us all; we'd seen Myoko hold a human in the air for more than five minutes. But she let Zunctweed wobble a bit, just to center his thoughts on cooperation.

"I said I'd tell!" he protested.

And he did.


Dainty Dinghy had spent the winter offshore: far out in the lake where the water didn't freeze. Zunctweed wasn't the only captain to anchor in that neighborhood—he was part of a small contingent, nine boats this year, that spent the cold months afloat rather than going into dry dock or risking the ice in the harbor. With the first snowfall, Dinghy and the other ships offloaded all but a skeleton crew, filled their larders with provisions to last till spring, and sailed out to meet each other at a spot reputed to be the best winter fishing ground on the lake. The boats were lashed together in a cozy floating village, then the crews passed the season amicably: fishing with hook and line, playing endless games of Deuces High, and getting sozzled on whatever rotgut they'd stowed in their holds.

Thus the flotilla passed winter's short days and long nights: taking a holiday from smuggling rum and netting small-mouth bass. Gossip was shared over the card table, including critiques of the Ring of Knives—everyone loved to expound on Warwick Xavier's stupidity—but it was understood such opinions would never be repeated back home. The winter anchorage was a time apart... a season outside the real world, when you could tell your greatest secrets and know they would never come back to haunt you.

There was one secret that never came out amidst all the drunken confessions. Most of the company believed Zunctweed and a bevy of NikNiks were the only aliens among them; but Zunctweed knew differently. To Zunctweed's inhuman eyes, a captain named Josh Jode was clearly not native to Earth. Humans saw Jode as the perfect skipper: a grizzled veteran, sunburned so thoroughly from years on the lake that his skin was parched clay and his hair bleached to dirty white. But Zunctweed's alien retinas perceived far outside the spectrum visible to humans; he saw down into infrared and up to ultraviolet, at which frequencies Josh Jode bore no resemblance to Homo sapiens.

Zunctweed had no words for the IR and UV colors that gleamed from Jode's flesh. He could only say Jode's skin must have evolved on a very different world than Earth: a world where a different atmosphere filtered different wavelengths from the light of a different sun. Zunctweed instantly recognized a fellow extraterrestrial... but he never revealed what he knew, to Jode or to anyone else.

Zunctweed was an infuriating curmudgeon, but he wasn't stupid.

So Jode never realized Zunctweed knew his secret—which is why Zunctweed was still among the living and why the winter anchorage passed uneventfully until five nights earlier.


In the darkest hour before dawn—when the candles had guttered to blackness and the only lamp still burning was close to running dry... when even those who'd lost at cards were too tired to say, "One more hand, just one more"... when the men and women of the winter anchorage had returned to their own ships, and were standing on deck for one last sniff of the wind, telling themselves the thaw had finally come—the only warning was a flurry of turbulence at the center of the flotilla, a roiling and bubbling as if some trapped gas pocket on the lake-bottom had suddenly broken open. It lasted just long enough for heads to turn in its direction; then a figure in orange plastic burst from the surface, riding a plume of rocket smoke pouring from the soles of its boots.

The armored figure shot upward, high over the gathered boats. In night's last blackness, the armor glowed: surrounded by a dim violet radiance, like the aura of a saint in a Renaissance fresco. That aura allowed watchers to follow the figure as it flew above each ship in turn—not that there were many watchers, for those with a sense of self-preservation fled below-decks as fast as they could. On the Dinghy every NikNik vanished, leaving Zunctweed alone on the forecastle; on other vessels, only those too drunk to be afraid remained gawking at the sky.

Josh Jode was one of those who fled out of sight—not that it helped him. The armored figure flew over Jode's ship just as it had with the others... then it dropped down to land, thumping onto Jode's deck and dashing below to where Jode was hiding.

Zunctweed couldn't say what happened in the following minute. Sounds from Jode's ship were muffled: voices speaking an unknown language... some scuffling, but not a major fight... a silence, then thuds, then more silence. All around the anchorage, those watching from their decks exchanged glances—asking each other what was going on. No one spoke; no one made any move to get involved. One drunken fisherman drew a flintlock pistol, then couldn't decide where to point it. The man kept swiveling his head, staring first at Jode's vessel, then abruptly looking back over his shoulder as if something might be sneaking up from behind. Drunk as he was, he might soon have shot himself by accident; but before that could happen, the Mind-Lord burst through the deck of Jode's ship.

Deck planks are solid: thick lumber, nailed down securely and braced with cross-beams. Yet the Spark broke through like a cannonball, smashing up from the captain's cabin into the open, scattering hunks of wood and splinters into the rigging.

He came out headfirst, and the impact should have killed him; armor or not, the jolt of having your cranium slammed through a wooden floor should snap your neck. But the armor was surrounded by that violet glow of unnatural fire. It had flared to blinding intensity as the Mind-Lord crashed into view—so fierce, Zunctweed thought it might have incinerated the wood in its path a millisecond before the Spark Lord hurtled upward. Like a battering ram of flame, it hit so hard and hot that it vaporized a section of decking before the armor actually made contact with the timbers.

Whatever saved him, the Mind-Lord was still alive as he soared into black sky. He writhed like a snake with a nail through its belly, rocketing haphazardly as if his suit was out of control. Now and then, the boot-jets misfired, cutting out for a second of sputtering... and in those moments of silence, one could hear muted gagging inside the armor. The sounds of a man choking to death. Then the suit's engines would gust back to life, spewing steam into the cold night air and drowning out the strangled noises within.

High overhead the Spark Lord flew, tracing a zigzag path. When his jets fizzled out, he would plunge toward the water; when they caught fire again, he would aim himself upward, as if height might offer salvation. No telling why he didn't head for shore... but he remained above the anchorage, glowing in the darkness, a bright purple star—

—until he exploded.

A sunburst of light and hot flame. Perhaps deliberate destruction; perhaps some disastrous malfunction, a tiny electrical discharge igniting the tanks that fueled the suit's rockets. Whatever the cause, it was ferocious: a ripping blast that boomed through the night, scattering orange armor in all directions. The man inside plummeted, hair on fire. A human match-stick, falling through blackness... until he smacked the surface of the water with an ear-cracking slap. The flames on his head were doused out. One nearby fisherman caught a glimpse of charred flesh and a face with its eyelids burned off; then the blackened remains sank into the lake's embrace.


Bits of armor rained down on the ships. Zunctweed claimed he was almost brained by a falling glove—an orange plastic gauntlet that struck the Dinghy hard enough to chip the deck. The plank beneath the glove caught fire, smoke curling up between the fingers until Zunctweed grabbed a water bucket and dumped it over the blaze. (A hiss of steam. The smell of wet ash.)

Zunctweed nudged the gauntlet with his foot. The motion dislodged a nodule of gooey white from the wrist of the glove—something that must have been clinging to the Spark Lord's hand when the armor exploded. Gingerly, Zunctweed picked up the glove and shook it; more curds plopped onto the deck. Zunctweed stared at them, then backed away. Later, he would order the NikNiks to swab the little white nuggets into the lake.

But for now, he kept his distance and turned back to look at Jode's ship. Jode had come up on deck... if it really was Jode. To Zuncrweed's eyes, the creature returning from the captain's quarters was the same color Jode had been in the IR and UV parts of the spectrum. To everyone else, it must have looked different—a beast wearing Jode's clothing but no longer close to human.

It was oozing and puffy, its skin resembling white sponge toffee covered in syrup. Milky fluid dripped on the deck and sloshed as the creature walked. Jode's head was a lump of wet bread dough, unmarked by hair or facial features. The hands showed no fingers now—just bulging stumps, as if all traces of human physiology had been kneaded into undifferentiated protoplasm. Slowly the creature moved to the railing; then it spoke in a gargling version of Jode's voice.

"I should kill you all."

The words carried eerily over the water; the only other noise came from waves lapping against boat hulls. "I should kill you all, but that goddamned Spark may have sent a mayday before he died. If reinforcements are coming, I can't waste time silencing you."

The creature made a fierce cluttering sound. Jode's crew, a group of NikNiks purchased from Papa Kinnderboom when Jode first arrived in Dover, scurried up from below and began to weigh anchor. "Now pay attention," the monster called to the people on other boats. "Keep your fucking mouths shut, or I'll come back and kill you. Trust me on this. If you talk, you'll die. I can look like anyone—your mother, your wife, your very best friend—and you won't know it's me till your throat is slit. So not a word! To anyone!"

The thing slapped its hand on the railing... a heavy wet sound. "Sooner or later, more Sparks will show up—asking what happened to their precious brother." Jode pointed to where the Mind-Lord's body had sunk. "Not a word, you hear me? Or you'll regret it."

Jode spat over the railing—a clot of maggoty white. Then the creature turned to his NikNiks and shouted more orders at them in their ratty tongue. Preparations for departure didn't take long; Jode must have kept the boat ready to leave at a moment's notice. Within minutes, the ship drew away from the anchorage, heading farther out into the lake... and in all that time, no one else uttered a word.


Next dawn, the anchorage dispersed. Few people spoke to their neighbors; those who did, mumbled they were leaving because the thaw had finally come.

Zunctweed traded away the gauntlet that had fallen onto his deck—the human glove didn't fit Zunctweed's alien hand. In exchange, he got the helmet. The woman who'd pulled the helmet out of her rigging was glad to get rid of it; she said it gave her the creeps because it always seemed to be watching her.

Jode's ship ran aground on nearby Long Point two days later. No one was aboard. The bodies of three drowned NikNiks washed up on a little-used beach the following night. The rest hadn't yet been found.

The Mind-Lord's body hadn't been found either. I doubted it would ever turn up. Fish must be ravenously hungry after a long cold winter.


When Zunctweed had finished his tale, the rest of us said nothing for a long while. Finally, Myoko broke the silence. "Now we know why Dreamsinger came to Dover. Looking for her brother."

Impervia sniffed disapprovingly. "If this Mind-Lord Priest disappeared five days ago, why did it take Spark Royal so long to investigate?"

"Busy elsewhere," I said. "Nobody knows how many Lords there are at any one time, but it's probably less than a dozen... and they have to police the entire planet. A crisis or two, and there's no one left for other things. Besides, Sparks can take care of themselves; and they're given a lot of autonomy. The High Lord certainly doesn't organize a search party if one of the kids misses dinner."

Pelinor sucked his mustache. "So this Mind-Lord runs afoul of Jode... and eventually Dreamsinger comes to check her brother's last known location."

"But what was Jode?" Gretchen asked. "I've never heard of a demon who could look human."

"I have," I said.


I told them our chancellor's tale of stealing tobacco... and of the creature the Sparks called a Lucifer, waiting there in ambush. Annah helped with parts of the story, for which I was grateful; if Annah hadn't been there, Impervia might have thrown me over the side to keep Zunctweed company. As it was, she simply glowered like a thunderhead. When I finished, Impervia said, "You couldn't have mentioned this sooner?"

"Opal wanted it kept secret," I answered. "She made Annah and me promise we wouldn't tell anyone else unless it became absolutely necessary."

Impervia glared... but she couldn't very well say we should have broken our promise. Meanwhile, the Caryatid (ever a peacemaker) said, "What's past is past. The point is, now we know what's happening."

"Do we?" Pelinor asked. "Oh good. What's happening?"

Myoko growled in exasperation. "There's a shapeshifter thing called a Lucifer. It pretended to be a man named Josh Jode. It killed a Spark Lord, leaving behind little white nuggets. Rosalind died the same way... so she must have been killed by a Lucifer too."

I remembered Dreamsinger grabbing me in Nanticook House, calling me a fool for thinking the curds had been a bioweapon. All along, it had been the Lucifer. Probably the same Lucifer. But Dreamsinger said it had mutated. Somehow it changed itself so its metabolism no longer matched its former profile.

Did that explain what happened to Mind-Lord Priest? He must have had some kind of detection equipment that registered Josh Jode as alien... but thanks to the Lucifer's mutation, the equipment couldn't identify what kind of alien Jode was. The Mind-Lord hadn't suspected he was dealing with a Lucifer; therefore, he'd been taken by surprise.

But why did Priest come after Jode in the first place? Had Jode done something to attract attention? Or had...

Wait. Opal told us she was stationed in Feliss because the Sparks believed something bad would happen in the neighborhood. Given that kind of advance information, the Sparks would take the precaution of sweeping the area now and then for anything unusual. Priest had shown up a few days ago; he'd set his detection gear to search for alien life-forms; and he'd got a reading on a species his equipment didn't recognize.

The Mind-Lord had confronted Jode. But Priest hadn't been careful enough.

"And now," Myoko said, finishing her summary for Pelinor's benefit, "the shapeshifting Mr. Jode is pretending to be Rosalind Tzekich. Heading for Niagara Falls with Sebastian."

"Oh," said Pelinor. "And Sebastian doesn't know? I thought he was a top-notch psychic."

"He is. But his powers don't usually activate unless he tells them to. What are the odds he's explicitly going to check if his girlfriend is an alien in disguise?"

"I've wanted to check that with some of my boyfriends," Gretchen said.

Everyone ignored her.


"Zunctweed," the Caryatid called. "How long has Jode been in Dover?"

"Five years," came a voice from just above the waterline. "A long, long time. When one compares five years to the short period I've been suspended above this lake, I know I shouldn't complain. Still, there you are. They say one's experience of time is relative to one's mental suffering... and I discover it to be true. Isn't that interesting? Perhaps Dr. Dhubhai would like to write a scientific paper."

Myoko, who'd been holding Zunctweed all this while (and who'd been so distracted by my tale of Opal and the Lucifer that she'd let her hair fall back to normal), made a disgusted face and flipped the Patata captain back onto the deck. Meanwhile, the Caryatid said, "If Jode was here five full years, you have to wonder why."

"Sebastian," Impervia answered immediately. "Jode was watching Sebastian."

"You think so?"

Impervia nodded. "You saw how Dreamsinger reacted when she realized a Lucifer was taking the boy to Niagara Falls. She squealed like a stuck pig. Obviously, Dreamsinger had a suspicion Jode would use Sebastian for something horrible."

"Like what?" Pelinor asked.

"Damned near anything," Myoko told him. "From Opal's story, these Lucifers hate Spark Royal. There must be something Sebastian can do in Niagara Falls that will drive the Sparks wild."

"Like what?" Pelinor asked again.

"We don't know," Myoko said. "But Jode's been watching Sebastian for five years. Perhaps waiting for the boy's powers to mature. Sebastian has always been gifted, but it's taken him time to gain control."

"Also," Impervia said with disgust, "Jode may have been waiting for Sebastian to discover the opposite sex. This Lucifer is clearly a vile creature; from the first, it must have intended to control Sebastian through seduction, so it had to wait until the boy was old enough to be seduced. It could easily check on Sebastian from time to time—a shapeshifter would have no problem disguising itself as someone else and spying to its heart's content. When it got back from the winter anchorage, it learned Sebastian had finally fallen in love. Jode eliminated Rosalind and took her place."

