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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Tuesday, June 29, 2004 22:59 EDT



    Ilna began to unknot her pattern now that she had no immediate use for it. "Who else is here inside your maze?" she said to the wizard on the floor. He'd risen onto one elbow, but Chalcus' rock-steady swordpoint kept him from trying to stand up.

    "No one's here," the wizard said, looking at her for the first time. His gaze started angry and shifted very quickly to wariness. "Nobody should be able to enter. How did you get in?"

    Ilna ignored the question as she looked around the room. The fellow's answer was probably true. There was a single wooden chair at the table under a side window, and though the bedframe along the opposite wall was a work of art in etched bronze, it was only wide enough for one.

    Davus walked to the throne and set the two rocks he carried on the floor. He seated himself, closing his eyes and running his fingers along the ornate armrests. Ilna knew how hard and fibrous chalcedony was, so she marveled at the effort it must have taken to carve detailed scenes of men battling demons over every surface of the throne. On the left, men were winning; on the right, demons routed their human opponents

    The wizard noticed what Davus was doing. "Don't sit there!" he said in angry amazement. "You have no idea what you might do there by accident!"

    "I'll do nothing here by accident," Davus said, his eyes still shut. He smiled at whatever it was his mind saw.

    Chalcus relaxed slightly, raising his sword vertical but choosing not to sheathe it just yet. "You can get up, I think," he said pleasantly. "What would your name be, friend?"

    "That's none of your business," the wizard muttered. He stood and dusted his palms together. He kept his eyes on the floor.

    Ilna opened a freestanding cabinet. It held bread, cheese, and a variety of dried vegetables. She wondered how the fellow obtained them. There wasn't room in this clearing for a grain field of any size, nor had she seen any sign of animals for milking.

    "Well," said Chalcus, his tone still light but with an edge to it. He picked up the athame and appeared to examine the chip his blade had cut from the wood when he struck it out of the fellow's hand. "I thought it would be an alternative to cutting a grin in your throat so I could call you 'Smiler,' but we can manage that if you like."

    "His name's Nergus but he prefers to be called Nergura," Davus said. Only his lips moved; to look at him, he might've been talking in his sleep. "He believes the seven letters have a secret significance, you see. He didn't want to tell you lest knowing his name give you power over him.'

    Chalcus laughed, then tossed the athame into the fire. Nergura gave a strangled cry and lunged toward the hearth. He stopped when he found the sword-edge barring his way.

    "I have all the power I need over him already," Chalcus said, his voice as soft as a cobra's. "And people who take out a weapon when first they meet me can thank their stars if they lose nothing but that weapon by it. Eh, Master Nergura?"

    The wizard shrugged with a sour expression and seemed to huddle into his robe. "What is it you want of me?" he said, looking again at the floor.

    "Food and perhaps shelter," Ilna said. She lifted the pottery lid that covered the cistern in the corner opposite the cupboard. She didn't know how deep it was, but there was certainly water for the three of them. A bronze dipper hung from a cord within the shaft; she lowered it into the tank.

    "And information, Master Nergura," Davus said, his fingers spread on the armrests. "Tell us about the present King and what happened to the Old King."

    The wizard sighed. He leaned toward the hearth again, then caught himself when the sword twitched. "Let me swing my alembic off the fire," he said in a tone of anger suppressed by well-justified fear. "No more than that!"

    "Go on, Master Nergura," said Chalcus, raising his blade vertical again. "You were going to tell us about the King."

    The wizard pivoted the iron hearth crane so that the pot hanging from it was out in the room. The flames burned brighter now that the athame had ignited. He stepped back, grimaced, and walked deliberately to the wooden chair. He turned it to face into the room and sat down.

    "The King...?" Nergura said. "I suppose you can call it that if you like. The King which now exists isn't human. It was a beast, a pet I suppose, of the Old King who ruled this land in past ages."

    "Davus?" Chalcus said. "Do you know of this pet of your King?"

    "There was a creature," Davus said, leaning his head back against the chalcedony throne. "Supposedly from another world. It wasn't a pet, exactly. The King had gained his power through it. He kept the beast around afterwards, though he needn't have done so."

    "Well, he was a fool then," said Nergura, eyeing Davus sharply. "How is it you know about the Old King? Are you a wizard? You must be a wizard to have learned so much about the old times!"

    "I'll let you be the only wizard here, Master Nergura," Davus said, his closed eyes lifted toward the roof. "For myself, I'm merely glad to be flesh and blood. I spent the past thousand years as a statue, it seems."

    He paused, smiled wistfully, and added, "I wonder what I was thinking about while I was stone?"

    "Aye, you can be the wizard," said Chalcus. He took the dipper of water, drained it, and handed it back to Ilna without letting his eyes slip from Nergura. "But you should recall that though I'm no wizard myself, I can make your head vanish from your shoulders in a heartbeat. Eh, my friend?"

    "Yes, well...," Nergura said. It obviously unsettled him to watch Davus' hands on the wax-smooth surface of the throne. "I said the Old King was a fool not to have killed the creature when he no longer needed it. It happened because his power lay in a jewel on his brow."

    Ilna refilled the dipper. She'd planned to offer it to Davus, but on consideration she drank the water herself. Davus was doing something. She didn't understand what, but she wouldn't have thanked anyone who broke her concentration while she was busy.

