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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Ten

       Last updated: Thursday, August 19, 2004 00:05 EDT



    Ilna finished warping the table loom she'd borrowed from Malaha and Mostera, the sisters who squatted across from her staring. They were the chief weavers at the manor--the Abode of Ramelus, according to Ramelus himself and his henchmen, though Ilna'd heard others call it only 'the big house'.

    The sisters were short, dumpy women past middle age, dressed in hooded black robes. There was little to choose between them in appearance, but Malaha seemed excited by the chance to see what the outsider was going to do, while Mostera glared with the fury of a priestess watching her altar defiled.

    Ilna smiled faintly. Though she wasn't going to defile anything, what she planned to make fabric do today was at the edge of what she considered proper. She'd promised to bring a feeling of joy in those who viewed the result and so she would, but....

    The manor house was a sprawling thing that tried to look like more than it was. Originally it must've been a rectangle of one story and perhaps a loft. Ramelus had built it to two stories and a false front to the north with pillars all the way up; wings had since spread to either side. Ilna couldn't imagine who Ramelus expected to impress, but perhaps it was just for himself. He seemed like a man who thought about himself most of the time, if not all of it.

    The courtyard on the behind the house was formed by lines of stables and work shops rather than colonnades like the front. Women in a line under a pole-framed tile roof were preparing food for the evening meal, while across from them other women washed clothing in large vats carved from limestone. The blacksmith was repairing tools in his forge at the back of the court, near the bread ovens. The cling of his hammer and the wheeze of the bellows worked by two of his assistants were regular interruptions to the chirps of playing children.

    The gray yarn Ilna was using for the warp was of goat hair. The individual strands were longer and finer than the sheep's wool she'd more often worked with, but--like human hairs--they weren't as tightly coiled. The difference in texture was part of the pattern. Everything was part of the pattern, the height of the sun, the haze of dust in the air, even the noisy flutter of sparrows squabbling for grain fallen in the courtyard.

    Ilna checked her weft yarn, touching each loaded bobbin instead of merely looking at them. The feel told her things that eyes, even her eyes, couldn't see. She smiled as her fingertips read the future.

    She didn't fit in with other human beings. Either they saw too little truth, or their world held truths that were merely fancies to Ilna os-Kenset. But threads and fabrics spoke to her, and they never ever lied.

    The weft threads already on the bobbins were wool of various weights and colors: bleached white, indigo blue, and three different shades of gray. The grays were each the natural color of a particular sheep, the darkest nearly black.

    A final hank of weft thread was drying in the sun. Ilna had simmered more of the gray goat hair in raspberry pulp, the waste left in the bag after the kitchen staff made jelly. The yarn was now a soft pink that seemed to cling to the eyes even after one looked away.

    She touched the yarn she'd dyed. It was dry already: though bright, the sun wasn't particularly hot, but the air sucked all moisture out of the thread. Ilna took the hank from the cleft stick on which she'd hung it and began to wind it onto a bobbin.

    "You're a fool if you use that for your pattern, woman," Mostera growled. There was worry as well as challenge in her tone.

    "Now, maybe the foreign lady has a trick we don't know of, darling," Malaha said, pursing her lips into a fishlike expression that apparently was meant to be a smile. "Is that so, Mistress Ilna?"

    Ilna sniffed. "Whatever I may know about dyes and yarns that you don't," she said, "doesn't matter. The pattern I've chosen is probably beyond your ability to plan, but I suspect either of you could weave it yourselves if you watch me carefully the first time."

    "Such a fine lady," Mostera sneered. "I don't think! A vagabond come traipsing up to the big house without so much as a spare tunic."

    "Watch and learn, mistress," said Ilna mildly as she twisted the shed and ran her shuttle through the warp for the first time.

    Davus stood in the center of a group of house servants, each wearing a headband of wool dyed with indigo. He was juggling fist-sized stones, more of them than Ilna could've counted easily even had they been lined up on the ground before her. He had at least three separate sequences in the air at the same time. She couldn't predict the patterns Davus was weaving, but she could see them clearly.

    The indigo headbands were rank insignia as well as a uniform to set the indoor personnel off from the field hands. The highest servants present, the steward and chief cook, had bright blue bands of first-quality dye. Ordinary servants had duller bands from the second quality of the plant, while the scullery maids and potboys wore bands the color of gray mud with only the slightest hint of blue.

    Ilna brought her shuttle across the loom, moving as swiftly and gracefully as Davus was spinning his stones skyward. She'd noticed that he not only kept within sight, he always had at least one eye on her--though his audience probably thought he was wholly focused on his juggling.

    Ilna doubted that Davus watched what the stones were doing at all--or needed to, any more than she needed to look at the yarn as she fed it through the warp. She smiled, feeling the future as it wove onward.

    "I suppose that's where your Lord Ramelus sits when he addresses you?" Ilna said, nodding toward the ornate chair in a three-walled kiosk behind the house proper. The shelter had blue-glazed tiles on the outside and a tree-of-life pattern enclosing the throne. The roof was of ordinary terra cotta rooftiles, their faded orange color a painful contrast with the walls.

    The kiosk's workmanship wasn't very good to begin with, nor had it been kept up well. Where tiles had fallen off, Ilna saw they'd been laid over a core of wattle and daub.

    "Oh, yes," Malaha said cheerfully. "Every day at midday. Everybody gathers here in the courtyard and he dispenses justice. Well, the herdsmen and the men working in the New Fields in the north, they don't come in except on every Ninth Day, but everybody else does."

    What he calls justice, Ilna thought; and thought also that Ramelus' version of justice wasn't something she'd care to count on.

    "He likes to have people whipped," Mostera said. "Sometimes he whips them himself. If he doesn't like the cloth you weave, mistress, he'll have you whipped."

    "I expect that he'll like my pattern," Ilna said with a faint smile. She glanced toward Chalcus, singing to the women doing laundry and to many of the children besides. And I don't think Ramelus or any man will whip me while I live and while Chalcus lives.

    The breeze shifted from east to west, bringing a snatch of his song, "... in its worst despair, still ponder o'er the past...." Chalcus was accompanying himself on an odd little instrument that he must've borrowed here, a lyre of sorts made by stringing gut across the humped shell of a tortoise.

    Ilna's hands slid across the loom, beating the fabric at the short intervals required by the speed at which it was growing. "Oh, she's wonderful, Mostera!" Malaha murmured. "Mistress, you're a wonderful weaver."

    Ilna smiled faintly. She didn't need these women to tell her that, but she wouldn't pretend she didn't like to get praise. Her eyes were unfocused, while in her mind she watched what would happen to the fabric in a few weeks or a month.

    "She can weave, I'll grant," Mostera said. She didn't share Malaha's enthusiasm, but neither was the statement grudging; and for that Ilna felt a tinge of respect. She'd praised others for the sake of truth, even when it tore her heart out to do so. A weaker person might've deluded herself that Lady Liane bos-Benliman wasn't a worthy mate for Garric, but Ilna hadn't permitted herself to do that....