"But how did Jode know about Sebastian's powers?" I asked. "Weren't they a secret?"

"I'd hoped so," Myoko said. "But I told you there were incidents when Sebastian was young... like that time the horse tried to kick him. I was always afraid word might leak out. Silly me, I was only worried about slavers; I didn't even think of shapeshifting aliens."

"So let me get this straight," Gretchen said. "There's a horrible gooey alien who's already killed several people including a Spark Lord. This alien intends to trick some hideously strong adolescent psychic into doing something awful. There's a homicidal Sorcery-Lord who's on her way to stop them... and that lecherous old Warwick Xavier is tied into this too, plus the entire Ring of Knives. All these dangerous people are racing to Niagara Falls for some unknown cataclysmic smash-up, and you want my boat so you can be at ground zero when the shit hits the fan?"

Silence. I said, "Yes, Gretchen, that pretty well sums it up."

She smiled radiantly. "Then what are we waiting for? Let's go."



According to my pocket watch, we set sail at 4:35. NikNiks yammered in the rigging; Zunctweed grumbled at the wheel. The rest of us turned in to grab as much rest as we could.

I can't say I slept much. In a spirit of adventure, Gretchen issued us all with hammocks to be slung in the Dinghy's bunkrooms: bunkrooms stinking of NikNik, a wet furry smell that was much like any other wet furry smell, but more pungent. NikNiks practice basic hygiene and sanitation, but they still produced a junglelike stench of suffocating proportion—fierce farts and pheromones, not to mention the aromas of mating and childbirth.

Gretchen took the captain's cabin and gave me a long lingering leer that suggested we should share the bed. I turned my eyes elsewhere, drawing on the full awesome power of my Y chromosome to feign obliviousness. (What hints? I didn't see any hints. Why don't women just come out and say what they're thinking?) Now was not the time to provoke a Gretchen/Annah furor... or even worse, Gretchen/Annah/Myoko. Let confessions wait until we'd faced whatever lurked in Niagara Falls.

So I headed for the bunkroom with everyone else—even Impervia, who'd been loath to leave Zunctweed unsupervised. She suspected our captain would head for the hills if someone didn't watch him... though Gretchen swore the Kinnderboom family sorcerers always enchanted their slaves with spells to prevent escape or disobedience. If Zunctweed tried any tricks, his muscles would seize and he'd fall over in an epileptic fit. Most slaves made the attempt only once; after that, they resigned themselves to servitude.

But that didn't satisfy Impervia: she would have stayed on deck all night if Oberon hadn't insisted he'd be the one to watch Zunctweed. Our holy sister gave the big red lobster an appraising look, and apparently liked what she saw. After a moment, she patted Oberon's shell and headed below.

So we bedded down in the hammocks. I shan't describe the inadequacies of such sleeping contraptions—more eloquent writers than I have expounded at length on the sensation of being webbed in, the saggy discomfort of no back support, the disturbing sway as the ship rolls—nor shall I grouse about occupying such cramped quarters with so many other sleepers. Pelinor didn't snore, but one of the women did... and in the darkness, I couldn't tell which it was. I crossed my fingers it wasn't Annah.

Or perhaps Myoko.


Even without the snoring, I wouldn't have fallen asleep easily—too many thoughts churned in my head. Especially about Niagara Falls.

I'd seen the Falls once while chaperoning a field trip from the academy. Despite its reputation as a wonder of the world, I wouldn't have gone to Niagara on my own free time; I didn't expect to be impressed by water obeying the law of gravity. But when I got there, the Falls were truly impressive, with their roar, their mist, and their fury... not to mention the spectacular gorge they've cut over the eons, kilometers long, slowly eaten backward by the plummeting water. One look at that gorge and I knew the world was ancient. That in itself justified the trip.

I was also grudgingly impressed by the area immediately surrounding the Falls. Several city blocks were remarkably preserved from OldTech times. Twenty-story buildings (hotels and casinos) still scraped their fingernails against the sky, their decor hardly changed since the twenty-first century... including the electricity running the lights and elevators.

Yes, electricity. For five centuries, a portion of the Falls' plunging water had been diverted through sluices, hurtling down millraces and directed over turbines to generate hydro power. Niagara was a major energy center in the OldTech era, and tourist guides claimed the facilities had remained in operation ever since, tended by a monastic order called the Keepers of Holy Lightning. The Keepers were typical crackpots, believing that OldTech days represented the peak of spiritual enlightenment. By contrast, the world of the present was a cesspool of Vanity and Sin, an affront to everything sacred, blah, blah, blah. Therefore, the Keepers disdained modern ways (sorcery, psionics, associating with aliens) and applied themselves to Living In The Past. They kept Niagara's turbines turning, repaired any breakdowns in the power grid within three kilometers of their generating station, and even hand-crafted lightbulbs so their electricity would have some useful function to perform.

You can find similar orders in other parts of the world. In Sheba, a group of ultra-conservative Sufis still operated the facilities at Aswan... sponsored (said my grandmother) by the Sparks, who had no interest in Sufism or electricity but wanted technologically competent people to care for the whole facility. Spark Royal didn't want a dam break that sent a wall of water careening down the Nile valley. That was the sort of thing Sparks were sworn to prevent—disasters on the grand scale.

Such thoughts made me wonder if the Sparks also supported the Holy Lightning in Niagara Falls. Possibly. Probably. It doesn't take sophisticated equipment to produce electricity from falling water, but it's hard to make everything you need with just a small cadre of true believers. Even simple copper wire requires ore, a refining furnace, and wirepulling equipment... all of which added up to a hefty wad of cash. Did the electricity business really produce that much income when the power was being used only to dazzle tourists?

The more I thought about it, the more I was certain the Niagara hydro station survived through Spark backing: money, materials, and more. (If some tooled-tungsten chunk of OldTech machinery broke down, where could the Keepers get a replacement except Spark Royal?) So why did the Sparks do it? Unlike Aswan, Niagara had no dam; if the generators broke and the power went out, it would put a damper on tourist business but wouldn't endanger lives.

Why would the Sparks care about the Falls?

Unless they were using the electricity for something themselves.

Unless there was some life-or-death need to keep the turbines running.

Unless there was some secret something, a deadly threat known only to the Sparks; and all hell would break loose if the machines ever fell silent.

In which case... in which case...

I couldn't finish the thought. I couldn't even imagine what the threat might be.

But Jode was taking Sebastian to Niagara. A Lucifer had gained influence over a powerful psychic who could do almost anything.

I could see why Dreamsinger flew into a tizzy when she realized what Jode planned. The possibilities tizzied me too.


Dawn came and went. In the bunkroom, the morning was scarcely noticeable—the Dinghy was a nice tight ship with few chinks the sunshine could penetrate. Still, light oozed in photon by photon. The night's pitch blackness yielded to something less Stygian, enough that my dark-adjusted eyes could make out the hammocks around me.

Waves rocked the boat like a cradle. I dozed off and on, drifting into dreams and back again. At some point, I must have slipped into a deeper sleep; when I finally awoke (with a clear head and no hangover, praise God), the bunkroom was empty. Heaven knows how the others got out of their hammocks without waking me—I had a hell of a time fighting my way free, nearly dropping facefirst to the floor. Good thing my friends weren't around to laugh. I pulled myself together, straightened my clothes as much as a wrinkling night's sleep would allow, and headed up to the deck.

Bright sun, wispy clouds, brisk breeze. The first person I saw was the Caryatid, her cheeks as red as her clothing. She huddled with her back to the wind, baking a withered apple in a flame that sprouted from her fingertips. (Trust the Caryatid to heat her apples rather than eating them raw—she leapt at any excuse to light a fire and nuzzle it like a pet mouse.) When she saw me, she smiled in her motherly way. "Good afternoon, sleepy-head. You missed breakfast. And lunch."

"Zunctweed lied about the ship being out of provisions?"

"Of course." She reached into a small basket beside her feet and tossed me a hunk of cheese. "Eat fast. We're almost there."

As I munched, I looked over the railing. The Dinghy was too far out for me to see the shore clearly... but beyond the narrow sand beach, I could discern open areas (fields), low trees (orchards), and thick forests (wood-lots and windbreaks). Local farmers must be out today, checking which fences needed mending, or gazing at morasses of mud and judging how soon the soil would be dry enough to plow. Perhaps the cattle had been let out to pasture, hoof-deep in muck but glad in their bovine way to be munching on sere yellow grass rather than stale fodder.

Even as I watched, the ship angled toward land. Up ahead, a small harbor housed fishing boats—far fewer than the fleet in Dover-on-Sea, but enough to show the presence of an active port. The Caryatid said, "That's Crystal Bay. We'll put in there. Zunctweed says there's no point going as far as the Niagara River, because it isn't navigable for a ship our size."

"What about the canal?" The Welland Canal had been dug in OldTech times to circumvent the Falls. Back then, the canal's lift-locks were controlled electronically; but locks can function perfectly well without fancy automation, and they'd continued on pure gravity feed long after the electric pumps had become useless. As far as I knew, the canal was still a working part of the Great Lakes seaway.

"The canal isn't open," the Caryatid told me. "They close it every winter once ice shuts down shipping."

"But the ice has melted."

"Doesn't matter. Zunctweed says the schedule was cast in stone years ago by government fiat. The canal won't reopen until it's supposed to."

"But if the ice is gone, we could just sail through."

The Caryatid shook her head. "Every lock is completely shut down. No way past. Zunctweed says Crystal Bay is the closest the Dinghy can get to the Falls."

"And we believe Zunctweed?"

"We believe Zunctweed when Impervia has a firm grip on his throat."


Impervia wasn't actively engaged in strangling the captain, but she stood within arm's reach as Zunctweed chittered orders to prepare for landfall. Pelinor was also close to the action, not to help Impervia, but because the old knight had developed a sudden enthusiasm for seamanship. In the same way that he badgered stablehands about horses, he hung at Zunctweed's side in pursuit of nautical lore. "What does 'belay' mean?" "How do you do something 'handsomely'?" "Which is 'abaft' and 'abeam'?"

Not far away, Oberon clung to the rail looking miserable. He wasn't actually seasick—Lake Erie's waves were minuscule compared to an ocean's, especially on such a pleasant day—but the big lobster clearly had acquired a loathing of surfaces that moved beneath him. Each time the boat dipped down a wave crest, Oberon fought not to slide in the same direction... and after hours of constant exertion, grappling the rail with his pincers, he must have been counting the seconds before we put into port.

The rest of our group was nowhere in sight. The Caryatid told me our missing companions were all in the captain's cabin. "Looking at maps. Arguing about the fastest way to the Falls." She rolled her eyes. "As far as I'm concerned, we should just talk to people in Crystal Bay. They'll know what's best. If we let Gretchen choose our route, we'll gallop ten kilometers up some road, discover a bridge has collapsed during the winter, and have to come all the way back again."

The Caryatid was right: no sense relying on maps when we could get more up-to-date information with a few simple questions. And from what I could see of the town, Crystal Bay looked big enough to justify a stagecoach stop... maybe even a dispatching depot. Better to hop a stage than rent horses and strike off on our own.

Still, I felt a niggling urge to peek at a map, just to get the lay of the land—I'd feel better if I had a picture of where we were going. Accordingly, I headed to the captain's quarters with a blithe and jaunty step, nothing in my brain except cartographic curiosity... but that evaporated instantly when I bounced into the cabin and realized who was there.

Three heads turned my way when I entered. Three pretty faces. Gretchen, Annah, and Myoko: all my complications in one cramped little room.


Gretchen was mostly naked: wearing nothing but a crimson bra like the one I'd seen on the floor of her bedroom, and a pair of matching panties that were surprisingly demure by Gretchen's standards—no lace or frills or cut-outs. She looked up at me as I came through the door, but gave only a distracted smile. If I'd been some other man, she would have felt obliged to do something flirtatious (flash her cleavage, wiggle her hips, pretend she had to cover up to protect her "modesty"), but with me, she didn't bother. I considered that a compliment.

As soon as Gretchen had deigned to recognize my existence, she turned back to Myoko and said, "Well?"

Myoko took longer to collect herself—she looked flustered and even blushed slightly at my arrival. My rough-and-ready "Platonic" friend was betraying a hitherto unsuspected bashfulness... as if I were her husband and had caught her in flagrante delicto with a nearly nude woman. Not that anything salacious was going on; Myoko herself was fully clothed, and from what I could see, she was simply trying to unknot the lacings on the back of a red knit gown. No doubt the gown was Gretchen's, taken from that traveling case she'd packed the night before. Perhaps Myoko was merely embarrassed to be seen playing Gretchen's dressmaid. But it was a small cabin, and Myoko had no room to keep her distance from Gretchen's bare skin. As I watched, she surreptitiously tried to squeeze a little farther away, dropping her gaze to the knots she was trying to untie. "Don't rush me," she mumbled to Gretchen.

The blush burned more brightly in Myoko's cheeks.

Annah was behind the other two, higher than both because she was standing on the captain's bed. Like Gretchen she gave me only a distracted smile; then she went back to arranging Gretchen's hair. In the dim confined quarters, I couldn't see much of what Annah was doing, but I assumed she was making a braid. Annah had a reputation for braids: at the academy, girls sometimes tried to transfer to Annah's floor solely so she'd do their hair. Personally, I've never understood the female fascination with braids—braids always remind me of the ugly leather bumps on a crocodile's back—but I learned long ago to keep quiet on the subject.

Gretchen soon grew bored watching Myoko worry at the gown's knots, so she turned back to me. (Behind her, Annah made an exasperated sigh and tried to hold Gretchen's head still.) "So, Phil, darling," Gretchen said, "aren't you just amazed?"

I almost said, "By what?" The part of my brain devoted to self-preservation vetoed that initial response and frantically searched for some source of amazement I'd overlooked. Gretchen's body? Always delicious, but I couldn't see anything different from last night (except the absence of goose-pimples). The fact that Myoko and Gretchen weren't sniping at each other? Yes, that was amazing, but probably not what Gretchen meant. I looked around the room, knowing I was taking too long to answer, but unable to see anything but the three women... Gretchen in her underwear... the crimson gown...

Crimson? Sorcerer's crimson?

Gretchen's lingerie was the same color. And I'd seen a crimson bra in her bedroom the night before.

I blurted, "You're pretending to be a sorceress?"

Gretchen's eyes flashed. "No, silly billy—I am a sorceress. Do you think I buy all those shine-stones?"


My mouth hung open for an undignified length of time... but meanwhile facts were sorting themselves out in my brain.

Gretchen had grown up with sorcerers: her father employed quite a few to cast obedience spells on demons. Most children of wealthy families also received training in sorcerous fundamentals, partly to prepare them for managing spellcaster underlings, and partly to see if they themselves had any aptitude for enchantments. It wasn't necessarily good news to find you had a knack for magic—considering the nature of most arcane rituals, sorcery wasn't a respectable profession—but just as the well-to-do are allowed to draw and paint as long as they don't become artists, they're allowed to cast spells as long as they don't get too mystical. All of which argued it was possible that Gretchen had received substantial arcane tutoring from mages on her father's staff.

