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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Tuesday, April 27, 2004 00:02 EDT



    The conference table had been improvised out of ventilator gratings from the Shepherd set on column barrels and covered with a sparklingly white sail from the same ship. Only the vessels carrying Garric, Zettin, and Waldron, the three leaders of the Progress, had sails of bleached cloth; the yellow-gray color of natural wool wouldn't have had the same effect.

    Garric seated himself on a section of marble column. Troops had rolled it under the marquee, upended it, and created a throne by covering it with a fur-trimmed cloak of red velvet. He didn't have the slightest idea where the cloak came from.

    "For all that, lad," said Carus, "it's probably one of yours. No matter what I told my servants, they'd wind up packing what they thought was suitable clothing. Suitable for me!"

    Garric chuckled at the joke that nobody else had heard. So far as Carus was concerned, suitable clothing for a warrior--which he'd been, the greatest warrior of his age and perhaps ever in the history of the Isles--was boots, breeches, a sturdy tunic, and a cloak of raw wool that'd double as bedding in the cold and wet.

    Garric had similar tastes; indeed, he'd minded sheep on winter nights with less than that to wear. Palace functionaries, the servants and the officials who supervised them, had a very different notion of what a king should wear, though... and if a king was doing his job, he didn't have time to check his wardrobe to make sure it contained only the minimal kit he'd directed.

    Liane cleared her throat in polite question. She was seated on a folding stool at the Prince's right elbow, a respectful arm's length back from the conference table. Her travelling desk was on her lap; she'd laid out three wax notebooks and a small parchment scroll on its beechwood top.

    "I was remembering," Garric explained in a low voice, "that when I was a boy I thought that princes gave orders and everybody obeyed. Either I was wrong, or I'm a very ineffectual prince."

    "You're extremely effective," Liane murmured, her lips close to Garric's ear. "Not least because you see that's not how things happen."

    Lord Waldron sat in the place of honor to Garric's right. Organizing a camp for 20,000 men was an enormously complicated task, and Waldron was the final arbiter of arrangements. A middle-aged nobleman in cavalry boots knelt on his other side and spoke in urgent tones; several more officers bent close with the urgent expressions of little boys desperate to pee.

    A horse on shipboard takes up the space of ten men, Besides that problem, horses are likely to kick a vessel to pieces in a storm and then tread down men swimming in the water. The army which embarked on Ornifal carried no horses. Waldron had dismounted two cavalry regiments, however, to use as heavy infantry.

    That wasn't a choice Garric would've made, but he hadn't been willing to overrule his army commander. As Carus had pointed out, the cavalry regiments were recruited from the younger sons and retainers of northern Ornifal landowners, the class to which Waldron himself belonged. If the commander felt more comfortable in battle because he had a thousand of his own kind with him, then so much the better for the army and the kingdom.

    To Garric's left sat Lord Tadai, a wealthy financier from Valles who was as different from Waldron as either nobleman was from a Haft peasant like Garric. Tadai had general oversight of finance and the administrative adjustments--he and Garric both were careful never to use the word 'reforms'--which had to be made to fully integrate the governments of the separate islands into that of the Kingdom, for the first time in a thousand years. Tadai was fat and immaculately groomed; smiling, supercilious, and cold even in his passions.

    Despite the differences in their tastes and attitudes, Waldron and Tadai were were both intelligent enough to recognize the other's competence. They worked well together, though at a careful distance.

    For these negotiations, Tadai and Garric would do most of the talking, but the presence of a straight-backed, grizzled warrior like Waldron might be crucial to their success. Waldron had stood beside Valence III at the Stone Wall when Ornifal broke Sandrakkan twenty-two years before. Even silent, he reminded the delegates across the table of what had happened before and could easily happen again.

    Sharina sat behind the three principals, along with a score of military and civilian aides, people whose knowledge or expertise might be required. From beyond the marquee came the shouts of troops and sailors setting up camp, oblivious of the negotiations.

    "Everybody has his own priorities," Carus mused with a smile.

    A platoon of Blood Eagles ushered the Sandrakkan envoys up from the beach. Lord Attaper was at the head of his men; the guards must've spent the whole time since landing in polishing salt crust and verdigris from their armor. The guards divided as soon as they stepped under the marquee, lining up at either side and clashing their hobnails to a halt.

    According to Liane's direction, the royal officials rose to their feet when the delegation arrived. Only Garric remained on his throne. After a count of three he ordered, "You may all be seated!" in a parade-ground voice. His own subordinates sat down smoothly while the Sandrakkan officials shuffled to find places across the table.

    There were three men and a woman. "From the left," Liane muttered, "Lady Lelor, Chief Priestess of the temple of the Shepherd who Overwhelms; Marshal Renold, we've discussed him; Lord Morchan, he's a cousin of the Earl but he doesn't really have any power; and a palace official, I'll have his name in a few minutes."

    "Marshal Renold, I'm glad to meet you and your colleagues," Garric said calmly, his hands loosely crossed on the table before him. "Let me say at the outset that Earl Wildulf's loyalty to the kingdom is not in doubt, nor is my good will toward the Earl."

    "So long as you understand that Sandrakkan is independent, under a man whose lineage is senior to that of any other nobleman in the Isles," Marshal Renold grated. "If you've got that, then you can take your good will back to Valles with you and not worry yourself about our affairs any further!"

    "Well spoken, Renold!" Lord Morchan said, bobbing his wispy gray goatee. "That's it in a nutshell!"

    Ignoring the envoys--they weren't going to be the problem--Garric turned his head to the right and said, "Lord Waldron!" sharply enough to penetrate the sudden red rage that transfused the army commander. Quite apart from the deliberation of the insult, Waldron felt as an article of faith that no foreign noble was fit to be mentioned in the same breath as a Northern Ornifal gentleman.

    Waldron had started to rise, his hand reaching for the long cavalry sword hanging at his left side from a baldric. He eased back down and put his hands firmly on the sailcloth table before him. He was looking straight ahead, between Renold and Morchan rather than at either one of them; and certainly not at Prince Garric, to whom he knew he owed an apology which he wasn't calm enough yet to provide.

    Garric felt the image of Carus relax also. Flinging that sort of insult at men who'd spent their lives training to kill--and using their training--was certainly a way to get the conversation moving....



    Lord Tadai laughed like benevolent uncle. "Very droll, Lord Morchan," he said. "Oddly enough, Lord Waldron and I were just discussing that splendid estate of yours twelve miles down the coast. Sea View, isn't it? More olives and grapes than a man could ride around in a whole day. But Waldron and I wondered how you'd defend Sea View if two thousand... pirates, let us say, landed at dawn and began cutting down the trees that've taken so long to grow. Perhaps you could answer that for us, Marshal Renold?"

    Lord Morchan looked like he'd just sat nude in a nettle patch. His mouth dropped and he stared at Renold.

    The marshal banged his fist on the table--the grating on the Sandrakkan side tilted and would've fallen if the priestess hadn't caught it--and said, "Defend? Our cavalry would cut them all down, that's how we'd defend!"

    "Really?" Tadai said. "Just how many cavalrymen are there in Earl Wildulf's household? I ask because my specialty is finance, and I well know how expensive horsemen are."

    "That's none of your business," Renold said. His face had gone red, then white. "That's none of your bloody business!"

    "He's got about five hundred troopers, Tadai," Lord Waldron said, leaning forward to look at the financier directly. He'd completely recovered his composure. "Lancers. And if he plans to send lancers against our skirmishers in an orchard--"

    "Pirates, please, Waldron," Lord Tadai said with an oily grin. "We're talking about an attack by pirates."

