Book: Shadowplay


Tad Williams


This book like the first volume, is dedicated to our children Connor Williams and Devon Beale—who, since that first dedication, are a couple of years older and louder, but still quite fabulous. I flinch with love every time they shriek at me.


Those wishing the full story of my gratitude should inspect the “thank-you-all” page in Shadowmarch. Nothing much has changed with the second volume.

Or those who don’t have Volume One to hand: As always, many thanks to my editors Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert and everyone else at DAW Books, my wife Deborah Beale and our assistant Dena Chavez, and my agent Matt Bialer, and also my pets and children, who make every day a challenge and an adventure. (And whoever did good work without being challenged?) Last of all, another shout-out to the folks at You are welcome to join us there. You don’t even have to bring booze or anything. (It’s a virtual community, after all.)

Author’s Note

For those who wish to feel securely grounded in the Who, What, and Where of things, there are several maps and, at the end of the book, indexes of characters and places and other important materials.

The maps have been compiled from an exhaustive array of traveler’s tales, nearly illegible old documents, transcripts of oracular utterances, and the murmurings of dying hermits, not to mention the contents of an ancient box of land-office records discovered at a Syannese flea market. A similarly arcane and wearying process was responsible for the creation of the indexes. Use them well, remembering that many have died, or at least seriously damaged their vision and scholarly reputations, to make these aids available to you, the reader.


The older ones in the household had hunted the missing boy for an hour without result, but his sister knew where to look.

“Surprise,” she said. “It’s me.”

His dark hose and velvet tunic gray with dust and his face streaked with grime, he looked like a very sad goblin. “Auntie ’Lanna and the other women are all making a great fuss, searching for you,” she said. “I can’t believe they didn’t look here. Don’t they remember anything?”

“Go away.”

“I can’t, now, stupid. Lady Simeon and two of the maids were just behind me—I heard them coming up the corridor.” She set the candle between two paving stones in the floor. “If I go out now they’ll know where you’re hiding.” She grinned, pleased with her maneuver. “So I’m staying, and you can’t make me go.”

“Then be quiet.”

“No. Not unless I want to be. I’m a princess and you can’t give me orders. Only Father’s allowed to do that.” She settled in beside her brother, staring up at the shelves, seldom used now that the new kitchens had been built closer to the great hall. Only a few cracked pots and bowls had been left behind, as well as a half-dozen stoppered jars whose contents were so old that opening them, as Briony had once said, would be an experiment dangerous enough for Chaven of Ulos. (The children had been thrilled to learn that the household’s new physician was a man of many strange and fascinating interests.) “So why are you hiding?” “I’m not hiding. I’m thinking.”

“You’re a liar, Barrick Eddon. When you want to think you go walking on the walls, or you go to Father’s library, or...or you stay in your room like a temple-mantis saying prayers. You come here when you want to hide.”

“Oh? And what makes you so clever, strawhead?”

It was a term he used often when he was irritated with her, as though the differing color of their hair, hers golden-fair, his red as a fox’s back, made some difference—as though it made them any less twins. “I just am. Come, tell me.” Briony waited, then shrugged and changed the subject. “One of the ducks in the moat has just hatched out her eggs. The ducklings are ever so sweet. They go peeppeep-peep and follow their mother everywhere in a little line, as though they were tied to her.”

“You and your ducks.” He scowled as he rubbed his wrist. His left hand was like a claw, the fingers curled and crabbed.

“Does your arm hurt?”

“No! Lady Simeon must be gone by now—why don’t you go play with your ducks or dolls or something?”

“Because I’m not leaving until you tell me what’s wrong.” Briony was on firm ground now. She knew this negotiation as well as she knew her morning and evening prayers, as well as she knew the story of Zoria’s flight from the cruel Moonlord’s keep—her favorite tale from The Book of the Trigon. It might last a while, but in the end it would go her way. “Tell me.”

“Nothing’s wrong.” He draped his bad arm across his lap with the same care Briony lavished on lambs and fat-bellied puppies, but his expression was closer to that of a father dragging an unwanted idiot child. “Stop looking at my hand.”

“You know you’re going to tell me, redling,” she teased him. “So why fight?”

His answer was more silence—an unusual ploy at this stage of the old, familiar dance.

The silence and the struggle both continued for some time. Briony had moments of real anger as Barrick resisted her every attempt to get him to talk, but she also became more and more puzzled. Eight years old, born in the same hour, they had lived always in each other’s company, but she had seldom seen him so upset outside of the small hours of the night, when he often cried out in the grip of evil dreams.

“Very well,” he said at last. “If you’re not going to leave me alone, you have to swear not to tell.”

“Me? Swear? You pig! I never told on you for anything!” And that was true. They had each suffered several punishments for things the other twin had done without ever breaking faith. It was a pact between them so deep and natural that it had never been spoken of before now.

But the boy was adamant. He waited out his sister’s gust of anger, his pale little face set in an unhappy smirk. She surrendered at last: principle could only stretch so far, and now she was painfully curious. “So, then, pig. What do you want me to do? What shall I swear to?”

“A blood oath. It has to be a blood oath.”

“By the heads of the gods, are you mad?” She blushed at her own strong language and could not help looking around, although of course they were alone in the pantry. “Blood? What blood?”

Barrick drew a poniard from the vent of his sleeve. He extended his finger and, with only the smallest wince, made a cut on the tip. Briony stared in sickened fascination.

“You’re not supposed to carry a knife except for public ceremonies,” she said. Shaso, the master of arms, had forbidden it, fearing that Briony’s angry, headstrong brother might hurt himself or someone else.

“Oh? And what am I supposed to do if someone tries to kill me and there are no guards around? I’m a prince, after all. Should I just slap them with my glove and tell them to go away?”

“Nobody wants to kill you.” She watched the blood form a droplet, then run down into the crease of his finger. “Why would anyone want to kill you?”

He shook his head and sighed at her innocence. “Are you just going to sit there while I bleed to death?”

She stared. “You want me to do that, too? Just so you’ll tell me some stupid secret?”

“So, then.” He sucked off the blood, wiped his finger on his sleeve. “I won’t tell you. Go away and leave me alone.”

“Don’t be mean.” She watched him carefully—she could see he would not change his mind—he could be as stubborn as a bent nail. “Very well, let me do it.”

He hesitated, clearly unwilling to do something as unmanly as surrender his blade to his sister, but at last let her take it. She held the sharp edge over her finger for long moments, biting her lip.


When she did not immediately comply, he shot out his good arm, seized her hand, and forced her skin against the knife blade. It cut, but not too deeply; by the time she had finished cursing him the worst of the sting was over. A red pearl appeared on her fingertip. Barrick took her hand, far more gently now, and brought her finger against his.

It was a strange moment, not because of the sensation itself, which was nothing more noteworthy than the girl would have expected from rubbing a still-sore finger against her brother’s, smearing a little blood across the whorled fingertips, but because of the intensity in Barrick’s eyes, the way he watched that daub of red with the avidity of someone witnessing something far more arresting: lovemaking or a hanging, nakedness or death.

He glanced up and saw her staring. “Don’t look at me like that. Do you swear you’ll never reveal what I tell you? That the gods can punish you horribly if you do?”

“Barrick! What a thing to say. I’m not going to tell anyone, you know that.”

“We’ve shared blood, now. You can’t change your mind.”

She shook her head. Only a boy could think that a ceremony with knives and finger cutting was a stronger bond than having shared the warm darkness of a mother’s womb. “I won’t change my mind.” She paused to find the words to convey her certainty. “You know that, don’t you?” “Very well. I’ll show you.”

He stood up, and to his sister’s surprise, clambered onto a block of wood that had been used as a pantry stool since before either of them could remember, then scrabbled in the back of one of the upper shelves before pulling out a bundle wrapped in a cleaning rag. He took it down and sat again, holding it carefully, as though it were something alive and potentially dangerous. The girl was caught between wanting to lean forward and wanting to scramble away, in case anything might jump out at her. When the stained cloth had been folded back, she stared.

“It’s a statue,” she said at last, almost disappointed. It was about the size of one of the privy garden’s red squirrels sitting up on its hind legs, but there the resemblance to anything ordinary ended: the hooded figure, face almost entirely hidden, was made of cloudchip crystal, gray-white and murky as frost in some places, clear and bright as cathedral glass in others, with colors ranging from the palest blue to pinks like flesh or watered blood. The squat, powerful figure held a shepherd’s crook; an owl crouched on its shoulder like a second head. “It’s Kernios.” She had seen it somewhere before, and reached out her hand to touch it.

“Don’t!” Barrick pulled it back, wrapped the cloth around it again. “It’’s bad.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. I just...I hate it.”

She looked at him curiously for a moment, then suddenly remembered. “Oh, no! Barrick, is that the statue from the Erivor Chapel? The one Father Timoid was so angry about when it went missing?”

“When someone stole it. That’s what he said, over and over.” Barrick flushed, a bold burst of red on his pale cheeks. “He was right.”

“Zoria’s mercy, did you...?” He did not speak, but that was an answer in itself. “Oh, Barrick, why?”

“I don’t know. I told you, I hate it. I hate the way it looks, so blind and quiet, just...thinking. Waiting. And I can feel it all the time, but it’s even worse when I’m in the chapel. Can’t you feel it?”

“Feel what?”

“It...I don’t know. It’s hot. It makes a hot feeling in my head. No, that’s not right. I can’t say. But I hate it.” His little face was determined again, pale and stern. “I’m going to throw it into the moat.”

“You can’t! It’s valuable! It’s been in the family for...for a long time.”

“I don’t care. It’s not going to be in the family any longer. I can’t even bear to look at it.” He stared at her. “Remember, you promised, so you can’t tell anyone. You swore an oath —we shared blood.”

“Of course I won’t tell. But I still don’t think you should do it.” He shook his head. “I don’t care. And you can’t stop me.”

She sighed. “I know. No one can stop you doing anything, redling, no matter how foolish. I was just going to tell you not to throw it in the moat.”

He stared at her from beneath a furious brow. “Why?”

“Because they drain it. Don’t you remember when they did it the summer before last and they found those bones of that woman who drowned?”

He nodded slowly. “Merolanna wouldn’t let us go see—like we were babies! I was so angry.” He seemed to regard her for the first time as a true collaborator rather than an antagonist. “So if I throw it in the moat, someone will find it someday. And put it back in the chapel.”

“That’s right.” She considered. “It should go into the ocean. Off the outwall behind the East Lagoon. The water comes up right under the wall there.”

“But how can I do it without the guards noticing?” “I’ll tell you how, but you have to promise me something.”


“Just promise.”

He scowled, but she had obviously caught his curiosity. “So be it, I promise. Well, how do I throw it over without the guards seeing me do it?”

“I’ll go with you. We’ll say we want to go up and count the seagulls or something. They all think we’re children, anyway —they don’t pay any attention to what we do.”

“We are children. But why does you coming along help? I can throw it off myself, you know.” He looked down quickly at his clenched left hand. “I can get it into the water easily. It’s not very heavy.”

“Because I’m going to fall down just when we get to the top. You’ll be just in front of me and the guards will stop to help me—they’ll be terrified I’ve broken my leg or something— and you just step to the wall it.”

He stared at her with admiration. “You’re clever, strawhead.”

“And you need someone like me to keep you out of trouble, redling. Now what about that promise?”


“I want you to swear on our blood oath that the next time you think of something like stealing a valuable statue out of the chapel, you’ll talk to me first.”

“I’m not your little brother, you know...!”

“Swear. Or the oath I made doesn’t count anymore.” “Oh, very well. I swear.” He smiled a little. “I feel better.” “I don’t. For one thing, think of all those servants who were stripped and searched and even beaten when Father Timoid was looking for the statue. It wasn’t their fault at all!”

“It never is. They’re used to it.” But he at least had the good sense to appear a little troubled.

“And what about Kernios? How is he going to feel about having his statue stolen and thrown into the sea?”

Barrick’s open expression shuttered again. “I don’t care about that. He’s my enemy.”

“Barrick! Don’t say such things about the gods!”

He shrugged. “Let’s go. Lady Simeon must have given up by now. We’ll come back and get the statue later. We can take it up to the wall tomorrow morning.” He stood, then reached down his good hand to help his sister, who was struggling with her long skirts. “We’d better clean this blood off our hands before we get back to the Residence or they’ll be wanting to know where we’ve been.”

“It’s not very much blood.”

“It’s enough to cause questions. They love to ask questions —and everyone pays attention to blood.”

Briony opened the pantry door and they slipped back out into the corridor, quiet as phantoms. The throne hall was also oddly quiet—tomb-silent, as though the immense old building had been holding its breath while it listened to the whispering voices in the pantry.

Part One


1. Exiles

If, as many of the Deep Voices believe, the darkness is just as much a something as is the light, then which came first after Nothing—the dark or the light?

The songs of the oldest voices claim that without a listener there can be no first word: the darkness was until the light became. The lonely Void gave birth to the Light of love, and afterward they made all that would be—the good and bad, the living and unliving, the found and lost.

—from One Hundred Considerations, out of the Qar’s Book of Regret

It was a terrible dream. The young poet Matt Tinwright was declaiming a funeral ode for Barrick, full of high-flown nonsense about the loving arms of Kernios and the warm embrace of the earth, but Briony watched in horror as her twin brother’s casket rocked and shook. Something inside was struggling to escape, and the old jester Puzzle was doing his best to hold down the lid, clinging with all the strength of his scrawny arms as the lid creaked and the box shuddered beneath him.

Let him out, she wanted to cry, but could not—the veil she wore was so tight that words could not pass her lips. His arm, his poor crippled arm! How it must pain him, her poor dead Barrick, having to struggle like that in such a confined place.

Others at the funeral, courtiers and royal guards, helped the jester hold the lid down, then together they hustled the box out of the chapel. Briony hurried after them, but instead of the grass and sun of the graveyard, the chapel doorway led directly downward into a warren of dark stone tunnels. Tangled in her cumbersome mourning garments, she could not keep up with the hurrying mourners and quickly lost sight of them; soon all she could hear were the muffled gasps of her twin, the coffined prisoner, the beloved corpse —but even those noises were growing fainter and fainter and fainter... Briony sat up, heart fluttering in her chest, and discovered herself in a chilly darkness pierced by the bright, distant eyes of stars. The boat rocked under her, the oars creaking quietly in their locks as the Skimmer girl Ena slipped them in and out of the water with the smooth delicacy of an otter sporting in a quiet cove.

Only a dream! Zoria be praised! Barrick is still alive, then —I would know it if he wasn’t, I’m sure of it. But although the rest of the terrible fancy had melted like fog, the rasping of labored breath hadn’t. She turned to find Shaso dan-Heza slumped over in the boat behind her, eyes closed, teeth clenched so that they gleamed with reflected starlight in his shadowed face. Air scraped slowly in and out; the old Tuani warrior sounded near death.

“Shaso? Can you talk to me?” When he did not reply, Briony grabbed at the thin, hard shoulder of the Skimmer girl. “He’s ill, curse you! Can’t you hear him?”

“Of course I can hear him, my lady.” The girl’s voice was surprisingly hard. “Do you think I am deaf?”

“Do something! He’s dying!”

“What do you want me to do, Princess Briony? I cleaned and bound his wounds before we left my father’s house, and gave him good tangle-herb for physick, but he is still fevered. He needs rest and a warm fire, and even then it may not do him any good.”

“Then we need to get ashore! How far to the Marrinswalk coast?”

“Half the night more, my lady, at the best. That is why I have turned back.”

Turned back? Have you lost your mind? We are fleeing assassins! The castle is held by my enemies now.”

“Yes, enemies who will hear you if you shout too loudly, my lady.”

Briony could barely make out the face beneath the hooded cloak, but she didn’t need to see to know she was being mocked. Still, Ena was right in at least one thing: “All right, I’ll talk more quietly—and you will speak to the point! What are you doing? We cannot go to the castle. Shaso will die there more surely than if we were to push him into the water this moment. And I’ll be killed, too.”

“I know, my lady. I did not say I was going to take you back to the castle, I only said I had turned back. We need shelter and a fire as soon as possible. I am taking you to a place in the bay to the east of the castle—Skean Egye-Var my people call it—‘Erivor’s Shoulder’ in your tongue.” “Erivor’s Shoulder? There is no such place...!”

“There is, and there is a house upon it—your family’s house.”

“There is no such place!” For a moment Briony, faced with Shaso dying in her arms, was so full of rage and terror that she almost hit the girl. Then she suddenly understood. “M’Helan’s Rock! You mean the lodge on M’Helan’s Rock.”

“Yes. And there it is.” The Skimmer girl stilled her oars and pointed at a dark bulk on the near horizon. “Praise the Deep Ones, it looks empty.”

“It ought to be—we did not use it this summer, with Father away and all else that has happened. Can you land there?”

“Yes, if you’ll let me think about what I am doing, my lady. The currents are sharp at this hour of the night, just before morning.”

Briony fell into anxious silence while the Skimmer girl, moving her oars as deftly as if they were an extension of her own arms, directed the pitching boat in a maddeningly slow circle around the island, searching for the inlet between the rocks.

Always before Briony had come to the island on the royal barge, standing at the rail far above the water as the king’s sailors leaped smartly from place to place to make sure the passage would be smooth, and so she had never realized just how difficult a landing it was. Now, with the rocks looming over her head like giants and the waves lifting and dropping Ena’s little craft as though it were a bit of froth in a sloshing bucket, she found herself hanging on in silent dread, one hand clamped on the railing, the other clutching a fold of the thick, plain shirt the Skimmers had given Shaso, doing her best to keep the old man upright.

Just as it seemed the Skimmer girl had misjudged the rocks, that their boat must be shattered like bird bones in a wolf’s jaws, the oars dug hard into the dark water and they slid past a barnacled stone so closely that Briony had to snatch back her hand to save her fingers. The wooden hull scraped ever so briefly, just enough to send a single thrill of vibration through the tiny boat, and then they were past and into the comparatively quiet inlet.

“You did it!”

Ena nodded, studiously calm as she rowed them across the inlet to the floating dock shackled to the rock wall. Just a few yards away, on the ocean side, the waves thumped and roared like a thwarted predator, but here the swell was gentled. When the boat was tied, they dragged Shaso’s limp weight out of the boat and managed to haul him up the short ladder and onto the salt-crusted dock where they had to let him drop.

Ena slumped down into a crouch beside Shaso’s limp form. “I must rest...just for a bit...” she said, her head sagging.

Briony thought about how hard and how long the Skimmer girl had worked, rowing for hours to get them away from the castle to the safety of this inlet. “I’ve been ungrateful and rude,” she told the girl. “Please forgive me. Without your help, Shaso and I both would have been dead long ago.”

Ena said nothing, but nodded. It was possible that, in the depths of her hooded cloak she might have smiled a little, but the night was too dark for Briony to be sure.

“While you two rest, I’m going to go up to the lodge and see what I can find. Stay here.” Briony draped her own cloak over Shaso, then climbed the stairway cut into the stone of the inlet wall. It was wide, and even though the worn steps were slippery with spray and the dewy mists of night, it was so familiar that she could have climbed it in her sleep. For the first time she began to feel hopeful. She knew this place well and she knew its comforts. She had been resigned to spending her first exiled night in a cave on a Marrinswalk beach, or sleeping in the undergrowth on the lee side of a sea-cliff—at least here she would find a bed.

The lodge on M’Helan’s Rock had been built for one of Briony’s ancestors, Ealga Flaxen-Hair, by her husband King Aduan—a love-tribute some said; a sort of prison others claimed. Whatever the truth, it was only fading family gossip now, the principals dead for a hundred years or more. In Briony’s childhood the Eddons had spent at least a tennight on the island each summer, and sometimes much longer than that. Her father Olin had liked the seclusion and quiet of the place, and that he could keep a much smaller court there, often bringing only Avin Brone for counsel, a dozen or so servants, and a skeleton force of guards. As children, Briony and Barrick had discovered a slender, difficult hillside path down to a sea-meadow (as many other royal offspring had doubtless done before them) and had loved having a place where they could often spend an entire afternoon on their own, without guards or any other adults at all. To children who spent nearly every moment of their lives surrounded by servants and soldiers and courtiers, the sea-meadow was a paradise and the summer lodge a place of almost entirely happy memories.

Briony found it very strange to be walking up the front steps alone under the stars. The familiar house, which should be spilling welcoming light from each window, was so deep in darkness she could scarcely make out its shape against the sky. As with so much else this year, and especially these last weeks, here was another treasured part of her life turned higgle-piggle, another memory stolen and mishandled by the Eddon family’s enemies.

The memory of Hendon Tolly’s mocking face came to her with a stab of cold fury, his amusement at her helplessness as he told her how he was going to steal her family’s throne.

You may not be the only one responsible for what’s happened to our family, you Summerfield scum, but you’re the one I know, the one I can reach. In that moment she felt as chill and hard as the stones of the bay. Not tonight—but someday. And when that day comes, I’ll take the heart out of you the way you’ve taken mine. Only yours won’t be beating when I’m done.

She did not bother with the massive front door, knowing it would be locked, but walked around to the kitchen, which had a bad bolt that could be wiggled loose. As expected, a few good thumps and the door swung open, but it was shockingly dark inside. Briony had never been in the place at night without at least a few lamps glowing, but now it was as lightless as a cave, and for a terrified moment she could not make herself enter. Only the thought of Shaso lying on the chilly dock, suffering, perhaps dying, finally forced her through the open doorway.

Locked in a cell for months, and it was my fault—mine and Barrick’s. She frowned. Yes, and a bit of blame on his own cursed stiff neck as well....

She managed to find her way by touch to the kitchen fireplace, although not without a few unpleasant encounters with cobwebs. Things skittered in the darkness around her —just mice, she promised herself. After some searching, and many more cobwebs, she located the leather-wrapped flint and fire-iron in its niche in the stone chimney with a handful of oil-soaked firestarters beside it. After a little work Briony struck a spark, and soon a small blaze caught in the firestarters, which gave her the courage to knock over a spidery pile of logs and throw on a few of the smaller branches so the fire could begin growing into something useful. She considered setting a fire in the main hall fireplace as well. The thought made her ache with the memory of her lost father, who had always insisted on lighting that fire as his own personal task, but she knew it would be foolish to show light at the front of the house, on the side facing Southmarch Castle. Briony doubted anyone would see it without looking through a spyglass, even from the castle walls, but if there were any night that Hendon Tolly and his men might be on the walls doing just that, it would be tonight. The kitchen would be refuge enough.

The front of the summer house was still darkly unfamiliar as she went back down the steep path, but the knowledge that a fire now burned in the kitchen made it a friendlier place, and this time she had a shuttered lantern in her hand so she could see where she was putting her feet.

So, we’ve lived through the first day—unless someone saw the boat and they’re coming after us. Startled by the thought, she looked toward the castle, but although she saw a few lights moving on the walls, there was no obvious sign of pursuit by water. And if someone came to search M’Helan’s Rock before she and Shaso could depart? Well, she knew the island and its hiding places better than almost anyone else. But, what am I doing? she asked herself. I shouldn’t tempt the gods by even thinking such things....

Shaso was able to walk a little, but the two young women had to do most of the work getting him up the stairway; it was a mark of how weak he was, how close to utter collapse, that he did not protest.

When they reached the lodge Briony found blankets to wrap around the old man, then sat him in a corner near the kitchen fireplace, propped on cushions she had pilfered from the over-furnished sitting room known as the Queen’s Withdrawing Chamber. The girl Ena had already begun to search through the few odds and ends left in the cupboards in hopes of adding to the food she had brought from her house beside Skimmer’s Lagoon, but Briony knew the pantries would be empty. Supper would be dried fish again.

Dried fish was a great deal better than starvation, she reminded herself, but since Briony Eddon had never in her life come anywhere near starving, that was a purely academic sort of comfort.

After having been fed the first mouthful or two of fish broth, Shaso made it very clear he was going to feed himself. Although still too weary and ill to speak, he managed to get enough soup into his stomach that Briony felt confident for the first time that the old man would survive the night. Now she could feel her own exhaustion pulling at her. She pushed her bowl aside and stared at it, fighting to keep her head upright.

“You are tired, Highness,” said Ena. Briony could not easily read the girl’s expressions, but she thought she saw kindness there, and a surprising, calm strength. It made her feel a little ashamed of her own frailty. “Go and find a bed. I will look after Shaso-na until he falls asleep.”

“But you are tired yourself. You rowed that boat all night!”

“It is something I was raised to do, like swimming and mending nets. I have worked harder—and for less cause.”

Briony stared at the girl for a moment, at the huge, round dark eyes and the naked brow shiny as soapstone. Was she pretty? It was too hard to say, too many things about her were unusual, but looking at the intelligent gaze and strong, regular features, Briony guessed that among her own kind Ena might be considered pretty indeed.

“Very well,” she said, surrendering at last. “You are most kind. I’ll take a candle and leave you the lamp. We have bedding in the chest in the hall—I’ll leave some out for you and for Shaso.”

“He will sleep where he is, I think,” said Ena quietly, perhaps to spare Shaso the shame of being talked about like a child. “He should be comfortable enough.”

“When this is over and the Tollys are rotting on the gibbet, the Eddons will not forget their friends.” The Skimmer girl showed no emotion at this, so Briony tried to make herself clear. “You and your father will be rewarded.”

Now Ena definitely did smile, even looked as though she might be stifling laughter, which confounded Briony utterly, but she only said, “Thank you, Highness. It is my honor to do what I can.”

Puzzled, but too weary to think about it, Briony felt her way to the nearest bedchamber, turned over the dusty bedcover, then stretched out. It was only as sleep dragged her down that she remembered this room had been the one that Kendrick had used.

Come back, then, she told her dead brother, dizzy with exhaustion. Come back and haunt me, dear, dear Kendrick—I miss you so...!

But the sleep into which she fell, tumbling slowly downward like a feather in a well, was impenetrably dark, empty of both dreams and ghosts.

The island was surrounded by fog, but dawn still brought enough light to make the lodge on M’Helan’s Rock a familiar place once more—light that slipped in through the high windows and filled the great hall with a blue-gray glow as soft as the sheen on a pearl and made the statues of the holy onirai in their wall-niches look as if they were stirring into life. Even the kitchen again seemed to be the homely place Briony remembered. Things that she had been too exhausted to notice the night before, the tang of the air, the lonely cries of shearwaters and gulls, the heavy furniture scuffed by generations of Eddon children creating imaginary riding-caravans or fortresses, now made her insides twist with sorrow and longing.

Gone. Every one of them. Barrick, Father, Kendrick. She felt her eyes brim with tears and wiped them angrily. But Barrick and Father are alive—they must be. Don’t be a stupid girl. Not gone, just...somewhere else.

Crouched in the heather at the front of the lodge, she stared long and hard back at the castle. A few torches seemed to be moving on the bay at the base of the castle walls— search boats checking the inlets and caves along the shore of Midlan’s Mount—but none of them seemed to have ventured any farther from Southmarch. Briony felt a gleam of hope. If she herself had forgotten the summer house, there was a chance the Tollys wouldn’t remember until she and Shaso were long gone.

Back in the kitchen she dutifully ate her fish soup, enlivened this time by wild rosemary which Ena had found thriving in the masterless, overgrown garden. Briony could not be certain when she would eat again, and she reminded herself that even fish soup was noble if it would give her the strength to survive so that one day she could drive something sharp through Hendon Tolly’s heart.

Shaso was eating too, if not much more skillfully or swiftly than the night before. Still, his ashen pallor had improved a little and his breathing did not hiss like a fireplace bellows. But most important of all, though his eyes still lay sunken in dark-ringed flesh (which Briony thought gave him the look of an oniron like Iaris or Zakkas the Ragged or some other sun-corched, wilderness-maddened prophet from The Book of the Trigon), his gaze was bright and intent again— that of the Shaso she knew.

“We can go nowhere today.” He took one last swallow before lowering the empty bowl. “We cannot risk it.” “But surely the fog will hide us...?”

His look had much of the old Shaso in it, equal parts irritation at being disputed and disappointment that she had not thought things through completely. “Perhaps here, upon the bay, Princess. But what about when we make land in the late afternoon, with the mist burned away? Even if we are not seen by enemies, do you think the local fishermen there would be likely to forget the unusual pair they saw landing?” He shook his head. “We are exiles, Highness. Everything that has gone before will mean nothing if you give yourself away to your enemies. If you are captured, Hendon Tolly will not put you on trial or lock you away in the stronghold to be a rallying flag for those loyal to the Eddons. No, he will kill you and no one will ever see your body. He will not mind a few rumors of you among the people as long as he knows that you are safely dead.”

Briony thought of Hendon’s grinning face and her hands twitched. “We should have stripped his family of their titles and lands long ago. We should have executed the whole traitorous lot.”

“When? When did they reveal their treachery before it was too late? And Gailon, although I did not like him, was apparently an honorable servant of your family’s crown—if Hendon has told the truth in this one thing, at least. As for Caradon, we also know only what Hendon says of him, so his wickedness is as much in question as Gailon’s goodness. The world is strange, Briony, and it will only become stranger in the days ahead.”

She looked at his leathery, stern face and was filled with shame that she had been such a fool, to have taken so little care with the most precious of her family’s possessions. What must he think, her old teacher? What must he think of her and her twin, who had all but given away the Eddons’ throne?

As if he understood her thoughts, Shaso shook his head. “What happened in the past remains in the past. What is before us—that is everything. Will you put your trust in me? Will you do just as I say, and only what I say?”

Despite all her mistakes and self-disgust, she could not help bristling. “I am not a fool, Shaso. I am not a child any longer.”

For a moment his expression softened. “No. You are a fine young woman, Briony Eddon, and you have a good heart. But this is not the time for good hearts. This is the hour for suspicion and treachery and murder, and I have much experience of all those things. I ask you to put your trust in me.”

“Of course I trust you—what do you mean?”

“That you will do nothing without asking me. We are exiles, with a price on our heads. As I said, all that came before— your crown, your family’s history—will mean nothing if we are captured. You must swear not to act without my permission, no matter how small or unimportant the act seems. Remember, I kept my oath to your brother Kendrick even when it might have cost my life.” He stopped and took a deep breath, coughed a little. “It still might. So I want you to swear the same to me.” He fixed her with his dark eyes. This time it was not the imperious stare of old, the teacher’s stare—there was actually something pleading in it.

“You shame me when you remind me what you did for my family, Shaso. And you don’t take credit for your own stubbornness. But yes, I hear you, and yes, I understand. I’ll listen to what you say. I’ll do what you think is best.”

“Always? No matter how you may doubt me? No matter how angry I make you by not explaining my every thought?”

A quiet hiss startled Briony, until she realized it was the girl Ena, laughing quietly as she scrubbed out the soup pot. It was humiliating, but it would be more shameful still to continue arguing like a child. “Very well. I swear on the green blood of Erivor, my family’s patron. Is that good enough?”

“You should be careful when you make oaths on Egye-var, Highness,” said Ena cheerfully, “especially here in the middle of the waters. He hears.”

“What are you talking about? If I swear to Erivor, I mean it.” She turned to Shaso. “Are you satisfied now?”

He smiled, but it was only a grim flash of teeth, an old predator’s reflex. “I will not be satisfied with anything until Hendon Tolly is dead and whoever arranged Kendrick’s death has joined him. But I accept your promise.” He winced as he straightened his legs. Briony looked away: even though the Skimmer girl had bandaged the worst sores from the shackles, he was still covered with ugly scrapes and bruises and his limbs were disturbingly thin. “Now, tell me what has happened—everything you can remember. Little news was brought to me in my cell, and I could make small sense out of what you told me last night.”

Briony proceeded as best she could, although it was difficult to summon up all that had happened in the months Shaso dan-Heza had been locked in the stronghold, let alone make a sensible tale of it. She told him of Barrick’s fever and of Avin Brone’s spy who claimed to have seen agents of the Autarch of Xis in the Tolly’s great house at Summerfield Court . She told him about the caravan apparently attacked by the fairies, of Guard Captain Vansen’s expedition and what happened to them, and of the advancing army of the Twilight People that had apparently invaded and secured the mainland city of Southmarch across Brenn’s Bay, leaving only the castle free. She even told him of the strange potboy Gil and his dreams, or at least what little about them she could remember.

Although the Skimmer girl had shown no other signs of paying attention to the bizarre catalogue of events, when she heard Gil’s pronouncements about Barrick, Ena put down her washing and sat up straight. “Porcupine’s eye? He said to beware the Porcupine’s eye?”

“Yes, what of it?”

“The Porcupine-woman is one of the most ill-named of all the Old Ones,” Ena said seriously. “She is death’s companion.”

“What does that mean?” Briony asked. “And how would you know?”

The secretive smile stretched the girl’s wide mouth again, but her eyes did not meet Briony’s. “Even on Skimmer’s Lagoon, we know some important things.”

“Enough,” said Shaso angrily. “I will sleep today—I do not like being a burden. When the sun goes down, we will leave. Girl,” he said to Ena, “take us to the Marrinswalk coast and then your service will be over.”

“As long as you eat something else before we leave,” Ena told him. “More soup—you barely touched what I gave you. I promised my father I would keep you safe, and if you collapse again he will be angry.”

Shaso looked at her as if she might be mocking him. She stared back, unfraid. “Then I will eat,” he said at last.

Briony spent much of the afternoon staring out at the bay, fearful of seeing boats coming toward the island. When she got too cold at last, she went in and warmed herself at the fire.

On her way back to her sentinel perch in the heather, she walked through the lodge—a place that once, because of its small size, had been more familiar to her than SouthmarchCastle itself. Even in daylight it now seemed as strange as everything else because of the way the world had changed, all the things which had been so familiar and ordinary transformed in a single night.

Right here, in this room, is where Father told us the story about Hiliometes and the manticore. A tennight ago she would have sworn she could never forget the smallest detail of what it had felt like to huddle in the blankets on their father’s bed and hear the tale of the demigod’s great battle for the first time, yet here she was in the very chamber and suddenly it all seemed vague. Had Kendrick been with them, or had he gone to bed, intent on going out early in the morning with old Nynor to catch fish? Had there been a fire, or had it been one of those rare, truly hot summer nights on M’Helan’s Rock when the servants were told to leave all but the kitchen fire unlit? She couldn’t remember anything but the story, now, and their father’s exaggeratedly solemn, bearded face as he spoke. Would she forget that one day, too? Would all her past vanish this way, bit by bit, like tracks in the dirt pelted by rain?

Briony was startled by a wriggle of movement at the edge of her vision—something moving quickly along the skirting board. A mouse? She moved toward the corner and startled something out from behind a table leg, but before she had a chance to see what it was it had vanished again behind a hanging. It seemed strangely upright for a mouse —could it be a bird, trapped in the house? But birds hopped, didn’t they? She pulled back the wall hanging, strangely apprehensive, but found nothing unusual.

A mouse, she thought. Climbed up the back of the tapestry and it’s back in the roof by now. Poor thing was probably startled half to death to have someone walk into this room—the place has been empty for more than a year.

She wondered if she dared open the shuttered doors of King Olin’s bedroom balcony. She itched to look back at the castle, half-afraid that it too would have become insubstantial, but caution won out. She made her way back through the room, the bed naked of blankets, a thin powdering of dust on every surface, as if it were the tomb of some ancient prophet where no one dared touch anything. In an ordinary year the doors would have been thrown wide to air the room as the servants bustled through, sweeping and cleaning. There would have been fresh flowers in the vase on the writing desk (only yellow ragwort if it was late in the season) and water in the washing jug. Instead, her father was trapped in a room somewhere that was probably smaller than this—maybe a bleak cell like the hole in which Shaso had been imprisoned. Did Olin have a window to look out, a view—or only dark walls and fading memories of his home?

It did not bear thinking about. So many things these days did not bear thinking about.

“I thought you said he had barely eaten,” Briony said, nodding toward Shaso. She held out the sack. “The dried fish is gone. Was it you? There were three pieces left when I saw last.”

Ena looked in the sack, then smiled. “I think we have made a gift.”

“A gift? What do you mean? To whom?”

“To the small folk—the Air Lord’s children.”

Briony shook her head in irritation. “Made a gift to the rats and mice, more likely. I think I just saw one.” She did not hold with such silly old tales—it was what the cooks and maids said every time something went missing: “Oh, it must have been the little folk, Highness. The Old Ones must’ve took it.” Briony had a sudden pang, knowing what Barrick would have said about such an idea, the familiar mockery that would have tinged his voice. She missed him so fiercely that tears welled in her eyes.

A moment later she had to admit the irony of it: she was mourning her brother, who would have poured scorn on the idea of “the small folk”...because he was off fighting the fairies. “It doesn’t matter, I suppose,” she said to Ena. “Surely we will find something to eat in Marrinswalk.”

Ena nodded. “And perhaps the small folk will bring us luck in return for the food—perhaps they will call on Pyarin Ky’vos to lend us fair winds. They are his favorites after all, just as my folk belong to Egye-Var.”

Briony shook her head in doubt, then caught herself. Who was she, who had fought against a murderous demon and barely survived, to make light of what others said about the gods? She herself, although she prayed carefully and sincerely to Zoria every day, had never believed Heaven to be as active in people’s lives as others seemed to think— but at the moment she and her family needed all the help they could find. “You remind me, Ena. We must make an offering at the Erivor shrine before we go.” “Yes, my lady. That is right and good.”

So the girl approved, did she? How kind of her! Briony grimaced, but turned away so the girl did not see. She realized for the first time that she missed being the princess regent. At least people didn’t openly treat you like you were a child or a complete fool—out of fear, if nothing else! “Let’s get Shaso down to the boat, first.”

“I’ll walk, curse it.” The old man roused himself from his drowsing nap. “Is the sun down yet?”

“Soon enough.” He looked better, Briony thought, but he was still frighteningly thin and clearly very weak. He was old, older by many years than her father—she sometimes forgot that, fooled by his strength and sharpness of mind. Would he recover, or would his time in the stronghold leave him a cripple? She sighed. “Let’s get on with things. It’s a long way to the Marrinswalk coast, isn’t it?”

Shaso nodded slowly. “It will take all the night, and perhaps some of the morning.”

Ena laughed. “If Pyarin Ky’vos sends even a small, kind wind, I will have you on shore before dawn.”

“And then where?” Briony knew better than to doubt this strong-armed girl, at least about rowing a boat. “Should we not consider Blueshore? I know Tyne’s wife well. She would shelter us, I’m certain—she’s a good woman, if overly fond of clothes and chatter. Surely that would be safer than Marrinswalk, where...”

Shaso growled, a deep, warning sound that might have issued from a cave. “Did you or did you not promise to do as I say?”

“Yes, I promised, but...”

“Then we go to Marrinswalk. I have my reasons, Highness. None of the nobility can shield you. If we force the Tollys’ hand, Duke Caradon will bring the Summerfield troops to Blueshore and throw down Aldritch Stead—they will never be able to hold off the Tollys with Tyne and all his men gone to this battle you tell me of. They will announce you were a false claimant—some serving girl I forced to play the part of the missing princess regent—and that the real Briony is already long dead. Do you see?”

“I suppose...”

“Do not suppose. At this moment, strength is all and the Tollys hold the whip hand. You must do what I ask and not waste time arguing. We may soon find ourselves in straits where hesitation or childish stubbornness will kill us.”

“So. Marrinswalk, then.” Briony stood, struggling to hold down her anger. Calm, she told herself. You made a promise—besides, remember the foolishness with Hendon. You cannot afford your temper right now. You are the last of the Eddons. Suddenly frightened, she corrected herself. The last of the Eddons in Southmarch. But of course, even that wasn’t true—there were no true Eddons left in Southmarch anymore, only Anissa and her baby, if the child had survived his first, terrible night.

“I will attend to the sea god’s shrine,” she said, speaking as carefully as she could, putting on the mask of queenly distance she had supposed left behind with the rest of the life that had been stolen from her. “Help Lord dan-Heza down to the boat, Ena. I will meet you there.”

She walked out of the kitchen without looking back.

2. Drowning

In the beginning the heavens were only darkness, but Zo came and pushed the darkness away. When it was gone all that was left behind was Sva, the daughter of the dark. Zo found her comely, and together they set out to rule over everything, and make all right.

—from The Beginnings of Things, The Book of the Trigon

Despite the rain hissing down all around, spattering on the mossy rocks and drizzling from the branches of the trees that leaned over them like disapproving old men, the boy made no effort to cover himself. As raindrops bounced from his forehead and ran down his face, he barely blinked. Watching him made Ferras Vansen feel more lonely than ever.

What am I doing here? No power of the gods or earth should have been able to lure me back to this mad place.

But shame and desire, commingled in a most devastating way, had clearly been more powerful than any gods, because here he was behind the Shadowline again, lost in an unholy forest of crescent-leaved trees and vines sagging with heavy, dripping black blossoms, terrified that if he did lose the boy he would bring even more pain to the Eddons —and more important, to Barrick’s sister, Princess Briony.

Hidden lightning glowed above them and thunder rumbled as the cold torrent grew stronger. Vansen scowled. This storm was too much, he decided: even if it meant another pitched battle with the unresponsive prince, they dared not go any farther today. If they were not struck by lightning or a deathly fever, their horses would surely stumble blindly off a crag and they would die that way—even Barrick’s strange, dark fairy-horse was showing signs of distress, and Vansen’s own mount was within moments of balking completely. No sane person would travel unknown roads in weather like this.

Of course, just now, Barrick Eddon was clearly far from sane; the prince showed no inclination even to slow down, and was almost out of sight.

“Highness!” Vansen called above the hiss of rain. “If we ride farther we’ll kill the horses, and we won’t survive without them.” Time was confusing behind the Shadowline, but it seemed they had been riding through this endless gloaming for at least a day. After a terrible battle and a sleepless night spent hiding in the rocks at the edge of the battlefield, Ferras Vansen was already so exhausted he feared he would lose his balance and fall out of his saddle. How could the prince be any less weary?

“Please, Highness! I do not know where you are going but we will not reach it safely in this weather. Let us make some shelter and rest and wait for the storm to pass.”

To his surprise, Barrick suddenly reined up and sat waiting in the harsh drizzle. The young man did not even resist when Vansen caught up and half yanked him, half helped him out of his saddle, then he sat quietly on a rock like an obedient child while the guard captain did his best, spluttering and cursing, to shape wet branches into some kind of shelter. It was as though only part of the prince were truly present, as though he were living deep inside his own body like an ailing man in a huge house. Barrick Eddon did not look up even when Vansen accidentally scratched his cheek with a pine bough, nor respond to the guardsman’s apologies with anything more than a slow eyeblink.

During his life at the castle Vansen had often thought that the nobility lived in a different world than he and his kind, but never had it seemed more true than this moment.

What kind of lackwit are you? Vansen’s tiny fire, only partly protected by the overhanging rock against which he’d set it, hissed and struggled against the horizontal rain. An animal —he prayed it was an animal—howled in the distance, a stuttering screech that made Vansen’s hair stand and prickle. Trigon guard us, will you truly give up your own life for a boy who scarcely knows you’re here?

But he wasn’t doing it for Barrick, not really. He’d nothing against the youth, but it was the boy’s sister that Vansen feared, whose grief if her twin were lost would break Ferras Vansen’s own heart beyond repair. He had sworn to her he would treat Barrick as though he were his own family—an oath that was foolish in so many ways as to beggar the imagination.

He watched the prince eating one of their last pieces of jerked meat, chewing and staring as absently as a cow in a meadow. Barrick was not merely distracted, he seemed lost in a way Vansen couldn’t quite understand. The boy could hear what Vansen said at least some of the time or he would not have stopped here, and he occasionally looked his companion in the eye as though actually seeing him. A few times he had even spoken, although saying nothing much that Vansen could understand, mostly what the guardsman had begun to think of as elf-talk, the same sort of babble Collum Dyer had spouted when the shadowlands had swallowed his sense. But even at his best moments, the prince was not completely there. It was as though Barrick Eddon were dying—but in the slowest, most peaceful way possible.

With a shudder, Vansen remembered something told to him by one of his Southmarch guardsmen—Geral Kelty, who had been lost in these same lands on Vansen’s last, terrifying visit, vanished along with the merchant Raemon Beck and the others. Kelty had grown up a fisherman’s son on Landsend, and when he was still a boy, he and his father and younger brother had been caught in a sudden violent squall where the bay met the ocean. Their boat tipped over, then was pushed under by a wave and sank with horrifying swiftness, taking their father with it. Kelty and his younger brother had clung to each other, swimming slowly toward the land for a long time, fighting wind and high waves.

Then, with the beach at Coiner’s Point just a short distance away, Kelty told Vansen, his young brother had simply let go and slipped beneath the water.

“Tired, mayhap,” Kelty had said, shaking his head, eyes still haunted. “Cramped. But he just looked at me, peaceful-like, and then let himself slide away like he was getting under his blanket of a night. I think he even smiled.” Kelty had smiled too as he told this, as if to make up for the tears in his eyes. Vansen had been scarcely able to look at him. They had both been drinking, another payday spent in the Badger’s Boots or one of those other pestholes off Market Square, and it was the time of night when strange things were said, things that were sometimes difficult to forget, although most folk did their best.

Wincing now at the rain that leaked through their pathetic shelter of woven branches and ran down the neck of his cloak, Ferras Vansen wondered if Kelty had seen the same thing in his younger brother’s eyes that Vansen was seeing in Prince Barrick’s, the same inexplicable remoteness. Was Briony’s brother about to die, too? Was he about to surrender himself and drown in the shadowlands?

And if he does? What becomes of me? He had only barely made his way out of the shadowlands the first time, led by the touched girl, Willow. No one, he felt sure, least of all Ferras Vansen, could be that fortunate twice.

They had found an open track through the forest, a bit of clear path. Vansen jogged out ahead of the prince, trying to spy out a place where they might stop and spend a few hours of rest in the endless gray twilight. After what must have been several days’ riding, the supplies in his pack had dwindled to almost nothing; if they had to hunt for food, he wanted to do it here, where the dim ghosts of the sun and moon still haunted the sky behind the mists. He could not be certain that whatever animal he caught here would be more ordinary than prey taken deeper behind the Shadowline, but it was one small thing he was determined to do.

Vansen’s horse abruptly shrilled and reared, almost throwing him from the saddle. At first he thought they were being attacked, but the forest was still. His heart slowed a little. As he brought the horse under control he called back to the prince to hold up, then, as he leaned forward to stroke his mount’s neck, trying to soothe the still-frightened animal, he saw the dead thing on the ground.

At first disgust and alarm were mingled with relief, because the creature was no bigger than a child of four or five years and was obviously in no state to do any harm: its head was mostly off, and black blood gleamed all over its chest and belly and on the wet grass where it lay, thinning and running away under the remorseless rain. The more Vansen looked at the corpse, though, the more disturbing he found it. It was like an ape, but with abnormally long fingers and skin like a lizard’s, rough and netted with scales. Knobs of gray bone stuck out through the scaly hide at the joints and along the spine, not injuries but as much a part of it as a cow’s horns or a man’s fingernails. As Vansen examined the dead thing further, he saw that its face was disturbingly manlike, as brown as the rest of its studded hide but covered with smooth, leathery skin. The dark eyes were wide open in a net of wrinkled flesh, and if he had seen only them he would have been sure it was some little old man lying here, though the fanged mouth gave things a different flavor.

Vansen poked hard with his sword but the thing did not move. He guided his horse wide around the corpse, and watched as Barrick’s milky-eyed mount took the same roundabout path. The prince himself did not even look down.

Within moments Vansen saw a second and a third creature, both as dead and bloodied as the first, slashed by a blade or long claws. He reined up, wondering what sort of beast had so easily bested these unpleasant creatures. Was it one of the terrible, sticklike giants that had taken Collum Dyer? Or something worse, something... unimaginable? Perhaps even now it watched them from the forest shadows, eyes gleaming....

“Go slowly, Highness,” he told Barrick, but he might have spoken Xixian for all the notice the youth paid him.

Only a few paces ahead lay another clot of small, knobby corpses in the middle of the trail. Vansen’s horse pulled up, snuffling anxiously. Clearly, it did not want to step over the things, although Barrick’s shadow-bred horse showed no such compunction as it passed him. Vansen groaned and climbed down to clear the trail. He was pushing one of the bodies with his sword, hesitant to touch any of the creatures, when the thing abruptly came to life. Whistling in a horrid way that Vansen only realized later was the mortal slash across its chest sucking air, it managed to climb up his sword and sink its teeth into his arm before he could do more than grunt in shock. He had thought many times of removing his mail shirt—the damp cold had made it seem much more a burden than a benefit—but now he thanked the gods he had kept it. The creature’s teeth did not pierce the Funderling-forged rings, and he was able to smash its wizened face hard enough to dislodge it from his arm. It hit the ground but did not run away, scuttling toward him again, still whistling like a hillman’s pipes with the sack burst.

“Barrick!” he shouted, wondering how many more of the creatures might be still alive and lurking, “Highness, help me!”—but the prince was already out of sight down the trail.

Vansen backed away from his horse, not wanting to risk wounding it with a wild swing, and as the little monstrosity leaped up toward his throat he managed to strike it with the flat of his blade, knocking it aside. His heavy sword was not the best weapon, but he did not dare take the time to pull his dagger. Before the hissing thing could get up again he stepped forward and skewered it against the wet ground with his sword, pushing through muscle and gut and crunching bone until his hilt was almost in reach of the creature’s claws, which waved feebly a few times, then curled in death.

Vansen took only a moment to catch his breath and wipe his blade on the wet grass before clambering back up into the saddle, worried about the prince but also irritated. Hadn’t the boy heard him call?

He found Barrick just a short ride ahead, dismounted and staring down at a dozen or more of the hairy creatures, all apparently safely dead this time. In their midst lay a dead horse with its throat torn out and what Vansen at first thought was its equally dead rider lying facedown beside it. The black-haired body was human enough in shape, wrapped in a torn dark cloak and armor of some strange material with a blue-gray tortoiseshell-like finish. Vansen dismounted and cautiously put his hand on the back of the corpse’s neck, in a gap between helmet and armor. To his surprise he could feel movement under his fingers—a slow, labored rise: the rider was breathing. When he turned the victim over and pulled off the disturbing skull helm, he got his second shock. The man had no face.

No, he realized after an instant, still sickened, it does—but that’s no human face. He made the sign of the Three as he fought against a sudden clutch of nausea. There were eyes in that pale, membrane of flesh that stretched between scalp and narrow chin, but because they were shut they had seemed no more than creases of flesh beneath the wide brow, obscured by smears of blood from what looked like a near-mortal gash in the thing’s forehead—the blood, at least, was as red as that which flowed in a godly man. But the rest of the face was as featureless as a drumskin, with no nose or mouth.

The faceless man’s eyes flicked open, eyes red as his smeared blood. They struggled to fix on the guard captain and the prince, then rolled up and the waxy lids fell again.

Vansen staggered to his feet in revulsion and fear. “It is one of them. One of the murdering Twilight People.”

“He belongs to my mistress,” Barrick said calmly. “He wears her mark.”


“He is injured. See to him. We will stop here.” Barrick climbed down from his horse and stood waiting, as though what he had said made perfect sense.

“Forgive me, Highness, but what are you thinking? This is one of the demons who has tried to kill us—tried to kill you. They have destroyed our armies and our towns.” Vansen sheathed his sword and slipped his dagger from its battered sheath. “No, step back and I will slit his gorge. It is a more merciful death than many of our folk have received...”

“Stop.” Prince Barrick moved forward as if to put his own body between the wounded creature and the killing stroke. Ferras Vansen could only stare in astonishment. Barrick’s eyes were calm and intent—in fact, he seemed closer to his old self than he had since they had crossed the Shadowline—but he was still acting like a madman.

“Highness, please, I beg of you, stand away. This thing is a murderer of our people. I saw this very creature killing Aldritchmen and Kertewallers like a dog among rats. I cannot let him live.”

“No, you must let him live,” Barrick declared. “He is on a grave errand.”

“What? What errand?”

“I do not know. But I know the signs upon him and I hear the voices they make in my head. If we do not help him, more of...our kind will die. Mortals.” The young prince regent’s hesitation was strange, as if for a moment he had forgotten to which side of the conflict he belonged.

“But how can you know that? And who is this ‘mistress’ you speak of? Not your sister, surely. Princess Briony would not want you to do any of these things.”

Barrick shook his head. “Not my sister, no. The great lady who found me and commanded me. She is one of the highest. She looked at me and...and knew me. Now help him, please.” For a moment the prince’s gaze became even clearer, but a hard look of pain and loss came too, like ice forming on a shallow pond. “I do not know what to do. How to do it. You must.”

Vansen stared at Barrick. Barrick stared back. The boy would not let him kill this monster without a fight, he’d made that clear. Vansen had already tried several times to sway Barrick from these strange, spellbound moods but had found no way to do it without harming him, so fierce was his resistance. It would be bad enough to face Briony Eddon if he allowed the boy to come to harm—how much worse if it was Vansen himself who hurt the prince?

He cursed under his breath and sheathed his sword, then began to remove the creature’s strange shell-like armor, which, considering the cold, wet day, was warmer to the touch than if it had been metal or anything else decent.

Cursed black magic—I should never have come here again. Every hour, it seemed, some new and unwholesome choice was put before him. Instead of a soldier, I should have been a king’s poison-taster, he thought bleakly. At least then I wouldn’t have survived to see the outcome of my failures.

He had been adrift in the depths of his own being for so long that only now, as he was finally nearing the surface again, did Barrick Eddon begin to understand how completely he had been lost.

From the moment that the fairy-woman’s eye had caught and held his own he had lost the sequence of everything.

From that astounding instant when he had lain stunned and helpless as the giant’s club had swung up but death had not followed, all the moments of his life, strung in ordered sequence like Kanjja pearls on a necklace, had suddenly flown apart, as if someone had broken the string and dumped those precious pearls into swirling water. His childhood, his dreams, barely recognized faces and even all the moments of Briony and his father and family, the army of Shadowline demons, a million more glittering instants, had all become discontinuous and simultaneous, and Barrick had floated among them like a drowning man watching his own last bubbles.

In fact, for a while the most clear-thinking part of him had been certain he was dead, that the giant’s club had fallen, that the spiky porcupine woman and her fierce, all-knowing gaze had been nothing but a last momentary glimpse of the living world before it was torn from him, a glimpse which had expanded into an entire, shadowy imitation of life, another bubble to observe, another loose pearl.

Now he knew better—now he could think again. But even though he could feel the wind and rain on his face once more, even though he again had a sense of life unrolling moment by moment instead of surrounding him in a disordered whirl, it was all still very strange.

For one thing, although he could no longer remember the important thing the fairy-woman had told him, he knew that he could no more go against her wishes than he could sprout wings and fly away, just as he had known that her servant, the faceless one they had discovered, must be saved.

But how could it be that someone could command him and he could not say the reason or remember the command?

Even the few things in his life that had once given Barrick comfort now seemed distant—his home, his family, his pastimes, the things he had clung to throughout his youth, when he had often feared he would go mad. But at this moment, of all of it, only Briony still seemed entirely real— she was in his heart and it seemed now that not even his own death would dislodge her. He felt he would carry her memory even into the darkest house, right to the foot of Kernios’ throne, but all, the other things that he had been taught were so important had been were revealed to be only beads on a fraying string.

Ferras Vansen did not notice the wounded fairy wake. For hours the creature had lain deathlike and limp, eyes shut, then he suddenly discovered the red stare burning out at him from that awful, freakish face.

Something pressed behind his eyes, a painful intrusion that buzzed in his head like a trapped hornet. He took a step back, wondering what magic this shadow-thing was using to attack him, but the scarlet eyes widened and the buzzing abruptly faded, leaving only a trace of confused inquiry like a voice heard in the last moments of sleep.

“I cannot really tell him,” Prince Barrick said. “Can you?”

“Tell...? What do you mean?” Vansen eyed the fairy, who still lay with his head propped on a saddlebag, looking weak and listless. If he was preparing to spring he was hiding it well.

“Didn’t you hear him?” But now Barrick seemed confused, rubbing his head and grimacing as though it hurt. “He said he wants to know why we saved him, our enemy. But I don’t know why we did it—I can hardly remember.”

You told me we had to, Highness—don’t you remember?” Vansen paused. Somehow, he was being pulled into the madness as well, just when he could not afford to lose his grip on sanity—not here behind the Shadowline. “But what do you mean, ‘said’? He said nothing, Prince Barrick. He has only just woken and he said nothing.”

“Ah, but he did, although I could not understand all of it.” Barrick leaned forward, watching the stranger intently. “Who are you? Why do I know you?”

The Twilight man stared back. Vansen again felt something pressing behind his eyes and his ears began to ache as though he had held his breath too long.

“Surely you heard that.” Barrick had closed his eyes, as if listening to fascinating music.

“Highness, he said nothing! For the love of Perin Skyfather, he has no mouth!”

The prince’s eyes popped open. “Nevertheless, he speaks and I hear him. He is called Gyir the Storm Lantern. He is on a mission to the king of his people, the ones we call the fairy folk. Lady Yasammez, his mistress, has sent him.” Barrick shook his head. “I did not know her name before now, but she is my mistress, too. Yasammez.” For a moment his face clouded as if he remembered a terrible pain. “I should love her, but I do not.”

Love her? Who are you talking of? That she-dragon who led the enemy? That spiky bitch with the white sword? May the gods save us, Prince Barrick, she must have put some kind of evil spell on you!”

The red-haired boy shook his head again, forcefully this time. “No. That is not true. I do not know how I know, or...or even what I know, but I know that isn’t the truth. She revealed things to me. Her eye found me and she laid a task on me.” He turned to the one he had named Gyir, who was watching with the bright, sullen glare of a caged fox. For a moment, Barrick sounded like his old self. “Tell me, why has she chosen me? What does she want, your mistress?”

There was no reply that Vansen could hear, only the pressure in his head again, but more gentle this time.

“But you are high in her confidences,” said Barrick, as if carrying on an ordinary conversation. “You are her right hand.”

Whatever answer he thought he heard, though, it brought the young prince no happiness. He waved his hand in frustration, then turned back to the fire, refusing to speak more.

Ferras Vansen stared at the impossible creature. Gyir, if that was truly his name and not some madness of the prince’s, did not seem disposed to move, let alone to try to escape. The huge welt on the creature’s forehead still seeped blood, and he had other ugly wounds that Vansen felt sure were bites from the strange lizard-apes, but even so the dalesman could not imagine sleeping while this monstrosity lay just on the other side of the fire. Could the prince really talk to him? And how did a thing like that survive, with no mouth or nose? It seemed utter madness. How did it breathe, how did it eat?

I am trapped in a nightmare, he thought, and it grows worse with each passing hour. Now we have invited a murderous enemy to share our fire. He propped himself against an uncomfortable tree root in the hopes it would keep him awake and alert. A waking nightmare, and all I want to do is sleep... The rain had abated when Vansen woke, but water still drizzled from the trees, pattering on the thick carpet of fallen leaves and needles like a thousand muffled footsteps. There was light, but only the usual directionless gray glow.

Vansen groaned. He hated this place. He had hoped never to see this side of the Shadowline again, but instead—as though the gods had heard his wish and decided to play a cruel joke—it seemed he could not stay out of it.

He started up suddenly, realizing he had drowsed when he had been determined not to—with one of the deadly Twilight folk in their camp! He clambered to his feet, but the strange creature known as Gyir was asleep: with most of his faceless head shrouded in his dark cloak, he looked almost like a true man.

The prince was also sleeping, but a superstitious fear made Vansen crawl across the sodden carpet of dead leaves that separated them so that he could get a closer look. All was well: Barrick’s chest rose and fell. Vansen stared at the youth’s pale face, the skin so white that even by firelight he could see the blue veins beneath the surface. For a moment he felt unutterably weary and defeated. How could he possibly keep one frail child—and a mad one at that—safe in the midst of so much strangeness, so much peril?

I promised his sister. I gave my word. Even here, surely, at the end of the world, a man’s pledge meant something— perhaps everything. If not, the world tottered, the skies fell, the gods turned their back on meaning.

“Gyir will ride with me,” Barrick announced.

The Twilight man stirred, beginning to wake, or at least beginning to show that he was awake. Vansen leaned closer to the prince so he could speak quietly. “Highness, I beg of you, think again. I do not know what magic has possessed you, but what possible reason could you have to take this enemy with us—a creature whose race is bent on destroying all our kind?”

Barrick only shook his head, almost sadly. “I cannot explain it to you, Vansen. I know what I must do, and it is something far more important than you can understand. I may not understand it all myself, but I know this is true.” The prince looked more animated than he had since they had first ridden from Southmarch weeks before. “And I know just as clearly that this man Gyir must complete his task as well. He will ride with me. Now give him his armor and his sword back. These are dangerous lands.”

“What? No, Highness—he will not have his sword, even if you call me traitor!”

Gyir had awakened. Vansen saw an expression on the creature’s featureless face that almost seemed like amusement—a drooping of the eyelids, a slow turn away from Vansen’s scrutiny. It enraged him, but also made him wonder again at how the creature lived at all, how it ate and breathed. If it could not make a recognizable expression on the curved skin of its face, how did it communicate to others? The prince certainly seemed to think he understood him.

Gyir chose to retain his thundercloud-blue breastplate and his helmet, but left the rest of his armor where it had been thrown. Already the grass seemed to be covering it over. The tall fairy sat behind Barrick on the strange dark horse the prince had brought from the battlefield. The tall Twilight demon Gyir could snap the boy’s neck in an instant if he chose, but Barrick seemed undisturbed to have him so near. Together they looked like some two-headed monstrosity out of an old wall-painting, and Vansen could not help superstitiously making the sign of the Three, but if this invocation of the true gods bothered Gyir in any way, he gave no sign of it.

“Where are we going exactly, Highness?” Vansen asked wearily. He had lost command of this journey long ago— there was no sense in pretending otherwise.

“That way,” Barrick said, pointing. “Toward high M’aarenol.”

How the prince could claim to see some foreign landmark in this confounding eternal twilight was more than Ferras Vansen could guess. Gyir now turned his ember-red eyes toward Vansen, and for a moment he could almost hear a voice inside his skull, as though the wind had blown a handful of words there without him hearing them first— words that were not words, that were almost pictures.

A long way, the words seemed to say. A long, dangerous way.

Ferras Vansen could think of nothing to do but shake the reins, turn his horse, and ride out in the direction Barrick had indicated. Vansen had lost his mind to madness once before in this place, or as near to it as he could imagine. Perhaps madness was simply something he would have to learn to live in, as a fish could live in water without drowning.

3. Night Noises

O my children, listen! In the beginning all was dry and empty and fruitless. Then the light came and brought life to the nothingness, and of this light were born the gods, and all the earth’s joys and sorrows. This is truth I tell you.

—from The Revelations of Nushash, Book One

The face was cold and emotionless, the skin pale and bloodless as Akaris marble, but it was the eyes that terrified Chert most: they seemed to glare with an inner fire, like red sunset knifing down through a crack in the world’s ceiling.

“Who are you to meddle in the gods’ affairs?” she demanded. “You are the least of your people—less than a man. You betray the Mysteries without apology or prayer or ritual. You cannot even protect your own family. When the day comes that Urrigijag the Thousand-Eyed awakes, how will you explain yourself to him? Why should he take you before the Lord of the Hot Wet Stone to be judged and then welcomed, as the righteous are welcomed when their tools are at last set down? Will he not simply cast you into the void of the Stoneless Spaces to lament forever...?”

And he could feel himself falling already, tumbling into that endless emptiness. He tried to scream, but no sound would come from his airless throat.

Chert sat up in bed, panting, sweat beading on his face even in the midst of a chilly night. Opal made a grumbling sound and reclaimed some of the blanket, then rolled over, putting her back to her annoying, restless husband.

Why should that face haunt his dream? Why should the grim noblewoman who had commanded the Twilight army—who in actuality had regarded Chert as though he were nothing more than a beetle on the tabletop—rail at him about the gods? She had not even really spoken to him, let alone made accusations that were so painful it felt as though they had been chiseled into his heart and could not be effaced.

I can’t even protect my family—it’s true. My wife cries every evening after Flint has fallen asleep—the boy who no longer recognizes us. And all because I let him go dashing off and could not find him until it was too late. At least that’s what Opal thinks.

Not that she said any such thing. His wife was aware of the weapon her tongue could be, and since that strange and terrible time a tennight gone, she had never once blamed him. Perhaps I am the only one blaming me, he thought, perhaps that is what the dream means. He wished he could believe that were true.

A quiet noise suddenly caught his attention. He held his breath, listening. For the first time he realized that what had awakened him was not the fearfulness of the dream but a dim comprehension of something out of the ordinary. There it was again—a muffled scrabbling sound like a mouse in the wall. But the walls of Funderling houses were stone, and even if they had been made of wood like the big folks’ flimsy dwellings, it would be a brave mouse indeed that would brave the sovereign territory of Opal Blue Quartz.

Is it the boy? Chert’s heart flopped again. Is he dying from those strange vapors we breathed in the depths? Flint had never been well since coming back, sleeping away most days, speechless as a newborn much of the time he was awake, staring at his foster parents as though he were a trapped animal and they his captors—the single thing that tore most at Opal’s heart.

Chert rolled out of bed, trying not to wake his wife. He padded into the other room, scarcely feeling the cold stone against his tough soles. The boy looked much as always, asleep with his mouth open and his arms cast wide, half on his stomach as though he were swimming, the covers kicked away. Chert paused first to lay a hand on Flint’s ribs to be reassured by his breathing, then felt the boy’s forehead for signs that the fever had returned. As he leaned close in the darkness he heard the noise again—a strange, slow scratching, as though some ancient Funderling ancestor from the days before burning were digging his way up toward the living.

Chert stood, his heart now beating very swiftly indeed. The sound came from the front room. An intruder? One of the burning-eyed Twilight folk, an assassin sent because the stony she-general now regretted letting him go? For a moment he felt his heart would stutter and stop, but his thoughts kept racing. The entire castle was in turmoil because of the events of Winter’s Eve, and FunderlingTown itself was full of mistrustful whispers—might it be someone who feared the strange child Chert and Opal had brought home? It seemed unlikely it was someone planning thievery —the crime was almost unknown in FunderlingTown, a place where everyone knew everyone else, where the doors were heavy and the locks made with all the cunning that generations of stone-and metal-workers could bring to bear.

The front room was empty, nothing amiss except the supper dishes still sitting on the table, ample witness to Opal’s unhappiness and lethargy. In Endekamene, the previous month, she would have dragged herself across the house on two broken legs rather than risk a morning visitor seeing the previous night’s crockery still unwashed, but since Flint’s disappearance and strange return his wife seemed barely able to muster the energy to do anything but sit by the child’s bedside, red-eyed.

Chert heard the dry scratching again, and this time he could tell it came from outside the front door: something or someone was trying to get in.

A thousand superstitious fears hurried through his brain as he went to where his tools were hanging on the wall and took out his sharpest pick, called a shrewsnout. Surely nothing could get through that door unless he opened it—he and Opal’s brother had worked days to shape the heavy oak, and the iron hinges were the finest product of Metal House craftsmen. He even considered going back to bed, leaving the problem for the morning, or for whatever other householder the scratching burglar might visit next, but he could not rid himself of a memory of little Beetledown, the Rooftopper who had almost died helping Chert look for Flint. The castle above was in chaos, with troops in Tolly livery ranging everywhere to search for any information about the astonishing kidnapping of Princess Briony. What if Beetledown was now the one who needed help? What if the little man was out there on Chert’s doorstep, trying desperately to make his presence known in a world of giants?

Weapon held high, Chert Blue Quartz took a breath and opened the door. It was surprisingly dark outside—a darkness he had never seen in the night streets of FunderlingTown. He squeezed the handle of his pick until his palm hurt, the tool he could wield for an hour straight without a tremor now quivering as his hand shook.

“Who is there?” Chert whispered into the darkness. “Show yourself!”

Something groaned, or even growled, and for the first time the terrified Chert could see that it was not black outside because the darklights of Funderling Town had gone out, but because a huge shape was blocking his doorway, shadowing everything. He stepped back, raising the shrewsnout to strike at this monster, but missed his blow as the thing lunged through the door and knocked him sideways. Still, even though he had failed to hit it, the intruding shape collapsed in the doorway. It groaned again, and Chert raised the pick, his heart hammering with terror. A round, pale face looked up at him, grime-smeared but quite recognizable in the light that now spilled in through the doorway.

Chaven, the royal physician, lifted hands turned into filthy paws by crusted, blackened bandages. “Chert...?” he rasped. “Is that you? I’m afraid...I’m afraid I’ve left blood all over your door....”

The morning was icy, the stones of Market Square slippery. The silent people gathered outside the great Trigonate temple of Southmarch seemed a single frozen mass, packed shoulder to shoulder in front of the steps, wrapped in cloaks and blankets against the bitterly cold winds off the sea.

Matty Tinwright watched the solemn-faced nobles and dignitaries as they emerged from the high-domed temple. He desperately wanted a drink. A cup of mulled wine—or better, two or three cups!—something to warm his chilled bones and heart, something to smear the hard, cold edges of the day into something more acceptable. But of course the taverns were closed and the castle kitchens had been emptied out, every lord, lady, serving maid, and scullion commanded to stand here in the cold and listen to the pronouncements of their new masters.

Mostly new, at least: Lord Constable Avin Brone stood with the others at the top of the steps, big as ever—bigger even, since the dark clothes and heavy cloak he wore made him look like something that should be on creaking wooden wheels instead of boots, some monstrous machine for knocking down the walls of besieged castles. Brone’s presence, more than all else, had quelled any doubts Tinwright might have had about the astonishing events of the last days. Surely King Olin’s most solid friend and most trusted servitor would not stand up beside Hendon Tolly if (as some whispered) there had been foul dealing in Princess Briony’s disappearance. Tinwright had not forgotten his own encounter with Brone—surely not even the Tollys of Summerfield would dare make that man angry!

The skirl of the temple musicians’ flutes died away, the last censer was swung—already the smoke was vanishing, shredded by the hard, cold breeze—and, after a ragged flourish of trumpets from the shivering heralds, Avin Brone took a few steps forward to the edge of the steps and looked down at the gathered castle folk.

“You have heard many things in these last days.” His great bull-bellow of a voice carried far across the crowd. “Confused times breed confused stories, and these have been some of the most confusing times any of us have seen in our lifetimes.” Brone lifted a broad hand. “Quiet! Listen well! First, it is true that Princess Briony Eddon has been taken, apparently by the criminal Shaso dan-Heza, the traitor who was once master of arms. We have searched for days, but there is no sign of either of them within the walls of Southmarch. We are praying for the princess’ safe return, but I assure you we are not merely leaving it up to the gods.”

The murmuring began again, louder. “Where is the prince?” someone near the front shouted. “Where is her brother?”

Brone’s shoulders rose and he balled his fists. “Silence! Must you all jabber like Xandy savages? Hear my words and you will learn something. Prince Barrick was with Tyne of Blueshore and the others, fighting the invaders at Kolkan’s Field. We have had no word from Tyne for days, and the survivors who have made their way back can tell us little.” Several in the crowd looked out across the narrow strait toward the city, still now and apparently empty. They had all heard the singing and the drums that echoed there at night, and had seen the fires. “We hold out hope, of course, but for now we must assume our prince is lost, killed or captured. It is in the hands of the gods.” Brone paused at the uprush of sound, the cries and curses which started out low but quickly began to swell. When he spoke again his voice was still loud, but not as clear and composed as it had been; that by itself helped still the crowd. “Please! Remember, Olin is still king here in Southmarch! He may be imprisoned in the south, but he is still king—and his line still survives!” He pointed to a young woman standing next to Hendon Tolly, plump, and plain—a wet nurse holding what was apparently an infant, although it could have been an empty tangle of blankets for all Matt Tinwright could make it out. “See, there is the king’s youngest,” Brone declared, “—a new son, born on Winter’s Eve! Queen Anissa lives. The child is healthy. The Eddon line survives.”

Now Brone waved his hands, imploring the crowd for quiet rather than ordering them, and Tinwright could not help wondering at how this man who had terrified him down to the soles of his feet could have changed so, as if something inside of him had torn and not been fully mended.

But why should that surprise? Briony, our gracious, wonderful princess, is gone, and young Barrick is doubtless dead, killed by those supernatural monsters.

Tinwright’s poetic soul could feel the romantic correctness of that, the symmetry of the lost twins, but could not work up as much sympathy for the brother. He truly, truly missed Briony, and feared for her—she had been Matt Tinwright’s champion. Barrick, on the other hand, had never hidden his contempt.

Brone now gave way to Hendon Tolly, who was dressed in unusually somber attire—somber for him, anyway—black hose, gray tunic, and fur-lined black cloak, his clothes touched here and there with hints of gold and emerald. Hendon was known as one of the leading blades of fashion north of the great court at Tessis. Tinwright, who admired him without liking him, had always been sensitive to the nuances of dress among those above his own station, and thought the youngest Tolly brother seemed to be enjoying his new role as sober guardian of the populace.

Hendon raised his hand, which was mostly hidden by the long ruff on his sleeve. His thin, usually mobile face was a mask of refined sorrow. “We Tollys share the same ancient blood as the Eddons—King Olin is my uncle as well as my liegelord, and despite the bull on our shield, the wolf blood runs in our veins. We swear we will protect his young heir with every drop of that blood.” Hendon lowered his head for a moment as if in prayer, or perhaps merely overcome by humility at the weight of his task. “We have all been pained by great loss this terrible winter, we Tollys most of all, because we have also lost our brother Gailon, the duke. But fear not! My other brother Caradon, the new duke of Summerfield, has sworn that the ties between our houses will become even stronger.” Hendon Tolly straightened. “Many of you are frightened because of worrisome news from the battlefield and the presence of our enemy from the north—the enemy that even now waits at our doorstep, just across the bay. I have heard some speak of a siege. I say to you, what siege?” He swept his arm toward the haunted, silent city beyond the water, sleeve flaring like a crow’s wing. “Not an arrow, not a stone, has passed our walls. I see no enemy—do you? It could be that someday these goblins will come against us, but it is more likely that they have seen the majesty of the walls of Southmarch and their hearts have grown faint. Otherwise, why would they give no sign of their presence?”

A murmur drifted up from the crowd, but it seemed, for the first time, to have something of hope in it. Hendon Tolly sensed it and smiled.

“And even if they did, how will they defeat us, my fellow South-marchers? We cannot be starved, not as long as we have our harbor and good neighbors. And already my brother the duke is sending men to help protect this castle and all who dwell in it. Never fear, Olin’s heir will someday sit proudly on Olin’s throne!”

Now a few cheers broke out from the heartened crowd, although in the windswept square it did not make a very heroic sound. Still, even Matt Tinwright found himself reassured.

I may not like the man overmuch, but imagine the trouble we would have been in if Hendon Tolly and his soldiers had not been here! There would have been riots and all manner of madness. Still, he had not slept well ever since hearing about the supernatural creatures on their doorstep, and he noticed that Tolly, for all his confidence, had said nothing about rooting the shadow folk out of the abandoned city.

Hierarch Sisel now came forth to bless the crowd on behalf of the Trigonate gods. As the hierarch intoned the ritual of Perin’s Forgiveness, Lord Tolly—the castle’s new protector —fell into deep conversation with Tirnan Havemore, the new castellan. The king’s old counselor Nynor had retired from his position, and Havemore, who had been Avin Brone’s factor, had been the surprising choice to replace him. Tinwright could not resist looking at the man with envy. To rise so quickly, and to such importance! Brone must have been very pleased with him to give him such honor. But as Avin Brone now watched Tolly and Havemore, Tinwright could not help thinking he did not look either pleased or proud. Tinwright shrugged. There were always intrigues at court. It was the way of the world.

And perhaps there is a place for me there, too, he thought hopefully, even without my beloved patroness. Perhaps if I make myself noticed, I too will be lifted up.

Turning, the blessing forgotten, Matty Tinwright began to work his way out through the crowd, thinking of ways his own splendid light might be revealed to those in the new Southmarch who would recognize its gleam.

To her credit, Opal handled the discovery of a bleeding, burned man twice her size sprawling on her floor with no little grace.

“Oh!” she said, peering out from the sleeping room, “What’s this? I’m not dressed. Are you well, Chert?”

“I am well, but this friend is not. He has wounds that need tending...”

“Don’t touch him! I’ll be out in a moment.”

At first Chert thought she feared for her dear husband, that he might take some contagion from their wounded visitor, or that the injured man, in pain and delirium, might lash out like a dying animal. After some consideration, though, he realized that Opal didn’t trust him not to make things worse.

“The boy’s still asleep,” she said as she emerged, still pulling her wrap around herself. “He had another poor night. What’s this, then? Who is this big fellow and why is he here at this hour?”

“It is Chaven, the royal physician. I’ve told you about him. As to why...”

“Crawled.” Chaven’s laugh was dry and painful to hear.

“Crawled across the castle in here. I need help with wounds. But I cannot stay. You are in danger if I do.”

“Nobody’s in anywhere near as much danger as you, looking at those burns,” Opal said, scowling at the physician’s pitiful, crusted hands. “Hurry, bring me some water and my herb-basket, old man, and be quiet about it. We don’t need the boy underfoot as well.”

Chert did as he was told.

By the time Opal had finished cleaning Chaven’s burns with weak brine, covered them with poultices of moss paste, and begun to bind them with clean cloth, the wounded physician was asleep, his chin bumping against his chest every time she pulled a bandage snug.

Opal stood and looked down at her handiwork. “Is he trustworthy?” she asked quietly.

“He is the best of the big folk I know.” “That doesn’t answer my question, you old fool.” Chert couldn’t help smiling. “I’m glad to see the difficulties we’ve been through lately haven’t cost you your talent for endearments, my sweet. Who can say? The whole world up there is topsy-turvy. Up there? We have a child of the big folk living in our own house who plays some part in this war with the fairy folk. Everything has gone mad both upground and here.”

“Injured or not, I won’t have the fellow in the house unless you tell me he can be trusted. We have a child to think of.”

Chert sighed. “He is one of the best men I know, ordinary or big. And he might understand something of what’s happened to Flint.”

Opal nodded. “Right. He’ll sleep for hours—he drank a whole cup of mossbrew, and he can’t have much blood left to mix it with. We’d best get what sleep we can ourselves.”

“You are a marvel,” he told her as they climbed back under the blanket. “All these years and I still cannot believe my luck.”

“I can’t believe your luck, either.” But she sounded at least a little pleased. Better than that, Chert had seen in her eyes as she tended the doctor’s wounds something he had not seen there since he had brought Flint back home— purpose. It was worth a great deal of risk to see his good wife become something like herself again.

Chaven could barely hold the bread in his hands, but he ate like a dog who had been shut for days in an abandoned cottage. Which, as he began to tell Chert and Opal his story, was not so far from the truth.

“I have been hiding in the tunnels just outside my own house.” He paused to wipe his face with his sleeve, trying to dab away some of the water that had escaped his clumsy handling of the cup. “The secret door, Chert, the one you know—there is a panel that comes out of the wall of the inside hallway and hides the door from prying eyes. I closed that behind me and went to ground in the tunnels like a hunted fox. I managed to bring a water bottle that had gone with me on my last journey, but had no time to find food.”

“Eat more, then,” Chert said, “—but slowly. Why should you be hiding? What has happened to the world up there? We hear stories, and even if they are only half true or less, they are still astonishing and terrifying—the fairy folk defeating our army, the princess and her brother dead or run away...”

“Briony has not run away,” said Chaven, scowling. “I would stake my life on that. In fact, I already have.”

Chert shook his head, lost. “What are you talking about?”

“It is a long tale, and as full of madness as anything you have heard about fairy armies...”

Opal stood abruptly as a noise came from behind them. Flint, pale and bleary-eyed, stood in the doorway. “What are you doing out of bed?” she demanded.

The boy looked at her, his face chillingly dull. With all the things that had been strange or even frightening about him before, Chert could not help thinking, this lifeless, disinterested look was worse by far. “Thirsty.”

“I’ll bring you in water, child. You are not ready to be out of bed yet, so soon after the fever has passed.” She gave Chert and Chaven a significant glance. “Keep your voices down,” she told them.

Chert had barely begun to describe the bizarre events of Winter’s Eve when Opal returned from getting Flint back into bed, so he started again. His tale, which would have been an incredible one coming from the mouth of someone recently returned from exotic foreign lands, let alone the familiar precincts of Southmarch, would have been impossible to believe had it not been Chaven himself speaking, a man Chert knew to be not just honest, but rigorously careful about what he knew and did not know, about what could be proved or only surmised. “Built on bedrock,” as Chert’s father had always said of someone trustworthy, “not on sand, sliding this way and that with every shrug of the Elders.”

“So do you think that this Tolly villain had something to do with the southern witch, Selia?” Chert asked. “With the death of poor Prince Kendrick and the attack on the princess?” From his one brief meeting with her, Chert had a proprietorial fondness for Briony Eddon, and already loathed Hendon Tolly and his entire family with an unquenchable hatred.

“I can’t say, but the snatches of conversation I heard from him and his guards made them sound just as surprised as me. But their treachery to the royal family cannot be questioned, nor their desire to murder me, a witness of what really happened.”

“They truly would have killed you?” asked Opal. “Definitely, had I remained to be killed,” Chaven said with a pained smile. “As I hid from them in the Tower of Spring, I heard Hendon Tolly telling his minions that I was by no means to survive my capture—that he would reward the man who finished me.”

“Elders!” breathed Opal. “The castle’s in the hands of bandits and murderers!”

“For the moment, certainly. Without Princess Briony or her brother, I see no way to change things.” All the talking had tired the physician; he seemed barely able to keep his head up.

“We must get you to one of the powerful lords,” Chert said. “Someone still loyal to the king, who will protect you until your story is told.”

“Who is left? Tyne Aldritch is dead in Kolkan’s Field, Nynor retreated to his country house in fear,” Chaven said flatly. “And Avin Brone seems to have made his own peace with the Tollys. I trust no one.” He shook his head as if it were a heavy stone he had carried too long. “And worst of all, the Tollys have taken my house, my splendid observatory!”

“But why would they do that? Do they think you’re still hiding there?”

“No. They want something, and I fear I know what. They are tearing things apart—I could hear them through the walls from my tunnel hiding-places—searching. Searching...

“Why? For what?”

Chaven groaned. “Even if I am right about what they seek, I am not certain why they want it—but I am frightened, Chert. There is more afoot here and in the world outside than simply a struggle for the throne of the March Kingdoms.”

Chert suddenly realized that Chaven did not know the story of his own adventures, about the inexplicable events surrounding the boy in the other room. “There is more,” he said suddenly. “Now you must rest, but later I will tell you of our own experiences. I met the Twilight folk. And the boy got into the Mysteries.”

“What? Tell me now!”

“Let the poor man sleep.” Opal sounded weary, too, or perhaps just weighed down again with unhappiness. “He is weak as a weanling.”

“Thank you...” Chaven said, barely able to form words. “But...I must hear this tale...immediately. I said once that I feared what the moving of the Shadowline might mean. But now I think I feared...too little.” His head sagged, nodded. “Too little...” he sighed, “...and too...late...” Within a few breaths he was asleep, leaving Chert and Opal to stare at each other, eyes wide with apprehension and confusion.

4. The Hada-d’in-Mozan

The greatest offspring of Void and Light was Daystar, and by his shining all was better known and the songs had new shapes. And in this new light Daystar found Bird Mother and together they engendered many things, children, and music, and ideas.

But all beginnings contain their own endings.

When the Song of All was much older, Daystar lost his own song and went away into the sky to sing only of the sun. Bird Mother did not die, though her grief was mighty, but instead she birthed a great egg, and from it the beautiful twins Breeze and Moisture came forth to scatter the seeds of living thought, to bring the earth sustenance and fruitfulness.

—from One Hundred Considerations, out of the Qar’s Book of Regret

A storm swept in from the ocean in the wake of the setting sun, but although cold rain pelted them and the little boat pitched until Briony felt quite ill, the air was actually warmer than it had been on their first trip across Brenn’s Bay. It was still, however, a chilly, miserable jouney.

Winter, Briony thought ruefully. Only a fool would lose her throne and be forced to run for her life in this fatal season. The Tollys won’t need to kill me—I’ll probably drown myself, or simply freeze. She was even more worried about Shaso soaking in the cold rain so soon after his fever had broken, but as usual the old man showed less evidence of discomfort than a stone statue. That was reassuring, at least: if he was well enough for his stiffnecked pride to rule him, he had unquestionably improved.

By comparison, the Skimmer girl Ena seemed neither to be made miserable by the storm nor to bear it bravely—in fact, she hardly seemed to notice it. Her hood was back and she rowed with the ease and carelessness of someone steering a punt through the gentle waters of a summertime lake. They owed this Skimmer girl much, Briony knew: without her knowledge of the bay and its tides they would have had little hope of escape.

I shall reward her well. Of course, just now the daughter of Southmarch’s royal family had nothing to give.

The worst of the storm soon passed, though the high waves lingered. The monotony of the trip, the continuous pattering of rain on Briony’s hooded cloak and the rocking of the swells, kept dropping her into a dreamy near-sleep and a fantasy of the day when she would ride back into Southmarch, greeted with joy by her people and...and who else? Barrick was gone and she could not think too much about his absence just yet: it was as though she had sustained a dreadful wound and dared not look at it until it had been tended, for fear she would faint away and die by the roadside without reaching help. But who else was left? Her father was still a prisoner in far-off Hierosol. Her stepmother Anissa, although perhaps not an enemy if her servant’s murderous treachery had been nothing to do with her, was still not really a friend, and certainly no mother. What other people did Briony treasure, or even care about? Avin Brone? He was too stern, too guarded. Who else?

For some reason, the guard captain Ferras Vansen came to her mind—but that was nonsense! What was he to her, with his ordinary face and his ordinary brown hair and his posture so carefully correct it almost seemed like a kind of swagger? If she recognized now that he had not been as guilty in the death of her older brother as she had once felt, he was still nothing to her—a common soldier, a functionary, a man who no doubt thought little beyond the barracks and the tavern, and likely spent what spare time he had putting his hands up the dresses of tavern wenches.

Still, it was odd that she should see his thoughtful face just now, that she should think of him so suddenly, and almost fondly... Merolanna. Of course—dear old Auntie ’Lanna! Briony’s great-aunt would be there for any triumphant return. But what must she be feeling now? Briony abruptly felt a kind of panic steal over her. Poor Auntie! She must be mad with grief and worry, both twins gone, the whole order of life over-tuned. But Merolanna would persevere, of course. She would hold together for the sake of others, for the sake of the family, even for the sake of Olin’s newborn son, Anissa’s child. Briony pushed away a pang of jealousy. What else should her great-aunt do? She would be protecting the Eddons as best she could.

Oh, Auntie, I will give you such a hug when I come back, it will almost crack your bones! And I’ll kiss your old cheeks pink! You will be so astonished! The duchess would cry of course—she always did for happy things, scarcely ever for sad. And you’ll be so proud of me. “You wise girl,” you’ll say to me. “Just what your father would have done. And so brave...!”

Briony nodded and drowsed, thinking about that day to come, so easy to imagine in every way except how it might actually come to pass.

They reached the hilly north Marrinswalk coast just as the rising sun warmed the storm clouds from black to bruised gray, rowing across the empty cove to within a few yards of the shore. Briony bunched the homespun skirt Ena had given her around her thighs and helped the Skimmer girl guide the hull up onto the wet sand. The wind was stingingly cold, the saltgrass and beach heather along the dunes rippling as if in imitation of the shallow wavelets frothing on the bay.

“Where are we?” she asked.

Shaso wrung water out of his saggy clothes. Just as Briony had been clothed in Ena’s spares, he wore one of Turley’s baggy, salt-bleached shirts and a pair of the Skimmer’s plain, knee-length breeches. As he surveyed the surrounding hills, his leathery, wrinkled face gaunt from his long imprisonment, Shaso dan-Heza looked like some ancient spirit dressed in a child’s castoff clothing. “Somewhere not far from Kinemarket, I’d say, about three or four days’ walk from Oscastle.”

“Kinemarket is that way.” Ena pointed east. “On the far side of these hills, south of the coast road. You could be there before the sun lifts over the top.”

“Only if we start walking,” said Shaso.

“What on earth will we do in Kinemarket?” Briony had never been there, but knew it was a small town with a yearly fair that paid a decent amount of revenue to the throne. She also dimly remembered that some river passed through it or near it. In any case, it might as well have been named Tiny or Unimportant as far as she was concerned just now. “There’s nothing there!”

“Except food—and we will need some of that, don’t you think?” said Shaso. “We cannot travel without eating and I am not so well-honed in my skills that I can trap or kill dinner for us. Not until I mend a bit and find my legs, anyway.” “Where are we going after that?”

“Toward Oscastle.”


“Enough questions.” He gave her a look that would have made most people quail, but Briony was not so easily put off.

“You said you would make the choices, and I agreed. I never said that I wouldn’t ask why, and you never said you wouldn’t answer.”

He growled under his breath. “Try your questions again when the road is under our feet.” He turned to Ena. “Give your father my thanks, girl.”

“Her father didn’t row us.” Briony was still shamed that she had argued with the young woman about landing at M’Helan’s Rock. “I owe you a kindness,” she told the girl with as much queenly graciousness as she could muster. “I won’t forget.”

“I’m sure you won’t, Lady.” Ena made a swift and not very reverent courtesy.

Well, she’s seen me sleeping, drooling spittle down my chin. I suppose it would be a bit much to expect her to treat me like Zoria the Fair. Still, Briony wasn’t entirely certain she was going to like being a princess without a throne or a castle or any of the privileges that, while she had been quick to scorn them, she had grown rather used to. “Thanks, in any case.”

“Good luck to you both, Lady, Lord.” Ena took a step, then stopped and turned around. “Holy Diver lift me, I almost forgot—Father would have had me skinned, stretched, and smoked!” She pulled a small sack out of a pocket in her voluminous skirt and handed it to Shaso. “There are some coins to help you get on with your journey, Lord.” She looked at Briony with what almost seemed pity. “Buy the princess a proper meal, perhaps.”

Before Briony or Shaso could say anything, the Skimmer girl scooted the wooden rowboat back down the wet sand and into the water, then waded with it out into the cove. She swung herself onto the bench as gracefully as a trick rider vaulting onto a horse; a heartbeat or two later the oars were in the water and the boat was moving outward against the wind, bobbing on each line of coursing waves.

Briony stood watching as the girl and her boat disappeared. She suddenly felt very lonely and very weary.

“A reliable thing about villages, or cities for that matter,” said Shaso sourly, “is that they will not walk to us.” He pointed across the dunes to the hills and their ragged covering of bushes and low trees. “Shall we begin, or do you have some pressing reason for us to keep standing here until someone notices us?”

She knew she should be grateful his old fire was coming back, but just now she wasn’t.

His vinegary moment seemed to have tired Shaso, too. He kept his head down and didn’t talk as they walked over the cold dunes toward a path that ran along the beginning of the hills.

Briony had at first wished to pursue the question of why they were going to Oscastle, Marrinswalk’s leading city but still a bit of a backwater, and what his plans were when they reached the place, but she found herself just as happy to save her strength for walking. The wind, which had first had been steadily at their backs, now swung around and began to blow full into their faces with stinging force, making every step feel like a climb up steep stairs. The heavy gray clouds hung so low overhead it almost seemed to Briony she could reach up and sink her fingers into them. She was grateful for the thick wool cloaks the Skimmers had given them, but they were still damp with rainwater and Briony’s felt heavy as lead. Her court dresses, for all their discomforts, suddenly did not seem so bad: at least they had been dry and warm.

After perhaps an hour Briony began to see signs of habitation—a few crofters’ huts on hilltops, surrounded by trees. Some had smoke swirling from the holes in their roofs, or even from crooked chimneys, and Briony broke her long silence to ask Shaso if they could not stop at one of them for long enough to get warm again.

He shook his head. “The fewer the people, the greater the danger someone will remember us. Hendon Tolly and his men have no doubt begun to wonder whether we might have left the castle entirely, and soon they will be asking questions in every town along the coast of Brenn’s Bay. We are an unusual pair, a black-skinned man and a whiteskinned girl. It is only a matter of time until someone who’s seen us meets one of Hendon’s agents.”

“But we’ll be long gone!”

“We have to hide somewhere. Do you really want to tell the Tollys they can stop searching the castle and all the rest of the surrounding lands and concentrate on just one place— like Marrinswalk?”

Thinking of a troop of armed men beating the countryside behind them made Briony shudder and walk faster. “But someone will have to see us eventually. If we go to Oscastle or some other city, I mean. Cities are full of people, after all.”

“Which is our best hope. Perhaps our only hope. We are less likely to be noticed somewhere there are many people, Highness—especially where there are people of my race. And that is enough talk for now.”

They followed the track down the edge of a wide valley. When they reached the broad river that meandered at its bottom, Shaso decided that they could at least take time to drink. They also encountered a few more houses, simple things of unmortared stone and loose thatching, but still so scattered that Briony doubted any man could see his neighbor’s cottage even in full daylight with a cloudless sky. A goat bleated from the paddock behind one of them, probably protesting the cold day, and she realized that it was the first homely sound she had heard for hours.

They passed by several small villages as the hours passed but entered none of them, and reached Kinemarket by late morning, crossing over at a place where the river narrowed and some work by the locals had turned a lucky assembly of stones into a bridge. Kinemarket was a good-sized, prosperous town, with the turnip shape of a temple dome visible above its low walls. Shaso decided he should stay hidden in the trees outside town while Briony went to buy food with a coin from the purse Turley had provided—a silver piece with the head of King Enander of Syan, a coin so small that Briony felt sure almost half of its original metal had been shaved off. She was guiltily aware of having once declared that not only should coin-clippers be beaten in the public square, but that those who helped them pass their moneys should suffer the same punishment. It seemed a little different now, when someone else had already done the shaving and she needed the coin to buy food.

“Here—rub a little more dirt on yourself first.” Shaso drew a line of grime on her face. She tried to back away. “Go, then, do it yourself. You’ve a head start on it, anyway, from the morning’s walk.”

She rubbed on a bit more, but as she made her way up the muddy track toward the town gate, hoping to lose herself in the crowd of people going to the market, she began to fear she and Shaso had given too little thought to disguising her identity. Surely even the oft-mended homespun dress and a few smears of dirt on her cheeks would not fool many people! Her face, she realized with a strange sort of pride, must be better known than any other woman’s in the north. Now, though, being recognized could be deadly.

And although she tried not to meet their eyes, the first folk she passed on her way to the gate did look her over slowly and mistrustfully, but she realized after a moment that this man and woman were doing so only because most of the other travelers were dressed and clean for market: Briony was a dirty stranger, not a typical stranger.

“The Three grant you good day,” said the woman. She held her gape-mouthed child tightly, as though Briony might steal it. “And a blessed Orphanstide to you, too.”

“And you.” The greeting startled her—Briony had almost forgotten the holidays, since it had been on Winter’s Eve that her world had fallen completely into pieces. There certainly hadn’t been any new year’s feasting or gifts for her, and now it must be only a tennight or so until Kerneia. How strange, to have lost not just a home but an entire life!

She did not turn to watch the man and woman after they passed, but she knew that they had turned to look at her, doubtless wondering what kind of odd thing she was.

Go ahead and whisper about me, then. You cannot imagine anything near so strange as the truth.

Worried about attracting any kind of attention at all, she decided not to continue to the market, but passed through the gate and briefly into the bustle of the crowd on the main thoroughfare before turning down a narrow side street. She stopped at the first ramshackle house where she saw someone out in front—a woman wrapped in a heavy wool blanket scattering corn on the puddled ground, the chickens bustling about at her feet as though she were their mother hen.

The householder at first seemed suspicious, but when she saw the silver piece and heard Briony’s invented story of a mother and younger brother out on the coast road, both ill, she bit her lip in thought, then nodded. She went into her tall house, which crowded against its neighbors on either side as if they were choristers sharing a small bench, but conspicuously did not ask Briony to follow her. After some time she reappeared with a hunk of hard cheese, a half a loaf of bread, and four eggs, not to mention several children trying to squeeze past her wide hips to get a look at Briony. It didn’t seem a lot of food, even for a shaved fingerling, but she had to admit that what she knew about money had to do with much larger quantities, and the prices with which she was familiar were more likely to be the accounts for feeding an entire garrison of guards. She stared at the woman for a moment, wondering whether she was being dealt with honestly, and realized this was perhaps the first person she had ever met in her life who had no idea of who she was, the first person who (as far as this woman knew) owed her nothing in the way of respect or allegiance. Briony was further shocked to realize that this drab creature draggled with children, this brood-mother with red, windbitten face and mistrust still lurking in her eyes, was not many years older than Briony herself. Chastened, she thanked the young woman and wished her the blessing of the Three, then headed back toward the gate and the place outside the walls where Shaso waited.

And, it suddenly came to her, not only had no one recognized her, it was unlikely anyone would, unless they were Hendon’s troops and they were already looking for her: in all of Marrinswalk only a few dozen people would know her face even were she wearing full court dress—a few nobles, a merchant or two who had come to Southmarch Castle to curry favor. Here in the countryside she was a ghost: since she could not be Briony, she was no one.

It was a feeling as humbling as it was reassuring.

Briony and Shaso ate enough cheese and bread to feel strengthened, then they began to walk again. As the day wore on they followed the line of the coast, which was sometimes only a stone’s throw away, other times invisible and completely absent but for the rumble of the surf. The valley walls and trees protected them from the worst of the chilly wind. They slipped off the road when they heard large traveling parties coming and kept their heads down when they couldn’t avoid passing others on the road.

“How far to Oscastle?” she asked Shaso as they sat resting. They had just finished scrambling up a wet, slippery hillside to go around a fallen tree that blocked the road and it had tired them both.

“Three days or more,” Shaso said. “But we are not going there.”

“But Lawren, the old Earl of Marrinscrest, lives there, and he would...”

“Would certainly find it hard to keep a secret of your presence, yes.” The old man rubbed his weathered face. “I am glad to see you are beginning to think carefully.” He scowled. “By the Great Mother, I cannot believe I am so tired. Some evil spirit is riding me like a donkey.” “The evil spirit is me,” Briony said. “I was the one who kept you locked up for all that time—no wonder you are tired and ill.”

He turned away and spat. “You did what you had to do, Briony Eddon. And, unlike your brother, you wished to believe I was innocent of Kendrick’s murder.”

“Barrick thought he was doing what had to be done, too.” A flood of pain and loneliness swept through her, so powerful that for a moment it took her breath away. “Oh, I don’t want to talk about him,” she said at last. “If we’re not going to Oscastle, where are we going?”