Then I remembered how Gretchen had suddenly been so interested when she heard I'd encountered a Sorcery-Lord. She'd immediately announced she'd accompany us to Niagara, where Dreamsinger was going to be. And now Gretchen was putting on crimson, the first time I'd seen her wear the color. Why? So Dreamsinger would recognize her as another dear sister on the Burdensome Path?

"Gretchen," I said, "seriously, seriously, Gretchen: this is a bad idea."

"What do you mean? A sorceress can wear crimson whenever she wants."

"Yes, but—"

"You don't think I'm real, is that it? I'm just some deluded brat? Oh that Gretchen, she might know a few tricks, but she's nothing special. Is that what you think?"

"What I think is that Dreamsinger is an unpredictable lunatic. Anyone who wants to meet her is suicidal."

"Well, maybe I am suicidal." Gretchen stormed forward the three steps it took to cross the room. The partly woven braid was yanked out of Annah's hands and flopped forward along the side of Gretchen's head. Gretchen ignored it; she gave me a fierce push, her hands hitting my shoulders, her eyes glaring into mine. "Have you looked at me lately, Phil?"

I was looking at her now. The braid hanging down by her ear had begun to unravel. "You aren't suicidal, Gretchen. It's not in your nature."

"Maybe not. But desperation is." She dropped her gaze; she glanced quickly back at Myoko and Annah as if trying to decide whether to talk in front of them. Then she took a deep breath and returned to me. "I'm good, Phil. I'm good at sorcery. I think." She gave a twittering laugh. "But I don't know for real, do I, darling? I've just... I've done nothing with it. Instead, I lived off my father's money. Slept with a lot of pretty men. Kept my sorcery to myself because I didn't want someone saying, Gretchen, the spells you're so proud of are really quite trivial..."

Her hands were still on my shoulders. She let her head slump against my chest. "Whenever I wanted to convince myself I was good, I'd whip up another shine-stone. The spell's actually quite complicated... at least I think it is. Then again, what the hell do I know?"

I thought about all the shine-stones in her room the previous night. Dozens of them. Made to reassure herself she was somebody.

"And Dreamsinger?" I asked. "What do you want with her?"

Gretchen sighed. She kissed the front of my shirt, then straightened up and gave her head a little shake. The last of her braid unwound. "I can't put it into words, Phil. It's just... she's a Sorcery-Lord. If there's anyone who could look at me and say, You've got potential..."

She gave another twittering laugh—a choked sad sound. "Here's where you tell me it's ridiculous to talk about my potential when I've never made an effort to use it. If I had an ounce of real potential, I'd get off my dumdum and do something. Go to school... buy an apprenticeship... or just start incanting on my own. Something. Instead, I'm squandering my existence. On parties and fine food and umty-tiddly, as Zunctweed says. Doing nothing, day by day."

She suddenly turned to Myoko and Annah. "Do you know what it's like to have dropped out of life? To have had a hundred chances to be special, but you avoided them all? Or just botched them up because you were a horrible coward, afraid of letting yourself change. You clutch your comfortable excuses, saying, Someday I'll be brave, it won't take a lot, just give me one more chance and this time I'll grab it. But chances come and go. It would be easy to do something, but you don't. You just don't. Do you know what that's like?"

Myoko and Annah nodded. Their faces were both so sad.

Gretchen nodded too. "So here we are. Here I am. A woman of... a woman who's no longer young... who got her feelings hurt by some stupid young earl and found herself looking in the mirror under bright, bright light..." She turned back and gave me a small rueful smile. "I suddenly thought, maybe it's time. This time it's time. To see if I'm somebody or just a middle-aged slut who lies to herself about being gifted. Next thing I know, my one true friend comes along..." She held out her hand to me; I took it, feeling awkward and guilty but fond. "...and he tells me there's a way to meet a Sorcery-Lord."

She gave my hand a squeeze before letting it go. "So it's really my chance. To talk to this Dreamsinger and find out once and for all. To find my place. That's all I want: to find my place. You three have done that already. Right? You must be happy being teachers. I know Phil is. A font of inspiration, guiding young minds and spurring them on to heights of intellectual achievement. That's what you say, darling, and it's wonderful. You've found your place. All of you."

If she'd looked my way at that instant, I couldn't have met her eye. Myoko and Annah couldn't either. But Gretchen didn't seem to notice. She moved back and plucked the crimson gown from Myoko's hands. "I can dress myself," Gretchen said. There might have been tears in her eyes. "We'll be coming into port soon. Why don't you all go watch the landing?"

Annah looked at me, then asked Gretchen, "Are you sure you don't want anyone to stay?"

"No, no, all of you, go ahead." Gretchen tried to smile. "I can't have you learning the deep dark secrets of how I put on my makeup."

Annah gave Gretchen's shoulder a pat before stepping down from the bed and moving toward the door. Myoko reached out to do the same, stopped herself for a split-second (probably a spasm of shyness, touching a near-naked woman), then continued on to press her fingers lightly against Gretchen's cheek. "We'll see you when you're ready," Myoko said.

Annah, Myoko, and I left quietly, almost on tiptoe. We closed the door behind us and said nothing as we climbed up on deck.


Dainty Dinghy didn't try to put in at the docks: we dropped anchor well out from shore. When Pelinor asked why, Zunctweed said he didn't know the depth of the harbor—he had no detailed charts of Crystal Bay and wouldn't trust them if he did. Our frigate drew a lot more water than fishing boats; if we wanted to avoid running aground, we had to stay out a goodly distance.

At least, so Zunctweed claimed. Quite possibly, the rotten Patata was just being spiteful: forcing us to row in by jolly-boat rather than giving us an easier option. But none of us had enough sailing experience to know if Zunctweed was lying. Impervia and Oberon both tried their best piercing stares, but Zunctweed wouldn't back down. Eventually, they had to yield to our captain's nautical "expertise."

As the NikNiks lowered the jolly-boat over the side, I examined Crystal Bay: both the harbor and the town. This close, I could see the fishing boats were aswarm with activity. Crew members toyed with ropes or dangled over the sides to examine the hulls; others banged away with hammers or swabbed hot pitch around holes that needed to be sealed; still more mended rips in fishing nets or dabbed bright red paint on the nipples of lurid figureheads. It was a furor of spring renovation, getting boats shipshape after winter's long languishing.

People lifted their heads to look at the Dinghy, but did so only briefly—this was the first sunny day after thaw, and no one had time to waste. Besides, our ship was the sort used by Feliss customs agents to track down smugglers; and while Dover-on-Sea was Lake Erie's smuggling capital, Crystal Bay surely had its own share of midnight runners. When the locals saw what they thought was a customs ship docking in their harbor, people kept their heads down and looked industrious.

On shore, the same attitude prevailed: folks were ostentatiously busy at various jobs, mostly refurbishing the docks. Like docks everywhere, these were lined with automobile tires serving as rubbery bumpers; and it says something about OldTech times that after four centuries, you could still find plenty such tires. You didn't even have to visit a garbage dump—go to any crumbling subdivision and beside the collapsed townhouses you'd find the rusted hulks of cars. Generations of kids would have pried off the most interesting bits, the mirrors, chrome, and hood ornaments... yet the tires would still be in place, weathered but adequate for nailing to the side of a pier.

Beyond the tire-strung piers were the usual dockside attractions—a ship-chandler's shop, a salting house, and half a dozen shrines to whatever saints or spirits the local sailors appeased before setting out each morning. I didn't see a tavern, but I wasn't surprised; these fisherfolk weren't itinerants who hung around the waterfront, they all had houses in the main part of the village. That's where the taverns would be: in the center of town, where you could go after supper, drink a few liters, and have only a short distance to stumble home.

Thoughts of taverns turned my mind to the previous night—The Buxom Bull and its aftermath. With a start, I remembered that Knife-Hand Liz had headed for this same area shortly before we did. Had she landed in Crystal Bay? I looked around once more, but saw only fishing boats. Perhaps the Ring of Knives chose some other harbor for their landing (Zunctweed had admitted there were several ports that were equally good for traveling to Niagara); perhaps the Ring's boat had been slow enough for Dinghy to pass in the night; or perhaps a fast ship owned by smugglers looked the same as an ordinary fishing jack, especially to a landlubber like me. Tzekich and Xavier might be watching us, hidden among the other ships... and all of a sudden I felt dangerously exposed.

I turned to say something to Annah beside me... but she was already scanning nearby boats with a wary eye. So was Myoko, a few steps away. And Impervia paced back and forth along the rail, like a guard dog who expects trouble. Oberon lifted his head high, sniffing for odd smells on the breeze. Pelinor had quit asking nautical questions and was simply watching the harbor. Even the Caryatid had stopped fussing with her pet flame; she'd gone still, holding a single unlit match.

I gazed out on peaceful boats in a peaceful port. I saw no sign of danger; but that didn't comfort me.


The NikNiks released the jolly-boat. It dropped the last few centimeters into the water, splashing lightly. Pelinor had already tethered a rope ladder to the railing; now he slung the ladder over the side and clambered down. The jolly-boat scarcely rocked as he stepped into it—solid and seaworthy. It could hold eight people: three pairs of rowers, plus someone in the rear to hold the tiller and an authority figure in front to shout orders (the boat swain or coxswain or whatever one calls the tinpot tyrant of such a tiny craft). The boat would admirably hold our somber band...

...except Oberon. He'd barely fit in the boat on his own, let alone with us sharing the space. I had no idea how he'd get to shore—though he looked like a lobster, I didn't know if he could swim like one. Nevertheless, one thing was certain: if Gretchen came with us, Oberon would never stay behind on the ship.

Speaking of Gretchen, she still hadn't shown up on deck. If I wanted to be cynical, I'd say she was just avoiding the sunlight... and perhaps making everyone else wait for her. But that was the old, manipulative Gretchen; the new, vulnerable Gretchen wasn't so easy to characterize.

"I'd better get our hostess," I said.

Beside me, Annah nodded and squeezed my hand.


"I've been waiting for you," Gretchen said.

She stood in the cabin doorway, dressed in her crimson gown: as stylish and form-fitting as all her other clothes, cut to keep a man's eyes glued to her body. She had a matching jacket and cape, plus dyed suede boots and a broad-rimmed sunhat, all in crimson. I wondered how long ago she'd had the outfit made—how many years she'd kept it in her closet, having it catch her eye whenever she rummaged for something to wear.

"So you're really a sorceress?" I asked.

"That's the question, isn't it?"

The only light came from above us, sun shining down the companionway. The cabin behind her was dark—all lamps blown out, all shine-stones put away. Her sunhat cast shadows that hid her face.

"Do you know," she asked, "what kind of spells I'm good at?"

"Besides shine-stones?"

"Besides them. What would I specialize in, Phil? You can probably guess."

"I'm not sure I want to."

"I don't suppose you do." She gave a humorless laugh. "Love and beauty, darling. I specialize in love and beauty."

"They say there's no such thing as a true love spell."

"Of course they say that." This time her laugh was a bit more real. "It depends how choosy you are. The purest truest love may be impossible to impose artificially, but there are some truly diverting facsimiles. Ways to make a cold night hot."

She waited for me to speak. I refused to ask the obvious—if she'd ever cast a spell on me. Never ask a question when you don't want to hear the answer.

"Anyway," she said after a moment, "there's more to love spells than just making some pretty man pant for you. There are spells to find out if a pretty man loves you—or someone else." She paused. "I wasn't sleepy when the rest of you went to bed last night... so silly, silly me, I thought I'd start my renewed career as a sorceress by casting a few spells. Ones I'd avoided before."

She tilted her head back slightly; her eyes glimmered wetly in the shadows beneath her hat brim. "How long have you loved Annah, Phil?"


I considered denying it. Something must have shown on my face, because Gretchen said, "Hush," and put her hand to my lips. "Don't you dare cast aspersions on the awesome insights of my witchcraft."


"No," she interrupted. "Just don't. It's not like I thought we'd grow old together. Although I have, a bit. Grown old. With you." She forced her voice brighter. "But I'm starting a new life as a sorceress, aren't I? It's good not to have entanglements. Or illusions. Or—"

I bent forward and kissed her. Her arms came up to pull me nearer; for the briefest instant, I thought she would squeeze me with all the lonely desperation of a middle-aged woman afraid to let go. But she returned the kiss with nothing but tenderness: soft and gentle... almost motherly.

When our lips parted, she whispered, "The last kiss should always be sweet." She reached up to her head; her crimson hat had a veil attached, thrown back all this while. Now she lowered it to cover her face... so the brightest sun could never reveal her wrinkles, her age, or her tears.

"These things happen, darling," she said. "They happen all the time. I of all people know that." Then she took my arm and let me help her ascend into sunlight.


Most of our group had already climbed down to the jolly-boat; only Myoko and Oberon were still on deck. Oberon bowed low to Gretchen. "Are you ready to go, sweet mistress?"

"Absolutely. What a bright delightful day!" She went to the railing and waved gaily to the people below her. Pelinor waved back just as enthusiastically; Annah and the Caryatid returned the wave with more restraint, while Impervia just glared.

"But Oberon," Gretchen said, "there's no room for you in the boat."

"Don't worry, sweet mistress. I shall swim."

"You can swim? Well, of course you can, you're a lobster." She studied him a moment. "Do you have gills?"

"Not that I'm aware of, mistress... but thank you for asking. I can swim quite adequately, however—I've done so many times in the lake near Kinnderboom Cottage. On a hot day, the experience is most refreshing."

"It'll be more than refreshing today," I told him. "The water is only a few degrees away from ice."

"My species is less susceptible to cold than yours," Oberon answered. Despite his "perfect butler" demeanor, his voice had an edge of smugness—I'd never seen him wear clothes, even on the coldest days of winter. His armored carapace obviously provided abundant insulation, but I still decided to keep an eye on him as we boated to shore. Oberon was just the type to keep plugging away without complaint until he passed out from hypothermia.


While Oberon and I were talking, Gretchen had been eyeing the rope ladder to the jolly-boat. Climbing down in her long crimson gown would be difficult enough... but before she could even try, she had to find some way up and over the rail. I could see she had no clue how to manage it—she'd led such a pampered life that when faced with the problem of climbing over a barrier slightly higher than her waist, her mind simply drew a blank. I was ready to volunteer my help, when Myoko murmured, "My treat."

Myoko's hair didn't lift a millimeter, but suddenly Gretchen soared into the air. She gave a shriek of terror. It wasn't that Myoko was handling her roughly—I think Myoko intended this as a friendly joke, showing Gretchen she'd been accepted as "one of the gang" by subjecting her to impromptu rowdiness. But Gretchen wasn't ready for such antics; she might be a worldly woman in the bedroom, but otherwise she'd led a sheltered existence. In genteel circles, well-bred persons did not get slung around by unseen forces: darling, it just wasn't done.