    "Something happened," Nergura continued. "I haven't been able to learn precisely what--it was a thousand years ago, after all! There was an attack or at any rate a summons that drew the King's attention. Because he was focused on other affairs, the creature was able to steal his jewel and then kill him."

    Ilna began slicing bread and cheese. She used her own paring knife instead of the longer--but dull--blade in the cupboard. The wizard glared at her for a moment, then looked at Chalcus and said, "That's what the King deserved, since he should've killed the creature when he had the chance. Ever since, it's ruled this land. As much as anyone has."

    Ilna offered Chalcus a slice of cheese on bread--good wheat bread and baked no later than the night before. He gestured it away without taking his eyes from the wizard. "What does this new King do with the land he rules, then?" he asked. "His yoke is light, you say?"

    He'd sheathed his sword, but Nergura had seen the steel come out once. He didn't seem fool enough to chance anything that would cause Chalcus to clear his blade again.

    "It doesn't do anything," the wizard said. "Mostly it stays in its Citadel and builds the walls higher. When it comes out, it wanders about and turns anyone it meets to stone. If there are reasons for what it does, they aren't human reasons."

    Ilna heard the bitterness in Nergura's voice. She smiled faintly as she chewed bread and cheese made from cow milk, the latter a rarity in Barca's Hamlet. If this wizard had the power the alien creature had, he'd have used it. Looking at Nergura's scowling face, Ilna suspected the other inhabitants of the land were better off bearing a beast's random violence than they would be under him.

    "Much goes on in the land that the Old King wouldn't have permitted," Davus said softly. His right thumb rubbed the glassy surface of the armrest.

    "Who knows what the Old King would've allowed?" Nergura said sharply. "There's all manner of terrors walking the land now, and everyone is responsible for his own safety!"

    Davus opened his eyes. He sat up straight, then rose from the throne with a graceful, controlled motion. He glanced at the stones he'd brought but smiled and left them on the floor.

    "Yes, I see that's so," Davus said. His tone was pleasant, but there was an undertone to it that reminded Ilna of Chalcus when he was poised to explode into action. "How is it that you gain your information, Master Nergura?"

    The wizard frowned. "Does it matter to you?" he said. "I drink herbal potions. They wouldn't do you any good, you know."

    "I'm sure that's true," said Davus, sauntering toward the back door. "But I think I'll see what kind of herbs it is that you grow in your garden."

    "You mustn't go--" the wizard said, bustling to put himself between Davus and the door. He shrieked as Chalcus pinched his earlobe between thumb and forefinger and jerked him back to where the sailor's dagger just pricked his cheek.

    "Let's all go see the garden," Chalcus said. He and Davus exchanged glances. Davus smiled, opened the door, and stepped out with Ilna behind him. Chalcus brought up the rear, leading the faintly whimpering wizard.



    Ilna supposed she'd been expecting an ordinary kitchen garden like those every housewife in Barca's Hamlet kept, fenced off so that the chickens wouldn't devour the new shoots. Instead she was looking at an orderly jungle. The air was warmer than that of the wasteland they'd crossed to reach Nergura's maze, and more surprisingly it was as humid as when the sun comes out after a summer shower.

    None of the plants and shrubs were familiar. The tall tree near the back looked like a sugarberry, but the fruit was bluish, not red. Besides, the sugarberries shouldn't have been present at the same time as the flowers on the shrub near the door with figlike leaves. Why hadn't she seen the almost-sugarberry when they left the maze if not before they entered it?

    A path of white gravel set in marl entered the garden. It branched before it vanished into the vegetation in the near distance. Ilna could see the tiled room of a gazebo or workshed beyond a stand of what she'd have called holly were it not for the round leaves; there might be other structures completely hidden by the foliage.

    There might be anything lurking in the foliage.

    "Maybe we'll let our host lead, shall we, Master Davus?" suggested Chalcus, whose mind must've been turning in the same directions.

    He tugged the wizard forward by the ear. Nergura yelped and cried and bent his face away from Chalcus to lessen the pain. "There's nothing here that can harm you!" he said in evident bitterness.

    Davus must have agreed, for he sauntered up the path without waiting for Chalcus to push the wizard ahead of them. Ilna shrugged mentally. Davus seemed to know what he was doing--and anyway, Ilna had enough trouble making her own decisions. She wasn't about to start minding other people's business.

    Davus reached the fork, rubbed the ball of his foot into the gravel, and turned to the right. Chalcus maneuvered the wizard in front of him so that he was sandwiched between the two men and let go of his ear. Gorgeous but unfamiliar flowers bordered the path. Beyond them were bushes with small leaves of a green so dark that an eye less well trained than Ilna's would've called them black.

    They came to the tile-roofed shed Ilna'd seen from the door of the house. It was brick across the back with latticed end walls through which vines wound. The front facing the path was open. Tools leaned against the bricks on the left side or hung from pegs; drying racks reached from floor to ceiling on the right. Ilna heard a faint mewing sound and looked around for a cat.

    "Yes, as I thought," Davus said, gesturing with one hand toward the vine. "How do you justify this, Master Wizard?"

    "There's nothing to justify!" Nergura said, and the very violence of his tone proved he knew he was lying. Davus' face was hard; Chalcus smiled. Neither expression was one Ilna would've wanted directed at her.