    "Lord Ramelus could have you or me or any of us whipped," Mostera said in a distant tone. "He's a great man, and he'd be the first to tell you so. But he couldn't, I think, do anything so great as weaving the cloth on your loom, Mistress Ilna."

    Across the courtyard Chalcus sang, "For mem'ry is the only friend--"

    Ilna said nothing, but she smiled more broadly.

    "--that grief can call its own."



    Cashel had thought that if he maybe squinted a little, he could imagine that the Sons of the Heroes were really soldiers. It didn't work. Sure, they wore swords and armor as they listened to Mab explain what they were getting into, but they didn't hold themselves right. They weren't poised like people whose job was standing shoulder to shoulder and killing other people. That's what a soldier was, after all, and by now Cashel had met his share of them.

    "The Queen's power is from the air and light," Mab said, standing as the others watched in a half circle around her. The Sons were on crystal benches under a canopy of ferns; Cashel squatted at the right end beside Herron where he could see all his companions out of the corner of his eye. "The King's power is strongest in earth and water, so it was natural that when the Queen drove him out of Ronn, some remnants of his influence would linger in the lowest levels of the city."

    Mab made an angry gesture with her left hand: red sparks danced angrily in the air.

    "Natural," she repeated, "but very unfortunate. Because the Queen was exhausted from the battle--and I have to say, arrogant with her victory--she failed to wipe Ronn clean of contamination when she could've done so with relative ease. She didn't, and by that she failed her duty and failed the city."

    "The Queen's a great wizard and a great person," Orly said in glowering discomfort. "She's kept Ronn safe for a thousand years. You shouldn't talk about her that way!"

    "If she hadn't vanished," Herron said, "then we'd still be safe."

    "You weren't safe while the Queen was present, Master Herron," Mab said with a dismissive snort. "Or she wouldn't have vanished, would she? If you're afraid of straight talking, then how do you expect to face the things you'll meet on the way to the Shrine of the Heroes?"

    Cashel smiled though he knew he shouldn't have. Right now Mab looked like she was a girl no older than the Sons themselves. She had blue eyes and fluffy blond hair, just as cute as you could ask for. Her tongue and her temper hadn't changed from what they'd been earlier, though.

    Herron grimaced and hung his head. "I just meant...," he muttered; but what he'd meant was obvious-- "The Queen didn't fail us!" --and obviously false. Herron had sense enough to swallow the remainder of his words.

    "The armies of Made Men are a spectacular threat, but perhaps not the most dangerous one," Mab resumed in a softer tone. "The King's power has been increasing in Ronn ever since he was driven out. The Heroes have defeated his creatures repeatedly, but those defeats don't change the way darkness and night have slowly spread upward from the living rock beneath the city. By now they lurk at the edges of the crystal plazas open to the sun."

    "Mistress?" said Enfero. His head was bandaged from where Cashel'd smacked him with the quarterstaff. "How can we fight that? How can we fight things that I don't even see?"

    Mab twisted her face toward him like a hawk sighting prey; then the cold anger in her eyes melted. "You can't fight a fog, Master Enfero," she said mildly. "The Queen will have to burn that away after she returns. Perhaps she'll have learned to do it properly this time, to sear the very rock clean of the taint of evil. But before the Queen can return, the citizens of Ronn must defeat the army of Made Men massing on the plain outside. And to do that you six, and Master Cashel, and I, must wake the Heroes."

    Cashel cleared his throat. "What's to stop us going down to this cavern, ma'am?" he asked, concentrating really hard on the wad of wool he rubbed along the smooth length of his quarterstaff. "Just bad feelings, like you were saying? Or are the Made Men going to be waiting for us when we get lower down?"

    Mab looked at him and laughed, though the sound didn't have much joke to it. "You don't believe in bad feelings, in a miasma of evil, is that it, Master Cashel?" she said.

    Cashel shrugged. "I believe, I guess," he said, "if you tell me it's so, ma'am. But I don't--"

    He raised his eyes to meet hers.

    "--figure it's going to stop me."

    Cashel looked down the line of the Sons, all of them staring at him. "Look," he said, then paused to frown. It was really important that they understand what he was about to tell them, but he'd never been good at words. "A lot of times it's really hard. The sun's hot and you ache all over, and it doesn't seem like anybody really cares anyhow. But you've got to go on and finish it anyway, just slogging on."

    He shrugged, his hands spread on the quarterstaff. "You've got to finish it," he repeated, "because otherwise it's still there to do. For you or anyway for somebody, and you're the one whose job it was. Right? Because we've told everybody this is our job, going down to wake the Heroes."

    "If there's any such thing!" Orly burst out. "If the Heroes are sleeping, if there's even a cavern! Nobody of all the people alive in Ronn today has seen it, you know."

    "We don't need to worry about that," Cashel said.

    "Don't worry?" Stasslin sneered. "Of course it's a worry! If there aren't any Heroes, then we can't wake them!"

    "We don't need to worry," said Cashel, raising his voice just a little more than he had to so that they could all hear him clearly, "because that's not our job. Our job is to go down and do what we can. If there's no cavern or no Heroes, that's not our fault. So we don't need to worry about it."

    Enfero suddenly laughed. "He's right," he said. "We only need to worry about our task. The questions as to whether our task is impossible or even pointless--those matters aren't our concern. Master Cashel's logic is impeccable."

    "Are the Made Men in the lower levels?" Ather asked, unconsciously rubbing the bruises he'd taken when Cashel demonstrated what he could do with a quarterstaff. "You didn't answer that, milady."

    Mab whisked her brilliant blue fingernails through the air. "No," she said. "We won't find Made Men. The King can't physically enter Ronn, except over the walls if he defeats Ronn's army. But his power influences the growth of things already in the city, and that increases the deeper we go. We'll have more to deal with than bad dreams."

    For some minutes Cashel had been hearing chants and a sibilant ringing sound. Now a line of young people wound into the shady garden area, spinning and whirling as they followed one another. The men held tambourines which they slapped overhead while the women shook castanets to the same wild rhythm. As they danced they sang, "... Our Mother Queen leads us to a seat and bades us sit, she gives us nectar in a golden cup..."

    Mab fell silent, following the dancers with her eyes till the last of them jingled his way out of sight again. Cashel didn't try to count them, but there were at least as many as he had fingers on both hands. Their cheerful voices faded slowly.

    Mab turned again to face her companions. A cold smile spread across her lips. She said, "As you see, the citizens of our city depend on us... though they aren't aware of the fact. Unless we succeed in waking the Heroes, there'll shortly be no dancers waking the sun, and perhaps no sun at all for Ronn."

    Cashel got up with the smooth grace of a gymnast, holding his staff out before him to balance the weight of his body as his knees straightened. "Well, ma'am," he said, smiling also. "We already said we were going to do that, right?"

    "Yes," said Herron, lurching to his feet more clumsily than Cashel had but with a frown of fierce determination. "We did. Because it's our job."

