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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Mistress of the Catacombs

The fourth book in the epic saga of 'Lord of the Isles'

Lord of the Isles (Volume 4)

David Drake

Tor Books


Chapter One

The spy, a stocky shipping agent named Hordred, looked at Garric and Liane with haunted eyes as he whispered what he knew of the planned secession of several western islands. His restless gaze flicked about the room with the randomness of a squirrel surprised on the ground.
"There's priests in it too," Hordred said. "They call themselves Moon Wisdom and have ceremonies in the Temple of Our Lady of the Moon in Donelle. It's not just prayers and temple tithes, though. This is…"
He swallowed. Liane had found Hordred through associates of her late father, a far-travelled merchant before his wizardry first ruined, then killed him. In the normal course of things the agent must have been a man well able to take care of himself. A falling block might as easily have been the cause of his broken nose as a rival's cudgel, but the scar on his right forearm had to have been left by a knife. Mere physical threats wouldn't have frightened Hordred into his present state.
"I think there's something real," he said. He stared at his own hard-clasped hands on the patterned wood before him. "Something that comes in…dreams."
They sat at a round cedarwood table in a small conference room, part of Prince Garric's private section of the palace compound. A row of louvers just below the tile roof let in air and muted light, but no one could see those inside. Members of the royal bodyguard regiment, the Blood Eagles, stood unobtrusively in the surrounding gardens. Garric had told the guard commander not to let anyone pass while he and Liane interviewed their visitor; therefore, no one would pass, not even Valence III, though he was in name still the King of the Isles.
"In your dreams, Master Hordred?" Liane said to jolt the spy out of his grim silence. "What is it that you see?"
Hordred looked up in bleak desperation. "I don't know, mistress!" he said. "There's not really anything, it's all gray. I'm dreaming, but it's just gray; only I know there's things there reaching for me and I'll never see them because they're gray like everything else. And then I wake up."
"You're safe now, Master Hordred," Garric said, hoping to sound reassuring. He reached out, touching the spy's hand with the tips of his strong, tanned fingers. "You can stay here in the palace if you like, or you can go to any of the royal estates on Ornifal if you think you'd be less conspicuous out of the capital. The conspirators won't bother you here."
In Garric's mind, the spirit of his ancestor King Cams scowled like a cliff confronting the tide. "And if I could put my sword through a few necks," the king's ghost said, "the Confederacy of the West wouldn't bother anyone. Except maybe dogs fighting over the carrion."
Carus grinned, reverting to the cheerful expression he most often wore. "But I know, lad, cutting throats isn't your way; and maybe if my sword hadn't made so many martyrs, things would've turned out better in my own day."
Carus had been the greatest as well as the last ruler of the Old Kingdom. When he and the royal fleet sank in a wizard's cataclysm, the Isles had shattered into chaos and despair. A thousand years hadn't been enough to return the kingdom to the peace and stability it had known in the age before the Collapse, and forces gathering now threatened to crush what remained into dust and blood.
Not if I can help it! thought Garric.
"Not if we can help it!" echoed the ghost.
"I'm not afraid of their bravos!" Hordred snapped. In the angry response, Garric caught a glimpse of the man he must usually have been: tough and self-reliant, able to handle himself in a fight and well aware of the fact.
Relaxing with a conscious effort, Hordred continued, "I wrote down the strength of the forces gathering on Tisamur and the names of as many leaders as I could find. That's in the books I gave you."
He cocked an eyebrow at Liane; she nodded back. Hordred continued, "There's contingents from Haft and Cordin, but the real danger's in the mercenaries the leaders've been hiring from all over the Isles."
Garric's face went hard. His formal title now was Prince Garric of Haft, Adopted Son and Heir Presumptive to Valence III, King of the Isles. What he really was…one of the things he really was…was Garric, the nineteen-year-old son of Reise the innkeeper in Barca's Hamlet on the east coast of Haft. The only contact Barca's Hamlet and the borough around it had with the outside world was the Sheep Fair every fall and in summer the Tithe Procession, when priests from Carcosa on the west coast rolled images of the Lady and the Shepherd through the countryside and collected what was due the temple.
Garric was a peasant from Haft—and he was also the real ruler of the Isles, though the authority of the central government didn't really stretch far from the capital here in Valles on Ornifal. If he didn't put down this Confederacy of the West promptly, he wouldn't rule his birth-place even in name.
"The notes are in Serian shipping code," Hordred added. "Can you read that?"
"Yes, of course," Liane said, touching the travelling desk in which she'd placed Hordred's notebooks. They looked like ordinary accounts, thin sheets of birchwood bound in fours with hinges of coarse twine. The inner faces were covered in a crabbed script written in oak-gall ink.
"I should've stopped there," the spy muttered, sounding . both angry and frightened. He clasped his hands again unconsciously. "I thought, ‘Let's see what the cult's part in it is. Let's learn about Moon Wisdom.'"
He swallowed. "I got into one of the ceremonies," he went on, his voice dropping back to a whisper. "There were over a hundred people in the temple, some of them from as far away as Ornifal. They each had a symbol stamped on their forehead in cinnabar, a spider. I made a stamp for myself and nobody noticed anything wrong. But…"
Hordred fell silent again. Garric moistened his lips with his tongue, and prompted, "What went on at the ceremony, Master Hordred?"
The spy shook his head, trying to make sense of his memories. "We chanted a prayer to the Mistress of the Moon," he said. "I didn't know the words, but I could follow well enough."
"Chanted words of power?" Liane asked, her face and voice sharper than they had been a moment before. She understood that wizardry was neither good nor bad in itself; like a sword, the power depended on the purpose—and the skill—of the wizard using it. But Liane would never forget the night that her wizard father had prepared to sacrifice her for purposes he had thought good.
