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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, May 12, 2004 03:46 EDT



    "Pardon me, milords," Garric said to Lord Tadai and the troupe of officials accompanying him to Erdin. "I'd like a word with the commander of our escort."

    "It's Lord Rosen," said King Carus approvingly as he saw the commander of the Blaise regiment that'd be crossing the strait. The sun was just risen high enough for even Garric's excellent eyes to distinguish one man in armor from another at a distance of thirty feet. "He was in charge when we had trouble at that temple in Carcosa."

    I recall, Garric thought, a little irritated to be reminded of somebody he remembered quite well. On the other hand, Carus was reputed to have known every one of the forty thousand men in his army by name--

    "Not so, lad," the king's spirit said with a smile. "But maybe everybody above the rank of file closer, maybe that."

    --and it was a very valuable trick for a commander who wanted troops to follow him into hard places.

    "Lord Rosen!" Garric said, stepping forward to clasp right arms with the Blaise officer. "I left the choice of the regiment that'd accompany me to Waldron, but I couldn't be more happy than to be working with you again!"

    That was all true. Rosen had proven to have a quick mind. Even more important, Rosen had enough of a grip on his temper that he hadn't taken offense when Garric snapped orders curtly. That wasn't a given among noblemen, especially those who'd chosen the army for a career.

    But it was also true that he was greeting Rosen with this warmth for political reasons. Garric wanted an officer who'd do what he was told promptly and without argument. If that officer was convinced the Prince really liked and cared about him, he was likely to behave the way Garric needed him to.

    In a way, this was no different from the way a successful innkeeper behaved to his guests. It wasn't exactly lying. By demonstrating enthusiasm that maybe you don't feel just at the moment with a lot of other things on your mind, you made the guest feel comfortable. Garric was actually better at that part of business than his father had been.

    "And better than I was, lad," Carus agreed, "for all I knew what I should do."

    "Pleased as well, your highness!" said Rosen, a plumpish fellow of average height with the flaring moustaches that Blaise aristocrats favored. "Honored, if I may say. The lads and I are rather looking forward to a chance to sort out these Sandrakkan weasels."

    "While I'm sure your men are capable of doing just that, milord," Garric said, smiling to emphasize that this was a friendly comment rather than a rebuke, "it'll be a disaster if that happens. I'm going over with your troops rather than an Ornifal regiment so as not to inflame the Erdin mob, but I'm sure there'll be provocations nonetheless. I trust your discipline not to repond to anything less than an outright armed attack."

    I pray to the Shepherd your discipline is that good, Garric thought, but he knew sometimes you simply had to face problems. There couldn't be parts of the kingdom into which royal officials couldn't go, not and it really be a kingdom; and if there was going to be trouble, then best it happen when the entire army was on hand to finish whatever the Sandrakkan mob might start.

    "You can count on us, your highness!" Lord Rosen said, stepping back. He raised his right arm straight up in a Blaise salute, then returned to where his regiment waited. It was on the shoreline, broken into companies alongside the triremes that'd ferry it across the strait.

    I have to count on them, Garric thought, continuing to smile while he felt a surge of bleak despair. Everything had to work, everyone had to do his or her job without getting lazy or angry. Otherwise the Isles would shatter into a hundred little principalities that squabbled among themselves till some great, united evil swept them all into oblivion. As it surely would.

    "You have to count on them, and they have to count on you," Carus agreed quietly. "And thus far, neither of you has disappointed the other."

    Garric glanced at the Sandrakkan delegation, the same four officials as before, who waited to return to Erdin with Garric and his escort. The priestess and the courtier talked to one another with stony expressions. The commoner kept to himself in the background, and Marshal Renold was watching the phalanx go through evolutions on the rubble-strewn foreshore.

    The demonstration--because that's what it was--was worth watching. The phalanx was formed sixteen ranks deep and armed with twenty-foot pikes. These were heavy, awkward weapons, difficult to handle even on a level field. That the phalanx kept good order as it advanced and countermarched across broken ground would impress any military man--and would seriously worry an enemy who realized there'd be at least five pike points aimed at the face of every soldier in his own front rank.

    "By the Shepherd!" Carus said, watching through Garric's eyes. "Yours are as good as mine were, lad. Ours are as good as mine were a thousand years ago!"

    Liane stepped close to Garric's right elbow. In the formal tone which she always used to him in public she said, "Your highness, I've just received some information that I'd like to go over with you in that tent--

    She nodded toward an ordinary canvas tent meant to hold an eight-man squad. The sides were lowered, which was unusual for this temperate weather even now in the early morning. The person waiting inside--the spy waiting inside--wanted to conceal his features as much as possible from the Sandrakkan traders now mingling with the royal army.

    "-- as soon as possible."

    "Yes, of course," Garric said. Liane didn't say 'as soon as possible' idly.

    He glanced again at the Sandrakkan envoys. Their vessel was an ordinary river barge, draped for this occasion with tapestries over both sides. Sea water sloshing during the short voyage had soaked the fine fabrics.

    "Ilna won't like that," Garric said, grinning at a homely memory; and sobering at once. He didn't realize how despairing he must have looked until Liane touched his hand, a rare public display of affection. Well, he was better for being reminded just now that he had friends.

    His mind went back to the news he'd gotten the previous afternoon. "What particularly bothers me is that both Cashel and Ilna disappeared," he said to Liane quietly. "As if it was coordinated."

    A senior clerk stepped into Garric's path with his mouth open for a question. Lord Tadai said, "Morschem, come here. Now."