    "Right, pirates," Waldron agreed grimly. "Pirates with javelins, in an orchard. Well, all I can say is that I'd pay to watch it."

    "Somebody would pay, I'm sure," Tadai said. "But not any of us who are loyal to Valence III and his regent Prince Garric, here."

    "Thank you for that interesting digression, gentlemen," Garric said. "We need to get down to business, however. I propose that the first matter to be discussed is the confirmation of Lord Wildulf as Earl of Sandrakkan."

    Morchan and Renold were too busy with their own conversation, conducted in snarling undertones, to really absorb Garric's statement. The third male envoy--

    "Colchas or-Onail," Liane murmured, folding closed the limewood note that she'd just received from a nondescript man in the crowd. "Chief Clerk of the Office of the Privy Purse."

    --said nothing, but his expression hinted at a smile whenever his eyes flicked toward his disgruntled colleagues. The fact that they were nobles while Colchas was a commoner might have been part of that smile.

    The priestess, Lady Lelor, was probably the oldest member of the delegation, but she remained a strikingly handsome woman. Her black robe was well cut though severely plain, and her hair was piled high on subtly-carven ivory combs.

    "I'm not clear on what you mean about 'confirming Lord Wildulf,'" Lelor said in a tone of pleasant inquiry. "Since he's already Earl of Sandrakkan by right of descent."

    Garric smiled. At least two of the envoys weren't fools; or at any rate, hadn't yet proven themselves to be fools.

    "Her temple's across Market Square from the palace," Liane whispered in his ear. That information was probably written in one of her notebooks, but since Liane had been schooled at an academy of young ladies in Erdin, she'd have known it already. "It's on a high platform with an altar in the middle of the steps."

    "My thought, Lady Lelor," Garric said, "was that I'd crown Lord Wildulf on the platform of the Temple of the Shepherd Who Overwhelms, while you performed an Offering of Thanks. That permits the largest possible number of residents watch this evidence of King Valence's approval of his lordship."

    It would also explicitly demonstrate that the Earl of Sandrakkan wasn't independent of the government in Valles, let alone superior to it. A coronation made the point more politely than tearing a gap in the city walls and marching in at the head of the Royal Army, but even Lord Morchan--who seemed almost smart enough to come in out of the rain--could see that was a possible alternative.

    Marshal Renold looked from Morchan to Garric, then blinked. "I'm not sure that would be possible," he said. He'd lost the belligerance with which he'd opened the discussions.

    "I believe it would be," Lady Lelor said in a deliberate tone, her eyes on Renold. "I will certainly impress on Earl Wildulf my opinion that it would be a desirable way to display his authority."

    "I'm not sure--" Renold repeated, then clamped his mouth closed over the rest of whatever he might have said. The muscles at the back of his jaw were bunched. There was clearly no love lost between the two envoys.

    "I had more trouble with priesthoods than I did with usurpers," Carus said, shaking his head at the recollection. "I knew how to deal with a usurper, but I couldn't start looting the temple treasuries in loyal cities without having my own soldiers mutter that I was accursed of the gods."

    "Financial arrangements would remain unchanged following the coronation?" said Master Colchas. The clerk reminded Garric of a small dog: tense and ill-tempered, but well aware that if he snapped at the wrong person he was likely to be kicked into the next borough. "Quite frankly, the Earl's revenues don't fully cover expenses even now."

    "In the main, that's correct," Lord Tadai said easily. In contrast to Liane, who made a point of having relevant documents at hand though she almost never referred to them, the desk or table before Tadai was always perfectly clear. A squadron of clerks stood behind him, however, each with an open file box just in case. "That is, the assessment of the Third Indiction of Valence II won't be increased in the near future. You and I will discuss at another time a schedule for the payment of the arrears accrued during the past seven years."

    Colchas cringed. "I don't see...," he began, then covered his mouth with his hand as if in an access of grief. "Oh, dear," he muttered through his fingers. "Oh, dear."

    Garric permitted himself a smile. Valence III, his father by adoption, had lost control of everything outside of Ornifal--and indeed, almost everything outside of the walls of his palace--before a conspiracy of the most powerful men in the government forced him to accept Garric as regent and heir. The rulers of the western islands hadn't wanted to believe that anything was really different, but the arrival of the Royal Fleet and Army was changing their minds.

    "There's the matter of the upkeep of the three Sandrakkan regiments of the Royal Army as well, of course," Tadai continued. "That is--"

    The sky darkened. It had been a brilliant morning before the conference started, but Garric had been under the marquee long enough that clouds might've blown in from the sea. It wasn't until he heard the shouts of fear and anger from everybody who could see the sky that he realized something was wrong.

    He was up from his stone seat and running outside before he thought about what he was doing. That was partly a reflex of King Carus, but shepherds as well as warriors are faced with sudden crises. The reflex that drew the horseman's sword slung on his left side, that was from Carus alone.

    "Sister take him!" Lord Attaper bellowed. It was an improper thing to say about his prince, but understandable under the circumstances. "Don't let anybody knife his highness in this crowd!"

    There were men coming the other way, getting under cover of the marquee while they looked back over their shoulders. Garric shoved them aside. Before he reached the open air, there were Blood Eagles battering a path for him with their shields and breastplates.

    The shape of a filthy black giant hung over Erdin. It was a sooty mass rather than the slate gray of even the darkest rainclouds, covering the sun and perhaps a third of the sky. The air all the way around it remained bright. It was monstrously unnatural.

    As Garric stared up at the giant's eyes and gaping mouth, he understood why men had run beneath the marquee to avoid looking at the hideous thing. Logically a double layer of sailcloth wasn't much protection, and for all its unpleasantness the thing seemed to be only a cloud. Logic didn't have much to the feelings the image aroused, though.

    "Stand to!" Lord Waldron bellowed from the other end of the marquee. "Form on the standards, Ornifal! Cold steel's the remedy for all the kingdom's enemies, phantoms or not!"

    Garric wasn't sure how much good swords would be against a cloud, but the image was already breaking into tatters that drifted eastward like smutty spiderwebs. He looked around him.

    After the first frightened shouting, the troops had reacted pretty well. Squads were standing closely together, less formations than clumps but organized nonetheless. Most of the men wore only bits and pieces of armor, but they'd grabbed their shields and spears when the alarm came.

    You couldn't train soldiers to deal with everything that might happen, but men whose response to panic was to find weapons and stand with their buddies were going to survive the shocks of war a lot better than other people did. Their commander was likely to survive longer too....

    The image in the sky had completely dissipated. Had it blown in from the sea or just appeared in the clear sky like a meteor?




    Liane was beside him, holding her closed travelling desk against her chest. There were undoubtedly secret documents in it, but Garric suspected it was her equivalent of his bare sword: the desk was a tool familiar from in other difficult situations, though inappropriate in this one.

    He looked toward the mast of the City of Valles; no signal flags were flying. He hadn't expected an answer there, but it'd been worth checking. A trireme was beached beside Zettin's flagship, though, between it and the Shepherd. When had that happened?

    "What Sister-cursed fool landed there?" snapped Admiral Zettin, who'd been with the support staff behind Garric during the negotiations. His sword was drawn, and at a quick glance he looked like any of the other officers looking into the sky or around at their fellows. Then in a different voice he added, "Say--isn't that the Spiteful?"

