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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Friday, July 16, 2004 00:34 EDT



    At least I'm warmed up, Cashel thought, but the truth was it never took him long to get moving in a fight. With the smile that thought brought to his lips, he stepped into the Made Men with his staff spinning.

    Four swordsmen who knew what they were doing--any four veterans in the Royal Army, say--could've cut him to collops in their initial rush. Two who were really skilled could do the same, men like Chalcus or like Garric when his warrior ancestor was in charge. But these Made Men--well, they were willing to fight which put them one up on the Sons of the Heroes, but there wasn't much to choose between those boys and these fungus-white creatures for skill.

    Curved swords lent themselves to wide, flashy flourishes, which the Made Men did a lot of. Cashel chose, feinted toward the pair in the middle, and brought the quarterstaff out of its spin in a thrust at the creature on the left end. The iron butt-cap crushed the Made Man's forehead.

    Instead of flying backward from the force of the blow, the Made Man spasmed to the side. Its sword, held in a literal deathgrip, clinked and sparked on the plaza.

    The two young Councillors lost the rhythm of their chant and cried out in surprise,. The male threw himself in front of his partner, holding his long ivory wand as a club. The image of Virdin stepped halfway through the mirror, then faded like a lump of salt dropped into water.

    The Made Man beside Cashel's first victim had flinched away from the feint. Though still off-balance, it slashed sidewise at Cashel. He stepped back, recovering his quarterstaff in a widdershins arc. The blood-smeared butt-cap rapped the back of the Made Man's head.

    Though not as spectacular as the first stroke, this was equally effective. The creature sprawled with its skull dished in, across the path of its two fellows as they rushed Cashel together. They fell.

    Cashel put his left foot on the sword-hand of the nearer of the pair that'd tripped, pinning it hopelessly against the hard surface. While the one his weight held mewed and squirmed like a broken-backed snake, Cashel stabbed like he was flounder gigging, breaking the neck of the further Made Man. A moment later Cashel's fourth judicious stroke did break the back of the creature he stood on.

    He paused to suck air through his open mouth, wheezing like a foundered horse. While the fight lasted--all the few seconds that the fight lasted--he'd seen nothing but the four swordsmen coming at him, moving in discrete intervals of time. Now everything expanded back to normal and speeded up again.

    Age had so wizened the man in the mirror that even standing he was doubled over like a frog. He pointed his curved athame at Mab as his lips twisted over words of power. No sound passed the surface of the mirror, but spears of red and blue wizardlight stabbed out--

    To meet the shield Mab's hands wove in the air before her. The bolts blasted upward, spreading and fading to a dim pastel fog above which the stars faded.

    Cashel sized up the situation. He spun his quarterstaff before him, then stepped onto the quivering body of one of the creatures he'd slain.

    The surviving Made Men dropped the mirror and tried to draw their swords. Cashel crushed the chest of the nearer, flinging its body over the parapet.

    "Remiel!" Mab shouted. "Nemiel!"

    The mirror fell flat to the ground. All but a sliver of Cashel's mind was focused on his staff and the way the remaining Made Man was trying to duck. That small part expected the mirror to shatter when it hit. Instead the plate bounced upright. For an instant the King at its heart looked squarely at Cashel rather than at Mab. The King's eyes were glowing blacknesses brighter than the hottest forge, and his athame pointed.

    "Lemiel!" said Mab.

    The mirror disintegrated, falling as dust instead of breaking into visible pieces. The last of the Made Men leaped for the stairs up which it had come. Cashel stepped through the shimmering ruin and struck the creature. His quarterstaff broke its hips rather than its chest as he'd intended, but the weight of the blow hurled it well out from the side of Ronn. Cashel wasn't sure how far below the ground was, but it was surely miles rather than furlongs.

    The fight was over. Cashel sank to his knees, gasping and blowing. He'd have fallen on his face except it he hadn't planted his staff straight up and down to support his sagging torso.

    Behind him Mab cried in a voice of despair, "The King's now proved to his creatures that the Heroes walking the walls of Ronn are phantasms. They'll attack soon, perhaps in a matter of days!"

    Cashel's vision blurred momentarily. Colors faded to shades of gray, then slowly steadied and returned to their soft pastel hues.