    The vine crawling up the lattice had a stem and leaves like a cucumber. Instead of simple sausage shapes the fruit was bulged and distorted till it looked like misshapen dolls of green clay. Ilna wondered if it was diseased. Certainly if a plant like that had come up in her garden, she'd have grubbed it out before--

    Her skin flushed and then went cold. The lowest of the hanging poppets was moving its arms and legs.

    "In my day, the King would've disagreed," Davus said. He lifted the topmost of the green homunculi. Touched, it began to squirm also. Davus gently set it back against the lattice and walked into the shed.

    "The King is dead!" the wizard shouted. "It's every man for himself, now!"

    "Ah, but we're not dead, my friend," Chalcus said, stroking Nergura's cheek with a first and middle finger. The wizard jerked as though he'd been burned. "Nor are you, as things now stand."

    Three dolls like those on the vine hung from hooks on the wall between heavy shears and a bronze trowel. These were better formed in the sense of being more complete, though their proportions were those of a dwarf and their faces looked indescribably ugly.

    They mewed at Davus. He reached toward them. The nearest was formed like a female. She gripped Davus' index finger with both arms and tried to drag it toward her jaws to bite. He pulled his hand away.

    "Every man for himself, you say, wizard?" Davus shouted. "These are men, as you well know. You hang them here till you're ready, and then you boil them down into an elixir which you drink for what you claim is wisdom. What sort of wisdom do you get by drinking the lives of men?"

    "I had no choice!" Nergura said. "My safety depends on what the poppets' blood enables me to learn!"

    "If you think you're safe now, wizard," said Ilna as she stepped between Davus and Nergura, "then you're a worse fool that I already believed."

    She turned to Davus. "What now?" she said crisply. "Do we destroy the vines?"

    "Or perhaps do we destroy the gardener?" said Chalcus. "For it seems to me that if we do that, no problem remains."

    Davus sighed. In his anger he'd seemed a much bigger man, but now it drained out of him leaving a stocky, tired-looking fellow wearing a tunic that was cut a little too closely around his chest.

    "No," he said, "we'll not kill him. We'll free these sad, vicious creatures, because they're men; and we'll free Master Nergura, because he's a man as well. And then we'll leave here, because I don't choose to spend the night in a place that was built by that kind of wisdom."

    Ilna took the trowel from its peg and walked out of the shed with it. "Yes," she said as she knelt and thrust the bronze blade into the soil near the base of the vine. "I couldn't agree more."



    "I've arranged a reception in the palace courtyard, your highness," Earl Wildulf said. "Unless you prefer to see to your apartments, of course. I've ordered the rooms on the west side of the ground floor to be cleared for you. They're, ah, able to be separated from the rest of the building and the outside."

    They're easily defensible, Garric translated silently. "No, your lordship," he said aloud. "A levee is an excellent idea. My staff can meet the officials with whom they'll be working out details of Sandrakkan's integration with the kingdom."

    King Carus chuckled as he viewed the palace of the Earls of Sandrakkan through Garric's eyes. Though on an impressive scale, it'd been built with an eye to defense rather than pomp. The main door was too narrow to pass three men abreast, and the ground-floor windows started six feet above street level; the gray stone walls below were solid. A few gleaming streaks remained on the sides of standing seams to indicate that the lead roof had once been silvered, but not in a generation. The swags and cartouches forming a frieze between the second and third stories were bird-daubed and beginning to crumble.

    Humans as well as time had damaged the building . Some of the grills on the ground floor windows had been replaced with others of a different and heavier pattern, and the stones of the door alcove showed signs of burning. They were granite, though, and hadn't been seriously damaged. Liane had said that there'd been months of rioting in Erdin before Wildulf had claimed the throne vacated by the slaughter at the Stone Wall.

    The crush at the palace entrance forced Garric and the Earl to halt in the street. Wildulf rose in his stirrups, snarling, "What's the hold up! Sister take the fools! I'll have the skin of somebody's back!"

    "I think the fault's mine, milord," Garric said smilingly. In all truth, he'd have been more comfortable on his own feet rather than on horseback. Fortunately they'd barely ambled from the seafront, since the procession moved at the speed of the infantry. "Lord Attaper's men are making sure of the arrangements. They'll be in tents in the palace gardens to the rear, I believe."

    "So I've been told," Wildulf agreed sourly, though he wasn't taking the situation as badly as Garric had feared he might. The Earl might have figured out that with a large army on Volita the negotiations were going to go the way the royal officials intended they should. The more easily they were concluded, the quicker Garric and that army would be out of his hair.

    Lord Attaper approached, talking over his shoulder to one of his own officers and a palace official. He broke away from them and said to Garric, "Your highness, I believe everything's in readiness. You can enter any time you please."

    Wildulf's expression quivered between fury and amazement before settling on the latter. "You let him talk to you that way?" he demanded as he and Garric dismounted.

    "I'm ordinarily willing to listen to anybody who's polite and who's speaking in the course of his duties, milord," Garric said calmly.

    He strode toward the entrance smiling faintly. He knew that Wildulf probably thought the Prince was weak because he didn't follow his own will without regard for his advisors' judgment. Well, you could find people of Wildulf's opinion in a peasant village, too; and the attitude didn't help them prosper.

    With the front door open, Garric could see all the way from the street through into the gardens behind the palace. A pair of Blood Eagles with balls blunting their spearpoints stood at each archway--five of them that Garric could be sure of, but the number of people waiting in the central courtyard probably concealed more of them.