    Zettin was the former Deputy Commander of the Blood Eagles. He'd known nothing about naval affairs when Garric put him in charge of the fleet, but he understood training, discipline, and the unit pride that'll often carry a nominally weaker force through a stronger opponent. All those things had been in short supply in the force that Valence III had allow to decay. That'd changed abruptly under Zettin.

    "Is there a problem, milord?" Garric said, sliding his sword back into the scabbard. At times like this he always felt embarrassed to have drawn the blade, but the one time in a thousand he might need a sword was worth slight blushes the hundreds of times it hadn't been required.

    "What's that?" the admiral snapped before he turned his head enough to realize who'd spoken to him. "Ah! Ah, I'm not sure, your highness. You see, I left the Spiteful with the squadron on guard in Valles. If it's here--"

    "Sir?" said a junior officer with a sparkling helmet and gold-chased scabbard mountings. "The Spiteful's brought a courier to Lord Waldron personally. They're talking now."

    The young officer was one of the noblemen Zettin had brought into the Fleet to lead, rather than one of the mariners who were responsible for ship-handling. It'd disturbed Garric, raised a peasant even if his lineage did go back to the Old Kingdom monarchs, to think that sailors might perform better under the command of lisping young snots of the nobility than they would for professionals of their own class--

    But they did. About the only thing these young officers were able to do was to stand on the quarterdeck, a target in dazzling armor for any missile the enemy wanted to launch, and look coolly unperturbed. For the most part they did that superbly, giving their own oarsmen something to think about besides the crushing disaster they might be rowing toward as a flutist blew time for their strokes.

    Garric followed the fellow's gesture. Lord Waldron stood with his head bent toward a younger man who was speaking earnestly to him. Waldron's own aides ringed the pair with worried expressions, but at the distance of a full double pace--too far to hear what was being said.

    "It's a verbal message," King Carus mused, and the thought had a grim undertone. "Something the sender wasn't willing to commit to writing, and he sent it to Waldron instead of you."

    "It's another omen!" somebody called in a cracked voice.

    Garric jerked his head around. Lord Morchan was speaking, his hands clenched against his cheekbones as he stared up at the empty sky. "The final days are surely here! The gods have deserted Sandrakkan!"

    "Morchan, you're a fool and a liar and a whining puppy!" Lady Lelor said, her face white with fury. "The Shepherd hasn't forsaken us and He won't, so long as we act like men!"

    "You say!" said Morchan. "You say, priestess! But monsters keep swallowing the sun. Sandrakkan is doomed!"

    "What's this all about?" Garric said. Morchan and Lelor were too caught up in their own argument to hear him. "Marshal Renold, what are they talking about? Has something like this happened before?"

    The Sandrakkan commander was red-faced and looked uncomfortable. He'd been gripping his sword hilt for much the same reason every other armed man on the island had. Two Blood Eagles noticed and immediately stepped between him and Garric.

    Garric grabbed the guards by the shoulders and pushed them to either side so that he could see Renold again. "Marshal Renold, what is going on?"

    "That I can't say, sir," Renold said awkwardly. "There's been clouds like this over Erdin, that's true; three or four times in the past ten days. They cover the sun and then they go away. Nobody knows what it means, nobody who I've heard anyway. Some people--"

    He looked at the priestess with a glumly speculative expression.

    "--say that it doesn't mean anything, but I doubt even they believe themselves."

    Garric thought for a moment. When he could, he'd discuss the business with Tenoctris. She'd been resting when he left her, guarded by a squad of Blood Eagles while Cashel wandered about Volita to loosen his legs and Sharina observed the negotiations. Right now, however--

    "Milady," Garric said to Lady Lelor in a voice loud enough to be noticed through her angry exchange with her fellow envoy. "Gentlemen! We're here to discuss the place of Sandrakkan in the kingdom. Let's return to the business at hand, if you will."

    The three Sandrakkan envoys near Garric turned and followed him back under the marquee; the priestess gave him a shamefaced nod of apology. Master Colchas hadn't left his seat. Not, Garric suspected on looking at the man's face, because the finance official was abnormally calm, but rather because he'd suspected what was happening and didn't want to watch it again.

    Tadai had walked to the edge of the marquee and looked up. He started back for his seat with a bland expression. The various aides and subordinates were returning to their places behind the negotiators. That left only Lord Waldron, who was still talking to the courier.

    "Lord Waldron?" Garric called.

    Waldron made a brusque gesture with his left hand, his eyes locked with those of the man who was speaking urgently to him again.

    Garric pursed his lips. "Admiral Zettin," he said calmly, "please take the seat to my right for the time being, if you would."

    Garric walked to the makeshift throne with an expression just as neutral as that of Lord Tadai. He'd disarranged the cloak when he jumped up, but a servant must've straightened it.

    Garric had expected the Sandrakkan negotiations to be the most important thing he'd have to deal with for the next days or even longer. Judging by the furious disbelief on the face of his army commander, though, he'd be hearing about something much worse as soon as Waldron was ready to tell him.



    Ilna held the wax tablet in both hands in both hands. She was as tense as if it was red hot and burning her fingers. She took a deep breath.

    "Wood is...," she read. She grimaced. "Wood comes from the forest."

    "That's right, Ilna!" Merota said. They sat together on a stone slab that'd fallen when one of the three columns supporting it slipped sideways some time in the past thousand years. She held her hand out for the tablet. "Here, I'll write more."

    Their moss-covered seat had words carved on it. Ilna could follow the letters well enough to draw them, though to anybody else the tiny green tendrils were as featureless as a polished tabletop.

    But she couldn't read them, of course.

    Ilna let the tablet dip forward slightly and breathed deeply several more times, almost panting. She'd run long distances though running wasn't natural to her; she'd fought, for her own life and for the lives of others; she'd woven patterns that twisted the cosmos itself, warped it into the form that Ilna os-Kenset chose it to have. She'd done all those things and never had she been as utterly drained as she was now, shaking and--

    The realization struck her. She began to laugh, a reaction she displayed almost as rarely as she cried.

    Merota jerked her hand back with a startled expression. Chalcus, juggling as he sat on the back wall of the ruined garden a double-pace away, smiled pleasantly; only those who knew him well would've noticed that tension bunched the big muscles at the base of his jaw.

    "It's all right," Ilna said, reducing her laughter to a wry smile. "Chalcus, it's all right. I just realized that I'm frightened, simply terrified, of reading. That's why it's so hard for me. Most things--most of the things I do--aren't."

    "I think you're doing very well, Ilna," Merota said. She was still too young to know her forced earnestness made her lie obvious. She took the tablet and firmly closed its two waxed boards. "But we've done enough today. I'm tired from being on the ship."

    Chalcus chuckled. He'd been juggling three items while Merota gave Ilna her reading lesson. Now he let two of them, fist-sized chips of rock, mossy on one side, drop to the ground behind him; they landed within a finger's breadth of one another. Rising to his feet, he slid the third, his curved dagger, into the sheath stuck through the sash over his right hip.

    "Merota, dear child," he said, "there's an hour's wait till supper. Why don't you rouse Mistress Kaline--"

    Her governess and tutor, a severe woman with severe notions of propriety. To Ilna's mind, Mistress Kaline's only redeeming feature was the fact she in her way loved Merota as much as Ilna herself did.

    "--and resume your own lessons till Mistress Ilna calls you, eh?"

    "Please Chalcus!" the girl said, clutching the notebook before her. "Can I play in this garden while you talk to Ilna? You know Mistress Kaline's still going to be sick!"