    The clerk's mouth clamped shut. He hopped sideways to Tadai in a motion more like a crab swimming in clear water than anything Garric had seen on land before. Tadai, who was in his way every bit as ruthless as King Carus, had no intention of letting somebody in his department disturb Garric now.

    "Cashel wasn't attacked," Liane said, mincing along so that there'd be time for her and Garric to talk before they met the spy. "And Ilna and her friends may not have been attacked either, since the soldiers nearby are sure they heard someone shout a warning."

    She cleared her throat, then added carefully so she wouldn't sound as though she was being falsely optimistic, "Tenoctris says that there's a great deal of power focused here on Volita. That might explain what's happened without positing hostile action."

    "True," Garric said, because it was true.He grinned, feeling much better for an honest discussion of what'd happened. "And while that doesn't mean they aren't in danger, anybody who dares to threaten them is in a good deal more danger. So we'll take care of our end, and trust them to take care of theirs as they've done in the past."

    Two tough looking men in civilian clothes stood by the tent, one at either end. They were Liane's retainers, guarding her unobtrusively but probably as effectively as Blood Eagles. Attaper must have believed the same thing, because Garric's own guards kept discreetly to the side instead of thrusting themselves into the tent ahead of him to see that no assassin lurked there.

    The fellow who waited in the dimness wore a long hooded cloak over his clothing. He bowed slightly to Liane and said, "Mistress. I've brought a full report."

    He handed her a tight parchment scroll the diameter of a man's thumb. Garric didn't recognize his accent. The fellow failed to add, "Your highness," to his salutation the way a citizen of the kingdom should have done.

    "We'll go over this when we have leisure," Liane said in the coolly businesslike tone of a master speaking to a servant. "Give us a quick overview of the situation."

    The spy shrugged under his cloak. "Earl Wildulf doesn't rank with the Seven Sages," he said, "but he's got a shrewd grasp of the possible. He'll bargain for as much autonomy as he can get, but he won't rebel unless something happens to the royal army first."

    "Will he be able to work within the kingdom?" Garric asked. "I've heard a lot of people on Sandrakkan hate Ornifal because of the way the royal army crushed the rebellion last generation at the Stone Wall."

    Instead of replying, the spy turned his shadowed face toward Liane. "Answer him, Kaskal!" Liane said sharply.

    The spy's head jerked back; Liane had used his name openly in an implicit rebuke of his posturing. He coughed and said, "As best I can judge, Wildulf doesn't have any real hostility toward Ornifal. He's aware that if his uncle and cousin hadn't died at the Stone Wall, he'd be managing the family's vineyards in the west of the island. He'd never say that, of course."

    Outside a trumpet called to end the phalanx exercises. The troops gave a loud cheer in unison. They'd be raising their pikes straight in the air and carrying them to covered storage to protect the slim shafts from the elements. Every aspect of the phalanx required forethought and extreme care, but when all the pieces worked together, the pikemen could cut the heart out of any other army in the Isles.

    Kaskal had jumped when four thousand soldiers bellowed. With a self-directed scowl he resumed, "There's plenty of people, especially among the nobles, who hate anything to do with Ornifal or the kingdom worse than a viper. Lord Tawnser's one of them. He has support in the court and outside it. If he stirs up trouble, it'll be against Wildulf's orders--but he's stupid enough that he might stir up trouble anyway."

    "If there's a riot...," Garric said. His mind was full of images from King Carus' memories: men in armor breaking down doors while people on the roof hurl down tiles; buildings alight and the flames spreading across whole districts, trapping fighters and the innocent alike. "Will the Earl's troops put it down, or will we have to do that ourselves?"

    "I don't know," the spy said. "It depends on just what the event is, who's in command of the troops on duty at the time, that sort of thing. I think Wildulf'd order his men to stop the riot, but how fast they'd obey--or how soon he'd be told what's going on--that I wouldn't bet on."

    He pressed his fingertips together and frowned at them, deciding whether or not he was going to say more. Garric bit off a snarl, permitting Kaskal to decide to speak on his own. If the fellow thought he was going to get out of this tent without saying the rest of what he was on his mind, though, he was badly mistaken.

    "There's Countess Balila," Kaskal said at last. "I don't know about her. She's devoted to her husband, that I'm sure of. He seems to love her too, but Balila's... more than that. She worships Wildulf the way people are supposed to worship the gods."

    "Do you see the Countess' attitude as a danger?" Liane said. She held a wax tablet in one hand and a stylus in the other, but she wasn't taking notes; it was just a way of occupying her fingers while her mind was on the spy's words.

    "Not unless she thinks the Prince is a danger to her husband," Kaskal said. "I can't estimate how likely that is because I don't understand how her mind works. Balila doesn't have any real power, but she could probably find servants to poison a cup if she wanted to. And for the past year she's been thick as thieves with a wizard, an old woman who calls herself Lady Dipsas. I can't find out anything about where Dipsas's from, but if she's really a lady, so's my uncle's sow."

    "Her birth doesn't matter," Garric said, feeling the spirit of Carus draw itself up in disgust. "How serious a wizard is she?"

    He was well aware that he'd sent Tenoctris off with Sharina and Lord Waldron. Their squadron hadn't sailed from Volita yet--at the current rate of preparations, they'd leave a few hours after Garric and his escort crossed to Erdin--but he wasn't willing to reneg on an offer he'd made his sister. Apart from personal reasons, it'd make him look vacillating. That was more of a danger to his leadership than the possibility that his initial decision had been a bad one.

    "I don't know," Kaskal said. Then, angrily, "I don't know anything about that sort of business. I've seen her do tricks. If she does more than that, I don't know about it!"