    The walls of the vestibule were decorated with carvings instead of being frescoed. Garric smiled wryly, realizing he found the paintings of Valles and Carcosa to be more welcoming, more civilized, than these stones. He'd certainly learned to put on airs in the short time since he left a hamlet where most of the better houses were whitewashed over mud plaster.

    Liane joined him as he entered the court. Grass grew from seams between the stone pavers, especially around the edges.

    "His highness Prince Garric!" shouted a Blood Eagle noncom. Normally that duty would've gone to a palace usher, but lungs trained to call orders through the clash of battle made an impressive substitute.

    Well over a hundred Sandrakkan nobles waited, the men wearing tunics and breeches of contrasting color. The dozen officials in bulky Ornifal court robes who'd arrived with Garric had begun to mingle.

    Palace functionaries had placed serving tables between the arches along the left side for servants to dispense drinks. From the flushed look of some of the local men, the drinking had started well before the royal contingent arrived.

    "Lord Tawnser is very drunk," Liane said as she curtsied to Garric. Her bright smile belied the concern in her low voice. "Attaper has men watching him, but be careful."

    Garric scanned the crowd with a bland smile as though he were merely a friendly stranger surveying his surroundings. Tawnser, glaring from his one eye like an angry hawk, stood with several other grim-looking fellows by the serving tables. He was a tall man whose lean face that might've been fairly attractive were it not for his expression and the scar across his forehead and cheek, punctuated by the patch covering his left eyesocket.

    "Well," Garric murmured back, "if only a handful of Sandrakkan's nobles are that hostile, I'll take it as a positive sign."

    The two of them stepped forward, flanked by guards. Liane was guiding him with tiny gestures of the writing stylus in her left hand, though Garric doubted anybody else was aware of the fact. The three nobles who'd come to Volita to negotiate stood together with a certain distance between them and the other Sandrakkan courtiers. They'd straightened as Garric entered and now faced him with evident relief.

    "There's resentment of the terms they've accepted," Liane muttered. "Only Lord Tawnser and a few of his cronies would've refused them, but the people who didn't have to make a choice are now saying that the envoys made the wrong one."

    "Ah," said Garric. Of course, he thought. That was what people generally did, so he didn't suppose there was any point in thinking that they ought to behave in a different fashion.

    "Lady Lelor," Garric said, nodding. He swept the two male envoys with his glance. "Milords. Perhaps you'd introduce me to some of your compatriots? They can see I don't have two heads, but I'd like them to be certain that I'm not a raving lunatic either."

    There was a stir at the far end of the room. The pair of Blood Eagles guarding the corridor from the gardens snatched the balls from their spearheads. "Captain!" one shouted.

    "That's the Countess!" shouted Earl Wildulf. He pushed his way toward the arch like an angry ox from where he'd stopped to talk to a palace official about billeting arrangements while one of Tadai's senior aides watched sternly. "That's my wife, you Ornifal numbskull!"

    Garric was moving forward as quickly as Wildulf. He was well aware of the weight of the sword at his left side, but his hand resisted Carus' impulse to draw it. There were plenty of bare weapons present already; one more in the Prince's hand might spark the disaster Garric hoped to avoid.

    He and Wildulf reached the back corridor together. Countess Balila had stopped when the guards shouted and raised their spears. She'd apparently changed into lighter garments, a violet tunic and a mantilla of purple lace, on returning from the seafront. She looked furious, and Garric couldn't blame her.

    On the other hand, he didn't blame the soldiers either. Accompanying the Countess were a strikingly ugly old woman--

    "The wizard Dipsas," whispered Liane, who'd kept up with him.

    --a little boy, naked except for gilt wings and a chaplet of roses--

    "Cover your points again!" Garric said sharply. One of the guards was lifting his javelin to throw.

    --and a bird taller than the Countess. It had a huge hooked beak and clawed feet that could gut a horse with a single kick. It raised a tall crest--Garric saw where the feathers on Wildulf's helmet came from--and screamed, its tongue vibrating and its stub wings flaring out to the sides.

    "The bird's Balila's pet," Liane said. "I should've warned you."

    Duzi! But there's no accounting for taste, a thing Garric had known long years before he left Barca's Hamlet. Now that he had a moment to look, he saw that the huge bird wore a silver collar and that the cherub held the thin chain attached to it.

    Earl Wildulf put his right arm about his wife, a gesture at once protective and possessive. Balila touched her husband's cheek with one hand, then reached back and stroked the throat of the great bird. It quieted, tucking its wings against its torso and closing its beak. After a moment, it folded the bronze feathers of its crest also.

    "Odwinn, stand easy!" Lord Attaper said in a vicious snarl. "If you and Buros panic when somebody comes in with an oversized parrot, you've got no business in my regiment--or in Prince Garric's army, I dare say!"

    The guards clashed their hobnails as they straightened to attention. They banged the butt-spikes of their long javelins against the floor also, striking sparks. After a moment, one of the men snatched up the gilded wooden ball at his feet and stuck it back on his spear. Neither of them looked at their commander.

    Garric bowed. "Countess Balila," he said, "I'm pleased to see you in a more congenial setting than the waterfront. And I'm very impressed by your pet here."