    Cashel smiled more broadly. It seemed like they'd understood what he was trying to tell them after all.



    Sharina's first thought was that the wooded hill to the right of the road was steep-sided and oddly symmetrical. Then she realized it was artificial.

    "That's the tomb," said Under-Captain Ascor, riding alongside the carriage Sharina and Tenoctris shared. "We used to escort the king here on Commemoration Day to make sacrifices. Though he gave that up the last couple years before, you know, your brother took over."

    The Mausoleum of the bor-Torials, the family of the Dukes of Ornifal who'd for the past several generations claimed the kingship of the Isles as well, was a mound more than a hundred feet high. The plantings, cypresses interspersed with plane trees, were on four ascending terraces; at the top was a statue which, though large, was beyond Sharina's ability to identify at this distance.

    A brick wall separated the grounds from road traffic. There was a keeper's house and a barred iron gate through which Sharina saw neatly-tended vines mixed with olive trees which would shade the grapes from the direct summer sun.

    The gates were open. The twenty-odd horsemen who'd ridden on ahead to prepare for Sharina's arrival were talking volubly to one another within, still mounted. Sharina's escort was a company Waldron had brought from Volita. They'd originally been cavalry but had converted to infantry when Prince Garric refused to take horses when he sailed west across the Inner Sea. They'd remounted as soon as they returned to Ornifal and were revelling in the experience.

    The mausoleum was designed to receive royal parties as large or larger than Sharina's. Immediately inside the gate was a cobbled plaza. A flagstone path curved through the vineyard and up the mound; along it were statues of the dukes interred here. Stronghand, at the end of the line, was a powerful man whose features showed determination and a hint of cruelty.

    A husky, grizzled civilian in his sixties stood at the door of the house, talking easily with the officer who commanded the troops. From a gable window, a much younger woman suckling an infant peered at the soldiers in obvious concern.

    The carriage swung around in the plaza. Sharina reached for the doorlatch but the postillion had already jumped off his horse to forestall her; a second servant was handing Tenoctris out on the other side. The civilian stepped forward and bowed deeply, watched intently by the squad of Blood Eagles who'd dismounted as soon as the carriage stopped.

    "Your highness," he said as he rose from his practiced bow, "I'm Master Madder. Madder the Master Gardener, if you'll allow me. Please accept this gift from your new ancestors."

    He handed Ascor a squat, narrow-necked bottle with a black glaze. "The finest wine on Ornifal," Madder said proudly. "That was laid down fifty-one years ago, when your adoptive grandfather Valence II took the throne!"

    "I'd like that, if you don't mind," Tenoctris said unexpectedly. Ascor looked at her, then to Sharina--who nodded. If the wizard was making sense of this, she was in a better place than Sharina. Ascor gave her the wine bottle with a bow of deference.

    "I've kept the burial precincts of the bor-Torials for forty-two years," Madder continued, "through good times and the recent lean years as well. I want to express my joy, my great joy, that you and your royal brother are making the tomb of your adoptive family your own!"

    "Ah...," said Sharina, taken completely aback. There was no doubt Madder's enthusiasm was real: the only time she'd seen a happier expression was on a young wife holding her firstborn. "That is, my brother hasn't made a final decision on our... ah."

    She cleared her throat. "Master Madder," she resumed, forcing her mind back into the track it'd been following during the whole drive from the palace. "Lady Tenoctris--"

    Sharina nodded toward the wizard, safely out of the vehicle. The servant was holding her satchel. She smiled brightly to Madder.

    "--and I would like to view the burial chamber of Valence Stronghand. Will you guide us there, please."

    A habit of polite deference almost twisted Sharina's words into a question: "Might we see his tomb?" for example. In fact it didn't matter what the gardener's feelings were, and anything but a flat statement would dishonestly imply that Madder had a choice. Sharina'd arrived with a company of soldiers and the needs of the kingdom to tend to.

    "I'd like to determine whether someone has worked a contagion spell," Tenoctris explained, smiling again, "connecting the person posing as Stronghand's son with Stronghand himself. I'm not very powerful, so I'd like to be as close as possible to one terminus of the spell. If there's a spell, that is."

    Sharina cringed inside, thinking about how nervous wizardry made most ordinary people. Tenoctris was an unworldly person, a scholar rather than a public figure. Though she knew intellectually that people were squeamish, she had a tendency to explain things that might better have gone unsaid.

    Madder merely nodded approvingly. "Yes indeed," he said. "Tombs draw wizards, always have, and where in the Isles is there a finer tomb than the Mausoleum of the bor-Torials? Why, if I had a copper for every wizard I've chased out of here over the years, I'd be a wealthy man."

    "Well, you're not chasing Lady Tenoctris out," said Ascor firmly. "And if you don't watch your tongue, you'll find it hard chasing anything because your legs'll be broken. Get moving, fellow!"

    "What?" Madder said in surprise. "Oh, of course, of course."

    The gardener bowed again, to Tenoctris and then a second time to Sharina. "I didn't mean you, your highness and milady," he explained. "Why, you're family, of course. My, my, I'll be happy to show you. That is, you'd like me to lead?"

    "If you would," Sharina said mildly, amused at Ascor's puzzled expression. He and the gardener had been talking at cross purposes, but they were obviously both enthusiastic about helping Sharina do anything she wanted.

    Madder trotted off along the path through the vineyard. "I remember Lady Indra," he said over his shoulder with a chuckle. "She was a cousin of the Stronghand's wife, I believe, back when I was still an apprentice. Every week she'd arrive with a different wizard. Once there was a Dalopan with a bone through his nose, if you can imagine that. Mad about horse racing, Lady Indra was, and no hand at all at picking horses."

    He shook his head reminiscently. "No hand at picking wizards to help her either, it seemed," he added. "But that never stopped her trying."

    Sharina looked about her as she followed the gardener. The plantings were very extensive, at least half an acre of grapes and olives. A workman pruning the lower limbs of an olive tree with a billhook paused and stared at the procession--a squad of soldiers; Madder, the two women, and the Blood Eagles; and the rest of the troops--then hurriedly lowered his eyes and went back to work. Madder was used to royalty visiting the mausoleum, but the younger staff obviously were not.

    "I'm surprised at the type of plantings, Master Madder," Sharina called to the man stumping along in front of her. "I'd have expected the tomb to be landscaped, but with flowers and funerary shrubs, yews and myrtle and the like. This is a working vineyard."

    "Oh, by the Lady, yes, your highness!" Madder said cheerfully. "You're from the west, aren't you? Haft, I believe? I've heard they do things different there, but on Ornifal we like our tombs to pay for their own upkeep. Our vintage is famous. What doesn't go for libations--or went in the days the family visited regularly, as I hope you'll do now that you're here--we sell for the staff's pay and the supplies we need."

    They'd reached the point the path began to curve up the mound proper. Lires put a hand on the gardener's shoulder and slowed him with a significant nod at Tenoctris, who was showing signs of strain.