    The spy had the same attitude that King Carus and quite a lot of other people did: wizardry was evil, dangerous, and deeply disgusting. In the main Garric, who'd had a good deal of experience with wizards in the past two years, agreed with them. But though the bloody dismemberment of thousands of men in battle was also evil, dangerous, and deeply disgusting, sometimes battle was necessary if the kingdom and Mankind itself were to survive.

    A trumpet and a long curved horn blew together, signaling that the ships were ready to carry the Prince and his escort to Erdin. Garric sighed. He didn't want to go, but it was his duty--and one he'd taken upon himself willingly.

    He rose to his feet and shrugged. "I suppose we'll learn for ourselves in good time," he said mildly. "We'll hope that the Countess realizes we won't harm her husband unless he initiates hostilities, and we'll hope that the Countess' wizard shows similar good judgment. If they don't, then we'll deal with the situation as it arises."

    Through Garric's mind cascaded more of Carus' memories, the faces of wizards who'd learned the spells they were babbling weren't sufficient to fend off either the king's long sword or the death that came on its edge and point. It was a comforting reminder just now.



    Ilna rose, feeling the chill and the emptiness of her belly as well. She'd always treated food as a necessity, not a pleasure in itself. But though an orphan thrown on her own and her brother's resources at age nine learns what it means to go hungry, Ilna hadn't missed meals in a long time. When the orphans are as able as Ilna and Cashel, they earn enough to feed themselves in short order.

    Well, she wouldn't starve for a good long while. Water was more of a concern, but not yet a serious one.

    "I heard rabbits running about all night," said Chalcus ruefully, looking across the brush and straggling trees around them. "I've fished for everything from whales to fingerlings for bait. If I'd spent a little of that time learning to lay snares, we might have breakfast waiting for us."

    He and Ilna had slept on pine boughs, a good enough mattress if they'd had a ground sheet to lay over it. As well wish for a down comforter, which would've been more use yet. The night air here was beyond cool.

    Davus had made do with a scrape for his hip in the coarse soil and a smooth rock for a pillow. He seemed no worse for the experience than they were, and all three of them were fit to meet the day and whatever it brought.

    Davus laid out a selection of pebbles, all about the size of a walnut, then picked three from the lot and left the remainder on the ground. "We should have lunch, at any rate," he said, tossing the stones from hand to hand in a pattern that was remarkably complex for only three stones. One was white quartz and served as a marker for Ilna's inexpert eyes.

    Davus gathered the stones into his left hand. "How do you choose to proceed, sir and madam?" he asked with polite formality.

    Chalcus raised an eyebrow toward Ilna. He could've spoken as easily as she--there was only one possible answer, after all--but since he put it to her Ilna said, "If Merota is at the Citadel, we'll go to the Citadel."

    "We won't lose our direction, whatever else we may lose," Davus said, his tone making the words approving rather than a criticism. He stepped forward, taking the lead without pointless dithering. Ilna could've had worse companions in a situation like this, whatever this really was.

    "What are the people like here, Davus?" Chalcus asked from a double-pace behind Ilna, the same distance at which she followed Davus. There was no obvious reason why they shouldn't have walked in a close group like three acquaintances on the only street of Barca's Hamlet's, but it felt more comfortable to spread slightly so that everybody had an unobstructed view.

    "In my day, all sorts," Davus said with a chuckle. "On the grasslands, nomads and hunters. That's northeast of the Citadel, though, and we're on the southern rim so it's nowhere we'll be going--"

    He glanced over his shoulder and grinned.

    "--for a time, at least."

    A bird sailed through the high sky, a black cross against the pale blue. Though Ilna couldn't see any details at that height, the bird's wings were steady like those of a hawk instead of tipping on air currents the way a vulture would.

    A ground squirrel whistled from an outcrop ten double-paces distant. Davus flung a rock sidearm with no more hesitation than a trout taking a mayfly. The squirrel sprang into the air, as instantly dead as the quail of the night before.

    Ilna walked over to the dead rodent. She tucked it under her sash to clean when they next stopped. It wasn't a species she'd encountered previously, but she wasn't in a mood to be fussy. An animal that turned grass into meat was likely to be good eating, even if it didn't look much like a sheep.

    Davus rubbed the ball and big toe of his right foot into the soil. The action puzzled Ilna until he reached down and came up with a pebble which he juggled briefly along with the two remaining from his original trio. He caught Chalcus' eye and said, "It'll do till something better comes along, I think."

    "In your hands," the sailor agreed, "I dare say it will."

    "Here in the south," Davus said as they continued, "there's villages but not so many. Near the cliffs--"

    He crooked a finger back toward the rocky slopes behind them.

    "--there's a great deal of power and things happen, as the three of us know better than most. The folk we're apt to find here are mostly solitaries for one reason or another, those who don't fear wizardry or who fear other things more. In my day, the King didn't chase down outlaws who took themselves here to the Rim, so long as they didn't return to trouble others."

    "And the wizards who lurk here?" Chalcus said with a hint of challenge. "What of them?"

    "The same," Davus replied. "Those who kept to themselves were allowed to keep to themselves. Those who thought otherwise found themselves stone statues, as--"

    He turned his head, his lips but not his eyes smiling as he looked at first Chalcus, then Ilna.

    "--I was when you freed me, mistress. But in my case not, I think, because the Old King found me troublesome to my neighbors. Which you can believe or not believe as you choose."