    "Yes, Hero's a good friend," the Countess said archly, continuing to ruffle the bird's neck ruff with one hand while the other caressed the point of Earl Wildulf's jaw. The sight raised disquieting images in Garric's mind. "To those I deem worthy of his friendship, that is."

    Garric stepped back into the courtyard to clear the doorway for the Earl and Countess. The little boy dropped the chain and ran past, giggling and waggling his head from side to side. He was certainly old enough to speak, but he didn't seem able to.

    The bird had a certain beauty, but the wizard on the other side of Balila couldn't have been attractive even before time added its ravages to those of dissipation. Dipsas wore a peaked cap and a black robe of tightly-woven wool with silk cuffs and collar. Garric couldn't claim to be an expert, but he suspected Ilna would approve the garments' workmanship. The woman's face, however, was cruel and petty both.

    In Dipsas' right hand was an athame of black horn, carved with images of humans and beasts twined in sexual congress. Garric could imagine what Tenoctris would've said about the object, but he didn't need his friend's opinion to make his lip curl.

    Dipsas met his gaze and smirked. "You feel my power, do you not, Prince Garric?" she said.

    "I feel nothing but disgust," Garric said, blurting what he'd have managed to put a gloss on if the statement hadn't been so very true.

    Dipsas glared and raised the athame, posing like an orator about to declaim. Garric turned his back deliberately. If the wizard tried to stab him with what was after all a horn knife, Lord Attaper would break at least her arm before she more than started the stroke.

    Liane gave Garric an approving nod instead of grimacing at his outburst as he'd expected she would. Apparently her sense of decorum didn't require him to be diplomatic in the face of malicious filth.

    Lord Tawnser glared from just over arm's length away, between the armored solidity of the Blood Eagles who'd been following Garric until he turned on his heel. Tawnser's face was flushed, all but the narrow white line of the scar. Two of the cronies he'd been drinking with were beside him, while the third followed a double-pace back with a look of dawning concern.

    "You prefer to threaten our women instead of facing our men in battle, is that it, Master Garric?" Tawnser said, his voice rising in both pitch and volume. "But maybe our pigs would be even more suitable. You are a swineherd from Haft, isn't that so?"

    Lord Attaper turned with smooth grace. Instead of drawing his sword, he reached with both hands for Tawnser's throat. Garric grabbed Attaper's shoulder and jerked back with the effort he'd have used to turn a charging ox. It was enough, barely.

    "Lord Wildulf!" Garric said without shifting his eyes from Tawnser's face. Attaper relaxed but Garric didn't release him quite yet. "Put your puppy outdoors, or I'll put him out myself!"

    The open courtyard was a sea of babbling excitement. Blood Eagles were shoving toward Garric from all the entrances, and somebody'd managed to overset one of the serving tables. The friends who'd been flanking Tawnser backed away suddenly. Even Tawnser himself looked shocked as his sodden brain replayed the words that'd come out of his mouth.

    "Tawnser, you bloody fool!" Earl Wildulf snarled. He wasn't an intellectual giant, but he'd seen enough of war to know what would happen if real fighting started in a courtyard where only Garric and his guards had been allowed to carry weapons. "Get out of here and sober up. No, by the Shepherd--go back to your estates and don't leave them until I give you permission! Do you hear?"

    Tawnser didn't move for a moment; his face could've been cast in glowing iron. He turned abruptly and strode toward one of the arches on the east side, shoving aside the people in his way with as little thought as a man walking through a field of waving oats.

    The Blood Eagles crossed their spears to block that exit. "Let him go!" Garric called. The spears went vertical again. Tawnser stalked through, apparently oblivious of the guards and everyone else present. He disappeared into the hallway beyond.

    Garric took a deep breath and let go of Attaper. Liane picked up the stylus she'd dropped when she drew her small, razor-sharp dagger. It was back in its ivory sheath now, wrapped invisibly in the lustrous silken folds of her sash.

    Garric turned and gave Wildulf a trembling smile. "Well, milord," he said. "Now that we've taken care of that business, perhaps you'd be good enough to introduce me to your courtiers?"

    It's good to have advisors who make sure the room you're going sleep in tonight is defensible, Garric thought; and, thinking that, broke into a broad, real smile.




    The Star of Valles sailed through the void. Constellations blazed down on Sharina and up at her. That depended on whether she leaned back and looked at what should be the sky or craned her neck over the side to peer toward what'd been the depths of the sea.

    She'd wrapped a shawl over her head. The air wasn't cold, but she wasn't used to feeling it on her bare scalp. She'd get used to it, she supposed, and of course her hair would grow back... but not as long as it had been. Not for a decade and more.

    The rowers had shipped their oars and were sitting with the vessel's deck crew on the outriggers and narrow catwalks. In a reversal of the order of things before the Star of Valles left the waking world, the soldiers were mostly huddled in the hollow of the ship with their eyes cast down so that they could pretend they didn't know what was happening.

    Sharina sat at the front of the starboard outrigger, overlooking Tenoctris in the ear timber and the nymph who perched on the frame of the box talking to the old wizard. There wasn't room for three in such tight quarters, and in all truth Sharina felt nearly as queasy about the situation as the soldiers did.

    She supposed that Tenoctris was able to see the nymph now, since they'd entered the void. She smiled to herself: it seemed a void to her human senses, but she didn't suppose it really was one. Certainly things lived in it, and swam....