By the time Gretchen landed (feather-light) in the jolly-boat, her body was rigid with shock. Utterly frozen. It was an open question whether she was still breathing.

Myoko still had a half-smile on her face... as if she realized she'd gone too far, but apologizing would make it all right. Oberon, however, was not smiling in the least. His whiskers had splayed wide like a cat with its hackles up, and his waist-pincers twitched ominously. Even more alarming, a thick smell of wood smoke poured off him—so heady it made my eyes burn.

The only scent I'd ever smelled from Oberon was his perennial tang of vinegar. This new aroma caught me off guard, but I knew enough biology to realize it was likely a chemical signal: a pheromone communicating to others of Oberon's kind that he was on the warpath. Something had grabbed his sweet mistress, thrown her into the air, and paralyzed her with panic. Such an insult must be avenged. The only thing preventing Oberon from snipping Myoko into fish-food was that he hadn't figured out she was responsible.

Any moment now, he'd realize the truth—he'd seen Myoko use her powers the previous night when she'd lifted Impervia and Pelinor onto the Dinghy. I had to divert him before he put two and two together.

"Quick," I said, "someone's used sorcery on Gretchen. Maybe the Ring of Knives. We're sitting ducks out here on the water—we have to get to shore fast. You go secure the beach."

He didn't hesitate a nanosecond: Oberon might have spent his life as a butler, but deep in his genes, he was one hundred percent warrior. He'd been longing for the day he could secure a beach for his queen. With a roar he charged forward, not even breaking stride as he struck the ship's rail; the wood snapped like tinder under his weight, and he continued in an airborne parabola till he struck the lake like thunder.

A perfect cannonball belly-flop: the slap of his bulk on the surface splashed spray in all directions. Those in the jolly-boat got drenched head to foot with water nearly as cold as ice. Even Impervia gasped; the Caryatid sputtered curses in some language I didn't understand, Pelinor did the same in a language I understood all too well, and Annah... Annah's jaw dropped and her eyes opened wide but she never made a sound. As if she'd trained herself to keep silent when taken by surprise. For a long moment, she remained unmoving, water streaming off her hair and down her dark face; then she began laughing, covering her mouth but unable to stop the giggles that bubbled between her fingers.

The others stared dumbly for a count of three; then Gretchen began laughing too. The frigid splash must have roused her from shock... and I suppose she'd seen everyone else soaked to the bone, and felt immensely better at the sight. A bonding experience: covered in dripping wet clothes and watching lake water stream from your hems. Pelinor joined the laughter as he wrung out his doublet. The Caryatid, who'd been holding another unlit match, now made a mock-tragic show of tossing the soggy match-stick over the side of the boat. Even Impervia couldn't help cracking a smile: it was a startling look for her but rather becoming, as she good-naturedly brushed her hand across her close-cut hair and swept water onto the boat's decking.

As for Oberon, he never looked back. He had to secure the beachhead: swimming slowly with powerful sweeps of his tail. His red body lumbered through blue waves dappled with sunlight... and for a moment, it was a glorious, bright, simple day in spring.


The Caryatid took the rudder while Gretchen took the bow—just like the buxom figurehead on a fishing boat, except Gretchen was clothed and had a damp crimson veil plastered against her face. The rest of us grabbed the oars: Annah paired with me at the front, Pelinor paired with Myoko amidships, and Impervia (ever the overachiever) handled the rear oars by herself.

Zunctweed remained aboard the Dinghy. He'd mumbled, "If I must," when Gretchen ordered him to stay in Crystal Bay till she returned, but after that he hadn't deigned to recognize our existence. No good-byes or salutes. As our boat pulled away from the ship, I couldn't see Zunctweed at all. Perhaps he'd gone to his cabin to air out every vestige of Gretchen's perfume.

Gretchen herself had bounced back from her momentary panic and was now in high spirits. She kept praising how well the rest of us rowed: it was her way of contributing and probably more helpful than if she'd actually taken an oar. Gretchen wouldn't have been good with oars. And no one looked disgruntled about her idleness, not even Impervia—you don't blame a lapdog for not being able to hunt.

We quickly established a rhythm to our stroke. I didn't realize how fast we were going until we passed Oberon, still working his ponderous way toward the beach. He shouted at us to stop until he secured the landing site, but Gretchen only laughed. "Silly billy, don't worry."

Beside me, Annah muttered, "Maybe we should slow down."

She was still wet, her hair drooping, her clothes puckered against her body—not a bad look, especially with steam trickling off the parts most warmed by the sun. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"Oh, just superstition: I hate it when someone says don't worry."

I glanced over my shoulder toward the shore. We were sitting backward in the boat, facing away from the front because Impervia claimed that was the correct way to row. Backing blindly into unknown territory. "Slow down," I told the others. "Let Oberon land first."

"We don't have time," Impervia said. "Every second we waste puts Sebastian at risk."

"Slow down!" I repeated, my nerves starting to jangle. "Gretchen, keep a watch on shore."

"What am I watching for?"

"Whatever you see."

"Since you ask so nicely, how can I refuse?"

Gretchen shifted in her seat; she'd been facing our way to give us encouragement, but now she turned front, peering at the docks. Out the corner of my eye, I could see her rise off the seat, leaning forward with her hands on the gunwales. She stayed there only a few seconds, then muttered, "To hell with this. I can't see a thing."

I thought she was giving up; but she just took off her hat and veil. They must have been blocking her view. Now, either she'd steeled herself to being seen in sunlight, or she'd decided if she was facing away from us we wouldn't notice her crow's feet. Maybe she was just sick of wet lace sticking to her nose. She pulled off the headgear and shook out her hair, open to the sun at last.

"This is nice," she said. Then a rifle cracked on shore, and Gretchen's blood splattered like surf crashing over the boat.



"Hold on!" Myoko yelled from the stern.

I barely had time to grab a gunwale when the front of the boat lifted clean from the water—as if the boat's nose had been hoisted on a crane. The rifle cracked again... but now the boat was tilted up at a forty-five-degree angle, forming a thick wooden barrier in front of us. The bullet thunked into the hull but didn't get through; then Gretchen's limp body slid down the slanted decking and slumped against my back.

Switching my grip on the gunwale, I turned to see if there was any chance to save her. No. None. The bullet had gone in cleanly through her forehead and out messily through the rear of her skull. Bone chips and brain matter snarled in her hair. I tried to tell myself, "At least she didn't suffer," but the words didn't mean a damned thing as her blood gushed onto my shoulder.

Another shot. This one missed the boat and whizzed into the water. It might have been aimed at Oberon. At any rate, the giant lobster decided it was time to stop being a bright red slow-moving target—he plunged out of sight beneath the waves. Oberon swam a few strokes underwater, then rose just high enough to stick his snout above the surface... nothing showing except his nose-spike and nostrils. I could hear him take a deep breath; then he submerged once more and struck toward the beach as fast as he could go.

More bullets sliced the lake in his vicinity, but I don't think the shooter knew where Oberon was. Sunlight dappled the surface; I soon lost sight of the big lobster myself. Even if a chance shot found its target, Oberon's armor would probably stop a bullet that had already been slowed by water. He'd be safe till he reached the shallows. After that... his shell was better than no protection at all, but I doubted it could stand up to high-power slugs.

Then again, maybe the slugs weren't high-power. When the shooter realized Oberon was just a waste of ammunition, the barrage turned back to the upraised jolly-boat... and bullet after bullet struck the hull without getting through. Thank heaven for solid oak timber.

Meanwhile we continued shoreward, propelled by Myoko's mind plus strenuous rowing from Pelinor and Impervia. They'd moved to the stern of the boat, the only part still in contact with the lake. Fighting the oarlocks (which weren't designed to function when the boat was two-thirds upright), Pelinor and Impervia heaved us ahead, skating the jolly-boat toward shore as if it were riding an invisible wave.

Beside me, Annah produced a mirror from some hidden pocket in her cloak. Though it looked like an ordinary face mirror, it had a long telescoping handle: useful for looking around corners if you practiced a profession where looking around corners was useful. Impervia might carry such a mirror for spying on students... but Annah? I'd ask her about it later. In the meantime, she extended it deftly around the edge of the boat and tilted it to scan the shore.

"See anything?" I asked.

She shook her head. Drops of Gretchen's blood darkened Annah's right cheek. I reached up to brush the gore away, then realized my hand was even bloodier. Gretchen's corpse still slumped against me, but she'd stopped sliding downward: one of her legs had got wedged under the wooden thwart where I'd been sitting to row. Blood streamed from her head wound, soaking into the crimson gown.

She'd have been horrified by the way her dress was ruined.

I laid my hand across hers (my fingers sticky with blood, her fingers clean and warm but lifeless). Under my breath, I whispered words I remembered from long ago. "In the name of Most Merciful Compassionate God: Praise be to God, the Lord of all Being..."


Another bullet chunked into the boat. "Yes!" Annah murmured, still using her mirror. "I saw the muzzle flash. He's behind one of the shrines."

"Which shrine?" Impervia snapped. "Describe it."

"Bright white—all the others are colored. An hourglass shape, maybe two and a half meters tall. The shooter's taken a position where the hourglass curves inward; steadying the gun against the shrine itself."

Impervia growled. "If people in Crystal Bay had any true righteousness, they'd charge the shooter to stop him defiling their altar."

"Maybe they will," the Caryatid said, "when the gun runs out of bullets."

No locals were rushing to get themselves shot. We were well inside the harbor by now, passing fishing boats at anchor; not a soul was visible, despite the number of people who'd been working here minutes before. At the first sign of trouble, they must have dived for cover—into the holds where they stored their fish, or straight over the sides of their boats. These folks had no urge to get involved in our troubles. They might have risked their lives for fellow villagers, but not for strangers who'd just arrived in an imposing military vessel. As far as these people knew, we were either soldiers or customs officers; facing criminals was our job. Therefore the people of Crystal Bay would lie low until the shooting had stopped... and only then would they poke up their heads to ask, "What was that all about?"

So we were on our own. Desperate, but not devoid of resources. When we got close enough, perhaps the Caryatid could send a pack of flame-buddies to set the shooter's clothes on fire. Even easier, Myoko could knock the rifle away and hold the shooter helpless till Impervia and Pelinor subdued him.

Assuming Myoko had any strength left by the time we got to shore. She was sitting on the thwart just below me, her body rigid with concentration and her face deathly pale. I'd seen the same color on people so sick they were ready to pass out. The Caryatid must have noticed the same thing, for she'd clambered up from the rudder seat to perch at Myoko's side: wrapping motherly arms around Myoko's small frame and holding her, helping keep her balanced and warm despite the strain.

Myoko began to shiver. She was supporting the weight of seven people plus the jolly-boat, which was several hundred kilos in itself; and on top of holding us up, she was driving the boat toward the beach. A fierce sustained effort after years of not using her full power. Like someone who'd spent a decade never lifting anything heavier than a glass of ale suddenly hoisting a loaded hay-wagon... and keeping it up for ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty...

"How close are we?" I asked Annah.

"Almost to the beach."

"And from there to the shooter?"

"Twenty meters."

Twenty meters: two or three seconds of sprinting, even for someone as fast as Impervia. And running on sand would slow her down. The shooter would have plenty of time to aim and fire. Even if we all charged en masse, he'd get at least two of us before we crossed the gap.

"Any cover we can use?" I asked Annah.

"No. The people of Crystal Bay obviously like an unobstructed view of their shrines when they're out on the lake."


I tried to picture how far twenty meters really was. A reasonable stone's throw, but too far to hurl a knife with any accuracy. An easy shot for an arrow, but none of us had a bow. Besides, if we could draw a bead on the gunman, he could draw a bead on us. For the past ten seconds, he hadn't fired a single round. Probably reloading... or at least conserving ammunition. It would be nice to think he'd used all his bullets, but I didn't believe we were that lucky.

Sand crunched beneath the jolly-boat's keel. We were still in the water, but we'd bottomed out in the shallows. "Ten meters from here to the beach," Annah said. Impervia and Pelinor dug their oars into the sand, trying to pole us forward like punters... but the only result was a harsh rasping sound as the keel buried itself deeper. We'd run aground and pushing would only make it worse.

Myoko took a shuddering breath. The Caryatid squeezed her: "Hang on, hang on..." If Myoko dropped us now, our prow would fall forward, leaving us exposed to gunfire at close range. We'd have to flatten ourselves on the bottom of the boat; the hull would protect us, but we'd be pinned down for as long as the shooter wanted to toy with us.

Suddenly, the boat soared upward: hurtling out of the water as if propelled from a catapult, flying in an arc that ended with a brutal collision as the boat snapped up to the vertical and slammed its flat stern onto solid land. We almost tipped over, our balance precarious—the boat was now completely upright, nose pointing to the sky. If we hadn't been holding tight already, we would have spilled into the line of fire. Pelinor and Impervia jammed their oars out into the sand on either side, making diagonal struts to keep us from wobbling left or right... but it was Myoko who saved us, giving the boat one last shove downward, driving the stern a full hand's breadth into the sand. Planted deep and solid. Then Myoko went limp, blood gushing from her nose and mouth.


The shooter blasted another bullet into the jolly-boat's hull. It didn't go through—we were still safe. If "safe" is a valid word when you're stuck on an open beach, and your only protection is an upright rowboat. It was as if we'd taken cover in a tiny privy-shack while a murderer waited outside.

"Phil," Impervia whispered, "how much money are you carrying? Enough to buy our way out of here?"

"Yes and no," I told her. "I have enough cash to pay a healthy bribe... but if we tell the shooter that, he'll just have more incentive to kill us. Once we're dead, he can get rich looting our bodies."

"Let's skip the bribery," Pelinor said. "We'll try Plan B. We do have a Plan B, don't we?"

Impervia scowled. "Bribery was Plan B. Plan A was having Myoko jam the rifle down the shooter's throat."

We all looked at Myoko where she lay ashen and unconscious in the Caryatid's arms. The bleeding from her mouth and nose had slowed to a seeping ooze; I hoped that was a good sign.

A moment's silence; then Impervia said, "Flames," in a cold hard voice. "Caryatid, can you set fire to this man who wants to kill us?"

"I don't know." The Caryatid continued to gaze down at Myoko: rocking the limp body, the way one might rock a sleeping child.

"Can you do it?" Impervia said more sharply. "There's no way to help Myoko right now; first we have to deal with the gunman. If you aren't up to the job, just say so and we'll try something else."

The Caryatid forced herself to look up from Myoko and meet Impervia's gaze. "I don't have much range on making flames obey me. And I can't control them at all if they're out of sight."

Without a word, Annah handed her the mirror.

"All right," the Caryatid said. "I'll try."