    "What I believe, Master Davus," said Ilna, meeting the fellow's eyes and speaking with her usual lack of emphasis, "is that I'm glad to have your company. If others at another time felt otherwise, then I suspect they're not people I'd warm to myself."

    She laughed and added a further truth in a tone that made it a joke, "Of course it's easy to find people I don't warm to. No doubt most of them feel the same way about me."

    A brightly colored lizard the length of a man's forearm raised its head toward them from the trunk of a dwarf almond tree. "Do we eat lizards?" Davus asked.

    "We do not," Ilna said. "At least as yet."

    "I ate steaks from the tail of a sea-wolf, once," Chalcus said.

    "Sea-wolf?" asked Davus. If he came from this dry upland, he wouldn't have seen the long-jawed sea reptiles who'd occasionally come ashore near Barca's Hamlet to snatch a ewe or even a shepherd if he wasn't paying proper attention.

    "A lizard twice as long as I'm tall," Chalcus explained. "It weighed as much as a grown bull, I'd judge, and seemed hungry enough to eat one. It had similar thoughts about me, but as it chanced I learned that it tasted fishy instead of it complaining to its scaly kin that I was stringy. So I'll willingly forgo lizard today as well."

    Davus stooped and came up with another chip of rock, this one pinkish and jagged. He juggled as he walked along, all four stones for a moment; then one flew onto a patch of bare earth and the other three vanished into his left palm again.

    "There's good enough," he said, "and there's better. And sometimes there's better for a particular thing."

    "Even among rocks," Ilna said, in so flat a tone that she thought only Chalcus would catch her self-mockery.

    "Oh, especially among rocks, mistress!" Davus said, chuckling in full understanding. "Why, by the time we've rescued your friend Merota, I'll have taught you to appreciate the subtle delicacy of a bit of gneiss against the boldness one expects from an agate, eh?"

    The three of them laughed together. In a quieter, sober voice Davus went on, "I don't think the pattern of life here will have changed much since my time. The Old King didn't let men rule other men because he thought it was wrong that they should. The King who replaced him cares little for men, as we see from the fact he allows the trolls to walk, but he must care a great deal for his own safety. He won't allow a power to rise that might threaten him. There'll be farmsteads and villages, nothing greater than that; and no king but the King, as he now is."

    A trio of small doves flew from a clump of laburnum, their flight feathers clattering together louder than the soft coos they uttered. Davus poised, then slipped the readied stone back into his other hand.

    "There's a patch of bright green on the horizon," he said. "Maybe a spring where we'll find food, maybe a settlement. Those doves are pretty things, and if we don't need them to eat then I'll let them go on being pretty till a hawk takes them or a fox takes them or perhaps they break their fool necks flying into a slab of mica that reflects the sky."

    They laughed again, all in agreement; but Ilna noticed that Chalcus slipped his sword and dagger loose in their sheaths. She began to plait cords from her sleeve into a pattern that would be of use if what waited in the green wasn't a friend to them. She and Chalcus were willing to live and let live if other parties were of a similar mind; but if the others weren't, well, she and Chalcus were ready for that as well.



    "Why are we here, ma'am?" Cashel asked, looking about the vast domed hall with the interest its magnificence deserved. The roof was clear crystal. You could see fluffy clouds through it, but though the just-risen sun filled the room with light it didn't heat things up the way Cashel was used to from working outdoors.

    Because the room was so big, the number of people inside didn't fill it any more than the terrace up above was crowed by a similar. A dais rose in two steps at one edge. The first level was just above the heads of the spectators. On it sat the seven wizards Cashel'd seen at the dawn ceremony, still wearing their golden headdresses and gold-embroidered robes.

    The step above was the same amount higher. On it was an empty throne of interwoven ruby and sapphire threads.

    "Every visitor to Ronn should see the Morning Levee," Mab said with a faint smile. "I'd be remiss in my duties as hostess if I didn't bring you."

    She paused, then added, "I expect to introduce you to a man here after the levee. But it really is an attractive pageant, even to me who's seen it often. I thought you'd enjoy it."

    "Yes, ma'am," Cashel said. "It's pretty, all right."

    "Ronn has many attractive pageants," Mab said, but she seemed to be talking to herself.

    They'd crossed to the north side of the terrace and gone down an outside staircase, then walked through any number of branching halls to get to this high room. Cashel found it like hiking through canyons, though, not a series of caves like it was in most big buildings. It wasn't just that the halls were wide and had high ceilings: the walls and everything seemed full of the same light as up on the terrace.

    Instead of being covered with paintings on plaster, the translucent walls of Ronn were molded inside with curves and sweeps and dadoes. Some panels were knots of leaves and flowers, but Cashel didn't see any birds or animals in the designs as he went


    Ronn was a pretty place to be, at least for a visit. The folks passing in the halls seemed happy too.

    That was pretty much true here under the crystal dome also, where he saw an even wider assortment of foreigners than on the terrace. As Mab and Cashel entered, ushers were guiding an animal toward the front. It was as big as an elephant, but shaped very different. Instead of a trunk and tusks, its head was curved in to make a saddle with a pair of broad, flat horns over the nose. A tasseled scarlet drapery covered the creature's back, and on that was a gilded palanquin in which rode two women.

    "They're ambassadors from Tiree, far to the west," Mab said. "They came overland along the coast road."

    Behind the ambassadors were more attendants than Cashel could count on both hands, wearing puffed white shirts and pantaloons. Two carried brooms and buckets. The creature must be well-trained to be trusted to walk through so large a crowd, but there were some things that a big plant-eater had to do, training or no. Their stomachs just worked that way.