    The path curved as it climbed. Masonry arches were set into the mound. The doors hanging in the first two were of iron with a patina of rust; the third was iron-strapped wood. Cypress, Sharina thought, but even so decay had eaten into the lower edge of the panel. The bronze nameplate was too corroded to read.

    "The twins Attistus and Porra," Madder said, noticing Sharina's interest. "And both of Porra's wives, I believe, though I'd have to check the records on that. They were cousins of the reigning duke, that was Valbrun, but he adopted them as his heirs."

    The gardener chuckled. "Teaches you humility, this job does," he went on. "Both of them died before Valbrun. It was his own son Valtor who succeeded. Yes sir, humble!"

    "My experience," Tenoctris said in a cheerful tone, "is that life by itself is sufficient to do that. The more I learn, the more wonderful and complex the universe beyond what I know becomes."

    "That pleases you, Tenoctris," Sharina said; there was no mistaking the tone of the other woman's voice. "Why? I mean, you're pleased at your ignorance, that's what you're saying, isn't it?"

    Tenoctris laughed. "Yes indeed, dear," she said. "That means I'll never run out of things to learn, you see. That would be quite an awful business, don't you think?"

    Sharina laughed also. "I never thought about it," she said. "I suppose I never thought there was any risk of it happening."

    They were more than halfway up the side of the mound. When Sharina glanced outward, she found herself looking over the tops of cypresses planted on the level ground at the base. They were at the back of the tomb, with a view to the east toward the gymnasium built by a victorious general of several generations earlier. Men were running and vaulting in the courtyard, while a larger number lounged under the porticoes built on three sides of the open area. The two-story building forming the entrance had been faced with colored marble, but many slabs had cracked off without being replaced.

    "The next alcove is Stronghand's," the gardener said, looking over his shoulder toward the women. "I remember his funeral. My, that was a wonderful day. A splendid pageant!"

    "This one's been broken open," called the file-closer who commanded the leading squad of soldiers. He and his men drew their swords, the long cavalry blades they'd retained when the regiment officially became infantry. "Woo-ie! She's been dead a while, I guess!"

    "What!" Madder cried. "No, that can't be!"

    The gardener pushed through the troops, oblivious of the risk that he'd slice himself on a bare blade. He gave a wordless cry, threw his hands in the air, and fell to his knees.

    The Blood Eagles locked shields in front of Sharina and Tenoctris. "Let me by!" the old wizard said. She tapped the rim of Ascor's helmet with the bamboo sliver she'd taken from her sleeve. "In Wisdom's name, sir, you're preventing me from doing the one thing that may be of service!"

    "Captain Ascor," Sharina said in a tone of aristocratic command. "You and Trooper Lires will please escort us to the alcove immediately."

    "All right, soldiers!" Ascor snapped, placing his right hand on a horseman's shoulder and shifting him sideways. "Out of the way of her highness. Now!"

    With the pair of Blood Eagles preceding them, Sharina and Tenoctris entered the burial alcove. The walls were covered with slabs of marble, probably a veneer over brick or concrete. Benches faced one another along the sidewalls; on each was a bronze coffin.

    The old wizard frowned and half turned. "Please," she said in what for her was a peevish tone. "Don't block the light."

    "You heard the lady!" Ascor snarled. In all likelihood the soldiers shuffling for a look inside hadn't heard Tenoctris, but they certainly heard Ascor. "Move it back now so her highness can see what's going on!"

    Sharina felt a moment's surprise that the spectators outside really did back away so that sufficient light penetrated the alcove. She'd been thinking in terms of what would've happened back in Barca's Hamlet--basically nothing, except those in back would've shoved forward harder. These men were disciplined soldiers.

    Both coffins been wrenched open; the lids lay askew, half-blocking the already narrow aisle between the benches. The one on the right held a woman. The bronze must have fitted tightly enough to slow decay in the decades since her burial: dried flesh and even some of the skin clothed the skull, pulling the jaws open as if to scream. Her hair had continued to grow for a time after death but without the normal pigment; it formed a red-gold mass.

    The other coffin was empty. Tenoctris touched the velvet lining with the bamboo sliver, her lips pursed in an expression of bright interest.

    "Oh, this is terrible!" said Madder, who'd entered behind the women. "How could this have happened?"

    "Yes, I was wondering the same thing," said Tenoctris. "There must have been a good deal of noise, even though this alcove is on the opposite side of the mound from your dwelling. Could the persons who did this have climbed over the wall, do you think?"

    "No," said the gardener forcefully. "No. Not without our noticing it, I mean."

    He grimaced. "I'll admit it's been months since me or the staff have been up the mound proper," he said. "Some of the oleander needs pruning bad, I saw that on the way up and I apologize. But the vineyard we work on daily, and the tracks'd show up in the dirt if nothing else. They must've flown in--oh!"

    "Go on, Master Madder," Tenoctris said. "Did you see something flying over the mausoleum?"

    "No, no, it's not that," Madder said, kneading his forehead with callused fingers as though squeezing the thoughts into line. "Only a month ago--no, I'm a liar, longer than that, it must be near two, and at the dark of the moon. We all had dreams, me and the mistress and the three boys who sleep in the shed too. And in the morning, the gates were unlocked."

    "What do you mean by dreams?" Tenoctris said. She touched the satchel Sharina had taken from the servant when they started up the mound, but she moved her hand away immediately.

    "Bad dreams," Madder said. "I can't tell you more than that--and I wouldn't if I could, they were bad."

    He rubbed his forehead again and shrugged. "We searched, I don't mean we didn't," he said. "We get plenty people trying to climb the walls and steal fruit, you bet, and they don't try again after they heal from the first beating. But nothing was gone--"

    He looked up sharply. "I could tell, you know," he added belligerently. "You may think I couldn't, but I know my crop!"

    "I'm sure you do," Tenoctris said calmly. "But you didn't go up to the tombs themselves?"

    "No, milady," Madder said with another scowl of inward-directed anger. "No, I surely didn't. It's not like foreign parts, you know--there's nothing in the coffins but the bodies."

    "Yes, of course," Tenoctris agreed. "The wealth of the dead, like their temporal power, remains with their heirs."

    She smiled, but her face had the look of someone viewing a future which held a great deal of difficulty. "The trouble is," Tenoctris continued, "that there's other kinds of power than that granted by money and political position. It would appear that a wizard with the ability to cast a spell of deep sleep was looking for Stronghand's body in order to get additional power. And it would seem that he's gotten it."



    "You'll be well paid for this," Garric said to the pair of servants who'd just given him and Liane their outer clothes. He took the rear pair of handles of the handbarrow heaped with used bedding.

    The young male servant blinked and swallowed, looking terrified. Garric didn't suppose the fellow was afraid of anything in particular, but he was obviously concerned that anything so unusual meant some formless disaster was waiting to pounce. The middle-aged female sniffed and said, "I hope I know my duty well enough to do it without thinking your highness needs to pay me extra!"