The Caryatid's ready supply of matches had got soaked when Oberon did his belly-flop. She had to find more matches in her pack, then search for a dry place to strike a light, but at last she had a single flame balanced on her fingertip.

(All this while, the shooter stayed silent. Everything was still—the town, the docks, the fishing boats. Oberon had to be somewhere, but I couldn't see him. I assumed he was lurking in the water, just deep enough to stay hidden: snout breaking the surface now and then to breathe, biding his time for a chance to rush the shore.)

The tiny flame leapt from the Caryatid's finger and skittered across the sand like a blazing insect-sized crab. As it rounded the edge of the jolly-boat, it flickered in a wash of breeze... but it held itself together and slipped out of sight. Only the Caryatid, watching with the mirror, could keep an eye on its progress.

"I see the shrine," she murmured. "And I see the shooter. I think... yes, it's Warwick Xavier."

"Not much of a surprise," I said. Nobody but the Ring would shoot us on sight; and nobody but the Ring had the connections and incentive to acquire first-rate firearms in this part of the world. Knife-Hand Liz must have landed in Crystal Bay and left Xavier here to stop anyone who might be following. Either that or she was so sick of Xavier's surly attitude, she ordered him to stay behind just to get him out of her hair.

Xavier must have started shooting as soon as we came into range. But why did he kill Gretchen first? He knew her by sight; he'd spied on her back in Dover. Why waste his first shot—his one chance at surprise—on a woman so utterly harmless? Impervia and Pelinor were far more dangerous threats; you could tell that just by looking at them. But Xavier had taken aim on Gretchen's skull and killed her with a sniper's deliberation. Why?

A bullet cracked at close range. Sand sprayed as the shot hit the beach. "Damn!" the Caryatid said. "He got my flame."

"I saw that once in a carnival," Pelinor said. "Fellow shot a flame off a candlewick."

"Xavier's not that good. He didn't hit my flame dead on, but the sand he kicked up did the job."

"So light another flame," Impervia said. "And move it faster so Xavier can't hit the moving target."

The Caryatid shook her head. "Any quicker and the flame will go out. There's too much wind."

She was right. A spring breeze played around the beach at random, darting in off the lake, then whisking the other direction or swirling crossways. It wasn't strong, but it could easily blow out a candleflame. As if to emphasize that, a gust puffed in my face, carrying with it a mixture of fragrances—fresh tar for patching fishing boats, the scent of last season's catch, a piercing smell of wood smoke...

Familiar wood smoke: the pheromone that poured off Oberon when he thought Gretchen was in danger. Its smell stood out amidst all the other odors of the port. I'd been wrong when I thought Oberon was hiding in the lake—he must have circled around underwater and come up somewhere out of sight. Now he was sneaking back, close enough that the quirky wind brought his whiff to my nose.

"We've just been handed Plan C," I told the others. "Oberon is nearby: probably creeping up on Xavier."

"How do you know?" Impervia asked.

"I can smell him." I turned to the Caryatid. "Whip up another flame—if you can distract Xavier, it'll give Oberon a chance. Maybe. It's hard to believe Xavier won't notice a giant red lobster sneaking up on him, but let's do what we can."

"We'd better get ready to attack too," Impervia said. "Whether Oberon makes it or not, we'll never have a better chance to take Xavier down."

Pelinor nodded. The Caryatid was concentrating on lighting another match. Until she got it going, we needed something else to draw Xavier's attention away from Oberon. "Hey!" I shouted. "Xavier! Can't we talk this over?"

"Nothing to talk about," a gravelly voice answered. "Unless maybe you come out and let me end things fast."

"You mean shoot us in cold blood?"

"Blood is always warm, boy. Or boiling hot."

"I'll show him hot," the Caryatid muttered. She'd finally got her match lit. The flame jumped to the ground and scampered across the sand. As soon as it rounded the corner of the boat, a shot rang out. The Caryatid, watching her thimble-sized blaze in Annah's mirror, said, "Hah! Missed, you bastard."

"Going to waste ammo on miniature fires?" I called to Xavier.

"I have dozens of rounds," he laughed. "The Ring just smuggled a big shipment from Rustland."

"Bet we have more matches than you have bullets."

"I'll take that bet," Xavier said. "And the price of the wager is your life, you stupid—heh?"

A sudden roar. Oberon's voice. "Assassin!"

"Rush him!" Impervia yelled.

My feet hit the sand as a rifle shot fired.


Impervia and Pelinor moved faster than me; they were already racing up the sand as I rounded the edge of the jolly-boat for my first glimpse of the situation.

Oberon had got within ten meters of Xavier: coming in from the left, taking cover behind the dockside salting house. I don't know whether Oberon had already begun his final charge when Xavier saw him, or if Xavier caught sight of Oberon first and the big lobster had no choice but to race in headlong; either way, both sides must have acted almost simultaneously. As Xavier brought round his rifle, Oberon must have shouted, "Assassin!" in the hope that a lobster-demon's bellow would make the gunman miss.

Oberon's strategy worked. Xavier fired but the bullet went wild, zinging into the salting house wall. Before Xavier could correct his aim, Oberon had crossed the gap: claws set at a perfect level to disembowel his target. A normal man wouldn't have dodged in time... but Xavier was the sort who'd been brawling since boyhood, and despite his seventy years, he was still fast and slippery. As Oberon galloped forward, Xavier feinted one way, then leapt the other. The big lobster couldn't adjust quickly enough; he plowed into the hourglass shrine, knocking it off its supports with a thunderous crash.

Xavier swung his rifle around for another shot. Oberon had plenty of fight left, despite hitting the shrine like a battering ram; but the demon's pincers had stabbed deep into the shrine's pine timbers, and he couldn't pull them out.

Stuck. Trapped.

Xavier laughed as he took half a second to draw a bead on Oberon's face. Pelinor, running fast in front of me but nowhere near fighting range, hurled his cutlass at Xavier, end over end like an unwieldy throwing knife. He couldn't have expected it to do damage—just ruin the gun's aim. No good: Xavier evaded the sword with a casual sidestep. Staring straight into Oberon's eyes, he tightened his finger on the trigger... at exactly the same instant Oberon thrust his head in Xavier's direction.

Leading with the spike on his nose.

I doubt if Oberon intended to hit the rifle muzzle. Instead, I think Xavier realized the danger of that nose-spike coming toward him, and he tried to block the spike with his gun. His trigger finger was still squeezing, even as the spike and rifle made contact: exactly as the point of the spike caught the barrel's mouth and jammed its way into the hole.

Back in OldTech times, guns rarely exploded. Nowadays though, when firearms are built from OldTech blueprints but without OldTech metallurgy—no fancy alloys, no computerized quality control, just a single steelsmith muddling away with hammer and anvil to get something that sort of maybe looks right—these days, a rifle barrel with its end plugged tight by a nose-spike is the next best thing to a pipe-bomb.

As Dreamsinger would say, "Boom."


The rifle barrel blew itself apart in a shower of shrapnel. Oberon was thrown back, his face a lacerated mess. Chestnut-brown fluid spurted from gashes where steel fragments had sliced through his carapace into the tender flesh beneath. The brown fluid must have been blood; there was a devastating amount of it.

Xavier's blood was red, but it flowed just as freely. The explosion had slashed the right side of his face where he'd been sighting up the shot... but it had also blown wads of debris into the upper part of his torso, perforating the old man's leather jacket in a dozen places. The damage was far more extensive than one would expect from a single bullet; the initial charge must have detonated the rest of the gun's ammunition, blasting apart the breech where Xavier had it nestled under his arm. Slivers of wood and steel stabbed straight into the man's chest cavity... not to mention flaying his hands to bloody pulps.

When Impervia reached the scene, she kicked the rifle's shattered remains out of Xavier's blood-smeared grip... but it was an empty gesture. The gun would never fire again, nor would Xavier pull another trigger. He was wheezing with untold damage to his lungs, and the right half of his face looked like chopped meat. Still, he managed a vicious smile with the half of a face he had left.

"Went out fighting," he whispered. Impervia crouched beside him, not to offer help but to pat him down for weapons. Xavier went on talking as she roughly pulled a knife from a sheath at his ankle. "And I killed a Spark Lord," he whispered. "That must be worth something, yes? Tell everyone..." Cough. "I killed a Spark Lord."

"Which Spark Lord?" Pelinor asked.

"That Dreamsinger." Another cough, this one bringing up blood. Xavier spat it out and turned proudly toward Pelinor. "Shot her clean between the eyes. You saw, yes?"

Pelinor stared back confused; so did I. Impervia stopped searching for weapons and leaned into Xavier's face. "Fool. The person you shot wasn't Dreamsinger—it was Gretchen Kinnderboom. A vain woman, but harmless. Killing her was no great victory."

"Gretchen?" Xavier's face puckered with confusion. "I wouldn't kill Gretchen. She's... beautiful..."

I groaned, understanding at last. When Xavier had seen Dreamsinger last night, she'd been disguised with Kaylan's Chameleon; so what had the Spark Lord looked like in his eyes? What sort of woman did he lust for?

One like Gretchen. Whom he'd spied on with his telescope. He fantasized about Gretchen, and when he looked at Dreamsinger, that's who he saw. Maybe not an exact look-alike—maybe overlaid with features from other women he'd known over the years. But close enough if you were looking at someone a good distance offshore. And when he saw Gretchen wearing sorcerer's crimson...

He'd jumped to the wrong conclusion. And my clothes were now spattered with the blood and brains of a woman I once (might have) loved.

Bending over, I snarled into Xavier's face, "You didn't kill Dreamsinger, you killed the real Gretchen. How does that make you feel?"

I never got an answer. I hope he lived long enough to realize he wasn't some great Spark killer: just a stupid man who'd murdered a woman he found beautiful. But I'll never know if my message got through. By the time I'd got out my last word, Xavier was dead.

Oberon was dead too. Pelinor tried to help the big lobster... but there was no way to staunch the bleeding or repair the damage from metal shards gouging Oberon's brain. His pincers clutched convulsively, clack-clack, clack-clack, in some kind of postmortem reflex; Pelinor had to keep back for fear of getting sliced in two. But Oberon had already stopped breathing, unable to draw air through the mutilated mess of his mouth.

After a minute, the brown blood stopped flowing. It began to cake. The claw-twitching continued but with longer gaps between each clench.

Clack... clack.



Pelinor looked away, brushing his eyes with his hand. Impervia stepped over Xavier's corpse and went to kneel beside Oberon. "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritae Sanctae..."

If she'd prayed like that when Gretchen died, I hadn't heard it. Possibly Impervia had been too busy rowing the jolly-boat; or possibly, Magdalenes didn't pray for rich idle women who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They would pray, however, for anyone—even an alien—who died in righteous battle.

We all have standards for who is worthy of our prayer. I wondered if anyone would ever pray for Warwick Xavier.



I made my way back to the jolly-boat. People peered surreptitiously from nearby fishing jacks: peeping over railings or around the corners of deckhouses, wondering if the shooting had stopped. A few slipped out of sight when they saw I'd noticed them—the folk of Crystal Bay had no intention of getting involved with whatever death and lunacy we'd brought to their town.

Inside the jolly-boat, Myoko was still unconscious in the Caryatid's arms. Blood had dried on Myoko's upper lip; I don't know why the Caryatid didn't wipe it away.

Annah had blood on her face too. Gretchen's blood. Annah laid Gretchen's corpse on the sand and began fussing with the arrangement of limbs, clothes, etc. She looked up as I approached.

"Oberon?" Annah asked.

"Dead. Xavier too."

"And he was the only Ring man here?"

"The only one we've seen." I glanced up the beach toward the center of the village. An empty street led from the docks to a muddy square where several horses stood at hitching posts. No people in sight. "We'll keep our eyes open for bully-boys," I said, "but if I were Elizabeth Tzekich, I wouldn't deplete my forces by leaving people in places like this. She knows she might run into Dreamsinger; she'll need all the troops she can get. Probably she dumped Xavier here because he was getting on her nerves."

Annah nodded. She spent a moment trying to arrange Gretchen's hands in the classic "Death is peaceful" pose: folded serenely across her chest. The hands were too limp to stay put; they kept slumping onto the sand. After several attempts, Annah gave up. "So what now?" she asked softly... as if she didn't want anyone else to hear. "Do we keep going on?"

"Sebastian is still out there. Do we leave him to Dreamsinger? Or the Ring of Knives? Or Jode?"

"If the boy's such a powerful psychic, maybe he can take care of himself."

I looked at her in surprise. "Are you suggesting we abandon him?"

She didn't answer; she was still gazing at Gretchen's body. Gretchen's corpse. Finally she said, "It's not about Sebastian, Phil. You know that. He's just the excuse we're using."

"What do you mean?"

"Impervia thinks this is a holy mission. She's received a heavenly calling and doesn't give a damn what it's about; all she cares is that God has finally given her a job. Pelinor's the same, but without the divine overtones. He didn't start pretending he was a knight just because he wanted to teach at the academy—to him, knighthood was a romantic ideal. A way to use his sword for more than forcing people to pay some pointless border tax. Pelinor's been hungering for a knightly quest the way Impervia's been hungering for a sacred vocation: to be lifted out of a humdrum existence and into something worthy."

After a moment, I nodded; Annah must have thought this all through back on Dainty Dinghy. I could imagine her waking early, before those of us who'd stayed up late drinking in The Pot of Gold. She might have gone quietly up to the deck, leaned against the rail, and watched the shoreline drift past as she asked herself why we'd let ourselves come this far. "Go on," I said.

"The Caryatid's here because Pelinor is. She loves him, you know; she'd never let him run off alone."

I tried not to gape. "She loves him?"

Annah laughed. Softly. "Not Romeo and Juliet love—not teenagers who'll die if they can't hurl themselves into bed immediately. The Caryatid and Pelinor have something more courtly: fondness rather than passion. Quite possibly they do share a bed from time to time... but it's not their most urgent priority. They're comfortable, not torrid; but they're still in love, and wherever Pelinor goes, the Caryatid will follow." Annah paused. "Much like Myoko following you."

"Don't say that." I looked over at Myoko. The Caryatid had laid her flat on the sand, feet elevated by propping them on the jolly-boat's rear thwart. Standard first-aid for clinical shock—slant the body to send blood into the heart and brain.

But Myoko's face was paler than ever.

"It's not your fault," Annah said. "She would have come, even without you—she wouldn't let Impervia and Pelinor go off on their own. Myoko always has to prove herself." Annah paused. "You've noticed she's not as weak as she pretends?"

I didn't want to betray Myoko's private confession to me. "I noticed she dragged seven people and a jolly-boat several hundred meters at top speed."

Annah nodded. "She's strong, Phil—as strong as any psychic I've ever heard about. But she pretends otherwise. I think maybe she came on this trip for the chance to cut loose. To use every drop of her power in a meaningful cause."

"And perhaps to impress me?"