    "Lord Ardane and Lady Thaida!" Mab said. Her voice had become firm and imperative. The wailing despair of a moment ago had faded into the past. "Summon your fellow Councillors and call an emergency Assembly at once. The King and his creatures are coming. If Ronn isn't ready to receive them, may the Gods have mercy on the city and her residents; for be assured, the King will have none!"



    "It's been months since I've seen the palace," Sharina said as an usher led her, Waldron, and--just behind in a sedan chair--Tenoctris through the walled compound which encircled a sprawling collection of buildings on the northern edge of Valles. "It's completely different now."

    They were approaching the Chancellery, the largest single structure in the compound. It'd been reroofed with tiles whose red hadn't had time to soften in the sun, and the grounds in front had been cleaned to display the mosaic pavement underlying what Sharina remembered as an expanse of sod and leaf litter. She'd never have imagined it....

    "A waste of money better spent on the army, I'd say," Waldron muttered. He glanced at the pair of workmen repairing a corner of the mosaic, rebuilding with new tesserae the picture of a fox leaping at a quail. "A waste of men who could be holding spears, too."

    Sharina smiled. The landscaping had run riot during the last decade of Valence III's reign, and many of the separate bungalows had fallen into ruin. The effort being expended on reversing the decay since Garric became regent was a paradigm for the even greater efforts the new administration was making to recover the kingdom's unity.

    "People can't really comprehend the changes in something as large as the Kingdom of the Isles," she said. "They can see the changes here in the palace, though, and they're changes for the better. It's worth the money, milord."

    Chancellor Royhas stood at the main entrance alone. There were guards for the building, but Royhas didn't presume to meet Princess Sharina and Lord Waldron with a retinue when they'd arrived without one.

    Royhas was the quietly competent man who'd led the conspiracy that made Garric regent when the king's mind gave way under the threats facing him. He'd acted for the sake of the Isles, certainly; and in his own interest, because Royhas and all the members of the royal court faced death if the kingdom tottered to total collapse. But he'd acted for the sake of Valence III as well, saving his friend the king from the certain destruction which his own inability to act doomed him.

    Today Royhas looked worn. His cheeks sagged and his eyes had dark circles. While he hadn't made a fetish of physical fitness the way Waldron did, he'd struck Sharina as remarkably healthy looking for a man whose duties didn't involve physical exercise. Strain had robbed him of that.

    "I don't know what wind brought you here at this moment, your highness," Royhas said, bowing to Sharina, "but it was a fair one. And you, milord--"

    He clasped arms with Waldron, who'd winced at mention of their passage to Ornifal.

    "--you're even more welcome. Did you bring the whole army? There've been terrible developments. My dispatches won't have had time to reach Erdin, but--"

    "We know about the imposter Valgard," Waldron said. He'd allowed the Chancellor's greeting, but he remained stiffly unbending to discourage further intimacy. The army commander generally didn't like either civilians or nobles from the mercantile families of Valles, and he didn't like Royhas as an individual. "And I know about my cousin Bolor's involvement. As for the army, I'm here with sufficient troops for the purpose; you needn't trouble yourself on that matter."



    Royhas stepped back. He gave Waldron a smile of wry amusement that brought the familiar glow of health back to his face. "Milord," he said, "it's still a pleasure to see you. But please, won't you all join me in my private office where we can discuss the details?"

    He bowed again to Sharina, said, "If I may precede you, your highness?" and without really waiting for an answer led his guests through the central hall. It was lined with batteries of low-ranking clerks reading out names and numbers as they copied them into ledgers. The noise reminded Sharina of feeding chickens at the kitchen door of her father's inn: a thin, purposeless babble that vanished even as it was spoken.

    A light well in the center of the room provided illumination during daylight. On this fine day, the roof transoms of bulls-eye glass set in lead frames were swung back. To the sides of the central hall were the offices of senior clerks. Every door was open so that the officials within could catch a glimpse of Princess Sharina.

    If they'd seen me two years ago in Barca's Hamlet, Sharina thought, they wouldn't have paid me any more notice than they would the table. And that was very likely true, but it didn't mean there was anything wrong with the officials' behavior--at either time. You couldn't understand anything apart from its surroundings.