    "Even so," said Liane, taking the front handles. She unlatched the door and stepped into the hallway, her head bowed.

    It was drizzling outside, so the servants'd had an excuse to raise the hoods of their short gray capes. The guards had still checked them when they came down the hall with clean bedding--but they wouldn't, Garric hoped, bother to do that again when the servants left.

    Garric pulled the door to behind him as he followed Liane out. A three-wick lamp hung over the doorway. It was placed to illuminate the faces of people coming from either direction down the hallway, while those beneath it remained in shadow.

    The guards were discussing the upcoming wrestling match between a Blood Eagle file closer and a Blaise armsman from Lord Rosen's regiment. They didn't pay any attention to the servants leaving the royal apartments and shuffling down the hall.

    "What they oughta do," one of the Blood Eagles said as Garric and Liane rounded the corner at the slow pace of tired servants, "is let us fight the local talent with training swords. That'd show'em what's what!"

    "That'd be the quickest way to start a for-real war, at any rate," said the ghost of King Carus, shaking his head with a rueful smile. "And I wouldn't be surprised if Gyganes--"

    Carus knew all the Blood Eagles by name, as well as virtually every other soldier in the royal army whose name Garric had heard even once. It was an ability Garric doubted he'd have been able to equal if he'd made it his life's work.

    "--knew that just as well as I do. Of course, we can't have common soldiers deciding policy for the kingdom, and it's nice that the ruler isn't spoiling for a fight either. The way I was when I was king."

    Grinning along with his ancestor, Garric said to Liane in a low voice, "It's a pretty pass when the fellow who's supposed to be running the kingdom has to sneak out of his room or he wouldn't be allowed to go."

    They walked more briskly now that they were out of sight of the guards. These corridors made do with a lamp at each corner, and those would burn down by morning.

    "I'm not sure you should go," said Liane. "My agent certainly thinks the business is dangerous, and he's not easily alarmed."

    "If there's wizardry involved...," Garric said. "And there is, Dipsas is a wizard and what else'd she be doing in the vaults under the palace? If there's wizardry, then nobody's more fit than you and me to judge what's going on. Except for Tenoctris, of course, and if she were here I'd insist on going with her or sending Cashel."

    "I'm not disagreeing," Liane said, looking over her shoulder to smile at him. "I'm just saying that I understand why others might."

    She paused by a door covered by a swatch of age-rotted tapestry nailed to the jamb and transom. "This is the room," she said, then tapped twice on the wood--with the ivory hilt of the little dagger Garric had seen her kill with, he realized.

    The door swung outward, frame and all. There was no light inside. "Watch the hole!" an unfamiliar male voice whispered. "Half the floor's gone in here, that's why they closed it."

    Liane slipped in, elbowing the door wider: they couldn't leave the load of washing out in the hall without attracting attention. Garric followed, closing the panel behind him. The shutter of a dark-lantern scraped open. The light of the single candle behind a lens of thin horn blazed like a burst of sunlight.

    "Who's he?" the voice demanded; a sharp-featured youth in the bleached-white tunic of Earl Wildulf's palace servants, Garric saw. "You weren't supposed to bring anybody. Anybody!"

    "You know who I am," Garric said. "Now tell us where Dipsas and the Countess go at night."

    The room contained a broken bedframe and a litter of smaller objects, but it wasn't completely filled with junk the way the suite turned over to Garric had been. The floor, concrete poured over a lattice of withies, had sagged when a supporting beam gave way; half the slab had then collapsed into the darkness beneath. The response of whoever was in charge of palace maintenance at the time had been to close the room instead of trying to repair it.

    When Garric glanced into the hole, he could understand why nobody'd wanted to work down there. He grinned. He wasn't looking forward to it himself.

    "You weren't supposed to tell anybody who I am!" the youth said peevishly to Liane. "My life's in danger, you know that!"

    "All our lives are in danger," Liane said calmly. "Yours will be in less danger if you stop angering me when time is so short. Where does the wizard go?"

    The spy twisted his mouth as if for another complaint, then caught himself with a shrug. "Right," he said. "Right, and anyway, what's done is done."

    He pointed his thumb toward the hole where the floor had been. "I've left markers on the walls with mushroom spores. When your eyes adjust, you'll see them. It's not the same path Dipsas takes at the start--it's a rabbit warren down there, there's tunnels off every direction and I don't know where half of 'em go. Anyway, you'll join her route about two levels down."

    "Won't Dipsas see the markings and know someone has followed her?" Liane said with a frown.

    "No, they take lamps, her and the Countess," the spy explained. "If there's any light at all, you can't see my marks. And even if they did--"

    He shrugged again. "Chances are they'd figure it was natural, it seems to me. You get that sort of glow in caves. That's where I gather the mushrooms."

    "Then you'd better close your lantern," Garric said, "so our eyes can adapt. They're there tonight, Dipsas and Balila?"

    "Right," the spy said, sliding the cover over the lens. The smell of hot iron and candlesmoke was suddenly more noticeable, though that was probably because Garric's eyes no longer distracted him from the odors. "They started down at their usual time, an hour ago. I've followed them three times when I wasn't on duty, and they always go the same place."

    The spy made a sound with his cheek as though he'd tasted something sour. "The bird and that jabbering little moron the Countess keeps with her, they went too," he said. "They always do. I don't understand why. I don't."

    He's frightened, Garric realized. But not, I think, by anything he could put a name to.

    "He seems a sensible fellow," Carus remarked with his usual grin. It was always daylight at the place where he stood in Garric's mind. "So perhaps he just doesn't like wizards."

    "I see a glow down there," Liane said, her voice calm but perhaps too calm.

    "There's a ladder here to take you down the first part," the spy said, sounding embarrassed. "Look, I can't go with you tonight, I'm on duty in the message room. I ought to be there now."

    "No one's asking you to come," Garric said. He shifted the belt holding his dagger so that it was over the borrowed tunic instead of under it. His sword was too long to conceal from the guards, and in the close confines of the tunnels a dagger might be more useful anyway. "You've done your job, and more."

    "It's really pretty clear," the spy said. The door opened. As his silhouette slipped into the hallway he added, "You shouldn't have trouble."

    "I'll lead," said Liane. Garric heard the tick of the long reed she'd concealed on the handbarrow, then the creak of the ladder as it settled under the girl's slight weight.

    Garric followed, smiling as he thought of the way he had to sneak around in order to carry out a task he really was the best available person for. He hadn't seriously thought of forbidding Liane to come, though he was frightened at the risk to her. She'd been in worse places than this was likely to be, and she'd likely put herself in worse ones yet as long as she survived: for the kingdom's sake, and Mankind's sake.

    A life spent hiding until Evil triumphed wasn't a life of safety in any real sense. Garric wouldn't order Liane to waste her abilities in that fashion, any more than he was going to allow his well-meaning guards and advisors to force him to twiddle his thumbs.