    Ilna smiled. Merota was a natural sailor; no matter how much the ship rolled--and a long, narrow warship could roll a great deal, even in moderate weather--the child would scampered around with no more discomfort than Chalcus himself displayed. Ilna, who was not infrequently queasy, envied Merota her stomach at those times.

    But Ilna's problems were nothing compared to those of Mistress Kaline, who spent most of every voyage sprawled face down on a grating, close to the gunwale so that she could stick her head over the side whenever another spasm struck her. She couldn't keep even water or nibbles of dry bread down more than a few minutes. She lay in the shade of a tarpaulin now as usual after a voyage, with a damp cloth on her forehead.

    Chalcus looked at Ilna and raised an eyebrow in question. Ilna thought for a moment, then said, "Yes, all right. I'll watch the book. But don't go out of our sight!"

    "I won't!" Merota said, trotting toward the ruins of a stone gazebo. Over her shoulder she added, "But what could happen with all these soldiers around?"

    "Aye, indeed," said Chalcus in a very different tone as he seated himself where Merota had been. "And what couldn't happen, with things like that creature from the Sister's realm appearing in the sky?"

    "Yes," said Ilna, looking about them. Her expression was more than a little grim, but that was from habit rather than any particular concern about their surroundings. "Though so long as it stays in the sky...."

    They were in the extensive gardens of the mansion where Garric was meeting with the dignitaries from Sandrakkan. Buildings and gardens alike were in ruins: the walls shattered, colonnades thrown down, and briars choking the planters meant for exotic flowers. All around them soldiers were chopping brush, clearing places to sleep and at the same time providing themselves with firewood.

    Because the military surveyors hadn't had an opportunity to lay out the camp before the troops arrived, Ilna heard a number of heated arguments between officers of units competing for some desirable attribute: a stretch of level ground, a well that wasn't choked with rubble, or perhaps a large tree that offered both dignity and a vantage point to the troops who controlled it.

    A ewe bleated irritably from nearby. It'd come around the blunt finger of granite and found its path was blocked by soldiers cutting a drainage ditch to guide water around their campsite in case of a storm.

    Chalcus looked at the sheep and chuckled. "If she's not mutton stew by the morning," he said, "then our friend Garric will have good reason to congratulate himself on his army's discipline... and were I to bet, I'd say that she'll be wandering about being irritated at all these strange men till we take ourselves off."

    "It was your suggestion that we land on this island, wasn't it, Chalcus?" Ilna said, looking about her. She didn't much care about her surroundings so long as they allowed her to weave--or at least knot patterns--but she was aware of them.



    Sheep had grazed the slopes fairly clear, but the rock piles where buildings had been thrown down were overgrown with the wild descendents of ornamental shrubs. The few trees grew in places that were hard to get to. Woodcutters must visit the island regularly.

    The soil was trampled bare here in the back part of the garden, which a shepherd had used for his byre. Wool clung to stones and in the brush growing around them. Most of the tufts were unweathered; the fellow must've penned his flock here before taking them on barges to the mainland just ahead of the Royal Fleet's arrival. The handful of ewes still wandering on Volita were the ones who'd been too skittish to gather up quickly before the shepherd fled.

    "Aye, I did," the sailor replied, his tone guarded though not defensive. "When I heard the Prince--" he nodded toward the curved wall beyond which the conference was taking place "--wanted a spot where an army could wait without causing too much bother with the local citizens, I mentioned that nobody's spent the night on Volita in the past thousand years save shepherds and sheep. And--"

    Chalcus grinned engagingly, as though the next comment were of no great moment.

    "--maybe a few pirates, doing business with folk in Erdin who preferred their neighbors not know the sort of men they went to for cargoes at a good price."

    Ilna looked around again. She set the notebook on the moss and took the hank of cords from her left sleeve to give her fingers something to do. The lowering sun painted odd shadows on face of granite spike behind them.

    "The Demon, it's called," Chalcus remarked. "Though it was a quiet enough neighbor to the pirates, or so I believe."

    "You never saw anything wrong here?" Ilna said. She knew she sounded sharp, but she always sounded sharp. Chalcus understood her well enough not to take offense at a question asked without the ribbons and lace that people in general tied their words up in.

    "No, dear one, I did not," Chalcus said calmly. "Some of our folk heard sounds in the night, but that wasn't a marvel. They'd mostly done things that cause men troubles in the hours after the wine's worn off and before the sun rises. Eh?"

    Ilna shrugged. "I never thought drink would make the things I've done not have happened," she said. "And if it caused me to lose control--"

    She gave a tiny, metallic chuckle, then went on, "I was going to say, 'Who knows what I might do?' But in fact I know very well."

    Merota was peering at the waist-high crosswall which the shepherd'd built to separate his byre from the front portion of the extensive garden. He'd laid the wall with pieces of the ruins themselves: facing blocks, masses of cemented rubble from the cores of walls, and broken statues. It'd probably been a one-man job, since the only really heavy stones were column barrels which an individual could've rolled into place.

    Merota was staying in plain view as they'd told her to do. Ilna directed quick glances toward the girl, while Chalcus occasionally shifted to keep Merota in the corner of his eye. Though they were being careful, there wasn't any reason to expect more danger here than might have occurred back in the palace in Valles.

    "I was wondering, dear one...," Chalcus said, his eyes wandering to avoid meeting Ilna's. "Have you given thought to the future?"

    "Blaise is east of here, isn't it?" Ilna said, frowning to understand the sailor's point. "I suppose we'll go there, even though Count Lerdoc's friendly. And then we'll go back to Valles."

    Ilna'd known more about far places when she was growing up than most people in Barca's Hamlet did. Her weavings were luxury stuff even before Hell taught her how to let or bind the cosmos itself. Ilna hadn't learned geography, however, but rather what the tastes of the folk in Erdin and Piscine and especially in Valles on Ornifal were, the people who bought clothing to demonstrate their wealth and taste.

    "Prince Garric will likely visit the Count of Blaise, in the courteous fashion that the great and powerful of this world have with one another, that's true," Chalcus said with an edge to his voice. "But what I was wondering, dear one, was of our future, yours and mine together--for it will be together, you know that, for so long as you'll have me."

    Ilna sniffed. "Which will be as long as I live and you live," she said sharply. "What would you have me say? That I'll weave when I have leisure to and do such other business as will help my friends--that's what I think of the future."

    "And when you say help your friends...," Chalcus said. He'd taken out his dagger again and was flipping it from hand to hand. His eyes watched Merota squirm through a wisteria whose stems were as thick as her waist. "You mean help Prince Garric for the kingdom's sake, where it may be that your skills count for more than a squadron of ships, not so?"

    "Yes," said Ilna. "So. As I've done in the past. As we've done together in the past."

    She paused, trying to read meaning in the profile which the sailor kept resolutely toward her.

    "Is it wrong that I do that, do you think?" she went on. Her voice was growing harder, more clipped, despite her wish that it not. "For I'll tell you frankly, Master Chalcus, I don't think it's wrong!"

    Chalcus laughed easily, sliding the dagger back into its sheath. "It's not wrong at all, dear heart," he said. "Whoever rules the kingdom will always have a use for such as you; and for me as well, it may be. But if the kingdom uses us at the kingdom's need, there'll come a day when the kingdom has used us up."

    Ilna shrugged. She'd felt the tension drain away as soon as she learned that the questions weren't going in the direction she'd feared a moment previously.

    "I don't care about kingdoms," she said. "I've never met one. But if Garric wants my help, or Sharina or my brother...."