    The buildings in the palace compound sprawled rather than rising as they'd have had to do in the heart of the city. Royhas' office was on the upper of the two floors running the width of the back. Its pillared loggia overlooked an enclosed garden set off from the rest of rest of the grounds so that the Chancellor could entertain ranking visitors among flowers and statuary if he chose.

    Sharina helped Tenoctris to a place on the loggia, then seated herself beside the older woman. The chairs had frames of bronze filigree with wicker cushions, artistic and comfortable but unlikely to be harmed if a storm blew up before the servants got them inside. They were arranged in an arc so that those seated could see one another while looking out onto the garden.

    It was a civilized and peaceful setting in which to hold tense discussions. Sharina noted again that Royhas was a very intelligent man in addition to being wealthy and well-born.

    Royhas took the end chair to the left. "I'm glad you know about the situation," he said bluntly, "because I knew almost nothing about it until ten days ago. There were rumors that another son of Valence Stronghand was returning to take the throne--silly nonsense, but widespread. Reports came from the city markets and in from outlying districts as well. Then real trouble started. Royal officials in the north were set upon; beaten and driven out. Even a few imprisoned I gather."

    "'Royal officials,'" Waldron repeated. "You mean tax gatherers."

    Royhas looked at him with a determinedly blank expression. "Yes," he said. "Officials who collect the taxes out of which the Royal Army is paid, if you like. That was rebellion or next to it. In the eastern districts it's approaching anarchy--bandits, really. The gangs have gathered every bad man in the island as well as a lot of farm laborers who decided burning the squire's fields was better fun than stacking his ricks in the hot sun. Some of the bands are supposed to be large--several hundred apiece, though I doubt there's anything like that number of armed men in them."

    "What about the army?" Waldron demanded. "You have four regiments. What have they accomplished?"

    "Nothing," said Royhas. "Because I haven't dared use them."

    He raised his hand to silence the retort on the tip of Waldron's tongue. "Not because I didn't trust the troops, milord," he said, "but because I didn't trust myself to lead them. And before you ask--I didn't trust any of the regimental commanders to lead the force in my place. As a matter of fact, I don't trust Lord Titer's loyalty, nor do I--"

    He leaned toward the army commander to add emphasis without raising his voice.

    "--trust Lord Olinus' ability to find his ass with both hands. I'm very glad to see you, milord, however many troops you've brought with you."

    Lord Waldron relaxed abruptly and barked a laugh. "Well, to tell the truth," he said, "when I was deciding who'd go with me to settle the rebellion in the West and who'd stay in Valles where nothing was going to happen, I may have left the garrison here a little short of brilliance. I ask your pardon for that, milord, but I'll try to correct it now."

    Servants hovered at the back of the room with trays and pitchers, but Royhas hadn't ordered them forward so they had no choice but to wait. He glanced over his shoulder, making sure the servants were still out of earshot, and said, "Whereas I assure you, milord, that the financial staff accompanying Prince Garric is skilled to the point of brilliance. That's because Lord Tadai is quite as capable of running the Chancellery as I am--and he'd be trying to do just that if he were in Valles, which praise the Lady he is not. But I understand the choice you faced; and as you say, you're here to deal with the problem now."

    Lord Waldron rose. "All right, Royhas," he said. "I think we understand each other. I'll call a military council and put some spine into the garrison, then we'll see about this Valgard. And if Titer's the problem you think he is, I'll sort him out myself!"

    He bowed curtly to the seated Chancellor and started toward the door. Only then did he remember that Sharina was the highest ranking person in the room--and save for Valence, pottering about somewhere in the palace, the highest ranking person on Ornifal. Waldron clacked his boots to a halt and stood stiff as a pikestaff.

    "Good luck with your business, milord," Sharina said, smiling at his back. "I'd appreciate a report when you've had a chance to appraise the situation."

    "Yes, your highness," Waldron said, too embarrassed by his gaffe to face her. "With your leave." He clicked his heels again, then strode out of the room much faster than he'd entered.

    Royhas, smiling also, turned to Sharina. "Your highness," he said, "what do you wish of me?"

    "Just to carry on as you've been doing, milord," Sharina said. "I think--and my brother thought--that I'll be of most use to you if I'm simply seen in public. In Valles to begin with, but perhaps we'll be able to widen our range later as Waldron gets the security situation under control. And of course--"

    She looked at Tenoctris.