"No, no," said Hordred to his writhing hands. "Just ordinary speech, a hymn like you might hear at any Tennight ceremony if you're the sort who wastes his time in temples. Only something happened, I don't know what. I could feel something. And I thought I saw something in the air in the middle of the room, but there wasn't anything there except gray. Nothing!"
He clenched his right fist as though to bang the table, but his arm trembled and he lowered his hand instead. "There wasn't anything there, but it's been with me ever since. Whenever I go to sleep."
Garric stood. The discussion made him uncomfortable. He was as religious as any other youth in Barca's Hamlet. He dedicated a crumb and a sip of beer to the Lady and her consort at most meals, and once a year he'd offered a flat cheese of ewe's milk to Duzi, the roughly carved stone on the hill overlooking the meadows south of the hamlet. Duzi watched over sheep and the poor men who watched them; and if he did not, if Duzi was only the scars of time on rock, well…a cheese wasn't much to spend on a hope of help in trouble.
But this business of temples and the powers called down by them—this was wizardry or worse, and no place for ordinary mortals. Becoming king hadn't made Garric any less mortal, but he knew that this was a matter for kings regardless.
He grinned. There was a time that Garric or-Reise had imagined that nothing could be more unpleasant and frustrating than herding sheep caught in a sudden thunderstorm. Prince Garric knew his slightly younger self had been wrong.
"Master Hordred," he said, "I've called a meeting of my council to discuss the conspiracy. You needn't be present—"
Not every member of the council loved Garric, but each councillor knew his own survival and the best chance for the Isles to survive depended on Garric's success. Even so, Liane had insisted that as few people as possible know the face of this spy or the other agents she had hired.
Garric accepted her judgment, as he did on most matters where Liane felt strongly and he did not. A boy from Barca's Hamlet didn't have the special skills needed to gather intelligence from across the kingdom's scattered islands.
"—but I'd like you to remain here for the time being in case we have further questions for you afterward. There are cushions if you want to sleep—"
He nodded to the built-in benches. The walls were wain-scotted to the height of a seated man's shoulders and frescoed above with scenes from pine forests like those of Northern Ornifal.
"—and I can have food and drink brought in if you choose. You'll be well guarded, of course."
"Sleep!" Hordred said. "I could sleep on broken lava, I'm so tired. If I dared!"
"You're in Valles now," Garric said. "You're as safe as I am myself. Or Lady Liane."
Hordred looked up at him, then toward Liane as she rose also. "Am I?" the spy said. He laughed bitterly. "I suppose I am at that. Well, it doesn't matter, I've got to sleep."
Liane had been taking notes of Hordred's information with a small brush in a vellum chapbook. Even though she was merely going with Garric to a larger bungalow ten paces distant, she placed her notes in the uppermost tray of the desk and locked it with a four-ward key.
"Yes, well…" Garric said. "We'll see you soon, Master Hordred. On my honor, the kingdom won't forget the risk you ran for its safety."
As Garric opened the door for Liane, who carried the desk, he heard Hordred mutter, "I should've known better than to go into the temple. I thought it was just priests with a new trick to put money in their purses, but it's wizards' work or worse!"
"There's no safety for anyone in the kingdom," said the wizard-slain king in Game's mind, "while there's wizard above the ground!"
Carus was wrong in his blanket condemnation: without the aid of the wizard Tenoctris, Garric and the Isles would have been doomed long since. But Garric remembered the desperation in Hordred's eyes, and he knew that there was more than just prejudice to support King Cams' opinion.
* * *
Cashel or-Kenset walked down the crowded street beside Tenoctris, protecting the birdlike little woman without really thinking about it. Tenoctris didn't seem frail any more than a wren does to somebody like Cashel, who'd often watched those sprightly, tuneful little creatures. But she was old, seventy years or so; and small; and a woman.
Cashel himself was none of those things. People who watched where they were going didn't barge into him. In a busy city like Valles, there were always those who didn't watch. They bounced back from Cashel's shoulder or the arm holding his quarterstaff, placed for the moment in front of the old wizard.
"Huh!" said Tenoctris, stopping before the open front of a shop selling used metalwork. Nearest the street were bronze bedsteads with verdigrised statues farther inside. Cashel knew that people paid good money for art, but time had eaten these figures to greenish lumps, with here a torso, there something recognizable as a horse's head. Smaller—and therefore more easily stolen—items were racked against the back wall.
Tenoctris pointed to an octagonal pewter bowl, racked on its side so that passersby could see the niello symbols on the interior. She said, "Look at that, Cashel. I wonder how it got here?"
Cashel couldn't read or write beyond picking his own name out with care, but he recognized the flowing black marks as letters in the Old Script. Scholars, Garric and his sister Sharina included because their father Reise had taught them, could read the Old Script, but the only people who wrote that way now were wizards when they drew words of power for their incantations.
Cashel gripped his staff a little tighter. Wizards were just people. Tenoctris was a wizard, and she was a lot like the grandmother who'd raised him and Ilna when their father brought them home with no word-ever—of who their mother might be.
But there were wizards who thought their power let them push other people around. Cashel had met that sort too; and they'd all been wrong when they'd thought they could push Cashel or anybody Cashel happened to have put himself in front of at the time.
The shopkeeper noticed Tenoctris' interest and got up from his stool. He was a balding man with a wispy goatee who reminded Cashel far more of a weasel than anybody so fat should've done.
"You have excellent taste, madam," the fellow said. He lifted the bowl from its place and brought it toward them through the maze of corroded metal. "This is a genuine Old Kingdom antique, the prized possession of a noble family here in Valles. Only their present distressed circumstances persuaded them to part with it."