“LandersPort.” He levered himself up to his feet, showing little of his old murderous grace or speed. “A grand name for a town that never saw King Lander at all, but only one of his ships, which foundered off the coast on the way back from Coldgray Moor.” Shaso almost smiled. “A fishing town and not much more, but it will suit our needs nicely, as you will see.”

“How do you know all this about Lander’s ships and Coldgray Moor?”

His smile disappeared. “The greatest battle in the history of the north? And me master of arms for Southmarch? If I did not know any history, then you would have had a reason to hang me in irons in the stronghold, child.”

Briony knew when it was a good time to hold her tongue, but she did not always do what was best. “I only asked. And merry Orphanstide to you, too. Did you enjoy your breakfast?”

Shaso shook his head. “I am old and my limbs are sore.

Forgive me.”

Now he had managed to make her feel bad again. In his own way, he was as difficult to argue with as her father could be. And that thought brought another pang of loneliness.

“Forgiven,” was all she said.

By late afternoon, with Kinemarket far behind them and the smell of smoke rising from the cottages they passed, Briony was hungry again. They had sucked the meat from the eggs long before, but Shaso had kept back half the bread and cheese for later and she was finding it hard to think about anything except eating. The only rival to food was imagining what it would be like to crawl under the warm, heavy counterpane of her bed back home, and lie there listening to the very wind and rain that were now making her day so miserable. She wondered where they were going to sleep that night, and whether Shaso was saving the last rind of the cheese for their dinner. Cold cheer that would make.

Look at me! I am a pampered child, she scolded herself. Think of Barrick, wherever he is, on a cold battlefield, or worse. Think of Father in a stone dungeon. And look at Shaso. Three days ago, he was in chains, starving, bleeding from his iron manacles. Now he is exiled because of me, walking by my side, and he is forty years or more my elder!

All of which only made her more miserable.

The path they had been following for so long, which had never been anything more than a beaten track, now widened a bit and began to turn away from the coast. The cottages now were so thickly set that they were clearly approaching another large village or town—she could see the life of the place even at twilight, the men coming back from the rainy fields in their woolen jackets, each one carrying some wood for the fire, women calling the children in, older boys and girls herding sheep to their paddocks. Everyone seemed to have a place, all under the gods’ careful order, homes and lives that, however humble, made sense. For a moment Briony thought she might burst into tears.

Shaso, however, did not stop to moon over rustic certainties, and had even picked up a little speed, like a horse on the way back to the barn for its evening fodder, so she had to hurry to keep up with him. They both kept their hoods close around their faces, but so did everyone else in this weather; people going in and out of the riverside settlements scarcely even looked up as they passed.

The path wound up the side of the valley, the river now only a murmur in the trees behind them, and Briony was just beginning to wonder how they would walk without a torch on this dark, rain-spattered night, when they reached the top of the valley and looked down on the marvelous lights of a city.

No, not a city, Briony realized after a dazzled moment, but at least a substantial, prosperous town. In the folds of the hills she could see half a dozen streets sparkling with torches, and more windows lit from within than she could easily count. Set against the great darkness behind it the bowl of lights seemed a precious thing, a treasure.

“That is the sea, out there,” said Shaso, pointing to the darkness beyond LandersPort. “We have worked our way around to it again. The track is wide here, but be careful—it is marshland all about.”

Still, despite the boggy emptiness on either side, they walked quickly to take advantage of the fast diminishing twilight. Briony was buoyed by a sudden optimism, the hope that at the very least they would soon be putting something in their stomachs and perhaps getting out of the rain as well. It was an altogether different matter, this unrelenting drizzle, when one had only to cross a courtyard or, at worst, Market Square —and she had been seldom allowed to do even that without a guardsman holding his cloak above her. But here in the wilderness, with drops battering the top of her head all day like a fall of pebbles and soaking her all the way to her bones, the rain was not an inconvenience but an enemy, patient and cruel.

“Will we stay at an inn, then?” she asked, still half-wishing they could stop in the comfortable house of some loyal noble, risks be damned. “That seems dangerous, too. Do you think no one will remark on a black-skinned man and a young girl?”

“People might remark less than you think,” Shaso said with a snort. “LandersPort may never have seen the old king of Syan, but it is a busy fishing town and boats land every day from all parts of Eion and even beyond. But no, we will not be stopping in a tavern full of gossips and layabouts. We might as well announce our arrival from the steps of the town’s temple.”

“Oh, merciful Zoria,” she said, knowing that going on about it only made her seem a pampered child, but at this moment not caring. “It’s to be another shack, then. Some fisherman’s hut stinking of mackerel, with a leaking roof.”

“If you do not stop your complaining, I may arrange just such a lodging,” he said, and pulled his cloak tighter against the rain.

Full night had fallen and the city gate was closing, the watchmen bawling curses at the stragglers. In the undifferentiated mass of wet wool hoods and cloaks, the jostling of people and animals, Briony and Shaso did not seem to attract much notice, but she still held her breath while the guards at the gate looked them over and did not let it out until they were past the walls and inside.

The old man took her by the arm, pulling her out of the crowd of latecomers and down a tiny side-alley, the houses so close that their upper levels seemed about to butt each other like rams in spring. Briony could smell fish, both fresh and smoked, and here and there even the aroma of fresh bread. Her stomach twisted with desire, but Shaso hurried her down dark streets lit only by guttering cookfires visible through the open doorways. Voices came to her, dreamlike in her hunger and cold, some speaking words she could understand but many that she could not, either because of thick accents or unfamiliar tongues.

They had obviously entered the town’s poorest quarter, not a shred of horn or glass in any window, no light but meager fires in the crowded downstairs rooms, and Briony’s heart sank. Reeking straw was going to be her bed tonight, and small, leggy things would be crawling on her in the cold dark. At least she and Shaso had a little money. She would settle for no leavings of cheese and bread from the morning. She would command, or at least demand, that he buy them something hot—a bowl of pottage, perhaps even some meat if there was such a thing as a clean butcher in this part of the town.

“Be very quiet now,” said Shaso abruptly, putting out his arm to stop her. They were in the deepest shadow they had yet found, the only illumination the nearly invisible, clouddimmed moon, and it took her a moment to realize they were standing beside a high stone wall. When he had listened for a moment—Briony could hear nothing at all except her own breathing and the never-ending patter of rain—the old man stepped toward the wall and, to her astonishment, pounded his knuckles on what sounded like a wooden door. How he could have found such a thing in the near-perfect darkness, let alone known it was there in the first place, she had no idea.

There was a long silence. Shaso knocked again, this time in a discernible pattern. A moment later a man’s low voice said something and Shaso answered, neither question nor reply in a language she recognized. The door creaked inward and light splashed out into the rain-rippled muck of the street.

A man in a strange, baggy robe stood in the entrance; as Shaso stepped back to let Briony step through the man bowed. For a moment she wondered if the robe marked him as a mantis, if this was indeed, despite Shaso’s own denial, some back-alley temple, but when the gatekeeper finished his bow and looked up at her he proved to be a bearded youth as dark-skinned as Shaso.

“Welcome, guest,” he said to her. “If you accompany Lord Shaso, you are a flower in the house of Effir dan-Mozan.”

They entered the main part of the house by a covered passage beside a courtyard—Briony could dimly see what looked like a bare fruit tree at its center—which led into a low building that seemed to take up a great deal of space. A covey of women came to her and surrounded her, murmuring, only every fifth or sixth word in Briony’s own tongue. They smelled charmingly of violets and rosewater and other, less familiar scents; for a moment she was happy just to breathe in as they took her hands and tugged her toward a passageway. She looked back at Shaso in bemusement and alarm, but he was already in urgent conversation with the bearded youth and only waved her on. That was the last she saw of him, or of any man, for the rest of the evening.

The women, a mixture of old and young, but all darkskinned, black-haired Southerners like the man at the door, led her—herded her, in truth—into a sumptuous tiled chamber lit with dozens of candles, so warm that the air was steamy. Briony was so astounded to find this palatial luxury in the poorest quarter of a fishing town that she did not realize for a moment that some of the women were trying to pull her clothes off. Shocked, she fought back, and was about to give one of them a good blow of her fist (a skill learned in childhood to deal with a pair of brawling brothers) when one of the smaller women stepped toward her, both hands raised in supplication.

“Please,” she said, “what is your name?”

Briony stared. The woman was fine-boned and handsome, but though her hair was shiny and black as tar, it was clear she was old enough to be Briony’s mother, or even her grandmother. “Briony,” she said, remembering only too late that she was a fugitive. Still, Shaso had passed her to the women as though she were a saddlebag to be unpacked: she could not be expected to keep her caution while under attack by this murmuring pigeon flock.

“Please, Bri-oh-nee-zisaya,” the small woman said, “you are cold and tired. You are a guest for us, yes? You cannot eat in the hada until you are bathing, yes?”

“Bathing?” Briony suddenly realized that the great dark rectangular emptiness in the middle of the room, which she had thought only a lower part of the floor, was a bath—a bath bigger than her own huge bed in the Southmarch royal residence! “There?” she added stupidly.

The women, sensing a lull in her resistance, swooped in and pulled off the rest of her sodden clothes, murmuring in pity and amusement as Briony’s pale, goose-pimpled skin was exposed. She was helped to the edge of the bath—it had steps leading down!—and, to her further astonishment, several of the women disrobed and climbed in with her. Now at least she understood why the bath was so large.

The first shock of the hot water almost made her faint, then as she settled in and grew used to it a deep languor crept over her, so that she nearly fell asleep. The women giggled, soaping and scrubbing her in a way she would have found unduly intimate if it had been Rose and Moina, who had known her for years, but somehow she could not make herself care. It was warm in the bath—so blessedly warm! —and the scent of flowery oils in the steamy air made her feel as though she were floating in a summer cloud.

Out of the bath, wrapped in a thick white robe like those the women wore, she was led to a room full of cushions with a fire in a brazier at its center. Here too an inordinate number of candles burned, the flames wavering as the women walked in and out, talking quietly, laughing, some even singing.

Have I died? she wondered without truly believing it. Is this what it will be like in Zoria’s court in heaven?

They seated her amid the cushions and the older woman brought her food; the others whispered in fascination at this, as though it were an unusual honor. The bowl was heaped with fruit and a cooked grain she did not recognize, with pieces of some roasted bird sitting on top, and Briony could not help remembering the woman back in Kinemarket with her broods of chickens and children. She wondered if that woman in her damp, smoky cottage could even imagine a place like this, less than a day’s walk away.

The food was excellent, hot and flavored with spices Briony did not know, which at other moments might have put her off, but now only added to the waking dream. At last she lolled back on the cushions, full, warm, and gloriously dry. The younger women cleared away Briony’s bowl and the empty goblet from which she had drunk some watered wine, and the older woman sat beside her.

“Thank you,” Briony said, although that did not suffice.

“You are tired. Sleep.” The woman waved and one of the others brought a blanket which they draped on Briony where she lay among the embroidered cushions.

“But...where am I? What is this place?”

“The hada of Effir dan-Mozan,” the woman said. “My... married?”

“Your husband?”

“Yes. Just so.” The woman smiled. One of her teeth was covered in gold. “And you are our honored guest. Sleep now.”

“But why...?” She wanted to ask why this house in such a strange place, why the bath, why all these beautiful darkskinned women in the middle of Marrinswalk, but all that came out was that word again. “Why?”

“Because the Lord Shaso brought you here,” the woman said. “He is a great man, cousin of our old king. He honors our house.”

They didn’t even know who she was. Shaso was the royalty here.

Briony slept then, floundering through confusing dreams of warm rivers and icy cold rain.

5. At Liberty

But the first son of Zo and Sva, who they named Rud, the golden arrow of the daytime sky, was killed in the fight against the demons of Old Night.

Their younger son Sveros, lord of twilight, seized Rud’s widow Madi Oneyna for his own, and swore that he would be a father to Rud’s son Yirrud, but in truth he sent a cloud to breathe upon Yirrud where Onyena had hidden him in the mountain fastness and the child sickened and died.

Instead of giving Oneyna a new child to replace the one he had taken, Sveros also took her twin, Surazem, who we call Moist Mother Earth, and fathered three children upon her, who were the great brothers, Perin, Erivor, and Kernios.

—from The Beginnings of Things, The Book of the Trigon

Freedom was both frightening and exhilarating. It was wonderful to be able to walk the streets on her own, with nothing between her and life but a hooded robe—she had not known such liberty since she was a young child, when she had known nothing else and had not appreciated what a sublime gift it truly was.

In fact, it was a bit confounding to have so many choices. Just now, Qinnitan couldn’t decide whether to return to the main road winding through Onir Soteros, the neighborhood just behind the Harbor of Kalkas which she had called home for almost a month, or to continue following the winding streets farther into the great city, expanding her area of conquest as she had almost every day.

What a place in which to have gained her freedom! Hierosol was a huge city, perhaps not quite as large as Xis, the place she had escaped, but not a great deal smaller, either—a massive rumpled blanket of hills and valleys sitting athwart several bays, commanding both the Kulloan Strait and the Osteian Sea, nearly every inch covered with the constructions of several different centuries. Ancient Xis sat on a high plain as flat as a marble floor, and from any of its high places you could see all the way to both the northern sea and the southern desert. Here in Hierosol she had not yet managed to climb high enough to see anything but other hills, Citadel Hill the tallest of them all, looming above the others like a noble head gazing out across the straits, the rest of the city trailing down the slopes behind it like a cape.

Hierosol was so old and complex and ingrown that to Qinnitan every neighborhood seemed to be its own city, its own world—tree-covered Fox-gate Hill sloping gently behind her, home of rich merchants, and just below the sailmakers’ and shipwrights’ quarter of Sandy Head, bustling with work from the adjacent Harbor of Kalkas. Not just a new city to explore but dozens of new worlds, all waiting for her and her newfound freedom. For a girl who had spent the last several years in the cloistered ways of the Hive and the Seclusion, it was dizzying to contemplate.

She had been brought here across the narrow sea from Xis by Axamis Dorza, the captain of the boat that had carried her away from her lifelong home when Dorza’s master Jeddin fell suddenly and precipitously from the autarch’s favor. When word of Jeddin’s capture had caught up to them in Hierosol, most of the sailors on the Morning Star of Kirous had melted away into the shadowy alleys of the port. Those few that remained were even now scraping the ship’s old name off the hull and repainting it. Qinnitan supposed Jeddin’s slim, fast ship would belong to Dorza now, which must be at least some small compensation to him for being associated with the now infamous traitor.

It had been kind of Axamis Dorza, she knew, if also pragmatic, to take her into his home in the Onir Soteros district at the base of the rocky hills that leaned above Sandy Head. Although he could not know it, Dorza must suspect that Qinnitan was in even greater jeopardy than himself, and though hiding her from the autarch’s spies might keep Dorza himself safe in the short run, it was bound to look bad if she was ever captured. In fact, the captain had made it clear that he was not happy with Qinnitan roaming the streets, even dressed in the fashion of a respectable Xandian girl (which left little of her visible) but she had made it equally clear to him that she would no longer be anyone’s prisoner, especially in Dorza’s small house. It was not his house at all, really, but the property of his Hierosoline wife, Tedora. Qinnitan suspected the captain had a larger, more respectable house and also a more respectable wife and family back home in Xis, but she was too polite to inquire. Qinnitan also suspected that she would not have been allowed such freedom in that other house, but Tedora was a woman of Eion, not Xand, and was more interested in drinking wine and gossiping with her neighbors than watching over the moral education of a fugitive Xixian girl. Because of that, and a certain confused subservience Qinnitan inspired in Dorza, most of the freedom which had been stolen from her since her girlhood in Cat’s Alley had been returned.

In fact, other than her terror of the autarch and her fear of being recaptured, there was only one sizeable fly in the honey of her current Hierosoline harbor.... “Ho, there you are! Wait for me!”

Qinnitan flinched reflexively—in the back of her mind she was always waiting for the moment one of the autarch’s minions would lay a hand on her—although within half a heartbeat she had known who it was.

“Nikos.” She sighed and turned around. “Were you following me?”

“No.” He was taller than his father Axamis, all the size of a man and none of the gravity or sense, the fuzz of his first black beard covering his chin, cheeks, and neck. He had trailed her like an oversized puppy since his father had first brought her home. “But he was, and I followed him.” Nikos pointed at the small, silent boy who was standing so close to her he must have come within arm’s reach without her even hearing.

“Pigeon!” she said, frowning at him. “You were to stay in bed until you’re well.”

The mute boy smiled and shook his head. His face was even paler than usual, and he had a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead. He held out his hands, palm up, to show that as far as he was concerned he was too healthy to be left at home.

“Where are you going, Qinnitan?” Nikos asked.

“Don’t call me by that name! I wasn’t going anywhere. I was thinking, enjoying the quiet. Now it’s gone.”

Nikos was immune to such remarks. “Some big ships just came in from Xis. Do you want to go down to the harbor to look at them? Maybe you know some of the people on board.”

Qinnitan could not think of anything more foolish or dangerous. “No, I do not want to go look at them. I’ve told you—your father has told you—that I can have nothing to do with anyone from the south. Nothing! Do you never learn?”

Now he did look a little hurt, her tone finally piercing the armor of his nearly invincible disinterest in anything outside his tiny circle of familiarity. “I just thought you might like it,” he said sullenly. “That you might be a little homesick.”

She took a breath. She could not afford to anger Nikos as long as she lived in his house. The problem was, the boy fancied her. It was ludicrous that she was suffering from the unwanted attentions of a lumbering child her own age when only weeks before the greatest king in the world had kept her locked away in the Seclusion, threatening death to any whole man who so much as looked at her, but along with freedom, she was learning, came the costs of freedom.

She let Nikos trail after her as they climbed the winding streets of Fox-gate Hill in the shadow of the old citadel walls, up into the crocus-starred heights where shops and taverns gave way to the houses of the wealthy, pretty whiteplastered places with high walls that concealed gardens and shady courtyards, although all these secrets could be seen from the streets above, so that each level of society was exposed to the inspection of its wealthier neighbors. These houses, despite their size and beauty, still stood close together, side by side along the hilly roads like seashells left along the line of the retreating tide. She could only imagine what it would be like to live in such a place instead of Captain Dorza’s noisy, rickety house that smelled of fish and spilled wine. She wondered even more acutely what it would be like to have a house of her own, a place where no one entered without her permission, where she did what she wanted, spoke as she wanted.

It was not to be, of course. She could hide here in Hierosol with people who spoke her language, or she could go back to Xis and die. What other choices were there?

Pigeon was tugging at her arm; she was suddenly reminded that her own life was not her only responsibility.

Freedom. Sometimes it seemed that the more of it she had, the more she lacked.

Nikos had pretended to bump against her for the fifth or sixth time, and this time had actually managed to put his hand on her rump and give it a squeeze before she could slap it away, when she decided to turn back to the captain’s house. Her privacy stolen, her thoughts dragged down by Nikos’ innocently stupid questions and less innocent attempts to paw her, she knew the best of the day was over. Qinnitan sighed. Time to go back to Tedora and that laugh of hers like the cry of an irritated goat, to the thick smoke in the air and the endless noise and the jumble of screeching children. She couldn’t blame Nikos for wanting to spend time out of doors, she just wished he would spend it somewhere other than in her vicinity.

She put her arm around Pigeon, who pressed against her happily—he, at least, seemed quite content with their new life, and played with the younger children as comfortably as if they were his own brothers and sisters—then pulled her hood a little closer around her face, as she always did when she walked through the neighborhood around the captain’s house, where nearly half the people seemed to come from Xis and many of them were sailors who shipped back and forth across the Osteian Sea several times a year. The house seemed oddly quiet as they walked down the long path: she could hear one of the younger children talking cheerful nonsense, but not much else.

The captain’s wife Tedora looked up from her stool by the table. She had started her day of drinking wine early that morning—part of the reason Qinnitan had left the house— and judging by the jug and cup set beside her, not to mention the blurry, sly look on her seamed face, she had not slackened her pace in Qinnitan’s absence.

She must have been pretty once, Qinnitan often thought. Pretty enough to catch a captain, no small trick in Onir Soteros. The bones were still good, but Tedora’s skin was as cracked as old leather, her fingers knobby with age and hard work—not that Qinnitan had seen her do much of that.

“He’s waiting for you.” Tedora gestured to the bedroom, a sour smile flitting across her face. “Dorza. He wants to see you.”

“What?” For a moment Qinnitan could make no sense of it. Was Tedora sending her in to become the master’s concubine? Then she realized that, of course, in a house so small, the single bedroom would be the only place to carry on a private conversation—she had seen Dorza take some of his crewmen back to talk about matters of the ship and of their involuntary exile from Xis.

A chilly heaviness lodged in her gut. A private conversation, was it? She felt certain she knew what he wanted, and had been fearing it for days. Axamis Dorza, saddled with the feeding of two people who should have not been his responsibility, was going to try to marry her off to young Nikos, to bind her properly to his household so that she could be set to work. Qinnitan had no doubt it was Tedora’s idea. If, as she suspected, Dorza had another family back in Xis, he would be more than willing to do it, just to keep the peace here in his Hierosoline harbor. The thought made her heart as cold as her stomach.

“You asked to speak to me?” she said as the flimsy door fell shut behind her. It was dark in the room, only a single small oil lamp burning atop the large sea chest Dorza used as his captain’s table. The shape there stirred, but so slowly and strangely that for a moment Qinnitan had to fight back an urge to scream, as though she had found herself locked in with a savage animal.

The captain looked up. His face, normally as clean-lined as a ship, seemed to have lost its bones, chin sunk against his chest, eyes almost invisible under his brows. “I have been...talking,” Dorza said slowly. “With men newly come from Xis.” She could smell the wine on his breath from halfway across the small room. “Why did you not tell me who you were?”

A different kind of chill descended on her now. “I have never lied to you,” she said, although that was another lie. She wondered if sacred bees were dying in the Temple of the Hive, as a few were said to do whenever one of the acolytes abused the truth or thought an impure thought. If that’s so, I must have killed at least half of the poor bees by now. What a sinner I have become in this last year, in the simple matter of saving my own life!

“You did not tell me all. I knew you were...” He lowered his voice. “I knew you were Jeddin’s woman. But I did not understand...”

“I was never Jeddin’s woman,” she said, anger overcoming even her fear at Axamis Dorza’s strange, grim mood. “He thrust himself upon me, put my life in danger. He did not lay with me, nor has any man!”

“Well, no matter that,” said Dorza. He seemed a little surprised by her claim. “The knot at the center of the thing is this—you are fled from the autarch’s own Seclusion.”

She took a breath. “It is true. It was that or be handed over to Mokori the strangler, although I had done nothing wrong.”

Dorza lurched to his feet, swaying. “But you have murdered me!” he roared.

“I’ve done nothing of the sort, Captain Dorza. You have done nothing wrong, and can say so. You gave a young woman passage on your master’s order, without knowing your master had fallen out of favor—and certainly without knowing anything of the woman herself...”

He staggered a few steps toward her, looming over her like a tree that might topple. “Nothing wrong! By the fiery balls of Nushash, do you think the autarch will care? Do you think he will call off his torturers and say, ‘You know, this fellow isn’t so bad. Let him go back to his life again.’ You liar. You heartless bitch! You slut...!” The captain’s hand shot out and clutched her arm so hard she could not escape, although he could barely stand straight.

“I have done nothing wrong!” she shouted. “Nushash himself is my witness—I was taken as a virgin from the Temple of the Hive and Jeddin came to me in the Seclusion and told me he was in love with me. Is it my fault he was mad, the poor dead fool?”

Dorza’s free hand rose up, trembling, to strike her, but then it fell again. He let go of her arm and stumbled back to his chair. “Then that son of a bitch Jeddin has destroyed me as surely as if he had shot me with a musket ball.” He turned a red eye on Qinnitan again. “Go. Get out of this house and take that idiot child with you. I do not care where you go—I never want to hear your name again. When the autarch’s men come to cut my head off and drag my wife and children into slavery, I will be certain to tell them what you said...that it was not your fault.” He made a horrible barking sound, half laugh, half sob.

“You are casting me out? With nothing? Out of fear that some of the autarch’s spies might find out...”

“The autarch’s spies? Are you whores of the Seclusion really so ignorant? We always thought you knew more of events than we outside the palace ever could.” He spat on the floor—shocking from such a tidy man. “It is only a matter of a few moons or so before the autarch’s fleet sails. He is outfitting new warships and arming soldiers even now.” Dorza took a key from his belt, then bent and clumsily unlocked the chest chained to the table leg. He took a few pieces of silver out and dropped them to the floor. One coin rolled right to Qinnitan’s feet, but she did not stoop for it. “Take those. At least you may then get far enough from me before you’re caught that I will gain a few more weeks of life.”

“What do you mean, the autarch’s fleet? Sails where?” “Here, you foolish, foolish girl. He is coming here, to conquer Hierosol, then the rest of Eion after it. Now get out of my house.”

6. Skurn

Here is truth! The light was Tso, and Zha was the wife he created out of the nothingness. She fled him but he followed. She hid, but he discovered

She protested, but he persuaded. At last she surrendered, and at their lovemaking the heavens roared with the first winds.

—from The Revelations of Nushash, Book One

Guard captain Ferras Vansen woke to the sickly glow of the shadowlands, unchanged since he had fallen asleep. His cloak was no longer covering his face and rain spattered him. He groaned and rolled over, scrabbling for the hem of the heavy woolen garment, but it was trapped between him and the dampening ground and he had to sit up, groaning even louder, to free it.

He was just about to roll back into sleep when he saw a hint of movement at the corner of his gaze. He held his breath and turned his head as slowly as he could, but saw nothing except the long, wet grass and the familiar lump of Barrick’s sleeping form. Beyond lay the terrifying creature called Gyir, but the warrior-fairy also seemed to be asleep.

Vansen let out what he hoped sounded like the honest snort of someone whose slumber had been briefly but inconsequentially disturbed, then lay silently, praying that his heart was not really beating as loudly as it seemed to be. He knew he had seen something more than the simple bouncing of rain-bent grass.

Movement resumed beside the soggy remnants of last night’s fire, a rounded shape bobbing along slowly only a few paces from the sleeping prince.

Vansen flung his cloak at it and dived after; the thing let out a muffled squawk and tried to escape, but it seemed to be tangled. Vansen scrambled across the wet ground on elbows and knees and managed to catch it before it disappeared into the darkness again. As he held it wrapped in the damp wool, he found it smaller than he had feared and surprisingly light, loose as a bundle of sticks and cloth in his hands: even with a poor grip on it, his strength seemed more than equal to the task of holding it. The captive creature let out a terrified, whistling shriek that sounded almost like a child’s cry. He could feel by its struggles that it was a large bird of some kind, with wings that must stretch nearly as wide as a man’s arms.

As he tried to protect his face from the darting beak something else rushed toward him, startling him so that he did not even fight when the bird was ripped out of his hands. By the time Vansen could turn his head, the shadow-man Gyir had a squat knife with scalloped edges pressed lengthwise against the creature’s throat as the bird thrashed and made odd, almost human noises of fear. It was a raven, Ferras Vansen could see now, mostly black, with a few patches of white random as spatters of paint, but Vansen paid it little attention. He was terrified and astonished at the sudden appearance of Gyir’s knife, and shamed by his own incompetence.

Great Perin, has he had that all along? He could have murdered us at any time! How did I miss it?

But he could not ignore the bird after all, because it had begun to talk.

“Don’t kill us, Masters!” The voice rasped and whistled, but the words were clear. “Us’ll never do wrong at you again!

Us were only so hungry!”

“You can speak,” said Vansen, reduced to the obvious.

The raven turned one bright yellow eye toward him, beak opening and shutting as it tried to get its breath. “Aye. And most sweetly, too, given chance, Masters!”

Prince Barrick sat up, tousle-haired and puffy-eyed, looking at least for this moment more like an ordinary sleepy young man and less like the maddening enigma he had been. “Why precisely are you two pummeling a bird?” He squinted. “It’s rather spotty. Might it be good to eat?”

“No, Master!” the raven said, struggling uselessly. Patches of gray skin showed where it had lost feathers, making it seem even more pathetic. “Foul and tasteless, I am! Pizen!”

Gyir changed position to steady the squirming bird, poised to kill it.

“No!” Vansen said. “Let it be.”

“But why?” asked the prince. “Gyir says it’s old and going to die soon, anyway. And it was thieving from us.”

“It speaks our tongue!”

“So do many other thieves.” The prince seemed more amused than anything else.

“Aye,” the bird panted, “speech it good and well, thy sunlander tongue. Learned it by Northmarch when I lived close by your folk there.”

“Northmarch?” It was a name Vansen had barely heard in years, a haunted name. “How could that be? Men have not lived at Northmarch for two centuries, since the shadows rolled over it.”

“Oh, aye, us were young then.” The raven still struggled helplessly in Gyir’s grasp. “Us had shiny pins and joints all supple, and us’s knucklers were firm.”

Vansen turned to Gyir, forgetting for a moment that it was harder to communicate with him than with the raven. “Two centuries old? Is that possible?”

The fairy came the closest to a human gesture Vansen had yet seen, a kind of slithery shrug. The meaning was clear: it was possible, but why should it matter?

“Yes, it matters.” Vansen knew he was replying to words not spoken and perhaps not even intended, but at this moment he did not care: in the land of the mad, a land of talking animals and faceless fairies, madness was the only sane creed. “He talks like my mother’s father, although that means nothing to you. I have not heard speech like that since I was a child.” Vansen realized that he ached for conversation—ordinary talk, not the elliptical mysteries of spellbound Prince Barrick, each answer bringing only more questions. In fact, he realized, he was so lonely that he would accept comradeship even from a bird.

But it wouldn’t do to make that clear just yet—even a bird could be suspect in these treacherous, magical lands. “So why shouldn’t we kill you?” Vansen asked the struggling raven. “What were you doing in our camp, poking around? Tell, or I will let him slit your throat.”

“Nay!” It was half shriek, half croak, a despairing sound that made Vansen almost feel ashamed of himself. “Mean no harm, us! Just hungry!”

“Gyir says he smells of those creatures,” Barrick offered, “—the ones who attacked him and killed his horse. ‘Followers,’ they’re called.”

“Not us, Masters!” The raven struggled, but despite its size, it was helpless as a sparrow in the fairy-warrior’s hands. “Was just following the Followers, like. Can’t fly much now, us—pins be all a-draggled.” It carefully eased one of its wings free, and this time Gyir allowed it. More than a few shiny black feathers were certainly missing. “Went to eat summat a few seasons gone by, but that summat be’nt quite dead yet,” the raven explained, bobbing its head. “Tore us upwise and downwise.”

“And the smell of those...Followers?”

“Us can’t stay high or fly long like us did oncet. Have to follow close, go from branch to branch, like. Followers have a powerful stink.” It ruffled its parti-colored feathers with its beak. “Can’t smell it, usself. Poor Skurn is old now—so old!”

“Skurn? Is that what you’re called?”

“Aye, or was. Us were handsome then, when that were our name.” He poked his beak toward Gyir. “His folk drove all the sunlanders out from Northmarch. Life were good then, for a little while, in the fighting—dead ’uns every which side! But then sunlanders were gone and poor Skurn was leaved behind to shift as us could when twilight come down.” The beak opened to let out a mournful sigh, but the shiny eyes looked to Vansen with calculating hope, like a child searching for the first light of forgiveness.

He had no stomach to kill the thing. “Let the bird go,” he said. Nothing happened. Gyir was not looking at him but at Barrick. “Please, Highness. Let it go.”

Barrick frowned, then sighed. “I suppose.” He waved his hand at Gyir, still showing a remnant of the royal manner even here beneath the dripping trees. “Let it go free.”

As soon as the blade was withdrawn the bird rolled to its feet and took a few hopping steps, quite nimble for all its professed age. It flapped its wings as though surprised and pleased to find it still had them. “Oh, thank you, Masters, thank you! Skurn will serve you, do everything you ask us, find all best hiding places, rotting dead ’uns, birds’ nests, even where the fish go scumbling down in the muddy bottom! And eat so little, us? Never will you know us is even here.”

“What is he talking about?” Vansen said crossly. He had expected it to bolt for the undergrowth or fly away, but the bird had distracted him and he had forgotten to watch where Gyir hid the knife; now the Twilight man’s hand was empty again.

“You saved him, Captain.” Amusement rippled coldly across Barrick’s face. Suddenly he seemed a boy no longer, but more like an old man—ageless. “The raven’s yours. It seems you’ll finally taste the pleasures of being lord and master.”

“Lord and master,” said the raven, beginning to clean the mud from his matted feathers with his long black beak. He bobbed his head eagerly. “Yes, you folk are Masters of Skurn, now. Us will do you only good.”

The forest track they followed seemed to have once been a road: only flimsy saplings and undergrowth grew on it, while the larger trees—most with sharp, silvery-black leaves that made Vansen think of them as “dagger trees”—formed a bower overhead, so that the horses paced almost as easily as they might have on the Settland Road or some other thoroughfare in mortal lands. If the going was easier, though, it was not a peaceful ride; Vansen had begun to wonder whether saving the wheezing raven might not have been his second-worst decision of recent days, exceeded only by the choice to follow Barrick across the Shadowline. Reprieved from death, Skurn could not stop talking, and although occasionally he said something interesting or even useful, Vansen was beginning to feel things would have been better if he had let Gyir the Storm Lantern spit the creature.

“...The other ones, Followers and whatnot, are pure wild these days.” Skurn bobbed his head, moving continuously from one side to the other off the base of the horse’s neck like a cat trying to find the warmest place to sleep. It was a mark of how the last days had hardened Vansen’s mount that it paid little attention to the creeping thing between its shoulders, only whinnying from time to time when the indignity became too much. “Scarce speak any language, and of course no sunlander tongue, unlikes usself. There, Master, don’t ever eat that ’un, nor touch it. Will turn your insides to glass. And that other, yes, th’un with yellow berries. No, not pizen, but makes a fine stew with coney or water rat. Us’d have a lovely bit of that now, jump atter chance, us would. Knows you that soon you be crossing into Jack Chain’s land? You’ll turn, o’course. Foul, his lot. No love for the High Ones and wouldn’t lift a hand but for their own stummicks or to shed some blood. They like blood, Jack’s lot. Oh, there’s a bit of the old wall. Look up high. A fine place for eggs...”

The nonstop chatter had begun to blend into one continuous rattle, like someone snoring across the room, but the bulwark of ruined stone caught Vansen’s attention. It rose from a thicket of thorns, its top looming far above his head, and was sheathed in vines that flowered a dull blood red, the thick, heart-shaped leaves bouncing with the weight of raindrops.

“What did you say this was?”

“This old wall, Master? Us didn’t, although us is pleased to name it if that be your wish. A place called Ealingsbarrow oncet in thy speech, if our remembering be not too full of holes—a town of your folk.”

Vansen reined up. The crumbling golden stones looked as though they had been abandoned far more than two centuries ago: even the best-preserved sections were as pitted and porous as honeycomb. In many places trees had grown right through the substance of the wall and their roots were pulling out even more stones, like young cuckoos ousting other birdlings from a nest. The forest and the incessant damp were taking the wall apart as efficiently as a gang of workmen, tumbling the huge stones back to earth and wearing them away as though they were nothing more than wet sand, steadily removing this last trace that mortal men had once lived here.

“Why have we stopped?” asked Barrick. The prince had ridden beside Gyir all morning, and Vansen could not escape the idea that the two of them were conversing wordlessly, that the faceless man was instructing the prince just as Vansen had once been instructed by his old captain Donal Murroy.

“To look at this wall, Highness. The bird says it is part of a town named Ealingsbarrow. Northmarch must be only half a day’s ride away or so.” Vansen shook his head, still amazed. The old, cursed name of Northmarch reminded him that what had happened there and here in Ealingsbarrow might soon happen to all the mortal cities of the north—to Southmarch itself. “It is hard to believe, isn’t it?”

Barrick only shrugged. “They did not belong here. No mortals did, building without permission. It is no wonder it came to this.”

Vansen could only stare as the prince turned and rode forward again. Gyir, riding behind him, looked back a few moments longer, his featureless face as inscrutable as ever.

“Burned blue in the night for six nights when it fell, this place,” said Skurn. “Like old star had fallen down into the forest. The keeper of the War-Stone gave it to the Whispering Mothers, you see.”

Vansen was shivering as they left the last wall of Ealingsbarrow behind them. He did not know what the raven meant and he was fairly certain he was better off that way.

The rain began to abate in what Vansen estimated was the late afternoon, although as always he got no glimpse of sun or moon in the murky sky to confirm a guess about time. He had fed the hungry raven out of the last of his own stores, and had nibbled in a desultory way himself on some stale bread and a finger’s width of dried meat, but he was feeling the grip of hunger in a way he hadn’t before. Since the prince seemed to have become a little less strange and distracted, and since a full day had passed without any sign of the monstrous, faceless Twilight man Gyir trying to kill them all, Vansen’s fearfulness had abated a little, but the respite only served to make him more aware of his other problems. The possibility of starving was one of them, although not the biggest.

I am completely ruled by something I cannot change or understand, he thought. Worse even than if these fairy-folk had made me a prisoner. At least then I would expect to be helpless. But this—this is worse by far! Home is behind us, there is no reason to go on into this place of madness, and yet on we go, and it seems I can do nothing to stop it.

“We cannot follow this road any farther, Master,” said Skurn suddenly. His beak tugged at Vansen’s sleeve. “Cannot, Master.”

“What? Why?”

“The Northmarch Road , this is, and now I smell Northmarch too close. I told you we were coming near Jack Chain’s land.” The bird’s eyes were blinking rapidly. He fidgeted on the horse’s neck, almost comically frightened. “The bad is all on it, these days.”

Northmarch Road of course, Vansen thought, no wonder they had found this so much easier a track than others they had followed. He could see nothing beneath his feet but undergrowth and grass and dead leaves, but still the hairs on the back of his neck stirred. Knowing the road was beneath him and had been for hours was like discovering he had been standing on a grave. Still, a part of him was loath to give up such ease of travel. “It has a fearful name, but surely it has been empty now for ages.”

“You don’t understand, good Master.” Skurn flapped his wings in disquiet. “These lands be not empty. They be Jack Chain’s and you will lose your life at least an’ he catches you.”

Vansen relayed the raven’s words to Barrick. The prince paused for a moment, as though listening to something that silent Gyir might be telling him, then at last slowly nodded his head.

“We will make camp. There is much to decide.”

Only days ago, in an ordinary world where the sun came up and the sun went down, Barrick Eddon knew he would have looked on the fairy Gyir as something hideously alien, but somehow he had come to know Gyir the Storm Lantern as well as he knew any other person, even those of his own family.

Except for Briony, of course—Briony, his other half... Barrick did his best to push the thought of her away. If he was to survive he must harden himself, he had decided, cast even the most precious of those beads of memory behind him. He couldn’t let himself be weak as other men were weak—like Vansen the guard captain, still living in the old ways and as out of place here (or anywhere in the new world that was coming) as a bear sitting at a table with a bowl and spoon. Barrick knew that Vansen had saved the disgusting, corpse-eating raven mostly because it spoke his mortal speech, as if being able to mumble that outdated tongue was anything other than a mark of irrelevance.

The bird Skurn had many vile habits, and seemed to reveal a new one every few moments. Only an hour had passed since they had made camp and already the creature had defiled it, not even leaving the vicinity to defecate but instead simply pausing beside the campfire and discharging a spatter as wet and foul-smelling as the goose turds that had made it such a hazard to walk beside the pond in the royal residence back home. Now the disgusting old bird was crouched only a few steps from Barrick, noisily finishing off a baby rat he had found in a nest in the wet undergrowth, the tail danging from his mouth as he chewed the hindquarters. A moment later the whole of it, tail following to the very end, slid down his throat and disappeared.

Skurn belched. Barrick scowled.

Do not waste your fires on anger, Gyir told him. Especially on one such as that. You will have need of every spark, cousin. The words were simply there, as though whispered inside his skull. There was no sound, no quirks of speech as with regular talk, but the words had a shape and a feeling that Barrick could tell, even without comparison, made them Gyir’s and no one else’s.

Cousin? Why do you call me that? Because we share something. What? What could we share?

The love of our lady, and loyalty to her. She saved you as she saved me. Saved me from... And then the fairy’s words trailed off, or changed, so that they felt like words no longer, but rather a sensation of cracking thunder and a rain as heavy and terrifying as a flight of arrows.

“Highness,” said Vansen suddenly, his speaking voice as harsh as a frog’s croak after the taut musicality of Gyir’s soundless words. “I think we need to listen to what the bird says...”

“Listen!” snarled Barrick. “Listen! It is you who cannot listen!” How could the man continue to scrape and bray like that when he could have words and silence, music and stillness, both the plucked string and the expectant pause before the lute sounded? But perhaps the guardsman couldn’t. Perhaps Barrick was being unfair. He himself had been touched by the Dark Lady—poor, earnest Ferras Vansen had not. “I apologize, Captain,” he said, and was pleased by his own magnanimity. No wonder he had been chosen from the crowded, mad battlefield, singled out like the oracle Iaris, who of all men had been given the words of Perin to bear back to humanity. “What is it that...that squawking gore-crow has to say?”

“Cannot go this way,” the raven said. “The High One with no food-hole, the caulbearer, he knows it. These be Jack Chain’s lands now, since the queen sleeps and the King has grown so old. Us that care for our life don’t go there.”

“He’s talking about Northmarch, Highness,” Vansen said. “It seems to belong to some enemy—some dangerous person.”

“I am not stupid, Vansen. I understood that.” Barrick scowled. At this moment, the captain reminded him more than he would wish of Shaso: the old man, too, had always been judging him, always underestimating him, speaking words that sounded full of reason to the ear but made him sting with shame. Well, half a year in the stronghold had no doubt made Shaso dan-Heza a little less proud and scornful.

A twinge of shame, a distant thing but still painful, made him want to think about something else. Shaso had brought his doom on himself, hadn’t he? Nothing to do with Barrick.

“I am sorry, Highness,” Vansen said, and bowed, the first time he had done that since they had crossed over the Shadowline. “I have overstepped.”

“Oh, stop.” Barrick’s mood had gone sour. He turned to Gyir, tried to form the words in his head so the other could understand him. It was so easy when the faceless man spoke to him first—like a flying dream, no labor, just the leap and then the freedom of the air. What is this creature talking about? Is it true?

I do not know. I have not traveled here, in this part of... Here another idea floated past that seemed to have no words, a jumble of formless shapes that somehow spiraled inward like snailshells. Except when the army went to war, but none would have dared to attack us in that force. Still, there are many here behind the Mantle that do not love... Again there was a picture rather than a word, this one a paradoxical image of black towers and shining light. Only after it had ceased to glow in his head did Barrick perceive the words that went with it. Qul-na-Qar.

What is that? Is that you, your people?

That is the place we have made the heart of our... Here an idea that seemed to mean not so much “rule” or “kingdom” as “story.” That is where the Knowing make their home. Those Qar who know what was lost, and what sleeps.

Barrick shook his head—too many ideas he could not understand were floating through his mind, although he had finally come to understand one of Gyir’s idea-sounds, Qar, meant “people like myself”—those Barrick still thought of in the back of his mind as “fairy folk.” Still, even the clearest of Gyir’s ideas were as slippery as live fish. I need to know if what this unpleasant bird says is important, Barrick said. The...the Lady...has given you a charge, that you told me. You must do what she asked. Although he had no idea of Gyir’s task, he knew as well as he knew that his bones were inside his body that what the dark woman wanted must be done.

I am not allowed to delay, it is true. My errand is too vital. Still, it is hard to believe that one of our enemies has grown so strong here, an enemy that was thought dead. If it is true, I fear my luck—the luck of all the People, perhaps—has turned for ill. We are far from my home and in dangerous lands. I am wounded, perhaps crippled forever, your companion has my sword, and I have no horse.

Gyir’s thoughts were heavy and fearful in a way that Barrick had not felt before. That alone was enough to make the prince really frightened for the first time since the giant’s war club had swung up high above him and his old life had come to an end.

“I don’t know what that fairy’s done to you, Highness, what kind of spell he’s put on you, but I’m not giving him back his sword. He may pretend friendship, but he’ll likely kill us if we give him a chance. Don’t you remember what he and his kind did to the men of Southmarch at Kolkan’s Field? Don’t you remember Tyne Aldritch, crushed into...into bloody suet?”

The prince stared at him. “We will talk more of this,” Barrick said, and mounted his horse. The faceless man Gyir, with an agility that Vansen carefully noted—he was recovering very swiftly indeed from wounds that would have killed an ordinary man—swung himself up behind the prince.

Vansen pulled himself up into his own saddle. Unlike Barrick’s strange black horse, Vansen’s mount was beginning to look a little the worse for wear, despite the long pause for rest. It shuddered restively as Skurn climbed the saddle blanket with beak and talons and hopped forward to a perch on the beast’s neck. Pleased with himself, the black bird looked around like a child about to be given a treat.

Mortal horses weren’t meant for this place, Vansen thought. No more than mortal men.

Although a dragging succession of hours had passed, and Vansen himself had slept long enough to feel heavy in his wits, his head was foggy as the tangled forest into which Barrick and Gyir now rode.

“Where be they going, Master?” Skurn asked, agitated. “Us must turn back! Didn’t uns listen? Don’t uns see that this be all Jack Chain’s land round about?”

“How should I know?” Vansen had no command of the situation, and the addition of the fairy-warrior to their party had made things worse, if anything. Gyir, the murderer of Prince Barrick’s people, a proven enemy, now seemed to have become the prince’s confidant, while Ferras Vansen, the captain of the royal guard, a man who had already risked his life for Barrick’s sake, had become some kind of foe. “Why do you ask me, bird? Can’t you understand that Gyir thing?”

The raven groomed himself nervously. Up close he was quite repulsive, scaly skin visible in many places, what feathers remained matted with the gods only knew what. “Not us, Master. That be a trick of the High Ones, to talk so, without voices, not such as old Skurn. Us knows nothing of what they are saying or where they think they go.” “Well, then, that makes two of us.”

The remains of the ancient road stayed wide and relatively flat beneath them, but now the trees had grown thick again around them, shutting out anything but the briefest glimpses of the gray sky, as though they traveled down a long tunnel. Birds and other creatures Vansen could not identify hooted and whistled in the shadows; it was hard not to feel their approach was being heralded, as though he were back on one of the Eddons’ royal progresses with the trumpeters and criers running ahead, calling the common folk to come out, come out, a king’s son was passing. But Vansen could not help feeling that those who waited in this place did not wish them well.

His sense of danger, of being visible to some hostile, lurking force, grew stronger as the day of riding wore on. The unfamiliar bird and animal sounds died away, but Vansen found the silence even more foreboding. Barrick and the faceless man ignored him, no doubt deep in unspoken conversation, and even Skurn had fallen quiet, but Ferras Vansen’s patience had become so thin that every time the little creature moved and he caught a whiff of its putrid scent, he had to steel himself not to simply sweep it off onto the ground.

“This was once a great road, Highness, just as the bird said,” he called at last, and then wished he hadn’t: the echoes died almost immediately in the thick growth on either side of the road, but even the absence of an echo made the noise seem more stark, more exceptional. He could imagine an entire gallery of shadowy watchers leaning forward to listen. He spurred his horse forward so that he could speak more quietly. “This is the old Northmarch Road , not simply a forest path. If we follow it long enough we will arrive at something—perhaps the raven’s Jack Chain—but it will not be something we’ll like. Can’t you feel that?”

The prince turned his cool stare on him. Barrick’s hair was stuck to his forehead in damp red ringlets. “We know, Captain. We are looking for another road, one that crosses this one. If we ride overland through this tangled forest, we will come to grief.”

“But it is only a short way to Northmarch, and that is where Jack Chain has his hall!” squealed Skurn, hopping up and down, which made Vansen’s horse snort and prance so that he had to tighten his grip on the reins. “Even if we are lucky and One-Eye bes far away, and there be no Night Men about, still Jack-Rovers and Longskulls there be all around here, as well as the Follower-folk who remember not sunlanders nor nothing even of the High Ones! They will capture us, poor old Skurn. They will kill us!”

“They will certainly hear us if we stop to argue every few paces,” Barrick said harshly. “I did not bring you here, Vansen, and I certainly did not bring that...bird. If you wish to find your own way, you may do so.”

“I cannot leave you, Highness.”

“Yes, you can. I have told you to do it but you do not listen. You say you are my liegeman, but you will not obey the simplest order. Go away, Captain Vansen.”

He hung his head, hoping to hide both the shame and rage. “I cannot, Prince Barrick.”

“Then do as you wish. But do it silently.”

They had been riding for what seemed like most of a day when an astonishing thing happened, something that alarmed not only Vansen, but the raven, too, and even Gyir the Storm Lantern.

The sky began to grow dark.

It crept up on them slowly, and at first Ferras Vansen thought it no more than the ceaseless movement of gray cloud overhead, the blanket of mist which thickened and even sometimes thinned without ever diminishing much, and which gave the light of these lands its only real variety. But as he found himself squinting at trees beside the wide road, Vansen suddenly realized he could not doubt the truth any longer.

The twilight was dying. The sky was turning black.

“What’s going on?” Vansen reined up. “Prince Barrick, ask your fairy what this means!”

Gyir was looking up between the trees, but not as though searching for something with his eyes—it was an odd, blind gaze, as though he were smelling rather than staring. “He says it is smoke.”

“What? What does that mean?”

Skurn was clinging to the horse’s neck, beak tucked under a wing, mumbling to himself.

“What does he mean, smoke?” Vansen demanded of the raven. “Smoke from what? Do you know what’s happening here, bird? Why is it getting dark?”

“Crooked’s curse has come at last, must be. Must be!” The black bird moaned and bobbed its head. “If the Night Men catch us or don’t, it matters not. The queen will die and the Great Pig will swallow us all down to blackness!”

He could get nothing more out of him—the raven only croaked in terror. “I do not understand!” Vansen cried. “Where is the smoke coming from? Has the forest caught fire?”

“Gyir says no,” Barrick said slowly, and now even he sounded uneasy. “It is from fire someone has made—he says it stinks of metal and flesh.” The prince turned to look at silent Gyir, whose eyes were little more than red slits in his blank mask of a face. “He says it is the smoke of many small fires...or one very big one.”

7. Chasing the Jackals

Twilight had been jealous from the first of his brother’s gleaming songs, and when Daystar lost the depth of his music and flew away, Twilight climbed into his brother’s place among the Firstborn. He made children with both Breeze and Moisture.

From the womb of Breeze came the brothers Whitefire and Silvergleam, and Judgment their sister. From the womb of Moisture came Thunder, Ocean, and Black Earth, and though their mothers were twinned, from the very first these six children could not find harmony among themselves.

—from One Hundred Considerations, out of the Qar’s Book of Regret

Even the weak morning light seeping in from the high, small windows was enough to tell Briony that she was not in her own paneled chamber in the royal residence. In fact, she was surrounded by white plastered walls and dark-skinned women in loose, soft dresses, all busy making beds or darning clothes, and talking in a quiet, musical language Briony could not understand. For a long moment she could only stare, dumbfounded, wondering what had happened.

The truth did not wait long, though: as she rolled over and sat up, clutching the blanket close around the flimsy nightclothes she had somehow acquired, memories began to leak back.

“Good morning, Bri-oh-nee-zisaya.” Briony turned to find a slender middle-aged woman standing beside the bed. The woman smiled, showing a flash of unusual color. “Did you sleep well?”

Of course. Shaso had brought her to this place in the back alleys of whatever this Marrinswalk town was called... Lander’s something...? They had taken refuge in the house of one of Shaso’s Tuani countrymen, and this was the goldtoothed mistress of the house.

“Yes. Yes, thank you, very well.” Suddenly she felt shy, knowing she had been lying here sleeping, perhaps snoring, while these dark, delicate women worked quietly around her. “Is...I would like to speak to Shaso.” She remembered the reverence with which the women had spoken of him, as though Princess Briony should be his servant instead of the other way around, something that irritated her more than she liked to admit. “Lord Shaso. Can you take me to him?”

“He will know you are waking and will be expecting you,” the older woman said, smiling again. Briony could count half a dozen other women in the large room, and she seemed to recall there had been even more the previous night. “Let us help you dress.”

It all went swiftly and even enjoyably, the women’s talk mostly incomprehensible, a continuous dove-soft murmur that even in the waxing morning light made Briony feel sleepy again. It was so odd, these women and their foreign rooms and ways, their foreign tongue, as if the entire house had been lifted out of the sandy streets of some distant southern city by a mischievous god or goddess and spun through the air to land here in the middle of cold, muddy, winter’s-end Eion. Somebody was definitely on the wrong continent.

The older woman, guessing correctly that Briony had forgotten her name, politely reintroduced herself as Idite.

She didn’t put Briony back into the Skimmer girl’s tattered dress, but clothed her in a beautiful billowing robe of some pale pink fabric so thin she could easily see the light through it, so thin that she had to wear an underdress of a thicker, more clinging white cloth, with sleeves long enough to reach her fingertips. The Tuani women lifted her hair up and pinned it, cooing and giggling at its yellowness, then set a circlet of pearls on her head. Idite brought Briony a mirror, a small, precious thing in the shape of a lotus leaf, so she could see the result of all their work. She found it both charming and disturbing to discover herself so transfigured by a few articles of clothing and jewelry, turned so easily into a soft, pretty creature (yes, she actually looked pretty, even she had to admit it) of the kind she suspected all the men of South-march had always hoped she would become. It was hard not to bristle a bit. But the transformation was an act of kindness, not domination, so she smiled and thanked Idite and the others, then smiled some more as they complimented her at length, haltingly in her own tongue and fluently in their own.

“Come,” the mistress of the house said at last. “Now you shall go to see the Dan-Heza and my good husband.”

Idite and one of the younger women, a shy, slender creature not much older than Briony herself, with a nervous smile so fixed that it was painful to see, led her out of the women’s quarters. The passageway turned so many times that it made the house seem even larger, but they emerged at last into what had to be the front room, although instead of looking out toward the front of the house all the furniture faced doors opening onto the rainy courtyard. Shaso stood there waiting beside three chairs, two empty, one occupied by a small, bald man in a simple white robe who looked to be a little more than Briony’s father’s age, with skin a halfshade lighter than Shaso’s. The man’s short fingers were covered with splendid, glittering rings.

“Thank you, Idite, my flower,” he said; unlike his wife’s, his words were scarcely accented. “You may go now.”

Idite and the girl made courtesies and withdrew, even as the small man lifted himself from his chair and bowed in turn to Briony. “I am Effir dan-Mozan,” he said. “Welcome to my house, Princess. You do us honor.”

Briony nodded and seated herself in the chair he indicated. “Thank you. Everyone has been very kind to me.”

Shaso cleared his throat. “I am sorry I left you so suddenly, Highness, but I had much to talk about with Effir.”

“I had no idea there were such places in Marrinswalk!” Briony could not help laughing a little at her own surprise.

“If by ‘such places’ you mean Tuani hadami—houses of our people—you will find them in quite a few places, even here in the north. Even, I think, in your own city.”

“In Southmarch? Truly?”

“Oh, yes—but this is rude, expecting a guest to make conversation when she has not even been fed. Forgive me.” He raised a little bell from the arm of his chair and rang it. The bearded man who had opened the gate the night before suddenly appeared from behind a curtained doorway. He was even younger than she had thought then, perhaps only a year or two older than Briony herself. “Tal, would you please bring food and gawa for our guests—and for me, too. I was up early this morning and I am beginning to feel the need for a little something.”

The young man bowed and went out, but not before giving Briony a long, unreadable look.

“My nephew Talibo,” explained Dan-Mozan. “A good lad, although a little too enamored of these northern towns and northern ways. Still, he is a fast learner and perhaps these new ideas he so values will bring something useful to the House of Mozan. Now, let me ask, my child, was everything to your satisfaction? Did the women verily treat you well? Lord Shaso asked that you be given every kindness—not that you would have been less than an honored guest in any case.”

“Yes, thank you, Lord Dan-Mozan. They all were very kind.”

He chuckled with pleasure. “Oh, no, Princess, I am no lord. Only a merchant. Please call me Effir, and it will be to my ears as sweet honey on the tongue. I am glad you were treated well. A guest is a holy thing.” He looked up as Talibo came back through the door leading an older man who seemed to be a servant, both of them bearing large trays. The food had obviously been prepared earlier and only waited her arrival. The youth and the older servant arranged the bowls and platters carefully on the wide, low table, putting out unleavened bread, fruit, bits of cold spicy fish, vinegar-soaked mushrooms, and other savories Briony did not recognize. Tal then poured a dark, steaming liquid from a pot into three cups. When Briony had finished filling a shallow bowl with things to eat, she followed the lead of Shaso and Effir dan-Mozan, curling her legs under her and placing the bowl on her lap. She took a careful sip of the hot liquid, expecting it to be tea, which she had learned to drink from her great-aunt Merolanna, but it was something much stranger, bitter as death, and it was all she could do not to spit it out.

“You do not like the gawa, eh?” Dan-Mozan smiled, not hiding his amusement very well. “Too hot?”

“Too...too bitter.”

“Ah, then you must add cream and honey. I often do myself, especially in the evening, after a meal.” He gestured to a smaller tray with two small pitchers on it. “May I do it for you?”

Briony wasn’t sure she wanted it any way at all, but she nodded, just to be polite.

“Having you in my house is a privilege even greater than it is a surprise,” Dan-Mozan said as he directed young Tal, with grimaces and flapping hands, through the delicate task of putting things in Briony’s gawa cup. “Lord Shaso has told me something of what happened. Please be certain that you are welcome here as long as you need to stay, and that nothing of...” He paused, then looked at his nephew, who had finished with Briony’s gawa and was waiting expectantly. “You may go now, Tal,” he said, a little coolly. “We have things to talk about.”

She is staying?” Tal remembered himself and shut his mouth in a tight line, but the question clearly annoyed his uncle.

“Yes. She is a companion of Lord Shaso’s, and more important, she is our guest—my guest. Now go. You and I will speak later.”

“Yes, Uncle.” Tal bowed, stole another quick look at Briony, then went out.

Dan-Mozan sighed, spread his hands in a gesture of resignation. “As I said, a good lad, but he has swallowed too many new ideas too quickly, like a naughty child given a whole bowl of sweetmeats. It has disturbed his constitution and he has forgotten how to behave.”

“These northern lands can poison a young man,” said Shaso, managing to look grim even as he piled mushrooms in his bowl.

“Of course, of course,” Dan-Mozan said with a smile. “But young men are particularly susceptible wherever they find themselves. He will go back to Tuan after his year here, marry a good girl, and find himself again. Now, let us bless our food.” He said a few words under his breath.

“Back to Tuan,” Shaso said darkly. He looked drawn and tired despite the early hour. “There have been times when I wished I could do that, too, but it is not my Tuan, not anymore. How can it be, when it belongs to Xis?” He pursed his lips as though he might spit on the floor, but then seemed to think better of it. Effir dan-Mozan, who for a moment had looked concerned for his beautiful carpets, smiled again, but more sadly this time.

“You are right, my lord. Even though some of us unworthy ones must still keep ties there because of our trade, it is not the place we loved, not as long as those Xixian sons of whores—ah, your pardon, my lady, I forgot you were here— hold the keys to our gates. But that will change. All things change if the Great Mother wills it.” He briefly assumed a pious face as he brought his hands together, then turned brightly to Briony. “Your food, Highness—is it to your liking?”

“Yes...yes, it’s very nice.” She had been eating slowly, wary of appearing too much of a pig in front of this small, neat man, but she was very hungry indeed and the food was excellent, full of tangy, unfamiliar flavors.

“Good. Well, my Lord Shaso, you wished to speak with me and here I sit, at your command. I am very pleased, of course, simply to see you free, and amazed by your story.” The merchant turned to smile at Briony. “Your bravery was, it need not be said, a large and impressive part of Lord Shaso’s tale.”

Her mouth was full; she nodded her head carefully. She was also the person who had locked Shaso up in the first place and she was not entirely certain whether this small, amiable man might not be mocking her.

“I need information,” Shaso said, “and I wished the princess to be here since it saves me the work of repeating it.” He saw her irritated look. “And of course it is her right to be here, since she is heir to her father’s throne.”

“Ah, yes,” said Dan-Mozan gravely. “We all pray for King Olin’s safe and speedy return, may the gods give him health.”

“Information,” repeated Shaso, a bit of impatience coloring his voice. “Your ships go everywhere up and down the coasts, Dan-Mozan, and you have many eyes and ears on the inland waterways as well. What have you heard of the fairy-invasion, of the autarch, of anything I should know? Assume I know nothing.”

“I would never be foolish enough to assume that, Lord Shaso,” said Dan-Mozan. “But I take your meaning. Well, I will make as much sense of it as the Mother grants me to make. The north is all confusion, of course, because of the strange d’shinna army that has come from behind the Line of Shadows.” He nodded, as though this was something he had long predicted. “The great army of Southmarch has been broken—I crave your pardon for saying it, estimable princess, but it is true. Those that have survived but could not reach the castle have scattered, some fleeing south toward Kertewall or into Silverside—they say that the streets of Onsilpia’s Veil are crowded with weeping soldiers. Many others are heading on toward Settland or down into Brenland, convinced that the north will fall, hoping to find shelter in those places or take ship for the south. But the southern lands, they may find, will soon offer no safe harbor, either...”

Barrick, Barrick...! She tried to imagine him free and alive, perhaps leading a group of survivors toward Settesyard. Her beloved other half—surely she would know if someone she had known and loved like a part of herself were dead! “What of the city and SouthmarchCastle itself?” she asked. “Does it still stand? And how did you discover all this so quickly?”

“From the boats that fish in Brenn’s Bay and supply the castle goods from the south, many of which belong to me,” said Dan-Mozan, smiling. “And of course, my captains also hear much in port from the river-men coming down from the other parts of the March Kingdoms. Even in time of war, people must send their wool and beer to market. Yes, SouthmarchCastle still stands, but the city on its shore has fallen. The countryside is emptied all around. The place is full of demons.”

It all suddenly seemed so bleak, so hopeless. Briony clenched her jaw. She would not cry in front of these older men, would not be reassured or coddled. It was her kingdom—her father’s, yes, but Olin was a prisoner in Hierosol. Southmarch needed her, and it especially needed her to be strong. “My father, the king—have you heard anything of him?”

The merchant nodded soberly. “Nothing that suggests he is not safe, Highness, or that anything has changed, but I hear rumors that Drakava’s grip on Hierosol is not as strong as it might be. And there are other tales, mere whispers, that the autarch is readying a great fleet—that he might wish Hierosol for himself.”

“What?” Shaso sat up, almost spilling his cup of gawa. Clearly this was new to him. “The autarch surely cannot be ready for that—he has only just pacified his own vassals in Xand—surely half his army must be garrisoned in Mihan, Marash, and our own miserable country. How could he move so soon against Hierosol and its mighty walls?”

Dan-Mozan shook his head. “I cannot answer you, my lord. All I can tell you is what I hear, and the whisper is that Sulepis has been assembling a fleet with great speed, as though something has happened which has pushed forward his plans.” He turned to Briony, almost apologetically. “We all know that the Xixians have desired greater conquest on Eion, and that taking Hierosol would let them control all the OsteianSea and the southern oceans on either side.”

Briony waved away all this detail, angry and intent. “The autarch plans to attack Hierosol? Where my father is?”

“Rumors, only,” said Dan-Mozan. “Do not let yourself be too alarmed, Princess. It is probably only these uncertain times, which tend to set tongues wagging even when there is nothing useful to say.”

“We must go and get my father,” she told Shaso. “If we take ship now we could be there before spring!”

He scowled and shook his head. “You will forgive me for being blunt, Highness, but that is foolishness. What could we do there? Join him in captivity, that is all. No, in fact you would be married by force to Drakava and I would go to the gibbet. There are many in Hierosol who wish me dead, not least of which is my onetime pupil, Dawet.”

“But if the autarch is coming...!”

“If the autarch is coming to Eion, then we have many problems, and your father is only one of them.”

“Please, please, honored guests!” Effir dan-Mozan lifted his hands and clapped. “Have more gawa, and we have some very nice almond pastries as well. Do not let yourself be frightened, Princess. These are the merest whispers, as I said, and likely not true.”

“I’m not frightened. I’m angry.” But she fell into an unhappy silence as Dan-Mozan’s nephew Talibo returned and served more food and hot drinks. Briony looked at her hands, which she was having trouble keeping decorously still: if the youth was staring at her again, she was not going to give him the satisfaction of noticing.

Shaso, though, watched with a calculating eye as the young man went out again. “Do you think your nephew might have some spare garments he could lend us?” Shaso asked suddenly.

“Garments?” Dan-Mozan raised an eyebrow. “Rough ones, not fine cloth. Suitable for some hard labor.” “I do not understand.”

“He looks as though clothing of his might fit the princess. We can roll up the cuffs and sleeves.” He turned to Briony. “We will put that anger of yours to some good work this afternoon.”

“But surely you will come,” Puzzle said. “I asked for you, Matty—I told them you were a poet, a very gifted poet.”

Ordinarily, the chance to perform at table for the masters of Southmarch would have been the first and last thing solicited in Matt Tinwright’s nightly prayers (if he had been the sort of person to pray) but for some reason, he was not so certain he wanted to be known by the Tollys and their friends at court, both old and new. The past tennight things had seemed to change, as though the dark clouds that these days always clung to the city across the bay had drifted over the castle as well.

Perhaps I am too sensitive, he told himself. My poet’s nature. The Tollys have done nothing but good in an ill time, surely. Still, he had begun to hear tales from the kitchen workers and some of the other servitors with whom he shared quarters in the back of the residence that made him uneasy—tales of people disappearing and others being badly beaten or even executed for minor mistakes. One of the kitchen potboys had seen a young page’s fingers cut off at the table by Tolly’s lieutenant Berkan Hood for spilling a cup of wine, and Tinwright knew it was true because he had seen the poor lad being tended in a bed with a bandage over his bloody stumps.

“I...I am not certain I am ready to perform for them myself,” he told Puzzle. “But I will help you. A new song, perhaps?”

“Aye, truly? Something I could dedicate to Lord Tolly...?” As Puzzle paused to consider this and its possible results, Tinwright noticed movement on the wall of the Inner Keep where it passed around Wolfstooth Spire, a short arrow’s flight from the residence garden where he and Puzzle had met to share some cooking wine that Puzzle had filched from the lesser buttery. For a moment he thought it was a phantom, a transparent thing of dark mists, but then he realized that the woman walking atop the wall was wearing veils and a net shawl over her black dress and he knew at once who it was.

“We will talk later, yes?” he said to Puzzle, giving the jester a clap on the back that almost knocked the old man over. “There is something I need to do.”

Tinwright ran across the garden, dodging wandering sheep and goats as though in some village festival game. He knew Puzzle must be staring at his sudden retreat as though he were mad, but if this was madness it was the sweetest kind, the sort that a man could catch and never wish to lose.

He slowed near the armory and wiped the perspiration from his forehead with a sleeve, then straightened his breeches and hose. It was strange: he felt almost a little shamefaced, as though he were betraying his patroness Briony Eddon, but he shrugged the feeling away. Just because he did not wish to recite his poems before the whole of the Tolly contingent did not mean that he had no ambitions whatsoever.

He walked around the base of Wolfstooth Spire and made his way up its outer staircase, so that when he reached the wall he should seem to be encountering her by accident. He was gratified to see she had not continued on, which would have necessitated him trying to hide the fact of walking swiftly after her to catch up. She was leaning on the high top of the outer wall, peering out through a crenellation across the Outer Keep, her weeds fluttering about her.

When he thought he was close enough to be heard above the fluting of the wind, he cleared his throat. “Oh! Your pardon, Lady. I did not know anyone else was walking on the walls. It is something I like to do—to think, to feel the air.” He hoped that sounded sufficiently poetic. The truth was, it was cold and damp here at the edge of the Inner Keep with the bay churning just below them. Were it not for her, he would much rather be under roof and by a fire, with a cup full of something to warm his guts.

She turned toward him and brushed back the veil to stare with cool, gray eyes. Her skin would be pale at the best of times, but here, on this dank, overcast day, with her black clothes and hat, her face almost disappeared except for her eyes and fever-red mouth. “Who are you?”

He suppressed an exultant shout. She had asked his name! “Matthias Tinwright, my lady.” He made his best bow and prepared to kiss her hand, but it did not emerge from the dark folds of her cloak. “A humble poet. I was bard to Princess Briony.” He realized phrasing things that way might seem disloyal, not to mention suggesting he was out of work. “I am bard to Princess Briony,” he said, putting on his best, most pious aspect. “Because, with the mercy of Zoria and the Three, she will come back to us.”

An expression he could not read passed across Elan M’Cory’s face as she turned slowly back to the view. Why did she wear those widow’s clothes, when he knew for a fact—he had pursued the question carefully—that she was not married? Was it truly in mourning for Gailon Tolly? They had not even been betrothed, or so at least the servants said. Many of them thought her a little mad, but Tinwright didn’t care. One view of her with her hair hanging copperbrown against her white neck, her large, sad eyes watching nothing as the rest laughed and gibed at one of Puzzle’s entertainments, and he had been smitten.

He hesitated, unsure of whether to go or not. “A poet,” she said suddenly. “Truly?”

He suppressed a boast and thus surprised himself. “I have long called myself so. Sometimes I doubt my skills.” She turned again and looked at him with a little more interest. “But surely this is a poet’s world, Master...” “Tinwright.”

“Master Tinwright. Surely this your time of glory. Legends of the old days walk beneath the sun. Men are killed and no one can say why. Ghosts walk the battlements.” She smiled, but it was not pleasant to see. Tinwright took a step back. “Do you know, I have even heard that mariners have lately returned with tales of a new continent in the west beyond the SmokingIslands, a great, unexplored land full of savages and gold. Think of it! Perhaps there are places where life still runs strong, where people are full of hope.”

“Why should that not be true of this place, Lady Elan? Are we truly so weak and hopeless?”

She laughed, a small sound like scissors cutting string. “This place? Our world is old, Master Tinwright. Old and palsied—doddering, and even the young ones gasping in their cots. The end is coming soon, don’t you think?”

While he was considering what to say to this strange assertion, he heard noises and looked up to see two young women hurrying along the battlements toward them, slipping a little on the wet stones in their haste. He recognized them as Princess Briony’s ladies-in-waiting— the yellow-haired one was Rose or some other such flower name. They looked at Tinwright suspiciously as they approached, and for the first time he wished he was wearing better clothes. Oddly, it had not occurred to him during his conversation with Elan M’Cory.

“Lady Elan,” the dark one cried, “you should not be walking here by yourself! Not after what happened to the princess!’ She laughed. “What, you think someone will climb the wall of the Inner Keep and steal me away? I can promise you, I have nothing to offer any kidnapper.”

Ah, but you are wrong, thought Tinwright: if Briony Eddon was the bright morning sun, Elan M’Cory was the sullen, alluring moon. In truth, he thought, his mind as always leaping to the tropes of myth and story, the goddess Mesiya must look much like this, so pale and mysterious, she who walks the night sky with her retinue of clouds.

He remembered then that Mesiya was the wife of Erivor and mother of the Eddon family line, or so it was claimed, her wolf their battle-standard. How quickly these poetic thoughts grew muddled... “Come with us,” the two ladies-in-waiting were saying, tugging gently at the black-clad Elan’s arms. “It is damp here—you will catch your death.”

“Ho!” a voice cried from below, lazy and cheerful. “There you are.”

“Never fear,” Elan M’Cory said, but so quietly that only Tinwright heard her. “It has caught me instead.”

Hendon Tolly stood at the base of the wall on the Inner Keep side, a small crowd of guardsmen in Tolly livery standing near him but at a respectful distance. “Come down, good lady. I have been looking for you.”

“Surely you should go and lie down instead,” said yellowhaired Rose, almost whispering. “Let us take care of you, Lady Elan.”

“No, if my brother-in-law calls me, I must go.” She turned to Tinwright. “It has been good speaking with you, Master Poet. If you think of any answer to my question, I shall be interested to know. It seems to me that things move more quickly toward an ending every day.”

“I am waiting, my lady!” Hendon Tolly seemed full of rich humor, as though at a joke only he understood. “I have things I wish to show you.”

She turned and walked behind the ladies, heading back toward the steps that Tinwright had climbed and the waiting master of Southmarch. Just before she reached them, when Tolly had looked away to talk to his guards, she turned back toward Tinwright for a brief moment. He thought she might nod or give some other sign of farewell, but she only looked at him with an expression as bizarrely full of mixed shame and excitement as a dog who has been caught gorging on the last of the family’s dinner, who knows he will be fiercely beaten but cannot even run.

Matt Tinwright would see that face again and again in nightmares.

Briony wriggled, trying to ease herself. The scarf she had borrowed from one of Idite’s daughters bound her breasts securely, but left an uncomfortable knot in the center of her back.

“Do the clothes fit?” Shaso had put on something similar to the loose homespun garments that one of the servants had brought to Briony. The pants were long; she had rolled them so they would not drag on the floor and trip her, but she was pleased to find that the rough shirt, though large, was not so big as to hinder her movements.

“Well enough, I suppose,” she said. “Why am I wearing them?”

“Because you are going to learn something new.” He was holding a bundle wrapped in oiled cloth, which he tucked under his arm, then led her down the hall and out to the courtyard. The rain had stopped but the sky was still heavy with dark clouds and the stones of the courtyard were wet. He gestured for her to sit down on the edge of the stone planter that housed the courtyard’s lone quince tree, bare now except for the last few shriveled fruits the birds had not taken. “That should be dry.”

“What am I going to learn?”

He scowled. “The first thing you must learn, like all Eddons, is to be patient. You are better at it than your brother—but not much.” He raised his hand. “No, do not think of him. I shouldn’t have spoken of him. We must pray that he is safe.”

She nodded, willing her eyes to stay dry. Poor Barrick! Zoria, watch over his every moment. Put your shield above him, wherever he is.

“I would not have chosen to teach you swordplay, had you not wished it and your father not have given in to your whim.” Shaso held up his hand again. “Remember— patience! But I have, and you have learned to fight well, for a woman. It is not the nature of women to fight, after all.”

Again she started to speak, but she knew the look in the old man’s eyes and did not have the strength for another argument. She closed her mouth.

“But whatever happens in the days to come, I think you will not be carrying a sword. You will not need one here, and if we leave this place we will go in secret.” He placed his bundle down on the ground beside him, put his hand in and pulled out a wooden dowel that was only a little shorter than Briony’s forearm. “I have taught you something of how to use a poniard, but primarily how to use it in combination with a sword. So now I am going to teach you how a Tuani fights without a sword. Stand up.” He took the dowel in his fist. “Pretend this is a knife. Protect yourself.”

He took a step toward her, swept the dowel down. She threw her hands up and shuffled backward.

“Wrong, child.” He handed the bar of wood to her. “Do the same to me.”

She looked at him, uncertain, then took a step forward, stabbing toward his chest, but unable to keep herself from holding back a little. Shaso put up a hand.

“No. Strike hard. I promise you will not hurt me.” She took a breath and then lunged. His hand flew out so quickly she almost could not see it move, knocking her hand aside even as Shaso himself stepped toward her, then put his leg behind her and pushed with his other hand against her neck. Just before she fell backward over his leg he caught at the sleeve of her shirt and kept her upright. He gently took the wooden rod out of her hand.

“Now you try what I have done.”

It took her a dozen tries before she could get the trick of moving forward at the same time as she deflected his attack—it was different than swordfighting, far more intimate, the angles and speed affected by the small size of the weapon and the fact that she had no weapon of her own. When the old man was satisfied, he showed her several other blocks and leg-locks, and a few twisting moves meant not simply to deflect or stop an opponent’s thrust but to loose the weapon from his hand.

The sun, climbing toward noon, finally made an appearance through the clouds. Briony was sweating now, and she had fallen down three or four times on the hard stones of the courtyard, bruising her knee and hip. By contrast, Shaso looked as calm and unruffled as when the lesson had first started.

“Take some moments to catch your breath,” he said. “You are doing well.”

“Why are you teaching me this?” she said. “Why now?”

“Because you are not royalty any longer,” he said. “At least, you will have none of royalty’s privileges. No men to guard you, no castle walls to keep your enemies away. Are you ready to begin again?”

She rubbed her aching hip, wondered if it was wrong to ask Zoria to grant Shaso a painful cramp—wondered if Zoria could even hear her, in this house of Tuan’s Great Mother. “I’m ready,” was all she said.

They stopped once for water and so that Briony could eat some dried fruit and bread that a wide-eyed servant brought out into the courtyard. Later, several of the house’s women gathered under the covered walkway to watch, giggling inside their hooded robes, fascinated by the spectacle. Shaso showed her more unarmed blocks, grapple holds, kicks, and other methods of defending herself or even disarming an attacker, ways to break the arm of a man half again her size, or kick him in such a way that he would fight no more that day. When the old man was satisfied with her progress he brought out a second wooden dowel and gave it to her, then began to work with her on the skills of knife against knife.

“Do not let your enemy get his blade between you and him once you have closed,” Shaso said. “Then even a backhand thrust can be fatal. Always turn it away, force the knife-hand out. There—see! If your enemy brings it too close, you can slash the tendons on the back of his hand or his wrist. But do not let him take your blade with his other hand.”

By the time the sun had begun to slide behind the courtyard roof, and the women of the hadar had found even their deep curiosity satisfied and had gone back inside, Shaso let her stop and rest again. Her legs and arms were quivering with weariness and would not stop.

“We are finished for today,” he said, wiping sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “But we will do this again tomorrow and the days after, until I can sleep at night.” He put the dowels back in the oilskin bundle. Something else inside it clinked, but he closed the wrapping and she did not see what it was. “This is not the world you knew, Briony Eddon. This is not a world that anyone knows, and what it will become is yet to be seen. Your part may be great or small, but I am sworn to your family and I want you alive to play that part.”

She wasn’t sure what he meant, but as she looked at the old man and saw that for all his seeming invincibility his hands were trembling as much as hers and his breathing was short and rapid, she was filled with misery and a kind of love. “I am sorry we had you imprisoned, Shaso. I am ashamed.”

He gave her a strange look, not angry, but distant. “You did what you had to. As do we all, from the greatest to the smallest. Even the autarch in his palace is only a clay doll in the hands of the Great Mother.” He tucked his bundle under his arm. “Go now. You did well—for a woman, very well.”

The moment of affection disappeared in a burst of irritation. “You keep saying that. Why shouldn’t a woman fight as well as a man?”

“Some women can fight as well as some men, child,” he said with a sour smile. “But men are bigger, Briony, and stronger. Do you know what a lion is? It is a great cat that lives in the deserts near my country.”

“I’ve seen one.”

“Then you know its size and strength. The female lion is a great hunter, fierce and dangerous, a mighty killer. She brings down the gazelle and she slaughters the barking jackals that try to feed on her kill. But she gives way always before the male.”

“But I don’t want to be a male lion,” Briony said. “I’d be happy just to chase away the jackals.”

Shaso’s smile lightened, became something almost peaceful. “That, anyway, I can try to give you. Go now, and I will see you in the morning.”

“Won’t I see you at supper?”

“In this house, the men and women do not eat together in the evening. It is the way of Tuan.” He turned and walked, with just the hint of a limp, across the courtyard.

Dan-Mozan’s nephew was waiting for her in the hallway. She groaned quietly as he stepped away from the wall where he had been leaning, eyes averted as though he had not yet noticed her, as though he had not been waiting here on purpose. All she wanted was to get into a hot bath, if such a thing could be found, and steam the aches from her muscles and the dirt from her scratched knees and feet.

“You are wearing my clothes,” Talibo said. “Yes, and thank you. Your uncle loaned them to me.” “Why?”

“Because Lord Shaso wished me to practice knifefighting.” She frowned at the expression of arrogant disbelief on his face, had to hold her tongue. How dare he look at her that way—Briony Eddon, a princess of all the March Kingdoms? He was no older than she was. It was true that he was not a bad-looking boy, she thought as she looked at his liquid brown eyes, the wispy mustache on his upper lip, but from the way his every feeling showed on his face he was still most definitely a boy. Seeing this one, she could imagine how Ludis’ envoy Dawet dan-Faar must have looked in his youth, imagine the same look of youthful pride. Warrantless pride, she thought, annoyed: what had this brown-skinned boy ever done, living in a house, surrounded by women who deferred to him just because he was not a girl? “I have to go now,” she said. “Thank you again for the use of these clothes.”

She brushed past him, aware that the young man had more to say but unwilling to stand around while he worked up the nerve to say it. She thought she could feel his eyes on her as she walked wearily back to the women’s quarters.

8. An Unremarkable Man

When Onyena was ordered to serve her sister Surazem at the birth she became angry, and cried out that she would find some way to have vengeance on Sveros the Twilight, so when the three brothers were being born from Surazem’s blessed womb Onyena stole some of the old god’s essence. She went away in secret and used the seed of Sveros to make three children of her own, but she raised them to hate their father and all he made.

—from The Beginnings of Things, The Book of the Trigon

At times like this, when Pinimmon Vash had to look directly into his master’s pale, awful eyes, it was hard to remember that Autarch Sulepis had to be at least partly human.

“All will be done, Golden One,” Vash assured him, praying silently to be dismissed and released. Sometimes just being near his young ruler made him feel queasy. “All will be done just as you say.”

“Swiftly, old man. She has tried to escape me.” The autarch’s gaze slid upward until he seemed to be staring intently at something invisible to anyone else. “Besides, the gods...the gods are restless to be born.”

Confused by this strange remark, Vash hesitated. Was it something that needed to be understood and answered, or was he at last free to scurry away on his errand? He might be the paramount minister of mighty Xis, the old courtier reflected with some bitterness, and thus in theory more powerful than most kings, but he had no more real authority than a child. Still, being a minister who must jump to serve the autarch’s every whim was much better than being a former minister: the vulture shrines atop the OrchardPalace’s roofs were piled high with the bones of former ministers. “Yes, the gods, of course,” Vash said at last, with no idea of what he was agreeing to. “The gods must be born, it goes without...”

“Then let it be done now. Or heaven itself will weep.”

Despite his harsh words, Sulepis began to laugh in a most inappropriate way.

Even as Vash hurried so swiftly from the bath chamber that he almost tripped over his own exquisite silk robes, he found himself hoping that one of the eunuchs shaving the autarch’s long, oiled limbs had accidentally tickled him. It would be disturbing to think the man with life-and-death power over oneself and virtually every other human being on the continent had just giggled like a madman for no reason.

Partly human, Vash reminded himself. He must be at least partly human. Even if the autarch’s father Parnad had also been a living god, the autarch’s mother must surely have been a mortal woman, since she had come to the Seclusion as the gift of a foreign king. But whatever was mixed in with the heritage of godlike (although now fairly inarguably dead) Parnad, few mortal traits had made their way down to the son. The young autarch was as brighteyed, remorseless, and inscrutable as his family’s heraldic falcon. Sulepis was also full of inexplicable, seemingly mad ideas, as proved by this latest strange whim—the errand on which Vash now bustled toward the guard barracks.

As he left the guarded fastness of the Mandrake Court and hurried through the cavernous ministerial audience chamber at the heart of the Pomegranate Court , lesser folk scattered from his path like pigeons, as frightened of his anger as he was terrified of the autarch’s. Pinimmon Vash reminded himself he should conduct a full sacrifice to Nushash and the other gods soon. After all, he was a very fortunate man—not just to have risen so high in the world, but also to have survived so many years of the father’s autarchy and this first year of the son’s: at least nine of Parnad’s other high ministers had been put to death just in the short months of Sulepis’ reign. In fact, should Vash need an example of how lucky he was compared to some, he only had to think about the man he was going to see, Hijam Marukh, the new captain of the Leopard guards—or more to the point, think about Marukh’s predecessor, the peasant-soldier Jeddin.

Even Pinimmon Vash, no stranger to torture and execution, had been disturbed by the agonies visited upon the former Leopard captain. The autarch had ordered the entertainment conducted in the famous Lepthian library, so he could read while keeping an eye on the proceedings. Vash had watched with well-hidden terror as the living god danced his gold finger-stalls in the air in rhythm with Jeddin’s shrieks, as though enjoying a charming performance. Many nights Vash still saw the terrible sights in his dreams, and the memory of the captain’s agonized screaming haunted his waking mind as well. Near the end of the prisoner’s suffering, Sulepis had even called for real musicians to play a careful, improvised accompaniment to his horrendous cries. At points, Sulepis had even sung along.

Vash had seen almost everything in his more than twenty years of service, but he had never seen anything like the young autarch.

But how could an ordinary man judge whether or not a god was mad?

“This makes no sense,” said Hijam Marukh. “You are foolish to say so,” Vash hissed at him.

The officer known as Stoneheart allowed only a lifted eyebrow to animate his otherwise inexpressive face, but Vash could see that Marukh had realized his error—the kind that in Xis could swiftly prove fatal. Recently promoted to kiliarch, or captain, the Leopards’ squat, muscular new master had survived countless major battles and deadly skirmishes, but he was not quite so used to the dangers of the Xixian court, where it was assumed that every public word and most private ones would be overheard by someone, and that one of those listeners likely either wanted or needed you dead. Marukh might have been cut, stabbed, and scorched so many times that his dark skin was covered in white stripes like a camp mongrel’s, might have earned his famous nickname by passing unmoved through the worst carnage of war, but this was not the battlefield. In the OrchardPalace no man’s death came at in him from the front or in plain sight.

“Of course,” Hijam Stoneheart said now, slowly and clearly for the benefit of listening ears, “the Golden One must have his contest if he wills it so. But I am just a soldier and I don’t understand such things. Explain to me, Vash. What good is there in having my men fight with each other? Already several are badly wounded and will need weeks of healing.”

Vash took a breath. Nobody was obviously eavesdropping, but that meant nothing. “First of all, the Golden One is much wiser than we are, so perhaps we are not clever enough to understand his reasons—all we can know is that they must be good. Second, I must point out to you that it isn’t your men, the Leopards, who are fighting for the honor of the autarch’s special mission, Marukh. It is the White Hounds, and although they are valuable fighters they are only barbarians.”

Vash had no more idea than the captain of why Sulepis had demanded a contest of strength among his famous troop of White Hounds, foreign mercenaries whose fathers and grandfathers had come to Xand from the northern continent, but as Vash knew better than almost anyone, sometimes gods-on-earth just did things like that. When the autarch had woken from a prophetic dream one morning in the first weeks of his rule and ordered the destruction of all the wild cranes in the land of Xis, it had been Paramount Minister Vash who had called the lower ministers to the Pomegranate Court to make the autarch’s wishes known, and hundreds of thousands of the birds had been killed. When another day the autarch declared that every axhead shark in the city’s saltwater canals should be caught and dispatched, the streets of the capital stank with rotting shark flesh for months afterward.

Vash forced his attention back to the combat. The abruptness of the autarch’s demand had forced them to improvise this arena here in an unused audience chamber in the Tamarind Court, since the autarch’s miners and cannoneers were all over the parade field and could not move their equipment on such sudden notice, even at threat of their lives—some of the artillery pieces weighed tons. Two sweaty men were struggling now in the makeshift ring. One was big by any ordinary standard and muscled like a bullock, but his yellow-bearded opponent was a true giant of a man, a head taller, with shoulders wide as the bed of an oxcart. This fair-haired monster clearly had the upper hand and even seemed to be toying with his adversary.

“Why is it taking so long?” Vash complained. “You said Yaridoras was by far the strongest of the White Hounds. Why does he not defeat his opponent? The autarch is waiting.”

“Yaridoras will win.” Hijam Stoneheart laughed sharply. “Trust me, he is a fearsome brute. Ah, look.” The yellowbearded one had just raised the other man over his head. The huge man held his opponent there just long enough for everyone to appreciate the glory of the moment, then flung him down onto the stony floor. The loser lay, senseless and bloody, as Yaridoras raised his arms above his head in triumph. The other White Hounds hooted in appreciation.

“Is that it?” Vash ached from standing and wanted only to lower himself into a hot bath, to be tended by his young boy and girl servants. He wished he had not been too proud to accept the kiliarch’s offer of a chair. “Is it over? Can we finish with this?”

“There is one more challenger,” said Marukh, “a fellow named Daikonas Vo. I am told he is the best swordsman of the White Hounds.”

“But the autarch ordererd them to prove themselves in bare-handed combat!” Vash shook his head in irritation, surveying the dozens of assembled Perikalese soldiers, perhaps four or five dozen in all. None of them looked big enough to give Yaridoras a contest. “Which one is he?”

For answer, Marukh stood and shouted, “Now the last fighter—step forth, Vo.”

The man who rose was so unremarkable that, discounting his Perikalese heritage—the telltale fair hair and skin that marked him as a foreigner—any man of Xis might have passed him on the street without a second look. He was wiry but slightly built; his head barely reached Yaridoras’ brawny chest.

That one?” Vash snorted. “The big yellow-hair will snap his back like a twig.’ “Likely.” Marukh turned and bellowed, “You two may bring no weapons into the sacred space. So has our master Sulepis, the god-on-earth, the Great Tent, the Golden One, declared. You will fight until one of you can get up no longer. Are you ready?”

“Yes—and thirsty!” bellowed Yaridoras, making his fellow mercenaries laugh. “Let’s get this over with so I can have my beer.” The thin soldier, Daikonas Vo, only nodded. “Very well,” said the captain. “Begin.”

At first, the smaller man put up a surprisingly good defense, moving with serpentine fluidity to stay out of Yaridoras’ powerful grasp, once even hooking his foot behind the big man’s heel and throwing him backward to the tile floor, which earned a percussive shout of surprised laughter from the other White Hounds, but the giant was up quickly, smiling in a way that suggested he himself was not very amused. After that Yaridoras was more careful, angling in to cut off his opponent’s retreat, and Vo began to find it increasingly difficult to stay out of his hands. Vo did not give in easily, and several times he landed swift blows whose power was clearly greater than his size would have suggested, one of them opening a cut above Yaridoras’ eye so that blood ran down one side of his face and into his beard. However inevitable the outcome seemed, the bigger man was clearly not enjoying the delay, and in the course of trying to get a finishing hold on his opponent left several long, bleeding weals across the small man’s face and arms. The shouts and rowdy suggestions that had filled the room at the beginning of the bout began to die down, replaced by a murmuring of unease as the match slowly took on the look of something more desperate.

The big man lunged. Vo ducked under the groping arms and put a knee into his opponent’s belly, so that Yaridoras’ surprised gasp sent red froth flying, but the big man’s knobknuckled hand lashed out and caught Vo retreating, smashing him to the floor with an impact like a slaughterer’s hammer. Yaridoras threw himself on top of his opponent before Vo had recovered his wits and for a moment it seemed as though the smaller soldier had been swallowed whole.

It’s over now, thought Vash. But he fought a surprisingly good fight. The paramount minister was more than a little surprised: he had always thought of the Perikalese foreigners as benefiting mostly from their size and barbaric savagery. It was strange, even disturbing, to see one who could think and plan.

For a moment as they grappled on the floor, Yaridoras caught the smaller man’s head between his legs. He began to squeeze, and Daikonas Vo’s face darkened to a bruised red before he managed to elbow his opponent in the crotch and wriggle free. He was injured and tired, though, and he did not get far before Yaridoras caught him again, this time with a massive arm around his throat. The giant rolled his body over on top of his opponent, then began trying to sweep away the bracing arms and legs which were all that kept Vo from being pressed belly-first onto the floor. The big man grinned ferociously through the sweat and blood, while Vo showed his own teeth in a grimace as he struggled to get air.

“He’ll kill him,” Vash said, fascinated.

“No, he’ll just choke him until he gives over,” said Marukh. “Yaridoras won’t kill anyone needlessly, especially another White Hound. He is a veteran of such matches.”

Daikonas Vo’s purpling face was sinking closer and closer to the floor, his elbows bowing outward as the bigger man’s weight overcame him. Then, to Pinimmon Vash’s astonishment, Vo deliberately took one hand off the tiles and, just before he was driven to the ground, brought his elbow down so hard against the floor that a noise loud as a musket shot echoed through the room. A moment later the two of them collapsed in a writhing, grunting heap, and for a moment it was hard to make sense of the tangle of limbs. Then the two bodies lay still.

Face and upper body shiny with blood, Daikonas Vo at last pulled himself out from under Yaridoras, rolling the giant aside so that the long shard of stone floor tile sticking in the yellow-bearded man’s eye rose into view like a sacred object being lifted above a parade of believers. The audience of White Hounds gasped and cursed in shock, then a roar of anger rose from them and several of them moved toward the exhausted, bloody Vo with murderous intent.

“Stop!” cried Pinimmon Vash. When they realized it was the autarch’s chief minister who had commanded them, the White Hounds halted and fell into surly, murmuring attention. “Do not harm that man.”

“But he killed Yaridoras!” growled Marukh. “The autarch’s law was that no weapons could be used!”

“The autarch said that no weapons could be brought into the arena, Kiliarch. This man did not bring a weapon, he made one. Clean him up and bring him to the Mandrake Court.”

“The Hounds will be angry. Yaridoras was popular...”

“Ask them to consider whether keeping their heads will be compensation enough. Otherwise, I’m sure their autarch will be happy make other arrangements.”

Vash shook his robe free of wrinkles and passed from the room.

The Golden One was reclining on the ceremonial stone bed in the Chamber of the New Sun, naked except for a short kilt decorated with jade tiles. On each side of him a kneeling priest bound the cuts in the autarch’s arms, delicate wounds made only moments earlier by sacred golden shell-knives. The small quantity of royal blood, enough to fill two tiny golden bowls which at the moment were on a tray held by the high priest Panhyssir, would be poured into the Sublime Canal just after sunset to assure the sun’s return from its long winter journey apart from its bride the earth.

Sulepis turned lazily as the soldier Daikonas Vo was led in, cradling his elbow as if it were a sleeping child. The man of Perikal had been wiped clean of blood, but his face and neck were still crisscrossed with raw, scraped flesh.

“I am told you killed a valuable member of my White Hounds,” the autarch said, stretching his arms to test the fit of the bandages. Already tiny blooms of red could be seen through the linen.

“We fought, Master.” Vo shrugged, his gray-green eyes as empty as two spheres of glass. There was nothing notable about him, Vash thought, except his accomplishment. He had forgotten the man’s face in the short time since he had last seen him and would forget it again as soon as the man was gone. “At your request, as I understand it. I won.”

“He cheated,” said the captain of the Leopards angrily. “He broke a floor tile and used it to stab Yaridoras to death.”

“Thank you, Kiliarch Marukh,” said Vash. “You have delivered him and nothing more is required of you. The Golden One will decide what to do with him.”

Suddenly conscious that he was drawing attention to himself in a place where attention was seldom beneficial, Hijam Stoneheart paled a little, then bowed and backed out of the chamber.

“Sit,” said the autarch, surveying the pale-skinned soldier. “Panhyssir, bring us something to drink.”

A strange honor for a mere brawler, to be served by the high priest of Nushash himself, thought Pinimmon Vash. Panhyssir was Vash’s chief rival for the autarch’s time and attention, but it was a contest Vash had lost long ago: the priest and the autarch were close as bats in a roost, always full of secrets, which made it seem all the more odd that the powerful Panhyssir should be carrying drinks like a mere slave.

As the high priest of Nushash moved with careful dignity toward a hidden alcove at the side of the great chamber, one of the autarch’s eunuch servants scuttled up with a stool and placed it so that Daikonas Vo could seat himself within a few yards of the living god. The soldier did so, moving gingerly, as though his wounds from the combat with Yaridoras were inhibiting him. Vash guessed that they must be painful indeed: the man did not seem the type to show weakness easily.

Panhyssir returned with two goblets, and after bowing and presenting one to his monarch, gave the other to Vo, whose hesitation before drinking was so brief that Vash could have almost believed he had imagined it.

“Daikonas Vo, I am told your mother was a Perikalese whore,” declared the autarch. “One of those bought and carried back from the northern continent to serve my troop of White Hounds. Your father was one of the original Hounds—dead, now. Killed at Dagardar, I’m told.”

“Yes, Golden One.”

“But not before he killed your mother. You have the look of your people, of course, but how well do you speak the language of your ancestors?”

“Perikalese?” Vo’s nondescript face betrayed no surprise. “My mother taught it to me. Before she died it was all we spoke.”

“Good.” The autarch sat back, making a shape like a minaret with his fingers. “You are resourceful, I understand —and ruthless as well. Yaridoras is not the first man you have killed.”

“I am a soldier, Golden One.”

“I do not speak of killings on the battlefield. Vash, you may read.”

Vash held up a leather-bound account book which had been brought to him by the library slave only a short while before, then traced down a page with his finger until he found what he sought. “Disciplinary records of the White Hounds for this year. ‘By verified report extracted from two slaves, Daikonas Vo is known to have been responsible for the deaths of at least three men and one woman,’” Vash read. “‘All were Xixians of low caste and the killings attracted little public attention so no punishment was required.’ That is just the report for this year, which is not yet over. Do you wish me to read from earlier years, Golden One?”

The autarch shook his head. A look of amusement crossed his long face as he turned back to the impassive soldier. “You are wondering why I should care about such things— whether you are to be punished at last. Is that not true?”

“In part, Master,” said Vo. “It is certainly strange that the living god who rules us all should care about someone as unimportant as myself. But as to punishment, I do not fear it at the moment.”

“You don’t?” The autarch’s smile tightened. “And why is that?”

“Because you are speaking to me. If you only wished to punish me, Golden One, I suspect you would have done so without wasting the fruits of your divine thought on someone so lowly. Everybody knows that the living god’s judgments are swift and sure.”

Some of the tension went out of the autarch’s long neck, replaced by a certain stillness, like a snake sunning itself on a rock. “Yes, they are. Swift and sure. And your reasoning is flawed but adequate—I would not waste my time on you if I did not require something of you.”

“Whatever you wish, Master.” The soldier’s voice remained flat and emotionless.

The autarch finished his wine and gestured that Daikonas Vo should do the same. “As you have no doubt heard, I am no longer content merely to receive tribute from the nations of the northern continent. The time is coming soon when I will take the ancient seaport of Hierosol and begin to expand our empire into Eion, bringing those savages into the bright, holy light of Nushash.”

“So it has been rumored, Master,” Vo said slowly. “We all pray for the day to come soon.”

“It will. But first, I have lost something that I want back, and it is to be found somewhere in that northern wilderness—the lands of your forefathers.”

“And you wish me to...retrieve this thing, Master?”

“I do. It will require cunning and discretion, you see, and it will be easier for a white-skinned man who can speak one of the languages of Eion to travel there, seeking this small thing which I desire.”