    Cashel got a good look at all the traffic because Mab had placed them at the middle of the room instead of near the dais where the crowd was thicker. They were far enough from the walls that Cashel wasn't sure he could make himself heard to people just entering, even though he'd learned to throw his voice while calling to other shepherds across the hills of the borough.

    "The delegations from the eastern cities of Hyse, Ernle, and Renfell are coming in to your left," Mab said, nodding minusculely rather than point past Cashel toward another of the many, many doors into the chamber. "They came along the coast as well."

    Cashel's hands tightened a trifle on his quarterstaff. Each of the three eastern ambassadors rode on a sedan chair carried by two metal giants half again as tall as Cashel. The first pair were covered in copper and had agate eyes; the second silver and glinting sapphire eyes; and the third were shining gold whose eyes were diamonds cut to sparkle like a bee's.

    The giants stumped forward slowly without looking to either side. The third pair didn't march with quite the same pace, so the chair rocked side to side. The fat, smooth-faced man riding on it kept his expression as fixed as that of his metal bearer. He had to reach up quickly to keep his bulging turban from toppling off his head.

    "They're automatons, clockwork pieces," Mab said dismissively. "Clever toys, but merely toys. Of course the phantasms which the Councillors control are toys also, though of a different kind."

    As the ambassadors from the east clumped to places of honor near the dais, curtains fell from galleries to either side, just below the dome. Whole squads of trumpeters there began to call. Their gold-gleaming instruments were of different lengths, and the music sounding from them was just as liquidly complicated as the tunes Garric played on his pipes in the days when he and Cashel watched the borough's sheep together.

    The eldest Councillor rose from his ivory chair. "The Assembly of the City of Ronn is open," he said. His voice was thready, the way old men's voices often are, but to Cashel's amazement every word was clear as Mab's had been. "The Assembly will now receive the greetings of our brother cities."

    He sat down unsteadily, and the female Councillor on his left got up in his place. There was a brief hush; then a male voice, just as easy to hear as the Councillor's, said, "The Primates and People of the Nagaro greet the Assembly of Ronn and wish it eternal splendor."

    Cashel couldn't see who was speaking. The voice seemed to come from everywhere. Mab gestured with an index finger, saying, "There's too many people in the way to see them from here, but the delegates are in the center closest to the throne. The Nagaro's a river draining into the Great Sea on the opposite side of the continent."

    "The Assembly of the City of Ronn accepts the good wishes of the Primates of Nagaro," said the standing Councillor.

    "The ambassadors from the Nagaro came by sea," Mab said, speaking softly, her lips close to Cashel's right shoulder. "All the delegations from the north came by sea, just as those of the southern islands did. No one crosses the mountains to reach Ronn any more. Nobody's crossed them in a decade."

    More delegates, about a double handful though Cashel wasn't interested enough to actually count them off on his fingers, spoke and were recognized the same as the first one. Apart from the ambassadors from the cities of the south coast, lifted high by the mounts that'd carried them in, he couldn't see the speakers themselves. He mostly looked around at the hall and the spectators nearby.

    Cashel tried to guess how high the dome was, but he couldn't come any closer than being sure there weren't any trees in the borough that wouldn't have fitted inside without trouble. Since he left Barca's Hamlet he'd seen temples with domes, but they'd had a hole right in the top for lighting. Here it was solid, though in the center of the crystal swirled a pattern that had at least three strands and might be three threes.

    Mab made little comments about the ambassadors and the places they came from, but she didn't seem to be too interested in all this either. It was pretty, but pretty the way a painting is instead of being like Cashel's smooth, perfectly-balanced quarterstaff.

    The whole business reminded him of the Tithe Procession, when priests from Carcosa dragged big statues of the Lady and the Shepherd through the borough on carts. They wore fancy costumes and talked fancy words, but none of it came to anything.

    Unlike his sister Ilna, Cashel believed in the Great Gods. Whatever the gods were, though, he didn't figure they had much to do with a bunch of tired, red-faced city folk chanting words that meant as little to them as the color of the dust in the street.

    "The Assembly of the City of Ronn will now hear petitions from her citizens," the Councillor said. The woman who'd taken over from the old man was still doing the talking, not that there was much to it.

    "Normally there'd only be one or two Councillors at the Morning Levee," Mab said. As usual her voice was calm and sounded slightly amused, but that was a gloss over something else that Cashel wasn't sure of. "Because the Queen's absent, they decided they should all appear."

    "Has the Queen's reign ended as the legend says?" a man called. His voice filled the air just as those of speakers near the dais had, but he was actually standing close enough to touch with the quarterstaff if Cashel'd needed to. He was a sturdy young fellow of about Cashel's age. "Will the King now return to rule Ronn for a thousand years?"

    Spectators turned to one another and whispered excitedly; the motion reminded Cashel of a breeze dancing over a meadow of brightly colored flowers. The vast crystal room swallowed the sounds as completely as the sea drinks in raindrops.

    The standing Councillor stepped back, turning to her seated senior. The old man struggled to rise.

    Without waiting further for him, the female faced the audience again. "The legend is just that," she said. "Legend, myth! There's no truth to it. The Queen is tending to the welfare of the citizens of Ronn, as she's done for a thousand years and as she will continue to do forever!"

    The eldest Councillor got to his feet, supporting himself by gripping the back of his chair with one hand. "The Assembly is closed!" he croaked. "Go to your homes and praise the Queen for her kindness and foresight!"

    "Forever," Mab repeated in disgust. "They wouldn't say that if they had any more conception of what 'forever' means than they do of what's really happened to the Queen."