"It's a great deal older than that," Tenoctris said sharply. "This came from the grave of a priest of the Mistress, either on Tisamur or just possibly on Laut. There would have been a lid as well."
"I'm sure I can find madam a craftsman who can make any sort of lid madam wishes," the proprietor said, still smiling. "The workmanship is quite exquisite, is it not? And such a remarkable state of preservation."
Cashel blinked. The fellow was responding to what Tenoctris said, but he wasn't listening to her.
Tenoctris backed and raised her hand as the proprietor offered her the bowl. "No, I don't want to touch it!" she said. "You wouldn't either, if you had good sense. It held the priest's brain. The sort of thoughts that a priest of the Mistress might have aren't for sane humans—or humans at all, I'd say. Melt it down! Can't you feel the power in it?"
Cashel couldn't see swirls of power the way Tenoctris said she did, tangles that clung to objects the way foam boils below the rocks in a fast-flowing stream, but he knew when they were there. Things used by wizards in their art held some of their power ever after; prayer permeated the stones of a temple; and scenes of blood and death held stains much deeper than those of the fluids that leaked from corpses.
The pewter bowl created a sort of pressure like that of air gone still before a storm. It didn't frighten Cashel any more than a storm would, but it was something to be wary of. Unconsciously, he shifted his grip on the hickory quarterstaff that he'd shaped with his own hands as a boy and had carried ever since.
The shopkeeper blinked and looked at the bowl in his hands. Cashel wondered if the fellow really saw the object. More likely it gleamed in his mind like a stack of silver pieces or even gold Sheaf-and-Scepters.
"Well, then," the man said in the same oily voice as before. "Perhaps madam would care to see some candlesticks from the palace of King Cams himself, preserved in the collection of a noble family linked by blood to the ancient royal house?"
"Come, Cashel," Tenoctris said, turning abruptly and continuing down the street with quick, short steps.
After a moment, she sighed and slowed to a pace more proper for an old woman and a youth accustomed to walking with sheep. She said, "In my own day I didn't get out into the world enough to realize how ignorant most people were, but I'm sure it was no better then."
Tenoctris had washed up on the shore of Barca's Hamlet one morning, thrown there by a storm not of wind but of wizardry. She said she'd been wrenched from the age a thousand years before, when King Carus ruled and the Isles were unified for the last time in their history.
"Well, people can't know about everything," Cashel said, calm as he usually was. "I don't know about much of anything at all, Tenoctris. Except sheep."
He grinned. He'd have given his quarterstaff a spin for the pleasure of it, except that the street was far too crowded. Seven feet of hickory take up a lot of room, especially when the hands of a youth as strong as Cashel were whirling them.
They passed a shop which sold new and used bedding: coarse wool covers to be stuffed with straw for folk with just enough money to sleep on a mattress rather than the rush floor; close-woven linen that their betters would fill with feathers; and blankets, coverlets, and bed-curtains to suit any taste or purse. Tenoctris didn't give the wares even a glance.
"Was the bowl what you were looking for?" Cashel asked. He was glad to escort Tenoctris through the city—though he didn't mind the palace, there wasn't anything for him to do there—but he was sure that the old wizard had more in mind than a change of scene for herself.
Tenoctris hadn't explained, probably because it hadn't crossed her mind to. Cashel was used to doing things simply because somebody asked him, but this seemed a good time to say something. He guessed he was about as curious as the next fellow, but he'd learned that a lot of times it was better to just keep his eyes open than to ask and be lied to—or be given a flip answer, the sort of joke people tossed at the dumb orphan kid.
Cashel's fingers tightened very slightly again. They hadn't laughed at him much since he got his growth, though.
"What?" said Tenoctris. It'd taken her mind a moment to come up from the depths of whatever mental sea it swam in. "Oh, dear, I don't think so, Cashel. But I'm not really sure. I did a guidance spell because there's something nagging at me, and it directed me here. I think."
She gave him an apologetic grin. "I'm not a very powerful wizard, you know," she said. "Even in times like these, when there's so much power everywhere."
Tenoctris had explained that every thousand years there was more of the sort of power that wizards used. In those times wizards could do far more than in the past, and generally far more than they'd intended. It was a peak like that which ended the Old Kingdom; and the forces were rising again.
Cashel and the wizard reached a building site from which the remains of the former brick-and-wattle structure had mostly been cleared. Though heavy construction wagons weren't allowed in Valles during daylight hours, the stacks of freshly cut stone for the new foundation blocked part of the street.
Cashel paused, letting a group of housewives pass from the other direction with baskets full of greens bought in the produce market a little nearer the river. He could've pushed through the congestion easily enough, but he and Tenoctris weren't in any kind of hurry.
On the building site, men were already at work on the kiln which would provide lime for the cement; it was better to burn it there than to transport so dangerous a load through the city, with the chance of losing it to a sudden rainstorm besides. Piled as high as the quarried blocks was a load of broken limestone and marble to feed the kiln. Some of the bigger pieces had been ships' ballast at one time; those were dark and still slimy from bilgewater.
The housewives passed; Tenoctris started forward, then stopped when she realized that Cashel was staring at the rubble. She said, "Cashel?"
Cashel's skin prickled, the same sort of feeling as when he got too much sun when plowing in early spring. There was something about the stones.…Holding his staff out for balance in his left hand, he clambered onto the pile.
Several of the workmen glanced toward Cashel, but nobody shouted at him. He wasn't doing any harm by climbing around on a pile of rock, so only the urge of people to boss other people would've led them to speak. Cashel was too big for that to seem a good idea, even to a half dozen burly workmen.