“And may I ask what that thing is, Golden One?”

“A girl. The daughter of an unimportant priest. Still, I chose her for the Seclusion and she had the dreadful manners to run away.” The autarch laughed, a quiet growl that might have come from a cat about to unsheathe its claws. “Her name is...what was it? Ah, yes—Qinnitan. You will bring her back to me.”

“Of course, Master.” The soldier’s expression became even more still.

“You are thinking again, Vo. That is good. I chose you because I need a man who can use his head. This woman is somewhere in the lands of our enemies, and if someone learns I want her, she may become the object of a contest. I do not want that.” The autarch sat back and waved his hand. This time it was only an ordinary servant who scurried forward to refill his goblet. “But what you are wondering is this: Why should the autarch let me go free in the land of my ancestors? Even if I sincerely try to fulfill his quest, if I fail there is no punishment he can visit on me unless I return to Xis. No, do not bother to deny it. It is what anyone would think.” The young autarch turned to one of his child servants, a silent Favored. “Bring me my cousin Febis. He should be in his apartments.”

As they waited, the autarch had the servant refill Vo’s cup. Pinimmon Vash, who had some inkling of what was to come, was glad he was not drinking the strong, sour Mihanni wine, so unsettling to the stomach.

Febis, a chubby, balding man with the reddened cheeks of an inveterate drinker made even more obvious by the pallor of fear, hurried into the chamber and threw himself on his hands and knees in front of the autarch, bumping his forehead against the stone.

“Golden One, surely I have done nothing wrong! Surely I have not offended you! You are the light of all our lives!”

The autarch smiled. Vash never ceased to marvel at how the same expression that would bring joy if it were on the face of a young child or a pretty woman could, just by transferring it to the autarch’s smoothly youthful features, suddenly become a thing to inspire terror. “No, Febis, you have done nothing wrong. I called you here only because I wish to demonstrate something.” He turned to the soldier Vo. “You see, I had a similar problem with those of my relations, like Cousin Febis, who remained after my father and brothers had died—after I, by the grace of Nushash of the Gleaming Sword, had become autarch. How could I be certain that some of these family members might not ponder whether, as the succession had passed over several of my brothers upon their deaths and came to me, it might not continue on to Febis or one of the other cousins after my untimely death? Of course, I could have simply killed them all when I took the crown. It would only have been a few hundred. I could have done that, couldn’t I, Febis?”

“Yes, yes, Golden One. But you were merciful, may heaven bless you.”

“I was merciful, it’s true. Instead, what I did was induce each of them to swallow a certain...creature. A tiny beast, at least in its infant form, which had long been thought lost to our modern knowledge. But I found it!” He smirked. “And you did swallow it, didn’t you, Febis?”

“So I was told, Golden One.” The autarch’s cousin was sweating heavily, droplets dangling like glass beads from his chin and nose before splashing to the floor. “It was too small for me to see.”

“Ah, yes, yes.” The autarch laughed again, this time with all the pleasure of a young child. “You see, the creature is so small at first that the naked eye cannot see it. It can be swallowed in a glass of wine without the recipient even knowing.” He turned to Daikonas Vo. “As you received it when you first drank.”

Vo put down his goblet. “Ah,” he said.

“As to what it does, it grows. Not hugely, mind you, but enough that when it lodges at last in the body of its host, it cannot be dislodged no matter what. But that does not matter, because the host will never be aware of it. Unless I wish it to be so.” The autarch nodded. “Yes, let us say for the sake of argument that its host fails to carry out a task I have given him in the specified time, or in some other way incurs my anger...” He turned to burly, sweating Febis. “As, for instance, telling his wife that his master the autarch is mad and will not live long...”

“Did she say that?” shrieked Febis. “The whore! She lies!”

“Whatever the crime,” the autarch went on evenly, “and no matter how far away its perpetrator, when I know of it, things will begin to happen.” He gestured. “Panhyssir, call for the the xol-priest.”

Febis shrieked again, a bleat of despair so shrill it made Pinimmon Vash’s toes curl. “No! You must know I would never say such a thing, Golden One—never, please, no-oo-o!” Weeping and burbling, Febis lurched toward the stone bed. Two burly Leopard guards stepped forward and restrained him, using no little force. His cries lost their words, became a sobbing moan.

The xol-priest came in a few moments later, a thin, dark, knife-nosed man with the look of the southern deserts about him. He bowed to the autarch and then sat cross-legged on the floor, opening a flat wooden box as though preparing to play a game of shanat. He spread a piece of fabric like a tiny blanket, then took several grayish shapes which might have been lumps of lead out of the box and arranged them with exacting care. When he had finished he looked up at the autarch, who nodded.

The man’s spidery fingers picked up and moved two of the gray shapes and Febis, who had been twitching and sobbing obliviously in the grip of the guards, suddenly went rigid. When they let him go he tumbled to the floor like a stone. Another movement of the shapes on the little carpet and Febis began to writhe and gasp for breath, his arms and legs thrashing like a man about to sink beneath the water and drown. One more and he suddenly vomited up a terrible quantity of blood, then lay still in the spreading red puddle, unseeing eyes wide with horror. The xol-priest boxed up his gray shapes, bowed, and went out.

“Of course, the pain can be made to last much longer before the end comes,” the autarch said. “Much longer. Once the creature is awakened it can be restrained for days before it begins to feed in earnest, and each hour is an eternity. But I made Febis’end swift out of respect for his mother, who was my own father’s sister. It is a shame he should have wasted that precious blood so.” Sulepis looked a moment longer at the gleaming pool, then nodded, allowing the servants to rush forward and begin the removal of both the puddle and Febis’ body. The autarch then turned to Daikonas Vo.

“Distance is no object, by the way. Should Febis have gone to Zan-Kartuum, or even the northernmost wastes of Eion where the imps live, still I could have struck him down. I trust the lesson is not lost on you, Vo. Go now. You will be a hound no longer, but my hunting falcon—the autarch’s falcon. You could ask for no higher honor.”

“No, Golden One.”

“All else you need to know you will learn from Paramount Minister Vash.” Sulepis started to turn away, but the soldier still had not moved. The autarch’s eyes narrowed. “What is it? If you succeed you will be rewarded, of course. I am as good to my faithful servants as I am stern with those who are less so.”

“I do not doubt it, Golden One. I only wondered if such a... creature...had been introduced to the girl, Qinnitan, and if so why you would not use so certain a method to bring her back to Great Xis.”

“Whether such a thing has been done to her or not,” the autarch said, “is beside the point. It is a clumsy and dangerous method if you wish your subject to survive. I wish the girl returned alive and well—do you understand? I still have plans for her. Now go. You sail for Hierosol tonight. I want her in my hands by the time Midsummer’s Day arrives or you will be the most sorrowful of men. For a little while.” The autarch stared. “Yet another question? I am minded to wake the xol-beast now and find someone less annoying.”

“Please, I live to serve you, Golden One. I only wish to ask permission to wait until tomorrow to set out.”

“Why? I have seen your records, man. You have no family, no friends. Surely you have no farewells to make.”

“No, Golden One. It is only that I suspect I have broken my elbow fighting the bearded one.” He held up the arm he had smashed against the tile floor, using his other arm to support it. The sleeve was a lumpy bag of blood. “That will give me time to have it set and bandaged, first, so I can better serve you.”

The autarch threw back his head and laughed. “Ah, I like you, man. You are a cold-blooded fellow, indeed. Yes, go now and have it seen to. If you succeed in this task, who knows? Perhaps I will give you old Vash’s job.” Sulepis grinned, eyes as bright as if he were fevered. That must be the explanation, thought Pinimmon Vash: this man—or rather this god-on-earth—was in a perpetual fever, as though the sun’s fiery blood really did run in his veins. It made him mad and it made him as dangerous as a wounded viper. “What do you think, old man?” the autarch prodded. “Would you like to train him as your replacement?”

Vash bowed, keeping his terrified, murderous thoughts off his face. “I will do whatever you wish, Golden One, of course. Whatever you wish.”

9. In Lonely Deeps

Tso and Zha had many sons, of whom the greatest was Zhafaris, the Prince of Evening. On his great black falcon he would ride through the sky and when he saw beasts or demons that might threaten the gods’ tents he slew them with his ax of volcano stone, which was called Thunderclap—the mightiest weapon, O My Children, that was ever seen.

—from The Revelations of Nushash, Book One

“I know you think it is...because I am stout,” said Chaven as he sagged against the corridor wall and fanned himself with his bandaged hand. “But it is not. That is to say, I am, but...”

“Nonsense,” Chert told him. “You are not so fat, especially after the past tennight spent starving and hiding. If you need to rest, you need to rest. There is no shame in it.”

“But that isn’t it! I am...I am afraid of these tunnels.” Even by the glow of the stonelights, which made everyone seem pale as mushroom flesh, his pallor was noticeable.

Chert wondered if it wasn’t the dark itself that was unnerving the physician: even to Funderling eyes, the light was very dim here on the outer edge of the town, where Lower Ore Street began to touch the unnamed passages still being built or begun and then abandoned when Guild plans changed. “Is it the darkness you fear, or...something else?” Chert remembered the mysterious man Gil, who had taken him to the city to meet the Qar folk. Gil too had been wary, not of the tunnels themselves it had seemed, but of something that lurked in the depths below them. “Do I trespass by asking?”

“Trespass?” Chaven shook his head. “After saving my life and...taking me into your home, kind friend, you ask that? No, let me...catch my wind again...and I will tell you.” After a few moments of labored breath he began. “You know I come from Ulos in the south. Did you know my family, the Makari, were rich?”

“I know only what you’ve told me.” Chert tried to look patient, but he could not help thinking of Opal waiting at home, saddled with the painful burden of a child who had become a stranger. Already much of this morning had slipped away like sand running from a seam but Chert still did not know the purpose of their errand, let alone actually getting to it.

“They were—and may still be, for all I know. I broke with them years ago when they began to take gold from Parnad, the old autarch of Xis.”

Chert knew little about any of the autarchs, living or dead, but he tried to look as though he routinely discussed such things with other worldly folk. “Ah,” he said. “Yes, of course.”

“I grew up in Falopetris, in a house overlooking the Hesperian Ocean, atop a great stone cliff riddled with tunnels just like these.”

Chert, who knew that the honeycombed fastness of Midlan’s Mount was not merely the chief dwelling, but the actual birthplace of his race, that the Salt Pool had seen the very creation of the Funderling people, felt a moment of irritation to have it compared to the paltry tunnels of Falopetris, but checked himself—the physician had not meant it that way. Chert was anxious to be moving on and he realized it was making him unkind. “I have heard of those cliffs,” he said. “Very good limestone, some excellent tufa for bricks. In fact, good stone all around there...”

Now it was Chaven who looked a little impatient. “I’m certain. In any case, when I was small my brothers and I played in the caves—not deeply, because even my brothers knew that was too dangerous, but in the outer caverns on the cliff below our house that looked out over the sea. Pretended we were Vuttish sea-ravers and such, or that we manned a fortress against Xixian invaders.” He scowled, gave a short unhappy bark of a laugh. “A good joke, that, I see now.

“It was on such a day that my older brothers grew angry with me for something I cannot even remember now and left me in the cave. We came down to it by a steep trail, you see, and at the end there was a rope ladder we had stolen from the keeper’s shed that we had to clamber down to reach the entrance. My brothers and my sister Zamira went back up ahead of me, but took the ladder with them.

“At first I thought they would return any moment—I had scarcely five or six years, and could not imagine that anything else could happen. And in fact they probably would have come back once they had frightened me a little, but the younger of my brothers, Niram, fell from the trail higher up onto some rocks and broke his leg so badly that the bone jutted from the skin. He never walked again without a limp, even after it healed. In any case, they managed to lift him back to the trail and carry him home, but in their terror, and the subsequent hurry to bring a surgeon from the town, no one thought about me.

“I will not bore you with my every dreadful moment,” Chaven said, as if fearing the other man’s impatience, although that had faded now as Chert considered the horror of a child in such a situation, thought of Flint just days ago, alone in the depths, going through things he and Opal could never know. Chert shuddered.

“Enough to say that I heard screaming and shouting from the hillside overhead,” Chaven continued, “and thought they were trying to frighten me—and that it was succeeding. Then there was silence for so long that I at last stopped believing it was a trick. I became certain they had forgotten me in truth, or that they had fallen to their deaths, or been attacked by catamounts or bears. I cried and cried, as any child would, but at last the barrel was empty—I had no tears left.

“I do not remember much of what happened next. I must have found the hole at the back of the cave and wandered in, although I do not remember doing so. I dimly recall lights, or a dream of lights, and voices, but all that I can know for certain is that when my father and the servants came for me, bearing torches because it was hours after nightfall, they found me curled in a smaller, deeper cave whose entrance we had never found in all the times we had played there. My father subsequently had that inner cavern blocked and the ladder to the caves taken away. We never went there again—Niram could not have climbed down to them in any case.” Chaven ran his hands over his balding scalp. “I have had a horror of dark, narrow places ever since. It took all I had those three days past simply to come down into FunderlingTown seeking you, although I knew I would die if I did not find help.”

It was hard to imagine feeling stone over your head as oppressive instead of sheltering—how much less secure to stand in some wide open space with no refuge, no place to hide from enemies or angry gods! But Chert did his best to understand. “Would you like to go back, then?”

“No.” Chaven stood, still trembling, but with a resolution on his face that looked a little like anger. “No, I cannot leave my house to the plundering of the Tollys without even knowing what they do there. I cannot. My things... valuable...” The physician dropped into a mumble Chert could not understand as he pushed himself off from the wall and began walking again, heading bravely into the long stretches of shadow between stonelights, shadows which Chert knew must seem darkness complete and hopeless to a man from aboveground.

As he paused to drop a fresh piece of coral stone into the saltwater of the lantern Chert could not help thinking of his last two journeys through these tunnels, passing this way with Flint when they took the strange piece of stone to Chaven, then the other direction with Gil on their march to the fairy-held city on the other side of the bay. How could his life, such an ordinary thing only a year before, full of orderly days and restful nights, have been turned inside out so quickly, like Opal readying shirts to dry on a hot rock?

“And the stone, Flint’s stone, was the thing that killed a prince...” Chert said half-aloud as he hurried to catch up to physician. Even after all the other things that had happened to him in the last days, he still found it hard to believe— found Chaven’s entire story nearly impossible to grasp. He, Chert Blue Quartz, had carried that stone in his own hand!

Chaven, walking grimly ahead, did not seem to have heard him.

“If I had put that what-was-it-called stone in my own mouth,” Chert said, louder this time, “would I have turned into a demon, too? Or did I have to say some magical words?”

“What?” Chaven seemed lost in a kind of dream, one that did not easily let go. “The kulikos stone? No, not unless you knew the spell that gave it life and power, and that would have needed more than words.”

“More than words?”

“Such old wisdom, that men call magic, does not work like a door lock that any man can open if he has the key. Those among your people who work crystals and gems, do they simply grab a stone and strike it and it falls into shape, or is there more to the skill than that?”

“More, of course. Years of training, and still often a stone shatters.”

“So it would be even if you held the kulikos in your hand right now and I told you the ancient words. You could say them a hundred times in a hundred ways and it would remain nothing but a lump of cold stone in your fingers. The old arts require training, learning, sacrifice—and even so, the cost is often greater than the reward...” He trailed off. When he spoke again his voice shook. “Sometimes the cost is terrible.”

Chert put a hand on his shoulder. “We are coming near to the bottom of your house. We should go quietly now. If they have not found the lower door they might still hear us through the walls and come looking for what makes the noise.”

Chaven nodded. He looked drawn and frightened, as though after telling the story of his childhood terror he had never managed to shake it off again.

Two more rough-hewn corridors and they stood in front of the door, which was as strange a sight as ever in this empty, untraveled place, its hardwoods and bronze fittings polished so that even the dim coral light raised a gleam. Chert suddenly wanted to ask whether Chaven had actually stepped out into the passage from time to time to clean the thing, since none of his servants had known of its existence, but he had to be quiet now until they learned who or what was on the other side.

Chert stared at the featureless door. It had no handle or latch or even keyhole on this side, nothing but the bellpull— and clearly they were not going to use that.

The physician tugged at his sleeve to get his attention, then made a strange gesture that the Funderling did not immediately understand. Chaven did it again, waving his bandaged fingers with increasing impatience until Chert realized that Chaven wanted him to turn around—that there was something the bigger man did not want him to see. It was impossible not to feel angered after all they had both been through, after he and Opal had given Chaven the sanctuary of their home and nursed him back to health, but now was not the time to argue. Chert turned his back on the door.

A quiet hiss as of something heavy sliding was followed by the chink of a lifting latch; a moment later he felt Chaven’s touch on his shoulder. The door was open, spilling a widening sliver of light out into their passageway. Chaven leaned close, urgency on his face—he looked like a starving man who smelled food but did not yet know what he must do to get it. Chert held his breath, listening.

At last Chaven straightened up and nodded, then slipped through the open doorway. Chert hurried down the stone corridor after him holding the fading coral lantern. The physician paused in front of a hanging so bleached by age and dotted with mildew that the scene embroidered on it had become invisible, a thing weirdly out of place in such a damp, windowless, almost unvisited spot. For a moment Chaven hesitated, his burned fingers hovering in midair as though he would once again ask Chert to turn around, but then impatience got the best of him and he pulled back the hanging and ducked beneath it, making a lump under the ancient fabric. A moment later the lump disappeared as if the physician had simply vanished.

Despite a superstitious chill at the back of his neck, Chert was about to investigate, but something else caught his attention. He made his way as silently as he could down the corridor and past the hanging to the base of the stairs. He muffled his lantern, dropping the passageway into neardarkness as he stood, listening.

Voices, coming from somewhere upstairs—were Chaven’s servants keeping the up house in his absence? Somehow Chaven did not think so.

A disembodied moan, quiet but still piercing, made Chert jump. He looked around wildly but the corridor was still empty. He hurried back to the hanging and pulled it aside to discover a hidden door, ajar. The noise came again, louder, the muffled wail of a lost soul, and Chert summoned up his courage and pushed the door open.

Chaven lay in the middle of the floor, writhing as though he had been stabbed, surrounded by rumpled lengths of cloth. Chert ran to him, turned him over, but could find no wound.

“Ruined...!” the physician groaned. Though his voice was quiet, it seemed loud as a shout to Chert. “Ruined! They have taken it...!”

“Quiet,” the Funderling hissed at him. “There is someone upstairs!”

“They have it!” Chaven sat up, wild-eyed, and began to struggle in Chert’s grasp like a man who had seen his only child stolen from his arms. “We must stop them!”

“Shut your mouth or you will get us killed,” Chert whispered harshly clinging on to the much larger man as tightly as he could. “It might be the entire royal guard, looking for you.”

“But they have stolen it...I am destroyed...!” Chaven was actually weeping. Chert could not believe what he saw, the change that had turned this man he had long known and respected into a mad child.

“Stole what? What are you saying?”

“We must listen.... We must hear them.” Chaven managed to throw the Funderling off, but his look had changed from sheer madness to something more sly. He crawled across the room before Chert could get his legs under himself; a moment later he had snaked out under the faded hanging and into the corridor. Chert hurried after him.

The physician had stopped at the stairwell. He touched his lips to enjoin the Funderling to silence—an unnecessary gesture to someone as frightened as Chert was, both by the danger itself and Chaven’s seeming madness. The physician was shaking, but it seemed a tremble of rage, not anything more sensible like a fear of being caught, imprisoned, and almost inevitably executed.

And me? Chert could not help thinking. If they kill Chaven, the royal physician, what will they do with a mere Funderling who is his accomplice? The only question will be whether anyone ever learns of my death. Ah, my dear old Opal, you were right after all—I should have learned to stay at home and tend my own fungus.

He took a deep breath to try to slow his beating heart. Perhaps it was only Chaven’s own servants after all. Perhaps... “I promise you, Lord Tolly, there is nothing else here of value at all.” The reedy voice wafted down the stairwell, close enough to keep Chert stock-still, holding the last breath he took as if it must last him forever. To his horror, he saw Chaven’s eyes go wide with that mindless, inexplicable rage he had shown earlier, even saw the physician make a twitching move toward the staircase itself. Chert shot out his hand and clung as if his fingers were curled on scaffolding while he dangled over a deadly drop.

The other’s voice was lazy, but with a suggestion somehow that it could turn cruel as quick as an adder’s strike. “Is that true, brother, or are there things here that you think might not be of value to me, but which you might quite like for yourself?”

Confused, Chert guessed that Hendon Tolly and his brother, the new Duke of Summerfield, stood in the hallway above them. He could not understand the expression of heedless fury on Chaven’s face. Earth Elders, didn’t he realize that the Tollys owned not just the castle now but had become the unquestioned rulers of all Southmarch? That with a word these men could have Chaven and Chert skinned in Market Square in front of a whooping, applauding crowd?

“I tell you, Lord, you already have the one piece of true value. I promise that eventually I will winkle out its secrets, but at the moment there is something missing, some element I have not discovered, and it is not in this house...” The man’s thin voice suddenly grew sharp, highpitched. “Ah, keep that away from me!”

“It is only a cat,” said the one he had called Lord Tolly.

“I hate the things. They are tools of Zmeos. There, it runs away. Good.” When he spoke again his voice had regained its earlier calm. “As I said, there is nothing in this house that will solve the puzzle—I swear that to you, my lord.”

“But you will solve it,” the other said. “You will.”

Fear was in the first one’s voice again, not well hidden. “Of course, Lord. Have I not served you well and faithfully for years?”

“I suppose you have. Come, let us lock this place up and you can go back to your necromancy.”

“I think it would be more accurate to call it captromancy, my lord.” The speaker had recovered his nerve a bit. Chert was beginning to think he had guessed wrong—that one of these was a Tolly, but not both. “Necromancers raise the dead. It is captromancers who use mirrors in their art.”

“Perhaps a little of both, then, eh?” said his master jauntily as their voices dwindled. “Ah, what a fascinating world we are making...!”

When the two were gone and the house was silent Chert could finally breathe freely, and found he was trembling all over, as if he had narrowly avoided a fatal tumble. “Who were those two men?”

“Hendon Tolly, to give one of the dogs a name,” the physician snarled. “The other is the vilest traitor who ever lived—an even filthier cur than Hendon—a man who I thought was my friend, but who has been the Tollys’ lapdog all along, it seems. If I had his throat in my hands...”

“What are you talking about?”

“Talking about? He has stolen my dearest possession!” Chaven’s eyes were still wide, and it occurred to Chert it was not too late for the royal physician to go dashing out into Southmarch Keep and get them both killed. He grabbed Chaven’s robe again.

“What? What did he steal? Who was that?” Chaven shook his head, tears welling in his eyes again. “No. I cannot tell you. I am shamed by my weakness.” He turned to stare at Chert, desperate, imploring. “Tolly called him brother because the man who helped him pillage my secrets is one of the brothers of the EastmarchAcademy. Okros, Brother Okros—a man who I have trusted as if he were my own family.”

Chert had never seen the physician so helpless, so defeated, so...empty.

Chaven put his head on his arms, sagged as if he would never rise again. “Oh, by all the gods, I should have known! Growing to manhood in a family like mine, I should have known that trust is for fools and weaklings.”

“Are you mad?” Teloni could not have been more astonished if her younger sister had suggested jumping off the harbor wall into the ocean. “He is a prisoner! And he is a man!”

“But look at him—he is always here and he seems so sad.” Pelaya Akuanis had seen the prisoner a half-dozen times, and always the older man sat on the stone bench as quietly as if he listened to music, but of course there was no music, only the noises of birds and the distant boom and shush of the sea. “I am going to talk to him.”

“The guards won’t let you,” one of the other girls warned, but Pelaya ignored her. She got up and smoothed her dress before walking across the garden toward the bench. Two of the guards stood, but after looking at her carefully one guard leaned back against the wall again; the other moved exactly one step closer to the bearded man they were guarding, which was apparently the solution to some odd little inner mechanics of responsibility. Then the two guards resumed their whispered conversation. Pelaya wished she looked more like the dangerous type who might free a prisoner, but the guards had judged her correctly—talking to him with her friends and the man’s guards around her on all sides was quite enough of an adventure, however she might like to act otherwise.

As she reached him the man looked up at her, his face so empty of emotion that she was positive she could have been a beetle or a leaf for all he cared. She suddenly realized she had nothing to say. Pelaya would have turned and walked away again except that she could not bear to see Teloni give her one of those amused, superior looks.

She swayed a little, trying to think of how to begin, and he only watched her. For a moment the garden seemed very silent. He was at least her father’s age, perhaps older, with long reddish-brown hair and beard, both shot with gray and a few curling wisps of pure white. Even as she examined him he was surveying her in turn, and his calm gaze unnerved her. “Who are you?” she said, blurting it out so that it sounded like a challenge. She could feel the blood rising in her cheeks and had to fight hard once more against the urge to flee.

“Ah, my good young mistress, but it is you who approached me,” he said sternly. He sounded serious, and his face looked serious too, but something in the way he spoke made her think he might be mocking her. “You must name yourself. Have you never been told any stories, have you read no books on polite discourse? Names are important, you see. However, once given, they can never be taken back.” He spoke the Hierosoline tongue with a strange accent, harsh but somehow musical.

“But I think I know yours,” she said. “You are King Olin of Southmarch.”

“Ah, you are only half right.” He frowned, as though thinking hard about his words, then nodded slowly. “It seems that, in fairness, you must tell me half of your name.”

“Pelaya!” her sister called, a strangled moan of embarrassment.

“Ah,” said the prisoner. “And now I have received my due, will you, nill you.”

“That wasn’t fair. She told you.”

“I was not aware we were involved in a contest. Hmmm— interesting.” Something moved across his lips, fleeting as a shadow—a smile? “As I said, names are very important things. Very well, I will do my best to guess the other name without help from any of the bystanders. Pelaya, are you? A fair name. It means ‘ocean.’”

“I know.” She took a step back. “You are playing for time. You cannot guess.”

“Ah, but I can. Let me consider what I know already.” He stroked his beard, the very picture of a philosopher from the SacredTrigonAcademy. “You are here, that is the first thing to be pondered. Not everyone is allowed into this inner garden—I myself have only recently been granted the privilege. You are well dressed, in silk and a fine lace collar, so I feel rather certain you are not one of the pastry-makers gathering mint or a chambermaid on your way to air the linens. If you are either of those you are shirking your chores most unconscionably, but to me you do not have the face of a true idler.”

She laughed despite herself. He was talking nonsense, she knew, amusing himself and her, but also there was more to it. He was showing her how he would think about things if he truly meant to solve a problem. “So, we must assume you are one of the ladies of the castle, and in fact I see that you have brought with you a formidable retinue.” He gestured to Teloni and the others, who watched her with wide eyes, as though Pelaya had clambered down into a wolf’s den. “One of them addressed you by first name, which suggests a familiarity a lady might show to one of her maids or other friends, but since there is a sameness to your features—yours are a bit finer, more delicate, but I hope you will keep that as our secret—I would guess that the two of you are related. Sisters?”

She looked at him sternly. She was not going to be so easily tricked into helping him.

“Well, then I will declare it so for the sake of my argument. Sisters. Now, I know well that my captor, the lord protector, has no declared offspring. Some might say he was the better for that—they can be difficult creatures, children—but I am not one of them. However much I pity his childlessness, though, I cannot make him your father, no matter how I puzzle the facts, so I must look elsewhere. Of his chief ministers, some are too dark or too pale of skin, some too old, and some too much inclined otherwise to be the fathers of handsome young women like your sister and yourself, so I must narrow my guesses to those whom I know to have children. I have been here more than half a year, so I have learned a little.” He smiled. “In fact, I see now that your companions are waving for you in earnest, and I must cut to the bone of the matter before they drag you away. My best guess is that your father is this castle’s steward, Count Perivos Akuanis, and that you are his younger daughter, while the dark-haired girl there is his older daughter, Teloni.”

She glared at him. “You knew it all along.”

“No, I must sincerely protest that I did not, although it has become clear to me as we talked. I think I may have seen you once with your father, but I have only now remembered.”

“I’m not certain I believe you.”

“I would not lie to a young woman named after the sea. The sea god is my family’s patron, and the sea itself has become very precious to me these days. From one corner of my room in the tower, if I bend down just so, I can see it at the edge of a window. Of such things are hearts made strong enough to last.” He tipped his head, almost a bow. “And, the truth is, you remind me of my own daughter, who also has a weakness for old dogs and useless strays, although I think you are a few years younger.” Now his face became a little strange, as though a sudden pain had bitten at him but he was determined not to show it. “But children change so quickly—here and then gone. Everything changes.” For a moment whatever pained him seemed to take his breath away. It was a long time before he spoke again. “And how many years have you, Lady Pelaya?”

“I am twelve. I will be married next year or the year after, they say, after my sister Teloni is married.”

“I wish you much happiness, now and later. Your friends look as though they are about to call for the lord protector to come rescue you. Perhaps you should go.”

She began to turn, then stopped. “When I said you were King Olin of Southmarch, why did you say I was only half right? Isn’t that who you are? Everyone knows about you.”

“I am Olin of Southmarch, but no man is king when he is another man’s prisoner.” Even the sad, tired smile did not make an appearance this time. “Go on, young Pelaya of the Ocean. The others are waiting. The grace of Zoria on you— it has been a pleasure to speak with you.”

Leaving the courtyard garden, the other girls surrounded Pelaya as though she were a deserter being dragged back to justice. She stole one look back but the man was staring at nothing again—watching clouds, perhaps, or the endless procession of waves in the strait: there was little else he could see from the high-walled garden.

“You should not have spoken to him,” Teloni said. “He is a prisoner—a foreigner! Father will be furious.”

“Yes.” Pelaya felt sad, but also different—strange, as though she had learned something talking to the prisoner, something that had changed her, although she could not imagine what that might be. “Yes, I expect he will.”

10. Crooked and his Great Grandmother

The great family of Twilight was already mighty when the ancestors of our people first came to the land, and the newcomers were drawn to one or the other of the twin tribes, the children of Breeze or the children of Moisture, who were always contesting.

One day Lord Silvergleam of the Breeze clan was out riding, and caught sight of Pale Daughter, the child of Thunder, son of Moisture, as lovely as a white stone. She also saw him, so tall and hopeful, and their hearts found a shared melody that will never be lost until the world ends.

Thus began the Long Defeat.

—from One Hundred Considerations, out of the Qar’s Book of Regret

Barrick Eddon woke up in the grip of utter terror, feeling as though his heart might crack like an egg. He could smell something burning, but the world was cold and astonishingly dark. For long moments he had no idea of where he was. Out of doors, yes—the rustle and creak of trees in the wind was unmistakable... He was behind the Shadowline, of course.

Barrick felt as though he had just awakened from a long, bizarre dream—a feeling he knew all too well—but the waking was not much more reassuring than the dream. The endless twilight of these lands had actually ended, but only because the sky had turned black—and not just night-dark, but empty of stars, too, as though some angry god had thrown a cloak over all of creation. Had it not been for the last of the coals still glowing in the stone fire circle, the darkness would have been complete. And that terrible, acrid smell... Smoke. Gyir said it was the smoke from some huge fire, filling the sky, killing the light. Barrick’s eyes had stung for most of a day, he remembered now, and they had been forced to stop riding because he and Vansen the guard captain had trouble breathing.

Barrick crawled to the fire and poked the embers. Vansen was asleep with his mouth open, wearing his arming-cap against the chill. Why was the man still here? Why hadn’t he turned and ridden back to Southmarch as any sane person would have done? Instead, here he lay beside his new friend, that ugly, splotch-feathered raven (which was sleeping too, apparently, its head under its wing). Barrick disliked the raven intensely, although he could not say why.

When he looked at Gyir Barrick’s heart sped again, even as his stomach seemed to twist inside him. By all the gods, the fairy was a horror! He dimly remembered a feeling of friendship, of kinship even, between himself and this faceless abomination that had led an army of other monsters into the lands of real people, to burn and to kill. How could such madness be? And now he was virtually this creature’s prisoner, being led toward the gods only knew what kind of horrible fate!

Barrick looked to the place the horses stood, mostly in shadow, Vansen’s slumbering mount and the restless bulk of the Twilight horse which had somehow become Barrick’s own, although he did not remember it happening. I could be in the saddle and riding away in an instant, he realized. Should he wake Vansen? Did he dare risk the time? Barrick’s hand slid across the ground until it closed on the pommel of his falchion. Even better: he could have the long, sharp edge on the Gyir-reature’s throat just as quickly.

But even as the fingers of Barrick’s good hand closed around the corded hilt, Gyir’s eyes flickered open and fixed on him just as if the fairy-man had smelled something of the prince’s murderous thoughts. Gyir stared hard and knowingly at him for a moment, his pupils round and black in the dim light, but then he closed his eyes again as if to say, Do what you will.

Barrick hesitated. The loathing itself now seemed alien, just another unlikely feeling to grip him. My blood, my thoughts —they turn and change like the wind! He had always been moody and had often feared for his sanity, but now he felt a terror that he might lose his very self. Father said own malady was better once he left the castle. For a while mine seemed the same, but now it is back and stronger than ever.

Barrick tried to order his thoughts as his father had taught him, and could not help wishing he had spent more time listening and less sulking when the king spoke. He was trapped in a place where errors could kill him. How could he decide what was real and what was not? Only hours before he had thought of the faceless man as an ally, perhaps even a friend. Moments ago he had seemed an utter monster instead. Was Gyir really such a threat, or was he simply a warrior who served a foreign master?

Not master—mistress, Barrick reminded himself. And suddenly, as though everything had been tilting and threatening to tumble because of a single missing support, he saw the warrior-woman again in his mind’s eye and his thoughts grew more stable. Gyir the Storm Lantern was not a monster, but not his friend, either. Barrick could not afford to trust so much. The Qar woman, the Lady Yasammez, had held him with her bottomless stare and had told him amazing things, although he could remember very few of them now. What had she said that had sent him so boldly across the Shadowline? Or had it been something else, not ideas but a spell to enslave him? She told me of great lands I had never seen, the lands of the People, as she called them—of mountains taller than the clouds, and the black sea, and forests older than Time, and...and... But there had been more, and it was the more that he knew had been important. She said she was sending me as a... a gift? A gift? How could he be a gift, unless the Qar ate humans? She sent me to...Saqri, he remembered, that was the name. Someone of importance and power named Saqri, who had been sleeping but would awaken soon into a world that had moved farther into defeat. Whatever that might mean. Like any dream, it had begun to fade. Except for the fairy-woman’s eyes, her predatory eyes, watchful and knowing, bright as a hunting hawk’s, but with ageless depths—what he might have imagined the eyes of a goddess to look like, when he had still believed in such things.

But if I don’t believe in the gods and their stories, he asked himself, then what is all this around me? What has happened to me if I haven’t been god-struck like the ones in the old stories, like Iaris and Zakkas and the rest of the oracles? Like Soteros who flew up to the palace of Perin on top of Mount Xandos and saw the gods in their home?

Barrick realized that he had found, if not answers, a kind of peace with his predicament. Reasoning in the way his father would have had helped him. He looked at Gyir now and saw something fearful but not terrifying, a creature both like and unlike himself. They had spoken with their minds and hearts. He had felt the faceless Qar’s angers and joys as he talked about his homeland and about the war with the humans, and had almost felt he understood him—surely that could not all have been lies. Could someone be both a bitter enemy and a friend?

Barrick felt sleep stealing over him again and let his eyes fall shut. Whether they were friends or enemies, as long as the Qar woman’s enchantment drove Barrick on he and the Gyir the Storm Lantern must at least be allies. He had to trust in that much or he would go mad for certain.

With a last few flicks of his spur Ferras Vansen finished currying his horse, then bent to strap the spur back on. The one good thing about this cursed, soggy weather was that the beast seemed to pick up few brambles, although its tail was a knotted mess. He paused, eyeing the strange dark steed that had carried Prince Barrick away from the battle. The fairy-horse looked back at him, the eyes a single, milky gleam. The creature seemed unnaturally aware, its calm not that of indifference but of superiority. Vansen sniffed and turned away, shamed to be feeling such resentment toward a dumb brute.

“Gyir says the horse’s name is Dragonfly.”

Barrick’s words made Vansen jump. He had not realized the prince was so close. “He told you that?”

“Of course. Just because you can’t hear him doesn’t mean he’s not speaking.”

Ferras Vansen did not doubt that the fairy-man spoke without words—he had felt a bit of it himself—but admitting it seemed the first step on a journey he did not wish to begin. “Dragonfly, then. As you wish.”

“He belonged to someone named Four Sunsets—at least that’s what Gyir says the name meant.” Barrick frowned, trying to get things right. There were moments when, the subject of his conversation aside, he seemed like any ordinary lad of his age. “Four Sunsets was killed in the battle. The battle with...our folk.” Barrick smiled tightly with relief: he had got it right.

Chilled, Vansen could not help wondering what it was he had been tempted to say instead. Does he have to struggle to remember he’s not one of them? He shook his head. This was the puzzle the gods had set for him—he could only pray for strength and do his best. “Well, he is a fine enough horse, I suppose, for what he is—which is a fairy-bred monster.”

“Faster than anything we’ll ever ride again,” said Barrick, still boyish. “Gyir says they are raised in great fields called the Meadows of the Moon.”

“Don’t know how they would know of the moon or anything else in the sky,” said Vansen, looking up. “And it’s got worse now, the sky’s so dark with smoke.” Their progress had been slowed to a walk—they led their horses now more often than they rode them. Vansen had hated the eternal twilight but he longed for it now. It seemed, however, that he was fated to realize such things only after it was too late.

Skurn hopped into the road to smash a snail against a stone embedded in the mud. The raven pulled out his meal and swallowed it down, then turned his dark, shiny eye on Vansen. “Shall us ride, then, Master?” Skurn shot an uneasy look at Barrick, who was staring at the raven with his usual disdain. “If us hasn’t spoken out of turn, like.”

“You seem in good cheer,” Vansen said, still not quite accustomed to talking with a bird “Broke us’s fast most lovesomely this morning with a dead frog what had just begun to swell...”

Vansen waved his hand to forestall the description. “Yes, but I thought you were afraid of where we were going. Why have you changed?”

Skurn bobbed his head. “Because we go away, now, not toward, Master. This new road leads us away from Northmarch and Jack Chain’s lands. ’Twas all us ever wanted.”

Vansen felt a little better to hear that. If it had not been for the continual dreary, ashy rain, the lightless sky, and the fact that he knew he’d be spending another day’s thankless journey surrounded by madmen and monsters out of dire legend, finishing with a bed on the cold, lumpy ground and a few bitter roots to gnaw, he might have been cheerful, too.

It was almost impossible to choose Skurn’s single most annoying trait, but certainly high on the pile was the fact that unless something had terrified the bird into silence, he talked incessantly. Relieved by their new direction, the raven yammered on throughout the day, loudly at first, then more quietly after Vansen threatened to drag him on a rope behind the horse, naming trees and bushes and sharing other obscure bits of woodlore, and going on at great length about the wonderful things to eat that could be found on all sides—an urpsome subject that Vansen throttled shortly after being told how lovely it was to guzzle baby birds whole out of a nest.

“Can you not just stop?” he snarled at last. “Close your beak and just sit silently, for the Trigon’s sake, and let me think.”

“But us can’t sit quiet, Master.” Skurn squatted, holding his beak in the air in a way Vansen had learned was meant to suggest he was suffering—either that or he was fouling the saddle, one of his other charming traits. “You see, it is riding on this horse that has us so squirmsome, and when us talks not, us squirms more and the horse takes it ill. You have seen him startle up, have you not?”

Vansen had. Twice today already, Skurn had done something to make the horse balk and almost throw them. Vansen couldn’t blame his mount: Skurn had trouble holding on, and when he lost his balance he sank in his talons, and if he happened to be off the saddle and on the horse’s neck at the time, no matter.

Skyfather Perin, I beg you to save me, Vansen prayed. Save me from everything you have given me. I doubt I am strong enough, great lord. Aloud he said, “Then tell me something more useful than how to catch and eat yon hairy spiders, for I will not be doing that even if starvation has me in its grip.”

“Shall us tell tha one story, then? To make time slip more easy, eh?”

“Tell me about the one you called Crooked, or this Jack Chain you are so frightened of. What is he? And the others, Night Men and suchlike.”

“Ah, no, Master, no. No talk of Jack, not so close still to his lands, nor of Night Men—too shiversome. But us can tell you a little of the one us called Crooked. Those are mighty stories, and all know them—even my folk, from nestlings to high-bough weavers. Shall us speak on that?”

“I suppose so. But not too loudly, and try to sit still. I don’t want to find myself in a ditch with my horse running away into the forest.”

“Well, then.” Skurn nodded his head, closed his tiny eyes, rocked slowly against the saddle horn.

“Here he came,” the raven began in a cracked, crooning voice that seemed half song, “tumble-dum, tumble-dum, crooked as lightning, but slow as the earth rolling over, all restless in her sleep. He limped, do you see? Though just a child then, he came through the great long war fighting at his father’s side, and were struck a great blow near the end of it by the Sky Man, so that ever after, when it healed, one pin he had longer than the other. Was even captured, then, by Stone Man and his brothers, and they took away from him summat which they shouldn’t have, but still he would not tell them where his father’s secret house was hid.

Later on, when his father and his mother was both taken away from him, and all his cousins and brothers and sisters were sent away to the sky lands, still he lived on in the world’s lands because none of the three great brothers feared him. They mocked him, calling him Crooked, and that was his name always after.

Still, here he came through the world, tumble-dum, tumble-dum, one leg the shorter, and everywhere he went was mocked by those that had won, the brothers and their kin, although they were glad enough to have the things he made, the clever things he made.

So clever he was that when he lost his left hand in the forge fire he made another from ivory, more nimble even than the one he’d been born with, and when he touched pizen with his right hand and it withered away he made himself a new one from bronze, strong as any hand could ever be. Still they mocked him, called him not just Crooked but also No-Man because of what they themselves had taken from him, but, aye, they did covet the things he could make. For Sky Man he made a great iron hammer, heavier and grander than even his war hammer of old, and it could smash a mountain flat or knock a hole in the great gates of Stone Man’s house, as it did once when the two brothers quarreled. He also made the great shield of the moon for her what had took his father’s place, and for Night her necklace of stars, Water Man’s spear what could split a mighty whalefish like a knife splits an apple, and a spear for Stone Man, too, and many other wonderful things, swords and cups and mirrors what had the Old Strength in them, the might of the earliest days.

But he did not always know the very greatest secrets, and in fact when first he was become the servant of the brothers whom had vanquished his people, though he was clever beyond saying, still he had much to learn. And this is how he learned some of it.

So here he came on this day, tumble-dum, tumble-dum, one leg shorter, walking like a ship in a rolling sea, wandering far from the city of the brothers because it plagued him and pained him to have to speak always respectfully to his family’s conquerors. As he walked down the road through a narrow, shadowed valley, the which was fenced with high mountains on either side, he came upon a little old woman sitting in the middle of the path, an ancient widow woman such as could be seen in any village of the people, dry and gnarled as a stick. He paused, did Crooked, and then he says to her, “Move, please, old woman. I would pass.” But the old woman did not move and did not reply, neither.

“Move,” he says again, without so much courtesy this time. “I am strong and angry inside myself like a great storm, but I would rather not do you harm.” Still she did not speak, nor even look at him.

“Old woman,” he says, and his voice was now loud enough to make the valley rumble, so that stones broke loose from the walls and rolled down to the bottom, breaking trees as a person would break broomstraws, “I tell you for the last time. Move! I wish to pass.”

At last she looked up at him and says, “I am old and weary and the day is hot. If you will bring me water to slake my thirst, I will move out of your way, great lord.”

Crooked was not pleased, but he wasn’t mannerless, and the woman was in truth very, very old, so he went to the stream beside the road and filled his hands and brought it back to her. When she had drunk it down, she shook her head.

“It does not touch my thirst. I must have more.”

Crooked took a great boulder and with his hand of bronze he hollowed it into a mighty cup. When he had filled it in the stream he brought it back to her, and it was so heavy, when he set it down it made the ground jump. Still, the old woman lifted it with one hand and drained it, then shook her head. “More,” she says. “My mouth is still as dry as the fields of dust before the Stone Man’s palace.”

Marveling, but angry, too, at how his journey had been halted and bollixed, Crooked went to the stream and tore up its bed, pointing it so that all the water flowed toward the old woman. But she only opened her mouth and swallowed it all down, so that within a short time the stream itself ran dry, and all the trees of the valley went dry and lifeless.

“More,” she says. “Are you so useless that you cannot even help an old woman to slake her thirst?”

“I do not know how you do those tricks,” he says, and he was so angry that his banished uncle’s fire was a-dancing in his eyes, turning them bright as suns, pushing back the very shadows that covered the valley, “but I will not be courteous any more. Already I must carry the load of shame from my family’s defeat, must I also be thwarted by an old peasant woman? Get out of my way or I will pick you up and hurl you out of the road.”

“I go nowhere until I have finished what I am doing,” the crone says.

Crooked sprang forward and grabbed the old woman with his hand of ivory, but as hard as he pulled he could not lift her. Then he grabbed her with his other hand as well, the mighty hand of bronze which its strength was beyond strength, but still he could not move her. He threw both his arms around her and heaved until he thought his heart would burst in his chest but he could not move her one inch.

Down he threw himself in the road beside her and said, “Old woman, you have defeated me where a hundred strong men could not. I give myself into your power, to be killed, enslaved, or ransomed as you see fit.”

At this the old woman threw back her head and laughed. “Still you do not know me!” she says. “Still you do not recognize your own greatgrandmother!”

He looked at her in amazement. “What does this mean?”

“Just as I said. I am Emptiness, and your father was one of my grandchildren. You could pour all the oceans of the world into me and still not fill me, because Emptiness cannot be filled. You could bring every creature of the world and still not lift me, because Emptiness cannot be moved. Why did you not go around me?”

Crooked got to his knees but bowed low, touching his forehead to the ground in the sign of the Dying Flower. “Honored Grandmother, you sit in the middle of a narrow road. There was no way to go around you and I did not wish to turn back.”

“There is always a way to go around, if you only pass through my sovereign lands,” she told him. “Come, child, and I will teach you how to travel in the lands of Emptiness, which stand beside everything and are in every place, as close as a thought, as invisible as a prayer.”

And so she did. When Crooked was finished he again bowed his head low to his great-grandmother and promised her a mighty gift someday in return, then he went on his way, thinking of his new knowledge, and of revenge on those whom had wronged him.”

It was strange, but Vansen was wondering if being lost again behind the Shadowline was not stealing his wits. Even after the raven’s harsh voice had fallen silent Vansen could feel words in his head, as though someone was muttering just out of earshot.

“Foolishness,” Barrick said after a long pause. “Gyir says the bird’s tale is foolishness.”

“All true it is, on our nest, us swears it.” Skurn sounded more than a little irked.

“Gyir says that it is impossible that the one you call Crooked would not know his great-grandmother, who was the mother of all the Early Ones. It is a foolish raven story, he says, told from between two leaves.”

“What does that mean?” asked Vansen.

“From where a raven sits, in a tree,” Barrick explained. “We might say it is like groundlings discussing the deeds of princes.”

Vansen stared for a moment, wondering if he were being insulted, too, but Barrick Eddon’s look was bland. “The fairy talks in your head, yes?” Vansen asks. “You can hear him as though he spoke to your ears?”

“Yes. Much of the time. When I can understand the ideas. Why?”

“Because a moment ago I thought I heard it. Felt it. I don’t know the words, Highness. A tickling, almost, like a fly crawling in my head.”

“Let us hope for your sake that you did indeed sense some of Gyir’s thoughts, Captain Vansen. Because there are other things behind the Shadowline, as you doubtless already know, that you would not want crawling around in your head, or anywhere else on you.”

Will you tell me now who this Jack Chain is that the raven has been prattling about? Barrick asked Gyir. And the Longskulls? And the things he called Night Men?

You are better not knowing most of that. The fairy-man’s speech was growing more and more like ordinary talk in Barrick’s head. It was hard to remember sometimes that they were not speaking aloud. They are all grim creatures. The Night Men are those my folk call the Dreamless. They live far from here, in their city called Sleep. Be grateful for that.

I am a prince, Barrick told him, stung. I was not raised to let other people do my worrying for me.

He could feel a small burst of resigned frustration from Gyir, something as wordless as a puff of air. “Jack Chain” is a rendering of his name into the common tongue, he explained. Jikuyin he is called among our folk. He is one of the old, old ones—a lesser kin to the gods. The one in the bird’s story, Emptiness, she was his mother, or so I was told. In the earliest days there were many like him, so many that for a long time the gods let them do what they would and take pieces of this earth for their own, to rule as they saw fit, as long as they gave the gods their honor and tribute.

The gods? You mean the Trigon—Erivor and Perin and the rest? They’re truly real? Not just stories?

Of course they are real, Gyir told him. More real than you and I, and that is the problem. Now be quiet for a moment and let me listen to something.

Barrick couldn’t help wondering exactly what “be quiet” was supposed to mean to someone who wasn’t talking out loud. Was he supposed to stop thinking, too?

There is nothing to fear, Gyir said at last. Just the sounds that should be heard at this time, in this place.

But you’re worried, aren’t you? It was painful to ask, painful even to consider. He was still uncertain how he felt about the fairy, but in these few short days he had grown used to the idea of Gyir as a reliable guide, someone who truly knew and belonged in this bizarre land.

Anyone who knew what I know and did not worry would be a fool. Gyir’s thoughts were solemn. Not all lands under the Mantle are ruled from Qul-na-Qar, and many who live in them hate the king and queen and the rest of the... People. One word was a meaningless blur of idea-sounds.

What? What people? I don’t understand.

Those like myself and like my mistress. Can you understand the idea of High Ones better? I mean the ruling tribes, those who are still close to the look of the earliest days, when your kind and the People were not so different. As if without witting thought, his hand crept up to the tight drumskin of his empty face. Many of the more changed have grown to hate those who look similar to the mortals—as though we High Ones had not also changed, and far more than any of them could understand! But our changes are not on the outside. He dropped his hand. Not usually.

Barrick shook his head, so beset by not-quiteunderstandable ideas that he almost felt the need to swat them away like gnats. Were...were you mortals once? Your people?

We Qar are mortal, unlike the gods, Gyir told him with a touch of dry amusement. But if you mean were we like your folk, I think a better answer is that your folk—who long ago followed ours into these lands you think of as the whole world—your folk have stayed much as they were in their earliest days walking this world. But we have not. We have changed in many, many ways.

Changed how? Why?

The why is easy enough, said Gyir. The gods changed us. By the Tiles, child, do your people really know so little of us?

Barrick shook his head. We only know that your people hate us. Or so we were taught.

You were not taught wrongly.

Gyir’s thoughts had a grim, steely feel Barrick had not sensed before. For the first time since they had begun this conversation he was reminded of how different Gyir was— not just his viewpoint, but his entire way of being. Now Barrick could feel the fairy-warrior’s tension and anger throbbing like muffled drums behind the unspoken but still recognizable words, and he realized that what the faceless creature was thinking of so fiercely was about slaughtering Barrick’s own folk and how happily he, Gyir, had put his hand to it.

Very few of my people would not gladly die with their teeth locked in the throat of one of your kind, boy—sunlanders, as we call you since our retreat under the Mantle. Startled by the force of Gyir’s thought, Barrick turned to look back at the fairy. He had the uncomfortable feeling that if the Storm Lantern had anything like a proper mouth, he would have grinned hugely. But do not be frightened, little cousin. You have been singled out by the Lady Yasammez herself. No harm will come to you—at least not from me.

In the days they had traveled together, Barrick had tried to winkle information about the one called Yasammez, with little success. Much of what Barrick did not know the faceless Qar thought too obvious for explanation, and the rest was full of Qar concepts that did not make words in Barrick’s head but only smeary ideas. Yasammez was powerful and old, that was clear, but Barrick could have guessed that just from his own muddled memories, the bits of her that still seemed to drape his mind like spiderwebs. She also seemed to be in the middle of some kind of conflict between the fairy rulers Gyir thought of as king and queen, although even these concepts were far from straightforward—they all seemed to have many names and many titles, and some of them seemed to him oddly contradictory: Barrick had felt Gyir think of the king as recently crowned, but also as ageless, as blind but allseeing.

It was hard enough just to understand the simple things.

You were going to tell me about Jack Chain. Jikuyin. Is he really a god?

No, no. He is a child of the gods, though. Not like I am, or you are, or any thinking creature is—a child of great power. His kind were mostly spawned by the congress of the gods and other, older beings. The gods walk the earth no more—that is the first reason we are living the Long Defeat—but a few demigods such as Jikuyin apparently still remain.

Barrick took a deep breath, frustrated again. They had left the overgrown road hours ago because it had been blocked by a fallen tree, and had wandered far afield before they had spotted the road again, now on the far side of a rough, fast-moving stream. They were trying to make their way back to it on something that was closer to a deer track; the rains had stopped, but the trees were wet, and it had occurred to Barrick several times that every branch that smacked him in the face was one that did not hit Gyir, who rode behind him. I don’t understand any of that. I just want to know what this Jack Chain is and why he worries you. Why is the bird still so frightened? Aren’t we going away from Northmarch where he lives?

Yes, but Jikuyin is a Power, and like any of his kind, he rules a broad territory. I think among your people there are bandit lords like that, who respect no master but their own strength, yes?

There used to be. Barrick at first was thinking of the infamous Gray Companies, but then he remembered the adventurer who held their father even now—Ludis Drakava, the so-called Lord Protector of Hierosol. Yes, we have people like that.

So. That is Jikuyin. As the bird said, he has made the ruined sunlander city of Northmarch his own, although it was ours before it was yours—it is an old place.

The Qar lived in Northmarch?

So I am told. It was long before my time. There are certain places of power, and people are drawn to them, places like... Here another strange concept bounced uselessly in Barrick’s head, a shadowy image of light the subtle gold of a falcon’s eye gleaming from deep underwater, all muddled with something that was bright, piercing blue and as tangled and twined as a grapevine. In the old days all the Children of Stone lived there in peace, and their roads ran beneath the ground in all directions—some say as far as the castle where you were born... Gyir’s words suddenly changed, insofar as Barrick was able to tell, the voice in his head growing suddenly cautious, withdrawn. But all that does not matter. The simple tale is this—we are skirting Jikuyin’s lair as widely as we can.

But what about those...things that the bird said would be hunting us—Night Men and Longskulls...?

Gyir was dismissive. I do not fear the Longskulls, not if I am armed. And no Dreamless, I think, would be willing servants to Jikuyin—surely the world has not changed so much. They have their own lands and their own purposes... The Dreamless—Barrick shivered at the name. Will we have to cross their lands, too? he asked.

At some point, all who go to Qul-na-Qar, the great knife of the People, the city of black towers, must cross their lands. For a moment, there was something almost like kindness in Gyir’s thoughts—almost, but not quite. But don’t fear, boy. Many survive the journey. He considered for a moment; when he spoke again, his thoughts were somber.

Of course, none of your kind has yet tried it.

11. A Little Hard Work

The three children Oneyna birthed were Zmeos, the Horned Serpent, his brother Khors Moonlord, and their sister Zuriyal, who was called Merciless. And for long no one knew these three existed. But Sveros was a tyrannical ruler, and his true sons Perin, Erivor, and Kernios made compact to dethrone him. They fought courageously against him and threw him down, and then returned him to the Void of Unbeing.

—from The Beginnings of Things, The Book of the Trigon

The skies over Hierosol were bright on this mild winter day, clouds piled high and white as the snowfall on the distant summit of Mount Sarissa and its neighbors. The thousand sails in the huge Harbor of Nektarios seemed a reflection of those clouds, as if the bay were a great green mirror.

The small inspector’s boat that had tied up beside the much larger trading vessel now cast free, the rowers ferrying the petty official back to the the harbor master’s office in the labyrinth of buildings behind the high eastern harbor wall where all legitimate business of the mighty port was transacted (and a great deal of its shadier workings, too). The trading ship, having duly submitted to the official’s inspection—a rather cursory one, noted Daikonas Vo— was now free to move toward its designated harbor slip.

Vo did not think much of the harbor master’s defenses against smuggling, and thought it likely that the lackey’s visit had been more about the ceremonial exchange of bribes for permits than any actual search for contraband, but he could not help admiring the city’s fortifications. Hierosol’s eastern peninsula, which contained most of the anchorage, was as formidable as its reputation suggested, the seawalls ten times the height of a man, studded with gunports and bristling with cannon like the quills of a porcupine. On the far side of the KulloanStrait stood the Finger, a narrow strip of land with its own heavy fortifications. Modern planners, reexamining the walls in this new age of cannonfire, had realized that if a determined attack should overthrow the much more thinly defended areas along the Finger, the heart of Hierosol would then be vulnerable to the citadel’s own guns. Thus, they had mounted smaller guns in those forts on the western side of the isthmus facing the city—cannons which could reach the middle of the strait, well within the compass of the eastern guns, but could not themselves reach the eastern wall.

Vo respected that in his cold way, as he respected most types of careful planning. If, as rumors suggested, Autarch Sulepis truly intended a conquest of Hierosol, Xis’ ancient rival, the Golden One would have hard work laid out before him.

Still, it would be interesting—a problem well worth the time and trouble, even without the rich reward of plunder, not to mention the choke hold a successful conqueror of Hierosol would gain on vast Lake Strivothos, the still mighty (and wealthy) kingdom of Syan, and the rest of the interior of Eion. Perhaps, Vo mused, after his own project was successfully concluded he might find himself moving higher in the circles of the autarch’s advisers. Yes, it would be a grand entertainment to devote adequate time and attention to cracking open Hierosol’s mighty walls like a nut, exposing all the frail, human flesh within to the mercies of the autarch’s armies, especially Vo’s own comrades, the White Hounds. If such a day came the Hounds would bloody their muzzles well, there was no doubt about that. Vo did not think particularly highly of the cleverness of his fellow Perikalese mercenaries but he had a deep respect for their essential hunger for combat. They were well-named: you could kennel them for years, but when you let them out, they struck like red Nature.

As he thought about it he could almost smell blood in the salty air, and for a moment the seagulls’ shrill cries seemed the lamentation of bereaved women. Daikonas Vo felt a thrill of anticipation, like a child being taken to the fair.

His belongings in a seabag slung across his shoulder, Vo gave the trading ship’s captain a farewell nod as he stepped onto the gangplank. The captain, flush with the pride of a man about to unload a full cargo hold, returned the gesture with magisterial condescension.

The merchant captain had proved to be a garrulous fool, and for that Vo was grateful. During their conversations on the eight-day crossing from Xis to Hierosol he had told Vo so much about his fellow captain Axamis Dorza that he had saved Vo days of work, without ever once wondering why this low-level servant of the palace (for so Daikonas Vo had presented himself) should be asking all those questions. In ordinary circumstances Vo would have found it hard to resist killing the captain and throwing him overboard—the man talked with his mouth full as he ate, for one thing, and dribbled bits of food onto his beard and clothes, and he had an even more annoying habit of saying, “I swear it, by the red-hot doors of the house of Nushash!” a dozen times or so in every conversation—but Vo was not going to complicate his mission. The memory of the autarch’s cousin spewing blood and writhing helplessly on the floor was very much with him.

Daikonas Vo did not know whether he believed in the gods or not. He certainly did not much care whether they existed —if they did, their interest and involvement in human life was so capricious as to be, ultimately, no different in effect than pure chance. What he did believe in was Daikonas Vo: his own subtle pleasures and displeasures made up the whole of his cosmos. He did not want that cosmos to come to an early end. A world without Daikonas Vo at the center of it could not exist.

Very few people looked at him as he made his way along the busy harbor front, and those who did scarcely seemed able to see him, as though he were not fully visible. That was in part because of his outward appearance, which, because of his Perikalese ancestry, was similar to many of the folk he passed. He was also slight in build, or at least appeared that way, not short, but certainly not tall. Mostly, though, eyes slid off him because Daikonas Vo wanted it that way. He had discovered the trick of stillness when he was young, when first his father and then later his mother’s other male friends had stormed through the house, drunk and angry, or his mother had played out her own shrieking madness; the trick had been to become so calm, so invisible, that all the rage blew past him like a thunderstorm while he lay sheltered in the secret cove of his own silence.

The passersby might not look at him, but Vo looked at them. He was a spy by nature, curious in a mildly contemptuous way as always about creatures that seemed to him like another species from himself, things that wore their emotions as openly as their clothes, faces that reflected fear and anger and something he had come to recognize as joy, although he could not connect it to his own more abstract pleasures. They were like apes, these ordinary folk, carrying on their private lives in the full sight of anyone with eyes to see, the adults as uncontrolled in their bleatings and grimaces as the children. In this regard the Hierosolines around him now were barely different from the people of Xis, who did at least have the sense to clothe the revealing nakedness of their wives and daughters from foot to crown, although not for the reason Vo would have done so. Here in Hierosol the women seemed to dress any way they chose, some decently modest in loose robes and veils or scarves that covered their heads and part of their faces, but some nearly as shameless as the men, with necks, shoulders, legs, and most especially their faces exposed for all to see. Vo had seen women naked, of course, and many times at that. Like his fellow Perikalese mercenaries he had visited the brothels outside the palace’s Lily Gate many times, although in his case it had been mostly because not to do so would have attracted attention, and Vo hated attention even more than he disliked pain. He had used some of the women as they chose to be used, but after the first time, when the oddness of the experience had some value in itself, it had meant little to him. He understood that copulation was a great motivator of mankind and perhaps even womankind as well, but to him it seemed only another ape trick, different from eating and defecating only because it could not be practiced solitarily, but required company.

Vo paused, his attention returned to the ships moving placidly in the gentle tides of the bay, tied up alongside the quay like so many great cows in a barn. That one, there, with the lean bow like the snout of a hunting animal: that must be the one he sought. The name painted in sweeping Xixian characters was unfamiliar, but anyone could change a name. It was less easy to hide the shape of a ship as swift as Jeddin’s.

Daikonas Vo approached the gangway and looked up to the nearly empty deck. It could be that Dorza, her captain, was not here. If that was so, he would ask some questions and Dorza would be found. He felt confident that he could get everything else he needed from Axamis Dorza himself. It was an impossibly long coincidence that the captain should sail out from Xis in the disgraced Jeddin’s own ship on the very night of both the Leopard captain’s arrest and the disappearance of Vo’s quarry. Captain Jeddin, despite torments that had impressed even Vo, had denied any involvement with the girl Qinnitan, but his denial seemed suspicious in itself: why would a man watching his own fingers and toes being torn loose from his body protect a girl he barely knew instead of assenting to anything the inquisitors seemed to want to hear? It certainly did not correspond with Vo’s thorough experience of humanity in its final extremes.

He shouldered his bag and walked up the gangplank of the ship that had been the Morning Star of Kirous, whistling an old Perikalese work song his father used to sing while beating him.

Since Dorza had thrown her out, it had taken Qinnitan several days and many inquiries to find this woman, the laundry mistress. In the meantime, she had found herself in a situation she had never imagined in all her life, sleeping rough in the alleys of Hierosol, eating only what the mute boy Pigeon could steal. It could have been worse, but Pigeon had proved surprisingly adept at pilfering. From what Qinnitan could grasp of his story, he had not been fed well in the autarch’s palace and he and the other young slaves had been forced to supplement their meager fare with thievery.

The citadel’s laundry was huge, a vast space that had once perhaps been a trader’s warehouse, but which now was filled not with cedar wood and spices but tubs of steaming water, dozens of them—the room, Qinnitan marveled, must exist in a permanent fog. Every tub had two or three women leaning over it, and scores more women and young boys were carrying buckets from the great cauldron set in the floor at the center of the room, which was kept continually bubbling by a fire in the basement. As Qinnitan watched, one of the girls slopped water over the edge of a bucket onto herself and then collapsed to the ground, shrieking. A woman of middle years, impressively thick-limbed but not fat, came over to examine the hurt girl, then gave her a cuff on the head and sent her off with two other washwomen before directing a third to take the bucket which the injured girl had somehow miraculously not dropped. The big woman stood with her hands on her hips and watched the wounded soldier being helped off the battlefield, her expression that of someone who knows that the gods have no other occupation but to fill her life with petty annoyances.

Qinnitan gestured for Pigeon to wait by the doorway. The laundry-mistress watched her approach, scowling at this clear sign that her day was about to be unfairly interrupted again.

“What do you want?” she said in flat, unfriendly Hierosoline.

Qinnitan made a little bow, not entirely for show: up close, the woman was quite amazingly large and her sundarkened skin made her seem something carved out of wood, a statue or a ship of war or something else worthy of deferential approach. “You...Soryaza are?” she asked, aware that her Hierosoline was barbarous.

“Yes, I am, and I am a busy woman. What do you want?” “You...from Xis? Speak Xis?”

“For the love of the gods,” the woman grumbled, and then switched to Xixian. “Yes, I speak the tongue, although it’s been years since I lived in the cursed place. What do you want?”

Qinnitan took a deep breath, one obstacle passed. “I am very sorry to bother you, Mistress Soryaza. I know you are an important person, with all this...” She spread her hands to indicate the sea of washing-tubs.

Soryaza wasn’t so easily flattered. “Yes?”

“I...I have lost my father and my mother.” Qinnitan had prepared the story carefully. “When my mother died of the coughing fever last summer, my father decided to bring me and my brother back here to Hierosol. But on the ship he too caught a fever and I nursed him for several months before he died.” She cast her eyes down. “I have nowhere to go, and no relatives here or in Xis who will take me and my brother in.”

Soryaza raised an eyebrow. “Brother? Are you sure you do not mean a lover? Tell the truth, girl.”

Qinnitan pointed to Pigeon. The child stood by the door with his eyes wide, looking as though he might flee at a sudden loud noise. “There. He cannot speak but he is a good boy.”

“All right, brother it is. But what in the gods’ names could this possibly have to do with me?” Soryaza was already wiping her hands on her voluminous apron, like someone who is finished with something and about to move on to the next task.

This was the risky part. “I...I heard you were once a Hive Sister.”

Both eyebrows rose. “Did you? And what do you know of such things?”

“I was one myself—an acolyte. But when my mother was dying I left the Hive to help her. They would have let me come back, I’m certain, but my father wanted me here in Hierosol, his home.” She let a little of the very real tension and fear mount up from inside her, where she had kept it carefully bottled for so long. Her voice quivered and her eyes filled with tears. “And now my brother and I must sleep in the alleyways by the harbor, and try...” Soryaza’s brown face softened a little, but only a little. “Who was the high priestess when you were there? Tell me, girl, and quickly.”


“Ah, yes. I remember when she was merely a priestess, but she had a head on her shoulders.” She nodded. “Do the priests still come into the Hive every morning to collect the sacred honey?”

Qinnitan stared, surprised by such a strange, illogical question. Had things changed so much since this woman’s days as a priestess? Then she realized she was still being tested. “No, Mistress Soryaza,” she said carefully. “The priests never come in...except for a few Favored who tend the altar of Nushash, that is. No true men do. And the honey only goes to the priests twice a year.” The amount sent in the winter ceremony was slight, only enough taken from the jars covered with holy seals to symbolize the light of the magnificent, holy sun that would survive the cold months and return again. Then, in summer, the high priestess herself and her four Carriers always took the wagon filled with jars of sacred honey to the high priest of Nushash during the important ceremony of Queening, when the new hives were begun and the weariest of the old hives were sacrificed to the flames. The high priest took that honey and presented it to the autarch, or so it was told: Qinnitan and the other acolytes never saw any of the ceremonies that took place outside the Hive, even one so important as the delivery of the god’s honey.

“And the Oracle?”

“Mudri, Mistress. She spoke to me once.” But that was telling more than she needed to. Fortunately, Soryaza didn’t seem to notice.

“Ah, Mudri, was it? Hands of Surigali, she was there when I was a girl and she was old then.”

“They say she has outlived four autarchs.”

“The gods bless her and keep her, then. One autarch was enough for me, and now I hear there’s a new one who means even less good than his father.”

Qinnitan flinched at this casual blasphemy, so trained was she in the decorous and unthinking autarch-praise of the Seclusion. Still, she thought, I could tell her things about this autarch that would freeze her blood. She felt a small thrill of power even as the memories brought a rush of fear. She had survived—she, Qinnitan, had escaped. Had any other wife ever left the Seclusion except in a casket?

“Well, then, I believe your story, child,” Soryaza said. “I will find work for you. You can sleep with the other girls, those who live here—some stay nights with their families. But you will work, I promise you! Harder than you’ve ever done. The Hive is a dream of paradise compared to the palace laundries.”

“What about brother?”

Soryaza regarded the boy sourly. He straightened up in an effort to look useful, even though from such a distance he could have no idea what was being discussed. “Is he clean? Does he have decent habits—or has he been allowed to run wild like most simpleminded children?”

“He’s not simpleminded, Mistress, just mute. In truth, he’s very clever, and he will work hard.”

“Hmmmph. We’ll see. I suppose I can find a few things for an able child to turn his hand to.”

“You are very kind, Mistress Soryaza. Thank you so much. We won’t give you any cause to regret...”

“I have regrets enough already,” the laundry-mistress said. “More if you don’t stop chattering. Go with Yazi—the one with the red arms, there. She’s a southerner, too. She’ll show you what to do.” She turned to leave, then stopped and looked Qinnitan over, a disconcertingly shrewd appraisal. “There’s more than you’re telling me, of course. I can hear from your way of speaking, though, that the part about the Hive is true. No poor girl gets a place there, and no poor girl ever spoke like you. You’ll have to learn to talk proper Hierosoline, though—you can’t get away with Xixian here, someone will knock your head in. They don’t care much for the autarch in this city.”

“I will, Mistress!”

“What’s your name?”

Qinnitan’s mouth fell open. With all the talk about the Hive, she had forgotten the false name she had chosen, and now it had vanished as though it had never existed. In a stretching instant that seemed hours, her mind flitted wildly from one woman’s name to another, her sisters Ashretan and Cheryazi, her friend Duny, even Arimone the autarch’s paramount wife, but then lighted on that of a girl who actually had left the Hive, an older acolyte whom Qinnitan had envied and admired.

“Nira!” she said. “Nira. My name is Nira.”

“Your name must be ‘addled,’ girl, if it takes you so long to remember. Go now, and I had better not catch you standing around with your mouth hanging open—everyone works here.”

“Thank you again, Mistress. You have done...”

But Soryaza had already turned her back on Qinnitan and was on her way across the steaming laundry floor, off to deal with whatever practical joke rude Fate would next set in her path.

Axamis Dorza, sensing something wrong when no one responded to his greeting, came through the door with surprising delicacy for a big man. The captain seemed to have some idea of the pantomime Vo had prepared for him, but though he was obviously a clearheaded fellow and not to be underestimated, his eyes still grew wide when he saw the blood on the floor. When he in turn observed Dorza’s heavily muscled arms, Vo took his blade back a few finger-widths from the boy’s throat: he didn’t want things happening too quickly. If he had to kill the boy he’d lose much of his leverage; if he had to kill Captain Dorza before he could be made to speak, the entire day’s careful work would be wasted.

“What are you doing?” Axamis Dorza said hoarsely. “What do you want?”

“A few words. Some friendly conversation.” Vo slowly moved the blade back until its needle-sharp tip touched the boy’s convulsing throat. “So let us all move slowly. If you tell me what I need to know I will not harm the boy. Your son?”

“Nikos...” Dorza waved weakly. “Let him go. You cannot want anything from him.”

“Ah, but I can and do. I want him beside me while you answer my questions.”

The captain’s eyes darted away from his captive child, scanning the rooms for other bandits. Daikonas Vo could all but hear the man’s thoughts: Surely so confident a criminal as this one must have confederates. There were no confederates, of course, which was how Vo liked it, but it also forced caution. Dorza was a head taller than him; if Vo hurt the boy the captain would be on him like a mad bear.

Vo wanted to head off the next problem too—anything to keep the man calm as long as possible. Any moment now he would notice the body crumpled on the floor just behind the door. Better simply to tell him.

“I have bad news for you, Captain Dorza. Your wife is dead. She caught me by surprise. I did not know she was in the house. She was a brave one, it must be said. She tried to kill me with that club—a belaying pin, I think you sailors call it? So I had to kill her. I am sorry. I did not wish to do it but it is done, and...ah, ah, careful...if you let anger get the best of you the boy will die, too.”

“Tedora...!” Dorza looked around frantically, at last saw the blood-soaked shape behind the door. “ demon!” he shouted at Vo. “Nushash burn you, I’ll send you to hell!”

His eyes, red with tears, widened again. “The other children...!”

“Are under the bed. They are safe.” Daikonas Vo prodded gently with his long blade at the boy’s gorge, eliciting a squeal of fear. “Now speak to me or this one dies, too. You carried a young woman on your ship. Some say she was Guard Captain Jeddin’s mistress. Where is she now?”

“I’ll break you...!”

“Where is she?” He pulled the boy’s chin back until it seemed the skin of his throat, downy with his first beard, might part without even the touch of the blade.

“I don’t know, curse you! She stayed here with us but I threw her out when I found out what she was!”

“Liar.” He pinked the boy just enough to make a drop of blood grow, wobble, then slide down into the neck of his shirt.

“It’s true! She came to me with a note from Jeddin, saying to bring her here to Hierosol where he would meet us. I did not know she was the autarch’s wife!”

“And you didn’t know Jeddin was a traitor? You are surprisingly ignorant for a veteran captain.”

“I didn’t know anything until we arrived here. She hid it from me. She came with orders to leave that evening—the very evening when...when Jeddin was arrested.”

“I do not think I like your answer. I think I will take one of the boy’s eyes out and then we will try again.”

“By the gods, I swear I have told you all I know! It was only a few days ago that I threw her out—she is doubtless still in the city! You can find her!”

“Did she know anyone here?”

“I don’t think so. That was why she stayed with me—she and the child had nowhere else.”

“A child? She had a child?”

“Not hers, he was too old. A little mute boy—her servant, I think.” The captain ran his thick fingers through his beard. Though it was evening, and cool, his face was running with sweat. “And that is all I know. Here, even if you kill my son I can tell you nothing more, I swear on the blood of Nushash! On the autarch’s head!”

“Swearing by the ruler you betrayed? Not a good choice of oaths, I think.” Daikonas Vo experimentally lifted his blade until it hovered just a fingernail’s breadth from the boy’s eye, but the captain only wept. It seemed he truly had nothing more to say.

“Very well...” Vo began, then, with a fluidity learned only through long practice, snapped the knife across the room into Axamis Dorza’s throat. A good trick, Vo thought, but bad when you miss. The man’s hands flew to his neck, eyes wide with surprise. Gurgling, he sank to his knees.

“It had to be,” Vo said. “Be glad I give you a quick death, Captain. You would not have liked to find yourself in the hands of the autarch’s special craftsmen.”

Shrieking like a much younger child, the boy suddenly began to thrash in Daikonas Vo’s arms, trying to break away. Vo cursed his own inattentiveness—he had let his grip loosen when he threw the knife—but quickly managed to get the boy’s arm twisted behind his back again. He turned him then, put a boot in his backside, and shoved the youth’s head so hard into the table that the whole mass of oak tipped and turned. The boy was stunned but not dead. He lay bloody-headed in the broken crockery, weeping.

An instant later Vo was himself upended and knocked to the ground, a huge, red-smeared thing atop him like an angry mastiff. Dorza had not bled out as fast as Vo had thought he would, a misjudgment he was regretting already. Something smashed hard against his head, a blow he only partially managed to deflect with his forearm, and then the bloody face was right above his, eyes goggling with final rage and madness. Vo rolled so that he was on his side, then his hand went down his leg and another dagger came out of his boot. A moment later it was beneath the captain’s ribs, and the man’s bulk was jerking and stiffening even as Vo held him fast—as intimate as lovemaking, but somehow less distasteful. When the movement stopped, Vo rolled the corpse off and stood, wondering how he would get all the blood off his jerkin.

The boy was still on the floor, but he had drawn himself up onto his hands and knees, head wagging like an old dog’s, blood drizzling down the side of his face.

“Someday...” he said, “someday I’ll find you...and kill you.”

“Ah...Nikos, was it?” Vo wiped his dagger on the captain’s shirt before returning it to his boot, then tugged the other one loose from the gristle of the dead man’s throat. “I doubt it. I don’t leave enemies behind me, so there won’t be a someday, you see.” He took a few steps forward. Before the boy could pull away Daikonas Vo had his hair gripped tight, then slashed him beneath the throat like a pig held for slaughter.

Only now, as the boy wriggled in the spreading pool of red, did Vo hear the muffled sobbing of the children under the mattress, doing their best to be quiet but—understandably, given the circumstances—failing. He heaved up the heavy mass of the table and threw it on top of the pallet, then poured lantern oil on the floor and splashed it on the walls. He took a smoldering stick from the oven and tossed it over his shoulder as he went out the door. Flames had already begun to lick up the walls inside the house as he walked, swiftly but without obvious hurry, down the steep hill road.

So there’s a child with her, he thought. One of the boyeunuchs had disappeared from the Seclusion on the same night, but that escape had been linked only to the traitorous Favored Luian, not the girl he sought: Vo, like everyone else, assumed the boy had taken advantage of the confusion to run away, and now he was displeased with himself for making such an obvious but unwarranted assumption.

Well, if the child’s with her, it will make them that much easier to find. He could see yellow light gleaming fitfully on the roofs of the houses he was passing, which meant that up the hill the captain’s house must be burning well. Too bad about the children. He had nothing against children particularly, but he wanted no one knowing what he had questioned the captain about.

Yes, this might not be too difficult after all, he thought with satisfaction. Hiersol was full of girls and young women, but how many of them were traveling with a mute boy? Tracking down his quarry would be only a matter of time and effort, and Daikonas Vo had never been afraid of a little hard work.

12. Two Yisti Knives

When Zhafaris the Prince of Evening came to his manhood he became lord of all the gods. He took many wives, but highest among them were his nieces Ugeni and Shusayem, and I tell truth when I say they were as alike as two tamarind seeds. Soon both were heavy with the children of Zhafaris, but Ugeni was frightened and hid her children away, so that no one knew they had been born. However, Shusayem, her sister, brought forth her own children, Argal, Efiyal, and Xergal, and called them the heirs of Zhafaris.

—from The Revelations of Nushash, Book One

Briony supposed it was possible for a person to feel more exhausted than she did at this moment, dirtier, more sodden with sweat, and less ladylike, but she could not quite imagine it.

I wanted to be treated like a boy, didn’t I? At the moment she was sitting on the ground sucking air, watching Shaso drink from a jar of watered wine. The old man had recovered some of his old bowstring-taut muscle during the days upon days they had been practicing; the sinews of his forearms writhed like snakes as he lifted the heavy jar. I didn’t want to be forced to wear confining dresses, or to be treated like a fragile blossom. Well, I’ve got my wish.

Thank you, Zoria, she prayed with only the smallest tinge of irony. Every day you teach me something new.

“Are you ready?” Shaso demanded, wiping his bearded mouth with the back of his hand. After keeping himself shaved and carefully trimmed all Briony’s life he had now let his whiskers and hair grow wild, and looked more than ever like some ancient oracle, the kind that had sailed across the sea on rafts to found the gods’ temples when Hierosol was little more than a fishing village.

She groaned and sat up. No doubt the old oracles had been just as hard-minded as Shaso. It explained a lot. “Ready, I suppose.”

“You have learned much,” he said when she was standing again. “But wooden sticks are poor weapons in many ways, and there are tricks that can only be learned with a true blade.” He squatted down and unfolded the leather bundle from which he had withdrawn the wooden dowels each day. Inside it lay four more objects, each wrapped in its own piece of oiled leather. “The first day we came here,” Shaso said, “I asked the boon of Effir dan-Mozan that I could choose among some of his trade goods. These were the best pieces he had.” He flipped open the wrappings, revealing four daggers, one pair larger than the other. The larger had curved crosspieces, the smaller barely any crosspieces at all. “They are Sanian steel, of excellent quality.”

Her hand stole toward the knives, but stopped. “Sanian?” “Sania is a country in the west of Xand. The Yisti metalworkers there are of Funderling stock, and make weapons that all Xandians covet. These four would cost you the price of a pair of warhorses.”

“That much?”

“Yisti weapons are said to be charmed.” He reached down and took one of the larger daggers in his big hand, balancing it on his palm. He pointed at the simple, elegant hilt. “Polished tortoiseshell,” he said. “Sacred to their god.”

“Are they really magic?”

He looked up at her with amusement in his eyes. “No weapon can make a fighter out of a clumsy dolt, but a fine piece of steel will do what its wielder needs it to do. If it saves your life or takes the life from another, that is as powerful a magic as you could hope for, do you not think?”

Briony was a little breathless, and having taciturn Shaso turn poetic on her did not help. She reached out her finger and traced the length of one of the smaller, needle-sharp daggers. “Beautiful.”

“And deadly.” He picked up two of the knives, one large and one small, then took out their sheaths as well, hard, tanned leather with cords that could be tied around a waist or a leg. He scabbarded the two blades, then used the cords to secure the sheaths to the daggers’ hilts. “Do that with yours, too,” he said. “That way, we will not cut off any of each other’s important parts as we work.”

They worked for another hour at least as the sun slid down behind the walls and the courtyard filled with soothing shadows. Briony, who had thought she could not lift her arm one more time, instead found herself revived by the fascination of sparring with actual blades, of the weight and balance of them, the new shapes they made in her hand. She was delighted to find she could block Shaso’s own blade with the crosshaft of her larger knife and then disarm him with no more than a flick of the wrist. When she had managed the trick a few times, he showed her how to move in below that sudden flick with the small knife, stabbing underneath her opponent’s arm. It was strangely intimate, and as the point of the leather-clad blade bounced against his rib she pulled back, suddenly queasy. For the first time she truly felt what she was doing, learning how to stab someone to death, to cut skin and pierce eyes, to let out a man’s guts while she stared him in the face.

The old man looked at her for a long moment. “Yes, you must get close to kill with a knife—close enough to kiss, almost. Umeyana, the blood-kiss, we call it. It takes courage. If you fail to land a deadly blow your enemy will be able to grab and hold. Most will be bigger than you.” He frowned, then sank to his knees and began putting his blades back in their oilcloth wrapping. “That is enough for today. You have done well, Highness.”

She tried to hand him the knives she had been using but he shook his head. “They are yours, Princess. From now on, I do not want you apart from them. Examine your clothes and find places you can keep them and then draw them without snagging. Many a soldier has died with his knife or swordhilt caught in his belt, useless.”

“They...they’re mine?”

He nodded, eyes cold and bright. “The responsibility for one’s own safety is no gift,” he said. “It is much more pleasant to be a child and let someone else bear the burden. But you do not have that luxury anymore, Briony Eddon. You lost that with your castle.”

That stung. For a moment she thought he was being intentionally cruel to her, humbling her further so she would be easier for him to mold. Then she realized that he meant every word he said: Briony, offspring of a royal family, was used to people who gave gifts with the idea of being remembered and needed—to make themselves indispensable. Shaso was giving her the only kind of gift he trusted, one that would make her better able to survive without Shaso’s own help. He wanted to be unnecessary.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Go now and get something to eat.” Suddenly he would not meet her eye. “It has been a long day’s exercise.”

Strange, stubborn, sour old man! The only way he knows how to show love is by teaching me how to kill people.

The thought arrested her, and she stopped to watch the Tuani walk away. It is love, she thought. It must be. And after all we did to him.

She sat in the growing twilight for some time, thinking.

“How well do you know Lord Shaso?” she asked Idite. As much as she had been offended at first by not eating with the men of the house, she had come to enjoy these quiet evenings with the hadar’s female inhabitants. She still could not speak the women’s tongue and doubted she ever would, but some of the others beside Idite had proved able to speak Briony’s once they had got over their initial shyness.

“Oh, not at all, Briony-zisaya.” Idite always made the name sound like a child’s counting game, one-two-three, one-twothree. “I have never met him before you came to our door twelve nights ago.”

“But you speak of him as though you had known him all your life.”

“It is true that I have, in some ways.” Idite allowed a delicate frown to crease her lips as she considered. One of the young women whispered a translation to the others. “He is as famous as any man who ever lived, except for of course the Great Tuan, his cousin. I mean the old Great Tuan, of course. Where his eldest son is, the new Tuan, no one knows. He escaped before the autarch’s armies reached Nyoru, and some say he is hiding in the desert, waiting to return and lift the autarch’s cruel hand from our homeland. But he has waited a long time already.” She forced a little laugh. “But listen to me, talking and talking and saying nothing, croaking like an ibis. Lord Shaso’s name is known to every Tuani, his deeds spoken of around the cookingfire. People still argue over Shaso’s Choice, of course—so much so that the old Tuan made it a crime to discuss it, because people died from the arguments.” Briony shook her head. “Shaso’s...choice?”

“Yes.” Idite turned to the other women and said something in Tuani—Briony could make out Shaso’s name. The women all nodded solemnly, some saying, “sesa, sesa,” which Briony had come to learn meant “yes, yes.”

It was strange to think of Shaso as someone who had his own history—his own legends, even, although she had known that in his day he had been a much-respected warrior. “What choice, Idite? I mean, surely you can talk of it now without breaking the law. He’s only a few rooms away.”

Idite laughed. “I was thinking of Tuan. There is no law here in Marrinswalk.” In her accented speech it became “Mahreens-oo-woke,” an exotic name that for a moment made it seem an exotic place to Briony, too. “But there is custom, and sometimes that is as strong as law. His choice was to honor the vow he made on the battlefield, to a foreign king, to leave his country and live in exile. Even when the Autarch of Xis attacked us, Shaso was not allowed to return and defend us. Some say that without his strong hand, without the fear he made when he led our armies, the Great Tuan had no chance against Xis.”

It took Briony a moment to understand. “You’re talking about how he came to serve my father? How he came to Southmarch?”

“Yes, of course—I almost forget.” Idite lifted her hands in a gesture of embarrassment. “You are the daughter of Olin,”—“Aw-leen” was how she rendered it. “I meant no offense.”

“I’m not offended, I’m just...tell me. Tell me about it.” “ must know all, yourself.”

“Not what it meant to your people.” It was Briony’s turn to feel shamed. “I’ve never thought much about Shaso’s life before now. Of course, that’s in part because he’s so closemouthed. Until a few months ago, I didn’t even know he had a daughter.”

“Ah, yes, Hanede.” Idite shook her head. “Very sad.”

“I was told she died because...because Dawet ruined her. Made love to her and then deserted her. Is that true?”

Idite looked a little alarmed. Some of the other women, bored or confused by the long stretch of conversation in Briony’s tongue, seemed to beg for translation. Idite waved them to silence. “I do not know the facts—I am only a merchant’s wife and it is not for me to speak of noble ones like the Dan-Heza and the Dan-Faar. They are above me like stars—like you are yourself, Lady.”

“Huh. I’m not above you or anyone. I’ve been wearing borrowed clothes for nearly a month. At the moment I’m just grateful you’ve taken me into your house.”

“No, it is our honor, Briony-zisaya.”

“ your people hate my father? For what he did to Shaso?”

Idite eyed her, the soft brown eyes full of shrewd intelligence. “I will speak honestly with you, Princess, because I believe you truly wish it. Yes, many of my people hated your father, but as with most things, it has more complicatedness—complication?—than that. Some respected him for forcing his own nobles to spare Shaso’s life, but making a servant out of the Dan-Heza still was seen as dishonorable. Giving him land and honors, that was surprising, and many thought your father a very wise man, but then the people were furious that Shaso was not allowed to come back and fight against the old autarch (may he have to cross each of the seven hells twice!). These are things much discussed among our folk even now, and your father is seen as both hero and villain.” Idite bowed her head. “I hope I have not offended.”

“No. No, not at all.” Briony was overwhelmed. She had been painfully reminded again how little she knew about Shaso despite his importance to both her father and herself, and she was just as ignorant about many others who had been her helpers and guardians and advisers. Avin Brone, Chaven, old Nynor the castellan—what did she know about any of them beyond the obvious? How had she dared to think of herself as a ruler for even one moment?

“You seem sad, my lady.” Idite waved for one of the younger women to refill their guest’s cup with flower-scented tea— Briony had not developed a taste for the Tuani’s gawa as yet and she doubted she ever would. “I have said too much.”

“You’ve made me think, that’s all. Surely that’s nothing to apologize for.” Briony took a breath. “Sometimes we don’t see the shape of things until we’re a long way away, do we?”

“If I had learned that at your age,” said Idite, “I would have been on the road to deep wisdom instead of becoming the foolish old woman that I am.”

Briony ignored Idite’s ritualized self-deprecation. “But all the wisdom of the world can’t take you back to change a mistake you’ve already made, can it?”

“There.” Idite smiled. “That is another step down the road. Now drink your tea and let us talk of happier things. Fanu and her sister have a song they will sing for you.”

Briony woke on her thirteenth day in the house of the DanMozan to find the women’s quarters bustling. She had still not developed the habit of rising as early as the others— they seemed to get out of bed before the sun was above the horizon—but even so she was surprised by the degree of activity.

“Ah, she awake!” cried pretty young Fanu, and then added something in the Tuani tongue; Briony thought she recognized Idite’s name in the fast slur of sounds.

Briony began sluggishly to pull off her nightdress so she could don her own garments, but the women gathered around her, waving their hands and laughing.

“Don’t do!” said Fanu. “Later. For Idite wait.”

Briony was grateful that she was at least allowed to wash her face and scrape her teeth clean before Idite arrived. The older woman was beautifully dressed in a robe of spotless white silk with a fringed girdle of deep red.

“They won’t let me dress,” Briony complained, shamed by Idite’s splendid clothes and feeling more than ever that she was too large and too pale for this household.

“That is because we will dress you,” Idite explained. “Today is a special day, and special care must be taken, especially for you, Briony-zisaya.”

“Why? Is someone getting married?”

Idite laughed and repeated her remark. The other young women giggled. Idite had explained to Briony that most of them were the daughters of other well-to-do families, that they were not Effir’s wives but closer to the ladies-in-waiting of Briony’s own court. Only a few were true servants, and some, like Fanu, were relatives of Idite or her husband. Although Effir dan-Mozan was not a Tuani noble, not in the sense Briony understood it, it was clear that he was an important man and this was an important household, a fine place to send a daughter to learn from a respected woman like Idite.

“No, no one is to be married. Today is Godsday, and just as you go to your temple, so do we.”

“But you didn’t take me the last time.” She remembered well the long morning she had spent on her own in the women’s quarters, wishing she had something to read or even some sewing with which to occupy herself, much as she disliked it.

“Nor will we take you this time,” Idite said kindly, patting Briony’s hand. “You would be welcome, but you are a stranger to the Great Mother and Dan-Mozan my husband says it would be wrong to teach you the rituals, since you are a guest.”

“So why do I have to dress in a special way?”

“Because afterward we are going out to the town,” said Idite. The women behind her all murmured and smiled. “You have not been outside the walls of the hadar since you came. My husband thought you deserved to go outside today with the rest of us.”

She was not certain she liked the word “deserved,” which made her feel like a child or a prisoner, but she was excited at the thought of seeing something other than the inside of the merchant’s house. A cautious thought occurred to her. “And Lord Shaso...? He says it is allowed?”

“He is coming, too.”

“But how can I go out? My face is well-known, at least to some...”

“Ah, that is why we must begin to work on you now, king’s daughter.” Idite smiled with mischievous pleasure. “You will see!”

By the time the sun had crept above the walls and morning had truly come, Briony sat alone in the women’s quarters waiting for the others to return from their prayers, which were apparently led by a Tuani priest who came to the hadar and held forth in the courtyard. She lifted the beautiful little lotus mirror Idite had placed in her hands, wondering at the changes the women had made. Briony’s skin, fair and freckled, at least in summertime, had been covered all over in powdery light brown paint from one of Idite’s pots, so that she was now only a shade or two paler than Shaso himself. Her eyes had been heavily lined with kohl, her golden hair pulled back so that not a wisp of it showed beneath the tight-fitting white hood. Only her eyes had not changed, the green she had shared with her brother Kendrick as pale as Akaris jade. Idite and the other women had laughed at the contrast, saying that her eyes in that dark skin made her look like a Xixian witch, that she needed only flame-colored hair to complete the picture. This had made her think of redling Barrick, and to her horror she had suddenly found herself weeping, at which point everything had stopped while her eyes and cheeks were dabbed dry and repairs were made. The kohl had to be reapplied completely. As she looked in the mirror now, Briony saw a black spot of it that had dripped from her jaw to her wrist, and she dabbed it away.

Where was he? Where was her brother now? For a moment a wave of such pure pain washed over her that she could barely breathe and she had to squeeze her eyes tightly shut. Every kindness that the people of this house did her only made her feel more lost, the life she knew farther away. She could live without the throne of Southmarch, even without Southmarch itself, strange and lonely as that was to contemplate, but if she could not ever see her father or her brother again she felt sure she would die.

Barrick, where are you? Where have you gone? Are you safe? Do you ever think of me?

Suddenly, prodded by something she could not understand, could barely feel, she opened her eyes. There, hovering in the mirror behind her own sorrowing features like the bottom of a pond seen through reflections on its surface, was her twin’s death-pale face, eyes closed. His arms lay across his chest and his wrists were chained.

“Barrick!” she shrieked, but a moment later he was gone; only her own, now-alien face looked back. I’m going mad, she thought, staring at the horrified, dark-skinned stranger in the mirror, and again began to weep, this time with no thought for the painstaking work of Idite and the other women.

As they wound their way through the narrow streets of LandersPort, Briony, a little recovered but still shaken, was surprised by how nice it was merely to be in the chill open air. Still, despite her mummer’s paint and head-to-toe garb, she felt almost naked being out among strangers, and every time she noticed someone looking at her she had to fight an urge to turn and hurry back to the shelter of the merchant’s house. For the first time she really felt what Shaso had said so many times: if the wrong person saw her, it could mean her death. She kept her head down as much as she could, but after so long inside it was hard not to look around a little.

Many other people were out walking, most of them heading in the same direction as Briony’s party, and the numbers grew as their small procession wound down toward the seafront. Most seemed to be Xandians, dressed in similar fashion to the merchant’s family, the women in long robes, hoods, and veils, the men’s pale garb made festive by long vests in bright colors, sparkling with gold thread. Effir danMozan was at the front of their own little company, nodding gravely to other robed men, and even to a few workaday Marrinswalk folk who called greetings to him. His nephew Talibo walked behind him but in front of the women, head held high like a shepherd with a flock of prize sheep. Even Shaso had come, although he hid his features under high neck-scarf and a four-cornered Tuani hat pulled low over his eyes.

The women, with Briony at their center to keep her as far as possible from curious stares, her disguise notwithstanding, followed in a whispering, laughing crowd. This, as far as Briony could tell, was the one day they were always allowed out of the house, and despite the presence of the important men of the household, they seemed as confident and cheerful as they did in the privacy of the women’s quarters.

LandersPort seemed bigger than Briony remembered—not that she had found much chance to examine it when she’d arrived after dark, exhausted and hungry and dripping wet. It was set on a hillside by a wide, shallow bay. A walled manor house and a gray stone temple watched over it all from the hill’s crest. Shaso had told her that the manor belonged to a baron named Iomer, whom she had apparently met but did not remember, a stout landholder with more interest in his fruit trees and pigs than in life at Southmarch court, which perhaps explained his relative anonymity.

The poor part of town, of which the Dan-Mozan house was one of the few jewels, was located on the south side of the hill near the base, far from the ocean and far from the manor. Thus they did not climb now or descend on this journey so much as they made their way around the bulk of the hill. Since the rich lived high and the poor lived low, as in so many other towns in the March Kingdoms, they passed not from poor neighborhoods to wealthy ones, but from the part of town where the poor had mostly dark skin, or had the Skimmer cast, to places where poverty wore a skin as pale as Briony’s own.

Or as pale as mine before they put all this paint on me, at least.

It was interesting and a little disturbing to be stared at for once, not for who she was—something she had grown used to over the years but was never fond of—but because she was traveling in a group of brown-skinned folk. Some people looked only with curiosity, but others, for no reason Briony could tell, stared with unhidden loathing. A few drunken men even leaned out of their doors to shout after them, but seemed to lose interest when they saw the knives on the Tuani men’s belts.

Briony found it surprisingly hard to be glared at by people she did not know, although she was clever enough to understand it was the other side of the coin from all those folk who had cheered her and showered blessings on her only because she was part of King Olin’s privileged family. But, other side of the coin or not, it was one thing to be loved by strangers, most definitely another to be hated by them.

So this is how it has been for Shaso as long as he’s been here. She could make nothing of the thought just now, with so much happening around her, but she folded it like a letter and put it away to be examined later.

Soon, as the narrow road wound between the close-leaning houses, nearing the waterfront, Briony discovered that they were seeing more brown faces again and more wide-eyed, closemouthed Skimmer folk. The smell of the bay also grew stronger, a slightly spoiled tang that seemed to flavor every breath, every thought. She wondered if she would ever again cross the wide waters of Brenn’s Bay to return home openly and safely, whether her family would ever be together again. Seeing Barrick in the mirror that way had frightened her—was it an omen? Were the gods trying to tell her something? But she knew that people sometimes dreamed of things that worried them, and whether the gods had sent her this waking dream or not, it was certain that Barrick and his fate were the things that most worried her.

They reached a row of ramshackle warehouse buildings along a canal that emptied into Brenn’s Bay, the bay itself visible only a stone’s throw away between buildings, the masts of at least a dozen ships tilting gently just beyond the rooftops.

Effir dan-Mozan led them in through the doorway of one of the larger structures. Once through, Briony saw it was not a warehouse at all: the first room was long and low, but the walls were covered with beautiful tapestries in unfamiliar designs—birds and deer and trees of strange shape. A man even smaller and rounder than Effir stood in the center of the room, his arms spread wide, his bearded face stretched by a broad smile. “Ziya Dan-Mozan! You and your family grace my humble place of business!”

“You do me too much honor, Baddara,” the merchant replied with a small bow.

“Come, come, I have saved the best room for you.” Baddara took Dan-Mozan’s hand and led him toward a door at the back of the room, gesticulating broadly and talking rapidly of ships and the price of gawa. The rest of the merchant’s household followed.

Briony had edged up beside Shaso. “Why is he speaking our language?”

“Because he is not Tuani,” the old man growled. “He is from Sania, and they speak a different language there. On the southern continent, Xixian and Mihanni are the tongues everyone shares. Here it is yours.”