    Master Rincale, the sailing master, chatted with sailors as he came forward. He nodded when he caught Sharina's eye; she smiled in response and looked forward again.

    The worm about whose bluntly-rounded head the trireme's anchor cable was tied had a broad, flat tailfin. Spines, scores of them, stuck out from its body. While the nymphs were harnessing the creature Sharina had seen that conical teeth ringed its circular mouth. The worm undulated as it drew the Star of Valles, its tailfin driving up and down just beyond the vessel's bronze ram.

    Sharina grimaced and turned away. Master Rincale leaned against the railing at her side. "A strange business, isn't it, your ladyship?" he said. "Or maybe it isn't for you. I suppose you've gotten used to this sort of thing in your, well, travels, so to speak."

    "I wouldn't say I was used to it, Master Rincale," Sharina said, keeping her tone neutral. What did people think of her? She wasn't a wizard, she was the daughter of the innkeeper in Barca's Hamlet! Things had happened to her, that was all.

    Sharina's eyes turned unbidden toward the huge worm. Things are still happening to me. She giggled. She supposed she must be on the edge of hysteria, but she preferred this reaction to the tinge of nausea the sight'd induced earlier.

    Subsiding to a proper smile, Sharina said, "Your men are taking things well, I notice. I'm... well, frankly, Master Rincale, I had the impression sailors were likely to be superstitious. I thought that something like this would, well, disturb them."

    Rincale laughed. "Superstitious, lady?" he repeated. "Oh, my, yes! The sea's bigger than any man, bigger than all men. Reason's all very well for landsmen, I suppose, but a sailor knows that reason won't get him anywhere but the bottom of the sea in a freak storm or the wind dragging his anchors toward a reef. There's not a man in the crew but has an amulet or a lucky garment or maybe--"

    The sailing master slid up the puffed sleeve of the tunic he wore to mark him as an officer.

    "--a prayer tattooed on his wrist where the Gods can read it when he's too busy to pray properly himself. But why should we be afraid of the Ladies and their pets, Princess? They came to help you, didn't they?"

    "Yes, it seems so," Sharina said, though she wasn't sure that the nymphs would've appeared if she'd been a brunette like most women in Barca's Hamlet. The one shaving her said the blond hair would string the lyres they played to sailors on far rocky shores....

    "Mind," Rincale added, "we'll be telling our grandchildren about this, that you can bet your inheritance on. Anybody who's been to sea for a while has seen things, but this, well, my own wife'll think I'm lying and wonder why I didn't do a better job."

    The nymph slipped from the ear timber with the fluidity of a drop of quicksilver. She dived deep under the ship, then curved upward to join the pair of her sisters who were guiding the great worm. Tenoctris watched her go before turning her face upward toward Sharina.

    "Want to come on deck, milady?" Rincale offered cheerfully. "Blaskis and Ordos, get your asses outa the way so Lady Tenoctris has some room!"

    Without waiting for an answer, the sailing master hopped onto the frame which the nymph had just vacated. Balancing on the balls of his feet alone, he gripped Tenoctris under the arms and lifted her like a woodpecker snatching a grub from its hole. Rincale was an older man, in his mid-fifties at least, but he'd obviously kept himself fit.

    "Thank you," said Tenoctris as Sharina helped set her on the deck. She gave Sharina a wry grin that showed how startled she'd been to come up in just that fashion. "I'd been wondering how I was going to get back here."

    She tucked into her satchel the wax tablet on which she'd been taking notes during her discussion with the nymph, then resumed, "I'd been hoping to talk to you, Master Rincale. Do you know anything about the people, the People, who invaded Ornifal from the sea forty-nine years ago? You wouldn't have been present yourself, I suppose, but perhaps you've talked to some who were?"

    "Oh, I was sailing with my Da then, milady," Rincale said, smiling fondly with the memory. "Indeed I was. Had his own ship, he did, though that went to Foalz, my brother by his first wife."

    Tenoctris nodded, probably believing as Sharina did that the story would come out faster without interruptions intended to speed it along. "Yes, the People," Rincale said. "A right lot of liars they were, though--"

    He grinned broadly at Sharina.

    "--I'm with my wife on this one. I can't imagine why they didn't tell a better one. You see-"

    Rincale made a circular motion with his hand, gesturing to seaward. Well, it would've been seaward under normal conditions; and the moment it indicated a wasteland of stars.

    "--the waters east of Ornifal, the seas, I mean?"

    He paused to make sure these fine ladies understood so complicated a concept as "seas". Sharina, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice, said, "Yes, we understand."

    "Well, the People said," the sailing master explained, "the ones who weren't killed, I mean, that they live on a floating island that sometimes swings close to Ornifal and sometimes swings away. Now, that's nonsense. There's no island in the channel between Bight and Kepulacecil, there isn't and there wasn't then. East of the channel there's reefs that I wouldn't want to thread a fishing dory through, let alone an island. Wherever they come from, it wasn't from an island!"

    "Perhaps," said Tenoctris carefully, "they didn't mean the island was floating in the sea."

    "What?" Rincale said with a frown. "What else is there to float in, milady?"

    Tenoctris pursed her lips, considering what to say. Sharina gestured toward the great worm swimming ahead of them.

    "Oh...," she said with a lopsided grin. "I think we could all imagine other places if we put our minds to it, Master Rincale."