    He could see the markings clearly now, irregular bars of yellow-green that didn't illuminate any more than themselves. The floor at the base of the ladder was firm but scattered with bits of something that scrunched beneath his feet--fallen plaster, perhaps, or tesserae loosened from an ancient mosaic.

    Liane handed him one end of her sash, several times normal length but hidden till now beneath the tunic she'd gathered above it. "Ready?" she asked.

    "Ready," said Garric and drew the dagger. He might have done better to keep his hand free, but for now the hilt gave him a little extra confidence as they started into the near darkness.

    When Garric got used to it, he did find it surprisingly easy to navigate through the cellars. The phosphorescent markings were adequate, each within sight of the ones before and after it. Even more important, the path itself was clear. The spy must've spent considerable effort preparing the route instead of simply scouting and marking it.

    "He's a good man," Garric said aloud.

    "All Liane's people are," said Carus, grinning like a bear in a honey tree. "Between her and Tenoctris, I've had to change my opinion of wizards and spymasters both!"

    "He had reason to be angry," Liane said, her reed brushing across the ground ahead of her with a tick-tick-tick. "But I couldn't warn him that you'd be with me. Just in case he were caught, you know."

    Garric hadn't known. He'd never really thought about the problems of not knowing who to trust. Now that he did think about it, he realized that meant you could never trust anyone. How could Liane live in that world, at least part of the time?




    They reached a blank wall where a glow faintly arrowed towards stairs to the left. They were brick and solid despite a crack splitting them in the middle. Their thin marble veneer had flaked away dangerously, but somebody--presumably the spy--had swept the broken slabs to either side.

    "Did he say how far it is?" Garric asked, more for companionship than a need for an answer. The spy'd laid out the route while Dipsas and Balila were above ground, so he could use a lantern without risk of being seen. Garric and Liane couldn't take that chance, so the fact they needed total darkness to see the markings wasn't a handicap.

    "He said it took him half an hour," Liane said. "I don't know the distance--it doesn't really matter, I suppose. Of course it'll take us longer."

    But not a lot longer, Garric suspected. Liane was walking with a confidence he wouldn't have been able to equal if he'd been in front. She showed no more hesitation than if she were stepping across a drawing room at midday. Either Liane was certain of her agent and that the reed she tapped ahead of her would give sufficient warning, or she acted as though she were certain.

    The latter was more likely, and it showed quite amazing courage. Little things like risking a bad fall in the dark were harder to achieve than great flashy ones like charging a dangerous enemy. The big ones you did with a kind of madness seething in your blood to overcome normal concerns, but Liane's steady courage was the sort you had to find on your own.

    The sound of their feet and breathing changed. The walls had closed in, and the markers were painted on living rock. Garric touched the wall. They were in a tunnel bored with crude tools, hammers and drills made by grinding sand into the softer limestone.

    The atmosphere shifted again; echoes became a distant whisper. The markings were on glass-smooth flow rock, the pearly deposit that formed stalactites when it dripped from the cave roof instead of in sheets over the walls. Besides the echoes, Garric heard another thing, or thought he did.

    "Pause a moment," he said. He bent and laid his left palm on the cave floor, finding it faintly warm. Through the rock shivered a slow rumble that was neither his imagination nor the sound of blood in his own ears.

    "All right," he said, straightening and gripping Liane's sash firmly again.

    "It's real, then?" she asked as she strode ahead again. They were clearly going down, but Garric couldn't be sure how steep the slope was.

    "I think so," Garric said. "But I don't know what it is."

    Liane gave a laugh that didn't seem forced. "Well, perhaps we'll learn," she said. "That's what we're here for, after all."

    The cave narrowed; the right side had been improved by tools but the left was natural. Garric touched a few threads, remains of fabric caught where tools had left a sharp fracture in the rock.

    "There's light ahead," Liane whispered. Garric could see it too, though the glow was so faint that it turned Liane's form into a wraith instead of a silhouette. They continued on, down a short flight of steps broken into the stone with hammers and levers. The tip of a deer-antler pick remained in the crack where it'd broken off unguessibly far in the past.

    "And voices," Garric whispered back. He looped the sash over Liane's shoulder so that it wouldn't drag on the ground and trip one of them, then let go of it. She'd shifted the reed to her left hand, holding it at the balance.

    The words were more distinct than they ought to be. A trick of the echoes? Garric could make out syllables and sometimes whole snatches of the chant; enough to know he was listening to Words of Power, not the speech of human beings.

    The light came through a natural crack widened into an egg-shaped opening large enough for a human. Even Liane would have to hunch to enter, though. They crept close on either side and peered into a large natural cavern.

    The lamp must've been in a niche in the limestone wall, but it was out of sight from where Garric knelt. Countess Balila sat with the light over her shoulder, writing with quick, firm strokes on a tablet. As Garric watched, she flipped over one of the several waxed leaves and started on the next.

    "Ouer sechan libara," thundered a voice. It must be shockingly loud in the cavern because the flame of the unseen lamp shivered in time with the syllables, but Garric heard the word only as a faint, "Amounabreo."

    The bodiless voice stilled. Dipsas sat before a figure drawn in the center of the plug of black volcanic rock which formed the floor of the cavern. She chanted an invocation, her athame dipping and rising like a drinking bird. The wizard's voice seemed as loud as that which had spoken the response, but Garric couldn't make out the words.

    The little cherub was playing with his toes near the Countess; his wings of stiffened and gilded linen wobbled in the lamplight. He suddenly lost interest in his game and tugged at the hem of his mistress' outer tunic. She twitched it away from him, continuing to watch the wizard with the focus of a kestrel hovering above movement in the grass.

    Dipsas swayed and would've fallen if she hadn't slapped both hands down on the figure. The athame lay before her; lamplight gave its polished, carven surface the look of rippling blackness, unformed evil.

    "Chauboe!" said the voice with the power of a distant avalanche. The cherub threw himself on his belly and squirmed over the rock, his eyes shut and his mouth twisted into a squall of terror lost in the response.

    "Adeta mesou!" said the voice. The light dimmed as though the first gust of a storm had struck the lamp.

    Balila's great bird had been pacing on the other side of the cavern, visible to Garric except when it was at the end of its circuit. It stopped and backed against the rock, flaring its crest and wings. It raised its hooked beak toward the roof and shrieked, its black tongue quivering but the sound inaudible.

    The thundering response cut off. Echoes of the bird's cry and the child's terror rang about Garric and Liane.

    The lamplight slowly steadied. The wizard remained as she'd been, sagging onto her hands. The Countess let her stylus drop. The open leaves of her notebook swung lazily on the leather hinges.

    Garric took a deep breath. Closing his eyes, he whispered to Liane, "We'd better leave now. They'll have the lamp."

    "Yes," she said. "But I don't think Dipsas will be moving very quickly."

    "I don't know that I will either," Garric said as he rose to his feet. "Even though I was just listening, and that to the last part of it."

    He thought of Carus' loathing for wizards. That opinion wasn't justified in the case of Tenoctris--but for the most part, Garric was inclined to agree.