Tenoctris watched intently, but she didn't say anything that might have distracted Cashel from whatever he was doing. Cashel grinned. He didn't know what he was doing either, just that there was something about these chunks of stone that made his senses prick up. It was the way you could feel there was something wrong with your sheep, even before ewes ran out of the woods blatting because one of their sisters had managed to catch her neck in the fork of a sapling.
"Here!" Cashel said in triumph. He used his free hand and his staff's iron-shod tip to pry a piece of marble out of a litter of limestone gravel.
"Hey! What's that you're doing up there?" called the foreman of the building crew, a squat man of thirty with a bushy moustache and biceps that would've looked well on a man of twice the size. The other workmen watched in interest, glad for an excuse to stop work and hopeful that there'd be more entertainment to come.
"I'm looking at your rock," Cashel said. The crew wouldn't own the building materials, but he guessed they'd still be willing to sell a chunk for the price of a round of ale. "This piece here."
He hefted it, noticing the foreman's eyes narrow. It was the torso of a statue, meant originally for a woman, Cashel guessed, though he couldn't swear to much in the shape the piece was now. The marble had weathered and worse, been buried in a forest where rotting leaves had blackened it and eaten at the surface during every rainstorm. In some places white foam had boiled from cancerous pits in the stone. A soaking in a ship's bilge had added final indignities.
Though the block was of no obvious interest—even to Cashel, except for the tingling it raised in him—it was still stone and weighed as much as a man of ordinary size. The foreman knew that and understood what it meant that Cashel held it easily in one hand.
"I want to buy it from you," Cashel said. "I'll pay you a, a…"
He didn't know what name a silver coin had. In Barca's Hamlet there was mostly bronze and little enough of that, except during the Sheep Fair, when merchants and drovers came down the road from Carcosa. Ornifal used different coins; and though Cashel now carried a purseful of them on a cord around his neck, they weren't something he paid a lot of attention to.
"A silver piece!" he said, getting the idea out well enough. That'd buy a jar of wine that the whole crew could share at any of the open-fronted cookshops in this quarter of the city.
"For what?" cried a workman in amazement.
"Let's see his money," said another, supping his masonry chisel into a pocket in his .leather apron.
"What is it you want it for?" the foreman asked, scowling like thunder. He was confused and because of that a little angry. He walked forward.
Instead of answering—because he didn't have an answer, just a feeling—Cashel said, "Tenoctris, will you pay the man for me? I, ah…"
To pull out his purse and open it, Cashel would have to use both hands. He didn't want to let go of either his staff or the piece of statue until he'd gotten to a place I where he had more friends than he did here.
"Yes, of course," Tenoctris said. She carried a small 4 purse in the sleeve of her silk brocade robe. She squeezed a coin through the loosened ties, then held it up so that sunlight winked on the silver in the sight of all the workmen; then she gave it to the foreman.
"Deal?" said Cashel from his perch above the others.
"Deal, by the Lady!" said one of the workmen. "For that you can carry off the whole pile and we'll tell the boss the rats ate it."
The foreman rang the coin against the head of the hammer in his belt. It sang with the bright note of silver rather than something duller and leaden.
"Deal," he said, still a little doubtful. He spat in his palm and held it out to Tenoctris. She stared at the man blankly.
Cashel stepped down from the mound of rubble with the care required by bad footing and the weight he carried. "Shake his hand on the deal, Tenoctris," he said. "Ah, if you wouldn't mind?"
"Of course," said the old woman, nodding to Cashel in gratitude for having explained how you sealed a bargain. Nobles probably did it different. Tenoctris was of a noble house; though from what she'd said, in her lifetime they hadn't had money even by the standards of Barca's Hamlet. Still, she took the foreman's hand gracefully like an adult humoring a child and let him shake hers up and down.
Cashel cleared his throat. "Ah, Tenoctris?" he said. "I'd like to be getting back to the—"
Cashel's tongue stuck. He'd dressed this morning as he would have back in the borough, in woolen overtunic and undertunic. The garments were peasant's wear, though smartly cut and of the best quality—as they were bound to be, since his sister Ilna had woven and sewn the cloth. Nobody in the Isles, maybe nobody in all time, could do more with fabrics than Ilna could.
Tenoctris was in silk, but her robe was neither new nor stylish. The two of them would pass for a noblewoman fallen on hard times and the sort of rustic servant such a lady could afford. That was fine, but Cashel didn't want to use the word "palace" here and cause all sorts of fuss and excitement.
"To go home, I mean," he said instead.
"Yes, of course," Tenoctris repeated. She turned, getting her bearings with a skill that a countryman like Cashel couldn't match in this warren of streets. "I think if we go…"
A few of the passersby had stopped to see what was going on. Cashel and Tenoctris weren't doing anything more exciting than hens did in a farmyard, but it was a little different from the usual. There were people in Valles—and everywhere Cashel had been in his life—who'd rather watch others work than do something themselves.
Through them came a clean-shaven heavyset man, not a youth but still younger than his baldness made him appear. He wore a tunic of tightly woven wool, black with a stripe of bleached white slashing diagonally across the front. His face was set. He wasn't exactly angry, but he looked ready to snap into anger if something balked him.
"You there!" he said to the foreman. "Are you in charge? I want to buy this pile of stone. I'll pay—"
The workmen's eyes shifted from the newcomer to Cashel and Tenoctris. Cashel made a wry face, but he'd learned young that some days bad luck was the only kind of luck you were going to have.
Cashel squatted and set the block of stone between his feet rather than drop it on the cobblestones. Then he rose again, holding his staff with both hands and waiting for whatever might come next.