They were led through a large room filled with tables, many of them occupied by men in both southern and northern dress, several of whom greeted Effir dan-Mozan with obvious respect; just as obvious was his easy acceptance of their deference. Shaso, on the other hand, kept his head down, meeting no one’s gaze, and Briony suddenly remembered that she, with her un-Tuani eyes, should most certainly be doing the same. Baddara led them to a private room whose walls were covered by more hangings, hunting scenes and boating scenes on shimmery fabrics done in a style Briony did not recognize. The little man shouted orders to several older bearded men who were clearly meant to serve the guests; then, after another elaborate bow, he hurried out.

Although the room was theirs alone, Briony noticed with some irritation that the Tuani notion of propriety was still present: she and the other women were seated at one end of the table, the men at the other, with an empty seat between the groups on each side. Still, it was a chance to see something other than the inside walls of the hadar, and she did her best to enjoy the change. The tapestries at least were beautiful to look at, many of them ornately decorated with thread of what looked like real gold, all of them woven with elaborate attention to color and detail—in fact, the tapestries were so compelling that she did not notice for some time that the room had no windows. The woven pictures themselves seemed to look out onto scenes far more soothing and uplifting than anything she could have seen in this small seaport.

Baddara’s servers brought in several courses, pieces of fruit with a creamy sauce for dipping, and bread, cheese, and salted meats. The women and men both drank wine, although Briony suspected from the separate pitchers and the weak character of what was in her cup that the women’s was more heavily watered. Watered or not, the combination of wine and unusual freedom cheered her companions immensely, and although they spoke in low voices there seemed to be a greater than usual amount of joking and giggling between the women, especially Fanu and the other young ones.

Meanwhile, as the courses came and went, men both of Xand and Eion wandered in from the rooms outside to engage in what looked like respectful audiences with Effir dan-Mozan, some clearly seafaring folk, others in the fine robes of merchants or bankers. Briony could see that although Shaso spoke to no one and did his best to be inconspicuous, he was listening carefully. She wondered how Dan-Mozan introduced him—as a relative? A stranger? Another merchant? And she wondered even more at what these men were saying. It was infuriating to have to sit here this way, amid this flock of ignored women, while important things about the state of the kingdom were doubtless being discussed.

If Shaso was paying close attention to the merchant’s conversations, Dan-Mozan’s nephew was not. In fact, Talibo appeared more interested in Briony, watching her with a fixation that unnerved her. At first she did her best to avoid his gaze, looking away whenever she caught him glancing her direction, but after a while the liberty he was taking began to annoy her. He was a child, practically—a handsome, stupid child! What right did he have to stare at her, and even more important, why should she feel compelled to look away? It touched her on the memory of Hendon Tolly humiliating her in front of her own court; it made the old injury sting all over again.

The next time she caught Tal looking at her she stared back coolly until at last it was the youth who looked away, his cheeks darkening with what she hoped was embarrassment or even shame.

Insolent boy. For a moment she found herself angry with everyone in the room, Shaso, Dan-Mozan, Idite, the other women, all of them. She was a princess, an Eddon! Why must she hide and skulk like a criminal? Why should she be grateful to people who were only doing their duty? If the Tollys were the active agents of her misfortune, all those who did not rise up against the usurpers and cast them out of SouthmarchCastle, even these Tuani merchants, were their passive collaborators. They were all guilty!

Now she was the one feeling her face grow hot, and she stared down at her bowl, trying to compose herself. She should enjoy the meal—Baddara’s kitchen was a good one, and many of the dishes were pleasurably unfamiliar— instead of brooding.

She took a deep breath and looked up again, composing herself, and found to her immense irritation that the merchant’s nephew was looking at her again, his expression even more unreadable than before.

Gods curse him, anyway, she thought sourly, blocking him from view with her lifted cup. And curse all men, young or old. And curse the Tollys, of course—curse them a thousand times!

After the meal and their long walk back through town to the hadar, Briony was summoned to talk with Shaso and Effir dan-Mozan. She joined them in the courtyard garden where only a day before she had been trying to stick a real dagger —albeit with its blade wrapped in leather—into Shaso danHeza’s ribs. She thought of the Yisti knives hidden beneath her bed and felt a moment of guilt: Shaso had told her she should keep them with her. She hoped he would not ask to see them.

But where are you supposed to carry knives while wearing such ridiculous clothes—no belts, billowing sleeves...?

Shaso was standing, examining the quince tree as though he were an orchardman, but Effir dan-Mozan levered his small, round body out of his chair to greet her.

“Thank you for joining us, Princess Briony. We learned many things today and we knew you would want to hear as soon as possible what was said.”

“Thank you, Effir.” She looked at Shaso, wondering if he had been less eager to share the information than the merchant was suggesting: he had the look of a man who had eaten something sour.

“First off, a company of soldiers from Southmarch have been asking questions in LandersPort. They do not seem to have learned anything useful, however, and they moved on to other towns a day or two ago, so that will be some relief to you, I think.”

“Yes. Yes, it is.” The day’s outing had made her realize how little she liked being out where people could see her, but she also knew she could not hide here in the merchant’s house forever.

“Also,” Dan-Mozan said, “everyone who has come from the south seems to agree that the autarch is pushing forward his shipbuilding at a great pace, which does make it seem as though he plans an attack on Hierosol. Most of the other nations in Xand are already pacified, and the strongest of those which resist him are in the mountainous regions to the south. There would be little use of a great navy there.”

“But Hierosol...that is where my father is prisoner!”

“Of course, Highness.” Dan-Mozan bowed as though acknowledging a sad but immutable fact, some ancient tragedy. “Still, I do not think you should be overly worried. Autarch Sulepis, even if he can put three hundred warships in the water, will not be able to overcome Hierosol.”

“Why do you say that?” She wanted to believe it. It was horrid to think of being stuck here with Hierosol coming under attack. Foolish and probably fatal as it would be, it was all she could do these days not to steal a few days’ worth of food and sneak out of the house, heading southward.

“Because the walls of Hierosol are the strongest defense on either of the two continents. No one has ever conquered them by force, not in almost two thousand years. And the Hierosolines have a mighty fleet of their own.”

“But for all that, Hieorsol has been conquered several times,” growled Shaso, who had been silent until now, staring at the barren tree as though he had never seen anything so fascinating. “By treachery, usually. And Sulepis has made more than a few of his conquests that way—have you forgotten Talleno and Ulos?”

Effir dan-Mozan smiled and waved his hand as though swatting away the smallest of flying insects. “No, and Ludis Drakava has not forgotten either, I promise you. Remember, his followers can have no illusions about what comes in the wake of one of the autarch’s triumphs. The Ulosians who turned to Xis did not have that knowledge and they paid dearly for it. Recall that Ludis and his men are interlopers, with no power except that which they hold in the great city itself. Not one of the lord protector’s followers will believe he can make himself a better deal with Sulepis.”

“Yes, but there are many that Ludis displaced, the old nobility of Hierosol, who might think precisely that.”

Again the merchant waved a dismissive hand. “We will bore Princess Briony with this talk. She wants assurances and we give her debate.” He turned his sharp gaze onto her. “You have my word, Highness. As the oracles teach us, only a fool says ’Forever,’ but I promise you that the autarch will not take Hierosol this year or even next year. There is time enough to get your father back.”

Shaso muttered something, but Briony could not make out the words.

“What else did you learn today?” she asked. “Anything about my brother or Southmarch?”

“Nothing we did not already know, at least in general terms. The only thing of interest I heard was that there is a new castellan at Southmarch—a man named Havemore.”

Shaso cursed, but Briony did not recognize the name at first. “Hold—is that Brone’s factor?” She felt sudden anger boil through her. “If he has appointed his own factor as castellan, then Avin Brone must be prospering under the Tollys.” Could the lord constable, one of her father’s oldest friends and closest advisers, have been with them all along? But if so, why had he told her and Barrick about the contact between the autarch and Summerfield Court ? “It is all too confusing,” she said at last.

“Not so confusing, at least in one respect.” Shaso looked as though he wanted to swim back to Southmarch and get his large hands around someone’s neck. “Tirnan Havemore is well-named. He has always been ambitious. If anyone would profit from the Tollys being in power, he would.”

Shaso and Effir had gone in, and Briony had been left alone in the garden to mull over the latest tidings from Southmarch and elsewhere, large and small. She paced slowly, pulling her shawl close around her loose garment. Havemore being made castellan and the Tollys’ liegeman Berkan Hood being made lord constable, those changes were not all that surprising, just evidence of Hendon tightening his fist on power. No one knew much about Anissa, Briony’s stepmother, and the new baby, but they had been seen, or at least Anissa and a baby had been seen.

It’s not as if Hendon Tolly even needs a real heir, Briony thought bitterly. The baby might have died that night, for all anyone will ever know. As long as Anissa swears it’s true, any baby she claims is hers will be the heir, and the Tollys will protect the heir—which means the Tollys will rule. It was especially bizarre to think that this child, if it was the real one, was her own half brother.

A sudden pang touched her. Maybe he looks like Father, or like Kendrick or Barrick. For me, that would be reason enough to protect him. For a moment she did not realize that she had made another promise to herself and the gods, but she had. If that child is truly my father’s, then Zoria, hear me—I will save him from the Tollys, too! He’s an Eddon, after all. I won’t let him be their mask.

She was so deep in these thoughts that she had not noticed the man standing across the courtyard from her, watching her in the growing twilight gloom, until he began to move toward her.

“You are thinking,” said Talibo, the merchant’s nephew. His curly hair was wet, combed close against his head, and he wore a robe so clean and white it seemed to glow in the garden shadows. “What do you think about, lady?”

She tried to suppress her anger. How was he to know she wished to be alone with her thoughts? “Matters of my family.”

“Ah, yes. Families are very important. All the wise men say this.” He put his hand to his chin in a gesture so transparently meant to look like a wise man’s pondering that Briony actually giggled. His eyes widened, then narrowed. “Why do you laugh?”

“Sorry. I thought of something funny, that’s all. What brings you to the garden? I will be happy to let you walk in peace— I should go join the other women for the evening meal.”

He looked at her for a moment with something like defiance. “You do not want to go. Not truly.” “What?”

“You do not want to go. I know this. I saw you look at me.”

She shook her head. He was using words, simple words in her own language, but he was not making any sense to her at all. “What do you mean, Tal?”

“Do not call me that. That is a name for a child. I am Talibo dan-Mozan. You watch me. I see you watch me.” “Watch you...?”

“A woman does not look at a man so unless she is interested in him. No woman makes such shameful eyes at a man if she does not want him.”

Briony did not know whether to laugh again or to shout at him. He was mad! “ don’t know what you’re talking about. You were staring at me. You have been staring at me since I came here.”

“You are a handsome woman, for an Eioni.” He shrugged. “A girl, really. But still, not bad to the eye.”

“How dare you? How dare you talk to me I was a serving wench!”

“You are only a woman and you have no husband to protect you. You cannot make eyes at men, you know.” He said this with the calm certainty of someone describing the weather. “Other men would take advantage of you.” He stepped forward, trying to pull her toward him, first her hands, then— when she slapped his fingers away—moving even closer to put his arms around her.

Zoria, save me! She was so astonished she almost could not fight. He was going to try to kiss her! A small, sane part of her was glad she had left her knives behind, because at this moment she would happily have stabbed him through the heart.

She fought him off, but it was difficult: he was pushing blindly forward, as though determined on something he knew might be painful but needed to be done, and her own knees were weak with surprise and even fear. She was terrified and did not entirely know why. He was a boy, and Shaso and the others were only a few paces away—one shout and they would come to her aid.

She got her arm free and slapped at him, missing his face but striking him hard against the neck. He stopped in surprise, then began to step toward her again but she used one of Shaso’s holds to grab his arm and shove him to one side, then she fled across the courtyard back toward the women’s quarters, tears of rage and shame making it hard to see.

“You will come to me,” he called after her, no more shaken than if someone at the market had rejected his first price. “You know that I am right.” A moment later his last words came, now with a hot edge of anger. “You will not make a fool of me!”

13. Messages

Why was it ordered so? Why should the entwining of two hearts’ melodies give birth to the destruction of the Firstborn and the People, too? The oldest voices cannot say. When Crooked spoke of it he called it “The Narrowing of the Way,” and likened it to the point of a blade, which cuts where it is sharpest and which cannot shed blood without dividing Might Be from Is.

—from One Hundred Considerations, out of the Qar’s Book of Regret

Chaven seemed a little better with the cup of hot blueroot tea in his bandaged hands, but he was still shaking like a man with fever.

“What is all this about?” Chert demanded. “Your pardon, but you acted like a madman while we were in your house. What is happening?”

“No. No, I cannot tell you. I am ashamed.” “You owe us at least that much,” Chert said. “We have taken you in—you, a wanted fugitive. If you are found here by the Tollys, we will all be thrown into the big folk’s stronghold. How long do you think before one of our neighbors sees you? It has been nearly impossible, sneaking you in and out by night.”

“Chert, leave the man alone,” Opal growled at him, although she too looked frightened: the physician and Chert had come through the door with the harried look of two men chased by wolves. “It’s not his fault he’s fallen on the wrong side of those dreadful people.”

“Ah, but it is my fault that I trusted one I should not.” Chaven took a shaky sip of tea. “But how could Okros know of it? That was the one thing I never showed him—never showed anyone!”

What is the one thing?” Chert had never seen the physician like this, trembling and weeping like a small child —not even after his escape from death and the horrors of Queen Anissa’s chambers.

“Not so loud,” Opal said, quietly but fiercely. “You’ll wake the boy.”

As if we did not have enough troubles already, Chert thought. Two of the big folk in my house, one a grown man, both of them half mad. Just feeding them will kill us long before the castle guards come for us. Not to mention the uncomfortable and unfamiliar brightness of having to burn lamps at all hours to make Chaven and his weak, uplander eyes more comfortable. “You owe us some explanation, sir,” Chert said stubbornly. “We are your friends—and not the kind who have betrayed you.”

“You are right, of course.” Chaven took another sip of tea and stared at the floor. “You have risked your lives for me. Oh, I am wretched—wretched!”

Chert let out a hiss of air. He was losing his patience. Just before he got up in frustration and walked out of the main room, Chaven raised one of his wounded hands.

“Peace, friend,” he said. “I will try to explain, although I think you will not care for me so much once you have heard my story. Still, it would only be what I deserved...”

Chert sat down, shared a glance with Opal. She leaned forward and filled the physician’s cup with blueroot tea. “Speak, then.” Despite his curiosity, Chert hoped it would not be a long story. He had already been up half the night and was so weary he could barely keep his eyes open.

“I have...I A mirror. You heard Okros talk of captromancy—a clumsy word that means mirror-scrying. It is an art, an art with many depths and strange turnings, and a long, mysterious history.”

“Mirror-scrying?” Opal asked. “Do you mean reading fortunes?” She refilled her own teacup and put her elbows on the table, listening carefully.

“More than that—far more.” Chaven sighed. “There is a book. You likely have not heard of it, although in certain circles it is famous. Ximander’s Book, it is called, but those who have seen it say it is merely part of a larger work, something called The Book of Regret, which was written by the fairy folk—the Qar, as they call themselves. Ximander was a mantis, a priest of Kupilas the Healer in the old days of the Hierosoline Empire, and he is said to have received the writings from a homeless wanderer who died in the temple.”

Chert shifted impatiently. This might be the kind of thing that fascinated Chaven, but he was having trouble making sense of it. “Yes? And this book taught you mirror-scrying?”

“I have never seen it—it has been lost for years. But my master, Kaspar Dyelos, had either seen it or a copy of it when he was young—he would never tell me—and much of what he taught me came from those infamous pages. Ximander’s Book tells us that the gods gave us three great gifts—fire, shouma, and mirror-wisdom...”

Shouma? What is that?”

“A drink—some call it the gods’ nectar. It breeds visions, but sometimes madness or even death, too. For centuries it was used in special ceremonies in the temples and palaces of Eion, for those who wished to become closer to the gods. It is said that just as wine makes mortals drunk, shouma makes the gods themselves drunk. It is so powerful that it is not used anymore, or at least the priests of our modern day mix only the tiniest bit into their ceremonial wine, and some say that it is not the true, potent shouma anymore, that the knowledge of making that has been lost. In the old days, many young priests used to die in shouma ecstasies at their first investiture...” He trailed off. “Forgive me. I have spent my life studying these things and I forget that not all are as interested as me.”

“You were going to speak of mirrors,” Opal reminded him firmly. “That was what you said. Mirrors.”

“Yes, of course. And despite my seemingly wandering thoughts, that is the subject closest to my heart just now. The last of the gods’ great gifts—mirror-wisdom. Captromancy.

“I will not task you with listening to much mirror-lore. Much is what seems like mere folktales, fairy stories to help the initiated remember complicated rituals—or at least so I believe. But what cannot be argued is that with proper training and preparation mirrors can be used not for reflection of what is before them, but as portals—windows, certainly, and some even claim as doors—to other worlds.”

Chert shook his head. “What does that mean—other worlds? What other worlds?”

“In the old days,” the physician said, “men thought that the gods lived here beside them, on the earth. The peak of Mount Xandos was said to hold Perin’s great fortress, and Kernios was believed to live in the caverns of the south, although I believe there are other strains of wisdom that claim he dwelt somewhat closer, eh?” He gave Chert a significant gaze.

What does he mean? Does he know something of the Mysteries? Chert looked at Opal, but she was watching the physician with a speculation Chert found unsettling, as if her mind was awhirl with dangerous new thoughts. But why would Opal, FunderlingTown’s least flighty person, the bedrock on which Chert had based his whole life, be so interested in this obscure study of Chaven’s?

“In later years,” Chaven went on, “when brave or sacreligious men at last climbed cloud-wreathed Xandos and found no trace of Perin’s stronghold, new ideas arose. A wise man named Phelsas in Hierosol began to talk of the Many Worlds, saying that the worlds of the gods are both connected to and separate from our own.”

“What does that mean?” Chert demanded. “Connected but separate? That makes no sense.”

“Don’t interrupt, old man,” said Opal. “He’s trying to explain if you’d just listen.”

Chaven Makaros looked a little shamefaced at being the cause of such discord. Despite living in the house for several days he had not yet realized that this was Chert and Opal’s way of speaking, especially Opal’s, a kind of mock harshness that did not disguise her true and much warmer feelings—did not disguise them from Chert, at least, though outsiders might not recognize them.

“Have I spoken too much?” the physician asked. “It is late...”

“No, no.” Chert waved for him to continue. “Opal is just reminding me that I’m a dunderhead. Continue—I am fascinated. It is certainly the first time any of these subjects have been discussed inside these walls.”

“I know it is hard to understand,” said Chaven. “I spent years with my master studying this and still do not altogether grasp it, and it is only one possible way of looking at the cosmos. The School of Phelsas says that the mistake is in thinking of our world or the world of the gods as solid things—as great masses of earth and stone. In truth, the Phelsaians suggest, the worlds—and there are more than two, they claim, far more—are closer to water.”

“But that makes no sense...!” Chert began, then Opal caught his eye. “Apologies. Please continue.”

“That does not mean the world is made of water,” Chaven explained. “Let me explain. Just off the coast of my homeland Ulos in the south there is a cold current that moves through the water—cold enough to be felt with the hand, and even of a slightly different color than the rest of the Hesperian Ocean. This cold current sweeps down from the forbidden lands north of Settland, rushes south past Perikal and the Ulosian coast, then curves back out to sea again, finally disappearing in the waters off the western coast of distant Xand. Does that water travel through a clay pipe, like a Hierosoline water-channel bringing water hundreds of miles to the city? No. It passes through other water—it is water itself—but it retains its characteristic chill and color.

“This, says the School of Phelsas, is the nature of the worlds, our world, the world of the gods, and others. They touch, they flow through each other, but they retain that which makes them what they are. They inhabit almost the same place, but they are not the same thing, and most of the time there is no crossing over from one to another. Most of the time, one cannot even perceive the other.”

Chert shook his head. “Strange. But where do mirrors fit into this?”

For once in the conversation, Opal did not seem to find him a waste of breath. “Yes, please, Doctor. What about the mirrors?”

Their guest shrugged in discomfort. Even after several days, it was still strange to see him here in their front room. Chert knew that Chaven was not particularly large for one of the big folk, but in this setting he loomed like a mountain. “You do not need to call me ‘Doctor,’ Mistress Blue Quartz.”

“Opal! Call me Opal.”

“Well. Chaven, then.” He smiled a little. “Very well. Ximander’s Book tells that mirror-lore is the third great gift because it allows men to glimpse these other worlds that travel as close to us as our own shadows. Just as an ordinary mirror bounces back the vision that is before it, so too can a special mirror be constructed and employed that will send back visions of...other places.” He paused for a moment, as if considering what he was about to say very carefully. In the silence, Opal spoke up. “It has to be a...special mirror?”

“In most cases and for most mirror-scrying, yes.” Chaven looked at her in surprise. “You have heard something of this?”

“No, no.” Opal shook her head. “Please go on. No, wait. Let me quickly look in on the boy.” She got up and left the room, leaving Chert and Chaven to sip their tea. The blueroot had helped a little: Chert no longer felt as though he might fall onto his face at any moment.

Opal returned and Chaven took a breath. “As I said, I will not bore you with too much mirror-lore, which is complicated and full of disputations—just learning and understanding some of the disagreements between the Phelsaians and the Captrosophist Order in Tessis could take years. And of course the Trigonate church has considered the whole science blasphemous for centuries. In bad times, men have burned for mirrors.” As he said this, Chaven faltered a little. “Perhaps now I know why.”

“What has your friend—your once-friend, I suppose—done to you, then?” Chert asked. “You said he stole something of yours. Was it a mirror?”

“Ah, you see where I am going,” Chaven said almost gratefully. “Yes, it was a very powerful, very old mirror. One that I think was made carefully in ancient days to see, and even talk, between worlds.”

“Where did you get it?”

Chaven’s look became even stranger, a mixture of shame and a sort of furtive, almost criminal, hunger. “I...I don’t know. There, I have said it. I do not know. I have traveled much, and I suppose I brought it back from one of my journeys, but with all the gods as my witnesses, I cannot say for sure.”

“But if it is such a powerful thing...” Chert began.

“I know! Do not task me with it. I told you I was ashamed. I do not know how it came to me, but I had it, and I used it. And I...reached out and...and touched something on the other side.”

It was the tortured expression on the physician’s face as much as his words that made the hairs prickle on the back of Chert’s neck. He almost thought he could sense movement in the room, as though the flames of the two lamps danced and flickered in an unfelt wind.

“Touched something...?” asked Opal, and her earlier interest seemed to have vanished into fear and distaste.

“Yes, but what it was...what it is...I cannot say. It is...” He shook his head and seemed almost ready to weep. “No. There are some things I cannot talk about. It is a thing beautiful and terrifying beyond all description, and it is mine alone—my discovery!” His voice grew harsh and he seemed to pull deeper into himself, as though prepared to strike or flee. “You cannot understand.”

“But what use is such a thing to Okros—or to Hendon Tolly, for that matter?” Chert thought they seemed to have tunneled a bit far from the seam of the matter.

“I don’t know,” said Chaven wretchedly. “I don’t even know what it is, myself! But I...woke it. And it has great power. Every time I touched it I felt things that no man can ever have felt before...” He let out a great, gasping sob. “I woke it! And now I have let Okros steal it! And I can never touch it again...!”

The sounds he was making began to alarm Chert, but to his relief Opal got up and went to the weeping physician, patting his hand and stroking his shoulder as though he were a child—as though he were not twice her size. “There, now. All will be well. You’ll see.”

“No, it won’t. Not as long...not as long...” Another spell of sobbing took him and he did not speak for a long time. Chert found the man’s weakness excruciatingly difficult to witness.

“Is there anything...would you...? Perhaps some more tea?” Opal asked at last.

“No. No, thank you.” Chaven tried to smile, but he sagged like a pennant on a windless day. “There is no cure for a shame like mine, not even your excellent tea.”

“What shame?” Opal scowled. “You had something stolen from you. That isn’t your fault!”

“Ah, but it meaning so much to me—that is my fault, without doubt. It has seized me—rooted itself in me like mistletoe on an oak. No, I could never be such a noble tree as Skyfather Perin’s oak.” He laughed brokenly. “It does not matter. I told no one. I made it my secret mistress, that mirror and what it contains, and I went to it afire with shame and joy. I spoke to no one because I was afraid I would have to give it up. Now it is too late. It’s gone.”

“Then it will be good for you,” said Chert. “If it is an illness, as you say, then you can be cured now.”

“You don’t understand!” Chaven turned to him, eyes wide and face pale. “Even if I survive its loss, it is a terrible, powerful thing. You do not think Hendon Tolly and that bastard traitor Okros stole it for no reason, do you? They want its power! And what they will do with it, the gods only know. In fact, it could be only the gods can help us.” He dropped his head, folded his bandaged hands on his chest —he was praying, Chert realized. “All-seeing Kupilas, lift me in your hands of bronze and ivory, preserve me from my folly. Holy Trigon, generous brothers, watch over us all...!” His voice dropped to a mumble.

“Doctor...Chaven,” Opal said at last, “do you...can you do things...with any mirror?”

Chert gaped at her in astonishment—what was she talking about?—but Chaven stirred and looked up, hollow-eyed but a little more composed. “I’m sorry, Mistress. What do you mean?”

“Could you help our Flint? Help him to find his wits again?”

“Opal, what is this nonsense?” Chert stood, feeling boneweary in every part of his body. “Can’t you see that the man is ready to drop?”

“It’s true I am too tired to be of any use just now,” said Chaven, “but it is also true that after abusing your hospitality in many ways, there are things I could...explore. But we have no mirror.”

“We have mine.” Opal revealed the small face-glass she had been holding in her palm. She had received it as a wedding present from Chert’s sisters, and now she held it out to Chaven, proud and anxious as a small child. “Could you use it to help our boy?”

He held it briefly, then passed it back. “Any mirror has uses to one who has been trained, Mistress. I will see what can be done in the morning.” A strange light seemed to come into his eyes. “It is possible I could learn something of what Okros does as well.” He passed a hand over his face. “But now I am so tired...!”

“Lie down then,” said Opal. “Sleep. In the morning you can help him.” She giggled, which alarmed Chert as much as Chaven’s blubbering. “You can try, I mean.”

The physician had already staggered to his pallet in the corner of the sitting room. He stretched out, face-first, and appeared to tumble into sleep like a man stepping off a cliff. Chert, overwhelmed, could only follow Opal into the darkness of their own bedchamber.

Sister Utta had just finished lighting the last candle, and was whispering the Hours of Refusal prayer when she noticed the girl.

She almost lost the flow of what she was saying, but she had been practicing the rituals of Zoria for most of her life; her tongue kept forming the near-silent words even as she observed the child who stood patiently in the alcove, hooded against the cold.

“Just as you would give your virtue to no man, so I shall hold mine sacred to you.”

How long has the child been standing there?

“Just as you would not turn your tongue to false praise, I will speak only words acceptable to you.

“Just as you did walk naked into darkness to return to your father’s house, so I will undertake my journey without fear, as long as I am true to you.”

Ah. I know her now. It’s young Eilis, the duchess Merolanna’s maid. She is pale. It will be a long time until the spring sun, if the weather keeps up.

“And just as you returned at last to the bounty of your father’s house, so will I, with your help and companionship, find my way to the blessed domain of the gods.”

She kissed the palm of her hand and looked up briefly to the high window, its light dulled today by the cloudy weather. The face of her gloriously forgiving mistress looked down on her, reminding her that Zoria’s mercy was without end, but Sister Utta still could not help feeling as though she had somehow failed the goddess.

Why has prayer brought me no peace? Is it my fault for bringing an unsettled heart to your shrine, sweet Zoria?

No answer came. Some days of deep sadness or confusion Utta could almost hear the voice of the goddess close as her own heartbeat, but today Perin’s daughter seemed far away from her, even the stained glass window without its customary gleam, the birds that surrounded the virgin goddess not flying but only hovering, drab and distressed.

Utta took a breath, turned to the girl in the heavy woolen cloak. “Are you waiting for me?”

The child nodded helplessly, as if she had been caught doing something illicit. After a moment of wide-eyed confusion she reached into her cloak and produced an envelope with the seal of the dowager duchess on it. Utta took it, noting with surprise and sadness that the girl snatched her hand away as soon as the transfer had finished, as though she feared catching an illness.

What is that about? Utta wondered. Am I the subject of evil rumors again? She sighed, but kept it from making a sound. “Does she wish an answer now or shall I send one back later?”

“She...she wants you to read it, then come back with me.”

Utta had to repress another sigh. She had much to do—the shrine needed sweeping, for one thing. The great bowl on the roof of the shrine needed filling so the birds could feed, a journey of many steps, and she also had letters to write. One of the other Zorians, the oldest of the castle’s sisterhood, was ill and almost certainly dying and there were relatives who should be told, on the chance—however unlikely—that they would wish to come see her in the final days. Still, it was impossible to refuse the duchess, especially in a castle so unsettled by change, when the Zorian shrine had scarcely any protectors left. Hendon Tolly was openly contemptuous of Utta and the other Zorian sisters, calling them “white ants” and making it clear he thought the shrine took up room in the residence that could be better employed housing some of his kin and hangerson. No, Utta needed Merolanna’s continued goodwill: she was one of the few allies the sisterhood still retained.

Then again, perhaps the duchess was ill herself. Utta felt a clutch of worry. For all they were different, she liked the woman, and there were few enough among the castle folk these days with whom she felt anything in common.

“Of course I will come,” Utta told the girl. She opened the letter and saw that it said nothing much more than the maid had suggested, except for a curious coda in the duchess’ slightly shaky hand, “if you have a pair of specktakle glasses, bring them.”

Utta did not, so she waved the girl toward the door of the shrine and followed her, but she could not help wondering what the duchess wanted of her that would require such a thing: Merolanna was an educated woman and could read and write perfectly well.

As she followed the girl Eilis through the nearly empty halls Utta could not help noticing how the interior of the residence seemed to mirror the weather outside. Half the torches were unlit and a dim gray murk seemed to have fallen over the corridors. Even the sounds of voices behind doors were muffled as though by a thick fog. The few people she passed, servants mostly, seemed pale and silent as ghosts.

Is it the fairy folk across the river? It has been a full month now and they have done nothing, but it is hard not to think of them every night. Is it the twins disappearing? Or is there something more—may the White Daughter protect us always—something deeper, that has made this place as cold and lonely as a deserted seashore?

When they reached the duchess’ chambers, Eilis left Utta standing in the middle of the front room surrounded by a largely silent group of gentlewomen and servants, most of them sewing, while she went and knocked on the inner chamber door.

Sor Utta is here, Your Grace.”

“Ah.” Merolanna’s voice was faint but firm. Utta felt a little better: if the dowager duchess was ill, she did not sound it. “Send her in. You stay outside with the others, child.”

Utta was surprised to find the duchess fully dressed, her hair done and her face powdered, looking in all ways prepared for any state occasion, but seated on the edge of her bed like a despondent child. Merolanna held a piece of paper in her hand, and she waved it distractedly, gesturing toward a chair high and wide enough to hold a woman wearing a voluminous court dress. Utta sat down. Because she wore only her simple robes, the seat stretched away on either side, so that she felt a bit like a single pea rolling in a wide bowl. “How may I help you, Your Grace?”

Merolanna waggled the piece of paper again, this time as if to drive away some annoying insect. “I think I am going mad, Sister. Well, perhaps not mad, but I do not know whether I am upside down or right side up.”

“Your Grace?”

“Did you bring your reading spectacles?”

“I do not use such things, ma’am. I get along well enough, although my eyes are not what they were...”

“I can scarcely read without mine—Chaven made them for me, beautiful spectacle-lenses in a gold wire frame. But I lost them, curse it, and he’s gone.” She looked around the bedchamber in mingled outrage and misery, as though Chaven had disappeared on purpose, just to leave her halfblind.

“Do you want me to read something to you?”

“To yourself—but quietly! Come sit next to me. I already muddled it out, even without my spectacles, but I want to see if you read the same words.” Merolanna patted the bed.

Utta herself did not wear scents, not because the Sisterhood didn’t permit her to, but out of personal preference, and she found Merolanna’s sweet, powdery smell a little disconcerting, not to mention almost strong enough to make her sneeze. She composed herself with her hands on her lap and tried not to breathe too deeply.

“This!” Merolanna said, waving the piece of paper again. “I don’t know if I’m going mad, as I’m sure I already said. The whole world is topsy-turvy and has been for months! It almost feels like the end of the world.”

“Surely the gods will bring us through safely, my lady.”

“Perhaps, but they’re not doing much to help so far. Asleep, perhaps, or simply gone away.” Merolanna laughed, short and sharp. “Do I shock you?”

“No, Duchess. I cannot imagine a person who would never be angry at the gods or full of doubt in days like these. We have all—and especially you—lost too many that we love, and seen too many frightening things.”

“Exactly.” Merolanna hissed out a breath like someone who has waited a long time to hear such words. “Do I seem mad?”

“Not at all, my lady.”

“Then perhaps there is some explanation for this.” She handed Utta the piece of paper. It was a page of a letter, written in a careful and narrow hand, the letters set close as though the paper itself was precious and none of it was to be wasted.

Utta squinted. “It has no beginning or ending. Is there more?”

“There must be, but this is all I have. That is Olin’s handwriting—the king. I believe it must be the letter that came to Kendrick just before the poor boy was murdered.”

“And you wish me to read it?”

“In a moment. First you must understand why...why I doubt my senses. That page, that one page, simply...appeared in my room this morning.”

“Do you mean someone left it for you? Put it under your door?”

“No, that is not what I mean. I mean it...appeared. While I sat in the other room with my ladies and Eilis, talking about the morning’s service in the chapel.”

“Appeared while you were at the service?”

“No, while I sat in the other room! Gods, woman, I do not think so little of my own wit that I would believe myself mad because someone left me a letter. We came back from the service. It was the new priest, that peevish-looking fellow. As you know, the Tollys drove my dear Timoid away.” Her voice was as bitter as gall.

“I had heard he left the castle,” Utta said carefully. “I was sorry to hear he was going.”

“But all that doesn’t matter this moment. As I said, we came back from the service. I came here to take off my chapel clothes. There was no letter. You will think I am a foolish woman who simply did not notice, but I swear on all the gods, there was no letter. I went out into the parlor room and sat with the others and we talked of the service and what we would do this day. The fire burned down and I went to get a shawl, and the letter was lying in the middle of this bed.”

“And no one had come in?”

“None of us had even left the sitting room. Not once!”

Utta shook her head. “I do not know what to say. Shall I read it?”

“Please. It is eating away at me, wondering why such a thing was left here.”

Utta spread the piece of parchment on her lap and began to read aloud.

“...Men on Raven’s Gate are slack. It seems our strong old walls work their spell not only on enemies, but on our own soldiers as well. I do not know if the young captain whose name escapes me inherited this problem from Murroy and has not been able or willing to fix it yet, or whether his governance of the guards has been slack, but this must change. I warn you that we must keep our eyes open for enemies within our city as well as outside, and that means greater vigilance.

“I implore you also, tell Brone that I said the rocks beneath where the old and new walls meet outside the Tower of Summer must be examined and perhaps some other form of defense should be built there—an overhanging wall, perhaps, and another sentry post. That is the one place where someone might climb up from below and gain direct access to the Inner Keep. I know this must seem like untoward fretting to you, my son, but I fear the long peace is ending soon. I have heard whispers here in Hierosol that worry me, about the autarch and other things, and I was already fearful before I set off on this illstarred quest.

“While I speak of the Tower of Summer, let me tell you one other thing, and this is meant for your eyes alone. If you read this letter to Briony and Barrick, DO NOT read this part to them.

If a day should come when you know beyond doubt that I am dead, there is something you must see. It is in the SummerTower, in my library desk—a book, bound in plain dark cloth, with nothing written on its cover or binding. It is locked and the key may be found in a hidden cubby hole in the side of the desk, under the carved head of the Eddon wolf. But I beg of you, even order you so much as I am still your father and lord, do not touch it unless a time comes when you know as undeniable truth that I will not come back to you.

“That is all about that, or almost all. If you must share anything in that book with someone else, brave son, spare your brother and sister, and trust no one else but Shaso, who alone among my advisers has nothing to gain from treachery and everything to lose. For him, the fall of me or my heirs will mean exile, poverty, and perhaps even death, so I think he can be taken into your confidence, but only if you can see no way to shoulder the burden alone.

“Enough of this unhappy subject. I trust that I will still come back to you hale and well—Ludis wants bright gold in his hands, or at worst a living bride, but not a dead king. In the hours and days until then, please see that the castle is made safe. There are still too many places where we are vulnerable, and the slack methods of peacetime quickly become lasting regrets. Tell Brone also that the tunnels beneath the castle have not been surveyed in a hundred years, while the Funderlings have been burrowing like moles, and that there are so many holes in so many Southmarch basements that...”

“And there it ends,” said Utta. “Except that there is a curious addendum written in the side margin, in quite a different fist.”

“I could not make that out—read it to me,” demanded Merolanna.

The Zorian sister squinted for a moment, trying to make sense of it. It was in an archaic-looking script, much smaller and more clumsily done than the king’s writing, twisted so that it would fit into the letter’s narrow margins, but the ink seemed quite fresh and new.

“If ye desire to knowe more, we wold speake with you. Say only, YES, and we will heare ye, howsowever.”

Utta looked up at the duchess, perplexed. “I have no idea what that means.”

“Nor do I. Any of it. But if someone is listening, I will say it. Yes!” She almost shouted the word. “There. How is that for madness? I am talking to ghosts. It will not be the first time this cursed year.”

Utta ignored that, looking around the room, trying to spot anyplace that someone might hide and spy on them. The chamber had no windows, and since the duchess’ part of the residence was on the topmost floor, nothing lay above them but the roof. Could someone be up there, crouching beside the bedchamber’s small chimney, listening? But surely they would hear anyone moving about up there, or the guards would spot them.

The two women sat together in silence for long moments, waiting to see if anything would come of the strange request and Merolanna’s accession, but at last the duchess raised herself shakily from the bed. “Whatever happens, I cannot in good faith keep you here all day, although it is a comfort to see you, Sister Utta. I do not trust many of those around me, and none of those who have sided with the Tollys, those damnable traitors.”

“Please, my lady, not so loudly, even in your own chambers.”

“Do you think they would have me tried and executed?” Merolanna laughed with something that sounded almost like pleasure. “Ah, but I’d scorch them first, wouldn’t I? I’d speak my mind and burn the skin from their ears! Hiding behind a baby like that, claiming to protect Olin’s throne when everyone knows they’ve been itching to get their hands on it since his poor brother died.” She waved her hand in disgust. “Enough. I will walk you to the door. It is time I get out of this room, before I start seeing the phantoms I’m speaking to.”

Merolanna bid her good-bye, offering her Eilis to walk back with her, but Utta politely refused. She wanted to walk by herself and think about what had happened.

Before she got two dozen steps down the hall, the door opened up again and Merolanna called after her in a cracked, frightened voice.

“Utta! Utta, come here!”

When she returned to the rooms, she let Merolanna lead her with trembling hand into the bedchamber. There, in the middle of the bed, lay another piece of paper—a torn scrap of parchment this time, but the writing was in the same crabbed, ancient style.

“Come to us to-morrow an howre after suns set, in the top of the Tower of Summer.”

14. Hunted

Then Zmeos and his siblings reappeared, and disputed the right of Perin Skylord and his brothers to rule over heaven, but the three brothers met their scorn with peace. For a long time they all lived in uneasy alliance until the eye of Khors fell on Zoria, Perin’s virgin daughter. Khors coveted her, and so he stole her from her father’s house, taking her to his fortress.

—from The Beginnings of Things, The Book of the Trigon

Something was tugging at his hair.

Ferras Vansen had been lost in dreams of sunny meadows, but even in that fair place something dark had been lurking in the grass, and now it took him a few heartbeats to shake off the grip of the fearful dream.

“Master!” Skurn again took a clump of Vansen’s hair in his beak and yanked. The bird’s foul breath was right in his face. “Wake up! Something out there!”

Awake, dreaming, it made no difference—fear and misery were everywhere. Vansen rolled over. The bird hopped off him, flapping awkwardly back to the ground. “What?” he demanded. “What is it?”

“Us can’t say,” it whispered. “Smells like leather and metal. And noises there be, quiet ones.”

A tall, menacing shadow fell over Vansen, blocking the faint glow of the guttering fire. Suddenly very much awake, he snatched at his blade, tangling it and himself in the cloak he used as a blanket, but the shadow did not move.

It was Gyir, his hand held out in a gesture of demand, the eyes in his featureless face staring at Ferras Vansen with an intensity that seemed to glow.

Give. Vansen could almost hear the word, although the faceless creature had not spoken aloud. Give.

“He wants his sword,” Prince Barrick whispered, sitting up.

“Give it to him...” “Give him...?”

“His sword! He knows this place. We do not.”

Vansen did not move for a moment, his eyes swiveling between the prince and the looming, red-eyed fairy. At last he rolled over and pulled the scabbarded blade out from under his cloak. The fairy-man closed his fingers around the hilt and pulled it free, leaving Vansen holding the empty sheath as Gyir turned and vanished into the undergrowth around their small hillside encampment, swift and silent as a breeze.

“This is mad...” Vansen muttered. “He’ll sneak back and kill us both.”

“He will not.” Barrick took off his boots and wiped his feet with the edge of his tattered, filthy cloak before pulling the boots back on. “He is angry, but not at us.”

“What do you mean, angry?”

Skurn fluffed his feathers in worry. Small fragments of sticky eggshell flecked his beak and breast. Whatever had startled the raven seemed to have caught him midmeal. “Them all are mad, the High Ones,” the bird said quietly. “Have lived too long in the BlackTowers, them, staring into they mirrors and listening to voices of the dead.”

“What does that mean? Have all of you lost your minds?”

“Gyir is angry because the raven heard the noises before he did,” Barrick said calmly. “He blames himself.”

“But why should...?” Vansen never finished his question. From farther up the hillside echoed a noise unlike anything he had ever heard, a honking screech like a blast from a trumpet that had been bent into some impossible shape. “Perin’s hammer,” he gasped, “what is that?”

“Oh, Masters, them are Longskulls or worse!” squawked the raven.

“Whatever the bird scented, Gyir found.” Barrick was still donning his boots, as calmly as if preparing for a walk across the Inner Keep back home.

Vansen struggled to his feet. “Shouldn’t him?” The thought was disturbing, but he had little doubt there were worse things afoot in these lands than Gyir. He had seen one of them take his comrade Collum Dyer, after all.

“Wait.” Barrick held up his hand, listening. The youth still had that unthinking air of command—the inseparable heritage of a royal childhood—despite looking as disreputable as the poorest cotsman’s urchin, even by the feeble glow of the fire. His hair, wet and festooned with bits of leaves, stuck out as eccentrically as Skurn’s patchy feathers, and his clothes could only have looked more ragged and filthy if they had not originally been black. “It’s Gyir. He wants us to come to him.”

“Why? Is he...has he...”

“He is unharmed—but he is still angry.” Barrick smiled a tight, secretive smile.

“Your Higness, what if he tricks us? I know you do not fear him, but think! He has his weapon back. Now would be the perfect time for him to murder us—it is dark, and he knows this forest much better than we do.”

“If he wanted to kill us he could have done it any of the last few nights. He is not just angry—he is frightened, too. He needs us, although I am not quite sure why.” Barrick frowned. “I cannot hear him anymore. We must go to him.”

Without even a torch to light his way, Barrick started up the hillside in the direction of the scream. Vansen cursed and bent for a stick from the fire, then hurried after him.

The returning rains had washed the pall of smoke from the sky, but not the ever present Mantle, as Gyir called it: even in the middle-night a dull glow still bled through the closeknit branches above them, as though the murky skies had held onto a touch of the daylong twilight, soaking it up like oil so that it would sputter dimly through the night. But it was difficult to see even with the nightglow and the pathetic, makeshift torch: by the time he caught up to the prince, Vansen had scraped himself raw on several branches and had fallen down twice. Barrick turned to help him up the second time.

“Faster,” said the prince.

But I was having such a good time dawdling and enjoying the sights, your Highness, Vansen thought sourly.

Skurn caught up with them in a moment—the raven could make faster time upslope than they could, hopping, sometimes flying awkwardly for a few yards at a time. The old bird seemed always to move in an odor of wet earth and a faint putridity: Vansen scented him a moment before he heard him flapping along behind them.

“Head down, Master,” Skurn hissed. Vansen narrowly avoided running face-first into a low branch. Thereafter he found the bird’s smell easier to bear.

Vansen gasped when Gyir abruptly stepped out of a copse of trees directly in front of them. The fairy-man’s sword was dripping black, his jerkin and gloved hands also spattered.

Gyir gestured toward the copse behind him. Vansen went to look, still unable to shake off a fear that the faceless creature might turn on them at any moment. Because he was looking back over his shoulder, trying to locate Gyir in the nighttime dark, he almost stepped on the first body. Hand trembling, he held the brand down close, trying to understand what he was seeing.

The body seemed all wrong, somehow—folded into angles normal bones did not allow. It had a long, bony head which stuck out before and behind, and hard, leathery skin which only made the inhuman shape more obvious. The dead creature’s arms were long and might have had an extra joint in them—it was hard to tell because of the darkness, but also because Gyir had made such a bloody mess of the thing. Still, it was the head that was most disturbing, especially the long, bony, beaklike snout, and although the dead creature’s forehead was nearly human, the deep-set eyes might have belonged to a lizard.

The clothes that it wore were disturbing, too. The fact that this monster wore anything at all, much less a full battle-rig, an oily leather jerkin under chain mail, was enough to make Vansen’s stomach squirm and a sour taste rise into the back of his mouth.

A second beak-faced corpse lay a few feet away, the bony head cut almost in half, the clawed, bloody hands still spread as if to ward off the deathblow.

“Perin’s hammer, what are these...things?” Vansen asked. “Were they after us?”

“Don’t know, but Gyir says they’re Longskulls,” Barrick said. “That’s one of the reasons he’s so angry. He’s still suffering from the wounds the Followers gave him, he says, or he would have had all three of them.”

“Longskulls,” wheezed Skurn. “And not ordinary roving Longskulls either, this lot. They belong to someone, they do —can tell it by their wearings.”

Gyir bent and turned the creature’s ugly head with his sword blade so that they could see a mark scorched onto its bony face—a brand, several overlapping, wedge-shaped marks like a scatter of thorns.

“Jikuyin,” Barrick said slowly. “I think that is how Gyir would say it.”

The raven gave a croak of dismay. “Jack Chain? Them do belong to Jack Chain?” He fluttered awkwardly up onto Vansen’s shoulder, almost overbalancing him. “We must run far and fast, Master. Far and fast!”

“The one you talked about?” Vansen looked from the silent Gyir to Barrick. “I thought we had left his territory behind!”

The prince did not answer for a moment. “Gyir says we will have to take turns sleeping and watching from now on,” he said at last. “And that we must keep our weapons close.”

The road was still overgrown, half-invisible most of the time beneath drifts of strange plants or the damage from roots and floods, but the trees were beginning to thin: ragged segments of gray sky appeared on the horizon, stretched between the trunks of trees like the world’s oldest, filthiest linens hung out to dry. Even the rain was lightening to a floating drizzle, but Barrick did not feel a corresponding relief.

What are we running from? he asked Gyir. Not those bony things?

Take care. The fairy reached out a pale hand, pointing at a spot just ahead where the way forward dissolved into tumbled stones and shrubbery. Barrick reined up and the weirdling horse named Dragonfly walked around the ruined section before resuming its trot. Gyir leaned forward over the horse’s long neck again, looking like the figurehead of a most peculiar ship.

What are we running from? Barrick asked again.

Death. Or worse. One of the Longskulls escaped. A wash of disgust moved underneath the fairy’s thought, as obvious as a strong odor.

But you killed two by yourself. Vansen is a soldier, and I can fight, too. Surely we don’t have anything to fear from the one that got away?

They do not hunt alone, or even in packs of three, sunlander. Gyir seemed to bite back a rage that, if freed, could not be captured again. They are cowardly. They like company.


In Jikuyin’s service they are slavers or harvesters. Either way, those three were out hunting. They were scouts for a larger troop—I know it as I know that the White Root is in the sky overhead. This last came to Barrick as no more than the idea of a bright light shining through fog. The more disturbed Gyir became, the less work he put into choosing concepts Barrick could easily understand. Would you rather be enslaved or eaten? It is not a good choice, is it?

And who is Jikuyin? You keep talking about him, but I still don’t know!

The one the bird calls Jack Chain. He is a power, an old power, and now that Qul-na-Qar has lost so much of its...—again an idea Barrick could not understand, something that came to him as “glow” but also “language” and perhaps even “music,” an impossible amalgamation.

Clearly Jikuyin is confident of his strength, if he dares to spread his song so far into free territory.

Barrick understood almost none of this. His arm was hurting him fiercely—the wet weather in these lands had done him no good at all—and the rib he had injured in a fall still pained him too. But it was rare to get Gyir to speak at any length. He was reluctant to give up the chance.

What kind of power is he? Is he another king, like the blind one you the talk about?

No. He is an old power. He is one of the gods’ bastards, as I told you. We defeated most of them back in the Years of Blood, but some were too clever or too strong and hid away in deep places or high places. Jikuyin is one of those.

Some kind of god? And he’s hunting...for us? Barrick suddenly felt as if he might fall out of his saddle—a swooning, light-headedness that for several heartbeats turned the forest around him into a meaningless rush of green. When the rushing ended, Gyir’s arm was gripping his belt, holding him upright.

“I’m well, I’m well...” Barrick said out loud, then realized Vansen and the raven were staring at him. They were riding almost beside him when he had been certain they were a dozen or more lengths behind, as though he had lost a few moments of time during his spell of dizziness.

Shouldn’t we turn back, if this...creature, this Jack Chain, is searching for us?

Not searching for us, I think. He would not send mere Longskulls to capture one like me. There was arrogance and pride in the thought, but also regret. He could not know I have been...damaged.


Now the regret felt more like shame. Barrick did not need to see Gyir’s face (which obviously never revealed much anyway) to understand the fairy’s grim mood. The Followers, when they attacked me—I fell. They struck my head several times and then I hit it again on a stone. I am...blind.

The word didn’t seem right, somehow, but Barrick still reacted with astonishment. What do you mean, blind? You can see!

Only with my eyes.

While Barrick puzzled over this, Ferras Vansen rode up beside them again—as close as Vansen’s mortal horse would come, anyway: even after a tennight traveling together, the animal always stayed at the stretched end of his tether when the company made camp, keeping as distant from the fairy-horse as he could. “Your Highness, are you ill?” the soldier asked. “You almost fell out of your saddle...”

“There is nothing wrong with me. Let me be.” He wanted to talk to Gyir again, not swap braying mortal speech with this...peasant.

A peasant who came with you when he didn’t have to, an inner voice reminded him, and for once he was hearing himself, not Gyir. A peasant who came to this wretched place with full knowledge of what it was like.

Barrick took a breath. “I do not mean to be...I am well enough, Captain Vansen.” He could not bring himself to apologize. “You and I will talk later.”

The soldier nodded and reined up a little, letting Barrick’s horse take the lead again. As they fell back, the scruffy black bird crouching on Vansen’s saddle watched the prince with disconcertingly shrewd eyes, like Chaven the physician seeing through one of Barrick’s tantrums to the real matter beneath. For a moment the prince was painfully lonely again for Southmarch, for familiar faces and familiar things.

You said blind. Why? he asked. Your eyes work, don’t they?

Gyir would not speak for long moments. I am the Storm Lantern, he said finally. It is given to me to see in darkness, to see what is behind the light, to see things that are far away. I have an eye inside me, inside my head. Never before would three Longskulls have crept so close to me. Never before would I have to learn of it from a mere raven! But now I am blind.

There was so much misery in this thought, so much fury, that for a moment, as the sensations buffeted him, Barrick felt as though he would vomit. He put one hand on the saddle to steady himself—he did not want Vansen riding up again, prying at him with questions.

Because of the wound to your head?

Yes. Yes, and now I am all but helpless—forced to hide and skulk in terror in my own country, like a forest elemental caught out by Whitefire in the naked sunlands!

Barrick didn’t know what Gyir meant, but he knew that sort of rage and despair when he heard it—knew it all too well.

Will you get better?

I do not know. The wound is healed, at least the flesh is. How can I say?

Barrick took a breath. It does no good to fight against what the gods have done, he told Gyir, repeating without realizing it something Briony had often said to him.

Perhaps we should find a place to hide, a place to wait and see if your wound finally heals? Wouldn’t that be better than riding across this place you think is so dangerous, with those creatures out hunting?

You do not understand, Gyir said. We cannot afford so much time. As it is, we may be too late.

Too late? For what? I...I carry something. My mistress gave it to me, and I must take it to Qul-na-Qar, and soon. If I arrive too late—or do not arrive at all—many will die.

What are you talking about?

Many of your race and many of mine will die, little sunlander. There was no mistaking the grim certainty of the silent words. At the very least, every human remaining in that castle of yours, and likely countless more—of both our kinds. I have been tasked to outrun doom.

“I don’t understand.” Vansen’s legs ached. They had been riding fast without a break for what must have been a few hours. “What are we running from?”

“Longskulls.” Skurn was huddled so low against the horse’s neck that he looked like little more than a particularly ugly growth. “Like the dead ’uns you saw.” “You said that already. Why are they after us?”

“Not after us’n, after whatever they can find—meat and slaves for Jack Chain.”

“You keep talking about him? Who is he?”

“Not a him, not like you mean. An Old One. Does no good talking. Save your breath.”

“But where are we? Where are we going?”

“Not our patch, this.” The raven closed his eyes again and lowered his head near the horse’s rolling shoulders and would not be roused to say any more.

Vansen knew that whatever small control he had maintained over this doomed expedition was long gone. Gyir was armed again, they were on the run from something Vansen could not understand, and now the fairy-warrior was actually leading them. All this in a place that Ferras Vansen had intended never even to approach again in his life—a place which had all but killed him once already. Yet here they were, careening along the ancient, overgrown road, heading...where? Deeper into the Twilight Lands, that was all he knew. So even if he could have forced himself to desert the prince, Vansen could no longer turn back—he would never find his way back to the sunlands on his own. Doomed, doomed, he mourned. Why did I ever swear myself to these cursed, lost, mad Eddons?

Half a day seemed to have gone by when they finally stopped to let the two horses drink. Vansen stood as his mount lapped water from a muddy streamlet that crossed the road. The trees were thinner here, the land ahead hilly but a bit more open, and even in unending twilight it was good at least to be able to see a little distance.

Skurn was drinking too, but farther downstream, since Vansen’s horse had startled when he had fluttered down next to it. Some yards away from both of them, Barrick’s gray steed drank with the same silent concentration it brought to everything else. Vansen’s horse’s ribs were still heaving as it caught its breath, but the fairy-horse seemed as fresh as when they had begun.

Is it truly stronger, Vansen wondered, or is it merely that it is at home here and mine is not? The same question, he reflected, could be asked about Gyir, who stood impatiently waiting while the horses drank their fill. Barrick had not even bothered to dismount, but sat and stared out at the road ahead, which was little more than a trail between rows of ghostly white trees of a sort Vansen had never seen, a tangle stretching away on either side like the traceries of frost on a window. The track itself looked considerably less magical, a lumpy swath of mud and pale grass, the stones of the old human road long since carried away by water or some more intentional pilferage.

“Highness,” Vansen called—but not too loudly: it was easy to imagine those trees listening to the unfamiliar sound of human speech like coldly curious phantoms. “When will we stop and make camp? It must be day again, if we can call it such, and both you and I need food even if the fairy doesn’t. In fact, we have used everything in my saddlebags, so before we can eat, we must also find something worth eating.”

“Gyir says it is indeed day, but he does not want to stop until we have crossed the...the...Whisperfall.”

“What is that?”

“A river. He says that Longskulls do not like the water. They can’t swim.”

Vansen laughed despite himself. “Perin’s fiery bolts, what a world! Very well, then, we’ll camp by the river. But we must eat before then, Highness.”

“Us will catch summat for you,” offered Skurn. “No, we will find our own.” He’d seen too much already of what Skurn thought edible. He and Barrick had struggled by so far on a few unfamiliar-looking birds and an injured black rabbit, all caught by Vansen with his bare hands—they could survive without the raven’s help a little longer. “Unless you can find us something wholesome—eggs, maybe.” He looked at the spotty old bird and decided he needed to be more specific. “Bird’s eggs.”

But can we afford to be particular? Vansen wondered. I have no bow, so I can’t even hope to bring down a squirrel, let alone a deer or something really toothsome. In fact, now that he thought of it, other than the Followers and Longskulls Gyir had killed, they’d seen no creature bigger than Skurn during this whole venture into the shadowlands. He pointed this out to Barrick, who only shrugged.

“And what does that fairy eat?” Vansen asked suddenly. “We’ve been traveling together for over a tennight and I’ve never seen him eat. Even if he doesn’t have a mouth, he must take food somehow!”

“When I was young,” the prince said, “the nurse told me that fairies drank flower-nectar and ate stardust.” His smile was mirthless. “Gyir tells me that what he eats is none of our affair, and that we must get riding again.”

They found little more to fill their stomachs that day, only a few handfuls of pale, waxy berries Skurn and Gyir agreed the two sunlanders could probably eat without harm. They were sweeter than Vansen had feared, but still with a strange, smoky flavor unlike anything he had tasted. He also tried, at the raven’s suggestion, a piece of fungus that grew on some of the trees they passed, which Skurn said would take the edge off his hunger. It was one of the most disgusting things Vansen had ever eaten in his life; for a veteran of several field campaigns (and a man who had dined more than once at the Badger’s Boots Inn) that was saying something. The outside of the fungus was slimy with rain, so that putting it in his mouth was like biting into something plucked from a tidal pool, but the inside was dry, powdery, and as tasteless as dust. Still, he choked it down, and found that although it made him feel a little light-headed it did relieve the pain in his stomach. He pulled off a piece for the prince, who after a silent colloquy with Gyir, ate it with evident distaste.

They rode on with only a few short breaks for rest, cheered only by an occasional break in the cold drizzle. The forest continued to thin, and at times Vansen could see what looked like flatter, more open land in the distance. Once he even spotted the lead-colored gleam of what Gyir confirmed was the Whisperfall, although it was still far, far away.

“It looks like it will be easier going ahead,” Vansen said to Skurn.

The bird stirred and flapped its wings. “Them be emptier lands, true, afar of the Whisperfall. Has to watch out, though. Be woodsworms there.”

“Woodsworms? What are those?”

“Perilous big, Master. Dragons, some’d call they, but looks like trees—like fallen...what? Logs. Aye, lay up, they do, and wait for something to move too close. Then down them come, like a spider as has summat in’s web.” The raven peered at Vansen’s expression. “Heard of they, have you? Heard them was fearful?”

“I’ve...oh, gods, I think I’ve seen one.” Collum’s dying scream was in his head, and always would be. That thing...that horrible, sticklike thing... “Is that the only way we can go?”

“Bad, they woodsworms, aye, but them are few. Jack Chain be worse, all say.” And with these uncheering words Skurn fluffed his feathers and lowered himself against the saddle horn again.

Another hour or so went by and they did not see the Whisperfall again. Gyir at last and with evident reluctance allowed them to stop and make camp on a hillside overlooking a shallow canyon. Skurn found more berries the sunlanders could eat, and some dark blue flowers whose petals were sharply tangy but edible; when Vansen curled up under his cloak to sleep he had, if not a light heart, at least no heavier a mood than the night before.

He was shaken awake just as he had been the previous night, but this time by Barrick. “Get up!” the prince whispered. “They’re on the ridge behind us!”

“Who?” But Vansen already knew. He grabbed his sword and rose to his feet. He patted his horse to keep it quiet while he stared up the wooded slope. He could see torches at the top, the flames strangely red against the half-light, and shadows moving down the hill toward them between the trees. “Where is our fairy?” Vansen hissed, half-certain they’d been betrayed, that all the pretense of companionship had been leading to this.

“Here, behind me,” Barrick said. “He says ride straight downhill, then turn downstream when you reach the bottom of the valley. When we come out of the trees we’ll be on a slope heading toward the Whisperfall. If you can get to the river, he says ride out into the middle of it—we should be safe there.”

Something in the heights above them loosed a honking bellow that sounded more like some giant, raw-throated goose than a dog, let alone a person. Vansen’s skin, already prickling with fear, seemed to tighten and bunch all over his body.

“Go!” Barrick hurried toward his own horse. Gyir was already mounted; he helped the prince up. “They’re coming —they know we’re awake now!”

“Are those hounds they have? Wolves?”

Something thrashed down out of the tree and dropped onto him just as he climbed into the saddle. “Don’t forget us, Master!” Skurn croaked, dodging Vansen’s panicky swat. “Take us with!”

“Get behind me, then.” He had to get low in the saddle and didn’t want to be trying to see his way past the raven’s south end.

The honking sounded again as Vansen spurred his mountdownslope after the prince’s horse, which he could already barely see through the trees and the shadowland’s eternal evening. Branches slapped at him as though they were angry.

“Them be not hounds, Master,” Skurn screeched, huddled close against Vansen’s back, talons sunk through the fabric at his belt. “Them be those Sniffers. Need no hounds, them sniff so well.” Another honking call split the night, closer now. “Loud, too,” the little creature added needlessly.

The squawking and gabbling noises seemed to come from at least a half a dozen different places up the slope; when Vansen turned he could see the curious red torches in at least that many different spots, all moving steadily downward.

All we can do is pray that the horses do not stumble in the dark and break a leg, he thought. “Do they run well, these Longskulls?” he called back to Skurn. “Will they be able to catch us on flat ground?”

“Oh, Master, us thinks not, but them can track we forever. Smell a nest in the top of a tall tree, they can.”

“Left!” Barrick shouted from somewhere below.

Vansen had just opened his mouth to ask him what he meant when the huge shadow heaved up directly in front of him—a rock the size of a cabin, a protruding bone of the hill’s heavy stone skeleton. He yanked the reins and veered, alm. ost falling headlong as the angle of the slope pitched more steeply downward.

Within moments they had swept out of the thickest woods and onto a patch of grassy slope. Vansen felt a flicker of hope, if only a tiny one: surely on horseback they could beat these honking monsters down to the river, and if Gyir was right about their dislike of water... The beak-faced things were charging down through the trees on all sides, torches bobbing as the hooting clamor grew louder. He thought about drawing his sword, but instead bent even lower over the horse’s neck and concentrated instead on staying in the saddle as branches whipped at his face. Barrick and Gyir were just a few yards ahead, but the dark fairy-horse was bigger than his and was beginning to pull away despite carrying two full-sized riders. Vansen dug his heels into his mount’s ribs, afraid of falling too far behind in this dark, unfamiliar place.

He crashed out of a small spinney to see a scatter of torches had somehow appeared on the hillside just in front of him. Some of the pursuers had been farther down and had come out of the woods, missing Barrick’s horse but cutting off Vansen’s. He yanked at his sword hilt, praying for a clean pull. Skyfather Perin or someone heard him: the blade slid out in one swift glide and Vansen was swinging it at the nearest flame before he could even see the creature holding the brand.

His blade clacked against a stony skull. The thing fell away, its torch flying through the air. Another honking shape rose up in front of him but the gray horse, veteran of many battles, barely slowed as it trampled over the thing with a muffled crunch of bones, then Vansen’s way was clear again. The line of torchbearers scrambled after him, but he was pulling away and had only lost a little ground to his companions.

He was almost down on flat ground now, following the course of what seemed to be a small stream toward the end of the valley, his mount stepping nimbly around thick, heathery bushes. He could actually see the opening of the valley now, a triangular piece of gray sky, and when he looked back the nearest torches were dozens of paces behind and falling back. He opened his mouth to shout something to Barrick, then suddenly the end of the valley ahead of them began to fill with more torches, as though dozens of flaming stars had fallen to earth.

“Trap!” he screamed. “They’ve trapped us!” But he knew that Barrick would not slow or turn back, that Gyir would not let him. Their only hope was that this new troop would not be strong enough to turn them back, that they could cut their way through and still escape into the valley and toward the distant river.

A hundred yards of open ground lay between them and the torches, a hundred yards that closed in what felt like a heartbeat. Only at the last moment did Vansen abruptly wonder how well-prepared this trap was—did the gabbling creatures have pikes? Would they have dug themselves in, then waited, as a human troop might have? The torches hurtled closer as if they had been thrown, and the eerie honking noises rose until he thought it would deafen him.

There were no pikes, but the line extended back beyond the torchbearers, three or four defenders deep at least. He saw Barrick’s horse crash into the dark mass, heard shrieks and hooting screams and what sounded like a shout of anger from the prince, then Vansen was in the midst of the chaos himself, striking with his sword wherever he saw something move.

Some of the creatures had shields. Vansen could only hack his way a few yards into the crush of Longskulls before being driven back again, hammering away with his sword at the sharp points jabbing at him from all sides. The bonyheaded creatures didn’t have pikes or even swords as far he could tell in the confusion, but there were many axes and more than a few short stabbing-spears, as well as clubs. One shrieking creature swung something at him that looked like a pickax made of two heavy branches tied together, and although Vansen broke it with his blade, the force of the blow nearly knocked him from his saddle.

Unable to break through, Ferras Vansen yanked hard on the reins and his horse danced back out of the worst of the melee. He tried to spot another way through but it was like some children’s game in a dark room, half-seen shapes everywhere. Where was the prince? Was he down, or had he and the fairy broken through?

A moment later Vansen saw Gyir on foot, dragging Barrick backward out of a clot of defenders, the fairy-horse lost or dead. Vansen spurred toward them and was suddenly aware of Skurn squawking in fear, squeezed underneath the arm he was using to hold the reins. The large, clumsy bird would only get in his way and there was no sense in the raven dying, too, if that was what was to happen. Vansen pulled Skurn loose, then threw him into the dark rushes waving near the stream.

The reverberating cry of the creatures grew suddenly louder as the rest of the force, the troop that had been pursuing Vansen and the others down the hill, came dashing out onto open ground, waving their torches, their oddly-jointed movements stranger than any nightmare.

Vansen reined up beside his companions. Barrick looked up with glassy, fatalistic eyes. Gyir, his sword already dripping black with blood, stared past him at the Longskulls on either side.

“We are surrounded!” Vansen pulled on the reins, trying to keep his restive, frightened horse from rearing. The pursuers on the hillside had slowed from a full-tilt run to something more like a walk, but they still came on. Those at the head of the valley were moving closer now too, so that Vansen and his companions found themselves in the middle of a shrinking circle. Vansen looked for even a tiny opening—he would grab the prince and try to beat his way through—but their captors moved in without any jostling or confusion that might allow such an opening.

They were surrounded by many times their own numbers— perhaps a pentecount or more—but Vansen braced himself for a hopeless charge: better to die that way than be stuck as he stood like an exhausted boar at the end of a grueling hunt.

No. No, they’ve...stopped, he realized. Instead of finishing them off, the Longskulls watched the trio with calm interest, small eyes gleaming beneath heavy browridges, some of them opening and closing their bony, toothless mouths like fish. The two scouts Gyir had killed the night before had been better caparisoned than most of these club-wielding creatures, who wore little more than rags and shreds of chain mail and leather, but there were far more than enough of them to make up for any deficiency in their arms.

Gyir made the first speech-sound Vansen had ever heard from him, a hiss of air like a snake’s warning, so loud it could be heard even above the gabble of the surrounding Longskulls. The fairy raised his sword, and Vansen knew beyond doubt that he was about to leap into the nearest mass of them and sell his life dearly, shedding blood and breaking bones, but Vansen knew just as clearly that even a fierce fighter like Gyir would fail and quickly be dragged down by sheer weight of numbers, and that he and Barrick would then follow him into death.

“Gyir, no! Barrick, stop him!” he shouted. “They’re not going to kill us.”

The fairy-man took a step forward. Vansen leaned down to grab at Gyir. He caught the collar of the fairy-man’s cloak and hung on. The Storm Lantern’s strength was surprising —Vansen was almost dragged out of the saddle, even with both legs gripping and his hand locked on the horn. “Curse you, give over!” he grunted at the fairy. “They mean to take us alive! Look at them!”

Barrick, after a moment of indecision, suddenly leaped forward and grabbed at Gyir’s other arm. Trembling, the fairy-warrior turned on the young prince with a look of something like hatred, his eyes the only part of his face that lived, two burning slashes in the ivory mask. After a moment, though, he lowered his bloodstained blade. The Longskulls moved closer, hooting quietly, and began to disarm their new prisoners.

“We are a catch, it seems,” Vansen said to the prince. “Better to surrender than die needlessly, Highness. For the living, there is always hope.”

“Or torture.” Barrick was shoved roughly to the ground even as he spoke. The prince’s voice was flat and lifeless. “We will be slaves if we are lucky, or meat for their larders.” A moment later Vansen had been shoved down to his knees beside him. The Longskulls fastened heavy chains around his arms and a hard, rough rope around his throat, then the same was done to Barrick and Gyir.

One of the Longskulls stepped forward and honked imperiously as he tugged on the rope around the prince’s neck, forcing him to rise. For a moment it looked like Gyir might go mad when his own rope was pulled, but Vansen put out his hand and Gyir stilled, then allowed himself to be led. The Longskulls shared a gabbling hiss that might have been laughter. The creatures smelled of swamp mud and something else, an odor sharp and sour as vinegar.

As they trudged back up the dark hill they had ridden down such a short while before, Ferras Vansen could hear the heart-rending screams of his horse in the valley behind them as the Longskulls began to hack it into pieces.

Slaves or meat, he thought, feeling as hollow as a lightning burned tree. My horse is meat, but we are slaves—and still alive. At least for now.

Part Two


15. The Boy in the Mirror

Zhafaris became a tyrant who did not observe the laws, and who cheated his relatives of their due, my children, and they began to whisper against him and his authority. Fiercest of all when it came to talking were the three sons of Shusayem, but in truth they were all afraid of their father.

Then Argal Thunderer said to his brothers, “I hear that in far off Xandos there is a mountain, and on that mountain lives a shepherd named Nushash, who is as strong as any man who ever lived.” And it was true, because Nushash and his brother and sister were the true and first children of Zhafaris, although they had lived long in hiding.

—from The Revelations of Nushash, Book One

The wind had blown the clouds into tatters, and although what remained was enough to keep the sun dodging in and out, for once the skies were dry. All over the castle people were emerging, eager to feel something other than rain on their faces.

A dozen young women came out into the garden of the royal residence. Matt Tinwright, who had been feeling sorry for himself and searching fruitlessly for something that rhymed with “misunderstood,” stood and straightened his jerkin. His mood had suddenly improved, and not only because he could show his well-turned legs and new beard to some pretty girls: their arrival, bright and lively as a flock of migrating birds, felt like a harbinger of spring, although winter still had weeks to run. As he watched them scatter across the formal garden, some wiping the benches dry so they could sit, others forming a circle on the central lawn to toss a ball of feather-stuffed cloth, Tinwright could almost believe that things in Southmarch might again become ordinary, despite all evidence to the contrary.

He took off his soft hat and ran his fingers through his hair, wondering whether it would be more enjoyable to insert himself into the proceedings directly or wait a while, watching the play and smiling in a friendly but slightly superior manner. A moment later all thought of the ball game fled his mind.

She walked slowly, like a much older woman, and with the young maid beside her she might have been someone’s dowager aunt—especially since on this day, when everyone else had chosen to wear something with a little color in it, she was still dressed head to foot in funeral black. But there was no mistaking that pale, resolute face, the fine, slightly sharp chin, the long fingers twined in prayer beads. At least she had left off her veil today.

What would have been quite sufficient for a casual game of ball and some seemingly accidental contact with the players was no longer enough to pass muster. Tinwright paused and pulled up his stockings, brushed a few crumbs from his chest—he had been eating bread and hard cheese while contemplating the unfairness of life—then made his way down the path looking only at plants, as if too taken by the harsh beauty of the winter garden to notice the arrival of several nubile young women showing more skin around the neck and bosom than they had in months. He wound in and out among the box hedges by a path so circuitous he might have been a foraging ant, crunching along gravel paths unraked since late autumn, until at last he approached the bench where the object of his garden quest sat with her maid.

Elan M’Cory was sewing something stretched on a wooden hoop; her eyes did not lift even when he stopped and stood for long moments, waiting. At last, his courage dying quickly, he coughed a little. “Lady Elan,” he said. “I bid you good afternoon.”

She finally looked up, but with such an unseeing, uncaring gaze that he found himself wondering against all sense whether he had approached the wrong woman, whether Elan M’Cory might have a blind or idiot sister. Then something like ordinary humanity came into her eyes. An expression that was not quite a smile, but almost, tugged at her lips.

“Ah, the poet. Master...Tinwright, was it?”

She remembered him! He could almost hear trumpets, as if the royal heralds had been called out to celebrate his now unmistakable and confirmed existence. “That is right, lady. You honor me.”

Her gaze dropped to her sewing. “And are you enjoying the afternoon, Master Tinwright?”

“Much more for your presence, my lady.”

Now she looked at him again, amused but still distant. “Ah. Because I am a vision of loveliness in my spring finery? Or perhaps because of the cloud of good cheer that surrounds me like a Xandian perfume?”

He laughed, but not confidently. She had wit. He wasn’t certain how he felt about that. He didn’t generally get on very well with women of that sort. On those occasions when he received compliments he wanted to be sure he understood them and that they were sincere. Still, there was something about her that pulled at him, just like the flameloving moth he had so often cited in his poetry. So this was what it felt like! All poets should be forced to feel all the things they wrote about, Tinwright decided. It was a most novel way to understand the figures of poetry. It might change the craft entirely.

“Have I lost you, good sir? You were going to explain the subtle charm that draws you to me.”

He started, ashamed at his own foolishness, standing slack-jawed when he had been asked a question, however sardonic. “Because you are beautiful and sad, Lady Elan,” he said, uncertain whether he might not be overstepping the boundaries of propriety. He shrugged: too late—it had been said. “I wish there were something I could do to make you less so.”

“Less beautiful?” she said, lifting an eyebrow, but there was something underneath the gibing that hurt him to hear— something naked and miserable.

“My lady points out rightly that I have made a fool of myself with my clumsy talk.” He bowed. “I should go and leave you to your work.”

“I hate my work. I sew like a farm laborer. I am more of an executioner than a chirurgeon when it comes to handcraft.”

He didn’t know what that meant, but she hadn’t agreed he should go away. He felt a surge of joy but tried to hide it. “I am sure you underestimate yourself, lady.”

She stared at him for a long moment. “I only like you when you tell the truth, Tinwright. Can you do that? If not, you may continue on you way.”

What was she asking? He swallowed—discreetly, he hoped—and said, “Only the truth then, my lady.”


“On Zosim, my patron.”

“Ah, the drunkard godling—and patron of criminals, too, I believe. A good enough choice, I suppose, and certainly appropriate for any conversation with me.” She turned to the young maid beside her, who had been listening to them and watching openmouthed. “Lida, you go,” she said. “Play with the other girls.”

“But, Mistress...!”

“I will be fine. I will sit right here. Master Tinwright will protect me from any danger. It is well known that poets fear nothing. Is that not right, Master Matthias?”

Tinwright smiled. “Known only to poets, perhaps, and not to this one. But I do not think your mistress will be in any danger, child.”

Lida, who was all of eight or nine years old, frowned at being called a child, but gathered her skirts and rose from the bench, a miniature of dignity. She spoiled the effect a little by sullenly scuffing her feet all the way down the path.

“She is a good girl,” Elan said. “She came with me from home.”


“No. My own family lives miles from the city. Our estate is called Willowburn.”

“Ah. So you are a country girl?”

She looked at him, her expression suddenly flat once more. “Do not flirt with me, Master Tinwright. I was about to ask you to sit down. Am I to regret my decision?”

He hung his head. “I meant no offense, Lady Elan. I only wondered. I was raised in the city and I’ve often wondered what it would mean to smell country air every day.”

“Really? Well, sometimes it smells wonderful, and sometimes it is just as bad as anything to be found in the worst stews of a city. If you have not spent much time around pigs, Master Tinwright, you haven’t missed a great deal.”

He laughed. She might have more wit than was fitting in a woman, but she also spoke more engagingly than most of the women he knew—or the men either, for that matter. “Point taken, my lady. I will try not to over-burnish the joys of country living.”

“So you grew up in a city. Where?”

“Here. Well, across the bay, to be precise, in the outer city. A place called Wharfside. Not a very nice place.”

“Ah. So your family was poor, then?”

He hesitated. He wanted to agree, to make himself seem as admirable as possible. Since he couldn’t pass for nobility, he could at least be the opposite, someone who had lifted himself up from dire misery by bravery and brilliance.

“Truth,” she reminded, seeing him hesitate. “Most in Wharfside are poor, yes, but we were better off than the largest part of them. My father was a tutor to the children of some of the merchants. We could have lived better, but my father was...he wasn’t good with money.” But good with spending it on drink, and a little too forthcoming in his opinions as far as some of his employers thought, Tinwright recalled, not without some bitterness even with the old man now years dead. “But we always had food on the table. My father studied at EastmarchUniversity. He taught me to love words.”

Which was not exactly the strict truth, as promised—what Kearn Tinwright had actually taught him was to love words enough to be able to talk yourself out of bad situations and into good ones.

“Ah, yes, words,” said Elan M’Cory, musingly. “I used to believe in them. Now I do not.”

Tinwright wasn’t sure he’d understood her. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing. I mean nothing.” She shook her head; for a moment the brittle look of ordinary social cheerfulness crumbled. She looked down at her needlepoint work for the span of several breaths. “I have kept you too long,” she said at last. “You must get on with your day and I must get on with ruining my sewing.”

He recognized a dismissal, and for once was too gratified to try to tug loose a little more of something he coveted. “I enjoyed speaking with you, my lady,” he said, and meant it. “May I hope to have the pleasure of doing it again sometime?”

The shrieks of the girls playing ball rose up and filled the long silence. She looked at him carefully, and this time it was as though she had retreated behind a high wall and peered down at him from the battlements. “Perhaps,” she said at last. “If you do not hope too much. My company is nothing to hope for.”

“Now it is you who does not tell the truth, my lady.” She frowned, but thinking, not disagreeing. “It is possible that some afternoons, when it does not rain, you may find me here, in this garden, at about this time of the day.”

He stood, and bowed. “I will look forward to such days.” She smiled her sad smile. “Go on and join the living, Matt Tinwright. Perhaps we will meet, as you say. Perhaps we shall.”

He bowed again and walked away. It took all his strength not to look back, or at least not to do so immediately. When he did, the bench where she had sat was empty.

Duchess Merolanna hesitated at the bottom of the tower steps as the door creaked shut behind them. “Oh, I’m a fool.”

The creak ended in a low, shuddering thump as the door swung closed. The breeze set the torches fluttering in their brackets. “What do you mean, Your Grace?”

“I have brought us here without a single guard. What if these are murderers?”

“But you wished this kept a secret. Don’t worry yourself too much, Duchess—I am reasonably fit, and I can use one of these torches to defend you, if necessary.” Utta stretched up to lift one from its socket. “Even a murderer will not relish being struck in the face with this.”

Merolanna laughed. “I was worrying about you, good Sister Utta, rather than myself. You do not deserve to be harmed because of these strange games I find myself playing. I care not what happens to me. I am old, and all my chicks are dead or fled or lost...” For a moment her face became painfully sober and her lip trembled. “Ah, well. Ah, well.” The duchess took a breath and straightened, swelling her sizable bosom so that she seemed suddenly a small but daunting ship of war. “It does us no good to stand here whispering like frightened girls. Come, Utta. You have the torch. Lead the way.”

They made their way up the winding staircase. The first floor was unoccupied. The single, undivided chamber contained several large tables bearing plaster models of the castle, some true to life and others showing possible improvements, the fruits of one of King Olin’s enthusiasms now as forgotten as the dusty, mummified corpse of a mouse that lay in the middle of the doorway.

Merolanna eyed the tiny body with distaste. “Somebody should do something. What use is it having cats if they do not eat the mice instead of leaving them around to rot?”

“Cats don’t always eat their prey, Your Grace,” Utta said. “Sometimes they only play with them and then kill them for sport.”

“Nasty creatures. I never did like cats. Give me a hound any day. Stupid but honest.” Merolanna looked around for eavesdroppers—a reflex because they were quite alone. Still, when she spoke again it was in a low voice. “That’s why I preferred Gailon Tolly, for all his faults, to his brothers. Hendon is a cat if ever there was one. You can see the cruelty—he wears it like a fancy outfit, with pride.”

Utta nodded as they returned to the stairs, leaving the cobwebbed models behind. Even Zoria herself, she felt sure, would have found it hard to feel charitable toward Hendon Tolly.

The doors on the second and third floors were smaller, and locked. She guessed that at least the upper one contained part of King Olin’s famous library. This tower had always been his private sanctuary, and even with him gone so long she felt disrespectful poking around without royal permission.

But I am with Merolanna—the king’s own aunt, she reminded herself. If that is not permission enough, what is?

The door to the chamber which took up the entire top floor was open, although Utta felt oddly sure that in any ordinary circumstances it would be locked just like the floors below it. No light burned inside, and from where the two women stood on the landing at the top of the stairs, their torch barely threw light past the doorway. As Utta moved closer the shadows inside bent and stretched. Suddenly she felt short of breath. Zoria, preserve me from dangers known and unknown, she prayed, from peril of the body and peril of the soul. “Your Grace?”

Merolanna frowned as if irritated at herself. She had not left the top of the stairs. “Very well. I’m coming.” She hesitated a moment longer, then walked forward to stand at Utta’s side. Together they stepped into the doorway, both of them holding their breath. Utta lifted the torch.

If the room full of plaster models at the bottom of the tower had seemed cluttered, this was something else again. Books had been stacked everywhere across the floor in unsteady-looking towers, and across every surface, many of them open, covering the two long tables in heedless piles. More than a few of the volumes lay bent-backed, perched like clumsy nesting birds on tabletop or pile, in positions that likely had not changed since the king’s disappearance. Many had lost pages: a mulch of creased parchments covered the floor like drifts of leaves. For Zoria, tutored in the thrifty ways of the Zorian sisterhood, where books were a precious, expensive resource and could be read only with the permission of the adelfa, the mistress of the shrine’s sisterhood, this careless plenitude was both exhilarating and shocking.

“What a dreadful clutter!” said Merolanna. “And it’s frightfully cold in here, too. I’m shivering, Utta. Would you see if there’s any wood, and light a fire?”

“Light not any fires, great ladies!” a tiny voice piped. “I beg ’ee, or tha will scorch my own sweet mistress most cracklingly!”

Utta jumped and dropped the torch, which with great good fortune landed in one of the few places on the floor not covered with sheets of book paper. She snatched it up again, breathing thanks she had not set the entire tower aflame. “What was...?”

Merolanna had given a little screech at the mysterious words, and now reached out and clutched Utta’s shoulder so fiercely that the Zorian sister could barely restrain a cry of her own. “It was here! In this very room!” the duchess whispered. She made the sign of the Three. “Who speaks?” she demanded aloud, her voice cracked and quavering. “Are you a ghost? A demon spirit?”

“No, great ladies, no ghost. I will show myself presently.” The faint, shrill voice might almost have come from the phantom of the dead mouse downstairs. A moment later, Utta saw something stirring on the tabletop. A minuscule, four-limbed shape crawled out from between two closeleaning piles of books. When it stood up, and was revealed to be a man no taller than Utta’s finger, she nearly dropped the torch again.

“Oh, merciful daughter of Perin,” Utta said. “It is a little man.”

“No mere man,” the stranger chirped, “but a Gutter-Scout of the Rooftoppers.” He bowed. “Beetledown the Bowman, I hight. Beg pardon for affrighting thee.”

“You see this too,” Merolanna said, tightening her grip on Utta again until the other woman squirmed. “Sister Utta, you see it. I am not mad, am I?”

“I see it,” was all she could say. At this moment Utta was not entirely certain of her own sanity. “Who are you?” she asked the tiny man. “I mean, what are you?”

“He said he was a Rooftopper,” Merolanna said. “That’s plain enough.”


“Don’t you know the stories? Ah, but you’re from the Vuttish islands, aren’t you?” Merolanna stared at Utta for a moment, then suddenly remembered what they were talking about and turned back to the astonishing little apparition on the table. “What do you want? Are you the one who...did you put that letter in my chamber?”

Beetledown bowed. It was hard to tell, he was so small, but he might have been a little shame-faced. “That were my folk, yes, and Beetledown played some part, ’tis also true. We took the letter and we brought it back. Any more, though, be not mine to tell. You must wait.”

“Wait?” Merolanna’s laugh was more than a little shaky. Utta half feared that the duchess would faint or run screaming, but Merolanna seemed determined to prove she was made of bolder stuff. “Wait for what? The goblins to come and play us a tune? The fairy-king to lead us to his hoard of gold? By the Holy Trigon, are all the stories coming to life?”

“Again, this one cannot say, great lady. But un comes who can.” He cocked his head. “Ah. I hear her.”

He pointed to the great, long-unused fireplace. A line of figures had begun to file out from behind a pile of books beside the hearth—tiny men like Beetledown, dressed in fantastical armor made of nut husks and rodent skeletons, carrying equally tiny swords and spears. The miniature troop marched silently across the floor (although not without a few nervous glances upward at Utta and Merolanna) and lined up before the fireplace. A platform descended slowly out of the flue and into the opening of the fireplace, winched down on threads with a feathery squeak like the cry of baby birds. When it was a half-foot above the ash-covered andiron, it stopped, swaying slightly. At the center of the platform, on a beautiful throne constructed in part from what appeared to be a gilded pinecone, sat a finger-sized woman with red hair and a little crown of gold wire. She regarded her two large guests with calm interest, then smiled.

“Her Sublime and Inextricable Majesty, Queen Upsteeplebat,” announced Beetledown with considerable fervor.

“We owe you an explanation, Duchess Merolanna and Sister Utta,” said the little queen. The stones of the fireplace, like the shape of a theater or temple, made her high voice easier to hear than the little man’s had been. “We have information that we think you will find valuable, and in turn, we ask you to aid us in the great matters that are upon us all.”

“Aid you?” Merolanna shook her head. The duchess was looking her age now, confused and even a little weary. “By the gods, I swear I understand none of this. Tiny people out of an old tale. What could we do to help you? And what information could you give us?”

“For one thing, Duchess,” said the queen gently, as if to a restless child instead of to a woman many, many times her size, “we believe we can tell you what happened to your son.”

“Are you sure?” Opal asked. “Perhaps you’re still too tired.” His wife, Chert noted, seemed to be having second thoughts.

“No, Mistress,” Chaven protested, “I am much recovered. In fact, I am ashamed at having let myself go so far last night.” He did indeed look rather embarrassed. “I count you even better friends for your kindness, indulging me at a bad time.”

“But, are you truly...?” Opal looked at the physician, then at her husband, as though she wanted him to intervene. Chert was quite happy to sit with a sour smile on his face. This messing about with mirrors had been her idea, after all. “Will you really do it here? In our home?”

Chaven smiled. “Mistress Opal, this is not some great, dangerous experiment I will perform, only the mildest bit of captromancy. Nothing will damage your son or your house.”

Son. Chert still wasn’t sure how he felt about that, but kept his thoughts to himself. Just in the months since Flint had come to them, the boy had grown another handspan, and now he towered over Chert. How could you consider someone your son who first of all didn’t belong to you, whose mother and father might be alive and living nearby, and who in a few years would be twice your own size?

Ah, I suppose it isn’t the height but the heart, he thought. He looked at the boy, sitting sleepy-eyed and faintly distrustful, curled in his blanket in the corner he had made his own. At least he’s out of his bed. These days Flint was like some ancient relative—asleep most of the day, barely speaking. The boy had never been talkative, of course, but until the moment he had woken up from his weird adventure in the Mysteries the vigor had practically sprayed off him like a dog shaking a wet coat.

“What do you need, Doctor?” Chert couldn’t help being a little curious. “Special herbs? Opal could go to the market.”

You could go to the market, you old hedgehog,” she said, but her heart wasn’t in it.

“No, no.” The physician waved his hand. He looked a bit better for a night’s sleep, but Chert knew him well enough to see the hollowness behind the façade of the ordinary. Chaven Makaros was not a happy man, not remotely, which made Chert even more anxious. “No, I need only Mistress Opal’s mirror and a candle, and...” Chaven frowned. “Can you make this place dark?”

Chert laughed. “Can we? You forget, you are a guest in FunderlingTown now. Even what we usually walk about in would seem like deep dark to you, and what you think is ordinary light makes my head ache.”

Chaven looked stricken. “Is that true? Have you been suffering because of me?”

He shook his head. “I exaggerate. But yes, of course, we can make it dark.”

As Chert stood on a stool to douse the lantern burning high in the alcove above the fire, Opal left the room and returned with a single candle in a dish which she set on the table next to Chaven. Already the exchange of the lantern for this single small light had turned the morning into something else, into eerie, timeless twilight, and Chert could not help remembering the murk of Southmarch city across the bay, the ceaseless dripping of water, those armored...things stepping out of the shadows. He had dismissed Opal’s worries about doing this in the house, thinking that she was concerned only about a mess on her immaculate floors, but realized now that something deeper troubled her: by this one act, the lighting of a candle, and the knowledge that more was to come, the day and their house itself had been transformed into something quite different, almost frightening.

“Now,” said Chaven, “I will need something to prop this mirror—ah, the cup should do nicely. And I want to put the candle here, where it will reflect without being directly in front of him. Flint, that is the boy’s name, yes? Flint, come and sit here at the table. On this bench, yes.”

The straw-haired boy rose and came forward, looking not so much apprehensive now as confused—and why not, Chert thought: it was an odd thing for parents of any kind to do, foster-folk or not, handing their child over to a strange, bespectacled fellow like this one, a man who might be small among his own kind but here was too big for any of the furniture, then letting him do the Elders knew what to the boy.

“It’s all right, son,” Chert said abruptly. Flint looked at him, then seated himself.

“Now, child, I want you to move a little so you can see nothing but the candle.” The boy tilted a bit to the side, then moved the rest of his body at the physician’s gentle direction. Chaven stood behind him.

“Perhaps you two should move to where he cannot see you,” the physician said to Chert and Opal. “Just stand behind me.”

“Will this hurt him?” Opal asked suddenly. The boy flinched.

“No, no, and again, no. No pain, nothing dangerous, only a few questions, a little...conversation.”

When Opal had taken her place, gripping Chert’s hand tighter than he could remember her doing for some time, Chaven began quietly to speak. “Now, look in the mirror, lad.” It was strange to think this same fellow, so soothing now, had been shrieking like a man caught under a rockslide only a few hours earlier. “Do you see the candle flame? You do. It is there before you, the only bright thing. Look at it. Do not watch anything else, only the flame. See how it moves? See how it glows? The darkness on either side of it is spreading, but the light only grows brighter...”

Chert couldn’t see Flint’s face, of course—the angle of the mirror didn’t permit it—but he could see the boy’s posture beginning to ease. The bony shoulders, which had been hunched as though against a cold wind, now drooped, and the head tilted forward toward the mirror-candle that Flint could see but Chert could not.

Chaven continued to talk in this soft, serious way, speaking of the candle and the darkness around it until Chert felt that he was falling into some kind of spell himself, until the pool of light on the tabletop, the candle and Flint and the mirror, all seemed to float in a shadowy void. The physician let his voice trail off into silence.

“Now,” Chaven said after a pause, “we are going to take a journey together, you and I. Fear nothing that you see because I will be with you. Nothing that you see can see you, or harm you in any way. Do not be afraid.

Opal squeezed Chert’s hand so hard he had to wriggle his fingers free. He put his own hand on her arm to let her know he was still there, and also to try to stave off any sudden urges on her part to crush his fingers again.

“You are a boy again, just a very small boy—a baby, perhaps still in swaddling, and you can barely walk,” Chaven said. “Where are you? What do you see?”

A long pause was followed by a strange sound—Flint’s voice, but a new one Chert hadn’t yet heard, not the preternatural maturity of the nearly wild boy they had brought home, or the anxious sullenness that had come on him since his journey through the mysteries. This Flint sounded almost exactly like what Chaven had described— a very small child, only just up on his legs.

“See trees. See my mam.”

Opal got hold of his hand despite Chert’s best efforts and this time he didn’t have the heart to pull away, despite her desperate grip.

“And your father? Is he there?” “Han’t got un.”

“Ah. And what is your name?”

He waited another long moment before answering. “Boy. Mam calls me boy.”

“And do you know her name?” “Mam. Ma-ma.”

There was another spell of silence while Chaven considered. “Very well. You are a little older now. Where do you live?”

“In my house. Near the wood.” “Do you know its name, this wood?” “No. Only know I mustn’t go there.”

“And when other people speak to your mother, what do they call her?”

“Don’t. Don’t none come. Except the city-man. He comes with the money. Four silver seashells each time. She likes it when he comes.”

Chaven turned and gave Chert and Opal a look that Chert could not identify. “And what does he call her?”

“Mistress, or goodwife. Once he called her Dame Nursewife.”

Chaven sighed. “Enough, then. You are now...”

“She’s not well,” Flint said abruptly, his voice tremulous. “She said, don’t go out, and I don’t. But she’s sleeping and the clouds are coming along the ground.”

“He’s frightened!” said Opal. Chert had to hold her back, wondering even as he did so whether it was the right thing to do. “Let go of me, old man—can’t you hear him? Flint! Flint, I’m here!”

“I assure you, good Mistress Opal, he cannot hear you.” Something odd and hard had entered Chaven’s voice—a tone Chert hadn’t heard from him before. “My master Kaspar Dyelos taught this working to me and I learned it well. I assure you, he hears no voice but mine.”

“But he’s frightened!”

“Then you must be quiet and let me speak to him,” Chaven said. “Boy, listen to me.”

“The trees!” Flint said, his voice rising. “The trees are... moving. They have fingers. They’re all around the house, and the clouds are all around too!”

“You are safe,” the physician said. “You are safe, boy. Nothing you can see can hurt you.”

“I don’t want to go out. Ma said not to! But the door’s open and the clouds are in the house...!”


Flint’s desperate words came out in little bursts, as though he were running hard. “Not...the...don’t want...” He was swaying on the bench now, boneless as a doll, his head rolling on his neck as though someone were shaking him by the shoulders. “The eyes are all staring! Where’s my ma? Where’s the sky?” He was weeping now. “Where’s my house?”

“Stop this!” Opal shrieked. “You’re hurting him with your horrible spell!”

“I assure you,” Chaven said, a little breathless himself, “that while he may be remembering things that frightened him, he’s in no danger...”

Flint suddenly went rigid on the bench. “He’s not in the stone anymore,” he said in a harsh whisper, throat as tight as if someone squeezed it in strong hands. “He’s not just in the stone—he’!” The child fell silent, still stiff as a post.

“We are done now, boy,” Chaven said after a long moment of stunned silence. “Come back to your home. Come back here, to the candle, and the mirror, come back to Opal and Chert...”

Flint stood up so suddenly that he tipped the heavy bench over. It crashed onto Chaven’s foot and the physician hopped back on one leg, cursing unintelligibly, then fell over.

“No!” Flint shouted, and his voice filled the small room, rattled from the stone walls. “The queen’s heart! The queen’s heart! It’s a hole, and he’s crawling through it...!”

And then he went limp and fell to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut.

“He only sleeps.” Chaven spoke gently, an unspoken apology behind the words, but Opal was having nothing of it; the look on her face could have crumbled limestone. She angrily waved Chaven and her husband from the sleeping room so she could continue dabbing the boy’s forehead with a wet cloth, as if the mere fact of their presence would compromise her healing abilities—or, as Chert thought more likely, as though the very sight of two such useless men made her feel ill.

“I do not know what happened,” Chaven said to Chert as they turned the bench right-side-up and sat on it. Chert poured them both a mug of mossbrew out of a jug. “Never before...” He frowned. “Something has been done to that boy. Behind the Shadowline, perhaps.”

Chert laughed, but it was not one of the pleasant kind. “We did not need any mirror-magic to know that.”

“Yes, yes, but there is more here than I ever thought. You heard him. He did not merely wander across the Shadowline—he was taken. Something strange was done to him there, I have no doubt.”

Chert thought of the boy as he had found him just days before, lying at the foot of the Shining Man at the very center of the Funderling Mysteries, with the little mirror clutched in his fingers. And then that terrifying fairy-woman had taken the mirror from Chert in turn. What was it all about? Was she the queen the boy was shouting about? He had said something about a hole, and Chert could see how a heart with a hole in it might describe her.

“I don’t understand,” Chaven said. “Not any of it. But I cannot help feeling that I need to.”

“Well enough.” Chert stood, wincing at the ache in his knees. “Me, I have more pressing things to worry about, like where we are going to go and how we are going to find something to eat without anyone noticing you.” “What are you talking about?” Chaven asked.

“Because not only isn’t Opal going to feed us today,” Chert told him, “I think it’s pretty plain that you and I will be a lot healthier if we’re not sitting here when she comes out.”

“Ah,” said the physician, and hastily drained his mug. “Yes, I see what you mean. Let us be going.”

16. Night Fires

Pale Daughter told her father Thunder that she had seen a handsome lord dressed all in pearly armor, with hair like moonlight on snow, and that her heart now rode with him. Thunder knew that it was his half brother Silvergleam, one of the children of Breeze, and forbade her to go out of the house again. The music between father and daughter lost its purest note. The sky above the god’s house filled with clouds.

—from One Hundred Considerations, out of the Qar’s Book of Regret

After so many centuries, it was hard for Yasammez to accustom herself to true daylight again. Even this shy, cloud-blanketed winter sun seemed to blaze into her eyes from the moment it rose until it slid down behind the hills. She disliked it, but also felt a sort of wonder: had it really been like this once, walking in these southern lands, moving beneath Whitefire’s orb every day in light so bright that it turned shadows into stark black stripes? She could scarcely remember it.

She had taken the mortals’ city, but it was meaningless without the castle—worse than meaningless, because time was against her. Yasammez had prepared herself for fire and blood, for her own long-forestalled death, for meaningless victory or the finality of defeat, but she could never have prepared herself for this...waiting. The dragging stalemate was beginning to feel as though it might last until the unfamiliar sun burned out and the world went dark. She cursed the Pact of the Glass and her own foolishness for agreeing—she should never have let her hands be tied. Even if it worked, it would buy the one she loved only a few more moons of life and make the eventual loss even more heartbreaking.