    She smiled, suddenly warm in a fashion that she never could've imagined until the past year changed most of the things she'd learned in the previous eighteen. "Or if you want my help, Master Chalcus," she said, "then you'll have whatever I can give. If that means being used up, then I can't say I care. I did enough harm to other people at one time in my life that I won't complain about the cost to me of making amends."

    "Well, dear heart," Chalcus said, grinning broadly again. "I'm an honest sailor with nothing on his conscience. But a man who looked a good deal like me sailed in past years with the Lataaene pirates... and I shouldn't wonder if that man did terrible things in his time."




    "Chalcus?" Merota called. She was clinging to an ancient wisteria which grew where the rubble wall met the finished stones of the garden's original boundary, now half tumbled. "Why's this statue black? It's basalt! Nobody carves statues out of basalt, do they?"

    Chalcus squeezed Ilna's right hand with his left and rose to his feet. "I've never seen such, child," he said as he stepped toward the girl. "Basalt has too coarse a grain, I'd have said; though I suppose sculptors can be struck by freaks as surely as honest sailors who wake up with a girl's name tattooed over their heart and no idea who she might be."

    "I scarcely think you can stay that drunk long enough to carve a statue," Ilna said tartly as she followed Chalcus, setting the cords back in her sleeve.

    She didn't like stone, just as other people didn't like snakes or spiders; but there was a good deal of stone in the world, so she didn't cringe when she had to deal with it. Likewise there was a sufficient number of people in the world that Ilna didn't like, and she dealt with them too when that was required.

    The wisteria flowed upward into a mushroom of green tendrils. The curve of the shrub's three thick stems looked almost natural, but where they bound the black stone figure at the heart of their knot--

    "Merota, step back!" Ilna said. "Chalcus, you too. Let me look at this."

    In this warm weather Merota was wearing only her inner tunic--normal for a peasant but not up to Mistress Kaline's standards of what was proper for a young noblewoman in public. If the governess managed to get up, she'd be very testy; though of course she was usually very testy.

    The tunic was woven from a fine grade of wool, but it was sturdy enough that it didn't tear when Chalcus grabbed a handful and jerked Merota around behind him. His sword was a curved flicker in his right hand. Instead of looking at the wisteria as Ilna did, Chalcus kept his head turning to watch for dangers in all directions.

    "It's all right!" Ilna snapped. All she wanted was to concentrate on the problem, but by asking people to get out of the way she'd managed to alarm them. "It's a puzzle, that's all. I just don't want you confusing it."

    Faugh! That wasn't what she should've said either! But time to apologize later....

    The statue had fallen face-down. The wisteria grew around both sides of the chest, with the third stem curving up between the basalt legs.

    Ilna squatted, trying to make sense of the pattern. The size of the enveloping vine showed the statue had been here long before the shepherd built his crosswall; indeed, he may have chosen the line simply to use the tree-sized shrub to anchor one end.

    The wisteria was natural and had nothing to do with the reason the black statue was here. The way it grew, however, had been shaped by the same forces that bound the statue, the same spell that bound the statue....

    Ilna rose and turned. The soldiers at work just the other side of the garden wall weren't paying attention to the civilians.

    "You there!" she said to the man just straightening from chopping roots that his fellows couldn't shovel through. "Lend me that hand-axe, if you would!"

    "This, mistress?" the soldier said, looking from Ilna to his hatchet with a puzzled expression.

    "Yes, you ninny!" Ilna said. She regretted the word as it came out of her mouth but he was a ninny. "The axe, please!"

    Chalcus lifted away the tool with a graceful sweep of his left hand. He hadn't sheathed his sword, but he now held it unobtrusively down along his right leg.

    "I can--" he said as he held the axe toward but not quite to Ilna.

    "You may not!" Ilna said. She snatched the axe with a good deal less grace than Chalcus had displayed. "If this isn't done in just the right way, we'll crush it instead of freeing it. Just give me a little room!"

    Tenoctris talked of seeing the forces with which wizards work. She'd explained that wizards focused the lines of force with words and symbols, and with objects which'd soaked those forces into their substance. The best focus of all was the lifeblood pumping from a severed throat, but only the strongest could even hope to control forces of the volume that created. From Ilna's observation, even the very strong were usually wrong when they thought they were that powerful.

    Ilna couldn't see threads of force, but in this case she could follow the distortion they caused in the way the vine grew. It was like following the path of a cat through high grass by the waving seed heads.

    She judged her spot, then chopped twice. The axe flicked out a thumb-deep wedge of bark and fibrous wood. She'd split kindling every day with a hatchet very similar to this one, and her loom's shuttle and beater board kept her wrists and forearms strong.

    After the initial cut, Ilna edged around to get the angle she needed for the stem on the other side of the statue's torso. That meant climbing onto the knee-high remnant of the garden wall and bracing her left arm on the stem. She could go much deeper this time since by scoring the first stem she'd relieved the stresses that'd otherwise have been building opposite her strokes.

    The stem began to wobble beneath her left hand. Wisteria this old tended to be more brittle than ordinary trees of the same thickness. Ilna paused, leaning back to take stock. Smiling, she stepped to the left side of the statue. The stem between its legs wasn't really part of the pattern; it was there for the same reason a blue thread and a yellow thread laid together made the person seeing them think of green.

    Chalcus, holding Merota's hand, moved around to the side Ilna had just left. The child had a wide-eyed expression; if she'd been offended by the sailor's quick manhandling, there was no sign of it now.

    Ilna touched the notch her first strokes had made. The hatchet was iron and completely of this world. Its presence severed the unseen veins of the binding spell at the same time it cut through the woody stem.

    "Now...," she said, speaking to bring her concentration to the precise spot. She chopped into the center of the notch, twisted the hatchet free, and chopped again. Changing the angle, she made a third cut that spat out a chunk of wood the size of her fist.

    The stem above the notch shook convulsively. Ilna bent it back with the flat of her left hand, then chopped a final time with all her strength. The stem broke, toppling sideways under the pull of its heavy foliage.

    "There!" Ilna cried. She set the hand axe down.

    The statue shifted. It twisted its face up, no longer basalt but a stocky man lying nude on the ground. "Get back!" he shouted. "You'll be caught when--"

    Ilna plunged forward as the world around her blurred. She thought she heard Merota scream, but she couldn't be sure because the very fabric of the cosmos was shrilling about her.

    The last thing Ilna saw in this world was the great granite spike glaring down at them. It looked almost human.



    Cashel hadn't exactly been following the ewe, but he'd wandered around the granite spike alongside her, keeping two or three double-paces away. Now and again you'd find a ewe that was jumpy about lambs she'd suckled, let alone human beings. This was one such. Some sheep were just like that, and some people too, of course.

    The ewe had a stye in her left eyelid that ought to be drained, but it didn't seem her regular shepherd had managed to do it. Cashel figured he would, at any rate if they stayed on this little island for a few days. It was a way to make it up to the shepherd who'd had to run when the fleet arrived; and anyway, the ewe would appreciate it.

    A wren hung upside down on the trunk of a dogwood, singing with the loud determination of his kind. Other birds sing and maybe sing to you, but there was never any doubt that a wren was singing at the whole world. They were smart, talented little birds, pretty though without the flashy colors that got the attention; and they were also just as hard as the cracked boulder in which the dogwood tree had rooted.

    Cashel smiled. Wrens reminded him of his sister Ilna.

    He paused beside the boulder. The ewe stopped also. For a moment she stared at Cashel with one eye, then the other. At last she lowered her head and began to graze.