    "Ah," said the sailing master. "Ah. I hadn't thought of that."

    The worm, undulating like the sea in a gentle breeze, swam onward through the stars.



    "The Heroes, the men our friends are trying to emulate...," Mab said as she and Cashel sat at a table on the lowest of many terraces stepped up from the surface of a crystalline lake. Her hair was now a rich chestnut color, and she was nearly as tall as Cashel. "Were the great warriors who led the citizens of Ronn when the Made Men threatened the city in past ages. The last of them, Valeri, went down to the cavern where the Heroes sleep a hundred and fifty years ago."

    The walls of Ronn slanted back on all sides like steeply sloped mountains, shading the lake's surface even though the sky above was still bright. Cashel saw brightly-colored fish, the largest of them as long as he was tall, swimming lazily through the pure water. Occasionally one rose to gulp air, sending ripples across the shimmering surface.

    "Valeri was a general?" Cashel said. Generals like Lord Waldron decided where to move troops to and how to line them up--and how to feed them, besides, all sorts of things that Cashel couldn't even imagine doing. But Garric did them too. It was wonderful the things Garric could do even though he'd been raised in Barca's Hamlet the same as Cashel.

    "Valeri was a Hero," Mab said, correcting him gently. "So far as generalship went, that was the Queen's affair. There was no subtlety in the King and the minions of his creation, only numbers and savagery. Valeri led. The citizens of Ronn had weapons and the courage to fight; but without a leader, they would have huddled within the walls of the city, more fearful of making a mistake in their ignorance of war than they were of dying."

    The water of the lake below had darkened to the point that the fish were no longer colors, merely darknesses beneath the shimmer of the reflected sky. Lights appeared in the lake or....

    Could they be under the lake? Balls of blue and red and yellow moved slowly from the edges inward in curving lines. Each was an even distance behind the one that preceded it. Occasionally a great fish swam above a light and hid it for a moment the way a trailing cloud may block the sun.

    "Young people with lanterns dance beneath the lake in the evenings," Mab said, pausing in her discussion of great issues to explain the thing that had Cashel's attention. "There's quite a lot of competition to get on the teams. The floor of the lake is diamond; the dancers are below it."

    "Ah," said Cashel, leaning forward to take in the patterns which the lights wove. He couldn't see the dancers themselves, but the colored lanterns had a stately grace.

    As he watched he realized that the movements of the fish weren't random either. Somebody who fights with a quarterstaff learns to see the rhythms of things that at first glance just seem to be happening. You learn that if you're going to win, anyhow. "Ah!"

    He turned to Mab and smiled, feeling apologetic for not paying attention to what she'd been telling him. He'd listened but he couldn't pretend he'd cared much about it.

    "Mistress," he said now. "It doesn't seem from what you tell me that Ronn has much needed heroes or armies either one in the past long while. Now that you do again, maybe they'll come along. Don't you think?"

    "Ronn has had perfect peace for a hundred and fifty years," Mab said. "Ever since Valeri led her citizens to drive the Made Men back into the Great Ravine in the northern mountains. The people of Ronn didn't see the need of soldiers, and it seems the Queen must not have seen a need either. People believe what they want to believe; even people who've proved themselves in the past to be wise and very powerful. You can be born brave or at least learn to act brave quickly enough; but nobody's born skillful with weapons. Those arts take longer to learn than the Sons have, or than Ronn has before she needs a leader."

    Her smile took on a tinge of sadness; Cashel knew what she meant. Herron and his friends were puppies. Nice puppies, puppies that might grow up to be really good dogs. Trained right they'd be the kind of officials Garric wanted around him, bright active fellows with the good of the kingdom at heart.

    They wouldn't be soldiers, though, any of them except maybe Stasslin. And Cashel didn't much like Stasslin as a person.

    "The Sons would be willing to lead the people of Ronn," Mab said. "In their hearts, they really believe that's what they're going to do when the rest of the citizens realize their danger. And if that happened, they'd be killed at once and everyone who followed them would be killed. They don't have the skills."

    Cashel nodded. The Sons were young in a fashion that children brought up in the borough were never young. By the time you've survived three winters in a peasant village, you know things that the youth of Ronn had never been forced to learn.

    "Ma'am...?" Cashel said, his eyes on the dancers and the fish. The terraces were well filled with spectators, some foreign but mostly citizens of Ronn. From the talk he heard at nearby tables, the locals judged tiny variations from previous dances while Cashel himself was merely seeing the grace of the thing itself.

    "Yes, Master Cashel," Mab said, her voice prodding politely so that he'd say what he was working himself up to.

    He turned and faced her. He'd ever so much be fighting somebody, anybody, than having this conversation; but here he was, and there wasn't any choice about it.

    "Mistress," Cashel said, "if you're thinking I can lead your army, you're wrong--I can't. I wouldn't be any more use than the Sons were. I'm not afraid--and I'm not afraid to fight. But a man with a quarterstaff isn't much good against real soldiers, and I'd been no use at all with a sword."

    "No, I wasn't thinking of that," Mab said with a dismissive wave of her left hand. Cashel wasn't sure whether his eyes were tricking him or if the fingernails really did make five rosy streaks in the air as they passed. "You're a stranger, Master Cashel. No matter what your skills were, the people of Ronn wouldn't follow you; and even you couldn't fight the Made Men alone."