As usual, the traitor was waiting for her on the steps outside the great hall she had taken for her own, a market hall or court where the mortals had once performed the meaningless routines of their short, busy lives. The one the sunlanders had called Gil-the-potboy looked up as she approached and smiled his slow, sad smile. His face, so human now she could scarcely recognize what he had once been, seemed as unmoving and opaque as dough.

“Good morning, my lady,” he said. “Will you kill me today?” “Did you have other plans, Kayyin?”

Something that the King had done to him still prevented her speaking to him mind to mind, so they had fallen back on the court speech of Qul-na-Qar, the common tongue of a hundred different kinds of folk. Yasammez, never one to waste even silent words, could not help feeling that here was another way that blind Ynnir was thwarting her, robbing her mind of rest.

Kayyin rose to follow her inside, hands hidden in his robe. Two of the guards looked at her, waiting for her to order this strange creature kept out, but she made no gesture as he trailed her through the door.

“I do not wish to speak to you today,” she warned him. “Then I will not speak, my lady.”

Their footsteps echoed through the hall. Other than two or three of her silent, dark-clad servants waiting in the gallery above, the tall, wood-timbered room was empty. Yasammez preferred it so. Her army had the whole of a city in which to nest. This place was hers, which made the presence of the traitor even more galling.

Yasammez the Porcupine curled herself into her hard, highbacked chair. Her unwelcome guest seated himself crosslegged at her feet. One of her servants from Shehen appeared as if stepping out of nowhere, and waited until Yasammez flicked her fingers in dismissal. She wanted nothing. Nothing was what she had. She had been outmaneuvered and now she was paying the price.

“I will not kill you today, Kayyin,” she said at last. “No matter how you plague me. Go away.”

“It is...interesting,” he said, as if he had not heard the last part of what she said. “That name still does not seem entirely real to me, although it was how I thought of myself for centuries. But while living in the mortal lands I truly became Gil, and although in some ways I slept through those years, it is like trying to shake off a powerful dream.”

“So first you betray me, now you would renounce your people entirely?”

He smiled, doubtless because he had lured her into conversation. Even when they had been close, when he had been allowed as near to her as Yasammez allowed anyone, he had always enjoyed the sport of making her talk. No one left alive cared about such things at all. It was one of the reasons the sight of his altered, now-alien face filled her with such disquiet. “I renounce nothing, my lady, and you know it. I have been a catspaw—first yours, then the King’s —and cannot be faulted for insufficient loyalty. I did not even remember who I truly was until one moon ago. How does that make me a traitor?”

“You know. I trusted you.”

“Trusted me, you say? You are still cruel, my lady, whatever else time has done.” He smiled, but the mockery was mixed with true sorrow. “The King was wiser than you guessed. And stronger. He made me his. He sent me to live among the mortals. And it has borne fruit, has it not? For the moment, no one is dying.”

“It would only have been sunlanders dying. We had won.” “Won what? A more glorious death for all the People? The King, apparently, has other ambitions.”

“He is a fool.”

Kayyin lifted his hand. “I do not seek to arbitrate the quarrels of the highest. Even when you lifted me up, you did not lift me far enough for that.” He peered at her from the corner of his eye, perhaps wondering whether this little gibe had shamed her, but Yasammez showed him nothing but stone, cold stone. She had been old already when Kayyin’s father had fought with her against Umadi Sva’s bastard offspring, and she had held him as he died in the agony of his burns on the Shivering Plain. If it had been in her to weep at someone’s death, she would have wept then. No, she had no shame in her—not about anything to do with Kayyin, at any rate.

After a long silence, the traitor laughed. “You know, it was strange, living among the sunlanders. They are not so different from us as you might think.”

She did not honor such filth with a reply. “I have considered it a great deal in the days since I returned to you, my lady, and I think I understand a part of the King’s thinking. Perhaps he is less willing than you to destroy the mortals because he thinks that they are not entirely to blame.”

She stared at him.

“It could even be that our king, in his labyrinthine wisdom, buttressed with the voices of his ancestors—your ancestors, too, of course—has come to believe that we may have helped to bring our woeful situation upon ourselves.”

Yasammez rose from the chair in a blind rage, her aspect abruptly juddering about her, shadow-spikes flaring. Kayyin came closer to his promised death at that moment than ever before. Instead, she raised a trembling, ice-cold finger and pointed to the door.

He stood and bowed. “Yes, my lady. You need solitude, of course, and with the burdens you bear, you deserve it. I await our next conversation.”

As he walked out the room behind him came to life with flickering shadows.

The strange, glaring sun had long since set. Yasammez sat in darkness.

A soft voice bloomed inside her head. “May I speak with you, Lady?”

She gave permission.

The far door opened. The visitor glided in like a leaf carried on a stream. She was tall, almost as tall as Yasammez herself, and slender as a young willow. Her white, hooded robe seemed to move too slowly for her progress, billowing like something underwater.

“Have things changed, Aesi’uah?” Yasammez asked. The woman stopped before the chair and made a ritual obeisance of spread hands as her strange, still face lifted to Yasammez. Her pale blue eyes gleamed like sunlight through stained glass, giving the face a little animation: but for that effulgent stare she might have been an ancient statue. “Lady, things have, but only slightly. Still, I thought you should be told.”

Someone other than Yasammez, someone other than the famously imperturbable Lady Porcupine, might have sighed. Instead she only nodded.

Her chief eremite spread her arms again, this time in the posture of bringing-the-truth. Aesi’uah was of Dreamless blood, and although that blood had been diluted by her Qar heritage, she had inherited at least one trait beside her moonstone gaze from those ancient forebears: she had an extreme disinterest in lies or politic speech, which was why she had become Yasammez’ favorite of all her eremite order. “The touch of the King’s glass has made him restless.”

“Is he awakening already?”

“No, Mistress.” The face was placid but the words were not. “But he is stirring, and something is different, although I cannot say what. He is like one fevered—restless, full of unsettling dreams.”

Yasammez would have scowled at that, but she had lost the habit of showing emotion in such a naked way. “We know nothing of his dreams.”

“Just so.” Aesi’uah bowed her head. “But his sleep seems to be that sort of sleep, and what is just as important, his restlessness makes the other sleepers uneasy, too.”

She was just about to ask the chief eremite how much longer before everything ended for good and all when another voice spoke in her head, faint as a dying wind.

Where are you hear me? Do you...know me?

Of course I know you, my heart. A claw of terror gripped Yasammez, but she tried to keep it from her thoughts. How could you doubt it?

Her beloved one was gone for a moment, then returned, sighing, tattered. So...cold. So dark.

Yasammez made the sign for “audience ended.” Aesi’uah did not change expression. She spread her hands, then glided out of the chamber like a phantom ship sailing beneath the moon.

Speak to me, my heart, said Yasammez. I fear...I am going soon into...that greater sleep... No. Strength is coming to you. I have sent the glass. Where is it? I fear it will never come. The thoughts were timid, simple as a child’s. To Yasammez that was the worst torment of all.

Gyir brings it, she promised. He is young and strong and his thoughts are clear. He will find his way to you in time.

But what...what if he does not...?

Do not even think it. Yasammez put every bit of strength she could behind the thought. He will come and you will be strong again. I will bring the scorched stones of the sunlanders’ cities to make you a necklace.

But even so...even so...!

Quiet, my heart. Not even the gods themselves can unmake that which is. Rest. I will stay with you until you sleep—not the greater sleep, but only the lesser. Fear not. Gyir will come.

She held on, then, to that faint wisp of thought and gave it comfort, though it fluttered against the darkness like a dying bird, by turns terrified and exhausted. The shadows flickered again in the hall, moving and stretching all through the true night as she took her aspect upon her once more, but this time they were softer—not spikes but tendrils, not the black, reaching claws of death but the fingers of soft, nurturing hands, as Lady Porcupine struggled to soothe the only living being she had ever truly loved.

The day was cold and gray, seasoned with drifts of rain, and although the doors to Effir dan-Mozan’s front room were open to the courtyard as usual, a large brazier had been lit to provide warmth. As Briony came in the merchant was bending forward—not an easy task over his rich-man’s belly—and warming his small, beringed hands at the coals.

“Ah, Briony-zisaya,” he said. “You have not left your meal too soon? I did not want to interrupt you.”

“I was finished, Master dan...Effir. Thank you. The servant said you and Shaso wished to speak with me.”

“Yes, but Lord dan-Heza is not here yet. Please, make yourself comfortable.” He gestured to one of the chairs arranged in a semicircle around the brazier. “It is a filthy day but I cannot bear to have the doors closed.” He laughed. “I like to see the sky. When I look at it, I might be at home.” The smile soured a little. “Well, not today. We do not have skies like this in Tuan. When the rains come, we go to our temples and give thanks. Here, I should suspect it is the reverse.”

Briony smiled. “I have never seen a house like this one, so low, with the garden in the center. Do people live like this in Tuan?”

“More or less. The nicer houses, yes. Although I wish I could have shown you my family home in Dagardar. Much larger, much more finely furnished—until it was pillaged and then burned by the old autarch’s soldiers. Still, I cannot complain. The March Kingdoms have been good to an exile.”

“It is still a very nice house.”

“You are kind. What you politely do not ask is why a rich man would dwell in such an unsalubrious part of LandersPort.”

She colored a little. She had wondered just that many times. “They do seem to have better...views from higher up on the hill.”

“Ah, yes, Princess. And they are jealous of them, too. A man like me can build himself a fine house here among the other dark-skinned folk and no one is too upset. But I promise you that were I to have built it somewhere that a lord like Iomer M’Sivon or the native merchant-folk had to look on me and my home every day, I would soon find that neighborhood even less pleasant than this one.” His smile had a bit of a twist to it. “The important thing in this life is to know not just who you are but where you are.”

Shaso came in, dressed as though he had been outside, his face hidden by scarf and drooping hat. He shook the rain off his cloak and draped it across a chair. Effir danMozan did not look pleased to have water sprinkled across his carpeted floors.

Shaso took off his hat and sat down. “A ship came in from Hierosol,” he said by way of explanation. “The sailors were drinking. And talking. I was listening.”

“And what did you learn, Lord?” asked Effir, who had regained his equanimity.

“Hierosol is preparing. Several dromons—that is what they call their warships, Princess—that were awaiting repairs are being rushed through dry-dock. Drakava has also called back his captains, who were punishing reluctant taxpayers along the Kracian border. He seems to expect a siege.”

“And my father?”

Shaso shook his head. “These tidings come from sailors, Highness. They know little and care less about politics or prisoners. No news, as they say, is doubtless good news. The only concern is what will happen when Drakava realizes he will get no ransom out of Southmarch now.”

“What do you mean?” she said hotly, then realized a moment later that Shaso was right: the last thing Hendon Tolly wanted now was for King Olin to return. “Oh, those... swine! Will Ludis Drakava hurt him?”

“I cannot imagine he would.” Shaso shook his head but wouldn’t meet her eye. He was unpracticed at deception and did not do it well. “There is nothing to gain from it and much to lose—like any chance of help from the northern countries if he is attacked by Xis.”

As if sensing Briony’s doubt and fear, Effir suddenly clapped his hands. “Come, let us have something hot to drink! A chilly day like this gets into your bones if you are not careful. Tal! Ah, no, wait, he is not at home today—off on some errand of his own.” He clapped again, and at last one of his older and more doddering servitors meandered in. When the ancient had been dispatched for mulled wine, Effir rubbed his hands and began talking, perhaps making sure the conversation did not wander back onto the uncertain ground of a few moments earlier. “We brought you here because the time has come to make plans, Princess.”

“What plans?”

“Just so, just so.” Effir turned to Shaso. “My lord?” “You and I cannot stay here forever,” the old Tuani said. “You have told me so yourself, Highness.”

“Where will we go?” Her heart seemed to swell and grow lighter. “To my father?”

“No.” The scowl turned his face into a mask. “No and no, Briony. I have told you, there is little we could do for him, and it would be even worse foolishness now that the autarch seems to be considering an attack on Hierosol. What we need are allies, but there are very few people we can trust.”

“Surely there must be someone left who believes in honor.” Briony balled her fists. “By the holy Trigon, will they all simply stand by and see our throne stolen? What about Brenland, or Settland—we’ve sent help to them more times than I can count!”

“Your fellow rulers will do what suits them—and their people. I would advise you no differently myself.” He raised a hand to forestall her indignant objection. “That is not so bad as it sounds, Highness. Any alliances we can make will be more straightforward if we do not clutter them with ideas like ‘honor.’ As long as we can bring our new ally some benefit, he will remain our ally—a simple, clean arrangement. And things are not so helpless as I may have painted them earlier. We do not necessarily need an entire army to reclaim Southmarch. All we need is enough strength to prevent Tolly getting his hands on you and killing you outright or pronouncing you an impostor—we could get by with a fairly small force. Then, if we can avoid being overwhelmed immediately, we will be able to reveal you to the people of Southmarch and denounce the Tollys as murderers and usurpers. That is the first step.”

Briony frowned. “Why is that only the first step? Surely if we could engineer such a thing that would solve the whole problem.”

Shaso clicked his tongue at her. “Think, Highness! Do you believe that even if he is revealed as the worst sort of usurper, Hendon Tolly will simply surrender? No. He and his brother Caradon will know they must hold what they have stolen or die on a traitor’s gibbet. Hendon will go to ground in Southmarch like a badger in a hole and Caradon will reinforce him. Anyone trying to force Hendon out will find himself trapped between the castle walls and the army of Summerfield.”

“So we don’t need an army, but we need an army? You’re not making sense.”

“Think on it carefully, Highness,” Shaso told her.

She hated it when her elders talked that way. What it meant was, I already know the answer because I’m grown and I know things, but you need to learn how to think, and then you can be wise and wonderful like me. “I don’t know.”

“What is our true need—no more, no less?”

Effir dan-Mozan, meanwhile, was watching the exchange with bright-eyed interest, as though he were a spectator at some particularly fascinating contest. That reminded Briony of something. “What is it my father always says when he’s playing King’s Square?” she asked Shaso. “Something from one of those old philosophers, I think.”

“Ah, yes. ‘Errors of caution are more likely to be considered at leisure than errors of boldness—but less likely to be considered after a victory.’ In other words, if you are too careful, you are more likely to live, but less likely to win. It is one of his favorite epigrams—and one of the reasons I admire him.”

“It is?” She was so pleased to hear someone, especially Shaso, talk about her father as a living person instead of as though he were already dead that she forgave the old man his lecturing ways.

“Yes. He is one of the most thoughtful men I have ever met, but he is not afraid to move swiftly and boldly when necessary—to take risks. It is how he beat me at Hierosol, you know.” “Tell me.”

“Not now. We need to consider our present situation, not review ancient battles.” Was that the hint of a smile? “Now think. What do we truly need?”

“To do something bold, I suppose. To get our castle back.”

“Yes, and you will only get it with the Tollys out, or dead. But as I said, we do not necessarily need an army. We can raise that from the March Kingdoms and even within the walls of Southmarch itself, if we can keep you alive long enough.”

“So we need an ally with at least a small force of soldiers.” She thought. “But who? You’ve said we don’t know who to trust.”

“We must make trust—we must find an ally who wants to bargain with us. And we must do something bold to find that ally. Hendon has no doubt filled the roads to Brenland and Settland with spies and assassins. I do not doubt he has people in the courts of all the March Kingdoms as well, probably under the guise of being emissaries from the court of the infant prince.”

“I’m going to kill him.”

“Beware your own anger, Highness. But I think we must make a move Hendon does not suspect. As I said, I doubt any of your fellow rulers will do something for you out of the good of their hearts.

“Syan is our best hope, I think. To begin with, King Enander has no love for Summerfield Court , going back to the days when Lindon Tolly, the old duke, was trying to marry his sister to your father. When your father chose your mother instead, Lindon was so determined to build a link to the throne of the March Kingdoms that he snubbed one of King Enander’s own nephews and married his sister Ethna to your father’s younger brother, Hardis...”

Briony shook her head. “Gods give us strength, you remember more of this family lore than I do.”

Shaso gave her a stern look. “This is not ‘family lore,’ as you know very well—this is the stuff of alliances...and betrayals.” He frowned, thinking. “In any case, Enander of Syan might be sympathetic to your cause—he has never quite forgiven the Tollys—but he will exact a price.”

“A price? What sort of price? By the gods, does the Treaty of Coldgray Moor mean nothing? Anglin saved them all, and Syan and the others promised they would always come to our aid.” She bit back several unladylike words: Shaso had heard her worst while training her, but she felt shy about cursing in front of Effir dan-Mozan. “Besides, until we take Southmarch back we have nothing to give these greedy people...”

“Enander of Syan is not particularly greedy, but that treaty is centuries old, however much it is revered in the March Kingdoms. It could be he will settle for gold when we have your throne back, but I believe he also has a marriageable son, who is said to be a goodly man...”

“So I must sell myself to get my throne back?” She felt so hot in the face that she pushed herself back from the brazier. “I might as well marry Ludis Drakava!”

“I think you would find the Syannese prince a much more pleasant husband, but let us hope there is some other way.” Shaso frowned, then nodded. “In fact, if you will excuse us, Highness, perhaps Effir and I can begin inquiries in Syan. Whatever we do, it should be soon.”

Briony stood, angry and miserable but struggling not to show it. “I will marry to save my family’s throne, of course... if it is the only way.”

“I understand, Highness.” Shaso looked at her with what could almost pass for fatherly fondness, if she had not known the old man to avoid it like an itching rash. “I will not sell your freedom if I can avoid it, having fought so hard in my life to keep my own.”

Sad and confused, Briony had more than her usual small share of the sweet wine that Idite and the others liked so much. As a result, when she woke in the dark her head was heavy and it took long moments to make sense of where she was, much less what was going on.

One of the younger girls, wrapped head to toe in a blanket so that she looked like a desert nomad, was standing in the doorway.

“Mistress Idite, there are men at the gate, demanding to be let in!” she cried. “Your husband the Dan-Mozan, he is arguing with them, but they say they will break it down if he does not let them in!”

“By the Great Mother, who are they? Robbers?” Idite, although obviously frightened, was keeping her voice almost as level as she did during their evenings of storytelling.

The girl in the doorway swayed. “They say they are Baron Iomer’s men. They say we are harboring a dangerous fugitive!”

Briony, who had just clambered out of bed, went wobbly in the knees and almost tumbled to the floor. A fugitive—who else could that be but herself? And Shaso, too, she remembered. He would still be called a murderer.

“Dress, girls—all of you.” Idite raised her voice in an attempt to quiet the frightened murmuring. “We must be prepared for trouble, and at the very least we must be decently dressed if strangers burst in.”

Briony was not so much concerned with being decent as being able to defend herself. She hesitated for only a moment before pulling on the loose tunic and breeches borrowed from Effir’s nephew, then grabbed the one pair of practical shoes Idite had given her, leather slippers that would at least allow her to run or fight if she had to. She tucked her Yisti knives into the cloth belt of the tunic and then pulled her robe around herself to hide the male clothing and the knives, giving herself at least a chance to blend in with the other women.

As the sound of raised, angry voices came echoing through the house, Briony saw that Idite intended to keep the women hidden in the hopes that everything would be happily resolved without them ever having to come into contact with the baron’s men. Briony was not willing to passively await her doom. The women’s chambers had few exits, and if things turned bad she would be trapped like a rat in a barrel.

She pushed past young Fanu, who grabbed ineffectually at her arm as Briony stepped out into the corridor.

“Come back!” Idite shouted. “Br...Lady!”

As she ran toward the front of the hadar, Briony silently thanked Idite for having the good sense not to call out her name. The hallways were full of clamorous voices and flickering light, and for a dizzying moment it was as though she had stumbled into some eddy of time, as if she had circled back to the terrible night in the residence when Kendrick had been murdered.

She staggered a little as she reached the main chamber, stopping to steady herself on the doorframe. The smoke was thick here and the voices louder, men’s harsh voices arguing. She peered into the weirdly crowded chamber and saw at least a dozen men in armor were shoving and shouting at perhaps half that number of Effir dan-Mozan’s robed servants, bellowing at them as though they could force the men to understand an unfamiliar language by sheer force. Several robed bodies already lay on the floor at the soldiers’ feet.

As Briony stared in horror, trying to see if one of them was Shaso, an armor-clad man kicked over a brazier, scattering burning coals everywhere. The barefooted servants shrieked and capered to avoid them even as they cringed from the soldiers’ weapons.

“If you won’t talk,” shouted one bearded soldier, “we’ll burn out this entire nest of traitors!” He stooped and lifted a torch that had been smoldering on an expensive carpet and held it to one of the wall-hangings. The servants moaned and wailed as the flames shimmered up the ancient hanging and began licking at the wooden rafters.

Briony was digging beneath her robe for her knife, although she had no idea what she could do, when someone grabbed the belt of her robe and yanked her away from the door, back into the corridor.

Her heart plunged—trapped! Caught without even a weapon ready to fight back! But it was not another of the baron’s soldiers.

“What are you doing?” hissed Effir’s nephew Talibo. “I have looked everywhere for you! Why did you leave the women’s quarters?” He grabbed at her arm before she could answer and began to drag her away down the hallway toward the back of the house.

“Let go of me! Didn’t you see—they’re killing the servants!”

“That is what servants are for, stupid woman!” The hall was rapidly filling with smoke; after only a few steps he doubled up coughing, but before she could pull away he recovered his breath and began tugging at her again.

“No!” She managed to wrench her arm free. “I have to find Shaso!”

“You fool, who do you think sent me?” Tal’s face was so suffused with both rage and fear that it looked as though he might burst into tears or simply rip into pieces. “The house is full of soldiers. He wants me to hide you.”

“Where is he?” She hesitated, but the shrieks of unarmed men being slaughtered like barnyard animals behind her were terrifying.

“He will come to you, I am sure—hurry! The soldiers must not find you!”

She allowed herself to be drawn away up the corridor. Almost as terrifying as the servants’ screams was the low, hungry roar of the spreading fire.

She pulled away from him again as they reached the part of the residence across the garden from the main chamber. “What of your aunt and the other women?”

“The servants will lead them out! Curse you, girl, do you never do what you are told? Shaso is waiting for you!” He stepped behind her and grabbed both her elbows, shoving her forward at an awkward stumble, another dozen steps down the corridor and then out a door into the open yard at the back of the house, site of the donkey stables, the vegetable garden, and the kitchen midden. He pushed her toward the stable and had almost forced her through the doorway when she threw out her arms and caught herself. She stepped to the side so the front wall and not the open door was behind her, and put her hand into her robe.

“What are you doing?” Talibo was almost screaming, his handsome, slightly childish face as exaggerated as a festival mask. Briony could see flames now on top of the house, greedily at work in the roof. On the far side of Effir dan-Mozan’s walls, torches and lanterns were being lit in the surrounding houses as the neighborhood woke up to the terror in their midst.

“You said Shaso was waiting for me. But first you said he would come to meet me. Where is he? I think you are lying.”

He looked at her with a strange, wounded fury, as though she had gone out of her way to spoil some pleasant surprise he had planned for her. “Ah? Do you think so?”

“Yes, I do. I think...” But she did not finish because Talibo put both hands on her breasts and shoved her, bouncing her off the wall and into the doorway, then pushed her again, sending her stumbling backward to fall down in the mire of the stable.

“Close your mouth, whore!” he shouted. “Do what you are told! I will be back!”

But even as he scrambled for the door, Briony was sliding across the damp ground toward him. She grabbed at his leg and pulled herself upright, and when he turned, she shoved herself against him, forcing him back against the rough wattle of the stable wall, and pressed the curved blade of the Yisti knife against his throat. Close enough to kiss, Shaso had taught her, close enough to kill.

“You will never touch me again, do you hear?” she breathed into his face. “And you will tell me everything Shaso said to you, everything that has happened and that you saw. If you lie I will slash your throat and leave you to bleed to death right here in the shit and the mud.”

Tal’s long-lashed eyes widened. He had gone pale, she could see that even in the dim light of the single candle that someone had lit here in the stable—in preparation for her arrival?—and when he sagged Briony let her own muscles go a little slack. Where was Shaso? Was Effir’s nephew really lying? How could they escape with soldiers everywhere—and how had the soldiers found out...?

Talibo’s hand was open, but his sudden blow to her face was still so hard and so unexpected that Briony flew backward, her knife spinning away into the darkness. For a moment she could do nothing but gasp in helpless anger and gurgle as blood filled her mouth. She spat, and spat again, but every drop in her body seemed to be streaming from her nose and lips. She scrabbled for the lost knife as the merchant’s nephew approached but it was beyond her reach, beyond her sight—lost, just as she was... “Bitch,” he snarled. “She-demon. Put a knife to my throat. I should...I will...” He spat at her feet. “You will spend a month begging me to forgive you for that—a year!”

She tried to say something, but it felt as though her jaw had been broken and she could only murmur and spit blood again. She slid her hand down her leg and reached into her boot, but the sheath was empty—the other dagger had fallen out somewhere during the scuffle. Her gut went cold. She had no weapon.

“Shaso, your mighty Shaso, he is dead,” said Talibo. “I saw the soldiers kill him—surrounded him like a wild pig, spearing, spearing. I told them where to find him, of course.”

She coughed, rubbed at her broken mouth with the back of her hand. “Y-You...?”

“And my uncle, too. Him I did myself. He will never again call me names—spoiled, lazy. Ha! He will rot in the shadows of the land of the dead and I will be the master here. My ships, my merchants, my house...!”

“You betrayed...?” It hurt to speak, but the thought of Shaso murdered blazed in her like a fire, like one of the coals that had bounced across Effir dan-Mozan’s chamber floor only moments ago, lifetimes ago. It couldn’t be true—the gods could not be so cruel! “Betrayed us...all?”

“Not you, bitch, although now I wish I had. But I will keep you for my own and you will learn to treat me with respect.” Panting, he took a few steps toward her and leaned over, keeping well out of reach, even though she had lost the curved blade. Briony took a certain grim pleasure in that, anyway: he craved respect, but it was he, Talibo the traitor, who had learned to respect her. His face was ridiculously young for the emotions that played across it in the candlelight, greed and lust and exultation in his own cruelty. “And if you had been a proper woman you would have been safe here until it was all over. Now, I will have to break you like a horse. I will teach you to behave...!”

Briony hooked his ankle with her foot, sending him crashing to the ground. Instead of running away, she threw herself onto him even as he thrashed on the slippery ground, struggling to get his feet under him. She knocked him back but he curled his hands around her throat. Something hard was pressing painfully into her back, but she scarcely noticed it. The merchant’s nephew was slender but strong —stronger than she was—and within instants, as his fingers tightened, the light of the single candle began to waver, then to burst into flowers of radiance like the fireworks that had scorched the sky over Southmarch to celebrate her father’s marriage to Anissa. Her hand found the thing that was digging into her back.

Talibo’s grip was so powerful that it did not slacken immediately even after she had pulled the second, smaller Yisti dagger out from underneath her and rammed it up under his jaw with all her might. Talibo straightened, shuddering and wriggling like an eel in the bottom of a fisherman’s boat, so that for a moment it seemed his death throes might break her in half, then at last his hands fell away.

She lay where she was for a long time, fighting for breath, coughing and sputtering. When at last her throat seemed to be open again she stood up. Swaying, legs trembling, she bent over the merchant’s nephew cautiously, in case he might be shamming, but he was dead: he did not even twitch when she pulled the blade out of his throat, freeing a gush of dark blood. She spat on his handsome, youthful face—a gob that was red with her own blood—and then turned and went to look for her other knife.

When she emerged from the stable Effir dan-Mozan’s entire house was in flames. Briony stared for long empty moments, as if she had turned to stone, then she limped across the open yard into the shadows by the wall. She found a place she could mount and climbed with quivering, exhausted muscles over the top, then she let herself drop into the cool, stinking darkness of a refuse heap.

When morning came, Briony found a bucket of icy water and did her best to wash the blood from her throbbing, aching face, then pulled her robe tight around her boy’s clothes—the clothes of the boy whom she had killed, she reflected with little emotion. She dragged her hood down low and joined the crowd that had gathered outside the smoldering remains of Effir dan Mozan’s house. Some of the baron’s soldiers were still standing guard over the ruins, so she did not dare go too close, and many of the crowd spoke Xandian languages, since this was the poorest part of Landers Port, but she heard enough to learn that the women of the house, at least, had managed to escape, and were sheltering with one of the other well-known Tuani families. She thought briefly of going to Idite, but knew it was a foolish idea: they had lost everything because of her already—why put them in danger again? Nobody seemed to know for certain exactly what had happened, but many had heard that some important criminal had been captured or killed, that Dan-Mozan had been harboring him and had died trying to defend his secret.

Only one male member of the household had lived to escape. For a moment, hearing that, Briony felt a rush of hope, but then someone pointed out the survivor—a small, bowed old servant that she recognized but whose name she did not remember. He stood apart from the others, staring at the smoking, blackened timbers of what had been his home. Alone in the crowd, he looked the way Briony imagined she did beneath her hood, shocked, confused, empty.

There was nothing here for her anymore except danger and quite possibly death. The baron’s men did not seem to have tried very hard to take Shaso alive, and he had been nowhere near as dangerous to the Tollys as she was. Briony felt certain that Hendon Tolly’s hand was somewhere in all this—why else would Iomer, a man who cared little for politics, have struck in such a swift and deadly way?

She screwed up her courage and joined the crowd of people walking out the city gates for the day and stared at the ground as she walked, meeting no one’s eye. It seemed to work: she was not challenged, and within an hour she was alone on the cliff road below Landers Port. Briony walked until she reached a place where the woods were thick beside the road, then staggered off into the trees. She found a hidden spot surrounded by undergrowth and curled herself up in the wet leaves at the base of a mostly naked oak, well out of sight of the road, and then wept until she fell asleep.

17. Bastard Gods

Zmeos, brother of Khors, knew that Zoria’s father and her uncles would come against their clan, so he raised an army and lay in wait for them. But Zosim the Clever flew to Perin in the form of a starling and told the great god that Zmeos and Khors and Zuriyal had laid a trap, so Perin and his brothers called out the loyal gods of heaven. Together they descended upon the Moonlord’s castle in a mighty host.

—from The Beginnings of Things, The Book of the Trigon

Ferras Vansen and his companions were not the beak-faced Longskulls’ only prisoners, as they discovered when they reached the creatures’ camp after an exhausting trudge through the dark woods. The Longskulls seemed almost uninterested in them, despite the dozen or so of their number Vansen and the others had killed, most of them victims of the Storm Lantern’s blade. If a prisoner strayed out of the line one of the snouted warders honked at him or even jabbed at exposed skin with a sharpened stick, but otherwise left them alone.

Despite being our ally, Gyir has shown more hatred toward me and the other mortals than these things do toward us, Vansen thought. Why did they take us if they care so little about us?

He quietly asked Barrick about it. The prince asked Gyir and passed on his words: “The Longskulls are more like animals than people, as we would see it. They are doing what they are trained to do, no more. If we hurt one it may well hurt us in return, but otherwise they are taught only to bring us back to their master.” Their master was Jikuyin, the one the raven had called Jack Chain—a disturbing name then, even more ominous now.

“What does this Chain want with us?”

Barrick paused, listening again, then shrugged. Gyir’s eyes were red slits. “He says we will not know until they bring us to him,” Barrick said. “But we will not like it.”

The Longskulls’ hunting camp looked like something out of an ancient Hierosoline temple-carving—the antechamber of the underworld, perhaps, or the midden heap of the gods. Certainly there seemed to be at least one of every misshapen creature Ferras Vansen could have imagined in his wildest night-terrors—squint-eyed, sharp-toothed goblins; apish Followers; and even tiny, misshapen men called Drows that looked like ill-made Funderlings. There was also an entire menagerie of animal-headed creatures with disturbingly manlike bodies, things that crawled and things that stood upright, even some that crouched in the shadows singing sad songs and weeping what looked to be tears of blood. Vansen could not help shivering, as much to see the misery of his fellow prisoners as their strangeness. Many had their arms or legs shackled, some their wings cruelly tied, a few with no more restraint than a leather sack over their heads, as though nothing else was needed to keep them from escaping.

“Perin’s great hammer!” he whispered hoarsely. “What are all these horrors?”

“Shadlowlanders,” Barrick told him, then, after cocking his head toward Gyir for a moment, “Slaves.”

“Slaves to what? Who is this Jack Chain?”

Gyir, who could understand Vansen even though he could not speak to him directly, bleakly spread his long-fingered hands as if trying to demonstrate something of improbable size and power, but then shook his head and let his hands drop.

“A god, he calls him,” said the prince. “No, a god’s bastard. A bastard god.” Barrick let his head droop. “I do not know —I can’t remember everything he said. I’m tired.”

They were shoved off to a place in the center of the camp by themselves, for which Vansen was as grateful as he could be under the circumstances, and where they huddled under a sky the color of wet stone. Vansen and Barrick sat close to each other on the damp, leaf-carpeted ground, for the warmth and—at least in Vansen’s case—the human companionship. The weird army of prisoners that surrounded them, dozens and dozens all told, seemed strangely quiet: only an occasional bleating noise or a spatter of unfamiliar, clicking speech broke the silence. Vansen could not help noticing that they behaved like animals who sensed that the hour for slaughter had come round.

He leaned close to the prince’s ear. “We must escape, Highness. And when we do, we must try to make our way back to mortal men’s country again. If we stay any longer in this never-ending evening, surrounded by godless things like these, we shall go mad.”

Barrick sighed. “You shall, perhaps. I think I went mad a long time ago, Captain.”

“Don’t say such things, Highness...”

“Please!” The prince turned on him, his weariness forgotten for a moment. “Spare me these...pleasant little thoughts, Captain. ‘Should not...’—as though I might bring something bad down on myself. Look at me, Vansen! Why do you think I am here? Why do you think I came with the army in the first place? Because there is a canker in my brain and it is eating me alive!”

“What...what do you mean?”

“Never mind. It is not your fault. I could have wished you would have made a busybody of yourself somewhere else, though.” Barrick lifted his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around them.

“Do you know why I followed you, Highness?” The bleak surroundings seemed to be getting into Vansen’s blood and his thoughts like a cold fog. Soon I shall be as mournful and mad as this prince. “Because your sister asked me—no, begged me to do so. She begged me to keep you safe.”

Now Barrick showed fire again. “What, does she think I am helpless? A child?”

“No. She loves you, Prince Barrick, whether you love yourself or not.” He swallowed. “And you are all she has left, I suppose.”

“What do you know of it—a mere soldier?” Barrick looked as though he wanted to hit him, despite the shackles on his arms. Gyir, sitting a few paces away, turned to watch them.

“Nothing, Highness. I know nothing of what it is like to be a prince, or to suffer because of it. But I do know what it is like to lose a father and others of my blood. Of five other children in our family, I have only two sisters left now, and my mother and father both are years in the grave. I have lost friends among the guard as well, one of them swallowed by a demon-beast in these lands the first time I came here. I know enough about it to say that sometimes carelessness with your own life is selfishness.”

Barrick seemed startled now, both angry and darkly amused. “Are you calling me selfish?”

“At your age, Highness, you would be odd if you were not. But I saw your sister before we rode out, saw her face as she begged me to keep you safe and told me what it would mean to her if she lost you too. You call me ‘a mere soldier,’ Prince Barrick, but I would be the lowest sort of villain indeed if I did not urge you to take care of yourself, if only for her sake. That is no burden, from where I see it—it is a mighty and honorable charge.”

Barrick was silent for a long moment, anger and amusement both gone, absorbed into one of his inscrutable, cold-faced stares. “You care for her,” he said suddenly. “Don’t you, Vansen? Tell me the truth.”

Ferras realized that even here in the dark heart of the Twilight Lands, on the way to what was almost certain death, he was blushing. “Of course I do, Highness. She is... you are both my sovereigns.”

“Back home I could have you whipped for avoiding my question like that, Vansen. If I asked you whether we were being invaded, would you say, “Well, we’ll have more guests than we usually do at this time of the year?”

Vansen gaped, then laughed despite himself, something he had not done for so long that it was almost painful. Gyir twisted his featureless face in a way that might almost have been a frown, then turned away from them. “But, Highness, even...even if it were so, how could I speak of such a thing? Your sister!” He felt his own face grow stern. “But I can tell you this—I would give my life for her without hesitation.”

“Ah.” Barrick looked up. “They are going to feed us, it seems.”


The prince gestured with his good arm. “See, they are carrying around some kind of bucket. I’m sure it will be something rare and splendid.” He scowled and suddenly seemed little more than a youth of fourteen or fifteen summers again. “You realize, of course, that there isn’t a chance in the world it will ever come to anything?”


“Stop pretending to be stupid, Captain. You know what I mean.”

Vansen took a breath. “Of course I do.”

“You like lost causes, don’t you? And thankless favors? I saw you help that disgusting bird to escape, as well.” Barrick smiled at him. It was quite nearly kind. “I see I’m not the only one who has learned to live with hopelessness. It makes an unsatisfying fare, doesn’t it? But after a while, you begin to take a sort of pride in it.” He looked up again. “And speaking of unsatisfying fare, here come our hosts.”

Two Longskulls stood over them, appearing to Vansen like nothing so much as gigantic grasshoppers, although there was something weirdly doglike about them, too. Their legs were similar to men’s, but the back of the foot and the heel were long and did not touch the ground, so that they perched on the front of their feet like upright rats. The eyes sunk deep in their loaf-shaped, bony heads did not exactly glisten with intelligence, but it was obvious they were not mere beasts, either. One made a little honking, gabbling noise and ladled something out of the bucket the other was holding. It pointed at Vansen’s hands, then honked again.

I am living in a world of firelight tales, Vansen thought suddenly, remembering his father’s old sea stories and his mother’s accounts of the fairies that lived in the hills. We are captives in some unhappy child’s dream.

He held out his arms, showing the guards his shackles. “I cannot hold anything,” he said. The Longskull merely turned the ladle upside down and let the mass of cold pottage drop into his hands. It did the same for Barrick, then moved on to the next group.

In the end, he found he could eat only by bracing the heavy shackles on the ground, then crouching over his own outstretched hands, lapping up the tasteless vegetable pulp like a dog eating from a bowl.

When all the prisoners had been fed the watery pottage, the Longskull guards returned to the fire to eat their own food, which had been roasting on spits. Vansen could not see what they ate, but when the prisoners were hauled to their feet a short time later and set to marching again, he noticed the Longskulls hanging some empty shackles back on the massive wagon that held the slavers’ simple belongings, and where they swung, clinking, as the wagon began to roll.

If Barrick had thought the Twilight Lands oppressive before, every miserable step of the forced march now seemed to take him into deeper and deeper gloom. It wasn’t simply that the pall of smoke they thought they had escaped grew thicker above them with every step, turning the land dark as midnight and making breathing a misery, or even the dull horror of their predicament. No something even beyond these things was afflicting him, although Barrick could not say exactly what it was. Every step they took, even when they reached an old road and the going became easier, seemed to plunge them deeper into a queer malevolence he could feel in his very bones.

He asked Gyir about it. The fairy-warrior, who seemed almost as despondent as his companions, said, Yes, I feel it, even despite the blindness my wounds have caused, but I do not know what causes it. Jikuyin is the source of some of it—but not all.

Barrick was struck by a thought. Will this blindness of yours get better? Will the illness or whatever it is leave you?

I do not know. It has never before happened to me. Gyir made a sign with his long, graceful fingers that Barrick did not recognize. In any case, I truthfully do not think we will live long enough to find out.

Why are we prisoners? Is Jikuyin at war with your king? Only in that he does not bow to him. Only in that Jikuyin is old and cruel and our king is less cruel. But we are prisoners, I think, only because we were captured. Look at those around us... He gestured to the slow-stepping band of prisoners on either side and stretching before and behind them farther than Barrick could throw a stone. We may be rare things here, Gyir told him in his wordless way, but these others are as common as the trees and stones. No, we are all being taken to the same place, but the more I consider, the less I think it is because we were singled out. He opened his eyes wide, something Barrick had come to recognize as a sign of determination. But I think these creatures’ master will take notice of us when he sees us. If nothing else, he will wonder what mortals are doing again in his lands.

Again? I have never heard of him.

Jikuyin first made this place his own long, long before mortals roamed this country and built Northmarch, but he was injured in a great battle, and so after the Years of Blood he slept for a long time, healing his wounds. His name was lost to most memories, except for a few old stories. We drove the mortals out of Northmarch before he returned. That was only a very short time ago by our count. After they had fled we called down the Mantle to keep your kind away thereafter, banishing them from these lands for good and all.

Why did you do that?

Why? Because you would have come creeping back into our country from all sides as you did before, like maggots! Gyir narrowed his eyes, making crimson slits. You had already killed most of us and stolen our ancient lands! Not me, Barrick told him. My kind, yes. But not me.

Gyir stared, then turned away. Your pardon. I forgot to whom I spoke.

The procession was just emerging from between two hills and into a shallow valley and a great stony shadow across the road—an immense, ruined gate.

“By The Holy Book of the Trigon!” Barrick breathed. No oaths like that—not here, Gyir warned him sharply. But...what is this?

The column of prisoners had shuffled to a weary halt. Those who still had the strength stared up at two massive pillars which flanked the road, lumps of vine-netted gray stone that despite being broken still loomed taller than the trees. Even the smaller lintel that stretched above their heads was as long as a tithing barn. Huge, overgrown walls, half standing, half tumbled, hemmed the crumbling gate like the wings of some god’s headdress.

It is worse than I feared. The fairy’s thoughts were suddenly faint as a superstitious whisper, hard for Barrick to grasp.

Jikuyin has left his lair in Northmarch and made himself a new Greatdeeps itself. This is its outer gate.

“What is this new misery?” Ferras Vansen was clearly feeling the strangeness of the place too, not just its size and immense age but even the hidden something that pressed ever more intrusively into Barrick’s mind like cold, heavy fingers.

“Gyir says it was something called Greatdeeps, or at least the first gate.”

“Greatdeeps?” Vansen frowned. “I think I know that name. From when I was a child...”

The Longskulls came hissing angrily down the line, poking and prodding, and at last even the most reluctant prisoners let themselves be driven under the massive lintel. It was carved with strange, inhuman faces that looked down on them as they passed—some with too few eyes, some with too many, none of them pleasant to see.

What lay beyond was equally disturbing. The wide, brokencobbled road dipped down into a valley that lay almost hidden beneath a thick cloud of smoky fog as it wound between two rows of huge stone sculptures. Some of the stonework portrayed ordinary things cast in giant size, like anvils big as houses or hammers and other tools that a dozen mortals together could never have lifted. Other shapes were not quite so recognizable, queer representations of machinery Barrick had never seen and the uses of which he could not even guess. All the statues were old, cracked by wind and rain and the work of creepers and other plants. Many had fallen and been partially buried by dirt and leaves, so that the impression was that monstrous citizens who had once dwelled here had simply packed up one night and left, allowing the mighty road to fall to ruin after they were gone.

Despite the apparent emptiness, or perhaps because of it, Barrick’s sense of oppression grew as they trudged forward. Even the Longskull guards grew quiet, their gabbling little more than a murmur as they moved up and down the line of prisoners, goading them forward.

What is this place? he asked Gyir. What is Greatdeeps?

The place where the gods first broke the earth, searching... A tennight before this Barrick had not quite believed in the gods. Now, in a place like this, the mere word set his heart racing, brought clammy sweat to his skin. Searching for what?

Gyir shook his head. The weight that Barrick felt, the despairing thickness that seemed to lie on him like a net made of lead, seemed to weigh on the fairy even more heavily. Gyir’s head was bowed, his back bent. He walked like a man approaching the gallows, struggling to get the smoky air in and out of his lungs. The fairy’s thoughts were heavy, too, like stones—it made Barrick weary just to receive them. I cannot...speak to you now, Gyir told him. I must understand what all this means, why...I must think... Barrick turned to Ferras Vansen. “You said you thought you remembered, Captain. Do you know anything of this Greatdeeps?”

“A memory, and only a faint one. Something—a story we children told to frighten each other when I was young, I think...” He frowned miserably. “I cannot summon it. What does the fairy say?”

Barrick glanced quickly at the fairy, then back to Vansen.

“Something about the gods breaking the earth here, but I can make little sense of it and he won’t say more.” The prince rubbed at his face as if he could scour away the discomfort. “But it is a bad place. Can you feel it?”

Vansen nodded. “A heaviness, as if the air was poisoned —and by more than smoke. No, not poisoned, but bad, somehow, as you say—thick and unpleasant. It makes my heart quail, Highness, to speak the truth.”

“I’m glad it’s not just me,” Barrick said. “Or perhaps I’m not. What will happen to us? Where do you think we’re being taken?”

“We shall find that out sooner than we want to, I think. What we should consider instead is how we might get away.”

Barrick held up the shackles, which although not too large for an ordinary person his size, were cruelly heavy on his bad arm. “Do you have a chisel? If so, I think we’d have something to talk about.”

“They haven’t tied our feet, Highness,” the soldier said. “We can run, and worry about freeing our arms later.”

“Really? Just look at them.” Barrick gestured to the nearest pair of Longskulls pacing the line with their strange, springy gait. “I don’t think we’ll outrun those, even without our legs shackled.”

“Still, The Book of the Trigon bids us to live in hope, Prince Barrick.” Vansen looked curiously solemn as he said it—or maybe it was not so curious, under the circumstances. “Pray to the blessed oniri to speak for us in heaven—the gods may yet find a way to save us.”

“Speaking frankly,” Barrick said, “just at the moment, it is the gods themselves I fear most.”

The prince seemed a little more like his ordinary self again, which was the only hopeful thing Vansen had seen all day. Perhaps it was because Gyir the Storm Lantern had almost stopped talking to him.

Judging by the usual run of his luck and mine, he’ll come back to himself just in time to be executed by our captors, Vansen thought with bleak amusement. At least I’ll probably be killed, too. Anything would be better than to face Barrick’s sister with news of her brother’s death.

Where is she? he suddenly wondered. In the castle, perhaps under siege? There’s no chance that Gyir’s people would have beaten us so badly and then just stopped in the fields outside the city... He felt a moment of terror, worse than anything he had felt for himself, at the idea of Princess Briony being threatened by monstrous creatures like these, perhaps a prisoner herself. He could not let the thought run free in his head—it was too horrible.

Perhaps she fled, along with her advisers. Wherever she is, Perin grant she is safe. And who was it the princess herself had sworn by so often? Zoria—Perin’s merciful daughter. He had never thought to pray to the virgin deity before, but now he did his best to summon the memory of her kind, pale face. Yes, blessed Zoria, put your hand on her and keep her from harm.

Does Briony ever think of us? Of course, she must think of her brother all the time—but does she think of me at all? Does she even remember my name?

He forced such foolishness away. If there was anything more pitiable than mooning after an unobtainable princess, a young woman as high above him as the gods were above humanity, it was mooning while they were captives in the Twilight Lands, being marched toward the Three Brothers only knew what doom.

You think too much, Ferras Vansen. That’s what old Murroy told you, and he was right.

The sprawling avenue of broken stones and gigantic leaning statues had become even more desolate as they marched on, most of the plinths empty, the stones themselves few and far between, as though scavengers had carried them away. Even the trees had been cleared here; the valley floor, sloping up on either side, seemed as stubbly as the face of an unshaved corpse.

Vansen was also becoming more and more aware of a smell beyond that of the smoke, a strong, sulphurous odor that seemed to lie over the valley like a fog. The worst of it came from holes in the ground on either side of the road, and Vansen could not help wondering what could be under the ground that stank so badly.

“Mines,” said Barrick when Vansen voiced his question out loud. “Gyir said these are the first mines his people built, a long time ago, although the digging here began even earlier. They go down into the ground for miles.” “What did they mine here?”

“That’s all I know.” Barrick gestured with his good arm toward the faceless fairy. Gyir’s eyes were almost closed, as though he slept on his feet. “He’s still not talking.”

The road, which Vansen thought must once have been the path of an ancient streambed, began to rise as the valley floor rose. Even as they climbed the smoke remained thick in the air, turning the cheerless vista of tree stumps and broken stones into something even more dispiriting, if such was possible. They were nearing the far end of the valley, and even though the road continued to mount upward, it became clear that unless it ended in a ladder half a mile tall it would never climb high enough to take them over the jagged face of rock that hemmed the valley.

Barrick looked up at the looming peak in dismay. “There’s nowhere to go. Perhaps we’re not to be slaves after all. Perhaps they’re just going to kill us here.”

“It seems a long way to march us simply to do that, Highness,” Vansen reassured him. “Likely there is some secret pass ahead—a path through the heights.” But he also wondered, and fear began to poison him again. Soon they would be pressed against the stony cliffs with nowhere to go, the Longskulls hemming them in with sharp spears... If others had not been trudging through the growing dark ahead of him, Vansen would have tripped on the first impossibly wide, high step. As the prisoners in front clambered up, Vansen followed, turning to help the prince climb despite Barrick’s fiercely resentful looks. One massive step ran into the next, one wearying climb after another.

“It’s...a...cursed...staircase,” Barrick said, fighting for breath. They had been marching without a rest for hours, and each step was a formidable obstacle. “Like the one in front of the great temple back home—but monstrously big.” He fell silent except for his ragged breathing as he labored up two more steps behind Vansen. All around him the other prisoners were struggling at least as badly—some were simply too short to get up without help. The Longskulls clambered in and out of the procession, jabbing with their sticks and making irritated honking noises. “Gyir says that this is it,” Barrick reported at last.

“This is what, exactly?”

“Greatdeeps. The entrance to the ancient mine.” Barrick closed his eyes for a moment, listening to that silent voice. “He says we must hold hands, because to get separated here might be worse than death.”

“A cheery thought,” said Vansen as lightly as he could, but his own heart was like a stone. They continued up the great staircase, which seemed wider than the Lantern Broad in Tessis. At the top yawned a great doorway, high as a many-storied house. Compared to the twilight in the valley and on the stairs, its interior was dark as night.

“There will be a fight here, mark my words,” Vansen whispered to Barrick. It felt strangely natural to hold the boy’s hand, as though this topsy-turvy land had given him back one of his younger brothers. “No creature would let itself be driven into that without a struggle.”

But there was no struggle, or at least not much of one. As the prisoners bunched in the doorway, some moaning and slumping to the ground, some actively trying to turn back, the Longskulls charged. They had been prepared, and now they leaped up the stairs and onto the landing as a unified force, shoving, kicking, poking, and even biting until all those who could do so clambered to their feet and staggered through the door. Many were trampled, and as Vansen let himself and Barrick be drawn into the darkness, he wondered if in the long run those lying bloody and crushed on the top step might not be the lucky ones.

“Should we have tried to get away?” Barrick whispered. “Before they shoved us in here?”

“No, not unless your Gyir says we must. We do not know what is inside, but we might find a better chance for escape later on.” Vansen wished he believed that himself.

They allowed themselves to be dragged along in the river of captive creatures, out of the initial darkness into sloping, timbered tunnels lit with torches, then down, down into the heart of the mountain.

He did not notice it at first, but after a short time of trudging through the dank, hot corridors Vansen began to realize that some of the other prisoners were disappearing. The group in which they traveled was perhaps half the size now that it had been when they had first been driven through the great doors, and as he watched he saw two of the Longskulls roughly separate a group of perhaps a dozen captives—it was hard to tell in the flickering shadows, because the prisoners were of so many odd sizes and shapes—and drive them away down a cross corridor. He whispered this to Barrick, and saw the prince’s eyes widen in alarm.

“Is that because they mean something different for us? To kill us instead of making us slaves?”

“I think it’s more likely that they haven’t seen many of our kind before,” Vansen reassured him. “These Longskull things don’t seem the types to act without orders. They may want someone to tell them where we should be put.” He didn’t really want to talk—it was hard enough trying to keep some idea in his mind of what turns they’d taken, where they might be in relation to the original doorway. If there was a chance later for escape, he did not want to run blindly.

Soon there were only a few prisoners left beside themselves, a more or less manlike creature with wings like a dragonfly, taller than Vansen although much more slender, a pair of goblins with bright red skin, and one of the wizened mock-Funderlings—a Drow. This last walked just in front of Vansen, which gave him more chance to look at it the little manlike creature than he might have wanted: it had a huge, lopsided head, a stumpy body, and hands that were almost twice as big as Vansen’s, although the creature itself was far less than half his size.

The remaining Longskulls hurried the last prisoners along. Vansen had to trot, no easy feat with heavy shackles on his wrists, and also to help the prince when the boy stumbled, which was often. The pain in the prince’s withered arm from the restraints must be great, Vansen knew, although Barrick refused to mention it: it took no physician’s eye to see the boy’s pale skin, his creased, wincing eyes, or to interpret the silence that had fallen over him in the last hour.

They reached a wide place in the corridor where several other passages branched out. The guards forced them down one of those branches, and within just a few more paces they emerged into a large open space where they stopped before another massive doorway, this one guarded by lowering apelike things that might have been Followers, but grown to the size of men and dressed in dusty, mismatched bits of armor. The Longskulls gabbled at these sentries, then stepped forward and used their spears to tap on the door, which despite their deferential touch made a hollow, brazen clang with each knock. The door slowly swung open and the quietly honking guards shoved the prisoners inside.

Behind the door lay the most demented place Vansen had ever seen, a cavern as large as the interior of the Trigon Temple in Southmarch, but furnished by a madman. Broken bits and pieces of the statues that had once lined the valley stood all around the immense space—here half a warrior crouching in the middle of the cracked floor, there a single granite hand the size of a donkey-cart. Moss and little threadlike vines grew patchily on the sculptures, and in many places on the rough-hewn walls and floor as well, and the air was damp with mist from an actual waterfall that poured from a hole high on one side of the cavern and followed a splashing course downward over stone blocks to fill a great pool that took up half of the vast room.

Across the pool from the doorway stood another huge statue of a headless, seated warrior, tall as a castle wall. Enthroned on this stone warrior’s lap, with various creatures kneeling or lying at his feet like a living carpet, sat the biggest man—the biggest living thing—Vansen had ever seen. Two, no, three times the height of a normal man he loomed, massive and muscular as a blacksmith, and if it had not been so absolutely clear that this monstrosity was alive, Vansen would never for an instant have believed him anything but a statue. His hair was curly and hung to his shoulders, his beard to his waist, and he was as beautiful as any of the stone gods’ statues, as if he too had been carved by some master sculptor, except that one side of his gigantic face was a crumpled ruin, one eye gone and the skin of cheek and forehead a puckered crater in which his disarranged teeth could be seen like loose pearls in a jewelry box.

Somewhere deep beneath them, something boomed like a monstrous drumbeat, a concussion that punched at Vansen’s ears and made the entire rocky chamber shudder ever so briefly, but no one in the room even seemed to notice.

Chains of all sizes and thicknesses hung around the terrible god-thing’s waist and dangled from his neck and shoulders, so that if he wore some other garment it could not be seen at all. Hundreds of strange, round objects hung from the chains. As his eyes became used to the light, Vansen realized that every one of the hanging things was a severed head, some only naked skulls or mummified leather, some fresh, with ragged necks still dripping—heads of men, of fairies, even animals, heads of all descriptions.

The full childhood memory came back to Vansen suddenly, the taunt of older boys to scare the younger ones—“Jackin-Irons! Jack-in-Irons be coming from the great deeps to catch you! He’ll take your head!”

Jack in Irons. Jack Chain. He was real.

The apparition raised an arm big as a tree trunk, chains swaying and clanking, the heads dangling like charms on a lady’s bracelet. The bastard god grinned and his beautiful face seemed almost to split open as he displayed teeth as large as plates, as cracked and broken as the ruined stones.

“I AM JIKUYIN!” he roared, his voice so loud and so painful that Vansen fell to his knees and then slumped down to his belly with his hands over his ears in a fruitless attempt to protect himself from the deafening noise. It was not until the giant spoke again that Ferras Vansen realized he was hearing the words not with his ears, but echoing inside his mind.

All ordinary thought disappeared in the skull-thunder that followed.


18. Questions with No Answers

So then in that great battle matchless Nushash at last pulled the sun itself down from the sky and hurled it full into the face of Zhafaris, the old Emperor Twilight, whose beard caught fire. He was burned into ashes, and that, my children, was the end of his evil rule.

Nushash and his brother Xosh scattered the ashes in the desert of Night. Then, in his generosity, Nushash invited his three half brothers to join him in building a new city of the gods on Mount Xandos. Argal the Thunderer and the others thanked him and swore fealty, but already they were planning to betray him and take the throne of the gods for themselves.

—from The Revelations of Nushash, Book One

Although she could not have said exactly why, Pelaya found herself spending more time in the garden than had been her habit, even on days like today when the weather was less than ideal, with heavy gray skies and a biting wind from the sea. It was partly because her father Count Perivos had been so busy lately, busier than she’d ever seen him, with no time at all to give to his children. Sometimes he stayed so late examining the city’s defenses that he even slept in the Documents Chamber and only came home to change his clothes. But much of her interest in the garden was simply her interest in the prisoner Olin— King Olin, however he might mockingly disclaim his title. On the occasions that he and Pelaya met each other she always enjoyed talking to him, although it was never quite as strange and exciting as it had been the first time, when he had been a complete stranger and her companions had watched with horror as she introduced herself to him, as though she had decided to leap off the city walls and swim to Xand.

Still, she enjoyed the grown-up way their conversations made her feel, and he seemed to enjoy them too, although he was always disappointed by how little news she could give him about his homeland. She knew that one of his sons had died, and his daughter and other son were missing, and that his country was in some kind of war. Sometimes when Olin spoke about his children he seemed to be hiding feelings so strong that it seemed he would burst into tears, but then only moments later he would be so coldly composed she wondered if she had imagined it. He was a strange man even for a king, very changeable, unfailingly polite but sometimes a little frightening to a girl like Pelaya, whose own father was, for all his intelligence, a simpler sort of man. She sometimes thought Olin Eddon’s true feelings were as painfully imprisoned as he was himself.

He was not allowed into the garden very often, only a few days in every tennight. Pelaya thought that unkind of the Lord Protector. She wondered if she dared speak to her father about it—he was steward of the entire stronghold, after all—but although there was nothing illicit in the friendship with the northern king, she didn’t want to draw attention to it. Count Perivos was a serious man; he didn’t think much of things that had no purpose and she doubted he’d ever understand the harmless attraction Olin’s company held for her. Her father had doubtless heard something about the odd friendship, but so far he hadn’t said anything to her about it, perhaps reassured by Teloni, who had decided the whole thing was a boring lark of Pelaya’s and had stopped fussing at her about it. It was probably best to leave things that way, Pelaya decided, and not tempt the gods.

She was pleased to find that King Olin was out in the garden today, looking across the walls from atop a jutting ornamental stone not far from the bench, the one place a person could climb high enough see between the towers of the stronghold over all the Kulloan Strait. He sat crosslegged on the stone with his chin propped on his hands, more like a boy than a grown man, let alone a monarch. She stood by the base of the stone waiting for him to realize she was there.

“Ah, good Mistress Akuanis,” he said with a smile. “You honor me with your company again. I was just sitting here wondering if a man could fashion wings like a gull’s—out of wood and feathers, perhaps, although I suspect each feather would have to be tied in place separately, which would make for a great deal of work—and so fly like a bird.” She frowned. “Why would someone want to do that?”

“Why?” He smiled. “I suppose the freedom of a gull on the wind has more meaning to me just now than to you.” He clambered down, landing lightly. “I muse, only—I see the birds fly and my mind begins to wander. I beg you not to tell your father of my interest in flight. I might lose the gift of this time in the garden.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” she said earnestly.

“Ah. You are kind.” He nodded, the subject concluded. “And how are you today, Mistress? Have the gods treated you well since I saw you last?”

“Well enough, I suppose. My tutor sets me the dreariest lessons you can imagine, and I will never, never be a seamstress, no matter how many years I try. Mother says my needlework looks like the web of a drunken spider.”

He chuckled. “Your mother sounds like a clever woman. That is not the first thing she has said that made me laugh. Perhaps that is where you come by your own wit and curiosity.”

“Me?” All she could think of were the lessons that Brother Lysas taught, reading at length from The Book of the Trigon, “...Beloved of the gods are the daughters and wives who make themselves humble, who seek only to serve Heaven...” “I’m not curious, am I?”

He smiled again. “Child, you are a fountain of questions. It is often all I can do not to unpack the entirety of my life and let you rifle through it like a trunk of clothes.”

“You must think I’m annoying, then. A child who cannot be still.” She hung her head.

“Not at all. Curiosity is a virtue. So is discretion, but that is usually learned at a later age. In fact, take your shawl—it is a bit cool—while I ask you something about that very subject.” He handed her the delicate Syannese cloth, but did not immediately let go. She was surprised, and started to say something. “Take it but do not unfold it,” he said quietly. “I have put a letter in it. Do not fear! It is nothing criminal. In fact, it is a letter for your own father. Give it to him, please?”

She took the shawl from him and felt the small, angular shape of the letter. “What...what is it?”

“As I said, nothing to fear. Some thoughts of mine about the danger of this threatened siege by the Autarch of Xis—yes, I have heard the rumors. I would have to be deaf not to. In any case, he may do as he wishes with my suggestions.”

“But why?” She put the folded shawl in her lap. “Why would you help us when we’re holding you prisoner?”

Olin smiled as if through something painful. “First, I am at risk also, of course. Second, we are all natural allies against the autarch, whatever Drakava may think, and I believe your father would recognize that. Last—well, it would not hurt to have a man like your father think well of me.”

Pelaya felt quite out of breath. A secret letter! Like something from one of the old tales of Silas or Lander Elfbane. “I will do it, if you promise there is no dishonor.”

He bowed his head. “I promise, good mistress.”

They talked a little while longer about less consequential things like her younger brother’s wretched temper or the dragging negotiations for Teloni’s marriage to a young nobleman from the country north of the city. This pained Pelaya because her father had said he would not find a husband for his younger daughter until the oldest was married, and she was anxious to be a grown woman, with a household of her own.

“Do not be in too much of a hurry,” Olin said kindly. “The married state is a holy one for a woman, but it can be full of woe and danger, too.” He looked down. “I lost my first wife in childbirth.”

“The gods must have needed her to be with them,” Pelaya said, then was irritated with herself for parroting the pious phrase her mother always used. “I’m sorry.”

“I sometimes think it has been harder on my children than on me,” he said quietly, then did not speak for a long moment. His eyes were roving somewhere beyond Pelaya’s shoulder, so that she thought he was watching the gulls again, dreaming of the walls of Hierosol dropping into the distance behind him.

“You were saying, King Olin?”

“What?” He forced himself to look at her. “Ah, I beg your pardon. I was...distracted. Look, please, and tell me—who is that girl?”

Feeling a prickle of something that she would only realize later was jealousy, Pelaya turned and looked across the garden but saw no one. “Who? My sister and the others have gone in.”

“There. There are two of them, carrying linens.” He pointed. “One slender, one less so. The thin one—there, see, the one whose hair has come loose from her scarf.”

“Do you mean...those washing women?”

“Yes, that is who I mean.” For a moment, and for the first time Pelaya could remember, he sounded angry with her. “Do they not exist because they are servants? They are the only girls in the yard beside yourself.”

She was hurt, but tried not to show it. “Who is she? How should I know? A washing woman—a girl, as you said, a servant. Why? Do you think she is pretty?” She looked closely at the slender young woman for the first time, saw that the girl was only a little older than herself. Her arms where they emerged from her billowing sleeves were brown, and her hair, which had spilled free from beneath her scarf as Olin had pointed out, was black except for a small, strange streak the color of fire. The girl’s features were attractive enough, but Pelaya could see little about the thin young girl that should have attracted the prisoner-king’s attention. “She looks like a Xandian to me. From the north, I’d say—they are darker below the desert. Lots of Xandian girls work here in the kitchens and the laundry.”

Olin watched the young woman and her stockier companion until they had vanished into the darkness of the covered passage. “She reminds me...she reminded me of someone.”

Now Pelaya definitely felt a pang. “You said that I reminded you of your daughter.”

He turned, as though seeing her for the first time since the servant girl had appeared. “You do, Mistress. As I said, there is a quality in you that truly reminds me of her, and your curiosity is part of it. No, that servant girl reminds me of someone else.” He frowned and shook his head. “A member of my family, long dead.”

“One of your relatives?” It seemed unlikely. Pelaya thought the captive king was ashamed to have been caught ogling a serving girl.

“Yes. My...” He trailed off, looking again at the place where the servant had disappeared. “That is very strange—and here, so far away...” He paused again, then said, “Could you bring her to me?”


“Bring her to me. Here, in the garden.” His laugh was short and harsh. “I certainly cannot go to her. But I need to see her up close.” He looked at her and his eyes softened. “Please, good Mistress Akuanis. I swear I ask you a favor for no unworthy reason. Could you do that for me?”

“That makes two favors in one day.” She tired to make her voice stern. “I...I suppose I could. Perhaps.” She did not understand her own feelings and was not certain that she wanted to understand them. “I will try.”

“Thank you.” He stood up and bowed, his face suddenly distant. “Now I must go. I have much to think about and I have stolen enough of your time today.” He walked toward the archway leading back to his tower rooms—comfortable enough, he had told her, if you did not mind a door that had a barred window in it and was locked from the outside— without looking back.

Pelaya sat, feeling oddly as though she wanted to cry. For the first time since they had met each other Olin had left the garden first. The prisoner had gone back to his cell to be alone rather than share her company any longer.

She remained on the bench, trying to understand what had happened to her, until the first drops of rain forced her inside.

“Who could ever live in such a place?” Yazi asked, wideeyed. “You would tire yourself to fits just walking to the kitchen.”

“People who live in such places don’t walk to the kitchen,” said Qinnitan. “They have people like you and me bring their food to them.” She frowned, trying to remember which way they had turned on the inbound trip. Monarchs had been adding rooms and corridors and whole wings onto the citadel of Hierosol for so many centuries that the place was like the sea coral from one of her favorite poems by Baz’u Jev. Qinnitan entertained a brief fantasy that one day she would be able to take the boy Pigeon for a walk on the seashore without worrying she might be recognized, to see some of the mysteries that had so charmed the poet, the spiraling shells daintier than jewels, the stones polished smooth as statues. She had work to do, though, and even if she hadn’t, she couldn’t afford to loiter in the open that way.

“But look at us!” Yazi was from the Ellamish border country so she spoke fairly good Xixian, a good-hearted girl but a little slow and prone to mistakes. “We are lost already. Surely no one can find their way in such a big place. This must be the biggest house on earth!”

Qinnitan was tempted to say that she herself had once lived in the biggest house on earth, just to see Yazi’s expression, but even though she had already told Soryaza the laundrymistress she had been an acolyte of the Hive, there was no sense in telling everyone else, especially someone as innocently loose-lipped as Yazi. The fact that Qinnitan had once lived in the Royal Seclusion, where she had been one of the fortunate few who had their food brought to them by hurrying, silent servants, was certainly not going to be mentioned either, although the irony of the present conversation was not lost on her.

“I know it’s back this way,” she said instead. “Remember, we came down a long hall full of pictures just after we went through that garden?”

“What garden?”

“You didn’t...? Where you could see the ocean and everything?” She sighed. “Never mind.” Yazi was like a dog that way—the girl had been talking about something, a dream she had, or a dream she wanted to have, and hadn’t even noticed the garden, the one time today they had been out from under the castle roof. Qinnitan had noticed, of course. She had spent too much time kept like a nightingale in a wicker cage to ignore the glorious moments when she was free beneath the gods’ great sky. “Never mind,” she said again. “Just follow me.”

“Breasts of Surigali, where have you two been?” Soryaza stood with her hands on her hips, looking as though she might pick up one of the massive washing tubs and dump its scalding contents all over the truants. “You were just supposed to take those up to the upstairs ewery and come straight back.”

“We did come straight back,” Qinnitan said in Xixian. She could understand Hierosoline well enough now—the tongues were similar in many ways—or at least make out the sense of most things said to her, but she still did not feel comfortable with her own clumsy speech. “We got lost.”

“It’s so big!” Yazi said. “We didn’t do anything wrong, Mistress. On the Mother, we didn’t!”

Soryaza snorted her disbelief, then spat on the wet floor. “Well, get back to work. And speak Hierosoline, both of you. You aren’t in the south anymore!”

As the laundry-mistress stalked away several of the other women sidled over to find out what had happened. Qinnitan knew most of their names already, although two were new enough she had only seen them and not spoken to them.

“Is she always angry?” asked one of these new workers, an anxious, scrawny young thing with pink-tinged eyes and twitching nose—the others had already named her Rabbit.

“Always,” Yazi said. “Her feet hurt. And her back hurts too.”

“Pah!” said one of the other women. “She’s been saying that for years. Didn’t stop her from picking that boy Gregor up and throwing him out the door when she caught him sleeping in the drying room. Or from kicking over a tub or two when she’s in the mood.”

“Nira, someone said you were a priestess in Xis,” the girl called Rabbit suddenly said to Qinnitan. “Is that true?”

She was always a little slow to recognize her own false name, although she was getting better at it, and speaking Hierosoline slowed her down even more, so it took a moment for the question to sink in. When it did, she felt a chill. By the Dark Queen, does everyone know already? Curse this nest of busybodies, and curse Soryaza—she must have told someone.

Out loud, she said, “I...was not priestess. Just...” She searched for a word, but her command of the language was still weak. “Just helper.”

“In the Hive?” Rabbit asked. “Someone said it was in the Hive. I’ve heard of that place. Was it like they say—did the priests come in know? With the priestesses?”

“Silence, girl,” said one of the other new workers, an old woman with a burn-scarred face and a mouth where dark holes outnumbered ruined teeth. She glared at Rabbit. “Don’t ask so many question. She does not want to talk, maybe.” Her command of Hierosoline was better than Qinnitan’s, but it was easy to hear that she too was a southerner.

“I only wanted to know...!” Rabbit squeaked.

“Tits of the Great Mother, what are you lazy bitches up to?” Soryaza’s voice thundered through the dank room. Her bulky form loomed up out of the washtub fog and the women scattered. “The next one I catch standing and talking might as well go down to the harbor and find a place to stand on Daneya Street with the other whores, because you won’t work for me another moment!”

“Yazi, why are there so many new people?” Qinnitan asked when they were standing over their washing tub again. New faces made her unhappy, and people asking about her history in Xis made her even more so.

“New?” The round-faced girl laughed. “You’ve only been here a tennight yourself.”

“But so many! Rabbit, and that old toothless woman, and the one with the fat legs...”

“Oh, listen to you! Not everyone’s a skinny little thing like you, Nira. As it happens, Soryaza told me she’s hiring more because of the war.”

“The war?”

“Don’t you listen to anybody? There’s a war coming, everyone says so. The autarch’s going to send ships. They’ll never break this place, of course—no one ever has. But the lord protector has called in troops from Krace and...and...and other places.” She flushed, her tone of authority momentarily compromised. “And so we’re going to be having more work.”

Qinnitan felt a sudden chill—touched by a ghost, her family had always called it. She had heard rumors but had not given them much credence—as the continent’s greatest seaport, Hierosol seemed to breathe rumors like air, to serve them as meat and drink. A new continent discovered in the western oceans, one said. So much gold discovered on an island near Ulos that the overladen boat sank on the way back. Fairy armies marching in the north. The Autarch of Xis preparing to conquer all Eion. Who was to know what was truth and what was fancy?

“The...autarch...?” she said now. Memories of his pale, mad eyes, never more than a moment away from her thoughts at the best of times, now pushed their way front and center. Is it me? she wondered. Is it to find me, to torture me for running away? It was silly, unbearably selfimportant, even to consider it, but she couldn’t shake off the idea: she had seen enough of Sulepis to know he was a man of incomprehensible whims.

No, she told herself. He and his father and his father’s father have wanted to set their heel on Eion for years, especially Hierosol. She had heard it talked of enough in the Seclusion. This is only more of the same, if it’s even true. And if he is coming, well, the walls will defeat him. And if they don’t... Then I will be gone. I escaped him once, I will escape him again. Despite her terror, she felt a stubborn little glow inside her, a heat like a burning coal. Or die. But one way or another, he won’t have me... “Nira?” Yazi was pulling at her sleeve. “Pay attention, girl! If Soryaza sees you staring at nothing that way, she’ll whip us both.”

Qinnitan bent to the washing, but it was hard to keep her thoughts on the sheets and soapy water.

As Qinnitan walked with Yazi at sunset across the wide space of the Echoing Mall, she had a sudden feeling of being observed, troubling as an insect flying too near her head. She looked back and at first saw only the other washerwomen and ordinary working folk of the citadel dispersing to the outer gates or their cramped quarters within the great fortress itself; then a movement at the corner of her eye, where the newly-lit torches lined one of the colonnades, made her turn all the way around. A smear of sideways movement, at odds with the rest of the crowd, arrested her attention. She felt sure someone had stepped back into the colonnade just as she looked. Still, did it mean something, even so?

“Nira, stop that,” said Yazi. “I’m so tired my feet are on fire. Keep walking, will you?”

Qinnitan walked forward, but after a dozen paces turned again. A man was walking along the edge of the colonnade, and although he was not looking at her she thought she saw him hesitate for an instant and almost break stride, as though he had just decided it was too late to step back out of sight again.

Qinnitan pointed up at the sky above the high walls of the Echoing Mall, shot red with the last light of the day, and said, “Isn’t it pretty, with all those colors!” While performing this bit of show, she examined the man as best she could. He wore shabby, unobtrusive clothes—the kind any of the menial laborers might wear—and had somewhat the look of a northerner, with hair of the lackluster brown shade Qinnitan had learned was almost as common north of Hierosol as black hair was in Xand. He was studiously avoiding her eyes as he walked, and so Qinnitan swung around again.

“What are you talking about, the sunset?” asked Yazi. “If your thoughts wandered any farther, girl, you’d have to put bells on them, like goats.”

When Qinnitan looked back the man was gone into the crowd. She didn’t know what to think. Even Yazi suddenly seemed capable of having secret depths.

Pigeon came bounding out to greet her when they reached the dormitory hall, excited as a puppy. He threw his arms around her, then grabbed her hand to pull her back to the bed they shared, waving his free arm excitedly. He had taught her some of the hand-language he had spoken with the other mute servants back in the Orchard Palace, but at times like this he didn’t bother trying to make his thoughts known in a more subtle way, nor did he need to. Some of the other women looked up as he dragged Qinnitan down the open space between the tiny wooden beds, a few with indulgent smiles, remembering brothers or children of their own, many others with the generalized irritation of someone who had just finished a long, hard day’s labor being forced to observe the endless energies of a child. It was strange, living with so many women again—almost a hundred in this dormitory alone, with several more buildings like it on this side of the citadel. The culture was oddly familiar, the same quick-blooming friendships and rivalries and even hatreds, as though someone had taken the wives of the autarch’s Seclusion, dressed them in dirty smocks and sweatstained dresses, then dumped them into this vast, depressing hall that had once been the royal stables for some long-dead king of Hierosol. These women were not so comely, and not so young—many of them were grandmothers—but otherwise there seemed little difference between this and her former home, or even the Hive where she had lived before.

Cages, she thought. Why do men fear us so that they must cage us all together and keep us apart from them?

Hierosol was better than Xis, but even here there were strict rules about keeping out men, even for those of the washerwomen who were married. Only Soryaza’s intervention with the dormitory mistress had gained a place here for Pigeon, and he was one of but a dozen or so children, most babes in arms who stayed behind during the day to be cared for in an offhand way by a pair of washerwomen now too old to work, two crones who each morning found the sunniest place in the dormitory and sat there like lizards, muttering to each other while the children more or less looked after themselves.

“Soryaza says she has work for you again,” Qinnitan told Pigeon, suddenly reminded. He had been banished to the dormitory for being underfoot—a crime worse than murder, to hear the laundry-mistress talk. “You’ll come in with me tomorrow.”

Pigeon seemed less interested in this news than in tugging her the last few steps toward their bed. In the middle of it, nested in a pile of wood chips and shavings like the legendary phoenix, sat a slightly irregular carving of a bird —a pigeon, she saw after a moment. Pigeon pointed to the sculpture, then dug the small knife he had stolen from Axamis Dorza’s house out of the chips and proudly displayed it, too.

“Did you make this bird? It’s very fine.” But she could not help frowning a little. “I do wish you hadn’t done it on the bed. I’ll be sleeping in slivers tonight.”

He looked at her with such hurt that she bent and picked up the carving to examine it. As she turned it over she saw that he had arduously carved her name (or at least his childish approximation of it) on the bottom of it in Xixian letters —“Qinatan.” A rush of love for the boy collided with a burst of fear to see her real name written on something, even a child’s rough carving. Yazi and Soryaza were not the only women here who could speak the language of Xis, and some of them might read it too. She already had enough problems with people asking questions.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. “But you must remember my name here is Nira, not...not the other. And you are Nonem, remember?”

This time he did not look hurt so much as anguished at his own mistake, and she had to pull him to her and hug him tight. “No, it’s beautiful, it is. Let me just take it for a moment. And the knife, please.” She kissed him on top of his head, smelling the strange boy-smell of his sweat, then looked around. Several women on either side were watching. She smiled and showed them the bird, then took it with her and headed for the privies on the far side of the dormitory hall. She sat down in one of the small cubicles there, so like an animal’s stall that she felt sure they had once been just that, and, when she felt sure no one was looking, took the knife and quickly scraped the boy’s childish letters off the bottom of the bird.

On the way back she stopped off to borrow a looking-glass from one of the other serving-women. In return for the loan she gave the woman the round ball of soap she had assembled from discarded slivers in the laundry. The mirror was the size of Qinnitan’s hand, in a chipped frame of polished tortoiseshell.

“Mind you bring it back before bedtime,” the woman warned.

Qinnitan nodded. “Just...for hair,” she said in her fragmented Hierosoline. “Bring soon.”

When she reached her bed again she saw that Pigeon had done his best to clear away the remnants of his day’s carvings. She set the carved bird on the empty barrel she shared as a table with the next bed over, and borrowed a comb from the girl whose bed that was, and who luckily did not ask anything in trade.

Qinnitan set the mirror on her knee and stared at the reflection. To her despair, she saw that her unruly hair had escaped the scarf again right where the red streak emerged. As if she had not already left enough of a trail across the citadel! She no longer had access to the cosmetics and dyes the women had used in the Seclusion, so she had done her best to disguise the flame-colored patch with soot from the candles and the laundry fireplaces, but working in that damp, hot room ensured that the soot didn’t work for long. She would have to get a bigger scarf, or cut her hair off entirely. Some of the older women here wore their hair very short, especially if they were past childbearing age. Maybe no one would think it too odd if she did the same... “Nira, isn’t it?” a scratchy voice asked.

Startled, Qinnitan looked up, hurriedly tucking her hair back under the scarf. It was the old woman from the laundry, the one with the burned face and missing teeth who had only been working there a few days. “Yes?”

“It’s me, Losa. I thought that was you when I saw you across the room. And is this your little brother?”

Pigeon was looking at the old woman with mistrust, his usual expression with strangers. “Yes, his name is Nonem.”

“Ah, lovely. I didn’t mean to bother you, child, I was just...” At that moment, just to add to the madcap air of sudden festivity, Yazi approached, followed by a young girl in a very fine dress—the kind of dress the laundrywomen only saw when they were called upon to clean things from the upper apartments of the citadel.

“Nira, I just...” Yazi saw the old woman. “Losa! What are you doing here?”

The woman smiled, then quickly pulled her lips together to hide her ruined teeth. “Oh, I couldn’t get out the gate to get home. All kinds of soldiers coming in, and such a fuss! Wagons, oxen, people shouting. Someone said they were Sessians hired by the lord protector. I thought I’d ask if I could stay here.”

“We’ll talk to the dormitory mistress,” said Yazi, “but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.” At any ordinary time Yazi would have pressed the old woman for details and it would have been the subject of the evening’s conversation all over the dormitory, but now something even more exciting was clearly pressing on her. “Nira, there’s someone here to see you.”

Qinnitan was beginning to feel quite overwhelmed. She turned to the very young girl in the beautiful blue dress and velvet petticoat. A crowd of women was beginning to gather as people came to see what had brought such an apparition into the dormitory.


“I am to take you to my mistress,” the girl said. “You are... Nira?”

Qinnitan’s confusion quickly turned to panic, but she couldn’t very well deny it. She struggled to frame the Hierosoline words. “Who...who is your mistress?”

“She will tell you herself. Come with me, please.” Beneath the formal manners, the girl seemed a little anxious herself.

“Oh, that is too bad,” old Losa said. “I was looking forward to a chat.”

“You’d better go,” Yazi told Qinnitan. “Maybe a handsome prince saw you when we were wandering around lost today. Should I come with you, in case he has trouble making himself understood when he proposes to you?”

“Stop, Yazi.” Qinnitan just wanted everyone to go away and forget about this, but it was obviously going to be the talk of the dormitory, perhaps for days.

“She is to come alone,” said the girl in the blue dress. “But what brother?” Qinnitan asked.

“I’ll watch him,” Yazi said. “We’ll have fun, won’t we, Nonem?”

Pigeon liked Yazi, but he clearly didn’t like the idea of letting Qinnitan go away with some stranger. Still, after a warning look from her, he nodded. Qinnitan rose, leaving the comb and mirror for Yazi to return to their owners, and followed the girl out of the dormitory into the cold, torchlit night.

She felt in the pocket of her smock for Pigeon’s carving knife and held it tightly as they walked back across the tiled immensity of the Echoing Mall.

“Who is your...mistress?” she asked the girl again.

“She will tell you what she wishes to tell you,” the little girl in the blue dress said, and would say no more. “

I am not happy,” said her father. Pelaya knew it was the truth. Count Perivos was not the sort of man who liked surprises, and all this had obviously come as just that. “Bad enough that a foreign prisoner should bribe my daughter to send messages to me when I already have so much else to worry on—using her as a...a go-between. But to find he also expects her to arrange some sort of assignation for him...!”

“It’s not an assignation and he didn’t bribe me.” Pelaya stroked his sleeve. The cuff needed mending, which made her heart ache a little—he worked so hard! “Please, Babba, don’t be difficult. Was there anything bad in his letter to you?”

Her father raised his eyebrow. “Babba? I haven’t heard that since the last time you wanted something. No, his thoughts are at least interesting, perhaps useful, and all he asks in return is any news I can give him about his home or his family. There’s nothing wrong with the letter, except that he knows too much. How could a foreign prisoner have so much to say about our castle defenses?”

“He told me he fought here twenty years ago against the Tuan pirates. That he was a guest of the Temple Council.”

“I remember those days, but he remembers where every tower stairway is and how many steps it has, I swear! He must have a memory like a mantisery library.” Count Perivos frowned. “Still, some of his warnings and suggestions show wisdom, and I am willing to believe he meant them in good faith. But what is this madness about a serving girl?”

“I don’t know, Babba. He said she reminded him of someone.” Pelaya spotted her servant coming across the garden with the dark-haired girl walking slowly behind her. “Look—here they come now.”

“Madness,” her father said, but sighed as if weak protest were all he was allowed.

Seeing the laundry maid up close, Pelaya was both relieved and confused. Relieved, without quite understanding why, to see that this girl was only a year or two older than she was, and that while she was by no means ugly, she was not astoundingly pretty, either. But something else about this laundry servant put her on edge, although Pelaya could not say what it was—something in the quality of the girl’s watchfulness, in the cool and measured way she looked around the torchlit garden, was not what the steward’s daughter expected from someone who spent every day up to her elbows in the citadel’s washing tubs.

Now the girl turned that dark-eyed gaze onto Pelaya and her father, examining them as carefully as she had the surroundings, which was strange in itself: should she not have been looking first at the nobles who had summoned her? Pelaya found the inspection a little unnerving.

“Your name is Nira, is it not?” she asked the girl. “Someone wants to meet you. Do you understand me?”

The girl nodded. “Yes, Nira. Understand.” Either she had not been in Hierosol long or she was far more stupid than she looked, because her accent was barbarous.

Not for the first time that day, Pelaya wondered what she had stumbled into. A simple friendship had become something larger and much less comfortable. She was reassured that her father and his bodyguard were here to ensure that nothing was passed between the prisoner and this servant girl and that no tricks were attempted.

Now Perivos stepped forward. He spent a moment examining the girl Nira as thoroughly as she herself had inspected everything and everyone else. “So this is her?”

“Yes, Father.”

“I wish Olin Eddon would hasten himself. I have better things to do...”

“Yes, Father. I know.” She took a breath. “Please, be kind to him.”

He turned on her with a look of surprise and annoyance. “What does that mean, Pelaya?”

“He is a kind man, Father. Babba. He has always been polite to me, proper in his speech, and always insists that his guards stay—and my maid as well. He says I remind him of his daughter.”

Her father gave a little snort of disbelief. “Many young women remind him of his daughter, it seems.”

“Father! Be kind. You know his daughter has disappeared and both his sons are dead.”

The count shook his head, but she could see him softening. More subtle than her sister, she had learned ways to bend him gently to her will, and sometimes he even seemed to collaborate in his own defeats. “Do not badger me,” he said. “I will grant him the respect of some privacy—he is a king, after all—but I do not like it. And if anything untoward occurs...”

“It won’t, Father. He’s not like that.” Pelaya Akuanis was far too ladylike to curse even to herself, and did not know any really useful curse words in any case, but Olin’s favor was costing her more than the prisoner could know. She could not besiege her father for favors like this very often: it would be long months before she could expect to get her way in anything important again. I hope it’s worth it for him, talking to some laundry trollop. But she knew even in her disgruntled state that wasn’t quite fair: there was unquestionably something more to this girl, this Nira, although Pelaya still could not guess what it might be.

Olin and his guards arrived even as a quiet rumble of thunder growled through the northern sky. A storm was on the way. Pelaya’s father stepped forward and bowed his head to the prisoner.

“King Olin, you are a persuasive man, or else we would not all be standing in this garden with the rains sweeping toward us and my supper waiting. My daughter has risked her father’s love to bring you and this young woman here.”

Olin smiled. “I think that might be an exaggeration, Count Perivos, from the things your daughter has said about you. I have a headstrong girl child myself, so I appreciate your position and I thank you for indulging me when you did not need to.” He lowered his voice so the bodyguard standing a dozen steps away could not hear. “Did you receive the letter? And is it any help to you?”

Pelaya’s father would not be so easily swayed. “Perhaps. We will talk about it at some other time. For now I will leave you to your conversation...if you will swear to me on your honor that it is nothing against the interests of Hierosol. It goes without saying that it is nothing lewd or immoral, either.”

“Yes, it goes without saying,” said Olin with a touch of asperity. “You have my word, Count Perivos.”

Her father bowed and withdrew himself a little way.

“Do not be frightened, child,” Olin said to the laundry girl. “Your name is Nira, I am told. Is that correct?”

She nodded, watching the bearded man with a different kind of attention than she had given to the garden or Pelaya or anything else, almost as if she recognized him—as if they had met before and the girl was trying to remember where and when. For a moment Pelaya felt a kind of chill. Had she done something truly wrong here after all? Was she unwittingly helping an escape plan, something that would cost her father his honor or maybe even his life?

“Yes,” the girl said slowly. “Nira.”

“All I want to know from you is a little about your family,” Olin said gently. “That red in your hair—I think it is rare in this part of the world, is it not?”

The girl only shrugged. Pelaya felt a need to say something, if only to remind the man that she was still sitting here, part of the gathering. “Not so rare,” she told him. “There have been northerners in Xand for years—mercenaries and folk of that sort. My father often talks about the autarch’s White Hounds. They are famous traitors to Eion.”

Olin nodded. “But still, I think such a shade is uncommon.” He smiled and turned to the laundry girl. “Are there mercenaries from Eion in your family, young Nira? Northerners with fair hair?”

The girl hesitated for a moment as she made sense of his question. Her fingers moved up to the place where another little curl of hair escaped her scarf and pushed it back beneath the stained homespun cloth. “No. me.”

“I see something in you of a family that I know well, Nira. Be brave—you have done nothing wrong. Can you tell me if your family came from the north? Are there any family stories about such things?”

She looked at him a long time, as though trying to decide whether this entire conversation might be some kind of trick. “No. Always Xis.” She shrugged. “Think always Xis. Until me.”

“Until you, of course.” He nodded. “Someone told me that your parents died. I am very sorry to hear it. If I can do anything—not that I have much favor here, but I have made a couple of kind friends—let me know.”

She stared at him again, clearly puzzled by something. At last she nodded.

“Let her go now,” Olin said, straightening. “I am sure she hasn’t had her supper yet and I have no doubt she works hard all the day.” He stood. “Thank you, Pelaya, and thank you, Count Perivos. My curiosity is satisfied. Doubtless it was just a fluke of light and shadow that tricked me into seeing a resemblance that was not there—that could not be there.”

Pelaya’s little maid took Nira back to the servants’ dormitory, and Olin went with his guards back to his chambers. As she walked back across the garden toward their residence, a part of the citadel only a little less sumptuous than the lord protector’s own quarters, Pelaya took her father’s hand.

“Thank you, Babba,” she said. “You are the best, kindest father. You truly are.”

“But what in the name of the gods was that all about?” he said, scowling. “Has the man lost his wits? What connection could he be searching for with a laundry girl?”

“I don’t know,” Pelaya said. “But they both seem sad.”

Her father shook his head. “That is what you said about that stray cat, and now I awake every morning to the sound of that creature yowling for fish. Both your King Olin and his laundry girl have places to live. Do not think to bring them home.”

“No, Papa.” But she too wondered what had brought two such strange, different people together in a Hierosol garden.

The sky thundered again and the first drops of rain began to spatter down. Pelaya, her father, and the bodyguard all hurried to get out of the open air.

19. Voices in the Forest

But each night Pale Daughter heard Silvergleam singing and her heart ached for him, until at last she fled her father’s house and ran to her beloved. So beautiful was she that he could not bear to send her away, although his brother and sister warned him that only evil would come of it. But Silvergleam made Pale Daughter his wife, and together they conceived a child who would make a new and greater song of their two melodies, a strange song which would thereafter sound through all the Tale of Years.

—from One Hundred Considerations, out of the Qar’s Book of Regret

Even with her injuries, Briony knew she should put as much distance as she could between herself and Landers Port, but instead she stayed close to the walls of the city in the two days after the attack, sheltering where she could and eavesdropping on the conversations of other travelers, trying to find out for certain what had happened to Shaso. The destructive fire that had taken the life of one of the city’s wealthiest merchants was on everyone’s lips, of course, and all seemed to agree that except for the one lone manservant she’d seen, only the women of DanMozan’s house had survived the night’s terrible events.

Her last unlikely hopes finally dashed, Briony realized that if the baron’s guards knew that more than one fugitive had taken refuge in the Dan-Mozan hadar, they would be looking for her. Young man’s clothing was an indifferent disguise, especially when it was a young Tuani man’s clothing and she no longer had the tools to make herself look like someone of that race. She daubed her face and hair with dirt, trying to make herself less noticeable, but she knew her disguise would not survive real scrutiny for more than a few moments. She had to leave Landers Port, that was all: if she was caught mooning around the town gates Shaso would have died for nothing—a bitter thought, but the only one that moved her when her own desires were muted by grief and rage. She missed the old man fiercely. Had Effir’s nephew Talibo stood before her again, she would gladly have killed the little traitor a second time.

Foolishly thinking she had already lost everything, Briony was learning daily that the gods could always take more from you if they wished.

She quickly discovered that she was not suited for life as an outlaw—in fact, all the tales of romantic banditry she had ever heard now began to seem like the cruelest lies imaginable. It was impossible to live out of doors in even as mild a winter as this, even with the gods-sent gift of the woolen cloak she had taken from the hadar when she ran; Briony spent a large part of each day’s travel just searching for unguarded barns or storehouses where she could sleep without freezing. Even so, after only a few nights she found herself with a wracking cough.

The cough and her sore mouth (still tender from where Talibo had struck her) made it difficult to eat, but she soaked bread in the little pot of wine so it would soften, then chewed very slowly and carefully so as not to pain her loosened teeth and split lips any more than necessary. Even so, her small cache of food was gone in a couple of days.

The only thing that saved her at first was the number of small towns and villages dotting the hillsides along the coast road west of Landers Port. She moved from one to the next, taking shelter where she could and finding an occasional scrap of untended food. She dared not attract attention when her enemies were doubtless searching for her, so she could not beg for help in public places. Despite her hunger, though, Briony did her best to avoid real theft— not for moral reasons so much as practical ones: what good to have escaped an attempt on her life only to be caught and imprisoned in some goatyard village in the middle of nowhere?

Still, within a few days the gnawing of her empty stomach began to overwhelm her. She had never been hungry for more than a short time in all her life and was painfully surprised to discover how it conquered everything else, drove out all other thoughts. Her cough was getting worse as well, wracking her body until she felt dizzy. Sometimes she stumbled and fell in the middle of the road for no reason other than weakness. She knew she could not go on much longer without becoming either a beggar or a thief. She decided she would rather risk the first—people didn’t get hanged for begging.

The first place she approached in search of alms, a steading on the outskirts of a nameless village along the Karalsway, the market road that wound south from the Coast Road, proved unsympathetic to beggars: before she could speak to the wild-haired man standing in the doorway of the cottage he stepped aside and let out a huge brindle dog. The creature ran at her like the Raging Beast that had fought Hiliometes, and Briony only just barely got back over the steading’s low wall before it caught her in its slavering jaws. As it was, she tore her lifesaving wool cloak on a stone, an injury which seemed as painful to her as if it had been her own flesh. She retreated into the woods, still sick and sore and hungry, and although she disliked herself for doing it, she wept.

She tried again with a little more success on the far side of the village—but not because of the qualities of godly mercy the mantis-priests liked to talk about so solemnly. The householder who owned this particular shambles of a cottage happened to be gone for the day, and although there was little of use inside the empty, smoke-darkened room but a bed made of leaves stuffed in a rough cloth sack, with a single threadbare blanket, she found an iron bowl half-full of cold pottage sitting underneath the table with a wooden plate set on top of it. She devoured it eagerly, and it was not until she had finished it—her stomach so full it seemed hung on her rather than connected to her—that she realized she had stolen, and stolen from one of her poorer subjects at that. For a moment, in an agony of guilt possible only because she had momentarily sated her hunger, she considered waiting until the cottage’s owner returned and offering to make restitution, but quickly realized that other than her clothes, her Yisti knives, and her virginity—none of which she was willing to give up—she had nothing to offer. Still, she felt bad enough that she discarded her earlier plan of stealing the blanket as well, and stumbled dry-eyed but miserable out into the dying light of afternoon and a sparkle of lightly falling snow.

The days since Shaso’s death turned into first one tennight, then another, and Briony crept west, stealing enough to stay alive when she could, almost always from those least able to protect what they had. Shame and hunger dogged her, whipsawing her back and forth, one growing less as the other grew greater. Her wounds and sore jaw had mostly healed, but her cough had become a constant thing, painful and frighteningly deep. And as things became harder for her, as hunger and illness made her thoughts difficult, the two other alternatives, surrender or death, began to seem more attractive.

Briony stared blearily at the bridge, at the dark, sluggish river and the empty lands on either side. The sky was like a bed of slates.

Orphanstide and the changing of the year have passed already. But they had been tolling the bells for Oni Zakkas’ Day only a few sunrises ago in the last town she had passed that was big enough to have a temple (more of a shrine, really, this far out in the country) so that meant Dimene was just arriving—the Gestrimadi festival had not even begun yet. That was a terrible thought—at least another two months of winter still, with the worst of it yet to come!

In her breathless exhaustion she had wandered far south down the Karalsway, still uncertain whether she should go to Hierosol or Syan, but knowing in her heart that in her present condition she would reach neither. The villages became more scarce the farther south she went—she had been chased out of the last one two days ago by a group of drunken men who hadn’t liked her look and had called her a plague-carrier—and there would be even fewer settlements in the empty lands between here and the Syannese border. She was beginning to feel truly desperate.

All through her childhood Briony had been prepared for a life of importance, but what had she truly learned? Nothing useful. She did not know how to start a fire on her own. She might have managed with a flint and iron, but she had spent the last coppers Shaso had given her on bread and cheese before realizing warmth would come to be even more important to her than filling her stomach. She did not know how to hunt or trap either, or which if any of the plants that grew wild might be eaten without poisoning her—things that even the most ignorant crofter’s son could easily manage. Instead, her tutors had taught her how to sing, and sew, and read, but the books she had been given were filled with romantic poetry, or useless knowledge about the great gods and their adventures, with parables of gentle Zoria and her blameless suffering.

She stood now in a nearly empty land, staring miserably at the bridge over the muddy Elusine. Learning about suffering was useless—experience came easily enough. Learning how not to suffer would have proved much more practical.

Briony could recall just enough of her brother’s lessons and things her father had told her to know that the territory on the other side of the Elusine was named the Weeping Moors. These marshy, treacherous lands stretched almost all the way south to the lakes of upper Syan, the mud cold and black, with no shelter from the vicious, freezing winds and gusting snows. She had wandered this far almost without thinking, and now she had nowhere to go but back to the towns she had already haunted with so little luck, or east to the Tollys’ home in Summerfield, or southward along this dwindling road through the fens, then around the lakes and over the mountains to distant Syan and even more distant Hierosol, praying to strike lucky in whatever human habitations she might stumble across in the great, empty waterlands ahead.

Briony sank to a crouch. For the moment, she could see nothing but the reeds that surrounded her, the windblown stalks rubbing and whispering. She coughed and spat. The gobbet was tinged with red. It was pointless even to think about Syan—she would never survive a journey across the moors and mountains to reach it.

Unless I go west... she thought slowly, and squinted toward what looked an endless smear of dark forest on the muddy western horizon. That, she knew, must be the northernmost tip of the Whitewood. If she managed to cross through it alive, she would reach Firstford on the far side, the largest city in Silverside. There was a famous temple at Firstford that fed poor people from all over the March Kingdoms, and even provided beds for the sick.

“Silverside” began sounding over and over in her thoughts as soothing as the word “heaven.”

But as the dull morning wore away and she still sat exhausted beside the bridge and the muddy, gurgling Elusine, she still could not make a decision. Singing about Silverside to herself was all well and good, but she was even more likely to die in the trees trying to get there than out on the open wrack of the Weeping Moors. The Whitewood was the second greatest forest in all of Eion, and in its depths lived wolves and bears and perhaps even some of the stranger creatures out of legend. After all, if the fairy folk could come down out of the misty north to invade the March Kingdoms, it stood to reason that goblins and ghouls could still be found in the depths of the Whitewood, just as the stories all told. No, it would be better to stay away from the almost certain death of either marsh or forest, to turn back instead and continue to haunt the fringes of Marrinswalk villages like a lost child. Better to stay where she was and pray for a miracle than to plunge into the forest and certain doom. Yes, she decided wearily, that made more sense. She would turn back.