"Perhaps. Or to remind herself what she's capable of. Pushing the boat across the bay... it hurt her, Phil, but she kept on going. Maybe it felt good to stop pretending."

"Even if she dies from the strain? I've heard of psychics dropping from brain hemorrhage if they push too much."

Annah dropped her gaze. "We all might die, Phil. We know that, but we're still here."

"What about you?" I asked. "Please don't say you're following me too."

She gave a little smile. "Heavens, I'd never do anything foolish just for a man. Women don't do that, do they?" Annah lifted her eyes to mine. "You tell me why you keep going and I'll tell you why I do."

I thought about it. She was right—this wasn't really about rescuing Sebastian. I wanted to do that, of course; but that was just the job, not my reason for doing it. I'd still have come this far, even if we were chasing a complete stranger.

So why was I here? Why did I intend to pick myself up and keep going to the bitter end?

Loyalty to my friends.

Curiosity about what lay in Niagara Falls.

Anger at the monster that killed Rosalind and a hope we could make it pay for its crime.

The desire not to act like a coward in front of Annah. (How much of everything done in the world is an attempt to impress the opposite sex?)

But above all else... the feeling that I was finally doing something. No longer waiting for life to begin. Like Impervia and Pelinor, I'd always had a secret belief I was destined for something more important than marking tests and trying to keep my students awake until lunch. It was a ridiculous, dangerous fantasy: an adolescent delusion that God would single me out as special. Blame it on my privileged background, my vanity, or a simple lack of common sense; but I'd always assumed I would someday hear the Call to Adventure like some mythological hero.

Trials and tribulations. Physical ordeals. The love of beautiful women. Tragedy and betrayal. Victory and vindication. Heroic joy, heroic pain, heroic life, heroic death.

"I'm here," I told Annah, "because I'm an ass. There's a dead woman at my feet, killed in an ugly ignoble way... and I'm still not as afraid of dying as I am of being ordinary."

She took my hand—my blood-smeared hand—and pressed it to her lips. "Me too," she whispered. "No more being ordinary. I will drink life to the lees." She paused. "Alfred, Lord Tennyson. 'Ulysses.' " She paused again. "I've been a teacher way too long."


Impervia and Pelinor set off toward the central square, supposedly to scout the town and make sure there were no more Ring thugs waiting in ambush. In truth, Impervia was just too keyed up to stay in one place; Myoko couldn't be moved in her current condition and Impervia couldn't bear watching helplessly while our friend looked so pallid and frail. There was nothing anyone could do except keep Myoko warm and hope her blood would soon start circulating normally. That wasn't enough for Impervia: she went off on the prowl, and Pelinor tagged along to keep her out of trouble.

I too was feeling keyed up. I trotted down to the lake to fill a canteen so we could splash Myoko's face... then I couldn't decide if splashing would help or just add to the level of shock. Every teacher at the academy had been trained in first-aid; but our textbooks had been OldTech ones. That meant we learned the best temporizing techniques OldTech experts knew, but most of the write-ups ended with OBTAIN PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL HELP AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

We were four hundred years too late for that.


"She's waking up," the Caryatid said. Annah and I knelt beside her; we all saw Myoko's eyelids flicker. As soon as her eyes opened they closed again, squinting against the sun. We'd laid her in the brightest spot we could find in an effort to keep her warm.

"How are you feeling?" I asked.

"Like shit." Her voice was a thready whisper. "Who's..." She couldn't finish the question.

The Caryatid said, "Oberon died but took Xavier with him. Everyone else is alive—thanks to you."

"Okay... good..."

"Rest," Annah said. "Don't waste your strength."

"Too late," Myoko whispered. "Way too late."

"Don't say that!" the Caryatid told her. "You'll be fine."

"I am fine," Myoko said. "Did my bit. What I was... here for..."

"Myoko!" The Caryatid's voice had gone steely. "Goddamn it, don't you dare surrender. It's stupid. People don't just die when it suits them. Don't give up. Myoko! Myoko!"

The Caryatid shook Myoko by the shoulders. Myoko's head flopped limply in response. A little more blood trickled from her mouth. Then a bit from one ear.

When the Caryatid let go, Myoko slumped to the sand. Bright sun. A spring breeze. And death.


Impervia and Pelinor returned. With them came a wagon driven by two sullen teenagers: one boy, one girl, both about sixteen, both with flaming red hair and freckles, both glaring resentfully at Impervia. The wagon held a single coffin.

"I found an undertaker," Impervia announced, jogging up ahead of the cart. "It was—"

"You only brought one coffin," the Caryatid said. Her voice was flat and lifeless.

"For Gretchen," Impervia said. "There was nothing big enough for Oberon, and Xavier can lie where he is. Let the crows pick at his..."

She stopped. She'd seen Myoko.

"We need another coffin," the Caryatid said.

Impervia closed her eyes and let out a shuddering breath. When she knelt beside Myoko, she needed almost a full minute before she could speak the first words of a prayer.


The grumpy teenagers were named Vickie and Victor: twin children of the local undertaker. Pelinor prattled on about the whole family having bright red hair, mother, father, all the children who'd been hanging about the shop. No one listened to what he was saying, least of all Pelinor himself—he was just filling the silence, trying not to break down in tears.

Myoko was dead. Gretchen was dead. Oberon was dead.

Only ten minutes had passed since we left Dainty Dinghy.


The red-haired teenagers lumpishly hauled the coffin off the wagon and dragged it to the jolly-boat. They set down the coffin beside Gretchen; I suppose they thought Gretchen looked more dead than Myoko. Impervia immediately broke off her prayers. "This one," she said, pointing at Myoko. "This one first. Then the other."

"You want them in the same casket?" Victor asked.

"Of course not!"

"We only got the one casket," Vickie said. "Either we double up or somebody goes without."

"You'll get another casket." Impervia's voice was the hissing fuse on a bomb. "You'll put this woman in the casket you have and you'll get another casket for that woman there. You'll be quick about it and you'll handle them with respect."

"Here," I said, stepping forward. I had my trusty purse out and enough cash in hand that I hoped Vickie and Victor would shut their mouths. "This will cover your expenses. Just do what needs doing."

Vickie and Victor stared at the money a moment, then both reached to grab it. They had a three-second shoving match over which of them would take possession of the gold.

Under other circumstances, it might have been funny.

Impervia stomped away to the edge of the lake and stared out over the water. She kept her back turned as the teenagers picked up Myoko's body.


Pelinor drew me aside. "While Impervia was speaking with the undertaker," he said, "I arranged for a coach to Niagara Falls. There's no regular run scheduled, so, uhh, we'll have to pay extra."

I nodded; whatever the price was, I could cover it. Didn't I always pay for everything? I could afford the coach and the coffins as easily as I bought the first round of drinks whenever we went to a tavern.

(It occurred to me, we'd probably never go bar-crawling again. With Myoko gone, we couldn't bear the hollowness. We might even start avoiding each other.

(Nothing would ever be the same.)


Annah went with Vickie and Victor back to their wagon. She spoke with them quietly for several minutes. When she returned, she said, "The undertaker will hold all the bodies while we're in Niagara."

"And if we don't come back?"

"If we don't return in three days, they'll take the corpses to Gretchen's ship."

At which point, Zunctweed might throw Gretchen into the lake—or worse. The spells that made slaves obey their owners didn't apply once the owner was dead... and I'd seen slaves commit gross atrocities on their late owners' bodies. Even slaves who seemed resigned to their lot might take posthumous vengeance for years of indignity. Kicking, mutilating, attacking the corpse with any weapon they could find. Then, after the savagery was over, they'd docilely report to their owner's heir. Slavery spells didn't end with one owner's death; they just took a brief holiday, then reasserted themselves with a new master.

I wondered whom Zunctweed would go to once he learned Gretchen was dead. Maybe me. Sometimes when Gretchen got into a huff, she'd threaten to leave me Zunctweed in her will.

As if I didn't have enough problems.



We left Vickie and Victor moping over the impossibility of lifting Oberon's body into their cart. With all of us heaving, we might have been able to move his massive weight, but Impervia refused to let us try. She was furious with the world, and the undertaker's children were the most immediate targets for her wrath. "I saw how much Phil paid them," she told the others. "They can deal with this on their own."

Perhaps she just wanted to get moving again. Away from the beach and the corpses. With seething glares, she forced us to gather our gear and depart.

Leaving our dead friends in the less than capable hands of Vickie and Victor.


As we walked up the street into town, Pelinor gamely tried to fill the silence with overhearty remarks about our surroundings—"Pretty little sign on that store there, what's it supposed to be, a hammer do you think?"—but no one else responded to his efforts at conversation. That didn't stop him: Pelinor was the sort who handled his grief by talking trivialities.

I didn't mind his babble; it was better than empty quiet. No one else tried to shut him up either—not even Impervia. She was putting up a good front of being in control, but underneath... underneath, she was a deeply emotional woman who thought most emotions were sinful. Someday that inner conflict might rip her apart.

But not yet. Not yet.

So we trudged through Crystal Bay's central square. Along the way, we passed numerous tethered horses, all of whom received a "Good day," from Pelinor and comments on their hocks and withers. Local residents who saw us coming ducked into stores or side streets until we were gone. Considering Impervia's mood, I'd say people were smart to hide... but it was still unnerving to see our presence turn the place into a ghost town.

Therefore I was glad when we finally reached the stagecoach company. If you could dignify it with the name "company." Its meager excuse for an office was nothing more than a windowless shack in front of a stable. The stable was not much fancier—room for only one coach, and perhaps eight horses if they doubled up two to a stall.

Not what you'd call a big operation. Quite possibly, the stage ran only once a week, doing a circuit of nearby villages, then ending back at Crystal Bay. The rest of the time, the coach driver apparently served as the local blacksmith; a shed beside the stables had its door open to reveal an anvil and a furnace, neither of which were currently in use. In fact, there was no one in sight at all. The only promising sign was that the coach had been trundled out of its shed and hitched to a team of four, all of whom looked adequately strong and healthy.

Pelinor went off to talk to the horses while Impervia stuck her head into the office shack. "Empty," she reported. The glowering look on her face suggested dark suspicions—that the driver had absconded with our down payment, that he was hiding and ready to ambush us, or perhaps that he'd been murdered by Ring agents—so it must have come as a letdown when a man emerged from a privy at the back of the yard, his trousers still half-undone.

"There you are!" he called, buttoning his pants with no great haste. "Hope I didn't keep you waiting, but my pa always said to empty the chutes before takin' folks on a drive."

He smiled as if we should be impressed by his father's acumen. That smile seemed to sum up the man: sunny, casual, and his idea of inspired advance planning was remembering to visit the outhouse before leaving on a trip. Our driver (who introduced himself as Bing: "Fred Binghamton, but my pa always went as Bing, and that's good enough for me!") was nearly as dark as Impervia and almost twice as muscular—he was, after all, a blacksmith—but he had none of the holy sister's knife-edge aggression. Though he was young (mid-twenties), Bing's face already had abundant laugh lines; his eyes showed a permanent twinkle and he moved with the contented slowness of a well-fed bear.

Bing obviously enjoyed life... and if his wits were less than lightning-fast, his good nature had a contagious quality we badly needed at that moment. It would be ridiculous to say the sight of him cheered us up—that was impossible. But Bing was so pleasantly normal, he served as a reminder that the world contained more than grief. His smiling presence eased a bit of the tension wrapped around my heart.

I couldn't help noticing his smile grew wider when he looked Impervia's direction. He obviously liked what he saw, and didn't mind anyone knowing. I doubt if he even recognized Impervia's tunic and trousers as nun's apparel—Magdalenes weren't often seen in backwaters like Crystal Bay, and besides, Impervia's clothes were still clinging wet from getting splashed. I could forgive Bing for ogling a nun; the question was if Impervia could forgive him.

Several long seconds passed: Bing smiling broadly, the rest of us holding our breaths to see what Impervia would do. Slowly she lifted her hand... then, incredibly, she brushed it through her snip-clipped hair as if trying to comb it into some more orderly arrangement. A moment later, she dropped her gaze; with her jet-dark skin it was impossible to tell, but I would almost have said she was blushing.

I shook my head in amazement. Any other man on any other day would have received a sharp-tongued reprimand; Impervia might even slap his face. But today... grief affects people unpredictably. I could have sworn Impervia was so angry over Myoko's death, she'd lash out at anyone who gave her the least excuse. Obviously, I'd been wrong. Maybe she'd been ready to roar at Bing—to go through her usual routine of instant hostility toward male attention—when suddenly, she just didn't have the heart. Not enough energy to work herself into a rage: especially not over someone as transparently harmless as Bing. I don't know if that's what actually went through Impervia's mind, but I could see the bottom had dropped out of her fury. Nothing left but that weak almost-feminine gesture of straightening her hair.

Her fire had turned to ashes. She looked exhausted.

Bing was not the sort whose smiles lengthened into leers. After only a moment more, he turned from Impervia and began talking pleasantly with Pelinor: explaining some nicety about the way the horses had been hooked to the coach. ("My pa made that harness; it's got special features.") When Bing bent over to point out some detail about the cinch under one horse's belly, Impervia's gaze flicked over to study him behind his back. As if he was a puzzle and a challenge.

But her eyes still looked tired.

I walked over to her. "How are you doing?" I asked.

She sighed. "Praying for strength."


"Really." She glanced my way, then back at Bing. "Nothing's ever simple, Phil. A few hours ago, I was so... excited... about going on a holy mission. Now Myoko's dead, and we haven't accomplished anything. Not yet, anyway. I, uhh... I regret how I felt. Excitement was naïve. Perhaps even a sin. Thinking that I'd arrived and would never have another silly little problem."

"What silly little problems do you have?"

Impervia nodded toward Bing. "When I see a man like that, the devil whispers in my ear. It's not lust—not much—but it would be so uncomplicated just to... you know. Fall into someone's arms right now. To let go. To have someone who would... oh, just to have someone. To live like other women. Marry or not, settle down or not, have children or not: I don't know what I'd do, but sometimes I look at a man who's simple and decent, and I think how much easier it would be. Just to be someone other than Sister Impervia."

She gave a weak snort. "Impervia. What a stupid name. I chose it when I took vows at fifteen. Cocky little kid, sure I was stronger than anything. Why on Earth would anyone let a fifteen-year-old girl make such an important decision?"

"What's your real name?" I asked.

"It's..." She stopped suddenly. "My real name is Sister Impervia. I'm praying for strength, Phil, remember?" She stepped away from me, then yelled at the others, "Why are you all just standing around? There's no time to lose!" She stormed a few steps forward, then whirled back to glare at me. "Quit lollygagging, you! Get into the coach. Now!"

Impervia still looked tired; but she also looked strong.


The ride to the Falls took three hours—cramped bumpy hours, bouncing over OldTech roads whose potholes had been patched with dirt rather than asphalt or gravel. The dirt was now mud; the potholes were mudholes. Every time a wheel hit one, the whole coach jolted.