The newcomer's glance followed the workmen‘s; he looked at the piece of statue, then raised his eyes to Cashel‘s. "I believe you have some property of mine, my man," he said. His tone held a thin skin of politeness over fury. "I'll take it now, if you please."
"It's not yours," Cashel said. Tenoctris had stepped behind him, but he didn't know just where. He hoped she'd be clear if things started to happen, as they might. "I bought it, fair and more than fair."
"Yes, well," said the stranger, looking over Cashel appraisingly. He reached into the folds of his twisted silk sash. "I'll buy it from you, then."
"No," said Cashel, his voice husky. His hands were going to start trembling soon if he didn't do something, either spin the quarterstaff into the stranger's face or pick up the statue and run.
The stranger's hand came out of the sash with three broad, thin pieces of gold. He fanned them into the light between his thumb and two well-manicured fingers. "Look at this, my man," he said. "Yours for a bit of old stone."
"No," Cashel said. There was going to be trouble if Cashel didn't move away, but he couldn't leave the stone, and he didn't want to be holding it if the stranger came at him with a knife.
Instead of attacking, the stranger swept the spread of coins under the foreman's nose. "Bring me the piece of marble," he said, pitching his voice so that all the workmen could hear, "and these are yours. Twice this, a gold piece for each man!"
The foreman scowled his forehead into even deeper ridges than before. The gangling, scar-faced workman beside him snatched a pole from the bundles of scaffolding and stepped forward. "Ansie, Blemm…" he called in a matter-of-fact voice. "All you guys. That's enough money to set us up for life."
"Right!" said the foreman, reaching for his hammer.
Cashel stepped forward, driving the tip of his quarter-staff into the foreman's gut. The fellow saw it coming and tried to jump back. He wasn't fast enough, but the move may have saved his life. The iron-shod hickory flung him into the kiln, spewing his breakfast of bread sopped in wine lees, but it didn't punch through the muscle walls as it could've done if Cashel was really trying.
The stranger had ducked behind the stack of quarry-stone. Cashel ignored him and the shouting spectators both. It might be that a section of the City Watch would arrive, but Cashel doubted that. He sure wasn't trusting his safety and Tenoctris to that hope.
The workman with the pole swung at Cashel. The bamboo would've made a decent weapon if the fellow'd known what he was doing, but he didn't. Cashel blocked the stroke with the ferrule nearer his body, then spun the other end into the workman's side. He heard ribs crack.
Two of the men who'd been hesitating when things started to happen now backpedaled. Another had pulled out his chisel to use as a sword; he flung it as a dart instead. The heavy bronze tool caught Cashel on the right shoulder, a solid blow but not a dangerous one because the edge was sharpened to split rock rather than to shave wood.
Cashel grunted with anger and stepped forward, recovering the staff so that both his hands gripped the wood at the balance. The workman squealed and dodged behind the partner who held a heavy maul up in the air like a torch.
The fellow with the maul couldn't have been more open to a stroke from the quarterstaff if he'd turned his back and begged to be hit. Didn't anybody in Valles know how to fight? Cashel rapped him where he gripped the helve, breaking fingers on both hands and flinging the maul into a cart hard enough to tip it over.
Cashel kicked the screaming man he'd just crippled out of the way and went after the fellow who'd thrown the chisel at him. That one was scrambling off by now. Most times Cashel would've left him be; but his shoulder throbbed, and he knew that except for the bulges of muscle there he'd have had a broken collarbone.
The workman tripped on his leather apron and skidded into the stack of scaffolding. Cashel raised his staff for a straight-arm thrust that would've been fatal—then grimaced and instead gripped the apron's neck loop with his right hand to jerk the fellow upright.
"You like to throw things, do you?" Cashel bellowed. The workman's eyes were screwed shut: he couldn't change whatever was coming, but he didn't have to watch it.
Cashel straightened his arm and put his shoulders in it too, hurling the fellow over the basement excavation to slide through debris at the back of the lot. The man's arms and legs were moving before his body came to a halt. He hopped over a mound of dirt saved for backfill and continued running.
There was a blue flash from the other side of the pile of quarrystone. The stranger who'd started the trouble sprang into view with a shriek. His robe was on fire. Instead of the grudging, halfhearted flames Cashel expected from wool, these were vivid and tinged with the same blue as the flash: wizardlight.
The stranger bolted down the street, tugging his garments off as he ran. Spectators lurched out of his way, pushing a path violently through their fellows the way they'd have done to escape a runaway horse—
Or maybe more violently yet. Wizardry scared lots of people worse than death did.
Tenoctris stood alone at the edge of the street, swaying and so weak she was about to fall over. Cashel, gasping with his own efforts, stumbled to his older friend and put his arm around her. His shoulder hurt as badly as it had the day Scolla's ill-tempered lead ox had flung its head around while Cashel was trying to yoke it.
"Are you all right, Tenoctris?" Cashel asked, speaking the words between one deep breath and the next. "You did a spell to send the fellow off, is that it?"
He'd split the back of his undertunic when his shoulders bunched; it looked like he'd broken his sash too. Well, it hadn't been a proper bout where he'd have had time to get ready.
"I interfered with his own spell," Tenoctris said, panting like a snared rabbit. Cashel had seen before now the wonders that wizards could do; but it took real effort to guide their powers, as sure as it did to use a quarterstaff the way Cashel used one.
Still clinging to Cashel's arm, Tenoctris hobbled around the stack of squared blocks. Spectators kneeling in the dirt there scattered like startled quail, looking over their shoulders at the old woman. Cashel guessed that the stranger had dropped the gold he'd offered. People in this district weren't going to let a gold coin go to waste, no matter how much wizards frightened them.
Tenoctris pointed to symbols drawn on the ground where the stranger had been hiding. "He was going to send dust into your eyes, Cashel," she said. "I just opened his circle of protection before he'd directed the stroke."