It was very strange, then, that as the sun slipped down the sky toward evening Briony found herself wandering through the dense trees of the Whitewood, with the road and the bridge lost somewhere behind her and no real memory of how she had come there.

There’s sky above me. There—a little. Between the branches. That is sky, isn’t it? It’s still day, I can see, so there must be sky somewhere.

She lurched a few more steps toward a place where the trees seemed farther apart, where the branches would not pull at her. Already her cloak was in tatters.

Food. So hungry. What will I...?

Something had caught at the boyish trousers she wore. Brambles. She pulled herself free, only vaguely noticing new scratches on hands already crisscrossed with bloody little lines. Thank all the gods the cold was making her fingers numb! She wept to realize she had forgotten again which direction she had set herself to walk.

“Cloudy-eyed, line-handed,” she named herself, mangling the famous story—and not entirely on purpose. She tried to laugh but could only make a ragged hooting noise. Barrick would think that was funny, she decided. He hated learning those stories.

But it was about her, that story. Well, no, not about her, but about Zoria, and hadn’t that Matty Wringtight fellow, that poet, said that she was Zoria? A virgin princess? Wrongly stolen from her father’s house?

But I ran away. It was the house that was stolen.

It didn’t matter. She had always felt deeply about Zoria, the daughter of Perin. When she had been a little girl the tales of Perin and Siveda and Erivor and the others had interested her, but it was the tale of Zoria the merciful, Zoria the pure, brave shield-maiden, that had inspired her. Although she knew many of the old tales and romances, it was only the poems about Zoria she had learned by heart. She recited the line out loud—haltingly at first, then with more strength. It gave her a rhythm to push through the brambles, a marching cadence to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

“...Clear-eyed, lion-hearted, her mind turned toward the day when her honor will again be proclaimed, the Lady of the Doves walks out into the night, toward the fires of her family.”

Briony had little strength, and the words came out as scarcely more than a croaking murmur, but it was a pleasure to hear any voice, even if it was her own, so she said it again.

“...Clear-eyed, lion-hearted, her mind turned toward the day when her honor will again be proclaimed, the Lady of the Doves walks out into the night, toward the fires of her family.”

She had to stop for a moment while a coughing fit shook her. The next part of the tale was something about walking and singing. That seemed appropriate: she was walking right now, and she supposed she was singing, too, after a fashion. Branches slapped at her, wet leaves against her face like angry kisses, making it hard to think, but at last she came up with the next lines: “Walking, she sings, and singing, Perin’s virgin daughter is truly free, despite her terrible wound and unstanched blood.”

Briony felt better with something to think about, and it fit her mood of self-pity to think of how Zoria too had suffered. Merciful goddess, she prayed, think of me and help me through these days of sorrow. In Gregor of Syan’s famous romance, the ice and snow had seemed to fill the world. Briony could still think clearly enough to be grateful that there was no snow here under the trees, but it was still cold enough to make her shiver. The pattering rain was coming down harder now, drizzling heavily through open spaces in the cover. These little waterfalls became another obstacle to be avoided as she trudged on, along with the worst of the brambles and the fallen trees.

Somebody came to help Zoria, she remembered—one of the other gods. Wouldn’t that be fine, to be saved by a god! Except that god hadn’t really saved her, had he...?

“Zosim the Helper, grandson of old Kernios the Earth Master, hears Perin’s daughter’s tripping footfalls and offers to show her the way, but the night’s shadows are long and confusing even for the grandchild of the Lord of Owls, and the dark magic of Everfrost delays them.

“Thus the Moon King’s fate is marked and sealed by the mysteries of his own great house...”

Whatever that meant. Her voice trailed off.

A shadow seemed to jump from behind one tree to another at the top of the rise. Briony stopped, heart beating fast. She squinted but could make out nothing among the paperwhite birches except the columns of weak sunlight between the trunks, each one shot through with falling rain so that they looked like pillars of smoky glass and diamonds.

Could it be a wolf? She touched the hilt of the long Yisti knife sheathed in her belt. She knew she might be able to fight one wolf, perhaps even kill it if she was lucky—but they hunted in packs, didn’t they? For a moment she was overwhelmed by a dark vision of herself surrounded by wolves in a wet, lonely forest as darkness came on. She began to cry.

“Most beasts of forest and field are more afraid of you than you are of them,” her father had once told her, and she tried hard to believe it now. “They are right to fear us, of course—we men are more likely to be their death than the other way around.”

“That’s me!” she said aloud, as harshly as she could. “Your death!” Nothing moved, no sound except the rain broke the silence after her words had echoed away. Briony coughed again and shook her head, leaned in toward the slope and started to clamber up again, scratching her hands as she grabbed for roots and vines when the way was steep.

“When morning’s sun rises...”

she sang out, loud enough for the wolves to hear, trying to make her voice steady enough to scare them away, “...All father Perin rides with the gods of his house behind him, the lightnings in his hands and his eye full of fury. The shining towers of Everfrost loom above the icy earth, burning with a pallid gleam like twilight, like bone, and a moat of killing ice surrounds it.”

The story was making her feel cold again. She realized her hood had fallen back and her hair was getting soaked.

“Before his own door stood the Moonlord in shimmering armor of ivory and electrum, pale hair blowing, with his great sword Silverbeam in his hand.”

Just before she reached the top of the rise she saw the shape once more, a movement of darkness a score of paces ahead. Afraid to see it too closely, fearful that it was some predatory beast moving just ahead of her and that the sight of it would freeze her throat, she raised her scratchy voice even louder.

“‘Go away from my door, Cousin,’” speaks Khors. “‘You ride unasked in the Moon’s Land, on the sovereign road of Everfrost. You have no rights here. This is not vasty Xandos, citadel of the gods.’ “‘I have the right of a father,’” bellows Perin, ‘and you have stolen that right from me when you stole my daughter! Set her here before me, then never cross into my lands again, and I will let you live.’”

At the top of the rise Briony could make out only a deer track or old streambed at the base of the hill on the far side, a snaking line of reddish mud. It was nothing like a road, but at least it was a direction and she would not be pulling berry brambles from her feet at each step. She made her way down toward it with cautious speed, aware for the first time in some hours that if she stumbled or slipped and broke her leg she would certainly die here. When she reached the stripe of rust-colored mud she raised her voice again in a note of ragged triumph, a hymn to her newfound path.

When you are this badly beaten, she thought distractedly, climbing over a huge, damp trunk, terrified that it might start rolling downward while she was on it—when you are this badly beaten, you must take any victory you can find.

“No one orders me on my own lands,” Khors cries, “and least of all a braggart like you, Lord StormCloud, heavy with thunder like a tempest that blows and blows but does nothing more. She belongs to me now. The dove is mine.

“Thief! Liar!” shouts Perin. “Now you shall learn for yourself whether this storm is all wind, like the stables of Strivos, full of his godlike stallions of the blowing gale, or whether it brings lightning, too!”

She reached the bottom of the hill at last, muddy and panting until her lungs ached in her chest, but she had a clear track for walking now and she wanted to go as far as she could before the light failed.

And then what? a silent voice asked her—her own voice, the sensible part she thought she had lost somewhere on the road outside the forest. Then what? You cannot even make a fire, and in any case the wood is all wet. Will you sit on a damp rock all night and try to keep the wolves at bay with your knife? And the next night? And the next...?

No. Quiet! What else can I do? Go forward. Go forward.

She raised her voice again, just as Allfather Perin raised high his weapon against his daughter’s kidnapper. Run, wolves! Run, all you enemies!

“And with that he lifts his mighty hammer Oak Tree and rides at Khors and the world shakes at the sounds of his golden car, the very mountains swaying to the drumbeat of his horses’ hooves.

“Khors is fearful, but rides out himself on his white horse, brandishing Silverbeam his potent blade, swinging the great net his father Sveros had given him, in which once the old god had captured the stars of the sky.”

When the two meet it is as the shock of a thunderclap, so that all gods in both armies, who would have rushed at each other, must instead fight to keep their feet beneath them. Indeed, some like Yarnos of the Snows are thrown to the ground; Strivos is one, and as he lies there he is almost destroyed by Azinor of the Onyenai, always swift to strike and eager to slay his father’s enemies.

“Back and forth across the great icy field upon which stands Everfrost the gods give battle, the light unto the dark, Perin and his brothers against Khors and the spawn of Old Mother Night, and ever hangs the balance on the cast of a spear, the flight of an arrow, the thrust of a sword, even the blink of a bloodspattered eye.

“White-Handed Uvis is wounded by a blow of Kernios’ great spear, but Birin, Lord of the Evening Mist, meets his doom when the arrows of the Onyenai pierce his throat. The car of courageous Volios is thrown down by the bullish strength of Zmeos the horned one, and the war-god is trapped beneath it, his bones broken, his voice crying out to his uncles for vengeance. Even the great river Rimetrail is thrown from its banks by the force of their fighting, and flows brokenly in many directions.”

She was following the deer track now. It was wider than it had looked, as though not deer but herds of cattle had made it, just as they had scraped the wide drover’s roads across the valleys and hills of Southmarch from the farmlands into the city’s markets. The relative ease of passage lifted her heart, although the rain was still falling and her face and hands were still numb. If there were wolves near her, then her proclaiming of the Lay of Everfrost was keeping them well at bay.

“In the forest, virgin Zoria is lost in the snow,” Briony bellowed, but the wet trees swallowed most of the echoes, “the Almond Princess pulled away from the aiding hand of Zosim by the wrath of Old Winter, so that she cannot see her fingers before her eyes, and can hear only the shriek of the snowy winds. Only a short distance away her family fights and dies for her honor, and everywhere else the screams of gods overtop even the storm.

“Lost, her eyes shut against the wailing winds, her face bloodied by sleet, she stumbles. Lost, she wanders in howling darkness, and does not know that on the other side of the darkly sheltering, confounding wood, all is war, all is death, as her cousins murder her cousins and the endless snows cover all...”

Briony fell silent, not because she had forgotten the words, the touching words that described how Zoria began her long wandering even as the Great War of the Gods blazed in earnest, but because something was definitely moving on the path ahead of her. The late afternoon light was beginning to weaken, but she could think of nothing but that shape just at the edge of sight, something dark that walked upright.

She smothered her first impulse to shout to the figure for help. After all, who would live in such a place? A kind woodsman, who would take her to his cottage and give her soup, like something in the stories of her childhood? More likely it was some half-savage madman who would ravage her or worse. She drew the longer of her knives and held it in her hand. The shape was moving away from her, so perhaps whoever or whatever it was hadn’t heard her. But how could that be possible? She had been shouting loud enough to knock the leaves off the trees. Perhaps he was deaf.

A deaf madman. The prospects only get better and better, she thought sourly. Briony did not quite notice it, but something of her old self had come back to her as she stumbled through the trees crying old lines of poetry.

She walked a little faster, ignoring the ache in her legs, and she called out no more of Zoria’s tale. Gregor’s famous words may have kept her going but the time for them was over, at least for a while.

Another few hundred paces and she caught sight of the shape again, and this time could see it a little more clearly: it was manlike, walking on two legs, but seemed strangely bent, humped on its back beyond even the deformities of age, and she felt a thrill of superstitious fear run along her spine. What was it? Some half-human thing, part man, part animal? As the darkness came on would it tilt forward and run on all fours?

Despite her terror, she knew she must have food and shelter soon, even at risk that she was chasing some forest demon. She hurried on, moving as quickly and quietly as she could, trying to get a better look at whatever walked the path ahead of her.

At last, when she had closed the distance to only a hundred paces or so, she saw that the shape was not as unnatural as she’d feared: whatever walked before her in a dark cloak and hood carried a bundle of wood on its back. Her heart, which had been a stone in her chest, now lightened.

A person, at least—not something with teeth and claws.

She thought it might be good to call now, with enough room between them to allow an escape if the other seemed dangerous. She stopped and shouted, “Halloo! Halloo, there! Can you help me? I’m lost!”

The dark figure slowed and stopped, then turned. For a moment she saw a hint of the face in the deep hood, of white hair and bright eyes as the wood carrier stared back at her, then the shape turned back to the path and hurried on.

“Gods’ curses!” Briony screamed hoarsely. “I mean you no harm!” And she began to trot after the shape as fast as her tremblingly weary legs would carry her. But although the figure before her seemed to move no faster than she would expect of an aged woodcutter carrying a heavy burden, she could not seem to close the distance. She dug ahead as hard as she could, but still she could get no closer to the dark shape. “Wait! I don’t want to hurt you! I’m hungry and I’m lost!”

The wide path looped between the trees, rising and falling, and the figure appeared and disappeared in the growing shadows. Briony’s mind was full of old stories again, about malevolent fairies and will-o’-the-wisps who led travelers from their rightful path to their doom in the forest or marsh.

But I’m already lost! she thought miserably. Where would the glory be in that? She even shouted it, but the silent shape before her seemed to pay no attention.

At last, just before she was about to drop to her knees in surrender, give up on the mysterious figure and resign herself to another night alone in cold, rain-spattered despair, the dark-cloaked shape turned from the path— slowly, as if determined that Briony should take notice— and disappeared through the undergrowth into the thickest part of the wood. When she reached that spot on the path, Briony looked carefully but could see nothing unusual. If she had not seen the figure turn, she would have had no idea where it had gone.

Trap, a part of her warned, but that part was not strong enough to rule a mind so hungry and lonely and distraught. She turned off the track into the deep woods, her knife held out before her. Within a few steps she found herself on a steep slope, and after a few more paces stepped down out of the trees into a quiet, grassy dell. A campsite stood at the foot of the hollow—a rickety wagon, a sway-backed horse tied beside it cropping grass, and a fire. Standing beside the fire was the dark-cloaked shape she had trailed, the bundle of firewood lying on the ground at its feet.

The figure threw back the hood of the wet cloak, revealing a tangle of white hair and a face so old and so lined that at first Briony could not be sure if it was male or female.

“You took long enough, daughter,” the ancient creature said. The voice marked her as a woman, although just barely, a throaty rasp halfway between a chuckle and a growl. “I thought I would have to lie down and have a nap to give you time to catch up.”

Briony still had the knife out, but it seemed more important to bend double and keep her hands on her knees instead while she struggled to catch her breath. This was followed by a coughing fit that made her whimper at the pain in her chest. At last she straightened up. “I...couldn’t...catch you...”

The old, old woman shook her head. “I fear for the breed,” was all she said, then began laying new faggots on the fire. “Sit down, child. I can see you’re ill—I’ll have to do something about that. Are you hungry, too?”

“Who...who are you? I mean, yes—Oh, gods, yes, I’m starving.”

“Good. We’ll make you work for your supper, but I suppose you should rest and recover a bit first.” The old woman gave her a sharp look. It was like being stared at by a wild beast. Briony’s heart tripped again. The woman’s eyes were not blue or green or even brown, but black and shiny as volcano glass. “One thing we won’t ask you to do is sing. We’ve had quite enough of that tuneless caterwauling.”

Even in the midst of all these unexpected happenings, Briony was stung. “I was just trying to keep myself going.”

She slumped to the ground and tucked the knife back into its sheath, still finding it hard to get her breath. The old woman was scarcely as high as Briony’s own shoulder and looked to weigh no more than a roast Orphanstide duck.

“Maybe it was the song, then, daughter,” said the old woman as she bent to rummage in a sack that hung from the front of the wagon. “I’ve never cared much for that Gregor. Too full of himself, and a dreadful man for a stretched rhyme. I told him so, too.”

Briony, recovering her strength a little, shook her head. Perhaps this ancient was a little mad—surely she’d have to be, to live in the forest this way, by herself. “He’s been dead for two centuries.”

“Yes, he has, bless him, and not a moment too soon.” She straightened up. “Hmmm. If I’d known yesterday I would have company, I would have gathered more marsh marigold, and maybe some chestnuts. But I didn’t know until this morning.”

“This morning what?”

“That you’d be coming. It took you long enough.” She shrugged her thin shoulders, two bony points beneath the cloak. “It’s not just Gregor, though, it’s that song of his— more of it wrong than right, you know. Zosim the Helper— there’s a laugh. That snake-eyed trickster helped himself to a few things, but that’s all the helping he ever did. And the snow. Pure nonsense. Khors’ castle wasn’t made of ice or anything like that, it shone that way because of the elfglass it was covered with—fairy-shimmer, they used to call the stuff. And ‘Everfrost!’” She smacked her lips in disgust, as if she’d eaten something that tasted foul. “He just took the real story and mixed it up with that Caylor story about the Prince of Birds—and that was a mumbled-up porridge of the story of the Godswar in the first place!”

Briony blinked. She wished that the woman would stop talking and get cooking. Only the griping pain in her stomach was allowing her to remain upright. “You...sound like you know...a great deal about...about the War of the Gods.”

The old woman snickered, then the snicker became a full throated laugh. She laughed until she was wheezing and had to sit down beside Briony. “Yes, daughter, I do know a great deal about it.” She chuckled again and wiped her eyes. “I ought to, child. I was there.”

20. A Piece of the Moon’s House

As the battle began, innocent Zoria escaped the fortress and on her pale, bare feet went in search of her family, but although Zosim found her and tried to help her, they were separated by a great storm, and so Perin’s virgin daughter wandered far from the battlefield.

Before the walls of Khors’ mighty fortress, Kernios the Earthlord was killed by the treachery of Zmeos, but the tears of his brother Erivor raised him again and he was thereafter undefeatable by any man or god.

—from The Beginnings of Things, The Book of the Trigon

It took sister Utta longer than she would have liked to clear away the books and rolls of parchment on the least cluttered chair, but when she had finished Merolanna sank into it gladly. Once she saw that the duchess was only light-headed—and no surprise; Utta was feeling a bit dizzy herself—she cleared herself a place to sit, too. This task was not made any easier by the fact that a pentecount of miniature soldiers standing at attention on the floor had been joined by at least that number of tiny courtiers, so that there was almost nowhere Sister Utta could put her foot or anything else down without first having to wait for fingerhigh people to clear the way. King Olin’s study now looked like the grandest and most elaborate game of dolls a little girl could ever imagine. At the center of it all, as poised and graceful as if she were the ordinary-sized one and Utta and the duchess were the inexplicable atomies, sat Queen Upsteeplebat on her hanging platform in the fireplace.

Merolanna fanned herself with a sheaf of parchments. “What did you mean, you can tell me about my son? What do you know about my son?”

Utta could make no sense of this: she had lived more than twenty years in the castle, and to the best of her knowledge Merolanna was childless. “Are you all right, Your Grace?”

Merolanna waved a hand at her. “Losing my mind, there is no doubt about that, but otherwise I am well enough. I am more grateful than I can say that you are here with me. You are seeing and hearing the same things I am, aren’t you?”

“Tiny people? Yes, I’m afraid I am.”

Upsteeplebat raised her arms in a gesture of support, or perhaps apology. “I am sorry if I shocked you, Duchess Merolanna. I cannot explain how we know about your son, but I can promise you it was not by deliberately intruding on your privacy.” The queen showed them a smile tinier than a baby’s fingernail. “Although I must confess we have been guilty of that in other circumstances with other folk. But I can tell you no more about any of it, because we are offering you a bargain.”

“What sort?” asked Utta.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Merolanna. “You don’t have to bargain with me. Tell me what you want and I’ll get it for you —food? You must live a dreadful, poor life hiding in the shadows if all the old stories now turn out to be true. Surely you can’t want money...”

The Rooftopper queen smiled again. “We eat better than you would suppose, Duchess. In fact, we could triple our numbers and still barely dent what is thrown away or ignored in this great household. But what we want is something a bit less obvious. And we do not want it for ourselves.”

“Please,” said Merolanna with an edge of anger in her voice, “do not play at games with me, madam. You tease me with the prospect of learning something about my son, which if you know of his existence at all, you must know I would do anything to achieve. Just tell me what you want.” “I cannot. We do not know.”

“What?” Merolanna began to stand and then fell back in the chair, fanning vigorously. “What madness—what cruel prank...?”

“Please, Your Grace, hear us out.” Upsteeplebat spoke kindly, but there was a note of authority in her own voice that Utta could not help remarking. “We do not play at games. Our Lord of the Peak, to whom we owe our very existence, has spoken, and told us what to do, and what to say to you.”

“Is that your Rooftopper king?” Utta rose from her own chair and went to stand by Merolanna’s. She set her hand on the duchess’ shoulder and could not help noticing how the woman was trembling.

Upsteeplebat shook her head. “Not in the sense you mean. No, I rule the Rooftoppers here among the living. But the Master of the Heights rules all living things and we are his servants.”

“Your god?”

She nodded her head. “You may call him thus. To us, he is simply the Lord.”

Merolanna took a long breath; Utta could feel her shudder. “What do you want? Just tell me, please.”

“You must come with us. You must hear what the Lord of the Peak has to say.”

“You would take your god?” Utta wondered that a few moments ago she had thought things as strange as they could get.

“In a way. No harm will come to you.”

Merolanna looked at Utta, her expression a grimace somewhere between despair and hilarity. Her voice, when she finally spoke, shared the same air of resigned confusion. “Take us, then. To Rooftopper’s Heaven or wherever else. Why not?”

The tiny queen gestured toward a door in the wall at the back of the library, half-obscured by bookshelves and piles of loose books. “Please know that this is a rare honor. It has been centuries since we invited any of your kind into our sacred place.”

“Through that door? But it’s locked,” said Merolanna. “Olin always talked about how the storeroom here at the top of the tower hadn’t been opened since his grandfather’s day —that the key was lost and that nothing short of breaking it down would ever get it open.”

“Nor would it,” said Upsteeplebat with a tone of satisfaction. “It has been wedged on the far side in a thousand places and the key is indeed lost—at least to your folk. But now the Lord of the Peak has called for you, so my people have labored for two days to remove the wedges and other impediments.” She waved her hands and three of her tiny soldiers stepped out from their line along the base of the fireplace bricks. They lifted trumpets made of what looked like seashells and blew a long, shrill, tootling call. As if in reply, Utta heard a thin scraping noise, and then a metallic plink, as of a small hammer striking an equally small anvil.

“All praise to the Lord of Heights,” Upsteeplebat said, “the oil was sufficient to loosen the lock’s workings. It was the matter about which my council argued and argued. Now pull the door, please—but gently. My subjects will take some while to climb out of the way.”

“You do it,” Merolanna whispered to Utta. “Small things, oh, they make me jump so.”

Utta cleared the books piled on the floor, then did her best to move the book cabinets without tipping them—no easy task. The door resisted her pull for a moment—she wondered if the Rooftoppers had remembered to oil the hinges as well at the latch—but then, with a shriek that made her wince, it swung toward her.

“Carefully!” came Upsteeplebat’s piping cry, but there was no need. Utta had already taken a step back in dismay from what she took to be half a dozen huge spiders dangling in the doorway before she realized they were Rooftoppers hanging from ropes like steeplejacks, slowly climbing back up to the top of the doorframe.

Most of them looked at her with anxiety or even fear—and small wonder, since she was dozens of times their size, as tall in their eyes as the spire of a great temple—but one tiny climber who seemed barely more than a boy kicked his legs and gave her a sort of salute before he disappeared into the darkness above the door.

“Fare you well,” Utta whispered as the rest of the climbers also reached the safety of the doorframe. She turned to the queen, who still stood on her platform in the fireplace like an image of Zoria in a shrine. Utta could not help wondering if that was coincidence or more of the Rooftopper’s planning. “Your people are brave.”

“We fight the cat, the rat, the jay, the gull,” said the Rooftopper queen. “Our walls are full of spiders and centipedes. We must be brave to survive. You may enter now.”

Utta leaned forward into the doorway.

“What...what do you see?” Merolanna’s voice quivered a little, but she had been at court for most of a century and was good at masking her feelings even in the most extreme of situations. “Can we get on with this?”

“It’s dark—I’ll need the torch.”

“A candle only, if you please, Sister Utta,” said the queen. “And if you’ll be kind enough to take my good Beetledown on your shoulder, he will help you to walk carefully in our sacred place.”

The little man, who had been standing silently on the hearth, now bowed. Utta got a candle on a dish—they had been left everywhere around the room, as if Olin had liked to use dozens at a time—then lowered her hand and let the Rooftopper climb on.

Merolanna stood, not without a little huffing and wheezing. “I’m coming with you. Whatever it is, I want to see it.”

“I will join you inside.” The Rooftopper queen lifted her hand. The royal platform slowly began to rise upward, back into the fireplace flue.

“Do thee step careful, like un told thee,” said Beetledown. The voice so close to her ear made Utta itchy. She lifted the candle and led Merolanna through the open door.

The floor of the room beyond was scarcely half the size of the one in the king’s library, but the room itself extended farther upward: with candle lifted, Utta could see the rafters of the tower top itself, latticed with what she first took for spiderwebs, then realized were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of rope bridges, none any wider than her hand. Some were only a foot or so long, but a few stretched for a dozen feet or more in sagging parabolas braced with slender crosswires.

“Watch tha foot!” cried Beetledown. Utta looked down to see that she had nearly stepped on a ramp that led from the floor to an old rosewood chest no higher than the middle of her thigh. The lid was flung back and the hinges, badly rusted, had given way, so that the lid hung unevenly, half resting on the ground, but it was the inside of the chest that caught her eye. A row of tiny houses had been built inside it, along the back—half a dozen simple but beautifully constructed three-story houses.

“Merciful Zoria,” said Utta. “Is this where your people live?” “Nay,” said Beetledown, “only those as tend the Ears.” “Tend the ears?”

“Step careful, please. And watch tha head, too.”

Utta looked up just before walking into one of the hanging bridges. Up close, she could see it was much less simple than she had thought: the knot-work was regular and decorative, the wooden planks clearly finished by hand with love and care. She resolved to move even more slowly. Just the loss of one of these bridges to her clumsiness would be a shame.

“Did you ever imagine such a thing was here, under our noses?” she asked Merolanna.

“This castle has always been full of secrets,” the other woman said, sounding oddly mournful.

They moved deeper into what might have once been a simple storeroom but had long since become a weird, magical place of miniature bridges and ladders, of furniture turned into houses, with small wonders of fittings and drapery inside them that Utta could only glimpse, and tiny lanterns glowing in the windows like fireflies.

“Where are all your people?” she asked.

“There be only few of we folk who live in this place—only those who serve the Lord of the Peak direct and personal,” the little man explained. “Those stay inside, so as not to be trod on by giants.” He coughed, a sound like a bird sniffing. “Beggin’ tha pardon, ma’am.”

Utta smiled. “No, that sounds very sensible. How long have your people been here, hiding from us blundering giants?”

“Forever, ma’am. Long as remembered. The Lord of the Peak, he made us and gave us this place for our own. Well, not this place, ’haps—this room we took for ours in my great-grands’ day. But our lands, our walls, our roofs, we have had forever.”

“But then why is your god named the Lord of the Peak?” Utta asked. “If you have always been here, what mountain can you know?”

“Why, the great peak your folk do call Wolfstooth,” Beetledown said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world—which, to him, it doubtless was. “That is where the Lord lives.”

Utta shook her head, but gently, so as not to dislodge the little man. Wolfstooth Spire, the castle’s central tower, was the Rooftopper’s Xandos—the home of their god! What a world this was, both his and hers. What a strange, wonderful world.

The queen now appeared from a hidden door somewhere on the far side of the room, riding in a chariot drawn by a herd of white mice, with a small phalanx of soldiers behind her. She waved in an imperial sort of way, then led Utta and Merolanna a little farther down what was clearly the attic room’s main thoroughfare, between rows of chests and other furniture—each, Utta had no doubt, converted into temples or mantiseries or congregations of sisters, all in service to the god who they believed lived at the top of a nearby tower.

Upsteeplebat’s chariot drew to a halt at the end of the aisle; her mice settled on their haunches and began most unceremoniously to groom themselves. Against the wall, at the end of a sort of plaza a couple of yards across made when the furniture had been pushed back was a high dresser of the kind used by wealthy women. Its drawers had been pulled out, the bottommost the farthest, the topmost the least, and a fretwork of ladders and ramps connected the drawers together. More of the spidery steeplejacks were at work here, but it took a moment for her to make out what they were doing. A long bundle, almost like an insect wrapped in webbing by a spider, was being carefully lowered down from the topmost drawer to the floor.

“Could you kneel, please,” Upsteeplebat said in her high, calm voice. “We have delicate work to do, and all of us will be safer if you are sitting or kneeling.”

“Can we get on with things?” Merolanna grumbled. “This dress isn’t meant for such games. If you’d told me I’d be down on the floor like a child playing tops I’d have worn my nightclothes instead.”

Utta could not blame the dowager duchess for complaining. Though she herself was in good, healthy fettle, and much more conveniently garbed in a simple robe, her old bones did not particularly enjoy the exercise, either.

When they were seated, a small troop of soldiers and a trio of shaven-headed creatures (whose delicate features Utta guessed must be female) brought out a cushioned bed made from what had obviously once been a jewel case. The bundle from the uppermost drawer was lowered into it, then unwrapped to reveal a Rooftopper woman with dark hair and pale skin, dead or sleeping.

“I present to you the Glorious and Accurate Ears,” the queen said, “whose family has for centuries been our link to the Lord of the Peak, and who will today, for the first time, share the Lord’s words straightly with your folk.”

The trio of priestesses, if that was what they were, stepped forward to stand at the head and either arm of the Ears. They lit bowls of some stuff that smoked and waved them over her and then began to chant words too quiet to be heard. This went on for long moments; Utta could feel Merolanna shifting impatiently beside her. In the quiet room, the rucking and crinkling of the duchess’ dress sounded like distant thunder.

At last the priestesses stepped back and bowed their heads. The silence continued. Utta began to wonder if she or Merolanna were expected to ask a question, but then the woman in the bed began to move, first to twitch as in a fever-dream, then to thrash weakly. Suddenly she sat up. Her eyes opened wide, but she did not seem to be looking at anything in the room, not even the two giant women. She spoke in a surprisingly low voice, a slurry string of quiet sounds like bees buzzing. The priestesses swayed.

“What does she say?” demanded Merolanna.

“She says nothing,” the queen of the Rooftoppers corrected her. “It is the Lord of the Peak himself who speaks, and he says, ‘The end of these days comes on white wings, but it bears darkness like an egg. Old Night waits to be born, and unless the sea swallows all untimely, the stars themselves will rain down like flaming arrows.’ Those are the words of the Lord of High Places.”

Vague, apocalyptic prophecy was not what the dowager duchess had come to hear. “Ask about my son,” she said in a sharp whisper. But Utta could tell that a bargain was being struck, even if she did not yet know with whom they were bargaining—the Rooftoppers and their queen? Their god? Or simply this one Rooftopper oracle?

“We have been told that you know something of this woman’s son, O Lord of the Peak,” Utta said slowly and clearly, hoping that if the Rooftoppers spoke her language, so did their god. “Will you tell us of him?”

The woman thrashed again and almost fell from her bed. Two tiny, shaven-headed priestesses stepped forward to hold her as she mumbled and rasped again.

‘The High Ones took him, fifty winters past,’” the queen said, translating or simply amplifying the Ears’ quiet mumble. “‘He was carried behind the cloud of unknowing mortals call the Shadowline. But he yet lives.’”

Merolanna let out a little shriek, swayed, and collapsed against Utta, who did her best to hold her upright: the duchess was of a size that she would destroy much of the Rooftoppers’ religious quarter if allowed to fall. “She will thank you for this news—but I think not today,” Utta said, a little out of breath. She bent closer to Queen Upsteeplebat. “Can your god not tell us more?” she whispered. “Is there a way to find her child?”

For long moments the Ears lay like a dead woman—much like Merolanna, who seemed to have fainted. Then the tiny shape stirred and spoke again, but so quietly that Utta could only see her lips move. Even the little queen had to lean against the rail of her chariot to hear.

“The Lord of High Places says, ‘The world’s need is great. Old Night pecks at its shell, yearning to breathe the air of Time. This castle’s priest of light and stars once owned a piece of the House of the Moon, ancient and powerful, but now it has been taken. Find where that stolen piece has gone and in return Heaven will speak more of this mortal woman’s son.

With that the Ears fell into a deep, deathlike sleep. When it was clear she would speak the god’s words no longer, the priestesses wrapped her up again. This time the tiny soldiers moved in and carried the entire bed away into the shadows like a funeral bier.

Utta held Merolanna, who groaned like a woman in a bad dream, and wondered and wondered at the surpassing strangeness this day had brought.

The duchess stirred in her bed and sat up, hands clawing out as though something had been pulled away from her.

“Where are they? Did I dream?”

“You did not dream,” Utta told her. “Unless I dreamed the same dream.”

“But what else did that little creature say? I cannot remember!” Merolanna fumbled for the cup of watered wine on the chest by her bed, drank it so fast that a pinkish rivulet spilled and ran down her chin.

Utta told her the rest of the Ears’ pronouncement. “But I can make no sense of it.”

“My child!” Merolanna fell back against the pillows, her chest heaving. “I gave him away,” she moaned, “and now the fairies have him. Poor, poor boy!” In halting words, she told Utta of the child’s secret birth and disappearance. Utta was surprised, but not astonished—the Zorians did not believe humans could be perfected, only forgiven.

“If the little people’s oracle spoke correctly, that was almost fifty years gone, Your Grace,” she told Merolanna. “Still, we must try to understand the god’s words—if it really was a god who spoke. A piece of the Moon’s House, the little woman said. And that it belonged to the castle’s priest of light and stars.”

“Priest? Do they mean Father Timoid? But he is gone!” Merolanna tossed her head as if in a fever. “Why should some god send this message to torture me?”

“Perhaps they mean Hierarch Sisel.” Utta reached out to take the duchess’ hand, hoping to calm her. “He is the highest priest of all, so...”

“But he is gone too, to his house in the country. He told me he could not bear to see what the Tollys were doing.” Merolanna tried to calm herself. “Would he be the priest of light and stars, though? He is the great priest of the Trigon, and they are air, water, and earth...” She moaned again. “Ah, if only Chaven were here. He knows of such things—he studies the stars, and knows almost as much about the old tales of the gods as Sisel...”

“Wait,” said Utta. “Perhaps that is who it means. Chaven is a priest of sorts—a priest of logic and science. And his is the particular study of light and the stars, with those lenses of his. Perhaps Chaven had some powerful object that is now lost.”

“But Chaven is the one who’s lost!” said Merolanna. “He’s vanished! And that means my son is lost forever...!”

“No one simply disappears,” said Utta. “Unless the gods themselves take them. And the Rooftoppers’ god, at least, does not seem to know what’s happened to Chaven, so perhaps he is still alive.” She stood. “I will see what I can discover, Your Grace.”

“Be careful!” Merolanna cried as Utta moved to the door. She extended her arms again as though to draw the Zorian sister back. “You are all I have left!”

“We have the gods, Duchess. I will pray for my gracious lady Zoria’s help. You should do the same.”

Merolanna slumped back. “Gods, fairies...the world has run utterly mad.”

Utta called in the little maid Eilis. “See to your mistress,” she told the girl. “Take good care of her. She has had a shock.”

But who will see to me? she wondered as she left Merolanna’s chambers. Who will take care of me in this mad time when legends spring to life at our feet? Zoria, merciful goddess, I need your help now more than ever.

Even to Matty Tinwright, who had never found it easy to say no to a celebration or a feast, especially if someone else was paying the tally, it seemed a bit much. Surely with an invading force just across the river—an invading force of monsters and demons at that—all these fetes and fairs were a waste, if not worse?

Perhaps Lord Hendon is only trying to divert us from our troubles. If so, he had set himself a hard task, because troubles were plentiful. The creatures across the bay had not attacked the keep, but they had certainly cut off all supplies coming to the overfilled castle from the west, and the short, terrifying war had emptied the valleys to the west and south as well, so there were no cattle or sheep being driven in from Marrinswalk and Silverside and no wool or cheese from Settland, only such supplies as could be brought in by ships, which lay crammed in Southmarch harbor like driftwood against a seawall.

Despite all this, the merriment went on. Tonight, to celebrate the first evening of Gestrimadi, the festival in honor of the Mother of the Gods, there would be a public fair in Market Square and here in the castle a great supper and masked fete, with music and dancing.

And yet surely there has not been a darker Dimenemonth since the Twilight folk last marched on us, two hundred years gone?

It was strange, Tinwright thought, that a place as solemn and silent during the day as this should spring to life so feverishly at night, as though the chambers were tombs which discharged their occupants only after sunset, so that they could dance and flirt in imitation of the living.

It was a powerful image, and he thought suddenly that he should write it down. Surely there was a poem in it, the courtiers emerging from their stony dens at nightfall, wearing masks that hid everything but their too-bright eyes... But Hendon Tolly and his circle will not like it, and these days that is a very dangerous thing. Didn’t Lord Nynor disappear after being heard criticizing the Tollys’ rule?

Still, the lure of the idea was strong. He decided that he could write it and keep it hidden until better times, when his foresight would be recognized, and his brilliance (if not his courage) honored.

Poets are not made to be hanged, he reminded himself. They are made to admired. And even if I could only be admired for being hanged, I would choose obscurity, I think. No, he would stay alive. In any case, he had other things to live for, these days... “Oh, most effective, Master Tinwright!” said Puzzle approvingly. Now that he had been picked up by Hendon Tolly’s set, however mockingly, the old jester had developed a loud heartiness to his tone that Tinwright found irritating. Strangely, though, his wrinkled face suddenly crumpled into sadness. “You will captivate many a young heart tonight, that is certain.”

Tinwright looked down at the forest-green hose, which had a disturbing tendency to twist between ankle and crotch so that each leg’s seam looked more like a winding country road than a straight royal thoroughfare. The colors were pleasing, though no real traveling minstrel ever wore such peacockery as this. It was a party costume that had belonged to Puzzle’s dead friend Robben Hulligan, and the old man was actually weeping now to see him in it.

“He was fair of face and shapely of leg, my good old Robben.” Puzzle rubbed his eyes. He had dressed for the masked fete himself in a black mantis’ robe, and it suited him strangely, making his long, dour face seem for the first time to have found its proper setting. “He too loved the ladies, and the ladies loved him.”

Tinwright didn’t say anything. He had heard this Robbentalk before and knew the old man would have his say no matter what Tinwright did.

“He was murdered by bandits, poor fellow,” said Puzzle, shaking his head. Tinwright could have recited the rest of his speech with him, so many times had he heard it. “Taken by Kernios long before his time. Have I told you of him? Sweet singing Robben.”

Tinwright was even thinking of going to the temple for the services, just to avoid the rest of the old man’s maundering, but was saved that ignominious fate by the arrival of a small boy, a page, bearing a message to Puzzle from Hendon Tolly’s squire.

“Ah, it seems I am wanted!” the old man said with a pleasure he could barely contain. “The guardian wishes me to sit with him during the feast, so that I may entertain him.”

The guardian must be trying to keep himself from eating too much, Tinwright thought but of course did not say: he was fond of Puzzle, if a bit tired of spending so much time with him. The old fellow’s recent rise in favor had made him cheerful, but had made him a bit boastful as well, and Matt Tinwright’s more dubious fortunes made it hard sometimes to enjoy his friend’s triumphs. “Does it say anything about me?”

“I fear not,” said Puzzle. “Perhaps you could come with me, though. I could sing my lord one of your songs, and surely...”

Tinwright thought back on the disastrous and humiliating reception he had received the last time he had tagged after Puzzle. That made it much easier to remember something that was true, if not useful to a man in search of advancement: he had decided he truly disliked Hendon Tolly. No, more than that—Tinwright was terrified of him. “Fear not, good friend Puzzle,” he said aloud. “As you pointed out, there are doubtless many fair young faces and firm young bosoms that await my attention tonight. I hope you will have good fortune at the guardian’s table.” He could not help dispensing a little advice, though, since Puzzle these days seemed as innocently smitten of attention as a child. “Be careful of that man Havemore, though. He does not love anyone, and will go to subtle lengths to be cruel.”

“He is a good enough fellow in his way,” said Puzzle, quick to defend any of the wealthy, powerful men who had so unexpectedly taken him up. “When next you come with me, you will see and know him better.”

“Let’s hope not,” said Matt Tinwright under his breath. If Tolly was a predator, Tirnan Havemore was a scavenger, a graveyard dog that would snatch up whatever it could find and hold onto it with stinking jaws. “Be well and be merry, Uncle.”

He waved as Puzzle went out, and then realized he had forgotten to ask him whether Hulligan’s borrowed costume was buttoned correctly in the back. He wished he had a dressing-mirror, but only a rich man—or at least a man who made poems for rich men—could afford such a thing.

Ah, Princess Briony, where did you go? Your poet needs you. At least you appreciated my true quality, if scarcely anyone else did...or does... The castle was strung with parchment lanterns, and in every corner stood little altars to Madi Surazem covered with greenery, with pale hellebore blooms, firethorn, and holly surrounding white candles, each arrangement a silent prayer that the swelling within the belly of Moist Mother Earth would bear forth in another spring of healthy crops.

But what crops? Tinwright thought And who to harvest them? The fairies have laid waste to all the western and northern lands. It was strange that he should be the one fretting about such things. His father had once called him (exaggerating only slightly, Tinwright had to confess) the laziest and most self-centered youth on either side of Brenn’s Bay. Now he watched the courtiers in their masks and finery trip out into the garden and come back in, soaked from the rain and laughing, only to rush out again, and felt like a despairing parent himself. He wondered if his earlier idea, however poetic, might not be wrong: the dead could afford to make merry, having nothing to lose. The people around him seemed more like children, playing games beneath a teetering boulder.

Something bumped him and almost knocked him to the floor. “Sing us a song, minstrel!” shouted a drunken voice.

Swaying in front of him, wearing a mask with an obscenely long nose, was Durstin Crowel, one of Tolly’s closest followers, a red-faced young lord who would have looked more natural, Tinwright thought, on a platter at the center of a banquet with a quince stuffed in his mouth. Crowel stood in the middle of the corridor with four or five of his friends, none of whom looked any better for drink than the Baron of Graylock. He was soaking wet and wearing a dress. “Go on,” Crowel said, pointing an unsteady finger at Tinwright. “Sing something with some swiving in it!” His companions laughed but they did not move on. They had sensed an edge in Crowel’s tone that meant more interesting things might be coming.

“Go to, then!” one of them shouted. “You heard! Entertain us, minstrel!”

“It is a costume, only,” Tinwright said, backing away. At least they did not seem to have recognized him behind his bird mask. Sometimes it was good to be beneath the notice of the great.

“Ah, but my dagger is real.” Crowel pulled something with a long, slender blade from his bodice—the noble seemed to be dressed as a tavern maid. “To protect my dear virtue, you see...” He paused for the laugh, which his friends dutifully provided, “so I’m afraid you will sing—or I will make you sing.” He belched and his friends laughed again. “Minstrel.”

For a moment it seemed as if it would be easier simply to do it—to mop and mow a little for the benefit of these drunken arsewipes, to play the part and sing a sad song of love and let them mock him. He knew enough of Crowel to know the man had beaten at least one servant to death and crippled another, just in the time he had been living in the Tollys’ wing of the residence—surely it was better simply to give the man what he wanted.

But why should I think they will stop at mockery?

“My lord’s command,” he said aloud, and bent his knee in a bow. “I will be pleased to sing for you...another day.”

Tinwright turned and ran for the residence garden. He was out into the cold rain before Crowel and the others realized what had happened.

This was the part of the plan I didn’t think about as carefully as I might, Tinwright admitted to himself as he huddled soaking wet in the lee of a tall hedge. The wind was chill and sharp as a razor—he thought he could feel his skin beginning to turn to ice. Still, he was not ready to go back inside. He was fairly certain that Graylock hadn’t recognized him, so all he had to do was stay away from them just for tonight. He considered sneaking back to the room he shared with Puzzle, but if he didn’t go back through main halls of the residence he would have a long walk back in the biting, bitter wind.

Better just to wait until they drink themselves to sleep.

In any case, he was feeling more than a little sorry for himself when he realized he had not heard voices or seen movement in the garden for some time.

If they’re not looking for me out here, at least I could find somewhere a little more warm and dry to hide, he thought. He pulled the minstrel’s floppy cap down over his ears again—he had already nearly lost it to the wind several times—and wrapped the thin cape tight around his shoulders, wishing he had picked a more sensible disguise.

I could have been a monk with a hood—or a Vuttish reaver with a fur-lined helmet! But no, I wished to show my legs to the ladies in a minstrel’s hose. Fool.

He found one of the covered arbors at last; it was only when he had thrown himself down on the bench with a loud grunt of despair that he realized someone else was already sitting there.

“Oh! Your pardon, Lady...”

The woman in the dark dress looked up. Her eyes were red —she had been crying. An ivory-colored mask sat on her lap like a temple offering bowl. Tinwright’s heart jumped, and for a moment he could not speak. He leaped to his feet, bowed, then remembered to take off his mask.

“Master Tinwright.” She turned away and lifted her kerchief, drying her tears in a slow, deliberate fashion. Her voice was hard. “You find me at a disadvantage. Have you followed me, sir?”

“No, Lady Elan, I swear. I was only...”

“Wandering in the garden? Enjoying the weather?”

He laughed ruefully. “Yes, as you can see I have quite immersed myself in it. No, I was...well, I must be frank. The Baron of Graylock and some of his friends had taken it into their heads that I should entertain them, and it wasn’t clear how much I should have to suffer for my art.” He shrugged. “I decided that I would entertain them with a game of hide and seek instead.”

“Durstin Crowel?” Her voice grew harder still. “Ah, yes, dear Lord Crowel. Do you know, when I first came here, he asked Hendon if he could have me. ‘I’ll break her for you, Tolly,’ he said—as if I were a horse.”

“You mean he wanted to marry you?”

For the first time she turned to look at him, her face a mask of bitter amusement. “Marry me? Black heart of Kernios, no, he wanted to bed me only.” Her face twisted into something else, something truly disturbing. “He did not know that Hendon had other plans for me. But yes, I know Baron Durstin.” She composed herself, even tried to smile. “Very well, Master Tinwright, you are forgiven for your intrusion. And in fact, you may keep the arbor for yourself and I’ll tell no one where you are. I must go back inside now. Doubtless my lord and master is looking for me.”

She had risen, the mask halfway to her face, when Tinwright at last found the words.

“What is he to you?”

“Who?” She sounded startled. “Do you mean Hendon Tolly? I should think that was obvious, Master Tinwright. He owns me.”

“You are not his wife but his sister-in-law. Will he marry you?”

“Why should he? Why should he pay for a cow whose milk is already his?”

It sickened him to hear her speak so. He took a breath, tried to find calm words. “Does he at least treat you well, my lady?”

She laughed, a cracked, unpleasant sound, and put the white mask to her face so that she seemed a corpse or a ghost. “Oh, he is most attentive.” Her shoulders slumped and she turned away again. “Truly, I must go.”

Tinwright grabbed at the sleeve of her velvet gown. She tried to pull away and something tore. For a moment they both stood, half in, half out of the rain.

“I would kill him for causing you unhappiness,” he said, and realized in that moment it was true. “I would.”

She lowered the mask in surprise. “Gods help us, do not say such things! Do not even go near him. do not know. You cannot guess what evil is in him.”

Tinwright still held her sleeve. “I...would not treat you so, Lady Elan. If you were mine, that is. I would love you. As it is, I think of you day and night.”

She stared at him. Tears welled in her eyes again. “Ah, but you are a boy, Master Tinwright.”

“I am grown!”

“In years. But your heart is still innocent. I am filthy and I would begrime you, too. I would stain you as I myself am stained, corrupted...”

“No. Please, do not say such things!”

“I must go.” She gently pulled free of his grip. “You are kind —you cannot know how kind—to say such things to me. But you must not think of me. I could not bear to have another’s soul on my conscience.”

Before she could turn away again he stepped forward and took her shoulders, felt her trembling. Could it be she had some feelings for him? She looked so startled at his touch, so frightened, as if she expected to be hit, that he did not kiss her mouth, although he wished to at this moment beyond any dream of riches or fame he had ever coveted. Instead he let his hands slide down her arms. As if his fingers stole her vitality where they passed, she let the mask drop clattering to the walkway. He took both her hands in his, lifted them to his lips, and kissed her cold fingers.

“I love you, Lady Elan. I cannot bear to see you, and to know you are in pain.”

Her cheeks were wet, her eyes bright and frightened. “Oh, Master Tinwright, it cannot be.”

“Matthias. My name is Matthias.”

She looked at him for a long moment, then pulled his hands up to her mouth and kissed them in turn. “Would you really help me? Truly?

He was soaking with rain, but he could feel her tears on his hands like streaks of hot lead. “I would do anything—I swear by all the gods. Ask me.”

She turned to look out into the darkness. When she turned back her face was strange. “Then bring me poison. Something that will cause a quick death.”

For a moment Matt Tinwright could not breathe. “ would kill Tolly?”

She let go of his hands and wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. “Are you mad? With my sister married to his brother Caradon? The Tollys would destroy her. They would burn my parents’ house to the ground and murder them both. Not to mention that Southmarch Castle would be left in the hands of Crowel and Havemore and others almost as blackhearted as Hendon, but not as clever. The March Kingdoms would be drowned in blood in half a year.” She took a breath. “No. I want the poison for myself.”

She pulled away from him again, bent and picked up her mask. When she stood, she was again a phantom. “If you love me, you will bring me that release. It is the only gift I can ever take from you, sweet Matthias.”

And then she was gone into the rain.

21. The Deathwatch Chamber

Brave Nushash was out riding and saw Suya the Dawnflower, the beautiful daughter of Argal, and instantly knew she must be his. He stopped beside her and held out his hand, and at once she too fell in love with him. Thus it is when the heart speaks louder than the head—even gods must listen. She reached up to him and let the fire god draw her up into the saddle. Together they rode away.

—from The Revelations of Nushash, Book One

Vansen lay on his face, still trembling, unable to find the strings to make his limbs lift him again and uncertain that he wanted to. The terrible voice that had blasted through his head like a crack of thunder was still echoing, although whether that was inside or outside his skull, or both, he could not have said.


Vansen whimpered despite himself. He felt as though an ocean wave had picked him up and dashed him onto the rocks. He clung to the floor and wondered if he could hit his head hard enough on the stone flags to kill himself and end this throbbing, agonizing clamor.

When the voice rolled over and through him again, the words and the mocking laugh were quieter—painful but not crippling. “Well, then, I will speak more softly, for the comfort of my guests. Sometimes I forget what the voice of a god can do...”

“Half a god,” said a voice Vansen had never heard before, but which seemed somehow weirdly familiar. It was vastly less intrusive than the one-eyed monster’s, but it sounded inside Ferras Vansen’s head in the same way. “Half a god, half a monster.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Why do you take us from our lawful business, Old One?”

“To help me inmy lawful business,” the rumbling voice said. “But what brings one of the Encauled so close to my adopted kingdom? What is this lawful business of which you speak?”

“We are riding home to the House of the People, but were driven out of our way. Why should you interfere?”

Now that Jack Chain’s voice no longer rattled his bones with each utterance, Vansen slowly began to lift himself from the ground. He ached as if he had been beaten, but if he was going to die he would do his best to meet that death standing, as a soldier of Southmarch. The dusty stone beneath him was splotched with red; he lifted his hands to his face and realized his nose was streaming blood.

“Interfere? You trespass on my land, little hobgoblin, and then claim I have interfered with you?” The monstrous, one-eyed creature lolled on his statue-throne, his splayed legs longer than Vansen was tall, the handsome, ruined head as big as a temple bell. Jikuyin was smiling down at a small figure standing before him—Gyir the Storm Lantern.

“I am on the king’s business,” said Gyir’s voice.

By the Three, Vansen thought, I can understand him! He was as astonished by this as everything else that had happened to them. I can hear him in my head now, just as the prince can!

He turned to tell Barrick, but was horrified to see the boy lying on his side with blood running from his nose and ears. Vansen threw himself down beside him and was only slightly relieved to feel the rise and fall of Barrick’s chest.

“He is hurt!” Vansen shouted. “Help him, you god or whatever you are—it was your great barking voice that did this to him!”

Jikuyin laughed long and hard; the sound rolled and crashed in Vansen’s skull like untethered barrels slamming in the hold of a storm-tossed ship. “Help him! I like you, little mortal—you are very amusing! But like the fly on the horse’s back who tells his host which way to go, you have a flawed notion of your own importance.” He turned his single eye on Gyir. “As for you, slave of the Fireflower, I do not know how one of the Encauled could let himself be taken unawares—and by Longskulls, no less...!” The godthing chortled, and several of the other prisoners in the great room laughed, too, if not with the same heartiness as their master. “But it signifies nothing, in any case. You will be part of my great work.” Jikuyin grinned, showing the true horror of his ruined mouth and shattered teeth. He stroked the chains across his chest, making the severed heads sway. “And even if you cannot help me in any profound way, you will at least, as I promised, prove ornamental.”

The giant stood then for the first time, and even though Ferras Vansen had thought himself full to sickening with strange miracles, it was a horrible, astonishing sight: Jikuyin was so tall that his great head seemed to rise into the heights of the chamber like the pockfaced mooon, beyond the reach of the torches and lanterns, until much of it had passed into shadow and only the lower, broken half could be seen.

“Take them away,” he rumbled. A host of shapes scurried forward from the dark edges of the massive room—the guard-Followers, man-sized and heavier than the Longskulls, with stubs of sharp bone poking through their matted pelts and small piggy eyes glinting like coals. “Give them to the gray one and tell him to keep them safe until I need them.”

Gyir stood firm as the red-eyed things began to surround him, and clearly would have fought, but one of the apelike creatures had already stolen up behind him unseen. It hit Gyir in the back of the head with its massive fist and the Storm Lantern was pulled down and dragged away.

Vansen was too weak to resist. All he could do was try to keep a hand on Barrick’s unmoving form as they were carried out of Jikuyin’s throne room by the bristly, foulsmelling creatures. As they were roughly hurried down what seemed an endless succession of lightless tunnels he struggled against his heavy shackles, doing his best to cling to the prince so that they would not be separated, as a mother who has fallen into a river with her child will still keep a hand clenched on the infant’s garment even after death has stolen away her breath.

Even in the center of his own great house, the fortress that had been given to his family from the gods’ own hands, the blind king Ynnir dina’at sen-Qin, Guardian of the Fireflower, Lord of Winds and Thought, could not simply walk to the Deathwatch Chamber. First the Guard of Elementals must be supplicated, allowed to perform their warlike rites in his honor, and in honor of the one they were protecting—the Salute of the Bone Knife, the Song of the Owl’s Eye (blessedly shorter in these latter days, thanks to an edict by Ynnir’s own grandfather: once the chant would have lasted an entire day), and the Arrow Count. When all these duties were finished and the Guard-Commander of the Elementals had removed his helmet in salute—even without sight, Ynnir always found that part difficult—the king moved on.

The Celebrants of Mother Night did not perform official duties, but they had been allowed to make their camp of suffering outside the Deathwatch Chamber. Merely to move among them, to hear their moaning and weeping and feel the naked misery of their grief, was like walking through biting winds and needle-sharp sleet. Pale Daughter herself, fleeing her lover’s house with an infant godling in her belly, could have felt nothing more chillingly painful.

It was a relief, after a time that felt like days, to pass out of the chambers where the Celebrants shrieked and tore at themselves and into the silence of the final antechamber, to face Zsan-san-sis, the ancient chieftain of the Children of the Emerald Fire. Zsan-san-sis had returned from the underground pools in which he had spent more and more time as he aged; it was a measure of the crisis that he should appoint himself the final guardian of the Deathwatch Chamber when it was only one of his young grandnephews who stood watch outside the Hall of Mirrors itself.

“Moonlight and Sunlight,” said the king.

“And thus roll the days of the Great Defeat unto Time’s sleep,” said the other, completing the ceremonial greeting. “I bid Your Majesty welcome.” His tone seemed even more curt than usual, the glow from inside his ceremonial robe dim and noncommittal, so that his mask was almost invisible in the shadowed hood. The king had always had trouble reading the moods of Zsan-san-sis, as if his own sightlessness and the Emerald Fire chieftain’s silver mask were impediments as real to him as they would be to a mortal. The Children had long favored the queen’s cause, although the old chieftain had been the most conciliatory of his clan. In days past Ynnir had often wondered what would happen when Zsan-san-sis eventually sank to the bottom of his pool and did not surface again, a day when someone less willing to compromise might rise to lead the Emerald Fire Children. Now it no longer seemed to matter. “How is she today?”

“I have not gone in to her, Majesty. I feel her, but barely—a breath faint as a whisper from Silent Hill.” His thoughts and words both—for they came to the king as a single thing— were clouded with regret and resignation. “Even were we to triumph, Majesty, she could never travel now. She would die before we left our own lands.”

Ynnir brought his open hand to his chest, then spread his fingers, a gesture called Significance Incomplete. “We can only wait and be patient, old one, hard as that is. Many threads still remain unbroken.”

“I would not have spent my last seasons this way,” said Zsan-san-sis. “Holding together what is broken, knowing that my daughter’s daughter’s daughters will bear their young in pools without light.”

Ynnir shook his head. “We all do what we can. You have done more than most. This defeat was authored when Time began—all we do not know is the hour of its coming.” “Who could not say with certainty that it is upon us?”

“I could not.” Ynnir said it gently, letting it pass to the ancient guardian with an undertone of spring, of hope, of renewal even after death. “Neither should you. Do as you have always done—do as your broodsire raised you. We will face it bravely, and who knows? We may yet be surprised.”

Zsan-san-sis’ glow guttered for a moment, then burned more strongly. “You are more king than your father was, or his father before him,” he said.

“I am my father, and his father before him,” said the blind king. “But I thank you.”

He did not clasp the old chieftain’s hand—it would be unwise even for the king to touch one of the Children of the Emerald Fire—but he nodded his head so slowly it might almost have been a bow. He left the robed guardian in a posture of surprise as he walked into the Deathwatch Chamber.

The beetles on the walls shifted minutely as he entered and the movement of their iridescent wingcases sent a ripple of changing colors across the entire chamber. They settled again; the flickers of blue and pale green were replaced by an earthier tone that better reflected the gray and peach of the cloud-wreathed sunset outside the open window. Blind for centuries, Ynnir could smell the sea as powerfully as a drowning man could taste it, and he hoped that his sisterwife could smell it too, that it gave her a little relief in the growing dark.

He stood over the bed and looked at her, so wan, so still. It had been a full turning of the seasons since she could even bear to be sat up in Hall of Mirrors like some obscene, floppy icon. He was almost grateful that those humiliating days had passed, that she had slipped down into herself so far that she could not even be moved.

Even as he stared in silent contemplation he realized he saw no traces of life at all. Alarmed, he looked to her lips, the pink now paler than ever, almost white, and felt a moment of real fear. Always before, even on the worst days, she had greeted him before he spoke. So still...!

My queen, he called to her, shaping each word so clearly that he could imagine it as a stone dropped into a still pond, the ripples sending everything that swam beneath them scattering, until the stone itself struck into the softness at the bottom. Can you hear me? My twin?

Despite all that had gone between them, the fair and the foul, his heart leaped in his breast when he at last heard her words, as quiet as if they did indeed issue from beneath the mud at the bottom of a deep, deep pond.


I am here, at your bedside. How are you today?

Weaker. I...I can barely hear you. I sent my words to Yasammez. She did not think the name, but rather a flutter of ideas—Grandmother’s Fierce Beautiful Sister of the Bloodletting Thorns and the Smoking Eye. I should not have done it, she told him, almost an apology. I did not have the...strength...but I was... Afraid she would use up what little of her music remained, he hastened to finish her thought. You were wondering if she had succeeded. And she told you she had.

Succeeded at your plan. Fulfilled the Pact. Not at what I wished... Which would have availed you nothing. Trust me, my sister, my wife. Many things have passed between us over all these years, but never lies. And it could yet be my own compromised plan, like the despised, bent tree in the corner of the orchard, that will bear fruit.

What would it matter? There is nothing that can be done now. All that we love will perish. Her thoughts were so full of blackness he could almost feel himself pulled down by them, like a man so fixed on the swirling clouds below his mountain path that he leans toward them and falls free... No. He pulled himself back, disentangling himself from her. Hope is the only strength left to us and I will not give it up.

What hope? For me? I...doubt it. And even if so, then what of you...? He sensed her amusement, that old, bitter mirth that sometimes over the long centuries had felt to him like a slow poison. What of you, Ynnirit-so?

I ask for nothing I cannot bear. And Yasammez has given the glass to her dearest, closest servitor, Gyir.

The Encauled One? But he is so young in years...!

He will bring it to us. He will stop for nothing—he knows its importance. Do not despair, my queen. Do not go down into the darkness yet. Things may change.

Things always change, she told him, that is the nature of things... but she was fading now, weary and in need of that deeper blackness that was her sleep, and which might last days. A last bubble of dark amusement drifted up to him.

Things always change, but never for the better. Are we not the People, and is that not the substance of all our story?

Then her thoughts were gone and he stood alone with her silent, coolly slumbering shell. The beetles shifted on the walls again, a quiet unfurling and resettling of wings that rippled sunset-colored lightning all around the chamber until they too settled down to sleep once more.

They were back.

The dark men, the faceless men, once more pursued him through burning halls, sliding in and out of the rippling shadows as though they were nothing but shadows themselves. Was it a nightmare? Another fever dream? Why couldn’t he wake up?

Where am I? The tapestries curled and smoked. Southmarch. He knew the look of its corridors as completely as he knew the sound and feel of his own blood rushing through his veins. So had all the rest been a dream? Those endless hours in the dripping forest behind the Shadowline? Gyir and Vansen, and that bellowing, oneeyed giant—had they all been fever-fancy?

He ran, gasping and clumsy, and the faceless men in black oozed behind him like something that had been melted and poured, losing bodily form as they flowed around corners and snaked along the walls in sideways drips and smears only to regain shape once more, a dozen shapes, and spring out after him, heads following his every movement, fingers spreading and reaching. But even as he ran for his life, even as the tapestries flamed and now even the roofbeams began to smolder, he felt his thoughts float free, light and insubstantial as the flakes of ash swirling around him on hot winds.

Who am I? What am I?

He was coming apart, fragmenting like a kori-doll on an Eril’s Night bonfire, his limbs flailing but useless, his head a thing of straw, dry tinder, full of sparks.

Who am I? What am I?

Something to hold—he needed something cool as a stone, thick and hard as bone, something real to keep himself from falling into flaming pieces. He ran and it was as though he grew smaller with every step. He was losing himself, all that made him up charring, disappearing. The rush and thump of the faceless men’s pursuit echoed in his head as if he were listening to his own blood coursing through the gutters of his body, his own filthy, corrupted blood.

I’m like Father—worse. It burns in me—it burns me up!

And it hurt like the most dreadful thing he could imagine, like needles under his skin, like white-hot metal in his marrow, and it shifted with every movement, driving bolts of pain from joint to joint, rushing up into his head like fire exploding from a cannon’s barrel. He wanted only to get away from it, but how? How could you run away from your own blood?

Briony. If Southmarch itself was no longer his home, if its passageways were full of fire and angry shadows and the galleries hung with leering, alien faces, his sister was something different. She would help him. She would hold him, remember him, know him. She would tell him his name —he missed it so much!—and put her cool hand on his head, and then he would sleep. If only he could find Briony the faceless men would not find him—they would give up and scuttle, slide, ooze back into the shadows, at least for a while. Briony. His twin. Where was she?

“Briony!” he shouted, then he screamed it: “Briony! Help me!”

Stumbling then, and falling; a bolt of pain shooting through him as he struck his injured arm—how could this be a dream when it felt so real? He scrabbled to lift himself from the hot stone, arm aching worse than even the burning of the skin on his hands. He could not stop, could not rest, not until he found his sister. If he stopped he would die, he knew that beyond doubt. The shadow-men would eat him from within.

He stood, even in this dream world forced to cradle his throbbing, aching arm, that thing he carried through his life like a sickly child, loving it and hating it. He looked around. A vast, empty room stretched away on all sides, dark but for a few slanting columns of light falling down from the high windows—the Portrait Hall, and it was empty but for him, he could feel it. The faceless men had not caught him yet, but he could smell smoke and sense the growing murmur of their pursuit. He could not stop here.

A picture hung before him, one he had seen before but seldom paid much attention to—some ancient queen whose name he could not remember. Briony would know. She always knew things like that, his beloved show-off sister. But there was something about the woman’s eyes, her cloud of hair, that caught his attention... The sound of his pursuers rose until it seemed they were just beyond the Portrait Hall door, but he stood transfixed, because it was not the face of some ancient Eddon pictured there, some long-dead queen of Southmarch, but his own, his features haggard with fear and terror.

A mirror, he thought. It’s been a mirror all this time. How often had he passed through this place and its ranks of frowning dead without realizing that here, in the center of the hall, hung a mirror?

Or is it a portrait...of me...? He stared into the hunted, haunted eyes of the sweating red-haired boy. The boy gazed back. Then the mirror began to dim as if clouds were forming on its surface, as if even from this distance he fogged it with his own hot, fretful breath.

The clouds dimmed and then dissolved. Now it was Briony who looked back at him. She wore a strange hooded white dress he had never seen before, something a Zorian sister would likelier wear than would a princess, but he knew her face better than his own—much better. She was unhappy, quietly but deeply, a look he had never seen so much as he had since first they had word their father had been betrayed and made a prisoner.

“Briony!” he shouted now, “I’m here!”

He could not reach her, and he knew that she was not hearing his words, but he thought she could at least feel him. It was glory to see her, cruelty to have so little of her. Even so, just the sight of her utterly familiar and perfect Briony-face reminded him of who he was: Barrick. He was Barrick Eddon, whatever might have happened to him, wherever he might be. Even if he had been dreaming this— even if he was dying and it had all been some strange illusion the gods had set for him on the doorstep of the next world—he had remembered who he was.

“Briony,” he said, but more quietly now as the clouds covered the face in the mirror. For a moment, just before it disappeared, he thought he saw a different face, a stranger’s face, astoundingly, a girl whose black hair was streaked with a red like his own. He could not understand what was happening—to go from that most familiar of all faces to one he had never seen before...!

“Why are you in my dreams?” she said in surprise, and her words pattered in his head like cooling rain. Then the black haired girl was gone too, and so was almost everything else—the faceless men gone, the Portrait Hall gone, the flames of the terrible conflagration grown as transparent as wet parchment and the castle itself going, going... As the terror lost its grip a little he was startled, frightened, confused, and even excited by the memory of that new face —seeing it had felt like cold water in a parched mouth—but he let it go for the moment so he could cling instead to what was more important: Briony had touched him, somehow, across all the cold world and more, and that great goodness had kept him in the world during a moment when he would otherwise have chosen to leave. He was still footless and confused by the dream he was in, but he understood that he had chosen to remain for now on the near side of Immon’s fateful gate, however wretched and painful living might be.

Like a man fighting upward from the bottom of deep water, Barrick Eddon began to thrash his despairing way back toward the light.

Vansen had just finished making a space for the prince and wrapping him in his own tattered, stained wool guardsman’s cloak when Barrick’s feverish murmuring quieted and the boy’s body, which had been as tight as a bowstring, suddenly went limp. Even as horror flooded through Vansen... I lost the prince! I let him die!

...The boy’s eyes snapped open. For a moment they rolled wildly, fixing on nothing, as if he tried to stare right through the stone of the long, low cavern cell in search of freedom. Then the young prince narrowed his gaze on Ferras Vansen. The soldier thought that the boy was going to say something to him—thank him, perhaps, for carrying him all this way, or curse him for the same reason, or perhaps just ask what day it was. Instead, the prince’s eyes abruptly welled with tears.

Sobbing, snuffling, Barrick thrashed his way out of both the cloak and Vansen’s restraining grasp, then crawled across the floor to an empty spot near the adjoining wall where he huddled with his face in his hands, weeping unrestrainedly. Several of the other prisoners turned to watch him, the expressions on their inhuman faces varying from mild interest to uncomprehending blankness. Vansen clambered to his feet to follow the prince.

I suspect he will not thank you. Gyir’s voice in his head was still a novelty, and not an entirely pleasant one—like a stranger making himself at home in your house without permission. Let the boy grieve.

“Grieve for what? We’re alive. There’s still hope.” Vansen spoke aloud—he didn’t know the trick of talking without words and did not care to learn. Already this place, this shadowland, was doing its best to take away all that made him who he was. He was not going to help speed the process.

Grieve for all he has realized he is losing. The same thing to which you also cling so tightly—his old idea of who he was.

“What do you...? Get out of my head, fairy!”

I do not dig into your thoughts, sunlander. Vansen could feel the irritation—no, it was something deeper—in Gyir’s words. The featureless face showed no more emotion at this moment than the prow of a boat, but the words came with pulses of anger, as though each thought hummed like an apple wasp. Even as diminished as I am, I cannot help knowing a little of your strongest feelings, Gyir said, speaking ideas that Vansen somehow understood as words. Any more than if you were sick or frightened someone could avoid smelling the stink in your sweat. Another wave of contempt came from him. And in truth I can do that as well, much to my sorrow. You sunlanders all smell like corruption and death.

Struck by curiosity, Vansen ignored the insult. “How is it I can understand you at all? I couldn’t before.”

I did not know you could until just now. In other, less dangerous circumstances, it would be quite an interesting puzzle to consider.

Vansen watched Prince Barrick as the boy’s sobbing grew weaker. A few of the smaller prisoners that had been driven off by Barrick’s sudden move had edged back into the area surrounding him, but they seemed to be regarding him with more fear than interest. “Will any harm come to him there?”

Gyir briefly turned his yellow eyes toward Barrick. I think not. Most of those in this room are afraid of me. They are right to be, even crippled as I am.

Vansen saw that the fairy spoke the truth: even in this large underground prison chamber, stuffed to overcrowding with scores of creatures of at least a dozen different types and sizes, some of which appeared quite fierce, the three of them were being given a great deal of room to themselves. “But they’re not afraid of you enough to let you go.”

The nearly faceless creature watched Vansen for a long moment, as though considering his existence for the first time. You too can speak to me without speaking aloud, Ferras Vansen. It was not his own name Vansen sensed in Gyir’s wordless speech so much as his face. It was unutterably strange to see himself both so clearly and so strangely, even to see his face suddenly pull into a scowl of frightened disgust—as if someone had put a looking glass inside his thoughts.

“Stop! I want nothing to do with magic.”

You would refuse to stop talking aloud, even if it means that you are endangering the boy—your prince? We will never find a way to escape if half our conversation is spoken out loud. There are still folk in this land who understand the sunlander tongue, as the raven did. I do not doubt Jikuyin has a few among his slaves.

Ferras Vansen thought for a long time, then nodded, although the very idea of sharing the substance of himself with the faceless, inhuman creature made him feel queasy and terrified. “Well, then. Show me.”

It is simple, man of the hills. All you need to do is think that you are speaking the words—hear yourself speaking but keep the sounds locked inside you. I will guide you.

Strangely, the fairy was right—it was simple. Once he found the proper trick of imagining himself talking in just the right way, he discovered that Gyir could hear what he said as clearly as if he had formed it with air and tongue and lips. Had it been the power of the godling Jikuyin’s voice that had unlocked this skill? But then why had Barrick Eddon been able to do it from the first?

Why can I suddenly understand you? he asked the fairy. And what can we do to escape this place?

If I knew already how we might free ourselves, Gyir said with an undercurrent of something that felt a little like scorn, or perhaps was the bitter tang of self-dislike, I would not be conversing about the boy’s mood and how you gained the gift of true speech, but beginning to make a plan. Now Vansen could feel the fairy’s anger clearly, as a man in water would feel another man thrashing helplessly close by.

I dislike being a prisoner, too—perhaps more than you do. We will talk later about escape.

Then, with a considered effort that Vansen could feel like a gust of cooling air, Gyir swept away his own fury. For now, we must try to understand better why we are being held, he said, and it was as if the moment of rage had never happened. That is our first step—it will set the direction for all others. The fairy paused for a long time then, and Vansen felt the silence in a way he never had before. As for what has made you able to understand me, Gyir said at last, I said it was interesting because it seems to hint at an answer to a question my people have long debated—at least those in the Deep Libraries to whom such tasks are given. This came as a blur of ideas Vansen could only barely riddle out, and he was certain he was missing most of what the fairy intended. There is little we can do at this moment except... Interesting? I don’t understand you? He looked to Barrick again, who had recovered himself a little. The boy’s eyes were red and his cheeks still wet, but he seemed to be listening to Vansen’s conversation with Gyir. I don’t understand, he repeated.

Ah, but you do, and that is the crux. Gyir, who had been crouching, finally sat down and pushed his back against the sooty, rough-carved stone wall. Look around you. Do you see these creatures? Drows and bokkles and all manner of things even less savory? These are the Common Ones —all creatures of our lands, some even related to my folk, but they are not the trueblood People. Vansen could feel the emphasis with which Gyir spoke the word, as if it were a thing of power, something to conjure with. Most especially, they are not High Ones. Among the Twilight folk, only those called the High Ones have the gift of speaking with their hearts, as we say it—the True Speech, which cannot lie, the speech we are using now.

So why should I be able to do it? Vansen asked. He was fearful of what the answer might be—some taint in his family, some witchy blood, another mark of shame laid on his quiet, hard-working, abashed people.

Some say that all the sunlanders once could speak with us this way—that they, or at least some of them, were of the same great branch as the People, that they cameof the People and not just after them. Perhaps Jikuyin merely thrust the gift of True Speech upon you, somehow —his kind, the Old Ones, are grandchildren of the Formless and have many powers that are unknown. But also it may simply be that when he spoke to you the power of his voice cleared the channels of your heart as a great flood may scour clean riverbeds long filled with silt. It is possible he only gave back to you that which is the birthright of your kind.

But...but Prince Barrick... Vansen turned and saw the boy staring back at him with something in his eyes that looked almost like hatred. Shaken, it took him a moment to remember what he had been saying and to form the words in his mind. Prince Barrick could speak to you already, and understand you, long before we met this thing you call Jikuyin. Vansen could not approach the complexity of images which Gyir used when he “spoke” their captor’s name, but he felt certain just his horrified memory of the ogre’s massive, ravaged face would be enough.

Prince Barrick is different, Gyir said abruptly, otherwise he would have been dead long ago and you would not have followed him here. That is all I may say.

“Don’t talk about me.” The boy wiped angrily at his eyes. “Don’t.”

Why can’t I hear him—Barrick—in my head? asked Vansen.

It could be in time you will, Gyir replied. Or it could be that both of you can only speak with me.

Vansen wanted to go to the prince, to bring him back to sit with them, but something in the boy’s expression kept him seated where he was. Why are we here in this mine or prison or whatever it is? Why aren’t we dead? And what is the monster who’s captured us? Does he have any weaknesses? You said he was one of the Old Ones, a god or a god’s bastard.

Gyir looked at him for a few moments before answering. As to why we are not dead, I cannot say, Ferras Vansen, but it is clear that Jikuyin wants slaves more than he wants corpses. The fairy looked as though he was almost asleep, red eyes only half open. What he wants them for, I do not know, but this place has an old, grim reputation. As to what he is, I told you—a grandchild of the Formless.

This means nothing to me. I have never heard of such a god.

You have, but among your people the true lore is almost lost. Even here, in our own land, the stories have become children’s tales. You remember the raven’s little tale of Crooked and his great-grandmother, Emptiness? There were bones of truth buried in it, but the flesh was corrupt. The truth at its core is that the Formless begat both Emptiness and Light, and those two in turn begat gods and monsters. The One in Chains is such a one—a small monster, not a god but a demigod. Still, he is a great power.

And that’s whose prisoner we are? asked Vansen. His head was beginning to hurt from all this think-talking. Why have I never heard of them—of any of them?

“You have,” said Barrick. He sounded as though he had a mouthful of something bitter. “You know them all, Captain— Sva, the Void, and Zo, her mate, the First Light. All the rattling nonsense the priests talked...and it’s all real.” He seemed on the verge of tears again. “All of it! The gods are real and they will destroy us all, for not believing. We can no longer pretend it isn’t true.”

They will not destroy us, said Gyir, and although your kind and mine may well destroy each other, it will not be the gods’ doing. But he did not sound as certain as he had before, and Vansen wondered suddenly if it was really true that the True Speech could not lie. They are all gone from the earth now, long gone. Only a few of their lesser children like this crippled demigod remain.

Vansen had to take a breath, pained by such sacrilege from an inhuman creature—the gods gone? I still do not understand you. Sva and Zo? I have heard of them, but what of Perin and the Trigon? What of the gods we know, at whose temples we worship?

They are all one family, said Gyir. One family and one blood. And long before your folk or mine had even thought to clothe ourselves, they were spilling that blood.

“It’s pointless,” protested Barrick, putting his hands over his ears as though he could block out the soundless words that way. “This talking—any of this! It changes nothing.” His face reddened and seemed to crumple. The boy was crying again, rocking in place. “I thought it was all priest’s lies. Instead, I am being p-p-punished...punished for my miserable, flyblown, shit-stained pride!”

Vansen clambered to his feet and hurried to the prince’s side. “Your Highness, it is not your fault...”

“Leave me alone!” the boy shrieked. “Do not speak to me of things you know nothing about! What could you know of a curse like mine?” He threw himself down on his stomach and banged his forehead against the stone, like a man in a terrible hurry to pray.

“Prince Barrick...! Barrick, get up...” Vansen put his arms around the boy’s chest and tried to lift him, but the prince fought his way loose, and as he did so struck Vansen hard in the face.

Barrick did not even seem to notice. “No! Don’t you touch me!” he groaned. “I am filthy! On fire!” A froth of spittle hung at the corners of the boy’s mouth and on his lower lip. “The gods have chosen me for this suffering, this curse...!”

Vansen hesitated only a moment, then drew back and slapped the prince full in the face. Barrick stumbled and fell to his knees, shocked into silence. His hand slowly came up to his cheek. He drew it away and stared at it as though expecting to see blood, although Vansen had hit him only with his open hand. “ struck me!”

“I apologize, Your Highness,” Vansen said, “but you must calm yourself, for your own sake if nothing else. We cannot afford to bring down the guards, or start a fight with other prisoners. You may punish me for my crime as you wish if we make it home to Southmarch again. You may even have me put to death for it, if it pleases you...”

“Death?” said Barrick, and in an instant the flailing child was gone, his place taken by someone who looked like him but was eerily self-possessed. Barrick’s anger, hot a moment before, had suddenly turned icy. “You’re a fool if you think you’re going to get off that easily. If the impossible occurs and we return to Southmarch alive, I’m going to tell my sister how you feel about her and then order you to join her bodyguard, so you have to look at her every day and know that she is looking back at you with disgust, that she and all the other ladies of the court are marveling together at the sight of the most arrogantly foolish and pitiful idiot who ever lived.”

The prince turned away from him. Gyir seemed lost in his own secret thoughts. Ferras Vansen had no choice but to sit silently, holding his stomach as though he had been kicked.

22. A Meeting of the Guild

As a marriage gift, Silvergleam gave to Pale Daughter a box of wood, carved with the shapes of birds, and in it she put all that she could remember of her family and old home. When she opened the box, its music soothed her heart. But her father Thunder could not make music to cool the burning of his own anger. He called out to his brothers that he was afflicted, dying, that his heart was a smoldering stone in his chest. They came to him and he told them of the theft of his daughter, his dove.

—from One Hundred Considerations, out of the Qar’s Book of Regret

“I don’t like it,” Opal said. “No good can come of telling everyone.”

“I’m afraid this once I can’t agree with you.” Chert looked around the front room. Evidence of the distractions of the last days were everywhere—tools uncleaned, dust on the tabletop, unwashed bowls and cups. “I am no hero, old girl. I’ve come to the limit of what I can do.”

“No hero—is that what you say? You certainly have been acting like you thought you were one.”

“Not by choice. In all seriousness, my love, you must know that.”

She sniffed. “I’ll put the kettle on. Did you know the flue is blocked? We’ll be lucky if the smoke doesn’t kill us.”

Chert sighed and sank deeper in his chair. “I’ll see to the flue later. One thing at a time.”

He had been so tired that when the ringing began he did not at first realize what it was. Half in dream, he imagined it as the bells of the guildhall, that the great building was floating away on some underground river, being sucked down into the darkness below Funderling Town... “Is that our bell?” Opal shouted. “I’m making tea!” “Sorry, sorry!” Chert climbed onto his feet, trying to ignore the protesting twinges from his knees and ankles. No, he was definitely not a hero.

I should be settled back to carve soapstone and watch grandchildren play. But we never had children. He thought of Flint, strange Flint. Until now, I suppose.

Cinnabar’s bulky form filled the doorway. “Ho, Master Blue Quartz. I’ve come on my way back from quarry, as I promised.”

“Come in, Magister. It is kind of you.”

Opal was already waiting by the best chair with a cup of blueroot tea. “I am mortified to have visitors with the house in this state—especially you, Magister. You do us an honor.”

Cinnabar waved his hand. “Vistiting the most famous citizen of Funderling Town? Seems to me I’m the one being honored with an audience.” He took a small sip of the tea to test it, then blew on it.

“Famous...?” Chert frowned. Cinnabar had a rough and ready sense of humor, but the way he’d said it didn’t sound like a joke.

“First you find the boy himself, then when he runs away you bring him back with one of the Metamorphic Brothers holding the litter? Big folk visitors in and out? And I hear rumors even of the Rooftoppers, the little folk out of the old tales. Chert, if anyone in the town is not talking about you and Opal, they would have to be as ignorant as a blindshrew.”

“Oh. Oh, dear,” Opal said, although there was a strange undertone of something almost like pride in it. “Would you like some more tea, Magister?”

“No, I’ve still got supper waiting at home for me, Mistress Opal. It’s one thing to work late, but to come home to Quicksilver House without an appetite after my woman’s been in the kitchen all afternoon is just asking for trouble. Perhaps you could tell me what’s on your minds, if I’m not rushing you?”

Chert smiled. How different this fellow was from Chert’s own brother, who was also a Magister: Nodule Blue Quartz was not nearly so important as Cinnabar in Funderling Town, but you would never know it from the airs Nodule put on. But Cinnabar—you couldn’t fail to like a man who was so easy in himself, so uninterested in position or rank. Chert felt a little bad for what he was about to do.

“I’ll get to the point, then, Magister,” he said. “It’s about our visitor. I need your help.”

“Problems with the boy?” Cinnabar actually looked mildly concerned.

“Not the boy—or at least that’s not the visitor we mean.” He raised his voice. “You can come out now, Chaven!”

The physician had to bend at the waist to make his way through the doorway of the bedchamber, where he had been sitting with Flint. Even with his head bowed so as not to touch the ceiling, he loomed almost twice Cinnabar’s height.

“Good evening, Magister,” he said. “I think we have met.” “By the oldest Deeps.” Cinnabar was clearly amazed. “Chaven Makaros, isn’t it? You’re the physician—the one who’s supposed to be dead.”

“There are many who would like that to be true,” said Chaven with a rueful smile, “but so far they have not had their wish granted.”

Cinnabar turned to his hosts. “You surprise me again. But what is this to me?”

“To all of us, I’m beginning to think,” said Chert. “My bracing can’t take the weight of all these secrets any longer, Magister. I need your help.”

The head of the Quicksilver clan looked up at the physician, then back at Chert. “I’ve always thought you a good and honest man, Blue Quartz. Talk to me. I will listen. That much at least I can promise.”

When Ludis saw that his visitor had arrived, the Lord Protector of Hierosol gestured for his military commanders to leave. The black-cloaked officers rolled up their charts of the citadel’s defenses, bowed, and departed, but not without a few odd glances at the prisoner.

Ludis Drakava and his guest were not left entirely alone, of course: besides the Golden Enomote, half a pentecount of soldiers who never left the lord protector’s presence even when he slept, and who stood now at attention along the throne room walls, the lord protector also had his personal bodyguards, a pair of huge Kracian wrestlers who stood cross-armed and impassive on either side of the Green Chair. (The massive jade throne of Hierosol was reputed to have belonged to the great Hiliometes, the Worm-Slayer himself, and certainly was big enough to have seated a demigod. In recent centuries, more human-sized emperors had removed much of the throne’s lower foundation so they could sit with their feet close enough to the ground to spare their pride.) Ludis, a former mercenary himself, was broad enough in chest and shoulders to mount the Green Chair without looking like a child. He had once been lean and muscled as a heroic statue, but now even the light armor that he wore instead of the robes of nobility—perhaps to remind his subjects he had won the throne by force and would not give it up any other way—could not hide the thickness around his middle, nor could his spadelike beard completely obscure his softening jaw.

Ludis beckoned the prisoner forward as he seated himself on the uncushioned jade. “Ah, King Olin.” He had the rasping voice of a man who had been shouting orders in the chaos of battle all his grown life. “It is good to see you. We should not be strangers.”

“What should we be?” asked the prisoner, but without obvious rancor.

“Equals. Rulers thrown together by circumstance, but with an understanding of what ruling means.”

“You mean I should not despise you for holding me prisoner.”

“Holding you for ransom. A common enough practice.” Ludis clapped his hands and a servant appeared, dressed in the livery of House Drakava, a tunic decorated with a stylized picture of a red-eyed ram, a coat of arms that had not been hanging in the Herald’s Hall quite as many years as the other great family crests. You can make yourself emperor in one day, warned an old Hierosoline saying, but it takes five centuries to make yourself respectable. “Wine,” commanded Ludis. “And for you, Olin?”

He shrugged. “Wine. One thing at least; I know you will not poison me.”

Ludis laughed and pawed at his beard. “No, no indeed! A waste of a valuable prize, that would be!” He flicked his hand at the servant. “You heard him. Go.” He settled himself, pulling the furry mantle close around his shoulders. “It is cold, this sea wind. We plainsmen never get used to it. Are your rooms warm enough?”

“I am as comfortable as I could be any place with iron bars on the doors and windows.”

“You are always welcome at my table. There are no bars on the dining hall.”

“Just armed guards.” Olin smiled a little. “You will forgive me. I cannot seem to lose my reluctance to break bread with the man who is holding me prisoner while my kingdom is in peril.”

The servant returned. Ludis Drakava reached up and took a goblet from the tray. “Or would you like to choose first?”

“As I said.” Olin took the other goblet and sipped. “Xandian?”

“From Mihan. The last of the stock. I suppose they will make that foul, sweet Xixian stuff now.” Ludis drank his off in one swallow and wiped his mouth. “Perhaps you scorn my invitations because you are a king and I am only a usurper —a peasant with an army.” His voice remained pleasant, but something had changed. “Kings, if they must be ransomed, like to be ransomed by other kings.”

Olin stared at him for a long moment before replying. “Beggaring my people for ransom is bad enough, Drakava. But you want my daughter.”

“There are worse matches she could make. But I am told her whereabouts are...unknown at the present. You are running out of heirs, King Olin, although I also hear your newest wife has whelped successfully. Still, an infant prince, helpless in the hands of...what is their name...the Tolly family...?”

“If I did not have reasons already to wish to put my sword through you,” said Olin evenly, “you would have just given me several. And you will never have my daughter. May the gods forgive me, but it would be better if she truly is dead instead of your slave. If I had known then what I know about you now I would have hanged myself before allowing you even to suggest such a match.”

The lord protector’s eyebrow rose. “Ah? Really?” “I have heard of what happens to the women brought to your chambers—no, the girls. Young girls.”

Ludis Drakava laughed. “Have you? Perhaps as you curse me for a monster you will tell me what your own interest is in girl-children, Olin of Southmarch. I hear you have developed a...friendship with the daughter of Count Perivos.”

Olin, still standing, bent and put down his goblet on the floor, sloshing a little wine onto the marble tiles. “I think I would like to go back to my rooms now. To my prison.”

“My question strikes too close to home?”

“All the gods curse you, Drakava, Pelaya Akuanis is a child. She reminds me of my own daughter—not that you would understand such a thing. She has been kind to me. We talk occasionally in the garden, with guards and her maids present. Even your foul imagination cannot make that into anything unseemly.”

“Ah, perhaps, perhaps. But that does not explain the little Xixian girl.”

“What?” Olin looked startled, even took a step back. His foot tipped over the goblet and the dregs pooled on the floor.

“Surely you don’t think you can meet with a chambermaid, or laundry-maid, or whatever that little creature is, let alone my castle steward, without my knowing it. If such a thing happened I would have to poison all my spies like rats and start over.” He brayed a laugh. “I am not such a fool as you think me, Southmarch!”

“It was curiosity only.” Olin took a deep breath; when he spoke again his voice was even. “She resembled someone, or so I thought, and I asked to meet her. I was wrong. She is nothing.”

“Perhaps.” Ludis clapped for the servant again, who came in with an ewer of wine and refilled the lord protector’s cup. He saw the goblet on the floor and looked accusingly at Olin, but did not move to clean it up. “Tell the guards to bring in the envoy,” Ludis ordered the man, then turned back to his captive. “Perhaps all is as you say. Perhaps. In any case, I think you will find this interesting.”

The man who came in, accompanied by another halfpentecount of the lord protector’s Rams, was hugely fat, his thighs rubbing against each other beneath his sumptuous silk robes so that he swayed when he walked like an overpacked donkey. His head and eyebrows were shaved and he wore on his chest a gold medallion in the shape of a flaming eye. He paused when he reached the foot of the throne and looked at Olin with casual suspicion, like someone who had spent most of his life making quick decisions on court precedent and disliked seeing anyone he could not quickly put into an appropriate list in his head.

“Pay no attention to my...counselor,” Ludis Drakava told the fat man. “Read me your letter again.”

The envoy bowed his huge, shiny head, and held up a beribboned scroll of vellum, then began to recite its contents in the high tones of a child.

“From Sulepis Bishakh am-Xis III, Elect of Nushash, the Golden One, Master of the Great Tent and the Falcon Throne, Lord of All Places and Happenings, may He live forever, to Ludis Drakava, Lord Protector of Hierosol and the Kracian Territories.

“It has come to Our attention that you hold prisoner one Olin Eddon, king of the northern country called Southmarch. We, in our divine wisdom, would like to speak with this man and have him as Our guest. Should you send him to Us, or arrange for him to return with Favored Bazilis, Our messenger, We will reward you handsomely and also look kindly on you in the future. It could even be that, should Hierosol someday find itself part of Our living kingdom (as is the manifest wish of the great god Nushash) that you, Ludis Drakava, will receive a guarantee of safety and high position for yourself in Our glorious empire.

“Should you refuse to give him to Us, though, you will incur Our gravest displeasure.”

“And it is signed by His sacred hand, and stamped with the great Seal of the Son of the Sun,” the eunuch finished, letting the vellum roll closed with a flourish. “Do you have an answer for my immortal master, Lord Protector?”

“I will give you one by morning, never fear,” said Ludis. “You may go now.”

The huge man looked at him sternly, as at a child who seeks to shirk responsibility, but allowed himself to be led out again by the soldiers.

Soon the throne room was empty again of all save Olin and Ludis and the bodyguards. “So, will you give him what he wants?” Olin asked.

Ludis Drakava laughed hard again. His cheeks were red, his eyes only a little less so. He had been drinking for much of the afternoon, it seemed. “He is readying his fleet, the Autarch—that poisonous, eunuch-loving child. He will be coming soon. The only question is, why does he want you?”

The northern king shrugged. “How could I know? They say this Sulepis is even more of a madman than his father Parnad was.”

“Yes, but why you? In fact, how did it come to his attention that you are my...guest?”

“It’s hardly a secret.” Olin smiled in an ugly way. “You have made sure that all of Eion knows I am your prisoner.”

“Yes. But it is also interesting this should come so soon after you spoke with that Xixian girl. Could your innocent meeting have been an opportunity for you to...send a message?”

“Are you mad?” Olin took a step toward the Green Chair.

The two huge guards unfolded their arms and stared at him. He stopped, fists clenched. “Why would I want to put myself into such a madman’s hands? I have fought him and his father for years—I would be fighting them now, if you and cursed Hesper had not conspired to take me prisoner in Jellon.” He slapped his hands together in frustration. “Besides, I spoke to that girl only a few days ago—how could any message go back and forth to Xis so swiftly?”

The lord protector inclined his head. “All that you say seems reasonable.” He seemed satisfied merely to have angered Olin. “But that does not mean it is true. These are unreasonable times, as you should well know, with your own castle attacked by changelings and goblins.” He looked up, fixing Olin with his reddened eyes. “Let me tell you this— you belong to Ludis. I bought you, and I will keep you. If I sell you, I alone will profit. And if the Autarch of Xix somehow manages to knock down the citadel walls, I will make sure with my last breath that he does not get you. Not alive, anyway.” The master of Hierosol waved his hand. “You may go back to your chambers now to read your books and flirt with the chambermaids, Eddon.” He clapped his hands and the prisoner’s guards appeared from outside the throne room door. “Take him out.”

The minutely carved roof of the cavern that shielded Funderling Town was renowned throughout Eion. In better times people actually traveled up from distant countries like Perikal and the Devonisian islands just to see the fantastical forest of stone, the loving work of at least a dozen generations of Funderlings.

The ceiling of the House of the Stonecutters’ Guild was not so famous, and certainly nowhere near so large, but was in its own way just as stupefying a piece of art. In a natural concavity on the underside of Southmarch Castle’s foundation slab a combination of limestone, cloudy quartz, beams of ancient black ironwood and the Funderlings’ own matchless skills had been crafted into something the gods themselves might envy.

Chert had seen it many times, of course—his grandfather had been part of the team which had performed its last major repairs—but even so it never failed to impress him. Staring up at it from his lonely position at the ceremonial Outcrop, the ceiling seemed a window through quartz crystal and limestone clouds to some distant part of heaven, but those clouds were braced with great spars of ironwood far too thick and workmanlike to be merely ornamental. It was only when the viewer’s eyes adjusted to the darkness (which grew paradoxically greater as the empty space ascended) that he saw the robed and masked figure surrounded by smaller robed and veiled figures, all seated upside down at the apex, glaring down from the vault, and he realized that the view was not that of someone looking up, but looking down into the depths of the earth—a great tunnel leading downward into the J’ezh’kral Pit, domain of the Lord of the Hot, Wet Stone— Kernios, as the big folk called him.

But of course, the true cleverness of the room was beneath the viewer’s feet—something Chert had time to appreciate now as he waited for the noisy reaction to his last words to die down. The Magisters’ semicircle of benches and the four stone chairs they faced sat around the edge of a huge mirror of silvered mica, so that everything above was reflected below. Chert and the others seemed to be sitting around the rim of the great Pit itself, looking down into the very eyes of their god. To approach the Highwardens was to seem to walk on nothing above the living depths of Creation.

It was disconcerting at the best of times. Tonight, with the whole Guild joined together to judge Chert’s actions, it was downright frightening.

“You did what?” His own brother, Nodule, was predictably leading the charge against him. “You cannot imagine the shame I feel, that one of our family...”

“Please, Magister,” said Cinnabar. “No one here has even determined that anything wrong’s been done, let alone that Chert has brought shame to the Blue Quartz family.”

“To the entire Quartz clan!” cried Bloodstone, Magister of the Smoke Quartz branch. Fat and bulging-eyed, he was an ally of Nodule’s and quick to join Chert’s brother in most things—including, it seemed, in being horrified by what Chert had done. He was not alone: the Magisters of the Black, Milk, and Rose Quartz families had also been grumbling all through Chert’s appearance at the Outcrop.

Nice to see my family hurrying to my aid. Chert could only hope that the silence of the other members of the large Quartz clan augured more open minds.

“Strangers in the Mysteries?” Bloodstone shook his head in apparent amazement. “Big folk hiding from their rightful lords here in Funderling Town? What madness have you brought to us, Chert?”

“Your concern has been noted,” said Cinnabar, sounding as though he meant the opposite. As Magister of his own Quicksilver family and one of the most important leaders of all Metal House—most thought he would someday replace old Quicklime Pewter as one of the four Great Highwardens, the most exalted of Funderling honors—he was a good ally to have. On top of everything else, he was also fair and sensible. “Perhaps,” he said now, “we should see if any of the other Magisters or our noble Highwardens have questions before we start shouting about shame and tradition.”

Scoria, Magister of the Gneiss family since his father was lifted to the rank of Highwarden, stood up, his thin face full of fretful anger. “I wish to know why you took in this newest upsider, Chert Blue Quartz. The rest is beyond my understanding, but this seems simple enough. He is a criminal and the king’s regent searches for him. If he is found here we will all suffer.”

“With respect, Magister,” Chert said, “the physician Chaven is a good man, as I said. He was also one of King Olin’s most respected advisers. If he swears that the Tollys have murdered people to seize the throne, and will murder him as well to silence him—well, I’m only a foreman, a working man, but it seems more complicated to me than merely saying he’s a criminal.”

“But that doesn’t change the risk we’re in,” pointed out Jacinth Malachite, one of the few female Magisters. “Chert, many of us know you, and know you as a good man, but there’s a difference between doing a deed of good conscience on your own and dragging all Funderling Town into a quarrel with the castle’s rulers...”

A noise like wet sand rubbing on stone interrupted her: Highwarden Sard Smaragdine of Crystal House was clearing his throat. Unlike the Magisters, the Highwardens did not rise to speak; ancient Sard remained shrunken in his chair like a sack of old chips and samples. High on the wall above his head the Great Astion, seal of Funderling Town, gleamed like a star buried in the stone. “Too many questions here to go about it in such a backward way,” rasped Sard. “Which questions are the most important? That must be answered first. Then we will move our way down, layer after layer, until we have reached the bedrock of the whole matter.” He waved a spindly arm. “What do the Metamorphic Brothers think? Has this...incursion...into the sacred Mysteries angered the Earth Elders?”

Chert looked around, but it seemed nobody at this hastily assembled meeting of the Guild had thought to bring along any of the order. “They knew I went down into the Mysteries in search of search of the boy, and they knew I brought him back up.” The Metamorphic Brothers did not know everything that had happened down there, of course, and Chert didn’t intend to tell the entire story to the Guild, either; as Opal liked to remind him, there was such a thing as having too much trust in your fellows. “They knew the little Rooftopper went down part of the way with me. The only thing that they seemed worried about was that somehow this all seemed to match some of old Brother Sulfur’s dreams.”

“When it comes to the Earth Elders,” said Travertine, another of the Highwardens and almost as old as Sard, “Sulphur has forgotten more than the rest of you ever knew...”

“Yes, thank you, Brother Highwarden,” Sard rasped. “Let us continue. Chert Blue Quartz, why did you first bring this upgrounder boy among us? It is...not our custom.”