    "--support Lady Tenoctris in whatever fashion she wants. Is there anything...?"

    Tenoctris nodded. "Yes," she said. "Since this Valgard is said to be the son of Stronghand, I'd like to see Stronghand's burial place. Is that possible?"

    "Easily," said the Chancellor, nodding approval. "It's on the Caldar Road, following the left bank of the Val just north of the city proper. Perhaps you'd like to accompany her, your highness? It's precisely the sort of public event you suggested making."

    "Yes," said Sharina, rising to her feet. She offered Tenoctris a hand, though the older woman seemed her best sprightly self today and didn't need the help. "But I want to see King Valence first."

    She smiled wryly in response to the others' looks of surprise. "I suppose it's silly," she explained. "But I'd like to hear what the king himself thinks about the notion that he has a half brother."



    Ilna turned at the northern edge of the flax field. The villagers had cut patches of scrub for firewood beyond here, but the terrain was basically natural. "Thank you again for your hospitality!" she called.

    Polus and another of the men hoeing among the lentil fields to the south raised their heads and waved. The other men just continued working.

    "I wish we could've paid them," Ilna said, more to herself than her companions. "It was good to sleep with a roof overhead again."

    It was odd to find that she missed a roof, but she did. She'd grown up in an massive Old Kingdom mill, the oldest and most solid building in Barca's Hamlet. Her brother was in the sheep fold or out in the pastures as many nights as he wasn't, but Ilna herself hadn't slept under the stars until she left home.

    "It didn't seem they'd have had much use for money even if we'd been carrying our purses," Chalcus said. "Though coins make pretty bangles, which I'd judge our hostess wouldn't have turned down."

    "This village seems to exist apart from the world," said Davus thoughtfully. "They'll forget us completely in a few days, I suspect. Maybe they've forgotten us already, most of them."

    "Well, it's in the back of beyond," Chalcus commented. His blades were sheathed, but he kept his head moving in a fairly successful attempt to look in all directions. "I didn't see anything in the village that hadn't been made there, with the exception of a few iron knives and some perfume bottles."

    "Yes," said Davus, "but it shouldn't be that isolated. There's enough here to draw more than half a dozen peddlers over the course of... how long would you say? A generation at least."

    The women were back among the houses, preparing meals for their households. Simple as the food was, it required a great deal of effort. The oats were parched, then ground with the lentils and boiled as porridge. There was no miller; the work was done by individual housewives, grinding with pestles in bowls whose coarse inner surface was as effective as a stone and easier to manufacture.

    Ilna'd found the porridge filling and quite tasty for one meal. It was likely to pall as a steady diet, though, even for a person like her who ate to live instead the other way around.

    Preparing cloth seemed to take up the rest of the women's time. They rotted the flax stems in water, then separated the useful fibers from the pulp by a process not very different from the way they turned oats into porridge. After they'd spun the flax into linen thread, they wove it much the same way as Ilna did wool.

    She tried not to be overly critical--the villagers had been extremely kind to her and her companions, after all--but their weaving didn't impress her. It was all very well to say that they lacked Ilna's advantage of having the wide world to measure themselves against; but the truth was, these women were simply sloppy.

    "The cat keeps folk away, do you think?" Chalcus said in his usual pleasant tenor, calm and cheerful in this as in almost all things. "I'd thought we'd hear it snuffling about us in the night, but there were only the crickets and a nightjar. And no cat to greet us this morning, neither."

    Davus took off the length of linen which Polus' wife had given him; for a sash, he'd said, but now he looped it and dropped one of his fist-sized stones into the pocket of it. "Not in the village, at least," he said as he began to spin the simple sling in a lazy circle at his side.

    They entered open forest, walking between pines and broad-leafed trees a little taller than the scrub near the village. The land was rising. Ilna didn't fancy herself as a woodsman, but she judged it shouldn't be long before they were out of the valley.

    She weighed the choices, then put the hank of yarn back in her sleeve and readied the noose. Of course she might be quite wrong in her concerns....

    "There may be people just that innocent," Chalcus said, his sword and dagger drawn. "What would an old pirate know of basic goodness, eh? And I surely grant they might not know what their friend the cat--"

    Ilna was watching the pattern a juniper's branches wove as the breeze ruffled them. "Now, I think," she said.