Cashel felt a surge of warmth for the old wizard. Tenoctris was quick to say that she had very little power; but she knew things, knew what she was doing, and generally knew what other wizards were doing better than they did. Cashel trusted Tenoctris the way he trusted his own ability to put an axe into a tree trunk where he meant it to go.
Strength was fine, but control was a better thing if you had to have only one.
"What's this made of, do you suppose?" Tenoctris said in surprise. She bent closer to the greenish-yellow rod lying beside the symbol the stranger had drawn with it. It was his athame, abandoned like the coins when he fled— and to a wizard, far more valuable than that gold. "It looks like the shell of an insect. A very large insect."
Cashel reached toward it with a bare toe. He could see the blurred texture of the soil through the athame, as though it was a sheet of mica.
"No, I don't think we'd better touch it," Tenoctris said, moving her slippered foot to block Cashel's. She scuffed the athame sideways, onto the cobblestones. "The wagons tonight will grind it to powder; I suspect that's the best choice. And I'll burn this slipper when we've gotten home."
"Let's be doing that now," Cashel said, looking behind him for the chunk of statue he'd forgotten during the fight. Quite a fool he'd feel if somebody'd made off with it…but they hadn't, nobody would. It was an ugly, awkward piece of stone whose only use was for burning into the living white fire of quicklime; but it was Cashel's piece now for sure.
"Will you be able to carry it yourself?" Tenoctris asked. "I mean, you must be tired from…?"
Cashel grinned. "Guess I'll manage," he said as he lifted the block, using his knees instead of his back for leverage. "The harder thing's going to be figuring out what to do with it now that I've got it, but maybe Sharina will have an idea."
And because he was thinking of Sharina, he grinned even broader.
* * *
Ilna os-Kenset's fingers wove with a speed and skill that any woman on the island of Ornifal would have envied, but her mind wasn't on her work. In this fine weather she'd set her loom in the bungalow's courtyard, walled off from the rest of the palace. Bees buzzed about the flowers; birds chirped and pecked and fluttered for food among the plantings. Ilna didn't pay them much attention either, except to note that they were just as quarrelsome and snappish as they'd been back in Barca's Hamlet.
Not long ago Ilna had been the orphan girl who supported herself and her brother Cashel by skill and by working so hard even by the standards of a rural village that everyone marveled at her. She was a woman that everybody respected and nobody liked; nobody, or very few.
Sharina had liked her, even then; and she thought Garric liked her as well.
Ilna's fingers moved: opening the shed, feeding through the shuttle, and closing the shed again with the certainty of water pouring through the spillway of the ancient tide mill that had been her grandfather's. The pattern of the cloth she wove suggested a woodland at sunset, all buffs and browns and blacks shading into one another.
Today Ilna worked in naturally colored wools, her usual choice. She could have used silk, coarse hemp, or hard-drawn copper wire, and had the same effect on those who viewed the fabric. She'd always been a skilled weaver; since she returned from Hell, her skill had become inhuman.
Her fingers wove. She'd paid with her soul for the power to rule others in the way that evil would have her rule them. She'd been freed from the evil that came from outside her, but Ilna knew her heart well enough to be sure that the home-grown variety was sufficient to ruin more lives than even a city the size of Valles held.
If she let it, which she would not.
The garden was peaceful but not silent. At the quarter hour, criers called the time across the palace compound from the water clock near the center. Occasionally servants laughed and chattered as they passed along the path on the other side of the back wall, and in the bungalow's atrium a music mistress was giving Lady Merota bos-Roriman her voice lesson.
The child—Merota was nine—had a clear voice and an instinct for craftsmanship. Ilna found her lessons as pleasant as a wren's warble, even when they involved nothing but repetitions of the scales.
Ilna was weaving a thin baize, almost a gauze. Even in its partial state it gave anyone who viewed it a sense of peace and tranquility. If Ilna wished—and once she had wished, had done—the same threads could have roused those who saw them to lust or fear or fury. The patterns of the cloth, the patterns of a man's life—the pattern of the cosmos itself—all were connected. Anything Ilna wanted was hers for the taking. Anything at all; and she smiled with wry self-disgust because she didn't know what she wanted.
Once not so very long ago she'd wanted to be the wife of Game, the innkeeper's son. He was Prince Garric now, but so great was Ilna's power that she could have him nonetheless.
The shuttle clattered across the loom; Ilna's smile grew harder still. She'd done things in the past that she'd be paying for throughout the future, no matter how long she lived; but she hadn't done that thing, and today she wasn't even sure she still wanted to.
Ilna os-Kenset, the orphan who couldn't read or write, didn't belong on a throne beside the King of the Isles; nor did Garric belong in a little place like Barca's Hamlet, for all that he'd been raised there with no reason to expect he'd ever travel farther than Carcosa on the other side of Haft. Garric was fit to be king, and a noblewoman like Liane bos-Benliman was a fit companion for him. As for Ilna—
Merota began "Once There Was a Servant Girl"—a song Ilna had heard before, but not from the child, and certainly not at the request of Lady Stolla, the music mistress. Ilna smiled, this time with a gentler sort of humor.
"Early one evening a sailor came to me," Merota sang, "and that was the start of all my misery."
Chalcus had a tenor voice every bit as fine as Merota's high soprano. He was a sailor when Ilna and the child met him, as skilled at that trade as any soul else on the ship—though Chalcus would've been the first to say it was no honor to be first among that crew of thumb-fingered nobodies.
"At sea without a woman for forty months or more…" Merota sang.
"Lady Merota!" cried Lady Stolla, a decayed gentlewoman, as prim as she was proper, and clearly horrified to realize the thrust of the child's performance.