    Ilna set down the bowl which she'd polished with a piece of wheat bread, getting the last of the stew of lentils and barley in chicken broth. Glancing to either side where Chalcus and Davus were finishing their meals, she chewed the bread. So far as she was concerned, it was even tastier than the meat stew.

    Ilna had kept poultry at home in Barca's Hamlet, pigeons and occasionally chickens, and Cashel not infrequently knocked over a squirrel or rabbit with a rock. Meat was a luxury, but not an unthinkable one.

    Nobody in the borough raised wheat, though, so not even the wealthiest of her neighbors had bread like this unless they travelled. Ilna disliked most of the things she'd found in the world beyond Barca's Hamlet, but wheat bread was an exception.

    She grinned at herself: she'd disliked most of the things she'd grown up with also. Occasionally she tried to convince herself that perhaps she was wrong about the world or at least needlessly uncharitable. She could never sustain the notion for long, though.

    "Well, you've eaten now," Lord Ramelus said, standing across the table from her and glaring with his fists on his hips. "How much longer will it take you to finish the pattern?"

    "Not long," said Ilna calmly. Ramelus reminded her of the fable of the frog who tried to make himself bigger than the ox by puffing himself up--till he burst. "When my companions have eaten their fill--"

    "As indeed I have, your lordship," Chalcus said, rising to his feet with his usual ease. "And a fine meal it was, I must say."

    The three of them ate at a trestle table on the porch of the western side-building. Chalcus had chosen the spot. Behind them was a storage shed, closed and locked; most of the side-buildings was open sheds. While Ilna didn't imagine they'd been in any real danger of being attacked from behind, it obviously affected how comfortable Chalcus felt when he was among people who weren't his friends.

    "And I as well," said Davus, getting up also. The three fist-sized rocks that he'd been juggling before the meal was served were lined up on the table beside his empty bowl and beer mug. "Your lordship is extremely generous to wayfaring strangers. The Old King would've approved."

    Ramelus scowled. Seifert sniggered. The landowner turned in barely contained fury which the guard defused by twisting his grin into an expression of funereal sadness.

    Ilna had declared that Ramelus must provide a meal--with meat and wheat bread, though the demand for meat was more to irritate their host than because she needed it--before she gave the fabric its finishing touches. He'd obeyed--with extremely bad grace, but obeyed--because the partial pattern he'd seen over Ilna's shoulder had given him an inkling of how effective the finished design might be.

    "I've fed you," Ramelus snapped. "Now, do what you promised. If you try to gull me, you'll regret it--that I promise you!"

    "I'll give you what I swore to give you," Ilna said. "A hanging that makes most of those who see it happier. I'll follow the rules you set. Depend on it!"

    The last sounded more like a threat--which it was--than Ilna'd intended, but Ramelus was too caught up in his own importance to pay attention to anybody else. "See that you do!" he said.

    Ilna stepped to the nearby table where she'd left her loom. Her two companions came with her as naturally as her tunic swirled--and almost as closely, too. Peasants who'd been staring in wonderment at the pattern moved back like little fish when a pike darts toward them.

    Ilna ran her fingers over the heddles of the borrowed loom. It was a good one, a loom she wouldn't have minded owning herself.

    She smiled as she made the final adjustments to her pattern, thread by thread: craft was in the craftsman, of course, not in her tools. And this particular work was a piece of craftsmanship that showed all there was that mattered in Ilna os-Kenset, the skill and the sense of justice as well. Charity was a fine thing, no doubt, but it wasn't a virtue Ilna claimed or even really desired.

    Mostera gasped in wonder as she saw what Ilna was creating. She and her sister might be the only spectators who realized that the fabric was a double weave with different patterns on the front and back. Ordinarily Ilna would've opened the finished piece at one selvedge to double the width of the finished cloth, but in this case she'd picked up threads from the underlayer to deliberately bind the patterns together. And when she was done--

    Ilna beat the fabric one last time, then withdrew the bar and paused. Her arms and shoulders were stiff. There was quite a lot going on with this business. Weaving itself was physical effort, particularly at the speed at which Ilna accomplished it, but there was more to her art than that. Everything had to be paid for, which was exactly the way it should be.

    "You're a demon," Malaha whispered. "You're not human!"

    "I'm human," Ilna said as she began to knot off her fabric. She'd deliberately left the selvedges long to make it easier to hang the piece above Ramelus' throne. She looked Malaha in the face and added, "There was a time that I was much worse than any demon, but I've always been human."

    Mostera put her hand on her sister's. Neither of them spoke.

    Ilna smiled, nodded, and stretched the fabric out toward Lord Ramelus. "I've met my obligation," she said, a statement instead of pretending there was any doubt of the fact.

    The chief of the landowner's bodyguards muttered what was a curse by the words of it, a prayer in its tone. Even Ramelus drew in a breath of amazement.

    The pattern was abstract both visually and in emotional effect. A bed of earth tones and grays zigzagged up the fabric till at midpoint the yarn dyed with berry pulp appeared--a few pink flecks, then a ripple, and from there to the top a hinted outline picked out by the insistence of the color rather than the weight of the line.

    When Ilna looked at the pattern she saw, she felt, a spring morning in Barca's Hamlet. Dawn was rising over the Inner Sea, and she had no pressing task in hand. Others who viewed it would feel other things. From the expressions on the faces of Ramelus and his guards, Ilna herself would find some of those things distasteful or even disgusting.

    But it wasn't her task to edit the fantasies of her fellow humans. As she'd said to Malaha, she had enough on her own conscience.

    "Wonderful!" a peasant shouted. Half the large crowd chorused, "Wonderful!" or started to cheer. Ramelus looked stricken, sick and angry and uncertain--but drawn despite himself by what he saw in the fabric.

    Ilna folded the panel closed. "Master Chalcus?" she said, nodding to the man at her side. "The posts of the chair back--the throne there in the kiosk? I believe this is sized to their span. Please tie it there."

    She handed the fabric to Chalcus but looked at Ramelus. "Do you agree, sir?" she said.

    The landowner had regained his composure after the pattern was folded away. "Yes," he muttered hoarsely. He cleared his throat and said in a firmer tone, "Yes, all right, put it there. Put it up behind me."

    There was a whisper of sound throughout the crowd, wonder and a delight which verged in some cases on awe. Ilna smiled bitterly. Her skill was a wonderful thing, no doubt about that; but she wondered how these peasants would react if they learned that skill had been purchased at the cost of the weaver's soul?

    Well, she had her soul back now. Worse for wear, of course, but the lesson that she must never lose control was worth the damage. Ilna wasn't enough of an optimist to imagine that there was no worse error she could've fallen into had she not learned from that one.



    The chair's gilded finials were an eagle on one side, a lion's head on the other. Chalcus hopped onto the chair seat, but even so he had to stretch to reach them. When he did, he tied the panel in place with quick knots.

    "And now, Master Ramelus," Ilna said. "The agreement was for our meals while I worked on the panel, and food for our journey when I completed it satisfactorily."