    From here Cashel could look out over the island's east shore, the same view across the Inner Sea that he'd had from the pasture south of Barca's Hamlet. Ships were drawn up all along the beach below. Soldiers were setting up camp like ants scrambling to rebuild the hill an ox had trod on.

    There was no end of ruins, houses fallen into rock piles and overgrown with brush. They'd been built with fancy stones, some of them, pinks and greens and yellows that showed through the alders and euonymus if you knew how to look. They were all knocked down, now. Sails for tarpaulins spread up and down the shore to shelter the soldiers and sailors from the forest of ships.

    The ewe suddenly turned and bolted, her jaws still working with the sidewise rolling motion sheep and cows too used to grind up their food. Cashel heard the scrunch of boots to his right and leaned around the corner of the boulder to see.

    A soldier was walking up the slope. There was no doubt what he was from the hobnailed boots, but he was using his spear, the only piece of equipment he carried, as a walking stick the way Cashel did his quarterstaff.

    "Hello there," Cashel said, stepping into full sight so it wouldn't look like he was hiding behind the boulder. The soldier was a sturdy fellow, built like Cashel though on a smaller scale. His face and forearms were wind-burned, and there was a dent across his forehead where his helmet would rest.

    "Hello yourself," the soldier said, looking startled. Cashel guessed the fellow was four or five years older than his own 19, though he'd noticed time in the army could do different things from ordinary life. "That your sheep?"

    "No," said Cashel. "I'm a stranger here myself."

    He heard the challenge in the other man's tone, but he wasn't going to let it put him out. Cashel felt cramped and uncomfortable on shipboard, and he knew that the common soldiers were packed in a good deal tighter than Garric and his friends were.

    "Because if she is, she's got a stye on her left eye that oughta be taken care of," the soldier said.

    "I noticed that," said Cashel patiently. "I figured the regular shepherd went to the mainland when the ships came, so I was going to drain it for him. I still will, when I get close to her again."

    The fellow'd come up so they were both standing on the same stretch of level ground. He was a hand's breadth shorter than Cashel and probably that much narrower across the shoulders, but he was a husky man by most standards.

    "Leggy devil, ain't she?" the soldier said, looking in the direction the ewe'd run off. "Putting horse legs on a sheep just wastes good feed that could go to wool and mutton."

    "You'd be from Ornifal, then?" Cashel said. Ornifal sheep were short-legged butterballs, all right for flat meadows but nothing he'd have wanted to watch on the slopes of the borough. They went to market by water, he'd heard, because you couldn't drive them ten miles in a day.

    "Aye, I am," the soldier said in surprise. "You know sheep, then, master?"

    "Aye," Cashel said, not bragging exactly but letting his spreading smile tell the other fellow that he could've said a good deal more on the subject and not told a lie. "I'm from Haft, myself."

    "Ah," said the soldier. "I've seen Haft sheep. They're three colors all on the same animal, ain't they?"

    "That's so," Cashel agreed. "And a finer, softer fleece you couldn't hope to find."

    The soldier hawked and spit. "Well, there's tastes and tastes," he said. "My name's Memet or-Meisha."

    Memet leaned his spear against the boulder and thrust out his right forearm. Cashel took it, clamping his hand just below Memet's elbow.

    "Cashel or-Kenset," he said. "Did they send you up here to find something, Master Memet?"

    "No, I'm off-duty," the soldier said. He turned his face away with a frown of embarrassment. "I ought to be sleeping, I guess, I'll have guard duty tonight, but...."

    He let his eyes follow the ewe. She'd stopped a few double-paces away and was grazing again. The poor thing's scared, Cashel thought. She'd like to have that stye drained but she's too afraid to come to us.

    "I saw the sheep up here, you see," Memet said. "I was a shepherd back in County Hordin, but my mum died and dad and me'd got to where neither of us could say three civil words to the other. I figured I'd go for a soldier and be paid in silver. I'd come back with more money'n anybody else in the county 'cepting the Squire and marry who I pleased. That's what I figured."

    "Ah," said Cashel without putting any weight on the word. He leaned against the sun-warmed boulder and used the stone to rub him where he couldn't reach, just the way a sheep would've done. "Most folks think money's a fine thing, or so it seems."

    "So I hear," Memet said with a wry smile. "May the Sister strike me if I know where mine goes from one pay parade to the next, though."

    He faced his palm out. "I'm not complaining, mind," he said. "I spend it myself, I know that. And if I've got help spending it, well, I pick the ones who help me."

    He shook his head at the memory. "There's something about blondes," he said. "We never had blondes in County Hordin except the Squire's lady."

    "I miss sheep too, since I've been travelling," Cashel admitted. "You know, if we just wait here a bit, I'll bet she'll come over to us. She must be really scared with the rest of the flock gone off and her left behind."

    "Aye, that's so," Memet agreed. He glanced at the rock beside him, then said, "Say, take a look here. What do you figure this is that's carved here?"



    Cashel moved around to the soldier's side of the boulder. It was carved, no doubt about that. It looked like the lines'd been touched with ochre, too, though most of the red had been washed away during rainy winters. But what it was--

    A tall triangle, base down. A shorter triangle, base up below the tall one. A round ball, or as round as you can carve even in limestone with simple tools. The work'd probably been done with an iron knife a lot like the one Cashel and every other man in the borough hung from his belt. Lines from the open sides of each triangle, maybe meant for arms and legs.

    "We had a stone up in the South Pasture where we offered bread and cheese to Duzi on feast days," Cashel said carefully. "Of course Duzi was just a little god who couldn't help me since I've left the borough. But you know, I still sometimes...."

    "There's an oak where we'd hang offerings to Enver," Memet said in the same tone of quiet embarrassment. "I thought of that too."

    "You're correct in your assumptions," said a female voice from behind them. Cashel turned fast and took a step back. That was a mistake because it put him onto the slope. He jabbed his quarterstaff down, digging one ferrule into the soil to keep from falling.

    "Shepherds worship the nymph Serkit here," said a woman with tightly-braided black hair and a face like polished ivory. The nails of her right hand were enameled sapphire blue, while those of her left were ruby. "She wards off lightning and protects the flock from scrapie."

    Cashel stepped up onto flat ground again, though he kept to the side so he wasn't crowding the lady. She wore the usual two tunics cinched with a sash. They were as lustrous as silk, but Cashel was sure that the fabric was something different. You didn't grow up with Ilna and not learn about cloth.

    "Lady?" said Memet. He was thinking as Cashel did: whoever the woman was and wherever she came from, she wasn't a peasant girl. "Aren't you afraid to be here with so many soldiers?"

    "Afraid?" she said. She sniffed. "Afraid of you?"

    "Not me," the soldier said, blushing. "But all these other people. Men."

    "No," the woman said, "I'm not."

    Cashel stood eyeing her closely, his staff planted upright at his side. She turned her attention to him but before she could speak, he said, "Lady, who are you?"

    From any distance he'd have guessed the woman was thirty years old. Something at the back of her eyes was much older than that, for all that her complexion was as perfect as a baby's.

    "You can call me Mab," she said, "but that doesn't matter. What matters, Cashel or-Kenset, is that your mother is in great danger. Unless you help her, she'll have no help and no hope. Will you come with me?"

    "My mother?" Cashel said. He turned his head and looked down. The shore below was the same jumble of ships and bustling men that it'd been a moment ago. He wasn't dreaming, then. "Lady, I don't have--"

    He broke off before he finished what would've been as silly a thing as he'd ever said in his life. Everybody had a mother, whether or not they'd met her.