    People were going out of the big room quicker than they'd drifted in to begin with. The question the fellow asked had bothered folks, that was for sure. Some of those who'd been close enough to see who was speaking glanced at him, but they dropped their eyes and moved toward a door when he glared in their direction.

    "They don't know where the Queen is?" Cashel said, making sure that he'd understood the part that Mab hadn't said directly.

    The speaker saw Cashel looking and scowled back at him. He was solid looking, but he'd have had to be a good deal bigger and solider before he ought to go picking a fight with Cashel or-Kenset.

    Not that Cashel was going to let anything like that happen. He gave the fellow a friendly smile and a nod, standing with his feet spread a little and his staff planted straight up from the floor in his left hand.

    "All they know is that the Queen vanished," Mab said. "I shouldn't wonder if they don't believe the legend themselves."

    "Do you believe the legend, ma'am?" Cashel said. Just so he knew....

    "No," said Mab flatly. "But this is a crisis for Ronn and her citizens, and the King's return isn't the worst of what could happen in the near future."

    She grinned at Cashel. "Almost the worst, though," she added, placing her left hand on his biceps. Her fingers were white, and the nails stood out like dazzling jewels against his dark skin. "Come, it's time that I introduce you and Herron to one another. He's the one who spoke."

    The angry young man must've heard his name; his mouth opened in surprise as Mab led Cashel up to him. "Master Herron," she said, "this is Cashel, a stranger to Ronn but a good man for you and your fellows to know."

    "Who are you?" Herron said, staring at the woman in amazement. Cashel knew how he felt.

    "Cashel," Mab continued, ignoring the question, "Herron is the leader of the Sons of the Heroes. The six of them are the only citizens of Ronn who're taking action to deal with the threat."

    "How did you know that?" Herron said. "Nobody knows that! Who are you?"

    "Does it matter?" the woman said, brushing the question away with a sweep of her hand. "There's nothing improper in what you're doing, is there?"

    "Well, no," said Herron. "But we don't talk about it except, you know, among ourselves."

    "Her name's Mab," Cashel said. Mab stepped to the side, allowing him to offer his right arm for Herron to clasp if he was of a mind to. "I'm pleased to meet you, Master Herron."

    It amused Cashel to hear somebody wrapped up in knots when he asks questions that weren't going to be answered. He'd generally found that by keeping his mouth shut and listening, he'd learn as much as the other person was willing to tell--and sometimes more. That's why he hadn't asked Mab about his mother.

    "Yes, I'm Mab," she agreed with a faint smile. "Master Herron, I suggest you call a meeting of your brotherhood immediately to meet Master Cashel and discuss how to deal with the crisis."

    "But...," Herron said He clasped arms absently, then stepped away to look from her to Cashel and back again. Herron was probably used to being bigger than most of the men he met. He seemed uncomfortable to see that wasn't the case now. "Mistress, I don't see--"

    "Do you doubt that this is a crisis?" Mab said harshly. "With the Queen missing, how long do you think it can be before the King and his Made Men try to return? We'll meet you and your fellows on the exercise ground you train on. In an hour's time, shall we say?"

    Herron blinked, then swallowed. "Yes, ma'am!" he said and turned off toward one of the many exits. He started out walking fast, but he was jogging through the dispersing spectators by the time he reached the high archway.

    "Only six of them," Mab said, though she didn't sound too concerned about it. "It's not very much to work with, is it?"

    Cashel shrugged. "It depends on who they are," he said. "And who the other guys are too."

    He raised his arms overhead, holding the quarterstaff between them; just stretching a little. He wouldn't do real exercises with the staff till he was outside somewhere, though there was probably plenty of room here the way the hall was emptying.

    "Anyway," he added, "I guess it's seven of us now."



    "Lady, fold me under the cloak of Your protection," Sharina said. She was kneeling before what had probably been intended as an ornamental yew; now it was nearly thirty feet high and spread roots across the rubble of the wall it'd been planted to screen. "Protect my soul and body from danger, and help me protect those who depend on me."

    She'd scraped off a patch of bark near the tree's base, then used the point of her Pewle knife to scratch a figure on the bare yellowish wood. She wasn't an artist; a more delicate tool wouldn't have improved the result she'd gotten with the big knife. Only Sharina herself could tell the crude strokes were meant to represent the Lady.

    On the foreshore behind her, Lord Waldron and his aides were preparing to board the five ships which would carry them and Sharina to Valles. Farther downbeach, Garric and his entourage were also about to get under way; trumpets and curved horns called together in a fanfare.

    "Lady," Sharina whispered, "if I must take the lives of others to save my friends and myself, gather the souls of my victims to your bosom as I pray you will gather mine when I die."

    Half the royal army stood in formation, fully armed, along the stretch of beach from which Garric was setting off. When the signallers blew a second fanfare, the thousands of troops bellowed together, "Garric and the Isles!"

    Well, something close to together: that many people couldn't possibly act in perfect unison. The result from even Sharina's slight distance was a bestial growl. To those listening on the Sandrakkan side of the strait, it'd be a threatening rumble like that of a restive volcano.

    Sharina touched the hem of the stick figure she'd carved, then got to her feet. A pair of Blood Eagles guarded her from a discreet distance. Tenoctris sat cross-legged nearby.

    The old wizard had drawn a six-sided figure on the ground with white powder, very likely flour. She must've completed whatever incantation she'd been performing because the bamboo splinter she used as a wand lay in the center of the hexagon. She'd broken it so that she wouldn't accidentally use it again.