“It was something about the strangeness of where we found him, I suppose. But if truth be told, much of it was because my wife Opal wanted to take him home and I could not argue her out of it.” A ripple of laughter passed through the room, but only a small one: the matters at hand were far too daunting. “We have no children, as most of you know.”

Sard cleared his throat again. “Is there anything other than the timing that makes you think there is any connection between what this physician claims is happening in the castle above us and the strange child you brought home?”

Chert had to think for a moment. “Well, Flint found the stone that Chaven says was used to murder Prince Kendrick. That may be happenstance, but for a child who found his way to the Rooftoppers when no one else has seen them, let alone spoken to them, for generations...”

“I take your meaning,” the oldest Highwarden said, nodding. He waved his hand, looking like an upended tortoise struggling to rise. “Do any of my fellows have anything more to ask or to offer?” He squinted his old, near-blind eyes as he looked to the masters of Fire Stone and Water Stone houses, but they shook their heads. Only Quicklime Pewter, the Highwarden of Metal House, had anything to say.

“Is the physician here, brothers?” he asked. “We cannot make up our minds on hearsay alone.”

One of the younger Magisters opened the chamber door and beckoned. Chaven came through with his bandaged hands clasped before him, head lowered and shoulders hunched, although the door to the Magisterial Chamber was one of the few in Funderling Town he could walk through upright. He saw the size of the room and stopped, then looked down at the mica floor, startled by what appeared to be an abyss beneath his feet.

“It’s a mirror,” Chert said from where he stood at the Outcrop. “Don’t be afraid.”

“I’ve never seen one even near such a size,” said Chaven, half to himself. “Wonderful. Wonderful!

“You may step down, Chert Blue Quartz,” wheezed Sard. “Chaven of Ulos, you may take his place at the Outcrop. We have some questions we wish to ask you.”

The physician was so fascinated by the mica mirror beneath his feet that he almost bumped into the Magister nearest the end, but at last made his way to the Outcrop and stood at the edge of the circular floor, the tall stone chairs of the Highwardens on his left, the stone benches of the Magisters at his right.

As Chaven repeated the story that others had already related, Chert felt a flush of guilty gratitude that the physician did not know all of the tale. Because of Chaven’s seeming madness on the subject of mirrors, Chert had chosen to keep back the full story of Flint’s glass, and likewise had not told the officers of the Guild about his own journey under Brenn’s Bay to meet the victorious Twilight People in mainland Southmarch. Chert still had no idea what any of that meant, but feared that if he told Cinnabar and the others that he had actually handed something over to the Quiet Folk, as they were sometimes euphemistically called, something that the boy had brought from behind the Shadowline in the first place, the Guild might decide keeping the boy was a risk that Funderling Town could not afford.

And that would be the end of me, he thought. My wife would never speak to me again. And, he realized, I’d miss the boy something fierce.

“You realize, Chaven Makaros,” said the Water Stone Highwarden, Travertine, “that by coming here, you may have embroiled our entire settlement in a struggle with the current lords of Southmarch.” He gave the physician a stern look. “We have a saying, ‘Few are the good things that come from above,’ and nothing you have done makes me inclined to think we should change it.”

Even with his head bowed Chaven still towered above the Highwardens. “I was wounded, feverish, and desperate, my lords. I did not think of greater matters, but only hoped to find help from my friend, Chert of the Blue Quartz. For that, I apologize.”

“Foolishness is no excuse!” called out Chert’s brother Nodule. Several of the other Magisters rumbled their approval of the sentiment.

“But desperation may bring true allies together,” said Cinnabar, and many other Magisters nodded. During his brief time in power, Hendon Tolly had taken all building around the castle out of the hands of Funderlings, keeping his plans secret and using handpicked men of his own brought in from Summerfield. Many of the Funderling leaders already feared for their livelihood—work on sprawling Southmarch Castle had provided much of their income in recent years. Chert suspected that as much as anything else might make them more willing to take risks than usual.

“Does anybody else wish to speak?” asked Highwarden Sard after a long pointless speech advocating caution by Magister Puddingstone of the Marl family had dragged to an end. “Or may we get on with our decision?”

“Which decision, Highwarden?” asked Cinnabar. “It seems to me we have three things to ponder. What, if anything, should be done about Chert Blue Quartz taking outsiders into the Mysteries? What, if anything, should be done to punish the boy Flint for visiting the Mysteries without permission (although he seems to have suffered more than a little for his mischief already, and was sick for many days thereafter)? And what should we do about this gentleman, the physician Chaven, and what he says about the Tollys and the attack on the royal family?”

“Thank you, Magister Quicksilver,” said Highwarden Caprock Gneiss. “You have summed things up admirably. And as the best informed of the Magisters, you may stay and help the four of us with our deliberations.”

Chert’s spirits rose a little. One of the Magisters was always picked to help prevent a deadlock among the four Houses, and he could not have hoped for anyone better than Cinnabar.

The five got up—Sard leaning heavily on Cinnabar’s arm— and retreated to the Highwardens’ Cabinet, a room off the Council Chamber that Chert had heard was very sumptuously appointed, with its own waterfall and several comfortable couches. The informant had been his brother Nodule, who as always was eager to emphasize the difference in his and Chert’s status. Nodule had once been the Magister picked to provide the fifth vote and still talked about it several years later as if it were an everyday occurrence.

While the Highwardens were absent the others milled about the Council Chamber and talked. Some, anticipating a long deliberation, even stepped out to the tavern around the corner for a cup or two. Chert, who had the distinct feeling he was the subject of almost every conversation, and not in a way he’d like, went and joined Chaven, who was sitting on a bench along the outer wall with a morose expression on his round face.

“I fear I’ve brought you nothing but trouble, Chert.”

“Nonsense.” He did his best to smile. “You’ve brought a bit, there’s no question, but if I’d come to you the same way, you’d have done the same for me.”

“Would I?” Chaven shook his head, then lowered his chin to his hands. “I don’t know, sometimes. Everything seems to be different since that mirror came to me. I don’t even feel like precisely the same person. It’s hard to explain.” He sighed. “But I pray that you’re right. I hope that no matter how it’s got its claws into me, I’m still the same man underneath.”

“Of course you are,” said Chert heartily, patting the physician’s arm, but in truth such talk made him a bit nervous. What could a mere looking glass do to unsettle a learned man like Chaven so thoroughly? “Perhaps you are worrying too much. Perhaps we should not even mention your own mirror, the one Brother Okros has stolen.”

“Not mention it?” For a moment Chaven looked like someone quite different, someone colder and angrier than Chert would ever have expected. “It may be a weapon—a terrible weapon—and it is in the hands of Hendon Tolly, a man without kindness or mercy. He must not have it! Your people...we must...” He looked around as though surprised to find that the person speaking so loudly was himself. “I’m sorry, Chert. Perhaps you are right. This has all been...difficult.”

Chert patted his arm again. The other Funderlings in the wide chamber were all watching him and the physician now, although some had the courtesy to pretend they weren’t.

“We have decided,” said Highwarden Sard, “not to decide. At least not about the most dangerous issue, that of the legitimacy of the castle’s regent, Lord Tolly, and what if anything we should do about it.”

“We know we must come to a decision,” amplified Highwarden Travertine. “But it cannot be rushed.”

“However, in the meantime, we have decided about the other matters,” continued Sard, then paused to catch his breath. “Chert Blue Quartz, stand and hear our words.”

Chert stood up, his heart pounding. He tried to catch Cinnabar’s eye, to glean something of what was to come, but his view of the Quicksilver Magister was blocked by the dark, robed bulk of Highwarden Caprock.

“We rule that the boy Flint shall be punished for his mischief, as Cinnabar so quaintly put it, by being confined to his house unless he is accompanied by Chert or Opal Blue Quartz.”

Chert let out his breath. They were not going to exile the boy from Funderling Town. He was so relieved he could barely pay attention to what else the Highwardens were saying.

“Chert Blue Quartz himself has done no wrong,” proclaimed Sard.

“Although his judgment could have been better,” suggested Highwarden Quicklime Pewter.

“Yes, it could have been,” said old Sard with a sour look at his colleague, “but he did his best to remedy a bad situation, and then realized that he could not go on without the advice of the Guild. To him, no penalty, but he must no longer act without the Guild’s approval in any of these matters. Do you understand, Chert Blue Quartz?”

“I do.”

“And do you so swear on the Mysteries that bind us all?”

“I do.” But though he was reassured by what had been said so far, Chert found he was not as confident about what would be done in the long run. Also, he had grown used to doing things that others—especially the Magisters and Highwardens—might think were beyond his rights or responsibilities. He and his family were dug very deep into a strange, strange vein.

“Last we come to the matter of the physician Chaven,” said Sard. “We have much still to discuss about his claims and will not make a decision recklessly, but some choices must be made now.” He stopped to cough, and for a moment as his chest heaved it seemed he might not go on. At last he caught his breath. “He will remain with us until we have determined what to do.”

“But he cannot remain in your house, Chert,” said Cinnabar. “It is already nearly impossible to keep our people from whispering, and it’s likely that only the fact these Tollys have banned us from working in the castle has kept his presence secret from them this long.”

“Where will he go...?”

“We will find a place for him here at the guild hall.” Cinnabar turned to the Highwardens. Sard and Quicklime nodded, but Travertine and Gneiss looked more than a little disgruntled. Chert guessed that Cinnabar had cast the deciding vote.

“I am sure Opal will want to keep feeding him,” Chert said. “Now that she’s learned what he eats.” He smiled at Chaven, who seemed not entirely to understand what was happening. “Upgrounders don’t like mole very much, and you can’t get them to eat cave crickets at knifepoint.”

A few of the other Magisters laughed. For the moment, things in the Council Chamber were as friendly as they were likely to be—still tense, but no one in open rebellion.

“So, then.” Sard raised his hand and all the Magisters stood. “We will meet again in one tennight to make final decisions. Until then, may the Earth Elders see you through all darknesses and in any depths.”

“In the name of He who listens in the Great Dark,” the others said in ragged chorus.

Chert watched the Magisters file out before turning to Chaven, who was still staring down at the floor of the Council Chamber like a schoolboy caught with his exercises unlearned. “Come, friend. Cinnabar will show us where you’ll stay, then I’ll go back to my house and pack up some things for you. We’ve been very lucky—I’m surprised, to tell you the truth. I suspect that having Cinnabar on our side is what saved us, because old Quicklime trusts him. Cinnabar will probably replace him one day.”

“And I hope that day is far away,” said the Quicksilver Magister, striding up. “Quicklime Pewter has forgotten more about this town and the stone it’s built with than I’ll ever know.”

As they began to walk toward the chamber door, Chaven at last looked up, as if wakening from a dream. “I’m sorry, I...” He blinked. “That veiled figure,” he said, pointing at the fabled ceiling. “Who is that? Is it...?”

“That is the Lord of...that is Kernios, of course, god of the earth,” Chert told him. “He is our special patron, as you must know.”

“And on his shoulder, an owl.” The physician was staring down again.

“It is his sacred bird, after all.”

“Kernios...” Chaven shook his head. “Of course.”

He said no more, but seemed far more troubled than a man should who had just been granted his life and safety by the venerable Stone-Cutter’s Guild.

23. The Dreams of Gods

The war raged for years before the walls of the Moonlord’s keep. Countless gods died, Onyenai and Surazemai alike.

Urekh the Wolf King perished howling in a storm of arrows. Azinor of the Oneyenai defeated the Windlord Strivos in combat, but before he could slay him, Azinor was himself butchered by Immon, the squire of great Kernios. Birin of the Evening Mists was shot by the hundred arrows of the brothers Kulin and Hiliolin, though brave Birin destroyed those murderous twins before he died.

—from The Beginnings of Things, The Book of the Trigon

“It...It sounded like you said...that you were there.” Briony didn’t want to offend her hostess (especially not before she’d shared whatever food the crone had to spare) but even in the throes of fever and starvation, the habits of a princess died hard: she didn’t like being teased, especially by grimy old women. “When the gods went to war.”

“I was. Here, I’ll put a few more marigold roots in the pot for you—you’d be surprised how nicely they cook up once you boil the poison out. I’ve been in flesh so long I can scarcely remember anything else, but one thing I don’t miss about the old days—all that bloody, smoking meat! I don’t know what they thought they were doing.”

“Who? Wait, poison? What?” Briony was trying to keep still and avoid sudden movements. It had only just occurred to her that an old woman who lived by herself in the middle of the Whitewood was likely to be quite mad. She felt sure that even as weak and sick as she was, she could defend herself against this tiny creature, bony as a starveling cat— but how could she protect herself when she slept? She didn’t think she could survive another night on her own in the rainy wood.

“I’m talking about those bloody men and their bloody sacrifices!” the old woman said, which explained very little. “They used to be everywhere in this part of the forest, chopping wood, hunting my deer, generally making a nuisance of themselves. Some of them were handsome, though.” She smiled, a contraction of wrinkles that made her face look even more like a knot in the grain of a very old tree. “I let some of them stay with me, bloody-handed or not. I was not so particular then, when my youth was on me.”

It was no use trying to make sense of what the woman was saying. Briony shivered and wished the fire were big enough to keep her warm. Her hostess stared at her as she dropped more roots into a clay pot sitting on the stones beside the fire, then began to wrap two wild apples in leaves. When she had finished, the old woman reached out toward her. Briony shied away.

“Don’t be stupid, child,” she said. “I can see you’re ill. Here, let me feel your brow.” The old woman put a hand as rough as a chicken’s foot against Briony’s forehead. “That’s a bad fever. And you’ve other wounds as well.” She shook her head. “Let me see what I can do. Sit still.” She brought up her other hand and flattened both palms on Briony’s temples. Startled, Briony reached for the knife in her boot, but the woman only moved her hands in slow circles.

“Come out, fever,” the old woman said, then began to sing in a quiet, cracked voice. Briony could not understand the words, but her head had begun to feel increasingly hot and vibrantly alive, as though it were a beehive in high summer. It was such an odd sensation that she tried to pull away, but her limbs would not obey her. Even her heart, which should have sped up when she found herself helpless, did not comply. It bumped along, beating calmly and happily, as though having an ancient stranger set your head on fire with her bare hands were the most ordinary thing in the world.

The heat traveled down from her skull into her spine and spread throughout her body. She felt boneless, woozy: when the woman at last released her it was all Briony could do not to tumble onto her face.

“The rest of the healing you must do yourself,” the old woman said. “Pfoo! I have not expended so much energy in a while.” She clapped her hands together. “So, do you feel well enough to eat now?” When Briony did not immediately answer, because she was more than a little stunned by what had just happened, the old woman spoke again, more sharply. “Briony Eddon, daughter of Meriel, granddaughter of Krisanthe, where are your manners? I asked you a question.”

Briony stared at her for a long moment as her thoughts caught up with her ears. Her fingers went numb and hair rose on her neck and scalp. She snatched out her small knife and held it out before her in a trembling hand. “Who are you? How do you know my name? What did you just do to me?”

The old woman shook her head. “Every time. By the sacred, ever-renewing heartwood, it happens every time. What did I do? Made you better, you ungrateful little kit. How do I know your name? The same way as I know everything I know. I am Lisiya Melana of the Silver Glade, one of the nine daughters of Birgya, and I am the patroness of this forest, as my sisters were the protectors of Eion’s other forests. My father was Volios of the Measureless Grip, you see—a god. You may call me Lisiya. I am a goddess.”


“Do I mumble? Very well, a demigoddess. When my father was young, he fathered a brood on my mother, who was a tree-spirit. It was all very romantic, in a brutal sort of way— but it’s not as if my father stayed around to help raise us. I didn’t call him ‘Papa,’ as you did with yours, and sit on his knee while he chucked me under the chin. The gods aren’t like that—weren’t then, and certainly aren’t now.” She chuckled at some private joke. “Like tomcats, really, and the goddesses weren’t much better.”

Briony lowered her knife to her lap but did not put it away. Even if the woman was completely mad, she had skills. Briony felt much better. She was still cold and tired, and still definitely hungry, but the weakness and misery of her illness and her many wounds seemed to have vanished. “I...I don’t know...”

“You don’t know what to say. Of course you don’t, daughter. You think I might be mad but you don’t want to offend me. In your case, you’re being careful because you’re cold and lonely and hungry, but you have the right idea. It’s never a good idea to annoy a god. If a mortal offended us in the old days, even in the smallest of ways, well, we were likely to turn him into a shrub or a sandcrab.” The old woman sighed and looked at her wrinkled hands. “I don’t know that I could manage anything that impressive anymore, but I’m fairly certain that at the very least, I could give you back your fever and add a very bad stomachache.”

“You say you’re a goddess?” It wasn’t possible. A forestwitch, perhaps, but surely goddesses never looked like this.

“Only a demigoddess, as I already admitted, and please don’t rub my face in it. There aren’t any true goddesses left. Now don’t be dull.” Lisiya frowned. “I can hear some of your thoughts and they’re not pretty. Very well. I hate doing this, especially after I already spent so much vigor healing you— ai, my head is going to hurt tomorrow!—but I suppose we won’t be able to get on with whatever the music has in mind unless I do.” The old woman stood, not without difficulty, and spread her thin arms like an underfed raptor trying to take flight. “You might want to squint your eyes a bit, daughter.”

Before Briony could do more than suck in a breath the fire billowed up in new colors and the darkening sky seemed to bend in toward them, as though it were the roof of a tent and something heavy had just landed on it. The old woman’s figure grew and stretched and her rags became diaphanous as smoke, but at the center of it all Lisiya’s staring eyes smoldered even brighter, as though fires bloomed behind volcanic glass.

Briony fell forward onto her elbows, terrified. The maid Selia had changed like this, taking on a form of terrible darkness, a thing of claws and soot-black spikes; for a moment Briony was certain she had fallen into some terrible trap. Then, drawn by a glow gilding the ground around her, she looked up into a face of such startling, serene beauty that all her fear drained away.

She was tall, the goddess, a full head taller than even a tall man, and her face and hands, the only parts of her flesh visible in the misty fullness of her dark robes, were golden. Vines and branches curled around her; a corona of silvery leaves about her head moved gently in an unfelt wind. The black eyes were the only things that had remained anything near the same, although they glowed now with a shimmering witchlight. How terrifying anger would be on such a face! Briony didn’t think her heart could stand the shock of seeing it.

The seemingly immobile mask of perfection moved: the lips curled in a gentle but somewhat self-satisfied smile. “Have you seen enough, daughter?”

“Please...” Briony moaned. It was like trying to stare at the sun. “Yes—enough!”

The figure shrank then, like parchment curling in a fire, until the old woman stood before her once more, wrinkled and stooped. Lisiya lifted a knobbed knuckle to her eye and flicked something away. “Ah,” she said. “It hurts to be beautiful again. No, it hurts to let it go.”

“ really are a goddess.”

“I told you. By my sacred spring, you children of men these days, you’re practically unbelievers, aren’t you? Just trot out the statues on holy days and mumble some words. Well, I hope you’re happy, because now I am quite exhausted. You will have to tend the roots.” The old woman gingerly settled herself beside the fire. “Every season it is harder to summon my old aspect, and every time it takes more out of me. The hour is coming when I will be no more than what you see before you, and then I will sing my last song and sleep until the world ends.”

“Thank you for helping me.” Briony felt much better—that was undeniable. The mist of fever had cleared and her breath no longer rattled in her lungs. “But I don’t understand. Any of this.”

“Nor do I. The music has decreed that I should find you, and that I should feed you, and perhaps give you what advice I may—not that I have much to offer. This is no longer my world and it hasn’t been for a long time.”

Briony could not help staring at the old woman, trying to see the terrible, glorious shape of the goddess, once more so well hidden beneath wrinkled, leathery flesh. “Your name is...Lisiya?”

“That is the name I am called, yes. But my true name is known only to my mother, and written only in the great Book itself, child, so do not think to command me.”

“The great book? Do you mean The Book of the Trigon?”

She was startled by how hard the goddess laughed. “Oh, good! A very fine jest! That compendium of self-serving lies? Even the arrogant brothers themselves would not try to pass off such nonsense as truth. No, the tale of all that is and shall be—the Book of the Fire in the Void. It is the source of the music that governs even the gods.”

Briony felt as though she had been slapped. “You call The Book of the Trigon lies?”

Lisiya flapped her hand dismissively. “Not purposeful lies, at least not most of them. And there is much truth in it, too, I suppose, but melted out of recognizable shape like something buried too long in the ground.” She squinted at the pot. “Spoon those hot stones out, child, before the water all boils away, and I will try to explain.”

The night had come down in earnest and Briony, despite the strangeness of her situation, was feeling the tug of sleep. She had been frightened by the woman’s display, by seeing what Lisiya had called her true aspect, but now she also found herself strangely reassured. No harm could come to her in the camp of a forest goddess, could it? Not unless it came from the goddess herself, and Lisiya did not seem to bear her any ill will.

“Good,” she said, spooning up the marigold root soup.

“It’s the rosemary. Gives it some savor. Now, that song you were singing, there’s an example of ripe modern nonsense, some of it stolen from other poems, some of it straight out of the Trigonate canon, especially that foolishness about Zoria being helped by Zosim. Zosim the Trickster never did anyone a good turn in his life. I should know—we were cousins.”

Briony could only nod her head and keep eating. It was glorious to feel well again, however preposterous the circumstances. She would think about it all tomorrow.

“And Zoria. She was not stolen, not in the way that the Surazemai always claimed. She went with Khors of her own free will. She loved him, foolish girl that she was.”


“They teach you nothing but self-serving nonsense, do they? The heroism of the Surazemai, the evil of the Onyenai, that sort of rubbish. I blame Perin Thunderer. Full of bluster, and wished no one had ever been ruler of the gods but himself. He was named Thunderer as much because of his shouting as the crashing of his hammer. Oh, where to begin?”

Briony could only stare at her, dazed. She took a bite of the marigold root and wondered how long she could keep her eyes open while Lisiya talked about things she didn’t understand. “At the beginning...?” Maybe she could just close her eyes for a bit, just to rest them.

“Oh, upon my beloved grove, no. By the way, that’s not just a bit of idle oathmaking—this place where you sit used to be my sacred grove.” Lisiya waved her gnarled fingers around the clearing. “Can you tell? The stones of this fire pit were once my altar, when all men still paid me homage. All gone to wrack and ruin hundreds of years ago, of course, as you see—a lightning fire took the most glorious of my trees. More of the Thunderer’s splendid work, and I’ve not always believed it was an accident. A sleeping dog can still growl. Ah, but they were so beautiful, the ring of birches that grew here. Bark white as snow, but they gleamed in moonlight just like quicksilver...” Lisiya coughed. “Mercy on me, I am so old...”

Briony belched. She had eaten too fast.

The goddess frowned. “Charming. Now, where was I? Ah, the beginning. No, I could not hope to correct all you do not know, child, and to be honest, I do not remember all the nonsense that Perin and his brothers declared their priests must teach. Here is all you need to know about the oldest days. Zo, the Sun, took as his wife Sva, the Void. They had four children, and the eldest, Rud the Day Sky, was killed in the battle against the demons of the Old Darkness. Everyone knows these things—even mortals. Sveros, who we called Twilight, took to wife his niece Madi Onyena, Rud’s widow, and she bore him Zmeos Whitefire and Khors Moonlord. Then Sveros Twilight was lured away from her by Madi Onyena’s twin sister Surazem, who had been born from the same golden egg. Surazem bore him Perin, Erivor, and Kernios, the three brothers, and from these five sons of Twilight—and some sisters and half sisters, of course, but who talks of them?—sprang the great gods and their eternal rivalries. All this you must know already, yes?”

Briony did her best to sit up straight and look as though she were not falling asleep. “More or less...”

“And you have to know that Perin and his brothers turned against their father Sveros and cast him out of the world into the between-spaces. But the three brothers did not then become the rulers of the gods, as your people teach. Whitefire, the one you call Zmeos, was the oldest of Sveros’ chilren, and felt he should have pride of place.”

“Zmeos the Horned One?” Briony shuddered, and not just from her still-damp clothing. All her childhood she had been told of the Old Serpent, who waited to steal away children who were wicked or told lies, to drag them off to his fiery cave.

“So Perin’s priests call him, yes.” Lisiya pursed her lips. “I never had priests myself. I do not like them, to be honest. In the days when people still sacrificed to me I was happy enough with a honeycomb or an armful of flowers. All that bleeding red meat...! Animal flesh to feed priests, not a goddess. And I would not have been caught dead in their stone temples, in any case. Well, except for once, but that is not a story for tonight...” The old woman’s eyes narrowed. “You are falling asleep, child,” she said sternly. “I begin to tell you the true tale of the gods and you cannot even keep your eyes open.”

“I’m sorry,” Briony murmured. “It’s just long since...”

“Sleep, then,” said Lisiya. “I waited a day for you—and years since my last supplicant. I can wait a few more hours.”

“Thank you.” Briony stretched out, her arm beneath her head. “Thank lady...”

She did not even hear if the goddess said anything, because within moments sleep reached up and seized her as the ocean takes a shipwrecked sailor grown too weary to swim.

For a moment after waking she lay motionless with the thin sunlight on her closed eyelids, trying to remember where she was and what had happened. She felt surprisingly well —had her fever broken? But her stomach felt full, too, almost as if the dreams had been...real.

Briony sat up. If the last night’s events had been dreams, then the dreams still lingered: only a few yards away from her sleeping spot the fire was burning in its pit of stones, and something was cooking, a sweet smell that made her mouth water. Other than Briony, though, the little clearing was empty. She didn’t know what to think. She might have imagined the old woman who claimed to be a goddess, but the rest of this—the fire, the careful stack of kindling beside it, the smell of...roasting apples? In late winter?

“Ho there, child, so you’ve finally dragged yourself upright.” The voice behind her made Briony jump. “You didn’t get your sweet last night, so I put some more in the coals.”

She turned to see the tiny, black-robed figure of Lisiya limping slowly down into the dell, a pair of deer walking behind her like pet dogs. The two animals, a buck and a doe, paused when they saw Briony but did not run. After a moment’s careful consideration of her with their liquid brown eyes, they stooped and began to crop at the grass which peeked up here and there through the fallen leaves and branches.

“You’re real,” Briony said. “I mean, I didn’t dream you. Was...was everything real, then?”

“Now how would I know?” Lisiya dropped the bag she was carrying, then lifted her arms over her head and stretched. “I stay out of mortal minds as a rule—in any case, I spent the night walking. What do you recall that might or might not be a dream?”

“That you fed me and gave me a place to sleep.” Briony smiled shyly. “That you healed me. And that you are a goddess.”

“Yes, that all accords with my memory.” Lisiya finished her stretch and grunted. “Ai, such old bones! To think once I could have run from one side of my Whitewood to another and back in a single night, then still had the strength to take a handsome young woodsman or two to my bed.” She looked at Briony and frowned. “What are you waiting for, child? Aren’t you hungry? We have a long way to go today.” “What? Go where?”

“Just eat and I will explain. Watch your fingers when you take out those apples. Ah, I almost forgot.” She reached into her sack and pulled out a small jug stoppered with wax. “Cream. A certain farmer leaves it out for me when his cow is milking well. Not everyone has forgotten me, you see.” She looked as pleased as a spinster with a suitor.

The meal was messy but glorious. Briony licked every last bit of cream and soft, sweet apple pulp off her fingers. “If we were staying, I’d make bread,” Lisiya said. “But where are we going?”

“You are going where you need to go. As to what will happen there, I can’t say. The music says you have wandered off your course.”

“You said that before and I didn’t understand. What music?”

“Child! You demand answers the way a baby sparrow shrieks to have worms spat in its mouth! The music is...the music. The thing that makes fire in the heart of the Void itself. That which gives order to the cosmos—or such order as is necessary, and chaos when that is called for instead. It is the one thing that the gods feel and must heed. It speaks to us—sings to us—and beats in us instead of heart’s blood. Well, unless we are wearing flesh, then we must listen hard to hear the music over the plodding drumbeat of these foolish organs. How uncomfortable to wear a body!” She shook her head and sighed. “Still, the music tells me that you have lost your way, Briony Eddon. It is my task to put you back on the path again.”

“Does that mean...that everything will be all right? The gods will help us drive out all our enemies and we’ll get Southmarch back?”

Lisiya threw her a look of dark amusement. “Not expecting much, are you? No, it doesn’t mean anything of the sort. The last time I helped someone to get back onto his path, a pack of wolves ate him a day after I said farewell. That was his rightful path, you see.” She paused to scratch her arm.

“If I hadn’t stepped in, who knows how long he would have wandered around—he and the wolves both, I suppose.”

Briony stared openmouthed. “So I’m going to die?”

“Eventually, child, yes. That’s what’s given to mortals—it’s what ‘mortal’ means, after all. And believe me, it’s probably a good deal more pleasant than a thousand years of everincreasing decrepitude.”

“But...but how can the gods do this to me? I’ve lost everything—everybody I love!”

Lisiya turned to her with something like fury. “You’ve lost everything? Child, when you’ve seen not just everybody you love but everybody you know disappear, when you’ve surrendered all that I have—beauty, power, youth—and the last of them slipped away centuries in the past, then you may complain.”

“I thought...I thought you might...”

“Help you? By my grove, I am helping you. You’re not starving anymore, are you? In fact, it seems like that’s my sacred offering of cream on your chin right now, and Heaven knows I don’t get many of those these days. You had a dry night’s sleep, too, and you’re no longer coughing your liver and lights out. Some might count those as mighty gifts indeed.”

“But I don’t want to get eaten by wolves—my family needs me.”

Lisiya sighed in exasperation. “I only said the last person I guided was eaten by wolves—the remark was meant as a bit of a joke (although I suppose the fellow with the wolves wouldn’t have seen it that way). I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. Perhaps the music is sending some handsome prince your way, who will sweep you up onto his white horse and carry you away into the sunset.” She scowled and spat. “Just like one of that Gregor fellow’s unskilled rhymes.”

Briony scowled right back. “I don’t want any prince. I want my brother back. I want my father back, and our home back. I want everything like it was before!”

“I’m glad to hear you’re keeping your demands to a minimum.” Lisiya shook her head. “In any case, stop thinking about wolves—they’re not relevant. There’s a stream over that rise and down the hill. Go wash yourself off, then drink water, or make water, or whatever it is you mortals do in the morning. I’ll pack up, then if you need more explanations, I’ll provide them while we walk. And don’t dawdle.”

Briony followed the goddess’ instructions, walking so close past the grazing deer on her way to the stream that one of them turned and touched her with its nose as she went past. It was an unexpected thing, small but strangely reassuring, and by the time she’d washed her face and run her fingers through her hair a few times she felt almost like a person again.

With her worse fears placated, a little food in her belly, and the company of a real person—if a goddess as old as time could be said to be real—Briony found that there was much to admire about the Whitewood. Many of its trees were so old and so vast that younger trees, giants themselves, grew between their roots. The hush of the place, a larger, more important quiet than in any human building no matter how vast, coupled with the soft light filtering down through the leaves and tangled branches, made her feel as though she swam through Erivor’s underwater realm, as in one of the beautiful blue-green frescoes that lined the chapel back home at Southmarch. If she narrowed her eyes in just the right way Briony could almost see the dangling vines as floating seaweed, imagine the flicker of birds in the upper branches to be the darting of fish.

“Ah, there’s another one,” said Lisiya when Briony shyly mentioned the chapel paintings. “Don’t your folk hold him as an ancestor, old Fish-Spear?”

“Erivor? Why, is that a lie, too?”

“Don’t be so touchy, child. Who knows if it’s true or not? Perin and his brothers certainly put themselves about over the years, and there were more than a few mortal women willing to find out what it felt like to bed a god. And those were only the ones who participated by choice!”

“This is hard to believe.” Briony flinched at Lisiya’s expression. “No, not hard to believe that you’re a goddess, but hard to...understand. That you know the rest of the gods, know them the way I know my own family!”

“It isn’t quite the same,” said Lisiya, softening a bit. “There were hundreds of us, and we seldom were together. Most of us kept to ourselves, especially my folk. The forests were our homes, not lofty Xandos. But I did know them, yes, and while we met each other infrequently, we did gather on certain occasions. And many of the gods were travelers— Zosim, and Kupilas in his later years, and Devona of the Shining Legs, so the news of what the others did came to us in time. Not that you could trust a word that Zosim said, that little turd.”

“But...but he is the god of poets!”

“And that fits, too.” She looked up, swiveling her head from side to side like an ancient bird. “We have made a wrong turn. Curse these fading eyes!”

“Wrong turn?” Briony looked around at the endless trees, the unbroken canopy of dripping green above their heads and the labyrinth of damp earth and leaves between the trunks. “How can you tell?”

“Because it should be later in the day by now.” Lisiya blew out a hiss of air. “We should have lost time, then gained a little of it back, but we have gained all of it back. It is scarcely a creeping hour since we set out.”

Briony shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“Nor should you, a mortal child who never traveled the gods’ paths. Trust me—we have made a wrong turn. I must stop and think.” Lisiya suited word to deed, lowering herself onto a rounded stone and putting her fingers to her temples. Briony, who was not lucky enough to have a rock of her own, had to squat beside her.

“We must wait until the clouds pass,” Lisiya announced at last, just as the ache in Briony’s legs was becoming fierce.

“Shall we make a fire?”

“Might as well. It could be that we cannot travel again until tomorrow. Find some dry wood—it makes things easier.”

When Briony had returned to the spot with half a dozen pieces of reasonably dry deadfall, Lisiya piled them into a tiny hill, then took the last piece in her bony grip and said something Briony could not understand, a slur of rasping consonants and fluting vowels. Smoke leaked between Lisiya’s fingers. By the time she put the stick down among the others, fire was already smoldering from a black spot where she had held it.

“That’s a good trick,” Briony said approvingly.

Lisiya snorted. “It is not a trick, child, it is the pitiable remains of a power that once could have felled half this forest and turned the rest into smoking ruin. Mastery over branch and root, pith and grain and knot—all those were mine. I could make a great tree burst into flower in a moment, make a river change course. Now I can scarcely start a fire without burning my hand.” She held up her sooty palm. “See? Blisters. I shall have to put some lavender oil on it.”

As the goddess rummaged through her bag Briony watched the fire begin to catch, the flames barely visible in the still-strong afternoon light. It was strange to be in this between-place, this timeless junction between her life before and whatever would come next, let alone to be the guest of a goddess. What was left to her? What would become of her?

“Barrick!” she said suddenly.

“What?” Lisiya looked up in irritation. “Barrick—my brother.”

“I know who your brother is, child. I am old, not an idiot. Why did you shout his name?”

“I just remembered that when I was in...before I found you...”

You found me?

“Before you found me, then. Merciful...! For a goddess, you certainly are thin-skinned.”

“Look at me, child. Thin? It barely keeps my bones from poking out—although there does seem to be more of the wrinkly old stuff than there once was. Go on, speak.”

“I was looking in a mirror and I saw him. He was in chains. Was that a true vision?”

Lisiya raised a disturbingly scraggly eyebrow. “A mirror? What sort? A scrying glass?”

“A mirror. I’m not certain—just a hand mirror. It belonged to one of the women I was staying with in Landers Port.”

“Hmmmm.” The goddess dropped her pot of salve back into her rumpled, cavernous bag. “Either someone was using a mighty artifact as a bauble or there are stranger things afoot with you and your brother than even I can guess.”

“ you mean a magic mirror, like in a poem? It wasn’t anything like that.” She held up her fingers in a small circle. “It was only that big.”

“And you, of course, are a scholar of such things?” The goddess’ expression was enough to make Briony lower her gaze. “Still, it seems unlikely that a Tile so small, yet clearly also one of the most powerful, should be in mortal hands and no one aware of it, passed around as if it were an ordinary part of a lady’s toiletry.”

Briony dared to look up again. Lisiya was apparently thinking, her gaze focused on nothing. Briony did her best to be patient. She did not want the goddess angry with her again. She did not—O merciful Zoria!—want to be left in the forest by herself. But after the sticks in the fire had burned halfway down, she could not keep her questions to herself any longer.

“You said ‘tile’—what are those? Do you mean the sort of thing that we have on the floor of the chapel? And what is Zoria like? Is she like the pictures to look at? Is she kind?” Once, she recalled, her own lady-in-waiting, Rose Trelling, had gone back to Landsend for Orphanstide and had been asked an extraordinary number of questions by her other relatives—about Briony and her family, about life in Southmarch Castle, a thousand things. So we wonder about those who are above us—those who are well-known, or rich, or powerful. Are they like us? It was funny to think that ordinary folk thought of her as she thought of the gods. Who did the gods envy? Whose doings made them sit up and take notice? There were so many things Briony wanted to know, and here she sat with a living, breathing demigoddess!

Lisiya let out a hissing sigh. “So you have determined on saving me from this painful immortality, have you? And your killing weapon is to be an unending stream of questions?”

“Sorry. I’m sorry, can I not ask?”

“It’s not that you ask, it’s what you ask, kit. But it is always that way with mortals, it seems. When they have their chances, they seldom seek important answers.” “All right, what’s important, then? Please tell me, Lisiya.”

“I will answer a few of your questions—but quickly, because I have concerns of my own and I must listen carefully to the music. First, the Tiles used in the most potent scrying glasses are pieces of Khors’ tower, the things that the foolish poem you were bellowing through the forest called ‘ice crystals’ or some such nonsense. They were made for him by Kupilas the Artificer—‘Crooked,’ as the Onyenai call him...”


“Curse your rabbiting thoughts, child, pay attention! Onyenai, like Zmeos and Khors and their sister Zuriyal—the gods born to Madi Onyena. You know the Surazemai— Perin and his brothers, the gods born to Madi Surazem. The Onyenai and Surazemai were the two great clans of gods that went to war with each other. But old Sveros fathered them all.”

Chastened, Briony nodded but did not say anything. “Yes. Well, then. Crooked helped Khors strengthen his great house, and the things that he used to do it ensured that Khors’ house was not found just in Heaven any longer, nor was it on the earth, but opened into many places. Kupilas used the Tiles to make this happen, although some said the Tiles only masked its true nature and location with a false seeming. In any case, after the destruction of the Godswar, after Perin angrily tore down Khors’ towers, some of the remnants were saved. Those are the Tiles we speak of now. They appear to be simple mirrors but they are far more—scrying glasses of great power.”

“But you don’t think that’s how I saw Barrick...?”

“I am old, child, and I am no longer so foolish as to think I know anything for certain. But I doubt it. In all the world only a score or fewer of the Tiles survive. I find it hard to believe that after all these ages another would wind up in a lady’s cosmetics chest in...where did you say? Landers Port?”

Briony nodded.

“More likely something else is afoot with you and your brother. I sense nothing out of the ordinary from your side, nothing magical—other than your virginity, which always counts for something, for some reason.” She let out a harsh, dry chuckle. “Sacred stones, look at Zoria. Millennia have passed, and they still call her a virgin!”

“What do you mean?”

“A rare possession among both the Surazemai and Onyenai, I can promise you. In fact, other than perhaps the Artificer himself—there’s irony there, isn’t there?—only our Devona remained unsullied, and I think that may have been as much from inclination as anything else. Just as among mortals, the gods were made in all sorts of shapes and desires. But Zoria...certainly not, poor thing.”

“Are you saying that the blessed Zoria isn’t...wasn’t...she’s not...a...”

Lisiya rolled her eyes. “Girl, I told you, Khors was her lover and she loved him back. Why do you think she ran away from the meadows and the Xandian hills? To be with him! And had her father not come with all his army of relatives to defend his own honor—foolish men and their honor!—she would have happily married the Moonlord and borne him many more children. But that was not fated to be, and the world changed.” For a moment the brittleness seemed to soften; Briony watched a sadness so deep it looked like agony creep over the goddess’ gaunt face. “The world changed.”

Her expression was too naked—too private. Briony looked down at the fire.

“To answer your earlier, unfinished question...” Lisiya said suddenly, then cleared her throat. “No, Zoria was not a virgin. And now she simply is not—nor are any but we pathetic few, stepchildren and monsters, castoffs of Heaven. Like insects crawling out of the scorched ground when a forest fire has passed, only we survived the last War of the Gods.”

“You mean...the other gods are dead?”

“Not dead, but sleeping, child. But the sleep of the gods has already been ages long, and it will continue until the world ends.”

“Sleeping? Then the gods are...gone?”

“Not entirely, but that is another story. And I do not doubt that a few more aging demigods and demigoddesses like me are still caring for their forests, or landlocked lakes that once were small seas. But I have not talked to one of my kin in the waking world for so long I can scarcely remember.”

“No gods? They left us?”

Lisiya’s smile was grim. “Not by choice, mortal kit. But they have slept since your ancestors first set stone on stone to build the earliest cities, so it is not as though anything has changed.”

“But we pray to them! I have always prayed, especially to Zoria...!”

“And you may continue to pray to her if you wish, and the others as well. They may even answer you—when they sleep, they dream, and their dreams are not like those of your kind. It is a restless sleep, for one thing...but that is most definitely a tale for another time. As it is, we have dallied too long. Come, rise.”

“What? Are we going to walk again?”

“Yes. Follow.” And without looking back to see if Briony had obeyed her, Lisiya went limping away through the forest.

The late afternoon sun was burrowing into the distant hills when they reached the edge of the Whitewood. As they stood with the great fence of trees behind them, Briony looked out over the meadowlands of what she could only guess was Silverside. The grassy plains stretched away as far to the north and west as she could see, beautiful, peaceful, and empty. “Why have we come here?” she asked.

“Because the music calls you here.” Lisiya fumbled in her shapeless robes and drew out something on a string, lifting it over her head with surprising nimbleness. “Ah, a little sun on my bones is a kindly thing. Here, daughter. I am sorry we have not had more time. I miss the chance to speak to something less settled and slow than the trees, and for a mortal child you are not too stone-headed.” She held out her claw of a hand. “Take this.”

Briony lifted it from her hand. It was a crude little charm made from a bird skull and a sprig of some dried white flowers, wrapped around with white thread. “I am too old to come when summoned,” Lisiya said, “and too weak to send you much in the way of help, but it could be that this might smooth your way in some difficult situation. I have one or two worshipers left.”

As she drew the leather cord around her neck, Briony asked, “Have we reached the place you were talking about? You’re not going yet, are you?”

Lisiya smiled. “You are a good child—I’m glad it was given to me to help you. And I hope this path will lead you to at least a little happiness.”

“Path, what path?” Briony looked around but saw nothing, only damp grass waving in the freshening evening wind. It was the middle of nowhere—no road, no track, let alone a town. “Where am I supposed to go...?”

But when she turned back the old woman had vanished. Briony ran back into the forest, calling and calling, looking for some sign of the black-robed form, but the Mistress of the Silver Glade was gone.

24. Three Brothers

Listen, my children! Argal and his brothers now had the excuse they needed and their wickedness flowered. They went among the gods claiming that Nushash had stolen Suya against her will, and many of the gods became angry and said they would throw down Nushash, their rightful ruler.

—from The Revelations of Nushash, Book One

“This does not seem a good idea to me,” Utta whispered. “What does he want from us? He is dangerous!”

Merolanna shook her head. “You must trust me. I may not know much, but I know my way around these things.” “But...!”

She fell silent as the new castellan, Tirnan Havemore, walked into the chamber. He held a book in his hands and was followed by a page carrying more books with—rather dangerously—a writing-tray balanced atop them. Havemore wore his hair in the Syannese style that had swept the castle, cut high above the ears, and because he was balding he looked more like a priest than anything else —a resemblance, Utta thought, that Havemore was only too eager to encourage. Even when he had been merely Avin Brone’s factor he had seen himself as a philosopher, a wise man amid lesser minds. She had never liked him, and knew no one outside of the Tollys’ circle who did.

Havemore stopped as though he had only just realized the women were in the room. “Why, Duchess,” he said, peering at them over the spectacles perched on his narrow nose, “you honor me. And Sister Utta, a pleasure to see you, too. I am afraid my new duties as castellan have kept me fearfully busy of late—too busy to visit with old friends. Perhaps we can remedy that now. Would you like some wine? Tea?”

Utta could feel Merolanna bristling at the mere suggestion that she and this upstart were old friends. She laid her hand on the older woman’s arm. “Not for me, thank you, Lord Havemore.”

“I will not take anything, either, sir,” the duchess said with better grace than Utta would have expected. “And although we would love to have a proper conversation with you, we know you are a busy man. I’m certain we won’t take much of your time.”

“Oh, but it would be a true joy to have a visit.” Havemore snapped his fingers and waved. “Wine.” The page put down the books and the teetering tray on the castellan’s tall, narrow desk, a desk which had been Nynor Steffen’s for years and which had seemed as much a part of him as his skin and his knobby hands. Unburdened, the page left the room. “A true joy,” Havemore repeated as though he liked the sound of it. “In any case, I will have a cup of something myself, since I have been working very hard this morning, preparing for Duke Caradon’s visit. I’m sure you must have heard about it—very exciting, eh?”

It was news to Utta. Hendon’s older brother, the new Duke of Summerfield, coming here? Doubtless he would bring his entire retinue—hundreds more Tolly supporters in the household, and during the ominous days of the Kerneia festival as well. Her heart sank to think of what the place would be like, full of drunken soldiers.

“So, my gracious ladies,” said Havemore, “what can I do for you today?”

Utta could not imagine anything that Tirnan Havemore could do for them that would not immediately be reported to Hendon Tolly, so she kept her mouth closed. This was Merolanna’s idea; Utta would let the dowager duchess take the lead. Zoria, watch over us, here in the stronghold of our enemies, she prayed. Even if they knew nothing of the astonishing business she and Merolanna had embarked upon, the ruling faction held little but contempt for either of them, for one key reason: neither one of them had anything to bargain with, no strength, no land, no money. Well, except Merolanna is part of the royal family and a link to Olin. I suppose the Tollys want to keep her sweet at least until they’ve got their claws well into Southmarch.

“But Lord Havemore, you must know what you can do for us,” Merolanna said. “Since you called us here. As I said, I don’t want to intrude on your time, which is valuable to all of Southmarch, and especially to Earl Hendon, our selfless guardian.”

Careful, Utta could not help thinking. Merolanna had moved and was out of range of an admonitory squeeze of the arm.

Don’t be too obvious. He doesn’t expect you to like him, but don’t let your dislike show too openly.

“Hendon Tolly is a great man.” Havemore’s grin looked even more wolfish than before—he was enjoying this. “And we are all grateful that he is helping to guard King Olin’s throne for its legitimate heir.”

The page returned with wine and several cups. Utta and Merolanna shook their heads. The page poured only one and handed it to the castellan, then stepped back to the wall and did his best to look like a piece of furniture. Havemore seated himself in his narrow chair, pointedly leaving the dowager duchess standing.

“You mean for King Olin, of course,” Merolanna said cheerfully, ignoring the calculated slight. “Guarding the throne for King Olin. The heir is all well and good, but my brother-in-law Olin is still king, even in his absence.”

“Of course, Your Grace, of course. I misspoke. However, the king is a prisoner and his heirs are gone—perhaps dead. We would be foolish to pretend that the infant heir is not of the greatest importance.”

“Yes, of course.” Merolanna nodded. “In any case, leaving aside all this quibbling about succession, which I’m sure is of scarcely any real interest to a scholar like yourself, you did call us here. What have we done to deserve your kind invitation?”

“Ah, now it is you who feigns innocence, Your Grace. You asked to speak to Avin Brone, but you must know that he has...retired. That his duties have all been taken up by me and Lord Hood, the new lord constable. Our dear Brone has worked so hard for Southmarch—he deserves his rest. Thus, I thought I might save him the unnecessary work of trying to solve whatever problem you ladies might have by volunteering my own attention to it, instead.” His smile looked like it had been drawn with a single stroke of a very sharp pen.

“That is truly kind, Lord Havemore,” said Merolanna, “but in truth we wanted—I wanted—to see Lord Brone only out of friendship. For the sake of old times. Why, I daresay Avin Brone and I have known each other longer than you’ve been alive!”

“Ah.” Havemore, like many ambitious young men, did not like being reminded of allegiances that predated his own arrival. “I see. So there is nothing I can do for you?”

“You can remember your kind offer to share yourself more with the rest of us castle folk, Lord Havemore.” The duchess smiled winningly. “A man of your learning, a wellspoken man like you, should put himself about a bit more.”

He narrowed his eyes, not entirely sure how to take her remark. “Very kind. But there is still a question, Your Grace. I can understand your desire to reminisce with your old friend Lord Brone, but what brings Sister Utta along on such a mission? Surely she and Brone are not also old friends? I had never heard that old Count Avin was much on religion, beyond what is necessary for appearances.” Havemore smiled at this little joke shared among friends and for the first time Sister Utta felt herself chilled. This man was more than ambitious, he was dangerous.

“I do consider Brone a friend,” Utta said suddenly, ignoring Merolanna’s flinch. “He has been kind to me in the past. And he is a man of good heart, whether he spends much time in the temple or not.”

“I am glad to hear you say that.” Tirnan Havemore now looked at Utta closely. “I worked for him for many years and always felt his best qualities were ignored, or at least underappreciated.”

Merolanna actually took a step forward, as if to stop the conversation from straying into dangerous areas. “I asked her to come with me, Lord Havemore. I am...I am not so well these days. It makes me easier to have a sensible woman like Utta with me instead of one of my scatterbrained young maids.”

“Of course.” His smile widened. “Of course, Your Grace. So great is your spirit, so charming your manners, that I fear I’d forgotten your age. Of course, you must have your companion.” It was almost a leer now.

What is he thinking? Utta did not want to contemplate it for long.

“By all means, go and see your old friend, Count Avin. I’m afraid he has changed his chambers—I needed more space, of course, so I took these old ones of his over.

When Brone is not at home in Landsend you will find him in the old countinghouse next to the Chamber of the Royal Guard. He still comes in, although he has little to do these days.” The smile had changed into something else now as Havemore rose, something that celebrated an enemy well and truly dispatched. “You will come see me again? This has been such a delight.”

“For us all,” Merolanna assured him. “We are honored by your interest in two old women like ourselves, Lord Havemore, now that you’ve become such an important man in Southmarch.”

“Were you not perhaps spreading the fat a little thick?” Utta asked as they made their way across the residence garden, hoods pulled low against the chilly rain. “You do not need to make an enemy of him.”

Merolanna snorted. “He is already an enemy, Utta, never doubt that for a moment. If I weren’t one of the only people left related to Olin, I’d be gone already. The Tollys and their toadies have no love for me, but they can’t afford to see me off—not yet. Perhaps if they get through the winter they’ll start thinking about how I might be encouraged to die. I’m very old, after all.”

Startled, Sister Utta made the sign of the Three. “Gods protect us, then why did you suggest to him that you were in ill health? Give them no excuse!”

“They will kill me when they want to. I’m convinced now that they had something to do with Kendrick’s murder, too. By reminding Havemore, I was just reassuring him that whatever I got up to, I wouldn’t be around to make trouble much longer.” She stumbled and caught at Utta’s arm. “And I’m not all that well these days, in truth. I find myself feeble, and sometimes my mind wanders...”

“Hush. Enough of that.” Utta took the older woman’s elbow and held it tightly. “You have frightened me with all this... intrigue, Your Grace, all this talk of threats and plots and counterplots. I am only a Zorian sister and I’m out of my depth. Besides, I need you, so you may be neither ill nor feeble, and you certainly may not die!”

Merolanna laughed. “Talk to your immortal mistress, not to me. If the gods choose to take me, or simply to make me a doddering old witling, that’s their affair.” She slowed as they entered the narrow passage between Wolfstooth Spire and the armory. The paint had faded, and tufts of greenery grew in the cracks in the walls. “By the grace of the Brothers, I have not been to this part of the castle in years. It’s falling apart!”

“A suitable place, then, for those who are no longer necessary—Brone, and you, and me too.”

“Well said, my dear.” Merolanna squeezed her arm approvingly. “The more worthless we are, the less anyone will suspect what devilry we’re up to.”

“Your Grace, this is...this is quite a surprise.” Brone’s voice was a bit thick. Other than a pair of young, wary-looking guardsmen who acted more like they were watching a prisoner than protecting an important lord, the countinghouse was empty. “And Sister Utta. Bless me, Sister, I haven’t seen you for a long time. How are you?” “Fine, Lord Brone.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t get up.” He gestured at his bare left leg, propped on a hassock, the ankle swollen like a ham. “This cursed gout.”

“It’s not the gout, it’s the drinking that’s keeping you in that chair,” Merolanna said. “It is scarcely noon. How much wine have you had today, Brone?”

“What?” He goggled at her. “Scarcely any. A glass or two, to ease the pain.”

“A glass or two, is it?” Merolanna made a face.

In truth, he looked much the worse for wear. Utta had not seen him for some time, so it was possible the new lines on his face were nothing odd, but his eyes seemed sunken and dark and the color of his skin was bad, like a man who has been weeks in a sickbed. It was hard to reconcile this bloated, pasty creature slumped like a sack of laundry with the big man who only a short time ago had moved through the castle like a war galleon under full sail.

Merolanna rapped on the table and pointed at one of the guards. “Lord Brone needs some bread and cheese for the sake of his stomach. Go fetch some.”

The guard gaped at her. “Y-Your Grace...?” “And you,” she said to the other. “I am old and I chill easily. Go and bring a brazier of coals. Go on, both of you!”

“But...but we are not supposed to leave Lord Brone!” said the second guard.

“Are you afraid the Zorian sister and I will assassinate him while you’re gone?” Utta stared at him, then turned to the count. “Do you think we’re likely to attack you, Brone?” She didn’t give him time to reply, but took a step toward the guards, waggling her fingers like she was shooing chickens out of a garden. “Go on, then. Hurry up, both of you.”

When the baffled guards were gone, the count cleared his throat. “What was that about, may I ask?”

“I need your help, Brone,” she said. “Something is gravely amiss, and we will not solve it without you—nor in front of Havemore’s spies, which is why I sent those two apes away.”

He stared at her for a moment, but his eyes failed to catch light. “I can be no help to you, Duchess. You know that. I have lost my place. I have been...retired.” His laugh was a rheumy bark. “I have retreated.”

“And so you sit and drink and feel sorry for yourself.” Utta cringed at Merolanna’s words, wondering how even a woman like the duchess could talk to Avin Brone that way, with such contemptuous familiarity. “I did not come here to help you with that, Brone, and I will thank you to sit up and pay attention. You know me. You know I would not come to you for help if I did not need it—I am not one of those women who runs weeping to a man at the first sign of trouble.”

The specter of a smile flitted across Brone’s face. “True enough.”

“Things may have seemed bad enough already,” Merolanna said, “with Briony and Barrick gone and the Tollys riding herd over us all—but I have news that is stranger than any of that. What do you know about the Rooftoppers?”

For a moment Brone only stared at her as though she had suddenly started to sing and dance and strew flowers around the room. “Rooftoppers? The little people in the old stories?”

“Yes, those Rooftoppers.” Merolanna watched him keenly. “You really do not know?”

“On my honor, Merolanna, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Look at this, then, and tell me what you think.” She pulled a sheet of parchment from out of the bodice of her dress and handed it to him. He stared at it blankly for a moment, then reached up—not without some discomfort—to take down a candle from the shelf on the wall behind him so he could read.

“It’s...a letter from Olin,” he said at last.

“It was the last letter from Olin, as you should know—the one that Kendrick received just before he was murdered. This is a page from it.”

“The missing page? Truly? Where did you find it?”

“So you know about it. Tell us.” Merolanna seemed a different woman now, more like the spymaster Brone used to be than the doddering old woman she called herself.

“The entire letter was missing after Kendrick’s murder,” he said. “Someone put it among my papers some days later, but a page was missing.” He scanned the parchment with growing excitement. “I think this is the page. Where did you find it?”

“Ah, now that is a story indeed. Perhaps you had better have another drink, Brone,” Merolanna said. “Or maybe some water to clear your head would be better. Understanding this is not going to be easy, and this is only the beginning.”

“So the Rooftoppers...are real?”

“We saw them with our own eyes. If it had been only me you might be able to blame it on my age, but Utta was there.”

“Everything she says is true, Lord Brone.”

“But this is fantastic. How could they be here in the castle all these years and we never knew...?”

“Because they didn’t want us to know. And it is a big castle, after all, Brone. But here is the question. How am I going to find that piece of the moon, or whatever it is? Sister Utta thinks it is Chaven the little woman was talking about, but where is he? Do you know?”

Brone looked around the small, cluttered room. There was no sign of the guards returning, but he lowered his voice anyway. “I do not. But I suspect he is alive. It would be easy enough for the Tollys to trump up some charge against him if all they wanted was an execution. I still have a few... sources around the castle, and I hear Hendon’s men are still searching for him.”

“Well, tell your sources to find him. As swiftly as possible. And it would not hurt to inquire into this moon-stone or whatever it is, either.”

“But I don’t understand—why did these little people ask you? And you said they wanted to bargain with you. How? What did they offer?”

“Ah.” Merolanna smiled, and it was almost fond this time. “Once a courtier, always a courtier, I see. Do you not believe they might have come to me because they recognized me as a person of kindness and good will?”

Brone raised an eyebrow.

“You’re right. They told me they would give me news of my child.”

Avin Brone’s eyes went wide as cartwheels. “Your... your...?”

“Child. Yes, that’s right. Don’t worry about Utta—she’s been told the whole dreadful story.”

He looked at her with a face gone pale. “You told her...?”

“You’re not speaking very well, today, Brone. I fear the drink is doing you damage. Yes, I told her of my adultery with my long-dead lover.” She turned to Utta. “Brone already knows, you see. I have few confidantes in the castle, but he has long been one of them. He was the one who arranged for the child to be fostered.” She turned back to Brone. “I told Barrick and Briony, also.”

“You what?

“Told them, the poor dears. They had a right to know. You see, on the day of Kendrick’s funeral, I saw the child. My child.”

Brone could only shake his head again. “Surely, Merolanna, one of us is going mad.”

“It isn’t me. I thought for a time it must be, but I think I know better now. Tell me, then—what are you going to do?”

“Do? About what?”

“All of this. About finding Chaven and discovering why the fairies took my little boy.” She saw the look on Avin Brone’s face. “Oh, I didn’t tell you about that, did I?” She quickly related the words of Queen Upsteeplebat and the oracular Ears. “Now, what are you going to do?”

Brone seemed dazed. “I...I can inquire quietly again after Chaven’s whereabouts, I suppose, but the trail has probably long gone cold.”

“You can do more than that. You can help Utta and myself make our way to the camp of those fairy-people, those... what are they called? Qar? We’ve always called them the Twilight Folk, I don’t know why everyone has to change. In any case, I want to go to them. After all, they are only on the other side of the bay.”

Now it was Utta’s turn to be astonished. “Your Grace, what are you saying? Go out to the Qar? They are murderous creatures—they have killed hundreds of your people.”

The duchess flapped her hands in dismissal of Utta’s concern. “Yes, I’m sure they are terrible, but if they won’t tell me where my son is then I don’t much care what they do with me. I want answers. Why steal my child? Why put me through year upon year of torture, only to send him back as young as the day he was taken? I saw him, you know, at Kendrick’s funeral. I thought I’d truly gone mad. And why should this happen now? It has something to do with all this other nonsense, mark my words.”

“You’’re really certain you saw him?” Utta asked.

“He was my child.” Merolanna’s face had gone chilly, hard. “Would you fail to recognize your revered Zoria if she appeared in your chapel? I saw him—my poor, dear little boy.” She turned back to Brone. “Well?”

He took a deep, ragged breath, then let it out. “ mistake me for someone who still wields some power, instead of a broken old warhorse who has been beaten out to pasture.”

“Ah. So that is how it is?” She turned to Sister Utta. “You may go, dear. If you will do me the kindness of coming to my chambers this afternoon perhaps we may talk more then. We have much to decide. In the meantime, I have a little persuasion to do here.” She turned a sharp eye toward Brone. “And tell that page waiting in the hall outside that when I’m done, his master will need a bath and something to eat. The count has work to do.”

Utta went out, awed and a little frightened by Merolanna’s strength and determination. She was going to bend Brone to her will somehow, there seemed little doubt, but would that force of character be enough when it came time to deal with all their enemies—with cruel Hendon Tolly, or the immortal and alien Twilight People?

Suddenly the castle seemed no longer any kind of refuge to Utta, but only a cold box of stone sitting in the middle of a cold, cold world.

“Don’t I know you?” the guard asked Tinwright. He took a step closer and pushed his round, stubbled face close to the poet’s own. “Wasn’t I going to smash your skull in?”

Matt Tinwright’s knees were feeling a bit wobbly. As if things weren’t bad enough already, this was indeed the same guard who had objected to Tinwright having a little adventure with his lady friend some months back in an alley behind The Badger’s Boots. “No, no, you must be thinking of someone else,” he said, trying to smile reassuringly. “But if there’s anything else I can do for you, other than having my skull smashed...”

“Leave him be,” said the other guard with more amusement than sympathy. “If Lord Tolly’s got it in for him, they’ll do worse to him soon than you could ever imagine. Besides, he might want this fellow unmarked.”

The fat-faced guard peered at the trembling poet like a shortsighted bull trying to decide whether to charge toward something. “Right. Well, if His Lordship doesn’t flog you raw or something like, then you and I still have a treat to look forward to.”

“By the gods, how sensible!” Tinwright stepped away, putting his back against the wall. “Wouldn’t want to interfere with His Lordship’s plans, of course. Well considered.”

And it would have been a narrow escape, except that Tinwright did not for a moment believe he would be alive to avoid future meetings with the vengeful guard. Surely it could not be a coincidence that Hendon Tolly had summoned him so soon after his moment of madness in the garden with Elan M’Cory, kissing her hands, protesting his love. Before this, Tolly had paid Matt Tinwright no more attention than one of the dogs under the table. He’s going to kill me. The thought of it made his knees go wobbly again and he had to dig his fingers into the cracks of the wall behind him to remain upright. He barely resisted the impulse to run. But, oh, gods, maybe it is something harmless. To run would be to declare guilt...!

Matty Tinwright had received the summons in the morning from one of the castellan Havemore’s pages. Tinwright had thought the boy was looking at him strangely as he handed over the message; when he read it, he knew why.

Matthias Tinwright will come to the throne room today after morning prayers.

It was signed with a “T” for “Tolly” and sealed with the Summerfield boar-and-spears crest. The moment the page had left the room Tinwright had been helplessly, noisily sick into the chamber pot.

Now he clung to the wall and watched the fat guard and his friend talk aimlessly of this and that. Would they or anyone else remember him when he was dead? The fat one would celebrate! And no one else in the castle would care, either, except poor, haunted Elan and perhaps old Puzzle. Such a fate for someone who hoped to do great things...!

But I have done no great things. Nor, to be honest (and I might as well try to get in practice if I’m going to be standing before the gods soon) have I really tried. I thought becoming a court poet would bring greatness with it, but I have done no work of note. A few lines about Zoria for the princess, but nothing since Dekamene—a poem I thought might be my making, but with Briony gone it has ground to a halt. Not my best work, anyway, if I’m telling the truth. And what else? A few scribbles for Puzzle, songs, amusements. A commission or two for young nobles wanting some words to put their sweethearts in a bedable mood. In all—nothing. I’ve wasted my life and talent, if I ever truly had any.

He was still cold as ice behind his ribs, but the numbness above the waist was coupled with a sudden, fierce need to piss.

That’s a man in his last hour, Tinwright thought miserably. Thinking about poetry, looking for the privy.

The door to the throne room crashed open. “Where’s the poet?” said a brawny guardsman. “There you are. Come on, don’t pull away—it’ll all be over soon enough.”

The throne room was crowded, as usual. A pentecount of royal guards dressed in full armor and the wolf-and-stars livery of the Eddons stood by the walls, along with nearly that many of Hendon Tolly’s own armed bravos, distinguishable from the nobles and rich merchants by the coldness of their stares and the way that even as they talked, they never looked at the person with whom they were speaking, but let their eyes rove around the room. The other courtiers were more conventionally occupied, quietly arguing or gossiping. Almost none of them looked up as Tinwright was led through the room, too deeply occupied in the business of the moment. In the current court of Southmarch, with much property newly masterless and hundreds of nobles vanished in the war against the fairies, the pickings were rich. A man of dubious breeding could quickly become a man of fortune.

Still, the court had always been a bustling place, a hive of ambition and vanity, but one thing was certainly different from the way things had been here only a few months ago: during the short regency of Barrick and Briony the throne room had been raucous, less quiet and orderly than in Olin’s day (or so Tinwright had been told, since he had never been in the throne room, or even the Inner Keep, in Olin’s day) but even at its most respectful and ritualistic, the missing king’s throne room had been a place of clamorous conversation. Now it was nearly silent. As Tinwright was led across the room by the guard, the knots of people unraveling before them so they could pass, the noise never rose above a loud whisper. It was like being in a dovecote at night—nothing but quiet rustling.

Like a cold wind through dry leaves, he thought, and felt his stomach lurch again. Gods of hill and valley, they’re going to kill me! The oath, one of his mother’s that he hadn’t thought of, much less used, for years, brought him no solace. Zosim, cleverest of gods, are you listening? Save me from this monstrous fate and I...I’ll build you a temple. When I have the money. Even to himself, this sounded like a hollow promise. What else would the patron of poets and drunkards desire? I’ll put a bottle of the finest Xandian red wine on your altar. Don’t let Hendon Tolly kill me! But Zosim was famous for his fickleness. The sickening weight pressed down on Tinwright and he struggled not to weep.

Zoria, blessed virgin, if you ever loved mankind, if you ever pitied fools who meant no harm, help me now! I will be a better man. I promise I will be a better man.

Hendon Tolly was not in the chair where he ordinarily held court. Tirnan Havemore stood beside the empty seat instead, peering at a sheaf of papers in his hand, his spectacles halfway down his nose.

“Who is this wretch?” Havemore asked, looking at the poet over the rim of his lenses. “Tinwright, isn’t that it?” He turned and held out his hand. The page standing behind him put a piece of thick, official-looking parchment in his hand. Havemore squinted at it. “Ah, yes. He’s to be executed, it says here.”

Matty Tinwright screeched. The world spun wildly, it seemed, then he realized it was himself—or rather it wasn’t him, it was the world: he was flat on his back and the world wasn’t simply spinning, it was whirling like a child’s top, and he was about to be sick. He only just swallowed the bile back down.

As he lay with his cheek against the stones and the sour taste of vomit in his mouth, he heard Havemore speak again, in irritation. “Look at what you’ve done, lackwit! It’s not Tinwright at all to be executed, this says someone named Wainwright—fellow who strangled a reeve.” The poet heard a grunt and a squeak of pain as the castellan struck his page. “Can’t you read, idiot child? I wanted the order for ‘Tinwright,’ not ‘Wainwright’!” Matt Tinwright could hear more rustling of parchment and the whispering of the surrounding courtiers rose again like a flock of bats taking flight. “Here it is. He’s to wait for His Lordship.”

“No need—I am here,” said a new voice. A pair of black boots trimmed with silver chains stopped beside Tinwright’s face where it rested against the floor. “And here is the poet. Still, it seems a strange place to wait.”

Tinwright had just enough sense to scramble to his feet. Hendon Tolly watched him rise, the corner of his mouth cocked in a charmless grin, then turned away and moved to his regent’s chair, which he dropped himself into with the practiced ease of a cat jumping down off a low wall. “Tinwright, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Lord. I was...I was told you wanted to see me.”

“I did, yes, but not necessarily in that strange position. What were you doing on the floor?”

“I...I was told I was to be executed.”

Hendon Tolly laughed. “Really? And so you fainted, did you? I suppose it would be the kind thing, then, for me to tell you that nothing like that is planned.” He was grinning, but his eyes were absolutely cold. “Unless I decide to execute you anyway. The day has been short on amusements.”

Oh, merciful gods, Tinwright thought. He plays with me as if I were a mouse. He swallowed, tried to take a breath without bursting into helpless sobs. “ you plan to kill me, then, Lord Guardian?”

Tolly cocked his head. He was dressed in the finery of a Syannese court dandy, with pleated scarlet tunic and black sleeves immensely puffed above the elbow, and his hair was dressed in foppish strands that hung down into his eyes, but Tinwright knew beyond doubt that if the mood took him this overdressed dandy could murder the poet or anyone else as quickly and easily as an ordinary man could kick over a chair.

The guardian of Southmarch narrowed his eyes until they were almost closed, but his stare still glinted. “I am told you are...ambitious.”

Elan. He does know. “I-I’m not sure...what you mean, Lord.”

Tolly flicked his fingers as if they were wet. “Don’t parse words with me. You know what the word ‘ambitious’ means. Are you? Do you have eyes above your station, poet?”

“I...I wish to better myself, sir. As do most men.” Tolly leaned forward, smiling as though he had finally found something worth hunting, or trapping, or killing. “Ah, but is that so? I think most men are cattle, poet. I think they hope to be ignored by the wolves, and when one of their fellows is taken they all move closer together and start hoping again. Men of ambition are the wolves—we must feed on the cattle in order to survive, and it makes us cleverer than they. What do you think, Tinwright? Is that a, what do you call it, a metaphor? Is it a good metaphor?”

Puzzled, Tinwright almost shook his head in confusion, but realized it might be mistaken as a denial of Hendon Tolly’s words. Did the guardian fancy himself a poet? What would that mean for Tinwright? “Yes, Lord, of course, it is a metaphor. A very good one, I daresay.”

“Hah.” Tolly toyed with the grip of his sword. Other than the royal guardsmen, he was the only one in the room with a visible weapon. Tinwright had heard enough stories about his facility with it that he had to struggle not to stare as Tolly caressed the hilt. “I have a commission for you,” the guardian of Southmarch said at last. “I heard your song about Caylor and thought it quite good work, so I have decided to put you to honest labor.”

“I beg your pardon?” Matt Tinwright could not have listed a group of words he had less expected to hear.

“A commission, fool—unless you think you are too good to take such work. But I hear otherwise.” Tolly gave him that blank, contemplative stare again. “In fact, I hear much of your time is spent making up to your betters.”

This made Tinwright think uncomfortably about Elan M’Cory again. Was the talk of commission just a ruse? Was Tolly just playing some abstract, cruel game with him before having him killed? Still, he did not dare to behave as anything other than an innocent man. “I would be delighted, Lord. I have never received a greater honor.”

His new patron smiled. “Not true. In fact, I hear you were given an important task by a highborn lady. Isn’t that true?”

Tinwright knew he must look like a rabbit staring at a swaying serpent. “I don’t catch your meaning, my lord.”

Tolly settled back in the chair, grinning. “Surely you have not forgotten your poem in praise of our beloved Princess Briony?”

“Oh! Oh, no, sir. No, but...but I confess my heart has not been in it of late...”

“Since her disappearance. Yes, a feeling we all share. Poor Briony. Brave girl!” Tolly did not even bother to feign sorrow. “We all wait for news of her.” He leaned forward. Havemore had reappeared beside his chair and was rattling his papers officiously. “Now, listen closely, Tinwright. I find it a good idea to keep a man of your talents occupied, so I wish you to prepare an epic for me, for a special occasion. My brother Caradon is coming and will be here the first day of the Kerneia—Caradon, Duke of Summerfield? You do know the name?”

Tinwright realized he had been staring openmouthed, still not certain he would survive this interview. “Yes, of course, sir. Your older brother. A splendid man...!”

Hendon cut off the paean with a wave of his hand. “I want something special in honor of his visit, and the Tolly family’s...stewardship of Southmarch. You will provide a poem, something in a fitting style. You are to make your verses on the fall of Sveros.”

“Sveros, the god of the evening sky?” said Tinwright, amazed. He could not imagine either of the Tolly brothers as lovers of religious poetry.

“What other? I would like the story of his tyrannical rule— and of how he was deposed by three brothers.”

It was the myth of the Trigon, of course, Perin and his brothers Erivor and Kernios destroying their cruel father. “If that is what you want, Lord...of course!”

“I find it highly appropriate, you see.” Tolly grinned again, showing his teeth and reminding the poet that this man was a wolf even among other wolves. “Three brothers, one of them dead—because Kernios was killed, of course, before he came back to life—who must overthrow an old, useless king.” He flicked a finger. “Get to work, then. Keep yourself busy. We would not want such a gifted fellow as you to fall into idleness. That breeds danger for young men.”

Three brothers, one dead, overthrow the king, Tinwright thought as he bowed to his new patron. Surely that’s the Tollys taking Olin’s throne. He wants me to write a celebration of himself stealing the throne of Southmarch!

But even as this idea roiled in his guts, another one crept in. He’s as much as said he’ll kill me if I cause him any trouble—if I go near Elan. Clever Zosim, protector of fools like me, what can I do?

“You will perform it at the feast on the first night of Kerneia,” Tolly said. “Now you may go.”

Before going back to his rooms Tinwright stumbled into the garden so he could be alone as he threw up into a box hedge.

“What are you doing, woman?” Brone tried to get up, grimaced in pain, and slumped back down into his chair.

“Don’t speak to me that way. You will refer to me as ‘Your Grace.’”

“We’re alone now. Isn’t that why you sent the priestess away?”

“Not so you could insult me or treat me like a chambermaid. We have a problem, Brone, and by that I mean you and I.”

“But what were you thinking? You have kept the secret for years, and now it seems that everyone in the castle must know.”

“Don’t exaggerate.” Merolanna looked around the small room. “It’s bad enough you stay seated when a lady is in the room, but have you not even a chair to offer me? You are nearly as rude as Havemore.”

“That miserable, treacherous whoreson...” He growled in frustration. “There is a stool on the other side of the desk. Forgive me, Merolanna. It really is agony to stand. My gout...”

“Yes, your gout. Always it has been something—your age, your duties. Always something.” She found the stool and pulled it out, settling herself gingerly on its small seat, her dress spreading around her like the tail of a bedraggled pheasant. “Well. Now is the time when you can make no more excuses, Brone. The fairies are across the bay. Olin and the twins are gone and their throne is in terrible danger —the Eddons are your own kin, remember, however distant.”

“You don’t need to tell me that I have failed my family and my king, woman,” Brone growled. “That is the song I sing myself to sleep with every night.” He didn’t seem anywhere near as bleary as he had only a short time ago.

“Then listen now. The Tollys have their hands around the throat of the kingdom. And somehow—somehow, though I don’t pretend to understand it—my child is involved. Our child.”

“I cannot believe you told Barrick and Briony.” She scowled. “I am not a fool. I said the father was dead.”

He looked at her and his face softened. “Merolanna, I did my best. I never turned my back on you.”

“Too little and too late, always.” “I offered to marry you. I begged you...!”

“After your own wife was dead. By then I had grown quite used to widowhood, thank you. Twenty years after I was foolish enough to fall in love with you. Too late, Avin, too late.”

“You were the wife of the king’s brother. What was I to do, demand he give you a bill of divorce?”

“And I was older than you, too. But I recall that neither of those things stopped you when you wanted my favors.” She paused, took a ragged breath. “Enough of this. It is also too late for fighting this way. We are old, Brone, and we have made terrible mistakes. Let us do what we can now to repair some of them, because the stakes are bigger than our own happiness.”

“What do you want me to do, Merolanna? You see me— old, sick, cut off from power. What do you want me to do?”

“Find Chaven. Find this moon-stone. And help me to cross the bay so I can meet these fairy folk and ask them what they did with my son.”

“Do you mean it? You are mad. But mad or not, I can’t help you.”

She dragged herself to her feet. “You coward! Everything you worked for your entire life is being stolen by the Tollys, and you sit there, doing nothing...!” She leaned across the table and raised her hand as though she would strike him. Brone reached up and caught at it, folding his immense paw around hers.

“Calm yourself, Merolanna,” he said. “You do not know as much as you think you do. Do you know what happened to Nynor?”

“Yes, of course! They pushed him out so they could give his honors and duties to your lickspittle factor, Havemore! Nynor’s gone back to his house in the country.”

“No, curse it, he’s dead. Hendon’s men killed him and threw his body in the ocean.”

For a moment the duchess faltered and if Brone had not been holding her hand, she might have fallen. She pulled away and sat down. “Nynor is dead?” she said at last. “Steffens Nynor?”

“Murdered, yes. He was talking against the Tollys and he spoke to someone he shouldn’t have. Word got back to Hendon. Berkan Hood dragged Nynor out of his bed in the middle of the night and murdered him.” Brone clenched his fists until his knuckles went white. “I heard it myself from someone who was there. They cut that good old man into pieces and smuggled his body out of the castle in a grain barrel. They can’t quite get away yet with slaughtering their enemies without even a mock trial. Not quite.”

“Oh, by all the gods, is that true? Killed him?” Merolanna abruptly began to cry. “Poor Steffens! The Tollys are demons—we are surrounded by demons!” She made the sign of the Three, then wiped at her face with her sleeve and tried to compose herself. “But that is all the more reason you must help me, Avin! There are things going on that...”

“No.” He shook his head again. “There are certainly things going on, and you don’t know all of them, Merolanna.” He looked around again. The guards were still not back, but he dropped his voice even lower. “Please, understand me, Your Grace—I have worked hard to convince Hendon and his party that I am no threat so I could put plans of my own into motion. I cannot afford for them to suspect otherwise. I will do what I can to find Chaven, because that would not seem unusual—the physician and I knew each other well. But I can do nothing else. I will not risk the small chance we have of saving Olin’s throne. Everything is balanced on a knife-edge.”

The duchess stared at him for a long time. “So that is your defense, is it?” She smiled a little, but her words had a bitter edge. “That you are already hard at work on other, more important things? Well and good. But I will discover this moon-piece myself if I must, and find out what happened to my child—our child—even if I have to pull this castle down stone by stone to do it.”

“You are no spy, Merolanna,” Brone told her gently.

“No. But I am a mother.” She reached a trembling hand up to touch her face. “Sweet Zoria, I must be a terrible mess. You’ve made me cry, Brone. I’ll have to repair myself before I go talk to Utta.” She gazed around the cluttered room, slowly and wearily now, energy mostly spent. “Look at this. We sit at the center of the capital of all the March Kingdoms but you do not even have a glass for an old woman to fix her face. How can it be so hard to find a simple mirror?”

Part Three


25. The Gray Man

The Firstborn were as large as mountains and as small as gems in the private earth. They came from all parts, choosing to side with either the children of Moisture or the children of Breeze, because the wounds would not close themselves and in the rising storm the only songs that could be heard were of blood and answers. Thus came the War in Heaven.

The children of Moisture first drew a ring around the house of Silvergleam, which had as many rooms as the number of times the People have drawn breath.

—from One Hundred Considerations, out of the Qar’s Book of Regret

He hit me.

Barrick’s anger had shrunk to a cold, hard thing inside his chest but it was not going away. He was glad: it gave him life, of a sort—better angry than empty. He stared at Ferras Vansen, who was chewing a piece of stale bread. The rest of the prisoners, quickly sorted into winners and losers after the goblin guards had thrown the bowl of slops into the middle of the cell, were nursing either their meals or their wounds. Some of the smaller ones were so thin and undernourished that it was clear they had given up competing for food and were just waiting to die. But Barrick did not care about such hapless creatures.

He had no right!

Stop. Gyir pushed Barrick’s hand with the heel of bread in it. Eat. He brought you food.

But he hit me!

I would have hit you myself if I had been closer. You were acting like a nestling—no, not even that. No child of the People would be so foolish. This is a dangerous place— how dangerous we do not even know yet. There is no time to waste on such tricks. A percussive thump jarred the floor of the cell like a giant hammer falling in the depths of the earth below them. Barrick had heard the thunderous noise, like a cannon firing, many times since being captured; the other prisoners did not even look up.

Gyir pulled a chunk from his own loaf, one of the largest pieces any of the prisoners had secured, and slipped the rest into his cloak. What you don’t eat, save. We may need it later.

Why? Barrick asked, making the thought as bitter as he could. You don’t even eat, do you? Besides, this is a god who has captured us. What can we do?

No, I said Jikuyin was a demigod, not a god. Trust me, there is a world of difference. What can we do? Wait and watch—and, especially, think. They have taken our weapons but not our wits. The fairy hesitated for a moment, as if he had something more to say. Then, to Barrick’s astonishment, Gyir’s face peeled away from the bone, rolling up from his chin to just below his eyes.

No, that wasn’t it, the prince realized after a boggled moment. The featureless skin between what would have been the chin and nose on an ordinary man had folded back, flexible as a horse’s upper lip, exposing even paler flesh beneath, shiny with damp, and a small, almost circular mouth. Vansen was staring now, too. Ignoring them both, Gyir pushed a piece of bread into the toothy hole. Bones and muscles worked beneath the second layer of skin—his jaw was clearly hinged in a different way than theirs—as he chewed, then swallowed. The fairy stared back at his two companions as if daring them to speak.

Yes, your question is answered now, Gyir said at last. He seemed almost angry. This is how one of the Encauled eats. It is not pretty, But how do you breathe? Barrick asked. You keep it... your mouth...covered all the time.

Gyir brushed his lank, dark hair back from the side of his head. There are slits here behind my ears, like a fish’s gills. When necessary, I can close them. The next thought was a curious, wordless burst of something Barrick could not at first grasp. That way, I do not drown when it rains hard, he finished. The wordless sensation had been a laugh, Barrick realized, although not a happy one.

Gyir ate the rest of his piece of bread, then the flap of skin folded back down again, curling just beneath his chin like the skin of a drum, leaving him smooth as ivory once more beneath the red eyes. So, he said. Your curiosity has been satisfied. That is what it means to be born with the Caul. Now perhaps we can go back to thinking about what is truly important. Gyir rose and stretched. Several of the other prisoners scuttled away, but he ignored them. I feel stronger than I did—I think the power of our enemy’s voice has affected me, somehow—but I could not directly challenge a force like Jikuyin on my best day. Still, if he is as careless as he has been in the past, we have a chance.

“What do you mean?” Vansen said aloud.

Do not use your voices, Gyir ordered. I will interpret between the two of you when necessary.

Barrick scowled. Only a day before it had been him alone to whom Gyir would speak, but now the soldier was included in everything. What good was suffering as Barrick had suffered if it did not make him special?

The immortals, for all their power, always had one weakness, Gyir said. They do not change and they do not learn. Jikuyin is fearsome but he was always a fool—one who thought himself greater than he was. Gyir spread his fingers in an unfamiliar gesture, something that smacked of ritual. He took the side of the Onyenai—our side, I can call it, because my folk also fought with the Onyenai—in one of the last great battles of gods, monsters, and men. But Jikuyin did not attack when he should have, thinking perhaps to let both sides damage themselves to his own betterment. Even then, he was ambitious.

When he did come to the field with his legion of Widowmakers, it was too late. The Onyenai had been defeated, but the Surazemai—Perin and his brothers and their allies—were still strong. Jikuyin was trapped and could not retreat. In his foolish pride, he attacked great Kernios himself, killing one of the Earthfather’s sons, the demigod Annon. But Kernios in his rage was far beyond Jikuyin. One cast of his great spear Earthstar shattered Jikuyin’s shield, broke his helmet, and destroyed his face. He would have died then but his Widowmakers, seeing that there would be no spoils for them, managed to drag their wounded lord from the field. Many thought him dead afterward, but the People have always said that no one knew Jikuyin’s true fate. We were right to be cautious.

So what does he want? Barrick could make little sense of the story itself, which seemed like a confused shadowversion of what Father Timoid had taught them about the gods. Why take us prisoner? What does he mean to do with us?

Gyir lifted his hand, his eyes suddenly grown tensely alert in his featureless face. Say no more. Someone is coming.

Creatures of various sorts had been passing in and out of the huge prison cavern for hours—guards leading individual captives and groups away or bringing them back, the limping, overburdened goblins with their buckets of food. A few times the Longskulls had even showed up with ragged bands of new prisoners, but this was the first time Gyir had appeared to take any notice. Barrick felt his heart speed.

The heavy bronze door of the cell swung open and a squadron of the bristling, apelike guards came in, their menacing appearance and heavy clubs quickly clearing a space as prisoners hurried to get out of their way—even those still bickering over food went still and shrank back against the walls. Silence fell over the chamber. Was the giant demigod himself coming? Barrick suddenly found it hard to breathe. Would the monster even fit through the massive cell doors without getting down on his hands and knees?

Instead, the individual who entered the prison chamber was of ordinary man-size, wearing a hooded robe so black that the light of the torches seemed to fall into it and die, as if someone had taken a knife to the fabric of what was visible and simply cut out a piece. Hands so fleshless they seemed nothing but bone, sinew, and skin pulled back his hood, revealing a shaved head and a face as gaunt as a Xandian mummy, nearly every line of his skull visible beneath pearly gray skin that was thin as a lady’s fine silk stocking. He might have been a corpse just beginning to putrefy but for his eyes, which glistened silvery blue-green like twin moons in the depths of his dark sockets.

“My master told me to make sure you were comfortable.” The terrifying stranger’s voice was as expressionless as his face. He did not blink. As far as Barrick could tell, he did not even have eyelids, his gaze as fixed and unchanging as that of a fish. “Comfortable...and secure. But I think with such a one as the Storm Lantern in your company, you should have more private accommodations.” He raised his bony hand and beckoned them. “Follow.”

The brutish guards stepped forward, tiny eyes almost invisible beneath their thick brows, stone clubs lifted menacingly. Barrick tried to rise, but he was trembling uncontrollably and managed it only with Vansen’s help. He shook the soldier off and fell in behind Gyir, who was following the black-robed figure toward the back of the long, high-ceilinged chamber. The stranger moved in a disturbingly graceful glide, as though his feet did not quite touch the floor.

Who is this gray man? Barrick asked, fighting down terror. What is he going to do with us?

Gyir did not turn his head. Do not speak—aloud or otherwise—and do not resist. This is Ueni’ssoh of the Dreamless. He is not a god but he is very old and very powerful. Silence!

Barrick stumbled after Gyir, hemmed in by the shaggy giant Followers. Even with his stomach all but empty the sour stink of their fur made him feel ill. The three prisoners were forced into a narrow stone room that had been carved into the naked rock at the back of the vast prison chamber, closed off from the rest of the cavern by another heavy door with a barred window. This smaller cell was empty except for a single stinking hole in the floor for waste, dark except for the torchlight leaking in through the window in the door. Barrick had to breathe deeply simply to keep down the scream that was building in him.

The gray man appeared in the doorway. For long moments he stared at them in silence.

You have come down in the world, Ueni’ssoh, said Gyir. Once you were mighty among your own people. Now it seems you have become court conjurer for a bandit-lord.

If this was meant to goad or distract the gray man somehow, it failed. His voice remained as bloodless as before. “The master said you were a strange little company, and he spoke truly. Your presence here makes no sense to me. That is something I do not like. You—the young one. Come here. Storm Lantern, if you try to interfere these brutes will kill you.”

Tell him nothing! Gyir’s words flew into Barrick’s head like arrows. Think of other things. Tell nothing!

Ueni’ssoh’s unblinking stare was fixed on Barrick; there seemed nothing else in the narrow cell but those eyes shining like two blue flames. Before he knew it, Barrick had stumbled forward and stood helplessly in front of the gray creature, swaying in the icy heat of that mortal glare. He could feel the Dreamless plucking and prying at his deepest thoughts as if those long, cadaverous fingers had opened his skull like a jewel box.

No! He shut his eyes tight. Think of something else, he told himself desperately. Anything! He tried to imagine nothingness, true nothingness, but the featureless white that he summoned gradually took on shape, until it became snow in the garden outside his chamber in the residence at Southmarch—a view he had seen countless times. Barrick Eddon could feel the gray man’s interest like a moving ache. He tried desperately to turn his mind somewhere else, struggling to protect himself from this terrible, fearful prying, but the snow in his mind’s eye was all but real now —deep, new snow, mounded against the chimneys and on the skeletal branches of the trees. His own sitting room, chill on an Ondekamene morning despite the fire burning in the hearth behind him. Leaning on his good arm, staring out his window...alone? No, not alone... “What are you looking at, redling?”

“Ravens. They’re comical. That one’s stolen something from the kitchen, see? And the other’s trying to get it from him.”

“They’re hungry. That’s not comical.” She stepped up beside him, then, her golden hair like a sudden appearance of the sun. “We should feed them.”

“Feed the ravens?” He laughed harshly. “You’re mad, strawhead. What should we do after that, go out into the hills and feed the wolves? Even if we took them the whole of Bronze’s litter, the wolves would be hungry again tomorrow.” He pretended to consider. “But perhaps there might be enough of those whelps to feed the ravens...”

Briony hit him—not hard—and scooped the puppy up off the bed. “Did you hear that, Nelli? Did you hear what he said about you and your brothers and sisters? Isn’t he a cruel monster?”

He turned and looked at her then, really looked at her. The light in her eyes was magical. Sometimes he felt as though she were the only person beside himself in the great castle that was truly alive. “Mad,” he said, and let himself smile. “See? Talking to dogs. Mad as can be.”

“It’s not me who’s mad, Barrick Eddon. It’s you. Now stop this nonsense about snow and ravens. Tell me what I want to know.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look at me,” she said, but she didn’t sound quite like herself any more. “Tell me why you are here.”

“Why...? I don’t understand you.”

“You understand—you do. Don’t waste my time. Why are you here?”

He felt his breath catch in his chest. That’s not...Briony wouldn’t...!

A cold wave of surprise and fear suddenly washed over him and he found himself staring into the coldly gleaming eyes of Ueni’ssoh once more.

A tiny smile curled the slate-colored lips. “So. Stronger than I would have guessed, and with some...interesting flavors. What about the other sunlander? Might he prove a little less stubborn?”

The gray man abruptly swiveled to look at Gyir, as if he felt some movement from his direction. “No, I will not strive with you, Storm Lantern—not yet. I will enjoy that too much, and I like to anticipate my pleasures.” The cadaverous face turned to Ferras Vansen and Barrick felt himself abruptly released, as if a powerful hand had let go of the nape of his neck. He slumped helplessly to his knees as Vansen trudged past him and then stopped before the black-robed man like an obedient servant.

After staring at the guardsman for several heartbeats, Ueni’ssoh raised his hand. Vansen swayed and crumpled to the floor.

“Interesting,” Ueni’ssoh said, showing long, narrow teeth as gray as his skin. “You both shield yourself with the thought of the same female. I shall ponder on this.” He turned and glided out of the low-ceilinged chamber, followed by the bestial guards. The door slammed, plunging the room into almost complete darkness as the bolt rattled home.

What will they do with us? Barrick asked Gyir, but the faceless warrior did not answer him. “What’s going to happen?” Barrick finally said aloud. “Are...are they going to kill us?”

“Even if they keep us alive,” Vansen said grimly, “I doubt we’ll like it much.”

I said you two should be silent and I meant it. Gyir’s anger blew into Barrick’s head like a winter wind. We are in terrible danger and every word you speak aloud is a risk.

But you won’t talk to me! Barrick knew it sounded petty, but he didn’t care. What had happened to the Barrick Eddon of a few days ago, when he had not cared whether he was alive or dead? You just sit there.

I am not being silent out of some ill humor, Gyir told him. I am...testing myself. And thinking. What does that mean?

Stop. Gyir closed his eyes. Let me be alone with my thoughts, boy. Otherwise, the lives of far more than we three may be forfeit.

Miserable and terrified, with no room to pace, Barrick could only sit and breathe in the dreadful, stretching silence.

Prince Barrick had fallen asleep at last, for which Vansen was grateful. Gyir stirred and then, in one smoothly nimble motion, rose to his feet—impressive, considering he had been sitting on the hard stone for hours.

Are they just older than us, these fairies, and schooled in different ways? Vansen wondered. Is it all tricks of magic they’ve learned? Or are they truly stronger and better than we are in everything? He would never be able to forget the way the Twilight People had slashed through his men at Kolkan’s Field like wolves through pampered house dogs.

Gyir moved to the door of the cell and stood close to the grille, looking out into the larger prison room beyond.

Is someone coming? Vansen was beginning to feel disturbingly comfortable with this unspeaking speech.

The fairy lifted his pale hand. Quiet.

Rebuked, Vansen clambered to his feet to see for himself, but Gyir waved him back. The fairy was doing more than observing, Vansen realized: Gyir had an expression of fierce concentration in his narrowed eyes, and, as the torchlight from the door grille moved across the fairy’s face Vansen could even see veins bulging at the sides of the Storm Lantern’s ivory brow.

Ferras Vansen watched as the fairy looked from one side of the chamber to the other. Gyir’s gaze lit on one of the larger, more human-looking prisoners, manlike but shaggy and yellow as a buttercup, with long, splay-toed feet and a starry snout like a burrowing mole. The creature raised its head and looked around with nothing more than slow curiosity at first, but then began to twitch as though beset by flying insects. It grabbed at its ears as if to shut out some loud noise, then staggered upright and lurched toward Gyir and the bronze door.

The yellow fairy stopped, its flowerlike muzzle only inches from the grille, its eyes wide. Gyir lifted a hand and its eyes fell shut, then he extended his long fingers through the bars until he could touch the creature lightly on the forehead, then he closed his own eyes.

For long moments they stood that way, unmoving, as if sharing some ancient ritual. At last the yellow fairy took an awkward step backward, shook its head, then turned and walked away without a backward glance. Gyir stood watching it for a moment before he swayed and collapsed.

Ferras Vansen caught the fairy as he fell, grunting at the weight, although Gyir was lighter than his size would have suggested. As he lowered the Storm Lantern to the cell floor Vansen could not help noticing the fairy’s smell, an odd mixture of ocean tang, leather, and cloying, flowery scents.

Fear not—I will survive. There was a dry edge to Gyir’s thoughts which Vansen recognized as amusement. Just let me rest.

What did you do?

Must rest. The fairy did not even lay his head on his arm— the red eyes simply shut.

Prince Barrick had awakened by the time Gyir sat up again, rubbing his head as though it ached. “What have you two done?” the boy demanded of Vansen. “He won’t tell me.” Vansen had no doubt the prince was speaking aloud to irritate Gyir, and couldn’t help wondering if the boy’s father had ever simply taken Barrick over his knee and given him a good thrashing.

“I couldn’t tell you, Highness, because I didn’t understand it myself.”

I have asked several times for silence. I will not ask again. Gyir’s brow wrinkled, which was his way of frowning. Listen. Outside their tiny cell Vansen could hear the growling of the guards and the moans and shrills of protesting prisoners.

They are harrying the next gang out to work and I must... narrow my thoughts. Deepen them. I am going to look through the eyes of one of them—the yellow one that Captain Vansen saw. I will see what he does, where he goes, and discover something of this place.

Vansen was puzzled. But I thought you were...crippled, you said. By what those Followers did to you.

I have recovered, somewhat. In fact, I think my recovery was caused, or at least hastened, by being in the presence of Jikuyin, battered by his voice. It would be nice to think that in capturing and imprisoning us, he has unwittingly given me back something of myself. He paused, clearly listening to something Barrick was saying.

I do not know if I have the strength, Gyir said at last. Then: Very well, you may be right. I will try. But if I grow too weak, I will cut the rope, as it were, and let the two of you fall away rather than give up my own connection.

What does that mean? Try what? Vansen asked, careful not to speak aloud again.

The young prince wants me to let you both see what I see through the eyes of the prisoner.

Can you really do that?

The fairy sat down with his back against the door, then beckoned Vansen and the prince toward him. Take my hands and close your eyes, shut out all distraction. He extended one long hand toward Vansen and the other toward Barrick, palms up, white fingers curled like the petals of water flowers. Go—take it.

Vansen did and was bemused to find nothing different, other than the obviously strange situation of holding the fairy’s chill, smooth hand.

No, you must shut out distraction. If you look around, if you squirm, if you even think too much, you make it more difficult for me to hold everything in my thoughts.

Vansen did his best to comply. At first he saw nothing except the floating sparks that usually populated the darkness behind closed lids. Then one of the sparks began to grow, its glow swelling, until it pushed out the blackness and filled his mind’s eye.

It was more than just sight, though, he realized as the great door swung open before him and he followed the small, hairy back of another prisoner out into the passageway. He thought he could even feel something of the yellow creature’s thoughts, although they were as strange to him as trying to hear meaning in birdsong. The thing he was inhabiting longed helplessly for home, an ache Vansen understood, but “home” to this creature seemed to mean deep woods and tangling leaves and the silver of snailtracks undisturbed on a damp forest floor. The thing had a name, too—something like “Praise-Sweet-Lisiya’s-Grace,” as far as Vansen could tell. It was terribly frightened, but had dissolved its fear in a passivity he could not understand, a certainty that nothing would change or even could change, that it could only follow what was before it, from meal to miserable meal and from one command to the next, unless something came at last to change this nightmare, even if that something was death itself.

It was a chilling way to feel, worse still to experience such hopelessness as if it were his own. Vansen did not try to sample any of the river of memories that ran just beneath the slow, awkward thoughts. He wanted only to get out of the creature’s thoughts entirely, as quickly as he could—he hated being in this trapped, pathetic, doomed thing...!

Something wrapped around him, soothing him as a parent would a child. It was Gyir, acting not out of pity, but because Vansen’s discomfort was affecting the fairy’s own composure. Vansen felt a wash of shame and did his best to choke down his discomfort and fear. Just watch, he told himself. Be strong. It’s not me. This thing is not me. But it was more frightening than he would ever have guessed to be trapped in someone else’s body.

The line of prisoners trudged downward through several sloping corridors and once down a flight of spiral steps so long that Vansen feared he would soon be seeing the face of Immon the immortal gatekeeper. In these depths they could better hear the thunderous sounds that had rumbled up to the prisoner chamber. They were not constant, or even regular, but every hundred dragging steps or so a loud thump seemed to rattle the very stone around them.

They passed dozens of the hairy guards and hundreds of other prisoners returning from the depths, most of the groups as queerly mixed as their own, but some more obviously collected for a certain limited task, like the group of short, heavy-muscled creatures with heads sunk deep between their huge shoulders, each one carrying a bronze pick like a spearman marching to war. The most chilling thing about these squat diggers was not their silence or their faintly luminous, mushroom-colored skin, but the absence of eyes in the crude faces nestling just above their breastbones.

When they reached the bottom of the stairs at last, the guards marched the yellow fairy and his companions through a few more corridors and down one last slope, then through a heavy wooden door. A wheeled cart the size of a large hay wain stood untended in a chamber slightly bigger than the one in which the prisoners were housed, its wheels sunk deep into tracks through what looked like centuries worth of dust. At the far end of the chamber was an open door large enough for the cart to pass through, with only darkness visible behind. At the near end of the room a shaft led straight down, with a system of large pulleys strung above it and ropes cobwebbing down into the measureless depths.

Vansen did his best to understand what he was seeing through the forest-fairy’s eyes, but could make little sense of it. Were they supposed to take something from the door at one end and then lower it down the shaft? Gold? Jewels? Or did the exchange more likely go the other way around, the dirt and rubble from the mine’s digging, source of all this dust, sent aboveground for disposal?