    As she spoke the cat pounced from an outcrop three man-lengths ahead, unseen to the instant it moved. Its forelegs were flared, and its silver-gray claws were each the length of a man's fingers.

    She saw Davus move from the corner of her eye, but the lump of quartz was only a flicker. The sound of stone hitting bone was like a sledge on timber. The cat convulsed with a squall like nothing of flesh and blood. It'd been leaping for Chalcus. Momentum carried it toward the sailor, but it doubled up and pawed at its shattered left eyesocket.

    Chalcus dodged, slipping the curved sword in and out. His steel lifted a fluff of mottled fur from the thing's throat and then a spurt of blood.

    The cat struck the ground and got its feet under it, twisting its body to the right like an eel. The scorpion tail snapped forward like a catapult releasing.

    Ilna's noose settled about the stinger and drew taut. The force of the cat's stroke jerked her off her feet, but the needle tip ejected its yellow poison into the air instead of Chalcus' throat. He thrust again, this time piercing the creature's right eye.

    "Get clear!" Chalcus shouted, glancing to see where Ilna was. "It'll bleed out, I swear on my hopes of dying in a bed!"

    The blinded cat sprang toward the sound of his voice. Chalcus had made a flat-footed jump downslope that put a thigh-thick treebole between him and the cat. Ilna let go of her end of the lasso--it was good for nothing now but to lead the beast toward her--and rolled in the opposite direction.

    The cat's hearing must've been demonically good, because it twisted again, this time toward the scrunch of the coarse soil under her hips. Bright blood from the slit in its neck spurted farther than a man could reach.

    Chalcus cried out, lunging toward the creature behind the point of his outstretched sword. He needn't have worried: a second rock smacked the cat between the ruined eyesockets, crushing the skull.

    The missile ricocheted high in the air, its white quartz surface flecked with blood. The cat went suddenly limp. It slithered downslope a few feet, dead and as harmless as a rug.

    "I think we should leave this place quickly," said Chalcus. The quaver in his voice was mainly from the deep breaths he was dragging into his lungs.

    "A moment," said Ilna, gasping also. She rested on all fours, keeping the pressure off her chest and diaphragm so that nothing hindered her breathing. "I don't want to leave my noose, but I think I'll wait a trifle before I retrieve it."

    Though the monster was dead beyond question, its jointed tail moved spasmodically. Every time it jerked forward, the hooked sting spurted another firkin of venom.

    "Yes," said Chalcus softly. "I'd say I owe that rope my life; which I'd laugh at if I had my breath, for I never thought I'd find a noose my friend."

    And they all three gasped with laughter, at the joke and with a touch of madness as well.



    "Duzi!" said Garric as he caught his first sight of the Temple of the Shepherd Who Overwhelms. "I've never seen a temple so big!"

    "In most cities the priesthoods of the Lady and the Shepherd are rivals," Liane said as she walked at his side. Garric had insisted she accompany him, for her knowledge--as now--as well as for the calm her presence brought him. "Here in Erdin, worship and wealth go almost entirely to the Shepherd. The Lady's only temple is on the waterfront for travellers from other islands."

    The flight of ten broad steps to the plinth on which the temple stood was on a scale with the building itself, far too high for a man to walk. Squads of trumpeters in priestly robes stood on the ends of each step. They began to call as Garric, Liane and their guards approached. The notes rose because the instruments shortened by a hand's breadth at each stage.

    Spectators filled the plaza and the buildings surrounding it. It wasn't a happy crowd like those which'd greeted Garric in Valles and Carcosa, but it was at least grudgingly respectful. Many in Erdin might think--or at least say--that their city was greater than Valles and by rights should rule the Isles, but in their hearts they were impressed that the Prince of Haft had dared to come to them.

    "Aye, and they're impressed by the size of the fleet and army billeted on Volita," growled the image of King Carus. "Don't think you'd get this peaceful a reception if that weren't in the minds of everybody with brains enough to pull on his tunic right-side to."

    Garric grinned. That was probably so, but it was acceptable. The people of Sandrakkan would learn in good time the advantages of being part of a unified kingdom standing against massed Evil. For now, all that mattered was that they acquiesced.