    Many wizards performed their spells with athames, knives decorated with words and symbols of power and often made of exotic materials. Such tools gathered power with every use, increasing the effects the user could achieve with them.

    But with the greater power came an equal loss of control. Even now as the millennial cycle built to its peak, Tenoctris couldn't work the great feats of wizardry that others did--but her spells achieved precisely what she intended, never more. A thousand years ago the end of the Old Kingdom had come when a mighty wizard had overwhelmed King Carus and his whole fleet--but in the backlash of that same spell, the wizard had sunk himself and the usurper for whom he acted into the depths.

    Tenoctris had a book--a codex of bound parchment leaves rather than a scroll--open on her lap, but she didn't seem to be reading it. She acknowledged Sharina's glance with a weary smile. Wizardry was hard work.

    Sharina started over to the older woman, but she paused for a moment to watch Garric set off for the mainland. His ships had their masts and yards raised though their sails remained on Volita. Signal flags flew from the spars and rigging in colorful but meaningless profusion, the visual equivalent of the horns calling across the water.

    Under the brassy cacophony, Sharina heard the faint, rhythmic music of a double flute being played in the stern of each vessel, marking time for the rowers. Garric transported his army in warships, triremes with oarsmen in only the lowest level and ordinary soldiers filling the other two. It was horribly uncomfortable, but a sailing ship packed with troops wasn't a palace suite either--and a sailing ship might find itself becalmed for days and weeks. That was a minor frustration for the crew of a cargo vessel, but it could be lethal when hundreds of passengers had water for only a day, and that if rationed sparingly.

    In addition, oared vessels travelled at known speeds, arriving when they were expected regardless of any weather except severe storms. If the wind was favorable, so much the better; but man, not the elements, determined the voyage. No captain of a sailing ship would make that claim, even in drunken exhilaration.

    "May the Shepherd stand at your side, brother," Sharina said, though she wasn't sure the words made it all the way from her mind to her tongue. "May the Lady shine her light through the darkness to guide you."

    She stepped to Tenoctris' side. When the old wizard smiled greeting and raised her right hand, Sharina braced her own arms to allow Tenoctris to pull herself up from the ground.

    "I wasn't religious until Nonnus died to save me," Sharina said in a quiet voice. Tenoctris had known the hermit, though only for a few days. Nonnus had settled in the woods near Barca's Hamlet at about the time Sharina was born. He'd provided the community with the sort of practical medicine he'd learned as soldier. "I'm not sure I'm really religious now, but... I think he'd be pleased that I worship the Lady."

    "Yes," said Tenoctris, understanding a great deal more than Sharina had said. Understanding, perhaps, that Nonnus might not really have believed in the Great Gods either, but he'd hoped, prayed, that They might be real. If They were, there was someone to forgive him for the other things he'd learned and done as a soldier. "I think he would too."

    Six Blood Eagles in full armor strode up to Sharina and Tenoctris. Their officer, an under-captain--what in a line regiment would be a lieutenant--shouted, "Halt!"

    The squad clashed to a halt, raising their knees high to bang their hobnails on the stony soil and making the studs of their leather skirts jingle against one another. Besides their arms, each man carried his travelling cloak rolled over a few personal possessions and slung over his right shoulder.

    "We'll take over from here," the under-captain said, handing the senior of the present guards a chit written on a piece of potsherd. Sharina remembered the officer and some of his men, though she couldn't put names to them. So many soldiers had guarded her since she became a princess....

    One of the soldiers lifted his chin a trifle in greeting. Sharina recognized the men now: they were the squad that'd escorted her to the Temple of Our Lady of Sunset in Carcosa, where the priests had thought they'd turn Sharina into a cynical politician like they were.

    "Trooper Lires!" Sharina said in pleasure. "And you're Under-captain--"

    "Ascor, your highness," the officer said, obviously pleased that she remembered him. "We were honored that his highness Prince Garric detailed us to accompany you and Lady Tenoctris."

    Ascor was neither a nobleman nor a grizzled veteran who'd been promoted from the ranks after decades of hard fighting. From his accent, Sharina guessed he was a younger son of a middle-class merchant family in Valles: an educated man though not particularly wealthy, supported by the influence of some civilian like Lord Tadai rather a military officer.

    "Accompany?" Sharina said. "To Valles, you mean?"

    "Yes, your highness," Ascor said. "And it looks--"

    He nodded past Sharina. She glanced over her shoulder. A young officer with the ivory baton of a courier trotted toward them from the group around Lord Waldron.

    "--like it's time to board."

    Tenoctris closed her satchel; Sharina picked it up without being asked. "Let's go, then," Sharina said. "I must say--"

    She looked around Volita, the tumbled ruins everywhere and the black granite outcrop lowering over the shore.

    "--that there are places I've more regretted leaving."

    "I can carry that bag, your highness," Trooper Lires said as they started forward.

    Sharina smiled at the heavily-laden soldier. "I'm sure you could," she said. "But not nearly as easily as I can."

    The courier reached them. "Lord Waldron presents his compliments," he blurted, "and hopes your highness will follow me to the flagship at your earliest convenience!"

    "If you weren't standing in our way, kiddie," one of the Blood Eagles said, "we'd likely be there already. Move it, why don't you?"

    The courier glowered, then realized that even though a common trooper shouldn't be talking to an officer that way, the statement was more or less true. "Right!" he said and turned back the way he'd come.

    "I'm fine," Tenoctris said, catching the glance Sharina threw her as they followed the courier. "I've been trying again to learn what's happened to Cashel and Ilna."

    "Did you succeed?" Sharina said. The slope was gentle, but the footing here could be awkward because stone blocks were scattered in the high grass.