"There wasn't any need to ask…" Merota continued. Her birth was better than Stolla's as those who cared about such things judged it, and she wasn't about to let the older woman decide for her what a lady might choose to sing.
"…what he was looking for!"
Ilna sniffed. She was Merota's legal guardian now—one orphan caring for another. Despite that, Stolla persisted in treating Ilna as a jumped-up governess or perhaps a maid; and if the music mistress chose to be embarrassed, well, Ilna wouldn't pretend to be sorry about that.
Her face grew harder. Ilna wouldn't pretend to anything.
Instead of going on with the next verse, Merota squealed cheerfully, and cried, "Chalcus!"
"And how's one of the two most lovely ladies in all Valles?" replied the cheerful, lilting voice of the man who must just have arrived at the bungalow.
Ilna rose from her loom and went to greet her visitor: a man of middle height with a broad chest and muscles that appeared flat until effort made them bunch. There was generally a smile on Chalcus' lips, the curve of it echoing that of the inward-sharpened sword thrust through his sash.
Ilna herself smiled less often than Chalcus did, at least as an expression of good humor; but she was smiling now.
* * *
Princess Sharina of Haft spent most of her public life wearing the formal garb of an Ornifal aristocrat while receiving deputations from the provinces in place of her brother Game. Thanks be to the Lady, there was no need of such rigid, stifling state at this meeting of the royal council—the real, working government of the kingdom.
Having said that, the dozen or so heads of the civil and military departments were all aristocrats. In Barca's Hamlet, casual dress meant an undertunic alone—worn without a sash on a summer day like this. Here the civilian councillors wore court robes of silk brocade with a sash, while their military colleagues replaced the sash with a sword belt bearing an empty scabbard. The Blood Eagles didn't allow anyone but themselves to enter Garric's presence armed, and the chief of the Blood Eagles—Attaper bor-Atilan—accepted the limitation himself to avoid friction with Lord Waldron, the equally highborn head of the army.
Sharina stifled a wan smile. To avoid worse friction, rather; Waldron, thirty years Attaper's senior, believed in his heart that he himself should be king. He was at best on stiff terms with Attaper, who didn't bother to put a diplomatic gloss on his disagreement with that opinion.
"There's more to this ‘Confederacy of the West' than hick rulers on Haft, Cordin, and Tisamur deciding they want to secede from the kingdom," said Chancellor Roy-has, seated at Garric's right hand.
"Begging your pardon sir and lady"—Royhas nodded to Garric and Sharina, a cursory apology for the implied slur against the island of their birth—"but all the force of those islands isn't enough to delay the royal army any longer than it takes to sail there."
"They've got more force," said Attaper forcefully. "They're hiring mercenaries. We knew that even before this latest spy came back with the numbers."
"They still couldn't stand against us," Waldron snapped, though it didn't seem to Sharina that Attaper had suggested otherwise.
"And that's why I say there's more to it than just these three islands!" Royhas said. "Why, they scarcely know they're part of the kingdom as it is. When's the last time enough taxes came out of Carcosa to pay the salary of an underclerk here in Valles?"
"They may be concerned about the future," said Lord Tadai. "We—by which I mean Prince Garric—have given Ornifal a real government for the first time in generations. They may realize that in time, we—"
The plump, wealthy nobleman had been royal treasurer until his rivalry with Royhas meant one or the other had to go for the sake of the kingdom. He'd accepted his removal with the good grace of a patriot and a man of great intelligence, but no one would deny him a seat on the council so long as he remained in Valles.
He nodded to Garric in smiling—but real—homage.
"—will unify the whole kingdom again, and they'll no longer be able to apply their own notions of justice and tax policy."
"Count Lascarg never thought beyond trying to keep Carcosa quiet and spending the revenues of the estates that he took over when the previous rulers of Haft died," Garric said with harsh assurance. "Died in riots it was his duty to put down as commander of the Household Troops. His foresight isn't behind this secession."
Sharina nodded, in agreement and in understanding for her brother's bitterness. The parents who raised them, Reise and Lora, had served the former Count and Countess of Haft until the night of the fatal riots; that much she and Garric had known since childhood. Only during the disruptions of the past months had they learned the other half of the story: that Count Niard was Sharina's father, and that Garric was the child born to Countess Tera, who traced her ancestry back to King Cams and the royal line of the Old Kingdom.
Niard had been an Ornifal noble, which explained for the first time Sharina's blond hair and slender height. She'd always felt something of an outsider among the darker, stockier folk of Barca's Hamlet, but she'd still been shocked to learn the truth.
"They're getting money from outside," said Attaper, leaning forward with his hands clasped before him on the burl walnut tabletop. "The wages of the mercenaries gathering on Tisamur run to more than the revenues of all three rulers combined. And the troops are being paid—they're not staying on in hope of future loot."
"The Earl of Sandrakkan's behind it!" said Lord Waldron. "That's the only place the money could come from. Earl Wildulf doesn't dare face us directly, so he's setting up this confederacy as a stalking horse to see what we'll do!"
Waldron was an active, passionate man who was rarely comfortable sitting down. Now he rose so abruptly that his chair clattered over behind him. Normally a servant waited behind a seated noble, but Garric—though in truth Liane, Sharina suspected—had instituted a policy of greater privacy during discussions of such moment.
The noise startled everybody, even Waldron, who grimaced and tried to pick the chair up. He got the legs tangled in the robe of Lady Vartola, Priestess of the Temple of the Lady of Succor, and today representing religious interests before the council.