    "Yes," said the landowner, clearing his throat again. He looked at his guards and said in a harsh voice, "Three of you watch the one behind us!"

    "There's no need for that," Ilna said steadily. "Chalcus, come stand by me. Ramelus is nervous with you behind him."

    "Tsk," said Chalcus, dropping to the ground so smoothly that his feet didn't kick up dust. He smiled with engaging innocence as he walked through the locals to Ilna's side. "Does he imagine I'd besmirch my honor by stabbing a man in the back? Dearie dearie me."

    Ramelus looked half puzzled, half incensed. He apparently wasn't sure whether Chalcus was mocking him, which meant he had even less intelligence than Ilna's previous low opinion had assigned him. She had no doubt that in his day Chalcus had killed people from behind, people who were sleeping, people who were praying on their knees....

    Nor did she doubt that Chalcus could sweep away Ramelus and his guards, face on and smiling. But it wouldn't come to that, not this time.

    So thinking, Ilna smiled also. The expression made Ramelus blink, which suggested he might not be entirely a fool after all.

    "The rest of the bargain if you please, Master Ramelus," Ilna said calmly. The peasants had mostly turned to stare at the hanging. At noon the roof would shade it, but now the afternoon sun made the pink blaze.

    The landowner's face settled into a scowl. "Food, yes," he said. "Food for your further journey."

    He took from his belt a purse of embroidered silk, obviously prepared for this moment, and shook its contents into his palm. "A barley corn, a lentil, and a chickpea," he said loudly. "We didn't discuss quantity, you'll recall!"

    "I recall," Ilna said, smiling a little broader. "This is your choice, Master Ramelus?"

    "It's the bargain we made!" Ramelus said. He tossed the three seeds on the table beside the empty loom. "If you didn't think about what you were saying, that's no business of mine."

    Ilna raised the chickpea between her thumb and forefinger, looked at it, and set it back on the tabletop. "Then we've each kept our bargain according to our codes," she said. She nodded toward the throne, flashing the smile again. "I expect my pattern will bring a good deal of pleasure for as long as it remains here."

    She glanced at her companions. "Let us leave this place," she said. She walked forward; Chalcus fell into step, keeping between Ilna and the guards surrounding the landowner.

    Instead of joining them, Davus stood arms-akimbo. In a clear, challenging voice he said, "This is injustice, Lord Ramelus."

    "I kept my bargain!" Ramelus said. "If I'm too smart for you, that's too bad for you!"

    "This is injustice," Davus repeated. The peasants, all but an old woman who still stared at the fabric, watched the interchange in a mixture of fear and anticipation. "In the days of the Old King, you would be a block of basalt and a warning to others."

    "He's threatening me!" Ramelus said, his voice rising. "Gallen, he threatened me! Deal with him!"

    "I don't threaten you," Davus said, upright as a stone pillar. "We'll all leave this place, because that's the desire of Mistress Ilna whom you cheated by your injustice. That is so, mistress?"

    "Yes," said Ilna. "And I would prefer to be leaving now, Master Davus."

    "Leave him be, friend Davus," Chalcus said in a tone of quiet urgency. "It's the lady's choice. And Davus? I won't have you put her life at risk for anything so empty as justice."

    Davus laughed suddenly. "Indeed, friend," he said, sauntering out from behind the table and touching Chalcus by the shoulder. "Though I'm less ready than you to call justice empty."

    "As am I," said Ilna tartly, "but we've done all we need to preserve it here."

    She looked at Ramelus. He responded by stepping behind Seifert and tugging another guard over into an actual human barrier. The utter fool.

    "Master Ramelus," Ilna said. This wasn't a man whom she would address as 'Lord', not though the choice was impalement. "I wish you all deserved pleasure from the panel I've woven for your community."

    Then to her companions, "Come." She strode off along the path curving around the house and continuing north through the barley and wheat. The men fell in step--but behind her, not at her side.

    "I didn't see any bows, did you, Davus?" Chalcus said in a cheery voice. "Though I didn't see any sign of them having the balls to try us, either."

    "With this sash I can outrange a bow," Davus replied in similar apparent unconcern. "But I too doubt we need worry."

    But they were walking behind her. Just in case. Ilna's mind wavered toward anger at being coddled, then decided to see the humor of it and chuckled instead.

    They were past the house; none of the peasants or servants were close enough to overhear. Without turning her head but loudly enough for her companions to catch the words, Ilna said, "I suppose you're wondering why I walked away from that?"

    "Yes, dear one," said Chalcus. "But I knew you had your reasons."

    "Yes," she agreed. "If Ramelus had kept the spirit of the agreement instead of the word alone, I'd have told you to turn the fabric over so that the other side was toward those looking at it."

    "But mistress," Davus said with quiet puzzlement in his voice, "the pattern's everything you said it was. To me, at least. I don't know that it'd please others as it did me, but I could feel a grotto in the side of a mountain with a waterfall rushing past the opening."

    "That was what you saw?" Chalcus said in surprise. "I was on a ship. We'd come through a storm, and a rainbow filled the horizon ahead."

    "Yes, you're both correct," Ilna said. She took the hank of yarn from her sleeve and began knotting a pattern that would show them what she meant. "For now. But the design on the back of the cloth is in permanent dyes. The pink on the front will fade into the natural gray of the yarn in a few weeks, there in the sun as it is."

    "Ah, you lovely darling!" Chalcus said. "So for his cleverness, Lord Ramelus will be left with no pattern in a short time, is that it?"

    Ilna snorted. "Oh, no," she said. "There'll still be a pattern, and it'll still give pleasure, I'm sure, to most of those who see it. But what that pattern is--"

    She straightened her hands out, stretching taut her knotted design. Swinging it left, then right, she showed both men what she'd done.

    Chalcus caroled in delight; a moment later, Davus burst out with a guffaw of laughter so loud that it startled into flight a covey of quail which'd been hiding unseen among the dark green barley till that moment. Still laughing, Davus bent to pick up a pebble.

    "Lord Ramelus himself!" Chalcus said. "And naked as the day he was born!"

    "Yes," said Ilna, picking her design back to bare yarn with quick, fastidious movements. "The woven pattern takes effect more slowly, and I don't think Ramelus himself will ever see it. But everyone else will, and once they've seen that image they'll never be able to look at Ramelus without seeing it again."

    In a cool tone Ilna added, "I thought he might change his mind there at the very end. After all his own people were angry, and what did a few firkins of pulse and grain matter to him? But in truth, and though I'm sure I should wish I was a better person--I don't mind missing a meal or two for the sake of serving out that self-important toad."

    The men laughed again. They continued laughing in bursts until the manor's pompous facade had dipped beneath a rolling hill of barley behind them. After a time Chalcus began to sing, "From this valley they say you are going...."

    "We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile...," Davus chimed in, to Ilna's great surprise. His baritone made a pleasant undertone to the sailor's light tenor.

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