    "Not really," the wizard admitted. "Though I'm sure that Ilna's disappearance had something to do with the Demon, but Cashel's didn't. That's only useful in the sense that it means they weren't victims of a concerted attack. It doesn't help us bring them back."

    "We will, though," Sharina said. Her stomach tightened at the thought, but she kept her tone bright. "Or they'll bring themselves back. They have in the past."

    "Yes, that's so," Tenoctris said, cheerfully agreeable. Sharina wondered whether the older woman was just concealing her fears; and if she was, whether she could teach Sharina to conceal her own equally well.

    The courier took them to where the army commander stood, but there he halted in indecision. Lord Waldron was facing away, saying in a rising voice, "Look, Master Bedrin, I may need a full hour to get all the men aboard. I'm not asking you, I'm telling you!"

    "Looks to me like he'll need longer than that," Trooper Lires snickered, to his fellows and to Sharina both. "He's taking Podwils' regiment. They was cavalry till Prince Garric wouldn't bring their horses along when they left Ornifal. It'd have been easier to get the horses aboard than them splay-legged jockeys!"

    The comment wasn't completely fair--there was a great deal of rivalry between infantry and the higher-paid cavalrymen, and the fact that these infantry were the royal bodyguard didn't change the ill-feeling for the better. On the other hand, it wasn't completely unfair either. The men climbing the gangplanks onto the ships were hampered by long cavalry swords, and many of them were in high horseman's boots as well. From what Sharina could see, most had more than the bare minimum of possessions with them also, which would further complicate the process of loading.

    "Well, I'm sorry, milord," said the man facing him, presumably Master Bedrin. He didn't sound in the least sorry. From his attitude it was obvious that Bedrin was a fleet officer and therefore not under the army commander's direct control. "If we can't set out within the hour, we'll have to wait till dawn tomorrow. Otherwise we're likely to be benighted in a stretch of shoals, which I'm unwilling to risk."

    It seemed to Sharina that Bedrin would've been wiser to keep the cheerful insouciance out of his voice. The chain of command was one thing, but the way Lord Waldron's hand rested on his sword pommel was quite another. The old warrior wasn't a man you wanted to goad into a rage.

    "You're not willing?" Waldron said. "We'll, you'd--"

    "Milord," Sharina said, close enough to Waldron's left ear to make him jump. "If Master Bedrin allows you to be drowned, the conspiracy on Ornifal will go unchecked with the Gods know what result for the kingdom. Please, humor him for Prince Garric's sake."

    "Ah!" said Waldron, turning to face Sharina and her companions. A series of emotions cascaded over his face. In a much milder tone he said, "Ah," again.

    "And not to sound selfish...," Sharina continued, smiling broadly. "But I'd rather not drown either."

    She respected and even liked Lord Waldron, because he was the best man he knew how to be under all circumstances. Waldron was narrow, choleric, and not infrequently stubborn to the point of being pig-headed--but he was always true to what he saw as his duty.

    "Ah," Waldron repeated. "But the thing is, your highness--time's short. Maybe too short already. If we get to Ornifal after this usurper's captured Valles, then there's no choice for anything but the whole army and full-scale war."

    "Milord, I can't keep the sun from setting," Master Bedrin said peevishly. "It--"

    Sharina pointed her left index finger at the naval officer's face. She'd dealt with angry, argumentative men on a regular basis at her father's inn, and at least neither of this pair was drunk.

    "Master Bedrin, your men can hold a stroke and a half rate for four hours, can't they?" she said. She'd learned a great deal about ships and sailors since she'd left Barca's Hamlet, not least by listening to the stories Chalcus told in the evenings Garric and his friends spent together on islets while crossing and recrossing the Inner Sea. "They've rested since we landed on Volita, and the run north from Carcosa wasn't a hard one either. Not so?"

    "Well, yes, four hours--but not tomorrow and the next day and the next besides!" Bedrin said with an expression somewhere between surprise and anger. He was unusually tall, red-haired, and from his accent a native of Cordin.

    "Nor will they have to," Sharina said. "And they'll be paid a third silver wheatsheaf for the run instead of the usual two per day. Lord Waldron, that gives you two hours to get your men aboard. Will that be sufficient?"

    "It will or I'll have broken some troop leaders down to the ranks!" Waldron growled, nodding approval. He noticed the Blood Eagles and scowled again. "Who're these?"

    "Under-captain Ascor," the squad commander said, striking a brace. He couldn't salute properly because he was loaded in marching array. "Prince Garric ordered us to accompany her highness the princess."

    Waldron grimaced. "Six more bodies to fit where there's not room for what we've got already," he grumbled. "All right, Ascor. Three of you go aboard the Star of Valles, the other three on the Victory of Ornifal. They're at the end of the row."

    He nodded toward the readying vessels farthest up the beach.

    "I'm sorry, milord," Ascor said, "but Prince Garric ordered we stay with her highness. I'm afraid that means we travel on the same ship as she does, whichever one that is."

    "Do you think that black lobster suit means you can order me around?" Lord Waldron shouted, tapping the knuckles of his right fist on Ascor's breastplate of blackened bronze. "Well, you can--"

    He stopped and guffawed. "No, you don't think that," he resumed in a wholly reasonable tone. "But Prince Garric thinks he can. And since there's one traitor in the bor-Warriman family already, there's no need for me to become one myself."

    Waldron bowed to Sharina. "Come aboard the Star of Valles with me, your highness," he said. "And we'll try to find room that we can all stand without becoming better friends that propriety would allow!"

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