    The Blood Eagles marched in two sections, ahead of and behind Garric. There were fewer than two hundred men present because of losses in recent fighting, men detached for duty in Ornifal with Sharina and Valence, and the fact that Attaper hadn’t had leisure to train volunteers from the line regiments to his exacting standards.

    That there were volunteers—more than enough to bring the Blood Eagles to peacetime strength of five hundred—was a mystery Garric still couldn’t fathom. Everyone in the Royal Army had seen how extremely dangerous it was to guard a prince who led from the front in the fiercest battles the Isles had known for a thousand years. Nonetheless many of them begged for a chance to wear the black armor.

    In his mind, Carus chuckled. “Aye, lad,” he said. “And you could be back in Valles running the government while folk like Waldron and Attaper lead the armies, not so? But you wouldn’t be kin to me if you were.”

    From a distance the actual stairs up to the temple looked like a narrow line separating the two halves of the stepped base, but in reality they were twenty feet wide. The altar was on the broad plinth in front of the building rather than inside. The small fire on it sent a trail of smoke into the sky.

    Lady Lelor and two male assistants waited at one side in full regalia, including jewel-encrusted shepherd’s crooks. Across the ornately carved altar from her stood Lord, soon to be formally Earl, Wildulf and his wife. The plaza behind them, all the way back to the temple facade, was crowded with Sandrakkan nobles wearing elaborate costumes.

    “Only about two-thirds of the nobility is present,” Liane said. She was speaking in a louder than normal voice, though her words were for Garric alone. It required a near shout to be heard over the vast crowd, even in the intervals between trumpet calls. “Some are ill, but a number of the most powerful have retired to their estates to see what happens.”

    “But Wildulf called a levy of all his forces in case it came to a fight, didn’t he?” Garric said in puzzlement.

    “Yes, he did,” Liane agreed with prim amusement. “And some of his vassals are just as unhappy with his rule as Bolor seems to be with yours, your highness.”

    Garric chuckled at his own naiveté. It was easy to assume that the other fellow didn’t have the same sort of problems that you did. Wildulf had had to fight for his throne after the Stone Wall. Of course—now that Garric thought about it—there were going to be powerful people who’d be pleased if Wildulf lost power and his head along with it, even if it took an army from Ornifal to bring the change to pass.

    The trumpets blew a final call, all of them together, as Garric and Liane reached the last flight of steps to the plinth. Liane wasn’t panting—Garric couldn’t imagine her doing something so unladylike—but her face was set in a fashion that indicated she wasn’t happy about the situation.

    “I should’ve thought of the height of the steps when we decided that Prince Garric would march in state from the palace while Lord Wildulf waited for him!” she growled under her breath. Then, in a slightly less irritated tone, “It was still the right decision, but I see now why Wildulf’s envoys didn’t argue with me.”

    They stepped onto the plinth. The Blood Eagles who’d formed a line between the altar and the Sandrakkan courtiers shouted, “The Isles!” and their comrades coming up the stairs in ranks of four, repeated, “The Isles!”

    The sound of two hundred men in the midst of so many might have been lost, but the Blaise regiment under Lord Rosen in the plaza took up the cry also, hammering their spears against the bosses of their round shields. That was enough to trigger some of the crowd, then more of it in waves, a blurry but positive cheer: “The Isles-s-s...”

    This is working, Garric thought as he raised his right arm overhead, the fist clenched. He wore high boots like a horseman, with breeches and a short blue tunic whose puffed sleeves were gathered at the wrist. He slung his long sword on a shoulder belt, but he had neither body armor nor a helmet, only the simple gold diadem of Old Kingdom monarchs.

    Garric had dressed for the occasion as King Carus might’ve done a thousand years before. Most of the spectators wouldn’t know that—but all but the most ignorant understood that he wasn’t wearing Valles court robes. Their Earl was submitting himself to a greater authority backed by the threat of force--but it was the authority of the Isles, not of Ornifal.

    “The Isles!” Garric shouted. To his amazement his voice echoed back to him. The plaza was brilliantly designed so that the temple steps acted as megaphone for anyone speaking from the plinth, and the facade of the palace on the other side formed a sounding board.

    The crowd, most of the local civilians now as well as the royal soldiers, cheered louder. This is really working....