    "Lady," Cashel said. He swallowed. "I don't understand."

    Memet was looking from Cashel to the woman, his mouth slightly open. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, so he must've been wondering about being awake or dreaming too.

    "There's very little to understand," Mab said in a thin tone. "You'll come with me now, before the portal closes, or you'll leave your mother to her fate. If you choose the latter, you won't be man enough to help her in this crisis anyway."

    Cashel laughed. "I said I didn't understand, not that I was afraid," he said gently. "I still don't understand, but I'm used to that. When will we leave?"

    "We'll leave immediately, from this place," Mab said. "The shrine will make it easier. Are you ready?"

    "Yes," said Cashel. He smiled at the soldier and said, "I guess you'll have to take care of the ewe yourself, Memet. But before you do, please tell Sharina that I've gone--"

    He wasn't sure what to say next. "Well, tell her what you heard here," he said, "because that's as much as I know. That's Princess Sharina of Haft I mean."

    "Come now, or you won't be able to come," the woman said crisply. She stepped around to the side of the boulder where the carving was. Her bright nails traced a pattern in the air. "Here, stand facing the shrine."

    Cashel grimaced and obeyed. He'd rather a lot of things, but he knew there were times you had to act without worrying about the details. Mab didn't seem any more the sort to exaggerate than Ilna was, or Cashel himself.

    She was standing behind him, murmuring Words of Power. Her hands moved above Cashel's head, then to both sides of him. He felt the tingle of energies building.

    The air danced in a cocoon of red and blue wizardlight. The solid rock gaped into a doorway.

    "Tell Sharina I love her!" Cashel said. He strode into the opening with his quarterstaff before him.



    Sharina sat as primly as she could with the other specialists ready to advise Prince Garric. The servants had fixed her a throne of sorts: a wide-mouthed storage jar, upended and covered with a swatch of aquamarine silk brocade. Though backless, the result was attractive enough to pass muster in a real palace.

    Unfortunately the potter'd left a central lump when he cut his work off the wheel. Normally that'd just mean the jar rocked if it were set on a hard surface instead of being part-buried in sand. It was a real problem during the jar's present use, however. Sharina knew now to check with her hand the next time before sitting down to listen to hours of negotiation.

    One of Lord Waldron's aides was speaking to Liane. She'd turned her head sideways but continued to take notes in the tablet in front of her. Liane's expression showed mild interest, but her stylus scored quick, brutal marks in the wax.

    Lord Waldron was still missing. He'd gone off with the courier, his head bobbing in angry argument. He'd given no explanation, just snarled over his shoulder that his staff should remain under the marquee. Sharina'd seen Waldron in circumstances where he reasonably expected to die in a short time, but his expression had never before been so bleakly miserable.

    "I'm sorry, Marshal Renold," Garric said in the same calmly reasonable voice he'd have used on a merchant who was sure he could get a private room during the Sheep Fair if only he kept saying so long enough. "Three regiments is the minimum which Sandrakkan must supply to the Royal Army and provide the upkeep for."

    Lord Tadai leaned forward with a stern expression and added, "I'll tell you frankly that according to my estimate of Earl Wildulf's potential revenue and manpower, Sandrakkan should be providing four regiments. It's only King Valence's unwillingness to insult the Count of Blaise, who's supplying three regiments, that decided him to reduce the Sandrakkan levy."

    In her fatigued discomfort, Sharina took a moment to parse exactly what Tadai had just said. Because of that delay, she managed not to chortle in amusement. You couldn't even call Tadai's words a lie because nobody was expected to believe them. He'd been polite, but he'd made it perfectly clear to the Sandrakkan delegation the direction in which the Royal position would move if they kept belaboring the point.

    Lord Morchan thumped his fist on the table, making the Sandrakkan side bounce wildly. "Curse it, we shouldn't be here!" he blurted. "Everybody knows Volita's cursed. That's why none of this makes any sense!"

    It seemed to Sharina that the negotiations, though tedious, had been very productive. They'd involved the Sandrakkan envoys giving way on one point after another, of course, but that was primarily because Garric's position--the royal position--had been reasonable to begin with.

    Admiral Zettin drew himself up straight and said in the drawl affected by the Valles nobility, "Quite the contrary, my good man. We've made great headway and we'll make more. That's surely better than sweeping all Sandrakkan commerce from the Inner Sea and burning the estates within five miles of the shore. Not so?"

    "Look, I'm just saying that we ought to get off Volita," Morchan insisted truculently. "It's an uncanny place, that's all. Everybody knows that if you go up to the top of the Demon--"

    He bobbed his head, presumably indicating the granite spike that wasn't visible from under the marquee.

    "--you'll see a wonder--but you may never come down again!"

    "Morchan," said Lady Lelor in a poisonously calm voice. "If you'd give us just a little help, we'd all pretend to ignore the fact you're a superstitious ninny. Do you know a soul who's climbed--"

    "Everybody knows what I say is the truth, milady!" Morchan snapped. Marshal Renold, seated between them, leaned back from the table with a sour look and his eyes unfocused.

    "Everybody isn't such a fool!" the priestess said. "Do you know even a sheep who's climbed the Demon, Lord Morchan?"

    Morchan stood up, his face white. His mouth opened and closed silently. He repeated the process, then sat--collapsed into his seat like a pricked bladder--again, blushing furiously.

    Sharina looked at the embarrassed nobleman with a rush of sympathy which surprised her. Morchan was superstitious, and he was a ninny--which he'd proved amply in the course of the negotiations. But he was also more right than wrong in what he'd said about Volita.

    Sharina would've known that even without Tenoctris' warning as the fleet landed. Volita was a center of power. Sitting here was like being in a wind blowing sand too fine to see but which prickled through your tunics. Her eyes felt scratchy no matter how often she blinked.

    Tenoctris had said that some people were more affected than others. Sharina supposed that she herself might be one of the sensitive ones, if only because of the things she'd been a part of in the year since she left Barca's Hamlet. Everyone on the island must feel it to a degree, but....

    Sharina smiled. She'd learned a great deal about politics in the past year. Her brother was uncomfortable also, but by smiling and holding his position with bland insistence, he had an advantage over the less-disciplined Sandrakkan envoys. Their present loud squabble was an example of that, and their irritable fidgeting throughout had been made worse by an atmosphere charged with wizardry.

    "Lady Lelor," Garric said in a voice raised enough to end the bickering across the table.

    When everybody looked at him he went on, "Milords. We've decided the general form of Sandrakkan's future place in the kingdom. The details can be worked out over the next days or if necessary months. The only outstanding point is the fashion in which I enter Erdin."

    "What--" Marshal Renold said, then stopped.

    "My preferred option is to cross the strait tomorrow--"

    He nodded toward the beach and the mainland visible beyond it.

    "--with my bodyguard regiment, the Blood Eagles, and a single line regiment, one of Blaise infantry under their own officers. The remainder of the army will camp here on Volita until after--"

    "Your highness, that's not safe!" Lord Attaper said, standing at the right of the table. Till he spoke, he'd been only another of the guards. "You need--"

    Garric turned without rising from his seat. "Lord Attaper!" he said. "Be silent!"

    One of the Blood Eagles dropped his spear with a clatter. He grabbed for it, fumbled, and finally picked it up in both hands.

    "Right," said Garric in a quiet, shaky voice. The atmosphere worked on everybody, whether or not they were generally able to control their reactions. "That's my preferred option, as I say. The other choice, milady and lordships, is for me to march in at the head of the entire Royal Army."