The brutish guards finished herding the rest of the prisoners into the room but did not stop to give directions, if they were even capable of such a thing. Instead, a few of the shaggy, club-wielding creatures stayed behind to guard the prisoners—it was hard to tell exactly how many, since the star-nosed yellow fairy was doing his best to avoid eye contact with any of them—while the rest trooped out of the chamber. Whatever their work might be, the prisoners did not immediately spring to it, and the remaining guards did not seem to expect them to do so. The yellow fairy and his companions waited in attitudes of dull patience, but they did not have to wait long.

Vansen felt rather than heard a ragged sound—a shout from below—and most of the prisoners hurried to the pulleys above the deep, square pit, while others went to bring the wagon nearer. The slaves hauling on the ropes grunted and moaned until they had hauled a huge wooden basket up from the unseen depths, then they swung the basket out on a hinged arm until it dangled over the bed of the huge wagon. When they tipped it down several dozen corpses fell out in a limply flopping heap.

Vansen almost lost his grip on Gyir, or the fairy nearly lost his hold on Vansen.

One of bodies slid off the top of the pile and tumbled onto the stone floor beside the cart wheel, limp as a grain sack. The yellow fairy bent with another prisoner to lift the body— in life it had been a goblin, Vansen guessed, although the small creature’s hairy pelt was so caked with dust it was hard to be certain. There were no obvious marks of violence, at least not anything fatal: long weals ran across the dead goblin’s back, crisscrossed through the fur like roads being swallowed by undergrowth, but the skin had scarred long ago: it had not been the whipping that had killed this creature.

The yellow forest-fairy went about its grisly chores as though sleepwalking, which was just as well, since Ferras Vansen found it hard to watch what the creature was doing. It wrestled another fallen body back onto the cart, a bumpyskinned corpse of the star-nosed thing’s own type, with blood on its face but no other sign of violence. Vansen caught only the briefest moment of hesitation as the creature saw one of its own kind, then it turned away without looking at the face, pulling an emptiness over its thoughts that Vansen could feel. Nevertheless, it did not linger beside the corpse of its star-nosed kin, but walked around the back of the cart just as the creaking vehicle began to roll away from the pit. The yellow fairy bent one last time to pick up the corpse of a hard-shelled creature whose half-closed eyes and sagging mouth were the only parts of its face not covered by leathery plates of skin. The buglike thing was clearly heavier than the yellow fairy had expected; after a moment’s struggle, he decided to drag it instead of trying to lift it. As he pulled it scraping across the floor one of the other prisoners came to help—something that Vansen found oddly touching—and together they heaved the shelled thing back onto the cart.

Beyond the doorway at the chamber’s far end, a more or less level track led away into darkness. Within a few hundred paces the track grew deep with dust and the wagon slowed, then stopped. The yellow fairy and several other prisoners stepped up and pushed until it the wheels came free and began to roll again. Another thumping crash shook the cavern—Vansen could not hear it so much as he could see the way it knocked the yellow fairy and everything around him off-kilter—and for a moment the eyes through which he was looking stared straight down into nothingness: on the left side the path dropped away and the shadows stretched so deep the torchlight could not find their ending.

The prisoners steered the heavy cart very slowly around a bend in the track, trying not to let themselves or the wagon get too near the edge. Even so, one small captive was caught between the front wheel and the edge of the track; with a scream Vansen could barely hear, although he knew it must be hideously shrill in the yellow fairy’s ears, the little creature was swept off into darkness. The rest of the prisoners stopped, frightened and miserable, but blows from the guards’ clubs quickly set them moving again.

After they had finally coaxed the wagon around the difficult bend, they found themselves face-to-face with more of the hairy beast-guards coming along the track toward them. This group had scarves wrapped around their faces so that only their tiny eyes could be seen, which made them even more ominously strange. These new ape-things did not like to see their way blocked by the cart, and pointed forked spears at the prisoners, gesturing and grunting angrily until the yellow fairy and his comrades shrank back against the cliff face and let the masked creatures shove by. When they were gone, the woodsprite and his fellow prisoners laboriously heaved the corpse-wagon into motion again.

The part of Vansen that still thought as Vansen had wondered why they should be traveling so far, and where the bodies were being taken. Now he learned. As the wagon creaked onward the light grew stronger: there was clearly some other source besides the torches high on the walls above the narrow path. Only another hundred yards or farther the path turned and then turned again. The light and the sickening smell bloomed, and those prisoners who still wore rags of clothing tried to cover noses and mouths. The yellow fairy could do nothing except spread his hand over his muzzle, squeezing the star-shaped protuberance closed like a parent wrapping his fist around a child’s hand. Even through the curious dislocation of Gyir’s spell, Vansen could smell rotting flesh—the true stench must have been almost beyond belief.

For a moment Vansen could feel not just the woodsprite’s dull horror, and his own, but a flare of despair and dread from Prince Barrick as well, as though the boy were standing just beside him, or even just inside him. Barrick was fighting to get away, somehow, pushing back from the scene that stretched before them in the billowing firelight. Vansen felt Gyir’s connection to them all grow thin.

No! Gyir’s thoughts came like hammer blows. Do not turn away! Wait!

Dozens of guards, many in sacklike hooded robes that covered them almost entirely, swarmed along the floor of the vast cavern, which was little more than a shelf around a huge, open pit full of corpses, thousands of dead creatures of all kinds and sizes. Dirt brought in on ore carts by other guards was being shoveled in on top of the uppermost bodies. Fires burned everywhere, great bonfires at each corner of the huge hole and smaller fires tended by the guards in several of the wider places on the shelf around the pit, meant to disperse or consume the stench. The smoke and sparks swirled upward, and the heat of the fires and the air drawn in from the corridors that emptied into the pit chamber on all sides made the stinking winds rush in circles around the cavern before at last rising upward into the darkness of the cavern’s roof.

No. So many...! It is... Vansen did not know if the thoughts were his own now or Barrick’s, or perhaps even Gyir’s. All he knew was that the terrible sight blurred before him as if his eyes were filling with tears, then it all flew away into darkness and he was back in his own frail body once more, sprawled on the floor of the cell beside Gyir and Barrick, weak, ill, and horrorstricken.

26. Rising Wind

Uvis White-Hand, favorite of dark Zmeos, was wounded by Kernios and was taken from the field to die. In his rage, the Horned One beat down brave Volios of the Measureless Grip, stabbing him with his terrible sword Whitefire until the war god’s blood turned the river Rimetrail red, and at last the giant son of Perin staggered, fell, and died.

—from The Beginnings of Things, The Book of the Trigon

Pinimmon Vash, the Paramount Minister of Xis and its possessions all across Xand, looked at his closet with disaffection. Three boys, naked except for artful decorations of gold around their necks and ankles, cringed on the carpet. The slaves knew what it meant when their master was in an unhappy mood.

“I do not see my silk robe with my family nightingale crest. It should be in the closet. That robe is worth more than your entire families to the seventh generation. Where is it?” “You sent it to be cleaned, Master,” one of the slaves ventured after a long silence.

“I sent it to be cleaned and brought back. It has not been brought back. I am going on a voyage. I must have my nightingale robe.”

Vash was just debating which one of them to beat, and if he had time to beat two, when the messenger came. It was one of the Leopards, dressed in the full panoply of warfare and very conscious of the days of fire and blood just ahead. The soldier stood straight as a broomstraw in the doorway, touched his palm to his forehead in salute, and announced, “Our lord Sulepis, the Master of the Great Tent, requires your immediate attendance.”

Pinimmon Vash carefully hid his irritation: it was not wise in these days of universal upheaval to give anyone even the slightest thing to mention to an ambitious courtier or (might all gods forbid it!) the autarch himself. Still, it was annoying. He could not imagine when he would find the time before leaving to give these boys the discipline they deserved, and even his large shipboard cabin was a place of little privacy. Nothing to be done, though. The autarch had called.

“I come,” he said simply. The Leopard guard turned smartly on his heel and strode out of the room. Vash paused in the doorway.

“I will be back very soon,” he told his servants. “If the nightingale robe is not in the closet, all of you will go up the gangplank limping and weeping. If the robe is not in excellently clean condition, I will be taking other servants on my voyage. You three will be floating down the canal past your parents’ houses, but they will not recognize you to weep over you.”

The look on their faces was almost worth the tedium of having to go and listen to the ravings of his mad and extremely demanding monarch. Vash was an old man and he enjoyed the few simple pleasures left to him.

The autarch was being bathed in a room filled with hundreds of candles. Vash was all too used to seeing his master naked, but he had never quite grown unused to it. It was not because the autarch’s nakedness was an ugly thing, not at all: Sulepis was a young man, tall and fit, if a trifle too slender for Vash’s taste (which tended toward round cheeks and small, childlike bellies). No, it was that his nakedness, which should have provoked thoughts of vulnerability or intimacy, seemed...unimportant. As though Sulepis wore a body only because it was convenient, or demanded by his station, but really would have been just as comfortable with nothing more than a skeleton or skinless meat or the stone limbs of a statue. The autarch’s nakedness, Vash had decided, had nothing much of the human about it. He never felt even a twinge of desire, shame, or disgust looking at the autarch, when any other unclothed man or woman would summon one of those feelings, if not all.

“You called for me, Golden One?”

The autarch stared at him for a long moment, as though he had never seen his paramount minister before—as if Pinimmon Vash were some stranger who had wandered into the monarch’s bath chamber. The candle-light rippled across the monarch as though his long body was something drifting at the bottom of the EminentCanal. “Ah,” he said at last. “Vash. Yes.” He gestured limply toward a figure on his other side, half obscured by the steam of the huge bath. “Vash, you must greet Prusus, your scotarch.”

Vash turned to the crippled creature, who swayed in his litter as though caught in a high wind. Many thought he was simpleminded, but Pinimmon Vash doubted it. “A pleasure, Scotarch, as always. I hope I find you well?”

Prusus tried to say something, grimaced, then tried again. His round face contorted as though he were in agony— speaking was hard for him at the best of times, and even more difficult in front of the autarch—but he only got out a few grunting syllables before Sulepis laughed and waved his hand.

“Enough, enough—we cannot wait all day. Tell me, Prusus, how do you pray? Even Nushash must lose patience with your jerking and mumbling. Ah, and our other guest, Polemarch Johar. Vash, you and Johar already know each other, yes?”

Vash bowed slightly to the spare, cold-eyed man, as almost to an equal. Ikelis Johar, high polemarch of the autarch’s troops, was a power unto himself and although he and Vash had not yet clashed over policy, it was inevitable that one day they would. It was equally inevitable that one of them would not survive the clash. Looking at Ikelis Johar’s cruel, humorless mouth, Vash found himself looking forward to that day. One could have too much leisure, after all. “Of course, Golden One. The Overseer of the Armies and I are old friends.”

Johar’s grin was as humorless as that of a lion sniffing the breeze. “Yes—old friends.”

“Johar is in a cheerful mood—aren’t you, Overseer?” said the autarch, stretching his arms so a slave could oil them. “Because soon he will have a chance to give his men some exercise. Life has been dull the last few moons, since Mihan capitulated.”

“With all respect, Golden One,” Johar said, “I’m not certain I’d call besieging Hierosol merely exercise. It has never fallen by force in all its long history.”

“Then your name will live in glory beside mine, Overseer.”

“As you say, of course, and I am grateful to hear it. The Master of the Great Tent is never wrong.”

“That’s true, you know.” The autarch sat up as if struck with a sudden and pleasing thought; one of his slaves, trying desperately to avoid an incorrect contact with his master, almost slipped and fell on the wet floor. “It is the god in me, of course—the blood of Nushash himself running through me. I cannot be wrong and I cannot fail.” He sat back just as suddenly as he had risen, making the water rush back and forth in waves from one end of the large tub to the other. “A very comforting thing.”

But if that is so, my very great lord, Pinimmon Vash could not help thinking, it did not save your brothers, who also had the blood of the god in them, from losing a great deal of that holy blood when you took the throne. This thought naturally stayed private, but he could not avoid a pang of fright when the autarch looked at him and smiled with wicked amusement, as if he knew just what heretical ideas his paramount minister was harboring.

“Come, there is much to do—even for one like me who cannot make mistakes, eh, Vash? Someone take the scotarch to his chambers. Yes, farewell, Prusus. No, save your breath. We all must prepare for the ceremonies of departure, the consecration of the army, and everything else.” The autarch’s smile twisted. “I need my most loyal servant at my side. Will you stay with me while the slaves dress me?”

The old minister bowed. “Of course, Golden One.”

“Good. And you, Johar, doubtless have many details to see to. We depart at dawn.”

“Of course, Golden One.”

The autarch smiled. “Two strong men but the same obedient words. The harmony of infallibility. What a beautiful, melodious world this is, my dearly beloved servants. How could it be better?” The autarch laughed, but with an odd harshness, as though he fought some kind of doubt. But the autarch never doubted, Vash knew, and the autarch feared nothing. In all the years he had known Sulepis, from his silent, studious childhood to his sudden and violent ascension to the throne, Pinimmon Vash had never seen the autarch anything other than confident almost to the point of madness.

“It is a beautiful world indeed, Golden One,” Vash said in the silence after the laughter, and despite the sudden chill that squeezed his heart he did his very, very best to sound as though he meant it.

She walked right out the door and no one stopped her. One moment all was light and warmth and the reassuring sound of her brothers and sisters breathing in their sleep, the next moment Qinnitan had stepped into the sudden, surprising cold of a night with no moon.

The houses and shops of Cat’s Eye Street were only shadow-shapes, but it didn’t matter. She knew the place as well as she knew the geography of her own body, knew that Arjamele’s doorway would be just here, and the loose stone of the next doorway along would catch her toe if she didn’t step over it. She knew the shape of everything, but she also knew that something was different—something in the dark, cold street had changed.

The well. The lid was off the well.

But that was impossible: the well was always covered at night. Still, even though she could not see it—could see almost nothing but the indistinct shapes of the buildings looming around her, black against the deep velvety purple of the sky—she knew it was uncovered. She could feel it like a hole in the night, a deeper black than anything she could see with her eyes. And worse, she could feel something in it—something waiting.

Still moving helplessly as though led by some god, she walked forward, feeling her bare soles against the gritty sand. The stones of her street, a street almost as old as Xis itself, had long since surrendered to the flowing sands which got into everything. No matter how hard the women of Cat’s Eye Street swept, the stones would never be seen again. But it was said that some of the oldest houses had cellar rooms with doors that had once let out onto this very street when the stones had still been visible, although now those doors could no longer be opened, and would admit only centuried dust if they were.

Qinnitan felt the well before she saw it, the waist-high ring of stone with emptiness at its center like an untended wound. She thought she could hear a faint noise as of something in the depths gently pushing the water to and fro.

She leaned forward, although she did not want to, although every sense she had screamed out for her to turn back toward the house and the safety of her sleeping family. Still she leaned farther, until her face was over the invisible hole, until the faint noises were rising straight up to her ears —slish, splush, slish, something gently stirring down in the darkness.

Was it a monstrous eight-legger such as she had seen in the market, a sort of wet sea spider with limbs as slippery and loose as noodles? But how could such a thing get into the well? Still, whatever it was, she could feel it as well as hear it, sense its inhuman presence somewhere below her.

Now she could feel it moving. Coming upward. Climbing, with inhuman strength and patience, up the smooth, clammy stones, climbing right up toward her where she leaned helplessly over the well mouth, her limbs stiff as stone. She could feel it in her head as well—cold thoughts, alien wishes unclear but unmistakable as fingers around her throat. It was climbing toward her as intently as if she had called it... “Briony! Help me!”

At first she thought the startling voice came from the thing in the well, but it sounded like a real person—a young man, frightened as she was frightened. Was someone calling her? But why call her by that unfamiliar name?

The thing in the well did not stop or even slow the sticky slap of its climb. Qinnitan tried to scream, but could not. She tried again, but the scream could only build and build inside her until it seemed she would burst like a flooded dam.

“Briony! I’m here!”

She could feel him, as if he stood just on the other side of the well—could almost see him, a pale, pale boy with hair as flame-red as the streak in her own dark locks, a boy staring at her without seeing, his eyes haunted... “Briony!”

She was terrified. The thing’s wet fingers were curling on the lip of the well and the boy couldn’t even see it? She wanted to know why he called her by that strange name, but instead when she found her voice at last she heard herself ask him, “Why are you in my dreams?”

And then the blackness burst up from below and the boy blew away like smoke and the shriek at last came rushing out of her, rising, ragged....

Qinnitan sat up, gasping. Something had a grip on her and for a moment she struggled fruitlessly against it until she realized it was not huge and chilly but small and warm and...and frightened. It was Pigeon. Pigeon was hanging onto her, grunting with fear. He was terrified, but he was trying to comfort her.

“Don’t worry,” she said quietly. She found his head in the darkness, stroked his hair. He clung to her like a street musician’s monkey. “It was just a bad dream. Were you frightened? Did you call me?”

But of course he couldn’t have called her—not in words. The voice had been a dream, too. Briony. What a strange name. And what a terrible dream! It had been like the nights when she had lived in the Seclusion, when the priest Panhyssir had given her that dreadful elixir called the Sun’s Blood, that poison which had left her feverish and terrified that it was stealing her mind.

Remembering, Qinnitan shivered helplessly. Pigeon was already asleep again, his bony little body pressed against her so that she couldn’t lower her arm, which was already beginning to ache a little. How could she have believed that the autarch would simply let her go? She was a fool to linger here in Hierosol, only a short distance across the sea from Xis itself. She should pack up in the morning, leave the citadel and its laundry behind.

As she lay cradling the boy in the darkness, she heard something moaning: outside the dormitory, the winds were rising.

A storm, she thought. Wind from the south. What do they call it here? “Red wind”—the wind from Xand. From Xis... She rolled over, gently dislodging Pigeon. His breathing changed, then settled into a low buzz again, soothing as the drone of the sacred bees, but Qinnitan could not be so easily calmed. Winds push ships, she thought. Suddenly, sleep seemed farther away than the southern continent.

She got up and made her way across the cold stone floors to the main room, reassuring herself by the sound of the sleeping women she passed that all was ordinary, that only night’s darkness was making it seem strange. She stepped to one of the windows and lifted the heavy shutter, wanting a glimpse of moonlight or the sight of trees bending in the wind’s grasp, anything ordinary. Despite evidence of the ordinary all around her, she half-expected to find Cat’s Eye Street and the uncovered well outside, but instead she was soothed to see the high facades of Echoing Mall. Something was moving on the otherwise empty street, though—a manlike figure in a long robe walking away down the colonnade with casual haste. It might simply have been one of the citadel’s countless other servants returning home late, or it might have been someone who had been watching the front of the dormitory.

Holding her breath as if the retreating shape might hear her from a hundred paces away, Qinnitan let the shutter down quietly and hurried back across the dark house.

There were times that the great throne room of Xis seemed as familiar to Pinimmon Vash as the house in the temple district where he had spent his childhood (a large dwelling, but not too large, a dream of wealth to the servants but only one residence out of many that belonged to the eminent Vash clan). This throne room was the Paramount Minister’s place of work, after all: it was understandable that he might sometimes fail to notice its size and splendor. But sometimes he saw it for what it truly was, a vast hall the size of a small village, whose black and white tiles stretched away for hundreds of meters in geometric perfection until the eye blurred trying to look at them, and whose tiled ceiling covered in pictures of the gods of Xis seemed as huge as heaven itself. This was one of those times.

The hall was full. It seemed as if almost every single person in the court had come to see the Ceremony of Leavetaking —even twitching Prusus was here, who generally only left his chambers when Sulepis demanded his attendance, and who Pinimmon Vash was seeing for an almost unprecedented second time in one day. Vash was glad to see that the scotarch, nominal successor to the monarchy, had been dressed as was fitting in a sumptuous robe too dark to show the spittle that dripped occasionally from his chin.

The monstrous chamber was so crowded that for the first time since the autarch’s crowning, Vash could not see the pattern on the floor. Everyone was dressed as if for a festival, but instead they had been standing in silence for most of the morning as the parade of priests and officials filed past to take their places in front of the Falcon Throne, dozens upon dozens of functionaries who only appeared on these state occasions: The Prophets of the Moon Shrine of Kerah The Keepers of the Autarch’s Raptors The Master of the Sarcophagus of Vushum The Chiefs of the Brewers of Ash-hanan at Khexi The Eyes of the Blessed Autarch of Upper Xand The Eyes of the Blessed Autarch of Lower Xand The Oracle of the Whispers of Surigali The Master of the Sacred Bees of Nushash The Scribe of the Tablet of Destinies The Wardens of the Gates of the Ocean The Supplicators of the Waves of Apisur The Wardens of the Royal Canals The Keeper of the Sacred Monkeys of Nobu The Sacred Slave of the Great Tent The Master of the Seclusion of Nissara The Chief of Royal Herds and Flocks The Master of the Granaries of Zishinah The Priests of the Coming-Forth of Zoaz The Guardians of the Whip that Scourges Pah-Inu The Wardens of the Digging-Stick of Ukamon The Priests of the Great Staff of Hernigal There were other priests, too, many more: Panhyssir, high priest of Nushash and the most powerful religious figure in the land next to the autarch himself, along with priests of Habbili and priests of Sawamat (the great goddess who, truth be told, had far more priestesses than priests, but whose female servants, like the priestesses of the Hive, were subordinated to their male masters and had only a token presence)—priests of every god and goddess who ever lived, it seemed, and of a few that may have existed only in the tales of other deities.

And as many court functionaries crowded the chamber as priests, the Favored of the palace and the whole men of the autarch’s army and navy, stable masters and kitchen masters, the clerks of records and the scribes of all the granaries and butteries and storehouses of the gigantic Orchard Palace, not to mention the ambassadors of every tame country that now danced to the autarch’s tune: Tuan, Mihan, Zan-Kartuum, Zan-Ahmia, Marash, Sania, and Iyar, even a few abashed envoys from the northern continent, representing captive Ulos, Akaris, and Torvio. There were islanders from distant Hakka wearing their skirts of palm fronds, and chieftains of the desert herders, camel masters and sneeringly proud horsemen of the red desert, from whom the autarch’s own family had sprung, but who had the sense now to bend their knees beside everyone else. (To be master of the desert and kin to the autarch himself might be a matter of pride, but too much pride in the presence of the Golden One was foolishness; the few fools bred by the sands did not usually live to adulthood.) Sulepis himself, the Master of the Great Tent, the Golden One, the God-on-Earth, stood before this assembly like the sun in the sky, clad only in a spotless white loin cloth, his arms raised as though he were about to speak. He said nothing, however, but only stood as the Slaves of the Royal Armor, under the direction of the high official known as the Master of the Armor—a position reserved for the closest thing to a friend the autarch had, a plump young man named Muziren Chah, eldest son of a middling noble family; Muziren had shared a wet nurse with the infant Sulepis but had no royal blood himself. Under Muziren’s silent (but still obviously anxious) direction, the Slaves of the Royal Armor clothed the autarch first in billowing pants and blouse of red silk embroidered with the Bishakh falcon, then pulled on the monarch’s boots and belt and emblems of office, the amulet and the great necklace, both made of gold and fire opal. Then they began to draw on his golden armor, first the breastplate and kilt of delicate, tough chain, then the rest, finishing with his gauntlets. They draped his great black cape on which the spread wings of the falcon had been stitched in golden wire, and then lowered the flame-pointed Battle Crown onto his head.

When the priests had perfumed the autarch with incense it was Vash’s turn. He carried up the cushion bearing the Mace of Nushash, gold-plated and shaped like a blazing sun. Sulepis looked at it for a long instant, a half-smile on his face, then winked at Pinimmon Vash and lifted the mace high in the air. For a moment the paramount minister felt certain the autarch was about to dash out his brains right here in front of all these gathered notables—not that any one of them would have dared even to murmur in surprise, let alone protest—but instead he turned to face the sea of people and bellowed in his high, strong voice.

“We will not rest until the enemies of Great Xis have been subdued!”

The crowd roared its approval, a noise that started low like a moan of pain, then rose until it seemed as if it would rattle the tiled images of the gods overhead right out of their heaven and bringing them crashing down to earth.

“We will not rest until our empire spreads over the world!”

The roar grew louder, although why any of them should have cared whether Xis stretched its sway one inch, Vash couldn’t imagine.

“We will not rest until Nushash is lord over all—the living God on Earth!”

And now the noise really did threaten to dislodge the tiles from the ceiling and even shake the pillars that kept heaven and earth separated.

The autarch turned and said something to Vash, but it was lost in the storm of approval. He turned back and waved his hands for quiet, which came quickly.

“In our absence, the Master of the Armor, Muziren Chah, will care for you as I care for you, like a herdsman his goats, like a father his children. Obey him in all things or I will return and destroy you all.”

Wide-eyed, the assembled courtiers nodded their heads and mumbled praise and in general did their best to look as if they could not even imagine what disobedience meant; Vash, though, had to struggle to keep his face expressionless. Muziren? The autarch was leaving the simpleton Master of the Armor on the throne? Surely that was the role of Prusus, the crippled scotarch, or even of Vash himself as paramount minister—what could be the reason for such a bizarre choice? Was it merely that Muziren was no threat to take the throne? It was hard to believe Sulepis could feel that he would become so vulnerable simply by leaving the city, not with a quarter of a million men at his command and the blood of a hundred kings in his veins?

Muziren Chah took the circlet of regency from the autarch and then dropped to his knees to kiss Sulepis’ feet. The autarch dismissed the crowd. (None of them were so foolish as to move from the spots where they stood until Sulepis himself had departed.) The autarch turned to Pinimmon Vash.

“To the ships,” he said, grinning. “Blood is in the air. And other things, too.”

Vash had no idea what he meant. “But...but what of Prusus, Golden One?”

“He is going with me. Surely our beloved scotarch deserves to see a little of the world, old friend?”

“Of course, Golden One. It is just that he has never traveled before...”

“Then enough talk. I will need my most trusted minister, too. Are you ready?”

“Of course, Master of the Great Tent. Packed and ready to travel, ready to do your bidding, as always.”

“Good. We shall have a most interesting adventure.”

The autarch stepped back into his litter—now that he was dressed in the royal armor, he could not set foot outside the throne room in the normal way, and in fact could not touch ground in Xis until he reached his ship. His brawny slaves lifted him and carried him out of the room, leaving Vash to wonder why it seemed to him as though the world had suddenly spun a little way out of its accustomed orbit.

27. The Players

Fearing for the safety of his new bride Suya, Nushash took her to Moontusk, the house of his brother Xosh, a great fortress built from the ivory of the moon (which becomes a tusk each month and then falls from the sky.) But hear me! Argal, Xergal, and Efiyal learned from Shoshem the Trickster where she was, and raised a great army to come against it.

—from The Revelations of Nushash, Book One

Alone again. Lost again. Cursed and lost and alone...

Briony wiped hard at her cheeks with the back of her hand, scrubbing away the tears. No. Get up, you stupid girl! What was she doing, weeping like a child? How long had she been sitting here alone at the edge of the forest as the sun began to set? What kind of fool would sit blubbering while the moon rose and the wolves came out?

She staggered to her feet, weak-kneed and exhausted although she hadn’t moved for a long, long time. Had it all been a dream, then—the demigoddess Lisiya, the food, the stories of the gods and their battles? Only the dream of someone lost and wandering?

But wait—Lisiya had given her something, some amulet to carry. Where was it? Briony patted at the pockets in the sleeves of her ragged clothing, the long blouse of the boy she had killed, spattered with the dried brown of his blood... Defending myself, she thought, feeling a warming glow of anger. Defending myself from kidnap and rape!

She could find no trace of any goddess-given trinket. Her heart seemed heavy and cold as a stone at the bottom of a well. She must have imagined it all.

She still had something left in her of the Briony Eddon who been a queen in all but name, however, the young woman who had woken up every morning for months with the weight of her people’s well-being pressing down on her, the Briony who had learned to trust herself in the midst of flattering counselors and scheming enemies. That Briony possessed more than a little of her family’s famously stubborn strength and was not going to give in so easily, even now. She began to retrace her own steps—although noting with another pang that hers seemed to be the only footprints—searching along the forest fringe for any trace of her hours with Lisiya, for any real evidence of what had happened.

She found the amulet at last, almost by pure chance: the white threads had caught on a hanging branch several hundred steps into the forest, where it dangled like a tiny oblong moon. Briony gently teased the bird skull free, sending a prayer of gratitude to Zoria, and then belatedly to Lisiya herself, for this proof she had not imagined it all. She held it to her nose and smelled the dried flowers whose strange, musty tang reminded her of the spice jars in the castle kitchens, then slipped it into her pocket. She would have to find a cord for it, to keep it safe.

Could it all have been true, then—all Lisiya’s words, her strange tales?

Briony had a sudden, horrifying thought: if the charm was real, then Lisiya had brought her to the edge of the forest for a reason—but Briony was no longer there.

Slipping, stumbling in the growing dark, she hurried back over the wet and uneven, leaf-slicked ground, through the skeletal trees.

She burst out of the forest into the misty emptiness of early evening on the featureless meadows, and for a moment saw nothing. Then, just before she was about to throw herself down to the damp, grassy ground to gasp some breath back into her chest, she saw a single bobbing light moving away from her into the murk to her left, a lantern on a wagon going south toward Syan and faraway Hierosol. The witch, the goddess, whatever or whoever she was, had brought Briony here for a reason after all. She hobbled after the receding light, praying that these strangers were not bandits and wondering how she would explain why she was walking alone on the empty grasslands beside the Whitewood.

The two wagons on either side of the large fire made a sort of counterfeit town: for a few moments Briony could almost feel herself back in the midst of civilization. The man talking to her was certainly civilized enough, his speech as round and precise as his appearance. She knew him slightly, although she had not realized it until he gave his name, Finn Teodoros, and she was desperately grateful that they had never met in person. He was a poet and playwright who in years past had done some work for Brone and others at court, and had once or twice written pretty speeches for Orphanstide or Perinsday ceremonies. The rest of his traveling companions were players (as far as she could tell from the things they said to each other) taking their wagons on a winter tour of the provinces and beyond. As Teodoros questioned her, some of the others at the fire listened with interest, but most seemed far more involved with eating, or drinking as much wine as possible. Among the latter was another Briony thought she had heard of, Nevin or Hewney by name, another poet and—as her ladies Rose and Moina had informed her in tones mixing horror with a possibly indecent fascination—a very bad man indeed.

“So you say your name is Timoid, young man?” Finn Teodoros nodded at her sagely. “It smacks somewhat of a straw-covered bumpkin just off the channel boat from Connord. Perhaps we should call you Tim.”

Briony, who had picked the name of the Eddon family priest, could only nod.

“Strange, though, since the channel boat does not, as far as I know, make landfall in the midst of the Whitewood. Nor do you sound Connord-fresh. You say you have been wandering here how long?”

“Days, maybe weeks, my lord.” She tried to keep her voice boyishly gruff and her words what she imagined would be peasant-simple. “I do not know for certain.” This at least was true, but she was glad her dirty face would hide the flush of her fear. “And I am not from Connord but Southmarch.” She had hoped to pass herself off as a wandering prentice, but she had expected to encounter some tradesman or merchant, not this shrewd-faced familiar of her own court.

“Do not task him so,” said the tall one named Dowan—a giant of a fellow, so big that Briony did not reach near to his shoulder, and Olin Eddon’s daughter was not a small girl. “The lad is weary and hungry, and cold.”

“And looking to ease those deficits at our expense,” said a woman the others had called Estir. Her dark hair was shot with gray and although her face might be called pretty, she had the soured look of someone who remembered every slight ever done to her.

“We could use another hand on the ropes,” offered a handsome, brown-skinned youth, one of the few who seemed near Briony’s own age. He spoke lazily, as one accustomed to getting his way, and she wondered if he was related to the owner of the troop. Finn Teodoros had introduced the company as Makewell’s Men, which was the usual sort of name for a troop of traveling players—perhaps the young man was Makewell’s son, or even Makewell himself.

“Well, that is at first easy enough to accomplish without loss, Estir,” said Teodoros. “He shall have my share tonight, since my stomach pains me a bit. And he shall sleep with me in the wagon—unless that is not mine to grant?”

The woman named Estir scowled, but waved her hand as though it was of little import to her.

“Come, then, wandering Tim,” said Teodoros, rising heavily from his seat on the wagon’s narrow steps. He was no older than her father and what hair he had showed little gray, but he moved like an aged man. “You can have my meal and we can speak more, and perhaps I shall sniff out what use you might be, since no one travels with us who cannot earn his way.”

“That’s not all you’ll sniff out, I’ll wager,” said one of the drinkers. His words were mumbled in a way that suggested he had started his drinking long before sunset. He was handsome in a thick-jawed way, with a shock of dark hair.

“Thank you, Pedder,” said Teodoros with a hint of irritation. “Estir, perhaps you could see that your brother puts a little food in his stomach to offset the drink. If he is ill again this tennight I fear we will have another disaster with Xarpedon, because Hewney does not know it.”

“I wrote it, curse you!” bellowed Hewney, a bearded, balding man with the look of an aging courtier who still clung to the memory of his handsome youth.

“Writing it and remembering it are two different things, Nevin,” said Teodoros reasonably. “Come along, young Tim—we will talk while you eat.”

Once inside the tiny wagon the scrivener lowered himself onto the small plank bed and gestured at a covered bowl sitting on the folding shelf that seemed, judging by the quills, pens, and ink bottles hanging in a pocketed leather pouch, to double as a writing table. “I did not bring a spoon. There is a basin of water you can use to wash your hands.”

While Briony began to consume the lukewarm stew, Teodoros watched her with a small, pleasant smile on his face. “You might do for some of the girl’s roles, you know. We lost our second boy in Silverside—he fell in love with a local, which is the curse of traveling companies. Feival cannot play all the women, Pilney is too ugly to play any but the nurses and dowagers, and we will not have money to hire another actor until we are installed in our next theater.”

Briony swallowed. “A player—me? No. No, my lord, I cannot. I have no training.”

Teodoros raised an eyebrow. “No training in imposture? That is a strange argument coming from a girl pretending to be a boy, don’t you think? What matter it if we add one more twist to the deception and have you pretend to be a boy pretending to be a girl?”

Briony almost choked. “A girl...”

Teodoros laughed. “Oh, come, child. Surely you did not think to pass yourself off as a true manchild? Not among players—or at least not around me. I have been brushing rouge on principal boys and tightening their corsets since before you were born. But it is up to you—I cannot imagine forcing someone onto the stage against her will. You will sleep in the wagon with me and we will find you other employ.”

Suddenly the stew seemed to become something like paste in her mouth, sticky and tasteless. She had never spent much time around writers, but she had heard stories of their vicious habits. “Sleep with you...?”

Teodoros reached out and patted her knee. She flinched and almost dropped the bowl into her lap. “Foolish child,” he said. “If you were a real boy, handsome as you are, you might have some cause to fear me. But I want nothing from you, and if Pedder Makewell thinks you are mine, then he will leave you alone, too. He likes a charming lad, but dares not offend me because even with his name on the company, it is my contacts in Tessis that will keep us alive and plying our craft.”

“Tessis? You’re going all the way to Syan?” Briony swayed a little on her tiny stool, dizzy with relief. Bless you, Lisiya— and you, dear, kind Zoria.

“Eventually we shall wind our way thither, yes. Perhaps a few testings of our new material in the outlying towns—The Ravishment of Zoria has never seen a true audience and I would like to let it breathe a few free breaths before it is stifled by the jades in Tessis.”

The Ravishment...I don’t understand.”

The Ravishment of Zoria. It is a play of mine, newish, concerning the abduction of Zoria by Khors and his imprisonment of her, and the fateful beginning of the war between the gods. With real thunderstorms, lightning, magical sleights, and the fearful rumble of the gods on their immortal steeds, all for two coppers!” He smiled again. “I am rather proud of it, truth to tell. Whether it is my best work, though, only time and the hoi polloi of Syan will say.”

“But’re all from the March Kingdoms, aren’t you? Why are you going to Syan? Why can’t you do your plays in Southmarch?”

“Spoken as someone who understands little of the doings of artists and nobles,” said Teodoros, his smile gone now. “We were Earl Rorick’s Players, inherited by the earl from his father of the same name. We were also the best and most respected of the Southmarch players—whatever you have heard about the Lord Castellan’s Men is rubbish. The Firmament itself was ours until it burned (that is a theater, child) and then afterward the Odeion Playhouse inside the castle walls and the great Treasury Theater in the mainland city both fought for our works. But young Rorick is dead, you see.”

“Dead? Rorick Longarren?” She only realized after she said it that perhaps it would seem strange she should know his full name.

Teodoros nodded. “Killed by fairies, they say. In any case, he did not come back from the battle at Kolkan’s Field and he has no heir, so we are left without a patron. The country’s guardian, kindly Lord Tolly, does not like players, or at least he does not like players with connections to the monarchy that was. He has given his own support to a group of players—players, hah! They are bandits, so criminal is their writing and their declaiming—under the patronage of a young idiot baron named Crowel. And so there is nothing for us to do but starve or travel.” He gave a rueful chuckle. “We decided travel would be more graceful and less painful.”

After Teodoros went back out to join his fellow players by the fire, Briony curled up on the floor of the wagon— choosing not to put Finn Teodoros’ professed disinterest in women to too harsh a test—and pulled the playwright’s traveling cloak over her. The news that her cousin Rorick was dead had disturbed her, even though she had never liked him. He had been in the same battle as Barrick and had not survived it. She did her best to let the sounds of talking and singing from outside the wagon soothe her. She was among people, even if they were only rough sorts, and not alone anymore. Briony fell asleep quickly. If she dreamed, she did not remember it in the morning.

The physician had made himself fairly comfortable. Besides a bed and a chair, the Guild-masters had given Chaven a table and what looked like every book in the guildhall library. It pained Chert’s head to think of reading so many of the things. Except for consultation here in the hall over a few particular and difficult problems over the years, he had not opened a book himself since soon after he had been introduced to the Mysteries. Chert of the Blue Quartz had a deep respect for learning, but he was not much of a reader.

“I should have come down here years ago,” said Chaven, hardly even looking up at Chert’s entrance. “How could I have been such a fool! If I had even guessed at the treasures down here...”


Chaven lifted the book in his hands reverently. “Bistrodos on the husbandry of crystals! My colleagues all over Eion believe this book lost when Hierosol first fell. And if I can find someone to help me translate from the Funderling, I tremble to think what knowledge your own ancestors have preserved here in these other volumes.”

“Chaven, I...”

“I know you do not feel up to such a challenge yourself, Chert, but perhaps one of the Metamorphic Brothers? I am sure they have scholars among their number who could help me...”

The idea of the conservative Metamorphic Brothers agreeing to allow ancient Funderling wisdom to be translated into one of the big-folk tongues was preposterous enough; Chert didn’t even want to imagine asking them to help with the project. In any case, he had more important matters at hand. “Chaven, I...”

“I know, I’m supposed to be solving my own problems— those I have brought with me which have become your people’s problems now, too. I know.” He shook his head. “But it is so hard to ignore all this...”

“Chaven, will you listen to me?”

The physician looked up, surprised. “What is it, friend?”

“I have been trying to speak to you, but you will go on and on about these books. Something has happened, something...disturbing.”

“What? Nothing wrong with the boy Flint, I hope?” “No,” said Chert. There at least was one thing in the world to be grateful for: Flint still had not recovered his memories, but he seemed more ordinary after his session with Chaven’s mirrors. He paid attention now, and though he still spoke little, he at least took part in the life of the household. Opal was the happiest she had been in a month. “No, nothing like that. We’ve had a message from the castle.”


“From Brother Okros. He asks the Funderlings’ help.”

Chaven’s eyes narrowed. “That traitor! What does he want?”

Chert handed the letter to the physician, who fumbled for his spectacles and found them at last in his pockets. He had to set down his copy of Bistrodos so he could put them on and read the letter.

“To the esteemed Elders of the Guild of Stone-Cutters, greetings!

From his honor Okros Dioketian, royal physician to Olin Alessandros, Prince Regent of Southmarch and the March Kingdoms, and to his mother Queen Anissa.”

Chaven almost dropped the letter in his fury. “The villain! And look, he puts his own name before the royal child and mother. Does he know nothing of humility?” It took him a moment until he was calm enough to read again.

“I request the help of your august Guild with a small matter of scholarship, but one which will nevertheless carry with it my gratitude and that of the Queen, guardian of the Prince Regent. Send to me in the castle any among you who is particularly learned in the craft of Mirrors, their making, their mending, and the study of their substance and properties.

“I thank you in advance for this aid. Please do not speak of it outside your Guild, for it is the Queen’s express wish it be kept secret, so as not to excite rumor among the ignorant, who have many superstitions about Mirrors and suchlike.”

“And here he’s signed it—oh, and a seal, too!” Chaven’s voice was icy with disgust. “He’s come high in the world.”

“But what do you think about it? What should we do?”

“Do? What we must, of course—send him someone. And it must be you, Chert.”

“But I know nothing about mirrors...!”

“You will know more when you read Bistrodos.” Chaven picked the book up again, then let it fall back on the tabletop—the heavy volume made a noise like a badlyshored corridor collapsing. “And I will help you learn to speak like a master of captromancy.”

This was so preposterous he did not even argue. “But why?”

“Because Okros Dioketian is trying to learn the secrets of my mirror—and you must find out what he plans.” Chaven had become unnaturally pale and intent. “You must do it, Chert. You alone I trust. In the hands of someone like Okros there is no telling what mischief that mirror could perform!”

Chert shook his head in dismay, although he did not doubt the task would indeed fall to him. He was already imagining Opal’s opinion of this latest outrage.

Despite Lisiya’s healing hands, Briony was still sore in many places, but she was much happier than she had been on her own. It was better by far to walk in company, and the miles of empty grassland, broken only by the occasional settlement, village, or even more infrequent market town, went much more easily than they would have otherwise. She spoke little, not wanting to risk her disguise, although on the second night Estir Makewell had sidled up to her at the campfire and quietly said, “I don’t blame you for traveling as a boy in these dire territories. But if you make any trouble for me or the troop, girl, I will snatch the hair out of your head—and I’ll beat you stupid, too.”

It was a strange sort of welcome from the only other female, but Briony hadn’t planned on the two of them being friends in any case.

So if she could stay with them until Syan, what then? She was grateful for their fellowship, but she couldn’t imagine any of the players could help her in Tessis. Besides Teodoros, the soft-spoken but sharp-eyed eminence of the group, the troop was named for Pedder Makewell, Estir’s brother, the actor who liked his wine (and, according to Teodoros, also handsome young men). Makewell’s Men had chosen him as their figurehead because he had a reputation for playing the great parts and playing them loudly and well. The groundlings loved Makewell, Teodoros had told her, for his bombast but also for his tragic deaths.

“His Xarpedon gasps out his life with an arrow in his heart,” Teodoros had said approvingly, “and although this mighty autarch has put half of Xand to the sword, the people weep to hear him whisper his last words.”

The playwright Nevin Hewney was at least as well known as Makewell, although not for his acting—Teodoros said Hewney was a middling player at best, indifferent to that craft except as a way of attracting the fairer sex. He was, however, infamous for his plays, especially those like The Terrible Conflagration that some called blasphemous. But no one called him an indifferent poet: even Briony had heard something of Hewney’s The Death of Karal, which the royal physician Chaven had often claimed almost redeemed playwrighting from its sordid and sensational crimes against language.

“When he found his poetic voice, Hewney burst upon the world like fireworks,” Finn Teodoros told her as they walked one morning while the man in question limped along ahead of them, cursing the effects of the previous night’s drinking. “I remember when first I saw The Eidolon of Devonis and realized that words spoken on a stage could open up a world never seen before. But he was young then. Strong spirits and his own foul temper have blunted his genius, and I must do most of the writing.” Teodoros shook his head. “A shame against the gods themselves, who seldom give such gifts, to see those gifts squandered.”

Makewell’s sister Estir was the group’s only female member, and although she did not play upon the stage she performed many other useful services as seamstress and costumer, and also collected the money at performances and serviced the accounting books. The giant Dowan Birch had the beetling brow and frown of some forest wild man, but was surprisingly kind and intelligent in his speech— Teodoros called him “a quaffing of gentlemanry decanted into a barrel rather than a bottle.” But for his size and looks, he seemed distinctly unfit to play the demons and monsters that were his lot. The other leading actor was the handsome young man Feival, who although he had ended his dalliances with Teodoros and Makewell years earlier was still youthful and pretty enough to treat them both like lovesick old men. He seemed not to take advantage of this except in small ways, and Briony decided she rather liked him: his edge of carelessness and his occasional snappishness reminded her a little of Barrick. “Your other name is Ulian,” she said to him as they walked beside the horses one day. “Does that mean you are from Ulos?”

“Only for as long as it took me to realize what a midden heap it was,” he said, laughing. “I notice you did not spend long sniffing the air of Southmarch, either.”

Briony was almost shocked. “I love Southmarch. I did not leave because I disliked it.”

“Why, then?”

She realized she was already wandering into territory she wished to avoid. “I was treated badly by someone. But you, how old were you? When you left Ulos, I mean.”

“Not more than ten, I suppose.” He frowned, thinking. “I have numbers, but not well. I think I have eighteen or nineteen years now, so that seems about right.”

“And you came to Southmarch and became an actor?” “Nothing so straightforward.” He grinned. “If you have heard players and playhouses are the dregs of civilization, then know that anyone who says so has not seen the true cesspits of a place like Southmarch—let alone Tessis, which has Southmarch beat hollow for vice and depravity!” Feival chuckled. “I am rather looking forward to seeing it again.”

“There was a...physician in Southmarch,” Briony said, wondering if she might be going too far. “I think he lived in the castle. Chaven, his name was. Some said he was from Ulos. Do you know anything of him?”

He gave her a quizzical look. “Chaven Makaros? Of course. He is from one of the ruling families of Ulos. The Makari would be kings, if Ulos had such creatures.”

“So he is well known?”

“As well known where I grew up as the Eddons are in Southmarch.” Feival paused to make the sign of the Three. “Ah, the poor Eddons,” he sighed. “May the gods watch over them. Except for our dear prisoned king, I hear they are all dead, now.” He looked at her intently. “If you were perhaps one of the castle servants, I do not blame you for running away. They are in hard times there. Frightening times. It is no place for a young girl.”


“Yes, girl, sweetling. You may fool the others, but not me. I have spent my life playing one, and recognize both good and bad imitations. You are neither, but the true coin. Also, you make a fairly wretched, unmanly boy.” He patted her on the shoulder. “Stay away from Hewney, whatever guise you wear. He is hungry for youth, and will take it anywhere he can find it.”

Briony shivered and only barely resisted making the sign of the Three herself. She was less disturbed to find another player had penetrated her disguise than by what Feival had said about the Eddons all being dead now... Not all, she told herself, and found a little courage in that bleak denial.

They walked for several days and made rough camp each night until they reached the estate of a rural lord, a knight, where they had apparently received hospitality in past years and were again welcomed. The company did not have to perform a play for their rent, but Pedder Makewell —after being forced to bathe in a cold stream, much against his will, for both his cleanliness and sobriety—went up to the house to declaim for the knight and his lady and household. Peder’s sister Estir went along to watch over him (but also, Briony thought, to have the chance at a better meal than the rest of the players enjoyed down by the knight’s stables). She couldn’t really blame the woman. Had she not feared being recognized, she would have gladly taken an evening by an indoor fire herself, eating something other than boiled onions and carrots. Still, carrots and onions and two loaves to split between them were better than most of what she had enjoyed for the last month, so she tried not to feel too sorry for herself. As she was learning, most of her subjects would be delighted with such fare.

Teodoros left the gathering early, returning with his soup bowl to the wagon because he said he had thought of some excellent revisions for his new play—something he promised he would show Briony later. “It may amuse you,” he said, “and certainly will at least instruct you, and in either case make you a more fit traveling companion.” She wasn’t certain what that meant, but although she was left alone with the other players, she had spent much of the afternoon helping to haul the wagons out of a muddy rut, rubbing her hands bloody on the rope in the process, and so they were willing, at least for tonight, to treat her as one of their own.

“But in truth we are a desperate fraternity, young Tim,” Nevin Hewney said to her, pouring freely from the cask of ale the knight had sent down as payment, along with lodging in the stables, for Makewell’s evening of recitation. “You should never take membership, even in the most temporary way, if you are not willing to incur the opprobrium of all gods-fearing folk.”

Briony, who in the recent weeks had survived fire, starvation, and more deliberate attempts to kill her—not least of which had been demonic magic—was not impressed by the playwright’s drunken conceit, but she nodded anyway.

“Gods-fearing folk fear you, Hewney,” said young Feival, and winked at Briony. “But that is not because you are a player—or not simply because you are a player. It is because you stink.”

The giant Dowan Birch laughed at that, as did the three other men whose names Briony had not learned by heart yet—quiet, bearded fellows who did their work uncomplainingly, and seemed to her too ordinary to be players. Nevin Hewney stared at the Ulosian youth for a moment, then leaped to his feet, eyes goggling, his mouth twisted in a grimace of rage. He snatched something out of his dirty doublet and leaped forward, thrusting it toward Feival’s throat. Briony let out a muffled shriek.

“That belongs in the pot, not at my gullet,” said Feival, pushing the carrot away. Hewney continued to stare ferociously for a moment, then lifted the vegetable to his mouth and took a bite.

“The new boy was frightened, though,” he said cheerfully. “A most unmanly squeal, that was.” Sweat gleamed on his high forehead. He was already drunk, Briony thought, her heart still beating too fast. “Which makes my point—and underscores it, too, thinketh I.” He turned to her. “You thought I would murder our sweet Feival, did you not?” Briony started to shrug, then nodded slowly.

“And if I had instead played the this...and begged this tender maiden for a kiss...?” He suited action to words, pursing his lips like the most lovesick swain. Feival, the principal boy, lifted his hand and pretended to flutter a fan, keeping the importunate suitor at bay. “Or perhaps if I turned seductively to you, handsome youth,” Hewney said, leaning toward Briony, “with your face like Zosim’s smoothest catamite...?”

“Leave the lad alone, Nev,” rumbled Dowan Birch before Briony’s alarm became something she had to act on. She did not want anyone coming close enough to see that she was a girl, but most especially not an unpredictable drunk like Hewney. “You are in a bad temper because Makewell was invited to the house but not you.”

“Not true!” Hewney made a careless gesture, then found himself off balance and did his best to turn his stumble into something like a deliberate attempt to sit down on the ground by the small fire. The frozen earth around it had thawed into muck, and he had to perform an almost acrobatic twist to land on the log the others were sharing. “No, as I was saying when I was interrupted by the princess of Ulos, I merely demonstrated why we are such a fearful federation, we players. We display what all other people hide—what even the priests hide. We show what the priests speak—but we also show it as nonsense. The entrance to a theater is the door to the underworld, like the gate Immon himself keeps, but beyond ours terrifying truth and the most outrageous sham lurk side by side, and who is to say which is which? Only the players, who stand behind the curtain and dress themselves in such clothes and masks as will tell the tale.” Hewney lifted his cup of ale and took a long swig, as though satisfied that he had made his point.

“Oh, but Master Nevin is talkative tonight,” said Feival, laughing, “I predict that before the cask is empty he will have explained to us all yet again that he is the round world’s greatest living playwright.”

“Or fall asleep in his own spew,” called one of the other players.

“Be kind,” said the giant Birch. “We have a visitor, and perhaps Tim was raised more gently than you fleering lot.”

“I suspect so,” said Hewney, giving Briony an odd look that made her stomach sink. The playwright struggled back onto his feet. “But, pish, friend Cloudscraper, I speak nothing but truth. The gods themselves, Zosim and Zoria and artificing Kupilas, who were the first players and playmakers, know the wisdom of my words.” He took another long draught of ale, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. His beard gleamed wetly in the firelight and his sharp eyes glittered. “When the peasant falls down on his knees, quaking in fear that he will be delivered after death to the halls of Kernios, what does he see? Is it the crude paintings on the temple walls, with the god as stiff as a scarecrow? Or is it our bosom companion High-Pockets Birch that he remembers, awesome in robes of billowing black, masked and ghostly, as he came to take Dandelon’s soul in The Life and Death of King Nikolos?”

“Would that be a play by Nevin Hewney?” gibed Feival.

“Of course, and none of the other historicals as good,” Hewney said, “but my point has flown past you, it seems, leaving you as sunken in ignorance as previously.” He turned to Briony. “Do you take my meaning, child? What do people see when they think of the great and frightening things in life—love, murder, the wrath of the gods? They think of the poets’ words, the players’ carefully practiced gestures, the costumes, the roar of thunder we make with our booming drums. When Waterman remembers to beat his in the proper time, that is.”

The company laughed heartily at this, and one of the bearded men shook his head in shamed acknowledgment —obviously a mistake he had not been allowed to forget, nor probably ever would be.

“So,” Hewney went on, draining his cup and refilling it, “when they see gods, they see us. When they think of demons and even fairies, it is our masks and impostures they recall—although that may change, now that those Qarish knaves have come down from the north to interfere with honest players’ livings.” Hewney paused to clear his throat, as though acknowledging the shadow suddenly cast on their amusement. “But, hist, that is not the only way in which we players and poets are the most dangerous guild of all. Think! When we write of things that cannot be, or speak them, do we not put ideas in people’s mind—ideas which sometimes frighten even kings and queens? It is always the powerful who are most fearful (now that I think on it) precisely because they have the most to lose!” He wiped his mouth again, almost roughly, as though he did not feel much from his own lips. “In fact, in all other occurrences, is counterfeiting not a crime punishable by the highest courts? To make a false seeming of gold enough to gain the artisan the stockade at best, or the white-hot rod, or even the hangman’s rope? No wonder they fear us, who can counterfeit not just kings and princes, but the gods themselves! And there is more. We counterfeit feeling... and even being. There is no liar like a player!”

“Or a drunken scrivener,” said Feival, amused but also a little irritated now. “Who loves to see what shiny things come from his mouth like a child making bubbles of spit.”

“Very good, young Ulian, very good,” said Hewney, and took another drink. “You yet might make a poet yourself.”

“Why bother, when I can get poetry from most of ’em any time I want just by showing my bum?”

“Because someday that alabaster fundament will be old and raddled, wrinkled as a turkey’s neck,” said Hewney. “And I, once the prettiest boy in Helmingsea, should know.”

“And now you are a buyer, not a seller, and any fair young tavern maid can have your poetry for a copper’s worth of pretending, Master Hewney.” Feival was amused. “So lying, too, is for sale—that is the whole of what you’re saying. It seems to me that what you describe is the marketplace, and any peasant knows how a market works.”

“But none know so well as players,” Hewney repeated stubbornly. Briony could detect just the smallest slur in his words now.

The others gathered by the fire seemed to recognize this as a familiar game. They urged him on, pouring more ale for him and asking him mocking questions.

“What are players afraid of?” shouted one.

“And what exactly is it that players know?” said the fellow named Waterman.

“Players are afraid of being interrupted,” snapped Hewney. “And what they know is...everything that is of worth. Why do you think that the common people say, ‘Go and ask in the innyard,’ when they deem something a mystery? Because that is where the players are to be found. Why say, ‘As well ask the mask whose face it covers?’ Because they know that the matter of life is secrets, and that we players know them all and act them all, if the price is right. Think of old Lord Brone—or our new Lord Havemore! They know who it is who hears all. Who knows all the filthiest secrets....” Hewney’s head swayed. He seemed suddenly to have lost his thread of discourse. “They know what...they know who...will sniff out the truth in the back alleys. And for a little silver, who will tell that truth in the halls of the great and powerful...”

“Perhaps it’s time for you to take a walk, Nevin,” said a voice from just behind Briony, startling her so that she almost squeaked again. Finn Teodoros was standing on the steps of the wagon, his round form almost completely hiding the painted door. “Or simply to go to your bed. We have a long day tomorrow, far to walk.”

“And I am talking too much,” said Hewney. “Yes, Brother Finn, I hear you. All the gods know I would not want to offend anyone with my o’er-busy tongue.” He smiled at Briony as sweetly as a squinting, sweaty man could manage. “Perhaps our newest player would like to come for a walk with me. I will speak of safer subjects—the early days of the theater, when players were criminals and could never set up in the same pasture two nights running...”

“No, I think Master Tim will come with me.” Teodoros gave him a stern look. “You are a fool, Nevin.”

“But undisguised,” said Hewney, still smiling. “An honest fool.”

“If snakes are honest,” said Feival.

“They are honestly snakes,” Hewney replied, and everyone laughed.

“What was he talking about?” Briony said. “I hardly understood any of it.”

“Just as well,” said Teodoros, and then spoke quickly, as if he did not wish to dwell on the subject. “So tell me, Tim... my girl,” he grinned. “How long has it been since you left Southmarch?”

“I do not know, exactly.” She didn’t want to set things exactly the same as in truth—no sense making anyone think too much about Princess Briony’s disappearance. “Sometime before Orphanstide. I ran away. My master beat me,” she said, hoping to make it all sound more reasonable.

“Had the fairies come?”

She nodded. “No one knew much, though. The army was going out to fight them, but I have heard...heard that the fairies won.” She caught her breath. Barrick...“Has anyone...learned more about what happened?”

Teodoros shook his head. “There is not much to report. There was a great battle west of Greater Southmarch, in the farmlands outside the city, and fewer than a third of the soldiers made it away again, bringing reports of great slaughter and terrible deeds. Then the fairies took the mainland city, and as far as I know they are still there. Our patron Rorick Longarren was killed, as were many other noble knights—Mayne Calough, Lord Aldritch, more than anyone can count, the greatest slaughter of chivalry since Kellick Eddon’s day.”

“And the prince—Prince Barrick? Has anyone heard anything of him?”

Teodoros looked at her for a long moment, then sighed. “No word. He is presumed dead. None can go close enough to the battlefield—all are terrified of the fairies, although they have done no violence since then, and seem content to sit in the dark city, waiting for something.” He shrugged. “But no one travels west any more. The Settland Road is empty. No one passes through the mainland city at all. We had to take ship to Oscastle to begin our own journey.”

Briony felt as though someone pressed her heart between two strong hands—it was hard to breathe, hard even to think. “Who...who would believe such times would come?” “Indeed.” Teodoros suddenly sat forward. “Now, though, you must brighten a little, young Tim. Life goes on, and you have given me a most splendid idea.”

“What do you mean?”

“Simply this. Here, these are the foul papers of The Ravishment of Zoria. I thought it was finished, but you have provided me with such a daring inspiration that I am adding page upon page. For just the jests alone I would owe you much praise—you can never have too many good jokes in a work where many bloody battles are fought, after all. The one sends the audience back for the other, like sweet and savory.”

“What idea are you talking about?” Did all playwrights babble like this? Could none of them speak in plain, sensible words?

“It is simply this. Your...plight put me in mind of it. Often in plays we have seen a girl passing for a boy. It is an old trick —some daughter of the minor nobility playing at being a rustic, calling herself a shepherd or some such. But never has it been a goddess!”


“A goddess! I had my Zoria steal out of the clutches of Khors the Moonlord disguised as a serving wench, and thus did she pass herself among the mortals. But with you as my worldly inspiration, I have changed her disguise to that of a boy. A goddess, not merely passing as a mortal, but as a human boy—do you not see how rich that is, how much it adds to the business of her escape and her time among the mortal herd?”

“I suppose.” Briony was feeling tired now, sleepy and without much strength for being talked at anymore. She remembered all Lisiya had said, and could not resist tweaking Teodoros a little. “Here’s another thought for you to consider. What if Zoria wasn’t ravished by Khors? What if she truly loved him—ran away with him?”

Teodoros stared at her for a long moment, more shocked than she thought a man of ideas should have been. “What do you mean? Would you speak against all the authority of The Book of the Trigon?”

“I’m not speaking against anything.” It was hard to keep her eyes open any longer. “I’m just saying that if you want to look at things differently, why settle for the easy way?”

She slid off the edge of Teodoros’ bed to the floor and curled up under the blanket he had loaned her, leaving the playwright staring into the shadows the single candle could not reach, his expression a mixture of startlement and surmise.

28. Secrets of the Black Earth

When Pale Daughter’s child was born he reached his full growth in only a few seasons. He was called Crooked, not because of his heart, which was straight as an arrow’s flight, but because his song was not one thing or the other and flowed in unexpected directions. He was mighty in gifts, and by the time he was one year old he had become so great in wisdom that he created and gave to Silvergleam his father the Tiles that would make their house mighty beyond all others.

But then the war came and many died. The oldest voices remember how the People took the side of the children of Breeze, even though they died like ants before the anger of Thunder and his brothers. And ever after the firstborn children of Moisture hated the People for opposing them, and persecuted them. But in later days those who took Thunder’s side would prosper because of their fealty to Moisture’s brood.

—from One Hundred Considerations, out of the Qar’s Book of Regret

At first Vansen could not even muster the will to sit up. The memory of the corpse-pit was like a weight on his chest.

I will say it again. Rise, Ferras Vansen.

It was not his own name that resounded in his head so much as an image of himself, although it seemed a distorted view, the skin too dark, the features coarse as those of the inbred families of the upper dales he used to see in the market at Greater Stell when he was a child. It was the Storm Lantern’s view of him, perhaps.

What do you want? Let me sleep.

We must try to make sense of what we have seen, sunlander—and there is something else, too.

Vansen groaned and opened his eyes, then forced himself into a sitting position, scraping his back and elbows on the cell’s rough wall. Barrick was still asleep, but he twitched and moaned quietly, as if trapped in a nightmare.

Let him be for the moment. I have words to share with you.

The memory of the pit would not go away. Gods protect us, what are they doing down there to work all those creatures to death?

Gyir nodded. So you too noticed that most of them showed no sign of what killed them. Yes, perhaps they were worked to death. The fairy touched the palm of one hand to the back of the other. Whatever the tale behind it, it is certainly a new page for the Book of Regret. The thought that accompanied the words was not so much of a real book as of a sort of frozen storm of ideas and pictures and feelings too complex, too alien for Vansen to grasp.

What else could it be? They looked like they’d just fallen down dead. No marks on most of them. Vansen was more familiar with corpses than he wished to be, especially those found on a battlefield, each one its own little Book of Regret, the ending written in cruel wounds for all to read.

We must not make the mistake of supposing that which we do not know for certain, Gyir said. The waters in these deep places are sometimes poisonous. Or it could be that they were felled by a plague. Or it might be something else... Even while his skin crawled at the thought of being locked in a massive prison with plague raging through it, Vansen could not help being struck by the quality of the Storm Lantern’s thinking. The creature he had considered little more than a beast, a bloodlusting wolf, was proving instead as careful as an Eastmarch scholar. Something else? What?

I do not know. But I fear the answer more than I fear poison or plague. Gyir looked to Barrick, still murmuring in fitful sleep. I wished to spare the boy talk of the dead we have seen. His thoughts are already fevered with terror and other things I do not entirely understand. But now we must wake him. I have something to say to both of you— something important.

More important than plague?

Gyir crouched beside the prince and touched his shoulder. Barrick, still twitching, immediately calmed; a moment later the boy’s eyes opened. The fairy reached into his jerkin and pulled out a handful of bread he had hoarded from the earlier meal, went to the barred window in their cell door and, as Vansen watched in astonishment, threw it into the center of the outer chamber.

After a moment of surprised hesitation the other prisoners rushed to the scattered bread like pigeons, the bigger taking from the smaller, those of similar size or health fighting viciously among themselves to keep what they had grabbed or to steal what they had failed to get by quickness. In a few heartbeats the chamber outside went from a place of quiet misery to a nest of yowling, screeching mad things.

Now we may talk—at least for a moment, Gyir said. I feel someone is listening close by—Ueni’ssoh or one of his lieutenants, perhaps—but just as noise will cover the sound of spoken voices, enough anger and fear will muffle our conversation from anyone near who can hear unspoken words.

Vansen did not like the sound of that. People can hear us talking in our heads?

Speaking this way is not a secret, sunlander, only a matter of skill or birth—or perhaps in your case, strange fortune. The Dreamless, Uein’ssoh, can certainly do it when he is close. Now give me your attention. He turned to look at Barrick, who still looked bleary. Both of you.

Gyir took something else out of his jerkin, but this time kept his hand closed. I will not show this thing I hold to you, he said. I dare not expose it, even in this chaos—but this will show you its size in case you must take it later.

Vansen stared. Whatever lay in the fairy’s long-fingered hand was completely hidden, small as an egg. What...?

Gyir shook his head. It is a precious thing, that is all you need to know—unspeakably precious. My mistress gave me the duty of carrying it to the House of the People. If it does not reach them, war and worse will break out again between our two folk, and the suffering will not stop there. If this is not delivered to the House of the People, the Pact of the Glass will be defeated and my mistress Yasammez will destroy your castle and everyone in it. Ultimately, she will wake the gods themselves. The world will change. My people will die and yours will be slaves.

Vansen glanced at Barrick, who did not look as dumbfounded as Vansen felt. The boy was staring at Gyir’s fist with what seemed only passing interest. Why...why are you telling us this?

I am telling you, Ferras Vansen, because the prince has other burdens to carry—struggles you cannot know. Yasammez has laid a task on Barrick as well. I do not know it or understand its purpose, but she has sent him to the same place as I go—the House of the People. The Pact of the Glass must be completed, and so I tell you now because I know that even if you do not believe all I say, you will follow the prince wherever he goes. Listen!

He fixed Vansen with his weird red eyes, demanding, pleading: his words swam in fearful thoughts like fish in a swift cold, current. Understand this—if I die here, you two must take this thing from me and carry it to the House of the People. You must. If you do not, all will be lost—your people, mine, all drowning in blood and darkness. The Great Defeat will have a swifter, uglier end than anyone could have believed.

Vansen stared at the strange, almost entirely expressionless face. You are asking me to perform some task...for you? Or for your mistress, as you call her—the one who has put a spell on the prince? For your people, who slaughtered hundreds of my guardsmen, burned towns, killed innocents? He turned without thinking to Barrick, but the prince only stared at him as though trying to remember where they had met before. Surely this is madness.

I cannot compel you to do anything, Ferras Vansen, said the fairy. I can only beg this boon. I understand your hatred of my kind very well—believe me, I have all those feelings for your folk, and more. Gyir lifted his head, listening. We can speak of this no longer. But I beg you, if the time should come—remember!

How could I forget? Vansen wondered, but this time his thoughts were only for himself. I have been asked to help the murderers of my people. And, may the gods help me, I think I will have to do it.

After the confusing conversation between Gyir and Vansen, only a little of which he remembered, let alone understood, Barrick fell back into sleep again. The nightmares that plagued him in the next hours were much like others he had suffered in his old life—dreams of rage and pursuit, dreams of a world that he did not recognize but which recognized him and feared him—but they seemed fuller now, deeper and richer. One thing had changed, however: the girl with dark hair and dark eyes now appeared in every dream, as though she were as much his twin as Briony, his own flesh and blood. Barrick did not know her, not even in the suspended logic of a dream, and she took no active part in any of his dire fancies, but she was there through it all like a shepherd on a distant hilltop, remote, uninvolved, but an indisputable and welcome presence.

Barrick woke up blinking. His companions had moved him into the single shaft of light (if something so weak could be graced with the name) that fell through the grille and into their cell, illuminating the crudely mortared stones.

He sat up, but the cell spun around him and for a moment he felt as if the corpse-pit itself they had seen had somehow reached up to clutch him, to pull him down into the stink and the jellying flesh. He managed to crawl to the privy-hole at the far end of the narrow cell before vomiting, but his aim was hampered by his convulsive movement. Even though his stomach had been almost empty, the sour tang quickly filled the small space, adding shame to his misery. Ferras Vansen turned away as Barrick retched again, bringing up only bile this time—an act of courtesy by the guard captain that only made Barrick feel worse. He still had not forgotten that Vansen had struck him—must the man condescend to him as well? Treat him like a child?

He tried to speak but could not summon the strength. He was hot where he shouldn’t be, cold where he shouldn’t be, and his bad arm ached so that he could barely stand it. Vansen and Gyir were watching him, but Barrick waved away the guard captain’s helping hand and ignored the throbbing of his arm long enough to crawl back to the cell wall. He wanted to tell them he was only tired, but weakness overcame him. He let them feed him a morsel of bread moistened with water, then he fell yet again into miserable, feverish sleep.

What day was this? It was a discordant thought: the names of days had become as much of a vanishing memory as the look of the sky and the smell of pleasant things like pine needles and cooked food. The silence suddenly caught his attention. Barrick rolled over and sat up, certain in his panic that the Qar and the guardsman had been taken away and he had been left alone. He gritted his teeth through a moment of dizziness and fluttering sparks before his eyes, but when the sparks cleared he saw that Vansen and Gyir were only a short distance away, slouched against the wall, heads sagging in sleep.

“Praise all the gods,” he whispered. At the sound of the prince’s voice Gyir opened his red eyes. Vansen was stirring, too. The soldier’s face was gaunt and shadowed with unkempt beard. When had the man become so thin? “How are you feeling, Highness?” Vansen asked him.

It took Barrick a moment to clear his throat. “Does it matter? We will die here. Everything I ever thought...said... it doesn’t matter now. This is where we’ll die.”

Do not give in to despair yet. Gyir’s words were surprisingly strong. All is not lost. Something in this place seems to have strengthened my... Barrick could not understand the word—the feeling was of something like a small, fierce flame. My abilities, you would say—that which makes me a Storm Lantern.

Funny. I feel worse than I have since I left the castle. It was true: Barrick had actually experienced some easing of the nightmares and strange thoughts after leaving home, especially during the days he had ridden with Tyne Aldritch and the other soldiers, but since he and his companions had entered this hellish hole in the ground the old miseries had come back more powerfully than ever. He could almost feel doom following just behind him like a shadow. Do you think it is that horrible Jikuyin who has done it to me, that giant? I felt as though his hurt me... Gyir shook his head. I do not know. But there is something strange about this place—stranger even than the presence of the demigod himself, I think. I have spent much of the last days casting out my net, gleaning what thoughts I can from the other prisoners, and even some of the guards, although most of them are little more than beasts.

You can do that?

I can now. It is strange, but this place has not only given my strength back to me, I think it has even made me a little stronger than I was before.

Barrick shrugged. Strong enough to get us out of here?

He felt sure that Gyir would have smiled regretfully if he had a mouth like an ordinary man. I think not—not by pitting strength alone against the powers of both Ueni’ssoh and great Jikuyin. But do not despair. Give me a while longer to think of something. I need to learn more of the great secret of this place.

Secret? Barrick saw that Vansen was listening raptly, too— might even be carrying on his own conversation with Gyir. Instead of the burst of jealously such a realization usually caused, this time he felt oddly connected to the man. There were moments he hated the guard captain, but others when he felt as though he were closer to Ferras Vansen than to any other living mortal—except Briony, of course. Gods protect you, he thought, his heart suddenly, achingly full. Oh, strawhead, what I would give just to see your face, your real face, in front of me...!

I have not wasted the time while you were lost in fever dreams, Gyir told him. I have found a guard who works sometimes in the pit—one who watches over the prisoners who put the bodies on the platform and send them up to the wagon-slaves. Can you...see his thoughts? Can you see what’s down below us?

No. The guard has a curious emptiness where those memories should be.

Then what good is he to us? Barrick was weary again. How absurd, when he had been awake such a short time!

I can follow him—stand inside him as I stood inside the thoughts and feelings of the woodsprite. I can see what he sees down in the depths.

Then I will go with you again, like last time, Barrick said. I want to see. Gyir and Vansen actually exchanged a look, which infuriated him. I know you two think me weak, but I will not be left behind in this cell.

I do not think you are weak, Barrick Eddon, but I do think you are in danger. Whatever about this place troubles you grew worse when I carried your thoughts with me last time. And Ferras Vansen and I will not leave—only our thoughts will. You will not be alone.

Barrick should have been too weak for fury, but he wasn’t.

Don’t speak in my head and tell me lies. Alone? How could I be more alone than stuck here with your empty bodies? What if something happens to you and your thoughts are...lost, or something like that? I would rather it happens to me, too, than to be left here with your corpses.

Gyir stared at him a long time. I will consider it. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, either,” Vansen said out loud.

Barrick did his best to regain his mask of cold control. “I know you don’t follow orders you don’t like, Captain Vansen, but unless you have given up your allegiance to me entirely, you are still sworn to my family as your liegelords. I am the prince of Southmarch. Do you think to order me as to what I may and may not do?”

Vansen stared at him, a dozen different expressions moving across his face like oil spreading on a pool of water. “No, Highness,” he said at last. “You will do what you think best. As always.”

The guardsman was right, of course, and Barrick hated that. He was a fool to take such a risk, but he had told the truth—he was far more terrified of being left alone.

“Doirrean, what are you doing? He is too far from the fire— he will be cold and then ill.” Queen Anissa leaned forward in her bed to glare at the nurse, a sturdy, sullen girl with pale, Connordic features.

“Yes, Highness.” The young woman picked up both the baby and the cushion underneath him, taking care to show just how much trouble she was being put to, and then used her foot to move the chair closer to the large fireplace. Sister Utta could not help wondering whether a healthy baby was not at more risk from flying sparks than from a few moments naked in an otherwise warm room. Of course, I’ve never had a child, though I’ve been present for my share of births. Perhaps it feels different when it’s your own.

“I just cannot understand why I am saying things over and over,” Anissa declared. Her thin frame had rounded a little during her pregnancy, but now the skin seemed to hang loosely on her bones. “Does no one listen? Have I not had enough pain and suffer...sufferance?”

“Don’t fret yourself too much, dear,” Merolanna told her. “You have had a terrible time, yes, but you have a fine, fine son. His father will be very proud.”

“Yes, he is fine, is he not?” Anissa smiled at the infant, who was staring raptly up at his nurse in that guileless, hearttugging way that babies had—the only thing about them that ever made Utta regret her own choices in life. It would be appealing, she thought, perhaps even deeply satisfying, to have an innocent young soul in your care, to fill it like a jewel case with only good things, with kindness and reverent thoughts and love and friendship. “Oh, I pray that his father comes back soon to see him,” the queen said, “to see what I have done, what a handsome boy I have made for him.”

“What will you name him?” Utta asked. “If you do not mind saying before the ceremony.”

“Olin, of course. Like his father. Well, Olin Alessandros— Alessandros was my grandfather’s name, the grand viscount of Devonis.” Anissa sounded a bit nettled. “Olin. What else would I name him?”

Utta did not point out that the king had already had two other sons, neither of whom had been given his name. Anissa was an insecure creature, but she had reason to be: her husband was imprisoned, her stepchildren all gone, and her only claim to authority was this tiny child. Small surprise she would want to remind everyone constantly of who the father was and what the child represented.

Somebody knocked at the chamber door. One of the queen’s other maids left the group of whispering women and opened it, then exchanged a few words with one of the wolf-liveried guards who stood outside. “It is the physician, Highness,” she called.

Merolanna and Utta exchanged a startled look as the door swung open, but it was Brother Okros, not Chaven, who stepped into the room. The scholar, dressed in the winecolored robes of Eastmarch Academy, bowed deeply and stayed down on one knee. “Your Highness,” he said. “Ah, and Your Grace.” He rose, then added a bow for Utta and the others. “Ladies.”

“You may come to me, Okros,” called Anissa. “I am all in a trouble. My milk, it hardly ever flows. If I did not have Doirrean, I do not know what I would do.”

Utta, who was impressed that Anissa was nursing at all—it was not terribly common among the upper classes, and she would have guessed the queen would be only too glad to hand the child over to a wet nurse—turned away to let the physician talk to his patient. The other ladies-in-waiting came forward and surrounded the queen’s bed, listening.

“We haven’t spoken to Okros yet,” said Merolanna quietly, “and this would be a good time.”

“Speak to him about what?”

“We can ask him about those strange things the little person said. That House of the Moon jabber. If it’s to do with Chaven, then perhaps Okros will recognize what it means. Perhaps it’s something that any of those doctoring fellows would know.”

Utta felt a sudden pang of fear, although she could not say exactly why. “You want to...tell him? About what the Queen’s Ears said?”

Merolanna waved her beringed hand. “Not all of it—I’m no fool. I’m certainly not going to tell anyone that we heard all this from a Rooftopper—a little person the size of my finger.”

“But...but these matters are secret!”

“It’s been a tennight or more and I’m no closer to finding out what happened to my son. Okros is a good man—a smart one, too. He’ll tell us if he recognizes any of this. You let me take charge, Utta. You worry too much.”

Brother Okros had finished with the queen and was writing down a list of instructions for her ladies. “Just remember, he is too young for sops.”

“But he loves to suck the sugar and milk from my finger,” said Anissa, pouting.

“You may give him milk on your finger, but not sugar. He does not need it. And tell your nurses not to swaddle him so tightly.”

“But it will give him such a fine neck, my handsome Sandro.”

“And bent shoulders, and perhaps even a pigeon chest. No, tell them to swaddle him loosely enough that the act would not wake him if he was sleeping.”

“Nonsense. But, of course, if you are saying it must be so...” Anissa looked as though she would probably deliberately forget this advice as soon as the physician had left the room.

Okros bowed, a smile wrinkling his thin, leathery face. “Thank you, Your Highness. Blessings of the Trigon—and Kupilas and our good Madi Surazem—upon you.” He made the sign of the Three, then turned to Merolanna and Utta, bowing again. “Ladies.”

Merolanna laid a hand on his arm as he passed. “Oh, would you wait for a moment outside, Brother Okros? I have something I would ask you. Will you excuse us, Anissa, dear? I mean, Your Highness? I must go and have a little rest—my age, you know.”

Anissa was gazing raptly at her infant son again, watching Doirrean swathe him in linen. “Of course, dear Merolanna. You are so kind to visit me. You will come to the Carrying, of course—Sandro’s naming ceremony? It is only little while from now, on the day before the Kerneia—what do you call that day here?”

“Prophets’ Day,” said Merolanna.

“Yes, Prophet’s Day. And Sor Utta, you are most certainly welcomed for coming, too.”

Utta nodded. “Thank you, Highness.”

“Oh, I would not miss it for a bag of golden dolphins, Anissa,” Merolanna assured her. “Miss my newest nephew being welcomed into the family? Of course I will be there.”

Okros was waiting for them in the antechamber. He smiled and bowed again, then turned to walk beside them down the tower steps. Utta saw that the duchess really was tired —Merolanna was walking slowly, and with a bit of a limp because of the pains in her hip.

“What can I offer you, Your Grace?” Okros asked.

“Some information, to be honest. May I assume you still have not heard anything from Chaven?”

He shook his head. “To my deep regret, no. There are so many things I would like to ask him. Taking on his duties has left me with many questions, many confusions. I miss his counsel—and his presence, too, of course. Our friendship goes back many years.”

“Do you know anything about the moon?”

Okros looked a little startled by the apparent change of subject, but shrugged his slender shoulders. “It depends, I suppose. Do you mean the object that rides the skies above us at night and sometimes in the day—yes, see, there it is now, pale as a seashell! Or the goddess Mesiya of the silver limbs? Or the moon’s effect on women’s courses and the ocean’s tides?”

“Not any of those things,” said Merolanna. “At least I don’t think so. Have you ever heard of anything called the House of the Moon?”

He was silent for so long that Utta thought they had upset him somehow, but when he spoke he sounded just as before. “Do you mean the palace of Khors? The old moon demon conquered by the Trigon? His palace is spoken of in some of the poems and stories of ancient days, called by that name, House of the Moon.”

“It could be. Did Chaven ever own something that could be called a piece of the moon’s house?”

Now he looked at her carefully, as though he hadn’t really noticed the duchess until just this moment—which was nonsense, of course. Utta knew it was her own nerves making her see phantoms.

“What makes you ask such a question?” he said at last. “I never thought to hear such dusty words of scholarship from you, Your Grace.”

“Why shouldn’t I?” Merolanna was annoyed. “I’m not a fool, am I?”

“Oh, no, Your Grace, no!” Okros laughed—a little anxiously, it seemed to Utta. “I meant no such thing. It’s just that such old legends, such...trivial old surprises me to hear such things from you when I would more expect them from one of my brother scholars in the Eastmarch library.” He bowed his head, thinking. “I remember nothing about Chaven and anything to do with the House of the Moon, but I will give it some thought, and perhaps even have a look at the letters Chaven sent to me over the years—it could be some investigation he had undertaken that I have forgotten.” He paused, rubbing his chin. “May I ask what makes you inquire about this?”

“Just...something that I heard,” Merolanna said. “Doubtless a mistake. Something I thought I remembered him saying once, that’s all.”

“And is it of importance to you, Your Grace? Is it something that I, with my humble scholarship and my friends at the academy, could help you to discover?”

“No, it’s really nothing important,” said Merolanna. “If you find anything about Chaven and this House of the Moon thing, perhaps we’ll talk more. But don’t worry yourself too much.”

After Okros had taken his leave the women made their way across the Inner Keep toward the residence. Flurries of snow were in the air, but only a few powdery scatterings had collected on the cobbled paths. Still, the sky was dark as burned pudding and Utta suspected there would be a lot more white on the ground by morning.

“I think that went rather well,” said Merolanna, frowning. Her limp had become more distinct. “He seemed willing to be helpful.”

“He knows something. Couldn’t you see?”

“Yes, of course I could see.” Merolanna’s frown deepened in annoyance. “All these men, especially the scholars, think that such knowledge belongs to them alone. But he also knows now that he’ll have to give something to get something.”

“Did it ever occur to you such a game might be dangerous?”

Merolanna looked at Utta with surprise. “Do you mean Brother Okros? The castle is full of dangers, dear—just the Tollys alone are enough to give someone nightmares—but Brother Okros is as harmless as milk. Trust me.”

“I’ll have to, won’t I?” said Utta, but she could not stay angry with her friend for more than a few moments. She took Merolanna’s elbow, letting the older woman lean on her as they walked back through powdery snow in swiftly darkening afternoon.

Even with a dumb brute like this it will not be as easy as prying at unprotected thoughts, Gyir said. I must have silence just to bring him to the door of our cell.

Barrick was only too happy to comply. He was already regretting his insistence. The memory of being trapped in the woodsprite’s dull, hopeless thoughts, of handling corpses like they were discarded bits of clothing dropped on the floor, still roiled his stomach and made him lightheaded.

A bestial, leathery face appeared in the grille, the brow so bony and low that Barrick could not even see the creature’s eyes. It grunted and then snarled, angered by something, but was clearly compelled to remain where it was.

Gyir stood eye-to-eye with it for what seemed to Barrick like a terribly long time, in a silence broken only by the occasional pained cry of a prisoner in the other chamber. The guard-beast swayed but could not free itself from Gyir. The fairy stood almost motionless, but Barrick could sense a little of the tides of compulsion and resistance flowing back and forth between the two of them. At last the creature made a strange, rough-throated noise that could have been a gasp of pain. Gyir wiped sweat from his pale brow with his sleeve, then turned toward them.

I have him, now.

Barrick stared at the guard, whose tiny eyes, rolled up behind half-open lids, had finally become visible as slivers of white. But if you’ve mastered him, couldn’t he free us? Help us to escape?

He is only a minion—one who brings food. He has no keys for this inner cell. Only Ueni’ssoh has those. But this dull savage may yet give us better aid than any key. Sit down. I will show you something of his thoughts, his sight, as I send him on his way.

Even as Barrick settled himself on the hard stone floor, the guard turned and staggered away across the outer cell. Prisoners scurried to avoid him, but he walked past them as though they were invisible.

Gyir’s presence pressed on Barrick’s thoughts. He closed his eyes. At first he could see nothing but red darkness, then it slowly began to resolve into shapes he could recognize—a door swinging open, a corridor stretching out beyond.

Barrick could feel very little of the creature’s own thoughts beyond the muted jumble of perceptions, of sight and sound, and he wondered whether that was because the guards were not much more than mindless beasts. No. The fairy’s voice came swiftly and clearly: Gyir truly had gained strength. Barrick could even feel Vansen’s presence beside him in the beast’s thoughts, like someone breathing at his own shoulder. He is not just an animal, Gyir said. Even the animals are not just animals in the way you are thinking. But I have quashed his mind with my own as best I can, so that he will do what we like and not remember it afterward.

The guard-beast trudged down into the depths, a long journey that took him far beneath even the level of the corpse-room. Despite the odd gait forced on him by Gyir’s awkward control of his movements, he was avoided by prisoners and the other guards barely seemed to acknowledge his existence. They might not be mere beasts, Barrick decided, but even among their own kind they showed little life. For the first time it occurred to him that maybe these large, apelike guards were, in their own way, prisoners just as he and his companions were.

Every few hundred paces something boomed and rumbled in the depths, a noise Barrick could feel more than hear through the creature’s muffled perceptions.

What is that noise? It sounds like thunder—or cannons!

You are closer with the second. Gyir was silent for a moment as the creature stumbled, then righted itself. It is Crooked’s Fire, or at least so we call it. Your people call it gun-flour.

Then they truly are shooting off cannons down there?

No. I suspect they are using it to dig. Now let me concentrate.

Down and down and down they went, until the guard-beast reached a room where corpses were being loaded into the huge corpse basket to be winched to the top by more of the neckless, mushroom-colored men. The dead were being unloaded from ore wagons pushed by more servitors, and the guard-beast followed the dirt track of the wagons down into darkness.

They were still descending, but this slope was more gradual so that the haulers could push their carts up it. The wagons were not just bearing bodies, either: at least ten times as many were coming up from the depths full of dirt and chunks of raw stone, but these were being rolled away down another branch of the tunnel.

Barrick could almost feel Vansen and Gyir trying to make sense of the arrangement, but he was already feeling queasy from the depth, the heat, and the frequent rumble of the concussive, hammering sounds farther down in the deeps. If they put me to work here, he thought, I wouldn’t last long. Barrick Eddon had fought all his life against being called frail or sickly, but living with a crippled arm had made him hate lying to himself as much as he hated it when others did it to soothe him. I could not do what these creatures are doing, working with hardly any water in this dreadful, dust-ridden place. I would die in a matter of hours.

The guard-beast trudged downward into an ever increasing throb of activity. The inconstant thundering of what Gyir called Crooked’s Fire was much stronger now, so loud that the staggering guard-beast almost fell over several times. Hundreds of prisoners pushed carts past him up the long, wide, sloped passage, but no matter how monstrous their burden, they always moved out of the guard-beast’s way.

At last Barrick saw the end of the passage, a huge, low arch at least twice as wide across as the Basilisk Gate back home. When the guard stepped through it into the cavern beyond, a monstrous chamber which dwarfed even the cave that housed the corpse-pit, Barrick could feel hot air rush up at his host, tugging the matted fur, bringing tears to the creature’s already blurry vision. A line of torches marked the broad track down through the swirling dust and marked off the cross-paths where other guards and prisoners labored with the weight of ore carts. To Barrick each step seemed to take a terrible effort—the powerful discharge of hot air he had felt at the doorway continued to buffet the guard-beast at every step, as though he walked down the throat of a panting dragon. It pressed at Barrick’s thoughts like crushing hands and Barrick thought he might faint away at any moment, simply swoon into insensibility like the frailest girl-child.

Can’t you feel it? he cried to the others, his thoughts screaming. Can’t you? This is a bad place—bad! I can’t hold on anymore!

Courage. Gyir’s thought came with the weight of all his power and knowledge, so that for a moment Barrick remembered what it was to trust him completely.

I’ll try. Oh, gods, don’t you and Vansen feel it? Not as powerfully as you do, I think.

Barrick hated being weak, hated it worse than anything. All through his childhood nothing could more easily prompt him to act foolishly than the suggestion, however kindly meant, that his crippled arm or his young age might give him an excuse to avoid doing something. Now, though, he had to admit he could not hold out much longer. No amount of steadying words could obliterate the cramping pain from his stomach, the queasiness that did not grow any less wretched by having been nearly constant since they had reached this place.

Why do I feel this way? I’m not even really here! What is doing this to me? This was more than just pain and weariness—waves of fear rolled through him. He had spoken a truth to Gyir that he could feel in his bones, in his soul: this was a bad place, a wrong place.

We don’t belong here. He might have said it so the others could hear. He didn’t know and he didn’t care. He wasn’t even ashamed anymore.

The air grew hotter and the sounds grew louder. The guardbeast was clearly familiar with it all, but still seemed to feel almost as frightened as Barrick did himself. The rising stench was not that of spoiling bodies and unwashed slaves, although there was a hint of each—Barrick could clearly recognize them even through the alien thoughts of the guard. Instead something altogether stranger billowed over him, a scent he could not identify, something that had metal in it, and fire, and the tang of ocean air, and something even of flowers, if flowers ever grew in blood.

The edge of the pit was just before him now, glaring with the light of hundreds of torches, swimming in the haze of the burning, dust-laden air. If he could have hung back while the other two went forward, he would have—would have happily acknowledged himself a coward, a cripple, anything to avoid seeing what was in that chasm before him. But he could not leave them. He no longer knew how. He could only cling to the idea of Gyir and the idea of Vansen, cling to the creature that carried them as if it were a runaway horse and wait for it all to end. The chaos in his head was constant now and seemed to have little to do with what was actually around him—mad sounds, unrecognizable voices, moving shadows, flashes of ideas that made no sense, all hissing in his skull like angry wasps.

The light was bright. Something sang triumphantly in his head now above all the other noise, sang without words, without a voice, but sang. He stumbled forward, or the thing that carried him stumbled forward, like a blind man into a cave full of shrieking bats. He stood at the edge and looked down.

The great hole in the stone had been dug almost straight downward. Far below, the bottom of the pit was alive with the beetling bodies of slaves like a carcass full of maggots, hundreds of them with sweating, naked bodies and rags around their heads and faces. In the center, its peak half a hundred feet below him, sunk into the very stone of the wall and only half-uncovered by digging, was a strange shape that Barrick could not at first understand, something upright and unbelievably huge. It gleamed strangely in its exposed matrix of rock, a monstrous rectangle of black stone trimmed with dull gold and fishscale green beneath the shroud of dust and stone that clung to its exposed surface. It was astonishingly tall—almost as high as Wolfstooth Spire and far, far wider. Somebody had carved a rune deep into the black stone, a pine tree that covered most of the black rock face. Another carved shape, a crude bird with two huge eyes, had been superimposed over the tree. The far-distant shape looked immensely old, like something that had fallen down to the earth from the high stars. In the chaos of his thoughts, Barrick struggled to make sense of it, then abruptly saw it for what it was.

A gate—a gigantic stone portal scribed with the ancient signs of the pine tree and the owl. The symbols of Kernios, god of death and the black earth.

Dizziness at its sheer size overcame Barrick then. He let go of Gyir, let go of the guard-beast’s dull, terrified thoughts, and fell away into emptiness, unable to look at the blasphemous thing a moment longer.

29. Bells

At last, after battling each other for a year without stopping, Perin Skylord defeated Khors the ravisher and slew him. He cut the Moonlord’s head from his body and held it up for all to see. At this Khors’ allies fled or surrendered. In the confusion, many of those evil ones called the Twilight People hid themselves in forests and other dark places, but some fled to the chill and deadly northern wilds and raised themselves there a black fortress which they called Qul-na-Qar—home of the demons.

—from The Beginnings of Things, The Book of the Trigon

Her dreams were becoming stranger every night, full of shadows and fire and the movements of barely seen pursuers, but all distant, as though she watched events through a thick fog or from behind a streaked and dirty window. She knew she should be frightened, and she was—but not for herself. They will catch him, was all she could think, although she did not know who he was, or who they were, for that matter. The boy she had dreamed about, the pale one with red hair in sweaty ringlets—was he the quarry of the shadowy creatures? But why should she dream repeatedly of a face she did not recognize?

Qinnitan woke to find Pigeon half underneath her. Although the mute boy himself remained happily asleep, his bony elbows and chin and knees were poking her in so many places she might as well have been trying to get comfortable on a pile of cypress branches. Despite the aches, though, it was hard to look at his face and be angry. His innocently gaping mouth with that pitiful stub of tongue behind his teeth made her ache with a love for him unlike anything she’d felt even for her own younger brothers and sisters, perhaps because she was responsible for Pigeon in a way she hadn’t been for them.

It was odd to lie here in this cramped, uncomfortable bed in a foreign land thinking about two people, one the child lying next to her (shivering slightly now that she had made some space for herself ), the other entirely a creature of dream. How had her life come to this? Once she had been an ordinary girl in an ordinary street, playing with the other children; now she had traveled on her own to a far country, fleeing from the autarch himself.

Qinnitan still didn’t understand it all. Why had Sulepis, the ruler of all the southern world, chosen her in the first place? It was not as though she were a rare beauty like Arimone, his paramount wife, or even much of a beauty at all: Qinnitan had seen her own long features enough times, her thin lips pursed, her watchful, slightly suspicious eyes peering back at her from the polished mirrors of the Seclusion, to know that beyond question.

Enough worrying, she decided, and yawned. It must be almost dawn, although she hoped the wheels of Nushash’s great cart were at least an hour from the daylight track: she wanted a little more sleep. She arranged Pigeon so that she could stretch out; he made a scraping sound of annoyance through his nose but allowed himself to be prodded into a less painful configuration.

As she was drifting back down into the warmth of slumber she heard a dull tone so low that she could feel it rumbling in the floor. It was followed a moment later by another, pitched higher. The two notes sounded again, then a third tone joined them—bells, she finally realized, ringing in the distance. At first, in her sleepy confusion, Qinnitan thought it must be the summons to morning service in the Hive, then she remembered where she was and sat up, freeing herself from the complaining boy. Around her others were beginning to stir. The ringing went on.

Qinnitan climbed out of bed and hurried across the dormitory room and out into the dark hallway. A few other women stumbled out with her, clumsy phantoms in their shapeless nightdresses. The bells were so loud and constant now that she could not remember what it had been like only moments before, in the silence of the night.

She clambered up to the passage window, the one that looked east toward mighty Three Brothers temple. The sun hadn’t risen, but she could see lights in the tower windows where the bells were ringing. It was so strange—what did it mean? She looked down to see if anyone was in the streets yet, and by the light of the lantern burning at the corner of the courtyard she saw a smear of pale-haired head as a man—the man she had seen the previous night, she felt certain—moved with a certain casual hurry from below the residence window into the shadows. Her heart felt squeezed in a cold hand. Him again. Watching her, or at least watching Kossope House, the dormitory in which she lived. Who was he? What did he want?

She stood as the first sheen of dawn turned the sky purple, cold air on her face, her skin pebbled with goosebumps. Bells were ringing all over the city. Something terrible was happening.

The bells in Three Brothers began to peal while Pelaya was saying the Daybreak Prayer in the family chapel, ringing so loud that it seemed the walls might tumble down. She and her sisters, brother, and mother were all crowded into the chapel, and when Pelaya turned she almost knocked her brother Kiril off the bench.

“Zoria’s mercy!” Her mother hurried to the chapel door and handed Pelaya’s infant sister to the nurse as the bells continued to crash and clang. “It is a fire! Get the children to safety.”

“That’s not the fire bell,” Pelaya said loudly.

Despite her fear, Teloni was irritated. “How do you know?”

“Because the fire bell is only one bell, rung over and over. All the bells are ringing.”

Her mother turned to Kiril, Pelaya’s younger brother. “Go and find your father. Find out what is happening.”

“He’s not old enough.” Pelaya was too excited and frightened to stay with her mother and sisters. “I’ll go!”

She was up before her mother could stop her, heading for the chapel door. “You headstrong little beast!” her mother called. “Teloni, go with your sister, keep her out of trouble. No, Kiril, you’ll stay, now—I’ll not have all my children scattered.”

Pelaya was out the door just as Kiril’s bellow of dismay erupted, but it was still loud enough to hear even above the clangor of the bells.

“You’re wicked!” gasped Teloni, catching up to her on the first landing. “Mama said Kiril was to go.”

“Why? Because he’s a boy?” She pulled up her skirts so she wouldn’t trip over them as she hurried up the stairs. Already the stairwell and the landings were filling with people, some still half-dressed in their nightclothes, wandering out like sleepwalkers to see what the clamor was about.

“Slow down!”

“Just because you climb like a cow trying to go over a gate doesn’t mean I have to wait for you, Teli.”

“What if it is a fire?”

Pelaya rolled her eyes and began leaping the stairs two at a time. Didn’t anyone else take note of things but her? That was why she enjoyed talking to the foreign king, Olin Eddon: he paid attention to what was around him, and he complimented her cleverness when she did so too. “It’s not a fire, I told you. It’s probably the autarch attacking the city.”

Teloni slid to a stop and grabbed at the wall to keep herself from falling. “It’s what?

“The Autarch of Xis, stupid. Don’t you ever listen to what Babba says?”

“Don’t you dare call me that—I’m your elder sister. What do you mean, the autarch...attacking?

“Babba’s been preparing for it for months, Teli. Surely you must have noticed something.”

“Yes, but...but I didn’t think it was really going to happen. I mean, why? What does the autarch want with Hierosol?”

“I don’t know, what do men ever want with the things they fight wars about? Come on—I want to find Babba.”

“But he can’t get in, can he? The autarch? Our walls are too strong.”

“Yes, the walls are too strong, but he might besiege us. Then we’d all have to go hungry.” She poked her sister’s waist. “You won’t last long without sweetmeats and honeybread.”

“Stop! You are a beast!”

“But you’ll get better at climbing stairs. Come on!” The jokes rang a little hollow even to Pelaya herself. It was hard to tease her sister, who was good and kind most of the time, with those terrible bells sounding all across the citadel hill, echoing and echoing.

They found their father in an antechamber to the throne room, surrounded by frightened nobles and patient guardsmen. “What are you girls doing here?” he asked when he saw them.

“Mama wanted to send Kiril to ask you what is happening,” Teloni said quickly. “But Pelaya ran quick like a rabbit and I had to run after her.”

“Neither of you should be here—you should be with your mother, helping with the little ones.”

“What is it, Babba?” Pelaya asked. “Is it the autarch...?”

Count Perivos frowned at her, not as if he were angry, but as if he wished she hadn’t asked him the question at all. “Probably. We’ve had a signal from the western forts that they are under attack, and also reports of a great army marching down the coast from the north toward the Nektarian Walls—the land walls.” He shook his head. “But it may be exaggerated. The autarch knows he can never break down our fortifications, so it may be he simply wishes to frighten us into giving him the right to navigate our waters on his way to attack someone else.”

Pelaya didn’t believe it, and she felt fairly certain her father didn’t either. “Well, then. We’ll tell Mama.”

“Tell her we should move the family down to the house near the market. Here on top of the citadel it may be dangerous, althoug