    Garric turned to face Lady Lelor. The priestess with a bland expression dipped her crook but didn’t curtsey as she’d been directed to do. She was pushing it, acknowledging royal authority over her temple--but only barely. And she was going to get away with it, because Prince Garric couldn’t make a scene now without more provocation than that.

    He grinned, and the king in his mind grinned also. “She’s got balls, that one,” Carus muttered approvingly.

    One of Lelor’s assistants stepped forward, holding a plush cushion on which rested a strikingly ugly crown of garnets set in heavy gold. Garric lifted the massive thing, thought Better the Earls of Sandrakkan than me, and turned to Wildulf. The soon-to-be-Earl looked glumly resigned like a traveller caught in a storm many miles from shelter.

    “Kneel, milord,” Garric said, “and receive your charge as representative of the kingdom on Sandrakkan!”

    Wildulf knelt. As he did so, Garric caught Lady Balila’s expression for an instant before she wiped it blank again. He hadn’t seen such malevolence since the day a poisonous snake struck for his life.

    Garric felt his skin quiver as though lightning had struck a nearby tree, but his face remained unmoved. He stepped forward, the crown outstretched. The second male priest dropped frankincense and nard on the fire. Mixed with the aromatics was something that made the flame sparkle and lifted a plume of bright yellow smoke.

    Wildulf had an unexpected bald spot in the middle of his scalp. Garric set the crown on his head carefully and cried, “Arise Wildulf, Earl of Sandrakkan!”

    The sky darkened. Garric and everyone else in the great plaza looked upward. A cinder-black cloud had appeared as suddenly as a thunderbolt. It spread, forming into the shape of a vast, shambling demon. A woman screamed and a thousand throats took up her terror.

    Garric had his sword out though he didn’t remember unsheathing it. Instinct wanted to put him between Liane and the creature of smoke and darkness, but since it was in the sky he couldn’t really do that.

    The shape spread wider. No sunlight leaked through the form though the heavens surrounding remained bright morning. The misshapen head turned and the right arm reached down toward the altar, spreading clawed fingers. The crowd surged away. Garric, glancing into the plaza, was glad to see that the Blaise regiment held, although its ranks had become disordered.

    It didn’t occur to Garric to run. There was nowhere to run. If he was going to die, then it might as well be with his feet planted and his face to the enemy.

    MASTER OF THE CAULDRON – snippet 44:

    The shape vanished, not the way a cloud dissipates but instead like a soap bubble—in the sky one instant, then gone utterly. A few flickers of blackness, what would’ve been sparks if they hadn’t been the absence of light; then not even that.

    “It’s the Ornifal oppressor behind the portent!” Lord Tawnser shouted in a voice as jagged as a saw-blade. He pointed his whole arm toward Garric, his good eye blazing with fury. “It’s the tyrant Garric summoning his monsters to destroy Erdin! Death to the Ornifal tyrant before he destroys us!”

    “Get that man!” shouted Attaper, but Tawnser was already gone, vanishing around the corner of the temple porch.

    A squad of Blood Eagles started forward. They’d already snatched the blunts off their spears. Sandrakkan courtiers milled, some picking themselves up from the pavement where they’d flattened when the shape appeared.

    “No!” bellowed Garric as he would’ve called across the pasture south of Barca’s Hamlet. “Don’t chase him! Let him go!”

    What he’d have really liked would be for Lord Tawnser to slip and break his neck. The chance of that happening was very slight, but it was more probable than any good result of scattering handfuls of royal troops through the streets of a hostile city.

    Lord Attaper must’ve come to the same conclusion as soon as thought had a chance to overrule reflex. He ordered, “Return to ranks!” even as his soldiers glanced back to see if they should obey Garric. They were beyond question loyal to their prince, but they took direction from their own commander.

    Lady Lelor and her two aides stood close together. Her face was set and she didn’t appear to see Garric when her eyes swept over him. The courtiers, led by Earl Wildulf and his wife, were streaming down the broad steps of the temple. They didn’t look back at Garric, or if they did their gaze slid quickly away when he tried to meet their eyes.

    In the plaza the crowd disappeared like a chalk drawing in the rain. From a dozen corners came the faint echo of, “Down with the Ornifal oppressors!”

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