    He licked his lips, forced a smile that Sharina could just see from where she said, and continued, "In the first case I'll crown Earl Wildulf on the steps of the temple in two days time."

    "Your highness...," said Lady Lelor carefully. "Earl Wildulf will be persuaded of the reasonableness of your arguments, I'm sure. But it may take some time--"

    Garric rose to his feet. "I hope Earl Wildulf will be able to send me an answer before the second hour tomorrow, milady," he said, "because that's when I'll begin making preparations for the next stage of the proceedings. There must be extensive planning, as you can imagine. Whichever choice the Earl makes."

    Liane got to her feet. "All rise!" she said, putting a close to the negotiations on Garric's behalf. Sharina stood gratefully in the coughs and shuffling of all the others under the marquee.

    The Sandrakkan envoys rose and started toward their waiting barge. The priestess paused, leaning over the conference table. "Your highness," she said, "there was a foolish rumor that you weren't really a member of the royal house. I can't imagine who started it, but I'll assure you that nobody who's met you in person will credit it."



    Garric watched the delegates leave. His back was straight but Sharina could see tension in the way the muscles of her brother's neck and shoulders bunched.

    Admiral Zettin was talking at Garric about plans and options. His tone was professional, but he was obviously exulting at the fact he'd been chosen to fill the seat that Lord Waldron vacated.

    Triumph had blinded Zettin, ordinarily a very intelligent man, to the obvious: Prince Garric was lost in his own thoughts. He wasn't listening to a word of his admiral's self-satisfied babble.

    Liane hovered at Garric's left side, afraid to touch him or even speak. Sharina stepped up to the table, brushing her brother with one shoulder and forcing Admiral Zettin back with the other. Garric's fists were clenched against the front of his thighs. She covered his right fist with her left hand.

    "Do they know how many people will die if Wildulf doesn't listen to reason?" Garric said in a shaky voice. "Do you know, Sharina?"

    "I know that not as many will die as would if the kingdom fell apart again," she said calmly, turning toward her brother. "We'd start with the islands fighting one another. Then there'd be something else that'd sweep us all away, sweep away everything human. You know there would, Garric!"

    Liane touched Garric's left fist. Many members of Garric's entourage wanted to speak with him, but they were giving space to the two women. "This is the millennium," Liane said. "It requires the united strength of the Isles to prevent the powers from tearing everything apart when they reach their peak, as they did a thousand years ago."

    Garric shook himself like a dog come in from the rain. He put his arms around Sharina's and Liane's shoulders and gave them a firm squeeze. "Now...," he said, turning to face those who'd waited under the marquee to advise or simply observe, "We've got our own planning to do. Who's Waldron's deputy? I need to know--"

    "I'm here, your highness," said Lord Waldron, pushing through the crowd of common soldiers who'd been watching the conference from outside. There was no sign of the courier who'd led him off. "I'm here, but I'm bringing worse news than I ever imagined I'd have to bear."

    "All right," said Garric said. He sounded calm. The tremble was gone from his voice, and his muscles had relaxed into their usual supple readiness. He gestured to the seat across from where he stood, the one which Marshal Renold had vacated. "Sit if you like, but speak."

    "I'll stand, thank you," Waldron said with harshly minimal courtesy. He looked around at the crowd--gaping, murmuring, gesturing to friends to come close and hear the revelations--and for a moment flushed with the fury that was so much part of him normally.

    The anger vanished like a snuffed candleflame, replaced by an unfamiliar gray misery. "A man who calls himself Valgard, son of Valence Stronghand, has raised a rebellion on Ornifal against what he chooses to call his senile brother Valence III and the Haft peasant Garric."

    Waldron shrugged in stiff-faced embarrassment. He was standing as stiffly as if he'd been tied to a stake to be burned.

    "Go on, Lord Waldron," Garric said in the same pleasant tone as before. Sharina, knowing her brother, understood why he was so calm. The Earl of Sandrakkan could choose either war or peace. If he chose war, then thousands would die and the kingdom might tilt toward collapse, and Garric would never doubt that the fault was his for not handling the negotiations properly.

    That responsibility was terrifying. A usurper in open revolt was a merely a tactical problem, not one in which a mistake would turn peace into war.

    "This Valgard--and he has a wizard named Hani with him, behind him I shouldn't wonder...," Waldron continued. "He's gathered a band of fools to support him. I'm very sorry to admit that my cousin Bolor bor-Warriman is one of those fools."

    Waldron took a shuddering breath. There were tears at the corners of his eyes. "My lord prince, I beg you accept my resignation as commander of the royal army. I need to return to Ornifal to deal with a family problem!"

    "Request denied, Lord Waldron," Garric said easily. "At least until you've helped the kingdom deal with a problem that isn't limited to the bor-Warrimans. Now--"

    "I'll capture the Spiteful and the traitors aboard her, your highness!" Attaper said. "Okkan, sound Assemble on the Standards!"

    "No!" said Lord Waldron. "My word is--"

    "Okkan, put down that trumpet!" Garric thundered, pointing his whole left arm at the Blood Eagle signaler. Okkan froze, his silver-mounted instrument to his lips. His eyes sought Attaper's.

    "Your highness!" said Attaper, "this is the kingdom's business, not--"

    "Yes!" said Garric, his voice riding down that of his guard commander. "And if the courier who brought us first news of a rebellion wasn't on the kingdom's business, who is?"

    He turned to Waldron. "Now, milord," he continued mildly, even cheerfully. "Just how dangerous do you judge this affair to be?"

    This isn't my brother, Sharina thought. But that was only partly true, because this self-composed prince was the person her brother could have grown into on his own.

    The spirit of King Carus provided Garric with political experience that no nineteen-year-old peasant could have amassed; but much of that experience was of how not to do things, as Carus himself would be the first to say. It was Garric's own quick, disciplined intelligence that had just avoided a crisis by refusing to arrest a rebel under circumstances that would have dishonored his army commander in the eyes of his family, his class, and himself.

    "It'd be serious if we let it grow," Waldron said, "but of course we won't. Bolor thinks the levies he can draw from the northern districts can sweep away the regiments you left in Valles. He might be right."

    Waldron cleared his throat and looked down; the toe of his right boot gouged the ground. He straightened again and glared at Garric, a fierce old man who couldn't understand the concept that honor might not be dearer than life.

    "Look," he went on. "I don't want you to misunderstand what just happened. Bolor was giving me warning so that I could run before you learned about the rebellion and had me executed. He was a fool to think that I'd run, but he wasn't so great a fool as to imagine that I'd harm the prince to whom I pledged my loyalty."

    The trireme that'd brought the courier was getting under way. The oarsmen were probably upset not to be given a chance to rest now that they'd reached Volita.

    Sharina smiled. It could've been a lot worse for everybody aboard the ship, if Garric weren't in charge.

    "Of course, your cousin knew he was dealing with a bor-Warriman," Garric said. "As do I."

    Garric sighed and bent deeply forward, stretching his locked hands backwards and up to loosen muscles cramped by the previous hours of negotiation. He straightened.

    "Lord Attaper," he said, "have your men move people two double-paces away from this marquee. I'm going to meet here with my inner cabinet, and the discussions may require privacy."

    Garric quirked a smile. "And does anybody know where Lady Tenoctris is?" he added. "Because if there's a wizard involved with this business, I want to know what she thinks about it."

    "I'll get Tenoctris," said Sharina, squeezing her brother's shoulder as she turned to trot off to where she knew the old wizard lay in her shelter. "And I couldn't agree with you more!"

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