Pelinor rode beside Bing on the driver's seat. No doubt they spent the entire journey nattering about horses. I sat in the carriage next to Annah, with Impervia directly opposite me and the Caryatid on the other side. Every now and then we'd hear Bing's booming laugh, roaring about something Pelinor said... and I'd look across to see Impervia listening keenly to the sound. If she wasn't careful, she might work herself up into a bosom-heaving crush on the big man; but then, Impervia was always careful, wasn't she?

Anyway, there were worse things than crushes. I thought about that as I held Annah's hand. The coach was small enough that we were pressed in tight on the narrow bench; and for some reason, we held our hands down low at our sides, as if trying to hide what we were doing. I'm sure Impervia and the Caryatid knew perfectly well that Annah and I had covertly linked hands, but they pretended not to notice. Mostly they were lost in their own thoughts. So was I. So was Annah. Until some wincing moment when the memory of some corpse surfaced in my brain (Myoko, Gretchen, Oberon, Xavier, Rosalind, Hump, Dee-James), and I would find myself desperately squeezing Annah's hand for reassurance. She would always squeeze back... and sometimes she would fiercely squeeze on her own, as if some similar horror had silently risen in her mind's eye.

But we didn't speak. None of us. We passed the hours staring out at the late afternoon. Damp fields of muck. Orchards with bare branches. Less snow here than back in Simka, more melt-water streaming through the ditches.

Early in the trip, we saw farmers mending fences or hauling the winter's crop of stones off their land; but as time went on, the men and women we passed all seemed to have stopped work for the day. They sat silently on rocks or stiles, perhaps smoking pipes or holding half-empty wineskins in their hands, perhaps just staring into nothingness as the sun sank in the sky. Most nodded in our direction as we went past—some as if they knew Bing, some with an air of vague courtesy that suggested they would nod to anyone who entered their field of vision.

Shadows lengthened. Soon, the people we saw were more likely to be walking home than just sitting: finished work, finished their pipes and their wineskins, turning their backs to the road and heading toward sturdy farmhouses.

As the sun touched the far horizon, the pavement under our wheels became smoother—so abruptly that Impervia stirred from her brooding and lifted her head as if sensing some threat. The stillness of level asphalt. As Impervia looked around warily, I said, "We must be getting close to Niagara. The highway's been paved to impress the tourists."

Impervia relaxed—don't ask me why. I certainly didn't feel relieved that we'd almost reached the Falls.


In red and gold twilight, we stopped at an inn called The Captured Peacock. Bing told us it lay on the outermost edge of "Niffles": his name for the city and tourist area around the Falls. ("Niffles" was spelled "Niagara Falls" but for some reason, Bing made gagging sounds when anyone pronounced the name in full. I couldn't tell if saying "Niagara Falls" proved you were an ignorant tourist, or if "Niffles" was a disdainful nickname by which Crystal Bay folk belittled their big-city neighbors. Another of those regional rivalry things.)

Bing said he was happy to drive us all the way downtown, but first he wanted to rest the horses—maybe give them some water and feed. No one objected to the break. After hours in the coach, we were glad to stretch our legs, visit the privy, get some supper. We also realized there was no point proceeding until we'd formulated a plan. Niffles was a huge city: 30,000 permanent residents plus heaven knew how many tourists. Finding Sebastian and Jode wouldn't be easy... unless Dreamsinger had already tracked them down, in which case we could just look for the big patch of smoldering rubble.

So while Bing dealt with the horses, the rest of us trooped into The Captured Peacock (ducking under a lurid sign that showed such a bird with golden ropes tied around his neck: teardrops ran from his eyes, but his tail was raised in full display, as if he were weeping bitterly at being snared, yet still boyishly eager to impress any passing peahens). I couldn't help recalling I'd entered a similar drinking establishment at almost exactly the same time twenty-four hours earlier: The Pot of Gold in Simka, where we'd joked about quests and faced nothing more serious than drunken fishermen.

Now everything was different. Annah was here. Myoko wasn't. And no one would ever again tease me about Gretchen, or even mention her name in my hearing.

Yesterday. More distant than the farthest star.


The Captured Peacock's interior was slightly bigger, slightly brighter, and slightly less rancid than The Pot of Gold. Actual pictures hung on the wall—watercolor washes over black-ink renderings of the Falls from various angles, probably created by some teenager whom everyone said was "marvelously gifted." But the place was still just a big room with a bar at one end and hard-to-break furniture everywhere else. Without having to speak, we instinctively headed toward a table just past the end of the bar: out of the flow of traffic, but close enough that one could holler drink orders directly to the tapman. We'd sat in the same position at The Pot of Gold... and at every other dive we visited.

The tapman nodded amicably as we walked by: a diminutive fellow with a profuse busby of a beard as compensation for his shortfalls in height and weight. "Evening," he said in a surprisingly deep voice. "What can I get ya? Nice chicken stew tonight."

"Then bowls of stew all around," Pelinor said. "And four ales, one tea." Our usual beverage order. Except that we now had Annah instead of Myoko. Pelinor realized this a moment too late; he blustered an apology through his mustache and asked what she wanted.

"Tea is fine," Annah said.

"Three ales, two teas," Pelinor told the tapman. A trivial change, but it started the Caryatid crying. I knew how she felt.


While waiting for food and drink, we talked about finding Sebastian. What he might be up to... besides getting wed to an alien shapeshifter. With Myoko gone, I was the only one present who knew the boy in any depth; and I'd obviously missed a lot, because I hadn't known about his psionic powers or his relationship with Rosalind. Still, I'd talked with him many times—at meals and casual "snack-ins" where I'd invite three or four of my boys into my suite to eat cookies, drink apple juice, and chat. No teenager ever confides totally in an adult, especially not a shy and private boy like Sebastian; but I'd got to know him better than most people did, and that would have to suffice.

"What did he intend to do?" Impervia asked. "What was his plan?"

"Plan?" I laughed. "Sebastian wouldn't have a plan; he was just a dreamy-eyed kid. He'd never consider writing ahead for reservations or setting up a wedding in advance—that would have forced him to set an elopement date weeks before it happened, then send out letters, wait for replies..." I shook my head. "He'd see that as far too cold-blooded. Sebastian didn't believe anything could be sincere unless it was spontaneous."

"Rosalind was the same," Annah said. "Filled with romantic ideals of how people should behave when they were in love. If she and Sebastian decided to elope, they'd want to do it right away. Let's go tonight or Let's go this weekend—not Let's go three weeks from now so we've got time to book a nice room."

"And," I added, "I doubt if Rosalind and Sebastian ever had planned ahead. Rosalind's life was run by her mother; the girl couldn't schedule anything in advance, because she never knew when she'd be whisked off to another continent. As for Sebastian, why would he have to think ahead when his powers kept him out of trouble? I didn't know about his powers till Myoko told me, but when I think over things the boy told me about his past... well, consider this: how did he get chosen for a full scholarship to Feliss Academy? He's not the energetic go-getter we usually look for in local kids, but Opal immediately signed him up. Was she influenced by his powers? I don't know. But the scholarship was certainly a lucky break for a boy who wouldn't usually have been chosen." I shrugged. "Good things have a way of falling into Sebastian's lap, and he's come to depend on that. He likely had no idea what he'd do when he got to Niagara Falls—he just assumed things would work out. Get married, get a honeymoon suite, no problem."

"And what about the creature he's with?" Pelinor asked. "We're agreed it's a Lucifer, like in Opal's story?"

He was looking at Impervia. She gave a little sniff. "That's the most likely conclusion... which means there's no point debating what Sebastian and the real Rosalind would have done. This monster, Jode, won't stick to any preexisting script. It has its own agenda and it will manipulate Sebastian to further its goals."

"Lucky for us," I said, "Jode can't directly force Sebastian to do anything. According to Myoko, the boy's powers kick in automatically when he's threatened... so if Jode tries to hurt Sebastian, the result will be baked shapeshifter."

Pelinor sucked on his mustache. "No need for Jode to use violence. The creature looks like Rosalind; surely it can coax the boy into just about anything."

"Yes and no," I said. "Sebastian is a decent kid. He won't commit outright mayhem just because Rosalind asks pretty please. If Jode wants Sebastian to do something extreme, the boy will have to be tricked."

Impervia gave a disdainful sniff. "How hard is it to trick a sixteen-year-old?"

Before anyone could answer, our supper arrived: ale, tea, and five bowls of stew, brought from the kitchen by a tall woman in her twenties whose hair had already gone gray. The gray didn't seem to have come from stress—the woman appeared as relaxed and self-assured as a pampered housecat. After she'd passed around the bowls, she gave us an easy smile. "Anything else youse wanted?"

"Information," Impervia said. "Has anything unusual happened here in the past day?"

"No, sister, it's been some quiet. You're the first folks who weren't regulars."

"I wasn't asking about your tavern," Impervia said, making an obvious effort not to sound snippish. "Niagara Falls in general. Anything notable? Fires? Fights? Sorcerous explosions?"

"Oh, sister, nothing like that ever happens in Niffles."

Under her breath, the Caryatid said, "The night's still young."


The five of us ate in silence. I can't tell you if the stew was good, bad, or bland—the food made no impression because my mind was elsewhere, trying to reconstruct Sebastian's movements over the past day.

Sebastian and Jode caught a ride on the fishing boat Hoosegow. Hoosegow left Dover at 11:05 P.M. It would take at least ten hours to reach Crystal Bay or one of the other harbors on the Niagara frontier... possibly longer, since Hoosegow wasn't built for speed. Therefore our quarry landed no earlier than nine or ten in the morning—after which, they had to find overland passage from the lakeshore to Niagara Falls. That trip was another three hours.

So Sebastian and Jode reached "Niffles" no earlier than noon... and I was inclined to add a few hours onto the calculation, considering their boat was slow and they might have trouble arranging coach transport. No driver would be eager to make a special run into Niagara Falls for two teenagers who were obviously eloping. The kids would need to pay a lot of cash to overcome such reticence. Jode might indeed have a lot of cash, either stolen from the real Rosalind or procured some other way—a shapeshifter wouldn't have much trouble filling its pockets at other people's expense. Even so, money didn't guarantee instant service; teenagers with overflowing purses might get hauled in by some town constable who wanted to know how they acquired so much loot.

Many delays possible. Unless Sebastian used his powers.

If the boy wanted, he could ask a trillion nanites to lift him into the sky and fly him wherever he wanted to go. He and Jode-Rosalind could have lofted themselves straight off the school grounds and across the continent. But as far as we knew, they'd traveled by conventional methods, horseback and Hoosegow. That suggested Sebastian preferred not to use psionics unless he had to... which made sense, considering how much Myoko must have badgered him to keep a low profile. She would have told gruesome stories of psychics who were discovered and enslaved because they took even a tiny liberty with their powers; and Myoko had a knack for putting the scare into teenagers. Sebastian would stringently avoid showing anyone what he could do.

So assume no use of psionics. In that case, the boy's best bet would be telling the truth (as he saw it): "My sweetheart and I are eloping to Niagara Falls and we've scraped together a little money by selling our belongings. Please, Mr. Coach Driver, can't you give us a ride? We'll pay you everything we can afford."

Given a line like that, a lot of drivers would hide a smile and say something on the order of "I've got chores to do first, but I've been meaning to head into Niffles for supplies I can't get here in town..."

Suppose Sebastian and Jode could reach Niagara Falls by mid-afternoon. That wasn't unreasonable. Then what?

Sebastian would want to get married... and he could do that easily. When I'd visited Niagara on that class field trip, I'd seen a dozen chapels within ten minutes' walk of the Falls—Buddhist, Jewish, Magdalene, New Grace, Marymarch, Taozen, The Hundred, and several more. If those didn't suit Sebastian's taste, there were secular wedding halls too; I remembered one with a sign SINGLES IN, COUPLES OUT, HITCHED IN HALF AN HOUR OR YOUR MONEY BACK!

The boy would have no trouble tying the knot. Nor would he have difficulty finding a honeymoon suite immediately thereafter. Late winter/early spring must be a slow season for hotels—there'd be vacancies all over town, and whatever Sebastian's price range, he'd find plenty of rooms he could afford.

Then what?

Then Jode would let the boy consummate the marriage. I didn't want to dwell on that thought... but what else could Jode do? The demon had to play its role as Rosalind, at least in the short term. Eager fiancée; beaming bride; glowingly fulfilled newlywed. Jode had to go along.

After which...

Jode would say, "Oh darling, let's go see the sights."

"Oh darling, I've got a surprise for you."

"Oh darling, someone said there's something interesting to visit over here."

Jode would invent an excuse to get Sebastian... where? To have him do what?

Whatever it was, it wouldn't be long now. If Sebastian and Jode had arrived in town mid-afternoon, they'd take an hour or two or three to wallow in connubial bliss.

That would get them to nightfall. And whatever skullduggery Jode intended, the Lucifer would probably prefer to do it after dark.

I looked out the tavern's west window and saw the sky washed with red fading into purple. The sun had fully set. Alien Jode would soon make its move.

There was another window to the north, this one looking out on the city. As I watched, a streetlight came on. Then another. Then another and another. Some were mercury blue, others sodium orange.

OldTech electric lights. Powered by the hydro-electric station that tapped energy from thousands of tons of falling water. A station tended by the Holy Lightning, but secretly supported by the Sparks.

The tavern door swung open and Bing entered, shuffling his feet to scrape mud off his boots. "You folks decided where you want to go?"

"No," said Impervia.

"Not a clue," said Pelinor.

"Not a fucking clue," said the Caryatid under her breath.

"I know where they're going," I said.

The others turned to me in surprise.


The target had to be the generating station. Nothing else fit.

If the Sparks supported the station, they didn't do it from blissful generosity; they must be using the power for purposes of their own. And the Falls gave them prodigious amounts of power—at one time, Niagara's electrical grid supplied energy to millions of people. Millions of OldTech people, with all their refrigerators, stoves, and computers (not to mention factories, office towers, and neon-bright casinos). Now the generators supplied only Niffles itself... and the power lines didn't even reach the city's outskirts, as evidenced by The Captured Peacock's kerosene lanterns.

So: enormous generating plant, minuscule public consumption. Where was the rest of the energy going? How was it being used?

I didn't know. But Dreamsinger did. And when she realized Sebastian had the psionic potential to threaten the generators, the Sorcery-Lord took off like a firecracker. Now she'd be guarding the power station; and if Sebastian or Jode got near the place, they'd both end up as sorcerous shish-kebab.

Or would they? Why did I think Dreamsinger would be victorious, given that Sebastian had top-notch psychic abilities and Jode had already killed one Spark? It wasn't at all certain the Sorcery-Lord would win. Then again, Dreamsinger had the advantage of twelve hours to prepare a defense, building on whatever fortifications the power station already possessed. (You could bet if the station was truly vital to the Sparks, they'd have done their best to make it impregnable.) Dreamsinger also knew she was dealing with a Lucifer; she wouldn't be taken by surprise like her unlucky brother. And even if the Sorcery-Lord got defeated, it didn't mean Sebastian was safe—Spark Royal would then cry vengeance, and no one could win a fight against the entire Spark family (plus the League of Peoples backing them).