Sharina sprang to her feet and stepped around Vartola. Waldron was about to fling the chair into the paneled wall in fury. She took it from him. With the skill of one who'd been serving in an inn before she could read, Sharina set the chair upright again and gestured Waldron into it. The old warrior obeyed, his hard face maroon with embarrassment.
Sharina sat down also. She kept from smiling, but only with difficulty.
"I believe Lord Waldron has the right idea," said Pter-lion bor-Palial, the new treasurer, "but he's wrong about the source. The money's coming from Blaise, not San-drakkan."
He stopped, waiting with a smug smile to be asked why he was sure. The treasurer was a clever man, but rather too fond of showing how clever he was instead of just getting on with the job.
"Explain," said Garric, his sharpness wiping the satisfaction from Pterlion's face. "And in the future, Lord Pterlion, please recall that there are no fools at these council meetings—and no time for foolishness either."
"That would be a good idea," said Lord Waldron, glowering as though he'd prefer to rip the treasurer's throat out with his teeth instead of using a sword on the fellow. "A very good idea."
Pterlion grinned in embarrassment. "Yes, ah, Prince Garric," he said. "Ah. There are two items of evidence. Merchants coming from Cordin and particularly Tisamur are paying their port duties in Blaise coinage, much of it fresh-minted—and, I might add, with more lead than silver in the bullion. Whereas reports from Blaise itself indicate that trade is suffering because of a lack of currency on the island. Lerdoc, Count of Blaise, is behind this secession."
"I never thought Wildulf had the sophistication to mount a plan like this," Tadai agreed, tenting his fingers before him. "Successfully, at any rate."
"They haven't succeeded," said Garric. "They won't succeed. And thank you, Lord Pterlion. Knowing where the trouble started will make it easier to end it."
"I want to know about this Moon Wisdom you mentioned," Lady Vartola said in a rasping wheeze. She was the color of old bone and so thin that Sharina wondered if she had a wasting disease. There was nothing wrong with Vartola's mind, however, save that she focused it wholly on the betterment of her temple rather than the common good of the kingdom. "Are they usurping ownership of temple property?"
Garric glanced over his shoulder. Liane's formal position was amanuensis to Prince Garric, so she wasn't qualified to sit at the council table proper. Instead she waited at Garric's right elbow, her lap desk open and her fingers ready to withdraw whichever scroll or codex might be required.
"We don't have direct information on that as yet," Liane said without bothering to consult the records this time. "The evidence suggests that may be the case."
Sharina's mind ticked back over a file of appointments already in her schedule for the next two weeks. For the most part they involved providing a high-ranking ear to which aggrieved citizens could complain: salt merchants protesting the new tariff on their product, the clothmakers' guild demanding higher tariffs on silk from Seres, and a thousand variations on the theme of what the government was doing wrong.
Occasionally there was an exception. For example—
"An assistant inspector of temple lands has returned recently from Tisamur," Sharina said, loudly enough to cut through Admiral Zettin's question about the confederacy's naval forces. When everyone was looking at her she continued, "He's been demanding an audience with Prince Game—"
Royhas snorted angrily at such presumption in a junior member of a department tangentially under his direction.
"—and gathered enough support from his superiors to be shunted to me, whenever I manage to get around to him," she continued. "I'll see him this afternoon."
A thought struck her. She added, "Unless you would like to see him yourself, Garric?"
He looked at Liane, who gave a tiny shake of her head. "No," Garric said. "But I will want to know what you learn, Sharina. This Moon Wisdom may be more than—"
He glanced at the priestess. "Than a scheme by opportunists to defraud the temple of its proper revenues," he concluded. Only the slightest hesitation suggested that he'd intended to say something a little different from the words that actually came out.
Garric stood, ending the meeting. "Lords Waldron, Attaper, and Zettin," he said, "I'll need a report on the current readiness of the forces you command. By the end of the day, if you please."
He turned his eyes to the Chancellor. In the same tone of command, so different from anything Sharina had heard from her brother's lips during the years they grew up together on Haft, he continued, "Lord Royhas, I want all the information we have on the property and perquisites of the individual rulers of this confederacy. I realize that—"
Someone nearby shrieked like a hog nose-clamped for slaughter.
"What's that?" bellowed someone else, a guard because during the meeting nobody else was permitted near this building and the smaller one adjacent, where her brother had interviewed a spy. "What's the matter in there!"
Garric was the first to the door and out it, drawing the sword that he alone wore in the council. Attaper and Waldron had the same instinct to run toward trouble, but Garric was younger and already standing.
Another scream.…Sharina followed Attaper, leaping over the chair Garric had flung aside as he moved. Waldron was at the other end of the room, fighting his way through civilians who'd risen also but weren't as quick to learn for themselves what was causing such terror.
The pair of Blood Eagles posted at the door of the smaller conference room were banging their fists on it, apparently trying to get the attention of the man inside. He had other things on his mind, to the degree that fear let him think at all.
"Break it down!" Garric shouted. Before the guards could act, he slammed his own right bootheel into the latchplate. Sharina knew her brother wasn't Cashel for strength, but nobody who'd seen Garric lift free a bogged ewe would doubt he was a powerful man by most standards.
The bronze catch inside flew out of its staples. Garric rebounded from the impact, so the guards burst into the room ahead of him.
The spy, his face contorted, was wrestling with nothing at all. And yet there must be something, because both the man's feet were off the floor.…
A Blood Eagle thrust his spear past the spy's ear; the steel point met only air. His partner dropped his weapon and tried to grapple with the screaming man.
The spy vanished with a sort of twisting motion, like the last of the foam being slung from the rim of a washbasin. There was an odd odor; it reminded Sharina of the way a stone might smell in the dead of winter.
For a moment she thought she could still hear the screams; then they too vanished.

Copyright © 2001 by David Drake