    Her expression changed to one that Cashel couldn't quite describe, serious and, well, affectionate at the same time. Mab touched the back of his hand and added, "Your pardon. You would fight the Made Men alone. But not even you could win."

    "I guess I said that already," Cashel said. He was feeling even more uncomfortable than he'd been when he brought the subject up. "Look, mistress--what do you see as the way out of this? Because you do see something, you're not the sort to just wallow in how bad everything is, are you?"

    Mab laughed, clapping her hands in delight at the joke. People at neighboring tables, toying with the remains of their meals or carafes of wine, glanced over in mild surprise.

    "Oh, my, no I'm not that, Master Cashel!" Mab said. "My hope, my plan if you want to put it that way--"

    She smiled in wry self-mockery.

    "--is that the Heroes will awaken in their cavern and lead the people of Ronn against the King and his minions, his monsters. That the citizens of Ronn will destroy the enemies of the city and of all men finally instead of scotching them as so often in the past."

    Cashel didn't say anything for a moment, just sat and thought about what she'd said. His staff leaned against the parapet beside him. He didn't pick it up, but he reached back with his right hand and ran his fingertips over the hickory.

    "So you figure the Heroes have been sleeping, then?" he said. "Ah, how long would that have been for, ma'am? Because you said Valeri had gone down there...."

    "Yes, Valeri whom Dasborn brought up as his son and trained," Mab said. "Valeri with blood soaking through the bandage where a sword had found the joint between the halves of his cuirass. And before Dasborn, the twins Minon and Menon, blond and handsome as the very gods till the day they went to cavern to sleep; Minon in his brother's arms, and Menon staggering despite his strength because of the shaft of the broken spear protruding from his thigh."

    The sky was almost dark, now, but lights floated through the air above the tables. They were faint and the color of old parchment, but Cashel could see his companion as clearly as he could've in a full moon.

    "They're sleeping, mistress?" Cashel said quietly. "With wounds like those?"

    "Minon and Menon were sister's sons to great Hrandis," Mab said as though she hadn't heard the question. And perhaps she hadn't: she was looking down toward the diamond lake, but Cashel had the feeling her eyes were seeing much deeper than that, back in time as well as far into the core of the world.

    "Hrandis was shorter than you," she continued, "but his shoulders were even broader. He swung an axe in either hand. When he led the citizens for the last time, he left a swath of the bodies of Made Men the width of both arms and his axe helves all the way from the walls of Ronn to where he fell at the mouth of the Great Ravine."

    "Fell?" said Cashel. "Then Hrandis is...?"

    "Minon and Menon escorted their uncle to the cavern," Mab said, "holding his arms over their shoulders and walking on flowers and the rich garments the grateful citizens threw before their feet. Hrandis and his axes sleep there still; waiting for the city's greatest need, the legend says. Waiting as Virdin waits, the Queen's first champion and Ronn's first Hero. Virdin whom the blades of the Made Men never touched, Virdin who went down to a well-earned rest in the cavern with his white beard spreading like a mountain cataract. Waiting for the city's need."

    Cashel didn't speak. His fingers had been rubbing the familiar smoothness of the wood. Now he took the quarterstaff in both hands for comfort as he thought.

    Mab gave a brittle laugh. "I think Ronn is in need now, don't you, Master Cashel?"

    Before he could answer, she rose to her feet as supple as an otter. "Come," Mab said in a cheerful tone. "The sun's down, so I can show you the way the Heroes guard the walls of the city yet today."

    She took Cashel by the hand and guided him toward one of the platforms that effortlessly lifted Ronn's citizens through the city-mountain's many levels.



    They'd found several coarse sacks in hanging from the outer wall of the shed. Ilna had handled them; they told her of nothing worse than hot sun and the leaden exhaustion of the laborers who'd chopped the leaves from which the fibers were rotted before being woven. Now Chalcus carried the bread and cheese from Nergura's cupboard in one, leaving Davus' hands free to juggle three stones: two of them of a size to behead a pigeon if thrown accurately, the third big enough to dish in a man's skull.

    Three homunculi, carrying the vine on which their siblings grew, trotted toward the east as soon as they were out of the maze. Ilna didn't see any advantage of the terrain in that direction instead of another, but the creatures seemed in no doubt. They went over a rise bristling with clumps of silk grass and vanished from her life, except for the snatch of angry grumbling a vagrant breeze brought her a moment later.

    Davus looked at Nergura, who'd stayed at the mouth of the maze as the three of them followed the homunculi out. He said, "You may think that you can catch them again if you hurry, wizard. If you do, I will come back for you."

    "Let's go," said Chalcus quietly. "I'd like to get some distance on before we bed down for the night."

    They started forward, walking abreast this time. Ilna was between the two men.

    "Do you think you're better than me?" the wizard shouted. "Is that what you think?"

    Ilna turned. "I know I'm not better than you," she said. "But I'd be worse yet if I said that what you were doing was no business of mine because you weren't doing it to me personally."

    She and her companions started toward the Citadel again. The lowering sun turned the crystal into an orange-red blaze.

    "From this valley they say you are leaving...," sang Chalcus in his lilting tenor. "Do not hasten to bid me adieu...."

    Davus laughed and began to juggle his stones in an intricate pattern, and before long the maze and the wizard were out of sight behind them.

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