So to save Sebastian, we had to reach the power plant ahead of him. Intercept the boy before he came into Dreamsinger's sights. We'd then have to persuade him his bride wasn't the real Rosalind... after which we'd thrash the Lucifer, take Sebastian home, and pray the whole thing would blow over.

Sure. Simple.

On the other hand, if I hadn't been in Niffles risking my life, I'd be home in my stifling don's suite, marking geometry tests and bemoaning how little I'd made of my intellectual potential.

Was tedium better than facing death? I honestly couldn't tell. Someone else in my position might suddenly realize geometry tests weren't so bad after all. Others might say, "Compared to being a teacher, I'd rather fight alien shapeshifters any day!"

But I couldn't say which I feared more—which I hated more. Quests or tests. Death or monotony.

So it's come to this. And hasn't it been a long way down.



Supper was finished. Darkness had fallen. Outside The Captured Peacock, we waited for Bing to fetch the coach.

Pelinor and the Caryatid huddled together, talking in low voices. Impervia paced back and forth some distance away, surrounding herself with the air of someone who didn't want her solitude interrupted. Annah stood by my elbow, close but not touching.

Silent. Breathing the cool night air.

Stars had begun to appear, plus a few satellites tracking brightly across the blackness at speeds faster than any natural body. Most of the satellites were abandoned and defunct—OldTech derelicts waiting for their orbits to decay—but I wondered if some of those eyes-on-high belonged to Spark Royal: relay stations for ghost-smoke tubes that carried the Lords anywhere on the planet.

Trust the Sparks to have their own private satellites while the rest of Earth couldn't even re-create the Industrial Revolution.

Annah nudged my arm. "What are you looking at?"

"Oh, just the stars."

"Making a wish?"

"One wish isn't enough. We need at least a dozen if we hope to see the dawn."

"Or we could just go home."

I turned toward her, but she'd focused her eyes on the stars and the dark. "Haven't we been through this?" I asked. "Didn't we decide to drink life to the lees?"

"I've been thinking of other ways you and I could do that. Besides dying."

She looked up at me, eyes white in her dark face. I could see she wanted to kiss me; and I wanted to kiss her. Strange that neither of us made a move.

"I've been thinking of such things too," I said. "But if we just ran off and found a honeymoon suite instead of sticking with our friends..."

She nodded. "I could not love thee, dear, so much, lov'd I not honor more."

"All these years," I said, "and I never knew you liked quoting poetry."

"I don't, really." She laughed. "I suppose it's because we're on a quest. Poetry just springs to the lips."

The word "lips" made me want to kiss her again. But I didn't. "This isn't a quest," I said. "It's real."

"The best quests are real. Isn't that the point? Myths are everyday life in disguise. Slaying the Jabberwock means facing your own monsters; searching for the Holy Grail means pursuing some goal you've previously shied away from. But it would be sappy to say that in so many words. That's why poets sing about battling gigantic beasts instead of fending off boredom. And why they sing about finding the Holy Grail rather than... oh, the things you can get only when you give up the nonsense that holds you back."

"What kind of nonsense?" I asked.

"Habits. Inhibitions. A flawed self-image." Annah's eyes glistened. "You know what I'm talking about, Phil."

"I do indeed." I still didn't kiss her. "When I get rid of those, that's when I find the Holy Grail?"

"When you get rid of those, the Holy Grail finds you." She let out her breath, as if she'd been holding it. "Or so the poets say. Grails can be awfully damned slow in getting the message."

She took my face in her hands and pulled me down to her mouth.


When Bing arrived with the coach, everyone piled inside without a word—even Pelinor, who'd decided to forego the driver's seat. Supposedly, he was sitting with us so we could talk "strategy"... but I couldn't help noticing how close he tucked himself against the Caryatid. Not just due to the narrowness of the bench. Annah had obviously been right about the Caryatid and Pelinor; with danger soon approaching, they didn't want to be apart.

But they didn't indulge in any last-minute whispering. No one did. Nor any talk of strategy. We all gazed wordlessly out the windows into the dark, like soldiers withdrawing into themselves before the call to arms.


Five minutes after we left The Captured Peacock, we reached the first of the city streetlights: a garish silver-blue bulb on an OldTech lamp standard that tilted fifteen degrees to the right. The pole's concrete support had tipped sideways over the past four centuries, and no one had bothered to correct the slippage. As the horses clopped past, I thought the slanted pole was a perfect symbol of our modern age. Some Keeper of Holy Lightning had worked long hours to construct the lightbulb by hand, yet had ignored the less complicated job of straightening the pole. Why? Perhaps because making the bulb seemed important and special, while straightening a pole wouldn't impress anyone. Or perhaps because the Keeper thought making lightbulbs was his job and straightening poles wasn't.

There were other lamp standards on the road into town—all tilted, some badly—but only one in four was actually lit. I wondered if the Keepers couldn't make enough bulbs or if they'd decided our modern eyes didn't need as much illumination as the OldTechs had. We're far more accustomed to darkness than our spoiled ancestors; they were obsessed with expelling shadows. If they had to live by candlelight the way we do, they'd soon fall to pieces: trembling at the dark beyond the door. They'd probably see this roadway as poorly lit and creepy... whereas the truth was we had ample illumination to keep our horses on the straight and narrow, so why did we need more?

Even so, we got more. Five minutes later, we reached a stretch of road where every third streetlamp was lit instead of every fourth. The poles were straighter too. Most houses on the block showed nothing but the flicker of candles or the glow of an open hearth, but one or two displayed a single electric bulb burning with conspicuous wattage: in an uncurtained window or as a bright glow behind a vividly colored blind. I suspected these families owned only one lightbulb which they carried from room to room as needed... but at least they had the bulb, and they wanted their neighbors to know.

Another five minutes closer to downtown, and the true gaudy-show began. There were bulbs in every streetlamp now... and ahead of us, giant hotel towers with artificial light shining from every aperture. A dazzling electrical showcase.

Newlyweds would surely talk about the spectacle for months when they returned to whatever village they called home. Flashing marquees. Bulbs in yellow and crimson. Casinos always bright as the sun, even at midnight. And when a bulb burned out, it was sent to the nearest souvenir shop and sold to some goober who'd take it home to tell his friends, "You should have seen this when it was alive."

At every hotel, music played from electric speakers mounted over the sidewalk—sometimes amplifications of live performances, sometimes recordings from OldTech times. The OldTech music was always unpleasant, discordant noise... not because the OldTechs had wretched musical taste, but because the truly good selections had disintegrated long ago: tapes and disks and platters got played so often they literally fell apart. The only usable records left were the ones so bad nobody had played them while palatable music still worked—tuneless, rhythmless crap with self-important lyrics, just plain embarrassing four centuries after the fact.

It didn't matter. Hotels had to play the ugly noise to prove they had electricity. And they'd play it long and loud, till the tapes tore, the disks cracked, and the ridges on the platters wore down flat as glass. People congregating on the sidewalks would listen to this garbage as attentively as they once listened to much better—marveling at these sounds from the past, and believing they were hearing the heartbeat of OldTech spirit—when in fact, they were wasting their time with drab dingy ditties that had survived only because they were unlikable.

The horses snorted and shuddered as they clopped past. Animals are always good critics.


The ruckus didn't fade—the clamor of bad music, plus people walking and talking, carriages rattling, the evening more busy than daylight—but all lesser noises gradually submerged beneath a greater thunder: hundreds of tons of water plunging every second into a deep echoing gorge. A roaring rumble that put the pathetic music to shame.

The Falls.

There were two separate cataracts, but the largest by far was the one coming into sight outside the coach's windows: Horseshoe Falls, a great pouring arc whose sheets of water were illuminated by searchlights mounted along the walls of the gorge. The lights were tinted (green, gold, blue), projecting through the perpetual mist to shine on the Falls themselves. Despite the chill of the evening, dozens of couples lined the rail along the gorge, gaping at the display as their clothes grew wet from spray.

I glanced at my companions and was glad to see them staring in wonder too—even Impervia, who tried to remain unmoved by anything others found impressive. The water, the light, the roar: it's easy to be cynical from a distance, but not when you're right there, peering through darkness at one of the marvels of our planet. There are taller falls in the world and wider ones, cascades that pour more water per second or glisten more brightly in the sunlight... but there's no other place where natural grandeur presents such a perfect view.

We passed in silence, craning our necks to keep the panorama in sight as long as possible—all along the road that rimmed the gorge, until we finally came level with the edge of the Falls and lost sight of the cataract at the point of maximum thunder and spray.

When we turned our heads back to the road, the generating station lay in front of us.


The station was old: covered with so many snarls of vines the concrete beneath was barely visible, even in leafless winter. Perhaps the vines held the building together; four hundred years of wind and snow had been shut out by tendrils that bulged like varicose veins. The Keepers of Holy Lightning made no effort to cut back the growth—crisscrossing strands of vegetation even covered the stone steps leading up to the front entrance. The only break was a bare patch down the middle. During my last visit to the Falls, I'd been told that the path was worn clear by the feet of the single acolyte who went out daily to deliver lightbulbs and other electrical goods to the citizens of Niagara.

I could see no other entrance... which was strange, given that OldTech safety regulations had demanded multiple exits in case of fire. Somewhere under all those vines, there'd be enough emergency doors to evacuate an immense building like this—three stories tall, a hundred meters long—but everything was roped shut by the wiry green strands woven tight through the centuries.

One way in, one way out: like a fortress. Which it was.

The OldTechs had built the station into the side of a hill overlooking the gorge. With its back underground and its front facing the Niagara River, the station could be approached only along the narrow strip of road running between the hill and the edge of the gorge. Even the OldTechs didn't want the plant easy to attack; this was, after all, the power source for millions of people, and it demanded appropriate security. When the Keepers took over, protective measures must have become even more important: the station would be an inviting target for thieves (trying to snatch expensive electric merchandise), extortionists (threatening to wreck the generators unless a ransom was paid), religious fanatics (raging that the last vestiges of OldTech society had to be destroyed or else God would never allow Earth to become a new Eden), and enemy saboteurs (looking to hit Feliss in the pocketbook by disrupting the profitable Niagara tourist trade).

For all these reasons, the Holy Lightning stayed locked behind fortified doors. The Keepers lived inside and seldom came out. I had no idea how they recruited new members; but I'd met numerous antisocial gadget-lovers at university who wouldn't mind a life of seclusion if they got to play with high-tech toys. Even now, as doom hovered over the station, the Keepers were probably fiddling with electric contraptions, following OldTech schematics or perhaps designing devices of their own...

Except: there were no lights on inside.

The building had plenty of windows, all partly covered by vines... but the tendrils couldn't encroach on slick glass the way they grew across rough concrete walls. If there'd been lights on anywhere within, some glimmer would have worked its way out. Yet the place was completely dark. Behind us, the streetlights still beamed their mercury blue and the garish hotels denied the night; but the power station didn't show so much as a candle.

The coach stopped and Bing leapt down from the driver's seat. "That's the place," he called. "But if you ask me, it's closed till morning."

"Looks that way," the Caryatid agreed. She opened the coach door and accepted Bing's hand for help getting out. "Then again, there may be plenty of people inside—just not on the main floors. Phil, aren't the generators underground?"

I nodded. If I understood the set-up, water was diverted above the Falls and sent through large sluice-pipes, tunneled down to rotate turbines in the guts of the station. After the water had given up its energy, it was released back into the river some distance below the Falls. For maximum power generation, the turbines had to sit at the bottom of the drop, where the plunging water had built up the most energy... so even though the entrance to the building was level with the top of the gorge, the machine-works were far below us.

Still, there should be somebody on watch up here. Even if the majority of the Keepers spent their time in the subterranean generator area, they'd post guards on the door.

Yet the entrance was pitch-dark.

"This has the whiff of an ambush," said Pelinor. "Lights off, nobody home, one door with a single obvious path leading to it... if this isn't a trap, I'll be disappointed."

"Meanwhile," the Caryatid muttered, "we're standing backlit by streetlamps on a narrow road with the gorge behind us. A golden opportunity for someone to start shooting."

"Shooting?" Bing said. "With guns? But that would scare the horses."

"Then you'd better go," Impervia said immediately. "Thanks for your help, but it's time you went home."

"You don't need a ride back to Crystal Bay?" He looked at Impervia with hurt in his eyes—as if he didn't want to be sent away just yet. "I mean... you'll have to head for the bay eventually. Your ship's still there."

Impervia dropped her gaze for an instant, then forced herself to look Bing in the eye. "Getting back to our ship is the least of our worries. Now you'd better leave before things turn dangerous. Otherwise..." She paused. "Otherwise, the horses might get hurt."

She'd found the right argument to get Bing to leave. He gave her a regretful look, then swung himself up to the driver's seat.

"I'll be spending the night at the Peacock," he said. "Tisn't good to drive country roads in the dark this time of year. If you're in need of transport, I'll still be around come morning."

"Let's hope we will be too," Impervia told him. "On your way now."

She reached up, and for a moment I thought she would pat Bing on the thigh... but she shifted her hand at the last moment and touched the seat instead: resting her fingertips lightly on the padded bench, letting them linger for a moment before drawing back. "Go," she said. "Thanks again."

"No trouble," Bing answered. "You have a good night."

"You too."

Bing gave the reins a flick and the horses started forward. Impervia stared after the coach until it disappeared around a bend in the road.


"At least it's quiet," the Caryatid said. "No sign that there's been a battle. I think we've got here before Sebastian."

The Caryatid's voice sounded unnaturally loud—as if she were shouting, though she was only speaking normally. Impervia must have sensed the same odd loudness because she answered in almost a whisper. "It's a pity we don't have Myoko. She could have given the door a telekinetic nudge, just to see what happens."

"We don't want to see what happens," I said. My voice sounded loud too. "We don't want anyone to know we're out here," I whispered. "We just intercept Sebastian and leave before Dreamsinger notices us."

"Still," said Pelinor, "it would be interesting to scout their defenses, don't you think? We could throw a stone..."

"No!" shouted the rest of us in unison.

The word echoed off the power station's cement walls and drifted into the night. It took a long time to fade. The world had gone silent—uncannily so. Some important sound was missing...

"Merciful God," I breathed. Whirling around, I ran to the edge of the road and looked down into the gorge.

Bare rock glistened in the spill from the streetlamps. Water languished in dozens of pools, and a small stream ran through a channel down the middle of the river bed... but the roar was gone. The spray had settled. The colored spotlights danced for the tourists across a cliff-face that had never been exposed to open air.

I realized why our voices all seemed so loud—why the world had gone so quiet.

Someone had turned off the Falls.